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 18A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Oct. 1, 2023

First Reading (Track One): Exodus 17:1-7

The Holy Children with a Shell (John the Baptist on the right with the child Jesus.)

The Holy Children with a Shell (John the Baptist on the right with the child Jesus.) Painting c.1670 by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo (1617-1682). Prado Museum, Madrid. (Click image to enlarge.)

The people in their journey through the desert continue being hard to satisfy, quarreling with Moses and doubting whether God is really watching over them. In last week’s reading we saw God responding to their hunger with daily rations of quail and manna. Now they have no water, and even if their whining seems to annoy Moses, it’s hard to blame them for grumbling in their thirst. God instructs Moses to go ahead with some of the elders to strike a rock with the rod that he had used to part the Red Sea’s waters. He complies, and when he hits the rock, water comes gushing out to slake everyone’s thirst.

First Reading (Track Two): Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Three weeks ago we heard the Prophet Ezekiel warning the people that although God does not want to kill them, they surely must die if they do not repent, turning back from their wicked ways. Today, we hear a similar, longer exhortation from earlier in the book, another stern warning that contains a glimpse of hope. Again Ezekiel sees repentance as the necessary response to a dangerous pattern of behavior: Fail in righteousness, refuse to be just, and you must die. But repent, turn away from wickedness, and enjoy life in the grace of God, who takes no pleasure in your death or that of your children. “Turn, then, and live.”

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Writing centuries after the ancestral story of the people’s exodus from Egypt and their journey through the wilderness to freedom, the Psalmist joyfully recalls that narrative with no hint of the quarrelsome, complaining times when the people forgot God’s blessings. In this hymn of praise that “declares the mysteries of ancient times,” these verses echo to future generations how God’s power and marvels opened the sea, led the people toward freedom, and, indeed, brought water gushing out of a cliff like a river.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 25:1-8

The five or six Psalms that follow immediately after the beloved 23rd Psalm also sing praise and gratitude to a loving God who cares for us and protects us from our enemies. Echoing the ideas that Ezekiel expressed, when we sing this Psalm we remember that, though we may have sinned, transgressed God’s love and hopes for us, we nevertheless trust in our loving, saving God to remember us with compassion, protect us, and guide us toward right paths in spite of our errors.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-13

We hear more of Paul’s beautiful letter to his dear friends, the Philippians, from his prison cell in Rome. Be encouraged and consoled by the life and love of Christ, he exhorts them. Be as humble and unselfish as Jesus, placing the needs of others before our own ambition; and in doing so, live as Jesus lived. Then he turns to the poetic phrases of an ancient Christian hymn, proclaiming that Jesus – although made in the form of God – “emptied himself” in utter humility, taking instead the form of a slave, obediently accepting death by crucifixion; and in so doing became exalted as our anointed Lord and master.

Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32

We have skipped over several chapters and a great deal of activity since last week’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples have reached Jerusalem, entered the city with palm-waving, cheering crowds, and angrily thrown over the money changers’ tables in the temple. Now it is a new day, Jesus has come back to the temple, and the wary high priests try to trap him by asking with whose authority he teaches, heals and speaks. But Jesus traps them back with his own trick question about John the Baptist that they can’t answer either way without getting into trouble. Then Jesus moves on to a parable that, as parables do, asks a thought-provoking question: Is it better to walk the walk or talk the talk?

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 17A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Sept. 24, 2023

First Reading (Track One): Exodus 16:2-15

Parable of the workers in the vineyard

Gleichnis von den Arbeitern im Weinberg (Parable of the workers in the vineyard, 17th century), painting on panel by Jacob Willemsz de Wet (1632–1675). Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary. (Click image to enlarge.)

God showers us with abundant good, even when we have done nothing to deserve it: This is the gift of God’s amazing grace, and we hear about it throughout Sunday’s readings. In our first reading, the Israelites are in the wilderness. They may have been saved from the Egyptian army by God’s mighty hand at the Red Sea, but they are unhappy now, six weeks later, bitterly complaining because they have nothing to eat. They wish God had just killed them in Egypt, where at least they could eat their fill. But God provides, promising them meat in the evenings and bread in the mornings, which prove to be quail in the evenings and, in the mornings, the miraculous flaky manna that falls to the earth like dew.

First Reading (TrackTwo): Jonah 3:10-4:11

Last week we heard in Matthew’s Gospel about the parable of the king who forgave a slave’s debt – until that slave declined to forgive his debtor in turn. Now in the Hebrew Bible we find more insight into God’s desire to forgive. Jonah had fiercely resisted God’s call to prophesy to Israel’s ancient enemies in Nineveh until God sent him there, despite his refusal, via the famous giant fish. Arrived in the ancient capital of Israel’s Assyrian enemies, Jonah prophesied as ordered. Much to his surprise, the people of Nineveh changed their minds and gained God’s favor. Rather than being joyful, though, Jonah has an extended tantrum because God declined to destroy the city. “Just kill me now,” Jonah shouts. But God stands firm, choosing mercy and forgiveness over revenge on a city of 120,000 innocent people and all their animals.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

We read the first few verses of this same Psalm just three weeks ago. This Sunday, though, after the introductory praise to God’s holy name, we jump ahead to verses that remember Israel in the desert: The cloud and fire that led them; the quail and bread that fed them, and the water that flowed from the rock. All this is placed in the context of the covenant that God made with Moses and the people at Mount Sinai: God will give the people land and wealth. The people will follow God’s teaching and laws, living lives of righteousness and justice.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 145:1-8

Like a great symphony that ends with a mighty coda, the book of Psalms comes to a triumphant close with six joyous hymns of praise for God’s great glory. Psalm 145, which serves as a transition to that finale, reinforces the message that we heard in Jonah: The Psalmist exults in God’s righteousness, grace, generous mercy and steadfast love. We ponder the glorious splendor of God’s majesty and all God’s marvelous works, as the Psalmist exults in God’s righteousness, grace, generous mercy and steadfast love.

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30

After spending the past three months reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, we will now devote four Sundays to getting to know his letter to the people of Philippi. This was a Gentile community in Macedonia, Northern Greece, largely populated by the descendants of Roman soldiers. It was Paul’s first church in Europe, and his affection is apparent throughout the short letter. He is thought to have written this letter from prison in Rome, where his execution was a real possibility; and this may have inspired his reflections on life and death. If he lives, he says, he will take joy in continuing to spread the Gospel; but he is just as willing to die, for he understands death as being with Christ forever.

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

The parable of the workers in the field makes us stop and think, as the parables of Jesus are supposed to do. How would we feel if we had worked all day for our pay, only to see some other people who came in late and worked for only an hour getting the same amount as we had? Unfair! If we had stood on a street corner in a day-labor market, though, waiting for someone to offer us work, we’d probably be overjoyed at the unexpected generosity of our wage. God’s ways, as we see so often in Scripture, are not our ways. We all earn God’s grace in equal measure, no matter who we are or what we have done. What God gives to others takes nothing away from God’s gifts to us. We should joyfully celebrate God’s abundance, not jealously grumble about 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.

Feast of St Matthew

Illuminations on the readings for Sept. 24, 2023 (Feast of St. Matthew)

First Reading: Proverbs 3:1-6

Matthew the Apostle

Matthew the Apostle (c.1360), painting by Master Theodoric of Prague (c.1328-c.1381). National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic. (Click image to enlarge.)

The feast of a church’s patron may be transferred from its usual date to the closest Sunday, so we celebrate the Feast of St. Matthew, which normally falls on September 21, this Sunday in place of the 17th Sunday of Pentecost. The readings chosen for this day reflect the tradition of Matthew as a tax collector elevated to apostle and evangelist. In our first reading, the Book of Proverbs advises us to keep God’s commandments and use them to guide our lives, If we do so, Proverbs assures us, we will be amply rewarded with a good life and good reputation.

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

The Psalmist’s message, a brief snippet drawn from the longest of all the psalms, echoes the Proverbs reading: Learn God’s laws and commandments and follow them faithfully. God’s way turns us away from what is worthless, we sing: God’s way gives life.

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

The second letter of Timothy, one of several short pastoral epistles written by later followers in Paul’s name, offers guidance to a growing church. It mirrors the Psalmist’s call for unity in tradition, guided by Scripture. As you read or hear it, though, bear in mind that when it was written in the late first century or early second, the New Testament was not yet assembled into a book, and the Gospels had only recently been written down. “Scripture” meant the Old Testament, summarized in Torah’s command to love God, love our neighbor, and care for the poor and the alien.

Gospel: Matthew 9:9-19

Matthew’s Gospel portrays him as a tax collector, a position that would have made him roundly despised in ancient Israel. The tax collector preyed on his neighbors on behalf of the hated Roman empire. Nevertheless, when Jesus called him, Matthew followed … and then they sat down to dinner in Matthew’s house. Having mercy and calling sinners is Jesus’s way, not self-righteously looking down on those we consider beneath us.

Pentecost 14A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Sept. 3, 2023

First Reading (Track One): Exodus 3:1-15

The long journey of the people from slavery in Egypt toward freedom in Canaan begins. Moses encounters God in the form of a burning bush on Mount Horeb.

Moses before the Burning Bush

Moses before the Burning Bush (1613-14). Oil painting on canvas by Domenico Fetti (1589-1623).
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. (Click image to enlarge.)

This is another name for Mount Sinai, where Moses will later return to receive the Ten Commandments and enter the people into covenant with God. The God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, too powerful to view face to face, occupying holy ground, tells a somewhat reluctant Moses that he is to lead the people out of Egypt. Then Moses asks a curious question: What is God’s name? “I am who I am,” God replies. “Say to the Israelites, ‘I am’ has sent me to you.”

First Reading (Track Two): Jeremiah 15:15-21

The youthful prophet Jeremiah’s sometimes angry, frequently despondent prophecies have earned him the nickname “Weeping Prophet.” We hear a little of both emotions in today’s first reading, in which we find Jeremiah confronting God and asking him to bring down retribution on those who are persecuting him. Jeremiah spoke out on God’s behalf, even though it was hard, but the ungrateful people only insulted him. “Why,” he wails, “is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” God responds with kindness, reassuring him: “they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you.”

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c

Echoing the announcement of God’s name to Moses, this Psalm of praise sings out thanksgiving and glory to God’s holy name. It, too, celebrates the people’s ancestry from Abraham, Jacob and Israel (Jacob), and recalls that they, too, sojourned as aliens and oppressed slaves in Egypt. Once the people become oppressed, God sent Moses and Aaron to bring them out. Hallelujah … praise the Lord!

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 26:1-8

It is interesting to wonder whether Jesus had Psalm 26 in mind when he told (in Luke 18) about the Pharisee who boasted loudly of his righteousness and thanked God that he was not like the thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even tax collectors. It would be easy to read that kind of prideful piety into these verses. Let’s hear them instead in the light of Jeremiah’s woeful call for God’s grace, and envision a God whose lovingkindness inspires us to worship with thanksgiving and songful procession, loving the place where God’s glory abides.

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21

We have read through much of Paul’s letter to the people of Rome for almost three months, since the beginning of the season after Pentecost. We have listened and learned as Paul worked out a new theology, discerning how we receive new life in God’s grace through Christ. Now we approach the end of the letter and hear a beautiful, poetic summary of Paul’s call to Rome’s Jewish and Gentile Christians to live together in love as Jesus would have done. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is no dry, ancient admonition: As it was then, so is it today.

Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28

What a difference a day makes! In last week’s Gospel we heard Jesus praise Peter, calling him the rock upon which he will build the church. Now, in the verses that immediately follow, when Jesus tells the apostles that he must suffer, die and be raised again, Peter angrily demurs, prompting Jesus to turn and declare Peter “Satan,” ordering him to get out of his sight. The evangelist we know as Matthew, perhaps reflecting evolving Christian theology a generation or two after the crucifixion, depicts a powerful image of Jesus as Messiah, predicting his own death and resurrection as necessary steps toward the universal justice that will come with God’s kingdom.

Pentecost 11A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Aug. 13, 2023 (Pentecost 11A)

First Reading (Track One): Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Faith in the face of fear, faith as a source of strength: This idea shows up in Sunday’s readings in the stories of Joseph, threatened with death and then sold into slavery by his own brothers; and loyal Peter, confident that he can walk on Galilee’s choppy waters until his faith falls short and he starts to sink.

Jesus walking on water

Jesus walking on water (1433), Armenian manuscript illumination in the Daniel of Uranc Gospel. Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, Armenia. (Click image to enlarge.)

In our Track One first reading we follow the Old Testament’s dysfunctional first family into its fourth generation. Jacob’s son Joseph’s encounter with his brothers reveals once again that even the patriarchs were flawed, broken, sometimes downright bad people. Yet still God loved them, as God loves us, and all ends well.

First Reading (Track Two): 1 Kings 19:9-18

The Prophet Elijah is not in a happy place when we encounter him in Sunday’s Track Two first reading. Elijah is fleeing for his life from an angry Queen Jezebel, and he feels alone and afraid. In despair, he believes that no one is on his side. But then he hears the word of God. An angel comes as a messenger an invites him to go stand on the mountain to meet God. Soon a great wind shakes his world. Then an earthquake and finally a fire shatter the peace around him. But God is not in any of those noisy eruptions. It is in the silence that follows, rather, that God’s voice is finally heard. God reassures Elijah, promising that he will succeed, that he will go on at God’s direction to anoint Israel’s kings and prophets.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b

This Psalm portion remembers Joseph’s life as a slave in Egypt, his feet bruised in fetters and his neck choked in a stout iron collar. Ultimately, though, the Psalmist reminds us, God was faithful to Joseph, who gained the Egyptian king’s trust and eventually rose to a place of power in Pharaoh’s court. God has done marvelous things for the people, the Psalmist exults. Sing praises! Glory in God’s holy name!

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 85:8-13

The reassurance that we hear God giving to Elijah amid his lonely fear in the first reading is echoed in the Psalmist’s song in this beautiful portion of Psalm 85: God has forgiven our iniquity and blotted out our sins. Heaven and earth meet in truth and righteousness; righteousness and peace share a tender kiss. God grants prosperity and a fruitful harvest, these verses conclude, and all shall be well.

Second Reading: Romans 10:5-15

As we return to Paul’s Letter to the Romans after a week’s break for the Transfiguration, we find Paul still trying to persuade Rome’s Gentile Christian community and its Jewish Christians to live in harmony and love one another. Salvation comes to us all through Jesus, he writes. There is nothing we can do to earn it; Christ has done this all for us, with no distinction between Jew and Greek (Gentile): God is God of all. The word of faith is in us, and we are called to proclaim the good news of the Gospel so all may be saved.

Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33

Jesus walks on the water! This striking image is surely one of the most well-known Gospel stories. Now, imagine it from the viewpoint of the disciples. Jesus had made them go ahead without him so he could have a little time alone, away from the crowds, to pray in his grief after hearing of his cousin John’s beheading. Now a violent storm has come up, the apostles are alone on the boat, and they’re scared … and here comes Jesus, calmly walking across the stormy sea! Peter – the first of them all to recognize that it really is Jesus – steps out onto the water to greet Jesus. But his faith isn’t strong enough to keep him from sinking without the help of Jesus’s extended hand.Then the wind eases, they get into the boat, and the awed disciples now worship Jesus as the Son of God.

Feast of the Transfiguration

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Aug. 6, 2023 (Feast of the Transfiguration)

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

We take a break from the long season of Sundays after Pentecost this week because the Feast of the Transfiguration, traditionally celebrated on August 6, falls on a Sunday this year and takes precedence over the standard Lectionary.

The Transfiguration of Christ

The Transfiguration of Christ (1605), oil painting on canvas by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Musee de Beaux Arts of Nancy, France. (Click image to enlarge.)

Our other readings for Sunday all foreshadow the event described in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Peter, James and John join Jesus on a mountaintop and are startled to see him, accompanied by Moses and Elijah, transfigured in dazzling white and shining like the Sun. In our first reading we hear that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his face, too, shone like the Sun.

Psalm: Psalm 99

This ancient hymn portrays God as a powerful king receiving loud chants of praise. In the temple in Jerusalem, two cherubim – fierce angels appearing as lions with wings and human faces – were placed atop the Ark of the Covenant to serve as God’s throne. Our God is no petty tyrant, the Psalmist sings, but a mighty ruler who expects justice and provides equity for the righteous. God speaks out of clouds and fire, demanding justice for all, dealing out punishment when it’s needed, but ultimately forgiving all.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21

Modern bible scholars generally accept that this letter, perhaps the last written in the New Testament, is not the work of Simon Peter, the apostle. It was almost certainly written in Peter’s name by a leader in the early church a century or more after the Crucifixion. Still, it opens a window into the thinking of the second-century church, when believers were trying to understand why Jesus had not returned as soon as had been expected. Everything they have heard about Jesus is true, the letter reassures them, speaking as if in Peter’s own voice: Peter himself was present at the Transfiguration. Trust in God, we hear, and wait for the dawn and the morning star.

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36

We hear the story of the Transfiguration Gospel every year on the last Sunday after Epiphany. Now we encounter it again in midsummer: Peter, John and James, mouths dropping in awe, see Jesus joined by Moses and Elijah, all talking mysteriously about Jesus’s “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Jesus is transfigured, his face shining and his clothing dazzling white. Then a cloud forms around them all and God’s voice thunders out of the cloud, once again intoning the words that God had spoken from a cloud at Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”


If you’d like to keep up with the lectionary readings for Pntecost 10A that are replaced by the Transfiguration readings this week, they are:
First Reading (Track One): Genesis 32:22-31
First Reading (Track Two): Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm (Track One): Psalm 17:1-7, 15
Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21

Pentecost 9A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for July 30, 2023 (Pentecost 9A)

First Reading (Track One): Genesis 29:15-28

Sunday’s Track One first reading hits us with one eye-popping surprise after another.

Parable of the hidden treasure

Parable of the hidden treasure (c.1630), painting, possibly by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) or Gerrit Dou (1613-1675). Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. (Click image to enlarge.)

First, tricky Jacob gets tricked in his turn by Laban, who puts him to work for seven years to earn Laban’s daughter Rachel as his bride. But Laban switches in his older daughter, Leah, much to Jacob’s consternation. Then, not only does Jacob eventually marry Rachel, too, but Rachel’s and Leah’s maids! So much for “biblical marriage”! It’s difficult for us in modern times to understand Scripture’s seemingly casual acceptance of arranged, polygamous marriages, with the women given no opportunity to participate or object. Perhaps it’s best to view these ancestral legends as products of their own time and culture, that yet in their own way celebrate God’s faithfulness in ensuring that Abraham’s children will populate all nations.

First Reading (Track Two): 1 Kings 3:5-12

Known in tradition for his great wisdom, King Solomon may be most often remembered by the story – just a few verses after this one – of how he revealed the real mother in two women’s dispute over a baby by proposing to cut the infant in half. Here we meet Solomon – the son of King David and Bathsheba – as the young, new king, uncertain and uneasy. Dreaming of God asking what he would like to be given, Solomon chose not long life, riches or power, but only wisdom to govern the people well. Pleased by this choice, God grants Solomon a discerning mind greater than any other king that came before or will come after him.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

This resounding hymn of praise to God and God’s works celebrates the promise that we have seen come to pass in our recent first readings: God made an everlasting covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a covenant that we will later see worked out with Moses and the people at Mount Sinai. God promises that their children will inherit the Promised Land for a thousand generations, in response to their covenant to faithfully follow God’s teaching and obey God’s laws.

Alternate Psalm (Track One): Psalm 128

This short alternative Psalm echoes similar ideas as the Psalm 105 portion without explicitly mentioning the ancestral covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In similar fashion, though, in quick cadences it celebrates the joy and the rewards that come to those who follow in God’s way: the fruits of their labor, the happiness and prosperity that they will enjoy. Thanks to God’s blessings from Zion, they will be rewarded with secure homes and long and prosperous lives.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 119:129-136

With its 176 verses, this is the longest of all the Psalms. From end to end it tells the Psalmist’s love and praise for God’s Law, God’s covenant with the people. The word “Law” here is the Hebrew “Torah,” the first five books of the Bible. Torah is understood as God’s teaching, God’s expression of God’s desire for us to live in good relationship with God and each other. These verses celebrate the love of Torah in almost sensuous terms of breathless longing. God’s statutes are so wonderful, we are told, that the Psalmist sheds streams of tears at the harsh recognition that some people fail to follow their teaching.

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39

For several weeks we have heard excerpts from Paul’s extended argument contrasting life in the flesh against life in the spirit. This portion of the letter to the Romans reaches its conclusion in a burst of poetic words: If God is for us, who is against us? God’s abiding faithfulness was made manifest through God’s gift of God’s own son. If God gave him up for all of us, nothing in all creation – not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword – can separate us from the love of God through Jesus.

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Tell us, Jesus: What exactly is the kingdom of heaven like? Jesus offers brief, thought-provoking glimpses in five quick parables. Each in some way imagines a kingdom that begins with something so tiny or hidden that it can hardly be seen, but that quickly grows in power and might. It’s a tiny mustard seed that grows into a mighty tree. It’s the yeast that mysteriously makes bread rise. It’s like buried treasure or an expensive pearl that got lost but was found again; It’s like an empty net dropped into the ocean that comes up loaded with fish. And then Jesus concludes on a warning note: Just as the fishers sort the good fish from the bad, at the end of the age angels will separate the evil from the righteous and throw the evil into the furnace of fire amid weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Pentecost 3A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for June 11, 2023 (Pentecost 2A)

First Reading (Track One): Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)

We are now in the period that the Catholic Church (and some Episcopalians) call “Ordinary Time” because this section of the liturgical year falls outside the major seasons of the church calendar.

Christ Teaching the Disciples

Christ Teaching the Disciples, from Das Plenarium (1517), hand-colored woodcut by Hans Schäufelein (1480–c.1540). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Click image to enlarge)

Our Gospels through this period recall the public ministry of Jesus as told by Matthew, in Galilee and along the long road to Jerusalem and the Cross. These works and words of Jesus, his teachings and healings, may seem “ordinary” in contrast with the Incarnation and the Resurrection, but they merit our attention as we learn to follow in Jesus’s way. Our readings Sunday begin in Genesis with God’s assurance, through three mysterious strangers, that Abraham and Sarah will have a son, and that their offspring will inherit the Promised Land.

First Reading (Track Two): Exodus 19:2-8a

Our Track Two first reading turns to the book of Exodus, where we find Moses in a narrative that reflects God’s covenant with Abraham and from which we hear distant echoes in today’s Gospel. Moses has gone up Mount Sinai to receive God’s instructions while the people are camped in the wilderness below. God speaks from the mountaintop, telling Moses, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. At God’s instruction, Moses returns to the elders of the people, quickly gaining their agreement to be in lasting covenant with God: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 116:1, 10-17

We also heard this Psalm just two months ago, midway in Eastertide. It is a Psalm of thanksgiving, clearly intended as a grateful prayer thanking God for recovery from illness. The portion that we sing on Sunday gives thanks for the transforming joy that comes with recovery and resurrection. In the joy of restored life, we offer thanks to God, who frees us from the snares of death.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 100

This joyful hymn, which we often hear in Morning Prayer where it is called the Jubilate (“Be Joyful” in Latin, from its opening verse in the Psaltery), draws its joyous theme from the same truth that Moses taught the elders at Sinai: We are God’s creation, God’s own people, and – using a metaphor that we also hear and love in Psalm 23 – the sheep of God’s pasture.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-8

In our summerlong visit with Paul’s letter to the Romans, we will hear him memorably working out his evolving theology of Christ, the Spirit and salvation. In this passage, which we also heard recently during Lent, Paul encourages the Roman Christians to love each other and heal their differences in spite of their own suffering. He reminds them that even Jesus suffered and died by crucifixion. He urges the Roman Christians to learn endurance in their own suffering, remembering that even though they are sinners, they are justified through faith and saved through the cross.

Gospel: Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)

As Jesus continued his teaching throughout Galilee, we hear from Matthew in Sunday’s Gospel, he felt compassion for the crowds around him “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He summoned the 12 apostles, sending them out among “the lost sheep of Israel” like laborers into the harvest. He told them to proclaim the good news, as he had done, that the kingdom of heaven has come near. As they went, facing possible persecution and distrust, Jesus empowered them to do the miraculous things that he himself had been doing: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.”