27 October 2014

All Saints' Sunday, 2 November 2014

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
I John 3:1-3
St. Matthew 5:1-12

Background: All Saints Day
The origin of this day is a bit murky, perhaps originating in the Eastern Church, where it was observed in May, or the Sunday after Pentecost.  In 609, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs.  In the eighth century celebrations of all the Saints emerged in England, celebrated principally on 1 November, which was brought to England either through the ministry of Egbert of York, or perhaps from earlier celebrations either in Ireland or Gaul.  It is a day in which the Church celebrates saints living and departed, a representation of the totality of the Body of Christ.  The present celebration in the Book of Common Prayer is classed as a Principal Feast, one of seven.  It is also a date on which is recommended the administration of Holy Baptism. 

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,

"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

"Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? "I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows. " Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Most likely written by someone other than the evangelist, John, many suggestions have been made about the source of this book.  The most interesting is, perhaps, Jayne Massyngberde Ford’s suggestion that the bulk of the book, following the initial chapters is a borrowing from the Baptist’s disciples.  The first chapters suggest a “circuit rider” writing to his many charges in Ephesus, Thyatira, etc.  What is clear is that it is a message directed to a church that is experiencing persecution and suffering.  Other challenges face these readers, primarily the pressure faced by all members of society in the Roman Empire as they faced the demands of Roman social religion.  None-the-less the author has a vision of a people gathered under the majesty not of the emperor, but of another soter, another kyrios, Jesus Christ.  Immediately preceding this reading is the “Sealing of the 144,000” – a symbolic number that multiplies the tribes of Israel by itself and magnifies it by myriads.  That sealing takes place on earth, but the second vision has a different venue – heaven itself and the throne of the Lamb.  Who is gathered here?  “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” It is the ideal that both Paul and Luke have striven for (and to a certain extent the Isaiahs as well). All are gathered here in spite of the “great ordeal”.  The author attempts to pierce through the present time and see the beatific vision – the continuous hymn sung by saints and angels. This vision is connected to the history of Israel (hence the number in the signing of the multitudes) and the second is the fruition of God’s intention for all people.

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. Are Jews numbered among the saints?  Why?
  2. Are you included amongst the 144,000? Why?
  3. Who is left out? Why?

Psalm 34:1-10, 22 Benedicam Dominum

I will bless the LORD at all times; *
his praise shall ever be in my mouth.

I will glory in the LORD; *
let the humble hear and rejoice.

Proclaim with me the greatness of the LORD; *
let us exalt his Name together.

I sought the LORD, and he answered me *
and delivered me out of all my terror.

Look upon him and be radiant, *
and let not your faces be ashamed.

I called in my affliction and the LORD heard me *
and saved me from all my troubles.

The angel of the LORD encompasses those who fear him, *
and he will deliver them.

Taste and see that the LORD is good; *
happy are they who trust in him!

Fear the LORD, you that are his saints, *
for those who fear him lack nothing.

The young lions lack and suffer hunger, *
but those who seek the LORD lack nothing that is good.

The LORD ransoms the life of his servants, *
and none will be punished who trust in him.

The ascription of this psalm is quite interesting, “For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimelech, who banished him, and he went away.” You might want to check the incident to which this ascription refers, I Samuel 21:14, where David feigns madness in order to survive a difficult situation. The remainder of the psalm comments on God’s presence in the midst of every-day difficulty, “I sought the Lord, and God answered me and delivered me out of all my terror.” That God is constantly with us in a circumstances is a given in this psalm.  And it highlights a dependency that we have upon God presence, or his embassy through the angels, “The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear God.” This however is more than an exercise in mental dependency. It hints at not only a physical dependency, but at pleasure as well, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” The lions seem to suffer, but those who are attached to God, “lack nothing.” The verse that seems to connect this psalm with the celebrations of this feast day is this, “The Lord ransoms the life of God’s servants, and none will be punished who trust in God.”

Breaking open Psalm 34:
  1. How do you know God’s presence with you?
  2. How does that presence change life for you?
  3. How might you be God’s presence for someone else?

1 John 3:1-3

See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

The anonymity of I John forces us to focus only on its content and themes.  Written in opposition to some kind of theological opponent, we can only glean from its argument that which might be applicable to any Christian.  What is implied here is that Christians themselves seem to operate in some kind of anonymity – “The reason that the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” We might want to ask, “Why should the world know us?” Perhaps so that it could see the love evident in what Christians do, but that seems specious in our day and age.  It is the stuff of saints, however. As we either honor the saints of anonymity, or the blessed dead (All Souls’ Day) we might begin to know Christ through them, or them through Christ.  It sets a rigorous agendum for our life – to be known through Christ. The purity and piety of our life is essence of Jesus’ own life.

Breaking open I John:
  1. What do you see when you look at yourself as a Christian?
  2. What do you think others see when they perceive you?
  3. How would like to be seen?

St. Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

There is a part of me that dreads this pericope.  I much prefer Luke’s version with its implicit blessings and curses.  It seems much more grounded in the life we know.  However, Matthew had his reasons for preserving these sayings in the manner in which he did. We need to follow Matthew, in his mind, to Sinai, and to the spiritual refreshment that comes in the wilderness. Here, apart from the crowds that gathered earlier, Jesus let’s the disciples in on the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Yes, we are to understand that a new law is being promulgated on this mountain, a law that reaches deeply into ordinary life.  And what do we seek in life? Happiness, makarios? This is not the happiness of an emotional relationship but rather the life that is lived in God.  In that relationship mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst, mercy, purity, peacemaking, and persecution all take on a different kind of reality. These are all lived in a relationship not only with God (we need to remind ourselves of the second part of the Law) but also with others, and indeed with our selves.  The brackets of this new law, mourning and persecution, seem to form the context in which Matthew’s church lived out meekness, mercy, purity, and all the other the other niceties of Matthew’s beatitudes. How broadening is this, as we think about living life, that our own graciousness (formed by God’s grace to us) can be lived out in the midst of difficulty.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are your thoughts when you compare Matthew’s beatitudes with those of Luke?
  2. How is your life bracketed by morning and persecution?
  3. How do you live a life of grace in the midst of your troubles?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

18 October 2014

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, 26 October 2014

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17


Leviticus 19:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 1

I Thessalonians 2:1-8
St. Matthew 22:34-46

Background: Leviticus

There has been resurgence around the book of Leviticus largely due to its provisions in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) and how that plays out around the role of women and gay and lesbian people in contemporary Western culture.  The name of the book refers to the Levites descended from the tribe of Aaron.  The Levites were the priests of Israel.  The Hebrew Name (Wayikra) is taken from the first word of the book, “And he called.”  The object of the book’s pronouncements is not just the priests of Israel, but rather the entire people.  It is not a book of doctrine.  Its contents address the ritual and cultic life of Israel. Thus it is largely concerned with the Temple and Sacrifice (and the priesthood that was of service in the Temple), and personal holiness and ritual purity.

The traditional author is Moses, but modern scholarship assigns the book to a much later time.  It most likely developed at the end of the Kings of Judea (around the seventh century BCE) and continued to be edited into a final form some time during or after the exilic period (around the sixth to the fourth century BCE).  The book would have had two primary periods of importance, perhaps stemming first from the reforms of Josiah, and later as people returned from exile and sought to restore temple worship in Jerusalem.  The material was written by people with a priestly bias, hence it is assigned to the P strand.  Some see the Holiness Code as a separate strand that was incorporated into the priestly material.  In the contemporary discussions about the Levitical material it is interesting that many only desire to explore facets of the Law that support a certain political or social view, while ignoring the other provisions.

Track 1:

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain-- that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees-- as far as Zoar. The LORD said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, `I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD's command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Although born in the Nile River valley, it is the mountains to which Moses is not only drawn, but on and in which he has some of his most potent moments.  Here, from the sacred mountaintop, Moses is privileged to see the land of promise – the land given by God to Israel.  As the book describes the scope of Moses’ vision of this new land we become aware of an anachronism.  The land of Dan, at the presumable time of writing, lay in the north. The original assignment of the tribe of Dan was to a location in the south. The tribe migrated northward at a later date.  The promise to Abraham is recalled again in verse four, which looks back to the period of the Patriarchs. Moses is not allowed into the land which YHWH has shown to him, and is granted a gracious death, ‘by the word of the Lord.” The Midrash sees this action as “death by a kiss”, a sweet remembrance of Moses’ relationship with YHWH.  Moses’ grave is unknown, largely because, “you shall have no other gods before me.” This powerful leader will live only in memory, but not in a cult.  He dies at 120 years, a number of symbolic importance (3 x 40). And with its reveries on the prophetic era, and on the insuperable prophetic ministry of Moses, the Pentateuch, acknowledging the Spirit’s gifts in Joshua, comes to an end, a new era springing from the old.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:

1.     How is Joshua designated as a new leader for Israel?
2.     What are your thoughts about God’s “death by a kiss” for Moses?  What images does it bring up for you.
3.     Are there eras in your life, as there were in the life of Moses?

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 Domine, refugium

Lord, you have been our refuge *
from one generation to another.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God.

You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."

For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.

You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.

In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.

Return, O LORD; how long will you tarry? *
be gracious to your servants.

Satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning; *
so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.

Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us *
and the years in which we suffered adversity.

Show your servants your works *
and your splendor to their children.

May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; *
prosper the work of our hands;
prosper our handiwork.

Our attention is quickly drawn to Moses (the ascription of the psalm is avoided in the BCP/LBW translation), “A prayer of Moses, man of God.” Rooted in his mortality, we then perceive the God who has been both refuge and abode for generations. Thus the psalm contrasts Moses’ mortality with God’s immortality.  The next verses underscore that contrast, “You bring man back to the dust”, and “For a thousand years in your eyes are like yesterday gone.” Especially beautify is the verse dealing with sleep, death, dawn and renewal.

The lectionary selection skips to verse 13, where God is asked to return and to see the state of God’s people. Using the metaphor of the day as the scene and stage upon and within which life is lived, the psalmist requests God’s on-going presence in time and in the cyclical renewal of each day.  It reminds me of Martin Luther’s explanation of Baptism in the Small Catechism,

What then is the significance of such a baptism with water? - Answer.
It signifies that daily the old person in us with all our sins and evil desires is to be drowned through sorrow for sin and repentance, and that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.[1]

The final verse is translated by Robert Alter as, “And may the sweetness of the master, our God be upon us and the work of our hands firmly found for us.”[2] He observes that this is the action that is used for undergirding dynasties, or for keeping large buildings. It is, pardon my pun, foundational.

Breaking open Psalm 90:

1.     What are the mortalities of your life?
2.     How do you live with the reality of death?
3.     How are you reborn each day?


Track 2:

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Although we are two chapters into the so-called Holiness Code, it is this verse that effectively enunciates the Code’s purpose and themes, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The verses that immediately follow recount some of the Decalogue, and provisions for sacrifice. At verse thirteen begins a series of decrees that are of a social nature, dealing with the deaf and the blind, and striking something of a social balance, "you shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich.” Suddenly we find ourselves really in a commentary on the Decalogue as the author speaks about slander, murder, and vengeance.  These are the practicalities of day-to-day holiness.

Breaking open Leviticus:

1.     In what ways are you holy?
2.     How do you strive to be holy?
3.     How do you treat people less fortunate than you?

Psalm 1 Page Beatus vir qui non abiit

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

As we (in the Bible Study Group at Saint Mark’s Church, Santa Clara, CA.) have been discovering in our study of Ivoni Richter Reimer’s study on Women in the Acts of the Apostles[3] the verbs that begin this psalm can be signs of important religious, cultic, or educational activity[4].  The psalmist praises those who have not “walked” (pursued a course of action), “stood” (aligned him or herself with), or “sat” (accepted the opinion or teachings of an individual or school) with the wicked, or with offenders, or with scoffers.  We are talking about a different kind of person here.  This is the person who “meditates” (in the Hebrew, literally, “murmurs”) on the Law.  If you have ever been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem you will understand the power of the word “murmur.”

What follows are the results of holiness (see Leviticus above) and the psalmist's use of powerful images rooted in creation and in the cycle of the day.  Here holiness is seen in the stability of being planted by a constant supply of water, the production of fruit, and a liveliness that confounds the seasons. Contrasted with this image is a scene of the unholy – one word describes them “chaff”, useless leavings consigned to the wind.

Breaking open Psalm 1:

1.     Who do you think are the councils of the wicked?
2.     In what ways have your participated (or not) with them?
3.     How do you meditate?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Paul had his problems in Philippi (See Acts 16) – accusations by disreputable people, and complaints to the authorities by certain Jews.  This leads to imprisonment and to ministry.  The passage speaks to a time when philosophers and “missionaries” were a dime-a-dozen.  Paul pleads that this is not the case with him, for our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery.” Although we might think otherwise, this is not a man who is feathering his own nest with false praise. He glories in his ministry of nursing the faithful “her own children.” The closing verse of the pericope underscores the relationship that Paul feels for these people. 

Breaking open I Thessalonians:
  1. What does the image of Paul as a nurse bring to you.
  2. In the preaching that you have heard over time, what sounded “made up” to you?
  3. What did you receive as genuine?

St. Matthew 22:34-46

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

`The Lord said to my Lord,
"Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?

If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

The pericope on the question about taxes is followed by another pericope that involves a question about resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33).  First it was the Pharisees, and then the Sadducees, and now we are back to the Pharisees again.  Now they reach to the true aim of their questioning – Jesus and the Law.  They ask what is the greatest of the Commandments, which is followed by another question, this time one posed by Jesus. Any scribe worth his salt would have know the answer to the first question (in part), for it was recited daily by Jews in the Great Shema. The second half that Jesus supplies is from Leviticus 19:18, a practice known in Jewish catechetics. 

Now it is Jesus’ turn – he asks about their thoughts on the Messiah, “Whose son is he?” The reply is quick, “David’s” (see Psalm 110:1). Why does Matthew preserve this conversation?  Some commentators argue that Matthew may be actually devaluing the designation of Jesus as “David’s son.” Matthew may be arguing for stronger terminology and identity.  Although both Messiah and “David’s son”, Jesus is more.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     What were the Pharisees hoping to accomplish?
2.     What was Jesus hoping to accomplish?
3.     What “stronger terminology” do you use for Jesus.

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.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Luther, M (2001) Luthers’ Small Catechism, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN., p. 48
[2] Alter, R. (2007) The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, p. 320.
[3] Richter Reimer, I (1995) Women in the Acts of the Apostles: a feminist liberation perspective, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN.
[4] See especially her comments on the person and ministry of Lydia (Chapter 4), and the other women who gathered with her and with Paul and Silas in Acts.