25 January 2016

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
I Corinthians 13:1-13
St. Luke 4:21-30

Background: Prophets I
There are several redeeming features to Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, the most salient of which is the film’s depiction of ecstatic prophecy. Those playing the role look fairly crazy, and that is probably how they might appear to us were we to have the ability to see and experience them. Prophecy was not just the product of Israel, but was know throughout the Ancient Near East (ANE). The title means “one who speaks for another”, and all the cultures of the Near East had offices and practitioners of this sort of thing. The other aspect to prophetic work was the importance of “interpretation”, and in some cultures that was a separate function and duty. In Israel, the prophetic office was usually not connected with the priestly office, while in other cultures the two were interconnected, with the priest serving as both medium and interpreter. We get a glimpse of these other prophets especially in the story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24) in which case the foreign prophet serves at the behest of YHWH. A great deal of the prophetic mission, both in the ANE, and in Israel as well, was of a protective nature, determining if the god would protect a king or a nation. A good example of this is in I Samuel 23:2. Another aspect of the prophetic world is that of the ecstatic prophet, where in a sense of “possession” is present. Another glimpse into the other prophets can be seen in the “contest between Elijah and the prophets/priests of Ba’al in I Kings 18:19-40. In the higher cultures, such as that at Babylon, the prophetic office was a bit more rigid and formal, leaving behind the ecstasy of Canaan, and other “lower” cultures. There were, however, Babylonian ecstatic prophets, the mahhu, who delivered their messages in the midst of a divine possession. This, however, was a much wider office than the focused prophets of Israel, mixing priestly, magical, and medical functions into one office. It is important to see that the Israelite office does not emerge wholly on its own, but shows a dependency and influence from other cultures. It enhances our ability to understand the prophetic office and its forms.

Next Week: Prophets II (The Call)

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."

Marc Chagall - The Prophet Jeremiah

Today’s reading functions not only as an introduction to the work of the prophet Jeremiah, but also as his credentials in doing this work. The commentator John Bright sees this pericope as “the prophet’s own reminiscences”[1] which served to lead the reader (or hearer) into the substances of the prophet’s work. The call exists as a dialogue between the prophet and YHWH. Readers may want to compare similar experiences in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-3. The features of this call are: 1) A foreknowledge of the call, 2) Personal objections, 3) Promises of divine aid, and 4) Receiving the word in his mouth. It is in this last element that we can understand Jeremiah’s motivations, namely that he spoke for YHWH. Our pericope ends at the first vision, but is followed with two other visions (1:11-16 and 1:17-19). You may want to acquaint yourself with those further visions and images to give a broader context to this particular call.  The vision of the pericope certainly makes it clear about the “sending” of the prophet, for the Hebrew word nabi has that notion as a root of its understanding of the prophetic mission as “sent ones” (apostles!) Thus, “for you shall go to all to whom I send you.” The sending is first, and then the speaking. What accompany these actions are the protections that God affords, “for I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah sees the word given to him as devastating, a warning to those to whom he speaks the word. The devastation, however, is followed by the promise of renewal, “to build and to plant.”

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. I what ways do you think yourself unqualified to speak about God?
  2. I what ways are you prepared to speak about God?
  3. What of Jeremiah’s remarks resonate with you?

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.

The psalm reflects Jeremiah’s understanding of the foreknowledge of his call, “From my mother’s womb, you have been my strength.” Out of this understanding, the psalmist makes supplications to God. Thus we can see this psalm as one of supplication, but also one of thanksgiving as well. There is a retrospective aspect to this psalm, as the writer looks back over a lifetime to discover God’s presence and protection. The verse regarding being sustained in a mother’s womb is reminiscent of Psalm 22:10, and may have been influenced by that work. The framers of the Lectionary certainly chose this psalm because of its shared themes with Jeremiah.

Breaking open Psalm 71:
  1. What supplications do you need to make known to God?
  2. What thanksgivings to God do you need to make?
  3. How does God sustain you in life?

I 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.

Saint Paul continues his meditation of the “Body of Christ.” It is unfortunate that this particular pericope has been blunted by overuse at weddings. The subject of “love” becomes flattened and static, and it will take some effort on the part of the lector or the preacher to recover the multi-dimensional nature of love in the Scriptures. In Paul’s vision, love is not what only what binds people together romantically (such a notion was probably foreign at the time) but what binds together the spiritual gifts that he described in the previous verses. It is an attitude that perceives the divine and spiritual nature of what the other offers, and accepts and receives it as a gift. This lesson on the nature of love within the Body of Christ is best seen in Paul’s stated purpose, pronounced in the first chapter of the book, I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose,” (1:10). Thus the nature of this agape becomes hopeful, patient, and kind. Its purposes go far beyond the relationship of two individuals, but rather extend to the whole “body.”

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. Can you read this text without thinking of a wedding?
  2. What is there to really see in its phrases?
  3. How does this passage speak about the Body of Christ?

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.

The great themes from Isaiah’s reading which formed the core of last Sunday’s Gospel, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord,” lead us and the hearers of the reading to questions concerning authority. There are notable claims here, prophetic anointing, and messianic hopes. We need to remember that in Luke this pericope immediately follows the Baptism scene. With its anointing by the Spirit, and the proclamation by the heavenly voice it is natural for Jesus to take on the prophetic role and to see in Isaiah’s vision a realization of the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus hopes to announce and advance. So Jesus is anointed at his baptism and immediately uses the power of the Spirit to announce something greater.

The reaction of the congregation, the synagogue (the gathered people), will even more firmly affix the prophets mantel on Jesus’ shoulders, here seen in its negative aspects. What Jeremiah derides about his own call (see above, “I am only a boy.”) is reflected in the comments of the congregation, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Jesus sees through their polite talk and gets to the heart of the matter. How is a prophet received? Anticipating the rejection by his own, he anticipates the ministry to the Gentiles in mentioning the Widow of Zarephath from Sidon, and Naaman the Syrian. Early in the ministry in Luke, the boundaries are erased and the outreach goes beyond Israel. In a sense, the text anticipates Jesus’ fate as well – it is death that is intended for him, but his time has not yet come. With their reaction, however, we see Jesus as the true prophet with all of the expectations and difficulties that accrue to such a call.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How radical is Jesus’ message here?
  2. Why do you think that the Nazarenes found it difficult?
  3. How have you been rejected because of what you said?
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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Bright, J. (1965), The Anchor Bible, Jeremiah, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Doubleday & Company, New York, page 6.

19 January 2016

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 January 2016

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

Background: The First Century Synagogue

It is probably no accident that both the synagogue and the early church made use of civic structures for their worship and communities. While visiting the second century synagogue at Capernaum earlier this spring, I was surprised at this visit to realize that it is really the remains of a basilica, and that is not an extraordinary feature. The development of the synagogue has its roots in both Babylon and Egypt, and its purposes grow gradually as the Temple, as an institution is altered, and eventually destroyed by the Romans. In my mind the synagogue was always a feature outside of Jerusalem, having very much to do with the absence of the Temple. Actually there were several synagogues in Jerusalem adjacent to the Temple and functioning as adjunct facilities. The purposes were still mixed: community meetings, political activities, and educational efforts were all centered there, but there was more, as we see in the Gospel reading for today. It was not Temple worship that was done there – that sacrificial system was limited to the center of the cultus in Jerusalem. Even though architectural and artistic features from the temple were depicted in the stone and plaster of the synagogue, the worship was limited to the reading of the Torah, commentary on that reading, and prayer. That is where we find Jesus, as he attends the synagogue at Nazareth – reading from the prophetic lectionary, perhaps someone else had read from the Torah, and then commenting on the passage from Isaiah. The clear focus of Luke’s account does not let us see or have a feel for all the other aspects that the synagogue enjoyed for both men and women. We do, however, get a glimpse.

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."

In the seventh chapter, Nehemiah essentially repeats the account that is given in Ezra 2. Readers may want to acquaint themselves with that material as a point of comparison. What we have here however is an insight to the development of the Synagogue, and the gradual transition from a Temple-centered cultus, to that of the more local congregation, the rabbinate, and the educational effort that the synagogue represents. What is absent this text is any mention of neither the Temple at all nor the High Priest Eliashib. At the walls, the people, both men and women, and “those who could understand” direct their attention to the reading of the Law. This is certainly religious education, but there is an aspect of cultural remembrance and reorientation. Ezra is the main character here and leads a “service” of blessings, reading from the Torah, and blessing the day. These are nascent elements of the Synagogue liturgy that will soon become the center of prayer, and civic and cultural life in the decades to come. The reading points to the Gospel reading for this day, and the role that Jesus takes on in the Synagogue at Nazareth. The attitude of the congregations, however, is quite different.

Breaking open Nehemiah:
  1. Do you have a family Bible? Where do you keep it?
  2. How often do you read from the Bible?
  3. How does the Bible aid you in daily living?

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.

We have here a poem in two major sections, if not three. The first four verses comprise a hymn to creation and God’s inventive power in Creation. It is a wordless language, “although they have no words or language…their sound has gone out,” that speaks to all of us about God’s role and eternal presence in forming the created world. The next two verses have the sun as their focus, and several scholars see this as a deliberate borrowing of Egyptian, or at least images influenced by Egyptian theology, taken wholesale into the poem. Others disagree, and see the verses following it as an anti-pagan argument. The images are striking and have a full mythological bent with the sun compared to a bridegroom, an athlete, or a warrior. Apollo-like, the sun rides the heavens. A clever pun ends this section with the effect of the sun described as “nothing is hidden from its burning heat.” In Hebrew the word for “sun” and “heat” are the same vocable.

Now the poem takes a totally different tack, concentrating on the Law of the Lord. The final verses are devoted to a longing reverie about the Law. The verbs are telling, “reviving”, “giving wisdom”, “giving justice”, and “giving light” among others. If this is not the conjunction of two separate poems, then this may be the argument about YHWH’s superiority and justice. There is also sensuousness to these verses, where the Law is described as the “goldness of gold” and the “honiest honey”. Such a reverie reminds the psalmist of his own faults. Thus the closing prayer us quite appropriate, asking that the words of the psalmist be acceptable to the purposes of God’s Law. This phrase is a nice bookend to the wordless, yet communicative creation in the beginning verses.

Breaking open Psalm 19
  1. What does the “Law of God” mean to you?
  2. What are the parts of the Law that are meaningful to you?
  3. How does God speak to you?

I 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.

For readers who live within the Anglican Communion, this reading from I Corinthians, that expresses the variety, and interdependence within the Body of Christ, will seem more than appropriate and applicable following the actions coming out of the Meeting of Anglican Primate’s that seemingly attempted to punish the Episcopal Church for its stance of Marriage Equality, the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) persons, and the ordination of women. Paul is dealing with his own problems within the congregation at Corinth, some of which may be more of a cultural nature than an expressed theology. The body metaphor is used to underscore God’s role in forming and making humankind with all of their attributes. The dependence of the different body parts on one another mirrors the dependence that Christians (with their various gifts) have with one another. There are comments here about weakness or inferiority. The whole body supports the weaker or inferior parts (clothed with “greater honor”) so that the whole is maintained. The gifts are visited again, ranging from Paul’s own gift of apostleship through a hierarchy of gifts that terminate in the gift of tongues. The gifts, like the various parts of the body, cannot go it alone.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What role do you play in the Body of Christ?
  2. Whom do you admire or honor the most in that Body?
  3. How do you honor yourself in that Body?

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."

As last week in John, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, but not a Cana. Jesus literally goes home, to his own, and there begins the proclamation of his Good News. The Spirit that made an appearance at his baptism seems to impel Jesus to Galilee, and there is an advance word (I am thinking of the “wordless message” in Psalm 19 (above)) about him and his work. This is a return to Galilee – Jerusalem is only the final destination. The appearance in the Synagogue is not an unusual occurrence, “as it was his custom.” Nor is the invitation to read from the scroll unusual. The picture we have, thus far, is of a son, returning home, recognized as already having somewhat of a reputation, and then taking up a usual role in the congregation.

Luke, however, wants us to understand the messianic implications of Jesus appearance here, and that is telegraphed to us in the previous material, and in the passage that he will read and in the application that he will make. The reading is from Isaiah 58, and some readers may want to investigate commentary on those passages as well. There are several aspects of the reading that lead to a focus upon Jesus, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, “he has anointed me,” “he has sent me to proclaim”, “to let the oppressed go free,” and finally, “to proclaim”. The recipients of these actions further accentuate the focus, “the poor”, “the captives,” “the blind”, and “the oppressed.” In the account of the Baptism, Luke describes the people as “filled with expectation”, and here too one can almost fee and hear the held-breath as Jesus returns the scroll and sits down. We don’t have all of his commentary, only the initial words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At this point the lectionary plays games with us – holding us in suspense. We shall have to come back next week to know the effect of Jesus’ preaching.
Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How do you think Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus?
  2. What did the people of Nazareth hear?
  3. How might you have reacted to Jesus’ comments?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller