Archive for February, 2013

For Feb. 17, 2013: 1 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Deuteronomy 26:1-11

The Book of Deuteronomy, though it tells of the time of Moses, was actually written centuries later, perhaps during the time of the exile or captivity in Babylon. This story about Israel’s past redemption from a time of suffering—the “wandering Aramean” is the patriarch Jacob—is surely meant as a story of present hope as well.

The Response            Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

The Epistle            Romans 10:8b-13

The letters to the Corinthians that we have heard over the last month set out how God’s justified people should live and behave. Now, writing to the Jewish and Greek Christians in Rome, Paul explains just what is required to be justified and to be saved: believing and confessing that Jesus is Lord—no matter who you are.

The Gospel            Luke 4:1-13

 

Further thoughts

As Lent begins, many people undertake fasts or other forms of denial. The rest of us may not manage to launch such a discipline or may falter in carrying it out; we may wonder whether we’ve given up the right thing, or we may sadly conclude, as everyone else apparently gets it right, that we are uniquely failures and some of us—all right, I admit it, I’m talking about myself—may interpret Lenten discipline as an order to deal with All-That-Is-Wrong-With-Me-And-Lord-Knows-There’s-Plenty by my very own self before I’m fit to show my face among Christians.

Woven into today’s readings for the first Sunday in Lent, in addition to the obvious lessons about trusting God and resisting the devil, are some subtler and perhaps less expected ones that confront these points.

In the season of giving up chocolate, the reading from Deuteronomy startles by bidding us to feast in gratitude for God’s blessings, and we are to make sure we share with everyone—foreigners, slaves, employees, panhandlers, even bosses—so they also may rejoice and give thanks.

As to not measuring up, Paul’s message for the Romans, and us, is that none of us measures up, whatever it looks like; what’s more, expecting to measure up misses the point, for the salvation that today’s psalm promises is exactly what God will deliver to us, if we believe to the extent of acting on it.

The passage from Luke similarly contains a surprise. Jesus is facing a powerful and determined adversary, so one expects him to show power in return: a little flexing of divine muscle, or at least an assertion in his own voice of his godly superiority. Yet the very Son of God doesn’t do so. Even Jesus’ final response, while it comes close to sounding exasperated, is nevertheless phrased, like the preceding ones, as a quotation from scriptures that he would have studied as a kid in the synagogue with everyone else. He relies not on his godhood but on God’s Word and the community of faith and love that has shaped him on earth: precisely the tools that, through God’s bounty, are available to us.

The most rigorous Lenten discipline may be learning to trust more than try.

For Feb. 13, 2013: Ash Wednesday

The Reading            Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

The prophet Joel, most probably writing in the fifth century before Christ, describes an enormous army assailing the land of Judah. It is an army of locusts: grasshopper-like creatures that swarm by the billions, darkening the sky and devouring every green leaf for miles. Joel tells us it is a sign of the day of the Lord, and calls every living soul to drop everything and turn to the Lord with fasting and weeping.

The Response            Psalm 103:8-14

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

For Joel, the day of the Lord was bringing bad times. Paul also is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

The Gospel            Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Ash Wednesday are the same each liturgical year, but the preceding Sunday’s readings for the end of Epiphany vary, and the differences set up intriguing shifts in perspective from one year to the next.

A common thread for Year C has to do with light and darkness. Last Sunday we read of Moses exuding light after his encounters with the living God, and we gawked with the disciples as they saw the flesh-and-blood Jesus transfigured into something more like Light of Light, True God Of True God, and we heard the epistle extend the point that going deliberately and mindfully into the presence of the Light of Lights has a way of rubbing off on a person. And well it should: human beings are clearly designed to respond to the Light.

Today’s readings bring us face to face with the dark. We human beings aren’t the Light: we are reckless, feckless, and sometimes mindless. Jesus has to tell us to start doing the right thing because it is right, not in order to look right to all the people we’re sure are either taking cues from us or potshots at us. How easy it is to absorb the light we’re intended to reflect!

Furthermore, we’re mortal. The smudging on my forehead of dark ashes—from bright fire applied to last year’s living palm frond—reminds me that I too am not far from my end, and I tremble and hope in the darkness for forbearance I don’t deserve. The sight of ashes on your forehead should remind me that you are in the same fearful boat as I, that a share of the burden to offer forbearance to you lies with me. Joel’s call quite properly extends this burden to the entire people, infants and all; Paul’s list of difficulties paradoxically reminds us that, to misinterpret Matthew 11:30 (but usefully), this burden truly is Light.

Can any of us really get to stand fully in the Light if all of us can’t?

For Feb. 10, 2013: the Last Sunday in Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Exodus 34:29-35

Exodus tells of an angry Moses breaking the original tablets of the Ten Commandments on finding that, in his absence, Israel had taken to worshiping an idol. In today’s reading, Moses returns from God with a new set of tablets—and the glory of God, shining in his face, terrifies everyone.

The Response            Psalm 99

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

In first-century Corinth, Paul was under attack both for his ministry and for the gospel he preached. To defend his acts, today he contrasts the old covenant, under which even Moses could not stay transformed permanently, with the new covenant in which, through Christ, we all are free to know God and to be known as we are without shame or fear.

The Gospel            Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

 

Further thoughts

On the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, the readings all center on the idea of transformation. The lesson of the reading from Exodus is that an encounter with the living God changes a person visibly; the point of 2 Corinthians is surely that living into the will of God day by day has as its proper result the same sort of change.

Then there are Peter and John and James, among the disciples who have been with Jesus day by day—and who, on the mountain as Jesus prays, are shocked out of their sleep-deprived minds when he not only begins to shine like Moses but is visited by Moses and Elijah into the bargain. It is easy to shake our heads at them, especially as Luke continues to tell about the demon that the disciples failed to cast out of the boy. It is easy to wonder how these benighted souls could have failed to heed the signs, what with all that exposure.

The fact is, of course, that we have the benefit of two thousand more years of scripture, two thousand years more years of hindsight, two thousand more years in which to explore appearances of God and our responses to them.

But are we any more observant about God, or any more changed by our encounters with God, than they?

When I ask that question about myself, I find that I don’t have a good answer. That’s disturbing—and, as we move into the season of Lent, I rather suspect it ought to be.

For Feb. 3, 2013: 4 Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 1:4-10

Last week we heard from Nehemiah about the Law being read aloud in Jerusalem once the walls were rebuilt, and the people weeping to hear it. The book of Jeremiah takes us back two centuries: Jerusalem is about to be overrun and its walls and the Temple destroyed. The Lord calls Jeremiah to prophesy this. And what is Jeremiah’s immediate response? It is much like ours, much too often: “Not me!”

The Response            Psalm 71:1-6

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 13:1-13

For two Sundays, Paul has explained to the church at Corinth—a community squabbling like kindergartners about whose gifts outshine whose—that each and every one of us is God’s gifted child. In today’s justly famous reading, Paul reminds us of the greatest gift of all, the gift that requires only a willing and open heart.

The Gospel            Luke 4:21-30

 

Further thoughts

If the Christian year were a lifetime, the Epiphany season might be its adolescence. The hushed, rapt adoration of Christmas—sleeping babies, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, are all adorable in pretty much the same ways, and the Christ child is no exception—gives way to the realities of becoming (but not yet being) mature. The boundless optimism of the fresh start gives way to wariness and sometimes weariness in the gap between what I can dream and what I can actually do, on the one hand, and between my own aspirations and others’ intentions for me on the other. En route, conflict is inevitable, as any parent or any adolescent well knows.

Today’s readings land us squarely in that space, with Jeremiah talking back to God and Jesus getting blunt with the home crowd. In this context, the reading from 1 Corinthians—the familiar paean to love and the gifts that love brings with it that is read at weddings precisely because it is the ideal to which a marriage aspires—appears to be a digression. But one of the tasks of love that Paul cites is truth. Love that fears to speak a truth in love is not love, nor is it love that refuses to listen to a truth spoken in love. Hearing an unflattering truth can be painful, and such a truth from one’s own offspring can sound to a parent like arrant disrespect, but God the Father models for us that the next step when the truth doesn’t sink in as desired is not escalating to a fight.

Love that both speaks truth and speaks it in love and that listens in love, whatever the differences between us in age, race, orientation, experience, or viewpoint between us, is surely the most compelling witness of all—perhaps because it isn’t trying to be a witness but is simply being itself, honoring the other’s self as a beloved fellow child of God.