31 July 2012

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13 - 5 August 2012

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
St. John 6:24:35

Background:  The Fleshpots of Egypt

In the first reading for this Sunday, the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land wistfully recall their diet in the land of Egypt.  Since they were largely located in the delta of the Nile, their diet may have been more varied than that of those living further to the south.  Originally the diet depended largely on game, fruits and vegetables; and of course the Nile supplied fish.  For the average person the meats were probably rare and were limited to sheep, goats, some cattle, and perhaps a hyena or two.  The delta region would have produced wonderful produce: scallions, garlic, melons, celery and lettuces, and various legumes.  Papyrus was even eaten along with turnips, and tubers, which were often turned into flour.  Of course there was bread, and there was beer – related foodstuffs.  It was a rich table that the people of Israel recalled with fondness.

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."

Then the LORD said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not."
Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, `Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'" And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, `At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'"

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat."

There is a pattern that is developed in this account that is repeated in the later histories of the people in the Davidic kingdom and in the northern and southern kingdoms that followed.  It is a pattern of complaint and dissatisfaction.  In this reading it begins with the people recalling the wonderful meals that they had in Egypt (see background).  They are not happy with the limited resources of the wilderness, and complain to Moses.  This particular remembrance is repeated in the book of Numbers (11:21ff.), and is the first in a series of complaints that follow in the accounts in Exodus.  The focus should not be on what God gives to satisfy their need, but rather on the insatiability of the people.  In Numbers, the quail are provided because the people think that the manna is not good enough or sufficient.  This sets up a relationship of want/provision for both Israel and God that will be answered in a variety of ways during their wandering. 

The provision of manna, and its understanding by later interpreters as a kind of bread, led the early Christians and in particular, John, in our Gospel for this morning, to see in the manna a type of the Eucharist itself. 

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. Do you ever complain to God?
  2. What are you lacking in your life?
  3. How do your wants compare to those of others? 
Psalm 78:23-29 Attendite, popule

So he commanded the clouds above *
and opened the doors of heaven.

He rained down manna upon them to eat *
and gave them grain from heaven.

So mortals ate the bread of angels; *
he provided for them food enough.

He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens *
and led out the south wind by his might.

He rained down flesh upon them like dust *
and winged birds like the sand of the sea.

He let it fall in the midst of their camp *
and round about their dwellings.

So they ate and were well filled, *
for he gave them what they craved.

The opening verses of this psalm clearly spell out the purpose of the psalm:

Hearken, my people, to my teaching.
            Lend your ear to the sayings of my mouth.
Let me open my mouth in a rhapsody,
            Let me voice the verses of old.

The author quickly tells us that he is about to recount the history of Israel, and through the remainder of the psalms walks with Israel from the Plagues to the Sea of Reeds, and from thence into the wilderness.  The section of the psalm used for today links to the first reading, where Israel complains in hunger and to the Gospel where Jesus makes more comments about the Bread of Life.  The verses of the psalm recount the gift of manna and quail, or as the psalmist puts it, “the grain of the heavens,” and “rained flesh upon them like dust.” 

Breaking open Psalm 78:
  1. What might you teach others about your own history with God?
  2. Has God done great deeds for you?
  3. What have you done for others? 
Ephesians 4:1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it is said,

"When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people."

(When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

In a not unpredictable manner, Saint Paul sends us from one extreme point of view to another.  The first perspective is the Unity of God – which describes as “one body and one spirit”.  It is this unity of the God head, and hence the unity of the community gathered as God’s family that is a witness to the world; a witness that turns-over some long-held views.  In Greek culture, humility was not a virtue, but rather a sort of “anti-social, and mean spirit”.  Paul’s example, however, does not come from the ancients, but rather from the example of Jesus whose humility sets a new standard of behavior and community. The quotation from Psalm 68:19 sets a new cosmography that works to explain Paul’s unity.  There are not layers of heaven but rather a Christ who is ascended above all things and yet abides in us.

From this vision of unity, Paul then has us look at the diversity of that same community.  The body is a fine example with all of its different parts and features.  The skills and calls of those in the community are also lifted up as an example.  The implicit question is, “what can you be in this diverse body?”  He also calls to our attention the diverse views that might obstruct our view of Jesus – “winds of doctrine”, “people’s trickery”, and “craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  A new language is required of all those who are part of the body, new words and phrases formed in love and in truth.  It is this, the apostle states, which brings us together in the unity of Christ.

Breaking open Ephesians;
  1. How do you know that God is one?
  2. How diverse are your life skills?
  3. How do you use them in your community and church?

St. John 6:24-35

The next day, when the people who remained after the feeding of the five thousand saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

This reading is a continuation of last Sunday’s Gospel, and the feeding of the thousands.  It follows on the miss understanding of the people, only finding in Jesus a source for food and ease of life.  The situation mirrors Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (St. John 4:15)  The conversations that Jesus has with the people are an interesting corrective for the readers of John.  John lifts up various “signs” that Jesus does as a way of commenting on his mission and purpose.  Jesus understands the audience only too well, for they say, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you.”  He knows that they are looking for the wrong effect and even the wrong cause.  He points to God.  It was not Moses who provided the manna, but the Creator God who guided them in the wilderness.  They still don’t get it, however, miming the question of the Samaritan woman.  To this woman, Jesus says, “I am he”, (i.e. the Messiah, the expected one) and to the crowd he says, “I am the bread of life”.  It was not what they had expected.  The dialogue continues, but we shall have to wait until the Sunday following to see the outcome.

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. How much of modern Christianity is really materialistic?
  2. How do you guard yourself against such notions?
  3. What do you really want from your God?

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

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

24 July 2012

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12 - 29 July 2012

II Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-19
Ephesians 3:14-21
St. John 6:1-21

Background: Bread

Since we are in the midst of the series of Gospel readings all pointing to “the Bread of Life”, it might be a good time to talk about the bread of Israel and the bread of Jesus.  The appearance of the Hebrews in the area of Palestine dates from the 12th Century – 10th Century BCE.  These tribes brought with them the bread of the Mesopotamian cities, and the bread born of nomadic life in the wilderness.  The landscape of the Levant was altered so that bread might be made from the grains grown on the newly terraced hillsides of Judea.  The basic foods of Israel consisted of locally grown and produced bread, wine, and oil.  In fact these three products are mention as the divine provisions offered by God to God’s people (cf. Hosea 2:23-24).  Indeed, so important were these foods that they become a part of the ritual life of Jews, and then Christians.

The Word for bread, Lehem (thus Beth-lehem is “the house of bread”), also indicated food in general.  Bread is so important in that culture that there are nearly a dozen words that the Hebrew uses to describe bread.  Bread often composed from 50% to 70% of an individual’s daily consumption of foodstuffs.  Bread was first baked from barley flour, later from the flour of Emmer Wheat, and even later Durum Wheat.  Each household produced daily its own bread including the production of wheat flour (which was a three-hour process each day).  Various ovens were used – the jar-oven, the convex dome oven, the Persian tanur oven (cf. Tandoor) and finally the Roman furn. 

2 Kings 4:42-44

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat." But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, `They shall eat and have some left.'" He set it before them; they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.

In the midst of a period of want and famine comes this miracle story not unlike some Gospel stories with the same effect.  Elisha has other experiences of want and need of bread, most famously the story of the “Widow and the Oil” which parallels the Elijah story about the “Widow of Zarephath” (I Kings 17:7-16).  In both stories, abundance flows from the jaws of want.  In today’s story, a man from Baal-Shalishah (a place whose name means either “the third idol [Baal]” or “the lord of three things”) comes to offer “first fruits” to the “man of God” (Elisha).  In the Talmud, this place name is identified with the earliest place for fruits to ripen.  Elisha follows his orders to his servant with a common formula for prediction/fulfillment stories, “Thus says the Lord.”  The people are fed and are satisfied “according to the word of the Lord.”

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. What “first fruits” do you offer to God?
  2. Do you hunger?
  3. How do you deal with those about you who hunger?

Psalm 145:10-19 Exaltabo te, Deus

All your works praise you, O LORD, *
and your faithful servants bless you.

They make known the glory of your kingdom *
and speak of your power;

That the peoples may know of your power *
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; *
your dominion endures throughout all ages.

The LORD is faithful in all his words *
and merciful in all his deeds.

The LORD upholds all those who fall; *
he lifts up those who are bowed down.

The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, *
and you give them their food in due season.

You open wide your hand *
and satisfy the needs of every living creature.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways *
and loving in all his works.

The LORD is near to those who call upon him, *
to all who call upon him faithfully.

This is a praise psalm, and the only one thus dedicated with “A David song of praise.”  Its latter verses have found their way into many a table grace and are thus familiar to most.  It is an acrostic psalm, only missing the letter nun.  The author exalts God for all God’s acts, and at verse 10 exalts God for provisioning all the creatures of the earth.  It is universal in that regard. There is not provision for just a certain people, or for only humans, but for all.  God thus does “satisfy the needs of every living creature.” It is these sentiments that link this particular psalm to the readings for this day.

Breaking open Psalm 145
  1. For what do you exalt God?
  2. How is God faithful to your enemy?
  3. What does the psalm mean by “every living creature”?

Ephesians 3:14-21
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Paul signals to his readers the earnestness of his prayer by kneeling.  The prayer posture in ancient times was usually standing, but here Paul kneels in a heartfelt prayer.  Paul puns on the name “Father” pater and the word for “household” patria.  For Paul the agency of this unity of humankind and God was Jesus the Christ.  Through Christ all are made into one body.  He uses a stoic concept to get the point across by noting the “breadth, length, height, and depth” (in Stoicism the unity of the universe) of the love of Christ.  Christ is the universal actor for Paul.  This understanding surpasses all knowledge (read gnosis – the philosophical understanding of all things so sought for by the Greeks).  This doxology of praise and realization exists both in the Church and Christ, for both are extensions of the other.

Breaking open Ephesians;
  1. What or whom do you regard as your household?
  2. Who is the head of your household?  Why?
  3. How is the church a household?

John 6:1-21

Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberius. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

This reading from the Gospel of John consists of a large (second only to the Passion Narrative) section on the Bread of Life theme.  In these sections, John closely follows the synoptic Gospels, especially Mark.  Naturally, though, John does find his own way in these stories.

In setting the stage for his version of the Miracle of the Loaves John provides a highly symbolic setting to enable us to see the theology of the story he has chosen to relate.  We are in a semi-arid area, on a mountainside.  If Moses should come to mind we are right on track.  John has the multitude hungry, anxious to see Jesus, and preparing for a holy moment of which they are unaware.  If Sinai should come to mind, you’re on track.  That the Passover should be mentioned only fortifies these associations, and provides for a new Eucharistic association as well.  Jesus takes the loaves and “gives thanks” eucharistesas.  Here it is not the disciples that distribute the bread, but rather Jesus himself.  Here we ought to be reminded of the upper room, where he again will share the bread.  John designates this action as a “sign”, a point in the life of Jesus in which the people begin to perceive the promise, and at the same time miss-understand.  Jesus is aware of this and removes himself from the situation.

If Jesus is the new Moses in the story of the bread, then he is more than Moses in the next pericope where he walks on the waters of the lake; they need not part for him.  What is the point?  Just as the people waver in their understanding of Jesus so do the disciples.  They are “terrified” to see Jesus as he is, and he explains, “It is I”.  That should be sufficient for them.  It is not clear as to whether Jesus enters the boat with them; the importance is the recognition or vision of Jesus as “the prophet” and what that really means.

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. How does God provide for you?
  2. How do you provide for others?
  3. What is the symbolism around your daily meals?

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

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.