Archive for August, 2014

For August 31, 2014: Twelfth Sunday in Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 15:15-21

A jeremiad is a scathing denunciation of bad faith, in any of several senses. In Jeremiah 15:15-21 the prophet, who has proclaimed God’s word and been rebuffed, turns his anger and disappointment on God Almighty. The Lord chides Jeremiah, reminding him not to stop speaking precious words, but promises strength and comfort.

The Response            Psalm 26:1-8

Unlike Jeremiah, the composer of Psalm 26:1-8 seems not to have a bone to pick with the Lord. It is clear, though, that the psalmist is challenging the Lord with his integrity, trust, faithfulness, and innocence.

The Epistle            Romans 12:9-21

In the first reading, Jeremiah complained of being persecuted and insulted for speaking the words of the Lord, and the Lord promised him vindication and deliverance. Romans 12:9-21 takes a different tack, counseling Jesus’ followers to live in harmony with all and to overcome evil with generosity.

The Gospel            Matthew 16:21-28

On announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, Simon was renamed Peter and receives rabbi-like power to bind and loose in the kingdom of Heaven. In the verses that follow, he takes initiative, rebuking Jesus for predicting a horrible death—and Jesus calls him Satan. This kingdom must not be business as usual.

 

Further thoughts

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus stated that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. Hades is not Hell, the place in which the wicked are punished eternally for their bad deeds. In fact, the ancient Greek concept of Hades comes close to the early Hebrew Sheol, where all souls go when they die. Like Hades, Sheol is a place of oblivion and obliteration: in the stark King James translation of Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, “The living know that they will die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Death cuts us off from life and the living and consumes our work and those we love, inevitably. And we can’t help but feel death as a cutting off from God, for the most compelling metaphors for faith and closeness to God all invoke life and breath: the word Spirit itself derives from the Latin spiro ‘I breathe’.

So Simon, newly named Peter and steward of Jesus’ life’s work, sensibly demands an end to Jesus’ talk about dying—and gets called “Satan” and “a stumbling block”. One wonders whether it’s that Peter is really so culpable in saying this, or perhaps that his plea to stay safe hits Jesus right where his own human body’s fear of dying intersects his divinity’s revulsion that such a waste as death even exists.

Yet, Jesus has already said, unstoppable death will no longer have the last word, for not even the prospect of death will stop him from laying himself down to conquer sin, separation, and death for the world he so loves.

He calls us to follow—literally, to come behind him. Does that mean dying exactly as Jesus did? For most of us, no. But what if Romans 12:9-21 sketches out the path? What if the task for me is to live, day by day, as though other people’s hopes and fears matter as much to me as I like to think I matter to God?

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For August 24, 2014: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 51:1-6

Isaiah prophesies hope in the daunting days after the return from exile in Babylon. Just as the Lord raised Israel from barren Abraham and Sarah, so also comfort and new life are coming to the Lord’s people and light for the peoples; even after the world ends—or we do—salvation and deliverance will come to stay.

The Response            Psalm 138

Psalm 138 is a psalm of thanksgiving to God for deliverance from trouble. The psalmist praises the name of the Lord: mighty enough to be praised by kings, yet nevertheless preserver of the lowly, and whose love is for always.

The Epistle            Romans 12:1-8

Isaiah 51:1-6 opened with a call to those who pursue righteousness. Romans 12:1-8, sketching out that pursuit, responds to the frictions between Jew and gentile in the church at Rome: we all bring to God’s table the gifts of God, and the gifts that each of us brings are all precious to our common good.

The Gospel            Matthew 16:13-20

After healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter near Tyre and Sidon, Jesus and the disciples travel to the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi, well north of Jewish territory. It is there, near a grotto and spring sacred to the pagan god Pan, that Jesus asks the disciples who it is that people say he is.

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Proper 16 are full of surprises.

Isaiah, in the rubble and desolation of post-exilic Israel, sings God’s promise to transform the ravaged land into the Eden that God designed it to be. That’s surprising enough, but then God will use Israel as a beacon of hope to draw other nations—pagans—to salvation and deliverance that will outlast even heaven.

The psalmist chimes in: the big shots on earth—who, as history shows, tend to be as supercilious to those they outrank as they are defensive toward anyone more powerful than they—will be so transformed by listening to the Lord that they sing the praise of the Lord for protecting the lowly from the big shots’ machinations.

Jesus chooses, of all places, a pagan shrine well outside Israel as the place to ask the disciples who they think he is. When Simon blurts out, “The Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus renames him and gives this rough fisherman the job of rabbi in deciding who and what is in or out of this new thing called a church.

Then the epistle instructs us to make of ourselves living sacrifices. That sounds messy enough—but the analogy of the body and its parts makes me wonder uncomfortably whether this means all of me. For all of me is not just the nifty attributes that I hope will make God and everyone pleased with me, but also the fears and the scars and the wretchednesses that I try so hard to hide.

What if it is God’s good pleasure to hallow and accept all of me that I place on the altar? And what if the salvation that outlasts even heaven, that humbles the mighty to praise, that brings all God’s children in, lives in the space where admitting my need blesses us both by giving scope for your gift from God to shine?

For August 17, 2014: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 56:1,6-8

By the time Isaiah 56 was composed, in the late 6th century before Christ, some people exiled to Babylon had returned to begin rebuilding Jerusalem. Isaiah’s powerful words recall God’s covenant with Israel—and this time, says the Lord, the door of the house of prayer is open not just to the Jews but to all peoples.

The Response            Psalm 67

Psalm 67 tells much the same story as Isaiah: God’s saving health is for all nations, as is gladness in God’s judgments, and all the peoples to the ends of the earth are to praise and stand in awe of God.

The Epistle            Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

The short but rich epistle passage builds on Isaiah’s proclamation and the psalmist’s rejoicing. The Jews’ rejection of Jesus cannot make God repudiate them—but, through God’s mercy, it opens the door to a wider definition of “God’s people” that embraces and accepts the Gentiles.

The Gospel            Matthew 15:21-28

Isaiah, the psalmist, and Romans all proclaim welcome to Gentiles as God’s people alongside the Jews. In Matthew 15:22-24, however, Jesus ignores and even disparages the Canaanite woman’s desperate pleas for healing for her daughter. Might even Jesus in his lifetime have needed to be startled into learning and growth?

 

Further thoughts

Three of the four readings for Proper 15 abound with comfort to those of us who need mercy but can’t trace our physical pedigree back to Abraham. The gospel, however, starts out disquietingly different. When a woman begs Jesus to have mercy on her little girl’s torment, at first he doesn’t even bother to shrug. Next he tells the disciples that her kind aren’t on his agenda. Then, though she abases herself before him, Jesus blows her off with an analogy that casts her and her daughter as kynarioi or ‘little dogs’—this in a society in which dogs aren’t cosseted pets but barely tolerated scavengers. (Translating with “the b-word” might not be too strong.)

Commentators over the millennia have dealt with the disquiets in this story by explaining either that Jesus was joking gently with this woman or that he was testing her faith. I’m not comfortable with either possibility, partly because of the dehumanization in “little dogs” and also because no other story in the Bible has Jesus being this determinedly rude unless someone’s hardness of head or heart clearly merits a comeuppance.

A different possibility is advanced by Grant LeMarquand. He notes that Matthew makes a point of identifying this woman not merely as a gentile but as Canaanite: a descendant of the idol-worshipers from whom the Israelites wrested the land of promise and for whom Deuteronomy 7:1-4 explicitly commanded total extermination without mercy. Canaanites are the worst of the worst, and Jesus’ scorn follows from the Torah and his cultural conditioning. But when the woman turns his analogy on itself, it changes his thinking and his reach, and he moves to fulfill the prophecy of God’s mercy extending to all nations.

If the Son of David can rethink things, why shouldn’t I? And what can I do to extend God’s mercy to all?

For August 10, 2014: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year A

The Reading            1 Kings 19:9-18

1 Kings 19 opens with Queen Jezebel of Israel promising to kill the prophet Elijah for having trounced and slain 450 priests of Baal. Elijah flees for his life. On Mount Horeb (Sinai), the Lord orders Elijah to go home to anoint new kings of Aram (Syria) and Israel—while the kings still live!—and Elisha as his own successor.

The Response            Psalm 85:8-13

In the difficult days after Israel’s exile, Psalm 85:8-13 paints an extraordinary picture of God’s: salvation and prosperity are coming for God’s people, because the truth and righteousness that condemn us are not merely in the same neighborhood but happily working hand in hand with God’s mercy and peace for our good.

The Epistle            Romans 10:5-15

The beautiful vision in Psalm 85—“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other”—is echoed in Romans 10. Righteousness comes through faith and God’s gift, and it is not just for the Jews. Let us heed the call to proclaim Jesus Christ to all the children that God yearns to bring home.

The Gospel            Matthew 14:22-33

Matthew 14 follows the story of the feeding of the multitude with the account of Jesus at the crack of dawn walking on the water of the turbulent Sea of Galilee. Seas and lakes are water in chaos and an unsurprising source of evil spirits—but Jesus controls even these.

 

Further thoughts

Expectations are subverted again and again in the readings for Proper 14. Elijah expects to meet God in the cataclysms of nature—wind, earthquake, fire—but instead the voice of God comes in the stillness. The command to return and anoint new kings is an order to participate in overthrowing those kings, in violation of ordinary civil and religious law. For the disciples struggling all night in the little boat, the Sea of Galilee fulfills the expectation that water unconstrained partakes of chaos, the primordial chaos that it took God to wrestle into ordered Creation. And of course no human being walks on the slippery willful stuff: little wonder that the disciples at first took Jesus to be something unholy!

In the psalm and the epistle, the subversion is happier. It stands to reason—human reason—that striving after righteousness is how we earn grace: given the grubbily sinful mess that is the natural truth of me, mercy surely cannot stand to be in the same room. But the psalm tells us that mercy and truth, righteousness and peace are not merely together by God’s will but cuddled up together on the sofa and beaming at me. And the epistle underscores the point that righteousness is right here, right now and always, by the will and gift of God, and for absolutely everyone irrespective of birth or means.

Like Peter, of course, I vacillate between calm certainty that I can trust God’s grace to cover my unbelief and the terrified conviction that my not-goodness means it’s all too good to be true. O Lord, save me from myself!

Whether following Jesus means literal walking on water, I hesitate to say. But what if it means extending to every one of God’s children the mercy and saving hand that I hope Jesus extends to me?

For August 3, 2014: Transfiguration

The Reading            Exodus 34:29-35

The reading from Exodus is familiar from the last Sunday after Epiphany. It is, so to speak, the second coming down of the Ten Commandments, Moses having broken the original set on discovering that Israel had taken up idol worship. As Moses returns, his face shines with the glory of God’s presence—and terrifies everyone.

The Response            Psalm 99:5-9

Psalm 99 is a hymn of praise to God. The verses we read for the Feast of the Transfiguration reflect the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness and afterward, with God’s priests Moses, Aaron, and later Samuel calling on him for the people, and God speaking to Israel from the pillar of cloud.

The Epistle            2 Peter 1:13-21

The letters of Peter were probably written in his name and after his death: the author of 2 Peter 1:13-21 writes better Greek than a Galilean fisherman would know. This account is nevertheless a compelling witness to the impact on Peter of seeing his friend revealed as the very Son of God.

The Gospel            Luke 9:28-36

Versions of Jesus’ transfiguration are in all three synoptic gospels. Minor details vary—in Matthew and Mark, Jesus tells the disciples to say nothing, whereas in Luke’s version the disciples keep mum of their own accord—but all agree on the light, the prophets, Peter’s stunned response, and the announcement from heaven.

 

Further thoughts

The readings for the feast of the Transfiguration make much of appearances. The glow that Moses acquires from contact with God—and the apprehension it produces in the Israelites—prefigures the more striking and pervasive alterations in Jesus, with great Moses and Elijah paying court into the bargain, and the greater extent to which they leave Peter and the other disciples (to borrow the evocative British term) gobsmacked.

Interestingly, the book of Exodus doesn’t mention Moses’ skin shining the first time he brings the Ten Commandments to the people. Either his skin wasn’t shining, or it wasn’t obvious, until the second time, after the people have demanded an idol to worship and Aaron has complied and Moses has had his tantrum on God’s behalf. It’s sobering to think that people notice God’s glory when they need it to scare them straight—sobering, and unsettlingly familiar.

The encounter with Jesus plays out differently. Unlike Moses, Jesus seems both aware of and in control of his glory on the mountaintop. Of course, that’s appropriate to God, and of course Peter babbles. But then there is the voice out of the cloud. The voice doesn’t announce itself as God (not that it would have to), nor does it announce that Jesus is supreme, nor does it lay out point after point and law after law that must be obeyed or penalty after penalty that must be paid.

Instead, as 2 Peter remembers it, the voice simply says, “Listen to Jesus, because I love him.”

What if the kingdom of God is listening to each of the children of God—whether or not they recognize themselves as such—because God loves them?

For July 27, 2014: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12

The Reading            1 Kings 3:5-12

Solomon was not King David’s oldest son, but his mother Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan prevailed on David to name Solomon his successor. The dream at Gibeon, one of the two most holy places before the Temple was built, confirms the correctness of the choice, as does Solomon’s request for wisdom with which to govern.

The Response            Psalm 119:129-136

Solomon responded to God’s invitation to asking for wisdom. Psalm 119:129-136 celebrates God’s decrees, word, commandments, and law and the understanding that they give.

The Epistle            Romans 8:26-39

Solomon, in asking for wisdom, compared himself to an ignorant child before God. The letter to the Romans begins by assuring us of the Spirit’s aid in our weakness before supplying a magnificent catalogue of perils and powers that God simply will not permit to come between us and God’s love.

The Gospel            Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Chapter 13 of the gospel of Matthew continues with a series of short parables that compare the kingdom of heaven to a large weed from a small seed, yeast, hidden treasure, and a net full of fish, followed by a parable of knowing the value of both new and old.

 

Further thoughts

The religions originating in the strife-ravaged Middle East, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, agree in revering Solomon son of David: he was very wise, wise enough to choose wisdom as his coronation gift from God rather than more ostentatious trappings of kingship. Psalm 119 praises God’s Word as a way to avoid iniquity—but the Bible tells us that even Solomon, for all his wisdom, made choices that led him into sin, and both his descendants and his realm paid the price.

On the one hand, this is sobering. If even Solomon’s storied insight could not keep him pure, what hope is there for me? On the other hand, Solomon never stopped being a favorite with God, and the epistle presses home the point that, Jesus having borne the price for me on purpose to make me right with God, what hope isn’t there for me? Not even my own choices can make God stop loving me. How astonishing!

That the kingdom of God is a dizzying array of astonishments is underscored by Jesus’ parables. He likens the kingdom to a tiny seed that grows into a bushy mustard plant—that his hearers, like my neighbors in Southern California, would have judged an invasive weed. He likens the kingdom to yeast in flour; the word that our translation renders as “mixed in with” is Greek ἐνέκρυψεν, which is more like ‘hid in’—but the yeast of everyday bread spoils the unleavened bread of Passover. He likens the kingdom to treasure and a fine haul of fish, unsurprisingly—but surely treasure found and rehidden in a field rightly belongs to the original owner, and the merchant who hangs on to The Best Pearl Of All is out of business, and Jesus flat out tells us that the job of sorting good from bad—do we covet issuing such judgments?—is for God’s angels at the end of the age.

Parables, clearly, have their limits. But what if the point of these parables is that, in more ways than we can count, the kingdom of God is much more willing to tolerate messiness and divergence, surprises, and saints that look like sinners, than we ourselves are?

For July 20, 2014: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11

The Reading            Isaiah 44:6-8

The earliest books of the Old Testament proclaim that the Lord God is the greatest of the gods. Isaiah 44:1-15 relates a different claim: that the Lord is the only god.

The Response            Psalm 86:11-17

Psalm 86 combines elements of lament—begging God for aid against enemies who despise both the psalmist and God—and praise. After extolling God’s graciousness, slowness to anger, and kindness, the psalmist asks for a sign of favor with which to shame the haters.

The Epistle            Romans 8:12-25

The early church in Rome included both Jews and former pagans, though not without disagreements. Paul explains humanity’s common birthright as adopted children of God: we all share in Christ’s glory, but we are also to share humbly in Christ’s suffering while we wait in hope for our redemption.

The Gospel            Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

We continue examining Jesus’ parables that use the imagery of plowing, planting, and harvesting, with his explanations. The “weeds” in this parable would probably have been darnel, a plant that looks a great deal like wheat until it ripens.

 

 

Further thoughts

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is the three-year cycle of Bible readings, followed with more or less fidelity by most Christian churches, that works from first verse to last through most books of the Bible. A challenge for the RCL’s makers is that the Old Testament, even without the psalms, comprises several times more text than do the epistles and the gospel taken together. To even things out, in Pentecost season the RCL splits just the Old Testament readings and apposite psalms into two tracks. Track 1 begins with Genesis and traces the covenants, falls, and redemptions of God’s children, while Track 2 focuses on prophecy, on calls for repentance or proclamations of righteousness. That a given day’s epistle and gospel tend to be about equally complemented by either track’s pair of readings is both intentional and remarkable.

The gospel readings for Propers 10 and 11 reflect a rare but sensible choice and a surprising choice. As the gospel of Matthew has it, Jesus tells a large crowd two parables and then the disciples urge him to interpret them. The rare but sensible choice is by the makers of the RCL, who allot each sermon-worthy parable and its explanation to a different Sunday: the parable of the sower for Proper 10 last week and the parable of the bad seed this week. The surprising choice that Jesus even complies with the disciples’ demand: he almost never explains parables, and these explanations are almost painfully literal and obvious.

How does this square with the other lections? Isaiah testifies that the Lord is not merely the greatest god but the only god, who alone knows the future, and the reason we are not to fear. The psalm celebrates this God’s graciousness and compassion. Yet, as the epistle notes, suffering and decay are inextricably part of this world: from birth onward we learn that there is plenty to fear in pain, sickness, shame, disaster, and death. As I write, we mourn the 295 passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines 17, including almost 100 AIDS experts bound for a conference, sacrificed for a political cause relevant to few or none of them. How can God foresee such evil and not forestall it?