Archive for August, 2013

For Sept. 1, 2013: Proper 17, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 2:4-13

The prophet Jeremiah was active in the sixth century AD, in the decades before and during the occupation of Jerusalem. From him we get the English eponym “jeremiad”, referring to a scorchingly critical denunciation. Today’s reading is a classic example: Jeremiah relates the words of the Lord as prosecuting attorney, building a case point by point against the people of Israel for ingratitude, sin, and chasing after other gods.

The Response            Psalm 81:1, 10-16

“Oh, that my people would listen to me! that Israel would walk in my ways!”

The Epistle            Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

The letter to the Hebrews was written to guide people who sought to live as followers of Christ in a world that did not make that easy. Our series of readings from Hebrews concludes today with excerpts from the last chapter. The advice it gave in those days remains valid in ours.

The Gospel            Luke 14:1, 7-14

“‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.’”

 

Further thoughts

The phrase “Know your place” has been brought into play throughout human history to remind the poor and dispossessed that it is their duty to bow to and support the rich and powerful; sometimes it is used to advise the all concerned that wealth and power and their absence correlate directly with God’s esteem. Today’s readings, however, take a much more radical perspective.

Through Jeremiah the prophet and through the psalmist, the God of Jacob excoriates Jacob’s powerful descendants, the priests and kings, for forgetting what their place had been: helpless slaves in Egypt that God nevertheless saw fit to redeem, and then leaders whose lives and actions and regard for strangers and orphans should set the best possible example for God’s people to follow. The rulers, priests, and prophets have abandoned their proper places: God will judge, and consequences will follow.

The reading from Hebrews reminds early followers of Christ of their place: in the world in love, tending the needs and wounds of strangers and those in trouble and doing their best with God’s help not to inflict wounds on those in their families. In a world in which strangers might be enemies and hierarchy extends to the family, this counsel seems to ignore both prudence and social norms—but it is the place of love.

In Jesus’ parable, the wedding guests seek the places they think they deserve at the banquet, and they risk getting it wrong. I think the parable and the following comment call us truly to see those around us, recalling that another’s worth in God’s eyes is not a reflection of net worth. We might also reflect that those who cannot repay us in the world’s terms nevertheless honor us by their presence and by the God-given grace to receive with thanks and without resentment or shame.

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For Aug. 25, 2013: Proper 16, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 1:4-10

This week we begin reading from the book of Jeremiah, who prophesied in the seventh century before Christ. Unlike Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, who came to prophecy from other lines of work, Jeremiah started prophesying as a young man. In today’s reading, the Lord calls Jeremiah. His immediate response echoes ours, far too often: “Who, me? I can’t do that!”

The Response            Psalm 71:1-6

“You are my hope, O Lord GOD, my confidence since I was young. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born.”

The Epistle            Hebrews 12:18-29

Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews contrasts the experiences of God’s people on Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. Where Moses’ mountain was too holy for mere mortals, the city of God welcomes all who respond to God’s call through the sacrifice of Jesus.

The Gospel            Luke 13:10-17

“‘Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham…, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’”

 

Further thoughts

As Jeremiah tells it, one day YHWH tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Son, go talk truth to power on Our behalf.” Jeremiah retorted, “Who, me? I’m just a kid.” His excuse might even have been literally true, but it is as likely that Jeremiah was old enough to foresee how much trouble this call would be: spending decades showing kings the hot water they were in with YHWH and being showered liberally with hot water in return.

The reading from Hebrews contrasts calls to two holy mountains. Mount Sinai, off in the wilderness, sounds like Mount Saint Helens in mid-eruption; Moses alone was called there to encounter the living YHWH on behalf of the Israelites, and even he trembled and did not presume to live there. Mount Zion, in contrast, is in—or is—the City of God, where angels and saints dwell and rejoice; reverence and awe are still in order, but, thanks to Jesus, the invitation is open to all. Though God’s mercy bends a longer arc through time and space even than God’s justice does, and God’s house is where our hearts find rest, the call can be hard to respond to: Am I really invited as I am, even if everyone else is better? Are the others really invited as they are, even if they don’t seem good enough? Aren’t there rules and rituals and standards to uphold?

In the gospels, Jesus consistently bends rules; he hangs out with riffraff and challenges authority, and in today’s reading he offends a leader by healing a woman on the sabbath. It is easy to condemn the leader for hardheartedness, but he’s only doing what most of us do: turning good expedients into ironclad prescriptions in a valiant but doomed attempt to insulate ourselves from screwing up and having to think too much. As Jesus reminds us elsewhere, though, all the law and the prophets hang on two principles:

1. Love God wholeheartedly.

2. Love everyone else as we should love ourselves.

Following these principles will not insulate us from screwing up any more than YHWH’s protection insulated Jeremiah from hot water—but as we unbind others’ hearts in love, we also unbind our own.

For Aug. 18, 2013: Proper 15, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 5:1-7

Today’s passage from Isaiah begins as a love song but rapidly turns bitter. Everything possible has been done to assure that the vineyard would produce a sweet, good vintage. Instead, the vineyard yields fruit that stinks: not justice (miṣpat in Hebrew) but spillage (miṣpaḥ) of blood, and not righteousness (tsedeqah) but a cry (tseʕeqah). As Isaiah explains, the errant vineyard will be laid waste—and it stands for God’s people.

The Response            Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18

“Turn now, O God of hosts…; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”

The Epistle            Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews continues last week’s discussion. The towering figures of the Old Testament, and those who underwent bitter torment, are held up as examples of faith to follow—and yet, we are told, they had to wait for the fulfillment of the promises in Jesus.

The Gospel            Luke 12:49-56

“‘I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!’”

 

Further thoughts

Today’s readings induce squirms. The reading from Isaiah gives us God’s forceful renunciation and even repudiation of Israel: this squares uncomfortably with our sense of God as abounding in mercy. The Psalm, for its part, begs for God’s intervening, up to and including the annihilation rather than the redemption of others. The reading from Hebrews holds up as heroes the likes of Rahab the Canaanite whore and assorted practitioners of ethnic cleansing, Old Testament-style, and brings up that vexed word “perfect”. To top it all off, Jesus’ words as transmitted by Luke show us the Son of God and Prince of Peace as a fomenter of interfamilial strife; little wonder that preachers tend not to preach on the gospel this Sunday.

I wonder if the messages might be mixed on purpose, and, as the last three verses of the gospel suggest, much turns on how we interpret them. When bad things happen to me, should I not at least consider the possibility that my bad choices had something to do with it—but should I not also entertain the possibility that it is not be about me at all? When my foes come to the bad end that the Psalm requests, perhaps it is their wickedness, but might it be not about them at all, and have I any right to my barely suppressed snicker at their comeuppance? How am I to understand this word “perfect” in Hebrews when I know in my marrow that I am nowhere close, and how shall I manage not to make the goal of perfection a burden to those around me? What of the fact that even closely related people can and do disagree violently on how or whether to live life in Jesus? Does my belief entitle me to push the divisions however I can? Does it license me to press tracts and testimony on all comers at all times? If I don’t press tracts at all, am I simply trying to keep a peace that can’t be kept?

Is it even possible to have a faith that amounts to anything worthwhile without squirming?

For Aug. 11, 2013: Proper 14, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

During the eighth century before Christ, the northern kingdom of Israel was overrun by Assyria, and the southern kingdom of Judah was embattled. In today’s reading, the prophet Isaiah relays God’s diagnosis and challenge: the powerful people who have paraded their rituals while sinning against God and the poor and powerless must stop and repent.

The Response            Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24

“Our God will come and will not keep silence… he calls the heavens and the earth from above to witness the judgment of his people.”

The Epistle            Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Isaiah prophesied bad things for wicked people. The book of Hebrews is written to very early Christians to whom very bad things are happening for following Jesus. Today’s reading reassures them and us: the promises of God may not all come true in our lifetime, but they belong to God’s people, we who are saints not because we are good but because we are God’s—and, astonishingly, it is no shame to God to be our God.

The Gospel            Luke 12:32-40

“‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’”

 

Further thoughts

Just how badly can we screw up and still be God’s, and what is our next move? Today’s readings pose answers that are, by turns, terrifyingly blunt, reassuring, and challenging.

The reading from Isaiah, from the very beginning of the book, opens with a no-holds-barred assessment of the behavior of God’s People. They are likened to the rulers and residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, the names of which cities still stand as bywords for wickedness. The sin of Sodom was not, in the quaint phrase, “men lying with men”, it was the violent and premeditated rape of those who should have been able to expect the city’s protection and hospitality. By extension, God’s Voice through Isaiah is charging God’s own People with a kind of rape of the poorest and most powerless in society, and no amount of ostentatious sacrifice or religious observance could possibly mitigate that sin. But still there is hope: even as God Almighty the Prosecutor pronounces judgment, God Almighty the Merciful holds out hope of forgiveness—if, if we change our ways.

The letter to the Hebrews shows us an unusual relationship between faith and mercy. It reinterprets Abraham’s history to suggest that faith is not the fruit of personal goodness: instead, faith is seeking and believing God, and it is the gift of God. I think this does not mean that failure to feel a particular way about church or even God at a given moment is a failure of faith. In the dry times—and there are dry times in any life—it suffices to keep acting as though we believed, and to seek the company of those who can help bear us up.

And what then? The gospel answers: quit hoarding; be generous; and be ready, at whatever time or place, to do the good that needs to be done.

Might faith also be the ability to recognize and respond to one of God’s children in need?

For August 4, 2013: Proper 13, Year C

The Reading            Hosea 11:1-11

In last week’s reading from the beginning of the book of Hosea, God is frustrated to disgust with Israel’s unfaithfulness. At the end of the book, God remains exasperated—but, as the poem that is today’s reading shows, God’s compassion for God’s children exceeds even our capacity to wander.

The Response            Psalm 107:1-9, 43

“Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children.”

The Epistle            Colossians 3:1-11

The Old Testament reading and Psalm today paint vivid pictures of God’s persistent mercy for God’s children. The epistle to the Colossians follows up on this point: if we truly participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, then it is our responsibility to live according to Christ’s example in our treatment of all of God’s children.

The Gospel            Luke 12:13-21

“But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’”

 

Further thoughts

The speaking voice in the book of Hosea sometimes sounds like the voice of the infinitely merciful God we know from the New Testament, but sometimes it sounds terrifyingly like a human father lashing out at a child’s rebelliousness or a human spouse seething that once again the house isn’t tidy and dinner isn’t on the table at 6 p.m. because, after all, the mother of the infant and toddler has nothing else to do. I can’t help wondering if the shaming really is God’s voice, or rather whether it’s a projection of some of our problematic human tendencies to shame others as a way of deflecting attention from our own shame. If Hosea went into his marriage with Gomer convinced that she would stray as predicted, his comportment is likely to reflect that. What if Hosea had argued with God, not necessarily about the command to marry Gomer, but about the need to identify her before the fact as a slut? What if that was a test? And, harking back to the destruction of the world, what if the call to build the Ark came to more than one person, but all the rest blew it off? Or what if Noah had argued for mercy?

For the point of the readings today is not the wrath and the name-calling. Even Hosea, in this reading, shows us God too much in love with God’s people to destroy them. The letter to the Colossians, for its part, calls us to abandon a series of sins all of which have to do with abusing, pulling rank on, and looking down on others: instead, our thank-you for God’s mercy is to extend to others the grace we have received from God. And I think one point of Jesus’ remarks in Luke is that both the person in the crowd and the rich man in the story are too concerned with getting or keeping their own share. Whether the good things of God are material or spiritual, they are intended to be shared as openhandedly as they have been given.

The big question, then is how we can remember, as individuals and as a community, to live into that call.