Reflection on daily Lectionary readings

Bruce Marold of Trinity Bethlehem, [email protected], has written comments and reflections on daily Lectionary readings for over 4 years, on and off, from before he started at the seminary. He discontinued them sometime in 2013. His faithful conscience, Mithril, the theological cat – don't let the cat get you, it's worth continuing on – insists that since we are now at the beginning of a new year, that he resume this practice.

He does the New Testament reading for each of the seven days, plus the Gospel for Sunday. Depending on how that works, he may replace the Sunday epistle reading with the psalm for the week, and do the Gospel on Sunday. These reflections appear daily on Mithril's Facebook page, accompanied by an image suggested by the text.

These are reflections, as they are less commentary and far more personal reaction to the reading, and anything from our culture, from ancient days to today, is fair game. When he started this, in 2009, he would pore over thick commentaries to get something readers may not have encountered. Now, he's burning that bridge and relying on his impressions, hoping that they may spark reflective impressions of your own.

Calculating God, by Bill Lewellis

Calculating God
The root of Christian living: Be who you are

Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, May 17, 2014

My son Matt makes me wonder what I'm missing by disinterest in science fiction and fantasy literature. I try occasionally to discover what that might be.

I stayed recently with a 2000 Robert Sawyer science fiction novel, Calculating God, because part of it surfaced my bias that theology, specifically moral theology in this instance, is more art than science. More intuitive than analytical and deductive.

So much of what is right and wrong is difficult to determine. That’s from the book, but it’s also the experience of many who try to live good lives and do good in the process.

In Calculating God, an extra-terrestrial, Hollus, who believes in God, told a Canadian paleontologist, Thomas Jericho, who does not, about the extra-terrestrial Wreeds whom math confounds just as "philosophical questions about the meaning of life, ethics and morality confound us.”

Though we have an intuitive sense of right and wrong, Hollus said, every theory of morality we come up with fails because we tend toward reducing morality to logic. Mathematical morality. The longer we live, experience suggests we can’t.  

“We attempt to apply mathematics –– something we are good at –– to ethics, something we are not good at,” Hollus tells Jericho. Such attempts always fail us. Intuitive morality, the more complex the question, defies mathematical logic.

I have written sermons and columns for some 50 years. Lately, I’ve focused on those who take their doubts more seriously than themselves, who find comfort, not anxiety, in questions.

I was fortunate to have teachers in the ‘60s who had one foot in classical theology which tended to be analytical and another in intuitive creativity where God is still speaking.

A German Jesuit, Father Joseph Fuchs, who taught at the Gregorian University in Rome, informed my first experience of truly Christian moral theology.

I was expecting to study the law… God’s law, church law, case studies. Math become morality.

I was primed for answers.

During the first few weeks of class, however, Josef Fuchs read and commented on passages from St. Paul’s letters. Hello, I thought. Was this the moral theology class? There’s someone here reading from the bible.

So at odds with my expectations, Josef Fuchs gleaned from St. Paul’s writings those passages where he says we have been changed, transformed, reborn. In Christ.

He suggested again and again that in that change, in that transformation, in that rebirth — in Christ — we discover the defining moment for Christian living: that the answer to “What must I do?” is contained in the question, “Who am I?” and that the Christian moral imperative is rooted not in law but in Jesus Christ and in the person I have become in Christ.

Paul often follows “You are a new creation,” Josef Fuchs pointed out, with “Therefore, BE (who you are)!” This sequence, Fuchs said, was Paul’s moral theology.” You are a new creation in Christ. You are mystery. Let the mystery unfold. Let the secret be told. Be reconciled. Be glad. Be thankful. Be compassionate. Be who you are. Be that new creation in Christ.

That, he suggested, was the heart of Christian morality: Jesus Christ and the new creation we have become in Christ. Josef Fuchs called it the Pauline Indicative-Imperative: You are a new creation in Christ. Therefore, be…

Yes, I do miss something crucial by disinterest in science fiction and fantasy literature. I miss that God touches our hearts and imaginations as much if not more than God reaches us through cold and artless logic. I miss the unlimited artful scope of intuition.

[Canon Bill Lewellis, [email protected], a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]






The Office Book

By Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
6 September 2011

It’s more valuable than my cell phone (contacts, calendar, and communication).  Its information is more reliable than that on my computer.  I would be lost without it.  I have given it away and take it with me wherever I go.  I have used it on an airplane in the middle of the night, in my car before a meeting, in great cathedrals, and in my favorite chair.

I refer (of course) to the Contemporary Office Book (New York: Church Publishing, 2000; $140), that single volume and 2884 page repository of all things necessary to offer The Daily Office in Rite Two using the New Revised Standard Version of the scriptures.  Its name comes from the Latin word officium, meaning duty or service.  This service is and is not a duty.

Today’s Old Testament reading (I Kings 16:23-34) gives us the entire scriptural account of Omri, King of Israel, whose name means worshipper of Yahweh.  But Omri is important for another reason.  The scriptures say that he “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” but they overlook his quelling of a rebellion and his might shown in capability both abroad and at home.  He was one of the greatest kings of Israel.  I came by this extra knowledge innocently: a Bible professor I had in seminary wrote his dissertation on Omri.

But I have come to see that nothing about the scriptures and the daily prayers is irrelevant to my daily round cellular activity: contacts, calendar events, and communication.  In fact, the scriptures and the daily prayers give to me and reinforce in me an important meaning lying behind the events.  We are God’s, and we remain God’s despite what we do.  And, at times, we even answer our calling to do God’s will.  Even old Omri reminds me that we all have a double story, the one that is written down and the one that defies writing, the one that’s harder or more inconvenient to see.  We all pray that God’s will be done, and occasionally we actually do it.

For the scriptures tell our story, too.  We find duplicated in us the events and the emotions of the people of Israel through the ages.  And we find, too, that place where we can trust in God’s loving-kindness and mercy.  Over and over we are called to that trust and to commit to that relationship so that it is as firm for our part as it is for God’s part.

I’ve said it in sermons precisely because I believe it.  When Jesus speaks in the proclamation of the Gospel for the day, he speaks and is present to all his hearers not only those of two thousand years ago.  He speaks to you and to me, and to the situation of our lives.

And so I carry the Office Book with me and use it though I think of it more as a breviary, a collection of those short readings that give to me and remind me of the deeper meaning, and open the door of eternity.  To me it’s very like Jacob’s Ladder, stretching to heaven and declaring God’s promise: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:15).  I’ll take it over a cell phone any day.

Preliminary thoughts on lilies and birds – Epiphany 8

By Bishop Paul Marshall

[On Monday, Feb. 21, Bishop Paul posted the following note on the gospel passage for Epiphany 8, Sunday, Feb. 27, on Bakery, the interactive online discussion of the Diocese of Bethlehem.]

As some of you have had occasion to know, I view Matt 5-6 as Jesus' prolonged attempt to get people to think, to take religious living away from rote recitation and robotic performance to something much more profound and liberating. Sermons on these texts have to be preached in awareness that something is going on that is more than the total of passages we've been following.

Lilies and birds are fine in their way, but as far as we know, they do not experience consciousness the way we do. We experience ourselves as "I" that has to manage the business of living and which seeks meaning, an "I" that has power and responsibility and feels consequences. If the train of thought from the last two chapters has not been derailed, Matthew's Jesus points these fellow creatures out, I think, hoping that people will say both "yes" and "yes but."

In the gospel texts we have been following, Jesus has dealt with happiness (blessedness), relation to the past, authority, non-violence, and compassion for those on the outside.

And this week we have anxiety, now translated as worry. As we think of anxiety outside of medical terms (which are by no means irrelevant if one has a crippling anxiety disorder), there might be help in a passage scooped up from the web's usual suspect info site:

"The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in The Concept of Anxiety, described anxiety or dread associated with the "dizziness of freedom" and suggested the possibility for positive resolution of anxiety through the self-conscious exercise of responsibility and choosing. In Art and Artist (1932), the psychologist Otto Rank wrote that the psychological trauma of birth was the pre-eminent human symbol of existential anxiety and encompasses the creative person's simultaneous fear of – and desire for – separation, individuation and differentiation.

"The theologian Paul Tillich characterized existential anxiety[22] as "the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing" and he listed three categories for the nonbeing and resulting anxiety: ontic (fate and death), moral (guilt and condemnation), and spiritual (emptiness and meaninglessness). According to Tillich, the last of these three types of existential anxiety, i.e. spiritual anxiety, is predominant in modern times while the others were predominant in earlier periods. Tillich argues that this anxiety can be accepted as part of the human condition or it can be resisted but with negative consequences. In its pathological form, spiritual anxiety may tend to "drive the person toward the creation of certitude in systems of meaning which are supported by tradition and authority" even though such "undoubted certitude is not built on the rock of reality".

"According to Viktor Frankl, the author of Man's Search for Meaning, when a person is faced with extreme mortal dangers, the most basic of all human wishes is to find a meaning of life to combat the "trauma of nonbeing" as death is near."

Well, maybe that helped and maybe it didn't. But it does suggest some thoughts.

First, you wouldn't want to take a pill or other substance to make any of those examples of anxiety go away! You would want to work with the anxiety to detect the necessary spiritual quests that set if off. Jesus seems here to drive people to examine their basic attitude toward life (we already know that in Matthew he will elsewhere commend prudent, even creative, planning). This is certainly the ground where theology and therapy meet--we call it spiritual direction for good reasons.

1) In District III tomorrow (Tuesday), I will be asking how Tillich's view of spiritually anxious folk creating "systems of certitude" applies to our national and church life today.
--Is the political or religious right a symptom of a deeper hunger which Jesus is eager to feed?  If so, how exactly do we feed it?
--For the militantly uncertain we ask, Is the political or religious left so intent on soothing symptoms that the underlying spiritual challenges are not engaged? If so, how do we encourage them to think beyond co-dependence with the entire species?
--As a rule, is our disapproval routinely engaged by the right and our blind spots by the left? Or is it the other way around? Where have we built systems of certitude, even about uncertainty?

2) I am an enthusiastic Frankl fan and was glad to see him in the last paragraph quoted above. Still, I wonder if the concept of a "trauma of nonbeing" as Frankl puts it isn't a very western and individualistic way to look at these problems. What if non-being is what our organisms finally desire so that stimulus will cease and evolution can get on with it? Cells that don't know when or how to die become cancer. Can Christians engage at all with the concept of Nirvana other than to criticize it? Listen to Bach's "Come Sweet Death" on the organ at played by Virgil Fox or Peter Conte (available as single mp3 files at either Amazon or iTunes), and ask the question again. The lyrics are made superfluous by the music, but they are in German and English here.

3) Jesus places trust in God above our symptoms and our misdeeds. How has that worked out for the Sudanese? If you answer that corporately there is a very hopeful answer. If you answer it from a theology of individual prosperity, other answers emerge and we have yet another theodicy problem. Is Matthew's recollection of Jesus using the plural ("you-all")  in addressing his audience here useful to our ears who can hear that a part of overcoming anxiety is to be self-consciously a member of the human community? Is that stretching the text a bit too far?

It's only Monday, and preachers have a long time to think about this set of lessons, which we haven't engaged in more than a decade.

Enjoy the snow. It helps keep the pace of the holiday pleasant.


Reflection on the gospel for Epiphany 5C

From the Lectionaries
By Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
Year C, Epiphany 5
Luke 5:1-11
7 February 2010

The Collect of the Day is new in this Prayer Book, and The Rev. Dr. Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., wrote it.

The Gospel today is Lk’s account of the calling of Simon Peter, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. The source for Lk is Mk 1:16-20, and the parallel is Mt 4:18-22. Unlike Mk and Mt, Lk sews into the story of the calling the story of the wondrous catch of fish, and the addition of that story provides motivation for Simon Peter, James, and John to follow Jesus.

In Mk, Jesus sees Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, and he calls them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people. And immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mk 1:17-18). Similarly in Mt: “And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mt 4:19-20).

The prophetic nature of Jesus’ ministry, additionally, Lk underscores with the wondrous catch of fish. Jesus predicts a catch, “let down your nets for a catch” (5:4), and the fulfillment of the prediction, “they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break” (5:6) is a another example of Jesus as prophet. Because the prediction is fulfilled, Simon Peter, James, and John are the more willing to follow him.

The other important prediction Jesus makes is that Simon Peter “from now on…will be catching people” (5:10). That prediction, too, is fulfilled, but the fulfillment requires the rest of Lk and most of Acts.

This Gospel is Jesus’ introduction to Simon Peter except for the mention of him at 4:38 when Jesus enters his house and rebukes the high fever assailing his mother-in-law. This episode falls in Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum just after the episode in the synagogue in Nazareth. Beginning in the Gospel for today, Simon Peter quickly assumes his role among the disciples as spokesperson and as a person of faith. Despite having worked all night long, catching nothing, Simon Peter has enough faith and enough trust in the new prophet to let down the nets once again.

By letting down the nets once again, Simon Peter steps through the looking glass to another world; it is the world that Jesus prophetically has begun to proclaim and to identify with himself. It is a world in which the poor have good news brought to them, the captives hear of release, the blind receive their sight, the oppressed go free; it is a world that is the year of the Lord’s favor for all time (4:18-19). It is a world with a different logic, the logic that is not based on the scarcity of human economy but on God’s loving-kindness generously distributed to all creatures. It is a world wherein a fisherman’s nets remain empty all night, but at Jesus’ word those nets are filled to so full a capacity that the nets begin to break and the boats begin to sink. Its logic startles human expectation and upsets human logic.

Simon Peter enters not rashly or blindly but at Jesus’ suggestion, and he enters, evidently, expecting faithfully that God will be in this particular instance as God eternally and ineffably is: faithful to the suggestion that a catch is possible and perhaps even probable. The suggestion to cast the nets again is not a tease. Simon Peter catches on to this and properly expects Jesus to provide. He casts the nets again not to show Jesus to be wrong and himself to be right but to give Jesus the opportunity at his own suggestion to show his own nature, the nature of God who provides abundantly.

Simon Peter’s reaction to the catch of fish is to fall down at Jesus’ feet and to command him to go away, “for I am a sinful man!” (5:8). As a sinner Simon Peter unquestionably belongs to one of the categories of “the poor” who respond to Jesus over and over in Lk. And in his response to Jesus Simon Peter moves from “sinner” to “saved.” He trusts the logic in the new world he just stepped into. In Acts 15:11, Peter asserts, “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [“our ancestors,” (15:10)] will.” And he began the journey from “sinner” to “saved” after a long night of frustration and failed fishing when a new prophet strangely and surprisingly said to try just one more time.

Revelation gives hope

From the Lectionaries
by Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow

The Daily Office: Monday in Advent 2
7 December 2009

At Evening Prayer today we start again a course reading of the first six chapters of Revelation, known also as The Apocalypse, ending on Saturday before Advent 4. The reading underlines one of the themes of this season: we move toward meeting the Judge at the end of time while we move toward meeting the Baby on December 25. Is it any wonder that we tend to focus on the Baby whilst putting out of our minds the Judge? Who can resist a Baby? Who’s eager to meet the Judge?

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