Archive for July, 2014

For July 13, 2014: Fifth Sunday of Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 55:10-13

The reading from Isaiah, written as exiles were returning from Babylon to what was left of Jerusalem, takes the Lord’s voice in comparing rain and snow to the Word: both come down from heaven to bring the blessing and fruitfulness intended by the Lord.

The Response            Psalm 65:9-14

Psalm 65 was composed during the period of the return from Babylon. Verses 9 through 15 probably commemorate the end of a terrible drought. By God’s grace come the rains, the seed for planting, the harvests, and the flocks and herds.

The Epistle            Romans 8:1-11

The epistle to the church at Rome amounts to a short course in theology. In previous chapters the apostle Paul has analyzed our existential quandary: we cannot possibly hope to save ourselves. Nevertheless, Paul now tells us, we have hope: it is in God’s grace, which is exactly what allows us to live according to God’s Spirit.

The Gospel            Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1-9 deploys imagery from agricultural life that would have been familiar to first-century rural Jews. In Jesus’ time, and even in ours, a yield of sevenfold—seven times as many seeds reaped as sown—would have been very good: even the smallest yield of this good soil is spectacular.

 

Further thoughts

The reading from Isaiah, the psalm, and the gospel all invoke the bounty of God’s creation, though each takes this in a different direction. Psalm 65 praises God’s provision of water and grain: water smoothes the furrows and makes the harvest possible. Isaiah’s God announces the fruitfulness as an accomplishment for God’s glory and the restoration of Israel. In Matthew, Jesus contrasts the nonexistent return from seed sown in adverse conditions with a staggeringly rich harvest from sowing in good soil and subsequently explains that the varying conditions represent different hearers of God’s Word.

In failing to continue the agricultural metaphor, the epistle to the Romans seems anomalous; one could say it comes out of left field. It notes, though, that it is God moving in us that makes us as fruitful in the spirit as we are. That is God’s grace—but it is also up to us to “set our minds on the things of the Spirit”, as verse 5 says: being open to receiving grace requires some movement on our parts.

But Matthew’s sower sows in all conditions, rather than prudently saving the seed just for the soil where it is likeliest to sprout. This reminds me of Matthew 5: 45, which we read last week for Independence Day: our God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” What if being children of the Father in heaven means letting go of the right to judge not only whether we ourselves are worthy of grace but also which of God’s children deserves the good things—from decent wages and housing and health care and education to forbearance and grace—that we crave for ourselves and those we love? What if our task and joy is to sow goodness as freely as God?

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For July 6, 2014: Independence Day

The Reading      Deuteronomy 10:17-21, KJV

Deuteronomy 10:17-21 reminds us to be generous with foreigners as God has been generous with us. Reading these verses for Independence Day also reminds us that our independence is more by God’s gift than by human doing. In the English of 1611 (when the King James Bible was written), terrible meant not ‘bad’ but ‘worthy to be feared’.

 

The Gospel      Matthew 5:43-48

Whether the English is King James-era or today’s slang, Jesus commands us in verse 48 to be perfect as God is perfect. The context suggests that we are called specifically to love like God—and that is perfectly sobering.

 

Further thoughts

What I wrote for this time last year turn out to have anticipated a controversy of early July 2014. Once again St Alban’s is celebrating US Independence Day with a Eucharist based on the first Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP) of 1789, issued just a few years after the end of the Revolutionary War. Since the 1789 BCP’s lectionary does not distinguish July 4, we are taking the Old Testament and Gospel for Independence Day from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, in the King James translation rather than the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) that the lectionary normally provides.

The 1928 BCP came into use ten short years after the end of what was then called the Great War, the European conflagration of nationalism that was the first major military venture of the United States as a world power; we know it as World War I. One expects, in response, celebratory verses about cities on hills, anointings, or victory, or perhaps admonitory verses that counsel preparedness, intemperance, or greater faith.

What we find, however, are two remarkable injunctions that all of us must love all of us. That these commands are addressed not just to individuals but to the community is less obvious in the modern English of the NRSV, in which you can denote one or many, but it is quite clear in the consciously archaic King James version, which carefully distinguishes plural ye and you from singular thou and thee. With “Love your enemies,” Jesus commands all his disciples—and us—to love widely and deeply, without regard to whom we see as right or wrong, good or bad, ours or theirs. The Deuteronomy writer’s “Love ye the stranger” explicitly calls all of us to care for those who are Not Us. Other translations render “stranger” as “alien” or “foreigner”: those in our midst who are not citizens, we are nevertheless called not to reject but to protect.

That love is how God loves, and that is the perfection to which Jesus calls us.

For June 29, 2014: Proper 8, Year A, St Alban’s Day

The Reading            Jeremiah 28:5-9

As this reading opens, most Jews are captive in Babylon, just as Jeremiah prophesied. The prophet Hananiah gladdens the king by predicting an early end to Babylonian rule and restoration of Israel to Jerusalem. Jeremiah responds to Hananiah skeptically: only if a prophet’s words come true is that prophet sent by the Lord.

The Response            Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

From verse 37 onward, Psalm 89 laments Israel’s subjugation, for which there is no end in sight. The beginning of the psalm, however, celebrates the eternal love of the Lord for David and Israel. The speaker in verses 3-4 and 19b-26 is the Lord.

The Epistle            Romans 6:12-23

The reading from the letter to the Romans continues the argument against persisting in sin because God keeps giving grace. Putting oneself in service to God for righteousness is the slavery that leads away from death and to both sanctification and eternal life.

The Gospel            Matthew 10:40-42

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus finishes his instructions to the disciples as he sends them out. His words are also for us: whoever welcomes anyone—especially as God’s agents, but not exclusively so—welcomes us and Jesus and the Father; moreover, even the humblest of good deeds by or to the humblest looms large to God.

 

Ponderables

June 29, 2014 is the third Sunday after Pentecost or the thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, which covers the two parts of the church year that fall outside the major seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. On this Sunday we also celebrate the feast of St Alban, our patron saint—a week later than usual, partly because the Rev. Allisyn Thomas is here to celebrate the Eucharist with us in her capacity as Canon to the Ordinary.

Wait: Everyday time? Canon to the commonplace? How can we make sense of these two uses?

The term ordinary time originated in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1970s, as part of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Instead of counting Sundays after Epiphany and then Sundays after Pentecost, Catholics started counting all 33 to 34 Sundays as a unit, starting with the four to nine Sundays after Epiphany and resuming after Pentecost; if Ash Wednesday fell early in the year, readings that were skipped in the shorter Epiphany would shift to the end of Pentecost to round out the church year. In English and most modern European languages, that unit is called ordinary time. In the everyday sense of ordinary, the phrase sounds odd—Eucharists that are boring?—so some sources in English assert that ordinary is a corruption of ordinal, as in ordinal numbers: first Sunday, sixteenth Sunday…) That sounds plausible, except that the original 1970s Latin phrase should be tempus ordinalis, and it isn’t: it’s tempus per annum ‘time through the year’.

Let’s shift for a moment to the other ordinary. Its roots go back much farther, to nearly the beginning of the church. While the source of our English word bishop is the Greek episcopos (literally ‘overseer’), Latin also used a term derived from Latin ordo ‘order or rule’: the ordinarius is ‘the one who keeps order’. In English, that would be ordinary, and the word remains in the vocabulary of church law and common law: a judge ordinary has jurisdiction over a case in his own right, as is to be expected, whereas a judge extraordinary has been specially appointed outside her normal sphere. So the Canon to the Ordinary is the clergyperson who assists in carrying out the customary duties of the bishop, such as visiting St Alban’s for its patronal feast day. We can argue, then, that ordinary time is a matter neither of time that is nothing special nor of weeks in sequence but rather of Sundays that are celebrated not for a special feast or fast but because they are Sundays and therefore worthy in their own right.

For June 22, 2014: Proper 7, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 20:7-13

Jeremiah the prophet preached in hard times; he spoke truth to power, and got grief in return. In this Sunday’s reading, he as good as accuses God of seducing him to make him a laughingstock, and he complains that even his close friends have it in for him—and yet, he says, and yet: the Lord is with him and will deliver him.

The Response            Psalm 69:8-11, 18-20

Psalm 69 covers much the same ground as the lament of Jeremiah. Everything that the psalmist has done at the prompting of the Lord has brought the psalmist nothing but reproach, shame, alienation, and scorn. And yet, says the psalmist, and yet: the love of the Lord is kind, and the psalmist waits on God’s great compassion.

The Epistle            Romans 6:1b-11

The beginning of Romans 6 sets up and knocks down a straw man: that it is all right to keep on sinning because God’s grace will then abound. The epistle tells us that that view makes no sense. Baptism is the sign not only of our new life in Jesus but also of our own death—by crucifixion, yet—to the old life of sin.

The Gospel            Matthew 10:24-39

Matthew 10:24-39 is part of Jesus’ teaching to the disciples as he sends them out into the world. He offers some comfort: the Father who knows when a mere sparrow falls is watching out for them. Much more, however, he warns them (and us) that, even with the love of God, the way ahead will be painful and full of conflict.

 

Ponderables

The ancient Jews considered an orderly, long, prosperous life a sign of godliness and God’s approval. In the 21st century, it’s easy to agree: the mega-wealthy Walton heirs appear more blessed than a homeless druggie in Wells Park, and the booming megachurch seems better at doing God’s will than the mainline parish with the shrinking attendance. This Sunday’s readings suggest differently, however. If Jeremiah preaches as he is called to, he is sneered at and his closest friends wait for him to fall, but not preaching leaves him burning inside. The psalmist, complaining of reproach and alienation, begs for God’s help—but it is not clear from the psalm what God’s answer is. The writer of Romans asserts that baptism, before it is a sign of grace and redemption, betokens death. Matthew’s Jesus prepares the twelve disciples for their first adventure without him by warning them that they may not intend to stir up trouble among family, friends, and neighbors, but trouble will surely find them.

Following Jesus thus does not land us in a protected bubble in which neither criticism nor illness nor disaster can touch us or those we love. Conversely, bad things—being criticized or even ostracized, falling ill, losing positions or reputations or loved ones—don’t mean that God no longer loves us. The great good news is that even the most horrible things we can imagine happening to us—or imagine doing—cannot make God stop loving us. It follows that nothing can make God stop loving anyone else.

So we are called to be followers of God. What if this entails that we’re not entitled to stop loving all God’s other children even when they reproach us, sneer at us, ignore our counsel, get sick or alienated in spite of us, or simply disagree with us?

For June 15, 2014: Trinity, Year A

The Reading            Genesis 1:1-2:4a

For Trinity Sunday, we read about the beginning of the universe as we know it. The word “wind” in verse 2 (the Hebrew word is ru’ach) could as well be “breath” or “Spirit”. Creator and Spirit therefore exist from before the beginning—and everything that comes from the Breath, including you and me, is very, very good.

The Response            Psalm 8

Psalm 8 responds to God’s activity in Creation with wonder and praise. The God whose mere fingers can create (as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it) “galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile Earth” is also the God who can bother to pay attention to you and me.

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 13:11-13

The first reading constitutes a grand hello to and by God’s universe. The epistle reading is a goodbye, the end of the second letter to the congregation at Corinth. Paul reminds the contentious Corinthians to live in peace. The final verse is one of the earliest Trinitarian formulas—invoking Son, Father, and Spirit—in the Bible.

The Gospel            Matthew 28:16-20

The gospel takes place shortly after the Resurrection: in verse 10, Jesus had instructed the women at the tomb to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee. The eleven disciples do so, and Jesus gives them marching orders: make disciples of all nations—that is, everyone—in the name of the three Persons of the one God.

 

Ponderables

The readings for Easter season, all from the New Testament, reviewed Jesus’ incredible resurrection and the early days of the Church. In the season of Pentecost we return to taking the first reading from the Old Testament; the first reading for Trinity Sunday goes all the way back to the book that tells the beginning of everything. Whether the Genesis account is factual can be disputed, and is, though the order in which God calls all things into being turns out to accord remarkably well with the geological record and the theory of evolution. In any case, it is, all of it, the work of the one God, and all of it is good.

Psalm 8 continues the theme of the goodness of God’s work as it raptly recounts the wonders of creation, though verse 5—“What is man that you should be mindful of him?”—reflects not only awe at the vast grandeur of the universe but also resigned realism in the face of our persistent, insistent fallennesses and hardnesses of heart. 2 Corinthians similarly concedes our failings: before praying God’s grace, Paul begs the brothers and sisters (again!) to heal the divisions among them. And the gospels show as plain fact the inability even of those walking with Jesus to keep on keeping faith with him and with each other.

And yet Jesus, knowing how humans betrayed him and continue to betray him, bids us and continues to bid us in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit to partner with them in bringing to all people the great good news: fallen though each of us is and feels, none of us is useless to God, if we will only turn and listen and live.

What can I do today to show an estranged child of God how much he or she matters?

For June 8, 2014: Pentecost, Year A

The Reading            Numbers 11:24-30

The book of Numbers tells of the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness. As the current reading opens, Moses has cried out for help in dealing with the people’s complaints, and the Lord has commanded him to gather seventy elders to manage things. Then something Pentecost-like happens.

The Response            Psalm 104:25-35, 37

Psalm 104 celebrates the power of the Lord, who has only to look at the earth to make it tremble—but it also celebrates the wisdom of the Lord in creating and sustaining quite simply all that there is.

The Second Lesson            Acts 2:1-21

The name Pentecost comes from the phrase pentekoste hemera ‘fiftieth day’, by which Greek-speaking Jews like Luke referred to the feast of Shavuot or First Fruits fifty days after Passover. As Luke tells it, all the nationalities converging on Jerusalem to be Israelite for this Shavuot experience mind-bending phenomena.

The Gospel            John 20:19-23

The Gospel reading takes us back to the evening of the Resurrection. The disciples have heard rumors but can’t entirely believe them—and then, quite unexpectedly, Jesus appears alive among them.

 

Ponderables

The readings for Pentecost all bear on the gift of the Holy Spirit. The psalmist’s account is the most orthodox in reminding us that all life on earth is itself the gift of the Spirit as the Lord chooses. The remaining lessons show human reactions to the gift appearing where it’s not expected. As Numbers tells it, the Spirit that comes on the elders in the wilderness is diverted from Moses and, worse, given to two men who aren’t even at the tent with the other 68; Moses’ assistant Joshua reacts to news of the errant gift with what sounds like jealousy. John 20:19-23 shows us the Spirit as simply Jesus’ breath—but in verse 25 Thomas will declare that, because Jesus didn’t appear to him, it can’t have happened. In the familiar account of Acts 2, the Spirit comes as wind and fire and leads the disciples huddled in Jerusalem to speak in other languages; some onlookers wonder how mere Galilean fisherman could possibly be so gifted while others simply dismiss them as publicly drunk, or at least full of spirits less pure.

As shocking as the flame and languages are, however, Peter’s explanation includes assertions that are even more eye-opening to those in Jerusalem and all the welter of nationalities that have converged on Jerusalem to be Israelite experience two utterly mind-bending phenomena: “God’s people” means absolutely everyone.

How often do we take it upon ourselves to decide where and how and to whom the Spirit ought to be given? And how do we help God help us stop doing that?

For June 1, 2014: Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 1:6-14

During Easter season, our first readings come not from the Old Testament but from the book of Acts. Today’s reading returns to the beginning of the book to tell the events surrounding Jesus’ ascension into heaven, after he has readied the disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The Response            Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

Psalm 68 celebrates the power and might of God. What keeps it from mere triumphalism—from “Our God can beat your God”—is its emphasis on God as defender of the widows and orphans, the prisoners, the homeless, and the weary.

The Epistle            1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

The first letter of Peter finishes its counsel to the followers of Jesus. Suffering for being a Christian is to be expected: suffering patiently as Jesus did will lead to being glorified as Jesus is.

The Gospel            John 17:1-11

The gospel reading concludes John’s so-called Farewell Discourse shortly before he is betrayed. It is framed as Jesus’ prayer, though the references to having already finished his work and being no longer in the world suggest that John is addressing us.

 

Ponderables

The obvious themes of the readings for the seventh (and last) Sunday of Easter is glory. Acts 1:6-14 show us Jesus, after his final promise to the disciples, lifted up to heaven like Elijah in a cloud. The psalm sings of the power and strength of the Lord, who rides upon the heavens. 1 Peter 4 reminds its readers that God has called them to glory, and John 17 shows us Jesus preparing to take up the glory that is rightly his.

For most of human history, glory has been something one gains on a battlefield, the result of besting an opponent, the perquisites of being able to lord it over others. These readings suggest, in various ways, that such a human view is entirely too limited. Acts 1 follows up its depiction of Jesus’ glorious ascent with two messengers who firmly remind the disciples to stop standing around and go get busy. The psalm praises as essential parts of glory God’s tenderness toward widows, orphans, the lonely, prisoners, the weary, and the poor. 1 Peter 4 tells us that glory in God’s eyes is achieved through suffering—a far cry from conquering others. Jesus tells us in John 17:3 that he has glorified God by doing God’s work; in the previous verse he asserts that eternal life—which we see as a perquisite of God’s glory—is simply knowing and having a relationship with God.

What if eternal life isn’t the prize of glory reserved in heaven? What if, instead, it begins now with each choice we make on earth to perceive each heart’s suffering through the eyes and heart of God?