22 February 2011

The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany - 27 February 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
I Corinthians 54:1-5
Saint Matthew 6:24-34

John Singer Sargent - "Prophetic Frieze"

The Hebrew word nabi (prophet) is probably a “loan word” from the Akkadian word for “sent one” or “one made to speak”.  To whom was this word applied?  Initially it is applied to Moses, and secondarily to his brother Aaron, and to his sister Miriam.  To understand what was initially meant by the term, a look at Numbers 11:24-30 will be helpful.  In these verses we can get an idea of what the so-called “ecstatic prophets” were like.  These individuals, and groups of individuals used music, and dance to set up a circumstance of ecstasy to deliver a message of patriotism and loyalty to God.  See Exodus 15:20-21 for the example of Miriam’s prophetic behavior at the Red Sea.  Later on, this term, will take on other meanings.  In the time of Moses, however, (and we must remind ourselves that this is a “reconstructed” time, by a people far removed from the actual events) the office of prophet was often more communal than individual.

Isaiah 48:8-16a

Thus says the LORD:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, "Come out,"
to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves."
They shall feed along the ways,
on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away,
and lo, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the LORD has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me."
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
 Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.

Pablo Picasso - Mother and Child

This second Isaiah wrestles with the problem of an Israel that needs to reinvent itself after its exile in Babylon.  The verses immediately preceding our reading for today form the second of the Suffering Servant Songs (Isaiah 49:1-6), and then move on to discuss the hoped for apocalyptic that will be revealed as Israel’s reinstatement.  This author, who uses the works of Jeremiah as a model for his Suffering Servant, now takes another model to form an idea on which to hang his “new Israel”.  The model is that of the Exodus, the release of Israel from Egypt, the journey through the wilderness, and the presence of God in Israel’s midst.  “In a time of favor”, a phrase that announces this new time, begins a segment that describes what this released Israel will look like, and what the characteristics of such freedom will be.  They sound remarkably like other Isaiah characterizations of the new time, which are picked up by the Gospel writers as well: freed prisoners, the hungry fed, the desert highways, and others all speak of a “day of salvation” that “establishes the land.”  Especially poignant is the tenderness of verse 15, in which Isaiah compares God’s love to that of a nursing mother.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Have you ever had to rethink yourself or your life?
  2. What did you use as a model for your life?
  3. When you think of God’s love, what pictures come to your mind?

Psalm 131 Domine, non est

O LORD, I am not proud; *
I have no haughty looks.

I do not occupy myself with great matters, *
or with things that are too hard for me.

But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother's breast; *
my soul is quieted within me.

O Israel, wait upon the LORD, *
from this time forth for evermore.

Jacques Lipchitz - "Mother and Child"

The psalter often reflects national and liturgical themes that belong to the whole community.  In this psalm, we are treated to an individual’s spiritual expression that is owned only by the writer.  The themes are of a simple life and contentment, which in the last verse is commended to the whole of the people, “Wait, O Israel, for the Lord” (Alter).  What ties this psalm to the readings for today, are the touching feelings expressed in verse 2, similar to the later verses of the reading from Second Isaiah.  The contentment of the mother’s breast, and the quietness of the soul are quite tender.

Breaking open Psalm 15
1.     What makes for comfort and solace in your life?
2.     What role does your faith play in that comfort and solace?
3.     How do you express your spiritual satisfaction to others?

I Corinthians 4:1-5

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.


We continue with an on-going reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul uses two words that are used to describe our/his usefulness in the ministry of the Gospel: “servants” and “stewards”.  The Greek has deeper meanings that make Paul’s charge more poignant and meaningful.  The first word, for which our translation uses the word “servant”, is actually a word that described the rowers on the lower level of a trireme.  These men were “assistants” to the rowers above them.  Thus the description is more gritty and down to earth than the mild notion of servant hood.  The second word is translated as “steward” or “manager”.  The actual word described the servant who managed the household for his/her master or mistress.  Thus Paul describes our responsibilities to the Gospel.  And who can judge the quality of the work we do in this regard?  Certainly not by “any human court” – for it is God who will judge our effectiveness.  The final judgment is God’s prerogative.  Our calling is to stewardship.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. Have you ever been a servant?
  2. Have you ever managed someone else’s wealthy?
  3. How are you a servant of the Gospel?

Saint Matthew 6:24-34

Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, `What will we eat?' or `What will we drink?' or `What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."

King Solomon

We have three sayings in our Gospel for today.  Two of them are sayings of Jesus, and the third is most likely a common proverb that sums the points of Jesus’ sayings.  In a similar way, the initial saying sums up the points before they are made, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” 

The anxiety of my youth was nuclear war.  Growing up in the ‘fifties, this seemed to be the essence of the future, a devastating nuclear war with Russia.  How interesting, then, that the over-arching anxiety of our time is really more about money (stock market, gas prices, cost of living expenses, and maintaining a certain lifestyle) and appearance.  Jesus’ audience understood his maxims (the second of the sayings) far better than most of us.  They were right to worry about what tomorrow would bring, being peasants and laborers.  Jesus doesn’t ask them to be lazy, but rather that their worry not separate them from a loyalty to the God who provides through their labor.  “Strive first for the kingdom of God” is Jesus’ advice. 

We live in a society and culture of accumulation.  Jesus’ admonition about “sufficiency for the day” ought to cause a conversation in our midst about what really is necessary for living life. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Do you consider yourself wealthy, or poor?
  2. In what ways are you wealthy, or in what ways are you poor?
  3. Do you have too much?

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

Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

By Request: George Herbert's "Holy Communion"

In my sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, I quoted George Herbert's Poem on the Holy Communion.  Several asked for the complete version, which I am supplying here:

NOt in rich furniture, or fine aray,
                     Nor in a wedge of gold,
                     Thou, who for me wast sold,
           To me dost now thy self convey;
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
                     Leaving within me sinne:

But by the way of nourishment and strength
                     Thou creep’st into my breast;
                     Making thy way my rest,
           And thy small quantities my length;
Which spread their forces into every part,
                     Meeting sinnes force and art.

Yet can these not get over to my soul,
                     Leaping the wall that parts
                     Our souls and fleshy hearts;
           But as th’ outworks, they may controll
My rebel-flesh, and carrying thy name,
                     Affright both sinne and shame.

Onley thy grace, which with these elements comes,
                     Knoweth the ready way,
                     And hath the privie key,
           Op’ning the souls most subtile rooms;
While those to spirits refin’d, at doore attend
                     Dispatches from their friend.

Give me my captive soul, or take
              My bodie also thither.
Another lift like this will make
              Them both to be together.

Before that sinne turn’d flesh to stone,
              And all our lump to leaven;
A fervent sigh might well have blown
              Our innocent earth to heaven.

For sure when Adam did not know
              To sinne, or sinne to smother;
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
              As from  one room t’another.

Thou hast restor’d us to  this ease
              By this thy heav’nly bloud;
Which I can go to, when I please,
              And leave th’earth to their food.

13 February 2011

The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany - 20 February 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
I corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Saint Mathew 5:38-48


Readings from the Book of Leviticus in the Eucharistic Lectionary are limited to two Sundays, both in Ordinary Time, and consisting, largely, of the same reading.  It might be a good time, therefore to uncover this book for us.  In this day and age, Leviticus enters into the conversation largely to mine its comments on sexual purity, so some may predisposed to dismiss at a source of guidance or wisdom.  The roots of Leviticus are apparent in both its name and in its content, consisting largely of rules and regulations regarding the Levitical priesthood and the nations quest for holiness.  Passed down from the earliest of times, the material was shaped by numerous redactors and commentators, and comes to us from a post-exilic hand whose purpose is to instruct the people in the ancient practices of worship and right living.  Given that, we are met with a series on temple ritual, namely, sacrifice, priestly service, the setting aside of priests, legal purity, the Day of Atonement, the Holiness Code, and a discussion on votive offerings.  Baruch Levine, in his article on Leviticus in Etz Hayim – Torah and Commentary, summarizes the intent of the book well: “…(it) reflects the central concerns of the ancient Israelites: Perhaps the most vital of these was to know how they were to express their loyalty to the Lord.” 

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.

You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Micah characterizes the question of the community in his 6th chapter when he asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord?”  The editors and authors of Leviticus give a more fulsome answer, replete with all the different ways and attitudes that should accompany the community’s holiness.  Indeed that is the first requirement.  The Hebrew is quite emphatic.  Our translation of “You shall be holy,” is more properly rendered “You must be holy.”  Then, in a recounting of the Law of Moses, Leviticus lays out all the requirements of holiness.  Thus we see commentary on the various commandments: stealing, lying, swearing falsely, speaking poorly of another, and hatred.  Added to this mix of the ancient requirements, with the realities of life after the Exile, are rules about the harvest, and the poor (see the Book of Ruth).  Although this book explores ritual holiness, it also takes a quite realistic stand about what is required of a community’s holiness as well. 

Breaking open Leviticus
  1. Is there an aspect of holiness in your life?
  2. Which of the commandments that the author of Leviticus reiterates is the most compelling to you?  Why?
  3. What does it mean to love your neighbor as you love yourself?  Do you love yourself?

Psalm 119:33-40

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, *
and I shall keep it to the end.

Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *
I shall keep it with all my heart.

Make me go in the path of your commandments, *
for that is my desire.

Incline my heart to your decrees *
and not to unjust gain.

Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *
give me life in your ways.

Fulfill your promise to your servant, *
which you make to those who fear you.

Turn away the reproach which I dread, *
because your judgments are good.

Behold, I long for your commandments; *
in your righteousness preserve my life.

Again we have a reading from the acrostic psalm (Initial letter in each set of 8 verses) 119.  Today’s reading includes a section from “H” (he) (33-40).  Made up of various elements, from a variety of sources, the Wisdom psalm expresses the core value of both praising and keeping the Law.  The psalm characterizes G-d as the instructor, and the psalmist as one desiring insight, and obedience.

Breaking open Psalm 119:33-40
1.     What role does God play in this psalm?
2.     When you think of God’s Law, what comes to your mind?
3.     How do the commandments affect your life?

I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,

"He catches the wise in their craftiness,"

and again,

"The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile."

So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

In our continuing reading from First Corinthians, Paul carries on with his instruction to the people of Corinth.  Paul is a master of allusion, and here uses the image of a building, more specifically a temple, as his central metaphor.  Paul is not ambitious in his self-praise, only indicating that he has constructed a foundation (and even then he notes that Christ is the actual builder of the foundation, or perhaps actually is the foundation.  Others will be called upon to build the entire structure.  Then, using the same image, he suddenly makes his reader see that he or she is the structure – God’s temple – with the Spirit dwelling within.  The holiness of God’s temple becomes the holiness of God’s people. 

There is a second point as well.  Paul contrasts wisdom and foolishness, and reminds the Corinthians that their own wisdom is limited and faulty.  He underscores his point with a quotation from Job 5:12, and Psalm 94:11.  The pride of knowledge must give way to total absorption into the wisdom and body of Christ.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What does Saint Paul mean when he calls your body “a temple”?
  2. In what ways are you wise in the world?  In what ways are you wise in the Spirit?
  3. Of all the groups in your life, which is the most important, what is your most important sense of identity?

Saint Matthew 5:38-48

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Jesus continues his instruction of the disciples; having moved from adultery, divorce, and oaths, he now focuses on revenge.  In doing so, he confronts an ancient attitude that obtains to our own day.  Jesus preaches an attitude of non-resistance and concession.  Four separate examples are shown: physical violence, legal contention, forced service, and requests for help.  In each of these, Jesus promotes a sense of doing for the other. 

Matthew’s audience would be familiar with the “enemy” that Jesus enjoins us to love.  It would have been the persecutor, the one opposed to following the way of Jesus.  There is an odd discrepancy in the teaching, however, as Matthew’s Jesus points to two despised classes – tax collectors, and gentiles, who are treated more kindly in other instances of Jesus’ teaching and work.  The reading closes with a reflection of the Leviticus reading: “Be perfect, therefore…”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent teachings?
  2. What do you think of Jesus’ ideas about passivity?  Is it possible in your life today?
  3. What do see as God’s sense of justice as reflected in this passage?

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

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.