31 May 2012

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5 - 10 June 2012

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
II Corinthians 4:13-5:1
St. Mark 3:20-35

Background:  Genesis
The Book of Genesis is more than that.  It is not a book in our modern sense of the word.  In fact the Hebrew word that is usually translated as “book” is the word sefer (scroll) and its etymology comes from the notion of “something recounted”.  How different that is for us.  That a book should contain the witness of our memory suggest reading that which we already know.  There are two major recounting in the book of Genesis, and each is layered with the memories of several redactors or editors.  The first is the Primeval History (chapters 1-11) and the second is the Patriarchal Tales (chapters 12-50).  In the primeval recounting there is no sense of the future.  That was an unknown in the Israelite mind.  It was literally behind the reader/hearer and could not be seen.  These stories are about how things began, and are thus “in front”, accessible touchstones for granting meaning to life as a community.

Genesis 3:8-15
The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate." The LORD God said to the serpent,

Because you have done this, 
cursed are you among all animals 
and among all wild creatures; 
upon your belly you shall go, 
and dust you shall eat 
all the days of your life. 
I will put enmity between you and the woman, 
and between your offspring and hers; 
he will strike your head, 
and you will strike his heel." 

If we read ahead a bit in Exodus 20:26 “You shall not ascend to my altar by steps, lest your nakedness be exposed” we gain some insight into this part of the primeval story.  The sentiments regarding nakedness resound in the patriarchal story of Noah, who is seen naked by his sons – a shame to him and to them.  Thus the man and the woman appear before God unprepared and naked.  This shame is further complicated by counter accusations: “the woman you gave to be with me – she gave me fruit from the tree”.  The accusation isn’t against the woman so much as it is against God.  Accusations then follow for the serpent as well.  It is a complicated situation – there is not righteousness here.  It is important to note that this story, edited by “J” ends with the promise of salvation, however.  In a ancient near eastern style, the chaos of sin is overcome by a gracious creator.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. What are your feelings about nakedness?
  2. What might it mean to be “naked before God”?
  3. How does shame show itself in your life?  How about forgiveness?

Psalm 130 De profundis

Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.

If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.

I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.

My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
for with the LORD there is mercy;

With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

This is a psalm of contrasts, and has a penitential character as well.  What is contrasted are the depths and the dawn.  First, we must understand the “depths”, which is code for the “sea” or the “waters”.  In Hebrew poetry, these elements represented death, and they were deeply feared.  When the author speaks of calling out of the depths, he is speak about calling from the threshold of his own death.  From that vantage point he waits for God to meet him with mercy and grace.  It is at this point that we encounter the contrasting element of light.  The model of this is the watcher at the tower anticipating the first light of dawn – the tinge of light that gives way to the rising sun.  Such is the author looking for the dawning light of God’s “plenteous redemption.”  It should also be noted that this is not redemption for an individual only, by for all of Israel.

Breaking open Psalm 130
  1. What are the depths of your life?
  2. Does your prayer life help when you are brought low?
  3. How do you “wait upon the Lord.”

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture-- "I believed, and so I spoke" -- we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Again, we are faced with contrasts.  Here Paul contrasts the earthly body and its sentence of death, with the heavenly body and its promise of eternal life.  In the tension of these to aspects of existence there lies the hope and renewal that comes each day.  Martin Luther summarized this notion in his Small Catechism when he writes on the Sacrament of Baptism: “that a new (person) should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”  The other image that Paul uses is that of the tent – a temporary structure.  Here he lays aside the notion of his contemporaries that saw the soul as a prisoner of the body (the tent).  Paul saw a different future, the body glorified by that would be given to those who believe.

Breaking open II Corinthians
  1. How has your body changed over time?
  2. Does it remind you that one day you will die?
  3. What do you think of Paul’s commentary on the glorified body?

Mark 3:20-35
The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons." And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" -- for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

This is an intriguing conversation about relationships.  All sorts are considered here:  families, spiritual, political, power, and internal.  In the guise of speaking about the family, Jesus uncovers the truth about our relationship with God, and how all-encompasing that relationship can be.  Within the standard wisdom and proverbs of the time, Jesus reveals that we reflect in our relationships our attitudes toward God, and ultimately our destiny in God.  It is Kingdom of Heaven talk, and it is about a community march larger than we can image.  Those who follow need to see the world in much larger terms than we have in the past.  We too need to answer the question, “who are my mother and my brothers?”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Who comprises your family?
  2. What do your relationships with your family (either real or virtual) tell you about your life in Christ?
  3. Who should be in your family?

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

O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

24 May 2012

The Feast of the Holy Trinity - 3 June 2012

Isaiah 6:1-8
Canticle of the Three Young Men
Romans 8:12-17
St. John 3:1-17

Background: The Feast of the Holy Trinity
The celebration of the Holy Trinity as a feast day in the liturgical year is a relatively recent development.  In early Church there was no special day devoted to the Holy Trinity.  As a response, however, to the Arian heresy, certain offices, prayers, and other liturgical materials were made available as a response to the controversy.  In the fifth century an Office of the Holy Trinity began to emerge as a way of honoring the Trinity. Some of the arguments against having a special day were that the Trinity was honored each Sunday and Holy Day in the Gloria in Excelsis.  Slowly the feast developed as a local usage, then becoming a minor feast adding more and more privileges to the day, until 1924 when it was raised as a primary feast by Pius X.  It was J. S. Bach who raised awareness of the feast through his many cantatas for the Day itself, and for all the Sundays “after Trinity.”  With the reforms of Vatican II, the term “after Trinity” was replaced by “after Pentecost” and the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches followed suit.
Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory."

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"

When writing ancillary materials for his Deutsche Messe (German Mass), Martin Luther took this passage from the first Isaiah and used it in hymnic form as the Sanctus in the Eucharistic Liturgy.  It is an appropriate borrowing, for Isaiah is setting down his inaugural vision of the Holy One of Israel.  The scene is set in the Temple.  There is incense, the heavenly Seraphim (literally the burning ones – common in the ancient near east), and the holy song that is sung by the heavenly court.  In the midst of this divine scene God calls one of humankind to “go for us”.  His initial thoughts of unworthiness are answered by God’s cleansing his tongue with a coal from the altar.  It is one of the most fascinating of the texts from Isaiah. 

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. What is your image of God in majesty?
  2. Is there anything in your life that reflects God’s majesty?
  3. Are you unworthy to speak the Gospel?  What makes you worthy?

Canticle 13 Benedictus es, Domine
Song of the Three Young Men, 29-34

Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers; *
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; *
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths; *
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

This canticle is an apocryphal addition to the text of Daniel that appears in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint.  It is called the Prayer of Azariah and represents a prayer by him in which he confesses not only his own sins, but also those of Israel, and pleads to God to save them from the fiery furnace into which the three young men had been cast.  An angel comes to cool and deliver them from their fate.  In the Eastern Church this hymn is sung at matins,

Breaking open the Song of the Three Young men.
  1. If you have some time, go to Daniel 3:26-90 to read the story that surrounds this canticle.
  2. What forms the thanksgivings in this canticle?
  3. Have you ever been brought back from the brink?

Romans 8:12-17
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Saint Paul wants us to understand that it is one thing to be alive, to be created, to be the creature, but that it is totally something else as we move from being created to be adopted.  This latter state gives us more than life in giving us a relationship with God.  For Paul, one word or phrase is not enough, and his development of the notion of adoption in verse 17 is perfect Paul.  Children, heirs, joint heirs with Christ, all describe the beauty of the testimony that the Spirit makes to our spirit.

Breaking open Romans
  1. What does it mean to be a child in a family?
  2. What must it then mean to be a child of God, and an heir?
  3. Who is family to you in your life?

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."

This is a familiar text to us, and by looking at it once again we can begin to understand the whole idea behind being “born again”, a term that has been wrested from us by fundamentalists who have lost the original vision.  John develops his dialogue with Nicodemus into a monologue in which Jesus continues to explore things “from above”.  First a few insights into the text.  Nicodemus is the quintessence of Judaism.  He is a rabbi, a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling body, recognized by the Roman over lords), and, significantly, he comes in the night.  This is a sign to us that Nicodemus comes fearing what others might think of his meeting with Jesus, and symbolically comes to Jesus “out of the darkness.”  Nicodemus is impressed by Jesus’ signs, and wants to know more.  Jesus talks about being born from above, a more faithful rendering of the Greek than the popular rendering of being born again.  It should not have been a phrase unknown to Nicodemus, for it was used by Jews to describe those Gentiles who had converted to Judaism.

Jesus slides into his monologue on understanding the earthly and the heavenly, going on to provide two gem-like verses that describe God’s intentions for human kind and salvation.  Many commentators think that these last verses are not from Christ at all, but represent John’s own personal belief about “heavenly things” are brought about in the world of humans.

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. What do you think when someone asks you if you’ve been born again?
  2. Does it make a difference to talk about being “born from above?”
  3. Are you ready for heavenly things?  What does that mean to you?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.