Living the word

Living the Word: In The Cool of God's Shade

TreeofLife

Dr Ajay Kumar Singh / Shutterstock

THE DOG DAYS OF SUMMER can make for a preaching desert without an oasis in sight. This can be a fine time to take a vacation from the lectionary. Huge swaths of scripture go untreated otherwise—the entire Samson cycle, most of the cursing psalms, most of the gospel of John. One friend spends a portion of every year preaching through blockbuster movies and how they intersect with the scriptures. Another devoted a preaching series to favorite children’s books.   

Here in August the lectionary itself seems to take a vacation, visiting the discourse about bread in John’s gospel, inviting us to see every bit of bread, every bite of food, as filled with Jesus. Texts about water invite us to see all water as a sign of the God who creates us in the water of a womb and gives water for our salvation in baptism (an especially apt teaching point for those still sandy-toed from the beach).

A friend’s pulpit has on it “tree of life,” written in Hebrew—inviting all to see trees as reminders of the tree from which our first parents ate fruit forbidden to them, the tree on which Jesus was crucified, and the tree in the City of God whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

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Living the Word: What We Carry With Us

IN THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES for these weeks following Pentecost, we find God working in and through the ordinary: a shepherd boy, bread, dancing. In each passage God breaks through with incredible revelation; some promise, some challenge, some person unexpected. Not everyone in the passages notices. Paying attention is crucial. We’ll have to be open to being caught off guard, being surprised. The Holy Spirit gives us eyes to see. As we engage in leadership and ministry these weeks, what we are sure to find is Jesus showing up in all the places we might not expect, when we’re washing dishes, driving in the car, eating a meal. And we certainly don’t expect him in the faces of the white poor, in the lives of racially profiled black youth, or in the stories of the undocumented.

We bring into worship our vestments, our commentaries, our manuscripts. God speaks through these—no surprise there. But God grips us in these unexpected places. These are what we should carry with us into worship every Sunday. But we will need more than eyes to make them preach; we’ll need power. The Holy Spirit gives that too. It makes the heart come alive. The gospel artist Fred Hammond said it best: “When the Spirit of the Lord comes upon my heart, I will dance like David danced!” Dancing and singing shape the heart of God’s new community, for joy, for freedom, for hope. May we be open to the Spirit’s vision and boldness!

Brandon Wrencher is pastor of Blackburns’ Chapel United Methodist Church and director of The Blackburn House in Todd, N.C.

[ July 5 ]
Shepherd or King?

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

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July 2015
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The Soulful Bells of Summer

THE SEASON AFTER PENTECOST is a challenge. Some churches call it “ordinary time.” This is where most of our life is lived, spiritually speaking. The fact that other churches call it “the season after Pentecost” reminds us that a miraculous tongue of fire is needed for any sermon to work—and the Holy Spirit has a tongue of fire for us. Pentecost propels us through ordinary time. The Holy Spirit can take as sorry a lot of losers as the ones Jesus chose as disciples and turn them into apostles, martyrs, world-changers. God has always done more with less-promising material.

A retreat at a monastery gave me a glimpse of what ordinary time means. By the time 8 a.m. Mass rolls around, we’ve already been in church three times that day. Mass is beautiful, we leave buoyantly, the Trappist monks are nearly chatty. Then the bell rings. It’s time for Terce, another hour of prayer. That bell sets me to sighing—weren’t we just in church? Terce is like the Sunday after Easter or Christmas—a letdown. Same building, half full of people, and with a quarter of the energy. And it is precisely then that it’s important to worship God. The church’s worship of God carries on when we’ve all gotten bored or tired. Such worship is good for souls. Preachers’ souls included.

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.

[ June 7 ]

Out of the Depths
1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15; Psalms 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL famously said that the biblical prophets show God’s pain. Here in 1 Samuel, God grants the people’s wish for a king because “they have rejected me from being king over them” from “the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day” (8:7-8).

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A Recipe for 'Greater Works'

BY THIS TIME in the church calendar, the liturgical highlights feel like they’ve slowed considerably. The excitement of Easter is gone, not to be replaced by another holy season until Advent. Pastors and parishioners, who all stayed away the week after Easter, hopefully have returned. The holy days seem to have drained away into the season of counting the weeks, depressingly named as “ordinary time.”

Ecclesially speaking, however, the holy days are amping up considerably at this point. Easter season hits a crescendo with these latter weeks. The ascension of Christ used to be marked as one of the greatest feast days of the year, up there with Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost. It signifies Christ’s rule over all things, hidden now, to be full-blown and publicly obvious to all in God’s good time. Christ himself insists that he must go away in order that the Advocate would come and, in John’s language, to enable us to do even “greater works” than Jesus ever did. Pentecost is a new outpouring of the triune God to empower the church to do those greater works. There is much here to be celebrated. A crescendo, not a tapering off.

These texts present a reign inaugurated with resurrection in which the poor eat and are satisfied. One built on friendship and common love. It suggests a God who likes getting born enough that God decided to go through the experience and told the rest of us we should go through it all over again. Is that bodily enough for you?

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.

[May 3]

Joined as One
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

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Easter and a Love Supreme

DURING THE EASTER SEASON, the first reading in our lectionary becomes, strangely, a New Testament reading. Most of the year, we immerse ourselves in the scripture we share with the Jews, but after the resurrection we traipse through the book of Acts. The claim being made is that the history of God’s chosen people continues in the history of the church. God is still working signs and wonders. And these include the sharing of goods in common, the fact that there are no needy people among us, bringing awe and distress among our neighbors, and a dawning kingdom brought slightly closer. Just like in our churches and communities today, right?

These Easter texts are also deeply sensual and material. God’s reign is imagined as a banquet with rich wines and marrow-filled meats. Love between sisters and brothers is like oil running down the head, over the face. The resurrection texts themselves insist on this point more emphatically than any other: Jesus is raised in his body. This is the beginning of God’s resurrecting power breaking out all over the creation God loves. What could ever be impossible after a resurrection? Our limited imaginations of the possible (Can we make budget? Can we get a few more votes on this bill? Can we improve lives in this neighborhood?) are shown for the bankruptcy in which they are mired. A new order is here. We pray, God, make our imaginations match the sensuousness, the materiality, the grandeur of what you have already accomplished and, more daringly still, what you promise yet to do.

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.

[April 5]

Food Porn or Heavenly Banquet?
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

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Lent's Lonely Road

ONE OF THE UNANTICIPATED effects of our health-care technologies is that we expect to live relatively pain-free lives, physically speaking. In the West, we do not imagine a physician saying to us “this will hurt” before cutting in. We expect to be anesthetized to avoid pain. In the same way we struggle with a biblical pathway to God, like Lent.

In Lent, we put ourselves on a lonely road with Jesus—40 days in the wilderness, struggling with hunger, thirst, loneliness, doubt, fear. In Lent, we put ourselves in a 40-year journey in the wilderness with the people Israel, wondering when, if ever, God will make good on the promises of a land flowing with milk and honey. In Lent, we do business with repentance.      

Whatever else the church may say about repentance, we certainly say, “This will hurt. And not just a little.” Repentance means “turning around.” It also means dying, biblically speaking. We are drowned in baptism and raised to new life; we go to extremes in the wild until an entire generation dies off (the exodus) and until we are reduced to one searing set of emotions (the crucifixion). Jesus’ cross wasn’t light. Why should we expect ours to be?

        Then there’s the good news. A resurrection is on the far side of that cross. Its blinding light pours around the edges of the stone rolled before the tomb. Resurrection is not in Lent, but it’s coming. In the meantime, in the words of John the Baptist, “Prepare the way.”

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.

[March 1] 

Now and Not Yet
Gensis 12:1-7; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 9:2-9

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On the Outskirts of Heaven

THE LAST SUNDAY IN FEBRUARY is the first Sunday of Lent. We are asked to prepare for Lent by searching our souls and repenting of our misdeeds in order to walk with Jesus on his road to the cross. After writing the final reflections below, I felt unfinished. Repentance is easy to talk about but exceedingly hard to do. We justify and excuse our actions when we’ve hurt a friend or made a bad choice. It’s usually someone else’s fault anyhow—they started it!

The most striking example of human resistance to repentance I’ve ever read was in C.S. Lewis’ little book The Great Divorce. The “divorce” is the huge gap between heaven and hell. Hell is not fiery but filled with people who can’t get along with each other and keep moving further apart in the darkness. Eventually, a few make their way to a bus stop where they get a ride to the outskirts of heaven. There everyone is met by someone from their past they’d rather not meet, and who begs them to repent, make restitution, or whatever is necessary to enjoy a joyful eternity of loving relationships. For almost all of them, it’s not worth it. They fear losing the bit of ego they have left. They’d rather go back to hell than repent and be reconciled with someone they love to hate.

No wonder repenting is the first step to entering the kingdom of God!

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

[February 1]

Meeting God in Prophets 
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

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Bright Morning Star A-Rising

IF WE FOLLOWED the church calendar and celebrated Epiphany in January, we wouldn’t have to cram the wise men into the crèche to compete with the shepherds. We could save all the “Star of Bethlehem” songs to brighten the cold days of January. Obviously, the magi needed a few weeks to prepare and then travel “from the East.”

A new bright object in the sky was certainly an “epiphany,” but it was not totally unexpected. These magi were astrologers, the ancient astronomers of their day. To the east of Jerusalem lay Babylon, birthplace of astrology and location of a large Jewish community. The discovery of two astrological books among the Dead Sea scrolls showed that the sign of Aries the Ram in the zodiac represented the reign of Herod the Great in Judea. Since Herod was aging, it is not surprising that Jewish astrologers were watching this royal constellation.

In a television series called Jesus: The Complete Story, astronomer Michael R. Molnar notes an unusual astrological conjunction on the night of April 17, in 6 B.C.E., the year Jesus was most likely born. At that time, both Saturn and the sun were in the constellation Aries, and then the moon eclipsed to reveal Jupiter, king of the planets, also in Aries. Jupiter shone into the dawn, another auspicious sign of royalty. It was confirmation enough to send these astrologers on their way.

Perhaps if we celebrated Epiphany after Christmas, we’d have more time to learn about this epiphany and its remarkable interpretation.

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

[January 4] 

Who Recieves the Blessing? 
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalms 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18

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To the Millennia and Beyond!

I CONFESS THAT I DO NOT often use the Revised Common Lectionary. As a Bible professor, I prefer to read texts in their larger literary and historical contexts. When a brief reading from one time period is lifted out of its context and juxtaposed with another written many centuries later, it can feel like an invisible hand is forcing me to compare apples and oranges—or even apples and mushrooms.

Nevertheless, I have been enriched by this year’s readings for Advent and Christmas. My “larger historical context” has become the sweep of a thousand years of Israelite history, from King David to the birth of the “son of David.”

For Christians, the coming of Jesus was a singularity. Though we focus on his birth in this season, that lower-class event was barely noticed at the time, and it is not mentioned by two of our gospel writers. It is his entire life, ministry, death, and resurrection that echoes throughout the ages and ushers in our hope of salvation. Our prophets and psalmists from the Hebrew Bible could not foresee details of the Christ-event from their perspectives centuries earlier. Yet their intuitions and hints and poetic expressions of joy over God’s in-breaking from their times are now borrowed to give voice to our exultation over Jesus’ coming today.

In a culture measured by quarterly profits and immediate gratification by credit card, we need a longer view to better understand what God is doing throughout human history. These Advent readings call us beyond the present to the millennia of the past and the hope of the future stretching to eternity.

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at  http://www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

[December 7]

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The Lives of Others

WE LIVE IN A TIME of widespread violence. No country, no community, no person is untouched by violence. It is a complex problem stemming from our thought patterns and actions that are, in turn, shaped by various forces in our daily lives. Because violence is so complex, we often seek an easy answer—typically, naming a specific religion, culture, ethnicity, or nationality as a cause of the evil that perpetrates or stimulates violence.

But we all know that such scapegoating is another crime that only creates more violence. Each and every individual and community has good and bad, strength and weakness, merit and demerit. Just as no one is perfectly good, no one is perfectly evil. In her well-known book Eichmann in Jerusalem, philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt points out that evil is related to the lack of reflective thinking. “The longer one listened to [Eichmann],” writes Arendt, “the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”

For Arendt, to think reflectively means to be aware and to take into account the reality that one’s own life is always in relation to the lives of others. This is also what the biblical texts this month invite us to contemplate.

Min-Ah Cho is assistant professor of theology and spirituality at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.

[Novemeber 2]
When Injustice is 'Normal' 
Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12 

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