10 September 2014

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, 14 September 2014

Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13

Romans 14:1-12
St. Matthew 18:21-35

Background: The Exodus
Central to the Jewish story, and the context and background to the Christian celebration of Easter, the Exodus becomes a difficult text when faced with any effort to discover its roots.  The texts that reveal the Exodus to us were written several centuries after the great event was to have happened.  What might be more fruitful for those who study the religion of the Hebrew Scriptures and its theology might be to look at the images and the underlying themes, and to look at how later ages replicated the event.  The themes of liberation and covenant might suggest themselves to us right away as suitable pursuits.  What is important here is the idea of a God who intervenes in human history.  This is not the only example of God’s action, but it is one of the most stunning.  The other aspect that is worthy of discussion is the humanity of this story, and how this story was meant to gather a people, and give them a status.  What did the people both hear and understand from this story?  Finally, this story needs to be explored from the perspective of the covenant – an agreement between God and humankind to be in relationship. 

Track 1
Exodus 14:19-31

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt."
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Sometimes I think we look at this story with a notion that all the leadership was resident in Moses alone, but the text disabuses us of that right away. “The messenger of God that was going before the camp.” This is a God active in history, moving in front of the people who are to be liberated. God leads and the people follow into a place that had meant to them death.  Water represented death and tragedy, and they were mightily fearful of it.  That notion is the power of this story, as the people are led into an environment with “waters (death) a wall to them on their right and on their left.” We have similar images in Psalm 23, and in the crossing of the Jordan.  God leads the community at risk into the midst of the risk.

It is difficult to talk about the sack of the Egyptian force given the politics and events of the Mid-East during our time. Perhaps the emphasis needs to be placed on the notions of deliverance and liberation rather than on the fate of Pharaoh and his forces.  And this might cause a preacher to explore how we can experience liberation without violence. What is interesting is to think into the minds of the Israelites and to see with their eyes what they were witnessing about the power of God. There are results. “They trusted in the Lord.”

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. In what ways is “liberation” a theological concept?
  2. How is God active in your history?
  3. How does God lead your church?

Psalm 114 In exitu Israel

When Israel came out of Egypt, *
the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech,

Judah became God's sanctuary *
and Israel his dominion.

The sea beheld it and fled; *
Jordan turned and went back.

The mountains skipped like rams, *
and the little hills like young sheep.

What ailed you, O sea, that you fled? *
O Jordan, that you turned back?

You mountains, that you skipped like rams? *
you little hills like young sheep?

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, *
at the presence of the God of Jacob,

Who turned the hard rock into a pool of water *
and flint-stone into a flowing spring.

This psalm drops us into a vortex of action, from the very beginning, “when Israel came out of Egypt.” It celebrates the history of God’s intervention in favor of Israel. Like the story from the book of Exodus, this psalm wants to differentiate those whom God had chosen from the others, “from a people of strange speech.” The Egyptians (among others) do not know the words – the sacred words, nor the Name that cannot be pronounced.

There are some amazing images here.  The first is that “Judah became God’s sanctuary” or, quite literally, “God’s holy place.”  Once again we have covenant talk. Another is the allusion to the Red Sea event being replicated at the Jordan, which I mentioned to earlier.  It is a beautiful pairing of events. ‘The sea beheld it and fled; Jordan turned and went back.” And now the text presses on, both recalling and looking forward to God’s active presence with Israel, water from rock, flint stone into a spring.  The water that was death has become joy.

Breaking open Psalm 114:
  1. What does it mean that God has chosen a certain people?
  2. How could a people become “God’s holy place?”
  3. What words are sacred to you?

Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21

"I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father's God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.

"Pharaoh's chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power--
your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said, `I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.'
You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

"Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?"
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.
And Miriam sang to them:

"Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea."

We can imagine that this might have been the means how many heard the foundational story of the Exodus – through the song and words of one who sang the story.  It is indeed possible that these words, given to Moses, came before the written words that precede it.  The images are geared to trigger memory and sight, “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up.” Again there are water images with all the power that they would have had for these ancient peoples: “waters heaped up, streams stood up like a mound, the depths congealed in the heart of the sea.” This is a God not only active in history but in the primeval heart of the beginning of things.

It is with the introduction of Miriam that we can begin to understand the nature of prophecy – for here she is described as a prophet.  It is her singing and dancing that underscores the ecstatic essence of prophetic life.  She is present in two water stories: Moses sent adrift in the Nile, and now at the Red Sea.  She serves as a prophetic note, to help us understand the true nature of this song.  It is God’s word to the people who hear it in the present, rather than just a recitation of history.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. How does this song help Israel to remember?
  2. In what way is Miriam a prophet?
  3. What images in this song do you find interesting?

Track 2:

Genesis 50:15-21

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph's brothers said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died, `Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.' Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

The theme here is one of forgiveness, linking this text with the Gospel for today.  The power of death was not only seen in the loss of a strong and powerful character in life, but also in their will for the days to come.  Thus the brothers have fear for how Joseph might act, given their offenses to him.  They hope to convince him of the power of their father’s wishes, “I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers.” If we have followed the story, as those following Track 1 have, we may have some sense of distrust for the story that they foist on Joseph, about the “charge” that was intended for Joseph by Israel. We don’t know whether or not Joseph sees through all of this, but we do know that he sees beyond it. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?” It is a stunning realization for all, and Joseph further enjoins them to see the good that was the end result of their evil intentions.

Breaking open the Genesis:
  1. Do you trust the brothers’ report? Why?
  2. What would you have done?
  3. Have you ever seen good come from evil?

Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 Benedic, anima mea

[Bless the LORD, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, *
and forget not all his benefits.

He forgives all your sins *
and heals all your infirmities;

He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;

He satisfies you with good things, *
and your youth is renewed like an eagle's.

The LORD executes righteousness *
and judgment for all who are oppressed.

He made his ways known to Moses *
and his works to the children of Israel.]

The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.

He will not always accuse us, *
nor will he keep his anger for ever.

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, *
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.

As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.

As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.

This psalm rehearses the gracious nature of God that is reflected in the behavior of Joseph in the first lesson, and in Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel.  Some images of distance and measure are given to help the reader understand the immensity of God’s love.  “For as the heavens loom high over the earth, his kindness is great.” Other comparisons are made to accentuate God’s grace.

Breaking open the Psalm 103:
  1. When has God forgiven you?
  2. When have you had difficulty in forgiving someone else?
  3. Where is God’s grace in your life?

Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,

"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God."

So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

At the heart of Paul’s problem here is the division of those who advocated keeping the Mosaic Law and those who did not.  We recognize them when Paul inserts the notion of “weakness” into his argument.  Paul, however, doesn’t encourage the distinction, or the judgment of others.  “Who are you to pass judgment?” The mending is done by understanding that whatever is done needs to be done “in honor of the Lord.”

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Do you have freedom in your faith?
  2. What do you forbid yourself, or require of yourself in your faith?
  3. How do you “honor the Lord” in what you do?
St. Matthew 18:21-35

Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, `Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

For the last few Sundays we have been looking at how those who follow Christ are to act toward one another.  In this Sunday’s parable we look at all the exigencies of being a forgiving people who have been forgiven. 

The strength of this parable’s telling argues against embellishing it with more words. The point is simple and strong and perhaps no better explained than in the Our Father, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” The example lies within our own reach of God’s response to our own shortcomings.  The king’s graciousness is not seen, and even worse, not replicated in the life of his servant. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How do you confront those who have done something wrong?
  2. Have you ever followed this procedure outlined in Matthew?  Why not?
  3. How do you confront your own wrong-doings?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, because without you we are not able to please you mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

08 September 2014

Holy Cross Day, 14 September 2014

Isaiah 45:21-25
Psalm 98
Philippians 2:5-11
Galatians 6:14-18
St. John 12:31-36a

Background:  Holy Cross Day
With the discovery of the true cross by Saint Helena in 326, a church was built (The Holy Sepulcher) and was consecrated on 13 September 336, with the cross being brought into the church on the following day, 14 September.  Thus the feast was originally a two-day celebration.  In the East it is known as the Raising Aloft of the Precious and Life-giving Cross, and in the West it has been called The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, or The Triumph of the Cross.  The color for the day is red.  Other days that celebrate the cross are, Uncovering of the Precious Cross and Nails, 6 March (Eastern Orthodox), The Feast of the Cross, 3 May (Galican rite), and the Feast of the Procession of the Venerable Wood of the Cross, 1 August (Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholics).

Isaiah 45:21-25

Thus says the LORD,
Declare and present your case;
let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the LORD?
There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is no one besides me.
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
"To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear."
Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me,
are righteousness and strength;
all who were incensed against him
shall come to him and be ashamed.
In the LORD all the offspring of Israel
shall triumph and glory.

The original title of this day, The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, helps us with a context for the choice of this reading on this day.  It would be helpful for you to read the verse preceding, name the first part: “Assemble yourselves and come, draw near together, you survivors of the nations(emphasis mine).  We are being led into a court, and it is God who addresses the nations.  And this is where it is important to understand who is being addressed by the following verses (21-25).  Israel is not being addressed here, but rather Babylon, which by the time these verses were spoken would have been facing its own enemies and doom.  The invitation is not for judgment, but rather something else.  “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!”

That this day celebrates the finding of the true cross (whatever that might have been) it certainly underscores the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, and its sponsors in Constantine and Helena, his mother.  Salvation was available to the nations.  Second Isaiah sees in his vision a universal salvation that is not limited to the Hebrews, but that is now suddenly available to any who would have it.  The reading also makes a line available that will be reflected in the reading from Philippians, “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” The tradition that this Isaiah establishes in his word to the survivors  (certainly meant to be overheard by the Hebrew survivors as well) makes a stage upon which Jesus would begin to announce the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, and a table at which the Gentiles would be urged to eat as well.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. What does “salvation to the nations” mean to you?
  2. Who is included in the “Kingdom of Heaven?”
  3. Are you an insider or an outsider?

Psalm 98 or 98:1-4 Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.

With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.

The LORD has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.

He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

Sing to the LORD with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the LORD.

Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.

Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD,
when he comes to judge the earth.

In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.

This psalm also reflects the divine courtroom of second Isaiah in which YHWH makes his case.  That it is universal is indicated to us in the latter verse of the psalm where the waters (the sea, and the rivers) make a joyful noise – a reminder of the ancient battle in which the Creator God brings order from the chaos of the world, and which ancient waters now sing God’s praise.  However we do not need these esoteric clues – the psalm is quite open about God’s universal intents.  “In righteousness shall he judge the world and the peoples with equity.” 

Breaking open Psalm 98:
  1. What does it mean when we say God brought order from chaos?
  2. What is the nature of the order that God brings?
  3. Did other cultures have similar notions about God? 
Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

We have heard the word paradigm used a great deal within the last couple of decades, always calling us to a new business or educational model (although it always brings to mind my study of Greek in college).  This reading, however, is a paradigm that Paul wishes to hold up for us.  His intent in the bulk of his letter is to outline what it means to live in a community that is formed in Christ.  So he begins his exhortation, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” That he may have quoted an early Christian hymn in this pericope does not take away any of its power or grace.  Listen to the verbs that are set up for us as an example of living: “emptied”, “humbled”, “obedient”, and the verbs that describe the results: “exalted”, “named”.  It is we then, living in such a manner as Jesus did, that then bends the knee and confesses what it is that we know and believe about this same Jesus.  The cross lies exactly at the center of this journey of humiliation and then exaltation.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. What does the image of Jesus “emptying himself” bring to your mind?
  2. In what ways can you imitate Jesus’ humiliation?
  3. In what ways are you exalted with him?

Galatians 6:14-18

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule-- peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

Again, in the letter to the Galatians, Paul speaks about being formed in Christ, and what it means for him, and by extension for us as well, to be marked and formed by Christ.  Such a marking is seen quite literally by Paul, when he says, “for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” It is as if the seraph carrying the coal from the altar to the mouth of Isaiah actually does the same with Paul, marking him with a burning word.  Paul sees old things passing away, as he did in Philippians.  There is a new model of life that does not admit to circumcision or uncircumcision, but only to that which has been created new.  Thus he concludes his arguments outlining life in a new community.  Not mentioned here, but certainly found in the markings on his Christian body, Paul would see the cross.

Breaking open Galatians:
  1. How have you been marked by Christ?
  2. Have you seen the marks of Christ in others?  How?
  3. What do people see in you?
St. John 12:31-36a

Jesus said, "Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light."

Fr. Raymond Brown entitles the larger pericope that includes the reading for this day as, “Scenes Preparatory to Passover and Death – the Coming of the Hour.”[1] Jesus anticipates, much to the dismay of the disciples, what is to come.  As we have followed the readings for Ordinary Time from Matthew, in the fifteenth chapter, through the eighteenth, this dis-ease is palpable.  So there is revelation about the glory that is to come, and discomfort about the consequences of Jesus’ actions – Light in Jesus, and darkness in the “ruler of this world.” There are two directions indicated here.  Jesus is lifted up while the present age and its advocates are cast down.  There is a definite sense of the “yet” and the “not yet”.  We are in a suspension – as on a cross!  Of course our mind wanders back to Moses in the wilderness and the infestation of snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). The bronze serpent is lifted up for all to see, and in this image we see Jesus as well.  There is a darkness here that fits in with the ebbing of daylight during this time of the year.  It fits well as we wander slowly through the latter days of the Church Year, to be met at the end of it by a Christ enthroned and inquiring of us about what we have done.  So John holds up the Jesus of the cross, the Jesus of light.  In my church, the cross in the chancel is only visible when light is shown behind it.  The light is present in our eyes, cast through the image of the cross.  Using Paul’s idea of the changing paradigm, perhaps we need to be remade in the light of this cross to become, as John states it, “children of light.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is dark in your life?
  2. What is light in your life?
  3. How are you a child of the light?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Brown, R. (1966) The Anchor Bible, The Gospel According to John (i-xii) Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, page 465.