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Episode Summary

How can we develop the courage and charity and generosity to listen? The virtuous posture of a listener carries so much weight in the rare achievement of mutual understanding and the miracle of communication. When you factor in the concept of listening to the Word of God, the stakes go up! Will Willimon (Duke Divinity School) joins Evan Rosa to discuss the act of listening and the rare achievement it seems to be; the definition and purpose of a sermon, and what that might mean for its listeners; how to cultivate the charity and courage to listen; and the inherent risk involved in genuinely and generously listening to the gospel.

We often think of speaking up as an act of courage. And of course, there are times when it most certainly is. But what about the courage to listen? The best kind of generous listening is interesting because it seems to acknowledge and create a mutual agency. The courageous, generous listener grants the speaker an authority to have the floor and make a point or drop a bomb or tell it like it is. But that act of listening is itself an active mode of receptive agency. So the best kind of listening is a truly powerful thing because each party involved in this miracle of communication gets to be present in fullness.

That is not something that can be done by the speaker alone. The ability to create the conditions for that mutual agency is up to the listener. But when you apply that to a religious scenario—the preaching and hearing of the gospel, things get interesting.

Whether its from the window of St. Peter’s Basilica, or from the screams of a megaphone wielding street preacher, or the pulpit of your small, faithful community church… something profound seems to be happening when we listen to someone speak and illumine the Word of God.

Will Willimon, who has trained many preachers and written several books on preaching and homiletics, has written a book for listeners, both acknowledging and uplifting the act of listening to sermons. Will is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School and he came on the show with me to talk about his book, Listeners Dare: Hearing God in the Sermon.

Together we discuss the act of listening and the rare achievement it seems to be; the definition and purpose of a sermon, and what that might mean for its listeners; how to cultivate the charity and courage to listen; and the inherent risk involved in genuinely and generously listening to the gospel.

Show Notes

  • Listeners Dare: Hearing God in the Sermon
  • Preaching is a demanding skill for both preachers and their audiences.
  • Scripture itself pays attention to audiences as well as speakers.
  • Listeners come to sermons with expectations. For sermons to most benefit the audience, preachers can guide their listeners to ask the right questions of a sermon.
  • What is proclamation?
  • Like the Bible itself, sermons can take a wide array of literary forms to communicate the truth of God. Because it proclaims truth about God, the Bible itself can be seen as a sort of sermon.
  • “Christian sermons, ought to arise out of an encounter with scripture.”
  • The gospels began a new genre of literature to communicate the truth of Christ.
  • The genre or form of sermons continues to evolve and diversify today with outside influences such as TED Talks.
  • Fred Craddock and the narrative unfolding sermon
  • Verse-by-verse discovery in a sermon
  • One definition of preaching is “a biblical preacher goes to the biblical text hoping to make a discovery. Then you announce that discovery to the congregation.”
  • At times when a preacher has no audience, such as street preachers, there is still something compelling about the preacher's commitment to their message, that regardless of its reception it must be spoken.
  • Preaching requires charity and risk from listeners, so they can open themselves to the possibility of hearing and being transformed by another's message.
  • Listening requires daring because the gospel message presented by Christian preachers has the power to upend listeners' preexisting beliefs.
  • “Preaching is a confrontation with the God who came to us, who is a Jew from Nazareth, who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly—preaching is about that.”
  • Listening, and listening to God, are skills that can be cultivated.
  • “We have a revealing, talkative, loquacious God.”
  • It is helpful for listeners of sermons to assume both the preacher and God hope to communicate with their listeners.
  • Listeners must be willing to learn from, critique, and engage with sermons.
  • “Listeners are the playground of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Preachers partner with the Holy Spirit to bring sermons to their congregation, even using difficult passages of scripture to further engage listeners.
  • John 6 and the “hard sayings” of Jesus
  • Listeners Dare! :) Will mentions a teenagers compliment to him once: “That was the most f—ed up thing I have ever heard… it was wonderful.”
  • The courage to keep listening

About Will Willimon

The Reverend Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University. He served eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, where he led the 157,000 Methodists and 792 pastors in North Alabama. For twenty years prior to the episcopacy, he was Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. He is author of over 100 books, including Worship as Pastoral Care, Accidental Preacher, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, and his most recent, God Turned Toward Us: The ABCs of the Christian Faith. His articles have appeared in many publications including The Christian Ministry, Quarterly Review, Plough, Liturgy, Worship and Christianity Today. For many years he was Editor-at-Large for The Christian Century. For more information and resources, visit his website.

Production Notes

  • This podcast featured Will Willimon
  • Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
  • Hosted by Evan Rosa
  • Production Assistance by Alexa Rollow, Macie Bridge, and Tim Bergeland
  • A Production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School https://faith.yale.edu/about
  • Support For the Life of the World podcast by giving to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture: https://faith.yale.edu/give

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