29 March 2011

The Fourth Sunday in Lent - 3 April 2011

I Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
Saint John 9:1-41



The books attributed to this prophet, judge, military leader, and kingmaker in the Hebrew Scriptures were most likely not written by him.  There is the evidence to too many hands, and with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are significant variants.  The book, however, is important in our understanding Israel as it moves from a loose federation of tribes into a monarchy following the patterns of its Canaanite neighbors.  On the cusp of this change, Samuel becomes both the apologist and the critic of the monarchy.  Two great sagas, that of Samuel himself, and that of David are both set forth in the book(s) (The book was divided into two sections with its translation into Greek under the patronage of the Ptolomies in Egypt).  Other theological points in the text, which is rather disjointed and hardly homogenous, are the cult of early Israel, the beginning of the prophets and the priesthood, and the theology that surrounded the monarchy itself.

Samuel 16:1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." Samuel said, "How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me." And the Lord said, "Take a heifer with you, and say, `I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you." Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, "Do you come peaceably?" He said, "Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed is now before the Lord." But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these." Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here." He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one." Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Samuel anoints David
The prophet Samuel functions on several levels as we read about him in the book(s) ascribed to him.  What we are really seeing are the two distinct strands, each with a different political point of view, that are wound together to create what we know as I and II Samuel.  The writer sets a theme of fear and anxiety as the story of David’s anointing is told.  Here we see the prophet in roles not usually ascribed to the prophets.  His  role as a spokesperson for YHWH is consistent with the prophetic call.  That he invites and presides over a sacrifice for Jesse, his sons, and the leaders of Bethlehem, is most unusual, since only priests (Levites) could officiate over such ceremonies.  However, we are dealing with a figure that is being led and directed by God – so all the rules are broken.  This is a clandestine meeting, treasonable, if you wish.  Thus all are anxious.  Samuel reviews all of Jesse’s sons, but God finds none of them acceptable.  One is missing, David, the shepherd.  This is the one that God directs Samuel to anoint.  With this act the stories of Saul and David overlap.  Why this reading on this particular Sunday?  Perhaps it is that some choices are God’s choices.  David and the man-born-blind (Gospel) are the outliers, sitting at the edge of the perception of society.  The people who surround these characters have bound them in with their own perceptions and opinions.  God, however, has a different idea.

Breaking open Samuel:
  1. Do you see God’s hand in the choices you’ve made in your life?
  2. If so, where and when?
  3. Have you ever countered when God was moving you in a certain direction.

Psalm 23 Dominus regit me

The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me
in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy
shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

The good shepherd

There is not much to expound in this popular psalm.  The image of God as shepherd is so completely concrete in its comparison, and so utterly simple in its allusions that there is not much left to say.  There are some details, however, that can help us know the psalm better.  In the “he restoreth my soul” passage, there is a deeper sense in the Hebrew vocabulary.  The phrase actually means that someone has stopped breathing, and that God breathes new breath into the one whose life is in jeopardy.  In verse five, there is mention of an anointing with oil, but the verb used here makes reference to a sensual use rather than a medicinal or sacramental use.  What follow is also a luxury of things: oil, a table of foods, and a cup filled to the brim with good wine.  Such it is to live in God’s house.

Breaking open Psalm 23:
1.     How has God been your shepherd?
2.     Do you fear death?
3.     With what good things has God gifted you?

Ephesians 5:8-14

Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

"Sleeper, awake!

Rise from the dead, 
and Christ will shine on you."

This passage may have roots in the theology of Qumran and the Essenes, where darkness and light are contrasted and represent different aspects of the righteous and the unrighteous.  The Gnostics had similar distinctions, but here the author (perhaps not Paul) aligns the followers of Christ with light.  Thus he can talk about their former life, before Christ, as a life in darkness.  This is a powerful metaphor for a people who did live a significant portion of their lives without artificial light.  We who live in an electronic era do not understand the profundity of darkness, or the relief and freedom of light. 

The passage quotes what is perhaps an ancient baptismal him, in which Christ is seen as the true light, and the rites of Baptism as a rising (like Christ) not only from sleep, but from the dead as well.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What is darkness in your life and what is light?
  2. How do you deal with the darkness?
  3. What does the light in your life enable?

Saint John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" Some were saying, "It is he." Others were saying, "No, but it is someone like him." He kept saying, "I am the man." But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He answered, "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, `Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight." They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see." Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, "What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened." He said, "He is a prophet."

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him. Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, `We see,' your sin remains."

St. James Cathedral, Seattle
Jesus heals the man born blind
In this reading we have two progressions.  The first is the “trial” of the man born blind, and the second is the growth of this man’s faith.  There are several characters in this story: the disciples, who question Jesus’ about the man born blind; the Jews and Pharisees who witness the healing or who pass judgment on the man and on Jesus; the man’s parents, the man born blind; and Jesus.  The parallel progressions each teach two different lesions.  The trial section begins with the disciples’ question about the man’s life.  “What was his sin?” they ask.  From then on, various persons condemn the man for his following of Jesus, for being healed on the last day, and for his sins.  The purpose of this progression is to point out that the disciples’ initial question was out of order, and to prefigure the trial of Jesus himself in the trial and questioning of the man born blind. 

The second progression details the man’s coming to faith in Jesus.  It is gradual and contained.  He first acknowledges his interaction with “the man called Jesus,” and then progresses to “He is a prophet.”  At another questioning he acknowledges Jesus through the efficacy of Jesus’ action, “I can now see.” but this does not astonish him.  He is astonished about the lack of faith of the Pharisees.  Finally, after he has been put out of the Synagogue, Jesus seeks him out, and the man completes his journey of faith, with the words, “Lord, I believe”.  Implicit in this story is John’s insistence that the Pharisees would have been blessed with blindness for in that state they could have realized with their spiritual status really was.  Another point: usually it is the first lesson that comments on the Gospel on any given Sunday.  Here it is the second lesson, and its commentary on the light that underscores the teaching in the Gospel

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What was (is) your journey of faith like?
  2. If there is blindness in your life, what is it about?
  3. Have you ever suddenly “seen the light”?  Where? When?

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

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

22 March 2011

The Third Sunday in Lent - 27 March 2011

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5;1-11
Saint John 4:5-42


St. Elias

BACKGROUND: Background: The Books of Moses IV
The second of the strands that formed the Five Books of Moses is the E strand, which stands for the Elohist.  This editor uses another name for God, Elohim, which is usually translated as “God” in most English Bibles.  The E tradition is a northern tradition.  After the Davidic kingdom split, around 922 BCE, a whole effort at reconstituting the national religion took place in the north as well.  Here, however, the religion was practiced in the context of the Canaanite religious cult, and we see an emphasis in E about removing temples, images, and the cultus of other gods.  The strand is focused on the period following Abraham, who is guised as a prophet.  God is not seen as the one who walks in the Garden in the evening so much as the God who speaks from clouds, dreams, or fire.  The major theological moment in E is the covenant that God makes with Israel, and this is cast in the form of a treaty with a suzerain (overlord to vassal) with all the blessings and curses that accrue to such a formulation.  E is not interested in the monarchy (David) but rather an idealization of the ancient story and journey in the desert.  Thus we are treated in E to a succession of stories of the patriarchs, many of which are located in the northern part of Canaan and the ancient patriarchal sanctuaries.

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." The Lord said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?"

Moses strikes the rock.

Placed over this particular story, and others like it, is a legal pattern called a riv, or a “dispute”.  This seems a little strange as we follow a nomadic people fleeing in the desert.  It seems almost too sophisticated.  The dispute is indeed legal, and it is based on the covenant between God and Israel, a treaty or contract, if you will, in which the people have a complaint against the overlord.  These stories are called the “murmuring stories” and involve either the lack of water (2 times) or food (1 time).  The name of the place “Meribah” is derived from this notion of dispute and contention.  Moses is very clear.  The contention is not with him, or even possibly Aaron, his brother.  The contention is with God.  And now in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, the people look back on Egypt as a place of plenty and comfort.  The situation is miraculously solved with Moses’ remarkable staff, but that is not the point of the story.  The point is that God and God’s people are in contention and testing – the whole focus of this journey through the desert.  That is what makes this a remarkable reading during Lent.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. Do you ever have disputes with God?
  2. How do you handle them?
  3. Does God test you?  How so?

Psalm 95 Venite, exultemus

Come, let us sing to the LORD; *
let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving *
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.

For the LORD is a great God, *
and a great King above all gods.

In his hand are the caverns of the earth, *
and the heights of the hills are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it, *
and his hands have molded the dry land.

Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, *
and kneel before the LORD our Maker.

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. *
Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!

Harden not your hearts,
as your forebears did in the wilderness, *
at Meribah, and on that day at Massah,
when they tempted me.

They put me to the test, *
though they had seen my works.

Forty years long I detested that generation and said, *
"This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways."

So I swore in my wrath, *
"They shall not enter into my rest."

Michelangelo - The Creation of Adam

Those of you who pray Morning Prayer regularly will be quite familiar with this psalm, The Venite.  It comes from a collection of Psalms (93-99) that seem to be celebratory in nature, an action of the public rather than by individuals.  Also remarkable is that the psalm comes from a time when YHWH was seen as over-and-above all other gods, not just the one God, “and a great king above all gods”.  Though some see this as a “coronation psalm” (God raised above all others) the focus seems more clearly set upon Creation.  From this theme the psalm becomes more pastoral with the imagery of shepherd and flock.  The choice of this psalm can be seen in the closing verses that make reference to the situation recounted in the first reading from Exodus.  What is contrasted is a God who is both great and comforting, and a people who continue to complain. 

Breaking open Psalm 95:
1.     What does creation teach you about God?
2.     When, during the day, do you pray?  What postures do you effect in your praying?
3.     What does God think of you?

Romans 5:1-11

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-- though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The Suffering Christ

Both the first reading (Exodus 17:1-7), and the Psalm (95) set up a pattern of contention and dispute between God and God’s people.  In the reading from Romans Paul attempts to counter with a theme of reconciliation and peace.  This is not to say that the difficulties of the desert journey are not without value.  Paul produces a list of effects, “suffering produces endurance…” Paul becomes even more radical about the life and death of Jesus by claiming that Jesus died for the ungodly as well.  There are a few fundamentalists that I would like to have wrestle with this notion.  Christ is seen the ultimate proof of God’s good intentions, and of our ultimate benefit – a benefit which is worthy of our boasting.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Do you have peace with God?  How do you know this?
  2. Do you think that Paul is right?  Does suffering really produce endurance?
  3. Would you die for a really good friend?

Saint John 4:5-42

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."

Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, `I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, `One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."

Jesus meets the woman at the well

Ignored in my comments on the first reading, is the water that is so desperately sought by the Israelites.  It is water, however, that connects the first reading to this morning’s Gospel.  The scene is in the northern kingdom, Samaria in particular.  The Samaritans are always suspect in the eyes of the New Testament, largely from their “impure” blood.  Following the conquest of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in ca. 720 BCE, the Assyrian policy was to displace the conquered population with peoples from other lands.  Thus the descendants in the north were dismissed as mongrels by the people of Judea and the south.  Jesus is in a tough place – and the woman he meets will take him on about what she supposes his attitudes are toward her and her people.  Jesus obliges her, having a brief argument about the temple.  This, however, is neither his point nor the point of John who preserves the story. 

As a Jew, Jesus creates a remarkable set of relationships as he talks to a woman, a Samaritan, and a sinner.  In such a dangerous and unfashionable conversation Jesus is able to disclose himself as a prophet who’s knowledge does not dissuade him from the Good News of forgiveness.  He, in his musings on both water and temple is able to uncover what other more ancient prophets had taught – the worship due God “in spirit and in truth”.  John wants us to understand the distinctions that Jesus makes, and so the argument is repeated, this time with the disciples.  The woman repeats her story, and the outsiders (see Paul’s comments on the “godless”) come to believe. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Are there “outsiders” in your Church?
  2. How can you tell them, what are they like?
  3. What would Jesus have to say to what you have described?

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

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

15 March 2011

The Second Sunday in Lent - 20 March 2011

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 3:1-17
Saint John 3:1-17

Michelangelo - Adam

BACKGROUND: Background: The Books of Moses III
Last week, I mentioned the Yahwist (J) and that particular strand of the Books of Moses.  Someone sent me an email wondering why I had spelled YHWH as JHWH.  Hoping to make the connection between the name of God and the strand author/editor “J”, I used the Germanic spelling.  J is deeply connected to the soil.  It is the soil formed by YHWH’s hand that both creates Adam and buries Moses.  The soil to which this strand is most firmly attached is that of Judea.  Judea is the culmination of the patriarchal cycles, and the theme of God’s choosing as his own the sons and daughters of the patriarchs – particularly Judah is preeminent.  Another theme of this strand is that of the “younger son”, (Isaac, Jacob, and Judah), flaunting the usual favor held toward the eldest.  Most likely, this collection was brought together in the 10th Century BCE in the Kingdom of Judea (the southern kingdom), and was used to reacquaint the people to their ancient traditions.

Genesis 12:1-4a

The Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

The serpent had promised wisdom, but the wisdom brought only curses upon Adam and Eve, and those that followed them.  The final curse of the cycle was that given to the entire world, excepting Noah.  With Abraham, however, the theme changes.  “Your name shall be a blessing!”  We are entering a different cycle of events with this reading.  The promises, however, are diffuse and unknown.  Being sent to a “land that I will show you” is a difficult promise and task.  None-the-less, Abraham takes it on.  He and Sarai both will be met with more challenges and directions, and above them hovers the covenant.  

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. What has been your physical journey in life?
  2. What has been your spiritual journey in life?
  3. What brought you to this place?  Was it an “unknown land?”

Psalm 121 Levavi oculos

I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?

My help comes from the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved *
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.

Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
shall neither slumber nor sleep;

The LORD himself watches over you; *
the LORD is your shade at your right hand,

So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.

The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is he who shall keep you safe.

The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.

Judean hills

Some scholars have long associated this “Song of Ascents” with the pilgrims who trekked from the valleys below up through the hill country of Judea to Mount Zion, the holy place, the house of God.  Though this may be true, there are others who feel that the psalm speaks a word of protection to anyone who makes their way along a difficult path.  Do the hills protect and guard? Are they the destination only, or are they the site of potential evil?  Perhaps they are the place of protection and help.  As Abraham and Sarai move from the comfort of their homeland to some thing new and unknown (first reading) we can imagine their own concern and fear as they make their way into a new land.  We are, all of us, pilgrims, treading a new path each day.  This psalm gives comfort and notes the role that God plays.  The one, who lives on the mountain, looks over those who make their way to the mountain.

Breaking open Psalm 121:
1.     What or whom do you watch over and protect?
2.     Do you trust that God will watch over and protect you?
3.     What difficult paths have you had to take?  Was God there?

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

William Blake - Abraham and Isaac

Paul begins a discourse on faith, and picks for an example the life of Abraham.  The previous chapters have been a discourse on how God reacts to humankind, and what is the Good News that offers promise and hope.  In these verses Paul establishes the notion that God sees righteousness in the Person of Faith.  Now he focuses on Abraham, who was righteous not because of what he did, but rather that he followed God in faith.  Paul makes the argument that the law gives us nothing but shame, but faith and grace bring us into the real of righteousness.  As the “father of many nations” Abraham extends to his own the righteousness seen in his faith. 

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Who stands out as a model of faith for you?  What is their story?
  2. What is faith for you?
  3. What promises have you heard from God?

Saint John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Giovanni Angelo Del Maino - Nicodemus

Nicodemus, a true son of Abraham, comes to discourse with Jesus.  He is a complete representative of Judaism being a Pharisee, and member of the Sanhedrin, and a priest.  That he comes “in the night” reveals the delicacy of his situation, and perhaps the symbolic quality in John of coming into the light.  Nicodemus has seen Jesus’ “signs” – a potent symbol in John – and has come to believe.  Jesus challenges him to come further and to not rely on the works alone but to be spiritually reborn.  Several dichotomies emerge in their discourse:  flesh and spirit, heavenly things and earthly things, ascension and descension – all of which describe a matrix of believing into which Nicodemus, and by extension all of Israel, is invited.  Belief is set up against unbelief, and eternal life against condemnation.  John proclaims that Jesus is the source of such spiritual life.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. If you were to have a night-time conversation with Jesus, what would you ask?
  2. Have you been “born again” and if so, how?
  3. How is your life different as a Christian?

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

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.