Archive for October, 2014

For Nov. 2, 2014: All Saints’ Day, Year A

The Reading                                                                 Revelation 7:9-17

For All Saints’ Day, the first reading comes not from the Old Testament but from the book of Revelation, John’s mystical vision in which he tries to describe what we mortals cannot begin to comprehend. What is wondrously clear, though, is that, in Revelation, the way is open to all of God’s children.

The Response                                                              Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Unlike many psalms, Psalm 34 is addressed not to the Lord but to the Lord’s people.

The Epistle                                                                     1 John 3:1-3

The first letter of John brings back into this world the promise that Revelation gives—and the challenge it issues to live as sacrificially as our big brother in the faith, Jesus. But if we are God’s children here and now, how on earth shall we live into that?

The Gospel                                                                     Matthew 5:1-12

The gospel reading from Matthew 5:1-12 is called the Beatitudes: in Latin, verses 2 through 11 begin with Beati sunt. The Greek word that Beati sunt translates is Μακάριοι—which, some authorities suggest, is better translated, given the culture of the time, as ‘How honorable’.

 

Further thoughts

The observance of All Saints’ Day began as a day to remember Christian martyrs en masse, once the Roman persecutions under Diocletian had made too many martyrs to remember individually. The day was originally in the spring, near the time of a Roman festival of the dead (Lemuralia), but in the mid-8th century Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1, one day after the Celtic festival of Samhain, and changed its focus from martyrs to recognized saints. In Old English the day was ealra hālgena mæssedæg or ‘mass-day of all the holy ones’; in Middle English this became al halwes ‘All Hallows’ or Hallowmas.

Not even in Roman times were all Christians martyrs or official saints, of course. In 998 Odilo of Cluny ordered his Benedictine monasteries to observe November 2 as commemoratio omnium fidelium defunctorum ‘commemoration of all the faithful dead’ to remember monks who had died; soon the Church adopted the practice, and almost as soon it was called dies animarum or festa animarum ‘day or festival of souls’. According to Mary Reed Newland’s charming comments on All Hallow’s Eve, in Brittany people kept vigil in prayer for all the dead—but not on Nov. 1, that being a feast day, so the vigil was shifted to October 31.

Roman Catholics pray for the dead partly to reduce the time they must spend in Purgatory before they are pure enough for heaven. The doctrine of Purgatory, or to be precise the abuses associated with the Church’s sale of indulgences, helped motivate the Protestant Reformation, and it is for this reason that the feast of All Souls was dropped from Books of Common Prayer from the English original in 1549 through the American version of 1928, and All Saints’ Day extended to include the everyday sort of saint celebrated in the children’s hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”. In the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, however, though no readings are specified, the calendar for November 2 shows the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. For its part, the Church of England’s Common Worship liturgy series restores the day as All Souls’ Day. I think the Church of England’s version suits the All Saints readings very well. I don’t know exactly whom to rule out of the multitude that Revelation 7:9 describes, so it’s doubtless better that I don’t and that, rather, I focus on following the call to love and serve, to give mercy and to make peace, and to worry less about my own dignity than about everyone else’s.

As Ezekiel 18:4, has it, “Behold, all souls are mine, saith the Lord.” What if, as Christians dealing not only with those we find lovable but with those we don’t, we start by taking Ezekiel very, very literally?

For Oct. 26, 2014: Proper 25, Pentecost 20, Year A

The Reading                                                           Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18

By some counts the book of Leviticus issues 613 commandments that specify how God’s people and priests are to behave. Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 cuts to the point: rather than judging unjustly, slandering, profiting at a neighbor’s expense, or bearing grudges, we are to behave in love toward all.

The Response                                                   Psalm 1

Psalm 1 contrasts those who follow the way of the Lord with those who are wicked. It reinforces the message of Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 as it carries forward the message of Psalm 23: those who follow the way of the Lord will be blessed by bearing fruit that endures.

The Epistle                                                          1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was brief and controversial; detractors accused him of dishonesty and trickery and then drove him and his group out of town. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 he reminds his readers what made them believe the gospel he brought: it was spoken to please God, without impure motives, and in tender love.

The Gospel                                                               Matthew 22:34-46

The gospel of Matthew moves inexorably toward Good Friday as Jesus is challenged by the religious authorities. In Matthew 22:34-46, the Pharisees try a trick question and get an answer they were not expecting. Then Jesus asks a question about the Messiah to which they have nothing to say.

 

Further thoughts

Almost fifty years ago, up to 100,000 mostly college-age baby boomers in love beads, tie-dyed T-shirts and bell-bottomed jeans began converging on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district for the counterculture live-in known as the “Summer of Love.” Participants were sure it was going to transform the world. It fell short of expectations, unsurprisingly: the movement hasn’t been invented that human beings can’t screw up, sometimes literally. But the Beatles’ deceptively simple “All You Need Is Love” was a smash hit of that summer of 1967 for good reason: it resonates, as the readings for Proper 25 do more profoundly, with the fact that we humans are wired to crave love, just as we are wired to be our most God-true selves when we deeply give love. As “All You Need Is Love” puts it, “There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made / No one you can save that can’t be saved / Nothing you can do but you can learn to be you in time / It’s easy / All you need is love.”

Love isn’t easy, of course—Paul brags a little to the Thessalonians about the effort he has put into approaching them in love, and Jesus’ staggeringly self-emptying sacrifice on the cross is even more stupendous if the identity of the Messiah means that the crucifixion is true not only for all time but in all time. Love in Jesus’ and Paul’s terms is certainly not just “the feels”, as one sees it on Facebook, and Lord knows our feelings can as often lead us to reject the love we need as to refuse to give the love we should. And only the Lord, through our fellow humans, can help us out of the swamps of despair that fester there. But what if, giving the glory to God, we invert the ’60s mantra from “If it feels good, do it” to “If it does good, feel it”?

For Oct. 19, 2014: Proper 24, Pentecost 19, Year A

The Reading             Isaiah 45:1-7

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah tell of the time when the people of Israel were already in exile in Babylon but their deliverance was imminent. The instrument of their deliverance, the anointed one whom the LORD calls by name and promises treasures and secret riches, is Cyrus—king of the decidedly pagan Persian empire.

The Response         Psalm 96:1-9

Psalm 96 is an enthronement psalm that dates to roughly the same time as Isaiah 45. The psalmist calls on all peoples to sing to the LORD and declare the LORD’s glory. Verse 8 is familiar as one of the sentences that may be read in an Episcopal church as the Offertory begins.

The Epistle             1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

The first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the first written book of the New Testament. Paul writes to a church he founded in an important Roman city in Macedon, north of Greece, that he has had to leave suddenly. He begins this letter by commending the mostly gentile converts for their joy and perseverance in the faith.

The Gospel           Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 21:23-22:14 follows Jesus after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem as he tells a series of parables that make the political and religious rulers squirm. To discredit this troublemaker, the Pharisees and the followers of Herod join forces and confront him with a loaded question about paying taxes to Rome.

 

Further thoughts

“Politics makes strange bedfellows”, as writer and humorist Charles Dudley Warner noted in 1871, when private deal-making in smoke-filled back rooms birthed both shady laws and shining ones.

The strange bedfellows in Matthew are the Pharisees, upholders of Jewish racial and religious purity, and the Herodians, who are aligned with Rome via the figurehead Herod Antipas. Each group despises the other, but Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem has both groups worried, so they work together to trap him. If Jesus calls Roman taxation lawful, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Jewish autonomy and much of the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on him; if he doesn’t, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Rome and the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on whatever the Roman legions leave of him. Jesus spurns the trap. The government that provides the coinage earns the tax, he indicates, as one of God’s multitude of tools for getting things done.

Isaiah, for his part, hails Cyrus of the Persians as not only God’s instrument but God’s anointed ruler over Israel—though Cyrus is neither Jewish nor of the house of David. And the Cyrus that Isaiah prophesies is pretty nearly the Cyrus of history: an overthrower of kings, to be sure, yet notorious for treating his vanquished opponents’ former subjects with mercy and generosity. Cyrus finds out what the Judeans need to restore Jerusalem; he helps them back on their feet to do God’s good work, and this constitutes real kingship.

And then there is Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee and yet apostle to the gentiles. He commends the Thessalonians not for imitating him as Jews but for imitating him as followers of Christ and doers of God’s good work among their fellow gentiles.

What if doing the will of God means making less of differences and making more of listening and love?

For Oct. 12, 2014: Proper 23, Year A

The Reading                                                                         Isaiah 25:1-9

Isaiah 25:1-9, written as disaster and deportation to Babylon loomed for God’s people, gives a startling series of images: the city ruled by foreigners lies in ruins, the poor have shelter from rain and heat, the Lord throws for all peoples the party of all parties, and death itself will be no more. What an invitation!

The Response                                                 Psalm 23

Psalm 23 can be read as following on Isaiah 25:1-9: it depicts the Lord as shepherd and protector of the psalmist’s soul, providing for the psalmist even in the face of the psalmist’s enemies and guiding the psalmist even through the valley of the shadow of death.

The Epistle                                                                 Philippians 4:1-9

The epistle to the church at Philippi, after requesting help to reconcile the feuding church ladies Euodia and Syntyche, ends with encouragement and challenge. The Philippians are to do three important tasks—rejoice; become notorious for being gentle; instead of worrying, pray—and to be open to the peace of God.

The Gospel                                                                    Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14 is the fourth of Jesus’ parables in response to the chief priests and the elders who have demanded that he tell them by what authority he was teaching and healing. It is hard to reconcile this king who readily slaughters and abuses the noncompliant with the view of God in the other readings for Proper 23.

 

Further thoughts

Three of the readings for Proper 23 are easy to discuss. Isaiah 25:1-9 describes the celebration at the end of time to which all God’s children will be welcome, at which all will be fed, and in which all our griefs and shames will be redeemed for all time in the presence of all peoples. The much-paraphrased and much-sung Psalm 23 personalizes the vision for the future while reminding me that God my loving Shepherd is with me in the trials of the present. Philippians 4:1-9 gently concedes human frailty while focusing us on the practices of rejoicing, gentleness, and prayer. What beautiful portraits of the surpassing goodness of God!

But then there’s Matthew 22:1-14: the parable of the king, his invitees having disrespected his servants, who salves his wounded pride by burning down a whole city and then having other servants frog-march all comers to fill the banquet hall; when one poor schlock thus corralled up shows up without the right clothes, the king humiliates him before throwing him into what clearly amounts to Hell.

Over the centuries this parable has been taken as proof of God’s demand for purity; it has been used to justify shocking behavior against Jews, infidels, non-Europeans, and even fellow Christians on the other side of a doctrinal dispute. Some recent analyses propose, however, that this parable is not about God at all. As Paul Nuecheterlein and D. Mark Davis tell it, Jesus is describing the kingdom as his audience of chief priests and Pharisees sees it: a place where the accepted response to any perceived slight against those in charge is violence and more violence. But consider how the Son of God actually acts in the world. Tempted to show off, he declines. Faced with humiliation and the most brutal of deaths—the worst that his enemies can throw at him—he spurns the vengeance that will justify their brutality by taking it seriously. Instead, in the words of Psalm 23, Jesus chooses not to fear their evil, and in so choosing he ends in himself the cycle of retributive violence.

What if we were to live out our trust in Jesus by making the same choice?

 

Nuechterlein, Paul J. 2008. “When a squirrel is just a squirrel.” Sermon. Web. http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper23a_2008_ser.htm. Consulted 8 October 2014.

Davis, D. Mark. 2014. “The Kingdom of the Heavens vs. the Kingdom of a Human King.” Left Behind and Loving It. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-kingdom-of-heavens-v-kingdom-of.html. Web. Consulted 7 October 2014.

For October 5, 2014: Proper 22, Year A

The Reading                                                                           Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5:1-7 begins in Isaiah’s voice as a love song and praise of a promising vineyard. At verse 3, the voice is the Lord’s: the carefully tended vineyard produces nothing worthwhile, and so it is to be destroyed. The last verse returns to Isaiah’s voice: the bad vineyard is God’s people, producing bloodshed rather than justice.

The Response                                     Psalm 80:7-14

Rather like Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-14 begins with a promising planting by the Lord of hosts. The vine out of Egypt is Israel, flourishing from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River—but now its grapes are plucked by all comers and its leaves are animal fodder, unless the Lord turns and saves it.

The Epistle                                                            Philippians 3:4b-14

In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul is more than usually forthright: though the Jews are God’s chosen people and he the best Jew by birth and accomplishment, all of that is a steaming pile of skubalon (‘rubbish’ is a very polite translation) when it comes to earning righteousness and (better yet!) knowing Jesus.

The Gospel                                                                 Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:33-46 tells of another lovingly built vineyard; this time it is not the vine or the fruit that is faulty, but tenants who choose not to uphold their end of a bargain and use violence to keep what is not theirs. This is much less a story to shame “the Jews” than it is a warning against self-righteousness.

Further thoughts

It is easy and tempting to take readings like those for Proper 22 as indictments of the wickedness of the Jews as a whole. It is even more tempting to do so in challenging times, and the history of the world makes all too plain that Church and people have succumbed to that temptation with shocking regularity in the past two millennia.

But that misses the point of all the readings. First, the vineyard owners devoted all that effort to their respective vineyards precisely because they had reason to expect the best results from land and vines: that is, if anyone is producing good fruit of the Spirit, it will surely be the people who are and have been in covenant with the Lord. Second, up until the advent of modern democracy it was understood that a nation is no better than its leaders: the rant in Isaiah is aimed not at ordinary Jews but rather at the religious and governmental authorities that have led them astray. Similarly, with the parable of the vineyard Jesus targets the group of those who by virtue of more rigorous upbringing, deeper training in Torah, and higher spiritual discipline should have been better placed than anyone else to recognize who Jesus really is and what is at stake—but did not.

Paul makes the point more personal. The list of attributes with which Philippians 3:4b-14 opens is there to establish him as very much a Jew—in fact, the cream of the crop of Judaism, and perhaps the very most observant Jew ever to walk the earth. But even all that righteousness got him absolutely nowhere without the overflowing grace of God.

Having said all this, however, he is determined to let his life be his thanks by bearing the best possible fruit for all peoples in the kingdom of God. What if you and I were to go and do likewise?