Pentecost A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for May 28, 2023 (Pentecost A)

First Reading (or alternate Second Reading): Acts 2:1-21

Fifty days after the first Easter and a week or so after the apostles watched in amazement as the resurrected Jesus was taken up into the clouds, they have gathered to celebrate Shavuot, the Jewish spring harvest festival also known as Pentecost.


Pentecost (ca. 1305). Fresco by Giotto di Bondone (c.1267-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.

Suddenly, as we hear in this first reading from Acts, the Holy Spirit arrives like a violent wind and rests on each of them as a tongue of fire! All at once, Jesus’s promise at the Ascension is fulfilled: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.” The apostles start shouting the Good News in many languages, prompting a startled crowd to wonder if they are drunk. Not so, says Peter. Quoting the Prophet Joel, he assures the crowd that the Spirit will be poured out for all.

First Reading (alternate): Numbers 11:24-30

Seven weeks after Easter we celebrate Pentecost, the third major church holiday of the year. On Christmas we remembered the birth of Jesus. On Easter we recalled Jesus’ death and resurrection. Pentecost completes the circle with God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, inspiring us to take the Gospel out to the world in Jesus’s name. Today’s first reading tells of God’s spirit empowering Moses and his followers. The spirit came to Eldad and Medad, two of Moses’s elders who weren’t there. That didn’t seem fair to Moses’ assistant, Joshua, but Moses reassured him: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

Psalm: Psalm 104:25-35

This psalm of praise exults in all the works of God’s creation, including the Psalmist’s recognition that God made some creations, like Leviathan, the giant whale, just for fun: “for the sport of it.” Perhaps the message for Pentecost in this passage from Psalm 104, though, comes in these prophetic words in Verse 31: “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.” Since the first words of Scripture when God’s spirit breath blew over the face of the waters like a mighty wind and all creation came to be, God’s mighty work of creative world-building continues all around us.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Through the Spirit we all are all as one in baptism, Paul tells the Christian community of Corinth in this much loved passage. Nationality, economic status, gender, enslaved or free: None of these things matter, Paul says. Just as the body is made up of different parts that serve different functions, we each bring our individual gifts as we work together, guided by the Spirit, for the common good. Through it all, Paul assures us, we are all moved by the Spirit as members of the body of Christ.

Gospel: John 20:19-23

If this Gospel passage seems familiar, there’s a good reason: We hear it twice in Eastertide, on the first Sunday after Easter and again on Pentecost Sunday. We return to the locked room where the disciples are hiding in fear on the first Easter. The grieving group was startled when Mary Magdalene ran back to tell them that she met a man in white at the empty tomb. She told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Nevertheless, they don’t know what to believe. And then Jesus suddenly appears among them, mysteriously entering the locked room. In John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit comes to the apostles not at Pentecost but on the first Easter: Jesus shows them his wounds, wishes them peace, and then breathes on them, empowering them with the Holy Spirit and sending them out into the world.

Gospel (alternate): John 7:37-39

Pentecost is one of the feast days designated as especially appropriate for baptism. Indeed, its alternative name, “Whitsunday,” or “White Sunday,” alludes to the white garments worn by those being baptized. As we gather in Christian community and welcome new members into Christ’s Body in the church, we remember that through baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Through the living water of baptism our hearts join in pouring out the good news of the Gospel to all the world’s nations.

Easter 7A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for May 21, 2023 (Easter 7A)

First Reading: Acts 1:6-14

The fifty days of Eastertide are nearing their end: Pentecost Sunday is next week. In the Sunday readings since Easter we have seen the empty tomb and heard of mysterious appearances of the risen Christ, then listened as Jesus tells the apostles of God’s love and our salvation.

The Ascension

The Ascension (1303), a portion of the Cycle of the Life of the Christ fresco by Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. (Click image to enlarge)

Now we arrive at the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as told in the Acts of the Apostles. In this first reading we hear Jesus tell the apostles that the Holy Spirit is coming to send them out to the world with the Gospel. We will hear this promise fulfilled in wind and fire next Sunday.

Psalm: Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

Hearing the first few verses of Psalm 68, many modern Christians would be troubled by the angry images of enemies fleeing in fear and perishing in fire and smoke at the hands of an angry God. But then the Psalm abruptly changes in tone, becoming a gentler hymn of praise and thanksgiving. Those who live righteously and praise our God will receive favor and blessing, the Psalmist sings, just as did God’s people traveling through the desert to the Promised Land.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

The Christian community in Asia Minor (now Turkey) was suffering under a “fiery ordeal” of persecution for their faith when they received this letter in Peter’s name. The writer cannot make their suffering cease, but reminds them that in this suffering they share not only the suffering of their Christian brothers and sisters but even of Christ himself. Stay the course and resist evil, the letter goes on, and know that God is with us and will provide support and strength.

Gospel: John 17:1-11

John’s account of Jesus’ farewell conversation at the Last Supper now reaches its conclusion. In the preceding verses Jesus had promised the disciples, “Ask and you will receive.” Then he told them that he must soon leave this world and return to the father. Now in these final verses Jesus turns from his friends at the table and addresses God directly in prayer: He declares that the hour of his death has come. He prays for the disciples, praising them for their faith and trust, and asking God to protect them, to keep them united with each other and with God, and to give them the eternal life that comes through relationship with God in Jesus’ name.

Christ the King C

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Nov. 20, 2022 (Christ the King C)

First Reading (Both Lectionary Tracks): Jeremiah 23:1-6

On this, the last Sunday after Pentecost, we mark the feast of Christ the King, a concept borrowed from modern Roman Catholic practice in the spirit of ecumenism that followed Vatican II in the 1970s.

Christ and the Good Thief

Christ and the Good Thief (c.1566), oil painting on canvas by Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian (c.1490-1576). Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Italy. (Click image to enlarge.)

It takes note of Christ’s messianic kingship and sovereign rule over all creation. Both Lectionary tracks join in the first reading, in which the prophet Jeremiah speaks fierce truth to the leaders of Babylon who held the people in exile. God will soon round up the remnant of his scattered flock and bring them home like a shepherd, the prophet foretells, warning the oppressors that they will be punished for their evil. Soon God will raise up a a mighty new king in David’s tradition, restoring the glory of the lost kingdoms Israel and Judah.

Psalm (Track One): Luke 1:68-79 (Canticle 16)

This week in place of a psalm we sing Canticle 16, Luke’s Song of Zechariah. Zechariah – whose wife, Elizabeth, was the cousin of Jesus’ mother, Mary – was a priest at the Temple. When he refused to believe that his elderly wife had become pregnant after an angelic visitation, he lost the power of speech. Now his voice returns as he holds the infant and names him John. The child, he declares, will be a prophet in the tradition of Abraham and Sarah – who also were blessed with a child in their old age through God’s action. The child, Zechariah proclaims, will be the prophet who will go before Jesus, the Messiah and king, to declare his way.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 46

This Psalm of praise may not explicitly speak of kings, but it reassures us that whenever terrible things happen, even when Earthly kingdoms and nations are shaken by frightening events, when mountains rock and the oceans roar and foam, God remains with us. God doesn’t promise us a world where horrors can’t happen and no one ever suffers. But even in the worst of times, God abides, inviting us to take refuge in God’s strength. ​Our Prayer for Quiet Confidence (BCP p.832), ​draws from ​Psalm ​46 ​​as it ​reminds us, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Second Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

The Christian community of Colossae in what is now Western Turkey may have felt something like Jeremiah’s remnant of Israel in exile. They lived under the constant threat of Roman persecution, fearing that they might lose their homes and even their lives for their faith. The author of this letter urges them to endure their difficulties with patience and the strength that comes from God’s glorious power expressed through Jesus. Jesus, through his incarnation as God in human flesh and the first of all creation, rescues us from the power of darkness and transfers us into the kingdom of Christ.

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43

And now at the end of Pentecost season we reach the end of Jesus’s long road to Jerusalem as told by Luke. This Gospel reading mirrors the Good Friday Gospel, reminding us of our hope for Easter and the resurrection. Jesus is crucified in the company of criminals: a horrible death reserved for Rome’s most despised evildoers, . The inscription over Jesus’ head reads “This is the King of the Jews,” not as a literal statement but an act of public shaming by Pontius Pilate. Soldiers mock him and a crowd makes fun of him. This is surely no traditional king. Meanwhile, Jesus gently invites the repentant criminal at his side into a different kind of kingdom, one for all humanity and for all time.

All Saints C

Thoughts on the Lessons for All Saints’ Day, Nov. 6, 2022
(All Saints’ Day is celebrated on Nov. 1, but may also be celebrated in the liturgy for the following Sunday.)

First Reading (Track One): Daniel 7:1-3; 15-18

We remember all saints, known and unknown, on All Saints’ Day.

Jesus Proclaims the Beatitudes,

Jesus Proclaims the Beatitudes (1481-1482), fresco by Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507). Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Rome. (Click image to enlarge.)

Our Track One first reading might remind us of Revelation. Much of the book of Daniel (one of the latest books of the Hebrew Bible) is apocalyptic literature, an imaginative genre that remained popular during early Christianity. Like our science fiction and fantasy, writing in this genre was understood as symbolic, not literal. Daniel tells of a vivid dream about four scary beasts that represent earthly kings. In later verses, we meet a winged lion, a tusked bear, a four-headed leopard, and an iron-toothed monster with 10 horns! But the nightmare ends with reassurance that resonates as we recall all who have died and gone to their eternal rest: God will win and reign forever.

Psalm: Psalm 149

Psalm 149 is one of the psalms that celebrates warlike violence in language that reflects Bronze Age sensibility in the Ancient Near East. Listen, though, and we can hear its echoes all too well in the imagery of modern warfare, shock and awe. We sing to the Lord a new song, joyously dancing and shaking tambourines to celebrate God’s gift of victory in battle, while the enemy’s kings are bound in iron chains. Before we judge too harshly, recall that the Psalms, the bible’s ancient hymnal, offer a full human range of emotion, from this warrior shout to the protective love of the Good Shepherd.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:11-23

God has placed Christ at the right hand of the Creator and has given Christ great power to rule over us all, in the present and for all time to come. Thus the author of Ephesians assures his flock, writing in Paul’s name to the persecuted Christians of Ephesus in Asia Minor. From that time onward, all the people of God, baptized in Christ and sealed by the Spirit, are the saints of God. We are Christ’s body on earth, pledged through our inheritance through baptism to redemption as God’s own people.

Gospel: Luke 6:20-31

How well do you know the Beatitudes? Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount comes to mind for most of us: These are memorable directions toward a life of service and neighborly love. Listen for the differences, though, in the evangelist Luke’s distinctly different view of the Beatitudes. Luke’s version in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is more directly focused on caring for the poor. By “poor,” Luke explicitly means those who have no money or resources, not only the “poor in spirit” who Matthew invokes. What’s more, Luke’s version expects us to give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, not simply to stand with those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” as Matthew suggests. Don’t just turn the other cheek, says Luke: Forgive your enemies … and pray for them too.

Pentecost 21C

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Oct. 30, 2022 (Pentecost 21C)

First Reading (Track One): Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” The mournful cry of the prophet Habakkuk will turn to hope battling despair, an idea that we will hear reflected in various ways during Sunday’s Lectionary readings.

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (Zachée sur le sycomore attendant le passage de Jésus, 1886-1896). Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray paper by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum, New York. (Click image to enlarge.)

We only rarely hear from Habakkuk, a minor prophet who lived nearly 700 years before Jesus and, like many of the prophets, warned of the destruction and exile of Jerusalem. But this is a prophet with a difference. Unlike most of the prophets who deliver messages given them by God, Habbakuk shouts his own warnings. Then, in this Track One first reading, the prophet complains that even God doesn’t seem to be paying attention to him. But God does respond, directing Habakkuk to write his vision down so clearly that a runner can read it while racing past: “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”

First Reading (Track Two): Isaiah 1:10-18

The book of Isaiah, one of the Hebrew Bible’s greatest prophets, gets off to a fiery start. Its first five chapters are filled with God’s angry words of wrath before we even get to God’s call to the prophet. First we must clearly hear God’s anger over the people’s failure to keep the covenant that their ancestors made through Moses at Mount Sinai. In Sunday’s Track Two first reading, God likens Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah, whose people were so vile that God hates them and their works. Nevertheless, as always is the case, there is a way to restore God’s love, and it goes back to the covenant between God and the people at Mount Sinai: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 119:137-144

Psalm 119 turns up fairly often in the weekly Lectionary. We read portions of this, the longest of all the psalms, a dozen times through the three-year lectionary cycle. Fun fact: Each of its sections begins with a different Hebrew letter, in order. Throughout its 176 verses, it offers a loving celebration of God’s Torah: Teaching, with the force of law. Each of the psalm’s sections brings its own message, though, and this segment fits well with Habakkuk’s prophecy: When indignation consumes us, when trouble and distress come on the people, God’s commandments are our delight.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 32:1-8

This psalm brings balm in the aftermath of a first reading that portrayed a God too angry to hear the people’s prayers or sacrifices, too outdone to give them even the least attention. This opening portion of Psalm 32 sings of the joy that comes when the separation from God that results from sin is ended, replaced with the utter delight of knowing God’s forgiveness. No longer groaning with pain that feels like withered bones, the repentant sinner is now guarded against trouble and surrounded with shouts of deliverance.

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

The people of Thessalonika in northern Greece must have been suffering and afraid when this letter was sent to their Christian community around the end of the first century. The Apostle Paul was long dead at that point, but the letter’s kind words, written in the first person as if they had come from Paul and his companions Silvanus and Timothy, must have brought them some comfort: “We ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.”

Gospel: Luke 19:1-10

Luke’s Gospel frequently introduces us to tax collectors, members of the Jewish community who, traitorously in the eyes of many, sold their services to the despised Roman occupiers and often used this position to enrich themselves. Last week we heard Jesus praise a tax collector for his humble prayer. Now we meet another tax collector – indeed, the wealthy chief tax collector, Zacchaeus – who was so eager to see Jesus that, being of short stature, he climbed a tree to see this rabbi better as he passed through Jericho. Jesus called out to Zacchaeus, invited himself to dinner at the tax collector’s home. Most of the crowd grumbled angrily about this, but Jesus went ahead, and soon joyfully heard Zacchaeus promise to give half his possessions to the poor and recompense fourfold those whom he had defrauded.

Pentecost 19C

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Oct. 16, 2022

First Reading (Track One): Jeremiah 31:27-34

Pay attention to Sunday’s readings, and watch for a consistent theme: Place your hope in God, be patient and then even when challenges loom, be persistent.

Portrait of a Judge

Portrait of a Judge (c.1620), oil painting on canvas by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris. (Click image to enlarge.)

In our Track One first reading, we hear Jeremiah pause in his relentless lamentation over the sins of Israel and Judah. The prophet now offers words of hope and the certainty of God’s ultimate love. In a striking metaphor about children’s teeth perceiving the sharp flavor when their parents eat sour grapes, Jeremiah assures us that children will no longer be punished for their parents’ sins. Finally, in words that Jeremiah and his readers surely understood to foretell the restoration of the temple and Israel’s kingdom (but that some Christians also interpret as foreshadowing Jesus) the prophet tells of a new covenant in which everyone will know God and all our sins will be forgiven.

First Reading (Track Two): Genesis 32:22-31

Hear this call through Sunday’s readings: Place your hope in God, and even in the face of challenges, be persistent. In this rather puzzling narrative from Genesis, Jacob fights to a draw in a night-long battle with an angel who doesn’t fight quite fairly, yet turns out to be God. This would have been a shocking development in the culture of its time, because the mere sight of God’s face was believed to be fatal to humans. Not even Moses was allowed to see God face-to-face, but Jacob – now renamed Israel – was able to do so, even while he struggled with God as with any other person.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 119:97-104

Throughout Psalm 119, the longest of all the Psalms, The psalmist exults in the study and understanding of God’s law, declaring the joy of unity with God through studious meditation and prayer. Now consider this portion the context of Sunday’s Track One first reading, in which Jeremiah declares God’s law central to God’s new covenant, saying: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Surely these words were sweeter than honey, as the author of Psalm 119 puts it, to Jeremiah’s people in exile, longing for their home.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 121

This is one of the Psalms that we love to hear when we or a loved one or friend is in trouble, fearful, looking for help, uncertain where to turn, seeking protection. Titled “Assurance of God’s Protection” in the New Revised Standard Version, it is one of the Psalms’ most comforting hymns of hope and trust. The Psalmist, not shy about calling out to God, cries out, “From where is my help to come?” We look upward, up to the hills, and find comfort in the sure protection of the Creator, who stands on constant watch, never sleeping, protecting us by night and day.

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

This late New Testament letter was written in Paul’s name at a time when the young, increasingly institutional church was facing Roman persecution. Know your scriptures, the writer advises the troubled flock. Even if it’s hard, even if you have to suffer, continue to spread the Gospel’s good news. This message, written for a particular time and place, may come across differently in modern America, when Christians hold a shrinking majority and ideas of Christian nationalism (often interpreted as white Christian nationalism) lure some to use the church to wield power. Of course we are still called to spread the good news. But it should be the Gospel that Jesus taught us: Love God. Love our neighbors. Even love our enemies as we relieve the oppressed and bring good news to the poor.

Gospel: Luke 18:1-8

Luke’s Gospel often shows us Jesus slamming the rich and powerful with parables that burn: The dishonest steward! The rich man who died too soon to enjoy his barns full of treasure! The rich young man who couldn’t give away his property, even to save his soul! The rich man who burned in hell while the poor man he wouldn’t help in life now reposes in heavenly comfort! And now we meet a corrupt and scheming judge confronted by a persistent widow who will not stop demanding until he finally caves in. How are we to read this? At first glance, we might wonder: Is Jesus comparing God to a corrupt judge who won’t do his job? But Jesus is making a different point: Pray day and night, be persistent, and God will listen and quickly respond.

Pentecost 14C

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Sept. 11, 2022

First Reading (Track One): Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Pick through scripture and you’ll sometimes find a portrait of God as righteously, stormily angry, Turn to another page and you’ll find an image of overwhelming, steadfast love. Here’s reassurance: Divine love ultimately prevails.

Parable of the Lost Drachma

Parable of the Lost Drachma (1618-1622), oil painting on panel by Domenico Fetti (c.1589-1623). Gemäldegalerie Alte Keister, Dresden, Germany. (Click image to enlarge.)

In our Track One first reading, for example, Jeremiah shows us a vision of God erupting in emotional anger that any parent exhausted by misbehaving children can understand: “My people are foolish … they are stupid children … they have no understanding.” Look out, Jeremiah warns the people at the end of Sunday’s passage: God is angry now, and that has consequences. And yet, Jeremiah says, in all this wrath, God yet I will not make a full end.

First Reading (Track Two): Exodus 32:7-14

Can it be a coincidence that this reading falls during the same general season as our Jewish sisters and brothers celebrate the High Holidays? Rabbinical tradition teaches that Yom Kippur, the Feast of Atonement, falls on the date when Moses brought the second set of commandments down from the mountain. With atonement, God will forgive even such an idolatrous act as the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf, portrayed in Sunday’s Track Two first reading, the act that made Moses so angry that he shattered the first set of stone tablets. The lesson is one for the ages: No matter how grave our offenses, when we are truly sorry and we humbly repent, God has mercy on us and forgives us. Every single time.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 14

Sunday’s Track One Psalm offers us clear echoes of Jeremiah’s vision of God as having less than infinite patience when the people go wrong. Jeremiah’s declaration that the people were stupid and foolish recurs here in the Psalmist’s scorn for fools, corrupt people and doers of abominable deeds. Mirroring the brief pause in God’s unrelenting anger in the Jeremiah passage, the Psalm too ends on a note of hope for those who seek refuge in God.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 51:1-11

Speaking of sins like worshiping a golden calf that seem too terrible to pardon, our Track Two Psalm recalls the time when King David sent his loyal soldier Uriah into harm’s way and certain death in order to cover up David’s adulterous affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Then the prophet Nathan accused David, shocking him into recognizing his great sin. The Psalmist, assumed by legend to be David himself, imagines the king’s anguished repentance and hope for God’s forgiveness.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17

From now through the end of October we’ll be reading from the short first and second letters of Timothy. These are framed as letters of pastoral advice written by Paul to his associate Timothy. Bible scholars, though, believe they were actually written by a later Christian leader in Paul’s name. Composed in a time when the early church was becoming institutionalized and cautious, they tend to be more strict and dogmatic than Paul’s early letters. We’ll find none of that in Sunday’s reading, though. Here the writer speaking as Paul gives thanks that God forgave Paul’s blasphemy, persecution and violence and showered him with Christ’s faith and love.

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10

Take a moment to consider the first of these two familiar parables in a new way: Would a solitary shepherd, alone in the wilderness with predators all around and responsible for the care of a large flock, really leave 99 sheep unprotected to go out alone into the scary darkness to find just one? Well, maybe. Perhaps Jesus would. But perhaps Jesus is spinning a memorable story to make sure that everyone gets the point: God does not just forgive us when we go astray. God actively comes after us, looking for us, bringing us back, every single time.

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 13C

Thoughts on Today’s Lessons for Sept. 4, 2022

First Reading (Track One): Jeremiah 18:1-11

Our first reading and Gospel this Sunday might seem to turn our ideas of a protective God and a peaceful Jesus upside down.

Orthodox icon of St. Onesimus.

Orthodox icon of St. Onesimus, the subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon. Onesimus is recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic and many Orthodox traditions.

In our Hebrew Bible passage, God shows Jeremiah an artisan, a creator, who fashions pots from clay and who is not reluctant to smash and re-make an unsatisfactory creation. If the people of Judah and the residents of Jerusalem do not turn back from their evil ways, God, like a cosmic potter, will shape evil against the people and bring disaster upon them.

First Reading (Track Two): Deuteronomy 30:15-20

The chosen people, looking back on 40 years wandering in the wilderness, have finally reached the banks of the Jordan. Before they make their fateful crossing into the promised land, Moses gathers them all and reminds them of the covenant they made with God when they received the Ten Commandments at Sinai: If you love God, walk in God’s ways, and follow God’s laws, you will prosper. But turn away from God and you will lose the land and God’s blessings.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

God knows us as intimately as the potter knows his clay. God knows our every thought, whatever we are doing, wherever we are, the Psalmist sings; God knows every word that we speak and every idea that we imagine. Even before we were born, God knew us. This Psalm neither gives explicit thanks for God’s deep knowledge of our every moment nor imagines how this knowledge affects our daily lives. No, the mere fact of God’s knowing us is sufficient in itself.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 1

The first of the 150 ancient hymns that make up the glorious book of Psalms sets forth a premise that will continue throughout: Those who choose to follow God’s laws, God’s teaching, will be as strong and prosperous as trees growing by rivers, fruitful and long-lived. Those who follow wicked ways will perish, blown away like dead leaves and the chaff of wheat. This is a simple restatement of the covenant of Sinai that the people heard on the banks of Jordan in our first reading.

Second Reading: Philemon 1-21

In this reading we hear almost all of Paul’s brief letter to Philemon. This may be the shortest epistle in the New Testament, but it has borne heavy historic weight, as it was sadly misunderstood for centuries as giving biblical approval to slavery. We might wish that Paul had given a more powerful argument against slavery; but he does what he can in the cultural context of his times, gently guiding the slave holder Philemon to a deeper truth as his runaway slave Onesimus, Paul’s friend, returns to his master: Among Christians, even slaves are more than slaves; they are beloved brothers and sisters in the flesh and in the Lord, and should be greeted with love.

Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

Tension is rising as Jesus continues his journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. The crowds that have been following him since he set his face toward Jerusalem are growing larger and more excited, and we’ll soon learn that the Romans and Temple leaders are nervous about this uproar headed toward the capital at Passover. Jesus wants the crowd to know that it will not be easy to follow him on this journey. Do we really have to “hate” our families and give up everything we have to follow Jesus? Don’t start a job that we can’t finish, Jesus warns. We have to follow him with our whole hearts, not just halfway.

Pentecost 12C

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Aug. 28, 2022 (Pentecost 12C)

First Reading (Track One): Jeremiah 2:4-13

Last week we heard the youthful Jeremiah resisting God’s call to prophesy, fearing that he was too young for such a responsibility.

Christ Teacheth Humility

Christ Teacheth Humility (1847), oil painting on canvas by Robert Scott Lauder (1803-1869). National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. (Click image to enlarge.)

Reassured by God’s kind words and gentle touch, Jeremiah now assumes the prophet’s mantle and imagines God in an anguished reverie, a deep lament. What could have gone wrong with the chosen people? Did they find some wrong in God that led them to waste their lives on worthless things? More in sorrow than in anger, it seems, God reflects that the Chosen People have forsaken God’s living water, instead building cracked cisterns that won’t slake their spiritual thirst.

First Reading (Track Two): Sirach 10:12-18

Sirach is one of the deuterocanonical books, also known as the Apocrypha, that we find at the end of the Hebrew Bible. It was written late in the years before Jesus, after Israel had come under Greek rule, Sirach is also known as Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), a Latin name it was given after the reign of Constantine. By either name, it concisely sums up Torah – God’s teaching – in the genre of wisdom literature: brisk, memorable suggestions of spiritual advice. Sunday’s Track Two first reading follows the theme of the day’s readings: Pride leads to sin, and sin leads to no good end. In language that may remind us of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, it warns that proud rulers will be overthrown and replaced by the lowly.

Alternate First Reading (Track Two): Proverbs 25:6-7

Open your Bible to the book of Proverbs some time. You’ll be intrigued by the nuggets of wisdom that you’ll see there, many of them still seeming fresh and modern. Tradition attributes Proverbs to King Solomon, but modern theologians understand it as a broad collection of some 500 small gems of ancient wisdom about life, love and morals. This very brief reading, an alternate option for Track Two, foreshadows Jesus’ parable in Sunday’s Gospel: “… all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 81:1,10-16

This resounding hymn of praise seems to reflect Jeremiah’s words: We sing with joy to God who is our strength, and we remember God bringing the people out of slavery and feeding them abundantly. But the people were stubborn, did not listen, and God allowed them to go their own way. Now we hear a grieving God, who would feed and nurture the people again, if only they would return.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 112

Sunday’a Track Two Psalm harmonizes with the First Reading and Gospel in its reflection on God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses. We are called to follow God’s commandments to be just, to serve our neighbors, share our wealth and provide for the poor. By living generously in this way, with right hearts and trust in God, we can be secure and live without fear.

Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Love one another as God loves us, and remember to do good, to share with one another, and to show hospitality (as we are told that the patriarch Abraham did when he hospitably received visiting angels). Sunday’s reading from Hebrews, concluding our four weeks with this letter, offers simple pastoral advice on living as God would have us live: : Love one another as God loves us, and remember to do good, to share with one another, to live simply and shun riches, and to hold hospitality as a virtue.

Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14

At first Sunday’s Gospel seems like useful advice from Jesus about simple humility in social settings: Don’t assume that the seat of honor is saved for you, or you’ll be embarrassed when the host tells you to move down. Better to take a humble place and then bask in a happy glow as the host comes and escorts you upward. But the words, as Jesus’s teachings so often do, prove to have a deeper meaning. Jesus isn’t just concerned about mealtime manners. He teaches us the way we should treat others, especially those who are unable to reciprocate in kind.

Pentecost 11C

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Aug. 21, 2022 (Pentecost 11C)

First Reading (Track One): Jeremiah 1:4-10

When God called Jeremiah, the young man doubted his ability to do this important job. “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy!” Every time God called a biblical prophet, it seems, the chosen one instinctively resisted.

The Woman with an Infirmity of Eighteen Years

The Woman with an Infirmity of Eighteen Years (1886-1896), opaque watercolor over graphite on gray paper by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum. (Click image to enlarge.)

Moses tried to decline, saying that he couldn’t speak clearly enough to announce God’s words. Jonah flatly refused to take God’s word to the people of Nineveh. Isaiah was terrified about God’s prophecies passing through his unclean lips. But just as God reassured them all, God spoke kindly to Jeremiah: Even before Jeremiah was born, God knew him, and knew that he would be a prophet to nations and kingdoms, with power “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

First Reading (Track Two): Isaiah 58:9b-14

The book of Isaiah actually contains the work of three ancient writers, according to modern bible scholars. The first Isaiah warned of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple because of the people’s failure to be righteous and just. The second Isaiah prophesied from exile in Babylon. And the third Isaiah, the speaker of this passage, prophesied after the return from exile, a challenging time when the temple was wreckage and the people were having a hard time settling back in. The temple and the city must be rebuilt, the prophet declares, and that will be hard work. But Isaiah promises that all will be well if they follow God’s covenant: Be just, share with the needy, and care for the afflicted. Do all this, and honor the Sabbath, and Judah’s ancient glory will be restored.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 71:1-6

Sunday’s short Psalm fits well with the Track One first reading from Jeremiah. In these verses the Psalmist speaks from a place of weakness and fear. Caught in the hand of the wicked, in the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor, he calls out to God for refuge, seeking God’s protection and help. God knows us from before our birth, the psalmist sings in words echoing Jeremiah. God is our strength and our hope, sustaining us through all our life.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 103:1-8

This familiar hymn of thanksgiving is beloved for its assurances that God loves us, has mercy on us and takes care of us. It is easy to imagine the people of Isaiah’s time singing verses like these as they traveled home from exile. In its hopeful verses we are reminded that God forgives us, heals us and redeems us. We count on God’s mercy and grace, gentle spirit and abundant love.

Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29

Last week’s reading from Hebrews celebrated the heroes of the Hebrew Bible who made up the “cloud of witnesses” that now stands with us as we follow in Jesus’ way. In this Sunday’s passage we remember Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. The people were terrified as the the sky went dark, lightning flashed, thunder roared, and the earth shook with God’s power. But now we have a new covenant under Jesus, the author of Hebrews says: God gives us through Christ a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Gospel: Luke 13:10-17

As a rabbi and teacher in the ancient tradition of Judaism, Jesus knew and followed Torah, God’s law and teaching. He faithfully kept the Sabbath. But when he was teaching in the synagogue on Sabbath, he paused his teaching, stopping what he was doing in order to heal a woman’s painful disability. The woman was overjoyed, of course, but a leader of the synagogue were outraged. How dare Jesus work on the Sabbath? But Jesus called out this hypocrisy, pointing out that no one would hesitate to work to protect their own property on a Sabbath. Why should a woman in pain for 18 years have to wait another day for relief?