Archive for March, 2013

For March 31, 2013: Easter Sunday, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 65:17-25

On Good Friday Jesus died, and hope died with him. Isaiah the prophet wrote at another time when it seemed that hope had died—but Isaiah’s words ring out like great bells to bring us back to hope beyond hope.  Yet even Isaiah’s vision is for long life, not everlasting life.

The Response            Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24

The Second Reading            Acts 10:34-43

The hope that Isaiah sketched out comes to full flower in Jesus Christ. This hope is summarized in today’s reading from Acts, Simon Peter’s first speech to non-Jews: Jesus Christ died for our sins, he is alive, and through him everyone everywhere is acceptable to God. Alleluia!

The Gospel            John 20:1-18

“‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

 

Further thoughts

If there is a unifying theme to today’s readings, it is surely Psalm 118:23: “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Isaiah prophesies a time of unprecedented and nearly unthinkable peace and plenty for man and beast: imagine a world in which a cat has a canary to but not for lunch, in which a Walmart worker needs no food stamps, in which no child grows up in a refugee camp, in which long life is crowned by wisdom, not Alzheimer’s.

The psalmist proclaims salvation and righteousness through the Lord—a God who, unlike the classical gods, intervenes in human affairs neither for sport nor spite but rather for mercy’s sake.

The gospel reading tells of unbelievable news become believable: when Jesus’ pierced and tortured body has vanished from the tomb, his followers can only surmise that this apparent body-snatching is yet another horror in a series of horrors—until Jesus, alive, calls Mary by name.

My favorite is the account from Acts. This simple but stirring summary fulfills the promise of Isaiah and the psalmist. Furthermore, consider the messenger.  The Galilean peasant fisherman Simon grew up regarding non-Jews as blue-state intruders on his cozy Galilean red-state mentality, and he almost certainly nursed a remorse hangover through Passover weekend after having denied Jesus three times. Yet here he is, brashness and all, announcing the astonishing news that the God who worked this miracle intends it not just for Israel but for absolutely everybody. If Simon the betrayer can become Peter the rock, what miracle of regeneration might be in store for me?

For March 30, 2013: the Great Vigil of Easter, Year C

THE LITURGY OF THE WORD: God acts to create and restore the world

The story of Creation: Genesis 1:1-2:2

The Response: Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26

The Flood: Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13

The Response: Psalm 46

Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea: 
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21

The Response: Canticle 8 (Exodus 15:1-6, 11-13, 17-18)

Salvation offered freely to all: 
Isaiah 55:1-11

The Response: Canticle 9: The First Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 12:2-6)

The valley of dry bones: Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Response: Psalm 143

 

AT THE EUCHARIST

The Epistle            Romans 6:3-11

During the weeks of Lent, the readings took into account the somberness of the season but also looked forward to the joy of Easter. The first epistle we read in Easter rings out our joy, as Isaiah puts it, but it also looks back to the suffering that has freed us from sin.

The Response            Psalm 114

The Gospel            Luke 24:1-12

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

 

Further thoughts

People in Jesus’ place and time had a pretty good idea what death looked like, what with infant mortality, childhood and adult diseases, death in childbirth, farming accidents, the various ailments associated with old age, and the occasional murders, executions and suicides. Adult women, in particular, knew well what they were supposed to do about it: wash the body (especially if there were blood), treat it with spices against stench, dress it, and straighten the mangled or emaciated limbs in preparation for burial.

They were clearly quite unprepared, however, for the idea of rising from death.

We postmillenials have the advantage of two thousand years of exposure to the idea through scripture, analysis, sermons, and old-fashioned hindsight, but it’s not clear to me that we are really any better prepared for the reality of resurrection than were Jesus’ grieving friends. It’s hard to imagine being resurrected to anything but a life like the one that we now lead, with its dishes to wash and its bills to pay. That’s unsurprising, of course: this is the life we know.

It’s the case, however, that many people who have undergone a near-death experience live differently, at least for a while. They wash the dishes and pay the bills, but—like Scrooge at the end of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol—they live more in the moment, and they are much more mindful of the wonder of the world around them and the people in it.

And we who still stand on this side of the grave—what if we are called to do likewise?

For March 29, 2013: Good Friday

The Reading            Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Chapters 40 to 56 of the book of Isaiah contain four “songs of the suffering servant”, of which today’s reading is the fourth. We do not know about whom they were originally written; in Christian practice they are understood to be about Jesus. The speaker in the first three lines and the last six (“I”) is God; elsewhere “we” is surely the people.

The Response            Psalm 22

The Epistle            Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

Both the reading from Isaiah and the psalm for Good Friday detail the sufferings of God’s servant but conclude with his triumph. The letter to the Hebrews identifies the servant as Jesus: both God and man, both high priest and sacrifice, and ready to forgive.

The Gospel            John 18:1-19:42

The Passion account in the gospel of John is the one we read every year for Good Friday.

 

Further thoughts

Good Friday, in all its horror and agony, also is a “day the Lord has made”.

For March 28, 2013: Maundy Thursday

The Reading            Exodus 12:1-14

According to the instructions in the book of Exodus, the first Passover meal is to be eaten in haste by people who are packed to flee from a plague. Our ritual meals generally look far different—family gatherings amid the silver and the best china for rejoicing that can last for hours—but in this life, we are all in haste.

The Response            Psalm 116:1, 10-17

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Writing to the Jewish and Gentile church at Corinth, Paul echoes Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: the bread and wine are not just things to eat and drink but signs of the new covenant that Jesus made with his own body and blood. These are our words of institution at the Eucharist, of course.

The Gospel            John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The Son of God teaches us the truest way to be God: love and serve.

 

Further thoughts

The lections for Maundy Thursday juxtapose two meals with great significance in the evolution of the relationship between God and humanity.

On the one hand, there is the first Passover with its carefully laid out specifications: a yearling male sheep or goat, slaughtered at twilight, roasted whole, eaten in haste with the quick-cooking unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and the lamb’s blood painted around the door to shield the Israelites from the shattering plague—death of every first-born in Egypt—through which God would effect their liberation from Egypt. The point of the roasting is that the creature is a ritual sacrifice. This first Passover meal is commemorated by observant Jews every year as the Passover Seder, though lamb is rarely the centerpiece; the reason for this is that ritual sacrifice can only happen in the Temple—which was demolished in 70 AD and has not been rebuilt. The modern Passover Seder thus commemorates the sacrifice without actually being the sacrifice, and it serves to help humans remember God’s mighty acts on their behalf.

On the other hand, there is the first Maundy Thursday meal. It is not the Passover meal, but rather a meal of the night before, and it may be remarkable as much for what does not happen as for what does happen: nothing is slaughtered; nothing is obligatory for the menu; no elaborate preparations are required. Instead, Jesus takes the sort of stuff we eat all the time anyway and serves it forth with his love in a way that makes it stand for all time for his own sacrifice of himself for us. Of course it is the prototype for our Eucharist. The word “eucharist” is most often analyzed as coming from Greek eucharistos ‘thankful’, though it’s worth noting that the Greek root charis– shares with the Latin root grati– the property of denoting either ‘thanks’ (gratitude) or ‘gift’ (grace).

That we have turned the simple meal into a ritual is unsurprising. As with the Seder, the ritual and elaboration help us remember by calling us mindfully to commemorate God’s mighty acts on our behalf, and this is a good thing. Many of us also say grace with more everyday meals, and that is also good and right. But what if we were to think of each ordinary meal—each ordinary act—also as a reminder to pay back by paying grace forward in Christ’s love to all to whom we are called to be neighbors?

For March 24, 2013: Palm Sunday, Year C

The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel            Luke 19:28-40

Proceeding into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey is a little bit like riding to one’s presidential inaugural on a mountain bike. What kind of king is this, anyway?

The Psalm            Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word

The Reading            Isaiah 50:4-9a

Chapters 40 to 56 of the book of Isaiah, written during the exile of God’s people in Babylon, contain four poems called “songs of the suffering servant”. The third of these is today’s reading. The identity of the speaker is unclear, though the fortitude and obedience expressed here cannot help but remind us of Jesus on Good Friday.

The Response            Psalm 31:9-16

The Epistle            Philippians 2:5-11

The reading from Isaiah anticipates today’s Gospel with its rendering of Jesus’ suffering and death at hands like ours. Today’s Epistle reading places the Passion in context: this luminous passage, one of the earliest hymns of the Church, tells of the very Son of God shucking off power and glory to take on human flesh, to serve, to die for all, and to rise to unimaginable greatness.

The Gospel            Luke 22:14-23:56

What kind of king, indeed? Listen and look, and weep.

 

Further thoughts

The Palm Sunday readings are almost identical from one year to the next in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary of the Episcopal Church. Outside in the courtyard or the prayer garden, blessing the palms that will be burned for next Ash Wednesday, we recite Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29. Once in church, the Old Testament lesson is always Isaiah 50:4-9a, with its mix of resignation and determination; the psalm is always Psalm 31:9-16, with terror followed by hope; the epistle is always the incandescent Philippians 2:5-11. Only the pairs of gospels change, cycling through the longer or briefer stories of Jesus’ humble yet triumphant entry into Jerusalem of Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16, or this year’s Luke 19:28-4 with the palms and the variously heartrending Passion accounts of Matthew 26:14- 27:66, Mark 14:1-15:47, and this year’s Luke 22:14-23:56 at the Eucharist.

This near-identity stands in marked contrast to the situation on most Sundays—when all the psalms and readings vary, Year A to Year B to Year C—and that on the handful of days on which the readings are exactly the same no matter which liturgical year it is. Good Friday, one of that handful of days, features the Passion account of John 18:1-19:42.

These are big enough similarities to be intentional. Each of the sets of gospel accounts, while grounded firmly in the history of our inclusion in God’s people and in the glorious outcome, takes a different perspective on this week of hopes horribly dashed only to be fulfilled beyond expectation. The version in the book of Luke keeps Judas off-camera while relating a positive interaction between Jesus and one of the two thieves, and in giving no voices in Pilate’s ears to counter those of the priests and the crowd, it shows us an administrator whose resistance to condemning Jesus is perhaps a bit more his own. These shifts in emphasis are consistent with Luke’s focus on forgiveness and outreach to gentiles. Embedding Luke’s gospel in the Palm Sunday matrix may serve, among other things, to honor even the most stumbling path to Calvary and beyond—whether it’s another’s or our own.

For March 17, 2013: 5 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 43:16-21

In the chapters preceding today’s reading, the prophet Isaiah admonished the people of Judah languishing in Babylon: their exile had been brought about by their own faithlessness. It sounds like Lent. Here, though, Isaiah announces a magnificent new hope, for God’s grace moves and is moving to bring a new liberation.

The Response            Psalm 126

The Epistle            Philippians 3:4b-14

Isaiah preached restoration to the lost and disheartened exiles in Babylon. The Philippians, in contrast, lived in a proud and prosperous Roman gold-mining city. To them, and us, the apostle Paul explains that everything that makes us proud is worthless (“rubbish” is a very polite translation), compared to being what Gregory of Nyssa called “a friend of God”.

The Gospel            John 12:1-8

 

Further thoughts

There is always something a bit jarring in the way that Lent coincides with the season of spring.

In the forty days of Lent, many of God’s people practice abstinences, looking forward with sorrow to the suffering and death of our Lord and Savior and perhaps looking forward also to our own inevitable ends. Spring, however, is a time of abundant growth: even the eastern US, between unseasonable snowstorms, is seeing crocuses; in the Southwest the fields and byways explode with weeds (some identified as wildflowers, and more possibly should be) and all manner of new life, not to mention the myriad of activities, vernal and carnal and mostly goofy, by which species work on fulfilling the ancient mandate to be fruitful and multiply.

The human itch to classify, to distinguish x from what is not x, moves us to sort abstinence and its seasonal opposite into two distinct categories; the scratching of that itch brings on more itch, which we tend to try to scratch by announcing our intention not to practice more than one of them at a time or perhaps only our doubts about others’ sense of propriety when they do. We are creatures of “either/or”, most of the time.

But today’s readings call us to be creatures of both/and. We sorrow, and we go forward. We live as righteously as we can, and we love others as though that didn’t matter. We devote our resources to the poor, and we make extravagant gestures. We die with Christ, and we live with him. And Jesus is with us, even as we struggle to do these things.

For March 10, 2013: 4 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Joshua 5:9-12

The book of Joshua relates how Israel’s obedience under Joshua and God’s faithfulness led to the good life in the land of Canaan. Today’s reading begins after Joshua has obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males born since the flight from Egypt: now that they can keep passover, God’s abundance begins to flow.

The Response            Psalm 32

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:16-21

In the reading from Joshua, we heard God in Canaan proclaim an end to Israel’s disgrace. In notoriously lawless first-century Corinth Paul picks up the theme, but with a twist: we have a clean slate by God’s grace—and with it, orders to share this great good news of reconciliation by all means through Christ with the whole world.

The Gospel            Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

 

Further thoughts

The book of Joshua was almost certainly written centuries after Joshua’s death, to contrast Israel’s obedience under Joshua and God’s faithfulness with Israel’s later disobedience that led to exile in Babylon in the 7th century BC. Today’s reading from the book of Joshua recounts the return of Israel to Canaan after that forty-year walk through the back country with very boring rations—manna and the occasional quail—while the whiners who left Egypt died off. Now the men born during the hike are finally on Canaanite soil and newly circumcised, so all are ritually able to celebrate Passover, and on the next day they get their first taste of real bread and real grain.  The lesson is clear: Good things will happen to me if I obey God, and bad things happen when I don’t. That seems fair: obedience from one side, goodies from the other. Psalm 32 tweaks the message a little: bad things happen when I fail to admit what I’ve done wrong, but confessing is itself enough to begin to bring relief. The psalm promises, though, that the faithful will always end up all right, so it’s still fair.

In the second epistle to the Corinthians, things get turned around. Paul tells elsewhere of trying his formidably pharisaical best to be God’s good little boy, only to discover that even his best falls far short. Instead, he says, what gets him and me reconciled to God is God’s love, unconditionally. That’s good for me. But then I think of Them—the people who’ve disrespected me or hurt me, even intentionally: God’s love, unconditionally, is what reconciles them, too, and they are no less entitled to it than I. How fair is that?

As to Jesus’ parable we’re often told that the father is God and that the sons are us, with the elder son as the one not to be. I think it’s more complicated than that. The elder son lives right and is interested in fairness: can I see those traits in him, or in someone I’ve labeled “holier-than-thou”, without dismissing them as sheer cussedness, and can I emulate him when it’s appropriate? The younger son has materially damaged the family economy and his relationship at least with his brother, and it’s not clear whether his change of attitude is genuine repentance or calculation, but he at least has the sense not to keep hiding: can I accept both forgiveness and the need to repair the damage I’ve done, and can I call myself out when I’m unauthentic without banishing myself? The father has been a fool, perhaps: can I run as enthusiastically and unilaterally as he without leading someone else into temptation?

More to the point, can I balance all three roles in myself? Can I love justice without using it as a bludgeon? Can I ask for what I need while not taking undue advantage? Can I respond as unconditionally as God to the hungers, needs, and nakednesses even of the Them I would prefer to avoid?

It isn’t fair, no: it’s Love.