Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Tag

A Question of Balance   Leave a comment

Above:  Balance Scale

Photographer = Andreas Praefcke

Image in the Public Domain

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[Jesus] called the people to him and said, “Listen, and understand.  What goes into the mouth does not make anyone unclean; it is what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean.”

–Matthew 15:10-11, The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)

I remember a single-cell cartoon depicting a man standing before St. Simon Peter at the Pearly Gates.  The caption reads,

No, that is not a sin either.  You must have worried yourself to death.

Recently I have renewed my interest in Scandinavian-American Lutheran history.  I have therefore been reading in that field.  These volumes have covered topics including Pietism, complete with its condemnation of indulging appetites and engaging in “worldly amusements,” such as dancing, drinking tea, playing cards, playing chess, attending plays, attending fairs and circuses, and reading works of fiction.  I have remembered an old joke:

Q:  Why don’t fundamentalists have sex standing up?

A:  It might lead to dancing.

Pietism and Puritanism are two unfortunate -isms that overlap with regard to denunciations of “worldly amusements.”  Pietism, which originated within Lutheranism then spread beyond it, dates to the 1600s, as a reaction against excessively abstract theology in preaching.  Pietism rejects the definition of the church as the assembly of hose called by both word and sacraments and redefines the church as the gathering of the spiritually reborn.  Pietism also de-emphasizes doctrine and stresses deeds–many of them laudible acts of charity and general decency and honest piety.  Unfortunately, Pietism also bends toward legalism and de-emphasizes the sacraments and rituals (referring scornfully to “externals”), tends toward serial contrarianism with regard to “the world,” and is Donatistic.  A Pietist contrasts deeds and doctrines.  I rebut that deeds reveal doctrines.  As we think, so we are.  That which we are inside cannot help but be evident outside.

I affirm the following statements:

  1. What we do matters.
  2. What we do not do matters.
  3. What we believe (give intellectual assent to) matters.
  4. None of the above can save any of us from the consequences of our sins.
  5. Faithful response to God is vital.
  6. Legalism is spiritually detrimental.
  7. Salvation is a gift.  It is free, not cheap.

The allegation of works-based righteousness is a cudgel many Protestants use against Roman Catholicism.  This reality indicates a misapprehension of Roman Catholic theology.  Yes, many Roman Catholics have a sense of works-based righteousness, but so do many Protestants.  I, who grew up a United Methodist in the South Georgia Conference, recall some children’s sermons delivered by laypeople whose theology included works-based righteousness.  I know well that the doctrinal standards of that denomination reject works-based righteousness.  For many Protestants of various theological categories affirming orthodoxy becomes a means of salvation.  Salvation from damnation therefore becomes a matter of knowledge.  This is an error–a sort of Gnosticism, to be precise.  Furthermore, an obsession with personal peccadilloes becomes an excuse for giving short shrift to or ignoring collective responsibility for societal and social ills.  So yes, one might cheat one’s employees and oppose policies that would penalize one for doing so and prevent one from doing so, but one rarely uses profanity and never cheats on one’s spouse.  The Bible says more about the exploitation of people than about sexual activities, however, so such a one needs to rethink one’s priorities.  Anyhow, even the most moral life, measured by kindness, cannot save one from damnation.

In both Judaism and Christianity the law of love is paramount.  So, O reader, leave the world better than you found it.  God will save it, but your faithful response is to act positively.  Also, go ahead and enjoy your life.  Enjoy a good dance, if you wish.  Watch movies, from harmless popcorn flicks to profound art films.  (Italian Neorealism has enriched my life recently.)  Why not relish a well-written novel or short story?  Lose yourself in a symphony or other work of great music.

Finally, brothers, let your minds be filled with everything that is true, everything that is honourable, everything that is upright and pure, everything that we love and admire–and whatever is good and praiseworthy.

–Philippians 4:8, The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)

The “worldly” in “worldly amusements” is not necessarily negative.  Yes, one should avoid much that one can find to amuse oneself, but many of the options are laudable.  Playing chess is beneficial for one’s mind.  Antioxidents in tea are good for us.  Idle hands are not necessarily the Devil’s workshop, for we need to rest and play as well as work.  God has given us life;  may we enjoy it and thank God frequently.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 9, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF KARL BARTH, SWISS REFORMED MINISTER, THEOLOGIAN, AND BIBLICAL SCHOLAR; FATHER OF MARKUS BARTH, SWISS LUTHERAN MINISTER AND BIBLICAL SCHOLAR

THE FEAST OF GEORG FRIEDRICH HELLSTROM, DUTCH-GERMAN MORAVIAN MUSICIAN, COMPOWER, AND EDUCATOR

THE FEAST OF SAINT PETER FOURIER, “THE GOOD PRIEST OF MATTAINCOURT;” AND SAINT ALIX LE CLERC, FOUNDRESS OF THE CONGREGATION OF NOTRE DAME OF CANONESSES REGULAR OF SAINT AUGUSTINE

THE FEAST OF SAINT WALTER CISZEK, ROMAN CATHOLIC MISSIONARY PRIEST AND POLITICAL PRISONER

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The Golden Rule and Other Timeless Principles   Leave a comment

Above:  The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Image in the Public Domain

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FOR THE EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY, ACCORDING TO A LECTIONARY FOR PUBLIC WORSHIP IN THE BOOK OF WORSHIP FOR CHURCH AND HOME (1965)

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Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without unconditional, sacrificial love are worth nothing.

Send your Holy Spirit, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,

the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without whosoever lives is counted dead before you.

Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

–Modernized from The Book of Worship for Church and Home (1965), page 86

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Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Psalm 47

Ephesians 4:17-32

Luke 10:25-37

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God is the King, Psalm 47 reminds us.  Furthermore, the text states, all nations should acknowledge this reality.  Not only is this true, but so are the following statements:

  1. We depend on God for everything.
  2. We depend on each other.
  3. We are responsible for each other.
  4. We are responsible to each other.
  5. We are interdependent and dependent, not independent.
  6. We have no moral right to exploit one another.
  7. How we treat each other matters.
  8. Piety (or at least the appearance thereof) does not justify not helping each other.

Those statements, taken together, summarize the readings from Leviticus 19, Ephesians 4, and Luke 10 well.  To that list of statements I add another:  The identity of those who help us might prove so surprising as to be scandalous to many.

I notice the selective reading from Leviticus 19.  I have no desire to insult the deaf or to place a stumbling block before the blind, for example, so verse 14 does not disturb me.  Many other omitted verses also prompt me to respond with, “Of course that is a fine law.”  Some of them are timeless principles, but others are culturally specific examples of such principles.  The particulars of verses 9 and 10 might not apply at all times and in all places, but the commandment to provide for the poor remains.  I note, however, that verses 20-22 allow for slavery.  Furthermore, the wardrobe prohibition in verse 19 applies neither to priestly vestments (see Exodus 28:6 and 39:29) nor forbids mandatory fringes on Israelite clothing (see Numbers 15:37-40).  The wording of certain passages of the Law of Moses, taken out of context, makes those passages seem more cut-and-dried than they really are.

Biblical interpretation is a frequently complicated and subtle enterprise.  So as to avoid becoming lost in the proverbial forest and slipping into legalism, I side with the tradition of Rabbi Hillel:

That which is deplorable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary; go and learn it.

We read in Matthew 5:17-20 that Jesus came to fulfill, not to abolish, the law.  The critique of scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew is that they do not keep the law properly.  We also read the following in Matthew 7:12:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

The New Revised Standard Version (1989)

That is the Golden Rule.  It means no slavery, does it not?

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

SEPTEMBER 4, 2017 COMMON ERA

LABOR DAY (U.S.A.)

THE FEAST OF PAUL JONES, EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF UTAH AND PEACE ACTIVIST; AND HIS COLLEAGUE, JOHN NEVIN SAYRE, EPISCOPAL PRIEST AND PEACE ACTIVIST

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A Light to the Nations VI   Leave a comment

Above:  Pottery Oil Lamp

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-matpc-12216

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FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY, ACCORDING TO A LECTIONARY FOR PUBLIC WORSHIP IN THE BOOK OF WORSHIP FOR CHURCH AND HOME (1965)

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Lord, you see that all hearts are empty unless you fill them,

and that all desires are balked unless they crave for you.

Give us light and grace to seek and find you, that you may be ours forever.  Amen.

–Modernized from The Book of Worship for Church and Home (1965), page 85

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Isaiah 49:8-13

Psalm 10

Ephesians 2:11-18

Matthew 5:14-20

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These readings mesh especially well.  They also return to the familiar theme of being a light to the nations.

Psalm 10 asks why God stands at a distance while, as the New American Bible states the matter,

Arrogant scoundrels pursue the poor;

they trap them by their cunning schemes.

–Verse 2

This is a timeless question.  Today, as in Psalm 10, the wicked crouch and lurk (figuratively, of course), with the purpose of ambushing and trapping the poor.  The reference to that pose is a literary allusion to Genesis 4:7, in which sin crouches and lurks at the door.  The author of Psalm 10 concludes on a note of confidence in God, but one might wonder how sincerely.  One could just as well speak the last several verses sarcastically; that would fit well with the rest of the psalm.

Isaiah 49:8-13, set in the context of the return from the Babylonian Exile, seems to answer the author of Psalm 10.  Gentile monarchs and nobles will revere God, who has taken back His afflicted ones in love.  God will act and keep faith, or hesed, with the afflicted.  God will be the light that attracts Gentiles to Himself.  Therefore, as in Ephesians 2, in Christ artificial barriers, such as those that separate Jews from Gentiles, cease to exist.  As we know from scriptures I have covered in previous posts in this series, Jews and faithful Gentiles are the Chosen People together.

That is so, but this reality does not change the fact that many people who consider themselves faithful prefer to preserve categories that Jesus erases.  My best guess is that these individuals labor under the incorrect impression of what divinely approved categories are and what merely human categories are.  Each of us who call ourselves faithful are guilty of this offense to some degree.

As Matthew 5:14-20 reminds us, we are the light of the world.  Yet many of us hide or misdirect our light.  We have an obligation to shed the light on God, for the sake of divine glory.  We ought to be the polar opposite of the oppressors in Psalm 10.  They boast in their greed and deny that, if God exists, He does not care.  (See Psalms 14 and 53 about that point.)  They seem to be amoral.  They shine their light on themselves, to their glory, such as it is.

God does care–quite deeply, of course.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

SEPTEMBER 1, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SUNDAR SINGH, INDIAN CHRISTIAN EVANGELIST

THE FEAST OF DAVID PENDLETON OAKERHATER, EPISCOPAL DEACON

THE FEAST OF SAINT FIACRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC HERMIT

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A Light to the Nations V   Leave a comment

Above:  The Adoration of the Magi, by Albrecht Durer

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ppmsca-40191

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FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY, ACCORDING TO A LECTIONARY FOR PUBLIC WORSHIP IN THE BOOK OF WORSHIP FOR CHURCH AND HOME (1965)

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We ask, Lord, that you mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you,

and that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do,

and may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Modernized from The Book of Worship for Church and Home (1965), page 85

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Isaiah 60:1-3, 6b

Psalm 24

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

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Isaiah 60 and Psalm 24 state that God is the King, a ruler superior to human rulers who shed the blood of the innocent, commit injustice shamelessly, and do not care about integrity.  God is not fully the King of the Earth yet, we read, but that will change.  God is certainly superior to the unstable and evil Herod the Great, a client ruler within the Roman Empire and a man fearful of a young boy.

Interestingly, Father Raymond E. Brown, author of The Birth of the Messiah (1977 and 1993) and An Introduction to the New Testament (1997), both magisterial works of Biblical scholarship, was dubious of the story in Matthew 2 (considering the account in Luke 2, despite its factual errors, more plausible) yet affirmed the Virgin Birth.  For a long time many scholars–even conservative ones–have struggled to reconcile the very different stories in Matthew 2 and Luke 2.  Nevertheless, would not visiting Magi have been more likely than a virginal conception and subsequent birth?

Regardless of the objective reality regarding that matter, the kingship of God remains.  Most of God’s subjects are Gentiles, whom He does not exclude from the potential for salvation.  This is an old theme in the Bible, given the faithful Gentiles who appear in the pages of the Hebrew Bible.  The narrative makes room for the civilly disobedient midwives Shiphrah and Puah (probably ethnically Egyptian) in Exodus 1, for Rahab the prostitute of Jericho and her family in Joshua 2 and 6, and Ruth in Ruth 1-4, for example.  The four chapters of Jonah, a work of fiction and a Jewish protest against post-Babylonian Exilic exclusionary attitudes among Jews, remain relevant in many settings.  We read of some Gentile Godfearers in John 12:20-36.  Faithful Gentiles, we read in epistles of St. Paul the Apostle as well as those texts others wrote in his name, join the Jews in the ranks of the Chosen People.  Are not the Chosen People–Jews and Gentiles–supposed to be a light to the nations, that is, Gentiles?

The message of God is for all people.  Not all will accept it, however; that is their decision.  The offer is on the table one way or another, however.  It is a generous offer and a gift.  The grace is free yet not cheap, for it makes demands of all its recipients.  So be it.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

SEPTEMBER 1, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SUNDAR SINGH, INDIAN CHRISTIAN EVANGELIST

THE FEAST OF DAVID PENDLETON OAKERHATER, EPISCOPAL DEACON

THE FEAST OF SAINT FIACRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC HERMIT

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A New Birth of Justice   Leave a comment

Above:  The Virgin in Prayer, by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

Image in the Public Domain

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FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT, ACCORDING TO A LECTIONARY FOR PUBLIC WORSHIP IN  THE BOOK OF WORSHIP FOR CHURCH AND HOME (1965)

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Almighty and everlasting God, you are brightness of faithful souls and the desire of all nations.

So fill the world with your glory and show yourself by the radiance of your light

that all the peoples of the earth may be subject to you;  through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Modernized from The Book of Worship for Church and Home (1965)

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Isaiah 7:10-14

Psalm 31

Titus 2:11-3:7

Matthew 1:18-25

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The Gospel of Matthew appropriates and reinterprets a story from Isaiah 7.  The assigned reading from that story is too short; it should be 7:1-17, at least.

Ahaz (reigned 743/735-727/715 B.C.E.) was the King of Judah.  He was one of the many monarchs who received a negative review in the Bible.  Jerusalem, Ahaz’s capital city, was under threat from allied forces of Israel (the northern kingdom) and Aram (Syria).  God, via the prophet Isaiah, sent a reassuring message to Ahaz; the effort of the two allied kings,

those two smoking stubs of firebrands

–Isaiah 7:4, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures (1985)

would fail.  Ahaz, when prompted to ask for a sign of divine deliverance, pretended to be pious and refused to request a sigh.  He received one anyway.  A young woman (literally, a maiden) would give birth to a son.  The sign of divine deliverance from imminent destruction was new, vulnerable life.

One might be like the author of Psalm 31 and seek refuge in God when under threat.  Alternatively, one might be like Ahaz and not seek it yet receive it anyway.

The reading from Titus is disturbing.  The author, writing in the name of St. Paul the Apostle, writes a leader of the church on the island of Crete.  The assigned portion of this epistle follows directly from verses that indicate that slaves must be thoroughly under the control of their masters and never talk back to them or steal from them.  The purpose of slaves behaving “properly” will be

to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every way.

–Verse 10b, The New American Bible

The pericope indicates a concern for orderliness and obedience to authority, as opposed to lawlessness.  We read that we used to be slaves to a range of pleasures of desires.  Being that kind of slave is negative in Titus, but being a literal slave is permissible.  Huh?  Actually, legalized slavery and other forms of institutionalized injustice are worse than lawlessness, for opposition to such injustice is a virtue.

The Letter to Titus indicates the degree to which certain elements of early Christianity accommodated themselves to societal and legal norms of the Roman Empire.  I do not advise reflexive contrariness regarding societal and legal norms, but I do state unequivocably that we who claim to follow God–in Christ, in particular–have a moral duty to march to the beat of a different drummer.  Whenever law and society are correct, that is wonderful.  But whenever law and society are wrong, we have an obligation to say so and to act accordingly.  After all, as Titus 2:12 tells us, we should live justly, devoutly, and temperately.  And, to delve into an earlier portion of Titus 2, sound teaching is vital.

Slavery is contrary to sound teaching.  Here I stand; I will not do otherwise.  This is one point on which I differ from the author of the epistle.  Another is the affirmation of the slur against Cretans in 1:12-13.

As we await the celebration of the birth of Jesus–certainly new, vulnerable life, may we recommit ourselves in his name–the name of one executed unjustly and legally by the Roman Empire–to a new birth of justice for all in the world.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 28, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINTS AMBROSE OF MILAN, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP; MONICA OF HIPPO, MOTHER OF SAINT AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO; AND AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO, BISHOP OF HIPPO REGIUS

THE FEAST OF DENIS WORTMAN, U.S. DUTCH REFORMED MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF LAURA S. COPERHAVER, U.S. LUTHERAN HYMN WRITER AND MISSIONARY LEADER

THE FEAST OF SAINT MOSES THE BLACK, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONK, ABBOT, AND MARTYR

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Varieties of Exile   Leave a comment

Above:  Road to Natural Bridge in Death Valley National Park, California, 2012

Photographer = Carol M. Highsmith

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-highsm-23917

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FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT, ACCORDING TO A LECTIONARY FOR PUBLIC WORSHIP IN  THE BOOK OF WORSHIP FOR CHURCH AND HOME (1965)

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Bestow your light on us, O Lord, that, being rid of the darkness of our hearts,

we may attain to the true light;  through Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world.  Amen.

–Modernized from The Book of Worship for Church and Home (1965), page 69

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Isaiah 62:10-12

Psalm 32

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Luke 3:2b-6

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Isaiah 40:3-5 (quoted in Luke 2:4b-6) and Isaiah 6:10-12 share the thread of return from exile.  In order to grasp Isaiah 62:10-12 one should back up to the beginning of the chapter.  The Babylonian Exile is over yet the reality of Jerusalem after liberation by the Persian Empire does not live up to expectations.  God will indeed restore the fortunes of Jerusalem, we read; more exiles, accompanied by the Presence of God, will return to their ancestral homeland via a highway in the desert.  This is the same highway in Isaiah 40:3-5.

The Babylonian Exile, according to the Hebrew Bible, occurred mostly because of persistent societal sinfulness, such as that manifested in idolatry and institutionalized social injustice.  Divine judgment was simply the consequence of human actions.  Then forgiveness followed, hence the reading of Psalm 32 in the context of Isaiah 62:10-12.  Mercy followed judgment.

Quoting Isaiah 40:3-5 in Luke 3 was thematically appropriate, for life in Roman-occupied Judea constituted exile of a sort.  Expectations of deliverance from the occupiers was commonplace yet not universal among Jews in the homeland.  Jesus, of course, was not the conquering hero; he was no Judas Maccabeus.  No, Jesus was a savior of a different sort.  The high expectations left over from Isaiah 62 remained unfulfilled.

There is, of course, the major of the continuing passage of time.  The fact that these hopes remain unfulfilled does not mean that they will remain so indefinitely.  God’s schedule is not ours.  God, who is the ultimate judge, is faithful and full of surprises.  May the incongruity between our expectations and divine tactics and schedules not stand in the way of serving God.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 28, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINTS AMBROSE OF MILAN, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP; MONICA OF HIPPO, MOTHER OF SAINT AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO; AND AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO, BISHOP OF HIPPO REGIUS

THE FEAST OF DENIS WORTMAN, U.S. DUTCH REFORMED MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF LAURA S. COPERHAVER, U.S. LUTHERAN HYMN WRITER AND MISSIONARY LEADER

THE FEAST OF SAINT MOSES THE BLACK, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONK, ABBOT, AND MARTYR

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In the Wilderness   Leave a comment

Above:  An Oasis, Between 1898 and 1914

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-matpc-07236

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FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT, ACCORDING TO A LECTIONARY FOR PUBLIC WORSHIP IN  THE BOOK OF WORSHIP FOR CHURCH AND HOME (1965)

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Almighty God, you have taught us that the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

Grant that we may ever be found watching for the coming of your Son.

Save us from undue love of the world, that we may wait with patient hope for the day of the Lord,

and so abide in him, that when he shall appear we may not be ashamed; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Modernized from The Book of Worship for Church and Home (1965), page 69

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Malachi 3:1-7b

Psalm 1

Romans 13:8-14

Mark 13:33-37

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The readings from Malachi 3 and Mark 13 sound the note of divine judgment.  The Day of the Lord will be bad news for many, we read in Malachi 3, a text indicative of the Hebrew prophetic concern for the conditions of the vulnerable members of society.  Those who oppress them come in for divine condemnation, as do those who swear falsely, commit adultery, and practice sorcery.  Our lesson from Mark 13 concludes the miniature apocalypse of that Gospel, in the context of Holy Week.  May we all perform our sacred duties faithfully.

The decision to assign a portion of Mark 13 for the First Sunday of Advent is appropriate, given the apocalyptic character of the season of Advent.  That decision also seems consistent with the practice of reading the same set of passages on the First Sunday of Advent as on Palm Sunday, per certain Lutheran and Moravian lectionaries.  Not all is light and joy, we perceive.  Yes, the King is coming, but this is not entirely happy news, even for the King, much less his enemies.

Love cannot wrong a neighbour;

therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

–Romans 13:10, The Revised English Bible (1989)

That verse from St. Paul the Apostle is consistent with our reading from Malachi 3.  As we read in Psalm 1, the wicked, despite any appearances of long-lasting prosperity and success, will perish, and the righteous, despite any appearances of failure, will flourish in the long term.  They are, after all, like trees planted by streams of water.  The timeframe for this success and prosperity of the faithful might not satisfy us or otherwise meet human expectations, but God works on a different schedule.

The wilderness imagery of Psalm 1 is appropriate for Advent.  It is of a piece with the wilderness themes in Lent and accounts of St. John the Baptist in the desert.  In a desert plants with roots in streams will have enough water; they will persist in otherwise hostile circumstances.

The season of Advent is a time to prepare for the twelve days of Christmas (December 25-January 5).  May we certainly observe all the days of Christmas as the sacred season they are.  May we also give Advent its due and be ready for Christmas.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 27, 2017 COMMON ERA

PROPER 16:  THE TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

THE FEAST OF THOMAS GALLAUDET AND HENRY WINTER SYLE, EPISCOPAL PRIESTS

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