Easter 3A

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for April 30, 2017

Rembrandt's Supper at Emmaus

Supper at Emmaus (1648). Oil on panel by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669). Musée du Louvre, Paris.

First Reading: Acts 2:14a,36-41

Themes of resurrection continue in our readings for Eastertide. Continuing his first Pentecost sermon, Peter has more harsh words for the Jewish crowd, blaming “the entire house of Israel” for crucifying Jesus, whom God has now made Lord and Messiah. Like the angry references to the Jews in the Passion Gospels, modern Christians should read this only in context. At the time of this writing, there was extreme tension between early Christians and Jews over the status of Jesus as Messiah. We should erase echoes of anti-Judaism and hear in this passage, rather, God’s gracious promise that forgiveness through the gift of the Holy Spirit is available to all.

Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

Our Psalm is heard as a hymn of gratitude for recovery. It vividly describes the anguish of illness and the fear of death. But then through prayer it quickly turns from grief and sorrow to exultation and thanksgiving, reflecting the transforming joy that recovery brings. We can hear an undercurrent of resurrection in escaping the cords of death and the grip of the grave to win the joy of new life.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:17-23

This second reading continues with another excerpt from the first letter written in Peter’s name. It gives us some insight into the efforts of the early church to discern the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our lives, working in these verses on the significance of Jesus’ death as ransom for our sins. This theological quest has continued from the early church through the Middle Ages and even to our times. One point, though, remains clear: Through Christ we trust in God; through Christ we love one another, and through Christ we gain life in the enduring word of God.

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

Like the apostles fearfully hiding in a locked room who we heard about in John’s Gospel last Sunday, the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s narrative this week seem uncertain and worried. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they told the stranger on the road to Emmaus. They don’t seem very convinced by the women’s report from the tomb, either. But then the mysterious traveler reveals himself as Jesus when he breaks the bread, just as Jesus is present when the bread is broken at our Eucharistic table.

Easter 2A

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for April 23, 2017

The incredulity of St. Thomas

The incredulity of St. Thomas (c.1622) Oil painting by Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

First Reading: Acts 2:14a,22-32

Eastertide has now begun, and our readings during the next six Sundays will direct our thoughts toward the meaning of resurrection. We’ll hear of the apostles in the early church following Jesus’ way; mysterious appearances of the resurrected Christ, and Jesus’ own words about God’s promise of eternal life. Our first readings will draw from the Acts of the Apostles, beginning this Sunday as we hear Peter on the day of Pentecost, addressing the amazed crowd with a fluent sermon declaring Jesus the resurrected Messiah promised by the prophets, and then baptizing 3,000 new believers.

Psalm 16

In his talk to the people of Jerusalem in Acts, Peter quoted verses 8 through 11 of this Psalm. Now we chant the full Psalm. Note that these verses are similar, yet not exactly the same, as those Peter read. That’s because Peter – as was the custom in the Near East in those times – used the Greek bible, the Septuagint, not the original Hebrew Psalm, which we have here translated directly into English. Both versions are similar, of course, and they convey the same promise: God teaches us, God watches over us; God protects us, and God gives us joy forever.

First Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9

Throughout Eastertide we will hear second readings from the First Book of Peter, actually letters written to the church in Asia Minor by later followers in Peter’s name and purportedly reflecting his ideas. Appropriately for the season, this short letter shows us the developing theory of resurrection and salvation in the early church around the end of the first century. Observing that the people are suffering “various trials” – perhaps persecution for their faith – it assures the people that nevertheless, through Christ’s resurrection and life, God offers the faithful the joy of a lasting inheritance of salvation.

Gospel: John 20:19-31

The apostles know that Jesus has risen, but this wonderful news was apparently not enough to keep them from being afraid. They’re hiding in a locked room, yet suddenly Jesus appears among them, twice telling them, “Peace be with you.” Jesus bears the visible scars of his crucifixion but is very much alive. He sends his friends, no longer fearful, out into the world in peace, empowered with the Holy Spirit through Jesus’ breath. Then Thomas, who missed this first meeting, wins his reputation as “Doubting Thomas” by refusing to believe that Jesus had truly risen unless he could touch the wounds. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, and then he blesses all who believe through faith alone.

Easter Sunday A

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for April 16, 2017

The Resurrection, El Greco

The Resurrection, El Greco (1541-1614). Oil on canvas, 1597-1600, part of an altarpiece for the church of the monastery Lady Mary of Aragon in Madrid. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:1-6

Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia! We shout “alleluia,” literally “praise God,” on Easter Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection and its promise of victory over death. All our readings today speak of renewed life and joy. In this first reading, one of two which may be used this Easter, the prophet Jeremiah imagines a joyful scene of dance and music as the people return home to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, They look forward to re-planting the land in new vineyards that will bear delicious fruit.

First or Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

These verses from Acts, the Evangelist Luke’s account of the growth of the early church, may be used as either an alternative first or second reading. Much of its narrative tells how Christianity reached out from its Jewish beginnings to incorporate Gentiles; and that story begins here as Peter takes the Good News to the family of the Roman Centurion Cornelius. Peter assures them that Jesus was sent by God to all humanity, was crucified but raised from the dead, and now saves us and forgives our sins in God’s name.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

This ancient hymn sings Israel’s joyful thanks to God for victory over its enemies, and our Jewish brothers and sisters traditionally read it during Passover, which began Monday night and continues through this weekend. Christians may also imagine an image of Jesus in the prophetic words, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” These verses shout out the hope of an Easter people: “I shall not die, but I shall live … The Lord … did not give me over to death. … I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.”

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-4

This short letter written in Paul’s name to the persecuted Christian community of Colossae in Turkey, an alternative second reading for Easter Sunday, reassures them that, even in difficult times, Christ is with us. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we are connected in baptism and raised through life in Christ. Throughout the letter, the author urges the people to endure their difficulties with patience and the strength that comes from God’s glorious power expressed through Jesus.

Gospel: John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10

As important as the story of the empty tomb and the resurrection is to our Christian faith, each of the four Gospels nevertheless tells it in slightly different ways, much as eyewitnesses to any amazing event may remember different highlights. But one point is consistent in all four Gospels: Mary Magdalene was there. In the two Gospels that may be read in this lectionary year, John’s version portrays Mary, in beautifully tender verses, as the only one who stayed at the empty tomb after everyone else left. Then, to her joyful delight, she met Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that only the women encounter Christ, and he sends them back to tell the men what has happened.

Palm / Passion Sunday A

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for April 9, 2017

Liturgy of the Palms A

The Last Supper

The Last Supper, ca. 1560, oil on panel by Juan de Juanes (1523-1579). Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Gospel: Matthew 21:1-11

Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, once celebrated separately, now fall together at the beginning of Holy Week. This can give us an emotional jolt as we hear Jerusalem’s crowds celebrating Jesus as Messiah and King in the Gospel of the Palms, then hear them shouting “crucify him!” in the Gospel of the Passion. First, excited crowds surround Jesus, shouting praise and waving palm branches as he rides into the city to loud hosannas. But before long he will anger the authorities as he drives the money-changers out of the temple. After that it doesn’t take long for him to be arrested, mocked, flogged and crucified.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Appropriately for Palm Sunday, we sing this Psalm, an ancient hymn that also depicts a festive procession in honor of our righteous and merciful Lord and God. In familiar words we sing of “the day that the Lord has made” and envision a Messiah as we remember the stone that the builders rejected that became the cornerstone.

Liturgy of the Passion A

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

When Christians hear Isaiah’s verses about the “suffering servant,” our thoughts naturally turn to Jesus Christ, our messiah and king. Our Creeds declare that Jesus suffered for us. Our Gospels reveal a Jesus who taught us to turn our cheeks to those who strike us, knowing that a peaceful response to enemies is no cause for disgrace. As we go through Holy Week, though, let’s remember that Isaiah was not writing to Christians in a future time but to a Jewish audience in his own time, living in exile in Babylon, a suffering body of faithful servants, hoping for a Messiah to guide them home.

Psalm 31:9-16

Perhaps the Psalmist who wrote this ancient hymn had Isaiah’s Suffering Servant in mind with these verses of lament. We might think of Job, too, as we chant this litany of sorrow, distress, grief, sighing, misery, scorn, horror, dread and more. While we suffer, our neighbors scheme; they even plot our death. And yet, with faith in God, hope still glows for us like the sun breaking through clouds: We trust in God’s love, and wait to be saved.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

These poetic verses are thought to come from an early Christian hymn. They remind us of the “suffering servant” as we imagine a Jesus who was fully divine, yet willing to set aside his divinity – “emptying himself” – to bear the unimaginable pain of crucifixion as a vulnerable, frightened human. Jesus accepted the full weight of that suffering to show us the true exaltation of God’s love, asking only that we respond with love for God and our neighbor.

Gospel: Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

And now the direction of today’s readings reaches its conclusion in Jesus’ passion and death. We hear almost two full chapters of Matthew’s Gospel to take us through Christ’s long journey from the Last Supper to the crucifixion. For now, let’s reflect on one particular point: When Jesus told the apostles that one of them was going to betray him, they all lacked confidence in their faith. Every single one of them wondered if he might be the traitor. Each in turn asked, ‘Surely not I, Lord?” Like the apostles, even if we believe our love is strong, we worry inside. Like the apostles, we know that we are human: frail and weak. And Jesus, loving us still, takes up the cross.

Lent 5A

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for April 2, 2017

The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones

The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones, engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866.

First Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Our readings change in tone this Sunday as Holy Week and Easter draw near. We turn from metaphorical reflections on temptation, faith and sight toward explicit ideas of victory over death through resurrection. The prophet Ezekiel imagines a valley filled with dry bones, an eerie and alarming sight. In poetic verses, God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy, and as he does so, the dry bones become connected, covered with skin, and then breathed to life as a vast multitude. Ezekiel’s prophetic vision reveals God’s promise to restore Israel from exile in its own land.

Psalm 130

This is one of the half-dozen psalms explicitly suggested for use in the liturgy for burial of the dead. Familiarly known as “De Profundis” (“out of the depths”), its solemn cadences remind us that even when we are lost in deep grief, pain, and despair, our souls wait in hope for God’s love and grace. Even in death we wait, “more than watchmen for the morning,” for the new morning light of resurrection and redemption from our sins.

Second Reading: Romans 8:6-11

Today’s short second reading gives us a quick look at Paul’s understanding of the difference between flesh and spirit. All of us live embodied lives, and that even includes Jesus, who lived as fully human like us. But Paul sees the flesh as subject to death and ultimately displeasing to God, while the spirit of God living in us leads us to eternal life through righteousness. When we accept God’s spirit within us through Jesus, Paul says, we gain the hope of life, peace and resurrection.

Gospel: John 11:1-45

Why didn’t Jesus hurry back home when he got word that his friend Lazarus was ill? Mary and Martha, devastated by the death of Lazarus their brother, each confront Jesus separately with identical words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus assures Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. … everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then, when Mary weeps, Jesus weeps, too. And then he raises Lazarus from the dead. The people are amazed. But the verses that follow today’s Gospel reveal that the priests and temple authorities, fearful that Jesus’ bold acts will bring Roman retribution, decide that Jesus has to die; and John’s Gospel turns toward the Passion and the Cross.

Lent 4A

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for March 26, 2017

Christ Healing the Blind Man

Christ Healing the Blind Man (c. 1640). Gioachino Assereto (1600–1649). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

In the first three Sundays of Lent, our readings have turned our attention to temptation and sin, faith and trust, and thirst. Now we reflect on light and sight: What do we see, and how do we see it? In our first reading, we learn that God has rejected Saul as king of Israel, and will send Samuel, the prophet and judge, to take on the risky chore of finding Saul’s successor. Saul rejects the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite, one after another, before reaching David, Jesse’s youngest son, who had seemed such an unlikely choice that he had been sent to watch the sheep while his older brothers met Samuel. But God saw the spirit in David that the others could not see. David becomes king and next in the Messiah’s line.

Psalm 23

It is difficult for Christians to hear the comforting verses of the 23rd Psalm without envisioning Jesus as the Good Shepherd. After all, John’s Gospel tells us outright that Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Ancient tradition, though, holds that King David wrote these lines himself, speaking of a subject that he would have known well as a boyhood shepherd. In fact, it’s most likely that ancient rabbis in exile wrote the song, thinking of a future earthly Messiah who would restore Jerusalem and the Temple. No matter how we read it, we all can rest in the joy of knowing that God’s rod and staff comfort us, and God’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14

The short letter to the church in Ephesus was probably actually written by a follower in Paul’s name a few decades after his death. Today’s reading offers a poetic view of light against darkness, a fitting metaphor to accompany today’s Gospel about the man born blind who learned to see what the Pharisees could not see.

Gospel: John 9:1-41

Speaking of harsh ideas that linger from ancient times, it is hard to overcome the false idea that blindness and other disabilities are God’s way of punishing our sins or even the sins of our ancestors. Standing strongly against this old belief, Jesus’ makes it quite clear that God does no such thing. In the long narrative that follows the intriguing details of Jesus healing through a mud mixture washed in a specific pool, we hear Jesus, the Pharisees and the no-longer-blind man make it clear that God works in the world through grace, not punishment, and that the miracle of healing cannot come from sin or evil. “We once were lost, but now are found … were blind, but now we see.”

Lent 3A

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for March 19, 2017

Christ And The Samaritan Woman At The Well.

Christ And The Samaritan Woman At The Well. Painting by Lorenzo Lippi (1606-1665), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

First Reading: Exodus 17:1-7

We may thirst for righteousness, mercy and justice, but when we are thirsty and need water, this simple human need takes precedence. Sunday’s readings tell of of thirst, from the thirsty Israelites in the desert to Jesus stopping for water and rest in a Samaritan town. In this Exodus reading, the Israelites are no longer hungry – in previous verses, they have just received miraculous manna – but they still have no water, and their thirst makes them so angry that they wish they were back in slavery in Egypt, where at least these basic needs of life were met. Moses is angry and outdone with them, but God provides a miracle to quench their thirst.

Psalm 95

Our Psalm opens with the joyful hymn of praise that we also know as the Venite, a familiar reading in Morning Prayer. We sing and shout with joy to God, our creator, who made the land and sea; we are the people of God’s pasture and the sheep that God made to fill it. But then the tone of the prayer changes as we remember the cranky Israelites, whose ungrateful acts caused God to “loathe” them and, in angry response, to condemn them to 40 years wandering in the desert.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-11

The infant church in Rome has known suffering. Some of its members were forced into exile, and the entire congregation was at risk for its faith. But Paul reminds them that their suffering gives them the opportunity to learn endurance and build their character through hope in the love that God pours into their hearts through the Spirit. Even though they are sinners, they are justified through faith and saved through Jesus’s death on the cross.

Gospel: John 4:5-42

We see a very human side of Jesus in John’s Gospel today. Jesus, worried that the Pharisees were angry because he was making and baptizing more disciples than his cousin John had done, decided to go back to Galilee, a journey that required him to pass through the country of the Samaritans, who were not on good terms with the Jews. Tired and thirsty, he stopped in a Samaritan village, where he broke protocol by not only asking a Samaritan woman for a drink but striking up a conversation with her. Much to the surprise of his disciples, he stayed in the village for two days and made believers of many of the Samaritans.

Lent 2A

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for March 12, 2017

Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan

Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan (1850). Oil painting by József Molnár (1821-1899), Hungarian National Gallery.

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a

We began Lent with thoughts of temptation and repentance. Now we turn to faith, the deep trust that God will be with us as we make decisions that shape our lives. In our first reading, we hear God’s promise to Abram – later to be called Abraham – who even in old age chose to take the risk of following God’s direction to uproot his family and begin the people’s long journey toward the promised land. For Abram’s faith, God will bless him and his family; and through him, God will bless all the families of the Earth.

Psalm 121

When I served as a hospital chaplain, I kept one of my bookmarks firmly set on this Psalm. Perhaps as much as the beloved 23rd Psalm, it brought comfort and peace to many people as they and their loved ones faced whatever crisis had brought them in search of urgent care. We lift up our eyes to the hills, seeking help, and that help comes from God who watches over us and protects us. Note well, as Paul will muse in the second reading, that God does not protect us in repayment for our faith or for anything we do. God watches over our going out and our coming in because that is who God is, and that is what God does.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul recalls the foundational story of Abraham in his pastoral letter to the church in Rome, musing on theology that seems consistent with Psalm 121: God’s promise of eternal life comes to us, as it came to Abraham, not in reward for anything that we have done to deserve it, but entirely through our faith by grace. Seeking in this letter to restore Rome’s Jewish Christians and pagan converts to unity, he reminds them that God’s promise depends on faith, not something due to us but a gift. It was given to all the nations, not to Abraham’s descendants alone.

Gospel: John 3:1-17

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes by night to talk with Jesus, but remains bewildered by his mysterious words. What does it mean to be “born from above,” or, in some translations, “born again”? Nicodemus just can’t grasp the distinction between being literally born of flesh as an infant and being born of water and the Spirit in faith. Then we hear the familiar words of John 3:14, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Does this mean that only Christians can be saved? Jesus’ teaching surely rules that out. Even the next line makes clear that Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to save it: all the world, all the nations that God blessed through Abraham.

Lent 1A

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for March 5, 2017

The Temptation on the Mount

The Temptation on the Mount, (1308-1311). Tempera painting on wood, Duccio di Buoninsegna (1260–1318), the Frick Collection, New York City.

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

Sunday’s readings launch the penitential season of Lent with a firm scriptural grounding in the theology of temptation and sin. We begin with the familiar Creation story, as the crafty serpent tempts Eve and Adam with the fruit that God had told them not to touch. When the serpent persuaded them that the fruit would not kill them at all, in spite of God’s warning, but would in fact give them Godlike knowledge of good and evil, they could not resist. Temptation was powerful; but so was the shame that followed when they realized they had broken their relationship with God.

Psalm 32

Yes, deep guilt may follow the knowledge that we have sinned, failed in our trust and separated ourselves from God through sin. Guilt’s heavy hand weighs on us, the Psalmist sings, drying us out, withering our bones, leaving us groaning in pain. So much more is the joy, then, the relief and “glad cries” that burst out when we acknowledge our wrongdoing, confess our transgressions, and receive God’s loving deliverance from the pain and guilt of sin.

Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19

Paul draws a direct connection between the sin of Adam and the divinity of Jesus Christ, the son of God. This would have been an important image for the members of the church in Rome as they struggled to restore relationships between the church’s pagan converts and its Jewish Christians who were returning from exile. Adam, the first of creation, gave in to the temptation of the fruit and brought death into the world. But now, Paul reminds them, Jesus’ incarnation as one of us restores us all – not only a selected few – with justification and life through God’s free gift of grace.

Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11

At the beginning of Epiphany, we heard Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus, when the voice of God declared him God’s beloved Son. Now we learn that the Spirit then led Jesus into the wilderness … to be tempted by the devil? This seems to be a very strange thing for the Holy Spirit to do, but we know that the Spirit works in mysterious ways. The devil – in a role something like the “Adversary” who tested Job’s faith – tries to test Jesus, too, tempting him three times to perform miracles to help himself. But Jesus stands strong, and at the end of 40 days of fasting, he resists temptation and orders the devil away.

Last Epiphany A/Transfiguration

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for Feb. 26, 2017

The Transfiguration, by Raphael (1516–20). Tempera on wood, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City.

The Transfiguration, by Raphael (1516–20). Tempera on wood, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City.

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18

Significant things happen on mountaintops, where earth and heaven come close together. As we reach the end of Epiphany and turn toward Lent, midway between Christmas and Easter, we see Moses, then Jesus and three chosen apostles, encountering God in high, mysterious places. In our first reading, Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from a mighty God cloaked in clouds and fire. Turn back a page, though, and we discover a more approachable creator in a sapphire heaven, joining Moses, Aaron and 72 elders in table hospitality! Scripture often shows us both an intimate God who knows us deeply, and a transcendent God who is far beyond our understanding.

Psalm 2

This Messianic Psalm of praise presents God as a mighty king, and more: King of Kings, to whom earthly kings must submit with fear and trembling. Those who seek to break away from God’s power and that of God’s anointed, the Messiah, will earn only divine derision and terrifying rage, for such actions have consequences. But God’s anointed is set on the holy hill of Zion, the temple; and this Psalm of anger and divine threats ends at last on a note of promise: Happy are all who take refuge in God.

Alternative Psalm: Psalm 99

In verses that hark back to Moses and Aaron following God’s sign through the desert and receiving God’s law, this hymn of praise shows us an image of God as a powerful king before whom the people tremble and even the earth shakes. But this is a fair God, who may have punished the people when they were evil, but who also answered their prayers and rewarded them. This is a forgiving and kind God who provides equity, justice and righteousness.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21

Modern bible scholars generally accept that this letter, one of the latest in the New Testament, was not written by Simon Peter, the apostle, but by a church leader in Peter’s name a century or more after the Crucifixion. Still, it opens a window into the second-century church, when believers were trying to understand why Jesus had not returned as soon as had been expected. All that they have heard about Jesus is true, the letter insists. Recalling that Peter himself had been present at the Transfiguration, it reminds us to trust in God and wait for the dawn and the morning star.

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” In almost identical words, we heard the voice of God coming from above to declare Jesus his beloved Son, at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan at the beginning of Epiphany. Now we hear it again at the end of Epiphany in the Transfiguration. We see Jesus meeting Old Testament prophets on a mountaintop, glowing in dazzling light, revealed to the apostles Peter, James and John for the first time as both human and divine. The three, witnessing all this, were terrified to hear the voice of God, but Jesus reassured them with a loving touch and, for the first time, speaks of his coming resurrection.