Archive for January, 2013

For Jan. 27, 2013: 3 Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

The Book of Nehemiah was written almost one hundred years after the exiles in Babylon rejoined those who were left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem. It was under Nehemiah’s direction that the city walls were finally rebuilt and the gates hung, and at long last all the people were brought together to hear the Law read and explained.

The Response            Psalm 19

The Second Reading            1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Paul today continues his counsel to the church at Corinth, expanding on last week’s insight that each of us is God’s gifted child. If we are in Christ, we are one body—and each of us needs all the gifts and guidance of the rest of us, in our function as “God with skin on”, to grow into the full measure of God in us.

The Gospel            Luke 4:14-21

 

Further thoughts

The CEO of Hilton International, Chris Nessetta, touts the hotel industry as requiring, and rewarding, a broad range of abilities and gifts. “We’re a very complex business… I mean if you’re interested in accounting, finance, tax, development, construction, marketing, you know, the online space… Every one of those and a hundred other things we do every day to make this business work.” He himself began, he says, by plunging toilets.

That breadth permeates today’s readings about the nature of life in the kingdom of God. The men and women of Nehemiah’s account—some of them returned deportees, others the remnant who eked out lives in a city crumbling around them—are hearing the Word read in Jerusalem and in Hebrew for the first time in decades. It is a day to feast, but first a day to weep for joy. Surely they would agree with the psalmist’s assessment of the Word of God as more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey. Just as surely they recognize the thousands of small actions undertaken with thought and grace that make this glorious day possible.

The epistle and the life of Christ underline this point. Paul enumerates desirable gifts of the Spirit, yes, but not before emphasizing and reemphasizing the indispensability of even the least of us to the whole body of Christ. Jesus announces himself as the very fulfillment of the Law that had made Nehemiah’s people weep, but later, we know, he will stop en route to his execution to wash others’ dirty feet and he will take the time once arisen to gut, scale and broil fish for breakfast.

Solemn occasions and grand spiritual gifts have their place, certainly—but in this world, toilets need plunging. Glorifying and enjoying God is not a matter of dazzling display on special occasions but rather of going our way every day, sleeves rolled up, to live out God’s call and to seek God’s good in each other’s faces.

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For Jan. 20. 2013: 2 Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 62:1-5

Last week’s reading from Isaiah, written during the exile in Babylon, foresaw the lengths to which God would go to save Israel. In today’s reading, written after the return from exile, Isaiah proclaims not only the saving of Jerusalem but its vindication. He sings of God’s deep delight in Jerusalem—and in every one of us.

The Response            Psalm 36:5-10

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 12:1-11

In the church that Paul founded at Corinth, spiritual gifts became a matter of contention, as so often they do today. Paul reminds the Corinthians, and us, that every one of us is God’s gifted child, graced with gifts for the good of all. If so we, are also called to encourage each other in the exercise of those gifts.

The Gospel            John 2:1-11

 

Further thoughts

Easter comes unusually early this year, on March 31. In consequence, Epiphany season is unusually short, and therefore more than usually easy to look past as we move from the exuberance of Christmas toward the solemnity of Lent.

In much of the world, Epiphany looks like a lean, mean season. The ground is snowy or bare and local produce is in short supply: my second year in England saw my first attempt to cook Brussels sprouts, because literally no other green thing graced the local market’s vegetable bins. Even in Southern California, the neighbor’s huge walnut tree and our little pomegranates stand leafless and seem dead. And in Southern California as elsewhere, the bills for Christmas coincide with the annual church budget discussion and the onset of tax season.

Today’s readings, however, relentlessly point us toward abundance. Isaiah poetically shows us a God who is not merely fond of Jerusalem but head over heels in love with the City of Peace and with her children. The psalmist shows us a God whose bounty produces feasts and whose grace extends to the “critters”: all dogs, and cats and horses, go to heaven, though one can’t help balking at the concept of eternity with mosquitoes. Paul’s letter to Corinth details God’s openhandedness with gifts of the Spirit and hints rather broadly that any gift to do good is from God and should be honored accordingly. And then there is the gospel, with Jesus’ first public sign the conversion of ritual water into very fine wine—in the quantity of a hundred or so gallons!

At the same time, the brevity of Epiphany reminds us that time itself is short. Seasons end; bills and budgets have deadlines; people die. However we are going to use the gifts large and small that we have been given, and however we mean to encourage all those around us to find and explore and deploy the gifts large and small that they have been given, and whatever else we do to love God back, the time is right now.

Right now, as in this very minute, and every minute we draw breath.

For Jan. 13, 2013: 1 Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 43:1-7

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah most probably date from the time of exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. After long silence, the Holy One speaks again, calling Israel back out of exile, declaring love, and announcing willingness to redeem all God’s people, no matter how high the price and no matter where they are.

The Response            Psalm 29

The Second Reading            Acts 8:14-17

Our second reading today is from the book of Acts. Jesus’ command to go to all nations combines with rising persecution in Jerusalem to propel Philip on mission to Samaria, where joyful crowds of both men and women accept baptism. The apostles decide to investigate.

The Gospel            Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

Further thoughts

The constant in the readings for the first Sunday in Epiphany is change. In Isaiah, God calls Israel to transition from exile in Babylon back to freedom in Jerusalem—though, as it turned out, life in Jerusalem wasn’t what the Israelites expected it to be. The reading from Acts shows the church transitioning—whether it liked the idea or not—from a local concern for a subset of Jewish men to a movement that was intertribal, intergender, and indeed en route to being international—though the apostles seem to have experienced some cognitive dissonance over the possibility that the despised Samaritans should provide the welcome to the Word that one might have expected of God’s own Israelites. Luke shows us Jesus transitioning into his earthly ministry, with an astonishing sign following a good deal of wondering and speculation on the part of others.

Human beings tend not to find transitions easy, one way or another. As we come today to the end of the ministry of Lark Diaz among us, it occurs to me first that it is very human not to be comfortable with transition.

This discomfort may well have been shared by Jesus. For we believe that Jesus is true God—the true God of today’s psalm, whose voice makes stolid oak trees writhe like eels, whose power is limitless, who sits enthroned for ever. But this God voluntarily was born into our world of change and loss, and went through all the transitions of life: birth, then the challenges of toddlerhood, middle childhood, the considerable trials of adolescence (can anyone imagine Jesus not having a God-sized case of adolescent angst?), adulthood, and finally the loss of status and dignity in the trials and suffering followed by death. Unless Jesus retained no memory at all of being God, all of this earthly transition must have been incredibly jarring.

But, say Isaiah and the psalmist, God is the constant through all of our transitioning. Whatever the disasters, God loves us forever and is prepared to make good on that love, though in ways we often can’t imagine. Even though a transition involves grief and even humiliation, and though the final transition for us is our extinction, God is with us, and God has walked this path.

But what if the God of eternity is also the God of eternal change?

For Jan. 6, 2013: Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 60:1-6, 9

Isaiah, writing about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, addresses Jerusalem: though she lies in ruins, the glory of the Lord has risen like daybreak! From all corners of the earth, from all of our own personal Babylons, all God’s children—all of us—shall stream home, whether or not Jerusalem was ever home, bringing wealth by the shipload and camel-caravan load in praise and thanks to the Lord.

The Response            Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

The Epistle            Ephesians 3:1-12

There are riches, and then there are riches. Isaiah and the Psalmist told us of righteousness streaming out from Jerusalem and material wealth streaming in. It falls to Paul, writing from prison to the Gentile church in far-off Ephesus, to explain: all that abundance from all the world is merely the thank-you for the gift beyond price, extended to all peoples, of salvation through Christ Jesus.

The Gospel            Matthew 2:1-12

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Epiphany are practically incandescent: not now the hushed and heart-melting glow of Mary’s tiny son in the straw, but Isaiah’s blazing light as a beacon for all nations, the psalmist’s righteousness and deliverance in the very hills and mountains, the dazzling insight given Paul of God’s plan for salvation, and of course the Star whose refulgence captures us if, like the eastern mages, we care to look and follow.

But Epiphany, unlike Christmas, reminds us that there is also darkness and that it is deep. That people are alienated from their homes and, ultimately, from each other is news neither to Isaiah nor to us. That the poor and lowly are merely the most afflicted by oppression, violence, poverty, and misuse of power was as evident to the psalmist in the ninth century before Christ’s birth as it is to us in the third millennium after. That rulers and authorities are badly in the dark was as clear to Paul as it is to any 21st century student of current events. And that terrified or even indignant rulers resort to dark deeds in order to maintain power is no less evident in the organized religion’s history of inquisitions, intifadas, and cover-ups than it is when Herod sends troops to massacre the boy babies of Bethlehem lest one of them grow up to challenge his right to his throne.

Thrones, even in a 21st-century democracy, are common. Though I’ve made a point of avoiding obvious ones, I find I occupy many: as parent, as customer, as teacher or assessor, as person who determines a budget or a schedule, even as driver in possession of right-of-way. I am aware of the temptation to occupy those little thrones like Herod—not I hope, to the extent of degrading someone simply because I could, but it’s hard to resist barking an order, delivering a snub or put-down, downplaying someone else’s gifts (or my own), even resisting the healing or the oversight I need.

The darkness, in short, is not just Out There, it is In Here, and Herod is my brother.

The Light that judges and redeems and heals and loves is thus not only for the Gentiles as well as the Jews but for the Herods out there as well as the ones in here. And it calls me to spend less time finger-pointing and more time following.