Posts Tagged 'year a'

For Nov. 26, 2014: Thanksgiving

The Reading                                                   Deuteronomy 8:7-18

In Deuteronomy, Moses addresses God’s people as they prepare to take over the land of Canaan. Verses 7-10 describe a land in which hard work can be rewarded richly—which means it will be easy to forget that all the good is the gift of God.

The Response                                                Psalm 65

Psalm 65 is a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s activity in the Temple (verses 1-4), in the natural world (verses 5-8), and in supplying plentiful rain for the harvest (verses (9-14). The opening phrase dumiyya tehillah elohim, usually translated “Praise is owing” or “You are to be praised”, can also be rendered “Silence is praise to you.”[i]

The Epistle                                                     2 Corinthians 9:6-15

According to 2 Corinthians 9:1-6, this epistle has been sent ahead so the Christians of Corinth can ready their gift for the Church in Jerusalem (“the saints’) before Paul and a possible Macedonian escort arrive. Verses 6-15 go on to explain how cheerful giving blesses both receiver and giver while glorifying God.

The Gospel                                                      Luke 17:11-19

As Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem and the last week of his life through the area between Jewish Galilee and non-Jewish Samaria, ten lepers there beg his mercy from a proper distance and he responds with healing. The one who turns back to thank Jesus is the one from Samaria.

Further thoughts

The theme of the Year A lectionary readings for Thanksgiving Day might be “mixed blessings”. As the people of Israel stand on the bank of the Jordan, ready to enter Canaan after the deprivations of life in the wilderness, Moses warns them—and us—not to get cocky enough to think that all the good is of their own getting. The psalm sings glory to God for the grandeur of Creation and for the humbler gift of soil and water for planting and growth—but it begins with confession: “Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.” The Corinthians get an explanation of why and how to give: the gifts given in thanksgiving for God’s blessings are themselves God’s blessings to the recipient.

The blessing of healing from Jesus may have been very mixed indeed for the Samaritan. “The region between Samaria and Galilee” is the land around the border that divides two peoples, Jewish and mixed-blood Samaritans, who turn their backs on each other. This land between the averted backs serves as a place to which lepers may be banished lest they defile decent people on either side. Ten such outcasts have made something of a community there, and the Samaritan, the double outsider, is accepted as one of them.

Then they cry out to Jesus and are healed. (One wonders how these castoffs knew who it was that walked their no-man’s-land.) The Jews go off, as Jesus and the Law instruct them, to Jerusalem to be judged by the priests as whole, to rustle up somehow the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus 14 for being declared clean and for atonement a week later, and thus to be readmitted to decent Jewish society. For the Samaritan, however, this isn’t an option: the priests of the Jews will not admit jurisdiction over such as him. He may well fear that the family from which his disease has excluded him will no longer be willing to accommodate him—or that he will no longer be prepared to accommodate to them. Nevertheless, he knows that Jesus has done him, a Samaritan, a stupendously unconventional miracle. He returns to give stupendously unconventional thanks, falling at the feet of the enemy who has just revealed himself as more than a friend. And Jesus’ response hints that the Samaritan’s own openness to miracle and readiness to thank is a factor in his healing.

Surely the result of thankful and thoughtful acts of giving opposes the vicious cycles of the world—in which inequality breeds entitlement breeds oppression breeds inequality and sooner or later despair that boils over in violence—with a virtuous cycle in which thanks foster gifts foster blessing foster thanks and sooner or later love that overflows into the giving and receiving of grace.

What if we’re called to practice thanks as giving and giving as thanks?

[i] Segal, Benjamin A, 17 May 2011, “Psalm 65—Silence Sings from Afar.” A New Psalm: A New Look at Age-Old Wisdom. Web. http://psalms.schechter.edu/2011/05/psalm-65-silence-sings-from-afar-text.html. Consulted 25 November 2014.

For Nov. 23, 2014: Christ the King, Year A

The Reading                                                      Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

As Ezekiel prophesies, six centuries before Christ, the Temple is in ruins and the people scattered and kingless. Now God promises to gather God’s sheep back home to be fed and healed and strengthened. (“David” means David’s descendant.) The fat, strong ones who butted and scattered the weaklings, however, will face judgment.

The Response                                                    Psalm 95:1-7a

The rousing Psalm 95, which celebrates the reign of the Lord God, appears twice in the lectionary: a selection on Christ the King Sunday and the whole psalm on the third Sunday of Lent. It includes a call to shout with psalms. Let us make a joyful noise, if an Episcopally decorous one!

The Epistle                                                         Ephesians 1:15-23

In the book of Ezekiel, the Lord God promised to gather and shepherd and heal the scattered sheep of Israel. Ephesians 1:15-23 tells how this promise is fulfilled and more than fulfilled by the power of God working through Christ the risen Head of All.

The Gospel                                                          Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46 follows two difficult parables in which people in power shut doors in the faces of those who are struggling. Jesus’ story here sounds a different note: this King is in the business of opening doors to the needy and the outcasts, and to those who tend the needy and the outcasts for their own sakes.

 

Further thoughts

Some years ago, Leona Helmsley earned the sobriquet “The Queen of Mean” for her vicious, grasping, mean-spirited reign as head of the Helmsley hotel empire. She reportedly fired employees on little provocation and, though phenomenally wealthy, nitpicked the large bills she ran up with contractors. When she finally fell, people laughed at her—but she got away with it for years, because, as the saying goes, “Power corrupts.”

The readings for Christ the King Sunday give us a head-spinningly different way to understand power as it is seen by God. On the one hand, Psalm 95 gives us the mighty Creator whose mere word suffices to bring into being all the wonders of the universe, before whom all knees bow, and Ephesians 1:15-23 reminds us that all of God’s authority is in the hands of the risen and victorious Christ. On the other hand, this supreme God, CEO of CEOs, doesn’t emerge from the corner office solely to enlarge his empire and abuse the staff. No: as Ezekiel tells it, this CEO looks after the needs and dignity of every last housekeeper and busboy, and is preparing scathing performance reviews for the middle managers who haven’t done likewise. Moreover, in the words of Matthew 25:31-46, this CEO sees his own likeness in the throng of humanity outside: the dispossessed, the disheartened, the suffering, even the criminals are worth tending and encouraging. And this CEO trains and encourages everyone on staff to see their likeness in him and to act accordingly in his name.

The analogy stops here: what CEO ever died for the employees? But this too is what the working of God’s power through Jesus truly means. What if we were to choose, in each interaction, to crucify our need to win and wield power in favor of recognizing and encouraging the power of God in each other?

For Nov. 9, 2014: Proper 27, Pentecost 22, Year A

The Reading                                                  Amos 5:18-24

Amos 5:18-24 asks a quelling question of people who take their own well-being, even at their neighbors’ expense, as a sign of being God’s favorites: “Why do you want the day of the Lord?”—and explains why they will not: sacrifices and solemn ritual do not interest God in the absence of justice being done. Verse 24 resonates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Response                                               Psalm 70

If Amos 5:18-24 can be read as one side of a coin, perhaps Psalm 70 represents the other: this is the voice of one beset by those who believe they know better. Strikingly, its call for the enemy to be disgraced is followed by a plea that those who gloat rethink and repent.

The Epistle                                                     1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Thessalonians struggled to reconcile the gospel promise of eternal life with the painful truth that some of their nearest and dearest in the faith are dead; are they lost? No, Paul says: those who have died will be first to meet the triumphant Christ, and all will be with the Lord forever.

The Gospel                                                     Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13 compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding in which half of the bridesmaids get left out because their lamps are running out of oil. Are the wise bridesmaids truly wise in the kingdom for refusing to share their oil? Jesus’ parables tend to be difficult, and this one is no exception.

 

Further thoughts

Taken at face value, the readings for Proper 27 don’t play very well together. In Amos 5:18-24, the Lord pronounces against those who practice religiosity but fail to ensure justice in this world; that goes well with Psalm 70, in which the psalmist clearly expects the Lord to act in the psalmist’s favor, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is explaining to his bewildered flock that their beloved kith and kin won’t be shut out of heaven for having had the bad grace (or something) to have died before Jesus’ return. So far, somewhat inclusive.

But then there’s the parable of the bridesmaids or virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Imprudent bridesmaids didn’t bring extra oil; prudent bridesmaids refuse to share; when the imprudent ones do their best to remedy their lack, they get shut out of the wedding party altogether.

And, Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Most interpretations of this parable over the centuries take it as a prescription, a forceful reminder of the perils of not being sufficiently prepared for Jesus’ coming and a prediction of what will happen to those who are unprepared. The theocracies of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Massachusetts Bay colony operated on the principle that this preparedness could and should somehow be legislated.

A newer set of interpretations goes in a very different direction. In these interpretations, the “wise” bridesmaids’ refusal to share their oil is not a kingdom virtue and the lord who locks the door isn’t Jesus; the “foolish” bridesmaids’ error lay not in running out of oil but in running out on the party because they thought they could buy their way in by having the right stuff after all.

Which set of interpretations is correct? I don’t know—but I suspect the answer may vary depending on where I am in my walk with Christ when I read the parable. Sometimes I need the forceful urging that it is time and past time to prepare: salvation is through grace, but I do have some responsibility. At other times I need the reminder not to hide outside the door because I’m feeling more than usually unworthy.

And what if part of the point is how readily we insiders can hurt people who are outside with what is supposed to be Good News?

For Oct. 26, 2014: Proper 25, Pentecost 20, Year A

The Reading                                                           Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18

By some counts the book of Leviticus issues 613 commandments that specify how God’s people and priests are to behave. Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 cuts to the point: rather than judging unjustly, slandering, profiting at a neighbor’s expense, or bearing grudges, we are to behave in love toward all.

The Response                                                   Psalm 1

Psalm 1 contrasts those who follow the way of the Lord with those who are wicked. It reinforces the message of Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 as it carries forward the message of Psalm 23: those who follow the way of the Lord will be blessed by bearing fruit that endures.

The Epistle                                                          1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was brief and controversial; detractors accused him of dishonesty and trickery and then drove him and his group out of town. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 he reminds his readers what made them believe the gospel he brought: it was spoken to please God, without impure motives, and in tender love.

The Gospel                                                               Matthew 22:34-46

The gospel of Matthew moves inexorably toward Good Friday as Jesus is challenged by the religious authorities. In Matthew 22:34-46, the Pharisees try a trick question and get an answer they were not expecting. Then Jesus asks a question about the Messiah to which they have nothing to say.

 

Further thoughts

Almost fifty years ago, up to 100,000 mostly college-age baby boomers in love beads, tie-dyed T-shirts and bell-bottomed jeans began converging on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district for the counterculture live-in known as the “Summer of Love.” Participants were sure it was going to transform the world. It fell short of expectations, unsurprisingly: the movement hasn’t been invented that human beings can’t screw up, sometimes literally. But the Beatles’ deceptively simple “All You Need Is Love” was a smash hit of that summer of 1967 for good reason: it resonates, as the readings for Proper 25 do more profoundly, with the fact that we humans are wired to crave love, just as we are wired to be our most God-true selves when we deeply give love. As “All You Need Is Love” puts it, “There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made / No one you can save that can’t be saved / Nothing you can do but you can learn to be you in time / It’s easy / All you need is love.”

Love isn’t easy, of course—Paul brags a little to the Thessalonians about the effort he has put into approaching them in love, and Jesus’ staggeringly self-emptying sacrifice on the cross is even more stupendous if the identity of the Messiah means that the crucifixion is true not only for all time but in all time. Love in Jesus’ and Paul’s terms is certainly not just “the feels”, as one sees it on Facebook, and Lord knows our feelings can as often lead us to reject the love we need as to refuse to give the love we should. And only the Lord, through our fellow humans, can help us out of the swamps of despair that fester there. But what if, giving the glory to God, we invert the ’60s mantra from “If it feels good, do it” to “If it does good, feel it”?

For Oct. 19, 2014: Proper 24, Pentecost 19, Year A

The Reading             Isaiah 45:1-7

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah tell of the time when the people of Israel were already in exile in Babylon but their deliverance was imminent. The instrument of their deliverance, the anointed one whom the LORD calls by name and promises treasures and secret riches, is Cyrus—king of the decidedly pagan Persian empire.

The Response         Psalm 96:1-9

Psalm 96 is an enthronement psalm that dates to roughly the same time as Isaiah 45. The psalmist calls on all peoples to sing to the LORD and declare the LORD’s glory. Verse 8 is familiar as one of the sentences that may be read in an Episcopal church as the Offertory begins.

The Epistle             1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

The first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the first written book of the New Testament. Paul writes to a church he founded in an important Roman city in Macedon, north of Greece, that he has had to leave suddenly. He begins this letter by commending the mostly gentile converts for their joy and perseverance in the faith.

The Gospel           Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 21:23-22:14 follows Jesus after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem as he tells a series of parables that make the political and religious rulers squirm. To discredit this troublemaker, the Pharisees and the followers of Herod join forces and confront him with a loaded question about paying taxes to Rome.

 

Further thoughts

“Politics makes strange bedfellows”, as writer and humorist Charles Dudley Warner noted in 1871, when private deal-making in smoke-filled back rooms birthed both shady laws and shining ones.

The strange bedfellows in Matthew are the Pharisees, upholders of Jewish racial and religious purity, and the Herodians, who are aligned with Rome via the figurehead Herod Antipas. Each group despises the other, but Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem has both groups worried, so they work together to trap him. If Jesus calls Roman taxation lawful, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Jewish autonomy and much of the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on him; if he doesn’t, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Rome and the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on whatever the Roman legions leave of him. Jesus spurns the trap. The government that provides the coinage earns the tax, he indicates, as one of God’s multitude of tools for getting things done.

Isaiah, for his part, hails Cyrus of the Persians as not only God’s instrument but God’s anointed ruler over Israel—though Cyrus is neither Jewish nor of the house of David. And the Cyrus that Isaiah prophesies is pretty nearly the Cyrus of history: an overthrower of kings, to be sure, yet notorious for treating his vanquished opponents’ former subjects with mercy and generosity. Cyrus finds out what the Judeans need to restore Jerusalem; he helps them back on their feet to do God’s good work, and this constitutes real kingship.

And then there is Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee and yet apostle to the gentiles. He commends the Thessalonians not for imitating him as Jews but for imitating him as followers of Christ and doers of God’s good work among their fellow gentiles.

What if doing the will of God means making less of differences and making more of listening and love?

For Oct. 12, 2014: Proper 23, Year A

The Reading                                                                         Isaiah 25:1-9

Isaiah 25:1-9, written as disaster and deportation to Babylon loomed for God’s people, gives a startling series of images: the city ruled by foreigners lies in ruins, the poor have shelter from rain and heat, the Lord throws for all peoples the party of all parties, and death itself will be no more. What an invitation!

The Response                                                 Psalm 23

Psalm 23 can be read as following on Isaiah 25:1-9: it depicts the Lord as shepherd and protector of the psalmist’s soul, providing for the psalmist even in the face of the psalmist’s enemies and guiding the psalmist even through the valley of the shadow of death.

The Epistle                                                                 Philippians 4:1-9

The epistle to the church at Philippi, after requesting help to reconcile the feuding church ladies Euodia and Syntyche, ends with encouragement and challenge. The Philippians are to do three important tasks—rejoice; become notorious for being gentle; instead of worrying, pray—and to be open to the peace of God.

The Gospel                                                                    Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14 is the fourth of Jesus’ parables in response to the chief priests and the elders who have demanded that he tell them by what authority he was teaching and healing. It is hard to reconcile this king who readily slaughters and abuses the noncompliant with the view of God in the other readings for Proper 23.

 

Further thoughts

Three of the readings for Proper 23 are easy to discuss. Isaiah 25:1-9 describes the celebration at the end of time to which all God’s children will be welcome, at which all will be fed, and in which all our griefs and shames will be redeemed for all time in the presence of all peoples. The much-paraphrased and much-sung Psalm 23 personalizes the vision for the future while reminding me that God my loving Shepherd is with me in the trials of the present. Philippians 4:1-9 gently concedes human frailty while focusing us on the practices of rejoicing, gentleness, and prayer. What beautiful portraits of the surpassing goodness of God!

But then there’s Matthew 22:1-14: the parable of the king, his invitees having disrespected his servants, who salves his wounded pride by burning down a whole city and then having other servants frog-march all comers to fill the banquet hall; when one poor schlock thus corralled up shows up without the right clothes, the king humiliates him before throwing him into what clearly amounts to Hell.

Over the centuries this parable has been taken as proof of God’s demand for purity; it has been used to justify shocking behavior against Jews, infidels, non-Europeans, and even fellow Christians on the other side of a doctrinal dispute. Some recent analyses propose, however, that this parable is not about God at all. As Paul Nuecheterlein and D. Mark Davis tell it, Jesus is describing the kingdom as his audience of chief priests and Pharisees sees it: a place where the accepted response to any perceived slight against those in charge is violence and more violence. But consider how the Son of God actually acts in the world. Tempted to show off, he declines. Faced with humiliation and the most brutal of deaths—the worst that his enemies can throw at him—he spurns the vengeance that will justify their brutality by taking it seriously. Instead, in the words of Psalm 23, Jesus chooses not to fear their evil, and in so choosing he ends in himself the cycle of retributive violence.

What if we were to live out our trust in Jesus by making the same choice?

 

Nuechterlein, Paul J. 2008. “When a squirrel is just a squirrel.” Sermon. Web. http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper23a_2008_ser.htm. Consulted 8 October 2014.

Davis, D. Mark. 2014. “The Kingdom of the Heavens vs. the Kingdom of a Human King.” Left Behind and Loving It. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-kingdom-of-heavens-v-kingdom-of.html. Web. Consulted 7 October 2014.

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?


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