29 October 2012

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26 - 4 November 2012


Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14
St. Mark 12:28-34

                                                                                   
Background:  The Decalogue
The Law of God, which we know as the “Ten Commandments”, is found in two separate accounts in the Pentateuch, the so-called Books of Moses.  The first account is Exodus 20:1-17, with a secondary account in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.  The influence of Hittite and Mesopotamian law can be found in them, but there is no consensus as to when they were actually written.  The first of the commandments are devoted to the worship of God, while the latter are devoted to the ethics of daily life. 

There are at least three numbering systems.  The Philonic system (named so because it is elucidated in the writings of Philo) is the oldest, and labels verse 3 (in Exodus) as Commandment 1, verses 4-6 as number 2, and so on.  Hellenistic Jews, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants use this system.  Verse 2 is seen as a preface to the commandments. The second system is the Talmudic from the Talmud, compiled in the 3rd Century.  Here, verses 1-2 comprise the first “saying”, and combines the verses 3-6 as the second.  The last system is the Augustinian division, which begins with the second commandment of the Talmudic division, and then divides the commandment on coveting into two separate commandments.  This version is used by Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Moses said: Now this is the commandment--the statutes and the ordinances--that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children's children, may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.



Following the gift of the Law, or “The Ten Words”, Moses then expands on the import of this gift.  It is seen as a preparatory act prior to the entrance of the Israelites into the Land of Canaan.  Notice the several comments that deal with the fertility of the people and of the land.  Coming from the arid desert, and a nomadic life, the Israelites would soon be culturally challenged by the fertility religion and the Ba’alim of their Canaanite neighbors.  Fertility is the gift and blessing of God, and like Hosea, the Deuteronomist wants to make clear the role of YHWH in providing for the people.  What follows is a methodology for making the Law the center of life – recitation at all points during the day, the use of phylacteries and mezuzah – all these are to speak to the Jewish life as it is lived moment by moment, day by day.  At the heart of this reading is the “Great Shema” – Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” – a creedal statement that to this day defines the foundation of Judaism.  What follows is a condensation of the law (Love of God and Neighbor and Self), which Jesus used in teaching the Law to those around him

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
  1. What role do the Ten Commandments play in your life?
  2. What role should they play in public life?
  3. How do your center your life in their precepts?

Psalm 119:1-8 Aleph: Beati immaculati

Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in the law of the LORD!

Happy are they who observe his decrees *
and seek him with all their hearts!

Who never do any wrong, *
but always walk in his ways.

You laid down your commandments, *
that we should fully keep them.

Oh, that my ways were made so direct *
that I might keep your statutes!

Then I should not be put to shame, *
when I regard all your commandments.

I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, *
when I have learned your righteous judgments.

I will keep your statutes; *
do not utterly forsake me.



This is the first section of the longest psalm in the Bible, and indeed the longest chapter in the Hebrew Scriptures, some 176 lines of poetry.  It is a long acrostic, the first word of each section beginning with a succeeding letter of the alphabet.  The poem is centered on the Torah, and probably dates from the 7th Century BCE or even later when the Law was reintroduced to the returning exiles.  It is profuse with expressions of God’s law and word – way, teaching, decrees, commandments, judgments, statutes, etc.  It is an appropriate psalm for the day given the first reading and the Gospel.

Breaking open Psalm 119
  1. What happiness comes from following God’s will?
  2. How do you personally know God’s will?
  3. How is God’s will made known in society?

Hebrews 9:11-14

When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!



We learn a great deal about the Jewish sacrificial system, as the author of Hebrews comments on how the priesthood of Jesus surpasses these acts of the Temple.  Many of the holy places that he mentions become analogies for the theological realities that he is hoping to expound.  Thus we are given the “Holy Place”, the “Tent”, and the victims of the sacrifice as signs of the perfection of the Christ and the completeness of God.  His argument is that the sanctification of the “defiled” is made through the offering of these victims, how much more will the offering of the blood of Christ perfect us in the Spirit.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. Have you made sacrifices in your life?
  2. What are your thoughts about the sacrifice of Jesus?
  3. How is your body and life a “holy place”?

St. Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard the Sadducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,'--this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.



It is a temptation to view the Sadducees and Pharisees as a cantankerous lot, constantly pestering Jesus.  Actually they were merely doing what the faithful did to rabbis, peppering them with questions about how the Law should actually be lived.  Here the argument is about the Law, and which of the precepts of the Law takes precedence.  What we are witnesses to is a debate in which Jesus seemingly participates.  Jesus quotes the Great Shema (see the first reading above) and its summation of the Law, to which the Scribe adds his own emendation and explanations.  Jesus honors his knowledge, and presumably that of the reader who would follow Jesus’ exhortation.  The Kingdom of God is close in these musings.

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. What does it mean to think about Jesus as a rabbi?
  2. How is Jesus your teacher?
  3. How do you live out the Great Shema?

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

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


23 October 2012

All Saint's Day - 1 November 2012


Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
St. John 11:32-44

                                                                                   
Background: Biblical Manuscripts
So many Christians don’t seem to understand the rather complex nature of sacred texts, both their own and the Hebrew texts as well.  The enterprise of biblical translation is a balance of not only setting the text in another language but of determining the text itself.  The two oldest Hebrew manuscripts are the Aleppo Codex (920 CE) and the Leningrad Codex (1008).  Individual manuscripts are even earlier, with the Dead Sea Scrolls dating to perhaps the first century BCE.  Of the Old Testament manuscripts we have around 300 ore more extant manuscripts. 

The New Testament, coming from a more recent period of time, has a greater number of extant texts:  5,800 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and around 9,300 manuscripts in various languages (Syriac, Slavic, Coptic, etc.).  The discovery of ancient manuscripts continues.  In 2008, 47 new manuscripts were discovered in Albania.  Of these manuscripts, 17 were unknown to biblical scholars.

Isaiah 25:6-9
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.



In this hymn of thanksgiving, the first Isaiah anticipates a great victory on the part of YHWH.  It falls in the midst of oracles against the cultures and nations that are seen as hostile to Israel.  The vision is one of a messianic banquet that is not limited to the people of Israel, but to “all peoples” – a development that moves this prophet’s vision from one that is bounded by nationalism to a much broader perspective.  The notion of the celestial banquet is common to both Israelite and Canaanite culture. 

In a way, this oracle or hymn is a completion of the cycle begun in Genesis with the account of the Fall, for here the threat of sin and death and their consequences are vanquished.  That the Christian Scriptures rely so much on Isaiah (both of them) is not surprising, for this note of universalism and salvation represents beginning steps to the theology found in the Gospels.  If we were to plumb the depths of the Eucharistic Meal, its roots would be found in this very vision.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. How do you imagine heaven?
  2. How does Isaiah image heaven?
  3. What are the differences?

Psalm 24 Domini est terra

The earth is the LORD'S and all that is in it, *
the world and all who dwell therein.

For it is he who founded it upon the seas *
and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep.

"Who can ascend the hill of the LORD? *
and who can stand in his holy place?"

"Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, *
who have not pledged themselves to falsehood,
nor sworn by what is a fraud.

They shall receive a blessing from the LORD *
and a just reward from the God of their salvation."

Such is the generation of those who seek him, *
of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.

Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.

"Who is this King of glory?" *
"The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle."

Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.

"Who is he, this King of glory?" *
"The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory."



This psalm is interesting in its question/answer format, which explores the beauty of the work of God’s hands.  The second verse, noting the foundation of the world “upon the seas” refers to the Canaanite (and Mesopotamian) beliefs about the primeval battle between the deity and the chaos of the sea.  So in creation, God separates the land from the sea.  Then we are transported to the temple, and the question as to who can rightfully ascend its heights.  The question is answered with a series of qualifications that are represented in the people of God. 

Verse seven probably begins a separate work, in which the question posed wishes to identify whom it is that the pilgrims are ascending to worship.  Some commentators think that this work actually was commenting on the return of the Ark of the Covenant from the field of battle (The Lord who is valiant in battle).

Breaking open Psalm 24
  1. What allows you to enter God’s holy space?
  2. Do the requirements keep anyone out?  Whom might it keep out?
  3. How is the Lord “valiant in battle?”  What does this mean?

Revelation 21:1-6a
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end."



Again we are confronted with the foundation of creation, this time in the vision of the Divine.  Here he has a vision of a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth.  That the “sea is no more” is a comment on the ancient myths regarding God’s victory over chaos, represented in the sea itself.  What follows are a series of aspects of the new creation.  There is the new city (a heavenly Jerusalem) and a loud voice proclaiming new realities from the Throne of God.  One of the canons at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City opined that the only proper way to read these proclamations, which appear elsewhere in the book, especially in the letters to the churches, was to shout them in a loud voice.  The signs of the proclamation are a reflection of what the first Isaiah wrote in the first reading for the day.  Again, it is a vision as if it had already had been completed.  Thus the one seated on the throne (the Resurrected One) states emphatically, “It is done,” and then encapsulates all of it in his own existence as the “Alpha and the Omega.”

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. Is the new creation a future or a present event?
  2. What would you like to see renewed in creation?
  3. What do you need to have renewed within yourself?

St. John 11:32-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."



In Jesus last journey to Jerusalem we see previews of things to come, and the seventh (the number of perfection) sign.  It is the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha.  The term “greatly disturbed” can either be translated as “anger”, “trembling”, or “intense emotion”.  What is clear is that Jesus, as well as the sisters and on-lookers are facing the existential reality of death, and all react to it.  What follows is like a drama, complete with stage directions.  Jesus seems to comment in sotto voce so that the emphasis of the action might be heard, seen, and understood.  What is operating at a different level is the communication of the Father and the Son – knowing the mind of the other.  Thus follows then, another “Loud Voice”, this time the voice of Jesus communicating to the dead Lazarus.  The final comment of Jesus is almost ironic, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  It is a comment on the practical requirements of the situation, and a bit of Gospel proclamation intended for all the witnesses of this sign – a proclamation about their own freedom.

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. Which emotions are visible in this Gospel reading?
  2. How does Jesus involve the crowd?
  3. What emotions would you assign to Jesus in this story?

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

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

19 October 2012

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25 - 28 October 2012


Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
St. Mark 10:46-52

                                                                                  
Background: Biblical Manuscripts
So many Christians don’t seem to understand the rather complex nature of sacred texts, both their own and the Hebrew texts as well.  The enterprise of biblical translation is a balance of not only setting the text in another language but of determining the text itself.  The two oldest Hebrew manuscripts are the Aleppo Codex (920 CE) and the Leningrad Codex (1008).  Individual manuscripts are even earlier, with the Dead Sea Scrolls dating to perhaps the first century BCE.  Of the Old Testament manuscripts we have around 300 ore more extant manuscripts. 

The New Testament, coming from a more recent period of time, has a greater number of extant texts:  5,800 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and around 9,300 manuscripts in various languages (Syriac, Slavic, Coptic, etc.).  The discovery of ancient manuscripts continues.  In 2008, 47 new manuscripts were discovered in Albania.  Of these manuscripts, 17 were unknown to biblical scholars.

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Thus says the LORD:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
"Save, O LORD, your people,
the remnant of Israel."
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.



This reading is from a collection of fragments dealing with the restoration of Israel (and here we must read not only the Northern Kingdom, but the whole people).  It begins with a hymn of gladness and rejoicing, at their repatriation within the land of their fathers and mothers.  Here the prophet is looking forward to the promise of restoration.  In “bringing them from the land of the north”, the author is referring to Assyria, and to the massive deportations that were forced on the people of Israel by the Assyrian forces.  The prophet also mentions a concept that will become an idea in Isaiah and in the other prophets as well – the idea of “the remnant”, the small number of people saved from the judgment.  The messianic nature of the promise is evident in the listing of those to be saved: the blind, the lame, those with child, etc.  The full panoply of human emotion is evident, a spectrum that ranges from supreme joy to weeping.  Similar emotions, recalled by the water brooks – a reference to their tears - is expressed in Psalm 126.  Such allusions also reflect the “water from the rock” miracles in Exodus.  God is seen as the father to both Israel and Judah, as they are gently led back to their homeland.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. Why is Jeremiah hoping for a return?  What did he expect to happen?
  2. How is the notion of a “remnant” a powerful theological concept?
  3. What are the signs of the messiah?

Psalm 126 In convertendo

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Then they said among the nations, *
"The LORD has done great things for them."

The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.



The “Fortunes of Zion”, which God has so graciously restored, is not a future condition, but rather a return to a previous condition of grace.  The tenses of the verbs in these verses may refer either to the past or the future.  Thus the conditions may be either holy remembrance or holy promise, with the faithful caught into the flux of God’s grace.  The intensity of the emotion is rendered as “a dream” accompanied by the laughter of a happy and grateful people.  “The watercourses of the Negev” refers to those wadi, (or an arroyo if you’re from the SW United States) which grace the Negev, the arid lands that extend south of Israel.  Often they are filled with rainwaters in the wet season and become raging rivers.  Such will be the suddenness of God’s mercy, and the grace of return.  The waters of tears are made into the waters that irrigate the fields, which look forward to the abundant harvest.

Breaking open Psalm 126
  1. Have you ever had a moment of supreme joy?  What was it all about?
  2. What accounts for the happiness in this psalm?
  3. How are tears and joy related?

Hebrews 7:23-28

The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.



We continue in our reading from Hebrews and the comments on the priesthood of Jesus as it relates to the ancient Levitical priesthood of Israel.  The author notes the limited nature of the ancient priests, whose service was limited by their deaths.  Jesus, however, in spite of his death on the cross, enjoys a “permanent” priesthood, unlimited by death.  There are other differences, centrally the “permanent” nature of the sacrifice of Jesus, which does not need a daily repetition, such as those of the ancients.  Jesus is held up as the perfect priest.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. In what way is Jesus the priest?
  2. In what way is Jesus the victim?
  3. How do these two ideas play with one another?

St. Mark 10:46-52

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.



This healing story follows the Third Passion Prediction and the subsequent misunderstandings of the disciples.  It is as if this healing of blindness is meant as a commentary on the situation of the disciples, who in their own blindness are misunderstanding Jesus’ mission.  Once again we are met with Marcan secrecy and the obduracy of faith and proclamation – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  The blind man has a vision of Jesus as the Messiah, and it is this faith, Jesus declares, that saves him.  The final statement is poignant, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”  Which way shall it be – The way to Jerusalem? – The way disdained by his erstwhile followers, the disciples?

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. How are the disciples blind?
  2. How is Bartimaeus sighted?
  3. Where do you fit in here?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.