Jason Byassee holds the Butler chair in homiletics and biblical hermeneutics at the Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia.
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An Avalanche of Fire
SUMMER IS ALMOST HERE, and churches ... slow ... down. Folks are planning for vacation. Staff are away. Pastors are away. It’s as if we take our status as middle-class bourgeoisie more seriously than our baptismal vows.
By contrast, in the summer the biblical texts pick up—in intensity, directness, drive. Pentecost falls on us like an avalanche of fire, teaching us languages we don’t know, names, places, people. The old joke is that war is God’s way of teaching geography to Americans. No, in the church, that would be Pentecost. The descent of the Holy Spirit empowers people to preach who most say shouldn’t (in our texts that includes Arabic-speakers, women, unnamed prophets), and confounds those of us who think we “should.” Then Trinity Sunday, and all three persons of the triune Godhead are on the stage. We now know God as fully as God can be known by mere creatures. What we can’t know is not because God is tragically removed or far away. No—it’s precisely because God has come so unbearably close and is so unimaginably beautiful. That’s why we can’t take all of God in. So we praise instead of merely examine. And then Jesus sends out the disciples in mission to do what he does, or even greater things. Teach. Heal. Exorcise. Baptize. This doesn’t sound like a summer vacation or even a mission trip. It sounds like a new way of being in community for others.
That’s what the church is, in summer or anytime.
What Are We Baptized For?
THE WEEKS AFTER EASTER have always been especially important. Think of the first Easter—the bewildered disciples spent seven weeks being taught by a crucified and resurrected person. It must have been amazing, slightly unbelievable, then gone too soon. In the ancient church, Easter was a time for the newly baptized to immerse in the church’s odd and distinctive teachings. We dunked you—and then told you what that means. First Peter was originally a baptismal manual, a guidebook on the way to being the sort of peculiar people God wants (1 Peter 2:9). We do well during this month to look for extra opportunities for teaching. What does it mean to be baptized into a dead-and-alive-again person?
One thing it means in our own strange days is to craft creative ways to care for God’s beloved poor. We are experiencing a shredding of our country’s social safety net. Say whatever you like about it politically—the reality is there are more poor in more need. Someone is going to have to help. Why not us? It’s commanded in our Bible and our church’s heritage. There will be more of them, trust me. Our neighbors will notice and get curious about this Jesus about whom we teach. God desires a people of mercy who adore the poor, who treasure creation, who notice the dignity in every single human face. Not because it’s nice. But because God has a human face.
[ May 7 ]
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
The Keyhole of Repentance
THERE IS SOMETHING SPACIOUS about the gospel viewed through the keyhole of repentance. Something to the spare, Spartan spaces that mark a season of penitence. One chapel I know turns its altar so the people can see Jesus’ dying words: “I thirst.” Another adorns its sanctuary with a bare tree, not a leaf on it. The signs are those of severity. We make a hash of this world. We leave it bare. There is no health in us.
Lent says the tree will not always be bare. We will not always be health-less. And Jesus will not always thirst. Augustine of Hippo says Jesus thirsts for those gathered around him—he longs to drink them in, make them part of his body. That is, Jesus’ own murderers, the oblivious passers-by, his fellow convicts (his own disciples are long gone).
Lent is long. If you’re like me or my church, our Lenten devotions have grown a bit tepid by now. These final weeks are good times for renewal. The first weeks of Easter, in the ancient church, were a time when the newly baptized would gather daily to marvel at the wonders of their new faith. So too can we.
It’s been a year of strange happenings, politically and culturally. Our inclination is to lash out. There is plenty of blame to be distributed. Lent asks us to lash in. We are the first at fault, whoever we are. And then to praise. Try though we might, we cannot stop the Lord of life. And neither can anyone else.
Back with My Heart
THIS IS WEIRD, I know, but I miss Lent when it’s over. There is something to what Otis Moss III calls the “blue note preaching” that feels human and humanizing. So much of life is sorrowful. At Lent we can name that sadness explicitly. Don’t get me wrong—Easter is awesome. But as soon as it’s done and the lilies are put away and the crowds diminish, I miss the strong scrubbing brush on our corroded hearts and the promise of God’s unending mercy.
There is a clarity in Lent. Repent! Turn around! Now! This is not at all a negative message. When we repent, we empty ourselves, pour ourselves out, open ourselves up. We are normally so full of self-regard. As a friend of mine says, “I’m always right.” What? “I mean, if I knew something was a lie, I’d stop thinking it.” Donald Trump couldn’t have said it better. The thing is, we all think we’re right all the time. Lent says, “No you’re not. Whoever you are.” Sarah Coakley’s work brilliantly has shown the good news of what scripture calls “kenosis,” self-emptying. This is a dangerous teaching. Women and minorities and people out of power are often abused by being told to make themselves less. Coakley argues that self-emptying in forms such as silent prayer is actually the most empowering thing we can do. Because then God’s Holy Spirit fills us up. Grants us a power we can’t imagine. Makes us fully human.
So repent away, preachers and friends. There is no better piece of good news around.
[ March 5 ]
God Tumbles After Us
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 ; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19, 13-17; Matthew 4:1-11
Living the Word: Jesus and His Weird Friends
THE CHURCH'S CALENDAR always sits at odds with the world’s. In the world, the season of light is Christmas. And that’s long since gone by now. But in the church, the season of light is Epiphany, when God gives us a glimpse of all the strange people who will be drawn to Jesus. We gentiles rejoice. Jesus is bringing all his weird friends over for dinner. So maybe there’s space at the table even for us.
Think of every dark place in our world. Every frightened child. Every violated person. Every victim of war or hunger. The darkness growls with endless hunger. Epiphany says this: God’s light will shine and swallow up that darkness and make all things into unending day. Hopefully God will do that sooner rather than later—through our efforts, through the church, through our elected officials. But if not, God will bring the kingdom Jesus preached, one day. And there will be unending light for those who’ve faced the most darkness.
Epiphany is a good season in which to concentrate on the church—Jesus and all his weird friends. The lectionary showers us with stories from Matthew and the psalms and Corinthians about how odd and distinctive this community is. Ministers have the inestimable privilege of serving God’s people. What joy! What light! What a marvel is the church of Jesus Christ.
[ February 5 ]
Now and Not Yet
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 ; Matthew 5:13-20
CHRISTIANITY IS A religion of grace. We don’t get what we deserve, thank God. We get so much more. And being people of grace, we try to show forth God’s mercy in our life together—to show the world it is made and sustained in existence by a good, good God.
Living the Word: The Light Dawns Slowly
GIVEN THAT WE'VE ALL just had a face full of Christmas lights, most folks would be surprised to learn that in the church, Epiphany is traditionally the season of light (not lights—you can put them away). Epiphany is designed to put us in the position of those who first met Jesus on whom light slowly dawns. What? You mean the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy? He’s the one to redeem Israel and bring justice to every last human being on earth?! There is so much light here it is hard to see all at once. Epiphany acts as a light dimmer, waiting for our eyes to adjust, trying to keep us only slightly uncomfortable, but not overwhelmed.
Some churches have a practice of announcing a sermon series for January that can attract new people—something on sex or politics, for example. Advertise it at Christmas and then deliver with your best in the new year. That’s when folks are open to new things, and best of all for us, God illumines us at Epiphany. Learning who God is throws light on who our neighbor is—one in whom divine light shines, who is therefore endlessly deserving of our respect and adoration.
Embrace Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., talks about money in January. It seems suicidal. But folks are financially hungover from the holidays, and need help. And the gospel’s words about money are good news all the time, not just in “stewardship season” or at the year-end budget rush.
[ January 1]
All Rachel's Children
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS don’t often last. They are born in good intentions, but we are weak, fragile creatures, and habits are hard things to break.
Living the Word: Extravagant Kindnesses
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.
Living the Word: The Language of the Market?
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.
Living the Word: Easter: The New Normal?
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.
Living the Word: Between a Rock and Arising
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.
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