Living the word
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ONE OF THE BEDROCK assertions of the Christian faith is that the kingdom of God is coming.
Jesus announced God’s reign, and embodied it, and brought it among us, but it is not here yet in full. The world’s brokenness and our own selfishness are testament enough that the kingdom is not here in full. But it is coming. And there’s not a thing we can do to hurry it, or stop it, or even delay it. We can, however, join in with it. That’s the best recipe for how to be a human being.
Advent’s reliable annual return is like the kingdom in its future certainty. The blue or purple paraments, the hymns in minor key, the candlelight, the longer nights—they all return, annually, like an old friend. Advent is a season of longing. The church places herself in the position of Israel, crying out for a savior. The hymns express this longing (“O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here”). Some churches have a “longest night” service on or around Dec. 21 for those who have experienced especially acute grief in the past year. Advent reminds us that life is not all cheerfulness, as if we needed reminding. It’s also sorrow, longing, waiting, and hoping.
Then Advent returns, ready or not. Just like Jesus and the reign he’ll soon bring in full. It’ll be here before you know it. And it’ll amplify the best parts of human life. It will shear off the worst parts. And it will make the world the one God dreams about.
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!
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!
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.