reflections on the revised common lectionary

An ongoing effort to write a reflection each week on a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

table of contents

august 14, 2022

Am I a God at hand, says the Lᴏʀᴅ, and not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the Lᴏʀᴅ. —Jeremiah 23:23-24

I must admit a sleight of hand with the way I quoted this passage. You see, I left out the second half of 23:24, where God declares this:

Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lᴏʀᴅ.

And He does! “The full earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 5:3). But this passage didn’t bring to mind God’s grandeur at first, but His humility: God, not far off, but the Word dwelling among us (John 1:14) as one “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7).

God is at hand, both in grandeur and in meekness. I cannot hide myself in secret places from the God whose glory fills the whole earth, but neither can I hide myself from the God who bears the sufferings of all of the least among us. The Son was born in the likeness of humans, but among us, who is most like Him but the least? Didn’t He proclaim with his own lips, “as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 26:40)?

I don’t think it is a mere metaphor when He proclaimed, “I was hungry and you gave me drink, I was thirsty and you gave me food” or “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink” (Matthew 26:35, 42). Isn’t He here, at hand, in the faces of those who have been deprived of all of the world’s goods, who we pass by so easily every day? Think of the unhoused ones, who like the Son of Man, have no place in which they might lay their heads (Matthew 8:20), or the displaced ones our country has turned away, like the Son turned away at the inn to be made to sleep at the manger.

Let us not become insensible to God’s presence at hand. I have seen Him at benches and underpasses and tents and RVs and I have passed by Him. I have been asked by Him for food, water, clothing, or a simple welcome and have denied Him. The American government to whom I must pay taxes and homage beats Him on our streets, turns Him away at our borders, and goes so far as to shoot Him in foreign countries. God is so close at hand that sometimes I wonder when our country’s closed fist is not reaching out to strike Him!

May we no longer turn Him away, but be ever ready to welcome Him to whom belongs the power and the glory, forever and ever! Amen.

august 21, 2022

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
 you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
 the restorer of streets to dwell in. —Isaiah 58:12

How many ruins and breaches there are I could reflect on this week! Should I speak of the global environmental crisis, the consequence of countless generations of spoliation against the earth from which comes our living? Or should I recall that day of abominable idolatry, January 6th, when the fascists breeched the Capitol and wrought such vicious and despicable violence while invoking (really, I should say blaspheming) the name of Christ? (Lord have mercy!) Then there are the communities hollowed out for the last penny in the name of capitalist rent-seeking, the slow but steady severing of the lifelines of solidarity and mutual aid binding us together...

Enough! Let’s not enumerate our sorrows any further. (I’m sure there are other verses that are more appropriate for that, anyhow.) I chose this verse not because it is a verse of grieving, but a verse of renewing. We shall rebuild the ruins, raise up the foundations, repair the breach, and restore the streets to dwell in—the damage has been immense, but, thanks be to God, here is His promise that though our harms might never be erased, they can and must be repaired! I know that this is not an empty promise, because God has already supplied us the very material we need to begin our work: “the stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (Psalm 118:22).

Christ, the stone which the builders rejected, mayest Thou become our chief cornerstone! Thine love is the mortar with which we shall seal the breach; in Thine image shall we build up this Thy Church and Thy Beloved Community, upon Thee, the foundation, to whom belongs the power and the glory, forever and ever! Amen!

august 28, 2022

Pride was not created for human beings,
 or violent anger for those born of women. —Sirach 10:17

As I reflected on this verse, two images of “pride” came to my mind: one, the “Proud” Boys who instigated the brutal, nihilistic assult on the Capitol on January 6th, and two, “Pride” Month, the exhuberant celebration of belonging and dignity that I share in as part of the LGBTQ+ community. The former “pride” I abhor, and the latter “pride” I adore—and I cannot help but observe how easy it would be for a badly-intentioned person to draw a false equivalence between these two “prides” to say that neither was “created for human beings.” But “pride,” like “love,” is one of those many-valenced words where thinking of it in isolation brings confusion rather than clarity.

Let me illustrate this for you. One of my favorite verses, 1 John 4:7-8, says that, “whoever loves is born of God and knows God” and “whoever does not love does not know God; for God is love.” If I and a white supremacist both declare, “I love my community,” (and mean it!) are we both the sort of people who are born of God and know God? Isn’t this absurdly unhelpful? Just as I believe that the “loves” of me and our hypothetical white supremacist are not both indicators of the knowledge of God, I believe that the “prides” of the Proud Boys and Pride Month are not both passions unfit for human beings.

Why do I feel confident in this assertion? The second half of the verse is my foundation. The structure of this verse as a whole invoke a notion of equivalence, that the “pride” and “violent anger” being condemned stem from the same same sinful roots (10:13) and both lie in this nether region of inhumanity that is totally alien to the image of God in which humans were created (Genesis 1:26). Proud Boys “pride,” white “pride,” “proud” Western chauvinism: what follows these assertions of “pride” other than cruelty and murder? The only fruit that comes out of these trees are the strange kind. (As Mark says, let the reader understand.) But Pride Month “pride,” “pride” parades, the “pride” flag: what comes from this but joy and affirmation, and not just any sort of joy and affirmation but the kind that can be truly lifesaving to people who have been beaten down and marginalized for no other reason than being the people they cannot help but be?

Lord, increase our discernment, so that we may not be tempted to look upon your words to confirm our own bigotries but find in them the expression of the life You are and pour out again and again in abundance. I ask this in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Life-Giving Trinity to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever! Amen!

september 4, 2022

So if you consider me your partner, receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand, I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. —Philemon 1:17-19

I wasn’t expecting to pick Philemon for my reflection this week. Wasn’t this epistle a defense of slavery, or at least an acquiescence to it? I admire Paul in so much, but it’s hard to look at an epistle about sending a slave back to his (former?) slave holder and think, “Yep, this is exactly what kind of behavior I want to learn from the apostles!”

But, yesterday, I was talking with a Christian friend about how the formal language often used in Bible translation flattens out the distinct personalities and emotional valences of each human voice that contributed to our Scripture. It doesn’t help that the default voice people put on for reading the Bible seems to be a calm monotone!

Today, when I read this epistle again, I realized that in the past, I’ve undermined the significance and the depth of the passage I quoted by leaving out all semblance of emotion while reading it. These words, rendered in formal English and read out either mentally or out loud in a calm monotone, superficially seem hard and callous, more suited to a business transaction than Holy Scripture. Consider me your partner, charge that to my account, I will repay it—with language like this, how can you avoid the impression that Paul is bargaining over the freedom of a human being? That was certainly how I saw this once!

That impression arose, I think, because I missed the current of defiance and subversion that now I believe runs through this whole epistle. I feel that the underlying thought looks more like this:

Look, if we really have the same God and the same cause, you’d better treat Onesimus like you would treat me. If you want to punish him, you’d better just punish me instead. I’ll pay you back—I won’t even mention all you owe me for!

Now, all of a sudden, this does seem like the Paul who wrote that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This isn’t a bargain; this is a dare. Remember what you owe God and His faithful servants. If you really believe that the people you have oppressed and marginalized in the past have wronged you, well, tough luck, you can ask God for your satisfaction, since isn’t He the one to whom we all ultimately belong? Would you dare to demand out of your fellow servant what you would not demand out of God?

Philemon, will you be a forgiving servant, or an unforgiving one (Matthew 18:23-35)? Will you seize Onesimus by the throat and demand repayment for (probably imagined) wrongs against you? Forgive us our debts, O Lord, as we forgive our debtors, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Amen!

september 11, 2022

But Moses besought the Lᴏʀᴅ his God, and said, “O Lᴏʀᴅ, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’” And the Lᴏʀᴅ repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. — Exodus 32:11-14

One of the aspects of Christian history that most perplexes and disturbs me is the endless cycle of sectarianism and Christian-on-Christian violence. I think of everything from Arian controversy to the Great Schism to the Cathar Crusade to the Thirty Years’ War. Even today, you only need to open Twitter and it won’t take long before you find some fundamentalist Protestant or traditionalist Catholic or even a Christian leftist dunking on their theological opponents, calling them heretics or damned or demons or something worse still.

Here, in this passage of Exodus, we see people who are in fact heretics—those who have chosen the golden calf over the God who saved them! God is furious at this “stiff-necked” people; He promises to destroy them (32:9-10), but what does Moses, a true lawgiver and minister of God do? He intercedes! He knows that this is not what God wants most—He who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger” (Psalm 103:8). He reminds God that the only people who will be pleased by this will be God’s opponents—what a waste of God’s pains to save His own people it would be if He just destroyed them Himself! How would that God’s Son ever be worthy to be called “a light of revelation for the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32)? Will many nations say in praise of that God, “Let us go to the mount of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:3)?

Through His great power, God has delivered all of us—Christians I agree with and Christians I disagree with—from our own lands of spiritual exile. Let us not wish upon each other God’s wrath and destruction, but His mercy and forbearance, that we might grow in the grace and truth of Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is the power and the glory, forever and ever! Amen.

september 18, 2022

Blessed be the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ
 from this time forth and for evermore!
From the rising of the sun to its setting
 the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ is to be praised!
The Lᴏʀᴅ is high above all nations,
 and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the Lᴏʀᴅ our God,
 who is seated on high,
who looks far down
 upon the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
 and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
 with the princes of his people. —Psalm 113:2-8

When I read this Psalm, I could not help but think about St. Gregory of Nyssa’s third homily on the Lord’s Prayer. There, he pondered, “If the name of God is always holy, and nothing escapes His powerful dominion; if He rules all things, and nothing can be added to His holiness, since He is in all things absolutely perfect—what does it mean to pray: ‘Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come’?”

St. Gregory’s interpretation of “hallowed be Thy Name” boils down into this: “The prayer says, in effect, let the Name of His dominion which I invoke be hallowed in me, ‘that men may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.’” Similarly, here, the Psalmist announces that God’s name will be glorified forever and at all times, and invokes the language and power of God through a sweeping description of His creation (as the Psalmist often does), but all this is followed with a panegyric to God’s mercy, the most powerful instrument by which God’s name is glorified!

When we love another, as God has loved us (John 13:35)—when we keep His commandments, and abide in His love (John 15:10)—when we are all one as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father (John 17:21)—when we truly unite ourselves with God, who is love (1 John 4:7)—how could we do anything other than raise the poor from the dust and raise the needy from the ash heap? It cannot be otherwise, because as St. John the Beloved wrote in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees their sibling in need, and yet closes their heart against them, how does God’s love abide in them?”

On the other hand, Psalm 79, also included in this week’s proper, should serve as a sobering image of the consequences of the alternative route, when we do not abide in God’s mercy:

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
 they have defiled your holy temple;
 they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
 to the birds of the air for food,
 the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water
 all around Jerusalem,
 and there was no one to bury them.
We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
 mocked and derided by those around us. —Psalm 79:1-4

When nationalism and fascism enter into the church and defile God’s sanctuary with pride and violent anger; when Christians wielding power deride and beat and shoot their follow Christians for their love of their neighbor and the care of the stranger, invoking the name of God, no less, what can the consequence be but this, “We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us”?

Let us pray that that through our abiding in God’s mercy, His name may be glorified again and again! in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen!

september 25, 2022

There is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. —1 Timothy 6:6-8

When I think of the world “godliness” in connection with material conditions, my first thought is of asceticism. The image of a godly life of voluntary poverty and selling everything one owns and giving it to the poor is a powerful one, and for good reason! How many of our societal ills could be cured if present-day Christians “had all things in common” and “sold their possesions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” like the apostles (Acts 2:44-45)!

But, for me, the very goodness of the ideal, selling everything one owns and giving it to the poor, approaches almost as a barrier. That ideal is so heroically, uncompromisingly good that it seems foolish to just about anyone with a touch of worldliness—I cannot help but wonder if those are the sorts of deeds by which one becomes what Paul called “fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10)?

Yet selling everything and giving it to the poor is not the only generous deed praised Christ parised. Zacchaeus gave half of what he owned to the poor, and was told, “today salvation has come into this house” (Luke 19:8-9). Perhaps it should not be surprising that “today salvation has come into this house” is Christ’s response to doing half of what he told the young rich man to do—he prefaced the commandment with “if you would be perfect” (Matthew 19:21) and one hardly needs to be perfect in order to do something good.

Moreoever, the young rich man in Matthew appears to have done literally nothing after receiving this commandment, since we hear nothing more of him after he goes away sorrowing. This is to say, it’s one thing not to bring yourself to be able to do something, but it’s another thing entirely to not even try to do anything! In contrast, Zacchaeus is praiseworthy because on his own initiative, he did whatever he could. If we won’t be perfect, at least let’s imitate Zacchaeus!

Paul’s epistle, I think, points to what separates Zacchaeus from the young rich man. The young rich man, it seems, cannot be content with anything less than the sum of all his present riches, but Zacchaeus, though not perfect, at least knows that he can be content with half of what he owns. (And remember, this is a man who is rich. If he was, let’s say, ten times as rich as the average laborer, he would still have been five times as rich!) Without discerning what we truly need to be content, how can we fail to avoid the example of the young rich man? Let us instead, not only imitate Zacchaeus, but exceed him, with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever—amen!

october 2, 2022

Remember my affliction and my bitterness,
 the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
 and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
 and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lᴏʀᴅ never ceases,
 his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
 great is thy faithfulness. —Lamentations 3:19-23

This weekend, I binged the newly released third season of the TV show Ramy, a dramedy about a first-generation Egyptian-American Muslim in his twenties navagating the conflict between his conservative religious upbringing and the hedonistic secular American culture he is thoroughly immersed in. Ramy, the titular character, manages to fail at the basics of being a decent human being in the most spectacular and improbable of ways (it is, after all, a TV show), but somehow he manages to keep me invested in his life and wanting him to change (though three seasons in, it seems he never does). Though the show is deeply grounded in the culture and environment shaped by the religion of Islam, the spiritual and religious conflicts it brings up are ones that challenge all young people of faith. What rules are we strict about, and which do we relax? Does an environment exist in which we can safely go deeper into our faith, or, for that matter, safely back out of it? What grounds our spirituality in the midst of a materialistic world? Will we be able to pick ourselves back up when we fall, as we are so liable to do?

My interpretation of Ramy (both the show and the character) is that Ramy’s failing is not a matter of morality, but of commitment. One could point to many examples in the show where he shows genuine empathy and the seeds of kindness, but he never genuinely commits to one good thing to bring it to fruition. Each time he gives up and lets a new project rot (whether it is a spiritual practice or a relationship or something else), he leaves the state of his life worse than if he had simply done nothing at all. But there were so many paths that he could have committed to that would have made his life rich and full of joy!

In contrast to the caprices of humanity, so well-portrayed in Ramy, we have in this passage of Lamentations a praise of God’s steadfast love. God, constant and unchangeable, the Alpha and the Omega, the life of the ages of ages: what a contrast to my flitting desires that carry me to fresh precipices each day! But I have reason to hope, because though I am led to and fro to novel forms of destruction by my whims, here we are told that God’s mercies are new every morning. The challenges and temptations I face are new each day, but the blood spilled by my Savior for the forgiveness of sins is the sign of His eternal mercy renewed day by day. In the later part of this lectionary reading, the scripture declares that “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lᴏʀᴅ.” And it strikes me now that this is not so far from the advice I would have given to Ramy: sit down, welcome the silence, listen, and then commit to one good thing!

And what is good thing is there, other than God, whose mercy receives us again and again, whether we know it or not, urging us toward His kingdom rich in all good things, to whom belongs the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen!

october 9, 2022

And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored, and you shall be clean.” But Naaman was angry, and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants came near, and said to him, “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, than, when he says to you, ‘Wash and be clean’?” —2 Kings 5:10-13

Naaman’s flippant outrage strikes me as equally comic and indicting. His anger arises for the most seemingly trivial of reasons: after Elisha promises Namaan a miraculous cure, if only he would follow his instructions to wash in the Jordan, Namaan becomes irate because... the proposed miracle cure is not dramatic enough for him. Apparently, a cure for his chronic disease is insufficient if it isn’t accompanied with all the pomp of invoking God’s name and dramatic handwaves. It takes the basic common sense of his servants, who call Naaman out for his absurd expectations (all coached in the most diplmatic language possible), to convince him to follow Elisha’s instructions, which, surprise surprise, miraculously cures his leprosy.

Part of why I find this passage is so indicting is that, in the last two years, we have seen this very scenario play out in the real world in a tragi-farcical way. During the height of the still-ongoing Covid pandemic, we saw certain sects of Christians hyping up quasi-magical miracle “cures” for Covid while dissuading others from taking the Covid vaccine, a safe, scientifically-verified, and widely-available means of preventing Covid. The rapid development of mRNA Covid vaccines in 2020 was, perhaps, not a miracle in the same sense that Naaman’s cure was, but it was a very real manifestation of the wisdom and insight endowed to human beings by God, and a concerted effort of life-saving that was surely a collective act of abiding in God’s love. Christian authorities across so many different denominations and traditions have affirmed that getting vaccinated for Covid is a basic obligation for Christians as a fulfillment of the commandment to love our neighbor, yet we still saw charlatans propounding conspiracy theories in Christ’s name and expecting God to perform dramatic miracle cures when taking the vaccine—itself a necessary act of love for others—would have obviated the need for any miracle cures! It would almost be funny, if not for the fact that this literally killed people! Lord have mercy!

What makes this passage still more indicting is that we see this pattern play out in even more commonplace scenarios. Consider, for example, how willing some Christians are to make dramatic proclamations about what they’re willing to do in Christ’s name (suffer persecution, bear His cross, fight those who they suppose to be “His enemies”) but don’t lift a finger to perform even the most basic obligations to feed the hungry, quench the thirsy, clothe the naked, and so on and so forth. Hasn’t Jesus commanded us to do all of these things? If you are so willing to do these great things, as you testify, why will you not do these small things? What does it say when someone loudly proclaims that they are willing to do incredible things they have no opportunity to do, while ignoring basic obligations that they have the opportunity to do every day?

If this isn’t enough, I find another, still more insiduous and indicting lesson from this passage. When it comes to the inner lives of our spirituality, I think it is so easy and tempting to fall into an expectation that everything should be luminous and numinous and loud and rapturous and dramatic, that when we order our spiritual lives the right way we should just know this because everything is miraculously made clear to us. This probably seems a bit silly when I write it out this way, yet I think this truly is the image of faith and spiritual life that American popular culture (both secular and religious!) sells to us. But the inner life of faith is often quiet and full of doubt, and it’s not the dramatic moments but the forgettable days when we meekly accomplish the basics that sustain our faith.

Just as in arts and sports, “practice, practice, practice” is the maxim that Christians ought to live by. Let us run the race, as Paul so encouraged us, in the name Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen!

october 16, 2022

And it shall come to pass that that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lᴏʀᴅ. — Jeremiah 31:28

I will be honest, when I first chose this verse for this week’s reflection, I badly misread it. Having left out a couple of “tos,” I settled on a much, much easier (but wrong) passage to contend with:

And it shall come to pass that that as I have watched over them pluck up and break down, overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them build and plant, says the Lᴏʀᴅ.

All I did was remove three words, thus I persuaded myself (incorrectly) that this verse was about what God watches humanity do, and not what God does to humanity Himself. I thought that this verse was saying that, whereas God had watched humanity perform acts of destruction and evil, at some point God will watch over humans build and plant (presumbly, because a more just society will be established). Though it was unintentional, I understand perfectly well why I misread it this way: it removed the themes of God’s active intervention and God’s role as a destroyer, both of which I am uncomfortable with. I was reluctant to accept my mistake at first, but on reading Robert Alter’s translation there was no escaping it.

And as I was zealous over them to uproot and smash and lay ruin and destroy and harm, so will I be zealous over them to build and to plant, says the Lᴏʀᴅ.

I was sorely tempted to pick out something else, but once I understood my mistake I realized that this was a chance to work with ideas and Scriptures that make me uncomfortable, which is how this whole exercise began in the first place. And is it a coincidence that this week’s proper includes the story of Jacob wrestling the angel (Genesis 32:22-31)? Thus I will continue this reflection, in the spirit of Jacob, so that with any luck I might also say, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (32:30). And in doing so, I might also heed Paul, who advised us that all scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work“ (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So what am I to learn from this?

This afternoon, I was reading St. Gregory of Nyssa’s first homily on the Sermon on the Mount. It includes a digression about why people should not pray to harm their human adversaries, explaining that “expressions signifying indictment and wrath [found] in the Saints [i.e. scriptures]” are not “to destroy man but to abolish evil.” He goes on to declare, quoting the Wisdom of Solomon, “‘God made not death.’ Do you hear the denial? How should he [i.e. the prophet] be likely to ask God for the death of his enemies, seeing that God is a stranger to death? ‘He does not delight in the perdition of the living.’”

So “God made not death, and he does not delight in the perdition of the living” (Wisdom 1:13), but also God is, or perhaps was, a zealous destroyer and bringer of evil and harm? This is a dizzying proposition, and it is not obvious at all what I am supposed to make of it. I suppose I could take a page from St. Gregory’s book, and say that what Jeremiah is talking about is talking about God uprooting and smashing (etc.) His spiritual enemies, whether we want to interpret that as our propensity to sin, or our passions, or Satan, or something like that, but honestly that reading seems unsatisfying in itself. I think this way of reading it is useful and does point to truth, but I think there is something else here for me to bring out to light.

It seems to be this, to me: punitive justice—even God’s punitive justice, rendered from the only truly just Judge—will not be the final means of restoring God’s order. It will be restorative justice, the building and the planting, that usher in God’s kingdom. Applied to the events of Bible, perhaps we could say that while the stories of destruction and slaughter (gruesome and uncomfortable as they are) had some purpose (inscrutible as it is often is to me), it is the building of a temple (Mark 14:58) and the planting of a true vine (John 15) that truly usher in salvation. Perhaps this is a glimpse of the Last Judgment too: there will be punishment, yes, but God will be as zealous to build again as he was to break down and destroy!

Despite all my efforts tonight, I may still have gotten much wrong, but I feel I may say that I have grappled with scripture and yet lived to see another day. May we all grow in courage to approach God’s Word in discomfort as well as in ease, with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is the kingdom, power, and glory forever. Amen.

october 23, 2022

The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds,
 and he will not be consoled until it reaches the Lord,
he will not desist until the Most High visits him,
 and does justice for the righteous, and executes judgment. —Sirach 35:17

I found something very striking about this passage, in that rather than praising God’s speed in answering petitions (in fact, it says nothing about how quickly God answers prayers at all), it praises the humble petitioner for being so patient that they wait until God Himself comes to answer their prayer. Thinking about this reaction honestly, I realize that it is an indictment against myself, and this society (not just American, but now globalized) that I have been raised in. Having been brought up in Information Age America, and now living and working in the heart of Silicon Valley, I have become so accustomed to the idea of instant gratification and service on demand that I think my sense of patience (and probably that of many others) has become thoroughly eroded. How has it come to be that my expectation of the speedy satisfaction of my desires has become so entrenched that now I’d wish the same out of God as well?

It seems to me now that when I and people like myself become accustomed to (underpaid, overworked, exploited) workers providing services on demand, regardless of however we think of ourselves in terms of politics and values, our sense of humility (which is so closely tied with patience, as we see in this passage) begins to falter. Without knowing it, we expect more and more from all we interact with, until when we come face to face with the Great Benefactor, we expect (knowingly or not) that He, too, will answer our prayers with the same urgency as a Lyft driver. I suppose that at this point, someone might protest, “But I don’t do that” or “Only those Christians (not me!) do that,” but when I think about this pattern seriously, it occurs to me that this idea is at the root of some very serious theology.

Consider, for example, the question of the problem of evil. How can evil coexist with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God? It seems that a subset of this question is If God is so powerful and good and all-knowing, why does God not just eliminate all evil this instant? Well, why does God have to answer all our petitions now? A God who is all-powerful and all-loving can surely restore all things to His love, not just repairing the damage of evil but bringing us and His creation to the fullness of good. Until then, does our patience and humility in the face of this difficulty not have value? Does it do good to us as moral beings to have a demanding attitude toward the Benefactor of all creation, not so different from the demanding attitude we often see posed toward service workers here and now? If this is the way we treat God, who many at least ostensibly respect, imagine what our unexamined attitudes are toward fellow human beings!

I pray that this might not be so, and that we learn the patience of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) and the humility of the tax collector (18:9-14), through which we might come closer to the apprehension of the fullness of God at the time of righteous judgment, through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is the glory forever. Amen.

october 30, 2022

My zeal consumes me,
 because my foes forget thy words. —Psalm 119:139

What does it mean for my zeal to consume me? Is it something that I should seek after? Is it a virtue when I become overwhelmed with intense emotion because the people I suppose to be opposed to me do not act in the way in which I think God wants them to?

Well, here is one example of zeal, taken from the Book of Numbers. This episode is called the “Zeal of Phineas,” though at no point is zeal explicitly mentioned in the text, as far as I am aware. It’s... not easy to reconcile with my notions of virtue:

When Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lᴏʀᴅ was kindled against Israel; and the Lᴏʀᴅ said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lᴏʀᴅ, that the fierce anger of the Lᴏʀᴅ may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. —Numbers 25:1-9

Was Phinehas’s zeal in killing the man and the woman virtuous? I suppose we are to infer that this man and woman have violated some of God’s commandments and forgotten His words. From the preceeding and the following context, it would make sense that this violation was idolatry, and Phinehas’s zealous response to that here is deemed just. What am I supposed to learn from this kind of zeal, though? If I feel strongly enough about something I deem to be against God (“he was jealous with my jealousy among them,” c.f. Numbers 25:11), I should kill the offenders to turn away God’s wrath? Perhaps one could use metaphors, arguing that the spear represents such-and-such and the murdered couple represents so-and-so, but it is deeply distateful for me to contemplate trying to just explain away a very literal story about killing. I will end my digression on Phinehas with this idea: even when zeal is supposed to be “good,” the tangible consequences of it can be so extremely mixed that you cannot help but question the existence of the supposed “goodness.”

Zeal is framed as good in Phinehas’s narrative, but there is another case in Scripture where zeal explictly serves a malicious purpose. Here, in his Epistle to the Philippians, Paul speaks about his past life as a zealous persecutor of the church (emphasis mine):

If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eigth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. —Philippians 2:4-6

Reading this again, it’s remarkable to me now how Paul’s pre-conversion attitude (and some of his post-conversion language) resembles Psalm 119 so closely. This psalm always gives me so much trouble when I try to read from it for the lectionary: it’s so full of dogmatic self-confidence and spends so much space lauding the psalmist’s own righteous observances that you wonder how much charity he really has for other people. Thinking of Psalm 119 in the frame of Paul’s life, it suggests to me that these patterns of thought and behavior cannot be sufficient for a moral life in themselves. Paul’s life before his conversion was filled with the zealous observance of what he thought was righteous (in his case, persecuting the early church), but it’s not zeal that makes a person good, but love. Paul’s zeal, coupled with the imitation of Christ’s love, made him a saint, but Paul’s zeal in itself served only destruction.

Let us learn from the examples of the psalmist, Phinehas, and Paul, so that we might not turn our zeal toward self-righteousness but the cesation of evil, the learning of good, the search for justice, the correction of oppression, the defense of the fatherless, and the advocacy for the widow (Isaiah 1:16-17), with Christ’s help, to whom belongs the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

november 6, 2022

Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lᴏʀᴅ; work, for I am with you, says the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit abides among you; fear not. —Haggai 2:4-5

“Fear not.” As I read this, it struck me that this was not so far from the customary “be not afraid” by which angels introduce themselves in Biblical theophanies (e.g. Luke 2:10). When angels instruct their beholders, “be not afraid,” I think it comes as an invitation for the hearer to not let their sense of fear overpower their loving reverence of God, and hence for them to draw closer to God. It strikes me that this passage, too, is about inviting the hearer to draw closer to God and to not let fear triumph over love, but in a very different sense!

The invitation here is a simple one. “Work, for I am with you.” One might object that this does not specify what work we ought to do. Well, Micah has the answer for us: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lᴏʀᴅ require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). But as obvious as the necessity of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God might be to us as people of faith, we find all sorts of ways to frighten ourselves out of doing this. When it comes to economic justice, we aver that if we were to share our wealth equitably with the poor, we wouldn’t have enough for our future needs and would hence {go broke, starve, watch our children starve, some other improbable scenario for the people who have more than enough to share}. When it comes to social justice, we fear the loss of our privileges and stations of comfort. When it comes to making moral witness in the midst of an unjust society, we fear to be shunned and mocked, or worse yet, to not be heard and fail without having made any impact. How many fears there are between us and the work to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God!

But God, ever-gracious and loving, offers us an out here. If we cannot have this courage in ourselves (which perhaps we cannot, owing to our imperfect natures), then we might at least trust in the presence of His Spirit abiding among us. If we look for the Spirit’s presence, and taste even the slightest bit of it, how can we do anything else, but to step fully toward this invitation to approach God, through our work? And our if God is not “God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him” (Luke 20:38), who will God not help to live more fully in the light of love and the incarnate Word if they so approach Him?

May the Holy Spirit be present with us, and help us to discern and undertake the works of love and justice, so that we might build God’s kingdom and deliver ourselves from evil. May this be done through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the Three in One. Amen.

november 13, 2022

For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If anyone will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing. —2 Thessalonians 6:10-13

Sometimes, when I do these lectionary reflections, I take a more personal, introspective approach, but I cannot help but try to be exegetical with this passage. This verse, “If anyone will not work, let him not eat,” is so fraught with historical and contemporary baggage—what am I to make of a a verse cited by John Smith, Vladimir Lenin, and present-day Republican congressmen alike? What wisdom and love will I learn from a passage that, at least on the surface, tells us to disregard certain people’s material needs?

I think the last verse of this passage I cited, “Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing,” provides the key to understanding this passage. Recollect that at the time of the early church (before Paul even came on the scene!) the early Christians held all of their possessions in common: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). It was expected that converts who joined the church were expected to give up their property, however significant, and share everything (Acts 5:1-10; the infamous story of Ananias and Sapphira). In summary, early Christians were expected to work and acquire goods not for their own benefit, but to share with those who needed those things most. Hence, I believe that Paul’s words at the end of this passage, “Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing,” indicates that his exhortation is against people who exploit others’ generosity in a communal society, and fail to contribute their skills and capabilities to the benefit of all.

Does the command “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” apply to present-day American capitalist society? If it does, I do not think it applies in the same way that it applied to the communalist early church. Firstly, consider that Paul’s command assumes that the hearer has the capability to work. I would assume that no one reasonable would attempt to apply this verse to dependents like children, seniors, or people with severe impairments, after all. But even if someone is, generally speaking, fit and able to work, does that mean that they will be able to find useful work to do? This might have been (and probably was true) to the early church Paul was writing to, since I would guess they had communal lands people could have worked on even if there were no other employment opportunities. But in a capitalist society like the United States, one’s employment does not depend entirely on oneself but also upon one’s potential employers. If one’s potential employers decide, for whatever reason (racism, sexism, classism, ageism, bias against the incarcerated, the list goes on and on...), that they do not want to employ someone, that person can hardly be called someone who “will not work.”

Secondly, modern-day Americans almost entirely live (albeit not necessarily by choice) in an individualist society, and not a communalist one. Even if a modern-day American wanted to live in a way as to share all their earnings and possesions with the needy (if indeed a modern-day American did want this, which by my observation must be incredibly rare), there isn’t an obvious way to carry this intention out from a logistical perspective. When modern-day Americans work, they generally work to satisfy their own needs and desires, not for the general purpose of philanthopic well-doing. The American who does not work will not, in many cases, cause anyone else to go hungry, but this was not the case in the early church! Now, I concede that it would be selfish and disgraceful for a modern-day American who has the opportunity to work to “live in idleness” as a “mere busybody, not doing any work” and satisfy their desires by exploiting other people’s effort, but who does this actually describe in modern-day America? Despite what the racist and sexist welfare queen trope would have some people believe, unemployment in America is hardly most people’s first choice and is in many cases a rational response to personal hardship or economic exploitation. What people actually do live in idleness and don’t do any work? Why, landlords and rentiers, who siphon off the value of others’ labor!

Thirdly, just think of the hugely changed material conditions of present-day America compared to the 1st century Eastern Mediterranean. With modern technology, we can produce more than enough food and basic goods to satisfy the world’s needs (though owing to our shamefully organized society we fail to distribute our goods in a way that actually achieves this). Really, most of us could work less and produce fewer frivolous manufactured objects for frivolous manufactured desires and still have more than enough to satisfy our genuine needs! But this was just not true at all in Paul’s age, where agriculture was just above the subsistance level and anyone not working represented a relatively much larger burden.

Paul’s words remain a rich source of wisdom, and there is much from them we could use to build a more just and loving society today. But we cannot just take them blindly at face value and assume that this will allow us to arrive at the same Spirit which animated Paul in his writings. May we all grow in discernment and loving intention toward our neighbors, through the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

november 20, 2022

... to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life. —Luke 1:74-75

Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand what it means to live by faith. Is faith some feeling that you have, that you express with certain words in your thoughts? I don’t suspect that many Christians would argue for this definition of faith (even those with whom I have very different beliefs), but given the historic (and contemporary) emphasis on creed and catechisms and other formulaic testimonies of faith in many parts of Christianity, it is hard for me to entirely escape this idea. Of course I know that within Scripture there actually is a definition of faith, in Hebrews 13:1 (“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”), but this only does so much to resolve my difficulties. How can one know that they feel the assurance of things hoped for? How can one know that they have the conviction of things not seen? What even is an assurance or a conviction? These words seem themselves almost as hazy as “faith!”

The thing that I have observed about my life, however, is that despite my on-again-off-again pattern of intellectual doubting (which, given my skeptical nature and my secular upbringing, has very understandable causes), the changes I’ve made in my life to fulfill my ethical and moral commitments more closely have largely remained untouched, even when I’m in a more doubting mood. I suppose that part of this could be attributed to habit and familiarity (though then I would question why a person would adopt habits that generally inconvenience them and make life more demanding), but lately I have been thinking that for me, this is the sign I need that I have some sense of what it means to live by faith. After becoming a person of faith (despite my many struggles to comprehend what that faith is), it’s become much easier for me to do several necessary things that my pre-faith self would have admired but not done. Among these things I count forgiving people very close to me who have wronged me, performing time-consuming and inconvenient acts of service, and generally changing how I choose to allocate my time and resources.

I don’t think that these things come from nowhere, as a random fluctuation in the cosmos. I do these things because somehow, somewhere, a fear (whether that’s of death, or injury, of reproach, or the works of the Evil One in general) has been vanquished, bit by bit, and day by day I feel more prepared to live out a hope I glimpsed at when I first converted to Christianity and became a person of faith. I am a very ignorant creation, and I do not think that I can possibly fathom all of the divine processes playing out around me. I don’t really perceive myself being delivered from the hand of the Enemy, in the way that some Christians accutely feel their experience of salvation. (Sometimes, I envy those who do.) But I can observe the changes that have taken place in me unknowingly, and infer from these that, regardless of what’s going on up in my rational mind, I am living and laboring as thought I knew that some remarkable thing has been done to set me free. Could it be, then, that I have gained an assurance of something hoped for, and the conviction of something not seen, without knowing it myself? By God I hope so! May we all live our lives in faith, to and beyond the extent that can understand and perceive, through the help of Our Lord Jesus Christ to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

november 27, 2022

Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake up from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. —Romans 13:11-12

About two months ago, I indulged the blurring of the sacred and the profane by writing a lectionary reflection on a TV show, and today I couldn’t help but pick up this thread again by rereading the lyrics of one of my favorite secular songs in the light of this verse. Here are some lyrics from the Metric song “All Comes Crashing”:

Starting over won’t be easy
broken, divided,
split tomorrow from today.
Knowing what you know
just makes it harder to think straight,
starting over after it breaks.

Starting over when the story’s
got an astounding twist—
You better turn that page.
When push it comes to shove
we do not fall out of love,
we double down, we do not fade.

For all I know,
This might be my last night—
If that’s how it goes,
there’s no one
I would rather be lying besides
when all comes crashing.

You could be forgiven for dismissing this as just another pop song, but I find in this song a lyrical and emotional depth that unintentionally awakens an inkling of the Gospel story. I’ll start by setting up some context. Here’s the band’s statement on the song: “‘All Comes Crashing’ is a love song that goes beyond romantic love. It’s an expression of solidarity with whoever it is you would want to have beside you in the event of a catastrophe. It might be your best friend, it might be your blood brother or your dog. This song is dedication to those you consider your family, whatever that looks like for you.”

Just looking at the song itself, I feel that it expresses this beautifully. There’s very little in the song to tie the “love” to a passionate, romantic love, apart from perhaps the “there’s no one I would rather be lying besides” line. (Though, that association is tenuous to me, since there’s no reason why that sort of intimate touch excludes platonic or familial love. Just think of Jesus reclining at table with the apostles!) Furthermore, how many love songs are there about the struggle to face loss and stay in love “when all comes crashing”?

The connection seemed frivolous to me at first, but as I hear this song more and more, I can’t help but feel that it captures a small inkling of the emotions that fell upon the apostles on the night of the Last Supper. Broken up and divided from Christ (Matthew 26:56), the apostles faced the impossible question of how they would continue in their faith after Christ’s betrayal and arrest (“starting over after it breaks”). It must have been especially challenging for Peter, whose promise that he would never deny Christ (Matthew 26:33-35) was proven false as he denied Christ three times, as he prophesied. A later verse of this song that I didn’t quote goes, “there’s no one / I would rather be dying besides / when all comes crashing,” and Peter makes a statement quite literally along these lines. How could he have thought straight when he knew that Christ knew of his foibles that whole night? But even though all the apostles knew came crashing down that night, there came the “astounding twist” of the Gospel story, the Resurrection. In light of that, what choice was there but to “turn the page” and continue the task of proclaiming the Kingdom that was already set out for them? When push came to shove, the apostles did not fall out of love; they doubled down, they did not fade.

But now, I come to a point, where the secular nature of this song limits its helpfulness in illustrating the Christian experience—at least without radical reinterpretation. When the song speaks about how “for all I know, this might be my last night,” it comes as a statement of resignation. In a secular world, there’s no life after death, redemption after bondage, or day after the last night. In a secular world, “this might be my last night,” as poignant as it might be, doesn’t carry with it the hope of renewal (thought perhaps it carries with it the hope of release, which is no small thing).

But for a Christian, if “the night is far gone, [and] the day is at hand” as Paul says, and if death does not win the final victory (hard as it is for me to feel in my heart sometimes, though that’s another story), “this might be my last night” can carry a seed of hope. Death is still tragic, and loss is still painful, but how much less do we have to fear if we know that our last night is just a prelude to the endless day? Now is the fullness of time, the kairos, even in this moment when all comes crashing and everything seems impossible, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” and it is all the more urgent for us to wake up from sleep. “This might be my last night” can be more to me than a statement of brave resignation—it can be a word of hope for the endless day that I hope for but don’t remotely see.

May the Light of the World dispel our spiritual night, and may we find ourselves written into the astounding twist of the Gospel story of which we are a part, the Resurrection that is to come. This I hope and pray for, hard as it is for me to understand, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.

december 4, 2022

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. —Romans 15:4

I’m writing this reflection well after December 4, on December 8, my first time having missed my “deadline” to finish before the end of Sunday. What is steadfastness? I suppose I could criticize myself for not prioritizng this, and for having broken my “streak” (if there is indeed such a thing to speak of), but what good would that be? It seems it would be better to come back on track and just read, write, pray, think, anything really. Some part of me wants to imagine steadfastness as never wavering, but is such a thing possible? Didn’t even Christ exclaim on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Two and a half years into my journey of faith, I think a lot of the initial enthusiasm has left and what carries me day by day is the inescapable knowledge of how much is left undone and how much of the race is left to be run. I don’t really feel any more certain in my convictions than I did on the day when I first converted. Really, I might be less certain! Somewhere, I think I’ve imagined that having faith should feel a certain way, and that no matter what I do how I try to look at it I can’t feel “it.” I suppose one could look at this and say that perhaps I am trying to seek justification by works and not finding it, but at the same time I look at faith and it’s such an enormous mystery to me that I have no idea where it even begins or ends. My greatest hope is that if I just keep pushing along, maybe along the way I’ll pick up a faith that I don’t see for myself.

I don’t know if this reflection makes a lot of sense. It’s much more raw and unfiltered than the others. I pray in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit that the faltering can be upheld and that faith can be sustained in the cracks where God alone sees it. Amen.