Posts Tagged 'salvation'

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?

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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 28, 2013: Proper 12, Year C

The Reading            Hosea 1:2-10

The prophet Amos over the last two weeks condemned Israel in terrifying terms for defrauding the poor. The book of Hosea is even more shocking and graphic: at God’s command, Hosea tells us, he marries a woman who will cheat on him flagrantly, to symbolize Israel’s faithlessness—and, eventually God’s capacity for forgiveness.

The Response            Psalm 85

“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

The Epistle            Colossians 2:6-19

The church at Galatia, with its mix of Gentiles and converted Jews, seems to have experienced a good deal of friction about how to eat and drink and celebrate rightly as a Christian. Paul reminds the Galatians and us that what matters is that we are made right with God through the sacrifice of Jesus: the rest is human thinking.

The Gospel            Luke 11:1-13

“‘How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’”

 

 

Further thoughts

The story of Hosea and his bride is difficult to read. The command by God Almighty to find a whore, or at least a woman who will certainly both sleep around on Hosea and make sure he knows all about it, and marry her surely contravenes both Talmudic law and the considerable weight of what custom has to say about the purity of the woman one marries. The language is incredibly alienating: the wife is depicted as not merely unfaithful but repugnant, and the children are given abusive names that signify brutality (Jezreel was the site of Naboth’s house that King Ahaz coveted and it was where Ahaz and Jezebel were killed), callousness, and unwantedness. It has been suggested that verse 10, which reverses the second and third children’s names, was added by a later hand; this verse takes some of the sting out of what precedes, but we’re still left with a blameless man holding his nose while condescending to marry someone that no sane man should want.

The epistle and gospel make a much bigger shift. The reading from Colossians depicts the sacrifice of Jesus as the product not of God’s contempt but of God’s love; the benefits of whatever Jesus underwent in this world are extended to us if we simply believe in his Name—including a key ritual, circumcision, for which the female body has no good analogue—and everything else is just window dressing prescribed by humans. In the reading from Luke, Jesus’ disciples probably expect an arcane and stately ritual when they ask to be taught to pray; they want something that marks them off from others as insiders. Instead, Jesus gives a format that a two-year-old could master in which God Almighty is “Daddy” and the “we” includes the whole of God’s beloved world.

For July 21, 2013: Proper 11, Year C

The Reading            Amos 8:1-12

Though his book is near the end of the Old Testament, the prophet Amos is an earlier figure—and, as we saw last week, uncomfortably forthright. In today’s reading, God puns on the Hebrew words for ‘summer fruit’ (qayits) and ‘end’ (qets) to announce that dishonest dealing and abuse of the poor will no longer be overlooked: misery and mourning are coming for all, and the Word of God will be nowhere to be found.

The Response            Psalm 52

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, but trusted in great wealth and relied upon wickedness.”

The Epistle            Colossians 1:15-28

Like the prophecy of Amos, Psalm 52 predicted disaster on account of wicked dealing, though the psalmist says that the good will be unscathed. Today’s reading from the book of Colossians describes Christ risen and reigning, first and firstborn: it is through Christ alone—not through the rules we obey nor those we enforce on others—that any of us humans can hope to be reconciled to the goodness of God.

The Gospel            Luke 10:38-42

“‘There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”

 

Further thoughts

“Busy” is an unusual word, and for more reasons than the peculiarity of its spelling. Unlike many other basic vocabulary items in English whose roots go back to Proto-Germanic or even Proto-Indo-European, busy is known only in English, Dutch and Low German. In late Old English the adjective bysig meant ‘occupied’ or ‘diligent’, and one’s bysignes was what kept one busy. By the late fourteenth century bisynesse could mean one’s occupation.

In the prophecy of Amos we see these senses applied: those whom the Lord excoriates have been diligent in taking opportunities to enrich themselves on the backs of the poor and needy, by selling short measure and defective goods at high prices. They are, to borrow Scrooge’s characterization of Marley in A Christmas Carol, “good men of business”. Scrooge intends it as a compliment—but Dickens, Amos, the psalmist, and we know better, or so I hope. As Marley retorts, “Mankind should be our business!”

Bysig has an earlier meaning, however: ‘anxious or concerned’. An Old English translation of Luke 10:41 reads Ðu eart carful ond bysig ymbe fela ðing ‘ you are care-filled and busy about many things’. Martha was not merely bustling about, in other words: she was frazzled, and possibly beginning to lose her grip. I don’t think Jesus intended to disparage her. This is, after all, the guy who made it his business to save a wedding by changing water into wine. I think he was inviting Martha for at least a little while to join her sister: his presence and Mary’s, and hers, and that of each of us, is much more important than whether the napkins are folded correctly or the butter is cut into tidy pats.

The reading from Colossians underlines this point: the business of Christ Jesus is to be God and man, first and firstborn from the dead, Creator and Wisdom and Brother whose sacrifice is what makes each of us justified before God; and our business is to follow Jesus as we can, spread the Word, and in our own ways be the Kingdom of God come near to a world that can’t stand the smell of itself otherwise.

For March 30, 2013: the Great Vigil of Easter, Year C

THE LITURGY OF THE WORD: God acts to create and restore the world

The story of Creation: Genesis 1:1-2:2

The Response: Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26

The Flood: Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13

The Response: Psalm 46

Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea: 
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21

The Response: Canticle 8 (Exodus 15:1-6, 11-13, 17-18)

Salvation offered freely to all: 
Isaiah 55:1-11

The Response: Canticle 9: The First Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 12:2-6)

The valley of dry bones: Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Response: Psalm 143

 

AT THE EUCHARIST

The Epistle            Romans 6:3-11

During the weeks of Lent, the readings took into account the somberness of the season but also looked forward to the joy of Easter. The first epistle we read in Easter rings out our joy, as Isaiah puts it, but it also looks back to the suffering that has freed us from sin.

The Response            Psalm 114

The Gospel            Luke 24:1-12

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

 

Further thoughts

People in Jesus’ place and time had a pretty good idea what death looked like, what with infant mortality, childhood and adult diseases, death in childbirth, farming accidents, the various ailments associated with old age, and the occasional murders, executions and suicides. Adult women, in particular, knew well what they were supposed to do about it: wash the body (especially if there were blood), treat it with spices against stench, dress it, and straighten the mangled or emaciated limbs in preparation for burial.

They were clearly quite unprepared, however, for the idea of rising from death.

We postmillenials have the advantage of two thousand years of exposure to the idea through scripture, analysis, sermons, and old-fashioned hindsight, but it’s not clear to me that we are really any better prepared for the reality of resurrection than were Jesus’ grieving friends. It’s hard to imagine being resurrected to anything but a life like the one that we now lead, with its dishes to wash and its bills to pay. That’s unsurprising, of course: this is the life we know.

It’s the case, however, that many people who have undergone a near-death experience live differently, at least for a while. They wash the dishes and pay the bills, but—like Scrooge at the end of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol—they live more in the moment, and they are much more mindful of the wonder of the world around them and the people in it.

And we who still stand on this side of the grave—what if we are called to do likewise?

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 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.