31 January 2012

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany - 5 February 2012

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
I Corinthians 9:16-23
St. Mark 1:29-39

Background: Capernaum
This ancient village called Kafar Nahum (“Nahum’s village) was founded as a fishing village on the eastern shore of the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee) during the Hasmonean period ca. 140 BCE.  The town is mentioned most notably in Luke, but also appears in Matthew and Mark.  It is known as the home of Peter and Andrew, James and John, and the tax collector Matthew.  Jesus preached in its synagogue and performed healings there. 

Isaiah 40:21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

This reading is taken from a section of Second Isaiah called Hymns to the Lord Redeemer.  They date from the period prior to the fall of Babylon (539 BCE) and make allusions to the Exodus.  This pericope is taken from the section “On the splendid majesty of God the Creator.  The questions that are posed and the time that is the focus is the here and now, suggesting the immediacy of God’s creating word.  Viewed from Isaiah’s perspective all things earthly are diminutive and God is clothed in expansiveness and grandeur.  Isaiah’s religious and political agenda are never far away.  “Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.”  This simple statement seems only to refer to the creation of the heavens filled with stars, however there is a deeper meaning for Isaiah.  The “stars” are the symbol of the Babylonian deities, and in this scene the God of Israel is the master over them.  Thus God is not only the creator and caregiver extending back to the beginning of time, God continues to be master and caregiver of all – even the enemy’s religious figures.

Breaking open Second Isaiah:
  1. Why does the prophet pepper the opening verses with so many questions, what is it’s effect?
  2. What are the comparisons that the prophet makes between the earthly and the heavenly?
  3. What is God’s knowledge of the universe?

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c Laudate Dominum

How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!

The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem; *
he gathers the exiles of Israel.

He heals the brokenhearted *
and binds up their wounds.

He counts the number of the stars *
and calls them all by their names.

Great is our LORD and mighty in power; *
there is no limit to his wisdom.

The LORD lifts up the lowly, *
but casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; *
make music to our God upon the harp.

He covers the heavens with clouds *
and prepares rain for the earth;

He makes grass to grow upon the mountains *
and green plants to serve mankind.

He provides food for flocks and herds *
and for the young ravens when they cry.

He is not impressed by the might of a horse; *
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;

But the LORD has pleasure in those who fear him, *
in those who await his gracious favor.


This psalm, which was written in the period immediately following that of the First Reading, repeats many of the themes that Second Isaiah versed.  The point of view is that of the returning exile, and the image of God is similar to Isaiah’s vision.  Verse four of the psalm is remarkably similar to verse 25 in the Isaiah text.  The stars, regardless of either their symbolic nature or of there reality in the heavens become signs of God’s majesty and sovereignty.  God is not only the creator of all, but also the caregiver who has knowledge of all.

Breaking open Psalm 147
  1. How is God described in this psalm?
  2. What deeds of God does the psalm focus on?
  3. What does God see as favorable in God’s creation?

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

In this on-going reading from the first letter to the Church at Corinth, St. Paul continues his discussion on Christian freedom and liberty.  He introduces us to the paradoxical notion of freedom and obligation.  The gospel frees us, and obligates us to proclaim the good news.  This is followed by a variety of paradoxical statements: freed yet a slave, under the law yet not under the law, all things to all people in order to save some.  This dense conversation covers all the possibilities, and can only be “unpacked” in a conversation of devoted Christians about how they will live life in freedom and obligation.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What are your obligations as a Christian?
  2. What are your freedoms as a Christian?
  3. How do you balance the two?

Mark 1:29-39

Jesus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

We continue with Mark in the first chapter of his gospel.  The scene with the mother of Peter is quite intimate, and forms a direct contrast to the succeeding verses.  As these healings are structured, we see two aspects of Jesus’ destiny mirrored in the mother-in-law of Peter.  First of all she is healed, with Mark using a Greek verb that he will use later in the gospel at the resurrection of Jesus.  It is a foreshadowing of what will be.  She also rises and begins to serve them - so complete is the cure.  This is Jesus’ focus as well.  Unlike Peter and the others, he is not so interested in capitalizing on the situation in Capernaum.  Despite the appeal he knows amongst the townsfolk, Jesus is anxious to get away to the wilderness.  There he will be filled by the Spirit and refreshed.  Jesus is not interested in returning to Capernaum as Peter suggests.  There are other fields of mission and it is to these that Jesus directs himself.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What was Jesus chief ministry?
  2. Was healing the chief ministry?
  3. What do you think of the demon talk?

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

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

24 January 2012

The Fourth Sunday after The Epiphany - 29 January 2012

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
I Corinthians 8:1-13
St. Mark 1:21-28

Background: The Sabbath
The Sabbath is an institution that not only influences Jewish life and spirituality but Christian practice as well.  Like a lot of Jewish piety, the Sabbath seems either to have roots in Babylonian practice, or to have influenced the same.  In the sixth century, the Babylonians celebrated days of prohibition on the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th.  Various activities were prohibited on these days, similar to the prohibitions of the Sabbath.  In Judaism there is the weekly observance of a Sabbath, guided by the lunar calendar, which also prohibited many activities as well. The day began at sundown, and concluded at the rising of three stars on Saturday evening.  The first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4) serves as the theological foundation for this day, recounting how God rested from the labors of creation on the seventh day.  In the remainder of the Pentateuch (the so-called Five Books of Moses) there are several commands about the Sabbath, and the labors or acts that are to be avoided on those days.  Even the Christian calendar is governed by this timing, with the Eve (such as Christmas Eve) beginning the actual day of celebration.  Thus evensong will anticipate the day following. 

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Moses said, The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: "If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die." Then the LORD replied to me: "They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak-- that prophet shall die."

These verses form the conclusion of the Deuteronomist’s argument about prophecy and authority in Israel and amongst her neighbors, as well.  The neighbors largely practiced a “nature” religion in which it was incumbent upon the faithful to control nature (its fertility, and the gifts of the earth) by seeking to persuade the deity to these ends.  Israel was different.  The object of religious life was to know God’s word – and thus God’s desire for the faithful.  In such a context the role of the prophets was one of pronouncement rather than discernment.  Moses is seen as the first of the prophets, and in these verses he lays out what the office of a prophet should be.  He also lays out what is not the prophet’s office, and in doing that sets aside those that followed (and spoke for) foreign gods.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
  1. Who do you think has been a prophet in your lifetime?
  2. How did their prophetic pronouncements match up to what you understand about God and God’s will?
  3. Do you know any false prophets?

Psalm 111 Confitebor tibi

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the LORD! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.

His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.

He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.

He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.

They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.

He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.

Often called a Thanksgiving Psalm this is actually a Psalm of Praise.  The author is not thanking God for particular acts, but rather pointing out the attributes of the God of Israel.  It is an acrostic psalm in which the beginning of each verset begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It follows well on the first reading in which the prophet is praise for announcing God’s goodness and authority. 

Breaking open Psalm 111
  1. What would you say are God’s greatest attributes?
  2. How do you praise God?
  3. What is the “fear of the Lord”?

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one." Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth-- as in fact there are many gods and many lords-- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. "Food will not bring us close to God." We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

In order to understand Paul’s argument here, we need to understand the fine points about animal sacrifice in the ancient world.  It is commonly thought of that the sacrifice was of the whole animal (called a holocaust), which was not always true.  Usually only the intestines and the inner organs of the animal were sacrificed, with the meaty parts either being given to the temple priesthood, or some of the parts being used by the family in a communal meal, thus the problem for the Corinthians.  Was it proper, they wondered, to eat the flesh of animals sacrificed at the temple of a pagan god?  Either due to social concerns (being invited to such a communal meal by pagan friends) or economic concerns (buying such meat at the market for a cheaper price) the Corinthian Christians were troubled by this.  The argument that follows is not concerned with the practicum of daily Christian life, but rather how to use our knowledge of God.  Paul is concerned with two types of knowledge: that which knows God as the one true God, and the other is of the how this knowledge informs us in our Christian liberty.  What shall we do then, eat meat offered to idols in full knowledge of our liberty in Christ, or abstain, so as not to offend our brother or sister new to the faith.  Paul would rather abstain.

Breaking open Corinthians:
  1. What liberties do you have as a Christian?
  2. How do you operate with them in your daily life?
  3. What if someone objects?

St. Mark 1:21-28

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching-- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

This reading and those following serve as Mark’s introduction of the reader to the authority of Jesus.  In the initial verses, Mark depicts Jesus as one having rabbinic (binding) authority in opposition to the scribes (a lesser teacher who did not have this authority).  Mark, however, takes it even father by providing evidence from the ministry of Jesus.  In the first miracle in Mark, Jesus is shown as having authority (suasion) over evil itself.  A sick man (described as being possessed by an evil spirit – that knows Jesus role and authority) challenges Jesus.  He speaks Jesus’ name twice in the reading – for knowledge of one’s name amounted to a certain amount of “magical” power over another.  The crowd does not know who Jesus is – so his act of exorcism and the proclamation by the evil spirit – ascertain Jesus’ authority to the Christian reader.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How does Jesus function as a Rabbi?
  2. What did he teach?
  3. Why does Mark want to keep Jesus’ identity secret?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

17 January 2012

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany - 22 January 2012

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
I Corinthians 7:29-31
St. Mark 1:14-20

Background: Nineveh

Our first knowledge of this ancient city dates from ca. 1800 BCE, but it is not until the ninth century, that the city acquires the splendor and power that makes it notable in biblical literature.  The kings that attract the Bible’s attention are Tiglath-Pileser III, and Sargon II, both of whom made massive incursions into modern day Syria and upper Palestine.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell ca. 720 BCE, and it inhabitants were forcibly resettled in other regions of the Assyrian Empire (thus the “lost 10 tribes” of Israel).  In addition, attempts were made to conquer the Southern Kingdom as well with its King Hezekiah. This history earned for Assyria and its capital Nineveh a harsh place in the Israelite and Judean memory.  Thus it is no surprise that many of the prophets rail against it: Isaiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and others.  It is in the Book of Jonah, however, that we get a different view of the city.  In this “sermon” the author sees the call of a reluctant prophet (Jonah) to speak against the greatest city of the time (Nineveh).  Writing within the midst of the eighth century, the author is able to see the full power of this aggressive empire and city.  Its ultimate conversion and repentance becomes a powerful symbol of the Israelite reliance on the word of the Lord, and the power that this word yields.  By the end of the seventh century, the city was defeated by the Babylonians and Medes, and the site of Nineveh was destroyed and abandoned.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

The book of Jonah was probably not written by the eighth century prophet that is mentioned in II Kings, but was more likely written much later, following the Exile, and the destruction of Nineveh in the seventh century.  As a piece (many have suggested that it is “sermon-like” with a psalm inappropriately placed in the middle) it is divided into two “missions”.  In the first mission, Jonah runs away from Yahweh’s call, encountering the large fish along the way.  In the second mission (which is where our reading begins) we have an engaging story about being sent to Nineveh to preach repentance.  The proclamation of Jonah is remarkably successful, and ultimately unsatisfying to him.  The end is a bit of a morality tale, but perhaps gives the best explanation as to its purpose and goal.  Written perhaps in in the fourth century, the book may be an attempt to reconcile Israelite faith with the geo-politic of its time.  That such a great enemy should hear God’s word and repent would speak well of a universalism that we find in older and contemporary prophets.  Jonah bears resentment to the salvation of Nineveh, and Nineveh acquiesces to the demands of Israel’s God.  It is these two opposing forces that reflect the dialogue of the times, and provides grist for the author’s mill.

Breaking open Jonah
  1. Have you ever run away from a difficult task? 
  2. Have you ever run away from something asked of you by God?
  3. How did it turn out?  What did you learn?

Psalm 62:6-14 Nonne Deo?

For God alone my soul in silence waits; *
truly, my hope is in him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, *
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

In God is my safety and my honor; *
God is my strong rock and my refuge.

Put your trust in him always, O people, *
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, *
even those of low estate cannot be trusted.

On the scales they are lighter than a breath, *
all of them together.

Put no trust in extortion;
in robbery take no empty pride; *
though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.

God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, *
that power belongs to God.

Steadfast love is yours, O Lord, *
for you repay everyone according to his deeds.

In this psalm on the trust, namely trust of the Creator by the created, the author uses an astounding image, namely that of breath.  The human essence is the breath that fills the lungs.  In an image perhaps borrowed from the Egyptian judgment after death, when the soul is measured on the scales with the feather of Ma’at (order, righteousness, and goodness), the psalmist proposes a similar measurement in verse 11, “on the sales they are light than a breath.”  The question is one of wonder – “who are we, and of what are we made?”  The psalmist finds us to be lightweights when compared to the graces with which God meets us.

Breaking open Psalm 62
  1. Think of all those around you in whom you have trust.  Can you name them?
  2. What does it mean to have trust?
  3. What does it mean to have trust in God?

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Here we see Paul, hopeful and vigilant for the parousia the second coming of Christ.  His advice is one of “detachment”, thus he advises those who are married to think as though they had no wives.  This is not misogyny so much as it is a parallel word to both men and women to wait for the Lord, and in focusing on him, to be separated from the world.  Here we can see foundations for the ascetic life of the religious.  But what does it mean for us?

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. For what do you hope?
  2. Is it a hope that will find fruition in the world?
  3. How do those close to you either hinder or help your hopefulness?

Mark 1:14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-- for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

In this Gospel we see the exact antithesis to the Prophet Jonah.  The older prophet runs away from the mission to which God has called him.  (And lest we be too hard on Jonah, we need to remember the resistance of other prophets, such as Jeremiah).  Jesus however is speaking about a new time, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”  In this new time, Peter (Simon), Andres, James, and John think nothing of abandoning their livelihood to follow Jesus.  Although the second lesson was not chosen for its thematic relationship with the first reading and the gospel, it strangely fits.  Paul argues for detachment, Jesus expects it, and the first of the disciples comply without complaint.  We are, all of us, caught between Jonah and John. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you understand by Jesus’ saying that “the time is fulfilled?”
  2. How were you called into Christianity?
  3. How do you continue to be called?

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

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.