Archive for November, 2011

For Dec. 4, 2011: 2 Advent, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 40:1-11

The book of Isaiah was written during and after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of Israel to Babylon. In the chapters that precede today’s reading, Isaiah explains these disasters as richly deserved punishment. In chapter 40, however, Isaiah’s gift for striking metaphor is lavished on imagery of hope: it is God’s will that God’s people are done suffering, and it’s time to call them—and us—home. Listen for these themes in today’s other readings.

 

The Epistle            2 Peter 3:8-15a

Since the second letter of Peter has been dated to the end of the first century A.D., it is unlikely that the Apostle Peter was the author. Whoever wrote it explains straightforwardly to the first Christians—and to us—why the return of the Lord has not come as soon as the first Christians expected it: this is not tardiness on God’s part, but generous patience.

Further thoughts

Advent sounds two notes in the believer’s ear. The first note is the note of judgment. Three of last week’s readings made the case that repentance is both necessary and urgent: we are so far short of God’s standard of purity that, left to our own devices, about all we can do is numbly mark the axe as it falls. As this world lurches toward the longest night of the year, it can be hard to believe in an outcome other than doom, and next to impossible not just to give up.

But the God who made us, knows us. The second and stronger note sounded by Advent is the note of hope. We are not left to our own devices, and the axe is stayed from falling—not because we deserve any such thing, but because of the abounding love of God.

This is the message that rings through the reading from Isaiah: comfort, pardon, good news, God coming not to condemn but to save. It’s worth noting that Isaiah 40:1-11 figures heavily in the libretto for Handel’s Messiah, which Charles Jennens so ably compiled from the Old and New Testaments: in fact, it opens with the tender and grace-filled recitative “Comfort ye” (Isaiah 40:1-3), followed by the inspired and inspiring “Every valley shall be exalted” (Isaiah 40:4) and the all-out praise chorus “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” (Isaiah 40:5) I think this beginning accounts for a good deal of the appeal of Messiah, just as it is much of what makes A Christmas Carol so irresistible: like Charles Scrooge, we hear the very good news that all is not lost—and, given such hope, we can then dare to undertake the repentance to which 2 Peter and John the Baptizer call us.

Dec. 4, Sunday: 2 Advent, 9:30 am
Intercessor: Judy Brown
Second Chalice: Larry Burns
Lector 1: Linnea Lagerquist
Lector 2: Penny Park
2 Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

Advertisements

For November 27, 2011: 1 Advent, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 64:1-9

This Sunday we begin a new church year with the holy season of Advent. In today’s reading, Isaiah combines stunningly poetic imagery with startling bluntness to remind us of God’s greatness and goodness, and of the breadth and depth of our need for God’s mercy.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 1:3-9

In the year 57 a.d., Corinth was a wealthy, cosmopolitan seaport not far from Athens. Its church was home to Jewish and Gentile contingents that were not good at getting along. The opening of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians reflects this, with praise for their learning and speaking but sobering silence as to their love, hope, and faith.

Further thoughts

Advent has been called “the little Lent”, though most Protestant churches have moved a bit away from the emphasis on Advent as a penitential season in favor of celebrating the coming Christ Child. Today’s readings begin firmly in the penitential camp. Isaiah gives us an arresting series of images. He shows us mountains quaking in God’s presence like water at a rolling boil. He likens even our righteous deeds to a cloth a woman had used for that time of month—and if you find this image unbearably uncouth, shocking, vivid, and humiliating, that’s precisely the effect Isaiah intends. The psalmist adds a vivid picture of us so steeped in shame and sorrow that we drink our own tears by the bowlful.

But there’s hope in Advent. Isaiah calls God “our Father”—for the first and only time in the Old Testament—and compares us to works of clay made by God the Potter. One is reminded of the saying, “God don’t make no junk,” and I think Isaiah intends something of that as well. The psalmist, similarly, begs for God’s forbearance, and the implication in both cases is that we’re worth saving, not because of our goodness but because we’re God’s.

Similarly, Paul’s veiled condemnation of the contentious Corinthians can be read in two hopeful ways: First, living as a child of God does not depend on learning and eloquence and an abundance of cultivated spiritual gifts. This is a comfort to those of us who, for whatever reason, find ourselves coming up short in one or another of these departments, and it is certainly good news (though not necessarily new news). Second, however, Paul gives some of us hope that learning  and eloquence—and even material wealth—are not of themselves disqualifications to live as children of God. Paul, like God, corrects the Corinthians because they need correction but also because they’re worth correcting: in them, as in us, Paul and God see potential and good.

Our work is cut out for us this Advent. Thanks be to God!

For November 23, 2011: Thanksgiving Eve

The Reading            Deuteronomy 8:7-18

Moses speaks the words of our Old Testament reading as the people of Israel stand on the bank of the Jordan, ready to enter Canaan. It is a very good land, blessed in resources and in room to spread out and prosper: what a contrast to their current circumstances! Moses warns them—and us—not to get cocky: whether we have much or little, burgeoning families or solitude, robust health or chronic problems, the good we have is nothing more nor less than the gift of God.

 

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 9:6-15

In today’s Epistle, Paul explains to the Corinthians how to give rightly. In short, we are to give gladly, and to give in thanks for all the good that we have received from the generosity of God.

 

 

Further thoughts

What is required for gratitude?

Maturity helps: a small child has to be taught to say “Thank you,” because the small child simply doesn’t recognize the giver as separate person with his or her own agenda and needs. Humility is certainly important: people who believe that they deserve to have everything are notorious for not remembering to give thanks. So is a lack of complacency: the person who is used to having or getting everything may not realize that thanks are even appropriate.

Now humility leads to thankfulness—but the evil shadow of humility is humiliation. When one feels humiliated it is as impossible to be genuinely thankful (because the gift has, so to speak, knives in it) as it is to be genuinely generous (because a gift that is forced is no gift). Worse, humiliation teaches a person that the gift she can give—including the gift of her heart and goodwill—is worthless.

That is, humiliation breaks hope. Without hope we see no point in asking, no point in so much as looking up to see whether any good might be coming—and, I fear, we lose the ability even to recognize good when it comes.

Humiliation and hopelessness together make a prison. Breaking out, and staying out, is very difficult. But the practice of gratitude can begin to open the door.  Practicing gratitude obviously helps us learn gratitude, of course, and through it we model gratitude for those, like children, who haven’t learned how. Less obviously, the practice of gratitude implies that the people we thank are worth thanking; it is our validation of their worth and dignity and our recognition of them (and ourselves) as the hands and feet and faces of our overflowingly generous God.

For Nov. 20, 2011: Christ the King Sunday, Year A

The Reading    Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
In last week’s reading, God chose Deborah as hero and judge to save Israel from the Canaanites; about a century later, God chose David as hero and king to save Israel from the Philistines. The book of Ezekiel comes after another four centuries during which rulers and the well-to-do fleeced the weak and powerless and flouted God’s rules. As Ezekiel predicted in earlier chapters, Jerusalem has fallen and the Temple is destroyed; he is among those forced into exile in Babylon. But here Ezekiel prophesies hope: a new hero who will rescue and tend the strayed sheep of God.

The Epistle    Ephesians 1:15-23
Ezekiel prophesied that God’s good shepherd was coming to gather and tend God’s flock. The Gospel for today foretells Jesus in glory at the end of time, judging between attentive sheep and thoughtless goats. In contrast to these future orientations, the passage from the letter to the Ephesians plants us squarely in the here and now: it tells us, even as we look forward to Advent, that Jesus is in charge this very day—and at work in us.

Further thoughts
Taken together, today’s three readings give a vivid picture of the power and magnificence of the triune God— and of God’s abiding and intimate interest in preserving the small, the weak, the poor, the sick, the hungry, the powerless, the imprisoned, and even those who by our earthly standards seem to deserve their poverty, their illness, or their incarceration. The Old Testament reading calls us to hope in the darkness while reminding us not to contribute to the darkness through mistreating our fellow humans. The Epistle reminds us that, however dark things look today, Jesus is in power today. The Gospel gives us specific marching orders—and a strong hint that showing mercy to our fellow creatures for their own sakes is more godly than showing mercy to try to buy our way into heaven.

Another note: Some of the commentaries on Ezekiel sheds light on one of those questions that an Episcopalian may not think about very consciously: Why are the leaders of Jewish congregations called “rabbi” and not “priest”? The short answer is that the priest or kohein was and is designated to perform rituals of animal sacrifice and atonement—rituals that could be performed only in the Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

For Nov. 13, 2011: Proper 28, Year A

The Reading     Judges 4:1-16
The word “judge” today evokes images of courtrooms and carefully reasoned judicial opinions. For the ancient Israelites, however, judges were heroes that God sent to free Israel from the oppressor who inevitably came along when Israel had again turned aside from the Lord. The hero of today’s reading, somewhat unusually, was in fact also a judge in the modern sense: it was the wise, brave and right-living Deborah.

The Epistle    1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
To Christians in the decades after Jesus’ death, the end of the world as we know it seemed much more imminent than it has in 2011, when Harold Camping’s two predictions of apocalypse evoked mostly shrugs. Paul’s counsel to the Thessalonians would have been wise advice to the Israelites and is as valid for us: to watch out, to protect ourselves through faith, hope, and love, and to do what it takes to help make each other better.

Further thoughts
The Book of Judges tells the tale of what happens when a splintered people keeps turning away from its covenant with God. Under this covenant, God has promised land and a good life to the Israelites; their part is to worship the LORD and only the LORD. The stories in Judges follow a pattern: In a time of peace the people break the covenant and turn from God; bad times ensue and they are subjugated by an enemy, leading to worse times; they cry out to God; God sends a hero to lead them and save their sorry hides; the next time around, the peace is briefer and the subjugation worse, and somehow Israel still doesn’t get the message about keeping up its side of the contract and trusting God. Even Barak, who at least answers the call, quails in the face of 900 iron chariots and a real king. It would seem that Israel just can’t function as God’s people over time without some big honcho in charge full time to make each of them get up and do what needs to be done.
We snicker a bit at this, we citizens of the proudly kingless United States… until, perhaps, we look through the lens of today’s Gospel at today’s world and witness the finger-pointing, meanness, and downright depravity that ensues when good people forget that the time to do the right thing is right now.

 

Serving this week:

Intercessor: Lillian Edmondson (or Judy Brown, if necessary)
Second Chalice: Steffe Richart
Lector 1: Linnea Lagerquist
Lector 2: Rena Lewis

Nov. 20, Sunday: Christ the King, 9:30 am
Intercessor: Betty Levie
Second Chalice: Larry Burns
Lector 1: Erika Hoagland
Lector 2: Sid Fox
Christ the King:  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

For Nov. 6, 2011: All Saints’ Day, Year A

The Reading            Revelation 7:9-17

Last week we saw Joshua and the Israelites preparing to enter the Promised Land, and there were specific instructions and concrete descriptions. This week, for All Saints’ Day, we are with the apostle John seeing the revelation of God. It is no surprise that words fail John, who is trying to describe what we mortals cannot begin to comprehend. What is wondrously clear, though, is that, in Revelation, the way is open to all of God’s children.

 

The Epistle            1 John 3:1-3

The first letter of John brings back into this world the promise that Revelation gives—and the challenge: if we are God’s children here and now, how on earth do we live into that?

 

The Gospel                        Matthew 5:1-12

 

Further thoughts

The reading from Revelation makes the claim—which must have sounded very surprising, and perhaps still should—that the saints of God are countless and come from every people under heaven. The reading from the first letter of John makes an assertion that, if we follow it a little farther and take it seriously, is more mind-bending: that we are God’s children not because we’re Christian or even particularly good but simply and solely because God loves us.

In other words, lifestyle doesn’t lead to sainthood. Instead, sainthood leads to lifestyle. What can result from that shows exactly how a human family that functions as it should can model God’s family.

First and foremost: God our Daddy loves us whatever we do.

Second: choices still have consequences, and our own bad choices or someone else’s can lead to scars that we’ll bear for life—though through God’s love these scars can be redeemed and can lose their power to stunt us or those around us.

Third: as we learn and pray, and with the example of our big brother Jesus and the help of our brothers and sisters here on earth, we can grow into making the sorts of choices that please Daddy and help redeem this world.