Speaking and Hearing: Clergy and Laity Explore the Hidden Value of Sermons

By Brett Hetherington*

Clergy and laity alike were invited to attend a seminar on September 24, 2022 that aimed to instruct and encourage the church in being bold in presenting God’s word.

“The goal of this session is not to just hear a great speaker, but it is also to engage with each other and see what we can take back to our individual churches,” said the Rev. Andy Call, pastor of Church of the Saviour (North Coast District), host church for the seminar.

“The voice says ‘I have heard the cry of my people. I have seen them suffering under Pharaoh and all the injustices that they have suffered. I have come down to deliver them. Now you, you go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.’” The Rev. William H. Willimon opened his seminar with an example from the life of Moses to drive home a simple point about the role of preaching in a church. “This God has a propensity to enlist, to call, this God chooses not to do it alone. This God chooses to use ordinary, frail – even murderers, people like Moses – to do it with Him.”

Willimon has been described as a preacher of preachers, having taught and lectured around the world in both prestigious universities and in small church meeting rooms. The author of nearly 100 books, Willimon has inspired life-changing discipleship among congregations. He previously served as a bishop of The United Methodist Church, Dean of Duke Chapel, and continues to serve as Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School.

Call shared that the book Preachers Dare: Speaking for God – the inspiration for the book Listeners Dare: Hearing God in the Sermon which was the focus of the seminar – was among the books he read while on renewal leave last summer. “This was the one which lit a fire in my heart and propelled me back into the pulpit after a time away and what set me on a determined course that we were going to find a way to get Bishop Willimon to Church of the Saviour so you could experience him too,” he said.

Willimon likened the Creation of the world to a sermon, with God speaking into the formless void and creating our reality. He also contrasted this idea with other belief systems, pointing out the uniqueness of creation. Other gods had to engage in procreative acts or hold a cosmic battle. “All this God has to do is say a word and there is a world. This God makes something out of nothing, brings new things into being through speaking the word.”

Sharing the stage with Willimon for a portion of the event was Kelly Collins who walked participants through one chapter of Listeners Dare: Hearing God in the Sermon. Collins serves as the Director of Children’s Ministry at Church of the Saviour.

“I love the call to not show up expecting confirmation of what you already believe,” she said. “As Bishop Willimon said ‘The Good News is new. Every time we hear it is an opportunity to hear a new word even if the words are the same because the Holy Spirit is with us and active and going to do what He is determined to do.’”

Those in attendance were encouraged to do more than just passively listen throughout the day’s events. Following Collins’ time on stage, five breakout groups were formed where time was given to discuss predetermined questions that allowed for a deeper exploration of what it would mean to actively engage in sermons. The findings of their discussion showed a need for individual responsibility when it comes to hearing the Word of God in sermon form.

“The sermon is not a one-time event, it’s really part of an ongoing conversation that never ends,” shared Mark Steiger. “If you sit down with anybody who’s not exactly like yourself and have a conversation, there will be things they say that you don’t quite understand, there will be things they say that you don’t agree with, but you keep on with the conversation. Of course, doing that you learn, they learn, you form a relationship. Maybe that is the most important thing is to stay in that ongoing conversation and that ongoing relationship.”

Peggy Streiff shared “It is so important to consider your expectations and if you have rigid expectation about what a good sermon must have, are you limiting how that message from your preacher can reach you.”

Others focused on the importance of the responsibility for the individual to prepare themselves to hear the sermon by arriving early and being in a spirit of worship.

One woman boiled her group’s learning down to a simple statement. “Be open to a fresh encounter with Jesus.”

During his time of instruction Willimon returned often to the importance of listening and sharing, speaking and hearing. One thought that seemed to resonate with the audience clearly above many others was when he shared some paraphrased thoughts from Kiekegaard.

“Nobody has conceived that God is in Christ or designed the world by themselves. Somebody had to love you enough to tell you the story, to hand it over. Christianity is training in the ability to receive faith from the hands of someone else. You cannot tell the Gospel to yourself; somebody has got to hand it over to you. Faith comes from hearing.”

Human beings are creatures of story and connection. God chooses to work within us and through us in the world around us. God chooses to use humanity to change the world we live in, and we are the chosen mouthpiece for the Good News of salvation. Someone shared the Gospel with you, and if you are involved in a local church, you are in a conversation where you are hearing it on a regular basis. You are therefore responsible not only to prepare yourself to hear that conversation, but to continue it when you leave the walls of your church building.

“Speaking is not that interesting unless there is also hearing, listening. And that is at the heart of the Christian faith,” Willimon said.

“Just as someone told you, you gotta tell someone else.”

The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at wolcott@eocumc.com.

* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.