Archive for the 'Philippians' Category

For Dec. 28, 2014: Holy Name of Jesus

The Reading                                                            Numbers 6:22-27

The book of Numbers, named for the first census of the Israelites after their departure from Egypt, tells their journey from the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula to the land of Moab on the east side of the Jordan. Here the Lord explains how the priests of Aaron are to bless God’s people: by putting God’s name on them.

The Response                                                           Psalm 8

Psalm 8 responds to God’s activity in Creation with wonder and praise. The God whose Word creates (as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it) “galaxies, suns, the planets in the courses, and this fragile Earth” is the God who bends low to you and me—and the God who calls us to care just as tenderly for Earth and its resources.

The Epistle                                                               Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 may be a very ancient hymn of the Church. This luminous passage names Jesus as God and human, humbled and then exalted, with the Name to which every knee shall bow as we saints below join in praise with the saints above, world without end.

The Gospel                                                               Luke 2:15-21

As Luke tells it, angels impart the great good news of the birth of the Savior to shepherds, and these rough outsiders hasten to adore him. Eight days later, in accordance with Jewish law (Genesis 17:9-14), the boy is circumcised and given the name Jesus, as the angel had told Mary in Luke 1:31 (and Joseph in Matthew 1:21).

 

Further thoughts

The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on January 1, eight days after Christmas Day; the timing reflects the practice of circumcising and formally naming a baby Jewish boy on the eighth day of his life in accordance with the Torah. This feast day raises some interesting issues in naming and inclusion.

In both tellings of the Annunciation, the angel tells one of the child’s earthly parents to name him Jesus. Matthew 1:21 adds a bit: the angel says, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The comment makes sense in Hebrew: the name would be Yeshua, a shortening of Yehoshua, which combines the YHW– element that refers to the Lord with a verb that means ‘deliver, save, rescue’. The name was then rendered into Greek (in which there is no “sh” sound, and the letter y is used solely as a vowel) as Iēsous Ιησουσ, with an –s suffix to make it masculine gender and a long e pronounced as in Spanish. Latin adopted this as Iesus.

As lower-case scripts emerged in Europe, a “swash” form of the letter I, with a curly tail, came into use at the beginning of a word before a vowel, yielding the occasional spelling Jesus. This letter J was not a fully separate letter in English until the 17th century, however, so the first edition of the King James Bible (1611) still spells the name Iesus. By that time, the French shift in pronunciation from “y” to “soft g” before a vowel, in progress as of the beginning of the twelfth century, had become standard in English. All that remained to produce the current pronunciation of Jesus was the Great Vowel Shift that has given English long e the pronunciation it has today.

Jesus has two other titles of interest: Messiah and Christ. We tend to think of Messiah as meaning ‘savior’, but the Aramaic word meshiach, borrowed into Greek and then Roman as messias, means ‘anointed’. It turns out that Christ means the same thing: it comes from Greek khristos ‘anointed one’. Jesus was first called crist (no H, no capitalization) in English no later than 830 AD; speakers of Old English were likelier to call Jesus Hæland ‘savior’ or more literally ‘healer’. Of course, none of those is a name he was given at birth.

Circumcision according to the Torah marks a boy as fully a Jew, a member of the community. It also marks Jesus as fully human and submissive to the Law. The apostle Paul—also a Jew who had been circumcised—concluded that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles. Instead, what marks a fellow Christian as “ours” is anointing at baptism and at confirmation. The ritual embraces those of us who are not equipped for circumcision as well as all who are not Jews. This shift thus emphasizes the extension of grace through Jesus to all peoples. But what if the shift also stands as a reminder to me to rise to the challenge of being as nearly Christ as I can to all people, seeing each person through Jesus’ eyes and loving each one as “ours”?

For Oct. 12, 2014: Proper 23, Year A

The Reading                                                                         Isaiah 25:1-9

Isaiah 25:1-9, written as disaster and deportation to Babylon loomed for God’s people, gives a startling series of images: the city ruled by foreigners lies in ruins, the poor have shelter from rain and heat, the Lord throws for all peoples the party of all parties, and death itself will be no more. What an invitation!

The Response                                                 Psalm 23

Psalm 23 can be read as following on Isaiah 25:1-9: it depicts the Lord as shepherd and protector of the psalmist’s soul, providing for the psalmist even in the face of the psalmist’s enemies and guiding the psalmist even through the valley of the shadow of death.

The Epistle                                                                 Philippians 4:1-9

The epistle to the church at Philippi, after requesting help to reconcile the feuding church ladies Euodia and Syntyche, ends with encouragement and challenge. The Philippians are to do three important tasks—rejoice; become notorious for being gentle; instead of worrying, pray—and to be open to the peace of God.

The Gospel                                                                    Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14 is the fourth of Jesus’ parables in response to the chief priests and the elders who have demanded that he tell them by what authority he was teaching and healing. It is hard to reconcile this king who readily slaughters and abuses the noncompliant with the view of God in the other readings for Proper 23.

 

Further thoughts

Three of the readings for Proper 23 are easy to discuss. Isaiah 25:1-9 describes the celebration at the end of time to which all God’s children will be welcome, at which all will be fed, and in which all our griefs and shames will be redeemed for all time in the presence of all peoples. The much-paraphrased and much-sung Psalm 23 personalizes the vision for the future while reminding me that God my loving Shepherd is with me in the trials of the present. Philippians 4:1-9 gently concedes human frailty while focusing us on the practices of rejoicing, gentleness, and prayer. What beautiful portraits of the surpassing goodness of God!

But then there’s Matthew 22:1-14: the parable of the king, his invitees having disrespected his servants, who salves his wounded pride by burning down a whole city and then having other servants frog-march all comers to fill the banquet hall; when one poor schlock thus corralled up shows up without the right clothes, the king humiliates him before throwing him into what clearly amounts to Hell.

Over the centuries this parable has been taken as proof of God’s demand for purity; it has been used to justify shocking behavior against Jews, infidels, non-Europeans, and even fellow Christians on the other side of a doctrinal dispute. Some recent analyses propose, however, that this parable is not about God at all. As Paul Nuecheterlein and D. Mark Davis tell it, Jesus is describing the kingdom as his audience of chief priests and Pharisees sees it: a place where the accepted response to any perceived slight against those in charge is violence and more violence. But consider how the Son of God actually acts in the world. Tempted to show off, he declines. Faced with humiliation and the most brutal of deaths—the worst that his enemies can throw at him—he spurns the vengeance that will justify their brutality by taking it seriously. Instead, in the words of Psalm 23, Jesus chooses not to fear their evil, and in so choosing he ends in himself the cycle of retributive violence.

What if we were to live out our trust in Jesus by making the same choice?

 

Nuechterlein, Paul J. 2008. “When a squirrel is just a squirrel.” Sermon. Web. http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper23a_2008_ser.htm. Consulted 8 October 2014.

Davis, D. Mark. 2014. “The Kingdom of the Heavens vs. the Kingdom of a Human King.” Left Behind and Loving It. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-kingdom-of-heavens-v-kingdom-of.html. Web. Consulted 7 October 2014.

For October 5, 2014: Proper 22, Year A

The Reading                                                                           Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5:1-7 begins in Isaiah’s voice as a love song and praise of a promising vineyard. At verse 3, the voice is the Lord’s: the carefully tended vineyard produces nothing worthwhile, and so it is to be destroyed. The last verse returns to Isaiah’s voice: the bad vineyard is God’s people, producing bloodshed rather than justice.

The Response                                     Psalm 80:7-14

Rather like Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-14 begins with a promising planting by the Lord of hosts. The vine out of Egypt is Israel, flourishing from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River—but now its grapes are plucked by all comers and its leaves are animal fodder, unless the Lord turns and saves it.

The Epistle                                                            Philippians 3:4b-14

In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul is more than usually forthright: though the Jews are God’s chosen people and he the best Jew by birth and accomplishment, all of that is a steaming pile of skubalon (‘rubbish’ is a very polite translation) when it comes to earning righteousness and (better yet!) knowing Jesus.

The Gospel                                                                 Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:33-46 tells of another lovingly built vineyard; this time it is not the vine or the fruit that is faulty, but tenants who choose not to uphold their end of a bargain and use violence to keep what is not theirs. This is much less a story to shame “the Jews” than it is a warning against self-righteousness.

Further thoughts

It is easy and tempting to take readings like those for Proper 22 as indictments of the wickedness of the Jews as a whole. It is even more tempting to do so in challenging times, and the history of the world makes all too plain that Church and people have succumbed to that temptation with shocking regularity in the past two millennia.

But that misses the point of all the readings. First, the vineyard owners devoted all that effort to their respective vineyards precisely because they had reason to expect the best results from land and vines: that is, if anyone is producing good fruit of the Spirit, it will surely be the people who are and have been in covenant with the Lord. Second, up until the advent of modern democracy it was understood that a nation is no better than its leaders: the rant in Isaiah is aimed not at ordinary Jews but rather at the religious and governmental authorities that have led them astray. Similarly, with the parable of the vineyard Jesus targets the group of those who by virtue of more rigorous upbringing, deeper training in Torah, and higher spiritual discipline should have been better placed than anyone else to recognize who Jesus really is and what is at stake—but did not.

Paul makes the point more personal. The list of attributes with which Philippians 3:4b-14 opens is there to establish him as very much a Jew—in fact, the cream of the crop of Judaism, and perhaps the very most observant Jew ever to walk the earth. But even all that righteousness got him absolutely nowhere without the overflowing grace of God.

Having said all this, however, he is determined to let his life be his thanks by bearing the best possible fruit for all peoples in the kingdom of God. What if you and I were to go and do likewise?

For Sept. 21, 2014: 15 Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A

The Reading            Jonah 3:10-4:11

The reluctant prophet Jonah has finally followed instructions and preached destruction to the wicked Assyrian capital, Nineveh; when the citizens, from the king on down, repent in sackcloth, the Lord is moved to spare the city—and Jonah is outraged.

The Response            Psalm 145:1-8

Psalm 145’s 21 verses each begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, making it a wisdom psalm as well as a psalm of praise that transcends time as generations and individuals proclaim the Lord’s greatness, works, power, splendor, might, goodness, righteousness, and compassion. Fairness, however, is not on the list.

The Epistle            Philippians 1:21-30

Whether he liked it or not, Jonah was sent by the Lord to help save the Assyrians of Nineveh. In Philippians 1:21-30, written in the last years of his life, Paul explains that heaven beckons, but in the meantime it is both duty and privilege to labor and suffer in this life so that gentiles may see themselves as God’s people.

The Gospel            Matthew 20:1-16

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which is unique to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus compares likens God’s way of doing business to a landowner who pays casual laborers just as well for working only one hour as for working a full day.

 

 

Further thoughts

If a “sore loser” is one who pouts at someone else’s win, a “sore winner” could be one who pouts when someone else fails to lose by a big enough margin. Are Jonah and the early laborers merely sore winners? Well, maybe.

Jonah’s pique isn’t wholly without merit. To begin with, Nineveh is in the far north of Mesopotamia, well over five hundred miles of dusty desert road from Jerusalem. Worse, Nineveh is pagan and the capital of the same Assyrian empire that in the mid-8th century BC has both Judah and Israel well under the heel of its hobnailed sandals. Why on earth wouldn’t Jonah regard Ninevites en masse as his enemy and therefore God’s enemy?

For the laborers, “the usual daily wage” is a denarius, about 18 cents—a very minimal wage, in a day when economic disaster is at least as close to the poor as it is today. Why shouldn’t they seek every possible penny?

But here is the kingdom of God. The odd-sounding “persons who do not know their right hand from their left” reckons up Ninevites who cannot be to blame for the empire’s misdeeds: the infants and toddlers, whom it pleases God to regard with all their elders as fondly as Jonah regards his shade bush. Laborers should accept the wage they agreed to but shouldn’t have to sell themselves short, and the businesses and economies that offer steady work at good wages with decent benefits are doing God’s will. And if God can be patient with Jonah’s guff and the laborers’ grumbling, God can certainly endure ours: as Anne Lamott suggests, in God’s ears, even “I don’t believe in You, and You’re not being fair!” seems to count as a kind of prayer.

What if I build the kingdom of God whenever I’m not being a sore winner?

For April 13, 2014: Palm Sunday, Year A

1. The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel            Matthew 21:1-11

The gospel of Matthew that we read to open the Palm Sunday service tells of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It paraphrases Psalm 118:25-26, which forms part of the Sanctus that we sing most Sundays during the Eucharistic prayer.

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

Psalm 118 is the psalm of praise that includes the verses of praise and triumph that are cited in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

 

2. The Liturgy of the Word

The Reading            Isaiah 50:4-9a

The reading from Isaiah is the third of four “songs of the Suffering Servant”. The servant speaks with the authority of a teacher but listens like a student, and submits to God even in the face of insult. It is not clear about whom the passage was originally intended to be, but of course we read it as prophecy about Jesus Christ.

The Response            Psalm 31:9-16

Psalm 31 is one of the classic psalms of lament. The speaker may be terminally ill or perhaps simply deeply at odds with the rest of the community, but is certainly in crushing distress. Nevertheless, the speaker—like Jesus en route to the cross—declares trust and hope in the Lord.

The Epistle            Philippians 2:5-11

Just who the Suffering Servant was thought to be in the time of Isaiah remains unclear. This reading from the letter to the church at Philippi clearly identifies Jesus Christ as God choosing to humble himself even to death. It may be a very ancient hymn. It is certainly a concise and lyrical confession of faith.

The Gospel            Matthew 26:14-27:66

Each gospel’s Passion reading sheds its own light on the sorrow that is the betrayal, framing, mocking, and hideous death of the Son of God. Matthew’s Passion contains interesting nuances: perfidious Judas repents (though he still kills himself), and Pilate is depicted on the horns of an intractable political dilemma.

 

Ponderables

Even if we participate in all the services scheduled for Holy Week, those take up at most a handful of hours of the Triduum, or ‘three days’ between Wednesday sunset and Saturday sunset. Much more common, of course, is that Palm Sunday is the extent of our brush with Holy Week: for the rest of the days, we’re preoccupied by daily obligations plus Easter eggs and preparation for visiting relatives (those we visit and those who visit us).

As we read the Passion gospel, and as we go about our dailinesses… how shall we respond?

The best choice of all and for all might be “Hosanna”. The word is derived from the Hebrew Hoshana, meaning ‘Save us!’

Save us, O Lord, from cheering for the Jesus who kicks butt and not the Jesus whose war steed is, incongruously, a young donkey. Save us from betraying our families, our friends, and others with a kiss—and when (not if) we’ve betrayed them anyway, save us from such grim despair that we slam the door on life. Save us from framing and shaming those who tell us what we didn’t want to hear. Save us from crucifying others again and still on our own unresolved pain.

And save us from the complacency that blinds us both to our own guilt and to the only way past it: the way of the cross.

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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