Archive for February, 2012

For Feb. 19, 2012: the last Sunday in Epiphany, Year B

2 Kings 2:1-12
Today’s reading looks back to the day that Elisha inherits the mantle of his adoptive father, the great prophet Elijah. Elisha requests a double share of Elijah’s spirit not out of greed but because the other prophets would know that was the true heir’s proper share. Elisha certainly needs it: serving as God’s voice to the kings of Israel and Judah, when it is likelier than not that they turn their backs on God, is challenging.
THE EPISTLE 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul confronts a difficult question: why do some people not accept the gospel? His answer here is that they are being kept in the dark by someone powerful who is not our God, for our God is in the business of giving light.

Further thoughts
A common thread in today’s three readings is the question of who is God’s heir, and how we know.
In 2 Kings, Elijah is being taken up to God without dying first, and he is leaving behind Elisha, who was no prophet until Elijah called him away from the plow. It would seem that at least some of the existing prophets are skeptical about Elisha’s qualifications for prophethood: this would explain their insistence on making Elijah’s passing their business. It is not for them to decide, however, nor even for Elijah to determine. But it pleases God to answer the question in grand style: Elisha receives Elijah’s mantle and the heir’s double portion of Elijah’s spirit, not to mention the vision of fire that has him gabbling like a little boy in sheer exaltation. And then he takes up Elijah’s mantle and sets about the work that is his inheritance.
Paul also has to deal with a divided religious community each part of which looks askance at the claims to salvation advanced by the other. The verses that precede this reading make it clear that Paul is speaking less of unbelievers outside the church altogether than of unbelievers who are (or claim to be) in it, who remain deeply suspicious of claims to salvation that fail to follow their preferred path. These unbelievers, Paul says, are blinded to the gospel. “The god of this world” could be Satan, of course, but it could also be a human perception that makes God too pettily human and too easily comprehended by human minds and in human words. His point, however, is that it is God’s pleasure to offer light and adoption to for both Jew and Greek—which is to say, to everyone—along with the duty and honor of becoming a slave to all for Jesus’ sake.
Finally, there is today’s gospel. Jesus’ preaching and wonder-working have gained him a reputation as a prophet, though even Peter and Andrew doubtless still see him primarily as the carpenter’s son. Then, on the mountain, they see Jesus transfigured in light beyond light and visited by the two great figures of Jewish history, topped off by the divine announcement that Jesus is God’s very own beloved son. Peter blurts out an offer to that, on the face of it, sounds inane and overwhelmed. Peter is onto something, though: on some level he senses that this astonishing sonship extends through Jesus to the rest of us—and so, for all of us, does the work of God that goes with it.

For Feb. 12, 2012: 6 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading            2 Kings 5:1-14

The story of Naaman’s leprosy is familiar but full of surprises, beginning with the fact that Naaman the mighty general leads an army that has been beating up on Israel and taking slaves. It is through little people and little things that great Naaman gets his cure—and Naaman, given a little time, is bright enough to figure it out.

 

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Athletic competition was part of the culture in first-century Corinth. Today’s Epistle reading points to the athlete’s focus as a model for the kind of disciplined living that honors God; the prize, beyond our own salvation is drawing souls to Christ.

 

Further thoughts

The readings for this Sunday feature winners and losers—or perhaps more accurately people who’ve had to rethink just what constitutes winning.

Through most of human history, one’s social status has been determined by who one is connected to and related to, plus one’s ability to take independent action. By that standard, the biggest losers in today’s readings are the little slave girl, snatched out of Israel and away from her family, and the leper in the gospel. The big winners—at least at the beginning of the reading from 2 Kings and in the psalm—are Naaman and his king, with their wealth and might and their far-reaching networks of support and validation, and the psalmist who is so on top of the world.

But Naaman gets an ugly skin disease, and the psalmist gets a terrifying reminder of his mortality, and they begin to experience life as losers. Each of them suddenly finds himself in territory that’s all too familiar to the leper and the slave: the leper’s duty is to disappear altogether from decent human society, and the slave is invisible by in plain sight. Naaman is new enough to this terrain that he expects ceremony commensurate with his rank, and he expects to be able to pay for what he gets. The leper is an old hand: the most he dares expect is the society of other lepers. But both of them, propelled out of themselves by deep need and the presence of the Holy, break the rules: Naaman sets aside his dignity and the leper steps out of the shadows. Each receives healing, and each, like the psalmist, receives and confesses God.

In so doing, each becomes the winner that Paul describes. For winning is not receiving salvation and hoarding it: winning, Paul tells us, is doing what it takes to be the means through which the salvation of God comes into this needy, needy world.

For Feb. 5, 2012: Presentation in the Temple, Year B

The Reading            Malachi 3:1-4

The book of Malachi is addressed to Jews in post-exile Jerusalem who believe God has abandoned them. The Lord is sending his malaki—his messenger—and the judgment to follow will be like being melted in the flames of a blast furnace or like being scoured clean with strong lye soap, though at the end judgment will lead to vindication.

 

The Epistle            Hebrews 2:14-18

Where the reading from the book of Malachi depicted God’s messenger as judge and purifier, the version in the letter to the Hebrews sounds different: Jesus comes to take on our humanity so he can pay the price of our sins.

 

Further thoughts

During Advent we look forward to the Nativity: we know on some level that Jesus is God come among us, but what we see and reach out to is a sweet little baby born in difficult circumstances.

In Epiphany, the focus shifts: we begin to look into this baby’s future, and ours.

Malachi gives us part of that: the Lord who is to come will bring judgment, and it will be not be pretty. Even the people who were born to serve in the Temple—the offspring of the tribe of Levi—have fallen short of God’s standards and must be purified. The process will be searing and caustic, and we will be ashamed.

The book of Hebrews gives us another parts: the Lord who is and is to come brings judgment, but with it mercy and absolution—though at the cost of his own death by torture, and at the cost of our own recognition of our need for his death.

The Gospel gives us further pieces. Grief is one of them. The grief will be public and personal, abstract and concrete. Simeon foresees the falling of many and a sword piercing Mary’s own heart: what mother is supposed to have to witness the death of her son, and who among us would wish our inner thoughts all to be revealed?

But there is also anticipation. The helpless baby—a child presented at the Temple would be forty days old, of an age to hold his head up and possibly to begin to find his own tiny thumb with his mouth on purpose—will not remain a baby for long. The parents will teach him to walk and to function in this world, and their secret parental hope that their boy is something special will be fulfilled in spectacular fashion. And, once grown, the Man of Sorrows who dies for our sins will still and always also be the laughing Jesus who takes irrepressible delight in all the created order and in each of us, his billions of brothers and sisters, who shows us the way from judgment and grief through mercy to joy we cannot even imagine.