Living the word

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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Living the Word: Is There a Crack in Everything?

The Len / Shutterstock
The Len / Shutterstock

THE YEAR IS YOUNG AGAIN. Folks are making soon-to-be-broken New Year’s resolutions. Why not preachers? Resolved: Prepare to preach far enough in advance that the Holy Spirit has some time to work with me. Preachers I admire sketch an entire year out in advance. Pastor Ken Shigematsu at Tenth Church in Vancouver, B.C., suggests that we’re creative on 10-day cycles. So he begins working in earnest on a sermon 10 days before he preaches it. Whatever system you come up with, resolve not to preach “Saturday night specials.” Sure, the adrenaline is nice, but it’s as hard to be creative on demand as it is to be intimate on schedule. That way, when you have a brilliant insight you can see that it fits, say, 10 weeks from now, and that insight is not lost if it fails to live up to the demands of a sermon to be preached in 10 hours.

Epiphany is one of our best, most underutilized words. The chapel at our seminary is blessedly named Epiphany chapel. For no actual connection to God happens in preaching without the illuminating light of the Spirit. I like to preach through the old hymn “We Three Kings” at least once during Epiphany. It reminds us who God is: God is born in our flesh, hailed as prophet and as king, and will die at our hands. Especially during an election year in the United States, when many ridiculous things will be said about God, we do well to remember these particular claims about who God is.

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Living the Word: Goodness in the Face of Evil

DarZel / Shutterstock 

The gospel messes with your tenses and moods (among other things)

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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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