Archive for January, 2014

For Feb. 2, 2014: The Presentation in the Temple

The Reading            Malachi 3:1-4

Malachi means ‘my messenger’. The Lord’s messenger is coming like a blast furnace and caustic lye soap to burn and scour away the people’s impurities—verse 5 names sorcery, adultery, false witness, keeping wages low, and oppressing widows, orphans, and aliens—so that offerings in the Temple will once again please God.

The Response            Psalm 84

The striking imagery of Psalm 84 depicts the house of the Lord as a place of integrity where the one true God will be revealed in glory—and where even humble sparrows and swallows are safe and welcome.

The Epistle            Hebrews 2:14-18

Where the reading from the book of Malachi depicted God’s messenger as judge and purifier, the epistle to the Hebrews tells the story differently: Jesus comes to take on our humanity so he can pay the price of our sins, and dies so that even death can no longer separate us from God.

The Gospel            Luke 2:22-40

Forty days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph take him to the temple in Jerusalem and offer a sacrifice for Mary’s purification as the law requires. There they hear astonishing prophecies about their little boy; the first is what we have come to call the Nunc Dimittis (‘now you dismiss’) from its first two words in Latin.

 

 

Ponderables

This Sunday we celebrate the ritual presentation of forty-day-old Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The day’s readings continue the theme of Epiphany season: Jesus revealed to the world and coming into his ministry. They contain an interesting subtheme, however, of welcome to the marginalized. The reading from Malachi, which we also heard on the second Sunday of Advent, names wickednesses that God’s messenger is coming to burn and scour away—and most of them victimize minimum-wage-earners, widows, orphans, and aliens. The psalmist sings the glories of God’s dwelling place—where even the tiniest twittery birds are safe. The parents who present Jesus are too poor to afford the lamb of Leviticus 12:3-8, so they bring just the Title-I-reduced-price-lunch equivalent in two small fowl—yet, as Simeon and Anna tell it, this kid is everyone’s best hope.

What this all means, Hebrews 2:14-18 explains. It is our God’s style to welcome the nobody and the nestling chick in God’s house before the prince and the prelate. It is our God’s style to be conceived without benefit of clergy, born away from home at bureaucracy’s behest, and exiled as an undocumented emigrant. It is our God’s style to comfort the careworn and nettle the nabobs. And it is precisely our God’s style to endure the most extreme execution the Roman Empire could engineer so that we may grasp for good that even grim death cannot keep us out of God’s good graces… if we will but listen and love God and love one another.

If Jesus walked into our church, would he find factions or a community united in love?

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For Jan. 26, 2014: 3 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 9:1-4

The regions of ancient Israel were named for the In the eighth century BC, when Israel has been conquered and Judah threatened by the Assyrian empire, things are dark for the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, which is to say the offspring of Jacob, in the north—but, says Isaiah, light and joy and victory are coming!

The Response            Psalm 27:1, 5-13

Psalm 27:1, 5-13 celebrates the greatness and mercy of the Lord in terms that remind us of the reading from Isaiah: we have faith not because evil cannot come near us, but because God is with us when it comes.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 1:10-18

The church at Corinth probably counted no more than a few dozen, but Paul’s first letter makes clear that the members had fallen into factions, claiming bragging rights based on whether they’d been baptized by Paul or Apollos or Cephas (whom we know as Peter). Paul lets them know just how badly this misses the point.

The Gospel            Matthew 4:12-23

As his public ministry begins, Jesus relocates from Nazareth, then a small hamlet in the mountains, to Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee; Matthew paraphrases Isaiah’s prophecy about this. Jesus then calls ordinary people from their ordinary lives to share in his ministry.

 

Ponderables

Common threads in the readings for the third Sunday in Epiphany are light and darkness—and fishing. The great light of Isaiah’s prophecy is reflected in the first verse of Psalm 27, in Paul’s resonant affirmation of the Good News, and in Matthew paraphrasing Isaiah’s prophecy to identify Jesus as its fulfillment. But there is also darkness: Isaiah speaks in very bad times, the psalmist foresees trouble in spite of and perhaps even because of being God’s instrument, the church at Corinth is rent with faction and backbiting, and Jesus’ calling wrenches the fishermen away from sacred obligations and the roles that give people identity.

What it is that Jesus is using as bait, to pull those fishermen in so fast? Surely not triumph or accomplishment: fisherfolk know that a good haul today means mending nets so you can try to tear them all over again tomorrow. Surely not an easy life with no conflict: the psalmist looking into the future knows better, and if the Corinthians, despite mentoring by The Apostle Paul His Ownself, feel the tug of faction and carping, then we two millennia later shouldn’t be surprised.

Could it have been love? The love that is brave enough both to tell the truth with grace and to hear it with humility? The love that checks the very human impulse to leap from divergence to disagreement to argument to faction? The love that makes all God’s children more welcome than our fear makes us strangers?

What if we all made that love our bait, and went fishing?

For Jan. 19, 2014: 2 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 49:1-7

Today’s reading is one of four passages in the book of Isaiah that are called “suffering servant poems”. In this passage, the servant speaks of being God’s secret weapon, though also frustrated. Then comes the fullness of God’s call: to bring salvation not only to the scattered people of Israel but to the very ends of the earth.

The Response            Psalm 40:1-12

Psalm 40:1-12, though it probably predates the reading from Isaiah by several centuries, touches on some similar themes: what God intends for God’s creation is salvation, and it is not a matter of what we do to earn it but of God’s compassion in giving it.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 1:1-9

We begin reading from the first letter to the church Paul founded at Corinth, about which he has heard rumors of discord and division. Paul glosses quickly over his apostolic credentials to praise the grace and gifts of God in them—but he is also at pains to point out that, however richly they have been blessed, they are not complete.

The Gospel            John 1:29-42

In the opening chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer testifies powerfully about his younger kinsman—so powerfully that John’s own disciples leave him to find out more about Jesus.

 

Ponderables

With the benefit of two millennia of hindsight, it is easy to read Psalm 40 and Isaiah 49:1-7 solely as prefigurings of Jesus, and the decision of the makers of the Revised Common Lectionary to combine them with Paul’s effusive opening words to the Corinthians and with John’s announcement of his cousin’s exceptionality serve only to reinforce that tendency. It’s also easy to read ourselves—as individuals, as the church of Jesus, and as a nation under God—into Isaiah’s prophecy: “Look, we’re God’s secret weapon! Aren’t we special!”

If we’re going to read ourselves into these lections, however, we have to do it all the way—which means realizing that being called by God is no guarantee of success or even of staying out of trouble. The speaker in Isaiah’s prophecy bemoans that his work is worthless, and even the Lord calls him “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations”. The speaker in the psalm knows the mire and clay at the bottom of the desolate pit. The Corinthians that Paul praises in his introduction are about to get read their pedigrees for their pride. Peter is dubbed the Rock here but will soon deny Jesus publicly and then flee to grieve in Galilee. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s crusade for the civil rights that had been written into the U.S. Constitution more than a century before got him the unwanted attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI before he was assassinated.

What if we Christians spent less time looking godly and making sure others do likewise, and more time acting on the grace we ourselves receive by being God’s hands and feet and heart for all in this hurting world?

For Jan. 12, 2014: First Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 42:1-9

The reading from Isaiah gives us dazzling good news: the chosen of the Lord is coming, not to strut around in pomp and power but to work tirelessly to bring justice to all us people who are out in the dark, off in dungeons, shut in blindness or marooned far from God—and to make of us people who are ourselves bringers of light.

The Response            Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is a meditation on the power of God that is filled with astonishing images: the voice of God has the power to break mighty cedars, set mountains scampering like startled cattle, make sturdy oak trees squirm—and even to make us righteous.

The Second Lesson            Acts 10:34-43

Isaiah announced great good news for Israel. In the second lesson for the first Sunday in Epiphany, blunt Peter, called out of his comfort zone to visit a Roman centurion, summarizes the life and ministry of Jesus: the astounding gift of grace is for anyone—anyone—who will accept it.

The Gospel            Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus, the Son of God, begins his ministry not by announcing how badly everyone else has been doing everything but by seeking baptism from his cousin John.

 

Ponderables

The juxtaposition of images in the readings for the first Sunday of Epiphany is startling: a God with the power to set off great earthquakes and dictate terms to the mighty, yet bringing to those whom the world sees as wearing kick-me signs the gentlest of blessing; a God for whom mountains roll over like Rover and oak trees go limp on cue, yet patiently waiting again and again for Peter to blurt out the insight that Jesus and his own brain have been trying to get him to recognize; a God who sits in judgment on the entire universe, yet taking a place in line at the Jordan like everyone else for a baptism that he alone doesn’t really need…

It sounds like I’m being hard on Peter. In fact, I have great sympathy for him. Most thoughtful writers will cheerfully admit that they often don’t truly know what they think until they say or write it. I’m not in that exalted company, but certainly formatting lections and finding translations for them isn’t nearly as effective in obliging my brain to engage with the content as is the act of composing even a few sentences about at least one of them.

But what must it be like to be John? Feet firmly braced in the Jordan’s slightly slimy bottom, you’re up to the hips in water and in lost souls seeking the light; as you’ve done hundreds of times, you release your safety grip on the previous baptizee and reach for the next—only to discover that it’s Aunt Mary’s kid who also happens to be the Son of God. How are you not going to screw this up?

Well, by God’s grace and showing up: what else could do?

For Jan. 5, 2014: Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:7-14

From the part of the book of Jeremiah called the “Book of Comfort”, chapters 30 to 33, comes this remarkable song of praise: though Jacob—that is, Israel—has been scattered and afflicted, the Lord will gather the people back together, even the blind and the lame, and will give them comfort and joy.

The Response            Psalm 84:1-8

In the reading from Jeremiah, God comes to the people to give comfort. Psalm 84 depicts the joys to be found in the house of the Lord—but not only in the house of the Lord, for even dry places will flow with water.

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

The letter to the Ephesians may or may not have been written to inhabitants of Ephesus, which in Roman times was a great trading city of Asia Minor, or by the apostle Paul. Whoever its author and original audience, its first chapter glowingly describes the great grace of God in choosing to adopt us humans as God’s own children.

The Gospel            Matthew 2:1-12

The passage from the gospel of Matthew, familiar from the Epiphany lections, tells  of the wise men or Magi seeking the newborn King. A striking feature of the story is that they depend on astrology to identify his star. It would seem that the Star and the baby whose birth it foretells speak in ways people can hear—if we will listen.

 

Ponderables

The Episcopal lectionary mostly follows the Revised Common Lectionary, and in it the readings for the second Sunday in Christmas are the same each year aside from choices in the Gospel reading that emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ birth or early life. Often the Epiphany displaces the second Sunday of Christmas, and as a result the readings (except for the reading from Matthew) are relatively unfamiliar for the date.

The relative newness offers a useful shift of perspective: with the visitation of the Wise Men, we have not Isaiah’s exuberant welcome of the wealth that will stream into Jerusalem for the King of Kings, but Jeremiah’s prophecies in the Book of Comfort. Those singled out for comfort, alongside people obviously blessed, are the blind, the lame, and those pregnant or in labor—who would have been ritually unwelcome among the perfect, clean, and righteous. Yet, thanks to Jesus, one can come before God exactly as one is.

Nevertheless, the promises were not fulfilled in the lifetime of the original hearers. Jacob (which is to say Israel) has not been restored as promised, nor did the House of the Lord in the psalm withstand Roman assault, nor did Christ come again within the lifetimes of those to whom the epistles were written, nor did the Holy Innocents escape slaughter at the hands of Herod.

It is possible to raise the question of credibility here. Jeremiah for one seems to feel the tension between hope and lack of fulfillment: unlike Isaiah, he sees and greets the darkness as well as the light.

But what if it is the task of those who persist in hope to hold hope on behalf of all who have lost hope?