Archive for February, 2015

For Feb. 22, 2015: 1 Lent, Year B

The Reading                                                                    Genesis 9:8-17

Genesis 9:8-17 finishes the account of the great Flood. Here is God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood; the sign of this is the rainbow. On this first Sunday of Lent, it is good to consider how our sinfulness grieves God, how great God’s mercy is—and how we children of God are also called to mercy.

The Response                                                                 Psalm 25:1-9

Psalm 25:1-9 resonates for the first day of Lent and the commemoration of two great teachers of the Episcopal Church. The psalmist declares trust in the Lord and praises the Lord’s graciousness, faithfulness, and teaching—and yet, like so many of us, the psalmist cannot help begging not to be humiliated or put to shame.

The Epistle                                                                      1 Peter 3:18-22

The issue of shame that was raised in Psalm 25 is dealt with in the first letter of Peter, written by a Roman church elder in Peter’s name, who explicitly links the great Flood of Genesis and baptism. Through baptism God moves to drown our bad conscience and with it our stubborn, self-humiliated resistance to God’s unfailing mercy.

The Gospel                                                                       Mark 1:9-15

In Mark 1:9-15 we revisit Jesus’ baptism. The reading for 1 Epiphany ended with the voice from heaven in verse 11; today’s reading goes on to describe the dove-like Spirit turning into a hawk and harrying Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted or tested. Only after those forty days does Jesus begin his public ministry.

 

Further thoughts

Outside my window, the sky is grey—an encouraging color as parched Southern California faces yet another year of drought. Most of us can still simply turn on a faucet and expect water that’s safe and mostly clear, depending on how many particulates are contributed by the Colorado River. For some in California, however, this necessity is a luxury: the farmworker households of Alpaugh in the San Joaquin Valley, whose estimated median household income is less than $20,000,[1] must spend an average of $1500 per year on bottled water because the booming almond industry[2] sucks up so much groundwater that the town’s last functioning well is bringing up water tainted with arsenic. Ironically, when Alpaugh was founded in the 19th century, it was an island in wetlands that extended from Mendota in the north to as far south (though not as far east) as Bakersfield[3] and included Tulare Lake, the biggest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi until the rivers that supplied it were dammed and diverted around the beginning of the 20th century.

Water infuses three of the four lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Lent 2015 as life-giver but also life-taker. Even when water makes an end, however, as the reading from Genesis reminds us, water is not the end, but rather a means. As we close Black History Month 2015 by celebrating the lives of educators Anna Haywood Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, it is good to remember the role of water in helping slaves escape to freedom. The spiritual “Wade in the Water” speaks of groups freed by passing through water and alludes to the healing at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:4, KJV); it was also a code instructing escapees to throw bounty hunters off their scent by taking to the rivers.[4] We are baptized once for all, of course, but visualizing God’s mercy as a flow we follow to freedom and our fullest selves can perhaps help us remember to be conduits of that mercy to the many in this dry world who still so desperately thirst.

 

[1] “Alpaugh, California,” City-Data.com, no date. Web, http://www.city-data.com/city/Alpaugh-California.html#b. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[2] Philpott, Tom. “California Goes Nuts,” Mother Jones, 12 January 2015, Web, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/01/california-drought-almonds-water-use. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[3] “Hydrology of the Tulare Basin,” Tulare Basin Wildlife Partners, 2013. Web, http://www.tularebasinwildlifepartners.org/history.html. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[4] “Revised Common Lectionary: Wade in The Water,” RevGalBlogPals, 17 February 2015. Web. http://revgalblogpals.org/2015/02/17/revised-common-lectionary-wade-in-the-water/. Accessed 20 February 2015. A glorious rendition of “Wade in the Water” by the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRpzEnq14Hs.

For Feb. 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

The Reading                                                 Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

In the year 400 BC, hard times have come upon Judah: locusts have ravaged the crops. The prophet Joel sees this calamity as a sign that the Day of the Lord’s judgment is right now. Joel calls for repentance—not just by individuals, but by the people gathered together, that the Lord may bless all the people.

The Response                                              Psalm 103:8-14

Joel pointed out the Lord’s judgment against the Lord’s people and called them into solemn assembly to repent. Psalm 103 follows up on Joel’s promise of the Lord’s mercy and readiness to remove our sins from us.

The Epistle                                                   2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Like Joel in today’s first reading, the apostle Paul is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

The Gospel                                                   Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Joel advised the people to tear not their clothes but their hearts: torn clothing without repentance is no better than a costume. Jesus makes a related point: public piety and almsgiving run the risk of being theater rather than theology, if the praying and giving fail to flow from and lead back to love of God and of God’s children.

 

Further thoughts

Using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Old Testament. The tradition of Ash Wednesday for all seems to originate in the seventh century. In a homily composed more than a millennium ago in what the scholars call “rhythmic prose”—prose that has some of the steady beat and alliteration of Old English poetry—the great English cleric Ælfric of Eynsham explains:

On þone wodnes dæg wide geond eorðan
sacerdas bletsiað swa swa hit geset ís
clæne axan on cyrcan and þa siððan lecgað
uppa manna hæfda þæt hi habban on gemynde
þæt hi of eorðan comon and eft to duste gewendað
swa swa se ælmihtiga god to adame cwæð
siððan he agylt hæfde ongean godes bebod:
“On geswincum þu leofast and on swate þu etst
þinne hlaf on eorðan oðþæt þu eft gewende
to þære ylcan eorðan þe þu of come
forðan þe þu eart dust and to duste gewendst.”
Nis þis na gesæd be manna sawlum
ac be manna lichaman þe for-molsniað to duste
and eft sceolan on domes dæg ðurh ures drihtnes mihte
ealle of eorðan arísan þe æfre cuce wæron
swa swa ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan
þe ær þurh wyntres cyle wurdon adydde.

Here is a translation that conveys, a little, both the sense of Ælfric’s words and the rhythm.

On that Wednesday, widely around Earth,
clergy bless, just as is commanded,
clean ashes in church and those then lay
on the heads of mankind, that they may have in mind
that from earth they come and after to dust they go,
just as Almighty God to Adam said
after he had gone against God’s bidding:
‘In struggle you live and by sweat you eat
your bread on earth until you after go
to the selfsame earth that you came out of,
because you are dust and to dust you go.’
Nor is this said of people’s souls
but of people’s bodies that decay unto dust
and after shall at Doomsday through the might of our Lord
all arise out of earth that ever were living.

For Feb. 15, 2015: Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                         2 Kings 2:1-12

When Elisha inherits the mantle of his adoptive father, the great prophet Elijah, he requests a double share of Elijah’s spirit, because the other prophets would know that was the true heir’s proper share. Elisha certainly needs it to be God’s voice to the God-spurning kings of Israel and Judah.

The Response                                                       Psalm 50:1-6

In Psalm 50, the Lord summons all the earth for judgment. Showing the Lord’s power are the consuming flame and the storm. He will be judge and prosecutor. Verse 7, not included here, is sobering: “O Israel, I will bear witness against you; for I am God, your God.”

The Epistle                                                            2 Corinthians 4:3-6

In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul confronts a difficult question: why do some people not accept the gospel? His answer here is that they are being kept in the dark by someone powerful who is not our God, for our God is in the business of giving light.

The Gospel                                                            Mark 9:2-9

As Mark 9 opens, Jesus has foretold his death to the disciples, horrifying Peter. Then Jesus takes Peter and two others up on the mountain, where they behold Jesus transfigured in light beyond light with the two great figures of Jewish history and hear the divine announcement that Jesus is God’s very own beloved son.

 

Further thoughts

The 1982 Book of Common Prayer refers to this Sunday as the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and it is certainly that. Methodists and Lutherans, among others, call it Transfiguration Sunday, from the Revised Common Lectionary readings that include the mountaintop experience with Jesus that so bedazzled and bemused Peter. (We Episcopalians, like our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox colleagues, also celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6.)

A much older name for this Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday is Quinquagesima Sunday. That is the name used in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and it is the name under which, as a child more than a few decades ago, I learned about this Sunday in what is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Quinquagesima is Latin for ‘fiftieth’: this is the fiftieth day, Sundays included, before Easter. It is preceded less precisely by Septuagesima Sunday (the Sunday nearest the seventieth day before Easter: septuaginta is Latin for ‘seventy’) and Sexagesima Sunday (the Sunday nearest the sixtieth day before Easter). Together, these three Sundays make up the pre-Lenten season, the season in which, historically, Christians turned from the joy of Christmas and Epiphany and prepared for the solemnity of Lent. In the Eastern Orthodox world, the week up to Quinquagesima Sunday is the last week before Easter in which meat products may be eaten, and the week after Quinquagesima Sunday—“Cheesefare Week”—is the last week in which dairy products are permitted.

Among Roman Catholics, of course, there are the traditions of the Carnival season (from Latin carnis ‘of flesh or meat’), the period of hearty eating (and sometimes hearty partying) before the Lenten feast; in some regions, Carnival begins right after the Epiphany, in others it is the week before Ash Wednesday, but most commonly Carnival starts on Quinquagesima Sunday; it always ends the evening before Ash Wednesday. Since the 15th century this time has been known in English as Shrovetide, from the verb shrive ‘to hear confession and/or pronounce absolution: during Shrovetide one went to confession—got shriven—so as to be morally clean for Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday is the same day as Mardi Gras (French, ‘Fat Tuesday’) or Fastnacht (German, ‘evening of the fast’), the day before Ash Wednesday on which, by tradition, one eats pancakes in order to use up the last of the butter (fat) and eggs in one’s house before Ash Wednesday morning.

In the 1960s and 1970s both the Roman Catholics and the Anglican communion turned away from observing the pre-Lenten season in order to emphasize the Epiphany. This shift in emphasis is certainly reflected in the Revised Common Lectionary readings, if we bear in mind that the Greek word ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearing’. Just as Epiphanytide begins with the first manifestation of the Christ Child to the wise men, so it ends with the first appearance of Jesus in something of the Light from which he came before his birth and to which he has arisen.

What if, however else we observe Lent, we make a point of humbly sharing “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6)?

For Feb. 8, 2015: Absalom Jones

The Reading                                                                 Isaiah 61:1-4

The first part of the book of Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment on Israel for oppressing the poor: her kings were to be cut down and her people exiled in Babylon. Isaiah 61:1-4, fittingly for the commemoration of Absalom Jones, calls the despondent returnees to rebuild and restore shattered Jerusalem—and to rejoice in freedom.

The Response                                                               Psalm 137:1-6

Psalm 137 laments the exile in Babylon that Isaiah prophesied for Israel. The oppressors’ demand for songs and mirth has echoes in later history: slaves are often not even allowed the dignity of grief when that conflicts with their masters’ demand to be amused.

The Epistle                                                                    Galatians 5:1-5

By the third century BC, Celts or Gauls from western Europe have invaded and settled in the part of modern Turkey that is called Galatia. Can these gentiles follow Christ without undergoing circumcision? Paul’s answer is yes: Christ has freed us from bondage to the Law—and that means all of us.

The Gospel                                                                     John 15:12-15

John 15:12-15 is part of Jesus’ discourse leading up to the night of betrayal. We read verse 12 as a command to love, but the Greek conjunction ἴνα, which is translated ‘that’ here[1] and in John 13:34,[2] is more often translated ‘in order that’—in which case Jesus may be telling us to do as he does so that we may indeed love as he loves.

 

Further thoughts

Feb. 13 is the feast day of Absalom Jones, priest, in the Episcopal calendar. He was born in 1746 on the Wynkoop plantation in Sussex, Delaware. Too frail for the fields, he was a house slave. He bought a reading book with the pennies his owner’s guests gave him as tips and cadged reading lessons whenever possible. When Absalom was sixteen, his owner, Benjamin Wynkoop, decided to give up the plantation he had inherited for commerce; Wynkoop sold the rest of Absalom’s family and took Absalom to Philadelphia, which featured a growing community of freedmen and a Quaker community devoted to abolition. Absalom clerked in Wynkoop’s store by day and went to one of the Quakers’ black schools by night.

The first marriage of 1770 recorded at St Peter’s Anglican Church was of “Absalom (negro slave to Mr Wynkoop) and Mary (Do. to S. King)”;[3] both owners worshiped there. King agreed to manumit Mary—to sell her her freedom—and Absalom composed an appeal to the Quakers for loans and donations for the purchase, so their children would be freeborn. He worked from dawn till dark for Wynkoop, and till past midnight for wages in order to pay the debt. When the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777, Wynkoop left town with the other patriots; Absalom could have gained his freedom by working for the redcoats, but instead he kept the store going.[4] In 1778, Absalom and Mary paid off her debt and Absalom requested his own manumission. Wynkoop declined, and kept declining repeated requests until 1784. It should give any 21st-century Episcopalian pause to reflect that Wynkoop was a devout churchman, vestryman and warden of St Peter’s and Christ Church Philadelphia and a generous donor—of money earned by the toil of his slave and the sale of slave-produced goods such as molasses and rum.[5] When at last Absalom was manumitted and registered as a freedman, he and Mary took the surname Jones; he continued working for Wynkoop for wages.

Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, as lay preachers at St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, increased the black membership by ten times; the vestry responded by adding a blacks-only balcony and, one Sunday in November 1786, a sexton interrupted Jones and others at prayer to drag them up to it. The group walked out of St George’s and never returned. Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society, a benevolent organization that gave rise to the African Church in 1792. When yellow fever swept Philadelphia in 1793, causing many whites to flee, Jones and Allen and their followers tirelessly nursed the sick irrespective of race. Allen went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but Jones and his followers turned to the Episcopal Church in 1794 and were accepted as the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas (though not without restrictions). Jones was ordained as a deacon in 1795 and as a priest in 1802. In 1808, and partly through his efforts in circulating petitions to Congress, he witnessed the end of the slave trade into the US, though not the end of slavery itself. He died on Feb. 13, 1818.

Absalom Jones undoubtedly knew Psalm 137 by heart, and its woes were much of his life. In his dignity, determination, courage, and love, however, he carried himself as a friend to God and humans and he demonstrated to whites who thought they knew what a slave was worth what a black man unfettered could do and be. At times captive, brokenhearted, and mourning, he nevertheless lived out the call of Isaiah 61:1-4 as proclaimer of liberty, oak of righteousness, and repairer of devastations. The Episcopal Church must be honest about the slaveholding in its past, and we are all called to recognize our own prejudices—but what better way to honor the memory of the Rev’d Absalom Jones than to follow in his footsteps to bless and liberate our brethren and the world, including ourselves?

 

[1] D. Mark Davis, “Commands To Love, Or Commands In Order To Love?” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/05/commands-to-love-or-commands-in-order.html, 7 May 2012. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[2] D. Mark Davis, “Commanding Love,” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/04/commanding-love.html, 23 April 2013. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[3] “Historical Documents: Absalom Jones’s Marriage to Mary,” Africans in America, Part 3, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h93.html, no date. Accessed 7 February 2015.

[4] Nash, Gary B. “Becoming Free.” Chapter of Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988), p. 68. Accessed 6 February 2015.

[5] Safford, Timothy B. “Who Owned Absalom Jones?” Sermon, 13 February 2008. Web site of Christ Church Philadelphia, http://www.christchurchphila.org/Welcome-to-the-Christ-Church-Website/Who-We-Are/Sermons/Sermons/202/month–200802/vobid–678/. Accessed 7 February 2015.