Posts Tagged 'paul'

For Feb. 9, 2014: 5 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                        Isaiah 58:1-9a

When the people of Jacob—the inhabitants of Judah and Israel—return from exile in Babylon, they wonder why their fasting and self-punishment seems not to impress the Lord. Isaiah pulls no punches: the best sacrifice is to feed and heal and free God’s afflicted children.

The Response                                          Psalm 112:1-9

Psalm 112:1-9 praises those who fear the Lord: they will be mighty, merciful and full of compassion, generous, and just. For such upright people and through them, light will shine.

The Epistle                                                              1 Corinthians 2:1-12

In the Roman world, one function of education was to produce powerful, persuasive orators. The people of Corinth expected great speech from the apostle Paul, but were disappointed. Here Paul explains: human wisdom sheds little light on either God’s wisdom or the astonishing depth of God’s desire that we be saved.

The Gospel                                                                   Matthew 5:13-20

The gospel for the fifth Sunday in Epiphany picks up the Sermon on the Mount just after the Beatitudes. In today’s world, salt can be bought at the 99-cent store and getting light is as easy as flipping a switch, but in Jesus’ time both salt and light were precious and often difficult to obtain.

Ponderables

The readings for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany pose a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum of the faith: whether righteousness comes from doing good or doing good comes of being righteous.

On the one hand, Isaiah enlightens the Israelites returning from Babylon as to why God appears not to pay proper respect to their fasting and sackcloth and ashes: they are doing it for show and to get blessing and healing for themselves. Only if they bless and heal the poor and the marginalized will they receive God’s light and vindication. Similarly, the psalmist notes, only those who do good will get wealth and light and honor and remembrance in death. (It is worth noting that, by Isaiah’s time, the notion that there might be life after death did not yet figure in Jewish theology: being remembered was the best one could hope for.) In this context, Jesus’ observation that getting into heaven takes more righteousness than even the doggedly righteous scribes and Pharisees can muster is disturbing (and sometimes being disturbed is good for us).

On the other hand, Jesus tells the crowd—and us—not that they should become the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but that we already are. This coheres with the idea that the passage from 1 Corinthians develops: our righteousness is God’s doing rather than ours. Then Jesus instructs us to let the light that we already are shine by doing good things. And we all know that habits, good and bad, are self-reinforcing.

Almost six hundred years ago, Martin Luther weighed in on the side of sola fide—‘only by faith’. But many of us find that the light that we shed, and the good that we’re willing to expect of others, has a bearing on the light that we’re able to receive. So what if, with righteousness received, the answer is “both”? And how do we make room for everyone’s light to shine?

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For Dec. 22, 2013: 4 Advent, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 7:10-16

In the eighth century B.C., Jerusalem is under threat. Isaiah has advised fearful young King Ahaz to let God deal with it; here the Lord offers a grand sign as proof. Ahaz piously refuses—his faith is in an alliance—but he is given the sign anyway: a baby who won’t yet be weaned before the two enemy kingdoms are no more.

The Response            Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Psalm 80, written in the time of Isaiah, is a corporate lament: all God’s people are suffering—in the striking metaphor of verse 5, eating and drinking tears by the bowlful. They ask for the light of God’s countenance. Christians tend to think of “the man of your right hand” as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it actually means us?

The Epistle            Romans 1:1-7

The letter to the Romans is one of five epistles that is agreed to be by the apostle Paul. At the beginning of the letter, Paul introduces himself in a complex paragraph that sums up his mission: to declare to the Gentiles the salvation that God promised in the scriptures and delivered through the death of Jesus.

The Gospel            Matthew 1:18-25

The gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent relates the familiar story of Joseph, legally bound to Mary but both worldly and righteous enough to assume the usual explanation for a child he knows he hasn’t fathered. He is prepared to break the contract—privately, to spare Mary further shame—but God has other plans.

Ponderables

Signs loom large in today’s readings: signs rejected and signs accepted.

In the reading from Isaiah, King Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign: he has plans for an alliance with Assyria against the twin threat facing him, and he is not interested in any proof of God to the contrary. He fails to realize that allying with Assyria will make Judah an enemy of Babylon and lead to exile and the destruction of the Temple. The baby in the sign is most likely Ahaz’s own son, and was not named Immanuel, or ‘God with us’.

Psalm 80, from the time of the exile in Babylon, laments the suffering of God’s people: the metaphor in verse 5 suggests not only that the people are weeping tears by the bowlful, but also that tears are all they have to eat or drink. Suffering and darkness were taken as signs of God’s displeasure, so the psalm begs repeatedly for the light of God’s countenance. We think of “the man of your right hand” as Jesus—but what if it actually means us?

The epistle is a litany of signs in the scriptures. Unlike Ahaz’s faith, Paul’s is real, so he has accepted the Lord’s sign—the miraculous encounter outside Damascus—even to the point of abandoning his old life to bring the good news of Jesus to people with whom, as a proper Jew, he should never even have associated. And who are those people?  Well, we are.

The gospel, in telling the story of Mary and Joseph, takes the previously unremarked verse 14 from Isaiah 7 and elevates it to a prophecy of Jesus. Like Paul, Joseph is genuinely righteous; he intends grace in dealing with Mary, he is open to God’s signs, and he is willing both to receive grace and to give it in ways he had not planned. What a remarkable Abba or daddy for Jesus to grow up with! And what a model for us to follow!

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.

For Jan. 22, 2012: 3 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading    Jonah 3:1-5, 10
When God first sent Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh, Jonah tried to run away from God. This attempt makes more sense when we realize that Nineveh was not only un-Jewish, it was the capital city of Israel’s biggest enemy, the repressive Assyrian empire. In today’s reading, Jonah obeys. How do you think the Assyrians will respond?

The Epistle    1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Whether or not we believe that the end times will occur within our lifetimes, the message of Paul’s first letter to Corinth is timeless and timely: for living the faith and doing the work of God, the right time is always right now.

Further thoughts
Two of today’s scriptures pose challenges for us that are familiar—and familiarly difficult to contemplate. The letter to the Corinthians explains that business as usual is over, because the end of the world is imminent; Paul believed this and lived this, leaving the privileges of a Pharisee to serve as God’s errand boy to the Gentiles. At the other end of the social scale, the gospel shows the humble fisherfolk Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropping everything to follow Jesus. This is clearly serious business: if our worth as Christians hangs on our willingness to forsake all our other responsibilities at a word, most of us today just don’t measure up.

For the rest of us, there’s Jonah. The book of Jonah is full of ironies and surprises and some of the Bible’s funniest material. Though it’s easy to sneer at Jonah, it’s wise to sympathize: what will a Jewish boy accomplish preaching repentance to this Mesopotamian empire of Jew-oppressing pagans? So Jonah sails for Tarshish, which could be in southern Turkey or northern Africa or even southern Spain—in short, Anywhere Else. When his ship nearly sinks, Jonah begs the terrified sailors to throw him overboard; God will save them, and drowning still gets him out of going to Nineveh. A huge fish sent by God swallows Jonah and pukes him up near home. Once Jonah’s decent again, God orders him back to Nineveh. Jonah goes this time, and succeeds wildly beyond expectation: Jonah 3:6-9 shows even the animals in sackcloth. God then elects to spare all the Ninevites— whereupon Jonah stomps off and pouts: how dare God change God’s mind and let these bad boys off the hook? God’s response is not to blast Jonah into next week for insubordination, but rather to give him shade.

The book of Jonah is read by Jews in its entirety on Yom Kippur, the very solemn Jewish Day of Atonement. Whether we choose God’s standard for behavior or Paul’s or the early disciples, we fall short, and it is appropriate to remember that and be sorry. But it is also vital not to get stuck there, nor to confine others there. Jonah helps us recall that God’s way is to bring mercies beyond expectation through improbable means and unlikely messengers—like you and me.