Advent 3B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Dec. 17, 2017

John the Baptist pointing toward the crucified Jesus

John the Baptist pointing toward the crucified Jesus. Detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-16), oil on wood panel by Matthias Grünewald (1480-1528). (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Watch as the Advent candle is lighted on Sunday: The one pink candle, a symbol of rejoicing, marks this day. Midway through Advent, our readings shift from a focus on the fire and upheaval of an apocalyptic Judgement Day toward a different kind of hope, a joyful hope that looks forward to God’s restorative justice that will come with the Messiah. The Prophet Isaiah – writing prophecy that Jesus will later declare fulfilled in his presence when he speaks in the synagogue at Nazareth – tells the people that God will comfort all who mourn. God’s good news will come to the poor, the oppressed, captives and prisoners, turning their state to gladness instead of mourning.

Psalm: Psalm 126

As Isaiah told the people in exile of God’s promise that justice and righteousness would be restored, the Psalmist sings that God’s promise was in fact fulfilled, that God has indeed done great things for Zion, the mountain in Jerusalem where the Temple stood, and thus, if frequent biblical metaphor, the Temple itself. Every verse of this short Psalm contains a shout of laughter, joy, gladness, and praise. God has been good. God has turned the people’s tears into songs of joy; their weeping into a bountiful harvest.

Alternative to the Psalm: Luke 1:46-55 (Canticle 15)

As an optional alternative to the Psalm, we may sing the Magnificat, the beautiful Song of Mary. In Luke’s Gospel Mary bursts into this powerful song when she greets her relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth with John the Baptist, feels the infant move with joy inside her when the pregnant Mary comes in. Elizabeth declares Mary the blessed mother of God, full of grace. In response, Mary sings these startlingly radical verses that echo Isaiah and foreshadow Jesus’ own teaching; liberating verses that praise a God who scatters the proud, casts down the mighty, and sends the rich away hungry, while filling the hungry with good things.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Paul concludes his short first letter to the Thessalonians with themes consistent with those that we heard in the first readings from 1 Corinthians and 2 Peter on the first two Sundays of Advent. He urges the people to rejoice always, pray unceasingly, and give thanks for all things, staying faithful and filled with the Spirit. Hold fast to the good and abstain from every kind of evil, he urges them, so they will be ready, “sound and blameless,” when Jesus Christ returns.

Gospel: John 1:6-8,19-28

Following the story of John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel last Sunday, we now turn to the Gospel according to John. This version makes no mention of the Baptist’s attire or his dietary preferences, but opens into a tense scene in which the Temple authorities, worried about the noisy crowds surrounding John, want to know who he is. He is neither a new prophet nor Elijah, John says, but – quoting from the Isaiah verses that we heard last week – the voice crying out in the wilderness, calling on the people to make straight the way of the Lord. He baptizes with water, John says, to make way for the one who is coming after him, who is so much greater that John is unworthy to untie his sandals.

Advent 2B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Dec. 10, 2017

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604-05). Oil painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610); Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

The Messiah is coming! Get ready! The Messiah is coming! Make the way clear! Imagined in modern language, Sunday’s readings might be shouting “Roll out the red carpet!” as we move into the second week of Advent. Our Isaiah reading – which may sound familiar, as Handel drew from it freely in his beloved “Messiah” – sings out comfort and hope to the people in exile. Jerusalem has paid doubly for her sins. Life is short as grass and flowers, but God’s word stands forever. Prepare the way! Make a straight highway in the desert, the prophet calls. Then we see a poetic image of a gentle, maternal Messiah who holds the lambs closely and gently leads the mother sheep.

Psalm: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Sunday’s Psalm, particularly as edited to skip over a few verses of wistful doubt, shares the joyful hope of the Isaiah reading. The Psalmist remembers the people’s time time in exile, and rejoices that God did, indeed, come to the people with comfort and peace. Even though the people had been sinful and broken their covenant with God, God forgave their iniquity and blotted out all their sins. The straight highway that was built at Isaiah’s command has become a path for God’s feet.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a

This letter written in Peter’s name is the latest document in the New Testament, written down 100 years or more after the crucifixion. After such a long time, people worried: Why hadn’t Christ come back yet? He had been expected to return in power and glory, but that didn’t happen. What did this mean? The author had an idea, one that we also hear in the Isaiah verses: God’s time is not like our time. “One day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.” Be patient and live godly lives, while God waits patiently for all to come to repentance before the day of the Lord comes.

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

Mark’s Gospel, the first written in the New Testament, perhaps only 30 or 40 years after Jesus died on the cross, does not say a word about Jesus’ birth but begins with Jesus as an adult, coming to John at the Jordan river to be baptized for repentance and forgiveness of sins. Mark first shows us John the Baptist, a wild man eating locusts and honey and wearing camel’s hair, shouting Isaiah’s promise that God would send a messenger to prepare the Messiah’s way. Jesus is coming after him, John foretells: The one so powerful that John is not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals is coming to baptize us with the Holy Spirit!

Advent 1B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Dec. 3, 2017

The Son of Man Coming in Clouds

Enjoy a close look at The Son of Man Coming in Clouds, a detail from The Last Judgement (1536-1541), by Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) fresco in the Sistine Chapel in Rome that we saw in full in last week’s Illuminations. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9

Advent has come, and with it we turn from Matthew to Mark in our Gospel readings; our Old Testament readings this year will offer an anthology of Israel’s ancestral legends and its earthly kings. Despite the changes, though, the content of this Sunday’s readings stays in harmony with last week’s: God is coming and God will judge. God’s advent may come as a surprise, with fire and upheaval. We must be ready. Here near the end of Isaiah’s great book, the people have returned from exile, but they face harsh reality: The city and the temple were destroyed. They are only a defeated remnant. Oh, God, the prophet cries, come down! Show your might, restore your people. Make us new and forgive our sins.

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

Our Psalm echoes Isaiah’s call, sending up three times to God the anguished cry, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” The people have suffered. God’s punishment has forced them to endure their enemies’ derision and laughter. They have eaten and drunk their tears like bread and water. Send us a messiah, the prophet pleads – the son of man at God’s right hand – and the people will never turn from God again.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a deeply pastoral epistle that will address serious fractures in a small, passionate Greek Christian community. Paul begins with no hint of conflict, though, using in the formal style of ancient Greek correspondence: He sets the scene by greeting the people with grace and peace, reminding them that grace has come to them through Jesus and enriched them, filling them with spiritual gifts. Because of this, Paul assures them, they will be ready, strong and blameless when Christ returns.

Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

In our first reading, Isaiah prayed for God to come with justice after the first destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Now, just as the Romans are destroying the city and the temple for a second time, Mark’s Gospel foresees Jesus coming in clouds, in power and glory. In an apocalyptic passage that echoes the Prophet Joel, we hear that the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the skies. This will be a tumultuous time, Jesus warns his followers, so they must watch for signs of his return. Like the wise bridesmaids with their oil-filled lamps, they must stay awake, ready and alert.

Christ the King A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Nov. 26, 2017

The Last Judgment

The Last Judgment (1536-1541), fresco by Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564). Sistine Chapel, Rome. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading (Track One): Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

The six-month-long Pentecost season comes to its end this week in the festival day known as Christ the King or, for those who prefer more inclusive language, The Reign of Christ. These readings reveal Jesus Christ as a different kind of king than earthly rulers; no traditional patriarch but a loving shepherd caring for the flock. In our first reading, Ezekiel prophesies to the people in exile, using the metaphor of a kingly shepherd feeding and caring for the sheep. Then, in verses we will hear echoed in Matthew’s Gospel, the prophet writes that God will judge the fat sheep and the lean, protecting the lost and weak sheep while destroying the powerful sheep who ravaged them.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 100

Both Lectionary tracks for Christ the King sing out joy and praise for God, our maker and protector, in verses that are also provided for use in Morning Prayer. Track One is the Jubilate, a call for God’s people and all God’s lands to serve the Lord our God with gladness and song. We are the protected sheep of God’s pasture, joyously singing thanksgiving and praise for God’s everlasting mercy that endures from age to age.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 95:1-7a

Does this hymn sound familiar? You’ve probably recited or chanted it as the Venite in Morning Prayer. These verses sing out unalloyed worship and praise, creater and protector of all things, and, in harmony with today’s readings, both king of kings above all gods and loving shepherd who cares for us, the protected sheep of God’s hand.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23

For the last Sunday in Pentecost, we turn from reading in 1 Thessalonians, perhaps the earliest of Paul’s letters, to Ephesians, a much later epistle that was probably written in Paul’s name by a first century Christian a generation after Paul’s death, not long after the Gospel of Matthew was written. In 1 Thessalonians Paul offered hope that Christ would return soon, while many in the church were still alive. This later letter provides a glimpse of the early church’s evolving understanding of Christ, a vision that we will also see in today’s Gospel: The resurrected Jesus is placed at God’s right hand and given authority over all things in heaven and in the church, Christ’s body on earth.

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew’s long series of parables about the kingdom of heaven now ends with this familiar Gospel. It isn’t always easy to see Jesus in the face of a hungry, thirsty, homeless person, sick and naked and oppressed. But Matthew tells us clearly that this is the way that we make God’s kingdom happen. Then, echoing our first reading, Matthew paints a disturbing picture of the fate that awaits those who fail to find Christ in the hungry and the weak: They earn eternal punishment, a place in the outer darkness that also awaited the slave with the single talent and the foolish bridesmaids. This parable may warn that we ignore Jesus’ call to serve only at our peril. But know, too, that the mighty king who judges us is also the loving shepherd who shows us how we are to love one another.

What are “Track 1” and “Track 2”?
During the long green season after Pentecost, there are two tracks (or strands) each week for Old Testament readings. Within each track, there is a Psalm chosen to accompany the particular lesson.
The Revised Common Lectionary allows us to make use of either of these tracks, but once a track has been selected, it should be followed through to the end of the Pentecost season, rather than jumping back and forth between the two strands.
For more information from, click here

Pentecost 24A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Nov. 19, 2017

The Parable of The Talents.

The Parable of The Talents. Oil on panel by Willem de Poorter (1608-1668). Narodni Galerie, Prague.
(Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading (Track One): Judges 4:1-7

Advent doesn’t begin until December 3, but we already are hearing readings that point our imagination toward God’s final judgement in the last days, an ancient echo of a once-longer Advent season. Our first reading, though, wraps up our Pentecost-long travels with the chosen people, who now inhabit the promised land, governed by leaders called judges – in this reading, a powerful female judge named Deborah. They have settled in to a cycle of behaving badly – “doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – and suffering the consequences, in this case military loss, before repenting, turning back, and enjoying blessings as they restore justice.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 123

Harmonizing with the leadership of the female judge Deborah in the first reading, this brief but powerful Psalm – one of the shortest of all the Psalms at just five verses – offers worship and praise to a God clearly seen as both male and female, both master and mistress. We see here, too, a reminder of the covenant promise that the people of Israel repeatedly broke when they “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” contemptuously ignoring the poor as they accumulated riches.

First Reading (Track Two): Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

The minor prophet Zephaniah foretold the destruction and exile of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, for its peoples’ and their leaders’ failure of righteousness: They pursued wealth and fell away from following God’s ways. His apocalyptic vision of the Great Day of the Lord seems to foreshadow the vision of Revelation, as he imagines a horrifying Judgement Day, when their gold and riches won’t save them from reaping what they sowed: A fire of passion that will consume all the earth and all the people in it.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 90:1-12

Our time is nothing like God’s time. While we see a thousand years slowly pass, generation after generation, it all goes by in a moment for God, who remains from age to age, present before the mountains, the land, and the earth were born. Our lives, in contrast, the Psalmist sings, “pass away quickly and we are gone,” like grass that dries up in a day in the desert heat. We pray with the Psalmist that God may help us learn to make wise use of our time.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Wrapping up his short letter to the people of Thessalonika, Paul tells them that the day of the Lord is coming, and urges them to be prepared. Using colorful metaphors – a thief coming in the night, a woman surprised by sudden labor pains – he warns that the last day will come suddenly and by surprise. Be faithful, he says; be loving. Don’t spend the night drunk, but live in the day, sober and watchful. Continue to care for one another, encourage each other, build each other up, he urges, “as indeed you are doing.”

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

Many of us would probably be just as cautious in safeguarding an angry master’s treasure as was the third slave who buried and made no profit on the expensive silver talent left in his charge. But look at the context of this parable in Matthew’s Gospel, only a day or two before Jesus is to be crucified: Jesus is focused on the last days. Just after this passage is the Gospel we will hear next week: Jesus’ account of the last judgement, when Christ as judging King will sort out those who saw the face of Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the oppressed, sick persons and prisoners from those who did not. Jesus wants us, like the first two slaves, to take risks, see him present in the poor and the oppressed, and give of ourselves abundantly.

What are “Track 1” and “Track 2”?
During the long green season after Pentecost, there are two tracks (or strands) each week for Old Testament readings. Within each track, there is a Psalm chosen to accompany the particular lesson.
The Revised Common Lectionary allows us to make use of either of these tracks, but once a track has been selected, it should be followed through to the end of the Pentecost season, rather than jumping back and forth between the two strands.
For more information from, click here

Pentecost 23A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Nov. 12, 2017

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (1826) by William Blake (1757-1827). Watercolour and gouache on paper. Tate Gallery, London.
(Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading (Track One): Joshua 24:1-3a,14-25

How do we follow God? When will Jesus come back? How does God save us, and what does that look like? Can we do anything to secure a place among those saved? Sunday’s readings grapple with these eternal questions as Advent draws near. In our first reading, we continue last week’s narrative of the chosen people entering the promised land, taking it over from the people who lived there. Joshua calls on all the tribes of Israel to swear allegiance to God, the Lord of Israel, over and against foreign gods, emphasizing their theological separateness and reinforcing the covenant that they had made at Sinai.,

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 78:1-7

We sing only the first seven verses of a long, 72-verse Psalm today. If we had the time to chant it in full, we would hear a long account of the people’s sins and failures, a dark narrative indeed, but one that turns at the end to a happy conclusion under the love and guidance of God. This provides a little context to the Psalm’s confident beginning, which sings of the good news of God’s gifts to humankind, God’s words and teachings that we should pass down to our children and their children’s children.

First Reading (Track Two): Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16

The Wisdom of Solomon, a short book in the Apocrypha, was written in King Solomon’s name not long before the time of Jesus and the evangelists. It reminds us of a memorable passage in Proverbs that personifies Wisdom as a female voice, a strong woman who sits at the city gates and advises the people on right living, and even presents Wisdom as the female presence who was with God at the moment of creation. This short reading tells us how easy it is to find Wisdom, for she meets us more than halfway and graciously meets us in our paths and thoughts, if we are worthy of her.

Alternate for the First Reading (Track Two): Amos 5:18-24

The prophet Amos challenges us with a frightening question in this reading: If we confidently await the day of God’s judgement, assuming that we have lived well, but learn to our shock that God has rejected our prayers and turned away? Amos warns that God doesn’t care about our burnt offerings but how we live! But the prophet offers hope, in the context of his prophecy warning the people to follow God’s way or risk destruction and exile: If only we seek good, not evil, when we let our righteousness flow like mighty waters, then God will be with us.

Alternate for the Psalm (Track Two): Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20

The verses just preceding these lines from The Wisdom of Solomon appear as an alternative first reading for Lectionary Track One today. This short book in the Apocrypha celebrates Wisdom as a female voice, a strong woman who sits at the city gates and generously gives advice on right living. This snippet nails down the importance of loving wisdom and following her laws, for this is the assurance of wisdom that brings us near to God and leads us to God’s kingdom.

Alternate for the Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 70

This Psalm, like the alternative first reading from Joshua, opens on a dark note: The Psalmist begs God to deliver and save him from enemies who enjoy his misfortune and gloat over his losses. The Psalmist wants a kind of justice that is very far from turning the other cheek: He wants to see those enemies suffer the shame and disgrace that they wish for him! He knows that the poor and needy can count on God’s protection, but he can’t wait. Come to us speedily, God. Oh, Lord, do not tarry!

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Paul’s imaginative description of the coming of Christ, complete with an archangel’s shout and trumpet blast, the dead rising from their graves and the people of God rising into the air, has become the basis for a lot of colorful theories about what the return of Christ might look like. Some Christians do read this passage as a literal prediction of the last days. But most bible scholars offer a simpler explanation: At the time of this letter – the earliest in the New Testament – many Christians still thought that Jesus would return and establish God’s kingdom while they were still alive to see it. But now some members of the church were dying! Would they miss out? No, writes Paul. Know this and encourage each other: All will be saved.

Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13

As we’ve seen, Jesus’ parables are always challenging and often unsettling, and this parable about the wise and unwise bridesmaids is certainly just as difficult as the other “kingdom” parables from Matthew’s Gospel that we’ve heard recently: the outcast who had no wedding garment; the murderous vineyard workers; and the workers who were all paid the same. We surely wouldn’t want to be stuck with the foolish bridesmaids who were locked out of the banquet by an angry bridegroom, who, you may have noticed, was late himself! Like the other recent parables, this one offers simple wisdom as Advent draws near: Jesus, the bridegroom, is coming: Be ready!

Pentecost 22A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Nov. 5, 2017

Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees

Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens (Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees) (1886-1894). Painting by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum.
(Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading (Track One): Joshua 3:7-17

The people have reached the promised land, and Joshua leads them across the Jordan in a miraculous scene that mirrors their crossing the Sea of Reeds: The river rises up to make a clear, dry path. We mustn’t hear this reading, though, without acknowledging that it shows us a God who will drive out all the people who live there. This ancestral legend may sadly remind us of America’s white settlers driving back and killing our native peoples. From the standpoint of the victors, in ancient Israel and early America, this may have been seen as a good thing for God to do because our people survived and won the battle. In 2017, let’s think about how we might hope that a God of all Earth’s people might care for us all today.

First Reading (Track Two): Micah 3:5-12

We probably know the minor prophet Micah best for his memorable passage toward the end of his short book: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Here, earlier in the book, he becomes the first of the prophets to predict the coming destruction of Jerusalem, a fate that he calls inevitable as long as its leaders fail to provide justice and equity. False prophets who mislead God’s people face shame and disgrace, he shouts. Jerusalem’s leaders will see the temple plowed like a farmer’s field and the city left in ruins.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

In a hymn of thanksgiving that echoes the ideas in our Joshua reading, we sing gratitude for God’s goodness and enduring mercy. In poetic language its stanzas recall how God redeemed the people from the hands of their foe. God gathered the people and guided them through the desert, took care of their hunger, thirst and low spirits, and delivered them to a bountiful land and a fruitful harvest.

Psalm: (Track Two): Psalm 43

The Psalmist, embattled against ungodly, deceitful and wicked people, calls on God for help and strength. Fearful that God has set him and his needs aside while the enemy oppresses him, the Psalmist prays in beautiful, poetic verses that we may recognize as one of the opening sentences used at the beginning of Morning Prayer: “Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.”

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Picking up where last week’s second reading left off, Paul continues assuring the Thessalonians that his ministry to them is reflected in his love for them, in contrast with reports of serious disagreements with his nearby community in Philippi. He remembers how he toiled with them in their labors at the same time as he was proclaiming the Gospel, to prevent his presence among them from being a burden. He loves them as a father loves his children, Paul writes; he thanks God that they accept the Gospel as God’s word at work in them.

Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12

After a series of confrontations in which the Herodians, Saduccees and Pharisees tried to trap Jesus, they finally gave up and no longer dared to ask him questions. Now he scorns his opponents, declaring them hypocrites who avoid work, dress well, and show off their purported holiness by taking the place of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. Do not do as they do, Jesus warns his followers, for they do not practice what they teach. Live and work in humility, not pride, he advises them: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

What are “Track 1” and “Track 2”?
During the long green season after Pentecost, there are two tracks (or strands) each week for Old Testament readings. Within each track, there is a Psalm chosen to accompany the particular lesson.
The Revised Common Lectionary allows us to make use of either of these tracks, but once a track has been selected, it should be followed through to the end of the Pentecost season, rather than jumping back and forth between the two strands.
For more information from, click here

All Saints Day A

Thoughts on the All Saints Day lessons for Nov. 1, 2017 or the following Sunday

“The 144,000 Elect, Revelation 7"

Les 144000 Elus – Apocalypse VII (“The 144,000 Elect, Revelation 7), illumination on parchment by the 11th century scribe Martinus. In the archives of the cathedral at Burgo de Osma, Spain.
(Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

In the apocalyptic vision of John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, we see all the saints, a countless multitude of every race and nation, all robed in white, gathered in John’s idea of the heavenly throne room. They have come together to praise the Lamb, Revelation’s allegorical image for Jesus as both sacrificied sheep and messianic shepherd; victim and victor in one, the loving protector who leads us as a single multitude that shows all Earth’s glorious diversity.

Psalm: Psalm 34:1-10, 22

The Psalmist speaks directly to the people, offering us wise counsel as imagined from King David’s thankful point of view after he had feigned madness to talk his way out of a deadly situation. Bless and praise God at all times; exalt God’s name, we are told. No matter who we are – saints or sinner, nobles or servant – we all join in worship and praise. We are small and humble. God is great and powerful. Yet when we are in trouble, when we are afraid, when we are hungry, we place our faith and trust in God and need not fear.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3

The three short letters of John were probably not written by John the apostle, John the evangelist, nor John the author of Revelation. But these verses from the first letter of John do seem consistent with the theology of John’s Gospel. They celebrate the abundant love of God that showers on us and makes us all God’s children. The glory of our coming adulthood under God’s love remains to be revealed; but from the beginning, all of God’s children, all of God’s saints, are brothers and sisters through God’s creative love.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus reveals the Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount, he offers a promise of hope to those who are poor, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the righteous, and the persecuted. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” he calls out. But think about this: Is Jesus promising a heavenly kingdom, a reward that comes only after we die? Or is he foreseeing a kingdom of heaven on earth, a glorious kingdom that may appear when people begin to live the Beatitudes? If we consider all that the Gospels tell us Jesus said, we might hear him calling us to join in building a kingdom that comes on earth as it is in heaven.

Pentecost 21A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Oct. 29, 2017

Testament and Death of Moses

Testament and Death of Moses (1482), fresco by Luca Signorelli (1450-1523) and Bartolomeo della Gatta (1448-1502). Sistine Chapel, Rome.
(Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading (Track One): Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Moses dies, and Joshua takes command. Jesus tells the Pharisees about the greatest commandment. There is plenty to inspire our imagination in this week’s readings. In our first reading, God tells Moses that he won’t cross over to the land that he has come close enough to see. If this feels sad, consider that after 40 years in the wilderness, Moses dies knowing that the goal of his long journey is achieved, and his descendants will populate the land. (Did you notice the reading says that God knew Moses face-to-face? What about last week’s reading, then, in which Moses face could safely see God only from behind? Perhaps God saw Moses’ face but Moses couldn’t see God’s … or perhaps Scripture makes us think with different images.)

First Reading (Track Two): Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Leviticus, the book of the Levites, the hereditary Temple priests, is full of rules, regulations and teachings that govern behavior and Temple liturgy. Here God tells Moses the ways in which we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s teaching or Torah leads directly to Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel. In a series of instructions that restate the moral code of the commandments, God’s words to Moses in this reading tell us how to be in good relationship with our neighbors. They culminate with the summary conclusion – the first place in the bible where this is explicitly stated as a rule – that we shall love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

Tradition attributes this ancient hymn to Moses himself; and while that is surely legendary, its verses of praise for God’s creation are certainly consistent with Torah, the books of teaching that believers once thought were actually written by Moses. A thousand years pass like a day in God’s continuing creation, we sing, while our short lives are as brief as the grass that turns from green to brown overnight. Then the Psalm moves from praise to petition as we ask God to hear our prayers, to turn toward us with loving-kindness and make us glad.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 1

The book of Psalms begins with this short hymn in which we sing of two paths between which we may choose as we journey through life. In poetic verses that might remind us of Jesus’ parables about seeds – those that fall on variously nourishing ground, and tiny seeds that grow into towering trees – the Psalmist likens the righteous who follow God’s way to lush, fruitful and well-watered trees, while the way of the wicked is like weak, airy chaff or weak trees that can’t stand straight. Which way shall we choose?

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

It is fascinating to listen in as Paul talks tells the people of Thessalonika, one of his churches in Greece, about his problems with the Philippians, a neighboring community! In this letter we get a glimpse of serious problems; someone in Philippi apparently was strongly opposed to Paul and disagreed with his teacing. He is grateful to the Thessalonians, though, for treating him kindly. They have built a dear friendship that Paul likens to a nurse caring for her children. Fortunately, by the time Paul wrote his later letter to the Philippians around 55 CE, maybe five years after 1 Thessalonians, all apparently had been forgiven, as he then addresses the people of Philippi with loving friendship, too.

Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46

Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment may sound like a central tenet of Christianity, pouring directly from the heart of Jesus, and this is certainly true. But it is just as important to know that all this teaching is profoundly Jewish, too. The commandment that Jesus declares the “greatest and first” portion, to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, precisely quotes the Shema, the most important of all Jewish prayers. The Pharisees with whom he was arguing certainly understood this. The second portion, to love our neighbors as ourselves, comes directly from the priestly codes in Leviticus. Our spiritual heritage goes back a long way, and as we hear from Jesus earlier in Matthew, he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets (that is, the first testament) but to fulfill it.

What are “Track 1” and “Track 2”?
During the long green season after Pentecost, there are two tracks (or strands) each week for Old Testament readings. Within each track, there is a Psalm chosen to accompany the particular lesson.
The Revised Common Lectionary allows us to make use of either of these tracks, but once a track has been selected, it should be followed through to the end of the Pentecost season, rather than jumping back and forth between the two strands.
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Pentecost 20A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Oct. 22, 2017

The Tribute Money

The Tribute Money (c.1516), painting by Titian (1490–1576). Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading (Track One): Exodus 33:12-23

God’s power for good amazes us, and we follow in faith. Look for variations on this theme through Sunday’s readings. In our first reading, we have skipped over a bloody and horrifying narrative since we heard about God’s anger over the golden calf: A portion of the Hebrew people were told to kill 3,000 of their brothers and sisters who had worshiped the idol. Now Moses, worried that his fractious flock might stray again, asks that God continue to lead and guide the people. God agrees, and Moses asks one thing more: To see God in God’s glory. But it would be fatal for Moses to see God’s face, so God stations Moses in a crack in a rock, protected from danger, offering only a glimpse from behind after God passes by.

First Reading (Track Two): Isaiah 45:1-7

It may seem unusual to see the First Testament offering high praise to a Gentile king, as Isaiah does here in declaring Cyrus, king of Persia, as “God’s own anointed” (using the Hebrew word “Messiah” and, in the Pentateuch, the Greek word “Christos”!) But consider the context: The people had been in exile in Babylon for 40 years, dreaming of the city and temple that they had lost. They had failed to love their neighbor and care for the weak and needy; thus they broke the covenant with God that had earned them the Promised Land. Now, led by the wise king that history knows as Cyrus the Great, the Persians have conquered Babylon, and Cyrus sent them home, showing that even the Persian king responds to God’s command.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 99

The Psalmist reflects the Exodus verses that we hear today. We sing praise to God’s great and awesome name, celebrating God’s justice and equity. We remember that God, leading the people in a pillar of cloud, answered their prayers but also punished them for their evil deeds, and then forgave them in the end. Proclaim the greatness of the Lord, our God!

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 96:1-13

It is likely no coincidence that the Lectionary planners chose to follow Isaiah’s praise for Cyrus the great king with a brisk reminder that God remains king among all kings, before whom the whole Earth trembles. God created and will judge all things, fairly and with equity. Heaven and earth, thunder and lightning, all the fields and all the forest will rejoice when God comes.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

We now begin a five-week visit with 1 Thessalonians, a letter written by Paul around the year 50, the earliest document in the New Testament. It addresses a small community of formerly pagan Christians in Thessalonika, Northern Greece, who had been persecuted for giving up the state religion. Their faith, Paul said, had inspired many converts, who were now waiting for Jesus to rescue them “from the wrath that is coming” – their hope that Jesus would come back soon to judge the world and establish the kingdom of God on Earth.

A denarius with the image of the Roman Emperor Tiberius.

A denarius with the image of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The inscription on the obverse reads TiCaesar Divi AvgFAvgvstvs, abbreviating “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”
(Click image to enlarge.)

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22

Jesus continues fencing with the Pharisees. In today’s familiar passage they try to trap Jesus with a trick question that they hope will force him either to anger the crowds by supporting Roman taxation, or risk treason by denying the emperor’s power. But Jesus outwits them again, and even more, prompts the temple leaders to reveal that they are carrying Caesar’s graven image on the coins in their purses. Then, in advising, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” Jesus leaves open the question of how much that might amount to … and how much of our lives we should give to God. If we consider the context of this narrative and the Gospels overall, though, that small coin alone may be Caesar’s portion. Jesus clearly points our lives’ priority toward God.