26 August 2016

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, 4 September 2016

Track One:
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

Track Two:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1

Philemon 1-21
Saint Luke 14:25-33

Background: Pottery

That Jeremiah should use the images of and knowledge about the potter, as a way of describing Israel’s relationship with YHWH should not surprise us. This means of storage, cooking, and later decoration was the bedrock of civilization and it is the means by which we can identify peoples and tribes, in their distinctive potteries. The creation story itself relies on the notion of the potter as well, as Adam is formed from the earth and given the breath of life.

In the Fertile Crescent, human beings were making pottery from ca. 7,000 BCE on. We can see its earliest manifestation at the Hassuna site (a tell near ancient Nineveh) where archaeologists have found a slab-built pottery that was undecorated and not glazed using a low fire and reddish clays. In the next 1,000 years, the potter would become more complex in terms of clay composition, building techniques, and decoration. The potter’s wheel first appears sometime around 4,000 BCE (although some argue an earlier date). This devise revolutionized pottery production allowing for greater productivity and a variety of styles that could easily be replicated. The introduction of the kiln, and clays that allowed for a higher firing temperature also expanded the production of pottery.

Track One:

First Reading: Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Often the prophet uses the stuff of daily life, names, incidents, professions, and materials, to illustrate the divine point to be made.  What Jeremiah observes in the potter’s work is the infinite possibility that the clay represents. Israel, the clay, thus is a product of the potter’s (God’s) will. Once God’s sovereignty is understood, then a series of “If” “then” statements show what God promises to do.

If I will pluck up and break down
If I declare that I will build and plant (a nation).
If that nation turns from its evil
If it does evil in my sight
Then I will repent of the evil I intended.
Then I will change my mind about the good I had intended.

Thus the broad scope of both God and Israel’s options are displayed and discussed. It is not only Israel that the potter shapes, but its destiny and the consequences of its actions as well.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     In what ways has God formed you?
2.     Who are the others who have formed you as well?
3.    How do you form yourself?

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 Domine, probasti

     Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
2      You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
3      Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
4      You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.
5      Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
12    For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
13    I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
14    My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
15    Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.
16    How deep I find your thoughts, O God! *
how great is the sum of them!
17    If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; *
to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

The intimacy of God’s knowledge of us Jeremiah demonstrates in the potter’s knowledge of the clay. It is a similar intimacy to that which refers to in his call as a prophet. Thus the psalmist has knowledge of God’s knowledge – a knowing of what God has perceived in the psalmist’s life. If we were to have an inkling of what it is that God knows about us – what would we learn and know? The wonder and awe that comes upon the created when there is an insight into the Creator. Thus we experience his reverie at knowing both God and self.

Breaking open Psalm 139:

1.        What does God know about you?
2.        What do you know about yourself?
3.        What might you change?


Track Two:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said to all Israel the words, which the Lord commanded him, "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob."

The author wants the reader/hearer to understand the complexities of the contrasts that form the relationship and covenant with God. He greets Israel with the first of them, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” There will be more such as “good” and “evil”, “blessings” and “curses”, “prosperity” and “adversity”. In short, Israel is given the opportunity to choose a place in the whole spectrum of a relationship with YHWH.  In a sense, the people are a new Adam and Eve facing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Rather than being expelled from the Garden, they are being invited into the Garden, the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey. There are witnesses to the nation’s choice – the heavens and the earth, in other words the whole of Creation observes what Israel will choose. The final advise of Moses is to “choose life”. The whole Judeo-Christian enterprise is an exploration of that choice.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.     What choices does life offer you?
2.     Do you have any regrets?
3.    What do you hope to choose?

Psalm 1 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!
2      Their delight is in the law of the Lord, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.
3      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.
4      It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
5      Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
6      For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

If Moses has given the people a sense of choice, then the psalmist celebrates the choice that the righteous have made. There is a contrast here as well; the choices that the evil have made – and the consequences of both of these choices are examined. This is a wisdom psalm, and aside from our theological understandings of this text, we can see here the common understanding of life that was common in the Ancient Near East – it pays to be good. There is a multiplicity of images that held the hearer to understand the choice: trees planted by water, chaff, walking on the journey, attending to or standing within a group. The intimacy of the last verse is just that. The knowledge that God has of the righteous is like the “knowledge” that sexual partners share – the intimacy is that deep.

Breaking open Psalm 1:
1.     With whom do you keep company?
2.     Whom might you better avoid?
3.    What influence do you have on others?

The Second Reading: Philemon 1-21

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

In Philemon we enter a very difficult social construct. If we believe that we have removed ourselves from understandings and remedies to slavery, then we haven’t read our newspapers, or listened to the political discourse in this country. We need to wonder what Paul’s purpose is here – to keep the status quo, or to indicate a kind of change that is necessary amongst Christians. The question of slavery was not an item of discussion for either Romans or Greeks – it was a settled issue that had the bulk of Roman and common law supporting its conclusions. Nor is the issue distinctly Gentile in nature. Israel allowed for slavery as well.

In the situation at hand – a slave is commended to the master from whom he has escaped (?) been released (?). Paul’s purpose is to know what is the right thing to do. He bases his recommendations on the relationship that he has with Philemon, calling him a “partner” (the same term that he uses for Titus). What he proposes is that Philemon take back his slave Onesimus, and not just take back, but to “welcome him as you would welcome me.” That seems terribly direct and unequivocal. It is clearly Paul’s expectation that his directive be followed so that his heart might be refreshed in Christ.

Breaking open Philemon:
  1. Have you witnessed slavery?
  2. Have you ever taken back a friend that harmed you?
  3. What are your thoughts on what Philemon should do?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

When we last heard from Jesus he was making radical recommendations about whom we might entertain at dinner. Now he moves even farther in his radicalism. Dietrich Bonhöffer posed the question as he explored “the cost of discipleship” and that is exactly Jesus’ approach here. The costs are painted in bold terms, “hate father and mother, wife and children”, “have life itself”, “carry the cross”, and “give up all your possessions.” It all seems impossibly clear. There is, I think, a zen to all of this. As Meister Eckhart said, ““Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.” Jesus is asking for a clean tablet of experience so that we might be disciples and to follow. Time after time it is noted that they left all and followed him. Such costs are difficult to discuss in a time when Christianity in its various forms is the norm, rather than the departure.  Perhaps we need to make it the departure.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What have you given up in life for the sake of your faith?
2.     What have you taken on?
3.    What is a cross for you?

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

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, 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

22 August 2016

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, 28 August 2016

Track One:
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16

Track 2
Sirach 10:12-18 or Proverbs 25:6-7
Psalm 112

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Saint Luke 14:1, 7-14

Background: Pride

We are caught, in our time, between two conflicting notions of pride.  On the one hand it is part and parcel of the Greek notion of hybris, an over-valued sense of self and importance in the scheme of things, and on the other hand, a sense of self and accomplishment that is part of the general good of things. Added to this are the psychological aspects of pride, or lack of it. If anything, our time seemed determined to address the sin of lack of self-esteem and self worth. Thus minority groups both racial and sexual, along with women and others have addressed the issues of pride and self esteem. Casting aside the devaluations that have been leveled against them by the prevailing patriarchy, or societal values in general, these groups have sought to regain themselves in a better sense of self. The question, then, is how do these efforts meld with what these lessons, this morning seem to want to teach us about pride?

Track One:

First Reading: Jeremiah 2:4-13

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
They did not say, "Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?"
I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, "Where is the Lord?"
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord,
and I accuse your children's children.
Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns’
that can hold no water.

The psychological setting of a jilted and forgotten lover is usually the scene of untoward anger and unedited emotions.  The situation here is precisely that – Israel has forsaken her “husband” YHWH, and now it is YHWH who responds. The response however is the measured rejoinder of a lawsuit, and once again, as we have been several times before, we are in the courtroom listening to testimony. In addressing “all the families of Israel” we are clued in to the domestic nature of this dispute and proceeding. It begins with an earnest question, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me?” What follows is a rehearsal of what YHWH has done, beginning with the being set free from the land of Egypt, a land characterized as “a land of drought and deep darkness.” From this land, the people are brought into a good land – a land that is not only a gift from God, but also a sign of the favor God bears toward Israel. It is a possession that is not only spiritually threatened, but physically as well. Other powers, “the coasts of Cyprus…(and) Kedar” - these places threaten the relationship with their gods, after whom the people yearn and become faithless.

“Therefore once more I accuse you.” And thus it begins again, and not only for this generation but for future generations as well. The heavens are called to witness Israel’s seeking after gods that “are no gods.” The thirst of Israel is false – “cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” The land, the water, the relationship are all bound up in the relationship with YHWH, and thus their God makes a case.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. Does national pride ever overtake love of God?
  2. Have you seen that in your time?
  3. How do you remain faithful to God?

Psalm 81:1, 10-16 Exultate Deo
     Sing with joy to God our strength *
and raise a loud shout to the God of Jacob.
10    I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt and said, *
"Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it."
11    And yet my people did not hear my voice, *
and Israel would not obey me.
12    So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their hearts, *
to follow their own devices.
13    Oh,that my people would listen to me! *
that Israel would walk in my ways!
14    I should soon subdue their enemies *
and turn my hand against their foes.
15    Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him, *
and their punishment would last for ever.
16    But Israel would I feed with the finest wheat *
and satisfy him with honey from the rock.

The psalmist speaks with the voice of Jeremiah, and reminds us of God’s lawsuit in the first Track One reading. These are familiar elements, the freedom from Israel, the deafness to God’s commands, and a giving-over to their base desires. The theme here is a bit different, relying on the richness. It is not water that flows from the rock, but rather honey! nature of listening, so that a following might come after the words are heard. There are consequences to this change of behavior, “I should soon subdue their enemies.” If the Jeremiah reading ends with a sense of thirst and wanting, this psalm ends with satiation and

Breaking open Psalm 81:
  1. In what ways do you listen to God?
  2. In what ways are you deaf to God?
  3. What is it that you don’t want to hear?


Track Two:

First Reading: Sirach 10:12-18

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
For the beginning of pride is sin,
and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
and destroys them completely.
The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
He removes some of them and destroys them,
and erases the memory of them from the earth.
Pride was not created for human beings,
or violent anger for those born of women.

This is a late entry, but not into the canon. Written in the early part of the second century BCE it represents a stage in Jewish wisdom. The background is a period of difficult and violent change as the rule in the Levant transferred from the Egyptian Ptolemies to the Syrian Seleucids. It was written in Hebrew, but was translated into Greek around 117 BCE by the author’s grandson. In a sentiment similar to the cynical comments of Qohelet he comments on the temporary nature of “the nations”. “(God) removes some of them and destroys them, and erases the memory of them from the earth.” He connects human pride with unfaithfulness to God. (Users of the Track Two readings may want to look at the Track One First Reading for a further development of this theme). In the closing verse he opines that pride is not a part of what it means to be a human.

Breaking open Sirach::
  1. What is Sirach’s view of pride?
  2. Is pride good or bad – explain.
  3. What might you substitute for pride?


Proverbs 25:6-7
Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, "Come up here,"
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

This is a faint substitute for the reading from Sirach, but straightforward. Brave the reading from Sirach, it has a much more complex development than the dicta of these proverbs.

Breaking open Proverbs:
  1. What is Proverb’s view of pride?

Psalm 112 Beatus vir

Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!
2      Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
3      Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.
4      Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.
5      It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.
6      For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.
7      They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right;
they put their trust in the Lord.
8      Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies.
9      They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.
10    The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.

This wisdom psalm is an antidote to the pride that has been introduced in the First Reading and that will be treated later in the Gospel. Who and what is the virtuous person? Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the psalmist counts the ways. The introduction of heroic characters in the initial verses also lends itself to an understanding of a prosperous individual. What flows toward these people is carefully outlined in the verses that follow. Even the future is assured in the promise of a good remembrance of the virtuous person. The last verses add a note of contrast to the goodness rehearsed above.

Breaking open Psalm 112:
  1. Who are the righteous persons in your life?
  2. What virtues do they display?
  3. How do you emulate them?

The Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence,

"The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?"

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

If we have been reading the whole of Hebrews we will have noticed the author’s desire to underscore the values of faith, hope, and love. What follows now is a connection to what kind of life ought to be lived in the light of those virtues. Thus we begin with “mutual love and hospitality”, and ancient understanding of what it means to be connected to both God and neighbor. This is not “pie in the sky” either, for the readers are encouraged to remember prisoners and other unfortunates. It is the full context of life as he addresses marriage and family, fiscal prudence, and satisfaction with what God has given. Finally there is a plea to remember “your leaders”, - today we would pray for the church and its ministries. Above all this stands a ubiquitous and eternal Christ to whom we are bidden to offer a “sacrifice of praise.”

Breaking Open Hebrews::
  1. How is your life marked with mutual love and hospitality?
  2. How do try to live a life in Christ?
  3. Does it show?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Once again we are dining at the home of a Pharisee, and it will serve as a setting for teaching and wisdom. Jesus is an astute observer of the scene, “when he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.” But what might be seen as gentle comments on the niceties of human society will soon become demands of a higher sort. The real object of Jesus’ concern (and certainly Luke in his program as well) is “the humble.” First of all we are asked to observe a sense of humility in ourselves and then to find it in the world. In identifying the humble of the world, Jesus would have us see the focus of our hospitality. The guests are a sign of the messianic kingdom, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” There is no giving here with the hope of getting. The rewards are eschatological and spiritual in nature. What a lesson for our time!

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How do you follow Jesus notion of inviting in the poor?
  2. What do you do with your sense of guilt?
  3. How can you serve the poor?

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

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; 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