28 October 2013

The Twenty-Forth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 26, 3 November 2013

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-8

II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
St. Luke 19:1-10

Background: Habakkuk
The Prophet Habakkuk, although sporting an exotic name (the name is based on an Akkadian word for a plant – unlike the theocentric names of Isaiah and Jeremiah which were more common) shares the pattern of the prophets that flourished from the eighth century and onward.  The name, however, does remind us of the on-going influence of Mesopotamian culture in Judah and Israel.  Some of this is due to the Levant’s place in the geography of the ancient near east, sitting astride the trade routes that described the Fertile Crescent.  Such a placement ought to allow for an equal amount of influence from the South and Egypt – and such does exist, especially in the Wisdom Literature.  It is the Mesopotamian traditions, however, that are paramount and that lie at the very beginnings of Hebrew culture. 

In the path of earlier prophets, and cognizant of YHWH’s wrath made real in the form of the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom, Habakkuk mirrors the pattern of oracles that speak against the forgetfulness of the people, and the judgment represented by Babylonian and fellow travelers.  Although the book is dated in the seventh century BCE, there are influences in its final form that come from the exilic or post-exilic period.  Skillfully edited, it retains its earlier vocabulary and style, which is then set in a later worldview.  Habakkuk is mentioned in Bel and the Dragon (a part of the Daniel tradition) where he is summed to bring succor and aid to Daniel.  This seems to cement the ancient tradition that is rendered new in the realities of exile and return. 

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

Habakkuk has a complaint, and feels the freedom to voice to YHWH his anger that God has not responded to this ongoing complaint.  The complaint is about what the prophet sees going on around him – greed and wrongdoing.  He is aware of how God acted in the past, namely when the Assyrian scourge was sent to punish Israel and her forgetfulness of God.  God does respond in verses 5-11, but this response is not included in our reading.  In stead, we skip forward to the second chapter where Habakkuk continues a watchful aspect.  In these verses, the Lord again answers.  In a bit of a facetious voice YHWH requests that the prophet write God’s response in very large letters, so that a runner may read it.  What God urges is patience, “If it seems to tarry, wait for it.”  This is an especially appropriate reading for this time in the liturgical year, as we begin to see the foreshadowing of Advent themes – the waiting for the Coming One.  The final verses summarize the complaint – Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right, and God’s response – the righteous live by their faith.  Here we see faith as something that is not founded by a former event, but rather faith in something that is yet to come.

Breaking open Habakkuk:
  1. What is it that you think, that God seems not to hear?
  2. Are you impatient for an answer?  Why?
  3. What will it take to patiently wait?

Psalm 119:137-144, Justus es, Domine

You are righteous, O LORD, *
and upright are your judgments.

You have issued your decrees *
with justice and in perfect faithfulness.

My indignation has consumed me, *
because my enemies forget your words.

Your word has been tested to the uttermost, *
and your servant holds it dear.

I am small and of little account, *
yet I do not forget your commandments.

Your justice is an everlasting justice *
and your law is the truth.

Trouble and distress have come upon me, *
yet your commandments are my delight.

The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; *
grant me understanding, that I may live.

We have read a great deal on the acrostic psalm 119, and its exploration of the Law.  This section seems to bring to mind the scope of the Law and the significance of the reader.  The psalmist is consumed with anger, and yet realizes that he has but a little place in the scope of things.  I am small and of little account.  But the Law is more encompassing.  It is truth and an everlasting justice.  The seeming immensities of the difficulties in life are rightly met by the entire scope of God’s justice.  The final prayer of this section is for understanding, an ability to balance the troubles of today with the eternity of God’s Law.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
  1. In what ways do you loom large in life?
  2. In what ways are you small?
  3. How is your image of self changed by how you read God’s word?


Isaiah 1:10-18

Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation--
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

These initial verses of Isaiah provide a summary of what the prophet will declare in the succeeding chapters.  We meet a tired God who is weary of what had been, of temple ritual, and holy days.  There are other concerns that weigh more heavily upon Israel. As he will do in later chapters, this first Isaiah uses names and titles to clarify his position.  Although addressed to the people of Jerusalem, Isaiah locates them in Sodom and Gomorrah instead, in order to emphasize their wickedness.  The old names and titles of Jerusalem are set-aside for a time, until the day of reckoning is made evident.  Only after that great day will the city be known by the gracious titles of the past.  Why Sodom and Gomorrah?  We only need to look at the latter verses of this pericope to understand Isaiah’s point of view.  Look at the list of sins he provides: doing evil, (and if we look at the opposite, quit oppression, quit ignoring the orphan and the widow).  These themes will be amplified and examined in detail.  Here they give evidence to God’s concern and coming judgment.  They also outline what the people must do, what repentances they must make.  Forgiveness is the promise that hovers over this scene of injustice and difficulty.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Why is God, in Isaiah, unconcerned with Temple ritual and sacrifice?
  2. What is your parish more concerned with, the things that we owe others or parish matters?
  3. What is your point of view?

Psalm 32:1-8 Beati quorum

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!

Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!

While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.

For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.

I said," I will confess my transgressions to the LORD." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.

You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

The psalm anticipates the good news that is only a promise in the first reading.  It is a vision after the forgiveness, but also relates the process of coming to that forgiveness.  The images are clear and helpful.  The heavy hand, the summer-parched dryness, the weakness of the psalmist’s bones, all are evident so long as there is silence – a silence that does not admit to the sins that have been committed in the past.  Then comes an important understanding.  “Then I acknowledged…(then) I said.”  This is not a noetic or cerebral understanding of sin.  It is an admission of sin that comes from the mouth – is admitted in the real time of day – that can be heard by another.  To this situation, God greets the psalmist with forgiveness, and the psalmist is surrounded with shouts of deliverance.

Breaking open Psalm 32:
  1. How have you been forgiven?
  2. Whom have you forgiven?
  3. Do you talk about this?  How?

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Agora at Thessaloniki

Although the greeting, which seems to mirror the same greeting in I Thessalonians 1:1, purports to have Paul as its author, most commentators are of the mind that he is not.  The problems that the letter addresses are real, namely dealing with teachings that claim to be from Paul, and confronting those members of the church there that dispute Paul’s teaching about living and working soberly.  In this reading, “Paul” greets the congregation along with his cohorts Silvanus and Timothy.  There is a word of thanks for the congregation’s lively faith, and love of one another.  Since this is a continuous reading, the substance of the work will be laid out in future Sundays.  We shall have to wait for those days.

Breaking open II Thessalonians:
  1. Why does Paul love the people of Thessaloniki?
  2. What does he give thanks for?
  3. Would you describe your congregation’s faith as “lively”?

St. Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

Once again Luke provides a scene of contrast.  In the previous chapters it has been a poor blind man, lepers, and Samaritans.  Here it is the chief tax collector that serves as the point of comparison (for Background on the tax collectors, or publicani, click here).  Zacchaeus is great in terms of his personal wealth, but he is small in stature, and small in the eyes of the community that judges his moral standards.  Luke plays on this theme in this story as we again meet his agenda of lifting up the lowly – here quite literally.  But it is not only Zacchaeus’ stature that will be measured in this encounter, but the moral stature of Jesus as well.  The undifferentiated crowd serves as an obstruction not only to Zacchaeus, but also to Jesus as well.  When Jesus discerns the diminutive Zacchaeus, he asks that the tax collector come down because “I must stay in your house today.”  Here the crowd complains that Jesus is so willing to make company with an obvious sinner.  Zacchaeus, though small, defends himself, and gladly describes his righteousness, “half of my possessions I give to the poor” Jesus recognizes his attempts to live a righteous life, and reminds the crowd that “he too is a son of Abraham”, an almost Baptismal comment reminding the crowd of their common status.  So what is at stake in this story?  Luke would have us look at the notions or hospitality, redemption, and inclusion.  It is Jesus who demands hospitality, and it is Zacchaeus who gives it.  In the first lesson for today, Isaiah renames Jerusalem as Sodom and Gomorrah.  Was it their inhospitality that earned the people of Jerusalem this insult?  Here Luke implies the inhospitable nature of the people of Jericho, and exalts the hospitality of Zacchaeus.  Here the hospitality gives place to salvation and redemption, “Today salvation for this house has happened.”  Thus it is not riches that distinguish, nor is it poverty.  It is the inviting in, it is the acceptance of “what I must do” as a sinner, a poor person, a wealthy person, or a person striving for righteousness, that sets the tone and the agenda.  Jesus not only welcomes, but also is welcomed in.  This dual standard is Luke’s call to his hearers to imitate Christ.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.      What is your stature before the world?
2.      What is your stature before God?
3.      How do you lift up the lowly?

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.

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

23 October 2013

All Saints' Day, 1 November 2013

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
St. Luke 6:20-31

Background:  Daniel
In speaking about Daniel, some care needs to be exercised in distinguishing the character from the book.  The character of Daniel is much more ancient than the book.  Modeled on a judge that appears in the literature of Canaan, the Biblical character is active at a much later time than the character of legend.  Daniel makes a brief appearance along with Noah and Job in Ezekiel 14:14, 20, where he appears more as a hero of legend and archetype than an actual person. There is another reference to Daniel in Ezekiel, where he and the King of Tyre are compared for their acute wisdom. The book, however, is more recent, and is divided into two sections: a section of legendary tales, and a section of dreams and visions.  The first section’s content seems to be a product of the traditions of wisdom in the ancient near east.  As a child of Israel, Daniel and his friends seem to at least match if not best the wise men of Babylon, and remain faithful to the God of Israel.  In this manner, they serve as models of behavior, but to whom?  Is it to the exiles in Babylon, or is it later to those Jews surviving the forced Hellenization of the Seleucid Kings?  It’s probable date of composition, or redaction in the second century BCE would seem to answer the question.

The second section, a collection of dreams and visions purports to be a vision of the future.  It falls in the tradition of Amos and other prophets who saw The Great Day of the Lord bringing judgment and justice to Israel.  The downfall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the fall of Jerusalem were seen as God’s judgment on a people who had not been faithful.  In contrast to their behavior, we have the example of David and his friends who serve as models of faithfulness.  The visions look forward to a time of crisis, and the fall of kingdoms.  Although they are clothed in the events of the fall of the Babylonian empire, and the rise of the Persian empire, they are more rooted in the aftermath of Alexander and the succeeding Seleucids.  Times were changing, and institutions were either failing, or being renewed.  It is to this anxious time that Daniel delivers his visions.

Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: "As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever."

Here Daniel falls into the tradition of the great dream interpreters, such as Joseph, as he attempts to see the signs of the times.  This reading is chosen for this day primarily for its last line, “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom…” There is a mythological setting in which the supposedly historical vision is cast.  It is more informed by ancient near eastern cosmology than by the creation story of Genesis.  The great sea is that chaos that is conquered by the gods, and the monsters are Rahab and Leviathan (see Job 26:12-13, or Psalm 74:13-17).  These scenes are all precursors to a vision of God’s conquering might and judgment.  Christians, however, will see in the vision, the promise of eternal life, and the communion of Saints.

Breaking open Daniel:
  1. In what ways is our age redeeming itself in the sight of God?
  2. What agents of chaos is God fighting against in our time?
  3. How is the Communion of Saints involved in that struggle?

Psalm 149 Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.

Let Israel rejoice in his Maker; *
let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.

Let them praise his Name in the dance; *
let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp.

For the LORD takes pleasure in his people *
and adorns the poor with victory.

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; *
let them be joyful on their beds.

Let the praises of God be in their throat *
and a two-edged sword in their hand;

To wreak vengeance on the nations *
and punishment on the peoples;

To bind their kings in chains *
and their nobles with links of iron;

To inflict on them the judgment decreed; *
this is glory for all his faithful people.

This hymn of praise seems to have a military aspect to its “new song.”  It praises God for what God has done for Israel over against “the nations.”  The justice that results from this divine war is seen as glory for Israel.  The psalm is a good accompaniment to the reading from Daniel, where the Day of the Lord brings completeness to God’s creation and kingdom.  One wonders if the framers of the lectionary had notions of this kingdom that is won actually being the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaims, and this day celebrates?

Breaking open Psalm 149:
  1. What images do you have of justice?
  2. How do you feel about the martial aspects of this psalm?
  3. What is the kingdom of heaven like for you?

Ephesians 1:11-23

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

This reading begins with a summary of what Paul hopes to communicate to his gentile readers in Ephesus.  The themes, which will be more fully developed in the material that follows, are about the chosen nature of those who follow Christ, and their destiny in God.  What follows that adoption is the praise that then flows from our very lives. 

If there were an image that the reader might want to keep in mind as the remaining material is read, it would be that of the baptismal font, and its waters that flow and cleanse.  As in a classic berakah (a Jewish prayer of blessing and thanksgiving) Paul uses some liturgical language that would be familiar to those who were baptized.  Along with their belief, Paul wants them to recognize that they have been “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”  We might want to recall those words that are present in our own rites, “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.  It only begins there, however.  There is more to the promise – a promise of inheritance, namely redemption.

Paul then goes own to describe the entity, to which these gentiles have been joined, namely the Body of Christ.  It is a veritable Pauline list of benefits: wisdom, revelation, enlightenment, and call.  These are set in a prayer of thanksgiving that Paul makes for the readers who are now joined with him in Christ.  He then goes on to list what it is that the body believes, what it has faith in: Christ raised, Christ sitting at the right hand, Christ exalted, Christ ruler over all.  This is the primary text for this day, I think, in that it lays the foundation for the Communion of Saints, which this day honors. 

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. If you were baptized as an infant, was there a point in life when you thought through your decision to be a Christian?
  2. What were those thoughts like.
  3. How are you a part of the Body of Christ?

Luke 6:20-31

Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets..

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

I dread All Saints’ Day, especially the reading of the Beatitudes from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew.  It seems so saccharine to me, and Luke’s version is a refreshing blast.  Jesus is about the business of announcing the various aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In Nazareth he proclaimed that all the messianic hopes of Isaiah were “fulfilled in your hearing” (St. Luke 4:16-21).  Luke’s agenda is clearly visible her as he reports Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.  The pattern of the sayings follows the ancient template of the Blessings and Curses that accompanied any restatement of the covenant.  The blessings of the poor (not the poor in spirit, as in Matthew) are quickly followed by woes to the rich.  Matthew’s spiritualization of the blessings is absent here.  They are stark in the proclamation and they are pointedly directed to the disciples.  So what is the blessedness that Luke proclaims in the words of Jesus?  The poor, the hungry, and the sorrowful are the special beneficiaries of God’s goodness.  It is a blessing that is tied up with the Kingdom of Heaven – a future reward.  One wonders, however, what its impact was on the social awareness of Luke’s readers.  Was it only a future, heavenly blessings, or was the church aware of its duties to the downtrodden and lowly?

Then the theme changes, and the four pronouncements are particularly pointed by their use of the second person, “woe to you”.  A similar list is formed: the rich, the satisfied, and the joyful.  “You are filled now.”  There is no future reward or punishment.  It is in the now that the temporary nature of their satisfaction is perceived.  The question that comes to mind is whether both of these distinctions (those who are blessed, those who are deserving of woe) are evident in the church, in the Communion of the Saints?  Is it as Luther once describe, that we are simil Justus et peccator (at the same time justified and sinner)?  Jesus asks his disciples to be wary of a good reputation.  The prophets (who were killed and tortured) had as much!

The implicit question that flows from these observations on the part of Jesus is “What then, how shall we live?”  Answers are supplied with a series of sayings about what life in the Kingdom (now) ought to look like.  “Bless those who curse you”, is a delightful follow-on after the blessings and curses above.  But there is more: mores about strife, begging, common kindness, love of the opponent, gifts of being merciful.  What does this have to say to the saints today?  Might it be that our communities, our selves, and our corporate life should be about blessing and selflessness.  Isn’t that what we honor in the saints?

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.      In what ways do you identify with or own the statements of blessing?
2.      In what ways do you identify with or own the woes?
3.      How will you live life differently?

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.

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