24 February 2017

Ash Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 103 or 103:8-14
II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Saint Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Background: Penance

The practice of penance, a repentance of sins, hovers around several interpretation among Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans. The controversy that surrounds the use of “good works” and the role of “faith” among catholic and protestant theologians is the cause for the inexact identification as to its sacramental or non-sacramental nature. Amongst the orthodox, Confession is seen as an admission to Christ about one’s state of sin, with the priest serving as a witness and advisor. Anglicans have long had rites that allowed for confession and absolution in the Book of Common Prayer. It was not without controversy, however, especially during the latter half of the nineteenth century with the reaction to the tractarians and their restoration of “catholic” practice. Lutherans see in repentance an act of contrition and an act of faith, while in the Roman Catholic Church the idea of penance embraces a number of different acts – including the sacramental act of Penance. In the church’s year, the seasons of Advent and Lent both have a focus on penance and on penitential acts, although the penitential nature of Advent has been largely diminished in the liturgical reforms of the latter part of the twentieth century.

First Reading: Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near--
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, "Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
`Where is their God?'"

There is an aspect to Joel that is utterly Lutheran, and that is its two major emphases, the first being Joel’s announcement of God’s judgment on human sin, and the second being an announcement of God’s grace and mercy to those who have sinned. The book was written in a relatively quiet time in the life of Judah, when it was largely a backwater of the vast Persian Empire (ca. 500 – 350 BCE). The second temple exists, and becomes of setting for some of the oracles. The reading for this day consists of three pericopes, the first being “The Day of the Lord” (2:1-11), the second being two small passages (2:12-14) “What Might Have Been”, and the third being “The Call to a Fast of Lamentation” (2:15-17). The greater part of the first pericope has been elided by the Lectionary, and focuses on the Day of the Lord, which is introduced by the prophet in the first chapter (1:15). It is both introductory and descriptive in nature, and leads us on to more substantive material in the later verses.

The section from the second pericope focuses on the history of Abraham and his people. It is a call for contrition and repentance, and like the latter prophets calls for a more spiritual understanding of repentance, rather than a real “rending of garments.” The theme is best expressed here, “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?” There is a conditional hope centered on God’s mercy and kindness. This possibility prepares us for the third part of the reading, the actual return of the people to God. We see it in the temple ceremony “between the vestibule and the altar.” Here we see the results of the trumpet blown in Zion, and of the announcement of the great penitential act. The people have gathered, and now make their prayer, “Spare your people, O Lord.”

Breaking open Joel:
1.          What kind of hopes do you have of God?
2.          What do you do with the sorrow in your life?
3.         What do you do with your emotions when you’ve done something wrong?


Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
"Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

In this reading, one of the later Isaiahs describes to us “Fasting that is pleasing to God.” Again, we see a spiritualized understanding of the act of fasting with some rather real expectations of what it should actually encompass. Verses 6-7 describe these acts in detail, the freedom that comes with true penance, and sharing that must happen amongst the forgiven community. What follows in the latter verses of the reading are promise that follow the community’s true fast. Israel will not longer have a silent or absent God, but rather one who answers and guides. The ruined community, not just its buildings and walls, will be restored by these acts, and the people will have a new name, “repairer of the breach”.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.     Do you ever abstain from something for spiritual benefit?
2.     If you do not, why not?
3.    What benefits do you hope to have from fasting?

Psalm 103 or 103:8-14 Benedic, anima mea

     Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
2      Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and forget not all his benefits.
3      He forgives all your sins *
and heals all your infirmities;
4      He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
5      He satisfies you with good things, *
and your youth is renewed like an eagle's.
6      The Lord executes righteousness *
and judgment for all who are oppressed.
7      He made his ways known to Moses *
and his works to the children of Israel.]
8      The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
9      He will not always accuse us, *
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
10    He has not dealt with us according to our sins, *
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
11    For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
12    As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
13    As a father cares for his children, *
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
14    For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
[15   Our days are like the grass; *
we flourish like a flower of the field;
16    When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *
and its place shall know it no more.
17    But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who fear him, *
and his righteousness on children's children;
18    On those who keep his covenant *
and remember his commandments and do them.
19    The Lord has set his throne in heaven, *
and his kingship has dominion over all.
20    Bless the Lord, you angels of his,
you mighty ones who do his bidding, *
and hearken to the voice of his word.
21    Bless the Lord, all you his hosts, *
you ministers of his who do his will.
22    Bless the Lord, all you works of his,
in all places of his dominion; *
bless the Lord, O my soul.]

There is an intimacy and a foundation in the first verse that helps us to see the fundamental nature of what the psalmist is saying here. The word “soul” slips off our tongue too easily, and so we miss the intent of the verse. It is our very being, or essential self that is called upon to bless the Lord. What is the perspective of the psalmist here – why such an extravagant call to worship? Perhaps this psalm of thanksgiving is the result of a delivery from illness or a grave problem. It doesn’t really matter, for the psalm becomes applicable to a God who repairs, forgives, restores, dispenses mercy. And it is not focused only on the details of an individual situation, but has a broader almost cosmic scope of thanksgiving. “Bless the Lord, you angels of his.”

Breaking open the Psalms:
1.         How is God a part of the essence of your life?
2.         What is an outstanding moment in your life when God seemed to intervene and help you?
3.        How did you give thanks?

Second Reading: II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

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.

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

"At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you."

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

The theme here is reconciliation. It is Paul’s vision of the Day of the Lord. Unlike Joel, it is seen solely as a day of salvation. “We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.” So there is no reason why the Christians of Corinth cannot be reconciled to the God who has redeemed them. Paul guises himself as God’s friend and their friend as well – a friend who has offered himself up in so many ways: afflictions, hardships, etc. Paul shows the contrasting nature of what it means to follow Jesus, indeed to be Jesus (“made to be sin, who knew no sin.”) And so we continue in that vein, sorrowful/rejoicing, poor/rich, having nothing, having everything. Life in Christ is lived in such a context and confusion.

Breaking open II Corinthians:
  1. When have you been reconciled to someone else?
  2. What was the cause of the parting and then of the reconciliation?
  3. How have you been reconciled to God?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Today’s reading is a continuation of the Great Instruction that Jesus offers as a part of the so-called Sermon on the Mount.  It is comprised of four separate pericopes: “Almsgiving” (6:1-4), “Prayer”(6:5-6[7-15]), “Fasting” (6:16-18), and “Wealth” (6:19-21). The overarching methodology here is a comparison to the hypocritical behavior of unnamed others in the synagogues and in the streets. The followers of Jesus are to be distinguished by their own public behaviors, which keep these things private. Thus  the giving of alms, praying, and fasting are to be interior practices. The final pericope on wealth seems unconnected to the concerns of the first three, but asks that there be a distance from the things of this world in favor of an intimacy with the things of the kingdom. The real implied wealth here are the spiritual benefits that accrue from the practices that Jesus points to in his instruction.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What acts of goodness do you do?
2.     In what ways do you keep them private?
3.    Why do you keep them private?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; 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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

15 February 2017

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 26 February 2017

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
II Peter 1:16-21
Saint Matthew 17:1-9

Background: Theophanies

Not peculiar to Hebrew culture in particular, theophanies are found throughout ancient near eastern culture and classical culture as well. The first theophany that we are aware of is in the Gilgamesh Epic where Utnapishtim receives advance warning of the flood from an appearance of Ea. There also examples of theophanies in the classical period and in the literature from that period. The Greek theophany is more centered about the revelation of an image, such as the ceremonies surrounding the return of Apollo in the spring. There are other examples in Roman and Greek mystery religions.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, theophanies are a revelation of God to a human being, as to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:9-19, or Noah in Genesis 6:13. Some of these visions are of a general nature, while some are more intimate. The vision given to prophets falls in the first category, but those granted to Moses are of a special nature. “The LORD said: Now listen to my words: If there are prophets among you, in visions I reveal myself to them, in dreams I speak to them; Not so with my servant Moses! Throughout my house he is worthy of trust: *face to face I speak to him, plainly and not in riddles.”

The Christian experience is such that it required a new word – one that described a more particular theophany – the Christophany. The Gospel text for today is a physical appearance and thus would be typed as a theophany. The resurrection appearances of Jesus would be a more typical example of a Christophany, as is the appearance to Paul in Acts 9. One other series of Christophanies are the visions recorded by Saint John the Divine in the Book of Revelation.

The First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

Here we are impressed with the physical nature of the “words”. The commandments are inscribed, written on a stone. Thus there will be a more permanent record of God’s will. As if to offer further comment on the problems of daily life that the words seek to mediate, Moses commands the elders of Israel to arbitrate any disputes that might arise amongst the people of Israel. Thus the text supplies two examples of God’s law – the actual words, and then the interpretation and living out of them in daily life.

What follows is a theophany, seen even from a distance, as the people observe the mountain with its fiery top – further described as “consuming” or “devouring”. Such distinctions added to the “threat” within the vision. It is into this region of terror and dread that Moses willingly enters. His experience there is not for a moment but rather for a “fullness” of time – 40 days and 40 nights.

Breaking open Exodus:
1.          What are the compelling visuals in this pericope?
2.          Words written, or words spoken – which is the more important to you?
3.         How would you describe Moses’ emotions in this scene?

Psalm 2 Quare fremuerunt gentes?

     Why are the nations in an uproar? *
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
2      Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt,
and the princes plot together, *
against the Lord and against his Anointed?
3      "Let us break their yoke," they say; *
"let us cast off their bonds from us."
4      He whose throne is in heaven is laughing; *
the Lord has them in derision.
5      Then he speaks to them in his wrath, *
and his rage fills them with terror.
6      "I myself have set my king *
upon my holy hill of Zion."
7      Let me announce the decree of the Lord: *
he said to me, "You are my Son;
this day have I begotten you.
8      Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance *
and the ends of the earth for your possession.
9      You shall crush them with an iron rod *
and shatter them like a piece of pottery."
10    And now, you kings, be wise; *
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11    Submit to the Lord with fear, *
and with trembling bow before him;
12    Lest he be angry and you perish; *
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
13    Happy are they all *
who take refuge in him!

The scene seems to be specific in nature, but the details are unavailable to us at this point. Its inclusion in the lectionary here seems to be an attempt to describe kingship in relationship to the transfigured Jesus. The object of the ire of the kings of the earth is YHWH and the Anointed One. Is this the Messiah of hope or is this the intended heir of the current Davidid king? Both might be possible. The point of the psalm is to laud the power and suasion of the God of Israel.


Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit

     The Lord is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
2      The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
3      Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
4      "O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."
5      Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
6      Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.
7      He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
8      Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.
9      Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.

Again we meet God in the guise of a cosmic ruler, who is enthroned upon the cherubim, as would be any ancient near eastern monarch.  In verse 6 we see God’s kingship displayed with the prophetic (Samuel and Moses) and the priestly (Aaron). This is the context within which to view God’s total presence with the people.

Breaking open the Psalms:
1.     In what ways is God a king?
2.     Who is God’s anointed one?
3.    What do you understand by the term “messiah”?

II Peter 1:16-21

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Two forms are evident in II Peter; that of the letter sent to Christians, and that of the testament, usually given at the end of life. Here the author seeks to address a church that has disappointments and challenges. Paul might help us understand this situation when he writes to Timothy about the challenges that he is facing in his ministry, “I repeat the request I made of you when I was on my way to Macedonia, c that you stay in Ephesus to instruct certain people not to teach false doctrines or to concern themselves with myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the plan of God that is to be received by faith.” Thus the person writing as Peter begins this pericope with the passage on “cleverly devised myths.” What he does is set up a contrast between a faith based on mythology, or a faith based on the apostolic witness – “but we had been eyewitnesses.” This is the stuff of divine revelation, a glimpse of God’s true glory, much like that witnessed by Peter, James, and John witnessed on the mountain,

  1. What is a myth to you?
  2. What is the apostolic witness?
  3. What are compelling myths in your life?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

In this possible remembrance on the part of Peter we see Jesus in the midst of a very real world, suddenly revealed as the divine Beloved One, much as he was at his baptism. The claim here is that Jesus is the Messiah, and a careful review of Psalm 2 above can help us to see all of the expectations that come out of such a viewpoint. Albright, in his commentary on Matthew, notes the common phraseology that appears in this pericope as well as in resurrection and ascension pericopes as well. This seems to be a unique event, rather than a retrojected resurrection appearance. It has a place in the accounts of three evangelists, and the passion prediction with which Jesus’ justifies the silence that he requires, ties the transfiguration of a newly figured messiah as well. Thus the glory witnessed by the three is mediated by the realization that this is the Son of Man who must die (be raised from the dead.) What might be seen as a fantasy is actually a call to see Jesus in the reality of the situation.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is the root of your life in Christ?
2.     How do you try to meet the letter of the law?
3.    What do you do when you fail?

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

O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; 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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller