Archive for the 'Year A' 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”?

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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 Nov. 16, 2014: Pentecost 23, Proper 28, Year A

The Reading                                                            Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

In the late 7th century BCE, the rich and powerful of Judah tolerate idol worship and plunder the poor, yet expect the Lord to do nothing about it. The prophet Zephaniah says otherwise. For the sacrifice that the Lord has prepared, these complacent ones are not on the guest list: they are on the menu.

The Response                                                         Psalm 90:1-8, 12

In the face of Zephaniah’s denunciation of human complacency and promise of divine retribution, Psalm 90:1-8, 12 might be among the few sane responses. We have so little time to do the good God would have us do…

The Epistle                                                          1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Zephaniah warned the complacent not to expect to gain from the day of judgment. Paul’s Thessalonians believed that Jesus would return, ending the world as we know it, any day. He advises them—and us—to watch out, to protect ourselves through faith, hope, and love, and to help make each other better.

The Gospel                                                                Matthew 25:14-30

Chapter 25 of the gospel of Matthew follows up the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids with another difficult story in the parable of the talents. The word talent seems to have acquired its meaning ‘special ability’ from this parable: in Jesus’ day, it simply meant a great deal of money.

 

Further thoughts

On the next to last Sunday before the end of the church year, the readings for Proper 28 look toward our own end and the end of all things, although they are not unanimous in the conclusions they suggest.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 offers excerpts from a jeremiad that combines forceful denunciation of the complacent with a description of the day of judgment that is terrifying enough to have inspired the medieval Latin hymn Dies Irae (‘Day of Wrath’). He is emphatic that all their silver and gold will buy the rich no relief whatsoever. This is quite consistent with Jewish law, which forbade usury and commanded generosity toward the poor, and Jewish custom that frowned upon amassing wealth for the sake of amassing wealth.

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, taken at face value, is astonishing and a bit shocking. To each of three slaves a man entrusts a substantial sum of money; in Jesus’ day, the word talent—from Greek talanton ‘scale or balance’—denoted a large mass of silver worth 6,000 denarii, or 20 years’ work at the daily wage of a denarius. The slaves whose wheeling and dealing doubles the money are praised, counter to Jewish cultural expectations, while the slave who simply saves the money because he fears the rapaciousness of the master loses what he has and is condemned as worthless. It is traditional to interpret the monetary talents as standing for the special gifts and abilities given to each of us by God; on this reading, the parable is a call to make the best possible use of these gifts for God, which seems straightforward—but the master must then represent God, and how can the descriptors “harsh” and “reaping where you did not sow” possibly fit? Under a more recent view, the first two slaves are guilty of buying into the master’s greed and hardness of heart, the third slave is the hero of the piece for refusing to go along, and the master’s condemnatory words are cited by Jesus not for honor but for censure.

Whether the third slave is right or wrong, he is certainly not complacent and he certainly is awake, as the letter to the Thessalonians advises. That letter also counsels believers to put on faith, love, and the hope of salvation as protective armor, to remember that our destiny in Christ is not damnation but salvation, and to encourage one another. Could that mean that our armor is shared?

What if the point is that we can’t hope for salvation without Jesus—and each other?

For Nov. 9, 2014: Proper 27, Pentecost 22, Year A

The Reading                                                  Amos 5:18-24

Amos 5:18-24 asks a quelling question of people who take their own well-being, even at their neighbors’ expense, as a sign of being God’s favorites: “Why do you want the day of the Lord?”—and explains why they will not: sacrifices and solemn ritual do not interest God in the absence of justice being done. Verse 24 resonates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Response                                               Psalm 70

If Amos 5:18-24 can be read as one side of a coin, perhaps Psalm 70 represents the other: this is the voice of one beset by those who believe they know better. Strikingly, its call for the enemy to be disgraced is followed by a plea that those who gloat rethink and repent.

The Epistle                                                     1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Thessalonians struggled to reconcile the gospel promise of eternal life with the painful truth that some of their nearest and dearest in the faith are dead; are they lost? No, Paul says: those who have died will be first to meet the triumphant Christ, and all will be with the Lord forever.

The Gospel                                                     Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13 compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding in which half of the bridesmaids get left out because their lamps are running out of oil. Are the wise bridesmaids truly wise in the kingdom for refusing to share their oil? Jesus’ parables tend to be difficult, and this one is no exception.

 

Further thoughts

Taken at face value, the readings for Proper 27 don’t play very well together. In Amos 5:18-24, the Lord pronounces against those who practice religiosity but fail to ensure justice in this world; that goes well with Psalm 70, in which the psalmist clearly expects the Lord to act in the psalmist’s favor, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is explaining to his bewildered flock that their beloved kith and kin won’t be shut out of heaven for having had the bad grace (or something) to have died before Jesus’ return. So far, somewhat inclusive.

But then there’s the parable of the bridesmaids or virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Imprudent bridesmaids didn’t bring extra oil; prudent bridesmaids refuse to share; when the imprudent ones do their best to remedy their lack, they get shut out of the wedding party altogether.

And, Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Most interpretations of this parable over the centuries take it as a prescription, a forceful reminder of the perils of not being sufficiently prepared for Jesus’ coming and a prediction of what will happen to those who are unprepared. The theocracies of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Massachusetts Bay colony operated on the principle that this preparedness could and should somehow be legislated.

A newer set of interpretations goes in a very different direction. In these interpretations, the “wise” bridesmaids’ refusal to share their oil is not a kingdom virtue and the lord who locks the door isn’t Jesus; the “foolish” bridesmaids’ error lay not in running out of oil but in running out on the party because they thought they could buy their way in by having the right stuff after all.

Which set of interpretations is correct? I don’t know—but I suspect the answer may vary depending on where I am in my walk with Christ when I read the parable. Sometimes I need the forceful urging that it is time and past time to prepare: salvation is through grace, but I do have some responsibility. At other times I need the reminder not to hide outside the door because I’m feeling more than usually unworthy.

And what if part of the point is how readily we insiders can hurt people who are outside with what is supposed to be Good News?

For Oct. 26, 2014: Proper 25, Pentecost 20, Year A

The Reading                                                           Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18

By some counts the book of Leviticus issues 613 commandments that specify how God’s people and priests are to behave. Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 cuts to the point: rather than judging unjustly, slandering, profiting at a neighbor’s expense, or bearing grudges, we are to behave in love toward all.

The Response                                                   Psalm 1

Psalm 1 contrasts those who follow the way of the Lord with those who are wicked. It reinforces the message of Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 as it carries forward the message of Psalm 23: those who follow the way of the Lord will be blessed by bearing fruit that endures.

The Epistle                                                          1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was brief and controversial; detractors accused him of dishonesty and trickery and then drove him and his group out of town. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 he reminds his readers what made them believe the gospel he brought: it was spoken to please God, without impure motives, and in tender love.

The Gospel                                                               Matthew 22:34-46

The gospel of Matthew moves inexorably toward Good Friday as Jesus is challenged by the religious authorities. In Matthew 22:34-46, the Pharisees try a trick question and get an answer they were not expecting. Then Jesus asks a question about the Messiah to which they have nothing to say.

 

Further thoughts

Almost fifty years ago, up to 100,000 mostly college-age baby boomers in love beads, tie-dyed T-shirts and bell-bottomed jeans began converging on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district for the counterculture live-in known as the “Summer of Love.” Participants were sure it was going to transform the world. It fell short of expectations, unsurprisingly: the movement hasn’t been invented that human beings can’t screw up, sometimes literally. But the Beatles’ deceptively simple “All You Need Is Love” was a smash hit of that summer of 1967 for good reason: it resonates, as the readings for Proper 25 do more profoundly, with the fact that we humans are wired to crave love, just as we are wired to be our most God-true selves when we deeply give love. As “All You Need Is Love” puts it, “There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made / No one you can save that can’t be saved / Nothing you can do but you can learn to be you in time / It’s easy / All you need is love.”

Love isn’t easy, of course—Paul brags a little to the Thessalonians about the effort he has put into approaching them in love, and Jesus’ staggeringly self-emptying sacrifice on the cross is even more stupendous if the identity of the Messiah means that the crucifixion is true not only for all time but in all time. Love in Jesus’ and Paul’s terms is certainly not just “the feels”, as one sees it on Facebook, and Lord knows our feelings can as often lead us to reject the love we need as to refuse to give the love we should. And only the Lord, through our fellow humans, can help us out of the swamps of despair that fester there. But what if, giving the glory to God, we invert the ’60s mantra from “If it feels good, do it” to “If it does good, feel it”?

For Oct. 19, 2014: Proper 24, Pentecost 19, Year A

The Reading             Isaiah 45:1-7

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah tell of the time when the people of Israel were already in exile in Babylon but their deliverance was imminent. The instrument of their deliverance, the anointed one whom the LORD calls by name and promises treasures and secret riches, is Cyrus—king of the decidedly pagan Persian empire.

The Response         Psalm 96:1-9

Psalm 96 is an enthronement psalm that dates to roughly the same time as Isaiah 45. The psalmist calls on all peoples to sing to the LORD and declare the LORD’s glory. Verse 8 is familiar as one of the sentences that may be read in an Episcopal church as the Offertory begins.

The Epistle             1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

The first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the first written book of the New Testament. Paul writes to a church he founded in an important Roman city in Macedon, north of Greece, that he has had to leave suddenly. He begins this letter by commending the mostly gentile converts for their joy and perseverance in the faith.

The Gospel           Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 21:23-22:14 follows Jesus after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem as he tells a series of parables that make the political and religious rulers squirm. To discredit this troublemaker, the Pharisees and the followers of Herod join forces and confront him with a loaded question about paying taxes to Rome.

 

Further thoughts

“Politics makes strange bedfellows”, as writer and humorist Charles Dudley Warner noted in 1871, when private deal-making in smoke-filled back rooms birthed both shady laws and shining ones.

The strange bedfellows in Matthew are the Pharisees, upholders of Jewish racial and religious purity, and the Herodians, who are aligned with Rome via the figurehead Herod Antipas. Each group despises the other, but Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem has both groups worried, so they work together to trap him. If Jesus calls Roman taxation lawful, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Jewish autonomy and much of the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on him; if he doesn’t, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Rome and the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on whatever the Roman legions leave of him. Jesus spurns the trap. The government that provides the coinage earns the tax, he indicates, as one of God’s multitude of tools for getting things done.

Isaiah, for his part, hails Cyrus of the Persians as not only God’s instrument but God’s anointed ruler over Israel—though Cyrus is neither Jewish nor of the house of David. And the Cyrus that Isaiah prophesies is pretty nearly the Cyrus of history: an overthrower of kings, to be sure, yet notorious for treating his vanquished opponents’ former subjects with mercy and generosity. Cyrus finds out what the Judeans need to restore Jerusalem; he helps them back on their feet to do God’s good work, and this constitutes real kingship.

And then there is Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee and yet apostle to the gentiles. He commends the Thessalonians not for imitating him as Jews but for imitating him as followers of Christ and doers of God’s good work among their fellow gentiles.

What if doing the will of God means making less of differences and making more of listening and love?

For 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?