Archive for June, 2013

For June 9, 2013: Proper 5, Year C

The Reading            1 Kings 17:8-24

The first and second books of Kings tell the stories of the rulers of Israel, most of whom are not very faithful to God, and the prophets in those times, most of whom are faithful and often suffer for it. In today’s reading, the prophet Elijah goes outside of Israel and imposes on a widow who has fallen on very hard times that then get worse. Through his faithfulness and his compassion, God’s servant works a miracle.

Lection 1 pronunciation notes: “Zarephath” is ZARE-uh-fath; “Sidon” is SIGH-don

The Response            Psalm 146

“Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.”

The Epistle            Galatians 1:11-24

The church at Galatia was a mix of Gentiles and converted Jews; this could cause friction when the Jews expected the Gentiles to follow Judaic practice. In today’s reading, the apostle Paul sets out his biography for the Galatians with the goal of establishing both his background as a really good Jew and the insignificance of his background when it comes to salvation, which is strictly God’s to give.

Lection 2 pronunciation notes: “Galatia” is gah-LAY-shah; “zealous” is ZELL-us; “Cephas” is SEE-fuss; “Cilicia” is sill-ISH-uh

The Gospel            Luke 7:11-17

“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”

Further thoughts

A thread that binds today’s readings together is of things not going according to plan.

The mourners in Nain know exactly where they are going and why and what will happen afterward: their friend and relative has died, so it is their duty to go get him properly buried, and then his mother is going to be destitute because that’s the way the world works. But other plans are in God’s works, and a fairly standard funeral procession turns into a unique celebration.

Saul of Tarsus knows exactly where he is going and why and what will happen afterward: he is going to save God’s people from the threat posed by people who keep preaching Jesus in spite of persecution; he will be a good guy in God’s eyes and a hero to Israel, because that’s the way the world should work. But other plans are in God’s works; the persecutor is turned around by the grace of God, and the proof that this is from God is that, though the message of grace is largely the same, Paul has absolutely not learned it from any human.

The widow of Zarephath knows exactly what she is doing and where it will end: she has no hope of protecting her son from dying of starvation, because that’s the way the world works, but she can at least feed him one last time before they starve together. But other plans are in God’s works, so the prophet from Israel says, and indeed he and they eat and live.

Elijah himself might be less certain. Zarephath, the first reading tells us, “belongs to Sidon”: it is not Israelite territory, and one senses that Elijah goes there only under orders. There, what he has heard from God comes to pass. So far, so good—but suddenly his hostess’s son sickens and dies. This is not in the script! Elijah seems in shock. He cries out at the injustice, then he does whatever comes into his head, and then he implores God… and, miraculously, the boy begins to breathe again, and grief and anger and self-blame give way to wonder.

That is precisely the message of Paul. Though my frailties and my losses bear down on me like the hand of grief on the mourners of Nain, like the hand of hunger on the widow of Zarephath, Jesus the merciful is ready to stop the bier with a touch, not because I deserve it but simply because, wherever I go and with whatever plans, I cannot help but be his.

For June 2, 2013: Proper 4, Year C

The Reading            1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39

This summer’s Old Testament readings begin with Israel’s history after David and Solomon. When later kings strayed from God’s way, God sent mighty prophets to get them back on track. As today’s reading opens, Elijah has challenged the priests of Baal to a competition before God’s people to see whose God is great enough to send down fire on a sacrifice. The priests’ entreaties and self-mutilation fail to produce so much as a spark. Then, before he takes his turn, Elijah has the wood and the sacrifice drenched. Now watch the fireworks!

The Response            Psalm 96

“Tell it out among the nations: ‘The Lord is king!… He will judge the peoples with equity.’”

The Epistle            Galatians 1:1-12

For centuries before and after Jesus, the plain of Anatolia in modern Turkey was part of the Greek-speaking world. In the third century BC, several tribes of Gauls or Celts from Europe conquered the central region that came to be called Galatia after them. These Galatians were among Paul’s first and most enthusiastic converts to the gospel of grace—but the beginning of the letter to the Galatians, which we read today, suggests their susceptibility to other influences with which Paul is not at all pleased.

The Gospel            Luke 7:1-10

“‘For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes.’”

 

Further thoughts

Today’s readings tell of speaking with authority, and of three responses.

In the material left out of the Old Testament reading, the priests of Baal seek to make their god set the sacrifice afire by screaming and crying for hours and gashing themselves till the blood flows. Their god doesn’t come through, and Elijah mocks them. The Lord of Israel, however, sends down fire at Elijah’s request. This vividly establishes Elijah’s authority, and reinforces God’s, in the eyes of the assembled people of Israel. I am one of the people of Israel: given a sign, I cry, “The Lord indeed is God!”—but so often I then go away wondering how to make a sign happen again, and wondering what’s wrong when it doesn’t. Sometimes I am also a priest of Baal, desperate to make God do our bidding because, well, don’t I deserve it? (Well, no: I don’t.)

The epistle may be one of Paul’s very earliest. The people of Galatia, neighbors but not kin to Paul’s native city of Tarsus, are thoroughly and Celtically enraptured by the word that salvation is in reach for them, too. In their zeal to follow Christ really well, however, they then buy the line that grace depends on this discipline or that practice, first. Paul is having none of it: as he puts it, even were an angel to announce such preconditions, that’s not the gospel. But I am such a Galatian: captivated by the gift, yet simultaneously looking for the strings that, in my human experience, are surely attached and therefore must and should be pulled.

What of the centurion? He, the outsider or the sell-out—we don’t know whether he was sent from Rome or recruited locally—should have been the one to stand on rank, the one to order a a platoon out for Jesus, the one to grasp and yank any string within reach. Instead, he cares for his servant; he is friends with the Jewish elders, who are willing to go for this Roman outsider to Jesus the Galilean outsider; and finally it is he who recognizes in Jesus the authority of One who will not be forced but who is ready when asked to do the unimaginable. I am not the centurion: it is beyond my grasp—except, of course, through God’s grace.

For May 26, 2013: Trinity Sunday, Year C

The Reading            Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

The book of Proverbs is part of what Biblical scholars refer to as “wisdom literature”; it dispenses sound advice for Old Testament living. Today’s reading, however, is about Wisdom, personified here as God’s partner in creation. We of the New Testament know Wisdom as the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity.

The Response            Psalm 8

“O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world!”

The Epistle            Romans 5:1-5

Paul’s letter to the church at Rome has sometimes been called his most important theological work. Today’s short but rich reading may well be the core of it: we have peace with God and ourselves not through our own efforts but because the incredible love of God gives us hope.

The Gospel            John 16:12-15

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

 

Further thoughts

First, a disclaimer: for a theological explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, please consult a theologian. What I can offer here is my grammatical workaround of using plural pronouns and agreement forms for singular God, as in “God are Love, and where true love is, / God Themselves are there.”

I was inspired to this in youth by T.H. White’s witty and heartrending book The Once and Future King. Toward the end of the first part, just before the Sword in the Stone reveals young Wart as King Arthur, Merlyn the magician sends him out for his last lesson among the animals. A badger tells him a story of Creation in which all the animals looked exactly like embryos until God allowed them to choose adaptations such as claws or teeth or thick hides or wings. All made their choices—except for Man, last of all, whose response begins, “Please God, I think that you have made me in the shape I now have for reasons best known to Yourselves, and it would be rude to change…” This turns out to have been precisely the right answer. God replied,

“As for you, Man, you will be a naked tool all your life, though a user of tools. You will look like an embryo till they bury you, but all the others will be embryos before your might. Eternally undeveloped, you will always remain potential in Our image, able to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys. We are partly sorry for you, Man, but partly hopeful.”

This is, please note, one God, yet plural. It is possible that White intended a sort of “royal We”, but it resonates with me differently. Though I still quite naturally try to reduce God to human scale, the slight strangeness of “God are…” in my mouth keeps me mindful of God as human and more than human, and the plural verbs and pronouns avoid assigning God exclusive maleness, instead encompassing maleness and femaleness (and probably much more in addition). God as singular plural also reminds me of the eternal fellowship enjoyed by God, as suggested by the Old Testament reading, a depth of mutual knowing and being known whose fullness is quite beyond the grasp of humankind here and now; it is the fellowship for which, through Christ, the apostle Paul says we have such hope; and just as surely the fellowship for whose stunning loss on earth Jesus in today’s gospel was gently but relentlessly preparing his disciples and friends to grieve.

For May 19, 2013: Pentecost

The Reading            Genesis 11:1-9

The first reading today, from the book of Genesis, explains how human beings created by the one God of Israel have come to speak so many different languages: they imagined that they could work and scheme their way to heaven, but God had other plans.  As we will see later, however, the story does not end here.

The Response            Psalm 104:25-35, 37b

“O Lord, how manifold are your works! in wisdom you have made them all.”

The Epistle            Acts 2:1-21

The story of the first Pentecost in the book of Acts is even more familiar than the story of the tower of Babel. The Pentecost story also involves people and languages. During today’s reading, if all goes according to plan, we will hear Acts 2:4 read in Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Samoan, Choctaw, Russian, Croatian, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Dutch, and Old English, and later we will hear the Lord’s Prayer in all of those languages. God’s grace through Jesus works not for division but for unity, and our differences cease to divide us.

The Gospel            John 14:8-17 (25-27)

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.”

 

In lieu of further thoughts, I offer the language texts that we read today and some comments on the languages.

The language texts that follow are renderings of Acts 2:4—“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability”—in various languages; for most languages that are not written in a Roman alphabet I have found, devised, or begged transliterations. Within language families I have underlined cognates—related words—to show the commonalities within the differences.

1. The Semitic language family includes Arabic, Hebrew, and the ancient Phoenician language. Semitic word roots typically have three consonants; vowel patterns work like inflections to signal grammatical information, so in classical Arabic the aaa pattern gives a verb (kataba ‘he wrote’, malaka ‘he owned/seized/ ruled’, nazala ‘he dismounted’, lamasa ‘he touched’); the ā-i pattern, a doer of the action (kātib ‘writer’, mālik ‘owner’); the i-ā pattern, a result of the action (kitāb ‘book’, nizāl ‘lining up for battle where one dismounted’); ma‑Ø-a-/i- a place where something is done (maktab ‘office’, manzil ‘stopping place’, malmas ‘place touched’, mamlaka ‘kingdom’), and so on. The transliterations here differ somewhat, but ‘holy’ is q-d-s or q-d-sh and ‘spirit’ is r-w-ḥ orr-w-ch.

Arabic: (transliterated)

wametla aljamey‘ min alruwḥ alqudus wābetdawa yatakalamuwna biilsinah ākhrā kamā ā‘khṭāhumu alruwḥu ān yanṭiquwā

Hebrew: (transliterated: credit to the Rev. Andy Welch)

Vekullâm nimleû rûach haqadôsh veheiheilû ledabeir bilshônôt acheirôt kefî shenâtenâ lâhem hârûach ledabeir.

2. The linguistic classification of Japanese is somewhat subject to dispute; the Japonic language family is not very closely related to other languages, though a relationship to Korean is possible and some scholars place these languages in the larger Altaic family. Even though Japanese is written partly in Chinese characters, it is not related to Chinese: unlike Mandarin, Japanese is not a tone language and it is highly inflected. Seirei is ‘Holy Spirit’.

Japanese: (transliterated)

Suruto, ichidō wa seirei ni mitasare, mitama ga kataraseru mama ni, iroiro no takoku no kotoba de kataridashi ta.

3. Choctaw is a Muskogean language originally spoken in and near modern Mississippi; the ancestors of most speakers were relocated to Oklahoma in the 1830s. Choctaw is closely related to Chickasaw and may be very distantly related to Kumeyaay or Diegueño, though the evidence is not strong. The letter v is used to write a vowel that is something like the first vowel in English about. Shilombish is ‘spirit’ and holitopa is ‘holy’.

Choctaw:

yvmohmi na, moyumvt Shilombish Holitopa yvt isht anukfokvt alota ma, anumpa inla puta anumpula he a, Shilombish vt apelahanchi na, okla anumpulit ishtia tok oke.

4. The Karen or Kayin languages, spoken in Burma (Myanmar), are members of the Tibeto-Burman grouping along with several languages of China (though neither Mandarin nor Cantonese). Karen languages, like many other languages of eastern Asia, are tone languages: not only are words distinguished by different vowels and consonants, they are also distinguished by six distinct tones or pitch contours. စီဆ is ‘holy’ and သး ‘spirit’.

Sgaw: (Myanmar Bible, original script)

ဒီးပှၤခဲ လၢာ်လၢထီၣ်ပှဲၤထီၣ်ဒီးသးစီဆှံ, ဒီးကတိၤတၢ်လၢအ ပျ့ၤအဂၤတဖၣ်, ဒ်သးန့ၣ်ဒုးကတိၤအီၤအသိးလီၤ.

5. The Austronesian language family probably originated in or near the island of Taiwan, off the coast of China. The Greek root nesos means ‘island’: most Austronesian languages are spoken on islands, from Madagascar off the east coast of Africa to the Easter Islands off the west coast of South America. The Polynesian languages of the South Pacific include Hawaiian, Fijian, and Samoan, all languages with relatively few consonants and simple consonant-vowel syllables. In Samoan, Agaga is ‘Spirit’ and Pa‘ia is ‘Holy Spirit’.

Samoan:

‘Ua fa‘atūtūmuina fo‘i i latou uma i le Agaga Pa‘ia, ma ‘ua amata loa ‘ona tautalatala i gagana ‘ese‘ese, e pei lava ‘ona faia e le Agaga ‘ua mafai ai e i latou ‘ona tautala atu.

6. The Indo-European language grouping has members spread across the globe. It includes the Slavic, Hellenic, Romance, and Germanic families and more.

a. The Slavic language family includes Russian and a number of languages spoken in Eastern Europe, such as Czech and Polish. Many but not all Slavic languages are written in Cyrillic characters; Croatian and Polish are among the languages that are written in roman script.  Dukh- and Duh- are ‘Spirit’; svyato- and sveto- are ‘holy’. Croatian and Serbian are essentially the same language.

Russian: (transliterated)

I ispolnilis’ vsye Dukha Svyatogo, i nachali govorit’ na inykh yazykakh, kak Dukh daval im provyeshchyevat’.

Croatian:

Svi se napuniše Duha Svetoga i počeše govoriti drugim jezicima, kako im već Duh davaše zboriti.

b. Greek is the sole surviving member of the Hellenic family. The Greek alphabet is descended from the Phoenician alphabet, though the Greeks converted a number of Phoenician consonant signs to symbols for vowels. Pneuma- is ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’; agiou, as in the Hagia Sophia, is ‘holy’.

Greek: (transliterated)

kai eplēsthēsan pantes pneumatos agiou kai ērxanto lalein eterais glōssais kathōs to pneuma edidou apophthengesthai autois

c. The founding member of the Romance language family is Latin, the language of the Romans. It is no longer in use as an everyday language, except in the Vatican, but its traces are strong in not only in the Romance languages but in English. Among its modern descendants are Italian, Spanish, and French. Latin –pl– as in repleti ‘filled up, replete’ often shows up in Italian as –pi-, as in ripieni ‘filled’ and in Spanish as –ll-, as in llenos ‘filled’ (so chiles relleños are quite literally filled-up or replete chilis). ‘Spirit’ is Spiritus/Espíritu/Esprit, and ‘holy’ is sanct-/santo/saint.

Latin:

et repleti sunt omnes Spiritu Sancto et coeperunt loqui aliis linguis prout Spiritus Sanctus dabat eloqui illis

Italian:

Cosí furono tutti ripieni di Spirito Santo e cominciarono a parlare in altre lingue, secondo che lo Spirito dava loro di esprimersi.

Spanish:

Todos fueron llenos del Espíritu Santo y comenzaron a hablar en diferentes lenguas, según el Espíritu les concedía expresarse.

French:

Aussitôt, ils furent tous remplis du Saint-Esprit et commencèrent à parler dans différentes langues, chacun s’exprimant comme le Saint-Esprit lui donnait de le faire.

d. The Germanic language family has three main subgroups: Northern Germanic (Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic, but not Finnish, which is closely related to Hungarian), East Germanic (all of the languages of which are extinct), and West Germanic (including German, Dutch and English). Heilig-, hellig, and halg– are cognates of Modern English ‘holy’. Geest and gast mean ‘spirit’, though Modern English ghost now means specifically ‘spirit of a dead person’. The Northern Germanic languages instead have ånd or ande, from a Proto-Germanic word meaning ‘breath or spirit’ which is cognate with an Old English word meaning ‘malice, envy, hatred’ (that is, bad spirits) and with Latin anima ‘breath or soul’.

Norwegian:

Da blev de alle fylt med den Hellige Ånd, og de begynte å tale med andre tunger, alt efter som Ånden gav dem å tale.

Dutch:

En zij werden allen vervuld met den Heiligen Geest, en begonnen te spreken met andere talen, zoals de Geest hun gaf uit te spreken.

Old English:

and hi wurdon ða ealle gefyllede mid þam Halgum Gaste, and ongunnon to sprecenne mid mislicum gereordum, be ðam þe se Halga Gast him tæhte.