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For Jan. 25, 2015: 3 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                         Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Nineveh was the capital of Israel’s worst enemy, the idolatrous and repressive Assyrian empire. Jonah’s first response to the call to preach repentance there was to flee by ship; it landed him in the belly of a huge fish. This time, Jonah goes partway into the city—and the whole city pays heed, and God chooses not to destroy them.

The Response                                                      Psalm 62:6-14

In a world of wickedness, the psalmist identifies our hope. It is not in the nobility of the highly placed nor even in the virtue of ordinary folk; it is not in amassing riches however one can; it is in the Lord.

The Epistle                                                           1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Paul believed that the end of the world as we know it was coming in his lifetime or that of his hearers. In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, he reminds them that doing business as usual, in marrying, mourning, rejoicing, buying and selling, or dealing with the world, is no longer the way to live. The right time for the work of God is now.

The Gospel                                                          Mark 1:14-20

Very early in the book of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry by announcing good news: the kingdom of God is near! When he calls disciples from among the fishermen of the Sea of Galilee, they respond (as Mark is at pains to tell us twice) immediately.

Further thoughts

The book of Jonah is an ironic and sometimes comic story about a man who is called by God to preach repentance to his nation’s bitter enemies; his attempt to run away from doing God’s incomprehensible bidding nearly causes a shipwreck in a storm sent by God, and his success in preaching repentance to hated foreigners makes him throw a tantrum. Christians tend to see in Jonah a type or foreshadowing of Jesus: they seize on the call to preach to gentiles, they point to Jonah’s insistence that the terrified sailors save themselves by throwing him overboard, and they note that Jonah’s time in the fish’s belly lasts just as long as Jesus’ time in death. Jews, for their part, read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as a parable of repentance and mercy: they observe that it pleased God neither to destroy Nineveh once its people repented nor to destroy Jonah even though he rebelled, and thus it is both vital and good to be conscious of one’s sin. In both faiths, there is a tradition of substitutionary expiation, or blotting out sin by relocating it. In the days of the Temple in Judaism, one of the many rituals involved symbolically placing the sins of the people over the past year on a goat that would be sent out into the wilderness and herded off a cliff. Christianity no longer countenances animal sacrifice, but it is a mainstay of the faith that the good news is that Jesus died to take away our sin.

In Mark 1:14-20, Jesus launches his ministry by announcing good news: the kingdom of God is near. It is a little challenging to square this pronouncement with the position that what is good news is that Jesus has died for our sins, for the simple reason that, as he speaks, Jesus is still very much alive in this world. This raises the possibility that something other than substitutionary expiation is at work, or at the very least something in addition. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that a promise to be died for at some point in the future will suffice to motivate Simon and Andrew and James and John to drop everything in the present to run after Jesus. As D. Mark Davis points out, Mark 1:14-20 doesn’t tell us what that is. But Mark 10: 28-31 may give part of the answer. When Peter points out that the he and the other disciples have left everything to follow him, Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” What he offers, in other words, pays off not only in the future but in this age.

What else can that be, in the here and now, but the chance—the call, the duty, and the inestimable privilege—to love and be loved and make the world new like God?

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For Nov. 2, 2014: All Saints’ Day, Year A

The Reading                                                                 Revelation 7:9-17

For All Saints’ Day, the first reading comes not from the Old Testament but from the book of Revelation, John’s mystical vision in which he tries to describe what we mortals cannot begin to comprehend. What is wondrously clear, though, is that, in Revelation, the way is open to all of God’s children.

The Response                                                              Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Unlike many psalms, Psalm 34 is addressed not to the Lord but to the Lord’s people.

The Epistle                                                                     1 John 3:1-3

The first letter of John brings back into this world the promise that Revelation gives—and the challenge it issues to live as sacrificially as our big brother in the faith, Jesus. But if we are God’s children here and now, how on earth shall we live into that?

The Gospel                                                                     Matthew 5:1-12

The gospel reading from Matthew 5:1-12 is called the Beatitudes: in Latin, verses 2 through 11 begin with Beati sunt. The Greek word that Beati sunt translates is Μακάριοι—which, some authorities suggest, is better translated, given the culture of the time, as ‘How honorable’.

 

Further thoughts

The observance of All Saints’ Day began as a day to remember Christian martyrs en masse, once the Roman persecutions under Diocletian had made too many martyrs to remember individually. The day was originally in the spring, near the time of a Roman festival of the dead (Lemuralia), but in the mid-8th century Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1, one day after the Celtic festival of Samhain, and changed its focus from martyrs to recognized saints. In Old English the day was ealra hālgena mæssedæg or ‘mass-day of all the holy ones’; in Middle English this became al halwes ‘All Hallows’ or Hallowmas.

Not even in Roman times were all Christians martyrs or official saints, of course. In 998 Odilo of Cluny ordered his Benedictine monasteries to observe November 2 as commemoratio omnium fidelium defunctorum ‘commemoration of all the faithful dead’ to remember monks who had died; soon the Church adopted the practice, and almost as soon it was called dies animarum or festa animarum ‘day or festival of souls’. According to Mary Reed Newland’s charming comments on All Hallow’s Eve, in Brittany people kept vigil in prayer for all the dead—but not on Nov. 1, that being a feast day, so the vigil was shifted to October 31.

Roman Catholics pray for the dead partly to reduce the time they must spend in Purgatory before they are pure enough for heaven. The doctrine of Purgatory, or to be precise the abuses associated with the Church’s sale of indulgences, helped motivate the Protestant Reformation, and it is for this reason that the feast of All Souls was dropped from Books of Common Prayer from the English original in 1549 through the American version of 1928, and All Saints’ Day extended to include the everyday sort of saint celebrated in the children’s hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”. In the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, however, though no readings are specified, the calendar for November 2 shows the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. For its part, the Church of England’s Common Worship liturgy series restores the day as All Souls’ Day. I think the Church of England’s version suits the All Saints readings very well. I don’t know exactly whom to rule out of the multitude that Revelation 7:9 describes, so it’s doubtless better that I don’t and that, rather, I focus on following the call to love and serve, to give mercy and to make peace, and to worry less about my own dignity than about everyone else’s.

As Ezekiel 18:4, has it, “Behold, all souls are mine, saith the Lord.” What if, as Christians dealing not only with those we find lovable but with those we don’t, we start by taking Ezekiel very, very literally?

For Sept. 14, 2014: Holy Cross Day

The Reading            Isaiah 45:21-25

Isaiah 45:21-25 is a ringing announcement from the mouth of the Lord: beside the Lord, there is no other god, no other source of righteousness, no other option for salvation, no one else worth bowing to, no other place to go for correction, and no other true source of glory for all God’s people.

The Response            Psalm 98:1-4

Isaiah 45:21-25 proclaims the greatness of the Lord from the Lord’s point of view. Psalm 98 resounds in response: the Lord’s victory is obvious to all the earth, the Lord’s righteousness is on display—and yet it pleases God over all to recall and act in mercy and faithfulness to God’s people.

The Epistle            Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 explains lyrically just how God triumphs on our behalf: through the willingness of the pure and righteous Son of God to be born a nobody, be wrongly convicted of blasphemy, and disgraced on the Roman Empire’s most hideous means of capital punishment—which we now revere as the Holy Cross.

The Gospel            John 12:31-36a

John 12:20-33 is familiar from the last Sunday of Lent in Year B. As Passover approaches, Jesus predicts his death as human and exaltation as God. In verse 34, the crowd shows its narrower understanding of what it means to be Messiah. Jesus responds indirectly in telling them that right now is the time to seek the Light.

Further thoughts

Holy Cross Day commemorates scandal and shame. While there is some question as to its exact appearance—the Greek word stauros ‘pole or rod’ in Philippians 2:8 and similar words elsewhere don’t exclusively denote a cross made of two intersecting beams—there is no doubt that hanging on a stauros was intended to inflict public humiliation and degradation even beyond death. It was a particularly shocking punishment in Judea; Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “anyone hung on a tree”—whether alive or already dead—“is under God’s curse,” and this was reserved for crimes for which stoning would have been too good: high treason and blasphemy. What we behold on Calvary, then, is nothing less than the public spectacle of God under God’s curse. The son of God commits his unaccustomed human frailty to the undeserved horrors of the stauros; the son of Mary bearing God’s righteousness shoulders also the intolerable burden of every thought, word, or deed from Adam and Eve to the end of time that issues the judgment “You just aren’t worth it” to another person—or to oneself. The Victim crucified for shame crucifies shame for us and so frees us to live.

For the message of the cross is that no shame that the world can heap on me, or I on myself, is so deep that God can’t love me back to life, if I can just believe that such grace is not too good to be true for me and for you and act accordingly. Sometimes that means bearing gently and humbly with you and your wounds, so I can live the grace of God for you; sometimes it means humbly letting you deal gently with me and my failings, so that I can receive the grace of God through you. Thus I lay hold of my own stauros, whatever shape it takes today, as Jesus commanded; thus I crucify my own shame on it as I follow Jesus into the light.

For April 20, 2014: Easter Day, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:1-6

In the time of Jeremiah, Israel was in bad shape; outlying tribes such as Ephraim distrusted the royal double dealing in Jerusalem, neighbors such as Samaria were regarded with disdain, and exile and violence were visited on the land. Jeremiah, surprisingly, foretells the party of parties: the Lord, for love, will bring all the families of Israel home.

The Response            Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Jeremiah’s exuberance is mirrored in Psalm 118. God’s grace has come to one threatened with death, and the result is vindication beyond all hope of human achieving.

The Second Reading            Acts 10:34-43

Simon the Galilean fisherman would have shunned non-Jews, especially agents of the Roman empire; as Peter the Greek-named apostle, however, he is called by the Spirit to meet the Roman centurion Cornelius to announce the great good news that Jesus is the Lord of absolutely all of us, no matter whom.

The Gospel            John 20:1-18

The Resurrection account in the gospel of John, written after the other gospels, may be the most heartbreaking: not only is Jesus stone cold dead, but his body is missing and Mary Magdalene can only assume that it is stolen. Just imagine her shock when the gardener turns out to be Jesus—and imagine her joy!

 

Ponderables

The word of Jeremiah is not for settled, successful homebodies. It is for people wearied by factionalism, strife, and exile. There should have been no hope of things getting better—except that God has other plans.

The word of the psalmist is not for those who win under their own power. It is for and by people stretched to the limit and beyond. There should have been no hope of rescue—except that God has other plans.

The word of Peter is not for those who profit by division. It is for people too desperate for truth to keep playing by the old rules. There should have been no hope of reconciliation—except that God has other plans.

The word that Jesus speaks is not for the comfortable nor the conventionally pious. It is for those for whom worse has come to worst, who have lost even the cold comfort of performing the last rites for their best dreams. There should have been no hope of new life from death—except that God has other plans.

As we rejoice in Easter, let us not forget those who are exhausted, stressed, wounded by division, or in any kind of grief. If we are not among them right now, we surely will be. More to the point, it is for them that God the Ever-Living and Ever-Loving has other plans.

And is it not up to us, God’s people, to show the world through our love just how true these words are?

For March 5, 2014: Ash Wednesday

The Reading            Isaiah 58:1-12

When it comes to fasting and repentance, Isaiah tells us, ashes and ostentatious humility are not interesting to God. Instead, our fast is to act in this world to feed the hungry, house the homeless, to clothe the naked, to break every yoke, and to stop from pointing fingers and speaking evil.

The Response            Psalm 103:8-14

Ash Wednesday forcefully reminds us of our sin and our need for repentance. Psalm 103:8-14 sings of the Lord’s abundant mercy and grace.

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

In first-century Corinth, Paul was under attack both for his ministry and for the Gospel he preached. Here, before defending himself and his coworkers, he calls his critics—and us—to be reconciled to God so that we may be God’s ambassadors of reconciliation to a world that is in a world of hurt.

The Gospel            Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Jesus gets specific on the theme that Isaiah announced: real faith is not making sure that everyone notices how holy I seem but rather storing up treasure in heaven.

For Nov. 10, 2013: Proper 27, Year C

The Reading            Haggai 1:14-2:9

In 539 BC, the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians. King Cyrus decreed that the exiled Jews should return home; his son and successor Darius sent them with means with which to rebuild. As the first chapter of Haggai tells it, they rebuild their own houses first but life is hard, until the Lord moves them to work on the Temple.

The Response            Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21

“The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to all who call upon him faithfully.”

The Epistle            2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

The church at Thessaloniki in the northern Aegean Sea was under persecution, and its members deeply afraid that somehow they had missed the return of the Christ. This passage reassures them—when that day comes, it will be obvious—while directing them to what matters most now: standing firm in the faith.

The Gospel            Luke 20:27-38

“‘Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’”

 

Further thoughts

Stewardship could be thought of as taking care of the future by taking care in the present. The readings for Proper 27 explore the theme from the perspectives of people whose futures may not look like winning ones.

The Jews in the verses preceding the Old Testament lesson have returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt their houses—the reference to paneled houses in Haggai 1:3 suggests some high-end edifices—but the second year’s harvest is meager. The remedy comes from God through Haggai: it is time to rebuild God’s house. Once they begin in earnest, Haggai brings them God’s own promise: though the house looks unpromising, it is already God’s dwelling among them. It will be even more splendid than before, for in it God will give shalom; the NRSV translates this word as “prosperity”, but the sense is not merely ‘riches’ but ‘blessing’.

The Christians of Thessaloniki are, if anything, in a worse way, persecuted by the Roman authorities, beset by other afflictions mentioned in the first chapter, and troubled after Paul left their corner of the northern Aegean Sea by someone teaching that Jesus somehow returned without them noticing and, horribly, left them behind. They still may have to choose at any moment to die for Christ, but they also face the same day-to-day dilemma that we do: how to live as Christians day by day by day by… The right course, says this epistle, is good stewardship: persevere in the faith, for Jesus has already seen to their sanctification—and ours.

The Sadducees of the gospel were influential priests who held that the five books of the Torah—the only true word of God—did not provide for an afterlife, and so a man lives on through his sons or at worst through his widow’s children with his brothers. This practice also provides for the widow, even one who flagrantly fails to fulfill her purpose of bearing heirs. Jesus evades the trap by challenging its premise that anyone in heaven can belong to anyone else. Instead, we all belong to God—in the afterlife that the Torah anticipates by declaring that YWHW is (not “was”) the God of all those patriarchs.

The future is in God’s hands, in short—though it is our choice to persist in the faith and to use our gifts gladly as stewards of God’s reign of blessing here on earth.

Acts 2:4: A selection of languages

The language texts that follow are renderings of Acts 2:4, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability,” in the various languages which we heard read (or at least attempted) for Pentecost at St Alban’s.

Where a language is not written in a Roman alphabet I have found, devised, or begged a transliteration.

Within language families I have underlined cognates—related words—to show the commonalities within the differences.

1. The Semitic language family includes Arabic and Hebrew and several languages of northern Africa (such as Amharic and Tigrinya). The transliterations here differ somewhat, but Holy Spirit is alerwh aleqdes in Arabic and ruach haqadosh in Hebrew.

Arabic (transliteration, computer-generated and a bit doubtful)

wametla alejmey’ men alerwh aleqdes wabetdawa yetkelmewn balesnh akhera kema a’etahem alerwh an yenteqwa

Hebrew (transliteration: credit to the Rev. Andy Welch)

Vekullâm nimleû rûach haqadôsh veheiheilû ledabeir bilshônôt acheirôt kefî shenâtenâ lâhem hârûach ledabeir.

2. The linguistic classification of Japanese is somewhat subject to dispute; the Japonic language family is not very closely related to other languages, though a relationship to Korean is possible and some scholars place these languages in the Altaic family. Though Japanese is written in Chinese characters, however, it is not related to Chinese.

Japanese (transliteration)

surutodoudeshou. sono ba niita nin ha, hitori nokora zu shouryou ni man 
tasare, shiri moshinai gaikokugo de hanashi hajime tadehaarimasenka. shouryou ga, soredakeno chikara wo 
atae tekudasattanodesu.

3. Choctaw is a Native American language originally spoken in and near modern Mississippi. It is a Muskogean language, closely related to Chickasaw. It may be very distantly related to Kumeyaay or Diegueño, though the evidence is not very strong.

Choctaw

yvmohmi na, moyumvt Shilombish Holitopa yvt isht anukfokvt alota ma, anumpa inla puta anumpula he a, Shilombish vt apelahanchi na, okla anumpulit ishtia tok oke.

4. The Karen or Kayin languages are spoken in Burma (Myanmar); they are members of the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan family, which also includes many varieties of Chinese.

Sgaw (original script)

ဒီးပှၤခဲ လၢာ်လၢထီၣ်ပှဲၤထီၣ်ဒီးသးစီဆှံ, ဒီးကတိၤတၢ်လၢအ ပျ့ၤအဂၤတဖၣ်, ဒ်သးန့ၣ်ဒုးကတိၤအီၤအသိးလီၤ.

5. The Indo-European language grouping has members spread across the globe. It includes the Slavic, Hellenic, Romance, and Germanic families and more.

a. The Slavic language family is part of the larger Indo-European grouping, along with Czech, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Polish, and a number of other languages spoken in eastern Europe.

Russian (transliteration)

I ispolnilis’ vsye Dukha Svyatovo, i nachali govorit’ na inykh yazykakh, kak Dukh daval im provyeshchyevat’.

Czech

I naplněni jsou všickni Duchem svatým, a počali mluviti jinými jazyky, jakž ten Duch dával jim vymlouvati.

b. Greek is the sole surviving member of the Hellenic family.

Greek (transliterated)

kai eplēsthēsan pantes pneumatos agiou kai ērxanto lalein eterais glōssais kathōs to pneuma edidou apophthengesthai autois

c. The founding member of the Romance language family is Latin, the language of the Romans. It is no longer in use as an everyday language, except in the Vatican City, but its traces are very strong in English. Among the modern descendants of Latin are French and Spanish.

Latin

et repleti sunt omnes Spiritu Sancto et coeperunt loqui aliis linguis prout Spiritus Sanctus dabat eloqui illis

Spanish

Todos fueron llenos del Espíritu Santo y comenzaron a hablar en diferentes lenguas, según el Espíritu les concedía expresarse.

French

Aussitôt, ils furent tous remplis du Saint-Esprit et commencèrent à parler dans différentes langues, chacun s’exprimant comme le Saint-Esprit lui donnait de le faire.

d. The Germanic language family includes the Scandinavian languages (except for Finnish, which is closely related to Hungarian), German, Dutch, and English. Old English was spoken in the British Isles before about 1100 AD, when French-speaking Normans under William the Conqueror took over.

German: Joy Knight

Und sie wurden alle mit Heiligem Geiste erfüllt und fingen an, in anderen Sprachen zu reden, wie der Geist ihnen gab auszusprechen.

Dutch: Victoria Mayor

En zij werden allen vervuld met den Heiligen Geest, en begonnen te spreken met andere talen, zoals de Geest hun gaf uit te spreken.

Old English: Linnea Lagerquist

and hi wurdon ða ealle gefyllede mid þam Halgum Gaste, and ongunnon to sprecenne mid mislicum gereordum, be ðam þe se Halga Gast him tæhte.