Archive for the 'Lententide' Category

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 April 6, 2014: Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

The Reading            Ezekiel 37:1-14

As the book of Ezekiel tells it, God’s people were deported to Babylon in the sixth century before Christ for failing to uphold their part of the covenants. This familiar reading tells us, though, that there is help: no matter how dead we are and how we are dead, God is ready to breathe new life into our spirits and to bring us home.

The Response            Psalm 130

Some psalms are laments and some praises. Psalm 130 is a short and cogent summary of the human condition: when things are bad and even when I am bad, good God is on my side anyway, no matter what.

The Epistle            Romans 8:6-11

This passage from the epistle to the Romans carries forward the theme of the first reading. Through our own efforts we cannot please God and so we gain only death. Through Christ, however, we have the Spirit of God in us and so we have life.

The Gospel            John 11:1-45

In today’s gospel, Jesus knows he is already marked for death if he ventures anywhere near Jerusalem. He is also aware that, in Jewish belief of the time, the soul hovers near the body for three days. Nevertheless, he ventures to Bethany, and four days after Lazarus has died, to work a spectacular miracle.

For March 30, 2014: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A

The Reading            1 Samuel 16:1-13

When the first king, of Israel, Saul, stopped being the Lord’s man, the Lord rejected him in favor of a new king. The reading from the first book of Samuel dwells on God’s criteria: what matters is not how someone looks or seems to fulfill the script, but what is in that person’s heart.

The Response            Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is the familiar and heartening hymn to the goodness of the Lord, our leader. The shepherd’s rod helped him defend sheep from wolves and lions; the staff or shepherd’s crook served to guide the sheep. As with young David in the first reading, anointing is a sign of the Lord’s chosen one.

The Epistle            Ephesians 5:8-14

Whether or not the book of Ephesians was written by the apostle Paul or to the church he founded at Ephesus, the message certainly applies to the twenty-first-century as it did to the first: having been saved from the darkness of our hearts, we are to live as children of light.

The Gospel            John 9:1-41

The very long gospel for the fourth Sunday in Lent of Year A relates the story of a man born blind. Jewish orthodoxy of the day held that people suffer because they or their parents have sinned. Jesus tells the disciples otherwise, and he heals the man.

For March 23, 2014: The Annunciation, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 7:10-14

With the kingdom of Judah caught between powerful enemies, King Ahaz seeks an alliance with Assyria in defiance of the promise from God that Isaiah has given him. In a reading that is familiar from Advent and Christmas, the Lord offers to prove that the Lord’s intentions are good—but Ahaz refuses.

The Response            Canticle 15

King Ahaz was asked to trust God for an outcome that looked uncertain, and he declined to do so. A girl named Mary, offered a miracle that will turn her life upside down, says yes. Canticle 15, which we know as the Magnificat, is the song of praise that Mary then sings, and the continuation of the gospel for the Annunciation.

The Epistle            Hebrews 10:4-10

Sacrifices and burnt offerings in the Old Testament are intended to atone for sins. Chapter 10 of the book of Hebrews explains how they cannot work. It is Jesus coming to do the will of God that sanctifies us—and in so doing, Jesus gives us a model to follow.

The Gospel            Luke 1:26-38

Like the Old Testament reading and the psalm, this gospel passage is familiar from Advent. Mary, in contrast to King Ahaz, is appropriately perplexed by the angel; she seeks to understand why the angel greets her as he does; and when he gives her a sign, she accepts it and declares her obedience to God’s will.

 

Ponderables

The readings for the feast of the Annunciation play on themes of understanding, obedience, and sacrifice. Ahaz, raised to be a king, nevertheless misunderstands what is being offered and why; he chooses to disobey when obedience would be relatively easy, and the consequence is that he unwittingly sacrifices the good of the nation to his own desperate need to feel in control. Jesus, uniquely begotten by God, understands exactly what the divine plan for the world is and how it involves him; he continually chooses to obey, even to the point of death; and the consequence is that he deliberately sacrifices his own life and human need to feel in control in order to do God’s will in saving even the least of us. Mary, for her part, is the product of a culture that expects her to marry when and how it demands and does not encourage her questions; she nevertheless thinks about what the angel means and asks how things work; and the consequence is that, though she cannot fully foresee all that is being asked of her, she agrees to the potential sacrifice of her good name in the community in order to become the Theotokos—the bearer of God.

Mary is quite rightly held up as a model of human obedience to the Lord—and she questions and ponders. So what if questions and doubts are in fact integral to belief in God? And what if it is this kind of reasoned, questioning human obedience that prepares the way of the Lord?

For March 16, 2014: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

The Reading            Genesis 12:1-4a

This short reading from Genesis is bigger than it looks. Abram (whom we know as Abraham) is rich but childless, in a day when family and children are everything, and God tells him to leave behind all the security that he has. But God promises a bigger family than Abram or we can imagine—and Abram believes him.

The Response            Psalm 121

Psalm 121 did not exist in the days of Abram, but it speaks to his situation and to ours as pilgrims in this world: the Lord who made heaven and earth watches God’s children and means us good.

The Epistle            Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

The epistle returns to the promise through which Abram became Abraham. Righteousness comes not by earning but through believing. What is more, it comes to Abraham’s descendants in God: each and every one of us who believes God as Abraham did receives righteousness as Abraham did.

The Gospel            John 3:1-17

Nicodemus is a man with a problem: he’s a Pharisee who grasps that Jesus is from God. The gospel challenges his thinking—and ours: God’s style is to love us, and love means not condemning even those who can’t stop asking questions.

 

 

Ponderables

I feel for Nicodemus, teacher and leader of his people. Smart people, at least in a culture that reveres intelligence, are popularly supposed to have all the answers; admitting to ignorance or uncertainty gets one dismissed as a fraud, and asking difficult questions gets one blown off as a troublemaker.

But I’m morally convinced that having faith doesn’t mean that uncertainty is just to be papered over, and it doesn’t mean that difficult questions aren’t to be asked.

Nicodemus knows what Judaism says about righteousness. Abram’s faith may be reckoned to him as righteousness, but mainline Judaism generally makes the same claim that most religious orthodoxies do: that righteousness is the fruit of following the rules. Nicodemus is also smart enough and worldly enough to grasp how unattainable that kind of righteousness is.

Jesus offers a way out that is stunningly at odds with the way we tend to do religion. God isn’t offering to love us once we’re righteous enough: God is offering to make us righteous because that’s the kind of love God has for us. And that’s the kind of love that God calls us to have for all God’s world.

What if the best Lenten discipline I can undertake is to stop telling God how to condemn me?

For March 9, 2014: 1 Lent, Year A

The Reading            Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The book of Genesis is literally a book of beginnings—the beginning of everything, of our galaxy and solar system, of our world and of human beings ourselves—and, in today’s reading, the beginning of sin and death through our choosing to put ourselves in God’s place.

The Response            Psalm 32

Psalm 32 resonates with us at any time, but especially during Lent: how grievous it is to bear hidden sin and shame, and what a relief it is to confess and be forgiven!

The Epistle            Romans 5:12-19

Writing to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul contrasts the coming of sin in Genesis with the gift of grace. Just as sin and death came to the world through Adam’s choice, so also salvation has come into the world as the gift and choice of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel            Matthew 4:1-11

The gospel tells the familiar story of Jesus tempted first to take care of his own legitimate and pressing needs, then to prove his Godhood publicly, and finally to make himself dictator of the world.

For March 29, 2013: Good Friday

The Reading            Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Chapters 40 to 56 of the book of Isaiah contain four “songs of the suffering servant”, of which today’s reading is the fourth. We do not know about whom they were originally written; in Christian practice they are understood to be about Jesus. The speaker in the first three lines and the last six (“I”) is God; elsewhere “we” is surely the people.

The Response            Psalm 22

The Epistle            Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

Both the reading from Isaiah and the psalm for Good Friday detail the sufferings of God’s servant but conclude with his triumph. The letter to the Hebrews identifies the servant as Jesus: both God and man, both high priest and sacrifice, and ready to forgive.

The Gospel            John 18:1-19:42

The Passion account in the gospel of John is the one we read every year for Good Friday.

 

Further thoughts

Good Friday, in all its horror and agony, also is a “day the Lord has made”.

For March 28, 2013: Maundy Thursday

The Reading            Exodus 12:1-14

According to the instructions in the book of Exodus, the first Passover meal is to be eaten in haste by people who are packed to flee from a plague. Our ritual meals generally look far different—family gatherings amid the silver and the best china for rejoicing that can last for hours—but in this life, we are all in haste.

The Response            Psalm 116:1, 10-17

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Writing to the Jewish and Gentile church at Corinth, Paul echoes Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: the bread and wine are not just things to eat and drink but signs of the new covenant that Jesus made with his own body and blood. These are our words of institution at the Eucharist, of course.

The Gospel            John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The Son of God teaches us the truest way to be God: love and serve.

 

Further thoughts

The lections for Maundy Thursday juxtapose two meals with great significance in the evolution of the relationship between God and humanity.

On the one hand, there is the first Passover with its carefully laid out specifications: a yearling male sheep or goat, slaughtered at twilight, roasted whole, eaten in haste with the quick-cooking unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and the lamb’s blood painted around the door to shield the Israelites from the shattering plague—death of every first-born in Egypt—through which God would effect their liberation from Egypt. The point of the roasting is that the creature is a ritual sacrifice. This first Passover meal is commemorated by observant Jews every year as the Passover Seder, though lamb is rarely the centerpiece; the reason for this is that ritual sacrifice can only happen in the Temple—which was demolished in 70 AD and has not been rebuilt. The modern Passover Seder thus commemorates the sacrifice without actually being the sacrifice, and it serves to help humans remember God’s mighty acts on their behalf.

On the other hand, there is the first Maundy Thursday meal. It is not the Passover meal, but rather a meal of the night before, and it may be remarkable as much for what does not happen as for what does happen: nothing is slaughtered; nothing is obligatory for the menu; no elaborate preparations are required. Instead, Jesus takes the sort of stuff we eat all the time anyway and serves it forth with his love in a way that makes it stand for all time for his own sacrifice of himself for us. Of course it is the prototype for our Eucharist. The word “eucharist” is most often analyzed as coming from Greek eucharistos ‘thankful’, though it’s worth noting that the Greek root charis– shares with the Latin root grati– the property of denoting either ‘thanks’ (gratitude) or ‘gift’ (grace).

That we have turned the simple meal into a ritual is unsurprising. As with the Seder, the ritual and elaboration help us remember by calling us mindfully to commemorate God’s mighty acts on our behalf, and this is a good thing. Many of us also say grace with more everyday meals, and that is also good and right. But what if we were to think of each ordinary meal—each ordinary act—also as a reminder to pay back by paying grace forward in Christ’s love to all to whom we are called to be neighbors?

For March 24, 2013: Palm Sunday, Year C

The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel            Luke 19:28-40

Proceeding into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey is a little bit like riding to one’s presidential inaugural on a mountain bike. What kind of king is this, anyway?

The Psalm            Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word

The Reading            Isaiah 50:4-9a

Chapters 40 to 56 of the book of Isaiah, written during the exile of God’s people in Babylon, contain four poems called “songs of the suffering servant”. The third of these is today’s reading. The identity of the speaker is unclear, though the fortitude and obedience expressed here cannot help but remind us of Jesus on Good Friday.

The Response            Psalm 31:9-16

The Epistle            Philippians 2:5-11

The reading from Isaiah anticipates today’s Gospel with its rendering of Jesus’ suffering and death at hands like ours. Today’s Epistle reading places the Passion in context: this luminous passage, one of the earliest hymns of the Church, tells of the very Son of God shucking off power and glory to take on human flesh, to serve, to die for all, and to rise to unimaginable greatness.

The Gospel            Luke 22:14-23:56

What kind of king, indeed? Listen and look, and weep.

 

Further thoughts

The Palm Sunday readings are almost identical from one year to the next in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary of the Episcopal Church. Outside in the courtyard or the prayer garden, blessing the palms that will be burned for next Ash Wednesday, we recite Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29. Once in church, the Old Testament lesson is always Isaiah 50:4-9a, with its mix of resignation and determination; the psalm is always Psalm 31:9-16, with terror followed by hope; the epistle is always the incandescent Philippians 2:5-11. Only the pairs of gospels change, cycling through the longer or briefer stories of Jesus’ humble yet triumphant entry into Jerusalem of Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16, or this year’s Luke 19:28-4 with the palms and the variously heartrending Passion accounts of Matthew 26:14- 27:66, Mark 14:1-15:47, and this year’s Luke 22:14-23:56 at the Eucharist.

This near-identity stands in marked contrast to the situation on most Sundays—when all the psalms and readings vary, Year A to Year B to Year C—and that on the handful of days on which the readings are exactly the same no matter which liturgical year it is. Good Friday, one of that handful of days, features the Passion account of John 18:1-19:42.

These are big enough similarities to be intentional. Each of the sets of gospel accounts, while grounded firmly in the history of our inclusion in God’s people and in the glorious outcome, takes a different perspective on this week of hopes horribly dashed only to be fulfilled beyond expectation. The version in the book of Luke keeps Judas off-camera while relating a positive interaction between Jesus and one of the two thieves, and in giving no voices in Pilate’s ears to counter those of the priests and the crowd, it shows us an administrator whose resistance to condemning Jesus is perhaps a bit more his own. These shifts in emphasis are consistent with Luke’s focus on forgiveness and outreach to gentiles. Embedding Luke’s gospel in the Palm Sunday matrix may serve, among other things, to honor even the most stumbling path to Calvary and beyond—whether it’s another’s or our own.

For March 17, 2013: 5 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 43:16-21

In the chapters preceding today’s reading, the prophet Isaiah admonished the people of Judah languishing in Babylon: their exile had been brought about by their own faithlessness. It sounds like Lent. Here, though, Isaiah announces a magnificent new hope, for God’s grace moves and is moving to bring a new liberation.

The Response            Psalm 126

The Epistle            Philippians 3:4b-14

Isaiah preached restoration to the lost and disheartened exiles in Babylon. The Philippians, in contrast, lived in a proud and prosperous Roman gold-mining city. To them, and us, the apostle Paul explains that everything that makes us proud is worthless (“rubbish” is a very polite translation), compared to being what Gregory of Nyssa called “a friend of God”.

The Gospel            John 12:1-8

 

Further thoughts

There is always something a bit jarring in the way that Lent coincides with the season of spring.

In the forty days of Lent, many of God’s people practice abstinences, looking forward with sorrow to the suffering and death of our Lord and Savior and perhaps looking forward also to our own inevitable ends. Spring, however, is a time of abundant growth: even the eastern US, between unseasonable snowstorms, is seeing crocuses; in the Southwest the fields and byways explode with weeds (some identified as wildflowers, and more possibly should be) and all manner of new life, not to mention the myriad of activities, vernal and carnal and mostly goofy, by which species work on fulfilling the ancient mandate to be fruitful and multiply.

The human itch to classify, to distinguish x from what is not x, moves us to sort abstinence and its seasonal opposite into two distinct categories; the scratching of that itch brings on more itch, which we tend to try to scratch by announcing our intention not to practice more than one of them at a time or perhaps only our doubts about others’ sense of propriety when they do. We are creatures of “either/or”, most of the time.

But today’s readings call us to be creatures of both/and. We sorrow, and we go forward. We live as righteously as we can, and we love others as though that didn’t matter. We devote our resources to the poor, and we make extravagant gestures. We die with Christ, and we live with him. And Jesus is with us, even as we struggle to do these things.


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