Archive for the 'Ephesians' Category

For Jan. 4, 2015: Epiphany

The Reading                                                              Isaiah 60:1-6

Isaiah 60:1-6 proclaims, in the midst of terrifying darkness, an outbreak of light at the hands of God. Nations shall see the Lord’s glory, all the children of God will come home, and the treasures of the nations will stream in as gifts of hearts grateful for God’s graciousness and, finally and fully, unafraid.

The Response                                                           Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Psalm 72 calls down the Lord’s blessings on a newly crowned king and the king’s people. This is a portrait of the ideal monarch, who blesses the lives of all the people like rain after long drought, who has the very land in his care, to whom great gifts come because he rescues the helpless and the lowly.

The Epistle                                                                 Ephesians 3:1-12

Saul of Tarsus may have been the very best Jew ever—till a light like the one Isaiah described burst upon him and made him Paul, apostle to the Gentiles. In Ephesians 3:1-12, Paul shares the light: through Jesus Christ and by God’s design, salvation is for all the world.

The Gospel                                                                  Matthew 2:1-12

The only gospel to tell the story of the wise men visiting the Christ Child is Matthew’s. These men were astrologers, at a time when astrology was astronomy; it is Psalm 72:10 that has us call them kings. The prophecy that the scribes quote in verse 6 is adapted from Micah 5:2.

 

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Epiphany are the same for each of the three liturgical years. There is much to be said for rereading them, but it is vital that we read them freshly and that we see them in the here and now.

Neither Isaiah nor the psalmist is speaking of heaven or the hereafter. Isaiah’s great light and great joy arise not in heaven but through the thick darkness that covers earth and peoples in verse 1. And if the King’s Son of the psalm is dealing gently and righteously with the poor, the needy, the oppressed, and those who suffer violence, it follows that there still exist those who flaunt their worldly wealth, exploit the poor, tread on the oppressed, and savage and ravage whoever they can.

The Epiphany story shows us the opposite number to the King’s Son and a much more familiar portrait of power and its misuses. What Herod hears in the wise men’s report of the wondrous birth is a threat to his own power that he simply cannot countenance. Matthew 2:16-18 tells us what Herod does when the foreigners escape his clutches without telling him exactly where and when to find the infant usurper: he attempts to subvert the prophecy by sending troops to slaughter all of Bethlehem’s male infants and toddlers. As far as we know, neither his generals nor his advisers seem even to have tried to suggest that the order might be wrong. Instead, they just do their jobs, as generations of humans have done in similar circumstances and continue to do.

But the scandal of the gospel that Paul preaches, from experience, is that no one—no one—is too foreign, too lowly, too wicked or merely too wrong to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Furthermore, if violence is not God’s way to counter violence, as we know from the cross, then it is up to me to stop resorting to violent thoughts, words, and deeds (yes, even on the freeway). Speaking truth to power, even respectfully, may and probably will still earn me violent responses. But how else is my little corner of the world to learn the ways of God’s peace if I myself neglect to live it? And how else shall the darkness lift, unless I do my part?

 

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 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 Jan. 5, 2014: Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:7-14

From the part of the book of Jeremiah called the “Book of Comfort”, chapters 30 to 33, comes this remarkable song of praise: though Jacob—that is, Israel—has been scattered and afflicted, the Lord will gather the people back together, even the blind and the lame, and will give them comfort and joy.

The Response            Psalm 84:1-8

In the reading from Jeremiah, God comes to the people to give comfort. Psalm 84 depicts the joys to be found in the house of the Lord—but not only in the house of the Lord, for even dry places will flow with water.

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

The letter to the Ephesians may or may not have been written to inhabitants of Ephesus, which in Roman times was a great trading city of Asia Minor, or by the apostle Paul. Whoever its author and original audience, its first chapter glowingly describes the great grace of God in choosing to adopt us humans as God’s own children.

The Gospel            Matthew 2:1-12

The passage from the gospel of Matthew, familiar from the Epiphany lections, tells  of the wise men or Magi seeking the newborn King. A striking feature of the story is that they depend on astrology to identify his star. It would seem that the Star and the baby whose birth it foretells speak in ways people can hear—if we will listen.

 

Ponderables

The Episcopal lectionary mostly follows the Revised Common Lectionary, and in it the readings for the second Sunday in Christmas are the same each year aside from choices in the Gospel reading that emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ birth or early life. Often the Epiphany displaces the second Sunday of Christmas, and as a result the readings (except for the reading from Matthew) are relatively unfamiliar for the date.

The relative newness offers a useful shift of perspective: with the visitation of the Wise Men, we have not Isaiah’s exuberant welcome of the wealth that will stream into Jerusalem for the King of Kings, but Jeremiah’s prophecies in the Book of Comfort. Those singled out for comfort, alongside people obviously blessed, are the blind, the lame, and those pregnant or in labor—who would have been ritually unwelcome among the perfect, clean, and righteous. Yet, thanks to Jesus, one can come before God exactly as one is.

Nevertheless, the promises were not fulfilled in the lifetime of the original hearers. Jacob (which is to say Israel) has not been restored as promised, nor did the House of the Lord in the psalm withstand Roman assault, nor did Christ come again within the lifetimes of those to whom the epistles were written, nor did the Holy Innocents escape slaughter at the hands of Herod.

It is possible to raise the question of credibility here. Jeremiah for one seems to feel the tension between hope and lack of fulfillment: unlike Isaiah, he sees and greets the darkness as well as the light.

But what if it is the task of those who persist in hope to hold hope on behalf of all who have lost hope?

For Nov. 3, 2013: All Saints’ Day, Year C

The Reading            Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

The book of Daniel is set in the sixth century before Christ, after the Temple has been destroyed and the people taken into exile in Babylon. Here the prophet recounts a terrifying vision—the omitted verses describe four huge and powerful monsters with bad intentions toward Israel—but the explanation he gets builds hope.

The Response            Psalm 149

“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people and adorns the poor with victory.”

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:11-23

The church at Ephesus was one of the first and most successful of the churches believed to have been founded by the apostle Paul. Today’s reading explains what is in store for the saints—that is, for all of us who believe—and how the power of God working among us gives us hope.

The Gospel            Luke 6:20-31

“‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for All Saints’ Day vary from year to year in the Revised Common Lectionary, and in consequence the themes vary too. In last year’s readings, Isaiah and the writer of Revelation sang of the wondrous banquet that awaits in heaven, the psalmist offered praise, and John told of the miraculous raising of Lazarus.

For Year C, the tone is more mixed. Psalm 149 rejoices, to be sure (though the fate awaiting other nations’ rulers is told with eyebrow-raisingly cheer), and the epistle sounds the celebratory note that one expects, that is consistent with the opening and closing of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s beloved hymn “Sine Nomine” and with the rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

But the other texts for All Saints’ Day this year are somber, even threatening. The prophet Daniel reports a vision of four horrifying monsters wreaking destruction on everything. The gospel tells us that an easy life now is not necessarily a mark of God’s favor for the world to come while laying out a blueprint for Christian behavior in the face of assault or disregard that is decidedly difficult to follow. What gives?

These are verses of, by, and for outsiders. Daniel prophesies during the time of exile, when the Israelites were unwilling foreign nationals of low status and could count on being scorned, misunderstood, and mistreated accordingly. The gospel famously plays on the Beatitudes—beatus in Latin is a strong way to say ‘happy’—and part of the point is to tell us in what esteem to hold those on whom the world spits… for they are we and we are they. Jesus is raised to unprecedented honor and glory, yes—but first he had to be born to an unwed mother, be a refugee, be a truth-teller whom nobody understood, be spat on and mocked (and who knows how else bored soldiers might have humiliated him?) and then be paraded through the streets en route to dying the nastiest death Rome saw fit to inflict. In short, Jesus the outsider knows the very worst that can befall us and the very worst we can be, and that by no stretch of the imagination do we belong in heaven.

By no stretch of the imagination, that is, except his.

For it is Jesus’ love alone that makes God’s saint of me, and you, and every other outsider that ever drew breath or ever will. And it is by living Jesus’ love of those on whom the world spits that we soften the hearts that can’t listen yet—including, more often than not, our own.

For April 14, 2013: Celebration of New Ministry

The Reading            Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25a

The book of Numbers is the account of Israel’s progress out of Egypt to the land that God had promised. Today’s reading opens shortly after God’s own redeemed people have exasperated Moses again, this time by complaining about the menu. God’s prescription also works well for a population that is not fed up with manna.

The Response            Psalm 146

“He sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.”

The Epistle            Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-16m

Scholars disagree on whether the letter to the Ephesians was written by the apostle Paul or even whether it was originally addressed to the church at Ephesus. There is little dispute, however, as to the importance of the teaching in today’s passage: we are called to welcome each other’s gifts and our own as we help build the church in the love of Christ. 

The Gospel            Luke 10:1-2

“‘Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for today at St Alban’s Episcopal, El Cajon, depart from the normal course of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, to celebrate a return to normality: our church is officially inducting a new rector. The event will feature a blessing from the bishop of the diocese and an assortment of gifts to launch the new ministry. Most of the gifts are standard for an event of this type—a Bible and prayer book, vestments, oil for anointing, bread and wine and water. Some, however, are peculiar to our church; a food basket and school book, for our ministry to refugees; a shovel, for the community garden recently launched in conjunction with our near neighbors of First Presbyterian; the soup ladle, for our ministry of feeding the homeless. One final gift is specific to the new man: the Ecclesia cross, for a ministry without walls to the homeless in Boston that our transplanted-Easterner rector means to plant here. 

Today’s readings quite properly remind us that the sharing of gifts with our rector does not and must not stop today. To be sure, Fr. Dave faces rather fewer people than did Moses—it is easy to forget that the two censuses in the book of Numbers each counted over 600,000 Israelite men of fighting age, not counting the women, children, and Levites; seventy assistants to help with the Israelites’ fractiousness and grumbling doesn’t sound like much, until one realizes that Moses just acquired seventy times the help he’d had before. In any case, “seventy” tends to be Bible-ese for “a whole lot”, and perhaps this makes slightly better sense of the fact that the quantity of help that Yahweh orders in for Moses tallies with the quantity of help that Luke tells us Jesus ordered out to serve as his advance troops.

Whoever really did write the book of Ephesians sheds light on what we could call the Numbers numbers game. The larger the number of individuals who stand ready to offer their gifts, and the more willing they are to foster and recognize both their own gifts and those of others, the likelier it is that a gift that is suited to a specific need can be found. The ladle and book and basket and shovel are gifts not just from us but for us, and not just for us but through us to God’s world—and all the evidence indicates that it will take every one of us doing things we weren’t sure we could do in God’s grace to help this world live into “Thy Kingdom come.”

For Jan. 6, 2013: Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 60:1-6, 9

Isaiah, writing about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, addresses Jerusalem: though she lies in ruins, the glory of the Lord has risen like daybreak! From all corners of the earth, from all of our own personal Babylons, all God’s children—all of us—shall stream home, whether or not Jerusalem was ever home, bringing wealth by the shipload and camel-caravan load in praise and thanks to the Lord.

The Response            Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

The Epistle            Ephesians 3:1-12

There are riches, and then there are riches. Isaiah and the Psalmist told us of righteousness streaming out from Jerusalem and material wealth streaming in. It falls to Paul, writing from prison to the Gentile church in far-off Ephesus, to explain: all that abundance from all the world is merely the thank-you for the gift beyond price, extended to all peoples, of salvation through Christ Jesus.

The Gospel            Matthew 2:1-12

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Epiphany are practically incandescent: not now the hushed and heart-melting glow of Mary’s tiny son in the straw, but Isaiah’s blazing light as a beacon for all nations, the psalmist’s righteousness and deliverance in the very hills and mountains, the dazzling insight given Paul of God’s plan for salvation, and of course the Star whose refulgence captures us if, like the eastern mages, we care to look and follow.

But Epiphany, unlike Christmas, reminds us that there is also darkness and that it is deep. That people are alienated from their homes and, ultimately, from each other is news neither to Isaiah nor to us. That the poor and lowly are merely the most afflicted by oppression, violence, poverty, and misuse of power was as evident to the psalmist in the ninth century before Christ’s birth as it is to us in the third millennium after. That rulers and authorities are badly in the dark was as clear to Paul as it is to any 21st century student of current events. And that terrified or even indignant rulers resort to dark deeds in order to maintain power is no less evident in the organized religion’s history of inquisitions, intifadas, and cover-ups than it is when Herod sends troops to massacre the boy babies of Bethlehem lest one of them grow up to challenge his right to his throne.

Thrones, even in a 21st-century democracy, are common. Though I’ve made a point of avoiding obvious ones, I find I occupy many: as parent, as customer, as teacher or assessor, as person who determines a budget or a schedule, even as driver in possession of right-of-way. I am aware of the temptation to occupy those little thrones like Herod—not I hope, to the extent of degrading someone simply because I could, but it’s hard to resist barking an order, delivering a snub or put-down, downplaying someone else’s gifts (or my own), even resisting the healing or the oversight I need.

The darkness, in short, is not just Out There, it is In Here, and Herod is my brother.

The Light that judges and redeems and heals and loves is thus not only for the Gentiles as well as the Jews but for the Herods out there as well as the ones in here. And it calls me to spend less time finger-pointing and more time following.


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