Posts Tagged 'Corinth'

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?

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For Feb. 16, 2014: 6 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                      Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20

The book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach was probably written in the second century BC, by a Hellenistic Jewish scribe who wrote not just for Jews but also for Greeks seeking answers about life and faith and God. Though this is one of the Apocrypha—the books outside the Hebrew Bible, the Torah—we in the Anglican Communion believe it to be well worth studying.

The Response                                          Psalm 119:1-8

We begin reading from Psalm 119, the longest psalm of the Bible with 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This first stanza could have inspired the reading from Ecclesiasticus, with its praise of the consequences of choosing to follow God’s law.

The Epistle                                                               1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The writer of Ecclesiasticus told us that it is up to us to choose to do what is right. The Epistle continues to point out ways in which the community at Corinth is falling short of what God wants: it matters much less who gets credit for this or that ministry than that the will of God for the growth and salvation of all of us be done.

The Gospel                                                                    Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount last week (Matthew 5:17) that he came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law of Moses. Now he extends the law: to be his, it is not enough to refrain from killing, adultery, or swearing falsely. Whatever we do to treat others as inferiors or objects for our gratification is wrong.

 

Ponderables

As Epiphany season continues, its themes turn from the revelation of God entering our world to the revelation that the Kingdom of God is within us, messy humans that we are. Ecclesiasticus poses this in terms of a stark choice—fire or water, death or life—that does lies in our own hands, and the psalm praises the happiness of those who choose life through obedience to the Law. Paul takes a different tack to arrive at a similar destination: we cannot earn salvation through obeying the Law, but we do have choices in how we respond to the great gift of grace—and, tellingly, in how we extend grace to others.

As Jesus says, he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In the gospel for 6 Epiphany he explains: the commandments prohibit murder, adultery, and other specific major offenses, but the point of them is for us to stand in love against anything or anyone that demeans or objectifies and estranges another human being. The prescription to cut off body parts sounds ghoulish to Western ears, but in Semitic society it was a very serious matter: one ate with one’s right hand only, so the effect of having that hand cut off was to disqualify one permanently from polite society. This difficult prescription is usually taken as hyperbole, but what if it is instead irony? What if we are the Kingdom of God, and we’re called to do our utmost to stand in love against alienation, both by those who estrange others—and by those who estrange themselves?

For Jan. 19, 2014: 2 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 49:1-7

Today’s reading is one of four passages in the book of Isaiah that are called “suffering servant poems”. In this passage, the servant speaks of being God’s secret weapon, though also frustrated. Then comes the fullness of God’s call: to bring salvation not only to the scattered people of Israel but to the very ends of the earth.

The Response            Psalm 40:1-12

Psalm 40:1-12, though it probably predates the reading from Isaiah by several centuries, touches on some similar themes: what God intends for God’s creation is salvation, and it is not a matter of what we do to earn it but of God’s compassion in giving it.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 1:1-9

We begin reading from the first letter to the church Paul founded at Corinth, about which he has heard rumors of discord and division. Paul glosses quickly over his apostolic credentials to praise the grace and gifts of God in them—but he is also at pains to point out that, however richly they have been blessed, they are not complete.

The Gospel            John 1:29-42

In the opening chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer testifies powerfully about his younger kinsman—so powerfully that John’s own disciples leave him to find out more about Jesus.

 

Ponderables

With the benefit of two millennia of hindsight, it is easy to read Psalm 40 and Isaiah 49:1-7 solely as prefigurings of Jesus, and the decision of the makers of the Revised Common Lectionary to combine them with Paul’s effusive opening words to the Corinthians and with John’s announcement of his cousin’s exceptionality serve only to reinforce that tendency. It’s also easy to read ourselves—as individuals, as the church of Jesus, and as a nation under God—into Isaiah’s prophecy: “Look, we’re God’s secret weapon! Aren’t we special!”

If we’re going to read ourselves into these lections, however, we have to do it all the way—which means realizing that being called by God is no guarantee of success or even of staying out of trouble. The speaker in Isaiah’s prophecy bemoans that his work is worthless, and even the Lord calls him “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations”. The speaker in the psalm knows the mire and clay at the bottom of the desolate pit. The Corinthians that Paul praises in his introduction are about to get read their pedigrees for their pride. Peter is dubbed the Rock here but will soon deny Jesus publicly and then flee to grieve in Galilee. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s crusade for the civil rights that had been written into the U.S. Constitution more than a century before got him the unwanted attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI before he was assassinated.

What if we Christians spent less time looking godly and making sure others do likewise, and more time acting on the grace we ourselves receive by being God’s hands and feet and heart for all in this hurting world?

For March 10, 2013: 4 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Joshua 5:9-12

The book of Joshua relates how Israel’s obedience under Joshua and God’s faithfulness led to the good life in the land of Canaan. Today’s reading begins after Joshua has obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males born since the flight from Egypt: now that they can keep passover, God’s abundance begins to flow.

The Response            Psalm 32

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:16-21

In the reading from Joshua, we heard God in Canaan proclaim an end to Israel’s disgrace. In notoriously lawless first-century Corinth Paul picks up the theme, but with a twist: we have a clean slate by God’s grace—and with it, orders to share this great good news of reconciliation by all means through Christ with the whole world.

The Gospel            Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

 

Further thoughts

The book of Joshua was almost certainly written centuries after Joshua’s death, to contrast Israel’s obedience under Joshua and God’s faithfulness with Israel’s later disobedience that led to exile in Babylon in the 7th century BC. Today’s reading from the book of Joshua recounts the return of Israel to Canaan after that forty-year walk through the back country with very boring rations—manna and the occasional quail—while the whiners who left Egypt died off. Now the men born during the hike are finally on Canaanite soil and newly circumcised, so all are ritually able to celebrate Passover, and on the next day they get their first taste of real bread and real grain.  The lesson is clear: Good things will happen to me if I obey God, and bad things happen when I don’t. That seems fair: obedience from one side, goodies from the other. Psalm 32 tweaks the message a little: bad things happen when I fail to admit what I’ve done wrong, but confessing is itself enough to begin to bring relief. The psalm promises, though, that the faithful will always end up all right, so it’s still fair.

In the second epistle to the Corinthians, things get turned around. Paul tells elsewhere of trying his formidably pharisaical best to be God’s good little boy, only to discover that even his best falls far short. Instead, he says, what gets him and me reconciled to God is God’s love, unconditionally. That’s good for me. But then I think of Them—the people who’ve disrespected me or hurt me, even intentionally: God’s love, unconditionally, is what reconciles them, too, and they are no less entitled to it than I. How fair is that?

As to Jesus’ parable we’re often told that the father is God and that the sons are us, with the elder son as the one not to be. I think it’s more complicated than that. The elder son lives right and is interested in fairness: can I see those traits in him, or in someone I’ve labeled “holier-than-thou”, without dismissing them as sheer cussedness, and can I emulate him when it’s appropriate? The younger son has materially damaged the family economy and his relationship at least with his brother, and it’s not clear whether his change of attitude is genuine repentance or calculation, but he at least has the sense not to keep hiding: can I accept both forgiveness and the need to repair the damage I’ve done, and can I call myself out when I’m unauthentic without banishing myself? The father has been a fool, perhaps: can I run as enthusiastically and unilaterally as he without leading someone else into temptation?

More to the point, can I balance all three roles in myself? Can I love justice without using it as a bludgeon? Can I ask for what I need while not taking undue advantage? Can I respond as unconditionally as God to the hungers, needs, and nakednesses even of the Them I would prefer to avoid?

It isn’t fair, no: it’s Love.

For March 3, 2013: 3 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Exodus 3:1-15

The Israelites were led to Egypt by God to escape famine, but then were enslaved. In today’s reading, we see their redemption begin, through a Jew with an Egyptian name, an adopted son of Pharaoh who has fled a murder rap and fallen into the lowliness and anonymity of a back-country sheepherder. God’s grace extends everywhere, even to those who try to dodge God’s call.

The Response            Psalm 63:1-8

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Corinth, on the isthmus between the Aegean and Adriatic seas in Greece, was a thriving port in Roman times—and a hotbed of temptations for the sailor. Paul reminds the Corinthians and us of the abundance of God’s grace in Exodus in order to remind us to honor that grace by living disciplined lives.

The Gospel            Luke 13:1-9

 

Further thoughts

San Diego has been a Navy town for well over a century, and for most of that time the Stingaree was the area south of Broadway in which sailors on liberty were routinely tattooed, fleeced, intoxicated, infected, and more. The tattoo parlors, brothels, flophouses, opium dens, and gambling halls were finally swept away in the 1980s, when urban renewal brought Jon Jerde’s trend-setting Horton Plaza mall amid restored Gay Nineties facades and retro streetlights, and a new name: the Gaslamp. The old name lives on—in a bar that is as genteel and pricey as the old district was rough and cheap.

Today’s readings invoke names and reputations. The grubby shepherd on the flanks of Mount Horeb is a man on the lam, a Jew with a patrician Egyptian name and a rap sheet; he has trained himself to keep his head down, but somehow he just can’t resist that burning bush. His opposite number, Saul of Tarsus, was the Jew’s Jew, righteous about his righteousness, until Jesus knocked him off his high horse and into service to the Gentiles as Paul. And Jesus invokes familiar groups to remind his listeners—and us, in these times of storm, tsunami and sequestration—that bad things can happen to good people and that there truly is a fate worse than death.

Then there is the name of God. הוהי in Hebrew, transliterated YHWH, comes from the puzzling phrase in Exodus 3:14 that the reading gives as “I AM Who I AM”.  YHWH in Judaism is so holy that it is never pronounced; instead it is called “the Name” or the Tetragrammaton (“four letters”), or Hebrew uses another title from Exodus 3:15, Adonai ‘LORD’. Scholars differ as to how exactly to translate YHWH, though ‘HE Who IS’ works. As to the longer phrase, it could as well be rendered “I WILL BE Who I AM”, reflecting God’s unchanging nature, or “I WILL BE Who I WILL BE”, showing God’s willingness to do what it takes to save us, and the truth probably includes both and much, much more.

As to the fate worse than death, it is clearly not the fact of ceasing to breathe, or else Paul would not have contemplated his own demise so calmly. I think then that it must be, to paraphrase the words of one of our post-Communion prayers, failure to do the work God has given us to do to heal and hallow God’s world.

For July 8, 2012: Proper 9, Year B

The Reading            2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Today we resume the story of David. The shepherd boy whom Samuel anointed has fought and schemed his way to the kingship of Judah, in the south. Now the northern tribes of Israel come to David’s capital at Hebron and ask him to become their king, for God is with him. On the strength of this David conquers a city of the Jebusites, on neutral ground between Judah and Israel, and makes it his capital—Jerusalem, the city of David.

The Response            Psalm 123

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 12:2-10

The church of Corinth was wracked by division, some of it centered on Paul himself: people said he was not physically perfect enough or spiritual enough to be God’s champion. In today’s reading Paul counters both claims: he mentions his own exceptional revelation—he himself is the “person in Christ”—only to dismiss it, and he points to the derided disability as precisely the means by which the Lord keeps him grounded and aware that the power is not his or ours but Christ’s.

The Gospel            Mark 6:1-13

 

Further thoughts

The Revised Common Lectionary, which we in the Episcopal Church follow, gives today’s reading as 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10. Here are the omitted verses:

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

Since David is the ruler chosen by God, and the one through whom Israel achieves its own greatness, this is a powerful rejection. Combine it with the list of physical impairments that disqualified a man from being a priest, and one can see the ground from which Paul’s detractors in Corinth were arguing. It’s easy to infer that God really only loves the perfect and really only works through the one who looks the part.

What if David meant something different, however? What if the point is that David is turning the taunt of the apparently whole Jebusites back on them? They were so sure of themselves that they failed to see a major flaw in their defenses: the humble water shaft, which could be either the water supply or the sewer. It lay in their power to remedy—but they did not.

So much depends on what we notice and how. Jesus did mighty works—everywhere but in his own home neighborhood, among those who “knew him when…” They saw him as just the carpenter, just the kid of Mary. They figured they knew what they could expect from him—not much—and that is exactly what they got.

Let’s not be too hasty to judge the skeptics of Corinth and of Nazareth, however. Corinth was a busy port town, which means it doubtless saw more than its share of con artists and schemers. Committing too deeply to the Next Big Thing without asking the hard questions could be bad for one’s money—and one’s health. For its part, Nazareth was a hardscrabble town in a land that was well and truly under Roman domination. The people had surely learned the hard way that getting one’s hopes up would just lead to disappointment.

The mix of pride, fear, defensiveness, and defeatism that kept Jesus’ neighbors blind to him is familiar to today. It is desperately hard to overcome all that baggage in someone else; it is even harder to overcome it in me. In both cases, as Paul’s career shows, it takes persistence, generosity, grace, and a willingness to look silly.

It also helps to pay attention to mundane things like the sewers and the water supply.

For June 17, 2012: Proper 6, Year B

The Reading            1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Today’s reading follows a shock and contains a surprise. Samuel the prophet has had to tell King Saul that he is rejected as Israel’s king for disobeying God’s command to destroy the Amalekites totally. It then falls to Samuel to anoint the new king—and God declines to make what seems like the obvious choice.

The Response            Psalm 20

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:6-17

Those in the city of Corinth who expected religious leaders to be handsome and rich were disappointed in the apostle Paul, judging from today’s letter. Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church is like God’s explanation to Samuel:  look below the surface and into the heart, for things may not be as they seem in this world.

The Gospel            Mark 4:26-34

 

Further thoughts

Engraved into the passenger-side rearview mirror of every car sold in the United States is this notice:

WARNING: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR

Such a notice never appears on the inside rearview mirror. The reason is this: The inside mirror is made with flat glass: it need only show the view out the rear window and it is close to the driver, so its field of vision can be narrow. The outside mirror that bears the inscription uses glass that is convex or slightly curved outward: this gives the driver a wider field of vision even though it is farther from the driver, but at the cost of distorting the image so that objects in the mirror seem farther away from the driver than they really are.

We see the world using our own mental concave or convex mirrors of our experience. Like Samuel and the people of Corinth, we see external things such as another’s wealth, power, or physical beauty in the concave mirror that makes them loom very large indeed. In that mirror we also see our own preoccupations and needs and entitlements; sometimes we glory in our magnified virtues and sometimes we despair at our magnified faults. We glance in the convex mirror and glimpse another’s heartache, but it doesn’t look like so much; we assure ourselves that we have plenty of time left, till suddenly the end comes up on us like a semi out of nowhere…

That we use the mirrors so much isn’t stupid or wicked, of course: it’s merely human. I for one don’t have a God’s-eye view, much as I may sound like it—and that is a good thing, because it surely takes God’s eye and God’s heart together to keep track of all the hopes and fears and conflicting priorities of everything from the least little microbe up to the universe.

But the skilled driver knows when to switch attention briefly to either mirror in order to get a sense of what’s going on beside and behind the car, and when to stop relying on the mirrors and look directly. More to the point, the wise driver learns when it’s time to stop the car altogether, get out, and consider God’s mustard seed and the inexplicable grace through which it grows.