Archive for November, 2013

For Dec. 1, 2013: 1 Advent, Year A

With the turning of the liturgical year, here’s a change for St Alban’s Lections: adding prefaces on the response and the gospel, accompanied by a shift to a shorter contemplation under the name of “Ponderables”.

The Reading            Isaiah 2:1-5

The season of Advent is a path of repentance and promise, and these themes resound in the prophecies of Isaiah that we will read each week. For this first Sunday, Isaiah foretells the path and the promise for Judah and Jerusalem—and, if we too will turn from the ways of war and destruction to the ways of the Lord, for us.

The Response            Psalm 122

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” When Jerusalem truly functions as the Place of Wholeness that its name suggests, then the vision that Isaiah has depicted comes to life.

The Epistle            Romans 13:11-14

Isaiah, in our first reading, foretold the path and the promise of Advent. The apostle Paul writes to Christians in Rome—a city like London, Paris, and Las Vegas all rolled into one—to tell them what it takes to be ready for the coming of Christ. He reminds them, and us, that the time to wake and walk with God is always right now.

The Gospel            Matthew 24:36-44

In Luke 21:5-19, which we read two weeks ago, the disciples asked Jesus when the end times will be, and he gave an indefinite answer. He replies again in today’s reading from Matthew, and with a much more definite indefinite: no one knows except the Father, and therefore it is up to us as followers to be ready.

 

Ponderables

The readings for the first Sunday in Advent fall indisputably into the category of apocalypse. The word literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘revelation’, but over time it has come to mean ‘the end of times’. We associate it with bad news partly because of the horrors predicted in the Book of Revelation but mostly, I suspect, because, being human, we associate the end of everyday life—the “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” of Matthew 24:38—with bad news. The gospel provides some warrant for this in comparing Jesus’ return with the flood of Noah, which was indeed bad news for anyone not on the ark: one will be taken, Jesus tells us, and one left, though it’s not clear from the passage which of those is the one who is saved at that point, nor is it even clear what will happen to the other. One assumes that Jesus’ vagueness is intentional.

Isaiah and the writer of Romans, characteristically, are much less vague. Isaiah tells us how things will be when the Lord rules, or to be precise when all of us accede to the Lord’s rule: weapons of war and wounding will become tools of tillage and tending. The verses that precede the epistle reading famously sum up our mutual duty as loving one another—looking out for each other—before admonishing us to hop to it. But behold: what Isaiah holds out as the outcome of God’s reign is pretty much what the epistle counsels as the means to it.

What if this is precisely the point of Advent? The one taken away in the gospel might be headed for Paradise—but what if the one is left to keep being God’s hands and feet and love in the world?

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For Nov. 24, 2013: Last Sunday in Pentecost, Year C

The last Sunday in Pentecost is also known as Christ the King Sunday, and the lections for the day reflect this.

The Reading            Jeremiah 23:1-6

The English word “jeremiad” is based on the prophecies of Jeremiah, most of which are bitter denunciations of bad behavior that leads to bad results for Israel. Today’s reading starts out that way, as bad shepherds are called to account—but then, behold: God announces something new.

The Response            Psalm 46

“The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”

The Epistle            Colossians 1:11-20

In the first century A.D., the little church at Colossae in western Turkey bubbled over with theories about angels and other supernatural powers and with questions about the nature of Jesus. This Sunday’s passage explains in terms that are reminiscent of our Nicene Creed: Jesus is God’s firstborn and God’s champion on our behalf.

The Gospel            Luke 23:33-43

“‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him.”

 

Further thoughts

What does “king” mean, and how does that change when it’s predicated of the Son of God?

That the rights of kingship are easily abused is an article of faith in the US; we vacillate between being skeptical of kinglike figures and adulating them. Sports and entertainment stars loom like kings in terms of the attention they attract and the cultural influence they have. Billionaire owners or executives of big corporations won’t draw thousands to a concert, but they are kingpins or kingmakers whose riches buy them political clout equal to hundreds of thousands. It is prudent to assume that any human with great power can and will do whatever he chooses, whenever he chooses. Thoughtless or even evil acts are not entirely unchallengeable, but we recognize that the process is likely to bring the challenger humiliation and pain and possibly defeat.

Some lore of kingship goes in a very different direction, however. In most of the ancient world, the king was consort of the land itself, personally responsible for it; if his health declined, its health did too, and his individual virtue was embodied in its fertility. The touch of a true king could even heal diseases. This is power exerted to serve, and it is reflected in Jeremiah’s vision of the coming Davidic king as a righteous shepherd of his people. We understand this as real leadership: using the power at one’s disposal to do right.

The epistle depicts Jesus as infinitely more powerful than any earthly king. Because Jesus is also depicted as infinitely more good, he can be expected to do right—but when he seems to fail to intervene in stopping this natural disaster or illness or that madman with a machine gun, we feel devastated and deserted.

Then there’s the vision of kingship that the gospel gives us. Hanging on a cross. In unspeakable humiliation and agony. Verbally and physically abused for being who he can’t help being. Wrongly accused by ignoramuses whose hate-filled faces look unsettlingly like our own. Taking it and taking it, all of it.

Why doesn’t this King teach these wretches a lesson?

Because he is teaching them and us a greater lesson: to love as he loves, not because he makes us but because it’s what the world needs.

And that is what it means to reign as the Son of God.

 

For Nov. 17, 2013: Proper 28, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 65:17-25

The prophet Isaiah speaks to Israelites who, after exile in Babylon, return to Jerusalem laid waste, the temple burned, and their lives in ruins. Isaiah attributed these disasters and more to the people’s disobedience. This Sunday’s reading, however, sings joyously of God’s gracious intentions for the people.

The Response            Canticle 9

“Cry aloud inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

The Epistle            2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

While the Old Testament this Sunday prophesies grace, the epistle lays down the law. The author, who may or may not be Paul, is vexed with first-century believers who, instead of doing productive work, are ataktos peripatountos—less nearly ‘living in idleness’, as our translation has it, than ‘going around sowing disorder’.

The Gospel            Luke 21:5-19

“‘By your endurance you will gain your souls.’”

 

Further thoughts

As the beginning of Advent nears, the Proper 28 readings fittingly touch on order and irony.

The passage from Isaiah is a glowing depiction of orderliness and rightness. We deeply feel the unfairness of little children having to lose their parents and parents having to bury their children; we perceive wrongness in people dying too young to collect on their 401(k)s; in nature documentaries, we flinch when the defenseless little zebra calf falls to the ravening lion even as we concede that the lion is simply being who the lion is. Isaiah foresees a world in which things are put right, and it is tremendously appealing.

On the face of it, the epistle goes in a different direction. 2 Thessalonians 3:10—“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat”—is widely quoted out of context as a condemnation of the chronically lazy; it resonates well with the sense of enjoying what one has properly earned that makes Isaiah’s vision appealing, and the NRSV’s rendering of the Greek phrase ataktos peripatountos in 3:3 and 3:11 as ‘living in idleness’ contributes to that impression. The problem that the passage addresses, however, isn’t mere laziness: ataktos is ‘disorderly’ and peripatountos is literally ‘around-walking’ (as in English peripatetic), so this is active interference. The rest of 3:11 calls the ataktos believers not ergazomenous ‘working’ but periergazomenous; the play on words suggests the painful irony of busyness that is badly off target. In such a world, professing Christians toting prayer books toddle off for a comfortable round of gossip about people we just finished hugging and sharing Eucharist with. In this world budgets dictate slapdash subsoil containment from which toxins leach into drinking water; monuments to piety and/or greed soar and shine while those who have never caught an even break—and, too often, those damaged while serving our nation at war—squat in doorsteps and scrounge in dumpsters for food.

It is messy, this world of ours, and in today’s gospel Jesus fails to do much about it. He doesn’t promise to strengthen the Temple or eliminate war or make natural disasters stop, or to keep out of jail or the media or others’ gossip, nor to keep our families from splintering, nor to eradicate any of the predators of which this world is so full (including the two-footed ones, and sometimes that means us).

What he does promise is to give us the wisdom and the heart to stay in this messy world and speak his words and be his hands and feet, if we choose to listen and keep listening. For, in God’s richest irony, it is meeting the deepest fears and needs of God’s children around us with God’s love that is the real work of the Kingdom.

For Nov. 10, 2013: Proper 27, Year C

The Reading            Haggai 1:14-2:9

In 539 BC, the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians. King Cyrus decreed that the exiled Jews should return home; his son and successor Darius sent them with means with which to rebuild. As the first chapter of Haggai tells it, they rebuild their own houses first but life is hard, until the Lord moves them to work on the Temple.

The Response            Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21

“The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to all who call upon him faithfully.”

The Epistle            2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

The church at Thessaloniki in the northern Aegean Sea was under persecution, and its members deeply afraid that somehow they had missed the return of the Christ. This passage reassures them—when that day comes, it will be obvious—while directing them to what matters most now: standing firm in the faith.

The Gospel            Luke 20:27-38

“‘Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’”

 

Further thoughts

Stewardship could be thought of as taking care of the future by taking care in the present. The readings for Proper 27 explore the theme from the perspectives of people whose futures may not look like winning ones.

The Jews in the verses preceding the Old Testament lesson have returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt their houses—the reference to paneled houses in Haggai 1:3 suggests some high-end edifices—but the second year’s harvest is meager. The remedy comes from God through Haggai: it is time to rebuild God’s house. Once they begin in earnest, Haggai brings them God’s own promise: though the house looks unpromising, it is already God’s dwelling among them. It will be even more splendid than before, for in it God will give shalom; the NRSV translates this word as “prosperity”, but the sense is not merely ‘riches’ but ‘blessing’.

The Christians of Thessaloniki are, if anything, in a worse way, persecuted by the Roman authorities, beset by other afflictions mentioned in the first chapter, and troubled after Paul left their corner of the northern Aegean Sea by someone teaching that Jesus somehow returned without them noticing and, horribly, left them behind. They still may have to choose at any moment to die for Christ, but they also face the same day-to-day dilemma that we do: how to live as Christians day by day by day by… The right course, says this epistle, is good stewardship: persevere in the faith, for Jesus has already seen to their sanctification—and ours.

The Sadducees of the gospel were influential priests who held that the five books of the Torah—the only true word of God—did not provide for an afterlife, and so a man lives on through his sons or at worst through his widow’s children with his brothers. This practice also provides for the widow, even one who flagrantly fails to fulfill her purpose of bearing heirs. Jesus evades the trap by challenging its premise that anyone in heaven can belong to anyone else. Instead, we all belong to God—in the afterlife that the Torah anticipates by declaring that YWHW is (not “was”) the God of all those patriarchs.

The future is in God’s hands, in short—though it is our choice to persist in the faith and to use our gifts gladly as stewards of God’s reign of blessing here on earth.