Archive for September, 2013

For Sept. 29, 2013: Proper 21, Year C*

(There’s an asterisk on this post because St Alban’s isn’t using these lections for Sept. 29, 2013 – we’re using the lections for St Michael and All Angels instead – but I didn’t remember this until after I’d written up everything for Proper 21. It seemed a shame to waste the effort. Enjoy!)

The Reading            Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

When the Israelites first occupied the land of promise, they parceled it out by families, and by law land for sale was offered first to one’s relatives, to keep it in the family. Jeremiah knows that he and his people face deportation to Babylon. One hesitates to buy land in such a case—but the point of the elaborate purchase process is God’s assurance that, someday, God’s people will buy and sell and live in the land once more.

The Response            Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

“He shall say to the Lord, ‘You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.”

The Epistle            1 Timothy 6:6-19

The first letter to Timothy continues with sage advice for a young pastor shepherding a new church, and for the rest of us. Today’s verses discuss the delicate matter of money. The author is not against money; he devotes attention to the good that we in the present age (that is, we in this world) can do for others with what we have.

The Gospel            Luke 16:19-31

“‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

 

Further thoughts

A common theme in this Sunday’s readings—and perhaps throughout the Bible—is that it matters less what one has than what one does with what one has.

The thread is least obvious in the first reading. Jeremiah knows from God that his people are about to be overrun and exiled by the Babylonian empire, probably for a very long time. He is also under arrest in the court of Zedekiah, the puppet king that Babylon installed a decade earlier, for making predictions that the powerful don’t want to hear about the bad days to come. Jeremiah’s own future is grim. Then along comes Jeremiah’s cousin offering to sell a field. Jeremiah knows he himself may never even see the land, let alone enjoy it. But with members of the court as witnesses, he pays out a sum of money that could have made his own exile less painful and orders the deeds preserved: that is, he gives a sign that Israel indeed has a future, even if it isn’t his.

The connection between what one does is more obvious in the case of Jesus’ parable of the rich man, he of the feasts and costly purple clothes, and the ignored pauper Lazarus (whose name means ‘God is my help’ in Hebrew), with sores that made him ritually unclean. When both die and the rich man is in torment, he somehow thinks the pauper for whom he wouldn’t lift a finger or spend a dime in life should come to his rescue. Abraham is emphatic: God’s Word and the world around me should be quite enough to convince me to do all the good I can.

The first letter of Timothy addresses the issue more overtly. As the closing verses say, it isn’t that no one should be rich but that one should seek opportunities to do good with one’s wealth, and not seek to get richer at others’ expense. The oft-misquoted verse 10 is telling (emphases are mine): “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…” It is, of course, the same with any other gift: even holiness, if I hoard it and muscle others out of the way for it to elevate myself above them, leads straight to the hell of the unbridgeable chasm.

For Sept. 29, 2013: the Feast of St Michael

The Reading            Genesis 28:10-17

For the feast of St Michael and All Angels, we take a break from jeremiads to read an account of what Jacob dreams the night he flees from his justifiably angry brother Esau. He is in unfamiliar territory where people worship other gods—but the dream is itself a messenger by which he learns that, even in this place and even given the dirty tricks he’s pulled on his brother, he and God are by no means finished with each other.

The Response            Psalm 103 or 103:19-22

“Bless the Lord, all you works of his, in all places of his dominion; bless the Lord, O my soul.”

The Epistle            Revelation 12:7-12

To English speakers, using the word angel of allies of the Devil in dragon form sounds odd, but angel comes from a Greek word meaning ‘messenger’—or, perhaps more fittingly for this reading—‘emissary’. That the reading ends with the angry devil thrown down to earth is sobering for those of us still here—but the good news is that our deceitful accuser is no longer the only one representing our cases before God.

The Gospel            John 1:47-51

“‘I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”

 

Further thoughts

What does it take to be an angel?

Whatever it is, Jacob seems an unlikely candidate. As this Sunday’s reading opens, he is running for his life from his elder twin Esau, whom he has fleeced again, and perhaps from his father’s God as well. A halo is clearly not part of his ensemble. When it is too dark to go further, he falls asleep on pagan ground, his pillow a stone that may be from a pagan’s cairn and the “ladder” of his dream the ramp or stairway of a pagan temple. Yet God and God’s angels are there; Psalm 103’s reference to “all places of [God’s] dominion” must mean anywhere and everywhere. Jacob is awed and humbled, and opened to becoming God’s malakh himself.

For malakh, the Hebrew word that is translated as ‘angel’, is a wide-ranging title. A malakh could be anything from an errand runner to an emperor’s emissary, or leader of a synagogue or one of the seven early churches of Revelation’s opening chapters. The writer of Revelation seems to have this breadth in mind: the unnamed “loud voice” in heaven that declaims the dragon’s downfall names the accused as “our comrades”, as offhandedly as though it were obvious—and that means us. Is part of the requirement for a malakh simply to keep showing up?

Nathanael’s story in the gospel suggests that this may be so. In the gospel he appears as the polar opposite of Jacob, “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” and the fig tree under which Jesus spies him is the traditional place of a rabbi or scholar in study. Though guileless, Nathanael is not snarkless: when Philip invites him to see Jesus in the verses preceding, he responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nevertheless, Nathanael shows up—and, perhaps to his own surprise, confesses Jesus as the Messiah.

Showing up is good. Showing up with awe and readiness is even better. How do I do that, Lord?

For Sept. 22, 2013: Proper 20, Year C

The Reading                                                                 Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Jeremiah the prophet is famous for angry denunciations of wickedness. Here is a little of that—“Why have they provoked me?” says the Lord—but much more of today’s reading is grief for the misery of the people of Israel. Gilead was known for balsam from which a healing salve was made, but no such medicine seems able to help. The theme is continued in Psalm 19.

The Response                                          Psalm 79:1-9

“We have become a reproach to our neighbors, an object of scorn and derision to those around us.”

The Epistle                          Gilead,                           1 Timothy 2:1-7

The second chapter of 1 Timothy begins by nearly commanding that we pray for authority figures. In those days a Christian who refused to worship Caesar could be put to death, and many Christians must have known of people who died for that reason. This strong recommendation challenged them, and challenges us, to think about how to deal with those rulers here and abroad with whom we disagree.

The Gospel                                                                            Luke 16:1-13

“‘If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?’”

 

Further thoughts

It is not too great a stretch to say that today’s readings center on debt and responsibility. Jeremiah mourns for God’s poor people, who are afflicted because those who should have known better (which is, on some level, each of us) have lived large and idolized all manner of things—graven images like those in Exodus are named, but perhaps also the self-images that we cherish at the expense of others’ images. The psalm points fingers at the heathen for destroying the Temple and Jerusalem, the City of Peace, but time and again God’s Peace is broken through our sin, which too often includes identifying “heathen” at whom to point fingers rather than identifying wounds to which to bring balm or healing—or apology. The epistle to Timothy declines to assign blame in favor of urging prayer for everyone; not only does its “everyone” hold us to pray even for rulers whom we might consider enemies, but its “prayers” explicitly include giving God thanks for (and upholding the dignity of) those we may find most difficult. Maintaining everyone’s dignity truly is everyone’s job. Jesus’ parable is puzzling and astonishing, especially when a wage worker’s responsibility to plan alone for retirement rises while the wages to fund that retirement recede. The fact is, however, that only God truly owns anything anyway: when we die, our assets pass to others or back to God. Why not cook the books in the service of love, then? Why not freeze the interest and slash the principal on the debts we think we are owed by friends or family or the world at large? Why not be spendthrift with God’s wealth in the name of God’s love?

For Sept. 15, 2013: Proper 19, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

In the late sixth century before Christ, the reformer king Josiah, who had begun to lead Israel back to a right relationship with God, died in battle. He was succeeded by sons who failed to follow his example, under whom God’s chosen people continued breaking God’s law in letter and spirit. Today’s prophecy from Jeremiah is vivid and, for those of us who know drought, earthquake, and wildfire, horrifyingly familiar in our own time.

The Response            Psalm 14

“Every one has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”

The Epistle            1 Timothy 1:12-17

The author of the letters to Timothy may or may not be the man we know as Saint Paul or the Apostle Paul—the letters were probably written a generation later—but this towering hero of early Christianity paints himself as having been the worst offender against God, to whom nevertheless God saw fit to extend mercy. There might just be hope for the rest of us.

The Gospel            Luke 15:1-10

“‘I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”

 

Further thoughts

Among the themes of the epistle and gospel readings for Proper 19 is surely seeking and finding.

The gospel gives us God’s determination to mount a search-and-rescue operation for the lost: sheep by sheep, coin by coin, sinner by sinner. Jesus’ choice of exemplars is as striking as his choice of dinner companions: shepherds were stereotypically grimy, uncivilized losers, and ordinary women were outside the terms of the covenants. But shepherds and women are Jesus’ chosen stand-ins for the seeking, finding, , rejoicing-in-the-lost God, and we the lost (or at least self-misplaced) can properly take comfort in the prospect of being both God’s found and God’s finders. Similarly, whether or not 1 Timothy was composed by the saint himself or (more probably) by a second-generation wannabe, this lesson is clear: if the likes of sinful Saul can be sought and found and straightened out by God, so can anyone else, including even me.

In the psalm and the Old Testament, however, the LORD is seeking but not finding the righteous—and in Jeremiah’s prophecy, disaster is promised as a consequence. It will begin with the hot wind: farm folk in that part of the world would toss threshed grain in the air so the wind could blow away the chaff—but this wind will blow as though from the very mouth of Hell, and the quaking fields and black, birdless skies both cause and result from the absence of worthy grain. Hope is not altogether gone: in the psalm God will shield the afflicted, and even Jeremiah’s exasperated Adonai adds, “yet I will not make a full end.” But the people who ought to be leaders in righteousness are instead the source of affliction and wickedness.

This brings us back to Saint Paul, self-proclaimed foremost of sinners. Consider his sins, however: sins not of the body or of unclean hands, but sins of hardness of heart. In God’s eyes, clearly, there are worse things than being a nobody; failing to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” as Micah 6:8 resonantly puts it, is at the top of the list of those things.

For Sept. 8, 2013: Proper 18, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 18:1-11

As our reading from the book of Jeremiah continues, so do Jeremiah’s uncomfortable themes. Jeremiah compares the house of Israel—which can mean Israel as a nation or its rulers—to a lump of clay that is not shaping up as the potter intends: the potter can decide to destroy the piece and start over; so also, when the people of God fail to repent, can the Lord choose to apply correction.

The Response            Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

“Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up.”

The Epistle            Philemon 1-21

Unlike most epistles, the letter to Philemon is a personal letter on a specific issue: the status of the slave Onesimus (the name means ‘useful’ in Greek), who ran away but has become a Christian with Paul. This letter was cited to support slavery in 19th-century America, since Paul never demands freedom for Onesimus—but it was also cited to support abolition, because Paul asserts that Onesimus is and should be beloved as a brother.

The Gospel            Luke 14:25-33

“‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’”

 

Further thoughts

Some sets of Sunday readings have clear common themes—and they may make us squirm. If there is a common theme to the Proper 18 readings, it may well be “Watch out: God has plans for you, and they include change.”

Jeremiah reliably treats us to sobering observations, and this reading is no exception: just as a potter can decide that a particular cup taking shape under her hand just isn’t working out, so also God can decide that a nation—or a person—is failing to take the shape and role that God had in mind and therefore requires correction or even destruction. The affirmations of the psalm sound comforting… but there is the matter of God knowing me down to the level of cells and parts of atoms—which surely means that God must know even better than I what about me isn’t right and needs to change; sometimes that feels awfully exposed.

Paul’s letter to Philemon gently puts this into action. Philemon was a mover and shaker in the local Christian church and probably also in the secular community. He knew how society was supposed to work: richer and more powerful people issue directives to poorer and less powerful ones and have the absolute right to dispose of property just as they see fit. But here is Paul writing from prison—prison isn’t for the rich and powerful—suggesting that Philemon regard his “useless” slave Onesimus as his full brother in Christ, even to the point of sending him back to Paul. The letter is very skillfully phrased, and it must have made Philemon’s head spin.

Jesus addressing the crowds is much blunter. In a world in which social security of all descriptions consisted of one’s family and in which any number of biblical laws and dicta command otherwise, he says that his disciples must hate their parents and children and even their own selves. The English word hate has very strong emotional resonances; the Greek verb μισέω that it translates, as D. Mark Davis notes in “Holy Hating”, often is closer to ‘commit to something else decisively and deliberately’. It is easy to be part of Jesus’ crowd, but discipleship means being aware that the cost may include laying down everything else that one holds near and dear, and committing to Jesus anyway.

How I as a middle-class American cradle Christian am to do this, I do not know. I can only trust God to know.