Bible Study

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: 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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Jonah At Sea

Illustration by Rick Stromoski

THE MORE I READ the story of Jonah nestled among the serious Minor Prophets of the Old Testament, the more fantastic and hilarious it gets. Everything is turned upside-down.

Jonah’s story follows Amos, who rips into rich people who “lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches.” It precedes Micah, whose Lord calls us “to do justice and to love kindness.” But Jonah spends his energy running away from Yahweh. In fact, Jonah is never even called a prophet in the book that bears his name. His interests and concerns are completely different from the Deity who has called him. Only entombment inside a “great fish” will drive his bedraggled, stinking self to the city that needs to repent. Even so, Jonah will perceive his surprising success as an utter failure.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. Most Hebrew prophetic books are collections of oracles unmoored to narrative, but Jonah’s tale has a setting, characters, and a plot! If you didn’t learn this in children’s Sunday school, here are the bare bones of the action:

Yahweh tells a man named Jonah to go east to the city of Nineveh to cry out against its evil. But Jonah flees in the opposite direction on a ship traveling west. A huge storm blows in, so when Jonah says it’s his fault, the sailors reluctantly throw him overboard. The storm immediately stops. A “great fish” swallows Jonah for three days and nights. Then God makes the fish vomit Jonah out on dry land.

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July 2015
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Testing Jesus

THE GOSPELS OF Mark and Matthew both include the story of a Gentile woman who begs a reluctant Jesus to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28).

I thought of these texts last fall while reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical work of the acclaimed poet Maya Angelou, who died last year. Born in 1928, Angelou spent most of her childhood with her grandmother in small-town Stamps, Ark. After a few years of eating candy from her grandmother’s grocery store, Maya developed two cavities that, she writes, “were rotten to the gums.” However, the white dentist in Stamps did not take “Negro” patients, and the closest black dentist was 25 miles away.

For several days no aspirin touched the blinding pain, so her grandmother finally took her to the white dentist, determined to beg and plead for help. Her grandmother recounts the dentist’s final rejection in highly colorful language: “Said he’d rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. … He said, ‘Annie, I done tole you, I ain’t gonna mess around in no niggah’s mouth.’”

We may recoil at such naked racism, but in the segregated Jim Crow South, this sentiment must have been typical. I can imagine white churchgoers reacting to this story by thinking, “The nerve of that woman begging help from a white dentist! She got what she deserved.”

In Mark, we find Jesus also comparing a woman of a different race to a dog. Matthew includes the same story, only here Jesus adds that he has no obligation to this woman because “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Most commentators are uncomfortable with Jesus’ response in both places, but it is often softened by an explanation that he was testing this woman to see if she had enough faith. Or perhaps he teased her, with a twinkle in his eye, by calling the dogs “puppies”!

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New & Noteworthy

Contemporary History
The duo Ibeyi are Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz, 19-year-old French-Cuban twins with Yoruba roots—a West African culture transplanted to Cuba during slavery. Ibeyi’s self-titled album begins and ends in prayer; in between is a fusion of English and Yoruba, minimalist piano and percussion, jazz and hip hop. XL Recordings

Preach It
The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Volume 2 brings together more than 50 sermons by the biblical scholar and powerful preacher, arranged according to the liturgical year. Also includes special-occasion sermons and a scripture index. A good resource for pastors and laity alike. Westminster John Knox

Sketching the Word
In And the Word Became Color: Exploring the Bible with Paper, Pen, and Paint, artist and teacher Debby Topliff describes what she calls “visual lectio divina”—a method of Bible study that incorporates simple line drawings. Debbytopliff.com

Soul Seedlings
Faith Forward Volume 2: Re-imagining Children’s and Youth Ministry collects stories, insights, and models from the 2014 Faith Forward gathering on nurturing the spiritual lives of young people. Edited by David M. Csinos and Melvin Bray, with a foreword by Jennifer Knapp. CopperHouse

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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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On the Outskirts of Heaven

THE LAST SUNDAY IN FEBRUARY is the first Sunday of Lent. We are asked to prepare for Lent by searching our souls and repenting of our misdeeds in order to walk with Jesus on his road to the cross. After writing the final reflections below, I felt unfinished. Repentance is easy to talk about but exceedingly hard to do. We justify and excuse our actions when we’ve hurt a friend or made a bad choice. It’s usually someone else’s fault anyhow—they started it!

The most striking example of human resistance to repentance I’ve ever read was in C.S. Lewis’ little book The Great Divorce. The “divorce” is the huge gap between heaven and hell. Hell is not fiery but filled with people who can’t get along with each other and keep moving further apart in the darkness. Eventually, a few make their way to a bus stop where they get a ride to the outskirts of heaven. There everyone is met by someone from their past they’d rather not meet, and who begs them to repent, make restitution, or whatever is necessary to enjoy a joyful eternity of loving relationships. For almost all of them, it’s not worth it. They fear losing the bit of ego they have left. They’d rather go back to hell than repent and be reconciled with someone they love to hate.

No wonder repenting is the first step to entering the kingdom of God!

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

[February 1]

Meeting God in Prophets 
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

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