Posts Tagged 'Year C'

For Nov. 24, 2013: Last Sunday in Pentecost, Year C

The last Sunday in Pentecost is also known as Christ the King Sunday, and the lections for the day reflect this.

The Reading            Jeremiah 23:1-6

The English word “jeremiad” is based on the prophecies of Jeremiah, most of which are bitter denunciations of bad behavior that leads to bad results for Israel. Today’s reading starts out that way, as bad shepherds are called to account—but then, behold: God announces something new.

The Response            Psalm 46

“The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”

The Epistle            Colossians 1:11-20

In the first century A.D., the little church at Colossae in western Turkey bubbled over with theories about angels and other supernatural powers and with questions about the nature of Jesus. This Sunday’s passage explains in terms that are reminiscent of our Nicene Creed: Jesus is God’s firstborn and God’s champion on our behalf.

The Gospel            Luke 23:33-43

“‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him.”

 

Further thoughts

What does “king” mean, and how does that change when it’s predicated of the Son of God?

That the rights of kingship are easily abused is an article of faith in the US; we vacillate between being skeptical of kinglike figures and adulating them. Sports and entertainment stars loom like kings in terms of the attention they attract and the cultural influence they have. Billionaire owners or executives of big corporations won’t draw thousands to a concert, but they are kingpins or kingmakers whose riches buy them political clout equal to hundreds of thousands. It is prudent to assume that any human with great power can and will do whatever he chooses, whenever he chooses. Thoughtless or even evil acts are not entirely unchallengeable, but we recognize that the process is likely to bring the challenger humiliation and pain and possibly defeat.

Some lore of kingship goes in a very different direction, however. In most of the ancient world, the king was consort of the land itself, personally responsible for it; if his health declined, its health did too, and his individual virtue was embodied in its fertility. The touch of a true king could even heal diseases. This is power exerted to serve, and it is reflected in Jeremiah’s vision of the coming Davidic king as a righteous shepherd of his people. We understand this as real leadership: using the power at one’s disposal to do right.

The epistle depicts Jesus as infinitely more powerful than any earthly king. Because Jesus is also depicted as infinitely more good, he can be expected to do right—but when he seems to fail to intervene in stopping this natural disaster or illness or that madman with a machine gun, we feel devastated and deserted.

Then there’s the vision of kingship that the gospel gives us. Hanging on a cross. In unspeakable humiliation and agony. Verbally and physically abused for being who he can’t help being. Wrongly accused by ignoramuses whose hate-filled faces look unsettlingly like our own. Taking it and taking it, all of it.

Why doesn’t this King teach these wretches a lesson?

Because he is teaching them and us a greater lesson: to love as he loves, not because he makes us but because it’s what the world needs.

And that is what it means to reign as the Son of God.

 

Advertisements

For Nov. 17, 2013: Proper 28, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 65:17-25

The prophet Isaiah speaks to Israelites who, after exile in Babylon, return to Jerusalem laid waste, the temple burned, and their lives in ruins. Isaiah attributed these disasters and more to the people’s disobedience. This Sunday’s reading, however, sings joyously of God’s gracious intentions for the people.

The Response            Canticle 9

“Cry aloud inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

The Epistle            2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

While the Old Testament this Sunday prophesies grace, the epistle lays down the law. The author, who may or may not be Paul, is vexed with first-century believers who, instead of doing productive work, are ataktos peripatountos—less nearly ‘living in idleness’, as our translation has it, than ‘going around sowing disorder’.

The Gospel            Luke 21:5-19

“‘By your endurance you will gain your souls.’”

 

Further thoughts

As the beginning of Advent nears, the Proper 28 readings fittingly touch on order and irony.

The passage from Isaiah is a glowing depiction of orderliness and rightness. We deeply feel the unfairness of little children having to lose their parents and parents having to bury their children; we perceive wrongness in people dying too young to collect on their 401(k)s; in nature documentaries, we flinch when the defenseless little zebra calf falls to the ravening lion even as we concede that the lion is simply being who the lion is. Isaiah foresees a world in which things are put right, and it is tremendously appealing.

On the face of it, the epistle goes in a different direction. 2 Thessalonians 3:10—“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat”—is widely quoted out of context as a condemnation of the chronically lazy; it resonates well with the sense of enjoying what one has properly earned that makes Isaiah’s vision appealing, and the NRSV’s rendering of the Greek phrase ataktos peripatountos in 3:3 and 3:11 as ‘living in idleness’ contributes to that impression. The problem that the passage addresses, however, isn’t mere laziness: ataktos is ‘disorderly’ and peripatountos is literally ‘around-walking’ (as in English peripatetic), so this is active interference. The rest of 3:11 calls the ataktos believers not ergazomenous ‘working’ but periergazomenous; the play on words suggests the painful irony of busyness that is badly off target. In such a world, professing Christians toting prayer books toddle off for a comfortable round of gossip about people we just finished hugging and sharing Eucharist with. In this world budgets dictate slapdash subsoil containment from which toxins leach into drinking water; monuments to piety and/or greed soar and shine while those who have never caught an even break—and, too often, those damaged while serving our nation at war—squat in doorsteps and scrounge in dumpsters for food.

It is messy, this world of ours, and in today’s gospel Jesus fails to do much about it. He doesn’t promise to strengthen the Temple or eliminate war or make natural disasters stop, or to keep out of jail or the media or others’ gossip, nor to keep our families from splintering, nor to eradicate any of the predators of which this world is so full (including the two-footed ones, and sometimes that means us).

What he does promise is to give us the wisdom and the heart to stay in this messy world and speak his words and be his hands and feet, if we choose to listen and keep listening. For, in God’s richest irony, it is meeting the deepest fears and needs of God’s children around us with God’s love that is the real work of the Kingdom.

For Nov. 10, 2013: Proper 27, Year C

The Reading            Haggai 1:14-2:9

In 539 BC, the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians. King Cyrus decreed that the exiled Jews should return home; his son and successor Darius sent them with means with which to rebuild. As the first chapter of Haggai tells it, they rebuild their own houses first but life is hard, until the Lord moves them to work on the Temple.

The Response            Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21

“The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to all who call upon him faithfully.”

The Epistle            2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

The church at Thessaloniki in the northern Aegean Sea was under persecution, and its members deeply afraid that somehow they had missed the return of the Christ. This passage reassures them—when that day comes, it will be obvious—while directing them to what matters most now: standing firm in the faith.

The Gospel            Luke 20:27-38

“‘Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’”

 

Further thoughts

Stewardship could be thought of as taking care of the future by taking care in the present. The readings for Proper 27 explore the theme from the perspectives of people whose futures may not look like winning ones.

The Jews in the verses preceding the Old Testament lesson have returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt their houses—the reference to paneled houses in Haggai 1:3 suggests some high-end edifices—but the second year’s harvest is meager. The remedy comes from God through Haggai: it is time to rebuild God’s house. Once they begin in earnest, Haggai brings them God’s own promise: though the house looks unpromising, it is already God’s dwelling among them. It will be even more splendid than before, for in it God will give shalom; the NRSV translates this word as “prosperity”, but the sense is not merely ‘riches’ but ‘blessing’.

The Christians of Thessaloniki are, if anything, in a worse way, persecuted by the Roman authorities, beset by other afflictions mentioned in the first chapter, and troubled after Paul left their corner of the northern Aegean Sea by someone teaching that Jesus somehow returned without them noticing and, horribly, left them behind. They still may have to choose at any moment to die for Christ, but they also face the same day-to-day dilemma that we do: how to live as Christians day by day by day by… The right course, says this epistle, is good stewardship: persevere in the faith, for Jesus has already seen to their sanctification—and ours.

The Sadducees of the gospel were influential priests who held that the five books of the Torah—the only true word of God—did not provide for an afterlife, and so a man lives on through his sons or at worst through his widow’s children with his brothers. This practice also provides for the widow, even one who flagrantly fails to fulfill her purpose of bearing heirs. Jesus evades the trap by challenging its premise that anyone in heaven can belong to anyone else. Instead, we all belong to God—in the afterlife that the Torah anticipates by declaring that YWHW is (not “was”) the God of all those patriarchs.

The future is in God’s hands, in short—though it is our choice to persist in the faith and to use our gifts gladly as stewards of God’s reign of blessing here on earth.

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 Oct. 27, 2013: Proper 25, Year C

The Reading            Joel 2:23-32

The verses that precede this Sunday’s reading tell a grim story of Israel’s devastation by locusts. But then the prophet Joel turns to song: God will restore the people’s physical fortunes. More wondrously yet, God will pour out spiritual gifts on all: men and women, young and old, even the most humbly born, all like true children of God.

The Response            Psalm 65

“Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.”

The Epistle            2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

This Sunday we read verses from near the end of the second letter to Timothy, and near the end of Paul’s own life. A libation is the ritual pouring of a drink in offering to a deity, and it was part of Greek burial customs. As the voice in 2 Timothy tells it, Paul has persevered—though not by his own strength but God’s.

The Gospel            Luke 18:9-14

“‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Proper 25 this Sunday ring variations on a theme of reaping as one has sown—or has not. In prior verses Joel depicted the impact of drought and ravenous locusts: as verse 2:3b has it, “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” Joel, seeing this as the Lord’s judgment on Zion’s sin, called upon all the people, from the king on down, to stop whatever they were doing and repent. They do so. Then God promises to give again the plenty that the natural disasters took away. Is this a deal, with the penitence of the people buying restitution for the nation as a whole? No, for greater gifts of the spirit come as well, and to even the seemingly least significant. It is as Jeremiah 31:33-34 said last week: God will make a covenantal relationship with every single individual, just because it’s God’s choice.

The gospel parable is commonly read as a cautionary tale: strutting Pharisee versus humbled tax collector. Jesus’ listeners would have understood that Pharisees were widely admired (if less widely imitated) for their piety and adherence to religious law, while tax collectors were despised sellouts and thugs who lived off the sums they extorted from the defenseless, minus the taxes they passed through to the hated Roman overlords. The parable thus upsets expectations: for a tax collector to be the one coming out right with God is shocking!

The gospel can also be read, however, in counterpoint to the epistle reading. Paul himself was noted from youth as a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and his own writings suggest that he never really got over that; at the same time, they depict a man aware of his own limitations. The Paul-voice looking back in 2 Timothy 4 depicts—perhaps more accurately than Paul himself would dare—the untiring early hero of the Christian faith who has sown in the fields God set before him and, on balance and with God’s help, done it well; his also will be the harvest.

For there is no more wrong with knowing that one has diligently used God’s gifts to good ends than there is in recognizing in others that they can rightly say the same.

For Oct. 20, 2013: Proper 24, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:27-34

In this Sunday’s reading, from the closing chapters called the Book of Consolation, Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant, not written in stone but written on hearts because it is no longer between God and the nation as a whole but between God and each one of us.

The Response            Psalm 119:97-104

“I do not shrink from your judgments, because you yourself have taught me.”

The Epistle            2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

This Sunday’s second reading counsels the young church leader to continue in belief that is founded on faith in Jesus and to persist in proclaiming the message “with the utmost patience in teaching”. Those with “itching ears” can as well be those who insist on biblical literalism as those who never open the book.

The Gospel            Luke 18:1-8

“‘And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?’”

 

Further thoughts

This Sunday’s readings deliver mixed messages, comforting even as they make us squirm.

The last several weeks’ readings from the book of Jeremiah have cemented for us his reputation as “the weeping prophet”. This Sunday’s closing reading begins with a promise to repeople, as plentifully as wheat in a field, the lands of Israel and Judah that were deserted in the exile. In addition, in place of the covenant with the entire nation—which required good-faith performance on both sides, with the result that, when the leaders led badly, the whole operation went off the rails—the Lord is instituting a new covenant with each individual, written on each heart. Great news… except that I can no longer legitimately blame the government or my dysfunctional family or my lousy job for my failures to love God and all those around me: it’s now all on me.

Could that be too much? The selection from Psalm 119 praises the individual relationship with God, perhaps to the point of preening or the pride that goeth before a fall. Salvation is individual, but its means are communal, and its ends are also: notice how much of the hard work recommended in 2 Timothy is work in community.

The parable of the widow and the crooked judge is a tidy little package with its moral right there in the first line. Parables rarely work that way. With respect to God and others, I am surely the Widow Nobody, with no more right to salvation or others’ intervention than God and they give me, and therefore the onus is on me to express what I need and to keep expressing it. But I am also the crooked judge, well-bribed by the baubles of the world or my own sense of entitlement to ignore the expressed needs of those around me, and the onus is on me to reject the goodies in favor of listening and responding to the cries of all the other Widow Nobodies. And thus may the Son of Man find faith on earth.

For Oct. 13, 2013: Proper 23, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Much of the book of Jeremiah predicts the doom and disaster that do indeed come to pass in the form of the defeat of Jerusalem, the razing of the Temple, and the exile in the land of the enemy. Jeremiah goes on to lament the losses—but life goes on, and this Sunday’s verses give God’s advice as to how.

The Response            Psalm 66:1-11

“Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.”

The Epistle            2 Timothy 2:8-15

Wise words to a young and uncertain church leader continue in this Sunday’s reading from the second book of Timothy. The point of belief, whether or not it includes suffering like a criminal, is not to be “wrangling over words”—that is, sowing or abetting contention—but to follow Christ Jesus who died and rose and is faithful.

The Gospel            Luke 17:11-19

“‘Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for this Sunday speak of alienation—but not of exclusion.

The Israelites in Babylon are unwilling resident aliens, chafing under defeat and exile in a land of foreign customs and gods and unsure how to worship with the Temple destroyed, for in no other place can one perform the rituals of sacrifice and atonement that the Torah commands. The firebrand Jeremiah counsels not opposition but accommodation, and prayers for good for the city to which they have been taken. They, and we, are reassured that God can be worshiped and served no matter where we are or among whom.

The author of 2 Timothy writes from the alienation of jail. He carries forward the faith that he won’t stop proclaiming among strange peoples on the strength of verses 11 to 13—which probably come from an ancient hymn, as reflected in the formatting on The Lectionary Page—and he reminds us that the gospel is not chained. But his warning Christians against “wrangling with words” ring true over the centuries: how easily we forge chains of doctrine that alienate our fellow Christians and also alienate the rest of the world.

Galileans are looked down on in Jesus’ time, as in the story of Nathanael: Galilee lies beyond despised Samaria, whose people worship God but not as the Jews do. Reduced to existing in the no-man’s-land in between are the lepers. In appealing to Jesus for mercy, they commit a breach of the Law; an alienating response or no response at all would be expected. Jesus instead bids them visit the priests, who have power to ban and lift bans (but not to heal). I can’t help wondering what it sounded like, for off they go—stung or stunned or strengthened, one can’t say—and the miracle happens. And then the further miracle happens: the Samaritan leper, the twice-alien, is the one who stops and turns around, giving thanks to God, and throws himself at Jesus’ feet. For gratitude is the miracle of the heart recognizing a gift and a home.