A Lectionary Reflection on Psalm 67, 6th Sunday of Easter Yr C

The Psalter has been Israel’s hymnbook for centuries. For Christians, too, it has been and still is an inspirational resource for congregations at worship.

Psalm 67 is given this title in my Bible: “The Nations Called to Praise God.” A sub-title also confirms that this psalm has been an integral part of worship for ancient Israel: “To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.” It is unfortunate that the legacy of the Psalms has not included the musical scores—one wonders what this psalm sounded like when stringed instruments played the score, or perhaps there were several scores or settings of it for different seasons.

At any rate, it begins on a rather positive note with a benediction in verse 1: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” Of course, those who attend worship on a regular basis will likely recognize these words, slightly different, yet very similar to the Aaronic-priestly benediction, in Numbers 6:24-26, which is proclaimed by the presiding clergyperson at the close of the worship service.

In light of this, and verses 6 and 7, which also affirm God’s blessing; one homiletic possibility may be to explore how our life is a benediction a blessing; in what ways has God blessed you? The psalm mentions a few: God’s way and saving power is known among all nations, God judges the peoples with equity and guides the nations, God causes the earth to yield its increase.

Another homiletic possibility might be to emphasize the connection between benediction/blessing and praising God with music and singing for joy. God’s benediction/blessing awakens within us a grateful heart, which moves us to praise God joyfully with the gift of music and singing. Perhaps Psalm 67 in whole or in part could be incorporated into a dialogue sermon between the preacher and the congregation employing either a psalm-tone (e.g., there are 16 psalm-tones in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 335-338, one or more which could be chosen), or a hymn score-setting of it (e.g. Saviour of the Nations Come, Praise, my soul, the God of Heaven, Joyful, joyful, we adoree Thee, etc).

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A Lectionary Reflection on John 13:31-35, 5th Sunday of Easter

Agape Love

This pericope is part of a larger section of the Fourth Gospel, described by scholars as the farewell discourse of Jesus, consisting of 13:1-17:26. In the discourse, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his suffering, death, and resurrection.

Prior to this pericope, Jesus predicted that Judas would betray him. Then Jesus speaks of his glory. Often in conversations, people will employ the word glory, glorious, etc., in association with power, respect, honour, success, and victory. For example: “What a glorious victory,” in reference to a hockey team winning the Stanley Cup. Or: “She basks in glory now that she has sold over a million copies of her book.” In the Gospel of John however, the word glory, glorified, etc., is associated with the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, which are the exact opposite of the ‘worldly’ meanings—albeit Jesus did win the victory over the powers of sin, death and evil, yet that victory came in the most unusual of ways, through his weakness, suffering and dying on the cross. Power in the world is often associated with military force or someone of great wealth. Respect and honour are often associated with outstanding achievements such as earning a PhD., excelling at a sport, becoming a Prime Minister, President, King or Queen. Success means becoming a famous movie star.

Reference to Jesus being glorified is also associated with what comes next in this pericope—his words concerning his departure from the disciples.

In place of his presence, he gives all of his would-be followers the love commandment in verses 34-35. He describes the commandment as “a new commandment.” Some might debate both those words “new” and “commandment.” For instance, the Torah teaches the faithful to love God and to love one’s neighbour, and Jesus himself sums up all of the commandments in the Torah by teaching the faithful to love God and one’s neighbour. Moreover, some would question whether love can be commanded—to command one to love may place conditions on loving, and true love is unconditional.

The word for love in this pericope is agape. Agape love is of the highest kind—it involves unselfish giving, loyalty, faithfulness, sacrifice, service. Agape love goes the extra mile, considers the needs and interests of others even before one’s own, is willing to face suffering, embarrassment, misunderstanding and even rejection at times for and with others. At its very best, agape love is prepared to die for another.

Such love is always there for us, thanks to the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. He calls us as his people to share it with the world, so that: “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

In a world with more and more hatred, divisions, conflicts and wars, agape love is needed more now than ever. May the LORD help us all so to love!

A Lectionary Reflection on Revelation 5:11-14, 3rd Sunday of Easter Yr C

Image credit: Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb

Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, is written in the genre of apocalyptic literature. The Greek word apokalypsis, means revelation, to unveil what was previously hidden. Apocalyptic literature has been associated with historical contexts of the persecution and sufferings of faith communities. One of the main purposes of writing in this genre is to communicate hope for the future and encourage communities to keep the faith and persevere. The language employed in Revelation is highly symbolic, a kind of underground language, written with the hope of preventing authorities hostile to the faith community from seeing it as in opposition to them and censoring it. Accordingly, the author, one John, was believed to be in exile on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. He addresses his letter “to the seven churches that are in Asia,” i.e. modern day Turkey. Revelation contains several visions of John.

In our pericope, the author describes, in symbolic language, a vision that emphasises the worship, the adoration of God on the heavenly throne along with Jesus the Lamb.

John sees myriads of angels, the living creatures and the elders surrounding God’s throne and singing loudly a hymn, a song of praise, first of all addressed to the Lamb. The word Lamb, referring to Jesus, emphasises the sacrifice of Jesus for humankind on the cross. Lamb is also reminiscent of the Passover, wherein the Israelites, while in Egyptian slavery, were commanded by God to place the blood of slaughtered lambs on their doors, so that the angel of death would pass over their homes and save them from death. So, in both faiths—Judaism and Christianity the symbol of a Lamb or lamb’s blood is associated with life, deliverance and freedom. The hymn of praise to Jesus the Lamb here in verse 12 is incorporated into Christian liturgy as a hymn of praise, sung by millions of Christians today.

As the vision continues in verses 13 and 14, the worship now expands to include every living creature in the universe, singing their hymn of praise addressed this time to God who sits on the throne and the Lamb. The attributes to describe God and the Lamb in both hymns or one ongoing hymn are similar: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honour, glory, and blessing.

One homiletic possibility may be to focus on the question of what does it mean to worship God and Jesus the Lamb today? In relation to that, a focus on the significance of music and liturgy in worship to offer our praise and sense of awe and wonder together in the presence of the faith community and of God, may be one way to develop a sermon. Each Sunday is a reminder and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, and the consequences of that event for the church as well as all of creation.

A Lectionary Reflection on Philippians 2:5-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Image credit: Gustave Dore

Palm/Passion Sunday frequently leaves preachers with the dilemma of choosing one over the other. Moreover, another dilemma is, if preachers choose to focus on Passion Sunday, then what pericope does one choose to preach on—given the lengthy gospel reading. It is very difficult to preach on the gospel adequately—unless the preacher focuses on only a portion of the gospel—given all of the events in the Passion Narrative. Consequently, some preachers opt for a dramatization of the Passion Narrative instead, involving the whole congregation in participating in a play or a dramatic reading. This latter option affords the Passion Narrative to ‘preach’ on its own. Another option may be to choose to preach on the epistle pericope.

Indeed, our pericope from Paul’s letter to the Philippians affords the preacher with an opportunity to deliver a sermon that celebrates both Palm and Passion Sunday.

New Testament scholars have often referred to this pericope as an early Christian Christological hymn that Paul either composed himself or cites from another earlier, unnamed source.

The opening verse 5 is an exhortation to the church at Philippi to have the same mind—the same way of thinking, the same attitude toward God, one another, and the living out of life—that was in Christ Jesus.

In verse 6, mention of Jesus being “in the form of God” may refer to his divine pre-existence, similar to that motif in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.

As the hymn continues in verses 6b-8, there is an emphasis on the humility of Jesus, his self-emptying, even to the point of “taking the form of a slave.” A slave, of course, is regarded as the lowest form and class of a human being. The word humility is derived from the word humus—from the earth, or to put it another way, down-to-earth. This emphasis reminds the church at Philippi and us of the extent to which Jesus went to lower himself to be in solidarity with all of humankind. Indeed, his public ministry epitomised his humility by reaching out to society’s outcasts, sinners, the poor, etc., and drawing them into his divine realm—transforming them from being the lowest and the last to the highest and the first.

These verses focusing on Christ’s humility connect with his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he chose to enter that city by riding one of the humblest of animals, a donkey. This was the extreme opposite of what many believed at that time about the Messiah. Instead of a non-violent, peaceful, humble Messiah, riding on the humblest of animals; many believed that the Messiah would be a powerful political and military figure riding on a white stallion or riding in a decorative chariot drawn by white stallions to celebrate his victory campaign of overthrowing the Romans.

Another aspect of Jesus’ humility as the Messiah was when he: “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” This obedience, which led to his crucifixion, the most humiliating of deaths of criminals; was God’s way of offering atonement and salvation for the whole world. Therefore verse 8 especially of the hymn connects with the celebration of Passion Sunday, and may remind readers of the Suffering Servant pericope of Isaiah chapters fifty-two and fifty-three.

It should be emphasised however that Paul’s exhortation here in this pericope should not be misinterpreted to mean that obedience involves spousal or child abuse in marital and family relationships; or the acceptance of injustice in society by oppressive governments and affluent individuals and organisations who influence governments. Rather, the crucifixion of Jesus was God’s saving action to bring humankind liberation from all forms of abusive power, inequality and injustice.

Verses 9-11 shift the focus from the humility and humanity of Jesus to his exaltation and divinity as followers bend the knee and confess him as Lord in an act of faith. “Jesus Christ is Lord” was one of the earliest Christian confessions, and, as in this early hymn, likely an integral part of worship services. It is a Lordship over the tyranny of the ancient Roman empire as well as one rooted in true love made incarnate through servanthood. A love and servanthood that turns the ways of this world upside-down—or, better yet, rightside-up—ushering in God’s realm.

A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Lent 4

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The introduction of our gospel picks up on a favourite theme in Luke’s Gospel—Jesus, friend of sinners and outcasts, and here he is associating with “…all the tax collectors and sinners [who] were coming near to listen to him.” This whole chapter is devoted to parables of the lost and found. According to Luke, Jesus in this chapter is criticized by a group of Pharisees and scribes for offering hospitality to and eating with sinners. In the ancient Eastern world, hospitality and eating together were signs of friendship and love of neighbour. Today too, they have the potential of—and sometimes succeed in—breaking down categories of various kinds that serve to divide people.

Our parable, verses 11b-32, in my Bible is titled: “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.” Over the centuries the parable has been given a variety of names, and often the titles reveal what preachers focus on in the parable, for example: The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Parable of the Prodigal Father, The Parable of the Loving Father, The Parable of the Waiting Father, and so on. Indeed, in my preaching over the years I’ve employed such titles. However, as I read and reflect on the parable now, I would title it “The Parable of Prodigals,” since I believe that both sons and their father were prodigals in one way or another. Speaking of titles, recently I read an article by Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, who had an insight that I never thought of before. She believes the father is a negligent one in that he failed to consult with the elder brother concerning how to handle the younger son. The elder son was left out of the decision-making process regarding the party that was thrown to celebrate the younger son’s return home.

On occasion—likely because I’m the eldest son in my family—I’ve sermonized in an empathic way concerning the eldest son. For example, if we take seriously the detail of verse 12, that the father “…divided his property between them,” then I believe the case can be made for the eldest son’s complaint at the end of the parable about the party—after all, the property, the food, and perhaps even the musicians and dancers were paid for from what rightfully belonged to the eldest son, since the father inherited everything to the sons. I realise this reasoning isn’t concretely substantiated in the parable; and that traditionally the eldest son often received more of the inheritance than other siblings—yet, there is something about this parable that doesn’t sit quite right with yours truly. After all, we’re told that the eldest son has been responsible all along—in fact, puts forth this complaint, the foundation of which seems to be one of a fair playing field and justice: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” He has been a model son, working hard, accepting responsibilities, doing the right thing—albeit he seems to see it as slavery rather than being motivated by compassion. Hence, in this sense he too is prodigal, if his primary motivation is not based on love for his father. Prodigal too in that he seems to want to remain—reading between the lines—angry with and alienated from his younger brother, whom we note, he doesn’t call him by name, keeping his distance from him by saying: “this son of yours,” in verse 30. Indeed, after the eldest brother’s complaint, the parable leaves it open-ended as to whether or not the eldest brother listens to his father’s plea for compassion and forgiveness and joins in the celebration.

Coming back to the other two main characters, the youngest son and the father—I think we can identify with both of them as well. The youngest son has experienced “the university of hard knocks” so-to-speak in that he was humiliated in the far country by, out of desperation, having to accept a job of feeding the pigs; and if one can take him at his word, he was “dying of hunger.” If he was Jewish, having to accept a job feeding pigs would definitely not be kosher. “Dying of hunger” would certainly be no picnic either! So he hits bottom so-to-speak and plans his repentance speech and heads back home—hoping that his father will at least take him back as one of his slaves, since even they were better off than he was now. Notice however in his repentance speech that there is no mention of his elder brother. One question that we might ask is: Did the youngest son leave home in the first place because there had been a falling out with his elder brother? The parable doesn’t tell us, but perhaps that was a possibility. Another question we may ask is: Since the eldest brother is not mentioned in the repentance speech, is the silence an indication of a broken relationship between the brothers? Such questions, I realise are not answerable with any degree of certainty.

All those of us who are fathers or mothers I think can identify with the father in the parable. Sometimes children can “push the envelope” to the limits and then some. They can leave home and go off into “the far country.” Sometimes, tragically, children never come home again. There are countless stories of “waiting fathers and mothers,” and “loving fathers and mothers,” who agonize over broken relationships with their children. Sometimes those broken relationships fail to end with compassion and reconciliation, and that is truly tragic. Sometimes however parties are thrown and parents become prodigal in going all out with their celebrations—showing generosity and compassion beyond everyone’s expectations. That indeed is a fine picture of who our God is in his relationship with each one of us! For that, thanks be to God!

A Lectionary Reflection on Isaiah 55:1-9, Lent 3

Image credit: godtube.com

I love the Book of Isaiah, it is so rich in communicating God’s chesedlovingkindness—and grace. Those who believe that the Hebrew Bible and the God described in the Hebrew Bible are filled with doom and gloom, judgement and condemnation need to read the Book of Isaiah. Yes, there are oracles of judgement in Isaiah, however it is also bursting at the seams with messages of lovingkindness and grace.

The Book of Isaiah is a complex one, yet, at the same time, it enunciates the beauty of simplicity. Many scholars divide it into three sections and most likely three different periods of history: Chapters 1-39; chapters 40-55; and chapters 56-66. They are referred to as First Isaiah, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah respectively. Scholars differ concerning their authorship—e.g., some believe the Book of Isaiah may have been compiled by a group of editors/prophets or ‘school of Isaiah’ so-to-speak, while others contend each of the sections were written by three different individuals, as well as other theories. Our pericope likely dates back to the time of the Babylonian exile (ca. 587-538 B.C.E.), perhaps near the end of it, as the content of this oracle is one of a hopeful future—indeed, the title of this oracle in my Bible is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.”

The oracle begins with a message of God’s grace. The picture is rather profound in that first of all everyone is given this grace-filled invitation without exception; and second, the economy of God’s grace is the exact reversal of all human economies based on a monetary system. The invitation makes it abundantly clear that God’s grace cannot be bought with money—it is free! Therefore the rich have no advantage over the poor, all are equal in God’s eyes. In God’s economy of grace no money is required—rather, God’s banquet feast of food and drink are free and accessible to everyone. What abundance, what generosity God offers here!

Verses two and three continue with this motif of God’s abundant grace, however there is a clarifying injunction, the exilic citizens of Judah and Jerusalem are commanded to “Listen carefully…,” “Incline your ear…,” “listen, so that you may live.” I believe it was Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who once said: “The first duty of love is to listen.” Listening makes all the difference in the world, it is, or at least has the potential of being, a matter of life or death. Those who listen are often more open to the blessings of what life has to offer them through the multidimensional workings of God’s grace. Failure to listen can, and often does lead to sinful thoughts, words and actions that lead to: self-inflicted suffering, alienated and broken relationships with God and other human beings, divisions, the devastation of creation, evil, injustice, war and destruction.

In the case of this pericope, listening while eating and drinking at God’s grace-filled banquet feast is connected with celebrating God’s “everlasting covenant” now expanding from David’s line to include all of God’s chosen people—verses four and five. God’s chosen people graced with an everlasting covenant shall “call nations that [they] you do not know,” and in response to this “call,” these nations “shall run to you.” They shall do this running because of God’s grace and initiative toward his chosen people.

Verses six and seven shift in their emphasis, inviting people, including “the wicked,” to repent of their sinful ways; which involves returning to the Holy One, the One who created and loved them from the beginning. This call to repentance, to return to the LORD has a profound consequence: “he may have mercy on them…,” and “he will abundantly pardon.” Mercy and abundance are the very attributes of God; they are also associated with God’s grace, lovingkindness/chesed, and God’s fidelity to the everlasting covenant.

The closing verses of this pericope are a reminder of God’s sovereignty, God’s transcendence, God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ and in the presence of God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ our humility—reminding us of our finitude and limitations, which are a message of grace too, since they reveal our need of God, our hunger and thirst for God, our constant state of returning to God in order to live the abundant life. We are graced to share God’s abundance even as we live in our various forms of exile.

A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 13:31-35, Lent 2

Image Credit: Gospel Book of Otto III, flickriver.com

This week’s gospel begins with “some Pharisees” described in a more positive way by warning Jesus that Herod “that fox” (a predator, crafty animal that looks for chickens to kill and eat) wants to kill him. The phrase “some Pharisees” is a reminder to the readers of this gospel that not all Pharisees can easily be stereotyped, and that they were a diverse group of religious leaders—some of whom most likely did not oppose Jesus.

In contrast to this group of Pharisees, Herod is after Jesus’ blood, and wants him dead. Indeed, Herod was a treacherous man who had beheaded John the Baptizer.

In Jesus’ message to Herod via these Pharisees, he emphasized that his mission of ushering in God’s realm must continue—i.e., casting out demons and performing cures were signs of his messianic identity, and likely could be perceived as a threat to Herod, since people flocked to Jesus, and this had the potential to cause political unrest. Jesus’ words communicate courage and a single-mindedness in carrying out his messianic mission—that he was not about to be intimidated by Herod’s machinations.

Then Jesus goes on to lament over Jerusalem: “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” In this lament, one can sense how heart-breaking it was for Jesus to experience the rejection and hatred of people he came to love. The metaphor that he employs is the loving, brave and protecting hen that gathers her brood of chicks when there is danger. This image that Jesus associates himself and his messianic mission with is a message of encouragement and affirmation of the feminine.

The heart-breaking lament in response to rejection and hatred is a reminder to all of us of Jesus’ solidarity with members of the human race who lament because they are rejected and hated. There are far too many in the world today who are heart-broken and suffer untold pain because of being rejected and hated for the colour of their skin, being a different gender, or belonging to the wrong socio-economic, ethnic, linguistic or religious group. How can we see these folks as the presence of Jesus in our midst today and welcome them?

In the closing verse of our gospel, Jesus may be referring to his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when the crowds welcome him with these words that he quotes here from the last Hallel Psalm (Psalm 118:26), which was sung at the Jewish festivals, including after eating the Passover meal.