25 November 2009

Advent I, 29 November 2009

The First Sunday of Advent, 29 November 2009

This is a series that appears in the weekly Newsletter of Trinity Church; designed to get you ready to hear the lessons at next Sunday’s liturgy.  Your suggestions and comments are most welcome.
-       Fr. Michael T. Hiller

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
I Thessalonians 3:9-13
Saint Luke 21:25-36


In the three-year lectionary, the three cycles are largely devoted to one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) with John being shared by all the cycles.  In cycle B, which we have just left, the year was devoted to readings from the Gospel of Saint Mark.  In the new cycle, which we are now entering, cycle C, the Gospels will be from the Gospel of Saint Luke.  Here are some things to look forward to as we read from the Gospel:

This is the longest of the Gospels, and is one of the Synoptic (“with one eye”) Gospels (Matthew and Mark being the others).  It is written from a Gentile perspective, and is addressed, along with its companion volume, Acts, to a person named Theophilus.  The book was probably written sometime late in the First Century, perhaps after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 CE.  The sources that underlie the book are The Gospel of Mark, which supplies a great deal of the chronology, and a theoretical source called “The Sayings Gospel”, or “Q” (from the German word quelle, or “source) for the sayings of Jesus.

Luke is best known for its Birth Narrative, which is known by most people.  The Gospel of Luke places no small emphasis on poverty, and the status of women (this is especially true in Acts), and other oppressed groups.  Often, characters in the book will break into song, which are the sources for the canticles sung at Evensong, and Morning Prayer.  Other themes include the Holy Spirit, prayer, and joyfulness.  As we move through the liturgical year, I will write more about Luke and his strong theology of inclusion.  There are a couple of interesting traditions about Luke.  One is that he was a physician – hence the name of hospitals (our own Saint Luke’s being an example).  Another tradition is that he was a painter, who painted an icon of Our Lady. 


The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from Jeremiah, a prophet who was active ca. 626 – 587 BCE.  He was active during the reign of King Josiah, who engineered a huge religious reform during his rule.  Jeremiah was also present during the assault on Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and was exiled to Egypt following the fall of Jerusalem.  He was opposed to most of the political solutions of his day, and provided an individualistic and spiritual cast to his theology. 

Psalm 25 is an acrostic – the initial letter of each verse spelling out the Hebrew alphabet – only one letter is missing – the “q”.  It is a David psalm.

First Thessalonians, a letter from Saint Paul to the Christians in Thessalonica, is the first piece of Christian literature to be written that is still extant.  It was written around 52 CE, from Corinth.  The content and style matches other Pauline works.

For notes on the Gospel of Luke, see the introduction above.

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is

Jeremiah is looking beyond the troubles of his own time.  The days that he has seen “surely coming” are days of trouble and tribulation – and indeed that did come true with the desolation of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.  Jeremiah sees other days, however, days that are full of a promise from God – days when the Davidic kingship will be restored.  In his characterization of such a kingship he defines what its core values ought to be (righteousness and justice.)  This perfectly matches the Advent theme of looking beyond the end of time, to the coming of the Messiah, for it is the messiah (the anointed one) who is the “righteous branch” springing from the stump of the tree (Judah’s kings) that has been cut down.  Something new is coming.

Breaking Open Jeremiah:

  1. Jeremiah looks forward to righteousness and justice.  What do you think was not happening in Judea at the time he was writing?
  2. How do Jeremiah’s hopes match what Jesus preaches?

Psalm 25:1-9 Ad te, Domine, levavi

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O LORD, *
and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
remember me according to your love
and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

Gracious and upright is the LORD; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness *
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

The initial verses of this Psalm are especially personal and intimate.  If this was written by David, we see a portrait of a man who is not above admitting his faults.  The first six verses recount his personal dependence upon the Lord.  The remaining verses shift their attention from the behavior of the writer to the behavior of God.  If this is indeed a royal psalm, it is one in which we have a rather humble view of the writer’s relationship with the divine, and with himself.

Breaking open Psalm 146

  1. Have you tried to write a poem that expresses your faith?  Want to try?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  2. How does David figure into the Jesus story?
  3. Is this written by a young or an older man?

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Paul has sent his assistant Timothy to check on the Thessalonians, and in this letter he greets and encourages them.  Paul greets them at a distance, and indicates his desire to see them “face to face.”  He is concerned for the spiritual health, and talks to them about “whatever is lacking in their faith”, “abound in love for one another and for all,” “strengthen your hearts in holiness.”  In the final sentence, Paul makes mention of an Advent hope – that Jesus will come again – with all of his saints.

Breaking open Thessalonians:

  1. What is lacking in your faith?  How could your heart be strengthened?
  2. Has there ever been someone in your life who has served as a spiritual mentor or parent?

Luke 21:25-36

Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

For the last couple of Sundays we have been looking at apocalyptic (literature which looks at what is hidden, from which “the veil has been lifted.”).  This section of the Gospel of Luke represents an apocalyptic section as well.  Jesus teaches his hearers to interpret the signs of the times, using the buds on a fig tree as examples of what is to come. 

In this teaching, Jesus talks about the coming of the “Son of Man” – an image we first met last Sunday in the reading from Daniel.  The “Son of Man” is a code word for Jesus himself, the one who comes after death and resurrection to again redeem the earth for himself.  Jesus tries to point to the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.  Last Sunday’s signs were “wars and rumors of wars.”  This Sunday’s signs are “signs in the sun, and moon, and stars, distress among nations, people in fear and foreboding.”  It was a difficult time for Luke’s readers.  If they were living in Palestine, they had seen the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Romans.  We can see how well Jeremiah’s experience fits here as well.  In such an atmosphere of dread, it is only natural to hope for the coming of a redeemer who will make all things new.

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. What are the signs of our times?
  2. What is your response to fundamentalist Christians, who think that the end of the world is near?
  3. What is the implicit hope in yearning for Jesus to come again?
  4. In what way are you “on guard?”

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

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

19 November 2009

Christ the King

Proper 29, Last Sunday after Pentecost – Christ the King,
22 November 2009

This is a series that will hopefully appear in the weekly Newsletter of Trinity Church; designed to get you ready to hear the lessons at next Sunday’s liturgy.  Your suggestions and comments are most welcome.
-       Fr. Michael T. Hiller

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
Saint John 18:33-37


The stage was set for these readings in the previous two Sundays, and again we read from the prophet Daniel, in the second half of the book bearing his name, which is a collection of four visions of the “End Time”.  A brief recap of last week’s introduction: Daniel was probably written during the Hellenistic period in Palestine (3rd Century BCE) during which time the locals were in a cultural, and actual, war with the Seleucid kings who ruled from Syria.  The visions in Daniel attempted to give the reader a sense of their Jewish heritage and what was to come.  These works are also heavenly influenced by the Persian world, which was the setting of Israel’s “exile” for some years. 

The second reading is from Revelation, a survival manual written by an un-named bishop in Asia Minor who encourages his readers to resist the cultural pressure of the Roman imperium. 

The Gospel is from John, the latest and most complex of the Gospels.  Heavily influenced by Greek thought, John is the most literary and theological of the gospels.  It depends neither on Mark, nor Luke and Matthew for its material, and has a thoroughly original interpretation of the origins of Jesus, told in a
retelling of the Creation Narrative, in which the creative force is the Logos (the Greek word for “word”) which is identified with Jesus.  Also of great interest in John, is his “Book of Signs” in which he tells of Jesus’ miracles, and of his lengthy discourses to the disciples as a group and to Nicodemus in particular. 

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

This wonderful piece of poetry, which serves to influence some of the poetry in the Book of Revelation, gives us a stunning vision of Oriental, specifically Persian, kingship, which would have been the world in which the author(s) of Daniel lived.  Such a vision is not unusual in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The book of Job speaks about the heavenly court (Job 1:6-11), and in the Vision of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13) we have a splendid account of God as oriental monarch.  In this vision of Daniel, we also have a picture of  “a human being” who is presented to the Ancient of Days.  To this being are given dominions, and powers (you should be hearing Handel’s Messiah in the back of your mind at this point).

This character makes another appearance in Daniel 3, in the story of the three men in the fiery furnace, when one appears with them in the furnace: “"Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods."  This character was identified by the early Christians, as “the Son of Man”, read Jesus; thus its inclusion in the lectionary for this day, The Feast of Christ the King.  The language and feel of these visions is used in Revelation as it celebrates the Lamb, and the heavenly court that gathers around the Lamb (Jesus). 

Breaking Open Daniel:

  1. How has your image of God changed over the years?
  2. What does it mean to speak about God’s rule, or kingdom?
  3. What do you think that the “human being” meant to Daniel’s original readers?
  4. What does it mean to you? 

Psalm 93 

The LORD is King;
he has put on splendid apparel; *
the LORD has put on his apparel
and girded himself with strength.

He has made the whole world so sure *
that it cannot be moved;

Ever since the world began, your throne has been established; *
you are from everlasting.

The waters have lifted up, O LORD,
the waters have lifted up their voice; *
the waters have lifted up their pounding waves.

Mightier than the sound of many waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea, *
mightier is the LORD who dwells on high.

Your testimonies are very sure, *
and holiness adorns your house, O LORD,
for ever and for evermore.

Kingship was so important in the ancient near east, that the Hebrews tribes found it necessary to adopt the institution, in spite of their loose federation of tribes.  It was simply the overwhelming institution in the cultures around them.  In these agrarian societies, centered in a city/temple, the enthronement of the King (Priest/God) was an enactment of the fertilization of the earth.  Such was the psychological power of this political and liturgical model.

This psalm gives a splendid vision of God as a monarch, and may borrow some of its images from its Canaanite environment.  There is one image that seems out of place in this psalm, and that is the image of the “waters”.  Hebrews had a profound fear and respect of the sea.  They came from nomads, who “sailed” across sands, but not waves.  These people were not sailors, and the waters represented to them “death.”  The psalms often speak of death in terms of the “waves of death”.  The waters of the sea also represented the first act of creation – “the earth was without form and void”.  From this ball of mud and chaos, God divides land from the sea.  Thus it is that the image of God as a king who not only rules over the sea, but who is also lauded by the sound of the many waters.  This is a God of creation, not a Canaanite god of the fields.

Breaking open Psalm 146
  1. How does God make the world “sure”?  What would this mean to an ancient reader?  To you?
  2. What other Hebrew story is suggested by all the water in this psalm?
  3. What is the covenant that is made in that story?

Revelation 1:4b-8
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.

"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

In Revelation, the author needs to convince the reader of the authority by which he receives his vision, and by what divine influence he can make his pronouncements to the churches of Asia Minor.  This chunk of territory (modern day Turkey) had hosted many ancient civilizations (Greek, Hittite, Assyrian, Trojan) and in the time of the writing of this book, the Romans.  It was the site of ancient Greek cities, such as Ephesus, which became a part of Paul’s missionary strategy.  Roman military strategy garrisoned several legions in Asia Minor, and so Mithraism (a religion popular with the military) and the cult of the emperor were very popular.  With that in mind, the initial passages in the book introduce us to a majestic Christ, a ruler, savior, and kyrios (Lord) who would serve as a contrast to the Roman imperium.  The titles of “Savior” and “Lord” were political terms, which the Church applies to Jesus.  He is the alternative to the Roman rule.

The alpha and omega refer to the beginning and last characters in the Greek alphabet.  So, in Revelation, and in Johannine theology in general, Jesus is the beginning of all things, and the summation of all things, or as a later theologian, Theilhard de Chardin would call him, “the omega point.” 

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. How does the image of Jesus as a king fit in our modern world?  Is there a more appropriate image?
  2. How does Christianity stand against culture and government?  How does it not?  How should it?
  3. What are the believers called in this text?  How do you, as a Christian, fulfill the role assigned?

St. John 18:33-37

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

The Trial of Jesus has two distinct aspects to it.  The first is the charge of “blasphemy” which is adjudicated in the court of the High Priest.  The second charge is political, and that charge is brought to the Romans, distinctly the governor, Pontius Pilate, who interrogates Jesus about the charge.  “Are you king of the Jews?” Pilate asks.  The answer will not be so simple.  The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven is the heart of Jesus’ preaching and message, but what are we to make of it.  Pilate attempts, in vain, to get to it, but doesn’t understand it.  Charged with a political crime, Jesus is at pains to explain that his actions are from opposite motives. 

That Pilate should not understand should not surprise us – the disciples who have followed Jesus for years find the lesson difficult as well.  Indeed, if we look at how we have followed Jesus, or how the Church has followed him, we well might conclude that we have not understood either.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is the Kingdom of God to you?
  2. What is the truth that Jesus comes into the world to testify to?
  3. Does Jesus need to be a king?  What does Jesus need to be?
  4. How does all this thought about the rule of Christ prepare us to end a year?  To begin a new liturgical year?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

11 November 2009

Proper 28, 15 November 2009

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-25
Saint Mark 13:1-8

It’s time to talk about “apocalyptic”, and here I am not talking about Mel Gibson’s film, or the up-coming one 2012, but rather a type of literature common to both the Hebrew, Islamic and Christian scriptures. The word “apocalypse” means literally “lifting the veil” and in such works, the reader is given a vision of unseen things.  Christians will be familiar especially with Daniel and the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, in particular, but also sections of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew as well.

Why apocalyptic now?  The themes in the lectionary at the end of the year, and at the beginning of the new liturgical year (Advent) overlap.  This is due to the fact that at one point, Advent was longer than four weeks, and the Advent themes of awaiting the second coming of Jesus (we are not talking about preparation for Christmas yet) and the talk of the “End Time” made for selections of apocalyptic books.  So it is that we have a reading from Daniel and from Mark that lend themselves to such interpretations, and speak to the Church waiting for the End Time.

The first reading is from the twelfth chapter of Daniel, and is the culmination of four apocalyptic visions in which the prophet (Daniel) sees what is to happen to Israel.  Set in Babylon during the captivity, these visions were probably set down at a later time (3rd Century BCE) but do give us insights into what people of faith were anticipating.  Ideas that make an appearance in this reading are the notions of “everlasting life,” resurrection, and a place of “everlasting contempt”, read hell.  These are ideas that come into Judaism from their contact with Zoroastrianism in Persia.  The Psalm is a “David psalm” and a confession of faith, contrasting the psalmist’s faith in the Lord, with those who are worshippers of  “other gods”.  The Epistle is again from Hebrews, and concludes the continuing reading that we have been following for several Sundays.  The Gospel reading from Mark is an apocalyptic discourse (Chapter 13) from Jesus that immediately precedes the Passion Narrative that begins in chapter 14.

Daniel 12:1-3

The Lord spoke to Daniel in a vision and said, "At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever."

Daniel is divided into two sections, the first six chapters dealing with the stories that surround the character of David, and the second section composed of visions and dreams.  Our reading this morning is from the second section, which was written later and in a different language (Aram) than the first section.  The entire book was probably brought together during the time that Israel was ruled by the Seleucid kings (Greeks who ruled out of Syria after the death of Alexander).  The comments about “your people being delivered” would have spoken to this audience, which chafed under the forced hellenization that these rules forced on the Jews.  We meet several Persian ideas/characters, namely, Michael the Archangel, and the notions of eternal life.  Here, Daniel sees into the future and sees that the people, though troubled and even dead, will rise to a new kind of life.

Breaking Open Daniel:

  1. What comes to mind when the Bible talks about “freedom” and “deliverance”?
  2. What do you think about angels?  Do you know what the word means?
  3. What do you think of the idea of God speaking in visions?
  4. How does God communicate with you? 

Psalm 16  - a translation by Robert Alter

(A David michtam)

Guard me, O God,
for I shelter in you.
I said to the Lord,
“My Master You are.
My good is only through you.
            As to holy ones in the land
                        And the mighty who were all my desire,
            Let their sorrows abound –
                        Another did they betroth
            I will not pour their libations of blood,
                        I will not bear their names on my lips
            The Lord is my portion and lot,
                        It is You Who sustain my fate.
            An inheritance fell to me with delight,
                        My estate, too, is lovely to me.
            I shall bless the Lord Who gave me counsel
                        Through the nights that my conscience would lash me.
            I set the Lord always before me,
                        On my right hand, that I not stumble.
            So my heart rejoices and my pulse beats with joy,
                        My whole body abides secure.
            For you will not forsake my life to Sheol,
                        You won’t let Your faithful one see the Pit
            Make me know the path of life.
                        Joys overflow in Your presence,
                                    Delights in Your right hand forever.

Some words to learn: “Sheol” and “Pit” are expressions of early Judaism’s belief about death.  There was no heaven or hell, but rather a place where the dead went – something like Hades in Greek thought.   “Holy Ones in the land” refers to the gods of Canaan, and the Libation was a pouring out of wine, or other offerings, upon the ground as a gift to the gods.  In this confession, the psalmist is enthralled with the God of Israel.  The author’s comments are an intimate, physical reflection of how his/her love of God affects his whole body and existence.  The hope is that God will keep the author from “the Pit”, read death, and will lead the author on the “path of life”?

Breaking open Psalm 146
  1. Compare the thoughts of this psalm about death with the notions in the first reading.
  2. What does the use of the word “betroth” suggest to you?
  3. The Hebrew word for “conscience” is literally “kidneys”.  The Greeks too had the notion of feelings and “bowels”.  Where do you experience your feelings?
  4. What are your thoughts about the “path of life?”

Hebrews 10:11-25
Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. [And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,

"This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,"

he also adds,

"I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more."
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.]
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

In this reading we have a remarkable picture of what priestly life was like in the temple.  “Every priest stands day after day”.  The priestly day was an endless succession of bloody animal sacrifices – not pretty.  In contrast to this picture of difficult work, the author of the Hebrews pictures Jesus as seated at the right hand of the Most High, with his enemies a footstool (a quotation from Psalm 110).  This is a poignant theological thought – the work of salvation is done.  There is no more need for the endless sacrifices; Jesus has finished the task.  The author also talks about how this completion affects the people of God.  Those who believe are pictured as “sprinkled clean” with bodies “washed with pure water.”  Keeping with our apocalyptic theme for the day, the reading ends with a note of anticipation, “as you see the Day approaching.”

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. Is Jesus sitting at the right hand of God an enthronement or rest?
  2. What do the words about water and washing suggest?
  3. What do you think the author means by the word “the Day”?

Mark 13:1-8
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs."

Before Mark enters into the action of the Passion Narrative, he has Jesus teach a lesson on “what is to come.”  The disciples are baffled and in wonderment of the world in which they live.  For simple men from Galilee, the great buildings of the Temple Mount, and the Roman fortress “the Antonia” were awe inspiring and baffling.  Jesus dismisses their wonder by pointing out that this is nothing in the larger scheme of things.  We have to listen to Jesus words, keeping in mind what is to come – suffering, crucifixion, and death.  The inner circle of Peter (the Prince of the Apostles), James and John, and Andrew are wondering, “When all things will be accomplished” – when will this ministry be done, come to fruition?  Jesus has not always promised sweetness and light.  “I have come to bring a sword.”  “Who is my mother, who is my father…”? Some new winds are blowing in Mark’s Gospel, and they are the beginning of something new – the kingdom of God that Jesus has constantly been teaching.  Next Sunday we will meet Jesus in a new light in a conversation with Pilate in John’s Passion Narrative.  They will talk about the kingdom of God.  Pilate will be thinking about palaces and imperium.  Jesus will be thinking about something totally different.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What comes to your mind when you hear Jesus talk about “the Kingdom of Heaven?”
  2. Is Christianity easy?
  3. What do you think is the great work that Christians need to do?
  4. Jesus talks about “birthpangs” – what is about to be born?
After your breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

03 November 2009

Proper 27 - 8 November 2009

I Kings 17:18-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Saint Mark 12:38-44

After the festivities of All Saints’ Day, followed by All Souls’ Day on 2 November, we return to Ordinary Time.  The mood of these days, however, is becoming darker as we journey to the end of the Church Year, which culminates (in terms of Sundays) with The Feast of Christ the King on 22 November.  These readings about the end of time will send shadows into the first readings for the coming Advent Season as well, but we shall look at that in coming weeks.

The first reading is from one of the historical books, I Kings.  This collection of books (I and II Kings) was probably compiled from a variety of sources when Jews began to return to Palestine (ca. 561 – 538).  The purpose was elementary – to reacquaint the people with their history and former kings and leaders.  The collection is in parallel to the Chronicles (two books as well) which was probably written later.  Kings comes in on the side of the prophetic office and kingship, while Chronicles is more concerned with the Levitical (priestly) office.  The epistle is a continuing reading from Hebrews, a book in which Christ is compared to and explained by the models of priestly service and the Jerusalem temple.  The Gospel is from Mark, the first of the Gospels.

I Kings 17:8-16

The word of the LORD came to Elijah, saying, "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." But she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth." She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.

The Book of Kings chronicles both the Kingdom of Judah (the South) and the Kingdom of Israel (the North).  Following the reign of Solomon, the David empire was split in to two kingdoms.  In this reading we meet Elijah, the great prophet, who, having survived a great drought and a contest with the priests of Ba’al, finds himself at the doorstep of a poor widow.  The reading serves as a contrast and historical precedent to the reading in the Gospel, where we meet another widow.  In this reading, the prophet asks a sacrifice of the woman – actually asks everything of her.  This widow may serve as a model of Israel (…that we may eat it and die).  Elijah railed against what was happening in the Northern Kingdom, and indeed it did happen, with the Assyrians coming in a deporting everyone, and replacing them with other peoples (hence the Jew’s distrust of the “Samaritans” – who were considered half-breeds, and not truly Jewish.  Eljiah’s job is to show that all is not lost, in spite of the dire times, and so he demands the woman’s sacrifice of oil, and flour.

Breaking Open the Wisdom of Solomon:

  1. What convinces Elijah that he needs to go visit this widow?
  2. Elijah starts with a simple, easily accomplished request.  What is it?
  3. What is the status of the woman in Israelite society?
  4. There is another symbol of the woman’s future, other than the miracle of the flour and oil.  What, or rather who, is it?

Psalm 146

Praise the LORD, O my soul! *
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
whose hope is in the LORD their God;

Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;

Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

The LORD shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

Psalm 146 begins a series of psalms that forms an alternate to the collection called the Hallel (compare Hallelu – jah “praise God”) Psalm 113-118.  These praise psalms are used as thanksgivings on Jewish holidays.  This latter collection serves as an alternative collection of these praise psalms.  All begin with the word, Hallelujah, and psalm 150 ends with it as well. 

Breaking open Psalm 146
  1. The writer wants to praise God.  Why?
  2. What is the writer’s view of secular rulers?
  3. What are the signs of God’s rule?  What kind of deeds are accomplished?
  4. How do these deeds compare to the deeds that Jesus talks about in the Gospel?
  5. Which passage of the psalm relates to the first reading?

Hebrews 9:24-28
Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Presumably the readers of Hebrews understood all of the cultural aspects that the author uses to get at the meaning of Jesus.  In Hebrews, Jesus is depicted as the great high priest – a completion, if you will, of the ancient Levitical priesthood of the Jews.  On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies (a cubical room in the Jerusalem Temple, that contained the Ark of the Covenant) and would splash the blood of the sacrifice against the ark.  The writer takes this earthly ceremony and place (which was probably destroyed by the Romans before this passage was written) and spiritualizes it.  “You don’t need the place or the priest any longer” the author is saying to the reader.  Jesus is proposed as the new high priest, who offers his sacrifice in the heavenly temple, not needing the earthly one.  Some critics think that the book was written before the destruction of the temple, since the author’s arguments depend so heavily on the temple.  I think that the opposite is true – the arguments serving as a psychological replacement for the temple.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. Why does Christianity still need to use the notion of sacrifice?  Or does it?
  2. What comes to your mind when you hear the word priest?  What images come to mind?
  3. How does the author expand the notion of time in this text?

Mark 12:38-44
Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

The teaching of Jesus always offers contrasts.  Often they are contrasts of what has been long accepted and received as a virtue, with a new take on what God wants.  Here Jesus contrasts the religious with the really religious, or to put it another way – the superficially faithful with the deeply faithful.  It is faith that determines who will be recognized by Jesus.  It happens over and over again – blind Bartimeaus, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the man at Bethsaida, all stand out because of their faith.  In this reading the example is a poor woman, who like the Widow of Zarephath (see the first reading above) offers all that she has.  It is this faith, and the actions that come from it that serve as Jesus’ prime example.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Are there people in our society and culture who make public their religious life?  How so?
  2. What is the reward of such behavior, according to Jesus?
  3. How are the two widows alike?  Different?
  4. What is the Christian notion of sacrifice?

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

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.