Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Posts By This Author
Precarious Gifts of the Spirit
PRAYER IS MOSTLY not a matter of getting what we lack; rather, as Thomas Merton taught at the very end of his life, it’s a means to experience what we already possess.
None of the gifts of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)—are fixed endowments. These are precarious resources, in the strict sense of the word “precarious,” which comes from the Latin precare, meaning “to pray.” These gifts must be rediscovered, relived, and newly explored, as we will in this Pentecost season.
The Lamb at the Center
THE BOOK OF REVELATION is one of our companions this Eastertide. We are invited to contemplate its central image, the axis around which everything revolves: “the Lamb at the center of the throne” (7:17).
Is this an image that can engage the imaginations of our contemporaries, especially those unfamiliar with the scriptural symbolism? In 2016, I had my tattooist in New Zealand inscribe on the inside of my right forearm a striking copy of a medieval sculpture, one of the few that survive from the great Abbey of Cluny in France. It depicts the Lamb of God, bearing a cross. The Latin inscription surrounding it means, “As carved here the Lamb of God is small, but how great he is in heaven!”
I hadn’t anticipated that bearing this image on my body would lead to all sorts of intriguing conversations. Curious strangers stop me in checkout lines, bars, the beach, the street, asking, “What does that mean?” I talk about the vulnerability of God’s noncoercive love, and its ultimate power. Nothing can take away the sins of the world except the love that is revealed on the cross and vindicated in the resurrection. “Here is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29).
Are these conversations sowing seeds of change? Only God knows. As for ourselves, we are still learning from the scripture’s insistence that the ultimate meaning of the Lamb is only accessible through adoration.
God Exceeds Through Excess
THE SENSE OF SMELL is intimately enmeshed with memory centers in our brains. Humanity’s experience of the evocative power of scent is not fanciful. The bereaved hang on to their loved one’s clothes, to inhale their unique scent, to flood themselves with recollection.
As we celebrate Holy Week, we can evoke the memories created by Mary of Bethany when she anointed Jesus with luxurious nard, six days before his final Passover. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” we will read in John 12. Her lavish gesture, wasting this fabulously expensive Indian cosmetic, was to be ever linked with the excessiveness, the far-too-muchness, of Jesus’ own willingness to throw his life away on the cross. The theme of excess is taken up in John’s pointed note about the vast quantity of spices—a hundred pounds!—lavished on Jesus’ corpse before burial. When the disciples entered the empty tomb at dawn, the gorgeous aroma must have been overpowering. Perhaps the reluctance of so many to accept the empty tomb and the implications of the apostles’ testimony is related to a reductionist instinct, a recoil from divine excess. Judas was disgusted by Mary’s excess—and there are those who think that the bodily resurrection is incredible because it is over the top. Surely, they say, the idea of the exaltation of Jesus’ spirit, the resurrection as strictly metaphorical, seems more than satisfactory without anything actually happening to his corpse! But God exceeds through excess.
‘The Aliens Among You’
THE DEUTERONOMY PASSAGE that ushers in our Lenten pilgrimage underscores the sacred mandate to embrace foreign immigrants with generous hospitality. Instructions for the liturgy for harvest thanksgiving conclude: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you” (26:11). Worshippers are required to certify in the assembly before God that they have participated in providing what the vulnerable in society need, not least refugees. “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows” (verse 13). Paul speaks of the Spirit of freedom removing the veil that blinds us to the core meaning of the sacred texts. In the current climate of xenophobia and incitements to make refugees into scapegoats, Christians are called to rip down the veil that prevents people from hearing this Word.
As for the intimate personal dimension or Lenten conversion, this might be the time to realize more profoundly that much of our own sinfulness and confusion arises from the harshness with which each one of us rejects and starves elements of our own inner “community of selves,” those parts of our humanity we try to disclaim and repress. It is the Spirit’s inner work of integration that teaches us to embrace those “selves of the self” we find ugly, pathetic, needy, or too passionate and creative for comfort. Our outer practice and inner practice of hospitality and inclusion belong together.
[ March 3 ]
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43a
“And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The Epiphany season’s celebration of the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ concludes with the theme of transfiguration (metamorphosis is the Greek word). The appointed scriptures are the key for understanding the dynamic of Lent as we prepare to enter that season of renewal. Our transformation can never be accomplished by conforming to external imperatives, nor by the embracing of “values,” however lofty and demanding. Our moral transformation works through contemplation of the open heart of God exposed in the self-giving life of Christ, a kind of contemplation as “radiation therapy” in which our inner falsity is irradiated by the beams of God’s unbounded, costly love, lived out by Jesus through his “exodus” (Luke 9:31) into the cross.
Prayer is the perpetual treatment in which, little by little, we deepen our participation in the divine life of vulnerability, transparency, and truthfulness. “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word” (2 Corinthians 4:2), but this is not the result of our own program of moral effort; it rises from “the Lord, the Spirit” doing the work of inner liberation in us while we are steadfastly fixing our gaze on Jesus.
Hot Lips and Holy Hands
Our mounting anxieties are confronted in the psalm for the final Sunday of this month. Not the wear and tear of personal difficulties, but stress, fear, and exasperation at the flourishing of injustice, denial, mendacity, and exploitation. All exacerbated by the frenzied input of the media in which we are saturated. The psalmist speaks: Be still before the Lord and wait patiently. Do not fret over those who prosper, who succeed in evil schemes (see Psalm 37). The psalms do not prescribe withdrawal, tranquilizers, or techniques of self-calming, but stillness “before the Lord.”
Those who are emotionally tortured by the enormity of the damage being done to humanity by so many powerful people need a renewed spirituality for activists that derives its strength from a deepened intimacy with God. The psalmist shows the frankest awareness of the howling frustration that wreaks havoc with our physical and mental health and shreds our emotional availability to one another, and yet is certain that the only ultimate antidote is personal exposure to the joy and tenderness of God. “Take delight in the Lord, and you will be given the desires of your heart” (verse 4). Those who listen closely will hear echoes of this in other readings. Very tellingly Jeremiah urges, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (17:7). Trusting in God, but more than that, experiencing the indwelling of God in our hearts and the pulsing trust from that heart living in us.
It is easy to overuse the word “prophetic” and tread it flat. We need scriptures like these to restore authenticity to our language about prophetic calling and ministry. Jeremiah recounts his experience of God’s call to be a prophet when he was still a youth. He resisted the call because he was still embedded in a culture weighted toward the kind of authority supposedly earned by years of experience. But a prophet must be disembedded from her culture to address that culture with God’s authority. And “experience” is often just a code word for initiation into the values of an unjust order. God challenges the normal requirement of experience, placing the prophet solely under the authority of God’s own promise. No experience necessary! I am reminded of God’s mordant skepticism toward society’s conventional valuation of experience in Charles Péguy’s great poem “The Mystery of the Holy Innocents.” Péguy writes: “As for what you call experience, your experience, I call it waste, diminution, decrease, the loss of hope.”
In Jesus’ confrontation at Nazareth with those who knew him only too well, he quotes a bit of folk wisdom: “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” By definition, a prophet is an outsider: She thinks outside the categories that form the common-sense worldview. And so she is drawn to the stranger and those on the fringe who are more likely to be open to acts of God invisible to conventional eyes. Jesus then scandalizes his former playmates by mentioning that the only successes Elijah and Elisha had at healing were with pagan foreigners. The congregation instantly changes into a lynch mob from which Jesus narrowly escapes.
Paul’s praise of love in 1 Corinthians 13 challenges our prophetic practice: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” Prophets take their stand where God’s incandescent holy love meets human resistance. It is a perilous place where prophetic actions can insidiously draw on the dark energy of hostility and self-righteousness, and utterly forfeit their authenticity.
More Than You Can Imagine
POWERFUL CLAIMS IN SCRIPTURE about the gospel are clothed in thought forms so archaic that most preachers shy away from them. The letter to the Ephesians has much to teach us this month, but what are we to make of the claim that we are called to ensure that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10)?
We moderns assume that evangelism targets human individuals, but the New Testament writers insist that the revolutionary message is addressed to cosmic forces that exert control over our culture and our political institutions, giving them notice that God’s saving intervention in Christ is more than a match for their malign influence. These are the “rulers and authorities” that the writer to the Colossians insists were disarmed by Christ’s death on the cross, where he “made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (2:15). Let us do the hard work of translating these claims into terms that can apply to our own work of evangelism. We may no longer believe in actual heavenly entities that need to be deposed by the good news, but we must bring the gospel to bear on our contemporary equivalents. Don’t we talk glibly about “the markets”—as if they were an impersonal force we can do nothing about? But the gospel debunks this evasion of responsibility about how human beings distribute the good things of the earth.
Clothe Yourselves With Love
A CLOTHESLINE IS AN ODD IMAGE for Advent spirituality, but it dances before my eyes, reminding me of the pleasure I had as a child helping my grandmother hang out our clothes to dry in the back garden. How fresh they smelled when we took them down! Those who have to use dryers may never know what they are missing.
After Christmas, we will be reading from Colossians about the new styles of being human that the Incarnation attracts us to try out for ourselves. After stripping ourselves to put on the baptismal self, each layer of our new outfit is “pegged out” on the line for us to admire and try on. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience ... Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:12, 14). This same passage goes on to invite us to take seriously that meditation on scripture is a foundational Christian practice, not an optional one. Each of us must find our way of internalizing scripture, celebrating and investigating it in the inner space and landscape of our unique selves. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3:16). Advent is a visitation to us of “words of Christ” that we need to invite in and entertain. Words of Christ as the coming Human One, our New Self, the indwelling Presence with which we are pregnant, the young Christ growing into God’s call.
Christ Walks In Our Shoes
IN RECENT YEARS there was a popular religious meme with the question, “What would Jesus do?” But it has faded as these trends usually do. One of its weaknesses was that it seemed to invite us to supply the additional qualification “if he were alive today and in our shoes.” This month provides a great opportunity to explore in preaching and reflection the magnificent but neglected theme of Christ the Intercessor, found in the readings from the letter to the Hebrews. The question here is: “What is Jesus doing since he is alive forever?”
The answer is that, in total solidarity with us all as fellow human beings, the Risen Christ is representing and offering to the Holy One all that we are undergoing and struggling with and needing. “He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:24-25). Christ was and is “in our shoes” as struggling human beings.
It is not as if Christ prays instead of us so that we don’t have to. Rather our sense of his total sympathy for our human vulnerability and weakness removes our inhibitions and encourages us to offer them to God, knowing that the Living Christ is identifying with our prayers and making them his very own. What riches we discover when learn from scripture what praying “in the name of Christ” actually means!
Caught Up in Love
THIS MONTH WE HEAR ABOUT God’s alluring wisdom, personified as the ultimate hostess, who invites us to a banquet in her glorious home with its seven pillars. The passage from Proverbs 9 always reminds me of an unforgettable moment in Lawrence of Arabia’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Once when he was in the desert, taking water from a spring, Lawrence saw coming toward him “a grey-bearded, ragged man, with a hewn face of great power and weariness.” When this man drew near the spring, he shut his eyes and then groaned aloud, “The love is from God; and of God; and toward God.”
This pronouncement would be a perfect summation of the “mystical core of the gospel,” worth holding in our hearts as we hear about Jesus as the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. Other scriptures will speak of the endemic folly that disconnects people from this love, of the new patterns of behavior that stem from embracing the saving love of God that reaches into our predicament to liberate us through Christ. It can remind us that the complaining pitilessly recorded in the Exodus narratives and the hostile reception to Jesus’ claim to be the authentic food and drink from God really stem from our fear of true intimacy with God, fear of becoming caught up in the love that is of God and returns to God with and in Christ.
[ August 5 ]
A Satanic Cloud
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesian 4:1-6; John 6:24-35
THE TENDENCY OF churches to make our worship “lite” in the summer becomes harder to justify this Sunday. We worship under the cloud of the anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, the horror that ushered in our nuclear age. We have gotten used to our “sane” leaders coolly considering the conditions in which they would unleash weapons that could make our—God’s—earth uninhabitable. Ours is a self-imposed wilderness exile in which, for those who are brave enough to look up, this lurid, satanic pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night continually looms ahead, drawing us toward self-destruction.
Becoming Fluent in the Language of Hope
THE CELEBRATED PHILOSOPHER Ludwig Wittgenstein used to speak—disapprovingly—of “language going on holiday.” For example, sportswriters often free language from the drudgery of everyday common usage to let it spread its wings in glorious hyperbole about their favorite teams.
Our biblical heritage gives us examples that are much deeper. When we read the prophets especially, we hear language liberated from the constraints of the everyday to give it a sacred vacation, a true “holy-day,” so that it can return to us reinvigorated. We hear them sending language on an adventure holiday into the realm of God’s future. When they receive the words back, the prophets find themselves recounting visions of a new world that God has in store.
Eschatological language that has been to the future and back exerts a powerful authority over us. In this month’s scriptures we experience that authority again in Isaiah’s unforgettable oracles about the holy mountain on which no one shall ever again hurt or destroy. We shall see, with our mind’s eye, the rising of the sun of righteousness with healing in its wings. We shall hear Jesus speaking of the life waiting for the children of the resurrection. The church’s year ends by inviting us to enter under the authority of the coming kingdom, to become fluent in its strange language of hope, harmony, and ultimate reunion with the Holy One who has reconciled all creation through the cross and resurrection.
Texts of Terror and Wealth
JEREMIAH IS OUR uncomfortable and discomfiting companion this month. He is a vehemently emotional man of God. Far from struggling to bring his emotion under control, he instead prays for more raw grief and anger. He knows that even his current rage and tears in no way match the scale of devastation wreaked by unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (8:21 - 9:1). To be a prophet is to risk letting our hearts resonate with the feelings of God. Jeremiah might help us discern whether our own witness for justice has turned into something too rational, measured, even routine. How do we re-engage our hearts and derive our passion from God’s divine passion?
Luke’s deep concern to show Jesus’ prophesying against the toxicity of Mammon, the power games of the wealthy, is ablaze in the gospel readings. Perhaps those who read them to us in church should preface them with a warning along the lines of Bette Davis’ famous quip in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”
The Church of the Long Haul
WHICH SCRIPTURES WILL our biases tempt us to sidestep this month? Perhaps 2 Timothy? Not usually the favorite of radicals. Whether actually written by Paul just before his death or worked up later by followers, the letter has a certain poignancy, suggesting the waning of Christianity’s pioneer phase. The church is in for the long haul. Its faith needs to find forms that can be transmitted across generations. It needs patient leadership that will be consistent in the face of inauthentic mutations of the gospel, religious imposters, and the distraction of futile controversies—hence the emphasis on sound teaching, the internalized treasure of the creed.
Let’s honor this recognition within scripture itself that the gospel needs institutions. The church must even risk banality in some of its teaching practices. A great interpreter of the Christian mystical tradition, Friedrich von Hügel, invites us to respect the way radical teachings have to be given forms that can be handled by regular folks, not geniuses. “Is there not a pathetic instruction in watching the insertion of the copper alloy into the pure gold ... that is, a metal sufficiently resistant to the clumsy handling of the multitude to be able to persist in the transmission of a value, and indeed a precise value, even though it be not the highest. There is surely a pathos here most thoroughly characteristic of the abiding limitations and homely needs of our poor humanity.”
The View from the Bleachers
THROUGH THE WRITER of the letter to the Hebrews we will be learning this month how the spiritual environment that upholds us as agents of God’s reign is richly, magnificently peopled. Entering into the spirit of this letter is like finding oneself worshiping in a great Byzantine church, in which the walls are blazing with frescoes and mosaics depicting the history of salvation and the saints in all their glorious variety. The writer extols the lineage of witnesses to God down the ages. We are asked to recognize them all as a crowd of supporters cheering us on. The writer insists that we live in vibrant awareness of the great and all-embracing community that God is forging. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24).
This is the antithesis of the bizarre theory that “religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness,” as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead claimed. God is communion, as we try to express it in the doctrine of the Trinity. Life is interrelatedness. The baptismal creed of the church commits us to belief in the communion of saints because God recruits us for the struggle to build, sustain, and nurture community-where-God-reigns here on earth, as it is in heaven.
Soaking in the Word of God
AS THE SEAONS after Pentecost unfolds, we might think that summer calls for a kind of “church lite” in which we shouldn’t expect much to happen. With the dramatic commemorations behind us, the scriptures seem miscellaneous. But this season has its own purpose of soaking in the Word. Just let go of dependence on drama.
Our month’s reading opens in 2 Kings 5 with the healing of Naaman, the distinguished Aramean general, told with a dry humor that Jesus appreciated, since he specifically mentions it (Luke 4:27) in his teaching about faith found outside the bounds of Israel. At first Naaman’s dignity is offended by Elisha not bothering even to meet him in person. His pride receives a further blow in the ludicrous banality of the prescription that Elisha’s assistant passes on: “Go, and wash in the Jordan seven times” (verse 10). Naaman’s fuming about the short shrift he got, and the humiliation of being prescribed a business of splashing in a local stream, are quite comic. Paddling in the Jordan indeed—a ditch in comparison to the storied rivers of Damascus! Smiling, we recognize the storyteller’s shrewd knowledge of psychology. The tale has a good ending. Finally getting off his high horse, Naaman allows his aide to persuade him to try the simple bathing routine. Over time his skin is healed and rejuvenated.
The church behaves like that shrewd aide when it invites us to trust in the power of hearing the scriptures again and again, however overfamiliar some of them seem, and others obscure.
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The Scales of Rejoicing
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'Let Jesus Be Cursed!'
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