New Publication: Anchors for the Soul

November 5, 2019

This is a second edition of a book published in 2001. I have updated it, and now it includes a video course, an audiobook, and a journal to accompany the reading of the chapters. I hope you will take a look.

“Anchors for the Soul” chronicles my story, interweaving a biblical theology of suffering without giving pat answers. It’s intended for sufferers *and for those who are comforting sufferers* on how to process and move forward, yet still be honest about where you’re at along the journey. It helps you make space for the pain… before God.

As a hardback book, I must say: it feels as good to hold as it does to read! Chad Harrington’s design team did a great job on this.

We also did an online course—that’s available right now for free when you buy the book—and a companion journal.

Also, I wanted to mention that it’s perfect for church groups: each chapter has small group questions to help you process suffering together. The online course is perfect for groups. Check it out!

Click here for information on ordering and options.


The Messiah Establishes Kingdom Priorities

November 2, 2019

Theodrama 41.

As Jesus taught in the temple courts, his opponents confronted him with a series of questions. Jesus had enraged the temple authorities when he cleansed the Court of the Gentiles from merchandizers. They questioned his actions and authority. The hostile questions intended to subvert his popularity or endanger his life.

In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, one scribe was impressed with how well Jesus handled the succession of questions and consequently wondered how Jesus might answer the question that rabbis discussed among themselves: “Of all the commandments, which is the first of all?” Which commandment is the most important one in the Torah?

Jesus identified two commands in the Torah as the first and second. “Love God” is the “first of all,” and the “second” is “love your neighbor.” The first comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and the second from Leviticus 19:18.

What enabled Jesus to so clearly and succinctly identify these two texts as the first and second commandments? Jesus did not read Scripture as a flat text where every command is as equally important as every other command. Rather, Jesus recognized levels of priority and importance. Some commands are more fundamental than others.

Jesus prioritized these two commands over “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Loving God and neighbor is more important than the temple and its sacrifices. This does not mean that sacrifices are unimportant but that there are more important commands. The two greatest commands are love God and love neighbor–and we must be careful that we don’t make any other command equal in importance.

What makes one more fundamental than another? How are these two imperatives (“love God” and “love your neighbor”) more important than sacrifices? Perhaps we might see in “love God and love your neighbor” an act of sacrifice itself. We give ourselves to God (our whole body, soul and strength) and, in turn, to others. We are the sacrifices. This is more important than any ritual which expresses that devotion.

This reminds us that God loves mercy more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6) or that what the Lord requires more than a thousand sacrificed rams is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We are the sacrifices that God requires (cf. Psalm 40:6-8).

The context in which this exchange takes place underscores the importance of “love your neighbor.” It appears between the exploitation the money-changers practiced in the temple courts (Mark 11:15-16) and Jesus’ accusation that the wealthy temple authorities exploit widows (Mark 12:38-40). In effect, Jesus identified several practices as examples of economic or social injustice.

Given these temple practices, “love your neighbor” has added significance. It is a further judgment against the temple authorities. The scribe did not ask Jesus for the second commandment. He only inquired about what was “first of all.” Jesus volunteered the second, and the presence of social injustices are a clue as to why. When we love our neighbors, we treat each other fairly, honestly, and with equity, and we oppose all injustices.

The kingdom ethic is to love God and love our neighbor. The kingdom is rooted, grounded, and expressed in love—God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for each other.

When we love God, we love neighbor, and we love our neighbor, not because we found something worthy of love in our neighbor but because we love God. The love of God and neighbor are the priorities of the kingdom of God, and the driving energy of discipleship. Disciples of Jesus love God first of all, and also love their neighbors because they love God.


Why I Stay

September 19, 2019

“I imagine I was as thoroughly socialized and spiritually formed by churches of Christ as a person could be, though I was not alone. I shared this ethos with many friends and family. This was my home, and I felt at home. I still feel at home.” (Searching for the Pattern, pp. 62-63.)

Why do I stay?

I love my home despite its flaws. I love the shared confession of the Creator who sent the Messiah into the world and sent the Spirit into our hearts. I love the relationships. I love my historic heritage. And I could say more.

At the same time, I understand why some leave and find community elsewhere. Some have left because they have been excluded or abused, or they are simply exhausted. God bless them, and may God use them wherever they find a community of faith.

I stay to continue the journey of communal sanctification in love, kindness, and hope. I embrace and pursue hope because I believe in the God of hope.


New Book Announcement

August 31, 2019

Title: Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.

It is available on Kindle or in Paperback.

In this book, John Mark Hicks tells the story of his own hermeneutical journey in reading the Bible. Lovingly and graciously, he describes his transition from a “blueprint hermeneutic” to a theological one. Some suggest that moving away from a patternistic command-example-and-necessary-inference approach for understanding what God requires leaves no other alternative, or at least none that both respects biblical authority and seeks to obey the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

In Searching for the Pattern, John Mark offers just such an alternative. His theological hermeneutic is deeply rooted in the way the Bible presents itself as a dramatic history of God’s plan to redeem the world as well as his own experience of growing up among Churches of Christ. Seeing the gospel of Jesus as the center of the biblical drama reorients us to what provides our Christian identity and unites us as disciples of Jesus.

*******

I pray this book is received with open hearts and open minds because I believe this work could go a long way in helping to bring unity to our fractured fellowship. 

Wes McAdams, Preaching Minister for the church of Christ on McDermott Road, Plano, Texas

This excellent book helps us understand the inner workings of Bible interpretation among Churches of Christ and provides a persuasive proposal for Bible interpretation that is built on the story of God we find in Scripture—a story into which God calls us.

James L. Gorman, Associate Professor of History, Johnson University
Knoxville, Tennessee

Finally, a trellis across the chasm! Throughout this book, Hicks does not compromise his high regard for both the church and the Scriptures; and through the grace found therein, he composes this urgent invitation back to the Table, where obedience cooperates with mystery, and we—estranged or conflicted—can find our place as one within God’s magnificent story.

Tiffany Mangan Dahlman, Minister at Courtyard Church of Christ,
Fayetteville, North Carolina

John Mark Hicks is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He has taught for thirty-eight years in schools associated with the Churches of Christ. He has published fifteen books and lectured in twenty countries and forty states and is married to Jennifer. They share six children and six grandchildren.



A Pentecost Sermon: Race, Slaves, and Women

June 9, 2019

Acts 2:17-18

Only seven weeks ago the future looked bleak. The one whom they thought was the Messiah was dead. The disciples of Jesus hid in fear, and their spirits were broken. They had lost all hope.

But that changed when God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus began to appear to his disciples on different occasions over a period of forty days. When he appeared to them, he ate with them, studied the Hebrew Scriptures with them, and taught them about the good news of the kingdom of God.

At the end of these forty days, Jesus told them to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which was the Holy Spirit. The disciples, who had listened to Jesus teach about the kingdom of God over those past forty days, recognized that the coming of the Spirit is also the coming of the kingdom of God. They knew God had promised to restore the kingdom, and the promise of the Spirit meant that God was about to inaugurate it.

Jesus did not say their expectation was wrong or misguided, but that they should not concern themselves about the timing of its coming. Jesus told them to wait, and God would send the Spirit in God’s own good time.

Then Jesus left. He ascended to the right hand of the Father. While we tend to think of this in spatial terms (as in “Jesus went up to heaven”), the primary point is not spatial but royal. Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, was escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days by the angelic hosts and was given authority, glory, and a kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of God, and now ruled over a kingdom that would never end. He will reign until all the principalities and powers upon the earth are defeated, and the last enemy he will defeat is death itself.

But the disciples must wait. We must all wait for the final defeat of death. But the disciples, one hundred and twenty of them (including Mary, the mother of Jesus), waited in Jerusalem for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel though the gift of the Holy Spirit. They waited for the promised descent of the Spirit from the one who ascended to the throne.

They waited, and God waited…until Pentecost. God decided to restore the kingdom to Israel during the festival of Pentecost. This harvest festival celebrated God’s gracious provision. Pentecost actually begins on the second day of the Passover celebration, continues for seven weeks, and is celebrated in a climactic way on the 50th day of the festival, which is the eighth first day of the week since the beginning of the Feast of Weeks (or the Pentecost Festival). In Acts 2, Pentecost happened on the last day of the Festival, the first day of the week.

On Pentecost, God, through the enthroned Messiah, poured out the Spirit upon these disciples. They reaped the harvest of the resurrection and enthronement of the Messiah. Though Roman power and Jewish authorities, with the consent of a mob at Passover, killed the Messiah, God had raised him from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father. In this way, God restored Israel through the reign of Jesus whom God declared both “Messiah and Lord.” God had restored the Davidic dynasty, a son of David now ruled in Israel once again. And the harvest of this new reign of God is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

Israel had hoped for this moment for centuries. The prophet Joel, centuries earlier, wrote a word of hope in the midst of Israel’s lament. Their land had experienced a horrific destruction. So much so that even the land lamented. And Joel injected a word of hope, a hope for the restoration of Israel.  Joel prophesied (Joel 2:28),

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,

            your sons and daughters shall prophesy,

                        your old men shall dream dreams,

                                    your young men shall see visions.

            Even on the male and female slaves,

                        in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And Peter, on the day of Pentecost after the Spirit had descended on the disciples, announced, “This is that!”

The significance of this moment is difficult to overestimate. Whatever we say about it is less than what it fully means. It is a surprising work of God that explodes all expectations, anticipations, and limitations. What Joel envisions is the veritable shaking of the cosmos to its core; it is as if the universe has reversed its course. The light of the sun has been darkened, and the light of the mood has become blood red. Heaven and earth are on fire! What has ignited the cosmos?

At Pentecost, God poured the Holy Spirit upon Israel!

But what, exactly, does that mean in the light of Joel’s words. This Pentecostal moment is too significant, too important, and too meaningful to encapsulate in a single, brief homily. For this moment, I want to simply focus on Joel’s words, which Peter quoted and said, “This is that!”

But before we focus on Joel, an important piece of Israel’s history needs attention as part of the context of Peter’s pronouncement.

During Israel’s journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Canaan, God gave Moses some help. God took “some of the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Numbers 11:25). Surprisingly, some thought this was a threat to Moses, and they objected; even Joshua wanted Moses to stop them from prophesying. How did Moses respond? He anticipated Joel’s words: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

Now, that day had come. At Pentecost, God pours the Spirit upon Israel, all of Israel. On that day, everyone who committed to Jesus as Lord, repented of their sins, and was immersed in water for the forgiveness of their sins received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). God gives the Spirit to everyone in Israel who follows the Messiah.

But Joel’s words say more than this. Not only does Peter declare that all Israel now receives God’s Spirit, he also—even without his own full understanding—announces the seismic change that has begun on this day.

God now includes “all flesh” within the kingdom of God. Though Peter could not see this very clearly in the beginning (as we learn from his experience at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10-11), Joel envisioned a moment when God would pour out the Spirit on “all flesh,” which includes the Gentiles. It includes all nations, all races. In fact, this is part of the purpose of Israel itself. The promise to Abraham was that his seed would bless all nations, and that promise is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Paul, for example, wrote in Galatians 3:14 that “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham” came “to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). All flesh includes all nations, all ethnicities, all colors, and all cultures. That God pours out the Spirit on all flesh means that God includes all, no matter what their race or nationality. The kingdom of God includes all languages, peoples, and nations.

This was difficult for Peter to see, and it is still difficult for us to see. Hundreds of years of racism in the church testify that it has been difficult for the church. There was a time when some believed black people had no human soul and the native Americans were but savages. There was a time, during the Jim Crow era, that black Christians were told to worship in separate congregation, and I myself have seen Christians walk out of an assembly the first time an African American lead singing. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it has taken over 1900 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of racism. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The Gentiles are now included! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

God also makes no distinction between slave and free in the pouring out of the Spirit. Slavery, from the beginnings of human culture, was part of human economic and governmental systems. The social fabric of both the Ancient Near East and the Roman world was a top-down system with emperors and kings sitting at the top and slaves at the bottom. Slavery was not something the church could abolish in the first century; it was at the heart of the imperial system and the church was powerless to rid the empire of slavery.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of slavery. Even slaves will receive the Spirit of God, and they will be empowered to minister in the power of the Spirit just as any free person would be. In this principle, we see how the presence of the Spirit subverts cultural norms and rails against the empire. Slaves are people, too, and because they are Spirit-empowered and Spirit-indwelt human beings, the Spirit sows the seed of slavery’s destruction. The Spirit will teach us that slavery is a great evil, and no human being may steal another human being, own another human being, or exploit another’s labor for their own selfish interests. When God poured out the Spirit on slaves, it spelled the end of slavery even though it only ended in this country a little over 150 years ago and still exists in various forms throughout the world today, particularly in the sex slave industry. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1800 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of slavery. How could we have been so blind? Are not still blind to economic and social injustice, which are also forms of slavery?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The slaves are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

And there is a third group in Joel’s words. God makes no distinction between male and female in the pouring out of the Spirit. The oppression of women, so dominant in the Ancient Near East and the Roman world, was an accepted reality. We don’t have to look very far in the ancient world to see how men abused, used, and marginalized women. They had little to no power, and the only exception would be those whose husbands had wealth and power. Even in Judaism, women were outsiders. They could not be disciples of Rabbis, even though they could be disciples of Jesus. They were marginalized, but Jesus empowered them. They could not testify in court, but Jesus told the women at the tomb to testify to other disciples. The women were the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of the marginalization of women. Women are empowered by the Spirit. God gifts women with the Spirit, and by the Spirit women, like men, prophesy. They dream dreams and have visions. In other words, God communicates with women in the same way God communicates with men. There is no distinction here; there is no hierarchy here.

There were occasions when women prophesied in Israel’s Scripture. Miriam, for example, prophesied alongside of Moses and Aaron as one of the leaders of Israel (Exodus 15:20; Micah 6:4). Indeed, she led all Israel in worship after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:21, Miriam sang to them [where “them” is masculine]). But such women were few though not rare (we could add Deborah and Huldah, for example, and Anna in Luke 2).

But now women will prophesy and experience visions alongside of men; and just as all men are included in Joel’s prophecy, so are all women. Philip’s four daughters prophesy (Acts 21:9), and women in Corinth prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). In this we see, in principle, how the Spirit’s presence is a planted seed within oppressive human culture. God intends to liberate women from past oppression, exploitation, and limitation. Unfortunately, and to our shame, the church has participated in this evil. Did you know that many among churches of Christ used 1 Timothy 2:12 to oppose women’s suffrage, the right to vote? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used silence as a way of denying women any kind of public voice whether in the church or in society (including opposing their entrance into legal and medical careers)? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used some texts to silence women from praying even in the presence of their husbands? When God poured out the Spirit on women, it spelled the end of their marginalization even though women only gained the right to vote in his country a hundred years ago. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1900 years for Christian people to recognize how their view of women limited their opportunities and careers as well as their voice in the church. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” Women are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

Peter says, “This is that!” All races, slaves, and women will prophesy. Surprise! Prophesying is not a minor gift.

Lest some minimize the gift of prophecy or think it a subjective and private matter, let us remember that this gift is ranked above evangelists, teachers, and elders in Ephesians 4:11, and Paul explicitly says it is first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers in terms of the importance and significance of their gifts within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:28). Prophets speak the word of God in ways that transcend evangelists, teachers, and elders. God gifts prophets with encouraging words, and God gifts all races, slaves, and women as prophets.

Over the centuries, the church has had to learn and tease out the meaning of Pentecost. We have had to learn that God includes all races and nations, though many Christians throughout history have oppressed and subjugated various nations and races. We have had to learn that God intends to free the slaves, though many Christians throughout history have owned slaves, traded in the buying and selling of slaves, and defended slavery as a moral good. We have had to learn that God intends to empower women to prophesy, though many Christians throughout history have silenced that gift in their assemblies so that women have had no voice and could share no word from God.

It is time, it seems to me, to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all nations and races. God has poured the Spirit upon all flesh. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all believers and free all slaves and liberate people from every form of slavery. God has poured the Spirit upon the enslaved as well as the free. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of women in the church. God has poured the Spirit upon women as well as men.

Paul said it long ago, and we can’t say it much better. In the spirit of Joel 2 and in the spirit of Pentecost and in the light of God’s promise to Abraham (which is the gift of the Holy Spirit), Paul announced the meaning of Pentecost in a surprising and culture-shattering statement (Galatians 3:28-29),

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah. And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise

Today is Pentecost, and today the Spirit fills the church, and the Spirit is still at work within the Church to illuminate our blinded and troubled hearts to free all people—all nations and races, slaves, and women—from their exclusion and oppression, even at the hands of church people.

May God have mercy!


A Mother’s Day Homily

June 4, 2019

This is the homily delivered by Melanie Smith on May 12, 2019 at the All Saints Church of Christ.

It brings me great joy – and I’ll be honest, it also brings me nervousness! – to have the privilege of speaking to this community of believers today. I never thought that I would be preaching a sermon, and I probably wouldn’t have guessed I would have called it a homily, either.  For a long time, I never even questioned that I as a woman would never speak in church, only felt a vague, distant sense of disappointment that it just wasn’t even an option for me to consider.  So it still feels a bit surreal to be doing this today. I must begin by thanking you, All Saints, for the community created here, for Becky who first suggested to me that I could preach one day, and for Claire who reached out to ask. I want you all to know that I consider these next few minutes sacred, and holy, and that I will remember this day for the rest of my life. Thank you all for sharing this day with me.

I’m sure by this point in the afternoon that we have all remembered that today is Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about these “Hallmark holidays,” as we sometimes call them. After all, shouldn’t we regularly love and acknowledge all the people for whom these holidays have been created? Surely we need more than just one day a year for the people we celebrate on Valentines Day, Mothers or Fathers Day, our even Bosses Day, Nurses Day, or Administrative Assistants Day. This past week was Teacher Appreciation Week; I work in the public school system, and I often find myself frustrated on behalf of teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, oddly enough: while I do really love that we have a week to “appreciate teachers,” do we really expect that one day or week of free pizza for lunch is sufficient when the rest of the year is spent overworking them and holding up unrealistic expectations for them? But, I digress; that’s another topic for another day.

Of course, it is good and right and special to pause and take a day each year to honor these people, and I’m so glad we do it. I am especially grateful today for my own mother: it is truly because of her that I know what unconditional love is, and I’m so lucky she’s mine. And I’m grateful for all of my aunts, my sister, my grandmothers of whom I have sweet memories, my friends’ mothers, women in the church, women at work, my friends, women whose writing I’ve read for years but never knew personally, and other women in my own life who have been a mother to me in some way.  I know you all have those women in your lives too, and I am so glad to spend this day honoring them. It is right and holy to do so.

I guess I just mean that it’s difficult to live up to all the hype of these holidays. To begin with, how can we possibly express all of the love, appreciation, respect, admiration we have for mothers with the traditional card and flowers and brunch? This day can be such a joyful celebration: celebration of a lifelong friendship with our mother, gratefulness for how well they have and continue to love us and take care of us. It’s a celebration of dreams realized and prayers answered as we become a mother or a grandmother; I have been told that your heart explodes with love you never even knew was possible when you become one yourself. It’s a day of celebration for all spiritual mothers, stand-in mothers, big sisters in the faith, and important women in our lives. How can we possibly fit all of that joy into one day, or into our one greeting card?

But besides this dilemma of one day feeling almost too small, perhaps what is most difficult for me about days like these are the complexities it brings. It’s another one of our days where joy and grief must coexist.

I was so thankful to see at the very beginning of our liturgy today the acknowledgement of that complexity, the recognition that for many, today is not simply the happy brunch and flowers. This day is marked by grief, perhaps even marked by dread. We might will it to pass as quickly as possible, if it’s marked by emptiness, or marked by longing.  We prayed as we began our service today: We come before You now, acknowledging both our joy and sadness. We grieve with those who grieve this day, missing their mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters and daughters. We ask for the space to comfort as You comfort us, those who have challenging relationships with their mothers. We pray in silence with those for whom this day is difficult, who have lost children, who have faced infertility, who have painfully crossed off this day year after year. We sit now in silence, acknowledging disappointment, grief, and pain.

I believe our Scriptures are consistent with this idea too, the acknowledgment of the complexity surrounding motherhood. The phrase “year after year” jumped out to me in our liturgy today because it’s also noted in 1 Samuel in the story of Hannah. I often gloss over phrases like “year after year” in the Bible and don’t pause to think about what is actually happening for so long. I am so influenced by our culture, after all, and I often want to just jump ahead to the good stuff. We are told that Hannah’s husband went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord “year after year.” Year after year, we’re told, he gives Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice because the Lord had closed her womb. Now, it is far beyond my understanding or theological knowledge as to why God has done this, and to be honest, these are the kinds of verses in the Bible that really trouble me.  We are told that Hannah’s husband has two wives, and the other wife has many sons and daughters, but because Hannah’s womb is closed, the other wife, her “rival,” the Bible says, provokes her in order to irritate her…and it says again, this goes on “year after year.” We’re told that Hannah wept and would not eat, and she prays for a son, as we know in the story, and she prays in “bitterness of soul.” What might “Mothers Day” have felt like to Hannah, “year after year”?

In Scripture we have several stories of women who long for children, like Sarah and Abraham, and Elizabeth and Zechariah. And even in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we have a story of motherhood that has some very difficult factors. Yes, we clean it up big time for Christmas and present a sweet little story, but let’s face it: Mary is unmarried.  Her announcement of pregnancy and motherhood won’t be met with joy by everyone.  She is at risk for divorce, shame, a life of being an outcast and resulting economic instability, and perhaps even her life. I wonder what “Mothers Day” would have felt like to a young, pregnant Mary?

I am thankful that our Scriptures don’t skip over the complexities of the story. I am thankful that our Scriptures tell us that Hannah prays in bitterness of soul, and it doesn’t just skip ahead to her son Samuel becoming the important prophet that he is. I am thankful that we’re told that Sarah (and Abraham too) laughs at God when he tells her she will have a child. I am thankful that we are told repeatedly that Elizabeth is “well along in years” before she becomes pregnant with John. And I’m thankful that Mary speaks up and questions an angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” God doesn’t skip over the stories of mothers, and he doesn’t skip over their complexities. After all, God could have chosen to enter this world in absolutely any way we could imagine, and God chose to be born of a woman.

Now I certainly don’t want this to become a lesson of “if you just wait long enough, and pray hard enough, then God will give you what you want.” That is another topic that is well above my theological knowledge and understanding. Maybe one of you with advanced Bible degrees can solve that dilemma for me. But, we have all personally lived too many stories of disappointment to know that it doesn’t always turn out that way. And that brings me back to my complicated feelings about this day. For every proud and joyful mother today, who can wholeheartedly sing along with Mary that “my soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”, or with Hannah that “my heart rejoices in the Lord…I delight in your deliverance”, there is another mother who grieves the loss of her child. Another who continues to hope for a family and children of her own with seemingly no answered prayer in sight. Another who has just learned her body is unable to have her own biological children. Another who has a complicated, to say the least, relationship with her mother.  And another whose life was turned upside down by his mother’s death. I know this is true because I know these people. They’re my friends. And very likely, you know them too. How can we fit this all of this joy AND grief into just…one…day?

Of course, this is bigger than just Mother’s Day, isn’t it? To me, simultaneously holding space for grief and joy is one of the biggest complexities about our faith, about our human experience, about our God. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. We seem to do a much better job rejoicing with others than we do mourning with them. What we often don’t acknowledge, I think, is how frequently in life we find ourselves rejoicing and mourning at the same time, and how difficult that can be too.

I definitely don’t have the solution here. I don’t have an outline or a three point sermon or a foolproof plan on how to do this. For me, one of the most powerful words I’ve learned to embrace in the last few years is the simple word “AND.”  Well, I really should say I’m learning to embrace it; I haven’t mastered it in the slightest.  We celebrate AND we grieve. We hope, but oh, AND we despair. We hold joy AND sadness. We laugh AND we cry. We love fiercely AND we have our hearts broken.  I used to think that the point of all this was to get rid of the hard part, to connect those statements with the word OR instead of AND, and then move to the happy side of the OR statement as quickly as possible. Now I know that it doesn’t really work that way, or at least not always. But now I believe that the word AND is holy and sacred. To me, that simple word AND represents the mysteries of being a human, that holding space for both the grief and joy is in the very nature of God. God doesn’t ask us to get rid of our grief or sadness; instead, like a loving mother, our God promises simply to be with us in it.

We are still in our Easter season: today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. I did not grow up with Liturgical calendar, but I am so glad it found me, because I appreciate so much that it sets aside the time for the longing, for the grief, for the sacrifice, before the joy and celebration.  The holidays of Christmas and Easter have grown incredibly more meaningful to me because of the seasons of Advent and Lent. It holds us to a rhythm that reminds me that we are all in constant cycles of death, burial, and resurrection.  We don’t just skip straight to the end of the story, but rather we experience all of it…AND, sometimes even at the same time. Our God is a God of redemption, of making all things new, of new creations, of hope…even when we pray in the bitterness of soul, laugh in the face of God, or ask God “how can this be?” And so today we honor the women in our lives who have mothered us, who have been instrumental in making us new creations, or making all things new in our lives. After all, mothers literally bring new life into the world. May our Mother God bless you and keep you today… in your joy and in your grief.


A Mother’s Day Homily

May 22, 2019

This homily was delivered by Melanie Smith at the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 12, 2019. It was her first time to sermonize before an assembled people of God. She is a public school teacher. Characteristic of her heart, she will spend a month in Costa Rica learning Spanish so she can communicate better with her students.

It brings me great joy – and I’ll be honest, it also brings me nervousness! – to have the privilege of speaking to this community of believers today. I never thought that I would be preaching a sermon, and I probably wouldn’t have guessed I would have called it a homily, either.  For a long time, I never even questioned that I as a woman would never speak in church, only felt a vague, distant sense of disappointment that it just wasn’t even an option for me to consider.  So it still feels a bit surreal to be doing this today. I must begin by thanking you, All Saints, for the community created here, for Becky who first suggested to me that I could preach one day, and for Claire who reached out to ask. I want you all to know that I consider these next few minutes sacred, and holy, and that I will remember this day for the rest of my life. Thank you all for sharing this day with me.

I’m sure by this point in the afternoon that we have all remembered that today is Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about these “Hallmark holidays,” as we sometimes call them. After all, shouldn’t we regularly love and acknowledge all the people for whom these holidays have been created? Surely we need more than just one day a year for the people we celebrate on Valentines Day, Mothers or Fathers Day, our even Bosses Day, Nurses Day, or Administrative Assistants Day. This past week was Teacher Appreciation Week; I work in the public school system, and I often find myself frustrated on behalf of teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, oddly enough: while I do really love that we have a week to “appreciate teachers,” do we really expect that one day or week of free pizza for lunch is sufficient when the rest of the year is spent overworking them and holding up unrealistic expectations for them? But, I digress; that’s another topic for another day.

Of course, it is good and right and special to pause and take a day each year to honor these people, and I’m so glad we do it. I am especially grateful today for my own mother: it is truly because of her that I know what unconditional love is, and I’m so lucky she’s mine. And I’m grateful for all of my aunts, my sister, my grandmothers of whom I have sweet memories, my friends’ mothers, women in the church, women at work, my friends, women whose writing I’ve read for years but never knew personally, and other women in my own life who have been a mother to me in some way.  I know you all have those women in your lives too, and I am so glad to spend this day honoring them. It is right and holy to do so.

I guess I just mean that it’s difficult to live up to all the hype of these holidays. To begin with, how can we possibly express all of the love, appreciation, respect, admiration we have for mothers with the traditional card and flowers and brunch? This day can be such a joyful celebration: celebration of a lifelong friendship with our mother, gratefulness for how well they have and continue to love us and take care of us. It’s a celebration of dreams realized and prayers answered as we become a mother or a grandmother; I have been told that your heart explodes with love you never even knew was possible when you become one yourself. It’s a day of celebration for all spiritual mothers, stand-in mothers, big sisters in the faith, and important women in our lives. How can we possibly fit all of that joy into one day, or into our one greeting card?

But besides this dilemma of one day feeling almost too small, perhaps what is most difficult for me about days like these are the complexities it brings. It’s another one of our days where joy and grief must coexist.

I was so thankful to see at the very beginning of our liturgy today the acknowledgement of that complexity, the recognition that for many, today is not simply the happy brunch and flowers. This day is marked by grief, perhaps even marked by dread. We might will it to pass as quickly as possible, if it’s marked by emptiness, or marked by longing.  We prayed as we began our service today: We come before You now, acknowledging both our joy and sadness. We grieve with those who grieve this day, missing their mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters and daughters. We ask for the space to comfort as You comfort us, those who have challenging relationships with their mothers. We pray in silence with those for whom this day is difficult, who have lost children, who have faced infertility, who have painfully crossed off this day year after year. We sit now in silence, acknowledging disappointment, grief, and pain.

I believe our Scriptures are consistent with this idea too, the acknowledgment of the complexity surrounding motherhood. The phrase “year after year” jumped out to me in our liturgy today because it’s also noted in 1 Samuel in the story of Hannah. I often gloss over phrases like “year after year” in the Bible and don’t pause to think about what is actually happening for so long. I am so influenced by our culture, after all, and I often want to just jump ahead to the good stuff. We are told that Hannah’s husband went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord “year after year.” Year after year, we’re told, he gives Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice because the Lord had closed her womb. Now, it is far beyond my understanding or theological knowledge as to why God has done this, and to be honest, these are the kinds of verses in the Bible that really trouble me.  We are told that Hannah’s husband has two wives, and the other wife has many sons and daughters, but because Hannah’s womb is closed, the other wife, her “rival,” the Bible says, provokes her in order to irritate her…and it says again, this goes on “year after year.” We’re told that Hannah wept and would not eat, and she prays for a son, as we know in the story, and she prays in “bitterness of soul.” What might “Mothers Day” have felt like to Hannah, “year after year”?

In Scripture we have several stories of women who long for children, like Sarah and Abraham, and Elizabeth and Zechariah. And even in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we have a story of motherhood that has some very difficult factors. Yes, we clean it up big time for Christmas and present a sweet little story, but let’s face it: Mary is unmarried.  Her announcement of pregnancy and motherhood won’t be met with joy by everyone.  She is at risk for divorce, shame, a life of being an outcast and resulting economic instability, and perhaps even her life. I wonder what “Mothers Day” would have felt like to a young, pregnant Mary?

I am thankful that our Scriptures don’t skip over the complexities of the story. I am thankful that our Scriptures tell us that Hannah prays in bitterness of soul, and it doesn’t just skip ahead to her son Samuel becoming the important prophet that he is. I am thankful that we’re told that Sarah (and Abraham too) laughs at God when he tells her she will have a child. I am thankful that we are told repeatedly that Elizabeth is “well along in years” before she becomes pregnant with John. And I’m thankful that Mary speaks up and questions an angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” God doesn’t skip over the stories of mothers, and he doesn’t skip over their complexities. After all, God could have chosen to enter this world in absolutely any way we could imagine, and God chose to be born of a woman.

Now I certainly don’t want this to become a lesson of “if you just wait long enough, and pray hard enough, then God will give you what you want.” That is another topic that is well above my theological knowledge and understanding. Maybe one of you with advanced Bible degrees can solve that dilemma for me. But, we have all personally lived too many stories of disappointment to know that it doesn’t always turn out that way. And that brings me back to my complicated feelings about this day. For every proud and joyful mother today, who can wholeheartedly sing along with Mary that “my soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”, or with Hannah that “my heart rejoices in the Lord…I delight in your deliverance”, there is another mother who grieves the loss of her child. Another who continues to hope for a family and children of her own with seemingly no answered prayer in sight. Another who has just learned her body is unable to have her own biological children. Another who has a complicated, to say the least, relationship with her mother.  And another whose life was turned upside down by his mother’s death. I know this is true because I know these people. They’re my friends. And very likely, you know them too. How can we fit this all of this joy AND grief into just…one…day?

Of course, this is bigger than just Mother’s Day, isn’t it? To me, simultaneously holding space for grief and joy is one of the biggest complexities about our faith, about our human experience, about our God. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. We seem to do a much better job rejoicing with others than we do mourning with them. What we often don’t acknowledge, I think, is how frequently in life we find ourselves rejoicing and mourning at the same time, and how difficult that can be too.

I definitely don’t have the solution here. I don’t have an outline or a three point sermon or a foolproof plan on how to do this. For me, one of the most powerful words I’ve learned to embrace in the last few years is the simple word “AND.”  Well, I really should say I’m learning to embrace it; I haven’t mastered it in the slightest.  We celebrate AND we grieve. We hope, but oh, AND we despair. We hold joy AND sadness. We laugh AND we cry. We love fiercely AND we have our hearts broken.  I used to think that the point of all this was to get rid of the hard part, to connect those statements with the word OR instead of AND, and then move to the happy side of the OR statement as quickly as possible. Now I know that it doesn’t really work that way, or at least not always. But now I believe that the word AND is holy and sacred. To me, that simple word AND represents the mysteries of being a human, that holding space for both the grief and joy is in the very nature of God. God doesn’t ask us to get rid of our grief or sadness; instead, like a loving mother, our God promises simply to be with us in it.

We are still in our Easter season: today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. I did not grow up with Liturgical calendar, but I am so glad it found me, because I appreciate so much that it sets aside the time for the longing, for the grief, for the sacrifice, before the joy and celebration.  The holidays of Christmas and Easter have grown incredibly more meaningful to me because of the seasons of Advent and Lent. It holds us to a rhythm that reminds me that we are all in constant cycles of death, burial, and resurrection.  We don’t just skip straight to the end of the story, but rather we experience all of it…AND, sometimes even at the same time. Our God is a God of redemption, of making all things new, of new creations, of hope…even when we pray in the bitterness of soul, laugh in the face of God, or ask God “how can this be?” And so today we honor the women in our lives who have mothered us, who have been instrumental in making us new creations, or making all things new in our lives. After all, mothers literally bring new life into the world. May our Mother God bless you and keep you today… in your joy and in your grief.


God Builds a House

May 20, 2019

When Israel agonized over what sort of house or temple they should build for God, God clarified something for them.  “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah 66:1-2 testifies, “the heavens are my throne, and the earth is my footstool; where is the house you will build for me, and where is my resting place? My hand made all these things, and all these things belong to me.”

The God of Israel announces some fundamental truths about creation. It is the house God built, it belongs to God, and God lives in it.

The divine hand made everything. This echoes Genesis 2 where it says that God rested from all that God had made. Everything between Genesis 1:1 and God’s rest in Genesis 2 is the object of God’s creating and making. Everything in the universe—including the cosmos itself—is the product of God’s loving power. Whatever began to exist, God made it.

Moreover, God is enthroned within the heavens and the earth.  The “heavens” do not refer to some celestial divine sanctuary beyond the glimpse of the Hubble telescope or to a dwelling place outside of the cosmos. God does not construct a house out of brick and mortar but out of earth and sky. The sky is God’s throne, and the earth is God’s footstool. The cosmos is God’s palace or temple, a cathedral of God’s own making. It is God’s house.

And God dwells in that house. It is the place where God came to rest. This is temple language, as we know from Israel’s history. When God came to dwell in Israel’s temple, it was called God’s resting place (Psalm 132:14). The temple is where God dwells, and creation is God’s temple. When we say God rested within the temple, we do not mean God became a couch potato or a passive observer. Rather, God dwells within the creation in order to enjoy it and share life with it.

While God was graciously present in Jerusalem’s earthly temple, God does not—first and foremost—dwell in houses made by human hands because God dwells within the cosmos itself. God is so present to the creation that every breath is the movement of God’s Spirit, and every breath is communion with God. Though, as Creator, God is transcendent to the creation and is not dependent upon the creation, God is nevertheless graciously and immanently present within the creation to sustain life, commune with it, and enjoy it. God loves the creation.

Perhaps we should remember that we live in God’s house, and therefore we should treat the creation with respect and care. And, at the same time, God invites us to commune with God within the creation and revel in its joy and beauty. 

Perhaps God is like an AirB&B owner who says, enjoy my resting place but don’t trash it. This is God’s temple, so let us enjoy it with reverence and respect.


Why Did God Create the World?

May 19, 2019

TThis question stretches across all age groups, from toddlers to graduate students.

To be sure, it is precarious, even presumptive, to answer this question. We cannot get into God’s head and identify motives. However, the theodrama does not leave us clueless. But before we enter the world of the drama, let’s consider a few ideas. 

On the one hand, some suggest God was needy. In other words, there was a hole in God’s psyche.  Perhaps, for example, God was lonely, or God needed companionship, or a playmate, or—worse—someone to control. I remember my daughter, for example, wanted my wife and I to have another child, and her rationale was that she needed someone she could boss around. In effect, this sort of God is co-dependent, a God who needs the divine ego stroked or a deficiency healed. Here creation arises out of self-interest rather than as a gracious gift to us.

On the other hand, some suggest that God acted arbitrarily. God had no reason to create. It was a bare assertion of sovereign power or ego. Sometimes people worship God simply because God is powerful, and in that case. God may be worshipped, but God is not adored because terror drives that worship. 

Reading the whole story—from beginning to end—suggests an answer to the question. While creation is the first act of God, we learn something about God’s motive by reading the rest of the story.

Christians confess that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not lonely. Rather, God enjoys a communion of love within the Triune community. God does not need someone to love because, as Jesus prayed in John 17:24, the Father already loves the Son, and the Son already loves the Father even before the foundation of the world.

Further, the purpose of redemption suggests the purpose of creation. Jesus prayed that disciples would come to know the Father so that the love with which the Father loves the Son might be in them and Jesus in them (John 17:26). In other words, God acts, whether in creation or redemption, to include us within the orbit of God’s own communal love. God created a people to share God’s own loving communion, a community that predates the creation itself.

Perhaps an analogy might help. Why do we have children? There is no economic benefit, and it does not relieve family stress. However, in the best of circumstances, we have children because we want to share our love with them. We want to include others in the orbit of the family’s love. We love, and therefore we create.

In a similar way, God does not create because God is lonely or needy. God creates to include others in the communion of God’s own loving family.  God loves, and therefore God creates.


Theodrama in Five Acts

May 18, 2019

The video is available here.

The Bible tells the story of God. There are many threads within that story and many rabbit trails which one might pursue, but there is one overarching plot to the drama. There is, in essence, one story.

This story has an arc that begins with creation and moves to new creation, the goal of the drama. The arc has a climax, but the climax is found in the middle. That climax is Jesus the Messiah, who is God in the flesh. This same one who was present at the beginning and through whom God created all things is also the same one God raised from the dead as the beginning of new creation. The first and final acts of the drama are performed in the person of Jesus. Jesus, then, is the pinnacle of the arc, the one in whom both the beginning and the end find their meaning and fulfillment.

Between creation and Jesus lies the story of Abraham’s descendants, Israel. They are the people of God whom God led into a new Eden, but they did not embrace God’s mission. God invested in Israel the hope of the nations, but they did not pursue this hope. Nevertheless, God pursued them and accomplished that hope in Jesus. 

Jesus, the instrument of God’s creative work in the beginning and now the reality of the new creation at the right of God, descended from Abraham. Jesus is a Jew, and through him, God will bless and give hope to all nations.

Jesus invites the nations into the community of Israel. This fourth act in the story is the church, which is the renewal of Israel’s identity and vocation in the world. Moreover, it is the renewal of human identity and vocation. God recreates humanity in order to give the world hope. Through the church, God will bless all nations.

This divine drama has five acts.  It has a beginning and a goal, and it has a means.  Creation is the beginning, the first act of God. New creation, the new heaven and the new earth, is the goal, the fifth act of God. Jesus the Messiah is the means, who is the third act of God. Between the first and third acts, and between the third and fifth acts, God creates community. The second act is the story of Israel, and the fourth act is the story of renewed Israel, which invites all peoples into the life of Israel.

I call this a theodrama because it is God’s story. It is the story of God’s work, of God’s acts.  God creates a good world!  God elects Israel as a people for the sake of the nations!  God becomes human for our salvation! God calls the nations into the life of Israel in the church!  And God renews the creation!

Over the coming weeks, we will retell this story, and through it God will invite you to make it your own, to participate in the life and mission of God, the one who created you, loves you, and redeems you.