29 January 2013

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 3 February 2013

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Ruth Caroline Terrass Hiller, my mother, who passed from death into life on Monday, 28 January 2013.

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 3 February 2013
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
I Corinthians 13:1-13
Saint Luke 4:21-30


Background: The “gesimas”
Before the liturgical reforms in the Roman Catholic Church following Vatican II, Lutherans and Anglicans followed Roman Catholic practice in their lectionaries and calendar with the same pre-Lenten Sundays. However, with the adaptation of the Roman lectionary in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, these Sundays disappeared from these calendars as well.  The Sundays all became “Sundays after the Epiphany” with the first Sunday devoted to the Baptism of Our Lord, and the final Sunday devoted to the Transfiguration of Our Lord.  The old pre-Lenten Sundays were named for the period of time that needed to elapse until the Easter Feast – thus Septuagesima (70 days), Sexagesima (60 days), and Quinquagesima (50 days).  Actually, these names are a conceit, since Quinquagesima is the only day that is indeed 50 days before Easter.  In one ordering, the Sundays, since they are really feasts of the Resurrection, do not count as a day, and in another ordering Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays did not count as well.  Some Lenten practices were followed during this season, such as the suppression of the Alleluia, and the use of violet vestments among others.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

The word of the LORD came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the LORD."
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."

Before beginning his oracles against Judah and Jerusalem (1:4 – 25:13b), the prophet discloses the call he experienced from YHWH.  There is a conversation between God and Jeremiah (1:4-10), followed by two visions (1:11-16).  Our reading this morning concerns the conversation that centers on the call that Jeremiah receives.  Of interest is the verb, “I formed you” in verse 5, which allows the image of a potter, an image that Jeremiah will use again.  See Genesis 2:7 to see how Jeremiah’s image is a reflection of the action in the creation of man in the second Creation Account.  Thus God intimately knows Jeremiah, having been instrumental in his formation within the womb.  God goes on describing this intimate knowledge and indeed dedication with the phrases, “I knew you”, “I consecrated”, and “I appointed.”  The consecration brings to mind the image in Isaiah’s call (Isaiah 6:6-7) where the Seraph takes a living coal from the altar to consecrate Isaiah’s tongue. 

Like Moses, Jeremiah objects to the call, bringing to the fore his inexperience and his lack of authority.  None of this matters to God, who quickly reminds the “youth” that God is the provider of both word and vessel.  No Seraph touches the tongue of Jeremiah, but rather God touches it with a hand, and puts into the mouth the Word of God.  Similar actions are seen in the call not only of Isaiah, but Ezekiel and Daniel as well.  The final verses describe the mission, which is more about the theology of the message, rather than the destruction of physical and political things.  The contrasting verbs “pluck up” and “pull down” and then “to build” and “to plant” accentuates the new message that the prophet is to bring.

Breaking open Jeremiah:

1.     What do you think are your limitations in pronouncing God’s Word?
2.     Has God ever touched your tongue or your message?
3.     What do you need to destroy, what do you need to plant?

Psalm 71:1-6 In te, Domine, speravi

In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge; *
let me never be ashamed.

In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; *
incline your ear to me and save me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; *
you are my crag and my stronghold.

Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, *
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.

For you are my hope, O Lord GOD, *
my confidence since I was young.

I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother's womb you have been my strength; *
my praise shall be always of you.

This psalm appears to be the reflections of an older person looking back on both life and mission, and seeing the support that God has given.  It has been chosen for use with these readings for its reflection of the call of Jeremiah in verse 6. 

Breaking open Psalm 71:1-6
1.       What do you see as you reflect back on your life?
2.       How has God been present in it?
3.       What are your expectations of God for the rest of your life?

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

This is a beautiful pericope, which continues the readings from the last two Sundays, that has been dimmed a bit by its continual use at weddings.  The overwhelming modern characterization of romantic love takes the edge off this reading.  It might be best to read it from a more modern translation.  Not only is this love not the stuff of valentine cards and love songs, it is also not the stuff of compassion, but rather the understanding of the heavenly aspect of love, or charity.  It is beyond words.  In a list typical of Paul, he then accounts for all of the different aspects of this love.  Some aspects of this love transcend the temporary gifts that we are given, or that we ourselves extend.  This is more of a platonic view of an eternal verity that ought to inform our daily actions over against our neighbor and in our community.  Some of the images are helpful in describing the enigmatic property of this love.  Not even Moses could look God in the face, and we cannot either.  What we see is a reflection, knowing only “in part.”  Knowing and being known becomes the tension in which the Christian operates in a dialogue with God.  Paul boils down his list to three things, “faith, hope, and love”.

Breaking open I Corinthians:

1.               What is your understanding of love?
2.               How is charity different, to you?
3.               Does faith inform the other two?

St. Luke 4:21-30

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Again, we have a continuing reading.  Here Jesus connects his hearers not with a future that would be theirs but rather with a present reality about the activity of God in their time.  “This scripture has been fulfilled.”  This is followed by Luke’s code word of belief and acceptance – “all…were amazed.”  What seems like a whiplash turn of events (Is this not Joseph’s son) may be explained by a subsequent visit, in which the reality of Jesus’ family history dulls the brightness of his revelation.  Jesus understands their reluctance and quotes proverbial understandings that underscore their amazement that has turned if not to doubt reservations about Jesus’ authority.  Jesus responds with a homily based on the prophet Elijah that distinctly points to the inclusion of people outside of the community of Israel, namely the widow of Zarephath (Phoenician), and Naaman (Syrian) who was a leper.  This is very much a Lucan emphasis on those who have been overlooked or marginalized.  It is this outlook that enrages the Nazarenes, so keenly aware of the chosen nature of Israel.  It is not Jesus’ time, however, and so he moves quietly out of the town.  It is Jerusalem that “kills the prophets” and it is there that he will be “taken up.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is it that God has promised that has been fulfilled in your life?
  2. What are God's promises to the marginalized, the poor, and the ill?
  3. How are you a part of God's promises to them? 

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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller

19 January 2013

The Third Sunday after The Epiphany - 27 January 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 12:12-31a
Saint Luke 4:14-21


Background:  The Synagogue Service
The Gospel for today tempts us with a scene in which Jesus is invited to read from the Scriptures in the Synagogue at Nazareth.  What was it like, and what was done?  Such musings are prone to imagination and speculation rather than actual evidence about what was actually done in a first century Synagogue.  My good friend The Rev. Dr. Lizette Larson-Miller has warned me about equating the Liturgy of the Word in the Mass to the Synagogue Service of the first century. Reading, however, had always formed the core.  Nehemiah 8:1-8 (the first reading for today) gives an account of a public reading of the Torah, and we may assume that this was not an unusual circumstance.  The cultural gifts that returned with the Exiles from Persia and Babylon, and the demise of the Temple under the Romans certainly created a culture in which the Synagogue grew in its efforts to form the community of belief in village and in city, and serve as a new focus for prayer and the Word.

There was an architectural and ceremonial context that surrounded such readings.  It was read from a raised platform (Bema) and standing. A blessing and response by the people present before the reading, the translation of the text for those who did not know Hebrew, and then some kind of exposition of the text followed the reading.  Some scholars have reconstructed the context of the reading as 1. The Shema, and the Eighteen Blessings. 2. Two readings – the Torah, and then the Prophets.  3.  Homily, and 4. A priestly blessing (Numbers 6:22-27).

It is this homily or exposition that is the center of attention in the Gospel for today.  Not only was Jesus invited to offer commentary, but also Paul (Acts 13:15) at the Synagogue at Pisidian Antioch.  In the scene at Nazareth, Jesus stands to read and is handed the scroll of Isaiah.  The reading from the Torah perhaps had already been read.  Thus Jesus reads, returns the book, and then preaches.  What the scene does not teach us is what other readings were read (the Writings) or what the order of the Psalter was.  We do know that there was a three-year cycle, attested to in Rabbinic Literature. Nor do we know what language was used.  Did Jesus read in Hebrew or did he read in Aramaic? 

Whatever the case, the traditions that surround both the Synagogue and the liturgy used there will change following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  That such traditions would not touch Christians and their evolving liturgy seems to be a narrow understanding.  The nature of these traditions and their use in both Synagogue and Church, however, seems a bit beyond our reach.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

This pericope is problematic to scholars of both Ezra and Nehemiah.  Does the pericope immediately follow Ezra 10:44 or is it an even that occurs some 40 years later with Nehemiah?  Although interesting, such a investigation will not help us to see the ancient precedent that is set for the reading that Jesus does in the Synagogue at Nazareth.  What is apparent is that both Nehemiah and Ezra see the necessity for proclaiming the Torah to the people who have returned.  It is akin to laying a cultural and religious cornerstone that will hold up the rejuvenation of Jerusalem.  Not only is the Torah lifted up, but also the images of feasting that surround it.  Such a banquet served as an ample image of the comfort and direction that the reading supplied the returnees.  The words of the reading, indeed the reading itself, formed a future for the people who once had none.  It becomes an excellent symbol of the messianic future, which Jesus will address in his reading.

Breaking open Nehemiah:

1.     Do you own a bible?  Where is it in your house?
2.     Do you read from it, and what do you read?
3.     How does it help you in living life?

Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant

The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.

In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.

The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.

Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

The incipit of this psalm bears a great resemblence to Psalm 8, which also celebrates the beauty of creation.  This psalm, however, following its initial verses in celebration of creation takes on a different theme.  Of interest is verse 4, which proclaims, “There is no utterance and there are no words, their voice is never heard.” (Alter).  It seems to be a poignant juxtapose to the divine word that creates the very being of the cosmos, but this divine word is being saved for a more worldly and useful purpose in the latter verses of the psalm.  Also interesting is the imagery surrounding the sun, which emerges like both bridegroom and warrior to make his rounds.  It is an image that underscores the scope of the divine word, and perhaps is a borrowing from Egyptian mythology. 

With verse eight we come to an abrupt change in the psalms themes, and a voice that is given to the voiceless heavens.  Now the center of attention is the other example of the divine word’s voice – the Lord’s teaching.  The voice that scatters the stars also informs life of the proper way.  In these words are held eternal verities: steadfastness, light, truth, wisdom, and life.  The final stanzas underscore the usefulness and desirability of the word.

Breaking open Psalm 19
1.       What kind of moral code have you set for yourself?
2.       How is that code informed by the bible?
3.       How does it help you live life?

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

Today’s reading is a continuation of last Sunday’s reading from I Corinthians in which Paul expands on the theme of spiritual gifts.  Paul begins with the notion of both the individual body, which once baptized becomes a part of the corporate body of Christ.  Normal distinctions, Jew, Greek, slave, or free, are no longer to be considered, for we all “drink of one Spirit.”

Then Paul continues with an exposition of what the body represents in its gifts and how they are used for the whole body.  Gifts of greater distinction are used for the betterment of the whole church (the Body).  The highest distinction is given to the gift of charity.  With all of the questions that Paul poses to his readers, one can imagine the internal conversation that must result from his inquiry.  “What are my gifts?”  “To what am I called?”  And thus the various parts of the body discover their own abilities so as to contribute to the whole body, the Church.

Breaking open I Corinthians:

1.               How are you a part of the whole body of the Church?
2.               What gifts are needed by your church?
3.               How does the Spirit provide them?

St. Luke 4:14-21

Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

It is an amplified Jesus who returns to Galilee, filled with the “power of the Spirit,” and attractive to those who lived in the region.  We have a picture of Jesus as a devout man who could read.  Was the choice of the passage a part of the lectionary used at the synagogue, accidental, or one of Jesus’ own choice?  We don’t know.  He reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, omitting one phrase – “to heal the brokenhearted.”  It seems that Luke reserves the use of the verb “to heal” to situations which involve physical healing.   The reading is augmented with a phrase from Isaiah 58:6, “to let the oppressed go free.” 

Jesus affirms the situation with which Luke announces him in the beginning verses of the pericope.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” seems to be Jesus’ own understanding of self, and perhaps a reminder of his baptism earlier.  Jesus is the focus of this reading and of its interpretation in Nazareth.  By citing “the year of the Lord’s favor”, Jesus calls to mind the year of jubilee when debts were forgiven.  He seems to suggest in his coming ministry, especially as it is portrayed by Luke, that this “forgiveness of debts” has a far more universal quality that is related to the poor and the downtrodden.  The pericope is abrupt in recalling Jesus’ interpretation of the text, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled…” The tense of the verb indicates a present and on-going perfection of the work of Jesus ministry.  These are not Advent hopes, but rather present realization of God’s presence in the world the hearers. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Do you hear violence in John’s preaching?
  2. How is the experience with Jesus different?
  3. How often do you enter into things with prayer.

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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller