Posts Tagged 'Ephesus'

For Nov. 3, 2013: All Saints’ Day, Year C

The Reading            Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

The book of Daniel is set in the sixth century before Christ, after the Temple has been destroyed and the people taken into exile in Babylon. Here the prophet recounts a terrifying vision—the omitted verses describe four huge and powerful monsters with bad intentions toward Israel—but the explanation he gets builds hope.

The Response            Psalm 149

“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people and adorns the poor with victory.”

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:11-23

The church at Ephesus was one of the first and most successful of the churches believed to have been founded by the apostle Paul. Today’s reading explains what is in store for the saints—that is, for all of us who believe—and how the power of God working among us gives us hope.

The Gospel            Luke 6:20-31

“‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for All Saints’ Day vary from year to year in the Revised Common Lectionary, and in consequence the themes vary too. In last year’s readings, Isaiah and the writer of Revelation sang of the wondrous banquet that awaits in heaven, the psalmist offered praise, and John told of the miraculous raising of Lazarus.

For Year C, the tone is more mixed. Psalm 149 rejoices, to be sure (though the fate awaiting other nations’ rulers is told with eyebrow-raisingly cheer), and the epistle sounds the celebratory note that one expects, that is consistent with the opening and closing of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s beloved hymn “Sine Nomine” and with the rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

But the other texts for All Saints’ Day this year are somber, even threatening. The prophet Daniel reports a vision of four horrifying monsters wreaking destruction on everything. The gospel tells us that an easy life now is not necessarily a mark of God’s favor for the world to come while laying out a blueprint for Christian behavior in the face of assault or disregard that is decidedly difficult to follow. What gives?

These are verses of, by, and for outsiders. Daniel prophesies during the time of exile, when the Israelites were unwilling foreign nationals of low status and could count on being scorned, misunderstood, and mistreated accordingly. The gospel famously plays on the Beatitudes—beatus in Latin is a strong way to say ‘happy’—and part of the point is to tell us in what esteem to hold those on whom the world spits… for they are we and we are they. Jesus is raised to unprecedented honor and glory, yes—but first he had to be born to an unwed mother, be a refugee, be a truth-teller whom nobody understood, be spat on and mocked (and who knows how else bored soldiers might have humiliated him?) and then be paraded through the streets en route to dying the nastiest death Rome saw fit to inflict. In short, Jesus the outsider knows the very worst that can befall us and the very worst we can be, and that by no stretch of the imagination do we belong in heaven.

By no stretch of the imagination, that is, except his.

For it is Jesus’ love alone that makes God’s saint of me, and you, and every other outsider that ever drew breath or ever will. And it is by living Jesus’ love of those on whom the world spits that we soften the hearts that can’t listen yet—including, more often than not, our own.

For Jan. 6, 2013: Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 60:1-6, 9

Isaiah, writing about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, addresses Jerusalem: though she lies in ruins, the glory of the Lord has risen like daybreak! From all corners of the earth, from all of our own personal Babylons, all God’s children—all of us—shall stream home, whether or not Jerusalem was ever home, bringing wealth by the shipload and camel-caravan load in praise and thanks to the Lord.

The Response            Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

The Epistle            Ephesians 3:1-12

There are riches, and then there are riches. Isaiah and the Psalmist told us of righteousness streaming out from Jerusalem and material wealth streaming in. It falls to Paul, writing from prison to the Gentile church in far-off Ephesus, to explain: all that abundance from all the world is merely the thank-you for the gift beyond price, extended to all peoples, of salvation through Christ Jesus.

The Gospel            Matthew 2:1-12

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Epiphany are practically incandescent: not now the hushed and heart-melting glow of Mary’s tiny son in the straw, but Isaiah’s blazing light as a beacon for all nations, the psalmist’s righteousness and deliverance in the very hills and mountains, the dazzling insight given Paul of God’s plan for salvation, and of course the Star whose refulgence captures us if, like the eastern mages, we care to look and follow.

But Epiphany, unlike Christmas, reminds us that there is also darkness and that it is deep. That people are alienated from their homes and, ultimately, from each other is news neither to Isaiah nor to us. That the poor and lowly are merely the most afflicted by oppression, violence, poverty, and misuse of power was as evident to the psalmist in the ninth century before Christ’s birth as it is to us in the third millennium after. That rulers and authorities are badly in the dark was as clear to Paul as it is to any 21st century student of current events. And that terrified or even indignant rulers resort to dark deeds in order to maintain power is no less evident in the organized religion’s history of inquisitions, intifadas, and cover-ups than it is when Herod sends troops to massacre the boy babies of Bethlehem lest one of them grow up to challenge his right to his throne.

Thrones, even in a 21st-century democracy, are common. Though I’ve made a point of avoiding obvious ones, I find I occupy many: as parent, as customer, as teacher or assessor, as person who determines a budget or a schedule, even as driver in possession of right-of-way. I am aware of the temptation to occupy those little thrones like Herod—not I hope, to the extent of degrading someone simply because I could, but it’s hard to resist barking an order, delivering a snub or put-down, downplaying someone else’s gifts (or my own), even resisting the healing or the oversight I need.

The darkness, in short, is not just Out There, it is In Here, and Herod is my brother.

The Light that judges and redeems and heals and loves is thus not only for the Gentiles as well as the Jews but for the Herods out there as well as the ones in here. And it calls me to spend less time finger-pointing and more time following.

For August 26, 2012: Proper 16, Year B

The Reading            Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

The book of Joshua tells of the complete conquest of Canaan, though that conquest was more like a gradual encroachment. In any case, at the end of his long life, Joshua presents all the people with a choice: to follow the gods of the world around them or to enter into a covenant—a formal treaty—to be faithful servants of the Lord.

The Response            Psalm 34:15-22

The Epistle            Ephesians 6:10-20

The Old Testament lection omits the verses in which Joshua tells God’s people that they—we—are bound to fail to follow the Lord as we ought. Psalm 34:18 hints at the way out, and today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians underlines it: what keeps us in righteousness is the power of the Lord.

The Gospel            John 6:56-69

 

Further thoughts

The lectionary selections today are an interesting mix. In the Old Testament reading, Joshua, having led Israel to ownership of Canaan, confronts the people of Israel with a choice between the old gods and The One God and more or less dares them to pick the right one. They brightly announce their allegiance to the Lord. The lectionary cuts off before the verses in which Joshua repeats the question, twice and with rising skepticism, then, after announcing that this is a covenant, tells them flatly that they’re going to fail at keeping up their end.

Joshua’s right, of course: when it comes to keeping covenants with God, they are—I am—no darned good. The flesh, as Jesus says, is useless. My insufficiency is partly a matter of meatheadedly human bad choices, but it is also simply that being righteous enough and compassionate enough and smart enough and simple enough and alive enough for God, all at the same time, takes more God-ness than even the best purely human being can manage under his or her own power. It requires more more than I can even really imagine.

Which leaves the unimaginable. The epistle offers God’s armor against superhuman enemies, which makes sense—but the gear is that of the Roman legions, who, though Rome has made Ephesus splendid and wealthy, are regarded with the esteem one reserves for playground bullies. In the gospel, Jesus presents as the means to salvation his own body and blood to be eaten and drunk—a flagrant violation of the foundational laws of the Torah, in which even animal blood is much too holy to take lightly, and thus literally unbelievable.

Both sets of instructions pull me way outside my comfort zone. That seems to be the point. I can’t plan or reason or bargain or scheme my way to being righteous and compassionate and smart and simple and alive enough for God. I can, however, say “Yes, with God’s help”—though with the package comes the sobering truth that God’s help may come to me from sources I’d thought myself better than or by means that may turn my world entirely upside down.

For August 12, 2012: Proper 14, Year B

The Reading            2 Samuel 18:5-15, 31-33

When the prophet Nathan confronted David about Uriah, he prophesied trouble arising from within David’s own house. It comes to pass: David’s eldest son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar; when David takes no action, her full brother Absalom has Amnon killed, goes into exile, is allowed to return to court but is not seen by his father, and then leads a rebellion of the “men of Israel” against the servants of David the king.

The Response            Psalm 130

The Epistle            Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Last week’s reading from the epistle to the Ephesians explained why (and, briefly, how) to live as God’s children. This week’s reading goes into specifics: we are neither to do nor to say anything that either flows from or contributes to strife and bitterness. This is excellent advice, from the first century in Ephesus to the twenty-first century in El Cajon.

The Gospel            John 6:35, 41-51

 

Further thoughts

The career of David, King of Israel, is full of ironies large and small and of intrigue and deception. The name of David’s eldest son, Amnon, means ‘faithful’: he is the one who feigns illness so he can rape his half-sister Tamar. This rape goes unpunished by King David. Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, whose name means ‘father of peace’, bides his time, throws a party for the purpose of murdering Amnon, then flees into exile. David mourns dead Amnon and then mourns the exiled Absalom. After three years David’s general Joab maneuvers David into bringing Absalom back from exile, but David will not see him. Two years later Absalom finally gets an audience with his father by torching one of Joab’s fields. At this point Absalom launches a conspiracy to lead Israel into revolt against their anointed king. David and those loyal to him, including Joab, flee across the Jordan, leaving behind two priests as spies and a foreigner who sows disinformation in Absalom’s camp. We find out that Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth, whom David has housed and protected, has thrown his lot in with Absalom when Mephibosheth’s servant Ziba brings refreshments to David’s troops along with a side dish of ambition.

Today’s reading picks up just before the decisive battle. David’s side wins; the slaughter is great, but the passage takes pains to tell us that the battle claims fewer lives than does the forest of Ephraim. At the end of the day, when the couriers come with news, David’s concern is not for how the battle has gone or how his troops have fared but rather for his rebel son.

David’s outburst on learning of Absalom’s death is often singled out as an allegory of God’s yearning love for us no matter what. It is that, to be sure. A case can also be made for the whole of David’s story as a cautionary tale about thirsting for power and love. David’s thirsts led him to tell lies, bed Bathsheba, and let his oldest son, the rapist, off the hook. The epistle and the gospel provide the corrective. When we walk in love as Christ loved us, we begin to discern that the way Jesus gives to slake our thirsts is not to grasp for power and love but truly and deeply to give them.

For July 15, 2012: Proper 10, Year B

The Reading            Amos 7:7-15

Around 750 BC, with Assyria and Egypt occupied elsewhere, Israel enjoys peace and prosperity—for the wealthy and powerful, and at the expense of the poor. God calls Amos out of Judah, the southern kingdom, to pronounce judgment. The plumb line that Amos sees in God’s hand is a string with a heavy weight at one end that shows whether or not a wall is perfectly upright. The wall that is not upright cannot be allowed to stand.

The Response            Psalm 24

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:3-14

Today we begin reading from the letter to the Ephesians. The church at Ephesus in modern Turkey, like the church at Corinth in Greece, was a mixed Jewish and Gentile community. In the opening verses of the letter to this church, a Jewish apostle—possibly Paul—writes poetically of God’s intention before the world ever existed to adopt in Jesus Christ not just the people of the covenant of Abraham but all of creation, including each one of us.

The Gospel            Mark 6:14-29

Further thoughts

Late last week the commission investigating the Penn State football program released the results of its investigation of the climate in which sexual abuse of young boys went unreported and unstopped for a period of fourteen years. The report is unsparing in assigning blame at the highest levels. Like today’s Old Testament reading and gospel lesson, it gives a terrifying picture of the urgency of doing the right thing sooner rather than later: the longer one holds off, the more horrifyingly pervasive the damage will be and the less likely it is to be remediable. These readings also point to the unanticipated costs of doing and saying the right thing: Amos is shamed and exiled and John the Baptizer loses his life.  We ourselves are likely to see ourselves in the roles of Amos or John here; as human beings, however, we are surely at just as great risk of being so caught up in our own prerogatives or even our own human-crafted “righteousness” as are Amaziah, Jeroboam, or Herod.

In between, though, and counterbalancing the horror of being human, is the vivid and poetic rhetoric of the letter to the Ephesians. In the original Greek, the passage is one very long sentence that blesses God for blessing, choosing, designing for love, adopting, redeeming, giving grace to, forgiving, gathering up, giving an inheritance to, and sealing with the Holy Spirit not just the physical descendants of Abraham but all peoples. In short, God is crazy in love with us and has no hesitation about showing it. To put it another way, it’s not just that our pictures are in God’s brag book: we ourselves are God’s brag book.

That is a very tall order to live up to. I for one can’t do it on my own. The key here is love: by me, of you, through God. If I can walk in love as Jesus shows me, and if I let your love help me back to my feet when I stumble, and if each of us loves everyone else in exactly that way, then our love through God helps you and me and him and her and them uncover the real “you” and the real “me” and the real “him” and “her” and “them” that make each of us, in God’s eyes, just exactly what God always wanted.


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