Archive for September, 2011

For Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011: the Feast of St Michael and All Angels

The Reading            Genesis 28:10-17

For the feast of St Michael and All Angels we read an account of the unusual dream that Jacob had while fleeing from his angry brother Esau. The word that is translated ladder means more nearly a ramp or stairway, or even a stepped pyramid like the Tower of Babel. But God is in this place, as shown by the angels going up and down about God’s business. Listen for this in the Gospel as well.


The Epistle            Revelation 12:7-12

The word angel comes from a Greek word meaning ‘messenger’, though one could as well translate it ‘emissary’. The wider meaning makes a little more sense of today’s reading from the book of Revelation, in which Satan and his angels are thrown out of heaven by forces led by the archangel Michael. For those of us not already in heaven, the ending of this reading is more than slightly sobering.


Further thoughts…

Jacob runs away from home so fast that he doesn’t even take a toothbrush or a pillow, and he runs until it is too dark to go further. The text doesn’t tell us that he is trying to outrun not only Esau but also his father’s God. That is a reasonable surmise, however. The significance of the site in Genesis involving a ramp or stairway is that those structures were characteristic of pagan temples: that is, Jacob has fallen asleep on ground holy to another god. Even here God’s angels are at work and God is present.

The Hebrew word that is translated as ‘angel’ is malakh. It is much more a job title than a description: a malakh could be a human messenger, and the malakh or angel of a congregation would be the leader of the synagogue. This practice was followed by the early Church, which is why the first three chapters of Revelation are addressed to the “angels” of the churches of Ephesus and  Smyrna, Pergamum and Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

By the fifth century AD, the doctrine of the nine hierarchies of angels had developed, as had a much fuller sense of angels as beings created by God to do God’s will in the world and to guard and guide God’s children. Whether we’re in pagan country like Jacob or hiding up a tree like Nathanael, we’re never beyond the notice and the caring of God. Nor are we beyond the duty and the privilege to act as God’s messengers ourselves.

For Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011: Proper 21, Year A

The Reading            Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

The prophet Ezekiel was born into a priestly family in Jerusalem toward the end of the seventh century before Christ. By the time Ezekiel was 25, he was one of thousands of unhappy exiles in Babylon.  Hebrew prophets are often at pains to connect the travails that individuals suffer with the bad behavior of all of Israel, but Ezekiel’s message is different: turn from your own sins, and through the Lord God, you will live.

The Alternate Reading            Exodus 17:1-7

As we encounter the Israelites this week, they’re complaining again, this time because there isn’t enough water. This passage is often read as a text against whininess and lack of faith. Of course, the Israelites have a point: in the desert of Sinai, to wonder where the water is just good sense. For his part, Moses seems to take the questioning personally in calling the place Massah and Meribah, which means ‘test and quarrel’. God, however, being God, provides.

The Epistle            Philippians 2:1-13

The city of Philippi, once an important city, lies in ruins now, but its name lives on in part because of today’s reading, one of the great love-hymns of the Church. Not only has the very Son of God Almighty willingly became a slave and a criminal to save us, stupendous though that is; even more, Paul tells us, the God to whom the entire universe bows down is delighted still to be at work in the likes of you, and me, and you, and you.

Further thoughts

In some ways the readings from Exodus and Philippians are a study in contrasts (whence the use of the reading from Ezekiel instead this week).  Moses’ rant about the Israelites to God sounds a bit like the parent’s had-it-up-to-here lament about the sort of whiny adolescent who can stand in front of a full refrigerator and complain that there’s nothing to eat. Paul’s tone toward the residents of Philippi, in contrast, is proud and fond—what my Yiddish-speaking friends call “kvelling”—even as he urges them on. In both cases, however, God’s people are challenged to notice the wonders large and small that flow from the love of God and to respond appropriately.

The reading from Ezekiel lies between these two readings, but it also breaks new ground: we, each one of us, are challenged to repent and live. That challenge is also in the Gospel reading: the first response may indeed be incredulity, but responding to the will of God requires doing and not merely speaking.

For Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011: Proper 20, Year A

The Reading            Exodus 16:2-15

Our reading of the book of Exodus continues. The Israelites are grumbling against Moses and Aaron and against God, this time because there’s nothing to eat. It sounds whiny to us, but they had some ground: they were former slaves from a land of harvesting and storing up, and they’re on the loose in something like the Mojave Desert with no cars, no picnic coolers, and no cafes at Anza-Borrego. Learning to depend on God can’t have been any easier for them than it is for us.


The Epistle            Philippians 1:21-30

The experience of the Israelites in the desert is a far cry from that of Paul. He writes his letter to the church at Philippi from jail, where he may very well be awaiting execution—and he’s ready to go either way: ready to keep living, so he can keep helping others in the faith, ready to die to go be with God. Furthermore, he tells them—us—that not only is believing in Christ a privilege, but so is suffering for Christ. Are we ready for this?


Further thoughts

The Israelites in our first reading have come out of a land in which it was very clear who mattered and who didn’t. The ones that mattered had it easy, while the ones at the bottom of the social scale had to work hard. At the same time, as slaves they would get enough to eat because their labor was of value. The culture of Egypt was also good at amassing and storing up—not unlike our culture. That fact had even saved Israel in the time of Joseph. But to souls enslaved to rank and hierarchy or to the mindset that enough is never enough, the earlier means of salvation can serve later as the means of destruction.

Paul tells us to think very differently. As a Pharisee by birth, he has known abundance and privilege in the world’s terms, and he knows what abundance and privilege are really worth. He therefore exhorts the Philippians not to let themselves be divided or misled by what the world thinks. Living is good, in order to serve God and God’s people. Dying is good, to go home with Jesus. Living in one spirit and one mind—not divided by hierarchy, and standing firm in the faith—is right and worthy, and suffering for the sake of the faith is a privilege. In short, Paul tells us, what looks to the world like destruction is evidence of our salvation.

Each of these readings turns things upside down. So does today’s Gospel. As long as we show up ready to work for God, we’ll get what we need. Sometimes it will look like just barely enough, if we insist on comparing what we get to what everyone else has. But if we do that, we’re missing the point, and we’re missing the real abundance of spirit that Jesus has prepared for us and prepared us for.

For Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011: Year A, Proper 19

The Reading            Exodus 14:19-31

The readings from Exodus over the last few weeks have been building to the climax that today’s reading gives us: the Lord acting powerfully and unexpectedly through nature and Moses to save Israel from the Egyptian army. This is a God of miracle and authority, and the people see and are awestruck. Listen for these themes in the psalm.


The Epistle            Romans 14:1-12

The first reading today showed us Egyptian troops following orders to pursue the fleeing Israelites—and dying wretchedly for their obedience. We cheer the victory, but it raises an ethical question: do God’s people have the right to celebrate the downfall of others? Paul’s letter to the Romans suggests that really being God’s people means doing differently.



Further notes

One gets a certain thrill from the reading from Exodus: we’re rooting for Israel, the offended-against, to come out on top against the mighty and nasty Egyptian empire. God coming through in spectacular fashion by turning the tide on itself is an occasion that Moses celebrates in Exodus 15.

But is it an occasion to rejoice?

What of the Egyptian households in Exodus 11 and 12 that trustingly lent jewelry and clothing, not knowing that their Israelite neighbors were about to flee with the goods? What of the Egyptian junior officers and NCOs and common soldiers, following orders because that is a soldier’s duty, dying by their thousands when the waters surged back into place? What of the Egyptian families bereaved on the Passover night by the loss of all their firstborn?

Paul’s epistle and the Gospel take a different tack.  Paul tells us not to pass judgment on anyone whom God has welcomed. In the Gospel Jesus commands us to give the mercy we have received (and reminds us that we can’t duck by claiming we haven’t received mercy)

None of this sounds much like it being acceptable to rejoice over an enemy’s downfall.

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