Archive for the '1 Thessalonians' Category

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?

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 Dec. 2, 2012: 1 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 33:14-16

In the sixth century before Christ, Jeremiah the prophet predicted very bad times that came to pass: the last king of the house of David lost his throne and many Jews were forced into exile. Yet today’s reading gives us words of hope that look forward to justice from the offspring of David.

The Response            Psalm 25:1-9

The Epistle            1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

The first letter to the church at Thessalonike may be the oldest book of the New Testament. In this lesson Paul, despite the perturbations in his own life, writes almost effervescently of his joy in the Christians of the church at Thessalonike and of his hopes for their continued growth in love and holiness.

The Gospel            Luke 21:25-36

 

Further thoughts

Advent, the beginning season of the Church year, is a season of anticipation. Many of us look forward to the family gatherings, to the seasonal food and drink and decorations, to unpacking the Santa sweaters and furry boots in which we’ll cheerfully swelter on a typical Southern California “winter” day, to performances of the Nutcracker ballet and Handel’s venerable Messiah (which, like so many things in life, is both easier and harder than it sounds), and of course to celebrating the arrival of the vulnerable, approachable baby in the manger, God as one of us. Paul the Apostle Paul looks forward in this way, as he practically wriggles with glee in hopes of revisiting his Thessalonian godchildren.

Not everyone looks forward eagerly. In the sixth century BC, Jeremiah opening his mouth usually meant that bad news was coming: for good reason is a bitter, hyperbolic denunciation of a people and its practices called a “jeremiad”. Chapter 33 stands in marked contrast to most of Jeremiah’s prophecies, for here he foresees the return of Israel and Judah in safety to the land of promise and the restoration of the Davidic dynasty. Even here, however, the prophecy is edged: if the Branch of David is to bring perfect righteousness, what will become of those—or those of us—who are merely human?

Jesus’ prophecy is even more edged, for he foresees the end of everything as we know it, and the signs that he names to foreshadow the end—natural disasters including massive flooding and terrifying phenomena in the skies—give a deeper and more terrifying sense to the word “ominous”. All of this is far indeed from baby Jesus meek and mild.

Yet Jesus offers a remarkable analogy for these signs: not a harbinger of hard times such as bad weather, but rather the fig tree putting forth its tender lives, which is a sign of the coming of summer. The natural tendency, when things are bad, is to hunker down in one’s own foxhole with one’s own resources and wait it out, but Jesus instead calls us to stand up and raise our heads. Beyond the terror, our redemption waits. That is cause for hope—and perhaps we are also meant to stand for hope and for each other to a terrified world.

For December 11, 2011: 3 Advent, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Today’s reading from Isaiah addresses the dashed hopes of people who have returned to a shattered Jerusalem, to build their hope. On this Rose Sunday in Advent, we read this passage as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus—but if we took the opening verses also as our commission to be Jesus’ hands and feet, how might that change the world?

 

The Epistle            1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

The first letter that Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonike may be the oldest book of the New Testament. In today’s reading, from the end of the letter, Paul gives terse but well-thought advice on how to be the church in the world.

 

Further thoughts

An urban-farming friend of mine, who lives in the hills overlooking El Cajon, reported with some shock this week that there has been frost on her lettuces. Winter nights now keep getting darker and longer—and colder, even in this Mediterranean climate. But we look forward to the turn of the year, and as we celebrate Rose Sunday this week we look with eagerness to the light of Christmas.

Our readings this Sunday glow with this growing light and hope.

Last week’s reading from Isaiah, chapter 40, lyrically promised comfort and good news to God’s people in exile. Isaiah builds on that dawning of good news with a more specific set of promises as to what God and God’s unnamed messenger will do and for whom. He calls us to work in God’s name for justice in this world—“the year of the Lord’s favor” in Israel meant a jubilee year, in which slaves were to be set free, debts were to be forgiven, and property that had been sold by desperate families was to be restored to them. Imagine that! Imagine the joy of those released from bondage and want, and imagine the joy of helping God bring it about!

Indeed, imagine the lowly, the hungry, the needy, and the meek getting the good things—and you imagine the world that Mary proclaims in Canticle 15 as she accepts the astonishing commission to be the mother of God.

How do we get to this world? Paul offers us advice, at the end of his letter to the Thessalonians, that reads like the terse, hurried, loving advice one gives one’s offspring at the very last moment before parting: Rejoice; pray; be thankful; listen to prophets but don’t be taken in by fakes; be (and do) good. We all need these reminders from time to time. Moreover, as John the Baptizer reminds us, one does not need to be the Messiah in order to act as one sent by God. That’s a promise and a calling for all of us.

For Nov. 13, 2011: Proper 28, Year A

The Reading     Judges 4:1-16
The word “judge” today evokes images of courtrooms and carefully reasoned judicial opinions. For the ancient Israelites, however, judges were heroes that God sent to free Israel from the oppressor who inevitably came along when Israel had again turned aside from the Lord. The hero of today’s reading, somewhat unusually, was in fact also a judge in the modern sense: it was the wise, brave and right-living Deborah.

The Epistle    1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
To Christians in the decades after Jesus’ death, the end of the world as we know it seemed much more imminent than it has in 2011, when Harold Camping’s two predictions of apocalypse evoked mostly shrugs. Paul’s counsel to the Thessalonians would have been wise advice to the Israelites and is as valid for us: to watch out, to protect ourselves through faith, hope, and love, and to do what it takes to help make each other better.

Further thoughts
The Book of Judges tells the tale of what happens when a splintered people keeps turning away from its covenant with God. Under this covenant, God has promised land and a good life to the Israelites; their part is to worship the LORD and only the LORD. The stories in Judges follow a pattern: In a time of peace the people break the covenant and turn from God; bad times ensue and they are subjugated by an enemy, leading to worse times; they cry out to God; God sends a hero to lead them and save their sorry hides; the next time around, the peace is briefer and the subjugation worse, and somehow Israel still doesn’t get the message about keeping up its side of the contract and trusting God. Even Barak, who at least answers the call, quails in the face of 900 iron chariots and a real king. It would seem that Israel just can’t function as God’s people over time without some big honcho in charge full time to make each of them get up and do what needs to be done.
We snicker a bit at this, we citizens of the proudly kingless United States… until, perhaps, we look through the lens of today’s Gospel at today’s world and witness the finger-pointing, meanness, and downright depravity that ensues when good people forget that the time to do the right thing is right now.

 

Serving this week:

Intercessor: Lillian Edmondson (or Judy Brown, if necessary)
Second Chalice: Steffe Richart
Lector 1: Linnea Lagerquist
Lector 2: Rena Lewis

Nov. 20, Sunday: Christ the King, 9:30 am
Intercessor: Betty Levie
Second Chalice: Larry Burns
Lector 1: Erika Hoagland
Lector 2: Sid Fox
Christ the King:  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46


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