Preachers Dare: Speaking for God

William Willimon
Abingdon Press, 192 pages

Pandemic ministry is strange. (Forgive me, dear reader, for opening with such an obvious statement.) I have the privilege of serving a church in central Kentucky as an associate pastor. It’s my first call. In my first 20 months, I preached a dozen times from a pulpit and another twelve from my kitchen table. This hardly makes one an experienced, not to mention comfortable, preacher. I went from trembling as I stepped up to the pulpit to praying that my teleprompter app didn’t crash as I gazed into my laptop camera. Preaching to an unknown, unseen congregation via Facebook Live did not often feel like I was speaking for God.

Will Willimon’s Preachers Dare tries its best to disabuse me of that notion. Adapted from his 2020 Beecher Lecture on Preaching at Yale, Preachers Dare is, in short, Willimon’s theology of preaching. As he writes in the book’s introduction, “This book is a dissent against homiletics as an exclusively human endeavor…The only good reason to bother people with a sermon, the sole rationale for investing a life in this vocation is theological.”

And off Willimon goes. Deus dixit. God speaks. In his storied career as a preacher, God has spoken through Willimon countless times, and this book features excerpts and stories of many a sermon. If I understand the text, however, Willimon proposes that all preachers might be inspired by God to approach a text in the same way. There’s an indication that we preachers had best get our own assumptions, intentions, perspectives, and needs out of the way as we deliver God’s word to God’s people. Does God speak without us, or despite us, I wonder?

Candidly, I had a difficult time discerning the intention of Willimon’s biting wit as he shared his perspective and the (mostly successes) of his own preaching endeavors. Perhaps I don’t understand the text. Perhaps hearing his lectures, rather than reading them, would allow me to better appreciate Willimon’s words.

This three-chapter book contains 183 endnotes – a structure that made sense once I understood the genesis of the material. There is much packed in here, and tracking down the citations alone might be a year or more’s worth of continuing education for this green preacher. And yet, in a field historically dominated by white men, Preachers Dare breaks no gender or racial barriers with its theological groundwork. Willimon uplifts Karl Barth and his Church Dogmatics primarily and the apostle Paul secondarily. Many other white men (and a few white women) are also referenced by name. But few preachers or theologians of color are – less than five, by my count. And that, dear reader, is my primary disappointment with Preachers Dare.

Blame my liberal seminary education, but I am not sure that the field of homiletics needs more theologizing by white men. I am far more interested in what feminist and womanist and other theologies have to say about the extent to which a preacher can set her own self aside in speaking God’s word. If I had to guess, there will be a generational divide in those who enjoy this text and those who are challenged by it.

And yet, I can’t pretend to disagree with the book on all fronts. These words in particular ring true: “It’s up to God to produce both truthful preaching and faithful listening,” Willimon writes. It’s not an entirely human endeavor – either preaching (and perhaps writing?) or its aftermath. Thanks be to our involved, ever-moving, ever-loving God for that.

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Linda Kurtz is the associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky