Archive for October, 2013

For Nov. 3, 2013: All Saints’ Day, Year C

The Reading            Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

The book of Daniel is set in the sixth century before Christ, after the Temple has been destroyed and the people taken into exile in Babylon. Here the prophet recounts a terrifying vision—the omitted verses describe four huge and powerful monsters with bad intentions toward Israel—but the explanation he gets builds hope.

The Response            Psalm 149

“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people and adorns the poor with victory.”

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:11-23

The church at Ephesus was one of the first and most successful of the churches believed to have been founded by the apostle Paul. Today’s reading explains what is in store for the saints—that is, for all of us who believe—and how the power of God working among us gives us hope.

The Gospel            Luke 6:20-31

“‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for All Saints’ Day vary from year to year in the Revised Common Lectionary, and in consequence the themes vary too. In last year’s readings, Isaiah and the writer of Revelation sang of the wondrous banquet that awaits in heaven, the psalmist offered praise, and John told of the miraculous raising of Lazarus.

For Year C, the tone is more mixed. Psalm 149 rejoices, to be sure (though the fate awaiting other nations’ rulers is told with eyebrow-raisingly cheer), and the epistle sounds the celebratory note that one expects, that is consistent with the opening and closing of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s beloved hymn “Sine Nomine” and with the rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

But the other texts for All Saints’ Day this year are somber, even threatening. The prophet Daniel reports a vision of four horrifying monsters wreaking destruction on everything. The gospel tells us that an easy life now is not necessarily a mark of God’s favor for the world to come while laying out a blueprint for Christian behavior in the face of assault or disregard that is decidedly difficult to follow. What gives?

These are verses of, by, and for outsiders. Daniel prophesies during the time of exile, when the Israelites were unwilling foreign nationals of low status and could count on being scorned, misunderstood, and mistreated accordingly. The gospel famously plays on the Beatitudes—beatus in Latin is a strong way to say ‘happy’—and part of the point is to tell us in what esteem to hold those on whom the world spits… for they are we and we are they. Jesus is raised to unprecedented honor and glory, yes—but first he had to be born to an unwed mother, be a refugee, be a truth-teller whom nobody understood, be spat on and mocked (and who knows how else bored soldiers might have humiliated him?) and then be paraded through the streets en route to dying the nastiest death Rome saw fit to inflict. In short, Jesus the outsider knows the very worst that can befall us and the very worst we can be, and that by no stretch of the imagination do we belong in heaven.

By no stretch of the imagination, that is, except his.

For it is Jesus’ love alone that makes God’s saint of me, and you, and every other outsider that ever drew breath or ever will. And it is by living Jesus’ love of those on whom the world spits that we soften the hearts that can’t listen yet—including, more often than not, our own.

Advertisements

For Oct. 27, 2013: Proper 25, Year C

The Reading            Joel 2:23-32

The verses that precede this Sunday’s reading tell a grim story of Israel’s devastation by locusts. But then the prophet Joel turns to song: God will restore the people’s physical fortunes. More wondrously yet, God will pour out spiritual gifts on all: men and women, young and old, even the most humbly born, all like true children of God.

The Response            Psalm 65

“Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.”

The Epistle            2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

This Sunday we read verses from near the end of the second letter to Timothy, and near the end of Paul’s own life. A libation is the ritual pouring of a drink in offering to a deity, and it was part of Greek burial customs. As the voice in 2 Timothy tells it, Paul has persevered—though not by his own strength but God’s.

The Gospel            Luke 18:9-14

“‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Proper 25 this Sunday ring variations on a theme of reaping as one has sown—or has not. In prior verses Joel depicted the impact of drought and ravenous locusts: as verse 2:3b has it, “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” Joel, seeing this as the Lord’s judgment on Zion’s sin, called upon all the people, from the king on down, to stop whatever they were doing and repent. They do so. Then God promises to give again the plenty that the natural disasters took away. Is this a deal, with the penitence of the people buying restitution for the nation as a whole? No, for greater gifts of the spirit come as well, and to even the seemingly least significant. It is as Jeremiah 31:33-34 said last week: God will make a covenantal relationship with every single individual, just because it’s God’s choice.

The gospel parable is commonly read as a cautionary tale: strutting Pharisee versus humbled tax collector. Jesus’ listeners would have understood that Pharisees were widely admired (if less widely imitated) for their piety and adherence to religious law, while tax collectors were despised sellouts and thugs who lived off the sums they extorted from the defenseless, minus the taxes they passed through to the hated Roman overlords. The parable thus upsets expectations: for a tax collector to be the one coming out right with God is shocking!

The gospel can also be read, however, in counterpoint to the epistle reading. Paul himself was noted from youth as a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and his own writings suggest that he never really got over that; at the same time, they depict a man aware of his own limitations. The Paul-voice looking back in 2 Timothy 4 depicts—perhaps more accurately than Paul himself would dare—the untiring early hero of the Christian faith who has sown in the fields God set before him and, on balance and with God’s help, done it well; his also will be the harvest.

For there is no more wrong with knowing that one has diligently used God’s gifts to good ends than there is in recognizing in others that they can rightly say the same.

For Oct. 20, 2013: Proper 24, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:27-34

In this Sunday’s reading, from the closing chapters called the Book of Consolation, Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant, not written in stone but written on hearts because it is no longer between God and the nation as a whole but between God and each one of us.

The Response            Psalm 119:97-104

“I do not shrink from your judgments, because you yourself have taught me.”

The Epistle            2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

This Sunday’s second reading counsels the young church leader to continue in belief that is founded on faith in Jesus and to persist in proclaiming the message “with the utmost patience in teaching”. Those with “itching ears” can as well be those who insist on biblical literalism as those who never open the book.

The Gospel            Luke 18:1-8

“‘And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?’”

 

Further thoughts

This Sunday’s readings deliver mixed messages, comforting even as they make us squirm.

The last several weeks’ readings from the book of Jeremiah have cemented for us his reputation as “the weeping prophet”. This Sunday’s closing reading begins with a promise to repeople, as plentifully as wheat in a field, the lands of Israel and Judah that were deserted in the exile. In addition, in place of the covenant with the entire nation—which required good-faith performance on both sides, with the result that, when the leaders led badly, the whole operation went off the rails—the Lord is instituting a new covenant with each individual, written on each heart. Great news… except that I can no longer legitimately blame the government or my dysfunctional family or my lousy job for my failures to love God and all those around me: it’s now all on me.

Could that be too much? The selection from Psalm 119 praises the individual relationship with God, perhaps to the point of preening or the pride that goeth before a fall. Salvation is individual, but its means are communal, and its ends are also: notice how much of the hard work recommended in 2 Timothy is work in community.

The parable of the widow and the crooked judge is a tidy little package with its moral right there in the first line. Parables rarely work that way. With respect to God and others, I am surely the Widow Nobody, with no more right to salvation or others’ intervention than God and they give me, and therefore the onus is on me to express what I need and to keep expressing it. But I am also the crooked judge, well-bribed by the baubles of the world or my own sense of entitlement to ignore the expressed needs of those around me, and the onus is on me to reject the goodies in favor of listening and responding to the cries of all the other Widow Nobodies. And thus may the Son of Man find faith on earth.

For Oct. 13, 2013: Proper 23, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Much of the book of Jeremiah predicts the doom and disaster that do indeed come to pass in the form of the defeat of Jerusalem, the razing of the Temple, and the exile in the land of the enemy. Jeremiah goes on to lament the losses—but life goes on, and this Sunday’s verses give God’s advice as to how.

The Response            Psalm 66:1-11

“Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.”

The Epistle            2 Timothy 2:8-15

Wise words to a young and uncertain church leader continue in this Sunday’s reading from the second book of Timothy. The point of belief, whether or not it includes suffering like a criminal, is not to be “wrangling over words”—that is, sowing or abetting contention—but to follow Christ Jesus who died and rose and is faithful.

The Gospel            Luke 17:11-19

“‘Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for this Sunday speak of alienation—but not of exclusion.

The Israelites in Babylon are unwilling resident aliens, chafing under defeat and exile in a land of foreign customs and gods and unsure how to worship with the Temple destroyed, for in no other place can one perform the rituals of sacrifice and atonement that the Torah commands. The firebrand Jeremiah counsels not opposition but accommodation, and prayers for good for the city to which they have been taken. They, and we, are reassured that God can be worshiped and served no matter where we are or among whom.

The author of 2 Timothy writes from the alienation of jail. He carries forward the faith that he won’t stop proclaiming among strange peoples on the strength of verses 11 to 13—which probably come from an ancient hymn, as reflected in the formatting on The Lectionary Page—and he reminds us that the gospel is not chained. But his warning Christians against “wrangling with words” ring true over the centuries: how easily we forge chains of doctrine that alienate our fellow Christians and also alienate the rest of the world.

Galileans are looked down on in Jesus’ time, as in the story of Nathanael: Galilee lies beyond despised Samaria, whose people worship God but not as the Jews do. Reduced to existing in the no-man’s-land in between are the lepers. In appealing to Jesus for mercy, they commit a breach of the Law; an alienating response or no response at all would be expected. Jesus instead bids them visit the priests, who have power to ban and lift bans (but not to heal). I can’t help wondering what it sounded like, for off they go—stung or stunned or strengthened, one can’t say—and the miracle happens. And then the further miracle happens: the Samaritan leper, the twice-alien, is the one who stops and turns around, giving thanks to God, and throws himself at Jesus’ feet. For gratitude is the miracle of the heart recognizing a gift and a home.

For Oct. 6, 2013: Proper 22, Year C

The Reading            Lamentations 1:1-6

The book of Lamentations paints a vivid picture of the disaster foretold by Jeremiah: Jerusalem is conquered, the Temple is in ruins, and most of her people are in forced exile. Each detail reinforces the image of Jerusalem as an abandoned woman suffering grievously but justifiably: because she persistently broke the covenants, God has revoked God’s protection and promises.

The Response            Lamentations 3:19-26

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.”

The Epistle            2 Timothy 1:1-14

Textual evidence suggests that the letters to Timothy were written in the apostle Paul’s name but some time after his death. The writer commends his addressee for carrying forward the faith of his grandmother and mother, at the same time exhorting him to hold fast to it and not to be ashamed either of the testimony to that faith or of suffering for it.

The Gospel            Luke 17:5-10

“‘Do you thank the slave for doing what he was commanded?’”

Further thoughts

This Sunday’s readings speak of loss, hope, and steadfastness.

The reading from Lamentations depicts Jerusalem friendless and deserted. Through the patriarchs and prophets God had promised Israel self-rule as a leader of nations, protection from her enemies, numberless sons and daughters who would never face exile, and a descendant of David always on the throne—if Jerusalem kept the covenants. She did not do her part. As a result she is now a client state at the whim of the Babylonian empire, her former allies have gone over to the other side, those few of her children who have not been marched away at gunpoint are in hiding, and the throne of David stands empty. Worse, the temple is desecrated and ruined, so there is no longer any place to perform the sacrifices and make the prayers that the Law commands.

Yet the response, also from Lamentations, sings of hope: all these calamities have come to pass—but pass, they will: what endures is God’s love, for God honors God’s covenant even when we do not.

The epistle was written in times as trying in their way. Most authorities place the time of writing toward the end of the first century AD: Jerusalem is in the control of the Romans, the temple is once again destroyed, and Christianity is still illegal. Timothy faces hardship, humiliation, and even death in the service of Christ Jesus. But Jesus has abolished death—not that any of us will stop dying physically or cease to have reason to grieve, but the Holy Spirit in us will guard us and keep us in the way of love.

The gospel counsels steadfastness. The disciples demand more faith, and are doubtless disappointed in Jesus’ response. First, he tells them that the abundance it takes to command a big tree to pull up roots and place itself where no tree belongs—a showy act, but far from practical—isn’t one of faith. Then he gives them a less spectacular but more durable vision: the slave who sees to the master’s needs first, not to garner glory but simply because that is how the everyday things that most need doing (and most give blessing) get done.