25 October 2010

The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26) - 31 October 2010

Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-8
II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Saint Luke 19:1-10


I once designed an altar frontal for Saint Francis Church in San Francisco for use during the Sundays after Pentecost – a season of eternal green.  It was designed to be augmented, period by period, with darker and darker greens and complementary colors added as accents.  So it is with the lectionary at this point in the Church’s Year.  The readings in the next few Sundays will begin to represent a sort of “Shadow Advent”, as the themes of end-time and judgment remain from a much longer Advent season.  These all culminate in the brightness of Christ the King, but it is important to pay attention to these dark moods portrayed in the lectionary.  These readings are pepper in the pot of our liturgical stew.  They explore a side of life that evangelicals would just as soon forget, lost in a world of praise music and denial.  Although the penitential aspect of Advent, and even our remnant Advent, has been muted and softened, it is good for God’s people to look at the valley of the shadow of death.

First Reading: Isaiah 1:10-18

Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation--
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

This first of the Isaiahs, represented in chapters 1-39, was a resident of Judah, and exercised his ministry during the reign of four kings.  The ministry to the kingship of Judah and its people is set in the backdrop of an increasingly menacing Assyria, and an end to the prosperity of the reign of King Uzziah.  It was not all political, however, for the forces that drove the prosperity of the time also condemned the spiritual powers of the people.  It is to these issues that Isaiah speaks.  This reading takes it to a very personal level, for it is not the institutions that Isaiah immediately takes on, but the people themselves.  Their attitudes toward God, justice, and the poor are painted in bold strokes in this reading.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     What strong words does Isaiah have for the worship of Judah?
2.     What is Isaiah’s notion of genuine worship?
3.     How have you been able to enable such worship in your life?

Psalm 32:1-8 Beati quorum

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!

Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!

While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.

For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.

I said," I will confess my transgressions to the LORD." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

[Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.]

You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

You are my hiding place

This psalm is described in the text as a maskil – a distinction that we really know little about.  It has all the aspects of a song of joy, or thanksgiving; and in its later verses of a wisdom psalm.  What we do have is the outlook of the author, who outlines his process in receiving his forgiveness as perfected steps (working backwords: “whose sin is put away” (v. 1b) to “I acknowledged my sin to you” (v. 5).  Verse 3 is quite interesting in that it seems to portray the psychological dilemma of the author.  Its forces range form utter silence (“I held my tongue”) to the exact opposite (“because of my groaning”)  Alter translates this verb as “roaring”, which makes the contrast, and the dilemma, even stronger.  Also of interest is verse 7 (“Therefore all the faithful…) which seems to be an interpolation from another work.  The psychological dimensions of verse 3 are recaptured in the final verse where the silence of the hiding place is contrasted with the “shouts of deliverance.”

Breaking open Psalm 32:
1.       Does the anxiety of the author (see verse three) resonate with you?  What are your emotions about sins or shortcomings that still disturb you?
2.       Have you ever gone to confession?  If not, why not?
3.       What kind of internal dialogue do you have with yourself about what faith demands and you care capable of delivering?

II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy

In his brief, second letter to the Church at Thessalonika, Paul appears a bit anxious about the church there, which he seems to have to observe at a distance.  Initially, however, Paul talks about the call, his own, and the call that God has given the people.  In his initial statement, Paul works to link the human endeavor, that the church at Thessalonika represents, with the divine initiative in God’s grace.  In the final verses, these concerns are wrapped into a prayer asking that God would continue God’s work and their work.  In the coming Sundays, this continuing reading will explore the themes of the book.

Breaking open II Thessalonians:
  1. How do you feel called by God?
  2. To what are you called?
  3. What are your “works of faith”?

Saint Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

In the chapter preceding this one, we not only meet the Pharisee and the Publican, but also a man of wealth, who is reluctant to part with his holdings for the sake of the Gospel.  This chapter begins by introducing us to Zacchaeus, a tax collector and a publican, but a man who is able to part with wealth and live in faith.  The contrast is deliberate and stricking. These individuals (the publicans) were contractors to the Roman government, collecting taxes, and then taking a percentage as a fee.  To the Jews, these people not only represented the oppression of the Romans, but sycophants who lived off the lives of their own people.  This is a perfect character for Luke, who will, in this story, lift up the lowly.  Zacchaeus, is anxious to meet Jesus, and Jesus is quite happy to meet him (thus the accusation “he dines with sinners”).  But we meet a penitent and believing publican who does all that he can to help the poor.  Jesus says to the man (although the sense is that he is really speaking to the crowd that has gathered around this wealthy publican’s house) that salvation has come to this place – a rejoinder to those who could not see God’s grace operative in the lives of the lowly.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think is Luke’s point in this story?
  2. What individuals might be like the publican in your life – despised but righteous?
  3. Do you eat with sinners?

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

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All Saints' Day (transferred) - 31 October 2010

Contemporary Reading: from “A Christmas Memory”, Truman Capote
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Saint Luke 6:20-31


All Saints Day – the origin of this day is a bit murky, perhaps originating in the Eastern Church, where it was observed in May, or the Sunday after Pentecost.  In 609, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs.  In the eighth century celebrations of all the Saints emerged in England, celebrated principally on 1 November, which was brought to England either through the ministry of Egbert of York, or perhaps from earlier celebrations either in Ireland or Gaul.  It is a day in which the Church celebrates saints living and departed, a representation of the totality of the Body of Christ.  The present celebration in the Book of Common Prayer is classed as a Principal Feast, one of seven.  It is also a date on which is recommended the administration of Holy Baptism. 

First Reading: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: "As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever."

The Prophet Daniel

The Book of Daniel is a collection of moral narratives, and a set of visions ascribed to an ancient character, Daniel (the name means “My Judge is God”), who is mentioned in a variety texts written or transmitted at several points in time.  This Daniel, may be a character of convenience, who is used to make pointed comments on the world at the time.  The question is, at what time.  There is a sweep to the understanding of this book, from the time of the subjugation of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, followed by the subjugation of Judah by the Babylonians, moving to the fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Mede, the Persian Empire, and finally its subjugation by Alexander the Great, and the rule of the Seleucids in Syria.  In this sweep we see Israel and Judah deported, Judah restored, and the forced Hellenization of Palestine by the Seleucid King, Antiochus IV.  Our character, Daniel, exists in the Babylonian phase of this sweep.  His visions and stories, however, are apt commentary on the events in the Seleucid phase, when the temple in Jerusalem was desecrated, and Jews were under pressure to become less Jewish and more Greek.  The reading is chosen for this day due to its reference to “the holy ones possessing the kingdom”, a reference to the resurrection, a Persian idea imported into Judaism following the exile. 

Breaking open Ecclesiasticus:

1.     Do you ever think through your dreams, and use them as a way of learning about life?
2.     What kinds of dreams do you have?
3.     What do you think of the biblical story of Daniel, a man who interpreted dreams and visions?
4.     Have your read anything by Karl Jung?

Psalm 149 Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.

Let Israel rejoice in his Maker; *
let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.

Let them praise his Name in the dance; *
let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp.

For the LORD takes pleasure in his people *
and adorns the poor with victory.

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; *
let them be joyful on their beds.

Let the praises of God be in their throat *
and a two-edged sword in their hand;

To wreak vengeance on the nations *
and punishment on the peoples;

To bind their kings in chains *
and their nobles with links of iron;

To inflict on them the judgment decreed; *
this is glory for all his faithful people.

from the Book of Kells

Again we have a praise psalm.  The verse concerning singing a “new song” is not so much a messianic comment (this psalm is about a new heaven and a new earth) so much as it is to say, “this is a new psalm”.  The praise is all directed to the God that provides the “poor” with victory.  The notion of the poor, here, is not those at the bottom of the social strata, so much as it is the lowly.  Israel is “the lowly”, the nation conquered, and sent into exile.  It is to Israel that God grants triumph and victory, and a return home.

Breaking open Psalm 149:
1.       How do you praise God in your daily life?
2.       For what in your life do you praise God?
3.       What does the word “victory” mean in the Christian context?

Ephesians 1:11-23

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Pantocrator - from the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence

If Ephesians was written by Paul, it certainly represents Paul at a different point in his theological journey, perhaps even at a more mature point.  The book has a great dependence upon the letter to the Colossians, and other earlier epistles.  It tends to be a bit cold and dispassionate, and unlike the earlier epistles does not address the second coming but rather focuses on the resurrected Christ.  All of this is eloquently demonstrated in today’s reading, which pictures the Risen Christ sitting in state over all things.  Such a vision is, using the words of the author, “the glorious inheritance among the saints.”

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. Paul talks about a “glorious inheritance”.  What is your “glorious inheritance in Christ?
  2. What does it mean when Paul says that Christ is “head over all things”?
  3. Does that change anything in your life?

Saint Luke 6:20-31

Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:

"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

What a breath of fresh air comes with the three-year cycle for All Saints’ Day in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  In the old lectionary, the Gospel reading was always the Beatitudes as recorded in Matthew.  Here we get a chance to look at the Lucan version.  To understand it better we need to understand a Semitic construction that accompanied the end of contracts, or legal agreements.  Such documents were attended by “Blessings and Curses”, which enumerated the good things (Blessings) or bad things (Curses) that would accrue to the one who either kept or did not keep the details of the contract.  So Luke, perhaps in a comment on the Messianic Covenant, structures the sayings of Jesus into a series of Blessings and Woes.  This is followed by a series of sayings that are derived from the sol-called “Golden Rule” (do unto others…).  While Matthew’s Jesus comments on the poor and others in a wider and spiritual context (the poor in spirit), Luke has Jesus comment on the particularity of the social context (you poor). 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are your emotions as you read the sections beginning, “Blessed are…?
  2. What are your emotions as you read the sections beginning, “But woe to…”?
  3. Do you love your enemies?
Contemporary Reading: “A Christmas Memory” Truman Capote

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven.  “You know what I’ve always thought?: she asks in a tone of discovery, and not smiling at me but at a point beyond.  “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord.  And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at eh Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the son pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark.  And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling.  But I’ll wager it never happens.  I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself.  That things as they are” – her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone – “just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him.  As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

Truman Capote

Truman Capote – 30 September 1924 – 25 August 1984) was an American author and comedian, many of whose short stories, novels, plays and nonfiction are recognized literary classics, including the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) and In Cold Blood (1965), which he labeled a "nonfiction novel." At least 20 films and television dramas have been produced from Capote novels, stories and screenplays.

Capote rose above a childhood troubled by divorce, a long absence from his mother and multiple migrations. He discovered his calling by the age of eleven, and for the rest of his childhood he honed his writing ability. Capote began his professional career writing short stories. The critical success of one story, "Miriam" (1945), attracted the attention of Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, resulting in a contract to write Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). Capote earned the most fame with In Cold Blood (1965), a journalistic work about the murder of a Kansas farm family in their home, a book Capote spent four years writing. A milestone in popular culture, it was the peak of his career, although it was not his final book. In the 1970s, he maintained his celebrity status by appearing on television talk shows.

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

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.