Archive for the '2 Corinthians' Category

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 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 June 15, 2014: Trinity, Year A

The Reading            Genesis 1:1-2:4a

For Trinity Sunday, we read about the beginning of the universe as we know it. The word “wind” in verse 2 (the Hebrew word is ru’ach) could as well be “breath” or “Spirit”. Creator and Spirit therefore exist from before the beginning—and everything that comes from the Breath, including you and me, is very, very good.

The Response            Psalm 8

Psalm 8 responds to God’s activity in Creation with wonder and praise. The God whose mere fingers can create (as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it) “galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile Earth” is also the God who can bother to pay attention to you and me.

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 13:11-13

The first reading constitutes a grand hello to and by God’s universe. The epistle reading is a goodbye, the end of the second letter to the congregation at Corinth. Paul reminds the contentious Corinthians to live in peace. The final verse is one of the earliest Trinitarian formulas—invoking Son, Father, and Spirit—in the Bible.

The Gospel            Matthew 28:16-20

The gospel takes place shortly after the Resurrection: in verse 10, Jesus had instructed the women at the tomb to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee. The eleven disciples do so, and Jesus gives them marching orders: make disciples of all nations—that is, everyone—in the name of the three Persons of the one God.

 

Ponderables

The readings for Easter season, all from the New Testament, reviewed Jesus’ incredible resurrection and the early days of the Church. In the season of Pentecost we return to taking the first reading from the Old Testament; the first reading for Trinity Sunday goes all the way back to the book that tells the beginning of everything. Whether the Genesis account is factual can be disputed, and is, though the order in which God calls all things into being turns out to accord remarkably well with the geological record and the theory of evolution. In any case, it is, all of it, the work of the one God, and all of it is good.

Psalm 8 continues the theme of the goodness of God’s work as it raptly recounts the wonders of creation, though verse 5—“What is man that you should be mindful of him?”—reflects not only awe at the vast grandeur of the universe but also resigned realism in the face of our persistent, insistent fallennesses and hardnesses of heart. 2 Corinthians similarly concedes our failings: before praying God’s grace, Paul begs the brothers and sisters (again!) to heal the divisions among them. And the gospels show as plain fact the inability even of those walking with Jesus to keep on keeping faith with him and with each other.

And yet Jesus, knowing how humans betrayed him and continue to betray him, bids us and continues to bid us in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit to partner with them in bringing to all people the great good news: fallen though each of us is and feels, none of us is useless to God, if we will only turn and listen and live.

What can I do today to show an estranged child of God how much he or she matters?

For March 10, 2013: 4 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Joshua 5:9-12

The book of Joshua relates how Israel’s obedience under Joshua and God’s faithfulness led to the good life in the land of Canaan. Today’s reading begins after Joshua has obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males born since the flight from Egypt: now that they can keep passover, God’s abundance begins to flow.

The Response            Psalm 32

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:16-21

In the reading from Joshua, we heard God in Canaan proclaim an end to Israel’s disgrace. In notoriously lawless first-century Corinth Paul picks up the theme, but with a twist: we have a clean slate by God’s grace—and with it, orders to share this great good news of reconciliation by all means through Christ with the whole world.

The Gospel            Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

 

Further thoughts

The book of Joshua was almost certainly written centuries after Joshua’s death, to contrast Israel’s obedience under Joshua and God’s faithfulness with Israel’s later disobedience that led to exile in Babylon in the 7th century BC. Today’s reading from the book of Joshua recounts the return of Israel to Canaan after that forty-year walk through the back country with very boring rations—manna and the occasional quail—while the whiners who left Egypt died off. Now the men born during the hike are finally on Canaanite soil and newly circumcised, so all are ritually able to celebrate Passover, and on the next day they get their first taste of real bread and real grain.  The lesson is clear: Good things will happen to me if I obey God, and bad things happen when I don’t. That seems fair: obedience from one side, goodies from the other. Psalm 32 tweaks the message a little: bad things happen when I fail to admit what I’ve done wrong, but confessing is itself enough to begin to bring relief. The psalm promises, though, that the faithful will always end up all right, so it’s still fair.

In the second epistle to the Corinthians, things get turned around. Paul tells elsewhere of trying his formidably pharisaical best to be God’s good little boy, only to discover that even his best falls far short. Instead, he says, what gets him and me reconciled to God is God’s love, unconditionally. That’s good for me. But then I think of Them—the people who’ve disrespected me or hurt me, even intentionally: God’s love, unconditionally, is what reconciles them, too, and they are no less entitled to it than I. How fair is that?

As to Jesus’ parable we’re often told that the father is God and that the sons are us, with the elder son as the one not to be. I think it’s more complicated than that. The elder son lives right and is interested in fairness: can I see those traits in him, or in someone I’ve labeled “holier-than-thou”, without dismissing them as sheer cussedness, and can I emulate him when it’s appropriate? The younger son has materially damaged the family economy and his relationship at least with his brother, and it’s not clear whether his change of attitude is genuine repentance or calculation, but he at least has the sense not to keep hiding: can I accept both forgiveness and the need to repair the damage I’ve done, and can I call myself out when I’m unauthentic without banishing myself? The father has been a fool, perhaps: can I run as enthusiastically and unilaterally as he without leading someone else into temptation?

More to the point, can I balance all three roles in myself? Can I love justice without using it as a bludgeon? Can I ask for what I need while not taking undue advantage? Can I respond as unconditionally as God to the hungers, needs, and nakednesses even of the Them I would prefer to avoid?

It isn’t fair, no: it’s Love.

For Feb. 13, 2013: Ash Wednesday

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

The prophet Joel, most probably writing in the fifth century before Christ, describes an enormous army assailing the land of Judah. It is an army of locusts: grasshopper-like creatures that swarm by the billions, darkening the sky and devouring every green leaf for miles. Joel tells us it is a sign of the day of the Lord, and calls every living soul to drop everything and turn to the Lord with fasting and weeping.

The Response            Psalm 103:8-14

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

For Joel, the day of the Lord was bringing bad times. Paul also 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

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Ash Wednesday are the same each liturgical year, but the preceding Sunday’s readings for the end of Epiphany vary, and the differences set up intriguing shifts in perspective from one year to the next.

A common thread for Year C has to do with light and darkness. Last Sunday we read of Moses exuding light after his encounters with the living God, and we gawked with the disciples as they saw the flesh-and-blood Jesus transfigured into something more like Light of Light, True God Of True God, and we heard the epistle extend the point that going deliberately and mindfully into the presence of the Light of Lights has a way of rubbing off on a person. And well it should: human beings are clearly designed to respond to the Light.

Today’s readings bring us face to face with the dark. We human beings aren’t the Light: we are reckless, feckless, and sometimes mindless. Jesus has to tell us to start doing the right thing because it is right, not in order to look right to all the people we’re sure are either taking cues from us or potshots at us. How easy it is to absorb the light we’re intended to reflect!

Furthermore, we’re mortal. The smudging on my forehead of dark ashes—from bright fire applied to last year’s living palm frond—reminds me that I too am not far from my end, and I tremble and hope in the darkness for forbearance I don’t deserve. The sight of ashes on your forehead should remind me that you are in the same fearful boat as I, that a share of the burden to offer forbearance to you lies with me. Joel’s call quite properly extends this burden to the entire people, infants and all; Paul’s list of difficulties paradoxically reminds us that, to misinterpret Matthew 11:30 (but usefully), this burden truly is Light.

Can any of us really get to stand fully in the Light if all of us can’t?

For Feb. 10, 2013: the Last Sunday in Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Exodus 34:29-35

Exodus tells of an angry Moses breaking the original tablets of the Ten Commandments on finding that, in his absence, Israel had taken to worshiping an idol. In today’s reading, Moses returns from God with a new set of tablets—and the glory of God, shining in his face, terrifies everyone.

The Response            Psalm 99

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

In first-century Corinth, Paul was under attack both for his ministry and for the gospel he preached. To defend his acts, today he contrasts the old covenant, under which even Moses could not stay transformed permanently, with the new covenant in which, through Christ, we all are free to know God and to be known as we are without shame or fear.

The Gospel            Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

 

Further thoughts

On the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, the readings all center on the idea of transformation. The lesson of the reading from Exodus is that an encounter with the living God changes a person visibly; the point of 2 Corinthians is surely that living into the will of God day by day has as its proper result the same sort of change.

Then there are Peter and John and James, among the disciples who have been with Jesus day by day—and who, on the mountain as Jesus prays, are shocked out of their sleep-deprived minds when he not only begins to shine like Moses but is visited by Moses and Elijah into the bargain. It is easy to shake our heads at them, especially as Luke continues to tell about the demon that the disciples failed to cast out of the boy. It is easy to wonder how these benighted souls could have failed to heed the signs, what with all that exposure.

The fact is, of course, that we have the benefit of two thousand more years of scripture, two thousand years more years of hindsight, two thousand more years in which to explore appearances of God and our responses to them.

But are we any more observant about God, or any more changed by our encounters with God, than they?

When I ask that question about myself, I find that I don’t have a good answer. That’s disturbing—and, as we move into the season of Lent, I rather suspect it ought to be.