One of the drawbacks intrinsic to liturgical worship is the length of time it takes to adopt expressions that are newly current and potent into the approved forms. Certain forms of language become deeply important to a generation—key words and symbols that are pregnant with meaning, yet haven’t been incorporated officially into our forms of worship. So we often feel a certain dissonance in church as the language of worship seems impoverished by the absence of expressions we value so highly in our own exploration into God today. I long for prayers that express, directly and passionately, that God suffers. I look forward to praising God’s vulnerability. I am impatient for the recasting of prayer to praise the Creator in terms that unequivocally embrace the evolutionary perspective. In the meantime, preaching is the key field for using this fresh language with passion, in an exciting conversation with ancient expressions and classic symbols that can never become out of date, as long as we use our imaginations to keep on releasing their latent powers.
The scriptures in this season provide rich opportunities for exploring great images of God’s transforming power in vulnerability. Has anyone coined the word “paradoxology” yet to express the essence of transformative Christian worship? Only paradoxical language can point with any degree of success to the mystery of God and the revelatory revolution that springs into life out of the action of Jesus, the passion of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus.
Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C.
[ June 3 ]
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29;
Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17.
What is leadership?—a burning question that this Sunday’s scriptures will address if we place ourselves under their authority. The electrifying passage about the vision of Isaiah tells us about the radical honesty that springs from seeking the face of God. We dare not congratulate ourselves on our prophetic commitment; the truth is that we belong to a people of unclean lips. We must not pretend that we can protect our own consciousness from being contaminated by the habitual lying with which our national political discourse is riddled. “I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6:5). God’s response is to cauterize the prophet’s lips so he won’t pander to mass thinking.
To be a prophet is to take on the divine viewpoint, however sharply it makes us differ from the views of the smart pundits or the trends revealed in the polls. The verses that follow today’s passage are bitingly ironic. God sends us to bear witness to the truth even though its strangeness seems guaranteed to provoke incomprehension and rejection.
Nicodemus is described as leader and teacher, and he brings to Jesus one of the most searching questions that any leader can face: Is real change possible? Nicodemus has the honesty to pose the question in terms of his own doubtful capacity for radical change in response to the drastic newness that Jesus seems bent on unleashing. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). Realistic resignation, rather than cynicism, seems to lie behind this poignant question. Even the best leaders can come to terms with the status quo and limit themselves to playing the cards that the system has dealt them, just trying to keep as much integrity as they can. Jesus’ response is to insist on the possibility of radical new beginnings. Born again in the community of the baptized, we can become agents of limitless possibilities, animated by the spontaneity and inventiveness of the Spirit who won’t be pinned down by precedents or confined within the bounds of human forecasting.
[ June 10 ]
God’s New Family
1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15; Psalm 130;
2 Corinthians 4:13 - 5:1; Mark 3:20-35
It’s sad that Jesus’ words in Mark about unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit have tormented the tender consciences of individuals. Listen carefully to the passage and we will realize that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is essentially a collective phenomenon: “For they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (3:30). It is the scribes, acting in professional concert, who denounce Jesus as a blasphemer evidently in league with Satan. And it is the extended family of Jesus who is worried that he deserves his growing reputation as a hot head dabbling in dangerous occult practices, and come to reel him back into normality and the security of the family business.
Jesus actually is dangerous because he authoritatively invites his hearers to break the spell of conservative mass consciousness, so resistant to change, and to extricate themselves from the confinement of family rules and rigid tradition. But this breaking free doesn’t isolate us as individualistic rebels. There is a new kind of community in the making, a new family, open to all, collaborating with God in bringing health, freedom, and hope: the family of Jesus. Jesus’ words “Here are my mother and my brothers!” (3:34) are the real assertion of his “family values.” Their meaning is quite different than the one intended by those who bandy these words about as a reactionary slogan.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul’s words “our outer nature is wasting away while our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (4:16) follow his reminder about the stresses of constantly being attacked. Relentless opposition takes its toll, but it doesn’t tempt him to tone down the paradoxical message of the cross and resurrection in order to make his life more secure. Paul feels his own vulnerability as an inevitable participation in and expression of that message. The power of the resurrection is at work in the very places where we meet risk and suffering and incite resistance.
[ June 17 ]
1 Samuel 15:34 - 16:13; Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15;
2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
“He did not speak to them, except in parables” (Mark 4:34). Jesus’ use of parables is consistent with his subversive strategy, planting riddles in the mind of his hearers that can suddenly get them to see the action of God in radically different ways. Parables are miniature time bombs, and when they have gone off in the heart we can’t see things in the same way ever again. We can’t “unknow” what the parable has opened up.
The parable of the seed growing secretly and the parable of the mustard seed don’t appear at first to be particularly radical, but for those who are ready for a change of heart they point to the divine energies hidden in small beginnings: in the efforts of obscure people; in the potential of those who have been made to feel powerless; in the exponential potency of networks formed among those who don’t appear to count; in the divine grace that burgeons even where human resources seem scant. Dangerous and wonderful ideas.
The story of how Samuel was guided to turn away all the older sons of Jesse and anoint David, the youngest, as Saul’s successor shows that this paradoxical thread runs through the scriptures. David’s absence from the gathering with Samuel wasn’t even thought to matter. But God chooses the one who was automatically assumed to be out of the running.
The passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is one of the most passionate expressions of the power of Christ to totally change our way of understanding both the human vocation and the power of God. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (5:17). The Christian message is not a mere added ingredient to the body of conventional human wisdom. It initiates us into an entirely different way of experiencing the world. Looking back, we see that conventional human attitudes to power and authority, and typical ideas about divinity, amount to false consciousness, the alienated mind “according to the flesh.”
[ June 24 ]
Grace and Power
1 Samuel 17:57 - 18:5,10-16; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32;
2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
When we listen to Mark’s account of Jesus stilling the storm, it would be good to remind ourselves that the gospels were written not for private study but dramatic recitation in a gathering. At the time they were written, few could read, and all depended on the skill of the literate brother or sister who could bring the stories to life. We can tell from this story that the effect was awe-inspiring. “And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this that even the wind and sea obey him?’”(4:41). It is on this note of awe that Mark’s gospel reaches its climax, with the women rushing from the empty tomb in terror and amazement, so stunned that they spoke to no one as they dashed back to break the news. The listeners are left holding their breath in awe as once again the great question resonates in the silence: “Who then is this?” We are not told; we must answer the question for ourselves as we open ourselves to the secret presence of the Lord in our midst. Only those who risk personal connection with him here and now, in silent wonder, can answer from first-hand experience.
The poignancy of the story lies in Jesus’ own vulnerability, asleep in exhaustion in the boat while the storm whips up. This paradoxical theme of grace and power springing up in the place of weakness runs through our other readings. Jonathan expresses the vulnerability of deep love in stripping himself of his armor and weapons and giving them to David (1 Samuel 18:4). David is exposed to the jealousy of Saul, who tries to kill him. And Paul expresses the paradox of grace in vulnerability with unforgettable lyrical power, almost singing the vocation of an apostle: “As imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10).
“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word .