Archive for July, 2012

For July 15, 2012: Proper 10, Year B

The Reading            Amos 7:7-15

Around 750 BC, with Assyria and Egypt occupied elsewhere, Israel enjoys peace and prosperity—for the wealthy and powerful, and at the expense of the poor. God calls Amos out of Judah, the southern kingdom, to pronounce judgment. The plumb line that Amos sees in God’s hand is a string with a heavy weight at one end that shows whether or not a wall is perfectly upright. The wall that is not upright cannot be allowed to stand.

The Response            Psalm 24

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:3-14

Today we begin reading from the letter to the Ephesians. The church at Ephesus in modern Turkey, like the church at Corinth in Greece, was a mixed Jewish and Gentile community. In the opening verses of the letter to this church, a Jewish apostle—possibly Paul—writes poetically of God’s intention before the world ever existed to adopt in Jesus Christ not just the people of the covenant of Abraham but all of creation, including each one of us.

The Gospel            Mark 6:14-29

Further thoughts

Late last week the commission investigating the Penn State football program released the results of its investigation of the climate in which sexual abuse of young boys went unreported and unstopped for a period of fourteen years. The report is unsparing in assigning blame at the highest levels. Like today’s Old Testament reading and gospel lesson, it gives a terrifying picture of the urgency of doing the right thing sooner rather than later: the longer one holds off, the more horrifyingly pervasive the damage will be and the less likely it is to be remediable. These readings also point to the unanticipated costs of doing and saying the right thing: Amos is shamed and exiled and John the Baptizer loses his life.  We ourselves are likely to see ourselves in the roles of Amos or John here; as human beings, however, we are surely at just as great risk of being so caught up in our own prerogatives or even our own human-crafted “righteousness” as are Amaziah, Jeroboam, or Herod.

In between, though, and counterbalancing the horror of being human, is the vivid and poetic rhetoric of the letter to the Ephesians. In the original Greek, the passage is one very long sentence that blesses God for blessing, choosing, designing for love, adopting, redeeming, giving grace to, forgiving, gathering up, giving an inheritance to, and sealing with the Holy Spirit not just the physical descendants of Abraham but all peoples. In short, God is crazy in love with us and has no hesitation about showing it. To put it another way, it’s not just that our pictures are in God’s brag book: we ourselves are God’s brag book.

That is a very tall order to live up to. I for one can’t do it on my own. The key here is love: by me, of you, through God. If I can walk in love as Jesus shows me, and if I let your love help me back to my feet when I stumble, and if each of us loves everyone else in exactly that way, then our love through God helps you and me and him and her and them uncover the real “you” and the real “me” and the real “him” and “her” and “them” that make each of us, in God’s eyes, just exactly what God always wanted.

Advertisements

For July 8, 2012: Proper 9, Year B

The Reading            2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Today we resume the story of David. The shepherd boy whom Samuel anointed has fought and schemed his way to the kingship of Judah, in the south. Now the northern tribes of Israel come to David’s capital at Hebron and ask him to become their king, for God is with him. On the strength of this David conquers a city of the Jebusites, on neutral ground between Judah and Israel, and makes it his capital—Jerusalem, the city of David.

The Response            Psalm 123

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 12:2-10

The church of Corinth was wracked by division, some of it centered on Paul himself: people said he was not physically perfect enough or spiritual enough to be God’s champion. In today’s reading Paul counters both claims: he mentions his own exceptional revelation—he himself is the “person in Christ”—only to dismiss it, and he points to the derided disability as precisely the means by which the Lord keeps him grounded and aware that the power is not his or ours but Christ’s.

The Gospel            Mark 6:1-13

 

Further thoughts

The Revised Common Lectionary, which we in the Episcopal Church follow, gives today’s reading as 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10. Here are the omitted verses:

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

Since David is the ruler chosen by God, and the one through whom Israel achieves its own greatness, this is a powerful rejection. Combine it with the list of physical impairments that disqualified a man from being a priest, and one can see the ground from which Paul’s detractors in Corinth were arguing. It’s easy to infer that God really only loves the perfect and really only works through the one who looks the part.

What if David meant something different, however? What if the point is that David is turning the taunt of the apparently whole Jebusites back on them? They were so sure of themselves that they failed to see a major flaw in their defenses: the humble water shaft, which could be either the water supply or the sewer. It lay in their power to remedy—but they did not.

So much depends on what we notice and how. Jesus did mighty works—everywhere but in his own home neighborhood, among those who “knew him when…” They saw him as just the carpenter, just the kid of Mary. They figured they knew what they could expect from him—not much—and that is exactly what they got.

Let’s not be too hasty to judge the skeptics of Corinth and of Nazareth, however. Corinth was a busy port town, which means it doubtless saw more than its share of con artists and schemers. Committing too deeply to the Next Big Thing without asking the hard questions could be bad for one’s money—and one’s health. For its part, Nazareth was a hardscrabble town in a land that was well and truly under Roman domination. The people had surely learned the hard way that getting one’s hopes up would just lead to disappointment.

The mix of pride, fear, defensiveness, and defeatism that kept Jesus’ neighbors blind to him is familiar to today. It is desperately hard to overcome all that baggage in someone else; it is even harder to overcome it in me. In both cases, as Paul’s career shows, it takes persistence, generosity, grace, and a willingness to look silly.

It also helps to pay attention to mundane things like the sewers and the water supply.

For July 1, 2012: Proper 8, Year B

The Reading            Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon was probably composed within the two centuries before the birth of Jesus. It was written for Jews who were struggling to keep the faith in the midst of the pagan culture of a city like Alexandria in Egypt. Today’s passage poses an eternal question: why do death and other bad things happen?

The Response            Lamentations 3:21-33

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 8:7-15

In today’s reading, Paul bids the community at Corinth to carry out a promise to contribute aid for the destitute congregation in Jerusalem. If they give eagerly and in love, he says, whatever they can manage will be acceptable and it will be enough.

The Gospel            Mark 5:21-43

 

Further thoughts

A ten-year-old boy whom I know spent the small hours of last Wednesday night knocked out on morphine. He has multiple hereditary exostoses, or growths on his long bones. Though ugly, they are usually painless—but one of William’s exostoses is growing between the tibia and fibula bones of his lower leg, forcing them apart. On Wednesday night in the ER, nothing short of morphine would give William relief.

Last Saturday, Margaret “Stevie” Andreen died. For decades she was a valued and vital part of the life of this church, with a delightful wit and a keen joy in life. Then for no apparent reason her hip joint snapped, starting a downward spiral of pain and debility that kept her housebound for the last several years of her life.

Some people may say that William’s agony and Stevie’s are God’s will. Others will say that God sends us no trial that we cannot endure. I refuse to make either claim to William or to his mother, or to the children and grandchildren and friends that Stevie has left behind. What kind of God would deliberately inflict such pain on a child or such grief on his mother, or make a woman of Stevie’s grace and generosity a prisoner of her own body?

In short, this is the old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? People of greater wisdom and faith than I have explored this question for millennia.

One answer comes in the reading from the Greek-influenced Book of the Wisdom of Solomon. It tells us that death and destruction and corruption are not God’s fault: those bad things come to us through the devil’s envy, though God may choose to intervene as Jesus did in healing the woman of the twelve-year-long menstrual flow and restoring the daughter of Jairus to life. That is, I think, something of a cop-out: why does an all-good and all-powerful God see fit to make the bad stuff stop for some people but not others?

I don’t pretend to have a good answer, but let me suggest that the letter to the Corinthians points us in the direction of a worthy response. Paul called upon the Corinthians to remember Jesus’ great gift and to give from the heart for the relief of the church in Jerusalem. So also a throng of people gathered in our church yesterday with Stevie’s family, giving of their time and their tears in thanks for the gift of Stevie’s presence in their lives. Similarly, on Tuesday, young William will undergo surgery that should begin to ease his suffering— 400 miles from his home, in a hospital built and equipped and staffed through both generous gifts by and taxes imposed on residents of a state in which he has never lived.

Even when our distress is clearly much more the fruit of our own stupidity or pride than Stevie’s or William’s, it moves God—so profoundly that God gave Jesus to die to save us. Insofar as someone else’s need matters to us enough to move us to give from the heart, we ourselves come as Christ to save and salve God’s world.