Archive for May, 2014

For May 18, 2014: Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 7:55-60

Like Jesus, the martyr Stephen did wonders that transcended his apparent status and he spoke truth to power. His presumption brought him to a horrible death by stoning. The young man who watched the witnesses’ coats will have his own encounter with the risen Christ: we know him as the apostle Paul.

The Response            Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

In the worldview of Old Testament times, illness and trouble are taken as evidence of separation from God, though Jesus argued against this view in the healing of the man born blind. Psalm 31 both celebrates the Lord’s protection and begs for it, and it is verse 5 that Jesus quotes just before dying for us.

The Epistle            1 Peter 2:2-10

The first letter of Peter is written to new believers among people who are well used to being afflicted outsiders. Though they are slaves and the downtrodden, they are called to be the building blocks, wherever they are, of God’s house, and the call is supported by quotations from Psalms, Isaiah, and Hosea.

The Gospel            John 14:1-14

The gospel for the fifth Sunday of Easter comes from Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”, after Judas has left to betray his Teacher. Jesus speaks to reassure the disciples: he will bring them where he is going; they may believe his words or his works; and they will do greater works in his name to the glory of the Father.

 

Ponderables

Stones and things that can be done with them figure in the readings for the fifth Sunday of Easter. In Acts, We read in Acts of Stephen being stoned to death for speaking words that the powerful did not want to hear. It is easy to excoriate the religious establishment for hardness of heart… but hardness of heart is endemic to all establishments, and we do well first to empty the stones in our own fists and pockets and speech and hearts.

Stone and rock take on quite different roles in the psalm and the epistle. The psalmist envisions the Lord as a stone fortress and a crag in the mountains in which to find shelter and safety from enemies. The epistle calls its audience and us—formerly nobodies of no account to God or anyone—to be the living building blocks of a house that is surely New Jerusalem, the city of God’s peace.

In the gospel, Jesus promises to prepare places in God’s abiding house—no mere mud-brick hovel—for those who believe in him. He asserts in verse 6 that he himself is the way to the Father. For two millennia the Christian establishment has taken this statement to license specific dogmas and rituals, but an alternative reading is possible: that Jesus himself, and loving as he does, is the way to our salvation and the world’s.

What if our hearts themselves are the stones that we throw? What if our hearts are the crags in which the Lord means to shelter the psalmist, the stones of which God’s proper house is built, and—far beyond creeds and rituals—the paving for all the world of the Way to life that is Jesus?

For May 11, 2014: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 2:42-47

In last week’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter proclaimed Jesus in Jerusalem and thousands of people repented and were baptized. This week’s reading continues the story: signs and wonders abound, believers live and worship together, and everyone gladly and generously sees to everyone else’s needs.

The Response            Psalm 23

Psalm 23 resonates as both the soul’s response to God’s goodness and a foretelling of Jesus’ faithfulness to and beyond death. The shepherd’s rod helped him defend sheep from wolves and lions; the staff or shepherd’s crook served to guide the sheep. Anointing is a sign of the Lord’s chosen one.

The Epistle            1 Peter 2:19-25

The second chapter of the first letter of Peter is addressed to slaves: people who were accustomed to being beaten by their masters. Christians of the day were mostly marginalized people who had no control over their circumstances—but they could choose how to respond, and the epistle holds up Jesus as example.

The Gospel            John 10:1-10

Jesus’ disciples would have known that the sheepfold mentioned in John 10:1-10 was a walled enclosure into which all the flocks of a village were herded in the evening for protection; a shepherd would stretch himself out in the opening so that, through the night, no one could get in without his knowledge.

 

Ponderables

The fourth Sunday of Easter is known in some traditions as Good Shepherd Sunday; three of the four scripture texts contain references to sheep or shepherding. Psalm 23, of course, has the soul shepherded by the Lord; 1 Peter 2:25 contrasts a people straying like sheep with a people returned to the shepherd; John 10:1-10 develops the somewhat puzzling metaphor of Jesus as gate to the sheepfold, and other verses in John 10 proclaim Jesus as shepherd.

The exception to the rule of sheep in the texts is the reading from Acts. Perhaps, however, it can be read as a consequence of the other three. Psalm 23’s shepherd guides to good pasture, through death and beyond, and blesses the soul in the face of enemies. The slaves in 1 Peter’s audience—who can expect to be beaten for little to no reason—are bidden to bear it without complaint because they have returned to the shepherd who blesses them. In John, Jesus the sheepfold gate protects and ultimately lays down his life for the sheep—but also empowers the sheep to have life abundantly. Acts 2:42-47, for its part, surely shows what happens when God’s flock follows God in love: goods suffice, but more importantly love abounds in those who are willing to change their hearts and follow.

What if Jesus the shepherd calls us to be not just his sheep but also his fellow shepherds? What if each Christian is a gate through which God’s lost sheep can be gathered in love?

For May 4, 2014: Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Peter’s first public proclamation about Jesus, of which we read a part last week, ends with Peter reiterating that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. The book of Acts then gives us the crowd’s reaction—they are “cut to the heart”, or deeply affected, and ask what to do—and Peter’s response.

The Response            Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

Like Christians at Easter, the psalmist in Psalm 116 looks backward and forward. The backward glance is quite appropriately at the travails out of which the Lord has rescued him. The forward glance is a bit more surprising: not to further good things from the Lord but rather to what the psalmist plans to do to say thank you.

The Epistle            1 Peter 1:17-23

The first chapter of the first epistle of Peter instructs us how to live. Instead of trusting in gold and silver—passing signs of wealth in the world, now as in Peter’s time—we are to bank on the blood of the Lamb. Because we are ransomed from our sins by the blood of Christ, we are born again to love one another profoundly.

The Gospel            Luke 24:13-35

Gospel readings in the weeks immediately following Easter tell of the first reactions to Jesus’ resurrection. The reading from Luke relates the story of dejected followers leaving Jerusalem and the stranger they meet who explains the scriptures to them—and turns out to be the risen Jesus.

 

Ponderables

In the 1950s baseball musical Damn Yankees, the seriocomic song “Heart”, sung by members of the perpetually last-place Washington Senators, is an anthem to not giving up even when things look hopeless. “Heart” is a good theme for the time just after Easter. Luke shows us disheartened disciples who are still digesting the horrible reality of Jesus’ death as they plod back, one presumes, to the lives they had left behind to follow him. Then a stranger takes the time to explain to them via scriptures such as Psalm 116 how that grisly death was in God’s plan, along with the resurrection to follow; his kindness gives them the heart at least to extend hospitality—and he turns out to be the risen Jesus himself. The reading from Acts depicts the crowd in Judea, not harassed into rebelliousness by Peter’s words but rather encouraged—given heart—to ask what they can do differently and perhaps even consider why. The letter of Peter lays out both the why and the what: we are ransomed by a treasure greater than any amount of gold or silver, and we are ransomed in order to love each other from the heart as God has loved us.

What might the church be like, and how might God’s Kingdom come on earth, if each of us were to do likewise?

For April 27, 2014: Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 2:14a, 22-32

The second chapter of Acts opens with Pentecost: the Holy Spirit has just caused the disciples to speak in other languages. The shock this evokes in the crowds and the Holy Spirit impel Peter—the very person who had denied Jesus three times and then slunk off shamefaced into the night—to explain in a rousing speech.

The Response            Psalm 16

Peter paraphrased parts of Psalm 16 in his first sermon to the people of Judea. The psalm celebrates God’s goodness and protection in terms that remind us of Jesus’ suffering and his triumph. It is also reminiscent of Psalm 23: whatever difficulties may arise, our hope is in God, and it is well founded.

The Epistle            1 Peter 1:3-9

The first epistle of Peter is addressed to churches in and around Asia Minor—modern-day Turkey, for the most part—whose members were being persecuted in their local communities for beliefs that differed from those of their Jewish or pagan communities. The opening passage vividly calls believers to rejoice in the faith.

The Gospel            John 20:19-31

This gospel passage spans a week. On the day on which Jesus was raised, he suddenly appears to the disciples in a locked room. They rejoice—except for Thomas, who isn’t there. A week later, Thomas is among the disciples when Jesus suddenly appears again.

 

Ponderables

For the weeks in Easter season, the first readings each Sunday come not from the Old Testament but from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts the activity the disciples who followed Jesus in his earthly life as they live into the discipline he taught them and lead others to do the same. The first of these readings skips ahead in time to Pentecost. This reading is assigned to the second Sunday of Easter partly because it is Peter’s first public proclamation of the gospel; it also begins to introduce the concept (which, immediately following the Resurrection, the disciples had not yet assimilated) that the proper audience for the faith is all the world.

The first epistle of Peter, which will be read in church for the next several weeks, was probably not written by Peter himself: an illiterate Galilean fisherman would have known some Greek but not enough to compose the intricately structured sentences of 1 Peter 1:3-9. Whoever wrote it, it continues the themes of Jesus’ suffering and faith and our hope that are sounded in Acts and in Psalm 16.

Unsurprisingly, this week’s gospel reading and next week’s follow the disciples through the challenging early days following the Resurrection, as they struggle to make sense of what has happened. It is easy, with the hindsight of almost twenty-one centuries, to sneer at the skepticism of Thomas—but how many of us, believing ourselves badly let down by someone in whom we had reposed great hope, do exactly the same?

Again, however, the psalm tells us that God’s goodness is greater even than the very greatest heartbreak and disappointment. Given a world whose people almost cannot help but be skeptical of help, how can we as Christians live so as to make the case to them that Jesus is trustworthy and worth following?

For April 20, 2014: Easter Day, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:1-6

In the time of Jeremiah, Israel was in bad shape; outlying tribes such as Ephraim distrusted the royal double dealing in Jerusalem, neighbors such as Samaria were regarded with disdain, and exile and violence were visited on the land. Jeremiah, surprisingly, foretells the party of parties: the Lord, for love, will bring all the families of Israel home.

The Response            Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Jeremiah’s exuberance is mirrored in Psalm 118. God’s grace has come to one threatened with death, and the result is vindication beyond all hope of human achieving.

The Second Reading            Acts 10:34-43

Simon the Galilean fisherman would have shunned non-Jews, especially agents of the Roman empire; as Peter the Greek-named apostle, however, he is called by the Spirit to meet the Roman centurion Cornelius to announce the great good news that Jesus is the Lord of absolutely all of us, no matter whom.

The Gospel            John 20:1-18

The Resurrection account in the gospel of John, written after the other gospels, may be the most heartbreaking: not only is Jesus stone cold dead, but his body is missing and Mary Magdalene can only assume that it is stolen. Just imagine her shock when the gardener turns out to be Jesus—and imagine her joy!

 

Ponderables

The word of Jeremiah is not for settled, successful homebodies. It is for people wearied by factionalism, strife, and exile. There should have been no hope of things getting better—except that God has other plans.

The word of the psalmist is not for those who win under their own power. It is for and by people stretched to the limit and beyond. There should have been no hope of rescue—except that God has other plans.

The word of Peter is not for those who profit by division. It is for people too desperate for truth to keep playing by the old rules. There should have been no hope of reconciliation—except that God has other plans.

The word that Jesus speaks is not for the comfortable nor the conventionally pious. It is for those for whom worse has come to worst, who have lost even the cold comfort of performing the last rites for their best dreams. There should have been no hope of new life from death—except that God has other plans.

As we rejoice in Easter, let us not forget those who are exhausted, stressed, wounded by division, or in any kind of grief. If we are not among them right now, we surely will be. More to the point, it is for them that God the Ever-Living and Ever-Loving has other plans.

And is it not up to us, God’s people, to show the world through our love just how true these words are?

For April 19, 2014: The Great Vigil of Easter, Year A

THE LITURGY OF THE WORD

The Story of Creation: Genesis 1:1-2:2

The Response: Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26

The Flood: Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13

The Response: Psalm 46

Israel’s Deliverance at the Red Sea: 
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21

The Response: Canticle 8 (Exodus 15:1-6, 11-13, 17-18)

The Valley of Dry Bones: Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Response: Psalm 143

These four readings and their responses relate the story of humankind before the mighty acts of Easter. Genesis follows the light and delight of God’s very good Creation with the tale of how an Earth sullied by sin is scoured by the once-in-an-eternity Flood. Exodus relates the flight from Egypt, from whining Israelites to God’s literally one-sided victory over Pharaoh’s forces. Ezekiel, one of many prophets to decry the incapacity of humans on their own to be holy enough, uses the arresting image of dry bones called to life to symbolize the saving power of God.

 

AT THE EUCHARIST

The Epistle            Romans 6:3-11

During the weeks of Lent, the readings took into account the somberness of the season but also looked forward to the joy of Easter. Now the first epistle we read in Easter proclaims our liberation from sin but also looks back to the suffering that has once and for all freed us from sin’s bonds.

The Response            Psalm 114 Page 756, BCP

Psalm 114 celebrates the events of the reading from Exodus in which Israel is delivered from the power of Pharaoh. Even mountains and sea are shaken by God’s great deed!

The Gospel            Matthew 28:1-10

Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus differ in details—Matthew’s is the only one that mentions an angel-caused earthquake and guards terrified into catatonia—but the general outlines are consistent: messengers of God remind two or more women that Jesus is risen, just as he promised, and they instruct the women to bid the disciples join him in Galilee.

 

Ponderables

Matthew’s version of Jesus’ resurrection includes the counsel “Do not be afraid,” twice. The first time, these words are uttered by the angel who rolled the stone away from the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid. It seems that angels—in Greek, literally ‘messengers’—in their proper forms are so terrifying as to make hardened soldiers swoon. The second time, the words come from the mouth of the risen Jesus himself. He comes not as the familiar Rabbi with whom the disciples had eaten and walked and lived but as a transformed and astonishing messenger with other business elsewhere.

So the messenger always begins, “Don’t be afraid.”

Then the messenger passes on the sort of word that turns one’s world upside down.

The most obviously counter-to-reality claim that Jesus had ever made—that he would return from death to life—has come true, nail marks and all.

And if that is true, think of all the other things Jesus has said that are preposterous within the world as most of us know it. In God’s realm, the meek inherit the earth. The nobodies matter at least as much as the big shots. The genuine leaders are those who serve. The whole of the Law is summed up as “Love God with all your might, and love each other enough to be Christ to each other.” The people of God are each called to follow Jesus to our own crosses—and to the life beyond.

How on earth can we live up to all of that? We can’t.

But how in heaven’s name can we say no?