Posts Tagged 'hope'

For May 25, 2014: Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 17:22-31

Finding that Paul is in Athens, the leading intellectuals of Athens invite him to the Areopagus to give a major lecture. He suits his preaching to his polytheistic and worldly audience: he playfully mentions their shrine to “an unknown god” and quotes Greek poetry to support the idea of a supreme God whose children we are.

The Response            Psalm 66:7-18

Psalm 66:7-18 calls “the peoples”—everyone in the world—to bless God, who is with us through suffering and tribulation. We no longer sacrifice animals in the Temple, but let us praise God with everything we’ve got.

The Epistle            1 Peter 3:13-22

Paul’s educated and leisured audience in Athens craved news but admitted to little need for hope. The first letter of Peter brings hope to those whose lot is to suffer: Jesus sets the example to endure patiently and speak gently when (not “if”, in this world) we suffer, because he suffered like a slave in order to bring us home to God.

The Gospel            John 14:15-21

We continue reading Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus promises the uncomprehending disciples that he is not abandoning them: he will send the Spirit to comfort and guide them.

 

Ponderables

Each of the readings for the sixth Sunday of Easter reveals something about God, about the people involved in it, and about us. The Athenians of Paul’s time knew that the gods up on Mount Olympus were like human beings, but not very nice ones; as much of classical literature tells us, the gods were vindictive and quarrelsome and in the habit of reacting jealously to human successes. Paul puts a different spin on divinity for them: it isn’t that God is like humans but that humans are created in the image of a God who is powerfully invested in their good. The psalmist, writing centuries earlier, praises God not for steering trouble away from him but for being right there with him when trouble comes and seeing him through it. The writer of 1 Peter informs the slaves and chambermaids of the world that the King’s Son of the Universe loves them—us—enough to suffer as a human like us so that we can stand like him in God’s presence. And Jesus promises his puzzled disciples—and, through them, us—that, though he will not be physically present, he will not abandon us humans without comfort; furthermore, the Spirit he will send is already here in residence.

But spirit is by definition intangible, and trouble—grief, poverty, loneliness, despair—can still look and feel like being literally out of touch with God. What if the way that the Spirit’s comfort comes is chiefly through the love and comfort that we give on God’s behalf to God’s grieving, poor, lonely, despairing children in this world?

For Jan. 5, 2014: Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:7-14

From the part of the book of Jeremiah called the “Book of Comfort”, chapters 30 to 33, comes this remarkable song of praise: though Jacob—that is, Israel—has been scattered and afflicted, the Lord will gather the people back together, even the blind and the lame, and will give them comfort and joy.

The Response            Psalm 84:1-8

In the reading from Jeremiah, God comes to the people to give comfort. Psalm 84 depicts the joys to be found in the house of the Lord—but not only in the house of the Lord, for even dry places will flow with water.

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

The letter to the Ephesians may or may not have been written to inhabitants of Ephesus, which in Roman times was a great trading city of Asia Minor, or by the apostle Paul. Whoever its author and original audience, its first chapter glowingly describes the great grace of God in choosing to adopt us humans as God’s own children.

The Gospel            Matthew 2:1-12

The passage from the gospel of Matthew, familiar from the Epiphany lections, tells  of the wise men or Magi seeking the newborn King. A striking feature of the story is that they depend on astrology to identify his star. It would seem that the Star and the baby whose birth it foretells speak in ways people can hear—if we will listen.

 

Ponderables

The Episcopal lectionary mostly follows the Revised Common Lectionary, and in it the readings for the second Sunday in Christmas are the same each year aside from choices in the Gospel reading that emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ birth or early life. Often the Epiphany displaces the second Sunday of Christmas, and as a result the readings (except for the reading from Matthew) are relatively unfamiliar for the date.

The relative newness offers a useful shift of perspective: with the visitation of the Wise Men, we have not Isaiah’s exuberant welcome of the wealth that will stream into Jerusalem for the King of Kings, but Jeremiah’s prophecies in the Book of Comfort. Those singled out for comfort, alongside people obviously blessed, are the blind, the lame, and those pregnant or in labor—who would have been ritually unwelcome among the perfect, clean, and righteous. Yet, thanks to Jesus, one can come before God exactly as one is.

Nevertheless, the promises were not fulfilled in the lifetime of the original hearers. Jacob (which is to say Israel) has not been restored as promised, nor did the House of the Lord in the psalm withstand Roman assault, nor did Christ come again within the lifetimes of those to whom the epistles were written, nor did the Holy Innocents escape slaughter at the hands of Herod.

It is possible to raise the question of credibility here. Jeremiah for one seems to feel the tension between hope and lack of fulfillment: unlike Isaiah, he sees and greets the darkness as well as the light.

But what if it is the task of those who persist in hope to hold hope on behalf of all who have lost hope?

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 May 26, 2013: Trinity Sunday, Year C

The Reading            Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

The book of Proverbs is part of what Biblical scholars refer to as “wisdom literature”; it dispenses sound advice for Old Testament living. Today’s reading, however, is about Wisdom, personified here as God’s partner in creation. We of the New Testament know Wisdom as the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity.

The Response            Psalm 8

“O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world!”

The Epistle            Romans 5:1-5

Paul’s letter to the church at Rome has sometimes been called his most important theological work. Today’s short but rich reading may well be the core of it: we have peace with God and ourselves not through our own efforts but because the incredible love of God gives us hope.

The Gospel            John 16:12-15

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

 

Further thoughts

First, a disclaimer: for a theological explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, please consult a theologian. What I can offer here is my grammatical workaround of using plural pronouns and agreement forms for singular God, as in “God are Love, and where true love is, / God Themselves are there.”

I was inspired to this in youth by T.H. White’s witty and heartrending book The Once and Future King. Toward the end of the first part, just before the Sword in the Stone reveals young Wart as King Arthur, Merlyn the magician sends him out for his last lesson among the animals. A badger tells him a story of Creation in which all the animals looked exactly like embryos until God allowed them to choose adaptations such as claws or teeth or thick hides or wings. All made their choices—except for Man, last of all, whose response begins, “Please God, I think that you have made me in the shape I now have for reasons best known to Yourselves, and it would be rude to change…” This turns out to have been precisely the right answer. God replied,

“As for you, Man, you will be a naked tool all your life, though a user of tools. You will look like an embryo till they bury you, but all the others will be embryos before your might. Eternally undeveloped, you will always remain potential in Our image, able to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys. We are partly sorry for you, Man, but partly hopeful.”

This is, please note, one God, yet plural. It is possible that White intended a sort of “royal We”, but it resonates with me differently. Though I still quite naturally try to reduce God to human scale, the slight strangeness of “God are…” in my mouth keeps me mindful of God as human and more than human, and the plural verbs and pronouns avoid assigning God exclusive maleness, instead encompassing maleness and femaleness (and probably much more in addition). God as singular plural also reminds me of the eternal fellowship enjoyed by God, as suggested by the Old Testament reading, a depth of mutual knowing and being known whose fullness is quite beyond the grasp of humankind here and now; it is the fellowship for which, through Christ, the apostle Paul says we have such hope; and just as surely the fellowship for whose stunning loss on earth Jesus in today’s gospel was gently but relentlessly preparing his disciples and friends to grieve.

For April 21, 2013: Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C

The Reading            Acts 9:36-43

The book of Acts shows us God making good on God’s promises to the early church. Jesus had assured the disciples that they would do even greater miracles than he had—and here we see it come to pass. Jesus had also told the disciples (though they did not reliably register it) that he is Messiah to more than the Jews; the fact that Tabitha seems to have gone by a Greek name suggests that she herself was living out this wider call.

The Response            Psalm 23

“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me…”

The Second Reading            Revelation 7:9-17

Taken together with the raising of Tabitha, the vision of heaven in today’s reading from Revelation tells us many things: that in this life there is still sorrow and struggle, trial and loss, but that, if we persevere, we too may receive the bounty of life that Jesus has bought for us.

The Gospel            John 10:22-30

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

 

Further thoughts

Almost a week has elapsed since the finish line of the 117th running of the Boston Marathon was transformed in an instant from a place of celebration into a charnel house. Five people have died, including one of the suspects, a campus policeman at MIT, and an eight-year-old boy who was cheering his father on; 176 are injured; and life in the city of Boston came to a standstill and stayed that way during the manhunt for the other suspect.

In the aftermath, it can be difficult to believe in miracles, more difficult to pray for those who perpetrate such horrors, and harder still to confront the question of why a loving God would fail to step in to stop such atrocity.

Today’s readings give us very little help with the last question. In fact, the reading from Acts raises a further uncomfortable question: why choose Dorcas alone to raise from death, and not all the believers? Why spare a few but not all? This is the question that has troubled our elder brothers and sisters in God, the Jews, most painfully since the Holocaust. Some may say that the question demonstrates the Jews’ failure in faith, but I think they do well to ask it, and I think that, in this life, it has no truly satisfactory answer this side of the grave.

What I do know is that we follow Jesus, and that means, among other things, that we follow him into dying. But the promise of Revelation and of the reading from John is that dying is not the end. Whether we die peacefully at an advanced age or not, we still belong to God. And the works that we do in the name of Jesus—which include praying for and blessing even our enemies, even to the point of sharing with them the spread that Psalm 23 promises us—are the signs that we truly belong to God.

For Dec. 2, 2012: 1 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 33:14-16

In the sixth century before Christ, Jeremiah the prophet predicted very bad times that came to pass: the last king of the house of David lost his throne and many Jews were forced into exile. Yet today’s reading gives us words of hope that look forward to justice from the offspring of David.

The Response            Psalm 25:1-9

The Epistle            1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

The first letter to the church at Thessalonike may be the oldest book of the New Testament. In this lesson Paul, despite the perturbations in his own life, writes almost effervescently of his joy in the Christians of the church at Thessalonike and of his hopes for their continued growth in love and holiness.

The Gospel            Luke 21:25-36

 

Further thoughts

Advent, the beginning season of the Church year, is a season of anticipation. Many of us look forward to the family gatherings, to the seasonal food and drink and decorations, to unpacking the Santa sweaters and furry boots in which we’ll cheerfully swelter on a typical Southern California “winter” day, to performances of the Nutcracker ballet and Handel’s venerable Messiah (which, like so many things in life, is both easier and harder than it sounds), and of course to celebrating the arrival of the vulnerable, approachable baby in the manger, God as one of us. Paul the Apostle Paul looks forward in this way, as he practically wriggles with glee in hopes of revisiting his Thessalonian godchildren.

Not everyone looks forward eagerly. In the sixth century BC, Jeremiah opening his mouth usually meant that bad news was coming: for good reason is a bitter, hyperbolic denunciation of a people and its practices called a “jeremiad”. Chapter 33 stands in marked contrast to most of Jeremiah’s prophecies, for here he foresees the return of Israel and Judah in safety to the land of promise and the restoration of the Davidic dynasty. Even here, however, the prophecy is edged: if the Branch of David is to bring perfect righteousness, what will become of those—or those of us—who are merely human?

Jesus’ prophecy is even more edged, for he foresees the end of everything as we know it, and the signs that he names to foreshadow the end—natural disasters including massive flooding and terrifying phenomena in the skies—give a deeper and more terrifying sense to the word “ominous”. All of this is far indeed from baby Jesus meek and mild.

Yet Jesus offers a remarkable analogy for these signs: not a harbinger of hard times such as bad weather, but rather the fig tree putting forth its tender lives, which is a sign of the coming of summer. The natural tendency, when things are bad, is to hunker down in one’s own foxhole with one’s own resources and wait it out, but Jesus instead calls us to stand up and raise our heads. Beyond the terror, our redemption waits. That is cause for hope—and perhaps we are also meant to stand for hope and for each other to a terrified world.


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