24 February 2016

The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 6 March 2016

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
II Corinthians 5:16-21
St. Luke 15:1-3, 11bn-32

Max Beckmann, The Prodigal

Background: Inheritance in Jesus’ time

In the Israel of Jesus’ time inheritance was largely patrilineal.  I say “largely” because there are biblical instances of an inheritance passing from the father to a daughter (see Numbers 27:1-4). The laws of inheritance were complicated by the code that did not allow the land passing from one tribe to another. The whole of the code is transmitted in the later verses of Numbers 27 and again in Numbers 36. The firstborn son was entitled to receive a double portion of the estate, while other sons received lesser amounts.

Joshua 5:9-12

The Lord said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the Passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

We must understand, at the very beginning, that a great deal of the material in Joshua is specious, probably coming from the same minds and hearts that formed Deuteronomy. Returning to the land of their fathers and mothers, the exiles must have felt that an epic work describing their initial entry into the land was necessary. The vicious and violent onslaught that is described probably did not happen as accounted for, but was, rather, the occupation of abandoned sites, or sites that were conquered during the monarchy.

The verses that precede this pericope describe the rite of circumcision that was deemed necessary for those men who had been born in the wilderness. The concern is not so much a matter of practicality (the men are readying themselves for battle three days later) as it is one of ritual purity. And that is where we take up the text, at Gilgal, getting ready for the Passover. The phrase, “I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” is a pun on the place name Gilgal that means circle, or wheel. The writer wants the reader to connect this important ritual site to the freedom that God had provided the people. In looking at this particular celebration of Passover, the people would have been aware of the first Passover in Egypt. This is a cultural cusp in which Israel moves from the wilderness and its manna to the land flowing with sweetness and milk. It may also mark the movement from nomadism to farming, for the people “ate the crops of the land.”

(I’d be interested in seeing any sermon that might come from this particular text!)

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. How do you mark momentous events in your life?
  2. What does God want Israel to remember?
  3. What is the importance of writing history?

Psalm 32 Beati quorum

     Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
2      Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3      While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
4      For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5      Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
6      I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
7      Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8      You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
9      "I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; *
I will guide you with my eye.
10    Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; *
who must be fitted with bit and bridle,
or else they will not stay near you."
11    Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.
12    Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

This is a particularly joyous psalm redolent with the happiness that comes with reconciliation and redemption – a perfect text for today’s Gospel. Quickly we are made to understand that the writer is thankful for forgiveness, “Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt.” The third verse describes the psychological trials that accompany the unrepentant, a situation that leads to a diminution of life itself. The following verse describes the relief that comes from confession. Verse 7 of our translation doesn’t seem to fit and may have been added by a later editor, but the following verses then take up the theme again with “you surround me with shouts of deliverance.”

With verse 9 of our translation we seem a theme of wisdom being pursued. It almost seems as though a new character or speaker has entered the discourse of the psalm with the words, “I will instruct you.” What follows are examples of behavior that are to be avoided: the horse and mule, or the wicked. Rather we are bidden to trust in the Lord, and shout for joy.

Breaking open Psalm 32;
  1. How do you feel when you confess something to someone?
  2. How does forgiveness feel?
  3. How does forgiving feel”
II Corinthians 5:16-21

From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Paul, in this fifth chapter, looks ahead to what is to come, and to what is promised. He is making an earnest effort to convince the people of Corinth of the necessity of this perspective and hoping for their subsequent transformation. He literally wants to see them, and they to see others, from God’s point of view. The situation has changed in that everything is now new. The goal is reconciliation with God, and the subsequent ministry of reconciliation that must be the stuff of the mission at Corinth. Paul wants them to understand their own agency in this ministry, “God is making God’s appeal through us.” Paul entreats his readers to become the very “righteousness of God.”

Breaking open II Corinthains
  1. How does God regard you?
  2. How do you generally regard others?
  3. How should you regard others?

St. Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So Jesus told them this parable:

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

Jesus is in a teaching mood, and his students are the Scribes and Pharisees. His point is that they understand divine grace and forgiveness.  The students do not understand Jesus’ habit of “welcoming sinners and eating with them.” So now Jesus tells a parable of two sons, each representing the obstacles and difficulties that this good news represents. The lectionary skips over parables about the loss of property (a lamb, and a coin) and focuses on the story of the prodigal. The question that confronts us in entertaining this parable is one of seeing who is the true prodigal, the son who wastes his inheritance, or the father who so quickly restores and forgives. The plot is complicated by the behavior of the other son who looks askance at his father’s behavior, and it is further complicated by the theme of familial or tribal shame that lurks in the background. It is one thing for individuals (the father and the first son) to be reconciled, but something else when we include the whole community.  Thus Jesus' lesson pierces to hearts of not only the individual scribes and Pharisees, but to the whole community, which they lead and influence.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How is the father a prodigal father?
  2. What is your opinion of the second son?
  3. How would ou have responded to the father’s actions?

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

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

20 February 2016

The Third Sunday in Lent, 28 February 2016

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
I Corinthians 10:1-13
St. Luke 13:1-9

Background: The Name of God

Names are important. They become a part of our psyche and self-awareness, and our naming of God functions much in the same way. We identify with it. What is interesting in the Judeo-Christian traditions is that there are several names that are used to identify God, some of which seem familiar, and others that are or seem foreign. The unspoken name of God, YHWH, which in the Hebrew uses the substitute Adonai (Lord), is the subject of the first lesson for today – The Burning Bush, and the unspoken name. It seems appropriate given that in addition to the unspoken nature of the name, there was also no provision for image. Other names, however, are used in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some were in existence before the Hebrew traditions were even formed and migrated in as a cultural expression, such as the early Semitic El, also seen in the Hebrew Elohim (a plural). In the Abrahamic stories we meet a priest, Melchizedek, a priest of El Elyon, likely a Canaanite expression, or El Shaddai – “God – Destroyer”, again of Canaanite origin. You might be interested in reading Steve Hollinghurst’s excellent article on “The Mission of God in the Ancient Pagan World.”[1]  His survey of how God was referred to opens our eyes to all the cultures that have influenced our traditions. Also of interest might be Thomas Römer’s book, The Invention of God,[2] especially the first chapter, “The God of Israel and His Name.”

Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing; yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."

But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I am who I am." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you':

This is my name forever,
``and this my title for all generations.”

This will not be the first adventure at Horeb (or Sinai). The name gives the indication of a dried up place, some three days journey from the Nile. Given that our first notice of Moses is actually in the Nile, we here see him at the extreme opposite and it is here that his adventure truly begins. The Hebrew word for bush is seneh (in which we see murmurs of “Sinai”). Here is one of the first signs that Moses either witnesses or participates in as he leads Israel from Egypt. The burning bush may also symbolize the wretched conditions of God’s people in Egypt. Not only can God’s name not be pronounced, nor can he be imagined; he cannot be seen by mortals, lest they thus Moses hides his face from the revealed God.

The land “flowing with milk and honey” indicates the huge cultural change that is about to happen. Although nomads would have know the milk of a goat, the stuff of sugar (honey here probably indicates a strong sugar syrup) would have purchased from others. Now it is the stuff of the land. And there will be neighbors and opposing forces: Canaanites, Hittites, and Jebusites. It will not be easy.

Like any prophet worth his denial, Moses says that he is not capable, “Who am I?” As usual, the prophet’s reticence is met with God’s strong promise to be present, and with a sign. Moses’ qualifying question, “Who am I?” also becomes his question for God – “Who are you?” The name is not satisfying but remains engaging – something of a mystery. “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” solves nothing and everything. It sets up a future of activity and relationship the boundaries of which we cannot yet see. This, however, is the hook for Israel.  This is Moses’ authority.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. What does your name mean?
  2. Does it describe you in any way?
  3. What is your name for God?

Psalm 63:1-8 Deus, Deus meus

     O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
2      Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, *
that I might behold your power and your glory.
3      For your loving-kindness is better than life itself; *
my lips shall give you praise.
4      So will I bless you as long as I live *
and lift up my hands in your Name.
5      My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness, *
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips,
6      When I remember you upon my bed, *
and meditate on you in the night watches.
7      For you have been my helper, *
and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.
8      My soul clings to you; *
your right hand holds me fast.

The superscription for this psalm is “A David psalm, when he was in the wilderness of Judea.” It may take its inspiration from the second verse (first in our translation), “as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.” Thus the writer sets up a situation of both want and need, “my throat thirsts for you.” Often the word soul is really a translation of the Hebrew vocable nephesh that indicates existence, and in the context of these verses flesh itself. What is clear in these verses is the author’s longing for God, and God’s presence in the midst of life. In the midst of thanksgiving, there is remembrance here of a presence in the Temple (Odd, that if this is truly a David psalm, during the period of Saul, there would have been no temple.) Life situations and images are abundant in this psalm – the night bed, and the sumptuous meal. It is in the midst of these things that the author remembers and at the same time longs for God.
outs his parents as having abandoned YHWH, and pointing out his own faithfulness.

Breaking open Psalm 63;
  1. What does it mean to thirst for God?
  2. What do you long for in life?
  3. What do you long for in your religion?

I Corinthians 10:1-13

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play." We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Paul holds up the history of Israel as an example and a contrast. The initial verses serve to make the Corinthians aware of the unity and bounty that were given to Israel. All of the references mind us of the Red Sea event and all of them serve as allusions to the Christian sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. So we follow Israel through the sea, eating the manna (bread) and drinking the waters provided from the rock. The crossing through the sea itself becomes a reminder of the baptism that brings unity to Christ’s people. However, Paul issues a warning, “God was not pleased with most of them.”

What follows is a catalogue of the “sins” of Israel, and Paul provides us with one of his usual lists. So in this pericope Paul instructs us in what goodness God has given us in the sacraments, and then rehearses the pitfalls that might provide difficulty for us. Here is the principal warning; “We must not put Christ to the test.” It is a reverse of the thought that the example of Israel is a reminder of our own Lenten tests and probation. Thus another warning, “So if you think that you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Paul’s good news is that we are not alone in our testing

Breaking open I Corinthains
  1. How is your life like that of the Israelites?
  2. How do you remember your baptism?
  3. What does the Eucharist provide you?

St. Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

It would do you well to read the initial part of this pericope that is not provided for in the lectionary (Luke 12:54-59) which prepares the people for watchfulness and a sense of vigilance. It provides for a sense of the scene as the people question Jesus about events in Galilee. It is a familiar question, but not about current events. It questions, as has been done in the past, about what was the innate sin that caused the massacre in Galilee, or the fall of the tower at Siloam. Jesus, however, is interested in mercy on God’s part and repentance on our part. Thus the parable of the fig tree. The logic of the master is questioned by the caring nature of the caregiver. There is always time for more probation, more time for mercy, more time for producing the ripe fruit. Here the watchfulness and vigilance is not for the roaming Satan that wishes us to devour us, but rather vigilance for signs of the kingdom and its goodness.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are you anxious about, or what are you watchful for?
  2. What should you be vigilent for?
  3. What are the fruits of your life?

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

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; 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] Hollinghurst, S. (2009), Mission Shaped Evangelism, The Gospel in Contemporary Culture, Canterbury Press, London.
[2] Römer, T. (2015), The Invention of God, Harvard University Press, Cambridge