30 August 2010

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18 - 5 September 2010

Contemporary Reading: Bonhöffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Saint Luke 14:25-33


We call them the Five Books of Moses, although they are hardly that.  Each of them (Genesis, Exodus, Levitcus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) evolve individually, and are often the skillful weaving together of several traditions.  Deuteronomy and Exodus are closely related, almost following the same outline.  Exodus is composed of a divine discourse in which God offers the Law, while Deuteronomy offers the same material, but in a more homiletic (sermon-like) manner from the mouth of Moses.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, two periods of reform are referred to.  One, under King Hezekiah (715-686 BCE) and the other under King Josiah (641-609) were programs designed to reacquaint Israel with its ancient traditions.  They may have emerged during this period after the Davidic Empire, or may have come to the fore after the Exile in Babylon.  Either way, these materials are an effort to educate about what had been either lost, or destroyed.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said to all Israel the words which the Lord commanded him, "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob."

Blake - God writing the Law

Today’s reading from Deuteronomy is more akin to a sermon.  The text would have us see Moses as the preacher, but is more likely that the preacher is unknown, and that the audience is composed of Jew’s in exile in Babylon, grieving their lost traditions.  Even more than a sermon, this reading represents a cultic or liturgical moment in which the covenant is renewed in the hearts of the people.  What is interesting is that this is not a commitment of individuals, but a commitment of the community as a whole, as it hears the Law and determines to follow it.  The preacher urges the community to “choose life”, which may have seemed ironic to either hearer or reader.  The community’s life was in real danger of being dissipated into the culture of Babylon.  The preacher reminds them of the generations that will follow them, and then recalls the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The community is offered a choice of on-going life in the covenant, or some other kind of life following other gods.  Of special interest in the liturgical action is that both heaven and earth are called as witnesses to the ritual. 

Breaking open Sirach:

1.     We live in a society of individuals.  When or where have you entered into a covenant or promise with a community of people?
2.     What do the Ten Commandments mean to you today?
3.     What does it mean, in the text, to “choose life”?

Psalm 1 Beatus vir qui non abiit

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

They are like trees planted by steams of water

This wisdom psalm stands in direct disagreement with the thought of Job.  In this Psalm the individual, the righteous individual who follows the Law of God, is rewarded for such faithfulness.  The Job story describes a different trajectory.  This psalm, however, clearly stands in the Ancient Near Eastern tradition of such a moral journey – as life offers its choices and decisions.  The second image in the psalm is that of the watered orchard or field, with the Law forming the sustenance for the leafy tree, or the growing grain.  The poem both begins and ends with its primary contrast: the life of the righteous and the difficulties of the wicked. 

Breaking open Psalm 112
1.       How is your life a contrast to wickedness?
2.       How is your life nourished by faith?
3.       How is your life a contract to righteousness?

Philemon 1-21

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

The program of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) during Ordinary Time is to take the church through a continuing reading of the “epistles” of the Christian Testament.  Thus we have a brief excursus into Philemon, an intensely personal piece of correspondence between an old and imprisoned Paul and his friend Philemon.  Their discourse concerns Onesimus, a slave owned by Philemon, who has been working with Paul.  This is the Paul who has written elsewhere that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28).  In this difficult situation, Paul sends back his co-worker, the slave Onesimus, to his owner Philemon.  He does so, however, not without commentary on the new relationships that exist in Christ and in baptism.  Paul highlights that even given the social realities (slavery was a huge institution at the time) the relationships are different. 

Breaking open Philemon:
  1. What does Paul mean when he says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free…”?
  2. Although slavery is abolished in our society, are there people who still live in slavery?
  3. What do you think of Paul’s decision to send Onesimus back?

Saint Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

In reading this reading, we need to remember the material (largely parables) that immediately preceed this section.  If you will remember, the previous Sunday acquainted us with Jesus’ directions about taking seats of honor, and of whom it is that we really ought to invite to dinner.  Another reading, not used in the continuing reading during these Sundays, describes the invitations of the Wedding Feast which are disregarded by those invited.  The host goes out to the streets and alleys to invite new guests.  In that context we can read how “large crowds were traveling with Jesus”, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to see what Luke wants us to see, that these crowds were made up of the needy and impoverished.   To these, Jesus talks about discipleship, those who ought to follow him, and what the cost of such a following might be.  His commentary on the value of family, relationships, and possessions stands in sharp contrast to the social realities of his own time. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Which of your many relationships is most valuable to you?
  2. Could you give up any of these relationships for your faith?
  3. What does being a disciple mean to you?
Pr. Dietrich Bonhöffer

Contemporary Reading: “Discipleship and the Individual” from The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhöffer.

If any man cometh unto me, and hateth not his own father, 
and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and 
sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. 
( Luke 14.26)
Through the call of Jesus men become 
individuals. Willy-nilly, they are compelled to decide, 
and that decision can only be made by themselves. 
It is no choice of their own that makes them individuals: it is Christ who makes them individuals by calling them. Every man is called separately, and must 
follow alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and 
they try to protect themselves from it by merging 
themselves in the society of their fellow-men and in 
their material environment. They become suddenly 
aware of their responsibilities and duties, and are 
loath to part with them. But all this is only a cloak 
to protect them from having to make a decision. They 
are unwilling to stand alone before Jesus and to be 
compelled to decide with their eyes fixed on him alone. 
Yet neither father nor mother, neither wife nor child, 
neither nationality nor tradition, can protect a man 
at the moment of his call. It is Christ's will that he 
should be thus isolated, and that he should fix his 
eyes solely upon him.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian. He was also a participant in the German Resistance movement against Nazism, a founding member of the Confessing Church. His involvement in plans by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler resulted in his arrest in April 1943 and his subsequent execution by hanging in April 1945, shortly before the war's end. His view of Christianity's role in the secular world has become very influential.

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

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

24 August 2010

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17 - 29 August 2010

Contemporary Reading: Bullfinch, Daedalus and Icarus
Sirach 10:12-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Saint Luke 14:1, 7-14

The flight of Daedalus and Icarus

Although listed in the original recensions of the lectionaries of the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches when they adapted the Roman Missal for use in Episcopal and Lutheran Churches (1970s), readings from the Apocrypha are much more pronounced in the Revised Common Lectionary (which represents a further revision of the lectionary, in concert with other churches).  Although these two traditions did not include these books in the canon (collection) of the Bible, they were noted as “The other Books (i.e., the Apocrypha) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” (Articles of Religion V, BCP).  A similar stance was taken by the Lutherans.  Other Protestants, however, rejected them outright.  The first reading for this Sunday is taken from Sirach, also known as “The Wisdom of Ben Sira”.  Originally written in Hebrew, it was only known to scholars in a Greek version, translated from the Hebrew into the Greek just as the Hebrew Scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek in the Second Century BCE.  Jews, however, did not add this book to their canon, and it was only until the 20th Century that actual copies of the Hebrew originals were found in Cairo, Egypt, and along with the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The contents of the book are in a great deal similar to the contents of Proverbs, and have a similar theological disposition to that in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and which we recently witnessed in last Sunday's first reading from Isaiah.  All of these have a somewhat nostalgic view of ancient Judaism and its respect for the faith and morality of that time to which they contrast an “eat, drink, and be merry” attitude that they deem inconsistent with the older ways.   

Another Note:

Beginning with this blog entry, I will be publishing the "contemporary reading" that we use at Trinity Church.  These readings will have some introductory materials or commentary as well, and will be listed at the end of the blog.  Your comments would be appreciated. 

Sirach 10:12-18

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
For the beginning of pride is sin,
and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
and destroys them completely.
The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
He removes some of them and destroys them,
and erases the memory of them from the earth.
Pride was not created for human beings,
or violent anger for those born of women.

Holy Wisdom

In today’s reading it does not take us long to understand the theme of the reading – namely, Pride.  The reading has a cadence, and vocabulary that is similar to readings from Proverbs.   Indeed, verses 14 and 15 seem to be precursors of the Magnificat (the Song of Mary in Luke) (casting down the mighty from their thrones,
 and lifting up the lowly.).  Pride is one of the primal sins that is discussed in the early chapters of Genesis.  The story of the Tower of Babel, an etiology (a story that explains a place or a name) that seemingly tells us why there are many languages.  The real lesson, however, is the same one that Ben Sira wants to tell – and that is the story of pride, what it does to human kind, and how God reacts to such behaviors. The Gospel will take this theme and apply it to daily life.

Breaking open Sirach:

1.     Is the notion of pride a positive thing for you – or a negative thing?
2.     In what ways can it be negative?
3.     In what ways can it be positive?
4.     What is your “common-sense” understanding of pride?

Psalm 112 Beatus vir

Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!

Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.

Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.

Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.

For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.

They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right;
they put their trust in the Lord.

Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies.

They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.

The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.

This psalm is an acrostic with each verset (two versets to a verse) representing a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is also a Wisdom psalm, which fits nicely with the first reading.  The preceding psalm (111) is also an acrostic and a Wisdom psalm, which lists all of God’s beneficence, while psalm 112 lists the attributes which are displayed by a righteous and virtuous person.  The beginning of the psalm (“Happy are they” – literally, “Happy is the man…”) could also be stated as “Blessed is the man (or woman)”, as is done in the Beatitudes.  After these attributes are rehearsed (wealth, graciousness, stability, guileless, staunch, generous) the author sets up a foil to the “Happy man.”  In the last verse we learn that the “wicked will see it and be angry.”  This saying is updated in Romans (12:20) when Paul talks about another’s reaction to the believer’s good deeds – “In this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Breaking open Psalm 112
1.       How is blessedness happiness?
2.       Is wealth a sign of being blessed or is it the sign of just being luck or cagey?
3.       How important is it to you that people see you as a virtuous person?

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence,

"The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?"

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Aquila and Priscilla

I have to thank Jayne, a parishioner who attends the 9:00 Mass on Sundays, for reminding me of Adolf von Harnack’s theory that the Letter to the Hebrews was written by St. Paul’s companion and Roman aristocrat, Priscilla.  Readers interested in this theory can go to this site to see some of the arguments: http://www.trivia-library.com/a/women-writing-for-men-st-paul-epistle-to-the-hebrews-and-priscilla.htm.  The main brunt of the argument is that Priscilla was married to Aquila, a Hebrew Christian, and that they ministered to former Essenes (a Jewish sect that was responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls).  Some scholars have noted the resemblance of Hebrews to some aspects of Essene thought.  Current thought is that Priscilla’s name (as author) was suppressed by the Early Church. 

The reading is a riff on the law of hospitality, and applies it to ever-new aspects of life in Christ.  The stranger is met with a gracious hospitality as well as the prisoner.  This passage may indicate that the author was aware of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome – accompanying him there to lend her aristocratic support.  The remainder is a recasting of the Law for everyday life, as in Pauline fashion she lists the aspects of a life of virtue.  In the midst of the passage she quotes Psalm 118:6 “The Lord is for me; I shall not fear; what can humankind do to me?”  If this indeed is the work of Priscilla, and indeed she wrote this cognizant of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, then the verse, “Remember your leaders…” has an even more poignant effect.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. How is hospitality a joy, and how is it an obligation?
  2. After you read the Gospel, think about how Jesus rethinks the whole notion of hospitality?
  3. What would you need to do to meet Jesus and Hebrew’s expectation of hospitality?

Saint Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.
"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

In this chapter, Luke takes several sayings and situations and binds them into a whole – namely a banquet, which provides not only a setting for the sayings but the life example as well.  He sets the scene with the first verse, “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader…”  Then follows a series of sayings, each with a different import.  The first (verses 7-11) are unique to Luke, and in it Jesus uses the common knowledge of social manners to teach a lesson about the Kingdom of Heaven – the humble will be exalted and visa versa.  The second saying (written as if at the same banquet) is also unique to Luke.  Here Jesus comments on the radical nature of the “kingdom” which he envisions.  In this society, social graces move out of the real of social obligation or ingratiation into the area of helping those who are in genuine need – regardless of social class.  The invitation is universal and divisive and runs against the social and religious norms of the time.  Indeed, it still does.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Which of these two sayings (go up higher, or when you invite) do you find to be more challenging?
  2. What does humility mean to you?  How does it feel?
  3. What is your social life like?  Whom do you invite to dinner?  How do you deal with those who are truly hungry?

Contemporary Reading: Daedalus and Icarus, Thomas Bullfinch

The labyrinth from which Theseus escaped by means of the clew of Ariadne was built by Daedalus, a most skillful artificer. It was an edifice with numberless winding passages and turnings opening into one another, and seeming to have neither beginning nor end, like the river Maeander, which returns on itself, and flows now onward, now
 backward, in its course to the sea. Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos, but afterwards lost the favour of the king, and was shut up in a tower. He contrived to make his escape from his prison, but could not leave the island by sea, as the king kept strict watch on all the vessels, and permitted none to sail without being carefully searched.

"Minos may control the land and sea," said Daedalus, "but not the regions of the air. I will try that way." So he set to work to fabricate wings for himself and his young son Icarus. He wrought feathers together, beginning with the smallest and adding larger, so as to form an increasing surface. The larger ones he secured with thread and the smaller with wax, and gave the whole a gentle curvature like the wings of a bird.

Icarus, the boy, stood and looked on, sometimes running to gather up the feathers which the wind had blown away, and then handling the wax and working it over with his fingers, by his play impeding his father in his labours. When at last the work was done, the artist, waving his wings, found himself buoyed upward, and hung suspended, poising himself on the beaten air. He next equipped his son in the same manner and taught him how to fly, as a bird tempts her young ones from the lofty nest into the air. When all was prepared for flight he said, "Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them. Keep near me and you will be safe."

While he gave him these instructions and fitted the wings to his shoulders, the face of the father was wet with tears, and his hands trembled. He kissed the boy, not knowing that it was for the last time. Then rising on his wings, he flew off, encouraging him to follow, and looked back from his own flight to see how his son managed his wings. As they flew the ploughman stopped his work to gaze, and the shepherd leaned on his staff and watched them, astonished at the sight, and thinking they were gods who could thus cleave the air. They passed Samos and Delos on the left and Lebynthos on the right, when the boy, exulting in his career, began to leave the guidance of his companion and soar upward as if to reach heaven. The nearness of the blazing sun softened the wax which held the feathers together, and they came off. He fluttered with his arms, but no feathers remained to hold the air.

While his mouth uttered cries to his father it was submerged in the blue waters of the sea which thenceforth was called by his name. His father cried, "Icarus, Icarus, where are you?" At last he saw the feathers floating on the water, and bitterly lamenting his own arts, he buried the body and called the land Icaria in memory of his child. 

In 1855, Thomas Bullfinch, the son of a Boston architect (The Massachusetts Statehouse, and parts of the Capitol in Washington D.C.) published his Bulfinch’s Mythology.  In this and a series of other books, Bullfinch attempted to acquaint the reader of English with the great myths and tales of Greece and Rome.  He saw them as an “entertainment” and a “source of amusement” and noted how he had taken out all the unsavory parts.  Later works by other authors relied on Greek texts, but this effort was one of acquainting Americans with classic texts, and making those texts a part of their education.

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

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.