Archive for November, 2012

For Dec. 2, 2012: 1 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 33:14-16

In the sixth century before Christ, Jeremiah the prophet predicted very bad times that came to pass: the last king of the house of David lost his throne and many Jews were forced into exile. Yet today’s reading gives us words of hope that look forward to justice from the offspring of David.

The Response            Psalm 25:1-9

The Epistle            1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

The first letter to the church at Thessalonike may be the oldest book of the New Testament. In this lesson Paul, despite the perturbations in his own life, writes almost effervescently of his joy in the Christians of the church at Thessalonike and of his hopes for their continued growth in love and holiness.

The Gospel            Luke 21:25-36

 

Further thoughts

Advent, the beginning season of the Church year, is a season of anticipation. Many of us look forward to the family gatherings, to the seasonal food and drink and decorations, to unpacking the Santa sweaters and furry boots in which we’ll cheerfully swelter on a typical Southern California “winter” day, to performances of the Nutcracker ballet and Handel’s venerable Messiah (which, like so many things in life, is both easier and harder than it sounds), and of course to celebrating the arrival of the vulnerable, approachable baby in the manger, God as one of us. Paul the Apostle Paul looks forward in this way, as he practically wriggles with glee in hopes of revisiting his Thessalonian godchildren.

Not everyone looks forward eagerly. In the sixth century BC, Jeremiah opening his mouth usually meant that bad news was coming: for good reason is a bitter, hyperbolic denunciation of a people and its practices called a “jeremiad”. Chapter 33 stands in marked contrast to most of Jeremiah’s prophecies, for here he foresees the return of Israel and Judah in safety to the land of promise and the restoration of the Davidic dynasty. Even here, however, the prophecy is edged: if the Branch of David is to bring perfect righteousness, what will become of those—or those of us—who are merely human?

Jesus’ prophecy is even more edged, for he foresees the end of everything as we know it, and the signs that he names to foreshadow the end—natural disasters including massive flooding and terrifying phenomena in the skies—give a deeper and more terrifying sense to the word “ominous”. All of this is far indeed from baby Jesus meek and mild.

Yet Jesus offers a remarkable analogy for these signs: not a harbinger of hard times such as bad weather, but rather the fig tree putting forth its tender lives, which is a sign of the coming of summer. The natural tendency, when things are bad, is to hunker down in one’s own foxhole with one’s own resources and wait it out, but Jesus instead calls us to stand up and raise our heads. Beyond the terror, our redemption waits. That is cause for hope—and perhaps we are also meant to stand for hope and for each other to a terrified world.

For Nov. 25, 2012: Christ the King/The Reign of Christ, Year B

The Reading            Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

In 165 BC, the very existence of Judaism was threatened. The Book of Daniel, written in response, contains an early example of apocalypse, or writing about the end times. Today’s reading tells a vision of a judgment scene presided over by a dazzling Ancient One—the Ancient of Days, in older translations. The court gives a grant of everlasting kingship and glory to someone like a human being. Listen for echoes of this in the second reading.

The Response            Psalm 93

The Epistle            Revelation 1:4b-8

The reading from Daniel related a vision of awesome judgment and the commissioning of one like a human being as eternal king. The book of Revelation, written at the end of the first century AD, is both a letter and another apocalypse. Today’s reading is from the beginning of the book; it sounds a theme like that in Daniel, but now the “one like a human being” is named—as Jesus Christ who loves us.

The Gospel            John 18:33-37

 

Further thoughts

On Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate both the end of the Pentecost season and the dominion of Jesus Christ over (as the book of Daniel puts it) “all peoples, nations, and languages”: this formulaic phrase is clearly intended to include absolutely everybody, whether by association, birth, or culture.  The book of Daniel foresees one like a human being to whom this dominion—this power—is given; we Christians naturally assume that Jesus the Son of Man is intended. The reading from Revelation names the one who comes in the clouds as Jesus but otherwise paints a similar picture: Jesus is coming in glory and judgment and, crucially, power. Revelation specifies that on his account all the tribes will wail, and that makes sense given what we think we know of the way power works.

In the gospel, however, the picture is different. Jesus who was and is and is to come stands before the local representative of the great Roman Empire. Pilate, like the rest of us, knows what powerlessness looks like and he knows what power looks like—but Jesus looks like… well, Jesus: if an ordinary man under accusation, then remarkably unshaken before the Roman who can quite easily order him crucified; if a king, then disturbingly unconcerned with the familiar trappings and prerogatives of power.

So just what kind of king is this, anyway?

The kind of king who attends to the despised and broken-hearted. The kind of king who performs astonishing healings and forbids the word to spread. The kind of king who declines to be stampeded by society into condemning obviously guilty women. The kind of king who washes his inferiors’ feet. The kind of king who undertakes to die to save the very people who are out to kill him and yet whom not even death can vanquish.

And if Jesus so breaks the mold when it comes to kingship, what must it mean for our place in his kingdom that he calls us not subjects but brothers and sisters and partners in bringing God’s love to the world?

For Nov. 21, 2012: Thanksgiving Eve, Year B

The Reading            Joel 2:21-27

In the verses that precede this evening’s reading, the prophet Joel described a plague of locusts that came down on the people of Zion as a punishment from the Lord, and he prescribed what the people must do to atone. Now Joel shows the fruit of Zion’s repentance in the astonishing abundance of God’s grace and care.

The Response            Psalm 126

The Epistle            1 Timothy 2:1-7

Whether we agree with leaders of governments at home or abroad, tonight’s reading from the letter to Timothy urges us to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for all of them. Not only do their decisions matter: indeed, the salvation of each of them matters to God no less than does our own.

The Gospel            Matthew 6:25-33

 

Further thoughts

It can be a challenge to give thanks to or for those for whom one isn’t feeling grateful. The workers displaced by the imminent closing of the company that makes Twinkies and Ding-dongs doubtless feel no gratitude to the shareholders and board of directors; those who backed Romney most vigorously in the recent elections surely feel no thankfulness that their fellow voters reelected Obama or to Obama himself; parents whose neighborhood schools are being closed or repurposed as charters in Chicago and Florida feel disregarded and disrespected by the school boards making these decisions. The readers of the letter to Timothy must have felt in very much the same position: the Jewish religious hierarchy, still reeling from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem a few years before, had little love and less patience for the upstart Christians, and the Roman authorities, as Christianity spread and began to seem to draw allegiance away from the Empire, increasingly treated the Christians as a radical fringe in need of suppression, not least on account of the extent to which its internal dissensions tended to become unpleasantly external.

So why give thanks for “the other side”? First, because even wicked rulers tend to be right about something: Napoleon attempted to dominate all of Europe, but he also reformed the French law and education codes to stop wasting the talents of boys not born to noble families. Second, because even good rulers, when they start feeling defensive, tend to get heavy-handed. The Adams presidencies went badly not because John Adams and John Quincy Adams lacked the talent to govern but because their prickly personalities antagonized everyone around them. Third, because administering well, or even half-well, is harder than it appears. For proof, compare a portrait of any president at the beginning of his first term with a portrait of him at the end of his last. Fourth, because giving thanks for them is good for us. It is easy to demonize the opposition, but I find it is considerably harder to keep demonizing the opponent for which I conscientiously give thanks, and I am a good deal more likely to give that opponent credit for accomplishments and openness to ideas when I can bring myself to give that opponent any credit whatsoever; what’s more, it is easier on my blood pressure. Fifth, because giving thanks where it goes against my grain makes me likelier to remember to give thanks where I should, which is at all times and in all places.

Finally, any thanks we truly give is ultimately thanks to God.

For Nov. 18, 2012: Proper 28, Year B

The Reading            1 Samuel 1:4-20

When a Jewish man offered a sacrifice, he would receive part of the animal back to share with his family at a ceremonial meal with wine. Hannah, weeping, refuses her portion and then goes to pray; the fact that the priest Eli assumes her to be drunk speaks of both the depth of her grief and his limited competence. Her prayer results in the birth of Samuel, who grows up to prophesy Eli’s destruction and anoint David as king of Israel. The Response which follows is Hannah’s exultant and even revolutionary song of thanksgiving to the Lord.

The Response            1 Samuel 2:1-10

The Epistle            Hebrews 10:11-25

Today’s reading from Hebrews summarizes the claims about Jesus as the perfect high priest. Jewish priests stand to perform the sacrifices again and again; Jesus sits, because he sacrificed once for all. Since we are forgiven, we can enjoy a good conscience—and through the community that is the Church, we can hold up and spur on each other in love.

The Gospel            Mark 13:1-8

 

Further thoughts

The first and third of today’s readings show us, among other things, the fruits of insecurity.

In Hannah’s time there was no theology of personal resurrection. One lived on through one’s remembered deeds—and memorable women were not generally respectable women—or through one’s children. More practically, childlessness for a woman was disastrous. Everything a woman had with her husband would pass, on his death, to some other woman’s son, who might not feel it his duty to give the widow a pallet to sleep on and a crust to gnaw. Hannah’s presence embodied this uncomfortable truth to Penninah, and Penninah’s own insecurities (for a woman can’t give birth that many times without her body telling the tale) were surely rubbed raw each and every time Elkanah did anything even remotely special for the still-svelte Hannah.

As for Eli the priest, in accusing Hannah of drunkenness, might he have been projecting his sons’ vices that he should have controlled, or even feeling guilt about tepidity and stale formula in his own prayer life? In any case, he never did actually ask Hannah what was wrong.

Elkanah at least recognized that Hannah was wretched and why—but in groping for magic bullets to fix her or at least distract her, he failed dismally to foresee the corrosive effect that buying Hannah off would have on the rest of his household. Worse, Elkanah then made it all about him: Baby, you’ve got me! What do you need sons for, when I have plenty?

The disciples were the disciples we know so well: overawed hayseeds goggling at the magnificence of the Temple and almost pathologically desperate to be in the know for once: Ooo, when’s the disaster? Can we watch? The similarities between them and Penninah are eye-rollingly more than superficial.

Worst of all, all of these witchy, hypocritical, self-absorbed, flawed and flawing oafs are—me.

There is hope, however. To paraphrase the reading from Hebrews, it’s not that I can haul myself out of the swamp of myself by myself, because none of us can—but the sacrifice of Jesus is meant to free me to grasp the human hands reaching down by grace to help lift me up and reaching up by grace for me to help lift.

For thus indeed is the kingdom of God at hand.

For Nov. 11, 2012: Proper 27, Year B

The Reading            1 Kings 17:8-16

The first and second books of Kings catalogue the rulers of Israel and Judah after David by their wickednesses and tell stories of the prophets who called them to account. After the prophet Elijah announces a punishing drought to King Ahab and his pagan queen Jezebel of Sidon, the Lord sends Elijah away for his own safety. In far-off Sidon Elijah meets a widow with whose cooperation he brings about one of God’s miracles of feeding.

The Response            Psalm 127

The Epistle            Hebrews 9:24-28

The book of Hebrews demonstrates how and why Jesus is the Messiah. The verses before today’s reading describe the Day of Atonement, the one day each year on which the high priest alone would bring animals’ blood for forgiveness to the holiest place in the temple. In contrast, Jesus who lives brings his own shed blood to heaven itself so we humans can enter the presence of God.

The Gospel            Mark 12:38-44

 

Further thoughts

That the reading from the book of Isaiah is one of the lectionary selections in the month of November is no surprise: this is stewardship season, after all, in which we are called to give of the abundance that we have been given. This is a problematic call, however, when we humans sense our abundance threatened or ebbing.

The ladies of the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel had been wives, each of them, with households to manage and husbands to look after. Then the worst possible societal disaster struck: each was widowed, bereft not only of husband but of financial support given the lack of reputable jobs for women outside the home.

The widow of Zarephath is down to her last meal, literally—or, worse, her son’s—when along comes Elijah, the foreign man of Israel’s God, to demand the little she has left. She protests. Then Elijah announces that God will not let her flour and oil run out until the rains come, if she gives what she has to Elijah first. She elects to trust Elijah and the God who sent him, and it is as Elijah promised: he and she and her household all have enough. Elijah’s prophecy gives her the hope with which to trust.

As for the widow at the Temple, we know that the law of Moses specified offerings for various purposes. Though one could bring actual turtledoves or grain or wood or oxen, it was easier for all concerned to bring the price of the sacrificial item for the Temple to buy and sacrifice in quantity, and so the Temple treasury featured both thirteen or fourteen different trumpet-shaped chests to collect the money and the means to make sure that each worshiper paid the right amount. Then as now, two little copper coins will not buy much—but two little copper coins are all that this widow has, and in front of everybody that is what she deposits. Is she one of the widows devoured by the scribes? Does she put in everything she has out of love of God, or because she will be barred from worship at the Temple otherwise, or perhaps because, like the other widow before Elijah’s prophecy, she has lost all hope? Is she a good steward in giving up this money, if it means that her child starves?

Is it in fact always good stewardship to give up one’s life except when the need is extraordinary?

As the reading from Hebrews tells us, Jesus gave his life to save the world God made—but he gave so great a gift of his own free will and only once. And he yielded neither his Godhead nor his soul.

For Nov. 4, 2012: All Saints’ Day, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 25:6-9

Today’s reading from the book of Isaiah is familiar from Easter, when we recall God’s people rejoicing in their liberation from exile. It is equally appropriate for our commemoration of All Saints, when we who yet live remember those we love who have died and weep with those who mourn.

 

The Response            Psalm 24

 

The Epistle            Revelation 21:1-6a

Isaiah’s theme of God coming to earth to liberate us mortals from death and sorrow is picked up in the astonishing book of Revelation: a holy new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, in which God the First and Last will come to live among us mortals and to wipe away all the tears and disgraces and griefs of the faithful.

The Gospel            John 11:32-44

 

Further thoughts

All Saints’ Day is a feast day of the Church. That it should be is clear from the Old Testament and Epistle readings. God Almighty comes in glory to throw a bash that features all the best of what Earth has provided, only more so: the sort of food in which one savors the range and richness of both familiar both the very best of the familiar and the very most attractive of the exotic (and who knew lutefisk could taste good?); the sort of drink on which, whatever one’s consump­tion, one grows merry but not unseemly; the sort of company with whom one can talk past three in the morning, no one is too old or too young, and Great-aunt Hortense’s old bitter jokes about Great-great-Uncle Leo are finally suffused with love and frankly hilarious because the old goat’s right there and laughing harder than anyone else; and the Honoree in Chief with the pierced palms, who is also the Host in one’s choice of senses, fills one with the desire simultaneously to prostrate oneself before him and to curl up in his lap like a cosseted kitten… This is, in short, the party to end all parties, the very Alpha and Omega of homecomings and home-beings.

There is a catch—no, not that this party is too good to be true, because my version can’t be true enough to be good enough. The catch is what has to have happened to get us all there. One must have been the product of a coupling that may as well have been spurred by violence as by love; one must have lost Mom and Dad or been lost to them, or sometimes both; if born, one has been disappointed by others, been a disappointment to others, lost and been lost by others, and been a mighty source of grief to oneself, in ways that range across the catalogue of human sloth, lust, envy, wrath, gluttony, avarice, and pride; and sooner or later one must have undergone the bizarre blend of terror and indignity that is  death—for to be human is to die.

Jesus is human. At the tomb of Lazarus he weeps, which looks like what we mortals do, but the description of him as deeply disturbed has puzzled me. Then the wife of a pastor I know told me that Andy begins his funeral sermons with the exclamation, “I hate death!” I think Andy speaks God’s mind here: death is not merely awful but deeply, irremediably wrong. Yet Jesus by choice endures and even swallows up death to get us into the banquet.

To be human is indeed to die and to weep. We Christians have faith that our tears will be dried in the Kingdom, and meanwhile we dab at our own tears with the faith that we clutch like a handkerchief. What if we bore our love into the world as a handkerchief here and now for the tears of all the souls around us?

For Oct. 25, 2012: Proper 25, Year B

The Reading            Job 42:1-6, 10-17

When Job the righteous lost everything, his friends imputed this to his sin. In today’s reading Job, having angrily challenged God and heard God’s reply, acknowledges God’s sovereignty and recants his challenge. The reading omits the verses in which God scolds Job’s friends for misrepresenting God and bids them ask Job to pray for them. This is a God who can bear human anger—and a man who can live again and love after disaster.

 

The Response            Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22

 

The Epistle            Hebrews 7:23-28

The letter to the Hebrews continues to explain how and why Jesus is the ultimate high priest: resurrected, Jesus continues to intercede for us, and sinless Jesus was able to sacrifice himself once for all the sins of all of us. “The word of the oath” refers to the quotation from Psalm 110:4 in last week’s epistle reading:

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

 

The Gospel            Mark 10:46-52

 

Further thoughts

The scriptures for Proper 25 bear in large measure on seeing straight and speaking straight.

Job’s outburst at God earns Job an outburst in return—but Job is also called “my servant”, because he sees and responds to things in God that his well-meaning friends have missed. First, Job surmises that God is too big, too God, to be in the business of doling out gold coins only to the good kids and lumps of coal only to the bad kids, as humans tend to do; second, Job keeps talking to God even when it seems that God’s back is turned on Job; third, God Most High is also God Right Here, listening to Job’s grief and even his anger.

As for the blind beggar in the gospel, we know little of his past, except that people see him as someone who should be seen only at ground level and heard not at all, a nobody—calling him “Bartimaeus” is like saying that my name is “Ed’s kid”. But sightless Bartimaeus has insight that those around him miss: not only is this Jesus the Son of David, the Promised One of God, he is very much in the business of mercy for the marginalized—and so Bartimaeus tells it and yells it.

Job and Bartimaeus see and speak, but they also act and risk. Job prays for his unenlightened friends. That his fortunes are restored sounds a bit pat in the reading, but no child comes without begetting, which is an act of love and a bet on life itself—and Job and his wife raise fully ten more children, each so loved that the daughters receive inheritances alongside their brothers. Blind Bartimaeus throws aside his cloak, which is all his warmth and all his security: letting it fall where he can’t count on recovering it by touch is betting quite literally everything on Jesus’ mercy. Then, having received his sight—and, one senses, much more—he goes out into the world to follow Jesus.

The psalm praises, and the epistle to the Hebrews spells out, what it is that Job and Bartimaeus glimpse: a priest unlike any other that either Job or Bartimaeus would have known, an unprecedented sacrifice, and above and through these a God Most High who is also by God’s own preference nearer than my own heartbeat. This is Jesus who calls me to share the banquet of God’s love and reminds me urgently that the party has already started: the people to share it with are here and the time to share it is now.