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For Dec. 25, 2014: Christmas Day (Christmas III)

The Reading                                                           Isaiah 52:7-10

Addressing ruined Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah shows us the sentinels of Zion singing the good news of the Lord returning to redeem his people—all his people, to the ends of the earth. To the ends of the earth let us also repeat the sounding joy of Christmas, and live into it.

The Response                                                         Psalm 98

Isaiah 52:7-10 celebrates the Lord’s return to Zion and the salvation of God’s people. Psalm 98 resounds in response: the Lord has done astounding things, and the Lord’s victory is so obvious to all the earth that the very rivers and hills cry out for joy.

The Epistle                                                             Hebrews 1:1-12

The letter to the Hebrews, written to the church in Jerusalem, addresses Paul’s fellow Jews. To explain exactly who and what Jesus is, Paul cites Old Testament scriptures the Jews would know well. These scriptures refer to Jesus, the Son of God and the very being of God, who will remain after heaven and earth are gone.

The Gospel                                                              John 1:1-14

The word “gospel” comes from Old English gōd spell ‘good news’. The first fourteen verses of the gospel of John indeed tell good news: beginning at verse 10, “he”—Jesus—is come to help us become children of light, of grace, of truth, of God.

 

Further thoughts

Jim Mathes, the Episcopal bishop of San Diego, reports in his blog that, though he has been a lifelong fan, he has chosen to stop watching football as a witness against the violence of our culture.[1] I think it can also be argued that football epitomizes our human insistence on sorting people tidily into categories that amount to “winners” and “losers”, “good guys” and “bad guys”, “Us” and “Them”. as either winners or losers, and we extend this even in circumstances that don’t seem much like competitions. How readily we disparage losers! How readily we perceive disrespect on the part of others and move to “get our own back”! That this is true of human nature in general is surely an important lesson of the Bible, from the murder of Abel onward. Furthermore, we easily fall into projecting onto God our own eagerness to see winners rewarded, losers punished, and disrespect prosecuted to the fullest extent of the Law.

The lections for Christmas Day suggest that what we project onto God may not represent God very accurately. Psalm 98 celebrates the Lord’s victory, but without identifying a loser, and the psalmist emphasizes that the Lord judges all peoples with equity—that is, with an eye toward the special circumstances of each. Isaiah proclaims the Lord’s return, but what the Lord brings in Isaiah 52:7-10 is not retribution but redemption and comfort. More to the point, Hebrews 1:3 emphasizes that the Son, Jesus, is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”, and, if what God the Son brings us, according to John 1:1-14, is life, light, grace, and truth, it follows that God’s own self is life, light, grace, and truth—and such a God may be not nearly as ready to categorize either my enemies or me as I am myself. Such a God takes on the frail flesh of a baby. Such a God hangs on the cross with arms open to all peoples, to show us that what it takes to break the cycle of retributive violence is, when offered violence in deed or even in word, to refuse to offer violence in response.

That, it seems, is how to live into the call to join Jesus as another-child-of-God of life, light, grace, and truth, it follows that I am called to do as he did in a dark world. How astonishing, and how much the point of Christmas!

 

[1] Mathes, Jim, “Bearing Witness to Our Culture of Violence,” Where SunDays Are Better than Others, Episcopal Diocese of San Diego Web site, 18 December 2014. http://www.edsd.org/where-sundays-are-better-than-others/bearing-witness-to-our-culture-of-violence-fourth-witness/#.VJmQoAAA. Accessed 23 December 2014.

For Dec. 24, 2015: Christmas Eve (Christmas I)

The Reading                                                              Isaiah 9:2-7

This early prophecy of Isaiah was supposed to motivate King Ahaz to have faith: the child foretold is most probably his son Hezekiah, who did indeed rule righteously in God’s sight. We read it as predicting the birth of Jesus the Messiah. May he hear these words of light, joy, liberation, and peace, and help bring them to pass.

The Response                                                             Psalm 96

Psalm 96 is an enthronement psalm that was written in the sixth century before Christ, after Isaiah’s prophecy of the Son born to us and during the difficult days of the exile in Babylon. It praises the God of Israel as the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, before whom the very rocks and trees shout for gladness.

The Epistle                                                                  Titus 2:11-14

Isaiah poetically looked forward to the coming of a savior to rescue Israel. The letter of Titus, written several centuries later, looks backward and forward: Jesus has appeared to redeem all peoples, including us, and it is up to us to live the lives and do the good deeds that show we are his.

The Gospel                                                                  Luke 2:1-20

The gospel of Luke tells the story of how Jesus of Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and his birth announced to the lowly shepherds. The story is so familiar that it is hard not to take mangers and shepherds and angels for granted—but it is miraculous, and it begins to prepare the way for the greater miracle of Easter.

 

Further thoughts

Unsurprisingly, most of the hymns that we sing on Christmas Eve celebrate the Christ Child by name. One very famous hymn, however, does not: “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” This hymn began as a poem, “Peace on Earth,”[1] written by the Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, D.D. for a Sunday school Christmas celebration in 1849 and published late that year.[2] The original poem has five stanzas; hymnals pretty universally print verses 1, 2, and 5 and typically drop either verse 3 (e.g. the United Methodist Hymnal (1989) and the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), or verse 4 (The Hymnal 1972). Here are verses 3 and 4 as Sears wrote them:

3.

But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring; –
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

4. And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This poem, which has been called one of the earliest social-gospel hymns,[3] is very much a product of its contentious times. By the end of 1849, the Mexican-American War had been over for less than two years. The war added Mexico’s lands west of Texas to the U.S., sharpening the increasingly acrimonious national debate on allowing slavery in new territories seeking admission as states—including California. Californians overwhelmingly preferred “free state” status: beyond the fact that Mexico had forbidden slavery since 1829, some found slavery loathsome, and others seem to have believed that swinging a pickax in the goldfields was more degrading alongside a slave. Admitting California as a free state meant giving the free states a majority of two votes in the U.S. Senate, thus encouraging hopes of abolition and making the Civil War even more inevitable.

In addition to war and slavery, Sears may also have been motivated by concerns closer to home. The congregations he served as a Unitarian minister were a handful of miles from Lowell, MA, the so-called cradle of the U.S. Industrial Revolution. The “mill girls” or “factory girls” , most between the ages of 16 and 36, worked in Lowell’s groundbreaking textile mills. They labored an average of 73 hours per week, deafened by the racket of mill machinery and half-choked by lint in the air, at tasks that were simultaneously exhausting and mindless. In 1844 they formed the first women’s labor union to demand a ten-hour workday[4] —unsuccessfully: not until the 1870s did the Massachusetts legislature pass such a law.

165 years later, slavery as such is gone from the U.S., but its legacy in racism and discrimination persists; workplaces are undeniably safer than in the 1840s, but income inequality in the U.S. is greater than ever and climbing.[5] It is good to adore the infant Jesus at his birth—but it is also fitting to remember the birth of the infant Jesus–but it is also fitting to pause and remember with Titus that the kingdom of God is not yet fully established on Earth and that we ourselves have work to do to see that it is.

 

[1] ‪Nutter, Charles Sumner, Hymn Studies: An Illustrated and Annotated Edition of the Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 4th ed. (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1900), p. 80. http://books.google.com/books?id=UDLNEiK7KvkC&oe=UTF-8. Accessed 21 December 2014.

[2] Anderson, Douglas D., “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” The Hymns and Carols of Christmas, 25 May 2012? http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/it_came_upon_the_midnight_clear.htm. Accessed 21 December 2014. Anderson’s site is a really excellent resource for Christmas hymns, carols, and poetry.

[3] Hawn, C. Michael, “History of Hymns: ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,’” (n.d.), GBOD Equipping World-Changing Disciples, http://www.gbod.org/resources/history-of-hymns-it-came-upon-a-midnight-clear. Accessed 21 December 2014. Hawn is quoting Carlton Young, editor of the United Methodist Hymnal.

[4] Dublin, Thomas C. “Women, Work, and Protest In the Early Lowell Mills: ‘The Oppressing Hand of Avarice Would Enslave Us’,” Labor History 16 (1975):99-116. Online at Whole Cloth: Discovering Science and Technology through American History, Smithsonian Institution, http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/dublin.html. Consulted 22 December 2014.

[5] Quoctrung Bui, “40 Years of Income Inequality in America, in Graphs,” NPR Planet Money: Demography, 2 October 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/10/02/349863761/40-years-of-income-inequality-in-america-in-graphs. Consulted 22 December 2014.

For Dec. 21, 2014: 4 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                              2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

When King David, the mighty but undeniably flawed ancestor of Jesus, takes it into his head to build God a house as grand as David’s own, the prophet Nathan at first tells him to have at it. As 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 tells it, however, God has other plans, including a “house”—a dynasty—for David.

The Response                                                            Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Psalm 89 dates to the period of Israel’s subjugation by Babylon, but the verses here sing of the Lord’s love for Israel and for David. The Great Sea is the Mediterranean and the River is the Euphrates, in Mesopotamia: this dominion is thus most of the known world. The speaker in verses 3-4 and 19b-26 is the Lord.

The Epistle                                                                  Romans 16:25-27

In the book of Romans, written around 57 AD, Paul sets out the Church’s earliest understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ and of the salvation he brings. Romans 16:25-27 ends the document with a complicated sentence that dedicates the book forms a doxology, or statement of faith.

The Gospel                                                                    Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38 tells the story of the Annunciation. Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she has been chosen to bear the son of God who will rule as the heir of David, if she agrees. Mary responds not by strutting and preening and making grand plans—unlike David—but by questioning and listening and at length saying yes.

 

Further thoughts

Whoever said, “Life is what happens while we are making other plans,”[1] the saying resonates for most of us—and it resonates in the readings for the last Sunday in Advent.

King David, having unified Israel and made Jerusalem its capital, receives from King Hiram of Tyre a grand house of cedar (2 Samuel 5:11). While relaxing in it, David gets a terrific idea: the Lord surely needs a house as grand, and David himself plans to build it. That night, however, the word of the Lord comes to Nathan. It is not for David to build the Lord a house. Instead, the Lord is going to make of David and his sons a “house”—a dynasty—that will rule in God’s name forever. As the following history of Israel amply demonstrates, however, the kings who follow all fail, in large ways or small, to carry out God’s plan, and the line seems to die out.

Mary’s plans for her life must have been much simpler: she is going to marry Joseph the carpenter. Then an angel shows up: “Hail, favored one! You can be the mother of a mightier king than David.” Unlike her famous forebear, Mary stops to think and to listen. Not only is the child to be a new David, he will be called the Son of God. Then she says yes, trusting in God to make this work. Mary is rightly honored above all women as the Theotokos or God-carrier. It is good to remember that being favored of God does not mean being spared all trouble: Mary will stand at the foot of the cross and watch her innocent boy die the most horrible of deaths.

And even in that darkness, the Lord is no less with her.

 

[1] http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/05/06/other-plans/

For Dec. 7, 2014: 2 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                                   Isaiah 40:1-11

The long first section of the book of Isaiah foretold exile in Babylon and destruction of the Temple as proper punishment for the sins of the nation. Isaiah 40 shifts from disaster to hope; striking metaphors invoke felons rehabilitated, difficult terrain made passable, Jerusalem as herald, and God Almighty tending smelly sheep.

The Response                                                                Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 continues Isaiah’s message of hope as it celebrates God’s grace. Verses 10 and 11 anticipate the Good News: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

The Epistle                                                                     2 Peter 3:8-15a

Isaiah and the psalmist relayed the promise of salvation coming in the reign of God. For Christians at the end of the first century A.D. who wonder why Jesus has not returned to save them, 2 Peter 3:8-15a explains: God’s goal is the salvation of all peoples, and the way we Christians behave toward the world now plays an important role.

The Gospel                                                                     Mark 1:1-8

The gospel of Mark, used for Year B of the lectionary, says nothing of Jesus’ ancestry or birth. It adapts Isaiah 40:3 by way of Malachi 3:1, 4:5 to present John, whose odd clothes and diet mark him as a prophet like Isaiah. John preaches repentance and baptism, and points the crowds he gathers toward the greater One to come.

Further thoughts

The multiple voices of Isaiah 40:1-11 anticipate the Lord’s coming, for which preparation must be made. Mark’s gospel makes the connection to John obvious: here, Mark 1:2-8 tells us, misquoting Isaiah, is the “voice crying in the wilderness,” a decidedly odd man from the desert who calls for repentance in advance of the One who follows, and who offers baptism.

What exactly is baptism? The word, first found in Middle English, is derived from Old French baptesme (the modern French is baptême), which in turn comes from ecclesiastical Greek baptismos ‘ceremonial washing’ by way of ecclesiastical Latin. (The Old English word was either cristnung (literally ‘Christian-ing’) or fulluht / fullwiht ‘full consecration’.) The corresponding Greek verb is baptizein ‘immerse, dip in water’; bapto ‘wash’ is perhaps less intentionally ceremonial.

In the first centuries of the Church, baptism was reserved for people of an age to understand what they were doing and to have studied for up to three years; the baptized person could receive Holy Communion immediately. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the number of baptisms increased so that such protracted preparation was less practical. By the 13th century, infant baptism was becoming common, along with a separate rite of Confirmation before one could receive the Eucharist. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer set forth baptism as a public rite, with water and oil of chrism. During the Victorian era baptism was increasingly a private rite, with only family and friends in attendance. [i]

Baptism happens once for every Christian—as the Nicene Creed states, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” The policy of the Episcopal Church currently is that anyone validly baptized as a Christian is welcome at the Eucharistic table. It is only a slight exaggeration to claim that any baptism is valid provided it involves water applied to a baptizee by someone who intends to baptize and uses the formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and it certainly follows from this that, should an unbaptized person be in imminent danger of death, any layperson may perform the baptism privately. Absent such a circumstance, however, baptism in the Episcopal Church currently is to be public and it is preferred (though not required) that the bishop preside.

Baptism can be carried out by submersion (full immersion), by partial immersion (up to the knees or waist in water) with water poured over the head; by affusion (water poured on the skin), and by aspersion (sprinkling), which requires an aspergillum (sprinkling device). The first three are valid ways to baptize in Anglican practice; affusion is most common in Episcopal churches, perhaps chiefly because most lack immersion pools,[ii] and aspersion is generally reserved for blessing that isn’t baptism, as at the Easter vigil. Church traditions that countenance only submersion point to verses like Mark 1:10: “just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water…” and to the literal meaning of baptizein. It is not clear that Mark 1:10 necessarily entails that Jesus was coming up for air after submersion, as opposed to walking out of the river. As for baptizein, the Online Etymological Dictionary notes two striking figurative meanings:[iii] ‘be in over one’s head (in debt)’ and ‘be soaked (in wine)’, the latter in a sense like colloquial English soused for ‘drunk’ but probably influenced by the sense ‘to dip up in a bowl, like wine’. Dipping up is precisely how baptism by affusion works.

One function of infant baptism is to wash away original sin—the sin of Adam, which is to say the sin that inheres to everyone by virtue of being human. (In the phrase cast aspersions, the word has gone from sprinkling for cleanliness through spattering to a metaphorical sort of soiling. Languages are funny that way.) Another is, with the oil of chrism, to mark the newly baptized person as belonging to Christ and to induct the newly baptized into the Church and the local congregation. A function that may have more resonance for adults being baptized, and for the congregation witnessing the baptism and renewing baptismal vows, is the symbolic burial with Christ and rebirth into new life. Both the washing and the rebirth

Like the other great sacrament of the Church, the Eucharist, baptism brings us the extraordinary grace of God clothed in the ordinary stuff of daily life. What if we were to take each of our daily uses of water as an occasion to give thanks for our baptism and the grace that comes of it?

[i] “Confirming Baptism.” Episcopal Diocese of New York. Web. http://www.dioceseny.org/pages/228-concerning-baptism. Consulted 6 December 2014.

[ii] Fischbeck, Lisa G. n.d. “Baptism by Immersion.” The Episcopal Church of the Advocate. Web. http://theadvocatechurch.org/worship-liturgy/baptism-by-immersion/ Consulted 6 December 2014.

[iii] “Baptize.” n.d. Online Etymological Dictionary. Web. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=baptize&allowed_in_frame=0. Consulted 5 Dec 2014.

For Nov. 30, 2014: 1 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                   Isaiah 64:1-9

We launch the season of Advent, and with it Year B, with a reading from the predominantly hopeful third part of Isaiah that is penitential and a bit apocalyptic. All of us for whom Isaiah speaks are the authors of our own disasters and about as righteous as used toilet paper(verse 6)—but yet all of us are the work of God’s hand.

The Response                                                 Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Isaiah’s theme is continued in Psalm 80. Prayers notwithstanding, God’s people are suffering: they eat and drink tears by the bowlful and are the scorn of their neighbors. They ask God, “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand.” Christians often view this as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it is a call to us?

The Epistle                                                      1 Corinthians 1:3-9

The Christians of Corinth, a bustling Greco-Roman seaport, were well off by Christian standards, but Jewish and Gentile converts were at odds. Paul opens his first letter to them with gratitude for their learning and speaking but striking silence on the topic for which he praises other churches: love for one another.

The Gospel                                                       Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13 is Jesus’ long answer when four disciples ask him privately how they will know when the Messiah is coming. Jesus tells them to look for the signs, as one gauges from the fig tree’s leaves when summer is coming, but he adds that only the Father knows just when that will be.

 

Further thoughts

These “further thoughts” are normally confined to matters of theology. The current unrest in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere over a grand jury’s refusal to recommend that the shooting of Michael Brown come to trial, however, demands comment, the more so in light of the lectionary texts for this first Sunday in Lent, Year B.

As I write, it is the second day after the prosecutor’s announcement. News reports indicate that last night was calmer than the night before; it is good if the ashes in Ferguson and other cities are beginning to cool, both for the sake of the business owners and residents who suffer damage and injury and in the interest of toning down the chorus of gibes to the effect that, well, one really can’t expect any better behavior from… them. But I can’t help fearing that the settling ashes will once again be allowed to obscure and bury a discussion that this nation must have. The issue is that hundreds of thousands of mothers live in fear that theirs will be the boy who doesn’t come home tonight because he’s been shot by a cop. This fear has been given searing voice by a teacher friend of mine; her son is a senior at Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad and a standout wide receiver in football, which means he’s a little more lightly built than Michael Brown but still a pretty big guy, and he’s black. She is nauseated with fear that he’ll die of reaching too fast for his ID. And she’s not alone.

That this fear exists and is pervasive must be confronted and dealt with, whatever one believes about who was right in Ferguson. If it is not, I fear that in the future of this nation are Psalm 80:5’s “bowls of tears” for all of us to drink. I fear Isaiah 64:7’s chilling prophecy that, far from falling to outside enemies, we are instead bound to be “delivered into the hands of our iniquity.”

What if our listening to the anguish of Ferguson is the sound of the Lord God tearing open heaven to come down and bring righteousness?

For Nov. 26, 2014: Thanksgiving

The Reading                                                   Deuteronomy 8:7-18

In Deuteronomy, Moses addresses God’s people as they prepare to take over the land of Canaan. Verses 7-10 describe a land in which hard work can be rewarded richly—which means it will be easy to forget that all the good is the gift of God.

The Response                                                Psalm 65

Psalm 65 is a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s activity in the Temple (verses 1-4), in the natural world (verses 5-8), and in supplying plentiful rain for the harvest (verses (9-14). The opening phrase dumiyya tehillah elohim, usually translated “Praise is owing” or “You are to be praised”, can also be rendered “Silence is praise to you.”[i]

The Epistle                                                     2 Corinthians 9:6-15

According to 2 Corinthians 9:1-6, this epistle has been sent ahead so the Christians of Corinth can ready their gift for the Church in Jerusalem (“the saints’) before Paul and a possible Macedonian escort arrive. Verses 6-15 go on to explain how cheerful giving blesses both receiver and giver while glorifying God.

The Gospel                                                      Luke 17:11-19

As Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem and the last week of his life through the area between Jewish Galilee and non-Jewish Samaria, ten lepers there beg his mercy from a proper distance and he responds with healing. The one who turns back to thank Jesus is the one from Samaria.

Further thoughts

The theme of the Year A lectionary readings for Thanksgiving Day might be “mixed blessings”. As the people of Israel stand on the bank of the Jordan, ready to enter Canaan after the deprivations of life in the wilderness, Moses warns them—and us—not to get cocky enough to think that all the good is of their own getting. The psalm sings glory to God for the grandeur of Creation and for the humbler gift of soil and water for planting and growth—but it begins with confession: “Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.” The Corinthians get an explanation of why and how to give: the gifts given in thanksgiving for God’s blessings are themselves God’s blessings to the recipient.

The blessing of healing from Jesus may have been very mixed indeed for the Samaritan. “The region between Samaria and Galilee” is the land around the border that divides two peoples, Jewish and mixed-blood Samaritans, who turn their backs on each other. This land between the averted backs serves as a place to which lepers may be banished lest they defile decent people on either side. Ten such outcasts have made something of a community there, and the Samaritan, the double outsider, is accepted as one of them.

Then they cry out to Jesus and are healed. (One wonders how these castoffs knew who it was that walked their no-man’s-land.) The Jews go off, as Jesus and the Law instruct them, to Jerusalem to be judged by the priests as whole, to rustle up somehow the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus 14 for being declared clean and for atonement a week later, and thus to be readmitted to decent Jewish society. For the Samaritan, however, this isn’t an option: the priests of the Jews will not admit jurisdiction over such as him. He may well fear that the family from which his disease has excluded him will no longer be willing to accommodate him—or that he will no longer be prepared to accommodate to them. Nevertheless, he knows that Jesus has done him, a Samaritan, a stupendously unconventional miracle. He returns to give stupendously unconventional thanks, falling at the feet of the enemy who has just revealed himself as more than a friend. And Jesus’ response hints that the Samaritan’s own openness to miracle and readiness to thank is a factor in his healing.

Surely the result of thankful and thoughtful acts of giving opposes the vicious cycles of the world—in which inequality breeds entitlement breeds oppression breeds inequality and sooner or later despair that boils over in violence—with a virtuous cycle in which thanks foster gifts foster blessing foster thanks and sooner or later love that overflows into the giving and receiving of grace.

What if we’re called to practice thanks as giving and giving as thanks?

[i] Segal, Benjamin A, 17 May 2011, “Psalm 65—Silence Sings from Afar.” A New Psalm: A New Look at Age-Old Wisdom. Web. http://psalms.schechter.edu/2011/05/psalm-65-silence-sings-from-afar-text.html. Consulted 25 November 2014.

For 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 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?


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