Living the word

'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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Fifty Days of Grace

HOW SHALL WE engage with scripture through all 50 days of Easter? There are clues in the haunting story of Jesus' appearance beside the sea of Tiberius. After Easter Day many of us are ready to let things quickly revert to normal. It is, strangely, both reassuring and uncomfortable to hear that those disciples, whose business had been fishing, wanted to get back to their boats so promptly after the horrors and wonders they had witnessed in Jerusalem.

Jesus is waiting for them by the shore with breakfast already cooking. All is ready, yet he wants them to bring some of what they haul up in their nets, so he can include samples of their own catch in the menu. And what a catch it was!

Easter is our time to experience the grace that is always ahead of our game and is underway for us before we are ready. Yet grace does not exclude what we bring to the table. Grace expects and includes the work of our hands, the weavings of our imaginations, and the gifts of our unique experiences. In one sense, Eastertide is more truly a season of repentance than is Lent. One thing we might need to repent of is our passivity—those times when we expect God to hand us on a plate the meaning we are hungry for. We need to bring our own bits to the cooking fire if we are to really eat with Jesus. It is part of the mix of grace that we must participate, not just receive.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ April 7 ]
Trust But Verify
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

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The Scales of Rejoicing

"THIS IS THE LORD'S DOING; it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice in and be glad in it." We will be singing these words from Psalm 118 on Easter Sunday, and they pinpoint a critical issue in our religious witness. Do we have the courage to have God be the subject of sentences, or is God usually the object of our reflections? There is a difference. Do we make ourselves really the subject of our sentences, so that religion is about our doings and ideas and needs? The scriptures insistently talk about what God did and is doing and will do in Christ, the crucified and risen one. Our role is to rejoice in the way God acts upon us, with us, around us, behind us, above us, ahead of us, through us.

Praise is the litmus test. If God is experienced as the one who is acting, the impulse to praise is inevitable. This may help us understand the importance of the psalms in our lectionary. They aren't mere supplementary devotions. As supreme words of praise, they test the authenticity of our reactions to the good news. They test and they can train. The psalter is the church's manual to help practice the "scales of rejoicing," to borrow a phrase from W.H. Auden's "Christmas Oratorio." A phrase on Auden's tombstone comes back to me: "In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise." The psalms come to life only where this teaching is taken seriously.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ March 3 ]
Singled Out for God's Punishment
Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

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Risking Depth and Passion

"EVEN IF I OWNED Picasso's 'Guernica,' I could not hang it on a wall in my house, and although I own a recording of the Solti Chicago Symphony performance of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring,' I play it only rarely. One cannot live every day on the boundary of human existence in the world, and yet it is to this boundary that one is constantly brought by the parables of Jesus." So wrote a great New Testament scholar, Norman Perrin, in his book Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom. I often think about his frankness as I prepare for the transition between Epiphany and Lent. We must soften and make bearable the intensity of the scriptural story to face it every week in church. We can't dive to the depths every single week, and we are right to keep our child-friendliness going.

But we need to risk depth and passion, or run the danger of making the gospel seem boring and predictable. Our churchly betrayal of God lies in our willingness to make the Word seem banal. So perhaps the thing we need to give up for Lent is our avoidance of depth. The scriptures this month will speak to us of faith as the experience of being stressed almost to a breaking point. They will plumb the depths of divine frustration and disappointment. We must clear a space for these wounding and thrilling themes and suspend our strategies for making worship palatable and safe.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ February 3]
Making a Prophet
Jeremiah 4:1-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

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'Let Jesus Be Cursed!'

"NO ONE SPEAKING by the Spirit of God ever says, 'Let Jesus be cursed!'" insists Paul in his first letter to Corinth (12:3). Driving through Corinth not long ago, I found myself musing about the extraordinary spirituality that had grown up in the church he was trying to straighten out. Apparently, ecstatic worshippers caught up in charismatic excitement on the Lord's day were actually known to blurt out these shocking words: "Anathema, Jesus!" In a very brief period, the church there had come up with a mutation of the gospel in which only the cosmic, exalted savior, known through speaking in tongues and exciting miracles, mattered. The earthly person of Jesus of Nazareth had been a mere husk to be shucked off, they said. Only the Spirit-giving celestial Lord mattered. Jesus be damned! His teachings back in Galilee signified nothing; now they could concentrate on the prophecies that came hot and strong from heaven through the church's prophets—a belief that left plenty of room for all sorts of wild ethical "experiments," to put it mildly.

Well, no one actually utters "Let Jesus be cursed" out loud anymore, but, in a more subtle way, how prevalent is a pseudo-spirituality that relativizes the radical teaching of the reign of God! These readings bring us back under the authority of Jesus' witness in Galilee—and the reality that there is no Spirit, and no spirituality, except the one we receive as the driving energy to bring good news to the poor.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ January 6 ]
Wiser Than We Think
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

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The Season to Put on Beauty

“TAKE OFF THE garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting” (Baruch 5:1-2). We might occasionally hear in church a prayer that makes passing use of the phrase “the beauty of holiness,” but it can’t be claimed that we are helped very often to feel that the contagious goodness of God is absolutely lovely, alluring, and attractive. We are called to be beautiful human beings. Christians who are deeply serious about social justice, who carry the burden of the world’s brokenness in their hearts, who are committed to political dissent, probably need this reminder most of all. We can hardly be agents of change if our faces are disfigured by disgust and anger.

Advent may be an especially important time to listen carefully for the Word who summons us to be walking sacraments of God’s radiant beauty. Paul will speak to us about having joy in one another and clothing ourselves in love. We are meant to fill our imaginations in these weeks with the sight of Mary in the radiance of her final days of pregnancy. Doesn’t her beauty lend all the more power to her proclamation, “[God my savior] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53)?

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.
 

[ DECEMBER 2 ]
Shaken Powers
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

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A World Without Immigrants?

IT WOULD BE strange if any segment of the liturgical year left out the theme of migration. The Bible is riddled from end to end with the journeys of nomads, pilgrims, exiles, returning exiles, and the risky intrusions of strangers across boundaries erected to deter them.

This season’s poster child for divinely inspired mobility is the lovely figure of the Moabite “alien” Ruth, who chooses to leave her own country and accompany her beloved Jewish mother-in-law when she returns as a widow to her native Judea. Ruth’s story is romantic, even erotic, as she daringly slips into the arms of Boaz during the sexually charged siesta at the threshing floor. But our readings are no mere novelette. Scripture shows how much hinged on her pluck and her allure. Her great-grandson will be David, and her descendant Jesus the Messiah!

“Where would we be without immigrants?” is one of the many questions between the lines of the scriptures. The Bible has lots to say to us about the divine impulse active in migrations, and the opening of the heart to “strangers within our gates”—things guaranteed to alarm defensive nationalists of every stripe.

I remember the deep spiritual emotion that caught us all up in Boston’s Faneuil Hall during my naturalization ceremony—Cambodian refugees, Vietnamese grandmothers, Salvadoran families, and all the rest of us. I think of the migration of my own great-grandparents to Russia, and the adventures that have scattered my own family from New Zealand to Mexico. How God revels in mixing us all up!

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.
 

[ NOVEMBER 4 ]
What Kind of 'One'?
Ruth 1:1-18; Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Psalms 119:1-8; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

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When the Bible Reads You (October 2012)

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Our readings from Hebrews yield one of the most intense images for the experience of being addressed by the Holy One: “Indeed the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow: It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (12: 4-16). Those who passionately feel convicted by the Word to work for the transformation of the broken and unjust structures of society need to witness to our own continuous religious experience of being penetrated, judged, and aroused in our living conversation through scripture. Otherwise people might mistakenly imagine that this strong language somehow belongs to those who extol the inerrant authority of scripture while finding in it support for reactionary values.

A prison chaplain gave a new inmate a Bible. Asked later what he made of it, the prisoner replied simply, “I didn’t read the book; it read me.” And this isn’t an occult experience. We allow ourselves to be addressed whenever we drop those filters that screen out impressions that threaten upheaval for the status quo. A critic once said of Austrian artist Oscar Kokoschka’s drawings, “We don’t look at them, they look at us, searching, probing, and testing us,” and these words come back to me often when I open the Bible for meditation, and drop my defenses.

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

[ October 7 ]
Your Hardness of Heart
Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Psalm 8;
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

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Romancing the Word (September 2012)

By the late Middle Ages, which book of the Bible had inspired the most commentaries? The surprising answer is: Song of Solomon—a book that never mentions God once. There were more than 200 commentaries! A quirky piece of Christian trivia? Maybe. But it isn’t trivial that for more than a millennium this collection of love poems was taken as the key to opening the innermost meaning of the whole biblical revelation. It was read—or rather explored through contemplation—as a poetic allegory of the quest of a God to awaken the creature’s reciprocal desire. God, overflowing with yearning desire for creation, seeks union with us and arouses our own latent longing to be loved passionately, totally, and unconditionally.

A single reading this month provides a rare stimulus to explore this erotic poem as the Word of God. Some may want to take it as a signal to celebrate the sacredness of sex and intimacy, though we must note that marriage, home, domesticity, and childbearing lie entirely outside the poem’s scope. But it may be more adventurous to find in the hottest pages of the Bible permission to reinterpret the love of God through erotic metaphor, as our Christian forbears did. Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore gives us a hint: Why not reimagine the idea of the will of God—usually supposed to be a preordained plan that calls only for our obedience—in terms of God’s longing for union with us, “the wanting-to-be of God in our lives”?

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

[ September 2 ]
In the Mirror
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 15;
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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