Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School and an Episcopal priest.
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Stories in Conversation
AS THE CHURCH wends its way through Lent, the last days of Jesus become the focus of the lectionary. The story of those days is hopelessly entangled with the story of the early church establishing and defining itself. One consequence of this is the habit of the Johannine gospel (John 2:13-22) to blame “the Jews” for all that befalls Jesus. Its authors are a long way from Mark’s portrait of a Torah-observant Jewish Jesus (Mark 14:3-9). And yet John 3:16 proclaims the love of God for the world; no sibling rivalry can stand in the face of that love. Similarly, Jesus announces that he will draw all people to himself in John 12:32.
The epistles emphasize that Christ calls all, non-Jews (lumped together under the moniker “the Greeks”) and Jews, in 1 Corinthians 1:18. The emphasis on God’s love and mercy in Ephesians 2:4 makes this reading especially suitable for Lent.
The readings from Hebrews and Philippians on the last two Sundays focus on a heavenly Christ who is exalted, in sharp distinction to the earthly Jesus betrayed and executed in the passion gospel.
This diversity of texts reveals Jesus through the different lenses of his faithful at varying points in the church’s story, inviting us to add our vision and voice to the telling of that story.
[ March 4 ]
Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS spell out human responsibilities in the covenant between God and Israel, and subsequently to us, who have become party to that covenant. Not surprising, the commandments that pertain directly to God precede those that pertain to sister and brother human beings. The commandments are presented as being on the very lips of God. It is not clear whether God speaks through Moses or directly addresses the people. (In Exodus 20:18, the people witness the lightning, thunder, and smoke that accompany God’s speech and ask God not to speak to them, raising the possibility that they saw but had not heard or didn’t want to hear further.)
Light and Shadow
THIS MONTH SEES several liturgical transitions. Epiphany, the season of light and revelation, comes to a close. Jesus’ transfiguration is its own epiphany. The church enters the season of Lent, beginning with a focus on human frailty and failure—and for many people an evening (or week) of indulgence in things that bring joy, pleasure, and sweetness. The light is still there, but we are peering more intently at the shadows.
The opening prayer for Ash Wednesday in The Book of Common Prayer begins, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” The readings for the first week present the God whose power and splendor in creation is only matched by her care for her children. The radiance of the transfiguration also shines a light on the ways in which we are not like Jesus, yet he chooses to leave the mount of illumination and return to the world that needs his light. The readings for the third week attend to the world God has made, calling us to care for it in partnership with God. And on the final Sunday, Jesus teaches about his death and resurrection, the greatest transition in the scriptures.
The Church of Another Chance
THE NEW YEAR OFFERS an opportunity to take stock of ourselves and our intentions for our own well-being. Radical attempts at self-reformation often end in frustration, including attempts to develop new spiritual habits. This month’s texts hold a up a series of mirrors in which we can assess ourselves and see perhaps that we do not need to be wholly reinvented. The Spirit who weaves through the early texts is present at creation and through the life of Jesus, and she remains to guide us.
Whatever the new year brings, we will not face it alone. In the second week, we have an opportunity to speak frankly about sexual misconduct or choose to preach different aspects of the lessons. The new year offers an opportunity to do the hard work of community, protect the vulnerable, and hold accountable those who violate sacred trust. We do so knowing the Spirit does not shrink from the subjects from which we shrink. She will be there with us through the difficult work. Likewise, the third week’s readings offer an opportunity to do the hard work of repenting and asking forgiveness before we try to be reconciled to those whom we have wronged. This is particularly important for people who hold power and in religious settings where pressure is often put on those who have been wronged to forgive before they have begun to heal from their injury—or while they are still being harmed. The final lections invite us to sit and stand in awe of God and treasure the knowledge that comes from those postures.
Advent: A New Year
ADVENT MARKS THE BEGINNING of the Christian year, for many. We await the return of Jesus and prepare for it by revisiting the story of his first coming. In Isaiah 64, the prophet longs for God to tear the heavens and come down, a description more apt for the latter return of Jesus than his first appearance. The longing for Jesus to return and fix the world’s mess escalated for many last year about this time and was expressed by a widely read online Advent devotional under the hashtag F**kThisS**t. (The original title was unapologetically uncensored. The originators argued that “to convey a visceral gospel, we must sometimes use visceral language.”)
There is a theology that says one day God will clean house and fix everything. In the meantime, we have to live here. Advent is about waiting and preparation. What shall we do while waiting for the return of Christ? What can we do about the state of the world? The gospel for the second Sunday in Advent calls for spiritual work, confessing and repenting sins (Mark 1:4-5). The following week the gospel suggests that there is work to which we can put our hands: “Make straight the way of the Holy One” (John 1:23).
The Longest Season
IN NOVEMBER, the season after Pentecost comes to a close. The church has reflected on the power of its genesis and its spread outward from Jerusalem. The lessons now represent one last opportunity to review the fundamentals before returning to the story of Jesus from its inception. Several of these scriptures communicate the notion that time is running out. Others emphasize the knowledge of who we are in God’s sight and who we understand Jesus to be. The season that began with the power of the Spirit breathing a new creation into the world ends this month with an affirmation of sovereignty.
The psalms that weave through this grand story move from the personal prayers of a pious person to the worship of a grateful congregation. The prophets echo each other: God is going to call the world to account and God acts to preserve her people. The epistles confess the theology of the ancient church with an urgent zeal, allaying its fear and anxiety about what is to come. The gospels communicate their own urgency. Rather than simply preparing the church to abandon its earthly ship, the gospels call us into relationship with one another, to care for each other as we would care for Jesus in the flesh for however long we tarry here.
The coming seasons of Advent and Christmas are marked by an adoration of the Christ child. But this longest season on the church’s calendar bids us to love and serve the Christ that is hardest to see, the one hidden in the flesh of each other.
500 Years of Reading Deeply
THIS MONTH'S LECTIONARY includes very familiar texts, such as Psalm 23 and the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. With these passages comes an opportunity to read them from a fresh perspective. It is tempting to read individual verses with reference to ourselves and our contemporary circumstances; indeed, that is the only way some read the texts. However, the cyclic nature of the lectionary provides regular opportunities to engage these texts from different perspectives.
October marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which revolutionized the way many people gained access to the biblical texts, newly translated out of Latin and into their own language. The Reformation put a high value on a believer’s access to the scriptures, which is now easy to take for granted. The translations produced during the period of the Reformation signified a deeper journey into the scriptures – and not just for scholars.
Bearing this in mind, what might reading more deeply look like for those who are not biblical scholars? Most if not all of these texts were composed to be read aloud. These texts often “read” quite differently when heard aloud. Perhaps the most important question we can ask of a text is how it was understood in its originating context, recognizing the differences between our world and the worlds of the Bible. Lastly, it is essential to ask how the message of a particular passage functions in our world, particularly when some of its framework reflects values we no longer share.
Curb Your Imperial Impulse
MANY OF THE VOICES in this month’s readings seem to have “no filter.” They say what they think without adjusting it for politeness or theological correctness. In so doing, biblical paragons are presented as identifiably human, and God is seen as a God who welcomes our unvarnished truth. Here the raw human emotion acknowledges the complex terrain that is the human heart. The texts assume we feel, hurt, and occasionally want revenge; that we transgress and fear revenge; that we want forgiveness for ourselves but not necessarily for others. We can feel that God had gotten the better of us. Our experiences of God can be frustrating and painful. Like Jeremiah and Jonah here and Hagar (Genesis 16:7-14; 21:15-19) and Hannah (1 Samuel 1:9-11) elsewhere, these texts invite us to tell God about God and take our frustrations to God.
The scriptures call us to interpret them with regard to their ancient contexts and our contemporary ones. Israel/Judah, in any of its configurations, was one of the smallest and least powerful nations in its world. The scriptures were compiled and received their last edit when what was left of Israel was completely subjugated by a foreign power. That is not our contemporary situation as Americans. We may have been conditioned to read from the position of Israel, but we also need to read from the position of empires that subjugate. If God can bear us without filters, surely we can scrutinize our own imperial impulses.
A Wild Welcome Table
Welcome and hospitality are more than trendy buzzwords or alignment with one set of politicized priorities over another. They are characteristics of the world that scripture constructs from the perspective of God and are deeply embedded in scriptures across genre and time. The constancy of that portrait makes clear that these are core values to be emulated and cultivated. In this season of growth, the selected texts paint a portrait of a loving God whose goodness is abundant. The growth that is called for is ours. We are to grow into the example God sets. The texts alternate examples of God’s fidelity as earmarks of trustworthiness and the turn of the faithful to sure hope in God. God’s fidelity is not limited to those who are called “God’s people” or “Israel.” Rather, God welcomes all peoples and nations and draws in the outcasts. This God is magnificent in power, yet tender and loving. These texts invite us to think beyond the immediate meaning to their application in our time. What does God’s goodness and faithfulness look like in our world today? What does God’s embrace of all peoples and nations mean in our world of international conflicts? Who are the outcasts now? And what ethical action do these texts require of us?
Welcome also requires adapting a posture of openness. Waiting is an apt posture for listening for God’s word to our times. Welcoming the guest may also open the door for the word in flesh to arrive.
Growth Can Take Generations
GOD'S FAITHFULNESS is measured in generational time. An emphasis on God’s faithfulness across generations is, by necessity, also an emphasis on community. God speaks and acts for the benefit of those present and those to come. Even when singular figures are mentioned—a prophet, a monarch—the message affects and is passed to and through the people.
The law and prophets represent God’s investment over time and bind together these readings. The law and prophets speak at moments in time but their messages are timeless. The gospel presents these truths embodied in the person of Jesus—and the epistles preach them passionately.
These lessons are read in the great expanse of liturgical time known as “ordinary” or as the season after Pentecost. This is a green season in the church (no matter what your grass looks like); that green symbolizes growth. This is a time for remembering the explosive growth of the early church and tending to our own growth as individuals and in community. Growth takes time. Our sacred stories make abundantly clear that the people of God—individual exemplars and the community, nation, and church—grew into fidelity over time.
The shaping of character and growth of faith is a process. These texts are signposts along the way.
Judges 19 is a story of intimate betrayal and the complicity of a larger community calling us to consider our own roles in our communities...The sheer horror of what this woman endured—including at the hands of husband and host—extinguishes the fires of my sanctified imagination. I can only conjure her screams. And I have no words to express them. One might look to God for a final word, but God is absent from the chapter, as this chapter and any mention of domestic violence is absent from too many pulpits.