27 May 2015

The Feast of the Holy Trinity, 31 May 2015

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29, or Canticle 2 or 13
Romans 8:12-17
St. John 3:1-17

Background: Luther’s Sanctus
The first reading for this day takes me back to my days as Vicar (Intern) at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Luke in Chicago during the early seventies. There was a parochial school there and on Wednesdays, there was a Eucharistic celebration for the students, faculty and staff. Often times we would sing Luther’s Sanctus from Deutsche Messe, the hymn Isaiah Mighty Seer in Days of Old. The text for the hymn is drawn from Isaiah 6, and it was marvelous to hear 300 treble voices trilling, “holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth, holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth, holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth, behold his glory filleth all the earth.” And indeed it was so, given from the mouths of these children. The hymn does not appear in Episcopal hymnal; else I would have been tempted to use it on this Sunday.

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory."

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"

These verses begin the so-called Testimony of Isaiah, a testimony that goes on for some length, lasting until chapter 9:7. In it we hear of his call and his thoughts and visions that accompany the divine commissioning. There is a temptation in this reading to get lost in the glory of the vision, but the later verses quickly correct this as they focus on Isaiah’s humanity. That the vision is dated speaks to Isaiah’s desire to speak to the reality and authenticity of his call by God. The scene is from the Temple, and various aspects of the cultus of the Temple are recalled here. Was this the product of his own interior vision, or was this Isaiah intimately acquainted with the Temple? We are not certain. What is more compelling however is how the life of the Temple intersects with his call as a human being. His complaint about unclean lips is quickly met by the angel with the burning coal from the altar. Does it purify only, or does it add Isaiah to its sacrificial victims – does the sanctity of Isaiah’s life serve to be a testimony to the people. Since he then becomes a “sent one”, an Apostle of the First Covenant. What is remarkable is that God does not send Isaiah directly, but that he volunteers, “Here I am, send me!”

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Have you ever been awed by God’s presence? Where and when?
  2. Have you ever been brought low by your humanity? Where and when?
  3. Has an angel touched your tongue with a living coal?

Psalm 29 Afferte Domino

Ascribe to the LORD, you gods, *
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his Name; *
worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

The voice of the LORD is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the LORD is upon the mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedar trees; *
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon;

He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.

The voice of the LORD splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; *
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.

And in the temple of the LORD *
all are crying, "Glory!"

The LORD sits enthroned above the flood; *
the LORD sits enthroned as King for evermore.

The LORD shall give strength to his people; *
the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Psalm 29 is an excellent example of how other cultures influenced writers in the Hebrew Scriptures. This particular psalm has so many allusions that some scholars have thought it to be a direct borrowing from Canaanite literature.  Others disagree and feel that the psalmist wrote, cognizant of models and phraseology evident in other cultures.  We are aware of, given the content of the first verse, an understanding of YHWH as the chief among all the gods of the Levant, “ascribe to YHWH, you gods.”  The Hebrew is better rendered as “O sons of God”; designated as the heavenly court that surrounds the throne of YHWH.

What follows are exhibits of God’s power: God’s voice over the waters (God’s triumph over chaos), God’s voice breaking the cedars of Lebanon (the North) and the wilderness of Kadesh (the South). The glory that the people cry could either be in the Temple, but more likely is seen as shouts of joy in God’s celestial palace, lending a more cosmic tone to the psalm. Again, God is pictured as “enthroned above the flood”, another reference to YHWH’s victory over chaos. It is this strong Lord that gives the people strength and peace.

Breaking open Psalm 29:
  1. Where have you known God’s glory?
  2. How did it change your life?
  3. Have you shared that vision with others?

A Song of Praise Benedictus es, Domine
Song of the Three Young Men, 29-34

Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers; *
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; *
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths; *
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

This song, used as a canticle in the liturgical churches, follow after Daniel 3:23, but for context you might want to look at Daniel 1:6-7. It is sung in the morning offices of the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.  There is no extant Hebrew or Aramaic text of the song, although there are witnesses to it in Greek, Syriac, and Latin sources. Some scholars see a late origination of the song, perhaps the 14th Century. It models the praise of and cosmic context of Psalm 22.

Romans 8:12-17

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Fresh from the celebrations of Pentecost, Paul would now teach us about what it is like to live in the Spirit. Here he makes some necessary distinctions between the flesh (sarx in Greek) and the spirit (pneuma). Although he uses such a “fleshy” term, it is not actual flesh that he is talking about but rather an attitude about life – an attachment to the world and its ways. To this Paul contrasts life in the Spirit. The witness of the Spirit is that we are more than flesh – that we are indeed children of God. He uses other terms of connection: heirs, and joint heirs. We are included in the family of Christ in God. It is quite the distinction.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What is your attitude about the world in which you live?
  2. Where do you see or feel the Spirit there?
  3. How connected to God do you feel?

St. John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Again we are caught up in a dilemma – an understanding about the material and the spiritual.  In the previous chapter of John, we see Jesus caught in the midst of several misunderstandings: his saying about the destruction of the temple (his body), the demand for a sign from the Jews, and Jesus’ doubt about the true intent of those who, “began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.” The pericope ends with an odd verse, “But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well” - enter Nicodemus.

Nicodemus comes with a questioning heart, and perhaps we give him short shrift for this. Others will approach Jesus with the same sense of doubt and question, and it is to these that Jesus urges a new beginning – a new life, if you will. That Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus speech here only gives John the opportunity to expand on what Jesus meant. It becomes a speech of contrasts: seen and unseen, believed and not believed, ascension and descension, that from above and that of this world. Soon we are no longer concerned about Nicodemus. It is almost as if the camera dollys in to focus on the face of Jesus, and to pick up his words. We are all Nicodemus, and perhaps Nicodemus is a representation of those who want to believe, but are caught up in their questions, and wonderment. The final sentence, given the image of all these questing souls, is really quite poignant, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What misunderstandings do you have about Jesus?
  2. Have you been born again? How?
  3. How do you focus on the life of Jesus?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

19 May 2015

The Day of Pentecost - Whitsunday, 24 May 2015

Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:25-35,37
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
St. John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Background: Petra and Pentecost

I have always wanted to go to see Petra, and after seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I was definitely hooked. The buildings there (if you can call them that) are magnificent, but there are other aspects to this site that cause wonder and amazement. The nature of the place, think Bryce Canyon, causes its own sense of wonder, and the approach is utterly magical. That is not, however, what is moving me to write about Petra here, in this commentary on the readings for the Day of Pentecost. As you enter the Suq that leads to Petra proper you are tantalized with a few tidbits, some of which are weatherworn inscriptions. Other carvings are devoted to Nabatean deities, and still others comment on the stream of humanity that wandered through this desolate but stunningly beautiful land.

If anything, Petra embodies the gathering of culture and language from all over the ancient world. The incense trade brought a large sampling of belief and language into one place, and there it made something new and different. We often look at the scriptures with monochromatic eye, not perceiving all the cultures and languages that contributed to it as well. That is what is intriguing about the Pentecost story – the crowds in Jerusalem, the several languages, the ability to understand, and finally Peter’s sermon that tries to make sense of it all. Petra reminds me that I always have to be going back for another visit, another take on what I thought I already knew. In revisiting the scriptures over and over again, we can only see their increasing complexity, and their large embrace of more than one nation, people, or understanding of the world. Though these texts seem familiar seek out in them that which you have not found before.

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "

To understand what is engaging Peter here, it would be good for you to read Jesus’ initial sermon in Luke 4:16-30.  Both Jesus and Peter are/or will be influenced by the Holy Spirit, and both will announce startling news. The reception in Nazareth left a little to be desired, and the initial response in Jerusalem was not much better, “these men are drunk with new wine.” New wine, indeed – a wine fermented by the breath of God. This Pentecost reading presents to us a seedbed, and place of new beginnings, and a full range of possibility. It is the reverse of Babel, and it is as if creation was being redone with a new understanding and reception of the same Spirit that was blown over the face of the waters. Indeed Peter has to draw his audience back into their own sacred history and quote to them from the Prophet Joel who understood all that the Spirit might offer. Luke’s characterization of the crowd as “amazed and perplexed” is not only faith language but Spirit language as well. The Spirit does confuse and make new and different. The whole gamut of humanity in Joel is the recipient of this Spirit, and of her revelations. This is good news for everyone.

Breaking open Acts:
1.     Has the Spirit depicted in Joel visited you? How?
2.     How do you determine that a teaching is true?
3.     Does your faith amaze and perplex you?


Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.

Again we are in the midst of creation images, and examples of the power of the Spirit. This reading is an expansion of what Ezekiel has already promised us in the previous chapter (Ezekiel 36:26-27) and one almost prefers the elegance of the simply stated text. This, however, is the Day of Pentecost, and the drama of the dry bones well suits its ceremonies. Indeed the drama is shared in other works. Look at Job’s musings in Job 10:8-11. In the community’s mind Israel was more than dead, it’s exile had sucked it dry – what more could be expected? The prophet sees more than creation here; it is re-creation, making something new out of what had departed. We might well ask what differentiates this people from those who had “passed on”? It is a Pentecost answer that Ezekiel provides, “O my people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel sees an intimacy of the people with their God, and more importantly an intimacy with God’s will.

Breaking open Ezekiel:
1.     Where are there dry bones in your life?
2.     If they could live again, what might they look like or be?
3.     How has God made you live again?

Psalm 104:25-35,37 Benedic, anima mea

O LORD, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.

There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.

All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.

You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.

You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.

You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.

May the glory of the LORD endure for ever; *
may the LORD rejoice in all his works.

He looks at the earth and it trembles; *
he touches the mountains and they smoke.

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; *
I will praise my God while I have my being.

May these words of mine please him; *
I will rejoice in the LORD.

Bless the LORD, O my soul. *

Verse 24 of the psalm offers a context and a comparison with the psalmist’s desire for us to know the works of God. “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until evening.” The psalmist seems to wonder if that is all that there is as he then lays out before us the mighty works of God. This hymn to the Creator God begins with God’s conquest of the mighty sea. This is the sea that is beyond the chaotic sea that saw the Spirit blow over it. This is a sea under God’s suasion and power, and it is filled with creatures – the product of God’s creative word. It is not a static world; humankind is at work in this world, in ships. The psalmist models for us daily life – ordinary life. What is seen next is how the ordinary is really quite extraordinary and fragile, “You hide your face, and they are terrified.” Again we have an image of death, or near death, and then re-creation. “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.” These are lines worthy of Ezekiel. The Hebrew vocable that animates this psalm is the word, ru-ah (spirit or breath). How can we differentiate between them? We can’t for the Spirit’s breath is that thing that allows us to both praise God and live. The psalmist puts it well, “May these words of mine please (God); I will rejoice in Yahweh.” I can’t help but think of Bach’s cantata based on Psalm 150, “Alles was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn.”

Breaking open Psalm 104:
1.     What is delightful for you in the world?
2.     How is your work like God’s work?
3.     How does God renew you?

Romans 8:22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

If there are underlying themes present in this collection of readings two of them surely are the Spirit and Creation. One wonders, does any one time have a monopoly on the sufferings of a present time? I doubt it, and these verses give us an opportunity to connect St. Paul’s musings here with the reality of the context of our own lives. Women will have an advantage here for it is they who will understand the confluence of suffering and birth. The temptation is to make the sufferings of the times only eschatological, limited to the end of time. Doing that we ignore the real suffering in the world, and our opportunity to apply ourselves to its relief. Perhaps that might bring real meaning to the phrase, “For in hope we were saved.” Paul wants us to know that the hope he writes about is hope for that which is not yet. And yet, I think, the hopes for our world will always have that flavor of being impossible or unattainable. “We wait for it with patience.”  Again the Spirit enters giving voice to the mean, unfocused cries that form our prayers for the world. That God’s will should happen in our world and in our time will be the fruit of that same Spirit. Do we have the patience for it?

Breaking open Philippians:
1.     What emotions do you have when you read that “Jesus emptied himself”?
2.     What does that mean to you?
3.     Jesus was exalted, how have you been exalted in your life?


Acts 2:1-21 (See above)

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Jesus said to his disciples, "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

"I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But, now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, `Where are you going?' But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you."

Jerusalem has been entered with triumph, feet have been washed, and the meal shared. The traitor has already left, and now Jesus gives his disciples an extended elucidation of what is to come. The promise of the Advocate (an interesting choice given that a great deal of the next hours will be spent in a trial) leads the disciples into a different kind of time and relationship with Jesus. Later Jesus’ will launch into the High Priestly Prayer, which one commentator calls the “Prayer of the Departing Redeemer.” And that is precisely what Jesus describes to the disciples with a fierce kind of logic, “For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you.” Here the words are not about creation and re-creation but about proof and logic. In this courtroom, the Advocate is set to prove the world wrong on several counts. We need to remember that the disciples will be the remaining witnesses, and their words need to prove true and reliable. The Advocate assures their effort. In all of this Jesus will be lifted up, even in his absence, and will be made available to any who would believe.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     In what ways is Jesus absent for you?
2.     How do you know Jesus’ presence?
3.     How does the Spirit walk with you?

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

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

or this

O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller