Archive for November, 2014

For Nov. 30, 2014: 1 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                   Isaiah 64:1-9

We launch the season of Advent, and with it Year B, with a reading from the predominantly hopeful third part of Isaiah that is penitential and a bit apocalyptic. All of us for whom Isaiah speaks are the authors of our own disasters and about as righteous as used toilet paper(verse 6)—but yet all of us are the work of God’s hand.

The Response                                                 Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Isaiah’s theme is continued in Psalm 80. Prayers notwithstanding, God’s people are suffering: they eat and drink tears by the bowlful and are the scorn of their neighbors. They ask God, “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand.” Christians often view this as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it is a call to us?

The Epistle                                                      1 Corinthians 1:3-9

The Christians of Corinth, a bustling Greco-Roman seaport, were well off by Christian standards, but Jewish and Gentile converts were at odds. Paul opens his first letter to them with gratitude for their learning and speaking but striking silence on the topic for which he praises other churches: love for one another.

The Gospel                                                       Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13 is Jesus’ long answer when four disciples ask him privately how they will know when the Messiah is coming. Jesus tells them to look for the signs, as one gauges from the fig tree’s leaves when summer is coming, but he adds that only the Father knows just when that will be.

 

Further thoughts

These “further thoughts” are normally confined to matters of theology. The current unrest in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere over a grand jury’s refusal to recommend that the shooting of Michael Brown come to trial, however, demands comment, the more so in light of the lectionary texts for this first Sunday in Lent, Year B.

As I write, it is the second day after the prosecutor’s announcement. News reports indicate that last night was calmer than the night before; it is good if the ashes in Ferguson and other cities are beginning to cool, both for the sake of the business owners and residents who suffer damage and injury and in the interest of toning down the chorus of gibes to the effect that, well, one really can’t expect any better behavior from… them. But I can’t help fearing that the settling ashes will once again be allowed to obscure and bury a discussion that this nation must have. The issue is that hundreds of thousands of mothers live in fear that theirs will be the boy who doesn’t come home tonight because he’s been shot by a cop. This fear has been given searing voice by a teacher friend of mine; her son is a senior at Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad and a standout wide receiver in football, which means he’s a little more lightly built than Michael Brown but still a pretty big guy, and he’s black. She is nauseated with fear that he’ll die of reaching too fast for his ID. And she’s not alone.

That this fear exists and is pervasive must be confronted and dealt with, whatever one believes about who was right in Ferguson. If it is not, I fear that in the future of this nation are Psalm 80:5’s “bowls of tears” for all of us to drink. I fear Isaiah 64:7’s chilling prophecy that, far from falling to outside enemies, we are instead bound to be “delivered into the hands of our iniquity.”

What if our listening to the anguish of Ferguson is the sound of the Lord God tearing open heaven to come down and bring righteousness?

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For Nov. 26, 2014: Thanksgiving

The Reading                                                   Deuteronomy 8:7-18

In Deuteronomy, Moses addresses God’s people as they prepare to take over the land of Canaan. Verses 7-10 describe a land in which hard work can be rewarded richly—which means it will be easy to forget that all the good is the gift of God.

The Response                                                Psalm 65

Psalm 65 is a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s activity in the Temple (verses 1-4), in the natural world (verses 5-8), and in supplying plentiful rain for the harvest (verses (9-14). The opening phrase dumiyya tehillah elohim, usually translated “Praise is owing” or “You are to be praised”, can also be rendered “Silence is praise to you.”[i]

The Epistle                                                     2 Corinthians 9:6-15

According to 2 Corinthians 9:1-6, this epistle has been sent ahead so the Christians of Corinth can ready their gift for the Church in Jerusalem (“the saints’) before Paul and a possible Macedonian escort arrive. Verses 6-15 go on to explain how cheerful giving blesses both receiver and giver while glorifying God.

The Gospel                                                      Luke 17:11-19

As Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem and the last week of his life through the area between Jewish Galilee and non-Jewish Samaria, ten lepers there beg his mercy from a proper distance and he responds with healing. The one who turns back to thank Jesus is the one from Samaria.

Further thoughts

The theme of the Year A lectionary readings for Thanksgiving Day might be “mixed blessings”. As the people of Israel stand on the bank of the Jordan, ready to enter Canaan after the deprivations of life in the wilderness, Moses warns them—and us—not to get cocky enough to think that all the good is of their own getting. The psalm sings glory to God for the grandeur of Creation and for the humbler gift of soil and water for planting and growth—but it begins with confession: “Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.” The Corinthians get an explanation of why and how to give: the gifts given in thanksgiving for God’s blessings are themselves God’s blessings to the recipient.

The blessing of healing from Jesus may have been very mixed indeed for the Samaritan. “The region between Samaria and Galilee” is the land around the border that divides two peoples, Jewish and mixed-blood Samaritans, who turn their backs on each other. This land between the averted backs serves as a place to which lepers may be banished lest they defile decent people on either side. Ten such outcasts have made something of a community there, and the Samaritan, the double outsider, is accepted as one of them.

Then they cry out to Jesus and are healed. (One wonders how these castoffs knew who it was that walked their no-man’s-land.) The Jews go off, as Jesus and the Law instruct them, to Jerusalem to be judged by the priests as whole, to rustle up somehow the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus 14 for being declared clean and for atonement a week later, and thus to be readmitted to decent Jewish society. For the Samaritan, however, this isn’t an option: the priests of the Jews will not admit jurisdiction over such as him. He may well fear that the family from which his disease has excluded him will no longer be willing to accommodate him—or that he will no longer be prepared to accommodate to them. Nevertheless, he knows that Jesus has done him, a Samaritan, a stupendously unconventional miracle. He returns to give stupendously unconventional thanks, falling at the feet of the enemy who has just revealed himself as more than a friend. And Jesus’ response hints that the Samaritan’s own openness to miracle and readiness to thank is a factor in his healing.

Surely the result of thankful and thoughtful acts of giving opposes the vicious cycles of the world—in which inequality breeds entitlement breeds oppression breeds inequality and sooner or later despair that boils over in violence—with a virtuous cycle in which thanks foster gifts foster blessing foster thanks and sooner or later love that overflows into the giving and receiving of grace.

What if we’re called to practice thanks as giving and giving as thanks?

[i] Segal, Benjamin A, 17 May 2011, “Psalm 65—Silence Sings from Afar.” A New Psalm: A New Look at Age-Old Wisdom. Web. http://psalms.schechter.edu/2011/05/psalm-65-silence-sings-from-afar-text.html. Consulted 25 November 2014.

For Nov. 23, 2014: Christ the King, Year A

The Reading                                                      Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

As Ezekiel prophesies, six centuries before Christ, the Temple is in ruins and the people scattered and kingless. Now God promises to gather God’s sheep back home to be fed and healed and strengthened. (“David” means David’s descendant.) The fat, strong ones who butted and scattered the weaklings, however, will face judgment.

The Response                                                    Psalm 95:1-7a

The rousing Psalm 95, which celebrates the reign of the Lord God, appears twice in the lectionary: a selection on Christ the King Sunday and the whole psalm on the third Sunday of Lent. It includes a call to shout with psalms. Let us make a joyful noise, if an Episcopally decorous one!

The Epistle                                                         Ephesians 1:15-23

In the book of Ezekiel, the Lord God promised to gather and shepherd and heal the scattered sheep of Israel. Ephesians 1:15-23 tells how this promise is fulfilled and more than fulfilled by the power of God working through Christ the risen Head of All.

The Gospel                                                          Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46 follows two difficult parables in which people in power shut doors in the faces of those who are struggling. Jesus’ story here sounds a different note: this King is in the business of opening doors to the needy and the outcasts, and to those who tend the needy and the outcasts for their own sakes.

 

Further thoughts

Some years ago, Leona Helmsley earned the sobriquet “The Queen of Mean” for her vicious, grasping, mean-spirited reign as head of the Helmsley hotel empire. She reportedly fired employees on little provocation and, though phenomenally wealthy, nitpicked the large bills she ran up with contractors. When she finally fell, people laughed at her—but she got away with it for years, because, as the saying goes, “Power corrupts.”

The readings for Christ the King Sunday give us a head-spinningly different way to understand power as it is seen by God. On the one hand, Psalm 95 gives us the mighty Creator whose mere word suffices to bring into being all the wonders of the universe, before whom all knees bow, and Ephesians 1:15-23 reminds us that all of God’s authority is in the hands of the risen and victorious Christ. On the other hand, this supreme God, CEO of CEOs, doesn’t emerge from the corner office solely to enlarge his empire and abuse the staff. No: as Ezekiel tells it, this CEO looks after the needs and dignity of every last housekeeper and busboy, and is preparing scathing performance reviews for the middle managers who haven’t done likewise. Moreover, in the words of Matthew 25:31-46, this CEO sees his own likeness in the throng of humanity outside: the dispossessed, the disheartened, the suffering, even the criminals are worth tending and encouraging. And this CEO trains and encourages everyone on staff to see their likeness in him and to act accordingly in his name.

The analogy stops here: what CEO ever died for the employees? But this too is what the working of God’s power through Jesus truly means. What if we were to choose, in each interaction, to crucify our need to win and wield power in favor of recognizing and encouraging the power of God in each other?

For Nov. 16, 2014: Pentecost 23, Proper 28, Year A

The Reading                                                            Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

In the late 7th century BCE, the rich and powerful of Judah tolerate idol worship and plunder the poor, yet expect the Lord to do nothing about it. The prophet Zephaniah says otherwise. For the sacrifice that the Lord has prepared, these complacent ones are not on the guest list: they are on the menu.

The Response                                                         Psalm 90:1-8, 12

In the face of Zephaniah’s denunciation of human complacency and promise of divine retribution, Psalm 90:1-8, 12 might be among the few sane responses. We have so little time to do the good God would have us do…

The Epistle                                                          1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Zephaniah warned the complacent not to expect to gain from the day of judgment. Paul’s Thessalonians believed that Jesus would return, ending the world as we know it, any day. He advises them—and us—to watch out, to protect ourselves through faith, hope, and love, and to help make each other better.

The Gospel                                                                Matthew 25:14-30

Chapter 25 of the gospel of Matthew follows up the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids with another difficult story in the parable of the talents. The word talent seems to have acquired its meaning ‘special ability’ from this parable: in Jesus’ day, it simply meant a great deal of money.

 

Further thoughts

On the next to last Sunday before the end of the church year, the readings for Proper 28 look toward our own end and the end of all things, although they are not unanimous in the conclusions they suggest.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 offers excerpts from a jeremiad that combines forceful denunciation of the complacent with a description of the day of judgment that is terrifying enough to have inspired the medieval Latin hymn Dies Irae (‘Day of Wrath’). He is emphatic that all their silver and gold will buy the rich no relief whatsoever. This is quite consistent with Jewish law, which forbade usury and commanded generosity toward the poor, and Jewish custom that frowned upon amassing wealth for the sake of amassing wealth.

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, taken at face value, is astonishing and a bit shocking. To each of three slaves a man entrusts a substantial sum of money; in Jesus’ day, the word talent—from Greek talanton ‘scale or balance’—denoted a large mass of silver worth 6,000 denarii, or 20 years’ work at the daily wage of a denarius. The slaves whose wheeling and dealing doubles the money are praised, counter to Jewish cultural expectations, while the slave who simply saves the money because he fears the rapaciousness of the master loses what he has and is condemned as worthless. It is traditional to interpret the monetary talents as standing for the special gifts and abilities given to each of us by God; on this reading, the parable is a call to make the best possible use of these gifts for God, which seems straightforward—but the master must then represent God, and how can the descriptors “harsh” and “reaping where you did not sow” possibly fit? Under a more recent view, the first two slaves are guilty of buying into the master’s greed and hardness of heart, the third slave is the hero of the piece for refusing to go along, and the master’s condemnatory words are cited by Jesus not for honor but for censure.

Whether the third slave is right or wrong, he is certainly not complacent and he certainly is awake, as the letter to the Thessalonians advises. That letter also counsels believers to put on faith, love, and the hope of salvation as protective armor, to remember that our destiny in Christ is not damnation but salvation, and to encourage one another. Could that mean that our armor is shared?

What if the point is that we can’t hope for salvation without Jesus—and each other?

For Nov. 9, 2014: Proper 27, Pentecost 22, Year A

The Reading                                                  Amos 5:18-24

Amos 5:18-24 asks a quelling question of people who take their own well-being, even at their neighbors’ expense, as a sign of being God’s favorites: “Why do you want the day of the Lord?”—and explains why they will not: sacrifices and solemn ritual do not interest God in the absence of justice being done. Verse 24 resonates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Response                                               Psalm 70

If Amos 5:18-24 can be read as one side of a coin, perhaps Psalm 70 represents the other: this is the voice of one beset by those who believe they know better. Strikingly, its call for the enemy to be disgraced is followed by a plea that those who gloat rethink and repent.

The Epistle                                                     1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Thessalonians struggled to reconcile the gospel promise of eternal life with the painful truth that some of their nearest and dearest in the faith are dead; are they lost? No, Paul says: those who have died will be first to meet the triumphant Christ, and all will be with the Lord forever.

The Gospel                                                     Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13 compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding in which half of the bridesmaids get left out because their lamps are running out of oil. Are the wise bridesmaids truly wise in the kingdom for refusing to share their oil? Jesus’ parables tend to be difficult, and this one is no exception.

 

Further thoughts

Taken at face value, the readings for Proper 27 don’t play very well together. In Amos 5:18-24, the Lord pronounces against those who practice religiosity but fail to ensure justice in this world; that goes well with Psalm 70, in which the psalmist clearly expects the Lord to act in the psalmist’s favor, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is explaining to his bewildered flock that their beloved kith and kin won’t be shut out of heaven for having had the bad grace (or something) to have died before Jesus’ return. So far, somewhat inclusive.

But then there’s the parable of the bridesmaids or virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Imprudent bridesmaids didn’t bring extra oil; prudent bridesmaids refuse to share; when the imprudent ones do their best to remedy their lack, they get shut out of the wedding party altogether.

And, Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Most interpretations of this parable over the centuries take it as a prescription, a forceful reminder of the perils of not being sufficiently prepared for Jesus’ coming and a prediction of what will happen to those who are unprepared. The theocracies of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Massachusetts Bay colony operated on the principle that this preparedness could and should somehow be legislated.

A newer set of interpretations goes in a very different direction. In these interpretations, the “wise” bridesmaids’ refusal to share their oil is not a kingdom virtue and the lord who locks the door isn’t Jesus; the “foolish” bridesmaids’ error lay not in running out of oil but in running out on the party because they thought they could buy their way in by having the right stuff after all.

Which set of interpretations is correct? I don’t know—but I suspect the answer may vary depending on where I am in my walk with Christ when I read the parable. Sometimes I need the forceful urging that it is time and past time to prepare: salvation is through grace, but I do have some responsibility. At other times I need the reminder not to hide outside the door because I’m feeling more than usually unworthy.

And what if part of the point is how readily we insiders can hurt people who are outside with what is supposed to be Good News?