Posts Tagged 'grace'

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?

For June 29, 2014: Proper 8, Year A, St Alban’s Day

The Reading            Jeremiah 28:5-9

As this reading opens, most Jews are captive in Babylon, just as Jeremiah prophesied. The prophet Hananiah gladdens the king by predicting an early end to Babylonian rule and restoration of Israel to Jerusalem. Jeremiah responds to Hananiah skeptically: only if a prophet’s words come true is that prophet sent by the Lord.

The Response            Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

From verse 37 onward, Psalm 89 laments Israel’s subjugation, for which there is no end in sight. The beginning of the psalm, however, celebrates the eternal love of the Lord for David and Israel. The speaker in verses 3-4 and 19b-26 is the Lord.

The Epistle            Romans 6:12-23

The reading from the letter to the Romans continues the argument against persisting in sin because God keeps giving grace. Putting oneself in service to God for righteousness is the slavery that leads away from death and to both sanctification and eternal life.

The Gospel            Matthew 10:40-42

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus finishes his instructions to the disciples as he sends them out. His words are also for us: whoever welcomes anyone—especially as God’s agents, but not exclusively so—welcomes us and Jesus and the Father; moreover, even the humblest of good deeds by or to the humblest looms large to God.

 

Ponderables

June 29, 2014 is the third Sunday after Pentecost or the thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, which covers the two parts of the church year that fall outside the major seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. On this Sunday we also celebrate the feast of St Alban, our patron saint—a week later than usual, partly because the Rev. Allisyn Thomas is here to celebrate the Eucharist with us in her capacity as Canon to the Ordinary.

Wait: Everyday time? Canon to the commonplace? How can we make sense of these two uses?

The term ordinary time originated in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1970s, as part of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Instead of counting Sundays after Epiphany and then Sundays after Pentecost, Catholics started counting all 33 to 34 Sundays as a unit, starting with the four to nine Sundays after Epiphany and resuming after Pentecost; if Ash Wednesday fell early in the year, readings that were skipped in the shorter Epiphany would shift to the end of Pentecost to round out the church year. In English and most modern European languages, that unit is called ordinary time. In the everyday sense of ordinary, the phrase sounds odd—Eucharists that are boring?—so some sources in English assert that ordinary is a corruption of ordinal, as in ordinal numbers: first Sunday, sixteenth Sunday…) That sounds plausible, except that the original 1970s Latin phrase should be tempus ordinalis, and it isn’t: it’s tempus per annum ‘time through the year’.

Let’s shift for a moment to the other ordinary. Its roots go back much farther, to nearly the beginning of the church. While the source of our English word bishop is the Greek episcopos (literally ‘overseer’), Latin also used a term derived from Latin ordo ‘order or rule’: the ordinarius is ‘the one who keeps order’. In English, that would be ordinary, and the word remains in the vocabulary of church law and common law: a judge ordinary has jurisdiction over a case in his own right, as is to be expected, whereas a judge extraordinary has been specially appointed outside her normal sphere. So the Canon to the Ordinary is the clergyperson who assists in carrying out the customary duties of the bishop, such as visiting St Alban’s for its patronal feast day. We can argue, then, that ordinary time is a matter neither of time that is nothing special nor of weeks in sequence but rather of Sundays that are celebrated not for a special feast or fast but because they are Sundays and therefore worthy in their own right.

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 Aug. 25, 2013: Proper 16, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 1:4-10

This week we begin reading from the book of Jeremiah, who prophesied in the seventh century before Christ. Unlike Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, who came to prophecy from other lines of work, Jeremiah started prophesying as a young man. In today’s reading, the Lord calls Jeremiah. His immediate response echoes ours, far too often: “Who, me? I can’t do that!”

The Response            Psalm 71:1-6

“You are my hope, O Lord GOD, my confidence since I was young. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born.”

The Epistle            Hebrews 12:18-29

Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews contrasts the experiences of God’s people on Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. Where Moses’ mountain was too holy for mere mortals, the city of God welcomes all who respond to God’s call through the sacrifice of Jesus.

The Gospel            Luke 13:10-17

“‘Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham…, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’”

 

Further thoughts

As Jeremiah tells it, one day YHWH tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Son, go talk truth to power on Our behalf.” Jeremiah retorted, “Who, me? I’m just a kid.” His excuse might even have been literally true, but it is as likely that Jeremiah was old enough to foresee how much trouble this call would be: spending decades showing kings the hot water they were in with YHWH and being showered liberally with hot water in return.

The reading from Hebrews contrasts calls to two holy mountains. Mount Sinai, off in the wilderness, sounds like Mount Saint Helens in mid-eruption; Moses alone was called there to encounter the living YHWH on behalf of the Israelites, and even he trembled and did not presume to live there. Mount Zion, in contrast, is in—or is—the City of God, where angels and saints dwell and rejoice; reverence and awe are still in order, but, thanks to Jesus, the invitation is open to all. Though God’s mercy bends a longer arc through time and space even than God’s justice does, and God’s house is where our hearts find rest, the call can be hard to respond to: Am I really invited as I am, even if everyone else is better? Are the others really invited as they are, even if they don’t seem good enough? Aren’t there rules and rituals and standards to uphold?

In the gospels, Jesus consistently bends rules; he hangs out with riffraff and challenges authority, and in today’s reading he offends a leader by healing a woman on the sabbath. It is easy to condemn the leader for hardheartedness, but he’s only doing what most of us do: turning good expedients into ironclad prescriptions in a valiant but doomed attempt to insulate ourselves from screwing up and having to think too much. As Jesus reminds us elsewhere, though, all the law and the prophets hang on two principles:

1. Love God wholeheartedly.

2. Love everyone else as we should love ourselves.

Following these principles will not insulate us from screwing up any more than YHWH’s protection insulated Jeremiah from hot water—but as we unbind others’ hearts in love, we also unbind our own.

For March 17, 2013: 5 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 43:16-21

In the chapters preceding today’s reading, the prophet Isaiah admonished the people of Judah languishing in Babylon: their exile had been brought about by their own faithlessness. It sounds like Lent. Here, though, Isaiah announces a magnificent new hope, for God’s grace moves and is moving to bring a new liberation.

The Response            Psalm 126

The Epistle            Philippians 3:4b-14

Isaiah preached restoration to the lost and disheartened exiles in Babylon. The Philippians, in contrast, lived in a proud and prosperous Roman gold-mining city. To them, and us, the apostle Paul explains that everything that makes us proud is worthless (“rubbish” is a very polite translation), compared to being what Gregory of Nyssa called “a friend of God”.

The Gospel            John 12:1-8

 

Further thoughts

There is always something a bit jarring in the way that Lent coincides with the season of spring.

In the forty days of Lent, many of God’s people practice abstinences, looking forward with sorrow to the suffering and death of our Lord and Savior and perhaps looking forward also to our own inevitable ends. Spring, however, is a time of abundant growth: even the eastern US, between unseasonable snowstorms, is seeing crocuses; in the Southwest the fields and byways explode with weeds (some identified as wildflowers, and more possibly should be) and all manner of new life, not to mention the myriad of activities, vernal and carnal and mostly goofy, by which species work on fulfilling the ancient mandate to be fruitful and multiply.

The human itch to classify, to distinguish x from what is not x, moves us to sort abstinence and its seasonal opposite into two distinct categories; the scratching of that itch brings on more itch, which we tend to try to scratch by announcing our intention not to practice more than one of them at a time or perhaps only our doubts about others’ sense of propriety when they do. We are creatures of “either/or”, most of the time.

But today’s readings call us to be creatures of both/and. We sorrow, and we go forward. We live as righteously as we can, and we love others as though that didn’t matter. We devote our resources to the poor, and we make extravagant gestures. We die with Christ, and we live with him. And Jesus is with us, even as we struggle to do these things.

For Oct. 14, 2012: Proper 23, Year B

The Reading            Job 23:1-9, 16-17

The book of Job, composed between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, poses one of the great questions of life: if God rewards virtue, why do bad things happen to good people? In today’s reading, as Job grieves in ashes for his children and his lost wealth, he demands a hearing with God—and he is terrified that God is no longer anywhere for him.

The Response            Psalm 90:12-17

The Epistle            Hebrews 4:12-16

Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews continues to explain to a Jewish audience why and how Jesus is the Messiah. The word of God here refers not to scripture but to God’s ongoing revelation and discernment of our hearts; unlike Job, however, our judge is Jesus, who knows exactly what it is like to be human.

The Gospel            Mark 10:17-31

 

Further thoughts

The lectionary today gives us some difficult and chewy food for thought. It was accepted wisdom in Judaism that God always rewards the virtuous with material wealth and therefore that loss or absence of the good things of life was a sign of guilt. This is the assumption that Job’s friends in the fourth century BC made earlier in the book when they called upon him to confess the sin that must have impelled God to take away all of his children, all of his wealth, and even his health. It is also a source of the shock and grief of the man whom Jesus instructed to sell his possessions—for they were his badges of rightness with God—and of the subsequent astonishment of the disciples. To put it in 21st century terms that are all too common, if even God’s evident favorites can’t enter the kingdom, what hope is there for the other 98%?

Job resists his friends’ insistence that he find a sin to repent: to have earned the depth of grief, destitution, and pain he is in, he would have to have behaved viciously, but his conscience is clear. In any case, even if Job deserved punishment, how is it just to his ten children to kill them? It follows logically that, whatever the source of these disasters, it is not God’s justice. Job retains enough confidence in his friends to challenge them to their faces, rather than just writing them off as idiots; today’s reading follows that outburst—and, significantly, enough faith to challenge God, too, even angrily. He is aware that God is not a merchant bartering righteousness for goodies. He who dies with the most toys doesn’t win: he simply dies like everyone else.

Here may be the root of the rich man’s quandary, and often ours. We understand buying and selling and scarcity: we give up time to gain income or income to gain time; we trade money for goods and services, and if we hand over more money we expect better stuff or a greater return; all in all, it seems sensible, and we tend to expect that God’s favor also is to be bought, whether with money or power or charm or good behavior.

But the kingdom of God operates differently. We come into the world with nothing except our skin and what lies within it—and even that is on loan. What gets us into God’s good graces is simply God’s good graces, through the sacrifice of Jesus, and what keeps us believing that that grace is there for us is giving love to and receiving love from each other.

For Jan. 15, 2012: 2 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading    1 Samuel 3:1-20
The priesthood of Samuel, the anointer of great King David, is full of surprises. He was born to a mother who had been barren for decades, and his tribe was not the priestly tribe of Levi. Today’s reading relates the beginning of Samuel’s service—and, as is so often God’s way, the surprises build.

The Epistle    1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Samuel was consecrated to the service of God. Jesus’ life and death consecrate us as God’s children and frees us from judgment. In today’s epistle, written to the mixed Jewish and Gentile community at Corinth, Paul points out limits on our freedom.

Further thoughts
One of the difficult tasks of parenthood is to balance two realizations: on the one hand, one is responsible for one’s child; on the other hand, one does not own one’s child, even one’s very young child. We don’t meet Samuel’s mother Hannah in today’s reading, but in the height of her gratitude to God for giving her a son, she promises him to God for good, and then in love she sets about giving the boy the best start possible before she makes good on her promise. The priest Eli’s dealings with Samuel in this reading suggest that Eli has also achieved a balance of those realizations, but from the other end of parenthood and more painfully: his sons’ repeated bad decisions reflect adversely on Eli’s parenting, because Eli had opportunities to intervene but did not do so. One also senses that, before the prophesied doom falls, Eli’s hard-earned understanding will contribute to a better outcome for Samuel.
The letter to the Corinthians was primarily intended to deal with matters of doctrine and of community discipline: the church at Corinth, which was a Greco-Roman trading city, included both Jews and Gentiles, and to say that they disagreed vigorously on appropriate ritual practices such as circumcision and dietary restrictions is to understate the case. Today’s reading also continues the theme of our non-ownership. Just as we do not possess our children, we do not truly possess ourselves: we are God’s because God made us and we are God’s because God paid for us. We are freed from sin by virtue of Jesus’ death. This freedom, however, does not allow us to do whatever we will with our bodies, or for that matter with our talents, money, or time or even each other: in exchange for the extravagant gift of grace, it is incumbent upon us Christians to devote all the means at our disposal to do the work of God for the glory of God, and to look for the face and fingerprints of God in every person.
In short, we are to give ourselves back in gratitude for the grace of God that has given us back the true selves that God made. In so doing we will follow and honor Hannah’s hard but healing example.


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