Living the word

Living the Word: Weeping and Waiting

Bychykhin Olexandr / Shutterstock
Bychykhin Olexandr / Shutterstock 

ADVENT IS QUICKLY APPROACHING as Pentecost draws to a close. The sweeping, turbulent flow of the Spirit’s work in the church slows down. These weeks are marked by attention to widows, pain, and relationships, and to the up-close, daily grind of life. We zoom in. No sweeping theological treatises here, except those that alert us that Jesus’ second coming embodies all that the world needs to be made right and whole. Pastoral care is the emphasis now. Brush off the dust from your toolbox of “reflective listening,” “productive questions,” and “fogging.” This means no sharp dichotomies between what we do in worship and what we do throughout the week. Pastoral. Prophetic. Administrative. These will need to be one hat, as they always should be.

Scripture reminds us these weeks that our preaching ought always to be about care, about counsel, about presence. Why? Because, after all, we preach to people, not aliens. The goal of preaching is incarnation—the kind that enters the world through a teenage, unwed, poor woman’s womb, into a pig trough with animals and outdoor smells. The church’s message will need to be no less earthy, involved, reaching the ground of people’s actual lives. We’ll need to speak to all of the contradiction, heartache, and tears along with the opportunities, transitions, and celebrations in folks’ lives. I pray that our messages take on flesh. O come, O come, Emmanuel!

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Living the Word: The 'Drum Major Instinct'

Fresnel/Shutterstock
Fresnel/Shutterstock

THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES for these weeks of Pentecost make the season come alive. Why? Because who doesn’t light up at receiving gifts? We humans are pretty good at giving gifts—Christmas, birthdays, graduations. Yet our giving pales in comparison to that of the Holy Spirit. Usually we give because we expect something in return. The Holy Spirit gives freely and abundantly out of unending love and grace. These scriptures tell of the Holy Spirit giving us all we will need to lead God’s people: happiness, tongues, humility, and boldness. And yet we’ll also get more than we need: The Holy Spirit both gives and empowers.

For the work ahead, we will certainly need a power that goes beyond ourselves—unless we are satisfied with half-baked sermons, timid leadership, and time-bound visions. In case this sounds like your grandmother’s preacher on the “fruits of the spirit,” remember that the Spirit put on display in these verses is the prophetic, justice-loving, reconciliation-seeking third person of the Trinity who anointed Jesus with his mission. His was a mission “to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18b-19). What a politically theological imagination, capable of transforming the world! It’s the same one the Holy Spirit gives to us today through the church for the world. That’s a gift worth dying for. Holy Spirit come, come quickly!

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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: The Living, Breathing Church

Marten_House / Shutterstock
Marten_House / Shutterstock

AUGUST MARKS A TIME OF TRANSITION. Summer is fading. Fall is near. If you haven’t gotten your vacation in, it’ll have to be rushed because school starts shortly. Retail prices are “lowered” for back-to-school shopping. Churches are preparing for the return of students. Pastors are sneaking in a last-minute retreat or a continuing-education class. Church is in flux. What about our behavior, our faith lived out in the world? The lectionary passages for these weeks speak directly to this context of common life. How will we keep our promises? Will we prioritize the Sabbath? Are our interior and exterior lives built around hospitality?

God is not in flux, even if we are. God still longs for our worship. God is clear that the kind of worship that brings God joy leads to a life that demonstrates God’s peace and restoration. We’ll need more than good ideas and willpower. We’ll need the gift of faith to act in the world as if God is still making all things new. Even with all of the transitions around us, including the mechanics of church, we’ll need to make sure worship is as authentic and passionate as ever.

Do your pastor a favor and lend a hand, say a special prayer, extend grace. If you’re a pastor, then safety nets are in order. Now is the time to be connecting with colleagues, sitting with your spiritual director, visiting the therapist. Your people need you. You need God. The world needs the church!

[August 7]
Promises to Keep
Genesis 1:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3; Luke 12:32-40

In Genesis 15, we find Abram just out of battle. He’s recovered his nephew, women from his community, and loads of property. But there is still something missing: He has no children of his own to carry forward his name.

Abram is a visionary. But without God’s promise to bring the vision to fruition, he’s only dabbling in wishful thinking. How else can one cope with that moment when death is knocking, and the vision is still far off? “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” preached Dr. King. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

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Living the Word: Extravagant Kindnesses

Everett - Art / Shutterstock
Everett - Art / Shutterstock

THE “DOG DAYS” OF SUMMER refers to more than the weather. Attendance in churches is often down due to travel. The energy level is low, with students away and families scarce. The church year tends to gear up with the academic one, to peak with Christmas, to peak again with Easter, and then to peter out into the summer. How do we stay invigorated? How do we energize our faith with the zeal of the psalmist: “Come and see what God has done: God is awesome in deeds among mortals” (Psalm 66:5)?

I challenge churches to do something different with the summer—turn the dog days into an excuse to take risks. “Something different” will differ with context. Try a dialogue sermon. Answer live tweets from the youth. Preach a sermon entirely in the interrogative mood—nothing but questions or one that, like the psalms, is addressed solely to God. Invite testimonies about faith and service. Invite mentors who inspired you into ministry to offer their story during worship or Bible study. With the elections coming, talk about how the church has engaged with politics through history—and don’t leave out the bad stuff. Immerse yourself and your community more deeply in the gospel for the renewal of your life together, always an aspect of church and worship.

Summer is often a season of travel and meeting strangers. Remember that Abraham and Sarah offered extravagant kindness when they met three strangers in the desert. How can we become known, like Abraham, as “the friend of strangers”?

[July 3]
A Livable Faith

Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-9; Galatians 6: 1-16; Luke 10:1- 11, 16-20

ST. AUGUSTINE describes breast milk as a sign of the goodness of God. Who would dare say he’s wrong? It’s so there—abundant, nurturing, creating intimacy. It’s like God with all of us. But Augustine isn’t being original here. Isaiah is. God is a nursing mother, Israel is a nursing child, and both are happy with one another.

Eugene Peterson has made a career of insisting on the “livability” of scripture. We can do this stuff—with a healthy dose of the Spirit’s power. Coastal Church, a Pentecostal congregation in downtown Vancouver, made Luke 10 a sort of constitution for its life together. Rather than preach or protest at people, it has made a point of visiting people’s homes (already difficult in an age that loves privacy). They offer blessing. They ask what hurts and pray for it. They eat together. And they speak of the reign of God. The church has grown, lonely neighbors find surprising friends, and the reign is manifest.

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Living the Word: Lead Us into the Light

Grisha Bruev / Shutterstock
Grisha Bruev / Shutterstock

IF YOU ASSOCIATE PENTECOST only with charismatic preachers, ecstatic worship, and tongue-talking, then you had better return to scripture. The lectionary passages for this Pentecost season are dark and sad, with a central focus on theodicy, which asks the question: How can there be a good and loving God when there is so much injustice, pain, and suffering in the world? The question has taken many forms: Is God a white racist? Is God a cosmic child abuser? Who can bear these questions, let alone seek to answer them?

Scripture gives no easy or trite answers. In fact, there are no clear attempts to resolve the issue. In the words of one writer reflecting on theodicy through her own battle with cancer: “I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.” The lectionary reminds us over and over again that pain and suffering are part of life. You’ll have to weed through the popular theologies of the day, and even examine your own implicit theology, if you want to stand a chance at leading God’s people in how to respond to and live within the problem of pain and suffering in our world. Liberation is not always the conclusion. Neither is bondage. And blaming God is futile. At the core of these lectionary passages, you find a God who stands in the midst of suffering and pain, offering a variety of ways to cope, to heal, to resist.

[June 5]
Evangelism and Justice

1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

“Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary,” a phrase often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, reminds us that genuine revelation leads to mission. That’s a key message we find in the lectionary passages for this week.

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Living the Word: The Language of the Market?

-strizh- / Shutterstock
-strizh- / Shutterstock

MOST OF OUR HOLY DAYS have been colonized. The commercialization of Christmas and Easter is not quite evil, but it is certainly an obstacle to deepening one’s faith.

Pentecost, however, we have all to ourselves. No one has figured out how to market it, perhaps because we Christians have so deemphasized it compared to our other great feasts. The Holy Spirit has sometimes been spoken of as the “shy” person of the Trinity. She’s always pointing to Jesus. The Spirit is fine to let Jesus have all the attention.

But what a feast to have all to ourselves! One in which all nations are drawn to worship Zion’s God. This flood of peoples is long promised in Israel’s scripture and is now made good by Christ’s Spirit.

North American culture continues to wrestle with racial politics. William Barber speaks of these days as a Third Reconstruction, after prior ones that arrived with Emancipation in the 1860s and the civil rights movements in the 1960s. This Third Reconstruction era includes #BlackLivesMatter, immigration, and struggles for citizenship wrestling against the demagogic, bloviating “No!” of politicians.

In all this, Pentecost says, “Yes.” I’m tempted to say “quietly,” but this yes is not quiet. It’s a hurricane. It’s followed by a sermon all listeners can hear in their own language. Even if the disciples can’t speak all those languages, God can. God made all nations. God called Israel to be God’s light and bride. And now, through Jesus, God is drawing all God’s beloved peoples again. The church must show this in our life together.

And (don’t forget this!) those from all nations have to die to ourselves and be raised in Christ’s image. God is speaking, church! All we have to do is join in.

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Living the Word: Easter: The New Normal?

CURAphotography / Shutterstock
CURAphotography / Shutterstock

THE SUNDAY AFTER EASTER we all take a breath. We’ve worked hard to offer our best for Easter. Ministers often have had to preach more than our accustomed once a week. Choirs have gone all out. The sanctuary has been cleaned and decorated and trampled upon and cleaned again. Worship services may even have been lively and full. Now, as the Easter season settles in, all goes back to normal. We gather these Sundays not for spectacle, but for the risen Christ, refracted off the faces of one another.

The lectionary readings send us into unfamiliar territory. During these days, there’s not an Old Testament reading in sight—the book of Acts functions as the history of God’s faithfulness. Revelation tears a hole where Paul usually is. The gospel texts speak to the unbearable newness of a risen Lord reorienting the world around himself.

In the ancient church, those baptized at the Easter vigil would first be stripped naked before going under the water. They then donned a new robe as a sign of “putting on” Christ—and wore it throughout the Easter season. They went to church daily, learning what it meant to be “in Christ.” Had they ever seen a baptism before attending their own? Had they ever shared in Eucharist until they tasted one? I wonder whether the Easter season can be a new normal. Not one where we settle for the ordinary, but one where we take part in the risen Christ’s wrapping of all reality around the empty tomb.

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Living the Word: Between a Rock and Arising

totajla / Shutterstock
totajla / Shutterstock

These weeks are the high point of the Christian year. They are also taxing for those who are preachers. The Sundays seem to come around every few minutes, while liturgies fly at you even faster during Holy Week. All the more important, then, to dine on the Word ourselves, before we feed others from what we’re cooking. Thankfully, the church has set aside the richest texts we have to describe the mystery that is beyond describing—that God is in Christ reconciling the entire world. Often we can’t even reconcile—piece together—our own lives! Let alone our families, churches, communities. Thankfully, we don’t have to. God already has. Our work is announcing what’s been completed and enjoying its fruits.

The liturgies of Lent, the Passion, and Holy Week are what seep deep into people’s bones. Our words bring to light what God is already doing. Make use of these. Have worship on Wednesday to wash feet and on Maundy Thursday to join in Jesus’ inauguration of the Lord’s Supper. Do like the African-American church has done and invite people to gather for three hours on Good Friday to hear seven sermons. Gather like the Orthodox and the Catholics at dawn on Easter, light a fire, and have folks process into church carrying the light of Christ and singing. It’s a week of revival, as evangelicals put it. God isn’t just resurrecting Jesus. God’s stitching the church back together—and the universe too.

[March 6]
Dereliction and Duty

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

You could live with each of these texts every moment left in your life and never exhaust them. They have an accent on forgiveness, grace, and celebration. This is already odd in Lent—a season in which, traditionally, we train ourselves not to say “hallelujah” so that it will ring out all the sweeter on Easter when our lips curl around its contours for the first time in weeks. Israel’s disgrace is “rolled away,” as the word “Gilgal” announces (Joshua 5:9). Happy are we when our “sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1), when God is our hiding place. And Christ is reconciling every atom in the universe—and more miraculously still—entrusting us (us!) with God’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5).

Luke 15 is more staggering still. It is often misnamed “the prodigal son.” But as Tim Keller and others have pointed out, it is the father who is most extravagant here. The father, as if he dies to himself, gives the younger son his inheritance. Then, when the younger son returns, the father celebrates with what is left (presumably cutting into the elder’s share). The younger son’s depth of dissolution would have drawn a reflexive shudder from the story’s first readers (Pigs! Akin to, say, roaches for us). And the elder son is just as lost as the younger—he just has a better strategy for getting the father’s stuff by dutifully waiting for dad’s death. Better, that is, until he runs headlong into his father’s rule-transcending generosity.

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Living the Word: Why Do Good Things Happen?

Ray Bond / Shutterstock
Ray Bond / Shutterstock

LENT IS A GIFT. It is a hard scrub brush for when we’re covered with grime that won’t come off in an ordinary bath.

Lent is popularly associated with “giving up” things. This giving up is easy to lampoon. When I gave up meat once, a friend said, “If you want to go on a diet, don’t pretend you’re doing it for Jesus.” Lent is a remarkably ineffective season for weight loss. Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, so Sundays aren’t technically days of Lent. On Sundays you can indulge as much as you want. It’s not the best diet plan. But it does remind us that resurrection crowns every week and so every fast.

Lent is our minor participation in Jesus’ 40-day fast, which is itself a participation in Israel’s 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. It’s meant to be hard (a friend who loves to fast says he gives up fasting for Lent!). In Lent we say “no” to just a few of our desires. This is counter-cultural in a Western world bent on saying “yes!” to every consumerist desire, however bizarre. But these little “no’s” are really geared to help us say “yes” to Jesus more. It might hurt at first, especially if we’re not used to it, like every good habit. And in the gospel’s strange economy, saying no is the way to life.

[February 7]
A Face Alight 

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12- 4:2; Luke 9:28-43a

YOU'VE SEEN FACES shine before. Think of the radiant pregnant woman. Think of a speaker or an athlete or a dancer in a groove, performing like few can. Think of those few moments in life so magical you can’t stop smiling.

Moses’ face shines so brightly his fellow Jews ask him to cover it. He’s in the presence of a light so incandescent it has been known to kill people. Moses’ face is like the light of the moon—a reflection of a greater light on which we cannot look directly.

If Moses’ face shines, Jesus’ whole body shines. So does the mountaintop all around. Moses turns up to join in the shine, along with Elijah, and they discuss the “departure” or “exodus” (Luke 9:31) that Jesus will soon accomplish at Jerusalem.

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