Advent 2B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Dec. 10, 2023 (Advent 2B)

St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist (1911), oil painting on board by Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929). National Museum in Warsaw, Poland. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

The Messiah is coming! Get ready! The Messiah is coming! Make the way clear! Re-imagined in modern language, Sunday’s readings as we begin the second week of Advent might shout, “Roll out the red carpet for the Messiah!” The first reading from Isaiah – which may sound familiar, as Handel drew from it freely in his beloved oratorio, “The Messiah” – sings out comfort and hope to the people in exile. Jerusalem has paid doubly for her sins, the prophet declares, adding that although our lives are as short as grass and flowers, God’s word stands forever. Prepare the way! Make a straight highway in the desert, the prophet calls. Then the reading closes with the poetic image of a kindly Messiah who holds the lambs closely and gently leads the mother sheep.

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

This portion of Psalm 85, edited to skip over several verses that express wistful doubt, shares the joyful hope of the Isaiah reading. The Psalmist remembers the people’s time in exile, rejoicing 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

The short second letter in Peter’s name, the latest epistle in the New Testament, was likely written a century or more after the crucifixion. After so long, Christ’s expected return had surely become a concern for the early church. What did this delay mean? Perhaps God’s time is not like our time, the writer suggests in the letter’s closing lines. They echo a theme in the Isaiah reading: With God, “One day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.” Be patient, the author urged. Live holy and godly lives. Be at peace, be prepared, and wait patiently for God.

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

We will spend most of the coming liturgical year going through the Gospel according to Mark. The earliest and shortest of the Gospels, Mark seems to move at a headlong pace, beginning here with no mention of the birth of Jesus or his death and resurrection. Mark simply declares the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, then – proclaiming Isaiah’s prophecy of a messenger who will make the way straight for the Messiah – jumps right into the story of Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Jesus, John says, is so powerful that John is not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. John tells the crowd that he baptizes only with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit!

Advent 1B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Dec. 3, 2023 (Advent 1B)

The Second Coming

The Second Coming (1560-89), painting by Jean Cousin le Jeune (c.1522-1595), the Louvre, Paris. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9

One clear idea rings through the Lectionary readings as Advent begins this Sunday: God is coming. God may come quietly, quickly; God may come amid fire and upheaval. We had better be ready. In our first reading we turn toward the end of Isiah’s great book of prophecy. The people are returning home to Jerusalem from exile at last, but they must face up to a difficult reality: This is not the city they knew, but a devastated place, a ruined city on a hill with its great temple destroyed and only a remnant of defeated people remaining. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” the prophet calls out, urging God to show their might, restore the people, make them new and forgive their sins.

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

The selected verses of Psalm 80 echo Isaiah’s call. This anguished cry to God goes up three times: “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 own tears like bread and water. Send us a messiah, the Psalmist 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 throughout its pages addresses many fractures in a small, passionate Christian community in a Greek seaport city. Paul begins with no hint of conflict, though. Writing in the formal style of ancient Greek correspondence, he sets the scene by greeting the people with grace and peace. He reminds 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, we heard Isaiah’s prayer for God to come with justice after the first destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Now, in phrases likely set down not long after the Romans had destroyed the city and the temple again, the evangelist Mark imagines Jesus coming again amid clouds, in power and glory. In an apocalyptic passage that echoes the Hebrew Bible’s Prophet Joel, Jesus foretells a time when 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: They must stay awake, ready and alert.

Christ the King A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Nov. 26, 2023 (Christ the King A)

The Last Judgment

The Last Judgment (1617), altarpiece, oil painting on canvas by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading (both tracks): Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Now we celebrate the last Sunday of Pentecost. We join other Christian denominations in celebrating the feast of Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, this day; but it’s an unofficial celebration, not included in the Book of Common Prayer’s calendar. This aversion may trace back to the American Episcopal church having forsworn earthly kings when our ancestors separated from the Church of England after the Revolutionary War. Sunday’s readings, however, show Jesus Christ is a different kind of king: not a traditional patriarch but a loving shepherd. Both Lectionary tracks combine to present Ezekiel’s prophecy to Israel in exile, praying for a new King David in a new Jerusalem. This new shepherd will bring home and strengthen the sheep who have suffered, while destroying the fat and strong sheep that bullied and scattered 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

This hymn will surely sound familiar, too. We recite it or chant it often as the Venite in Morning Prayer. These verses sing out unalloyed worship and praise for the creator 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 our recent readings in First Thessalonians, which was perhaps the earliest of Paul’s letters, to Ephesians, a much later epistle that was probably written in Paul’s name a generation after his death. 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 the Gospel for this day: 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 who buried the single talent, the foolish bridesmaids who ran out of oil for their lamps, and the man who wore no wedding garment. This parable may warn that we ignore Jesus’ call to serve only at our peril. But we know in our hearts, too, that the mighty king who judges us is also the loving shepherd who calls us to love one another.

Pentecost 25A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Nov. 19, 2023 (Pentecost 25A)

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

We are nearing the end of the six-month-long season after Pentecost. Next week we celebrate the Reign of Christ Sunday; then Advent begins, and with it a turn to a new Lectionary year centered on the Gospel according to Mark. Our long trek through the ancestral stories of Israel in the Track One first readings comes to an end in the book of Judges. The people have come to live in the promised land. They have fallen into a cycle of behaving badly – “doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – then repenting, turning back, and restoring justice under a judge. Amid the patriarchy of the time, it seems remarkable that one of the most noteworthy of the judges was the prophet Deborah, who with God’s help confidently ordered her generals and troops into battle.

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

We have two more weeks until Advent begins, but our Lectionary readings – reflecting an ancient tradition – don’t wait to turn toward Advent themes. SinceAll Saints Day we have begun to hear alarming prophecies and puzzling parables about Judgement Day, waiting for Jesus, and the kingdom of God. In our Track Two first reading, this passage from the minor prophet Zephaniah imagines a horrifying Judgement Day, when all of those who complacently and without humility ignored their duty to be righteous and just will reap what they sowed: A fire of passion that will consume all the earth and all the people in it.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 123

Subtly but sharply, the Track One readings move from the female judge Deborah to a short, powerful Psalm of worship and praise that quite clearly looks to God in male and female imagery as both master and mistress. In the psalm’s five quick verses we can see inspiration for a theology of liberation, too, in the Psalmist’s call for a preferential option for the poor, in opposition to the contempt shown them by the rich and the proud.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12

Our time is nothing like God’s time, the Psalmist sings. 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, “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 first 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

Sunday we hear yet another troubling parable from Matthew’s Gospel. Let’s not be tempted to read this as a proclamation of the so-called prosperity gospel: Surely Jesus is not teaching his followers to invest their goods and watch them grow. Rather, he challenges them to model on their Master, making use of all that God has given them for the sake of the kingdom. Then, turn a page ahead and see what comes next in this series of parables about waiting for Christ’s return: The last judgement, when Christ will look for those who saw the face of Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the oppressed, sick persons and prisoners. In this passage hear that we, like the first two slaves, will take risks and give of ourselves abundantly, that we may enter into the joy of our master.

Pentecost 24A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Nov. 12, 2023 (Pentecost 24A)

Three Foolish Virgins Flanked by Adam and Eve

Three Foolish Virgins Flanked by Adam and Eve (1531-1539), fresco by Francesco “Parmigianino” Mazzola (1503-1540). Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata, Parma, Italy. (Click image to enlarge.)

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

Sunday’s Lectionary readings are challenging. They make us work to discern how – or even if – these selections from Scripture might guide our lives. In the Track One first reading we find the people renewing their covenant with God as they enter the promised land. Joshua calls on all the tribes of Israel to swear allegiance to God, the Lord of Israel. Declaring the God of Israel “a jealous God,” Joshua emphasizes the people’s theological separateness from the gods of their new neighbors, and calls them to a new covenant, reinforcing the covenant that they had made with God through Moses at Sinai.

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 finds us in our paths and thoughts, if we are worthy of her.

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

The prophet Amos challenges us with a frightening question in this alternative reading: What 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 only about how we live! But the prophet offers hope, 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.

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 an extensive 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.

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 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, the Psalmist sings. 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 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

When Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this,” we can expect the following parable to challenge our expectations. Sure enough, this story is just as unsettling as the other kingdom parables that the Lectionary has offered recently: the outcast who had no wedding garment; the murderous vineyard workers; and the workers who were all paid the same. Here, the bridesmaids who didn’t plan ahead were locked out of the banquet, dismissed by the bridegroom, even though he was late himself! Is Jesus telling us that the kingdom of heaven is unfair? No. Rather, the parable offers simple wisdom to early Christians who expected Christ to come back soon: Jesus, the bridegroom, is coming: Be ready!

All Saints A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Nov. 5, 2023 (All Saints A)

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount (1598), oil painting on copper by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. (Click image to enlarge.)

We remember all saints, known and unknown, on All Saints Sunday. The Episcopal Church recognizes that saints are not only historic figures recognized by the early church, but that Christ makes it possible for us to be saints as we share his life. Sunday’s readings begin with the apocalyptic vision of John of Patmos, who imagine all the saints, robed in white and gathered in a heavenly throne room. A countless multitude of every race and nation, they are all assembled to praise the Lamb, Revelation’s allegorical image for Jesus as both sacrificed sheep and messianic shepherd; victim and victor, the loving protector who leads us as a single multitude that shows all Earth’s glorious diversity.

Psalm: Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Most of the Psalms address God in prayer, but this portion of Psalm 34 is different: The Psalmist here, imagined as the voice of King David after he had feigned madness to escape a deadly threat, sings directly to the people, offering wise counsel: As God’s saints and as God’s servants, we praise and worship God. 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

Biblical scholars believe that the three short letters of John were written neither by John the apostle, John the evangelist, nor John the author of Revelation. After all, John was – and is – a very common name! Still, these verses from the first letter of John celebrate the abundant love of God that showers on us and makes us all God’s children in language that seems consistent with the theology of John’s Gospel and may have come from a later community devoted to John the Evangelist’s tradition. The glory of our coming adulthood under God’s love remains to be revealed, the author of this letter tells us. But from the beginning, we are assured, all of God’s children, all of God’s saints, are brothers and sisters through God’s creative love.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

The Beatitudes, the beloved verses in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, have become so familiar that we sometimes don’t pause to give them the deep reflection that they deserve. In eight quick statements, Jesus turns the world upside down: It is not the rich who are blessed, but the poor. It is not the successful and the proud who win God’s blessing, but mourners, the meek, the hungry; the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the oppressed. This is good news for the poor, and it is earth-shattering. It is also a theme that Jesus repeats again and again until it is difficult to understand why we have such a hard time getting it.

Pentecost 22A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Oct. 29, 2023 (Pentecost 23A)

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

In Sunday’s Track One first reading we reach the end of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as Torah. Moses has led the progeny of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph out of slavery in Egypt, received God’s commandments and made God’s covenant at Mount Sinai. He has wandered 40 years in the desert with a fractious people. Now he comes within sight of the Promised Land where he meets God again on another mountain top. But this time Moses learns that he may see the land, knowing that God’s promise is fulfilled, but he won’t live to cross over to it. His successor, Joshua, will lead the people across the Jordan into Canaan.

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. We turn to Leviticus in our Track Two first reading as God instructs Moses in the ways in which we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s teaching – Torah – leads directly to Jesus’ teaching in this week’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

This psalm, attributed by tradition to Moses himself, sings praise for God’s eternal ongoing creation in which a thousand years pass like a day. In comparison, our lives are as evanescent as the grass that turns from green to brown overnight. Then the narrative turns 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

This, the first of all the psalms, sings of two paths that we may choose to take through life. In poetic verses that might remind us of Jesus’ parables about seeds that fall on variously nourishing ground, the Psalmist likens us to trees. The well watered trees of the righteous who follow in God’s way grow lush and fruitful. But the way of the wicked yields weak trees that can’t stand straight. Which way to choose? The Psalm makes the fruitful choice abundantly clear.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Paul’s first letter to the Christian community in Thessaloniki in Macedonia, Norther Greece, is the earliest Pauline letter that has come down to us. Paul repeatedly speaks of his love and family feeling for this community. Intriguingly, he contrasts this by writing openly about his problems with the congregation in nearby Philippi! The Philippians had some serious problems at this time, and someone there seemingly didn’t treat Paul well. With the people of Thessalonika, though, Paul developed a dear friendship that he likens to a nurse caring for her children. (Happily, things had evidently cleared up a few years later, when Paul’s letter to the Philippians was kind and generous, too.)

Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46

We may think of Jesus’ words about the greatest commandment as profoundly Christian, deeply reflecting everything we know about Jesus. And this is true. But we should never forget that these words are deeply Jewish too. The “greatest and first” commandment, by Jesus’ own statement, directly quotes part of the Sh’ma, the most important Jewish prayer; the second comes straight from the Holiness Code in Leviticus. Our spiritual heritage goes back a long way, and as we heard from Jesus earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets (that is, the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) but to fulfill it.

Pentecost 21A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Oct. 22, 2023

The Tribute Money

The Tribute Money (1424), fresco by Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, known as Masaccio (1401-1428). Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, Italy. (Click image to enlarge.)

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

Even when we the people stray from God’s way, our faith brings us back again to rest in God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness. Listen for this theme in Sunday’s readings. In our Track One first reading, the Lectionary planners have spared us a bloody and horrifying narrative that followed last Sunday’s passage about the people worshipping a golden calf: Their leaders were ordered to kill 3,000 of their brothers and sisters who had worshiped the idol. As we return to the narrative, God has relented, graciously agreeing to continue leading and guiding the people. 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

The people have been in exile in Babylon for 40 years, dreaming of their lost city and temple. Isaiah and the other prophets had warned them that they had no one but themselves to blame for their exile. They had failed to love their neighbor, forgotten to care for the weak and needy, and thus broke the covenant with God that had brought them to the Promised Land. But now the Persians have conquered Babylon, led by the wise king that history knows as Cyrus the Great. Cyrus will allow the people to return home to Jerusalem. In celebration, the prophet sings high praise to Cyrus, celebrating the Persian Gentile king as God’s own anointed, a Messiah.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 99

The Psalmist celebrates the story of the people’s flight from slavery in Egypt as told in Exodus. Psalm 99 celebrates God’s justice and equity. Its verses celebrate God’s having led the people in a pillar of cloud. God answered the people’s prayers and, while justly punishing them when they strayed, forgave them in the end. Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God, we sing!

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)

Cyrus may have been a great king, as we heard in the Track Two first reading. But the Psalm that follows quickly reminds us that God is king among all kings, before whom the whole Earth trembles. God created all things and will judge all things, fairly and with equity, we sing. Heaven and earth, thunder and lightning, all the fields and all the forest will rejoice when God comes to judge in righteousness and truth.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul praises this small community of former pagans in Thessalonika in Northern Greece, who had been persecuted by Rome for having given 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.” Over the next several weeks we will hear more from 1 Thessalonians. Thought to be Paul’s first known letter, it was written perhaps 20 years after the crucifixion. At this time, early Christians still expected that Jesus would come back soon to judge the world and establish the kingdom of God on Earth.

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22

This familiar story continues our recent narrative from Matthew: Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for what would be the final week before his crucifixion, and he quickly got in trouble. First he angrily threw the money changers out of the Temple. Then, in one encounter after another, he fences with the Pharisees who, in Matthew’s account, want to shut this trouble-maker down. Now they try to trap Jesus with a trick question, but he outwits them again. In his wise statement, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus leaves open the question of how much the emperor’s share might amount to. Thinking about the Gospels overall, though, that small coin alone may be Caesar’s portion. Jesus clearly points our priority toward God.

Pentecost 20A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Oct. 15, 2023

First Reading (Track One): Exodus 32:1-14

The uninvited wedding guest

The uninvited wedding guest (1631), oil painting on panel by Vincent Malo (c.1602-1644). Muzeul Naţional Brukenthal, Sibiu, Romania. (Click image to enlarge.)

No matter how badly God’s people behave, it seems that our loving Creator manages to find ways to forgive us. In our Track One first readings in this liturgical season, we have followed the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph as they escaped slavery in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, trekked through the desert, and received the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai, making a covenant with God. But now things have gone wrong. Fearful of Sinai’s smoke and thunder and afraid that Moses won’t come back from the mountain, they fashion and worship a golden calf. God, outraged, threatens to destroy the people. But Moses pleads for them and God’s abundant love flows in forgiveness to a people who may not deserve it, but who will be forgiven again and again.

First Reading (Track Two): Isaiah 25:6-9

Isaiah prophesies in the context of Israel’s relief from foreign domination after its Assyrian exile. Isaiah exalts and praises a God seen as a warrior who destroyed the enemy while protecting the poor and needy. Then the narrative turns to a beautiful song of hope: In verses that we often hear as a reading in our liturgy for burial, the prophet sings of a banquet that God will prepare: “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines … of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.” This is to be a feast for the people of all nations, united at last in a kingdom where death and tears are no more.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

The Psalmist looks back at the people’s wickedness in worshipping the golden calf, recalling how in this way they threw away the great gift that they had just received. They forgot God, their Savior, who had watched over them in Egypt and brought them safely across the Red Sea and through the desert. They deserved destruction, the Psalmist sings. Yet Moses stood up for them and turned God’s wrath aside.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 23

Is there any more beloved song of God’s deep and abundant love than the 23rd Psalm? Our Good Shepherd is always with us, comforting us and protecting us. Our Shepherd is with us not only in the good times when we walk in the green pastures, but all the more in those frightening times when we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Just as Isaiah spoke of a banquet table set for the people of God, the Psalmist, too, sees a table of comfort spread out for us in the house of the Lord.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:1-9

Paul shows his pastoral side as he addresses an issue in his flock involving two women leaders in the church at Philippi – Euodia and Syntyche – who have been quarreling. Without taking either side, he urges both of them to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” In beautiful language, he shows how that might look: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Be gentle and kind; true, honorable and just, pure, pleasing, commendable and praiseworthy, Paul exhorts this community, and the God of peace will be there.

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

We follow last week’s account of the wicked tenants with yet another challenging parable. It’s easy enough for us to grasp the king’s anger at the people who didn’t show up for his son’s lavish wedding banquet, even if destroying the people and burning their city seems more than excessive. But then, after he invited people off the street to take the place of their ungrateful predecessors, this wrathful king angrily ties up and throws out a man who had failed to put on a wedding garment. To put all this in context, remember that we are still in Matthew’s narrative in which Jesus uses a series of striking parables to lecture an angry group of Pharisees. If there is any deeper message, it may be that we are called to follow Jesus fully, wedding garment and all.

Pentecost 19A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Oct. 8, 2023

First Reading (Track One): Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Moses the Prophet, Eastern Orthodox icon

Moses the Prophet, Eastern Orthodox icon from the 1590s, depicts Moses holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments. We hear the Exodus account of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments in our Track One first reading this week. (Click image to enlarge.)

God commands. We the people try to obey; but it isn’t always easy. Listen for this theme in Sunday’s Track One readings. In our first reading we find Moses at Mount Sinai in the desert, where Moses has met God face-to-face on the mountain and brought the Ten Commandments down to the people. Establishing their identity and their hope, the people join in covenant with God, accepting the commandments that will guide their lives and ensure their righteousness in relationship with God and others.

First Reading (Track Two): Isaiah 5:1-7

In Isaiah’s poetic song God plants a vineyard and cares for it with love. But the harvest yields wild grapes: “stinking, worthless, sour” fruit in the original Hebrew. What happened? The vines metaphorically stand for the people, who disappointed God by failing to be just and righteous. Now God will trample down the vines, destroying the vineyard. Early in Isaiah’s long book of prophecy he is already setting the scene for a people defeated in war, their city destroyed, sent into exile. Listen for vineyard metaphors through Sunday’s Track Two readings and ponder their relationship.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 19

God’s commandments are a wonderful gift, a gift that shows God’s glory in such a shining light that all the heavens sing: All the skies reveal the work of God’s hand! This triumphant Psalm begins with mighty praise for the beauty of all God’s creation. Then the theme turns to a hymn of praise for the commandments, God’s law and teaching. True, just and righteous, God’s commandments stand even above the earthly creation that we have just celebrated. They are sweeter than honey, more precious than gold.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 80:7-14

The Psalmist might well have had Isaiah in mind while writing these poetic verses. Isaiah had warmed that a disappointed, angry God, loathing the sour fruit, would demolish the vineyard, tearing down its wall and hedge and ordering a drought to lay it waste. This Psalm imagines a people who brought a vine out of Egypt, made it mighty, but then neglected it and let it wither. But now we beg a compassionate God to regard and restore the bountiful vines, bringing in a hint of hope that is not found in the dark verses of our Isaiah reading.

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

Paul has left his church community in Philippi to travel onward. Now other Christians preaching a more conservative Jewish view of Christianity have come to this church in Greek Macedonia and told the people that, despite Paul’s teaching, if they wish to be Christians they must follow Jewish law – including purity laws and circumcision. Paul pushes back in this letter. He points out that he is a devout Jew himself, and a Pharisee too, observant and righteous. But now. he says, everything has changed: The old commandments, he says, mean nothing without Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus challenges the temple authorities with one of his difficult parables involving vineyards and the people who work in them. When this vineyard owner went to another country, he hired tenants to produce the grapes for him while he was away. But when he sent slaves to pick up the produce, the tenants beat them up and killed them. Next, remarkably, they did the same to the owner’s own son! What, Jesus asked, would the owner do? Surely he will kill the evil tenants, the priests and Pharisees respond. But Jesus turns the parable back on them: It is those who work to produce fruit who will inherit the Kingdom of God. Angered, the temple leaders start plotting to arrest Jesus.

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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