Archive for January, 2012

For Jan. 29, 2012: 4 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading            Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The book of Deuteronomy is the last book of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—and it summarizes and expands on the laws laid down in the earlier books. Today’s reading contains God’s promise to give Israel a prophet like Moses, with God’s charge to those who listen and to those who prophesy.


The Epistle            1 Corinthians 8:1-13

The first letter to the Corinthians addresses a number of issues that caused deep divisions between the Jews and the Gentiles in the church community. In the matter of food that has been offered to idols, Paul explains that we are free to eat it—unless doing so will pose a danger for other members of the community, in which case we are to err on the side of behaving tenderly toward others’ sensibilities.


Further thoughts

Who is credible? This is a vital question in our communities and states during the primary-election process. It is equally vital in the life of God’s people, especially as a church searches for a new rector: how can we discern that a prophet—which is to say a preacher—really is speaking for God?

The four aspects of credibility in media studies are expertise, verifiability, timeliness, and trustworthiness.

The true expert in a field quotes sources but can speak or act without them. Jesus’ words and deeds in today’s gospel are authoritative: he and his Father wrote the Book, so to speak, and it shows. For the rest of us, Deuteronomy says that true prophets speak only God’s word and only on God’s authority. But how do we know when the prophet is speaking God’s word? “Thus says the Lord” and quotations alone are not enough.

As to verifiability, Deuteronomy 18:22 tells us that what a real prophet says comes true. Jesus’ words about himself came to pass. When a human prophet lacks a track record with us, however, the picture is much more cloudy, so by itself verifiability is a test that is often best applied in hindsight.

Timeliness figures into how well a message resonates with its hearers’ times and lives. Jesus’ words hit home, whether hearers were won over like Nathanael or offended like the Pharisees. The range of responses serves to remind us not to insist that every word, whether of the Bible or from a preacher, apply to us every minute—and not to dismiss those words that we would rather not hear.

Trustworthiness is, I think, what Paul intends by “love” in the epistle: trusting someone to look after our best interest is a kind of love, and so is being trustworthy by consistently working for another’s best interest. As Paul says, if I misuse my liberation from sin in ways that endanger someone else, I am not showing love—whether by acting when it would be more loving to be still or by holding back when it would be more loving to stand firm.

As we choose leaders—and as we ourselves lead in our various ways—let us choose to walk in love. That is the most credible witness of God’s love in our lives.

For Jan. 15, 2012: 2 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading    1 Samuel 3:1-20
The priesthood of Samuel, the anointer of great King David, is full of surprises. He was born to a mother who had been barren for decades, and his tribe was not the priestly tribe of Levi. Today’s reading relates the beginning of Samuel’s service—and, as is so often God’s way, the surprises build.

The Epistle    1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Samuel was consecrated to the service of God. Jesus’ life and death consecrate us as God’s children and frees us from judgment. In today’s epistle, written to the mixed Jewish and Gentile community at Corinth, Paul points out limits on our freedom.

Further thoughts
One of the difficult tasks of parenthood is to balance two realizations: on the one hand, one is responsible for one’s child; on the other hand, one does not own one’s child, even one’s very young child. We don’t meet Samuel’s mother Hannah in today’s reading, but in the height of her gratitude to God for giving her a son, she promises him to God for good, and then in love she sets about giving the boy the best start possible before she makes good on her promise. The priest Eli’s dealings with Samuel in this reading suggest that Eli has also achieved a balance of those realizations, but from the other end of parenthood and more painfully: his sons’ repeated bad decisions reflect adversely on Eli’s parenting, because Eli had opportunities to intervene but did not do so. One also senses that, before the prophesied doom falls, Eli’s hard-earned understanding will contribute to a better outcome for Samuel.
The letter to the Corinthians was primarily intended to deal with matters of doctrine and of community discipline: the church at Corinth, which was a Greco-Roman trading city, included both Jews and Gentiles, and to say that they disagreed vigorously on appropriate ritual practices such as circumcision and dietary restrictions is to understate the case. Today’s reading also continues the theme of our non-ownership. Just as we do not possess our children, we do not truly possess ourselves: we are God’s because God made us and we are God’s because God paid for us. We are freed from sin by virtue of Jesus’ death. This freedom, however, does not allow us to do whatever we will with our bodies, or for that matter with our talents, money, or time or even each other: in exchange for the extravagant gift of grace, it is incumbent upon us Christians to devote all the means at our disposal to do the work of God for the glory of God, and to look for the face and fingerprints of God in every person.
In short, we are to give ourselves back in gratitude for the grace of God that has given us back the true selves that God made. In so doing we will follow and honor Hannah’s hard but healing example.

For Jan. 22, 2012: 3 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading    Jonah 3:1-5, 10
When God first sent Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh, Jonah tried to run away from God. This attempt makes more sense when we realize that Nineveh was not only un-Jewish, it was the capital city of Israel’s biggest enemy, the repressive Assyrian empire. In today’s reading, Jonah obeys. How do you think the Assyrians will respond?

The Epistle    1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Whether or not we believe that the end times will occur within our lifetimes, the message of Paul’s first letter to Corinth is timeless and timely: for living the faith and doing the work of God, the right time is always right now.

Further thoughts
Two of today’s scriptures pose challenges for us that are familiar—and familiarly difficult to contemplate. The letter to the Corinthians explains that business as usual is over, because the end of the world is imminent; Paul believed this and lived this, leaving the privileges of a Pharisee to serve as God’s errand boy to the Gentiles. At the other end of the social scale, the gospel shows the humble fisherfolk Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropping everything to follow Jesus. This is clearly serious business: if our worth as Christians hangs on our willingness to forsake all our other responsibilities at a word, most of us today just don’t measure up.

For the rest of us, there’s Jonah. The book of Jonah is full of ironies and surprises and some of the Bible’s funniest material. Though it’s easy to sneer at Jonah, it’s wise to sympathize: what will a Jewish boy accomplish preaching repentance to this Mesopotamian empire of Jew-oppressing pagans? So Jonah sails for Tarshish, which could be in southern Turkey or northern Africa or even southern Spain—in short, Anywhere Else. When his ship nearly sinks, Jonah begs the terrified sailors to throw him overboard; God will save them, and drowning still gets him out of going to Nineveh. A huge fish sent by God swallows Jonah and pukes him up near home. Once Jonah’s decent again, God orders him back to Nineveh. Jonah goes this time, and succeeds wildly beyond expectation: Jonah 3:6-9 shows even the animals in sackcloth. God then elects to spare all the Ninevites— whereupon Jonah stomps off and pouts: how dare God change God’s mind and let these bad boys off the hook? God’s response is not to blast Jonah into next week for insubordination, but rather to give him shade.

The book of Jonah is read by Jews in its entirety on Yom Kippur, the very solemn Jewish Day of Atonement. Whether we choose God’s standard for behavior or Paul’s or the early disciples, we fall short, and it is appropriate to remember that and be sorry. But it is also vital not to get stuck there, nor to confine others there. Jonah helps us recall that God’s way is to bring mercies beyond expectation through improbable means and unlikely messengers—like you and me.

For Jan. 8, 2012: Epiphany

The Reading            Isaiah 60:1-6, 9

As Isaiah writes, about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Jews who had been deported to Babylon have returned, only to find Jerusalem in ruins and the Temple desecrated. Isaiah calls Jerusalem itself out of darkness and despair: the glory of the Lord will rise like daybreak, and, from all corners of the earth, all God’s children and a great deal else will finally come home to the praise of God.


The Epistle            Ephesians 3:1-12

There are riches, and then there are riches. Isaiah and the Psalmist told us of material wealth streaming into Jerusalem, but it falls to Paul, writing from prison to the church at Ephesus, to explain: all that abundance from all the world is merely the thank-you for the gift beyond price of salvation through Christ Jesus.


Further thoughts

What a series of images the Epiphany scriptures give us! First, Isaiah shows us Jerusalem, the city of God personified, and the light of God will be there though all else be dark. All the scattered children of God will come together, and kingly riches will arrive by ship and in camel caravan after camel caravan, and even the camels—which, having no hooves, were unclean in Mosaic law and therefore unacceptable before God—will now join everyone and everything else in praising God.

Then the Psalm continues the theme: the King’s Son will rule so righteously that even the mountains and hills bring justice. Kings will pay him tribute, but the heart of this King’s Son will be with the poor, the oppressed, the lowly, and the victims of violence.

But who is this King’s Son? Here we start dealing in paradox. The King’s Son that Matthew shows us is born in a barn in the backwater of Bethlehem to an unwed mother, and about to be in trouble with the local law for the first but not the last time in his life. The brightest minds in Jerusalem, though they pore over the Torah, have no clue that he exists until a group of non-Jews from the pagan East show up asking for directions. That these foreign magi are not deterred by the humbleness of Jesus’ birth is remarkable. But look at the gifts they bring: what baby needs frankincense (which is for God) and myrrh (which is for burial)?

It falls to Paul, sitting in jail yet paradoxically free, to explain the mystery. This Jesus comes to be King as God always intended kingship: not strutting and taking while the little people die, but assuming personal responsibility to the point of dying so that the least of God’s people might live. This willing sacrifice redefines “God’s people”: the chosen race of Abraham is now, at least potentially, the whole human race.

And what of the riches flowing to Jerusalem, and what of the offerings of the magi? All this wealth will arrive not as the tribute that is exacted by a tyrant king but as the outpourings of grateful hearts.

For Jan. 1, 2011: Lessons and Carols

FIRST READING: Genesis 3:8-15, 17-19
Sinful humans lose the life of Paradise.
SECOND READING: Genesis 22:15-18
God promises that, in the offspring of Abraham, all peoples shall be blessed.
THIRD READING: Isaiah 9:2, 6, 7
The prophet foretells the coming of the Savior.
FOURTH READING: Isaiah 11:1-9
The peace that Christ brings is foreshown.
FIFTH READING: Luke 1:26-35
The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We hear of the birth of Jesus.
The shepherds go to the manger.
EIGHTH READING: Matthew 2:1-11
Wise men seek the Child who has been born.
THE GOSPEL: John 1:1-14
Jesus, the Light of the World.

The format of the Service of Lessons and Carols dates back to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols devised by Edward White Benson, then Bishop of Truro in southern England, for Christmas Eve 1880. In 1918, shortly after the fighting in World War I ended, Bishop Benson’s order of service was adapted for use at King’s College, Cambridge, in southeastern England, by the Dean of the college chapel, Eric Milner-White. The order of service at King’s College is essentially unchanged since 1919, opening with “Once in Royal David’s City” (the first verse sung solo by a boy chorister), and ends with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” This order with the readings set forth by the Church of England is the basis of the service we will use at St Alban’s, though some of the prayers and lessons are adapted from the originals to correspond more closely with the language of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that is in use in the Episcopal Church.
The nine short lessons or readings were chosen to show the story of salvation unfolding, beginning with the fall of humanity and the promise to Abraham, then proceeding through prophecies of Isaiah to the annunciation and birth of Jesus, and concluding with the opening words of the Gospel of John that sketch out who and what Jesus is.
This service is appropriate on January 1 because, this year, it is the only Sunday in Christmas season other than Christmas Day itself, and next Sunday, January 8, is the first Sunday in Epiphany season. In any case, what better way to begin the New Year than to sing praises to the Child who has been born for us, the Light that the darkness cannot overcome?

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