30 October 2017

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26, 5 November 2017

Track One:
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99

Track Two:
Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96

I Thessalonians 1:1-10
St. Matthew 22:15-22

Background: Mitzvah

Mitzvah is the Hebrew word for “commandment.” It refers not only to those commandments, which we memorized as a child, but to the 603 other commandments that rabbinic Judaism considers as given at Sinai, and an addition seven commandments given later. This collection can be divided into the following areas: 1) The Ten Commandments, 2) The Covenant Code, 3) The Ritual Decalogue, 4) The Priestly Code, 5) The Holiness Code, and 6) The Deuteronomic Code. This collection covers all of the aspects of life, ritual behavior, and social norms. As the so-called Five Books of Moses were brought into a collective form, the editors and redactors brought their own understandings, and traditions into the collection, giving us the wisdom of the elders through the ages. With the advent of the Synagogue and the Rabbinate during the Persian Period, these materials took on a greater importance among the people. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tries to ground these commandments in the Kingdom to come.

First Reading: Joshua 3:7-17

The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the Ark of the Covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.” Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”

When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

Joshua is a complex book, and a difficult read for any of us in this century who have seen the horrors of genocide and total warfare. It is really two books, one detailing the conquests of the Israelites, and the second records the allotments of the lands that were conquered. Most of the book was brought together in the seventh century BCE, under the Josianic reforms, and has both the hand of the Priestly and the Deuteronomic authors/editors evident in the text.

In an effort to underscore the miracle of liberation and the scene at the Reed Sea, the author of this section of Joshua repeats the Mosaic miracle. The crossing over into the land of promise is a seminal event, and so it is dressed in the glory of that former even. Now the Ark serves as the protective device, as it is carried in front of the people. There is anticipation in the text, “As I was with Moses, I shall be with you.” That is the theological element that stirs this text. The other arrangements in the text seem largely logistical. The theme of protection and privilege is seen in the “mounding up” of the Jordan so that the people can pass over on dry land.

Breaking open Joshua:
1.      What events from your life do you repeat in order to understand them better?
2.      What protections does God offer to you?
3.      When have you entered a land of promise?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 Confitemini Domino

     Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
2      Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
3      He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
4      Some wandered in desert wastes; *
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
5      They were hungry and thirsty; *
their spirits languished within them.
6      Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
7      He put their feet on a straight path *
to go to a city where they might dwell.
33    The Lord changed rivers into deserts, *
and water-springs into thirsty ground,
34    A fruitful land into salt flats, *
because of the wickedness of those who dwell there.
35    He changed deserts into pools of water *
and dry land into water-springs.
36    He settled the hungry there, *
and they founded a city to dwell in.
37    They sowed fields, and planted vineyards, *
and brought in a fruitful harvest.

The redeemed ones in verse 2 of the psalm are not theologically redeemed, which is what we are used to, but rather they are politically redeemed. “The hand of the foe” clues us into this distinction. The bulk of the psalm meditates and recalls the wanderings in the wilderness, and thus is a good partner to the Joshua text. The redemption and gathering, however, may not be a match. This psalm, which notes that they are “gathered from the lands,” may be a sign that this is a psalm rejoicing in the return from exile. Thus it may actually date from the same period as the Joshua text, but refer to a different event. The word translated as “west” in verse three can actually be translated as “from the sea”, which would add additional weight to the exile argument. The elided section, verses 8-32 describes the wandering in wilderness in detail, and describes God’s presence with them. God is described as the one who makes things different. The wilderness can become pools, or it may be the result of a river become dry. God is the ultimate master of the situation.

Breaking open Psalm 107:
1.     Have you ever been redeemed from a difficult situation?
2.     Describe your situation and redemption>
3.    Did God have a role in your redemption?


Track Two:

First Reading: Micah 3:5-12

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you, without revelation.
The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
and the day shall be black over them;
the seers shall be disgraced,
and the diviners put to shame;
they shall all cover their lips,
for there is no answer from God.
But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
and to Israel his sin.
Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
and pervert all equity,
who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with wrong!
Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
“Surely the Lord is with us!
No harm shall come upon us.”
Therefore because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

Scholars divide the book of Micah in three sections, 1) Chapters 1-3, the work of Micah the Prophet, 2) Chapters 4-5, a later updating of the text, and 3) Chapters 6 and 7, a further updating of the text. Nonetheless we apparently have material that his inspired people over a long period of time (perhaps two centuries) and has engendered additional thought and meditation. We have revelations of both God’s salvation and God’s judgment. Thus the prophet’s work initiates a stream of development and realization of God’s presence in the world, and the work of God’s people within time and in the world.

Our reading concerns the prophets, and wrestles with the problem of how do we receive or hear them. Are they true prophets, or do they represent a spurious truth? Micah represents them as opportunistic, prophesying peace to the one who could pay, and seeing war for the one who has little or nothing to pay. The prophet’s primary product was words, crafted to give thought to what is or what might be. We are inured to words in our day because we have so many of them. These people, however, knew the power of the words, and lived in the shadow of that power. Should the people depend on these spurious oracles, the future might indeed be bleak, “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.”

Breaking open Micah:
1.     Who do you think the prophets of our time are?
2.     In what ways have they been truthful or dishonest?
3.    How powerful are words in your life?

Psalm 43 Judica me, Deus

     Give judgment for me, O God,
and defend my cause against an ungodly people; *
deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked.
2      For you are the God of my strength;
why have you put me from you? *
and why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?
3      Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, *
and bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling;
4      That I may go to the altar of God,
to the God of my joy and gladness; *
and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God.
5      Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *
and why are you so disquieted within me?
6      Put your trust in God; *
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

This psalm may have been originally joined to Psalm 42, and you may wish to read them together as a unit.  Psalm 42 describes the enemies of the people, and 43 then takes on the defense of God’s own. The foes are unnamed, but verse three gives us the notion that they have made exiles of the people, who are now returning to the holy mountain, Zion. God is seen here as joy and happiness, a happy remedy to the disquieted soul.

Breaking open the Psalm 43:
1.     Where do you see God’s light?
2.     What does it mean to you?
3.    What areas of your life need light?

Second Reading: I Thessalonians 2:9-13

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.

What I described to you last Sunday continues on this Sunday. Paul wants to make certain that the Thessalonians know his integrity and purpose in continuing his relationship with them. Themes of motherhood and the relationship with children are used to describe his understanding of the relationship that he has with this congregation.

Breaking open I Thessalonians:
1.     Who has served as a parent to you?
2.     What sets them apart in your mind?
3.    How do you take care of others?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus asks his hearers to call to mind the discrepancy between what the teachers of Israel say (which he encourages them to do) and what is the actual product in their own lives. It is something to be left behind and abandoned. Jesus wants them to understand what the law is for, and what its instruction should actually be. This is seen in the relationship that the student has with the master, “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” The question is, who is to honor your righteousness? Jesus sees that the people are tempted by the adulations of others, when it is God’s honor that is to be sought.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What religious rules seem arbitrary to you?
2.     How do you deal with them?
3.    What rules do you apply to others.

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

24 October 2017

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, 29 October 2017

Track One:
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

Track Two:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1

I Thessalonians 2:1-8
St. Matthew 22:34-46

Background: The Holiness Code

There is a specialized section of the Book of Leviticus that may indeed be a distinct unit within the book. Form Critics have called this section, Chapters 17-26, The Holiness Code. Stylistically it differs from the other parts of Leviticus, and is noted for its frequent use of the word “holy” and for its brief and succinct rendering of the law. Some feel that it is an earlier document that was then edited into the text of Leviticus by the editor known to us as “P”. Like all of the so-called priestly documents, this section was also abused by later editors who added additional materials and laws.

Track One:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

We have here Moses’ final mountaintop experience. He had several of them, from the giving of the Law to God shielding Moses from God’s glory. Now he stands at the summit to see the lands of promise. What is interesting is that the account reflects the settlement of the various tribes later in history; Dan, for example, having moved from the southern coastal plain up into the north. From that vantage point Moses is allowed to see the lands to which the people will go – but he will not. By the word of the Lord, Moses dies in the land of Moab, and there he is buried, not on the mountaintop but in a glen. In this Moses becomes like everyone else – buried below the mountaintop of his experiences. The period of his life, 120 years, has been divided by some into three forty-year periods: Egypt, Midian, and Wilderness.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.          Why is Moses not allowed to enter the promised land?
2.          What promised lands have you not been allowed to enter?
3.          Why was that denied you?

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 Domine, refugium

     Lord, you have been our refuge *
from one generation to another.
2      Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God.
3      You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."
4      For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.
5      You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.
6      In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.
13      Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry? *
be gracious to your servants.
14      Satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning; *
so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.
15      Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us *
and the years in which we suffered adversity.
16      Show your servants your works *
and your splendor to their children.
17      May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; *
prosper the work of our hands;
prosper our handiwork.

The superscription which accompanies this psalm is elided from the liturgical text, but is helpful in tying this psalm to the readings for this day, “A prayer of Moses, man of God.” Thus Moses is the presumed author of this psalm which meditates on the human condition and death. This psalm marks the beginning of the fourth book of the Psalms in which the name of Moses is mentioned eight times. This psalm is the first of those psalms. The psalm is a comparison of God’s eternity and humankind’s mortality. You will get a better sense of this by reading through the entirely of the psalm. Time is seen not only as the period of life given to us but also seen in the context of the eternity of God’s love and care.

Breaking open Psalm 90
1.     Where are you in your span of life?
2.     What are your thoughts about death?
3.     How will God be present at your death?


Track Two:

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Here, a couple of chapters into the Holiness Code, the author reiterates God’s holiness, and the demand for our holiness as well. The subsequent verses recite the Great Law of love of God, neighbor, and self. This forms the context of Israel’s relationship with God, a relationship that governs how we deal with both self and others. There is no difference, for by implication, God is in relationship with both rich and poor.  Mirroring God’s relationship, Israel is called to care for everyone, and not to take advantage.

Breaking open the Leviticus:
1.         In what ways do you love God?
2.         How do you show that same love to your neighbor?
3.         How do you love yourself?

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.

The psalm understands both good and evil, evil begets difficulty and trouble, and good begets blessings. In this wisdom poem we have a collection of the usual comments on the wages of both good and evil. As such it borrows from the customs and aphorisms of a universal culture. The mind model it takes is that of walking, and determining one’s destination. There is however another model as well, and that is of the tree planted by water. This is compared to the chaff which the wind blows away. Both take full advantage of the climate and geography in which the psalm was written. The poem begins with those who are righteous, and closes with images of the wicked – a perfect envelope for this wisdom psalm.

Breaking open the Psalm 1:
1.     In your mind what is the benefit of doing good?
2.     Is there a penalty for doing evil? What is that penalty?
3.     What does the image of a tree planted by water bring up for you?

Second Reading I Thessalonians 2:1-8

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

We might wonder what Paul’s motives are in this letter to the Thessalonians, and he does not disappoint us in offering an explanation. He reminds them that they are already partners in a common knowing – a mutual understanding. What he goes on to comment on is a growing and improving relationship with the Thessalonians. Paul compares himself to a nurse, gently dealing with his addressees. Thus he shares the good news of Jesus, and a personal relationship with them in Jesus.

Breaking open I Thessalonians:
1.     Who is your mentor in the faith?
2.     What did the Thessalonians and Paul have in common?
3.     What do you have in common with your mentor?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 22:34-46

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

The Pharisees have not left us yet, and continue their testing of Jesus. In the first exchange they question him about the commandments and which is the greatest (see the first reading).  It is a test of his ability to be a rabbi, a teacher to any who might want to know God. He passes. Jesus understanding is that this basic understanding of the Law encompasses all of the relationship with God. What follows then is a similar kind of questioning, this time Jesus questioning the Pharisees. In it, “whose son is he?”, Jesus pushes through to the core of their wonderment. Jesus wants to know what they think about the Messiah. The traditions around the hope of a Messiah were largely connected to the Davidic covenant, in which God pledged support to the kingship in Israel. What Jesus wishes to point out to them is that they are hoping for the wrong thing. The conundrum that they face is the quotation from Psalm 110, where majestic David calls the Messiah “Lord”.  The questioners leave stupefied by the question

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Does Jesus pass the Pharisee’s test?
2.     What do you understand by the word “Messiah”?
3.     How is Jesus Messiah?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; 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