MANY OF THE VOICES in this month’s readings seem to have “no filter.” They say what they think without adjusting it for politeness or theological correctness. In so doing, biblical paragons are presented as identifiably human, and God is seen as a God who welcomes our unvarnished truth. Here the raw human emotion acknowledges the complex terrain that is the human heart. The texts assume we feel, hurt, and occasionally want revenge; that we transgress and fear revenge; that we want forgiveness for ourselves but not necessarily for others. We can feel that God had gotten the better of us. Our experiences of God can be frustrating and painful. Like Jeremiah and Jonah here and Hagar (Genesis 16:7-14; 21:15-19) and Hannah (1 Samuel 1:9-11) elsewhere, these texts invite us to tell God about God and take our frustrations to God.
The scriptures call us to interpret them with regard to their ancient contexts and our contemporary ones. Israel/Judah, in any of its configurations, was one of the smallest and least powerful nations in its world. The scriptures were compiled and received their last edit when what was left of Israel was completely subjugated by a foreign power. That is not our contemporary situation as Americans. We may have been conditioned to read from the position of Israel, but we also need to read from the position of empires that subjugate. If God can bear us without filters, surely we can scrutinize our own imperial impulses.
There’s no standout theme that can be traced through October’s lectionary, which means that teaching and preaching will not be able to rely on the nice packaging of cool titles and catchy series. And those reading devotionally should not expect pet clichés. I suspect we need seasons of spirituality that are off the grid. It reminds me of my friends that live almost completely off the land. They are hard to track, but they maintain an abiding centeredness. Their keen sense of attention to their surroundings and their own bodies is unparalleled, because they have to anticipate both nurture and nature, rhythm and surprise, order and spontaneity.
We will need to be ready for no less surprises, twists, and turns in the lectionary for this month. We will also need the centeredness to act and lead. Scripted leadership and lessons won’t cut it. Improvisation is the skill to cultivate. Samuel Wells offers a framework that will guide us: “Improvisation means a community formed in the right habits trusting itself to embody its traditions in new and often challenging circumstances ... this is exactly what the church is called to do.”
This is the way of wisdom – a far cry from the pop Christianity of our day that offers formulas and platitudes.
ORDINARY TIME CONTINUES, in this season after Pentecost. The designation “ordinary” always strikes me as odd. This season is anything but ordinary in the common way in which we use the term. Ordinary typically means that something has no special or unique characteristics. Ordinary is simple, average, unexciting.
In one sense, the lectionary passages can be described as ordinary. There are no mighty battles or astonishing miracles or dreamy visits from God. The text is full of practical teaching, of how to live out the life of faith. Ordinary, right? And yet, the life to which the Spirit calls us is anything but ordinary.
A couple of warnings are in order. If you’re looking for material for “Seven Steps to (fill in the blank)”-style preaching and teaching, then don’t look here. These passages are not going to give you warm fuzzies about your personal relationship with Jesus. There’s nothing watered down or simple about God’s teaching and commands in these passages. We are called to nothing less than radical discipleship: Take up crosses, extend and receive God’s mercy, prioritize the poor for our salvation, and establish communities of trust. If you discover anything truly ordinary as you study and reflect, it is yourself. You cannot live this life ordinarily. We are in the stretch between Pentecost and Advent. You’ll need to connect to the power and patience of these traditions in order to live out the extraordinary call God has placed before such ordinary people.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Following Jesus is a costly business, as Luke reminds us, requiring sacrifice and shedding of our slave mind in order to move in freedom. But is that what we find in much of U.S. Christianity? In studying the spiritual lives of U.S. teenagers, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton determined that teens’ reigning religious worldview can be described as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Moralistic: God wants people to behave. Therapeutic: God wants everyone to be happy. Deism: God exists and started the world turning, but is now remote, without personal engagement.
Those from the underside of U.S. life, the disinherited, recognize this worldview for what it truly is: the leftovers from a Christianity that is more American than it is Christian. Frederick Douglass described it as “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
AUGUST MARKS A TIME OF TRANSITION. Summer is fading. Fall is near. If you haven’t gotten your vacation in, it’ll have to be rushed because school starts shortly. Retail prices are “lowered” for back-to-school shopping. Churches are preparing for the return of students. Pastors are sneaking in a last-minute retreat or a continuing-education class. Church is in flux. What about our behavior, our faith lived out in the world? The lectionary passages for these weeks speak directly to this context of common life. How will we keep our promises? Will we prioritize the Sabbath? Are our interior and exterior lives built around hospitality?
God is not in flux, even if we are. God still longs for our worship. God is clear that the kind of worship that brings God joy leads to a life that demonstrates God’s peace and restoration. We’ll need more than good ideas and willpower. We’ll need the gift of faith to act in the world as if God is still making all things new. Even with all of the transitions around us, including the mechanics of church, we’ll need to make sure worship is as authentic and passionate as ever.
Do your pastor a favor and lend a hand, say a special prayer, extend grace. If you’re a pastor, then safety nets are in order. Now is the time to be connecting with colleagues, sitting with your spiritual director, visiting the therapist. Your people need you. You need God. The world needs the church!
Promises to Keep
Genesis 1:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3; Luke 12:32-40
In Genesis 15, we find Abram just out of battle. He’s recovered his nephew, women from his community, and loads of property. But there is still something missing: He has no children of his own to carry forward his name.
Abram is a visionary. But without God’s promise to bring the vision to fruition, he’s only dabbling in wishful thinking. How else can one cope with that moment when death is knocking, and the vision is still far off? “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” preached Dr. King. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
THE “DOG DAYS” OF SUMMER refers to more than the weather. Attendance in churches is often down due to travel. The energy level is low, with students away and families scarce. The church year tends to gear up with the academic one, to peak with Christmas, to peak again with Easter, and then to peter out into the summer. How do we stay invigorated? How do we energize our faith with the zeal of the psalmist: “Come and see what God has done: God is awesome in deeds among mortals” (Psalm 66:5)?
I challenge churches to do something different with the summer—turn the dog days into an excuse to take risks. “Something different” will differ with context. Try a dialogue sermon. Answer live tweets from the youth. Preach a sermon entirely in the interrogative mood—nothing but questions or one that, like the psalms, is addressed solely to God. Invite testimonies about faith and service. Invite mentors who inspired you into ministry to offer their story during worship or Bible study. With the elections coming, talk about how the church has engaged with politics through history—and don’t leave out the bad stuff. Immerse yourself and your community more deeply in the gospel for the renewal of your life together, always an aspect of church and worship.
Summer is often a season of travel and meeting strangers. Remember that Abraham and Sarah offered extravagant kindness when they met three strangers in the desert. How can we become known, like Abraham, as “the friend of strangers”?
A Livable Faith
Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-9; Galatians 6: 1-16; Luke 10:1- 11, 16-20
ST. AUGUSTINE describes breast milk as a sign of the goodness of God. Who would dare say he’s wrong? It’s so there—abundant, nurturing, creating intimacy. It’s like God with all of us. But Augustine isn’t being original here. Isaiah is. God is a nursing mother, Israel is a nursing child, and both are happy with one another.
Eugene Peterson has made a career of insisting on the “livability” of scripture. We can do this stuff—with a healthy dose of the Spirit’s power. Coastal Church, a Pentecostal congregation in downtown Vancouver, made Luke 10 a sort of constitution for its life together. Rather than preach or protest at people, it has made a point of visiting people’s homes (already difficult in an age that loves privacy). They offer blessing. They ask what hurts and pray for it. They eat together. And they speak of the reign of God. The church has grown, lonely neighbors find surprising friends, and the reign is manifest.
IF YOU ASSOCIATE PENTECOST only with charismatic preachers, ecstatic worship, and tongue-talking, then you had better return to scripture. The lectionary passages for this Pentecost season are dark and sad, with a central focus on theodicy, which asks the question: How can there be a good and loving God when there is so much injustice, pain, and suffering in the world? The question has taken many forms: Is God a white racist? Is God a cosmic child abuser? Who can bear these questions, let alone seek to answer them?
Scripture gives no easy or trite answers. In fact, there are no clear attempts to resolve the issue. In the words of one writer reflecting on theodicy through her own battle with cancer: “I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.” The lectionary reminds us over and over again that pain and suffering are part of life. You’ll have to weed through the popular theologies of the day, and even examine your own implicit theology, if you want to stand a chance at leading God’s people in how to respond to and live within the problem of pain and suffering in our world. Liberation is not always the conclusion. Neither is bondage. And blaming God is futile. At the core of these lectionary passages, you find a God who stands in the midst of suffering and pain, offering a variety of ways to cope, to heal, to resist.
Evangelism and Justice
1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
“Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary,” a phrase often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, reminds us that genuine revelation leads to mission. That’s a key message we find in the lectionary passages for this week.
MOST OF OUR HOLY DAYS have been colonized. The commercialization of Christmas and Easter is not quite evil, but it is certainly an obstacle to deepening one’s faith.
Pentecost, however, we have all to ourselves. No one has figured out how to market it, perhaps because we Christians have so deemphasized it compared to our other great feasts. The Holy Spirit has sometimes been spoken of as the “shy” person of the Trinity. She’s always pointing to Jesus. The Spirit is fine to let Jesus have all the attention.
But what a feast to have all to ourselves! One in which all nations are drawn to worship Zion’s God. This flood of peoples is long promised in Israel’s scripture and is now made good by Christ’s Spirit.
North American culture continues to wrestle with racial politics. William Barber speaks of these days as a Third Reconstruction, after prior ones that arrived with Emancipation in the 1860s and the civil rights movements in the 1960s. This Third Reconstruction era includes #BlackLivesMatter, immigration, and struggles for citizenship wrestling against the demagogic, bloviating “No!” of politicians.
In all this, Pentecost says, “Yes.” I’m tempted to say “quietly,” but this yes is not quiet. It’s a hurricane. It’s followed by a sermon all listeners can hear in their own language. Even if the disciples can’t speak all those languages, God can. God made all nations. God called Israel to be God’s light and bride. And now, through Jesus, God is drawing all God’s beloved peoples again. The church must show this in our life together.
And (don’t forget this!) those from all nations have to die to ourselves and be raised in Christ’s image. God is speaking, church! All we have to do is join in.
THE SUNDAY AFTER EASTER we all take a breath. We’ve worked hard to offer our best for Easter. Ministers often have had to preach more than our accustomed once a week. Choirs have gone all out. The sanctuary has been cleaned and decorated and trampled upon and cleaned again. Worship services may even have been lively and full. Now, as the Easter season settles in, all goes back to normal. We gather these Sundays not for spectacle, but for the risen Christ, refracted off the faces of one another.
The lectionary readings send us into unfamiliar territory. During these days, there’s not an Old Testament reading in sight—the book of Acts functions as the history of God’s faithfulness. Revelation tears a hole where Paul usually is. The gospel texts speak to the unbearable newness of a risen Lord reorienting the world around himself.
In the ancient church, those baptized at the Easter vigil would first be stripped naked before going under the water. They then donned a new robe as a sign of “putting on” Christ—and wore it throughout the Easter season. They went to church daily, learning what it meant to be “in Christ.” Had they ever seen a baptism before attending their own? Had they ever shared in Eucharist until they tasted one? I wonder whether the Easter season can be a new normal. Not one where we settle for the ordinary, but one where we take part in the risen Christ’s wrapping of all reality around the empty tomb.
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.
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.