Posts Tagged 'Lent'

For Feb. 22, 2015: 1 Lent, Year B

The Reading                                                                    Genesis 9:8-17

Genesis 9:8-17 finishes the account of the great Flood. Here is God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood; the sign of this is the rainbow. On this first Sunday of Lent, it is good to consider how our sinfulness grieves God, how great God’s mercy is—and how we children of God are also called to mercy.

The Response                                                                 Psalm 25:1-9

Psalm 25:1-9 resonates for the first day of Lent and the commemoration of two great teachers of the Episcopal Church. The psalmist declares trust in the Lord and praises the Lord’s graciousness, faithfulness, and teaching—and yet, like so many of us, the psalmist cannot help begging not to be humiliated or put to shame.

The Epistle                                                                      1 Peter 3:18-22

The issue of shame that was raised in Psalm 25 is dealt with in the first letter of Peter, written by a Roman church elder in Peter’s name, who explicitly links the great Flood of Genesis and baptism. Through baptism God moves to drown our bad conscience and with it our stubborn, self-humiliated resistance to God’s unfailing mercy.

The Gospel                                                                       Mark 1:9-15

In Mark 1:9-15 we revisit Jesus’ baptism. The reading for 1 Epiphany ended with the voice from heaven in verse 11; today’s reading goes on to describe the dove-like Spirit turning into a hawk and harrying Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted or tested. Only after those forty days does Jesus begin his public ministry.

 

Further thoughts

Outside my window, the sky is grey—an encouraging color as parched Southern California faces yet another year of drought. Most of us can still simply turn on a faucet and expect water that’s safe and mostly clear, depending on how many particulates are contributed by the Colorado River. For some in California, however, this necessity is a luxury: the farmworker households of Alpaugh in the San Joaquin Valley, whose estimated median household income is less than $20,000,[1] must spend an average of $1500 per year on bottled water because the booming almond industry[2] sucks up so much groundwater that the town’s last functioning well is bringing up water tainted with arsenic. Ironically, when Alpaugh was founded in the 19th century, it was an island in wetlands that extended from Mendota in the north to as far south (though not as far east) as Bakersfield[3] and included Tulare Lake, the biggest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi until the rivers that supplied it were dammed and diverted around the beginning of the 20th century.

Water infuses three of the four lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Lent 2015 as life-giver but also life-taker. Even when water makes an end, however, as the reading from Genesis reminds us, water is not the end, but rather a means. As we close Black History Month 2015 by celebrating the lives of educators Anna Haywood Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, it is good to remember the role of water in helping slaves escape to freedom. The spiritual “Wade in the Water” speaks of groups freed by passing through water and alludes to the healing at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:4, KJV); it was also a code instructing escapees to throw bounty hunters off their scent by taking to the rivers.[4] We are baptized once for all, of course, but visualizing God’s mercy as a flow we follow to freedom and our fullest selves can perhaps help us remember to be conduits of that mercy to the many in this dry world who still so desperately thirst.

 

[1] “Alpaugh, California,” City-Data.com, no date. Web, http://www.city-data.com/city/Alpaugh-California.html#b. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[2] Philpott, Tom. “California Goes Nuts,” Mother Jones, 12 January 2015, Web, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/01/california-drought-almonds-water-use. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[3] “Hydrology of the Tulare Basin,” Tulare Basin Wildlife Partners, 2013. Web, http://www.tularebasinwildlifepartners.org/history.html. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[4] “Revised Common Lectionary: Wade in The Water,” RevGalBlogPals, 17 February 2015. Web. http://revgalblogpals.org/2015/02/17/revised-common-lectionary-wade-in-the-water/. Accessed 20 February 2015. A glorious rendition of “Wade in the Water” by the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRpzEnq14Hs.

For March 30, 2014: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A

The Reading            1 Samuel 16:1-13

When the first king, of Israel, Saul, stopped being the Lord’s man, the Lord rejected him in favor of a new king. The reading from the first book of Samuel dwells on God’s criteria: what matters is not how someone looks or seems to fulfill the script, but what is in that person’s heart.

The Response            Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is the familiar and heartening hymn to the goodness of the Lord, our leader. The shepherd’s rod helped him defend sheep from wolves and lions; the staff or shepherd’s crook served to guide the sheep. As with young David in the first reading, anointing is a sign of the Lord’s chosen one.

The Epistle            Ephesians 5:8-14

Whether or not the book of Ephesians was written by the apostle Paul or to the church he founded at Ephesus, the message certainly applies to the twenty-first-century as it did to the first: having been saved from the darkness of our hearts, we are to live as children of light.

The Gospel            John 9:1-41

The very long gospel for the fourth Sunday in Lent of Year A relates the story of a man born blind. Jewish orthodoxy of the day held that people suffer because they or their parents have sinned. Jesus tells the disciples otherwise, and he heals the man.

For March 9, 2014: 1 Lent, Year A

The Reading            Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The book of Genesis is literally a book of beginnings—the beginning of everything, of our galaxy and solar system, of our world and of human beings ourselves—and, in today’s reading, the beginning of sin and death through our choosing to put ourselves in God’s place.

The Response            Psalm 32

Psalm 32 resonates with us at any time, but especially during Lent: how grievous it is to bear hidden sin and shame, and what a relief it is to confess and be forgiven!

The Epistle            Romans 5:12-19

Writing to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul contrasts the coming of sin in Genesis with the gift of grace. Just as sin and death came to the world through Adam’s choice, so also salvation has come into the world as the gift and choice of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel            Matthew 4:1-11

The gospel tells the familiar story of Jesus tempted first to take care of his own legitimate and pressing needs, then to prove his Godhood publicly, and finally to make himself dictator of the world.

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 Feb. 13, 2013: Ash Wednesday

The Reading            Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

The prophet Joel, most probably writing in the fifth century before Christ, describes an enormous army assailing the land of Judah. It is an army of locusts: grasshopper-like creatures that swarm by the billions, darkening the sky and devouring every green leaf for miles. Joel tells us it is a sign of the day of the Lord, and calls every living soul to drop everything and turn to the Lord with fasting and weeping.

The Response            Psalm 103:8-14

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

For Joel, the day of the Lord was bringing bad times. Paul also is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

The Gospel            Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Ash Wednesday are the same each liturgical year, but the preceding Sunday’s readings for the end of Epiphany vary, and the differences set up intriguing shifts in perspective from one year to the next.

A common thread for Year C has to do with light and darkness. Last Sunday we read of Moses exuding light after his encounters with the living God, and we gawked with the disciples as they saw the flesh-and-blood Jesus transfigured into something more like Light of Light, True God Of True God, and we heard the epistle extend the point that going deliberately and mindfully into the presence of the Light of Lights has a way of rubbing off on a person. And well it should: human beings are clearly designed to respond to the Light.

Today’s readings bring us face to face with the dark. We human beings aren’t the Light: we are reckless, feckless, and sometimes mindless. Jesus has to tell us to start doing the right thing because it is right, not in order to look right to all the people we’re sure are either taking cues from us or potshots at us. How easy it is to absorb the light we’re intended to reflect!

Furthermore, we’re mortal. The smudging on my forehead of dark ashes—from bright fire applied to last year’s living palm frond—reminds me that I too am not far from my end, and I tremble and hope in the darkness for forbearance I don’t deserve. The sight of ashes on your forehead should remind me that you are in the same fearful boat as I, that a share of the burden to offer forbearance to you lies with me. Joel’s call quite properly extends this burden to the entire people, infants and all; Paul’s list of difficulties paradoxically reminds us that, to misinterpret Matthew 11:30 (but usefully), this burden truly is Light.

Can any of us really get to stand fully in the Light if all of us can’t?

For March 25, 2012: 5 Lent, Year B

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:31-34

The “weeping prophet” Jeremiah foretold the destruction of Jerusalem in the sixth century BC on account of God’s people being unfaithful. Amid the ruins, today’s reading announces hope and a new covenant: God will write God’s law on the people’s hearts, so that we do not forget God—and God will forget our sin.

The Epistle            Hebrews 5:5-10

The epistle to the Hebrews, written no later than 96 AD, is less a letter than it is a treatise of Christology—the study of Jesus—in terms of Jewish thought. The writer compares the priesthood of Jesus to that of Melchizedek, who blessed Abram in Genesis 14. Both priesthoods are without beginning or end, but Jesus’ priesthood is superior: he is fully human, fully God, and fully obedient to God.

Further thoughts

The approach of the end of Lent always brings to mind one of my favorite poems of the late 20th century, Peter Meinke’s “Liquid Paper”. The opening lines liken correcting fluid—Liquid Paper™ or Wite-Out™—to a parson that pardons sins, then to a memory-blotter. The poem continues, “If I were God, / I’d authorize Celestial Liquid Paper / every seven years to whiten our mistakes:”

we should be sorry and live with what we’ve done
but seven years is long enough and all of us

deserve a visit now and then
to the house where we were born
before everything got written so far wrong.

Similar imagery of God forgetting his people’s sins or blotting them out appears in the readings from Jeremiah and Psalm 51. The point in both readings, as in Meinke’s poem, is surely not that our sins stop existing or that we get out of doing anything about them. In fact, the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer identifies with clinical precision our problem with what it calls “these our misdoings”:

The remembrance of them is grievous unto us;
The burden of them is intolerable.

It is remarkable how little misdoing is required to convince a human being that There Is No Help for her and she has no business admitting in decent company how much help she needs—or, for that matter, even presuming to appear in decent company. One can try to shed that burden on her own, but most of us fail utterly.

Jesus, being human, knows the weight of that burden. It is that intolerable burden that each of us bears, multiplied by all the souls on this beautiful and yet blased planet, that hangs with him and on him on the cross.  Our part now is to keep using the means of grace—the bread and wine, the fellowship, the admitting of our sin—and to extend them to each other by all means possible.

For March 4, 2012: Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

The Reading    Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
On the first Sunday of Lent, last Sunday, we heard God’s first covenant with humanity, symbolized by the rainbow. Today’s reading recounts the second covenant: God promising that childless Abram and Sarai, despite their age, will have a son, and giving them new names—Abraham and Sarah—in token of the promise.

The Epistle    Romans 4:13-25
The letter to the Romans is written to a church community of Jews and Gentiles; some of the Romans might not have known about God’s covenant with Abraham, and others who knew about it might have misunderstood how it works. It is explained here for both as a matter not of what we do but of God’s unfathomable and unstoppable grace.

Further thoughts
Following on from week 1, the week 2 Lenten readings call us to continue considering the covenants that God makes with us: we contemplate what we deserve, what we get, and what we do next.
In Genesis, Abram and Sarai are an elderly couple, “as good as dead”, as Paul puts it in the Epistle, their hopes for a son dashed on the rocks of time. They have made alternative arrangements for the future: Abram has named his kinsman Eliezer of Damascus his heir, and Sarai has arranged for Abram to sire an heir by her slave Hagar; this was widely accepted practice for the time, though in this case it has produced a good deal of domestic strain.
Then God makes a new covenant: the heir for which Abram and Sarai have yearned, the child on whose birth they have given up, will be born to them, as God makes of them Abraham and Sarah, parents of millions.
Verse 17, which has been omitted from the lectionary, records Abram’s immediate response: he falls over laughing. Chapter 18 of Genesis, left out of this season’s lections, also gives us Sarai laughing in incredulity as she wonders how, after all the years and all the tears, this promise could possibly come true.
Yet, as Paul tells us, the two of them do believe, sooner rather than later—and it is their faith in God’s promise, not their own virtue, that makes them righteous before God. It is their faith in God’s faithfulness that somehow makes it possible for God’s promise to take hold in their own flesh.
What a staggering thought. What did it take for Abraham and Sarah to forget all the reasons it was crazy to hope long enough to believe God, really, deep down?
And what will it take for us?