Living the word

What Is the Lord's Justice?

EXECUTE: TO ENACT OR DO. Having grown up in inner-city Chicago, I have fond memories of red fire hydrants, swinging jump ropes, and church robes. During summer, the fire department would open the hydrants. Parents granted the petitions of children to run through the streams of water, soaking our clothes and cooling our backs. And while I never achieved the rhythmic agility to jump Double Dutch, I loved to recite the rhymes, which eventually helped me gain a verbal dexterity like that of my pastor. I wanted one day to have a robe like hers—one that signaled that the words I spoke revealed the reign of God.

Turn the clock back. Some children would hold very different memories of fire hydrants, ropes, and robes. In Birmingham, Ala., in1963, the force of the water injured petitioners for freedom. During the American Revolution, a Virginia justice of the peace named Charles Lynch ordered extralegal punishment for Loyalists to the Crown. The swinging rope became the tool of mob violence. And the “hooded ones” continue to use the label of “Christian” to make a mockery of the vestments of clergy.

Fire hydrants. Ropes. Robes. Execute: to eliminate or kill. Meaning conveyed to the hearer may not at all resemble the intention of the speaker. Often communication requires suspension of what we think in order to listen to the context from which the speaker shares. Reading is no easier a task. Sometimes the same letters forming the same word present entirely different meanings. Justice executed. What does it mean?

The context for the next four weeks exposes what the Lord’s justice requires.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.


[ February 2 ]
Fighting God in Court
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

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Moving into Epiphany's Light

A NEW CALENDAR YEAR marks the end of the Christmas season and a shift to the season of Epiphany that spotlights the reality of the Incarnation. In sync with our personal promises to discontinue bad habits in favor of better practices, the lectionary readings capture familiar expressions of vocational clarity and ministerial frustration. The season is a mosaic of self-examination peppered with moments of great light penetrating the darkest despair. Whether ancient Israel (living in exile in the sixth century B.C.E.), the followers of Jesus (in the first century C.E.), or 21st century seekers of spirituality without religion, the description is the same: The disenfranchised, disappointed, and divided discover a glimpse of the reign of God.

Read these texts as snippets of ancient social media: status updates of a prophet, blogs about the ministry of Jesus, and PDF files about early church practices. Each exposes the light of God pushing into the darkness of human existence: frustrated ministers, radical promises of forgiveness, reports of flourishing charismatic leaders, stalemated efforts due to divided affiliations, petitions for lawmakers to practice impartiality, and the death of one imprisoned on suspicious testimony. Familiar, jarring, and too often tamed, these texts deserve at least the attention afforded public policy debates and celebrity rumors.

A close reading of the text does not lend safety by avoiding the prophet, ignoring John’s message, or disputing baptism rituals. Every baptized believer is called to arise and live as if the kingdom of God has come.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

[ JANUARY 5 ]
Reconciling Differences
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

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The New Commonwealth of God

A PROFOUND SENSE of expectation launches a new year. As the season of Advent commences the Christian year, just weeks before the turn of the calendar year, familiar biblical stories invite us to begin again by glimpsing the coming reign of God. Weekly worshippers and annual attendees gather for the season premiere of the greatest story ever told. A promise. A vision. A hope. Great expectation.

The ancient prophet, psalm, gospel, and epistle together extend to the contemporary preacher words of unflinching hope that emerge fresh from the rubble of turmoil, trial, and tribulation of every God-seeking generation. Today’s words of hope must also descend like the savory aroma of a holiday meal, promising solace to the harmed, heartbroken, and hindered.

Familiarity with the Advent and Christmas narratives may leave us unaware of the radical expectation and potential impact that reciting these events can bring. These readings offer an arresting narrative of divine presence inaugurating an unprecedented commonwealth from among the divided nation. The vision makes no sense if it does not offer an alternative to the existing promises of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The narrative challenges us to understand that our celebration of the birth of Jesus is not shiny lights or a musical presentation. It anticipates the arrival of goodness signaling an end to corruption and gloom. This global holiday extends the drama narrated in Christian scripture as each generation must wrestle again with the contemporary relevance of the birth of Jesus.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

[ DECEMBER 1 ]
Do You See What I See?
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

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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.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ NOVEMBER 3 ]
The Eyes Have It
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 32:1-7; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

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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!”

Martin L. Smith was an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader when this article appeared.

[ September 1 ]
Entertaining Angels
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

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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.”

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ October 6 ]
Faith Increased, Faith Infectious
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 37:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

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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.

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ August 4]
'To You, O Lord!'
Hosea 11:1-11; Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

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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.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ July 7 ]
We Can Get the Accuser Fired
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 66:1-9; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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'Greater Works Than Mine'

THE SAGA OF Elijah that we are following in 1 and 2 Kings culminates in a poignant parting as the prophet prepares to be taken up into heaven. His disciple, Elisha, makes a final all-or-nothing request: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). Elijah states a condition for the fulfillment of Elisha’s prayer: “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not” (2:10). It is as if Elisha has to look unblinkingly into the reality of their separation. If he is to inherit the prophetic mantle and spirit of his teacher, he must claim the vocation in its entirety. He is now to be the prophet.

The story is an uncanny pointer to the truth that John the Evangelist highlights in Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you ...” (16:7). John even echoes the “double spirit” theme in 14:12, when he has Jesus assure us that our prophetic endeavors will be more abundant and powerful than Jesus’ own!

The season following Pentecost helps us realize that we are the prophets now, vested with the mandate and endowed with the gifts for enacting the good news of liberation.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ JUNE 2 ]
A Climate of Relativism
1 Kings 18:20-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

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Growing Up Trinitarian

I WAS BROUGHT UP up on stories of my family's emigration to Russia from England in the 1850s and of the three generations we lived there and intermarried. My grandparents fled the upheavals of revolution in 1917, returning to England. Having drunk deeply from the springs of Russian spirituality, it is second nature to me to hear the scriptures with Russian ears. As Eastertide culminates at Pentecost (rounded out in the wonderful coda of Trinity Sunday), I find myself murmuring as a mantra the great injunction of St. Sergius of Radonezh, "Beholding the unity of Holy Trinity, to overcome the hateful disunity of this world!" The doctrine of the Trinity is no mere antiquity, but a beacon pointing to the future that God desires for the world. In the Trinity, "hateful disunity" can be transformed into life-in-communion; our life together as human beings incarnating our identity as ones made into the image and likeness of God. I will find myself doodling on my notepad the provocative claim of the Russian lay theologian Nikolai Fedorov: "Our social program is the dogma of the Trinity."

Taking in again the Trinitarian grammar of our prayer and faith, I will find myself reinvigorated for the task of forging a spirituality that, as a great Anglican priest Alan Ecclestone wrote, "takes its Trinitarian imagery more seriously than ever before, relating the creativity, the humanizing, and the unification of [humankind] in one growing experience of mutual love." This from a man who was a passionate political activist writing from the thick of gritty urban politics, not from an ivory tower.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ May 5 ]
What We Carry Into Zion
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9

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