31 October 2016

All Saints' Sunday, 6 November 2016

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Saint Luke 6:20-31

Background: All Saints’ Sunday
One wonders how the popularity of this festival became so great that it has spilled over to the Sunday following, thus assuring its celebration. The original feast in the West was celebrated on 13 May (roughly similar to its celebration in the East) where it commemorated the dedication in 609 of the Pantheon in Rome by Pope Boniface IV to Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres. Later, ca. 735, the feast was moved to 1 November at the dedication of an oratory at Saint Peter’s Basilica for the relics of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs, and confessors. In some churches, the day has become conflated with All Souls’ Day (2 November) in which the general commemoration of the saints is combined with a remembrance of all the dead.

First Reading: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: "As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever."

Daniel, both the book and the character are complex entities. We have seen Daniel as a prophet, a dream-teller and interpreter, but unlike the prophets of old who did not attempt to peer into the future but rather mediate God’s message for the present time, Daniel is predictive. It is the product of a Judaism that was reeling under the abusive policies of Antiochus IV Epiphanus, and wanted to see a way out, a means for redemption and salvation. The book is written both Hebrew and Aramaic, and thus represents something of a collection of teachings and sayings that comment on their times, most likely the product of several authors. The book also introduces ideas, which were new to Judaism, namely the notion of the resurrection of the dead. Thus it represents to us a Judaism influenced not only by the Greek ideas of Hellenism, but also by ideas flowing out of Persia as well.

In our pericope we meet a Daniel who is modeled on the great dream-teller Joseph (Matthew will also use this model in his Birth Narrative). He has a vision of four beasts and is disturbed by it. If we note resemblances with the Dead Sea Scroll materials, and later with the Book of Revelation it is because the former was being written at about this same time, and the later was definitely influenced by Daniel. Why is this reading included here? “The holy ones of the Most High” seem the most likely reason that this text was included by the framers of the Lectionary. That would provide for a distinctly Christian reading of that text. Most commentators see the reference as to the angels. And it is the angels that make frequent and useful appearances in the course of the book. Perhaps anyone preaching on this text could see in that comparison and behavior a description of the saints.

Breaking open Daniel:
1.          What visions do you have about the church and its future?
2.          What about your own future?
3.         Who is your guide into the future?

Psalm 149 Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.

Let Israel rejoice in his Maker; *
let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.

Let them praise his Name in the dance; *
let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp.

For the LORD takes pleasure in his people *
and adorns the poor with victory.

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; *
let them be joyful on their beds.

Let the praises of God be in their throat *
and a two-edged sword in their hand;

To wreak vengeance on the nations *
and punishment on the peoples;

To bind their kings in chains *
and their nobles with links of iron;

To inflict on them the judgment decreed; *
this is glory for all his faithful people.

If this psalm is late, and there are a couple of indications that it is so – the reference to “adorning the poor with victory”,  “let them be joyful on their beds.” – the first being a retelling of the people’s story of deliverance (here described as “the poor”) who are graced with victory over their enemies, and the second to the late practice of reclining to eat, as at a banquet. The whole psalm evokes a celebration of praise of God for the victory given to God’s people. Perhaps this is the connection to the day that honors all the saints – whether known or unknown, the people of God’s grace are given the victory.

Breaking open Psalm 149:

1.     What kinds of victory has God given you?
2.     What kinds of victory have you given others?
3.    How are the saints victorious?

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:11-23

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

The patterns of blessing in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the developing forms of Christian worship certainly have influenced Paul’s words here, if not actually borrowed by him. While our pericope are not words of blessing per se, they convey the blessings that are inherent in Christ, and that Paul wishes to explicate to the people of Ephesus. The saints are mentioned numerous times in the text, but it is the raising of Jesus, and his exultation to the right hand of power and dominion that is the true center of Paul’s focus. Of special interest is Paul’s idea of pleroma the fullness of Christ, and the saints that comprise the church, completing the universe with an abundance of God’s grace and mercy in Christ Jesus.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. How is Christ a blessing in your life?
  2. How do you bless others?
  3. How would you like to be blessed?

Holy Gospel: Saint Luke 6:20-31

Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Here we have Jesus forming his disciples, and the casual hearer as well. The initial four blessings, there is the Lucan focus on the poor and dispossessed. We don’t experience the spiritualization that Matthew applies to his beatitudes – here it is simply the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and the hated. One idea worthy of exploration might be is this either an existential reality (being poor) or an adopted reality (mendicancy). What follows, however, is at once a departure from the blessings, but also a patterning after the style of “Blessings and Curses” found in the Hebrew Scriptures. His reversal of the fortunes of the first four underscores the great messianic reversal that this text looks forward to. The question for the casual reader or for the lector or preacher is one of reality. Who am I in this equation, and what must I do to be on the right side of things? The final paragraph speaks of reversals over which we have a modicum of control – loving enemies, doing good to those who hate, blessing those who curse. These are the behaviors of the redeemed, and it seems odd that amongst Christians today such behaviors are seen as weak and unfaithful. I suspect that few preachers venture into the Lucan version, and most certainly avoid the final paragraph of this pericope. It is time for refreshment and challenge

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     In what way are you poor?
2.     In what way are you rich?
3.    How do you reconcile the two?

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

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

11 October 2016

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26, 30 October 2016

Track One:
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144

Track Two:
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-8

II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Saint Luke 19:1-10

Background: Sacrifice – What was sacrificed?
There is a great deal of concern in the codes governing sacrifice that there be a level of purity in the animals that were sacrificed. They could not be blemished or damaged in any way, including being castrated. They were to be considered clean, which allowed mainly for bulls and oxen, cows and calves, sheep, lambs goats and kids, along with turtledoves and pigeons. The animal was required to be at least seven days old. Sacrifice, however, was not limited to animals. Bloodless sacrifices included the offering of flour or grains, wine and oil. At most sacrifices frankincense and salt were used, and in some instances leaven or honey. Of most importance, however, was the blood that was a product of the sacrifice. The blood was life and nephesh (soul). Blood would be sprinkled on the altar, or in some instances was smeared on the horns or side of the altar. In each sacrifice the following acts or gestures were followed: a) the laying on of a hand or hands, b) the killing, c) receiving the blood, d) bringing the blood to the altar, e) sprinkling the blood, and f) the burning of the sacrifice.

Track One:

First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

The initial verses briefly introduce us to Habakkuk, and then are followed by the argument that will inform the remainder of the oracles recorded here. What the prophet observes is the injustice of Judean culture, and he complains to God that he is forced to witness it. Verse one of the second section, could almost be read sotto voce to the audience – what will God do? You may want to go a read the whole of chapters one and two, for the initial complaint of Habakkuk is followed by a response from God in which God reveals plans for the punishment of Judea. That, then, is followed by another complaint on the part of the prophet.

There is a subtext here, one of waiting. The prophet must stand on the wall and await God’s word to him. What follows is to be committed to writing, so that more than casual hearers to understand. There is a desire for clarity, for God urgently wants the people to understand the entirety of his vision. The vision retains a certain hope – and it is valuable enough that one should wait for it. The audience is seen as two types of individuals – the proud and the righteous. We should, however, not leave off at the descriptor; “the proud” for there is a further definition as to their true makeup. “Their spirit is not right in them.” One commentator described this as a “faintheartedness” a weakness that would abandon any waiting upon the Lord. The word that is connected to the righteous one is the word “faith.” This one will wait for what God has purposed.

Breaking open Habakkuk:
1.          What is Habakkuk’s grievance against God?
2.          What is God’s grievance against Judah?
3.         What is Judah’s hope?

Psalm 119:137-144 Justus es, Domine

137  You are righteous, O Lord, *
and upright are your judgments.
138 You have issued your decrees *
with justice and in perfect faithfulness.
139 My indignation has consumed me, *
because my enemies forget your words.
140 Your word has been tested to the uttermost, *
and your servant holds it dear.
141 I am small and of little account, *
yet I do not forget your commandments.
142 Your justice is an everlasting justice *
and your law is the truth.
143 Trouble and distress have come upon me, *
yet your commandments are my delight.
144 The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; *
grant me understanding, that I may live.

The commentator, Artur Weiser, is no fan of this particular psalm, calling it “a particularly artificial product of religious poetry.”[1] Its verses endlessly circle around their love of God’s law, which may account for Weiser’s final comment on the psalm as a whole,

“On the other hand, however, one cannot fail to realize that a piety such as is expressed in the psalm, according to which God’s word and law take the place of God himself and his wondrous works (v.13), are even worshipped (v. 48) and become the source of that comfort which as a rule is bestowed upon man by the divine saving grace (vv. 50, 92), carries with it the germs of a development which was bound to end in the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes.”[2]

So what are we to make of our liturgical selection this morning? The speaker identifies so closely with the words that proceed from the mouth of God, that those who do not follow them are considered “enemies.” Perhaps that particular phraseology was enough to have the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary to ally this psalm with the Habakkuk text. The remainder is a panegyric on the Law of God, with a concluding prayer requesting wisdom.

Breaking open Psalm 119:

1.     What do you think is the best part of the Bible?
2.     The worst?
3.    How does it influence your life?


Track Two:

Second Reading: Isaiah 1:10-18

Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation--
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

The reading from Isaiah includes portions from two separate pericopes, all of 1:10-17, and one verse from 1:18-20. Both show evidence of the rib pattern that we have seen before, an invitation to a legal dispute. In verse 2 of this chapter we witness the court being assembled, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear O earth, for YHWH is speaking.” Verse 10 continues the dispute that is addressed now to the people who are characterized as residents of Sodom and Gomorrah – such is the severity of the accusations that will follow. The question is basically one of importance and standing. Is it the Word of God that directs the lives of the people, or is what they do ritually that makes for righteousness. God’s apparent attitude over these various holy assemblies and ceremonies makes for an unambiguous answer, “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.” For a point of comparison, you may wish to refer to Amos 5:22ff. and to Jeremiah 7:21ff., where the two prophets reject the whole sacrificial system. Others understand this to be an argument particular to the situation in which Isaiah and the people find themselves. As lookers on from a later time we might find the particularity argument more convincing – that is Isaiah’s true work here, to center the people once again in what God truly desires. Here we find the prophet’s usual messianic view: “seek justice,” “defend the orphan”, and so on.

Our liturgical selection includes verse 18 of the next section. In it we begin to hear words of reconciliation, “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.” There is some negotiation that needs to happen but we already know the outcome, for the sins of the people are about to be erased by a generous and gracious God. There is one condition raised, and unfortunately it lies beyond the liturgical selection of the reading from the lectionary. You might want to consider it, however, or even append it, “If you are will and hear.” Here is the operative behavior, the one that is striven for – apprehending God’s word and then acting on it.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.     How does God look upon your offerings?
2.     Why is God disdainful of Israel’s offerings?
3.    How is your worship worthy?

Psalm 32:1-8 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.

We have a psalm that celebrates completed actions on the part of God and the speaker: transgression, confession, and forgiveness. The details of the psalm reveal a certain level of textual difficulties, and so we need to rely in the central themes outlined above.

Breaking open Psalm 32:
1.     Do you have sins that are difficult to leave behind?
2.     How do you confess?
3.    Do you hear God’s forgiveness?

Second Reading: II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Following the proper address that begins the letter, we begin a prayer of thanksgiving. In it we understand what it is that Paul wishes to address with the people of Thessaloniki. Thus we can expect the letter to address the love and support that the members of the congregation have for one another, their steadfastness during persecutions, and a hoped for worthiness.

Breaking open II Thessalonians:
  1. For what is Paul thankful?
  2. What are your works of faith?
  3. Why does Paul boast of the people of Thessaloniki?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

Is wealth a blessing or an obstacle to faith? It is this fundamental question that Luke has been circling around over the last several chapters. The latest of these encounters involves us with Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector.  This blog spent some time introducing us to the office and social status of this class of people in the discussions about Proper 25 (see Pentecost XXIII, Proper 25). Now there is an encounter with Jesus, and we wonder what direction it will take. The draw of Jesus is palpable, and we wonder what it is in Zacchaeus’ life that attracts him to Jesus.  There are efforts that he has made to rectify the misdeeds of the past, “and if I have defrauded anyone of anything.” What is unspoken here is that he has defrauded and stolen, who he is indeed a sinner, not just presumed to be a sinner.

Jesus reverses the social situation by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home – a presence that on-lookers take in with a certain amount of umbrage. Zacchaeus recognizes what has been done, not only in his “confession and repentance” but also in Jesus’ reverse invitation – thus the joy. The story concludes with a realization about wealth. It doesn’t make up for the man’s physical challenges (he was very short), nor does it provide a sense of security and well being to Zacchaeus. Jesus perceives Zacchaeus’ true wealth in his apparent faith that supersedes his status as a son of Abraham.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How does your wealth govern your life?
2.     How do you honor those who are in need?
3.    How is Jesus your guest?

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

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; 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

[1]Weiser, A. (1962), The Psalms, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 739
[2]Weiser, page 740f.