Archive for July, 2013

For July 28, 2013: Proper 12, Year C

The Reading            Hosea 1:2-10

The prophet Amos over the last two weeks condemned Israel in terrifying terms for defrauding the poor. The book of Hosea is even more shocking and graphic: at God’s command, Hosea tells us, he marries a woman who will cheat on him flagrantly, to symbolize Israel’s faithlessness—and, eventually God’s capacity for forgiveness.

The Response            Psalm 85

“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

The Epistle            Colossians 2:6-19

The church at Galatia, with its mix of Gentiles and converted Jews, seems to have experienced a good deal of friction about how to eat and drink and celebrate rightly as a Christian. Paul reminds the Galatians and us that what matters is that we are made right with God through the sacrifice of Jesus: the rest is human thinking.

The Gospel            Luke 11:1-13

“‘How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’”

 

 

Further thoughts

The story of Hosea and his bride is difficult to read. The command by God Almighty to find a whore, or at least a woman who will certainly both sleep around on Hosea and make sure he knows all about it, and marry her surely contravenes both Talmudic law and the considerable weight of what custom has to say about the purity of the woman one marries. The language is incredibly alienating: the wife is depicted as not merely unfaithful but repugnant, and the children are given abusive names that signify brutality (Jezreel was the site of Naboth’s house that King Ahaz coveted and it was where Ahaz and Jezebel were killed), callousness, and unwantedness. It has been suggested that verse 10, which reverses the second and third children’s names, was added by a later hand; this verse takes some of the sting out of what precedes, but we’re still left with a blameless man holding his nose while condescending to marry someone that no sane man should want.

The epistle and gospel make a much bigger shift. The reading from Colossians depicts the sacrifice of Jesus as the product not of God’s contempt but of God’s love; the benefits of whatever Jesus underwent in this world are extended to us if we simply believe in his Name—including a key ritual, circumcision, for which the female body has no good analogue—and everything else is just window dressing prescribed by humans. In the reading from Luke, Jesus’ disciples probably expect an arcane and stately ritual when they ask to be taught to pray; they want something that marks them off from others as insiders. Instead, Jesus gives a format that a two-year-old could master in which God Almighty is “Daddy” and the “we” includes the whole of God’s beloved world.

For July 21, 2013: Proper 11, Year C

The Reading            Amos 8:1-12

Though his book is near the end of the Old Testament, the prophet Amos is an earlier figure—and, as we saw last week, uncomfortably forthright. In today’s reading, God puns on the Hebrew words for ‘summer fruit’ (qayits) and ‘end’ (qets) to announce that dishonest dealing and abuse of the poor will no longer be overlooked: misery and mourning are coming for all, and the Word of God will be nowhere to be found.

The Response            Psalm 52

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, but trusted in great wealth and relied upon wickedness.”

The Epistle            Colossians 1:15-28

Like the prophecy of Amos, Psalm 52 predicted disaster on account of wicked dealing, though the psalmist says that the good will be unscathed. Today’s reading from the book of Colossians describes Christ risen and reigning, first and firstborn: it is through Christ alone—not through the rules we obey nor those we enforce on others—that any of us humans can hope to be reconciled to the goodness of God.

The Gospel            Luke 10:38-42

“‘There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”

 

Further thoughts

“Busy” is an unusual word, and for more reasons than the peculiarity of its spelling. Unlike many other basic vocabulary items in English whose roots go back to Proto-Germanic or even Proto-Indo-European, busy is known only in English, Dutch and Low German. In late Old English the adjective bysig meant ‘occupied’ or ‘diligent’, and one’s bysignes was what kept one busy. By the late fourteenth century bisynesse could mean one’s occupation.

In the prophecy of Amos we see these senses applied: those whom the Lord excoriates have been diligent in taking opportunities to enrich themselves on the backs of the poor and needy, by selling short measure and defective goods at high prices. They are, to borrow Scrooge’s characterization of Marley in A Christmas Carol, “good men of business”. Scrooge intends it as a compliment—but Dickens, Amos, the psalmist, and we know better, or so I hope. As Marley retorts, “Mankind should be our business!”

Bysig has an earlier meaning, however: ‘anxious or concerned’. An Old English translation of Luke 10:41 reads Ðu eart carful ond bysig ymbe fela ðing ‘ you are care-filled and busy about many things’. Martha was not merely bustling about, in other words: she was frazzled, and possibly beginning to lose her grip. I don’t think Jesus intended to disparage her. This is, after all, the guy who made it his business to save a wedding by changing water into wine. I think he was inviting Martha for at least a little while to join her sister: his presence and Mary’s, and hers, and that of each of us, is much more important than whether the napkins are folded correctly or the butter is cut into tidy pats.

The reading from Colossians underlines this point: the business of Christ Jesus is to be God and man, first and firstborn from the dead, Creator and Wisdom and Brother whose sacrifice is what makes each of us justified before God; and our business is to follow Jesus as we can, spread the Word, and in our own ways be the Kingdom of God come near to a world that can’t stand the smell of itself otherwise.

For July 14, 2013: Proper 10, Year C

The Reading            Amos 7:7-17

With Israel’s occupiers busy elsewhere around 750 BC, the elites enjoy peace and prosperity while afflicting the poor. The unlikely prophet Amos, called from his herds and fruit trees to set things right, speaks of God’s plumb line: a heavy weight hanging from a string to show how far a wall is from being perfectly upright. Amaziah resists by misquoting Amos on purpose—but, like a wall, a nation that is not upright cannot be allowed to stand.

The Response            Psalm 82 Page 705, BCP

The Epistle            Colossians 1:1-14

We begin reading from the letter to the Colossians, which may or may not have been written by Paul. Colossae was a prosperous Roman city in what is now southwestern Turkey. The Christians there were mostly gentile, so disputes about doctrine tended not to center on Jewish practice. The writer’s delight in what the Colossians are doing well is evident.

The Gospel            Luke 10:25-37

“‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’”

 

Further thoughts

The “credibility gap” of the 1960s and 1970s was the perceived discrepancy between the messages issued by the Johnson government about the controversial war in Vietnam, and later about Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate burglary and coverup, and the facts being uncovered in the media. Credibility gaps figure in several of today’s readings. Amaziah is a priest of Bethel and thus an anointed servant of the God of truth, but when Amos announces that Israel just doesn’t measure, up, Amaziah responds by misrepresenting the prophecy of Amos ’s to protect his lord King Jeroboam. The lawyer who attempts to snare Jesus does not resort to lying, at least—but his area of expertise would have been religious law, and his asking “Who is my neighbor?” smacks more than slightly of a later president’s widely parodied “It depends on what ‘is’ is.”

It is easy to condemn Amaziah and the lawyer, and two millennia of hindsight as to how the story comes out don’t make it any less tempting. The fact is that none of us measures up to God’s standards of goodness, neighborliness, and love—and even if we did, as the apostle Paul forcefully argues elsewhere, it wouldn’t justify us before God, because nothing can. As the letter to the Colossians tells it today, however, God loves us when we fail and he loves us when we try. Attempting to be good will not justify us—even the Samaritan reaching out beyond his own parochial interests to tend the wounds of the Jew was not justified by this—but making the attempt, when and as we can, bears blessed fruit not only for the world but for ourselves.

As a sage once said, “Don’t give until it hurts. Give until it feels good. The cost is about the same.” That’s precisely how God’s economy works.

For July 7, 2013: Independence Day

The Reading      Deuteronomy 10:17-21

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward:

18 He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment.

19 Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

20 Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name.

21 He is thy praise, and he is thy God, that hath done for thee these great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen.

 

The Gospel      Matthew 5:43-48

43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Further thoughts

St Alban’s is celebrating US Independence Day 2013 with a Eucharist based on the very first Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP). This 1790 service provides for only two readings, from the Old Testament and the Gospels—and none for Independence Day as such, though it offers prayers worth reviving for the President and for Congress. In fact, no authorized edition of the BCP before 1928 ever specified Independence Day readings. It is the 1928 readings that St Alban’s somewhat anachronistically uses today with the 1790 order of service, in the King James translation rather than the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

The 1928 readings make a striking pair, especially for their time. The 1928 BCP came into use ten short years after the end of what was then called the Great War, the European conflagration of nationalism that was the first major military venture of the United States as a world power. One expects celebratory verses about cities on hills, anointings, or victory, or perhaps cautionary tales of unpreparedness, intemperance, or failure to exercise civic virtues.

What we find, however, are two remarkable injunctions to love. Each is addressed not just to individuals but to the community: this is less obvious in modern English, in which you can denote one or many, but it is quite clear in the consciously archaic English of the King James version, which carefully distinguishes plural ye and you from singular thou and thee. The Deuteronomy writer’s “Love ye the stranger” thus bids all of us to care for the person who is Not Us: not from these parts, not from our economic stratum, not of our race or language, not a citizen (for some other translations render “stranger” as “alien”). Then Jesus commands, “Love your enemies”, serving notice on all his disciples—us, too—that we are to love widely and deeply and without regard to who’s right or wrong, good or bad, ours or theirs.

That’s God’s love, and it’s as remarkable in our time as it was almost 90 years ago. More’s the pity.

For June 30, 2013: Proper 8, Year C

The Reading            2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

We resume our review of the history of God’s people with the second book of Kings. Today’s reading tells how Elisha inherits the mantle—literally—of his adoptive father, the great prophet Elijah. Elisha requests a double share of Elijah’s spirit not from greed but because that is the proper share of the true heir. Elisha certainly needs it to serve as God’s voice to the kings of Israel and Judah, who as often as not turn their backs on God.

The Response            Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 Page 693, BCP

“I will cry aloud to God; I will cry aloud, and he will hear me.”

The Epistle            Galatians 5:1,13-25

Some members of the church at Galatia argued that being circumcised and keeping the Jewish feasts meant that one could do whatever one wanted otherwise. In today’s Epistle reading, Paul argues forcefully to the contrary. It’s worth pointing out that, of the fifteen works of the flesh he cites, more than half are clear offenses against other people: that is, failures to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Gospel            Luke 9:51-62

“They said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them.”

 

Further thoughts

A common theme in all three of today’s reading is the connection between power and love.

The reading from 2 Kings omits the verses in which, at the stopping points in the journey of Elijah and Elisha, all the other prophets of Yahweh keep asking Elisha whether he knows that his master will be taken from him. One suspects that they dare not approach the powerful prophet Elijah himself, so instead they test his apprentice’s power. The relationship between Elijah and Elisha is not merely a master-apprentice relationship, however: Elijah has been Elisha’s father in all but the biological sense. It is the love between them that gives Elisha the power to stay with Elijah in spite of being told he may leave, to the very end; one senses also that Elisha’s stubborn love is a greater comfort to Elijah on his final journey than the great man would like to let on; and it may well be as much a sense of loss more than anything else that impels Elisha to make the first test of the power that he has inherited.

The passage from Galatians is less symbolic. Paul explains—perhaps with some exasperation—that the salvation of God confers power, but not the power to do whatever one darned well pleases irrespective of the effects on others: it is instead the power in others’ lives that one gains without seeking it through reliably acting in love, and it is the power of each exercise of love to heal and hallow the worn and aching hearts in this worn and aching world.

Jesus underlines the point by living it. His followers must not throw their weight around, nor have they leave to expect wealth, renown, acceptance, or even a place to stay that isn’t someone else’s to give. Ours are not to be the lives in which the loose ends are neatly tied up and under our control. Instead, Jesus tells us, we should prepare to give our love and even ourselves for the sake of restoring God’s justice and mercy for all souls.

For June 23, 2013: St Alban’s Day

The Reading            2 Esdras 2:42-48

The apocryphal books of Esdras or Ezra appear to prophesy the Messiah early in Old Testament times, though they were probably composed after Jesus died. Whatever the history, Ezra’s vision on Mount Zion stirringly depicts the heavenly honor that awaits all who, like our patron Saint Alban, are fully faithful to the Son of God.

The Response            Psalm 34:1-8

“Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!”

The Epistle            1 John 3:13-16

Ezra described how the Son of God would reward those who are faithful to him. John’s first letter sketches the life of faith: we are to love one another. John also reminds us of the cost—whether, like Saint Alban, we lay down our lives all at once or whether we lay them down minute by minute and day by day.

The Gospel            Matthew 10:34-42

“‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life  for my sake will find it.’”

 

Further thoughts

Legends about St Alban agree that he lived and died in Verulamium, on the outskirts of modern London, at a time when the penalty under Roman law for confessing Christianity was death. Where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives the death date as 283 AD, the Venerable Bede’s account points to a date around 304 AD, and one modern scholar has proposed 209 AD while some others suggest 251 to 259 AD.

Tradition says that Alban was British and a soldier in the Roman army. Since Roman legions recruited locally, both may be true, though his living in a house rather than a barracks means that he was either an officer or a well-to-do civilian. In any case, somehow Alban was moved to shelter a fugitive Christian priest. Fascinated by the priest’s piety and testimony, Alban converted to Christianity just before the authorities closed in. After facilitating the priest’s escape by changing clothes with him, Alban was haled before the Roman governor. Neither threats nor flogging could induce Alban to sacrifice to the Roman gods, whose efficacy he disparaged, so the exasperated governor ordered him beheaded. En route to the execution site, a hill outside Verulamium, the waters of the river Ver parted to let Alban and his executioners cross; at the top of the hill Alban prayed for water and a spring rose up. His executioner then threw down his sword and declared himself also Christian. A substitute executioner beheaded Alban and the first executioner, only to have his eyes fall out.

Alban’s reply when the governor demanded his name—“My parents called me Alban, and I worship and adore the true and living God who made all things”—remains part of prayers at the church that was built over the site of his execution, St Alban’s Cathedral in St Alban’s, UK.

As England’s first martyr and our patron, St Alban is a hero, and his story is a myth in the fullest and best sense. The word myth is commonly used of something that is entirely untrue.  Among scholars, however, a myth is a story that explains how something in the world came to be and also sheds light on how humans either are or ought to be: it may not be factual, but it is assuredly true. The myths of St Alban vary in details, but all show a man accepting the faith and defending it at the cost of his life. We of the 21st century face few enemies of the Church who can order us executed. We are, however, in a world that makes us choose whether we stand with Christ on the side of life or not. Sometimes the choice is as heroic as Alban’s; more often it is a matter of deciding whether, in this minute, to open a door in love or close it in fear.

May the love of Christ and the example of St Alban always embolden us to choose love and life for Christ.

For June 16, 2013: Proper 6, Year C

The Reading            1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a

The first and second books of Kings tell the stories of the rulers of Israel and the prophets during their reigns. In today’s reading from the first book, notorious King Ahab pouts because he wants land he does not own; Jezebel, his even more notorious wife, arranges for the land’s owner to be executed under trumped-up charges. It falls to the prophet Elijah to confront Ahab about his wrongdoing.

 The Response            Psalm 5:1-8

The Epistle            Galatians 2:15-21

As the second chapter of the book of Galatians opens, Paul defends his call to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He makes a narrow point and a wider one. The first point, made in verses that we are not reading today, is that the circumcised and the uncircumcised are to share the good news together. This leads to his second point, which we read today: what justifies us with God is nothing whatever that we do.

The Gospel            Luke 7:36-8:3

“‘…her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.’”

 

 Further thoughts

Today’s readings present somewhat unappetizing views of righteousness. The psalmist tells us that God shuns the bloodthirsty and protects the righteous, but righteous Naboth is publicly humiliated and killed on trumped-up charges just so Ahab can take his land for a vegetable garden. Super-righteous Paul tells us just how far his super-righteouness goes in buying him justification with God: absolutely nowhere. Jesus’ host clearly believes he has done two extraordinarily generous and superior things in inviting this controversial itinerant preacher to dinner and in not making a public issue of Jesus’ gaucherie in allowing a “sinful woman” to touch him, and then Jesus sets him straight on, among other things, Simon’s unfortunate lapse from the standards for hospitality.

It is hard not to cheer when grasping Ahab and Jezebel finally reap what they have sown, and it may be even harder (because the consequences are less) not to feel satisfaction at Simon getting taken down a peg. This may not be altogether inappropriate: as we will see in the course of the summer’s lectionary readings, justice and equity are very much on the mind of God and so they ought to be on ours.

It is sobering, though, to realize just what Jesus has to say about that nameless woman: she loves extravagantly not because she is good or gifted but because she has been forgiven extravagantly.

What might the world look like if we forgave like that?