28 July 2017

The Transfiguration of Our Lord, 6 August 2017

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99 or 99:5-9
II Peter 1:13-21
St. Luke 9:28-36

Background: Mountains

In the setting of the Transfiguration we have an adaptation of ancient belief about the abode of the gods in Canaanite culture. Here Jesus is placed into the traditional abode, and with the traditional council in attendance. In an Ugaritic text we have a vision of how the god El receives ‘Asherah, who comes to the great god with a request for the god Ba’l. Look for the clues as to place and company:

Then the two set their faces
Toward the mountain of El
Toward the gathered council.
Indeed the gods were sitting at table.
The sons of Qudšu-‘Elat at banquet,
Ba’l stands by El.[1]

This image of god, council, rivers, and mountain is repeated within the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures (I Kings 22:19, Isaiah 33:20-22). The mountain is the seat of enthronement, and the rivers are the gates of the underworld. At this juncture sits the council who attends to the god. So Luke, as well as Mark and Matthew, places Jesus in the ancient place where gods and councils met. In addition, Luke often uses mountain sites as places of prayer, Jesus seeking the council of the Most High. So this scene is a connection to a broad tradition in the ancient near east, and more particularly, the scene that is repeated over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is placed into a tradition – a tradition that is broader than that of Israel.

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Here Moses is placed at the site of divine conjunction and presence and is visibly altered by the experience. This is common in ancient near eastern texts, and so Moses is a participant in an ancient tradition as well. It sets him apart from the people he has led to the mountain, and they can see the difference. Some commentators see in the veil that is used to moderate the divine radiance a reference to the veil both in tabernacle and in the temple as well. So Moses becomes a foreshadowing of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain.

Breaking open Genesis:
1.          Where and how do you see God?
2.          How are you changed by the experience?
3.          How do you “veil” it from others, or do you?

Psalm 99 or 99:5-9 Dominus regnavit

1      [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.

The psalm repeats the ancient tradition as well, with God seated on the “holy hill” and surrounded by the heavenly court (the cherubim) and earthly attendants (Moses, Aaron, and Samuel) both prophet and priest. The reaction of the people is similar to the reaction of the people in the first reading for the day. The people join with the ancient offices of prophet and priest in attending to God.

Breaking open Psalm 99:
1.     Where is your “holy hill”?
2.     What do you see there?
3.    Who is there with you?

The Second Reading: II Peter 1:13-21

I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

For 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.

The author of this letter seeks to distinguish himself and his message from that of false teachers, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths.” He speaks as an eyewitness who had experienced the theophany on the Mount of Transfiguration. He goes beyond this human distinction of having witnessed this occasion in person, and calls to the mind the witness of the Holy Spirit who has moved men and women to be able to testify to the same truth.

Breaking open II Peter:
1.     How is what you read in the Bible true for you?
2.     How do you work to understand the Bible?
3.    How does the Holy Spirit help you?

The Gospel: St. Luke 9:28-36

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Who is this man that the disciples have been following? What they have witnessed so far is their own call as individuals, and then a series of healings, and contentions with local religious leaders. In addition there is teaching, and acts that impart salvation to people. There are questions as to his true nature and mission, notably even from John the Baptist. So this scene is an important one, in which the inner circle is let into the secret identity of Jesus. This is done in a setting redolent of ancient understandings of the divine (see Background, above) but thoroughly grounded in reality, as they are bidden to keep the secret and return to the stuff of daily life in the plain below. So this story connects Jesus not only to the ancient God and that God’s council (Moses and Elijah), but also connects Jesus to the needs of those who have followed him, and those who might follow him (Peter, James, and John). The problem that is explored is one of wondering what to do with this vision and this new knowledge. That will be the disciples’ labor over the time, as they walk with Jesus to Jerusalem and its decisive denouement.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What role do Moses and Elijah play in this scene?
2.     And what is the role of Peter, James, and John?
3.    How do you participate?

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

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]  Cross, F. (1973), Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, page 37.

26 July 2017

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, 30 July 2017

Track One:
Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139:1-11, or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

Track Two:
Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17

Romans 8:12-25
St. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Background: Parables

Parables ask hard spiritual questions, or highlight pertinent spiritual issues, and yet they are immensely popular.  They are known prior to their use by Jesus.  A primary example of parabolic teaching in the Hebrew Scriptures is the parable that the Prophet Nathan uses to chastise David after his affair with Bathsheba (II Samuel 12:1-6.)  Unlike a fable, which often uses animals to teach a human lesson, or allegory which substitutes symbols for the main idea of the lesson, the parable here gives the reader, and David, a conjectural case worthy of the law courts and a guilty or not guilty verdict.  The parable leads David to recognize his own guilt in the situation that the prophet speaks against.  This connection between the Law and the parable helps us to understand the role that Jesus would play as he used the parable as a device for personal or public instruction.  In a sense, the parable underscores Jesus role as “Rabbi” – the interpreter of the Law.  Whether or not this term was even known or used by Jesus, (some argue that it only emerges as a title following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) the connection between Law and teacher/interpreter still holds.

The audience of Jesus’ parables, however, could range from those who followed him, either disciples or those interested in his teaching, or those who opposed Jesus’ teaching.  Either was game to receive the parabolic point that he wished to make.  In Matthew, the parables fall generally into one of three areas: a) broadly dealing with the Kingdom of Heaven, b) teaching the detailed connections of covenant and the Kingdom of Heaven, or c) dealing with the decision to go to Jerusalem and the destiny that awaits him there.  Examples of each are: a) The Parable of the Sower (St. Matthew 13:3-8) with its addition themes of harvesting and winnowing, b) The Parable of the Lost Sheep (St. Matthew 18:12-14) where Jesus explores the value of the one in contrast to the many, and c) The Parable of the Tenants (Saint Matthew 21:33-41) placed after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, fully describing in parabolic form what awaits him there.  William F. Albright makes some interesting comments about the connection of Covenant (Law) and Jesus’ teaching,

“It seems likely that any reflection on covenant by Jesus would mean that he had considered the implied claim that any “New” Covenant must have God as author, and the OT requirement that it be sealed in blood.”[1]

Preachers or interested readers might do well to read Albright’s excellent article on the Parables, as they appear not only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but parallels in the Gospel of Thomas as well.  See the footnote below.

Track One:

First Reading: Genesis 29:15-28

Laban said to Jacob, "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?" Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah's eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, "I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel." Laban said, "It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me." So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed." So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?" Laban said, "This is not done in our country-- giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years." Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.

It is too bad that in this track of readings we are skipping around, missing crucial texts and developments.  Following Jacob’s deceitful behavior over against Esau (substituting the “red red stew” for a mess of lentils and bread) both Rebekah and Jacob trick Isaac into giving a blessing to Jacob that was meant for the firstborn.  Now in this reading, Jacob receives his comeuppance.  After working for seven years (seven is a number given to completeness or perfection in the Hebrew Scriptures) for Rachel, whom he loved, Jacob is surprised when Laban gives to him Leah rather than Rachel.  The explanation is easy enough for she is the first-born and she is exercising her rights.  The text does not comment on whether Jacob gets the point, but merely moves on to his seven years of additional labor (due to the lack of the bride price) for the hand of Rachel. 

Breaking open Genesis:
1.          Why does Jacob not comment on his being given Leah instead of Rachel?
2.          Is this karma?  Why or why not?
3.          Where have the tables been turned on you?

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b Confitemini Domino

Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.

Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.

Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.

Search for the LORD and his strength; *
continually seek his face.

Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,

O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.

He is the LORD our God; *
his judgments prevail in all the world.

He has always been mindful of his covenant, *
the promise he made for a thousand generations:

The covenant he made with Abraham, *
the oath that he swore to Isaac,

Which he established as a statute for Jacob, *
an everlasting covenant for Israel,

Saying, "To you will I give the land of Canaan *
to be your allotted inheritance."


Were we to read the entirety of this historical psalm, we would see rehearsed for us in its many verses the history of Israel.  Our particular section for today reviews the history of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the promise made to them that is recapped in the final verse of the psalm, “To you will I give the land of Canaan, be your allotted inheritance.”  What is crucial in this reading (and relates to comments made on parables in the introductory section above) is the Covenant that God has made with Abraham.  The verses of the psalm illustrate not only the recipients of theses promises, but its summary detail as well.  To understand the psalm fully and to catch its complete gist, one might want to read the missing verses that will give additional meaning to the promise repeated in verse 45.

Breaking open Psalm 105:
1.     How has God lived out the Covenant with you?
2.     What kind of covenants have you made in your life?
3.    How have you honored them?


Psalm 128 Beati omnes

Happy are they all who fear the LORD, *
and who follow in his ways!

You shall eat the fruit of your labor; *
happiness and prosperity shall be yours.

Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house, *
your children like olive shoots round about your table.

The man who fears the LORD *
shall thus indeed be blessed.

The LORD bless you from Zion, *
and may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.

May you live to see your children's children; *
may peace be upon Israel.

The use of this psalm seems to work against the theological sense of the first reading, instead asserting its romantic nature.  I, for one, will not use it in that Psalm 105 has a great deal more to say.  This psalm comments obliquely on labor such as Jacob performed for Laban, but more succinctly comments on the role of woman at this time.  “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house.”  There is no public place for the wife, or for women in general, in this psalm.  It is the man, “who fears the Lord (and) shall thus indeed be blessed.  Perhaps this is an interesting text to preach on, but certainly not to read without accompanying comment.

Breaking open Psalm 128:
1.     What are your thoughts about how women are pictured in this psalm?
2.     How might you explain the “fruitful vine” verse to others?
3.    If you are a woman, what is your role in your household and faith.  If you are a man, what are your thoughts on this psalm?


Track Two:

1 Kings 3:5-12

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you." And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?"

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

Last week we commented on the various holy places in Israel as an explanation about the importance of the incident at Beth-el in the Track 1 reading.  You may click here to see that article.  Here the shrine is at Gibeon, a “high place” that indicates that in spite of David’s insistence (and we might assume Solomon’s too) on the use of Jerusalem as the sole place for cultic activity, this ancient high place is used by Solomon as well (see the preceding verses).  The Deuteronomist author of this section offers a somewhat embarrassed reply, “For a house had not yet been built for the Lord.”  The real point here, however, is the monarchy’s (Solomon’s specifically) relationship with God.  Here, like prophets of old, Solomon has a “night dream”, a revelation.  This vision is unusual in that it is actually a conversation or a prayer in which Solomon asks for wisdom for his coming reign.  This is probably the connection that this reading has to the Gospel for this day – a collection of pieces of wisdom about the Kingdom of Heaven.  God replies and offers to Solomon great wealth and wisdom.  It is the common wisdom, however, that will be his reputation in the ages to come.

Breaking open the I Kings:
1.     What do you wish God would give to the rulers of this world?
2.     What do you wish that God would give to you.
3.    In what ways are you wise?

Psalm 119:129-136 Feci judicium

Your decrees are wonderful; *
therefore I obey them with all my heart.

When your word goes forth it gives light; *
it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; *
I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, *
as you always do to those who love your Name.

Steady my footsteps in your word; *
let no iniquity have dominion over me.

Rescue me from those who oppress me, *
and I will keep your commandments.

Let your countenance shine upon your servant *
and teach me your statutes.

My eyes shed streams of tears, *
because people do not keep your law.

We have been reading from this acrostic psalm devoted to the Law for several Sundays now.  Here the psalm comments on the intents of the first reading regarding the Wisdom that Solomon requests from God.  The author is in an ecstasy about the Law and Word that God gives.  In the verse, “it (your decrees) gives understanding to the simple.”  Thus the wisdom that Solomon requests is not only something available to the rich and powerful, but to “the simple” as well.

Breaking open the Psalm 119:
1.     When and where do you read the Bible?
2.     If not, why not?
3.    What wisdom does the Bible give to you?

Romans 8:26-39

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

"For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered."

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul often makes effective use of the notion of “weakness”.  Here weakness becomes an invitation for the entrance of the Spirit into our speaking and praying.  Paul assets our inclusion in the family of God in spite of our weakness, and then wonders what we are to say about this relationship.  God is seen as a companion, someone standing by us in all things.  He imagines that no one can accuse us for we are allied with God.  Is this a fool’s paradise?  No.  Paul outlines that we yet encounter difficult times and decisions.  He uses a quotation from Psalm 42:22 to underscore our strength standing in the face of difficulties, “For your sake we are killed all day long, we are counted as sheep for slaughter.”  People of faith, including Christians and Jews have stood and will stand in the face of danger and threats.  Nonetheless, God it is who stands with us.

In the final verses, looks away from the difficulties to once again perceive the love of God, and the tight relationship of God and those God calls as God’s own.  In this hymn, all the powers that might threaten us are rendered useless in the faith of the love that God bears for us and that we in faith bear toward God.

Breaking open Romans:
1.     What are your weaknesses?
2.     How do they give you strength?
3.    How do you stand up to the powers of this world?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Again, today, we have more parables to sharpen our understanding of the Kingdom of heaven.  The devices are simple: mustard, yeast, treasure, pearls, and a fishnet.  The themes are there to illustrate the scope of the kingdom, from the very small to the very large.  Of special interest are the birds that rest in the “mustard tree” that represent the nations of the earth (cf. Daniel 4:7-9, 17-19).  Thus the kingdom is more than we can or want to perceive.  It includes more than we can imagine.

There are other contrasts related to value, the treasure, and the pearl, which require us to give up all that we have in order to gain more.  The image of the fishing net is especially valuable in that all sorts and condition of sea life is captured in the net.  Some will be useful, and some will not.  Some will be a sign of the kingdom, and some will be cast into the fire – a sign of condemnation and damnation. 

The final comment has reference to the scribes “who have been trained for the kingdom.”  These are not the old scribes, who only bring out the old, but scribes of the Kingdom of heaven, who bring out the new (good news) as well as the old (the law and the prophets).  These images strike an inclusionary note that is good for us to see.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is the depth and breadth of your faith?
2.     What about the Kingdom of Heaven is valuable to you?
3.    What are your old things, and what are the new things of your faith?

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

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; 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