Archives for November 2011

Bible Study: 1 Advent (B) – 2011

November 27, 2011

Grey Maggiano, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’” (Mark 13:35-37)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

Isaiah 64:1-9

This reading is fantastic! Presented here as a song, Isaiah starts proclaiming God’s awesome power and glory, and somewhere in the middle he realizes that in the presence of that glory, we all messed up! “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” We finish this song not proclaiming God’s glory, but rather begging for his grace. What starts out as a song of praise becomes a lament and apology, and we, along with Isaiah, realize how far we have fallen.

As we work our way into Advent, it is tempting for us to see Jesus as we imagine him at his birth: perfect, glorious and beautiful, but also sweet, fragile, and powerless. Isaiah’s prophecy then is critical here because it reminds us that even the most faithful among us falls short in the face of the fullness of God’s glory.

As we approach Advent (and Christmas), are we really willing to let ourselves be God’s clay?

What are the awesome deeds God has done in our lives this year? Are they awesome enough to encourage us to give up a little bit more of ourselves to God?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Psalm 80 is an incredibly rich text, and it echoes many of the messages found in the reading from Isaiah. Let’s focus on verse 3 (repeated in verses 7, 18): “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” This should be our hope and prayer, that the Lord will show us His light, so that we can find salvation. If we are to truly use Advent as a time to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ arrival, we need to consider the prayers offered in this psalm. We can’t be truly ready for Christmas if we haven’t restored our relationship with God.

Before we are ready to welcome Jesus into the world, what needs to be restored within us? Who have we fed with the bread of tears? Which of our neighbors have we derided? Have we been laughing at our enemies?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

In the middle of the lectionary, right where we need it, and when we least expect it, we are given this gift of grace. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us of the strength given to us through our faith, and that this strength will ensure we are blameless on the day of our Lord, which is rapidly approaching. Step back. Breathe. Have faith. God loves you.

Mark 13:24-37

The readings for the First Sunday of Advent are a reminder of the constant cycle of sin and redemption that we, as humans and as believers, are party to. We strive for righteousness, fall short, beg God for assistance, are lifted back up, and then fall down again. It is only through Jesus’ grace that we achieve righteousness. These readings always strike a dissonant chord for me in the liturgical season of Advent; but as our professors remind us in seminary, Dissonance is good! Listen to it!

We close out today’s readings with a meditation on the end times: Sun darkening, no light from the moon, stars falling from the sky, the very powers of heaven shaken. These do not sound like good times. What’s more is that these do not sound like particularly appropriate messages for Christmas! Whose idea was this? Didn’t we get enough penance in Isaiah and today’s psalm? Where is our happy, hopeful, celebratory message to get us ready for the next four weeks?

Well, we should always be a little unsettled about the prospect of Jesus’ return. Just as Jesus’ birth was unsettling in his time; being born to an unmarried couple, far from home, into a politically volatile world that he was destined to destabilize. Perhaps this reading encourages us to consider a new way celebrate Christmas?

Instead of hymns and presents, maybe it should be about considering whether we are ready for Jesus?

Instead of celebrating the birth of the Savior, maybe we should take the opportunity to question whether we are really living up to the life that same Savior has called us to?

Rather than giving thanks for all the wonderful things Jesus has given to our world, perhaps we should take a second look at Mark’s words here and remember that Jesus is the master of his House. It is his world; are we really doing all we need to do to keep it up, so that we are ready for his return?

We are all searching, 1 Advent (B) – 2011

November 27, 2011

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

We are all searching for something or someone. Not just the small things, like our house keys or a parking space, but also bigger things, deeper things, people, places, and relationships that we hope will fulfill us, bring us joy, grant us peace. Many people are searching for a job, but also more than a job, for the sense of purpose and value and security the hoped-for job will bring. Many people are searching for wisdom, but also more than just an education, for the sense of truth and goodness and direction that we hope real wisdom will bring. Many people are searching for relationships, but also more than Mr. or Mrs. Right, for the sense of fulfillment and flourishing we hope loving and being loved will bring. We are all searching for something or someone.

But experience teaches us that that something or someone is elusive. We photograph the perfect sunset, but when we look at the pictures later, it looks rather ordinary. The excitement of a new career settles into the humdrum of a job. The first flush of a new relationship turns into coordinating schedules and dates. Even when we find what we think we are looking for, we may find the experience quite exquisite but also leaving us unsatisfied.

That is why spiritual writers tell us that what we are all searching for, whether we realize it or not, is God. The longed-for thing or person who will ultimately fulfill us, bring us joy, and grant us peace is God. Everything else, even the exquisitely true and good and beautiful things of this life, will leave us unsatisfied at some level. Life is transient, and we continue our search for true fulfillment and flourishing and love.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples to “keep awake.” This admonition comes at the end of a long apocalyptic discourse about the end times. He and his disciples had left the temple, and he told them that someday it would be thrown down, not one stone left upon another. The disciples naturally enough ask when this will be, and Jesus responds with a long discourse that involves apocalyptic signs like the sun being darkened and the stars falling like the heaven. It’s all rather complex and confusing, but in the midst of it there is an assurance that some day the Son of Man will return to set things right.

This will be good news for some and bad news for others. We ought to prepare so that we can receive the coming of the Lord as good news. And yet, no one knows, not even the Son, when all these things will take place. But take place they will.

Therefore, Jesus says, keep awake, keep alert, and keep looking for the true Lord who will bring all things to fulfillment. There will be many pretenders, many people saying, “Look here is the messiah” or “Look! There he is!” But do not believe in these pretenders. They are false and they will let you down. Trust only in the true God, the Lord of heaven and earth, and his only Son. Keep awake for someday he will come.

Apocalyptic language is hard for us to understand today. But the basic message is easy enough. We are all looking for something, and that something is God. There will be many pretenders and false messiahs who will try to offer us the fulfillment that only God can provide. Remember the allure of the perfect job or perfect wisdom or perfect relationship. All these things inevitably let us down because they can’t deliver the promises they make. They are good enough in themselves, but when we look to them as our ultimate source of truth and meaning, they inevitably let us down and leave us feeling unsatisfied. More than that, we can be damaged in the process: broken promises, broken relationships, broken hearts, broken spirits. Only God can truly fulfill us and the desires of the whole groaning universe. Jesus tells us to keep awake, to turn away from false messiahs, and to look for the coming of the true God. The Good News is that even as we flit about in our search for truth and meaning, God in his holiness and his graciousness is already racing to meet us. God is coming. The Son of Man is coming. Keep awake!

Advent is the season in the church year when we try to reflect on who or what we are truly searching for. It is a time to meditate and pray about what it is that will fulfill our hearts’ desires. The Good News of Advent is that God is also searching for us. The story of Advent is not a story of a God waiting to see if we human beings will finally figure it out and find God. The story of Advent is that God comes to us, and better yet, that God has already found us. We may feel like we are always looking for something or someone, but the Good News of Advent is that God has already come to us, is coming to us, and will keep coming to us. In our searching and seeking, we often fail to see that the gift has already been given, the gift of “God with us,” the gift of Emmanuel.

The word “advent” means “coming,” and that refers to the coming of Christ in the past, in the present, and in the future. Advent is saying that there is never a time when Christ is not with you, yesterday and today and tomorrow. At its deepest level, Advent is an invitation to give up our search and let ourselves be found by the God who came among us as child, by the God who comes into our hearts, by the God who will meet us in every future. In the search, in the finding, in the daily living of our lives, we have already been found and loved by the God who is with us always, even to the end of the ages.

Elam Davies, long-time pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, tells of a time when he and his wife visited a spot on the coast of Wales called the Great Orme. The Great Orme is a giant rock, right at the seaside, and people gather on it to watch sunsets. On clear evenings, people watch the yellow sun drop into the sea, backlighting strands of clouds in a way that turns the whole horizon into a kaleidoscope. Because the sunsets are so spectacular, people at the Great Orme often weep. One night, while Davies and his wife were there, a beat-up, old car drew alongside of them. In this car were a couple of elderly people and also a man who seemed to be their son. Some accident or illness had come to this son with the result that he was clearly disabled. He lay in the back seat, limp and exhausted. Then, as the great ball of fire began its final descent to the sea, the two old folks got out of the car and came round to the back seat. They reached in, hoisted their son up to the sitting position, and maneuvered him forward to the edge of the seat. And just as the sun in its full flame, in a final burst of glory, dropped below the rim of the world, the parents reached under their boy’s chin, raised his head, and pointed him out there toward the horizon. Davies says, “And I knew at that moment that God can dazzle us with all the magnificence of the universe, but that the secret of the universe lies in a love that comes to us in our weakness and in our need.”

The season of Advent begins today. It is the season of hope. Stay alert. Keep awake. Lift up your heads. Look to the horizon. Look to the future. Look for the God who comes to us, who came to us, who is with us, now and until the end of the ages.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.

Bible Study: Christ the King (A)

November 20, 2011

The Rev. Joel O. Atong,  Virginia Theological Seminary

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Ephesians 1:15-23

Paul’s exuberant prayer of thanksgiving for the church in Ephesus is like the joy of a parent who observes a child’s development from one milestone to the next. His joy is that their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ could be seen and testified of in their love for fellow believers. This is the intersection between the vertical and the horizontal relationships. Growth in the Christian life is not seen in the many ecstatic experiences of the spirit but in works of mercy and charity done out of an attitude of love.

How would you practice love in the electronic world would of today where the points of contact are getting limited every day?

Second, Paul prays in anticipation for their continued growth. He prays for their deeper understanding of Christian faith. The spirit of wisdom is necessary to distinguish between good and evil in the world so full of archetypes. The spirit of revelation is important for growth in the knowledge of Christ. This is the kind of knowledge that enlightens the heart and enlivens the hope of our calling in Christ. It is through this calling that we receive the right of sonship and/hence become co-heirs of the heavenly blessings with Christ.

Reflect on your prayer life today. Take a few minutes to write your own prayer for a church that you know but you are not a regular member.

Matthew 25:31-46

St. Matthew’s description of the judgment at the second coming of Jesus reminds me of my first experience at the airport ready for my first ever international flight. Once I got my boarding pass and checked into the waiting room, my friends with whom I had been talking just a few minutes past seemed very near yet very far from me. Even though I could see them right across the glass wall partition made a permanent separation between us. Those waiting to board the domestic flights were completely cut off from us waiting for international flights. To interact with them one had to go through the whole checking in process all over again.

Do you think Matthew’s imagery of the sheep and goats is effective today? If not, how can you describe it in your own context?

That the Son of Man will separate his people like a man separates sheep from goats tells of the similarity in difference that exists in God’s family, the church. Even though the goats and sheep look alike, and share a great deal in their characteristics, they are distinctively different from each other. Like the shepherd who is familiar with his flock and conscious of their unique differences, the Son of Man will separate the righteous from the wicked.

Think of a moment when you performed an act of mercy to the needy. What were your presuppositions, or what was your attitude?

Yet even though the criteria of separation is whether one has done works of mercy and charity to those in great need in the present world or not, Matthew does not so much intend to glorify the deeds for the sake of them. The inner motive in performing such works of mercy is most important for Jesus. For it is not that the people who were thrown into damnation never fed the hungry nor welcomed the stranger in their lifetime. Probably in doing so, they failed to discern the brother/sister in the persons because their attitudes were not right.

Why do you think both groups asked the King the same question? Take a few minutes to discuss the question in verses 39, 44.

The call of Jesus to his disciples has not changed, Last Sunday After Pentecost / Christ the King – 2011

[RCL] Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 100 (Track 2: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 95:1-7a); Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46 

The celebration of Christ the King Sunday arose when Pope Pius XI found the increasing secularism of modern society eroding people’s faith. This was in 1925, and the Fascists under Mussolini were making their presence felt in Italy. Pius thought it was necessary to remind the faithful that whatever political powers might hold sway, ultimately, it is Christ who is “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

It seems we keep having this conversation. The very first statement of Christian identity, the first creed, if you will, was “Jesus is Lord.” In the first century, the part that no one said aloud was: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

We are faced with a few issues in claiming that “Christ is King.” First, there is the fact that the original subversive nature of Christianity was subsumed into the Holy Roman Empire and made into a part of the power of the emperor, a fact that has colored organized Christianity ever since. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, it seemed perfectly reasonable that Europe should be divided among the Protestants and the Catholics, depending on the faith of the heads of state. The church has not always behaved as agents of the One on the throne in today’s gospel, who judges people by how they have treated the least among us; all too frequently, the church has participated in the political games that create winners and losers, groups with power and groups without. So as Christians, we are called to be aware of our own past and renounce the church’s interest in worldly power.

The second issue we confront is that the world has turned, and there are few kings anywhere. For the Western world, the monarchs who remain have nothing like the power of an emperor; they are figureheads who work cooperatively within constitutional monarchies. In the United States, furthermore, we had a revolution in order to separate ourselves from a despotic monarch, and our self-understanding as a nation includes a proud independence from the notion of monarchy.

So what do we mean when we affirm that Christ is King? What are we celebrating? How is this monarchy part of the Good News?

A quick peek at the headlines would raise some questions: if Christ is King, why is there so much violence and unrest in the world? If Christ is King, why are there children dying of malnutrition in refugee camps? If Christ is King, what are we to make of the world’s current crop of dictators and despots? If Christ is King, why are humans continuing to make choices that endanger and even eradicate other species who share with us “this fragile earth, our island home”?

Either Christ is not king, or he’s a neglectful king; or we’re talking about a reality that is hidden behind the everyday reality we read about in the news.

Today’s gospel suggests that there is a hidden quality we don’t see. Look at the surprise of those who meet the one seated on the throne: “When was it, Lord, that we saw you hungry and did not feed you?”

The Gospel of Matthew, which has been read for most of this year, points over and over to the kingdom of God as a hidden reality obscured by the world of human endeavor, a reality that peeks out occasionally, when Jesus does what Jesus does: he heals, he masters the chaotic elements of creation, he feeds people, he meets and loves people on the margins. In Matthew, Jesus says over and over that the kingdom is visible and available to his followers, as well, when we behave as citizens of that kingdom: when we serve the least, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, and perhaps, above all, emulate Jesus when he speaks God’s truth to the powers that be.

There is, further, a subversive quality to the reality of the kingdom, a sense that those who see and understand it are from the margins of society rather than from the powerful and content center. In Matthew, the list of those who see and accept what Jesus has to offer includes a Roman centurion, a Canaanite woman, and Matthew, a despised tax collector. The disciples themselves are hardly the elite of Jerusalem; they are country bumpkins from the provinces, hardly the sort to set the world on fire. Yet all these people listen to Jesus and follow him, perhaps because the status quo has not given them very much.

While the world has changed over and over in the years since the Gospel of Matthew was written, the list of the vulnerable in today’s gospel has only grown. “The hungry” now means a billion people who go to bed every night with little or no food. “The thirsty,” means millions of people worldwide dealing with severe drought. “The sick,” includes millions of people infected with the most difficult and pernicious illnesses, including AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. And the United States leads the world in its share of “those in prison.” It is harder than ever to see the reality of God’s kingdom and the Lordship of Christ behind these devastating everyday realities. But it is easier than ever to see those on the margins whose needs are overwhelming.

The call of Jesus to his disciples has not changed. As followers of Jesus, we are called to behave as citizens of the kingdom, for love of the King.

The Episcopal Church at its General Convention in 2003 formally endorsed the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, and at each subsequent convention the church has taken further steps, including a pledge of 0.7% of its funds to bring these goals to fruition. Episcopal Relief & Development is involved in work all over the world that aims to help the most vulnerable – the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the poor – and provide not only immediate relief, but assist in creating self-sustaining programs that will raise the standard of living for whole villages and areas.

The notion of the kingship of Christ, over against the reality in which we live, begs the question: are we behaving like citizens of the kingdom? Are the hungry and thirsty, the poor and neglected better off because of us? Is the reality of the expansive, all-encompassing love of God visible in what we do? In the end, this gospel says, that’s what matters in human existence. When we make choices about where to spend our time, our money, our energy, and our best gifts, we are making choices that build the kingdom – or don’t.

We are called by today’s gospel to understand ourselves as those who are called to embody the kingdom in the here and now, so that it can come in its fullness, and Christ will be king – because we choose to dwell in that kingdom.

What this feast day affirms is twofold: that Christ is King, all evidence in the current time to the contrary; and that what we do, the choices we make, matter very, very much.

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Written by the Rev. Kay Sylvester
The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, California. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader, and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Bible Study: Proper 28 (A)

November 13, 2011

Jabriel S. Ballentine, Virginia Theological Seminary

“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Judges 4:1-7

“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

As the people of God, Israel repeatedly turned their backs on God, who saved them and gave them the Law by which to direct their lives. And, turning their backs on Him – doing evil – always landed them in a state of oppression (i.e., laden with heavy burdens). It wasn’t until they made a return to God, through His appointed religious leaders, and submitted to judgment that the Lord vanquished them of the things which oppressed them.

What are those things you see, which unjustly burden our society?

In light of this passage, and in the face of those burdens you’ve listed, how do you feel we (as the people of God) have done evil in the sight of the Lord?

Psalm 123

“We have had more than enough of contempt.”

As did the psalmist, we have had too much of contempt and have every right to be fed up with it. There has been too much scorn from the rich and ridicule from the proud, both of whom scoff at our present dilemma. So, we lift our eyes to our Father in heaven, seeking the mercy that is denied us by the rich and proud.

Do you think the frustrations of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement have anything to do with the scorn and derision of the rich and proud of our society?

If so, to whom should protestors be directing their appeals?

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

“Let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”

In times of darkness, those who lack faith, hope and love submit themselves to drunkenness – seeking to escape reality and indulge their lusts. Yet, people of faith ought endeavor to keep the faith and their hope, refusing to allow the darkness of the times to subdue them. If we are able so to do, we will be able to persevere in love for one another and the other, encouraging all that the night should pass and salvation be revealed in the Glory of His day!

How can you be an agent of day to those surrounded by darkness?

Matthew 25:14-30

“Well done, good and trustworthy slave.”

God has entrusted each of us with various talents and His property, according to our ability, and He expects those talents to be made fruitful and multiplied. When He returns, He will demand an accounting from us, for what we’ve done with what was, and is, His. Will we be found to be good and trustworthy?

Take time to realize and understand your talents.

Have you multiplied them for His glory or have you simply buried them?

Remembrance Sunday, Pentecost 22, Proper 28 – 2011

[RCL] Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Today is Remembrance Sunday – the Sunday closest to November eleventh – the day World War I ended nearly a hundred years ago at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. In the United Kingdom and in many Commonwealth countries, Remembrance Sunday is kept with great solemnity as an annual reminder of the evil of war and the sacrifice of those who have given their lives for their nation and for the cause of justice and freedom. Many people on this day attend worship, visit cemeteries, and wear a poppy flower on their lapels in commemoration of the day and what it represents.

Veterans Day, as November eleventh is now called in the United States, is not observed with perhaps the same widespread and popular involvement as is Remembrance Sunday in other lands. Still, it is appropriate for all of us from time to time to remember and honor those who have served their country in periods of both conflict and peace.

War is, of course, nothing new. And World War I, as we now know, far from being “the war to end war” in the catchphrase popularized a century ago by H.G. Wells, has sadly proved to be but one more in a long succession of wars and conflicts beginning before written history and extending right into our own times. Humankind, it seems, has yet to learn to settle its differences peaceably and equitably.

And tyrants, as we also realize only too well, do not easily give up their power and hegemony in the name of the common good and righteousness. Sometimes it takes a popular uprising, and the conflict and violence it entails, to bring change and, ironically, peace. We can only hope at this point that such will prove to be the case in the Middle East, as nations and peoples long demoralized and repressed now demand their rights and liberty.

Warfare and conflict, in fact, play an important part in the story of virtually every land and culture, including our own. Even scripture itself is replete with accounts of battles and clashes too numerous to count, all of which in some sense molded Israel into the people of God. Our first reading today from the Book of Judges provides us with one example.

And it is an interesting one at that – the story of “Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lippidoth.” Her story exemplifies the familiar Biblical themes of sin and redemption. “The Israelites again did what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” we are told as the story unfolds, though of course without being given the details of their transgressions. God punishes his people for their unnamed misdeeds by seeing them sold “into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan,” who, in turn, oppresses them “cruelly for twenty years.”

The Israelites predictably “cried out to the Lord for help,” and through what must have seemed to them the unlikely intervention of Deborah – the only woman judge in Israel’s long history – an armed force of some “ten thousand” troops is organized and sent into battle. The people of Israel are at last rescued and their enemy vanquished. The narrative is nearly archetypal for every great conflict in the history of ancient Israel from the time of the Exodus to the era of the Maccabees.

While no one today would likely suggest that oppression and war are of necessity God’s punishment for sin, there is nevertheless surely something in our fallen nature that brings conflict in spite of our best intentions and determination to avoid it. Like the Israelites, we remain all too capable of doing “what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” That much has not changed. Nor for that matter has our need for redemption. Just as in the time of Deborah, it is still the Lord alone who can rescue us from our own worst instincts.

In the Prayers of the People during many of our Sunday liturgies today, we will once again pray “for the peace of the world.” It may seem sometimes a futile, even perfunctory, petition, as conflict and fear still remain the norms in lands far away and on the streets of many of our very own communities. Paul is doubtless right in what he bluntly tells the Thessalonians in our second reading: “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come.” It seems sadly to be a fact of life as much today as it was in Paul’s time – not to mention in 1918.

The last combat survivors of World War I have only recently passed on. Our human link with that generation and its war has been broken forever. But our fervent prayers for peace and for those who have died in conflict continue unabated. After all, we can only ever hope for the miracle of peace when we also remember in prayer the cost of war.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of St. Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church, www.anglicanbudapest.com, in Budapest, Hungary.

Bible Study: Proper 27 (A)

November 6, 2011

Matt Seddon, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

If we want to read this passage as it was originally intended, we have to replace “the LORD” with YHWH, the way of conveying the name of the One the author of this text understood to be Israel’s God, a particular God, “our God” among many Gods. This fierce particularity can be tough to read in our multicultural, multifaith, multireligious world. What do we do with a “jealous God” in a world where we have neighbors serving other gods, neighbors who we do and should love?

We must, therefore, remember that this is the story and cry of a dispossessed people, a people at the time of writing trying to find their place in a hostile world, a people at the time of the final editing dealing with empire and exile. Most of us are no longer dispossessed, we are now often either the powerful or benefiting from the actions of the powerful. We can hear in this text the longing of the dispossessed for the salvation of our God, remember that we too still need to turn to this God for guidance and salvation and perhaps, look to the dispossessed and pray for them, seek our way to bring this message of hope and salvation to them.

Psalm 78:1-7

The great passing on of faith – telling the glorious deeds of God to our children, and their children – with all its ambiguity and complexity, remains one of our most profound callings. I wonder if the context has changed so much. The psalmist wants to be sure Israel can recount the glorious deeds of YHWH, as opposed to all those other Gods, those Ba’als. Today we speak of the glorious deeds of God in the face of an increasingly comfortable society, where salvation takes the form of a level of material prosperity reached by many and unseen in previous eras.

But the wonders and mysteries of God must be remembered, must be retained, must be passed on. Even in this rich world there remain many, a growing many, who do not see the material prosperity, who live a life closer to that of the wandering Israel, who climb atop freight trains bound for El Norte (the North, the US) and pray that God will keep them from falling off in the night. These, our brothers and sisters, need to hear of the glorious deeds of the Lord, of the making of the last first. And the rest of us need to remember that until we are all living in abundance, none of us are saved. How do we connect the “dark sayings” the “parables” of old in a world that is still in need of glorious deeds and wonders and hope?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Ah, Rapture! Paul’s road map to the end of the world! For Episcopalians uncomfortable with a more literal reading of the Bible, they can be reassured that scholarship has demonstrated that Paul is addressing specific questions of the Thessalonian community here regarding some of their members who have died and he is employing fairly standard Jewish apocalyptic imagery. There is no doubt Paul deeply believed what he told his community, but it is not clear that this passage reflects a particular divine revelation. Taking these passages as specific revelations and putting them on a bumper sticker is, in fact, a hermeneutical mistake, even if it does honor the seriousness with which Paul spoke them. It also raises the dangerous possibility of deciding that we are the elect, and that we can indulge in feelings of superiority over those who don’t happen to sit beside us in our particular pews.

I think it is worth looking at this passage in terms of the hope (c.f. 4:13) Paul is giving us. We hear of a God who is Lord of the living and the dead, who will leave no one behind, gather them all together. We should encourage one another, all the world, with these words.

Matthew 25:1-13

I am always amazed in this story by the utter foolishness of the bridesmaids. They seem to have so many opportunities to ensure sufficient oil for their lamps or, failing that, still meet their obligation of celebrating with the bride and groom. As the waiting drags on, they continue to burn their scarce oil. And finally as the alarm is sounded that the bridegroom is “here” (verse 6), they run off, more concerned with their oil/lamp than making it into the party. In other words, it is more than just a bit of poor planning, the story seems to highlight that it is monumental failure to meet their duty even when they had many opportunities to do so.

But we can also be surprised at the bridegroom, who, for Pete’s sake, was so late that people fell asleep. Could he not be more understanding? Could not the wise loan just a little oil, could they not be a little more compassionate?

It is a world of frustrations and foolishness, oil and overreactions. Maybe for we who watch for Jesus keeping awake is to look not only to our selves, but to those around us, to find out who is tired, who is missing oil, to ensure they too have the hope we find in the coming of Christ.

Love the Lord your God, Pentecost 21, Proper 27 – 2011

[RCL] Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 and Psalm 78:1-7 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 (Track 2: Amos 5:18-24 and Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70); 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

“You don’t know me? How could you not know me? You invited me to the wedding!” This parable is one of the stranger ones Jesus told. There are almost too many issues to wonder about and some of them are puzzling to say the least.

We realize there’s a potential problem when we hear that 10 young women went out to wait for the bridegroom and only five took extra oil. Ah, there’s a problem. This may easily turn out to be a lesson in being prepared. But there are other problems less easy to figure out.

In Jesus’ day, there would, indeed, be a procession in the evening, one in which the bride would be escorted from her father’s house to the wedding, accompanied by young girls carrying torches to light the way. However, Biblical scholar Richard Pervo, in an article in the journal “Tuesday Morning,” brings out the point that in this story there’s absolutely no mention of the bride, and even the bridegroom is unexplainably late in arriving. Were the bride or bridegroom unprepared in some way? We might all remember a wedding or two where the bride was late and people began shuffling their feet in nervous anticipation of a real problem. But this isn’t about the bride.

So, then we might look at the problem of the oil. We might think it wasn’t kind of the five young women not to give some of their oil to the ones who had none. Is this a parable that teaches about sharing? Anyway, where would five young women go at midnight to find a store open that would sell them oil? Another problem!

Finally, the bridegroom arrives, and with great rejoicing, the guests go into the banquet hall, with the exception of the five who are off looking for oil. When they finally arrive, they are not admitted because their host claims not to know them. Strange indeed. How could he not know people he’d invited? They were young girls, probably friends of the bride from the village. At least in this parable, unlike the one about the man who had no wedding garment, the unfortunate women were not bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!

So many questions; where do we start? The most helpful thing is to look at where this passage falls in the whole gospel of Matthew. If we were to back up to Chapter 24, we’d find Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple and the coming of the end times. That whole chapter is couched in eschatological images – the end of time, the Second Coming. We remember that Matthew’s audience was most likely Jews, and it was written around the year 90. A lot had happened to the Jews at that time. The temple had indeed been destroyed by that time. The fledgling church was growing to include the gentiles. The persecutions of the Christians had already begun under Nero, followed by Domitian. So, very likely, this passage is basically a warning to be prepared. Christians of that time believed the second coming of Christ was imminent, so being prepared was very important.

If we look at the very end of Matthew 24 we read: “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Today’s reading begins with “At that time” – so we realize that this parable is a continuation of the point Jesus was making in Chapter 24. At that time– when the master returns, whenever that is – you must be ready.

But the end time has not yet come, has it? We’re still waiting; and that’s OK – we need the time. We suddenly realize that what this parable is really telling us is that we must live the way God wants us to live all the time, not just when we think the Second Coming may happen. Jesus often reminds his hearers that we know not the time nor the hour. We must not be like some of the early Christians who put off their baptism until they were on their deathbed so that they could be guaranteed a place in heaven – their souls being cleansed from sin by their last-minute baptism. We can’t play chicken with God. It’s not only juvenile, it’s hypocritical. And we know what Jesus says so often about hypocrites.

Today’s parable is one of the really interesting ones. In one way it’s full of questions on a very human level. What happened to the bride? Why was the bridegroom late? Why did he not recognize the young women? These are questions that would make a Bible study energetic!

On a soul-searching level, it’s very straightforward. Jesus is reminding us that we must live our lives as true children of God. Of course, we are human and we will sin. We will have times when we don’t share our oil, so to speak, whether that’s because of our selfishness or our own unpreparedness. But overall, we must seriously examine our hearts and souls each day and strive to be a witness to God’s love. Perhaps that could be a reason the bridegroom doesn’t recognize the five foolish virgins. Would God recognize us as children of God right now, today? Or would God see that Sunday in church is the only time we think about God or our spiritual lives?

The world today makes it very difficult to keep notice of our spiritual lives. We see entire institutions, governments, even the institutional church exhibiting less than laudable practices. We might wonder if the whole world has turned a blind eye to anything of God. We’re certainly not treating God’s gift of creation as a gift worth caring for. With all the difficulties and horrors we see happening all round us, we might even wonder where God is in all this.

That’s when we have to remember this parable. Every one of us must begin every day with the resolve to live as a child of God. It’s not easy. Those who do, we were reminded in the Beatitudes, often suffer for it. But it’s worth it. We must be the ones who point toward God in everything we do. That’s how we stay prepared. It’s through our daily kindnesses, our willingness to share our oil, whatever that might look like. It’s through our example of what’s important in our lives. With Christmas coming soon, do we find ourselves totally immersed in the consumer side of the holiday, or are we taking some time to pray, to find some quiet time to thank God and ask for God’s strength? Are we afraid to talk about the true meaning of Advent and the coming of our Savior among our own families and friends, because they believe Christmas is really about buying and selling? And yes, stores will be open at midnight, we’d be able to get our oil, but would we be welcome to the feast? Maybe not.

It’s up to us to live in a way so that we are always prepared. Quite honestly, living a life in which we’re always prepared is easy. All we have to do, all we’re asked to do by God is: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz
The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

We carry on Jesus’ mission, All Saints’ Day (A) – 2011

November 1, 2011

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

In North Carolina, there is a parish called the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion: the Churches of the Frescoes. The parish has two worship spaces: St. Mary’s in West Jefferson, and Holy Trinity in Glendale Springs. The North Carolina artist, Ben Long, painted several frescoes between the two churches depicting an expectant Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus crucified, and the Last Supper. Long-time parishioners give lectures to groups that come to learn about the frescoes at the two churches.

One of the interesting anecdotes that a guide will tell you is that at the time Ben Long painted the first fresco, which was of Mary, he had used his pregnant wife as the model of the body and then used a waitress they met in Hickory as the model for the face. Furthermore, in his fresco of the Last Supper at Holy Trinity, he used people he knew as the models, including the priest who was there at the time. The priest requested to be painted as one of the servants who was carrying plates out of the room, so he is forever seen in the right-hand corner of that fresco, unobtrusively carrying his precious pottery away.

The fact that Mr. Long used real people to paint well-known saints encourages us to pause and think about what it must have been like for the models to pose, knowing that they were being painted as a saint – a person who was considered holy and benevolent – when they may have not felt that way themselves.

The experience of the Churches of the Frescoes puts in mind an even more recent project that has been done about saints. There is a church in downtown Los Angeles called the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The Cathedral has very tall walls in the sanctuary on which the design team wanted to hang particular works of art. They hired artist John Nava, who developed what they now call the “Communion of Saints” tapestries. The tapestries have 135 saints and blesséd from throughout the ages on them, as well as 12 untitled figures, including children of all ages, to represent the many anonymous holy people in our midst.

The curious thing about the process of developing these tapestries was that the artist did not have many depictions of earlier saints in order to know what they looked like. He used death masks and early artwork to assist his images, but then he gathered people at random off the streets who looked like the particular saints he was trying to paint – people he saw at coffee shops and restaurants, people at the beach, people walking the dog, people like you and me.

Most people were flattered to be models. Some were believers, others were not, but when they were interviewed about the process, they almost all said the same thing: being a saint, being dressed in the clothes and learning about their saint’s story, made them want to act like the saint they were modeling. They felt better about life and felt connected to the world in a deeper way than ever before. And the fact is, they are. They are connected to the saints they modeled and they are connected to us and to Christ, as is seen when you enter the Cathedral’s sanctuary. The saints line the walls and they are all gazing toward the cross above the altar, marching toward it, just as the real saints did before them, and as we continue to do each week, including today, when we come to the altar at Eucharist, and as the next generations will do in the future. It is a powerful vision.

Now, we may not know each saint’s story, but we do know Jesus’ story, just as they did, and that is a powerful connector. It is a connection that is never lost or weakened, even though they are not present on earth with us. The gospel accounts tell us about Jesus, so we know of him in the historic sense, but our faith is what connects us with the mystery of life in Jesus. We hear the gospel stories about Him and stories of the saints’ encounters of Him and know our own stories, all of which are part of this greater story of life. We remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection each week at the Eucharist, and in turn, are “re-membered,” brought together, united in the Body of Christ. United in our common faith and story. And this re-membering, this unity, transforms us, so that we may go out renewed and strengthened by the knowledge of our belonging to God and of those who came before us and will come after us, belonging to God, too.

As Christians, we carry on Jesus’ mission of transforming the world by spreading the kingdom of God in our daily lives. And in a way, isn’t that what we do with any loved one not among us? Many times, we carry on their vision and make it ours so it will continue to be carried into the future. By living out the Christian mission, we honor God, we honor each other, and we honor the lives of those who came before us, who also held that same mission. Like them, once we have come to Jesus Christ, we are His own and remain that way, and will join the great multitude that was talked about in our scripture from Revelation, worshiping God and singing: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”
— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minn., and was formerly in Diocese of Western North Carolina.