29 January 2018

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 4 February 2018

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
I Corinthians 9:16-23
St. Mark 1:29-19

Background: An End and a Beginning

On the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, I celebrated my last Mass at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California. I had served there between 2010 and 2012, and again between 2016 and 2018. It was a delightful tenure and I shall miss working with them. It also marked my retirement from active ministry. In June I shall celebrate the 47 Anniversary of my Ordination. It has been a long trek. So, this posting of my blog represents a time out of the pulpit – and I must admit I had used this blog as a way of preparing to preach the Word to a people I knew and sharing whatever insights I had with many I’ve never known. I will miss the tension that real people bring to a priest when searching the Word and breaking it open. To that end I am adding an additional feature to this blog – “Preaching Points”. Its purpose is to direct my study and thoughts toward the world and the needs of the world and its people. You shall have to let me know whether this works or not. Blessings to all of you as wall continue our journey with God and life.

The First Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

We are in a very different time than that of the Isaiah who wrote in chapters 1-39. The Babylon that threatened Hezekiah has been itself threatened by a Persia that will soon take over the world. This prophet addresses not only those who were left in Jerusalem but addresses those now living in Babylon ca. 540 BCE. Who this prophet was we do not know, we know not number nor do we know gender – there is a feminine perspective to these chapters (40-55).  So, with a new perspective we encounter second Isaiah’s world in a different light. The author is clearly aware that he or she faces as daunting task, Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?’ This is a message that begins with the basics. The word that extended from creation’s first hour through all the mouths of prophets down to the present – this word must be encountered again. Perhaps it is that some of the intended hearers are already in a new creation replete with imperial power, gods and goddesses previously unknown, foods, culture, and peoples all different from what had been known. The prophet points back to the creator, to YHWH, to that beginning. This is the point from which we need to proceed, he argues.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.      What are the beginnings that you need to revisit?
2.      I what ways are you living in a foreign culture?
3.      What does God need to rebuild for you?

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c Laudate Dominum

How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!
2      The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; *
he gathers the exiles of Israel.
3      He heals the brokenhearted *
and binds up their wounds.
4      He counts the number of the stars *
and calls them all by their names.
5      Great is our Lord and mighty in power; *
there is no limit to his wisdom.
6      The Lord lifts up the lowly, *
but casts the wicked to the ground.
7      Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; *
make music to our God upon the harp.
8      He covers the heavens with clouds *
and prepares rain for the earth;
9      He makes grass to grow upon the mountains *
and green plants to serve mankind.
10    He provides food for flocks and herds *
and for the young ravens when they cry.
11    He is not impressed by the might of a horse; *
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;
12    But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, *
in those who await his gracious favor.
21    Hallelujah!

We have a clue in the second verse about the date of this psalm, ‘The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem.” It is an excellent accompaniment to the reading from Second Isaiah which attempt to reacquaint an exiled Judah with their own God. Thus, the psalmist praises God, and extols God for the restoration of the people. Indeed, it is not just the city that is restored but the whole of creation, clouds, rain, grass, plants, flock and herds. This is the gift that God restores and gives once again. This God, and by extension the people as well, is not impressed by imperial power, ‘the might of a horse…the strength of a man.’ It is the people that worship the creator that gives joy to both God and humankind.

Breaking open Psalm 147:
1.     In what ways is this psalm political?
2.     Where does the politics meet theology?
3.     Where does it place humankind?

The Second Reading: I Corinthians 9:16-23

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Paul wrestles, as did Second Isaiah, with what it means to live in an alien culture. For Israel it was being inserted into a culture, for the Corinthians it was seeing how the culture was alien to the good news that Paul was bringing to them. He uses himself as an example of how the perform the gymnastics of living outside of the predominant culture. He becomes all things to all people. ‘I became as a Jew, I became as one under the law, I became as one outside of the Law.” The benefit of these changes and permutations was for those who could not see the way, who were weak in the face of what Christ was calling them to be or do. This selflessness has one goal – the Gospel, and the Gospel alone.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
1.     When have you given up your “self” for the sake of someone else?
2.     What were the results?
3.     Who has done that for you?

The Gospel: St. Mark 1:29-39

After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

There are some signal points to this text, all which help us have an understanding of Jesus nascent ministry. We go from the disciples’ consent to follow him right into the intimacy of their own lives and needs – into the home of Simon and his mother-in-law, who is ill. What are the points? Jesus touches, Jesus lifts up, Jesus rebukes or casts out. It is a program that will move from Capernaum into all of Galilee, and from the intimate household of Peter into all of Israel, and beyond. Hidden in these points are words that predate this text and give added meaning to their use. That Jesus raised the woman up is a shadow of his own being raised by the Father, as Paul attested to in his earlier works and words about Jesus. (see I Corinthians 15:4). Mark not only lays out a program here, but he aligns it with what the community already believed about Jesus. It was a plan that was opened up to Jew and Gentile both in the communities of the Mediterranean.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        How does religion enter the intimacy of your life?
2.        How do you take that intimacy into the lives of others?
3.        What are their needs?

Question: What are the “demons” that need to be cast out of our culture?

Proposals:        1. Learning from Isaiah’s approach to stay at home and exile.
                          2. Learning from Paul’s selflessness toward those who are having trouble with the faith
                          3. Learning from the psalmist and Isaiah’s approach by going back to the basics.
                          4. Learning from Jesus to both rebuke and to lift up.

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

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

23 January 2018

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 28 January 2018

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
I Corinthians 8:1-13
St. Mark 1:21-28

Background: Sacrifice (In one form)

When thinking on ancient forms of sacrifice, we are tempted only to think of holocaust offerings in which the whole of the victim was offered up. There were other forms of sacrifice, however, and some of them had more than a cultic utility, but a social utility as well. Common amongst these is the Communion Sacrifice, in which the offering became a part of the meal that was shared between the people and the god being honored. We know this to be a part of the practice attested to in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it becomes the focus point of Paul’s injunctions in the First Letter to the Corinthians where he wades into the controversy of the eating of meat first offered to idols. We know the psychology of this rite in the English word “companion” the clues being the words “com” (with) and “pan” (bread). The eating of such an offering had as its subtext that the offering was being shared between god and worshipper, thus indicating a relationship. Thus, Paul’s concern which he addresses with the Corinthians.

First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Moses said: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”

The gift of prophecy has in our time been explained as some kind of fortune or future telling, but that is not its purpose in the Hebrew Scriptures. As this reading explains to us the purpose is of giving God’s message – hearing God’s word and then transmitting it to the people. Thus, in verse 18 we understand the function, “I shall put my words in his mouth.” It is not like other religions where livers, entrails, or smoke delivered the message. Here it is the word, the daver” that is pointed to as the origin of the message. The message is to be recognized as worth in so far as it represents the “truth” – a difficult test. Read on to verse 22 to see the completion of this reading on prophecy.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.      In what ways was Moses a prophet?
2.      What is the message that he gave?
3.      What is the truth he wanted to be acknowledged?

Psalm 111 Confitebor tibi

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.
2      Great are the deeds of the Lord! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.
3      His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.
4      He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
5      He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6      He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.
7      The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.
8      They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.
9      He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.
10    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.

This is a psalm of praise, detailing all the attributes of God in an acrostic psalm. It covers a whole multitude of blessings rather than just focusing on one. It is an address to a select assembly, “assembly of the upright”, and to a much larger group, “the congregation.” In a way, this psalm is a commentary on the Deuteronomic text, explaining and exhibiting the force of God’s word amongst the people. Robert Alter’s translation of verse 6 is a good example of this. “The power of his deeds he told his people.[1] The telling by words gives the people the evidence of God’s presence and beneficence. The last verse is a common doxology, but one that refers to God’s wisdom, the beginning of knowledge and understanding.

Breaking open Psalm 111:
1.     Where do you find wisdom?
2.     Where in the Bible do you find wisdom?
3.     What is your own wisdom?

Second Reading: I Corinthians 8:1-13

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So, by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Paul wrestles with the problems of living as a Christian in a polytheistic or polycultic cultic culture. So, he addresses the problems of idol food and worship. He does not set out strict guidelines but rather refers to the principle of self-sacrifice. He gives up a practice that he is free to indulge in under the Gospel for the sake of “weaker” ones who might be offended by the practice. Even the knowledge that such idols don’t really exist, their rites and rituals still might prove attractive to those who are new in their relationship with Christ. In that case, Paul argues, we must give up liberties under the Gospel for the sake of the new.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
1.     What are your liberties under the Gospel?
2.     Which do you forsake for the sake of weaker brothers and sisters?
3.     What has offended you in the behaviors of others?

The Gospel: St. Mark 1:21-28

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

The disciples have been called, and we are in Galilee to witness the beginning of Jesus ministry. It begins with a sermon in Capernaum. Mark uses the word “astonish” some 34 times in his gospel. It not only marks surprise, but also a sense of wonder, if not belief as well. This is an interesting beginning, in that there is an emphasis on teaching in this reading, but it is the actions of Jesus that marks this evangelist’s understanding of the ministry of Jesus. Indeed, accompanying the teaching is an act of exorcism and proclamation. What astounds people is Jesus’ authority. Such authority is not of the human kind, seen in religious and social leaders, but spiritual authority such as Jesus exercised over the demons. The witness to Jesus is by the demon, who recognizes Jesus as “the holy one of God.” We see this designation in only two other places, Luke 4:34, which is Luke’s version of this pericope, and in John 6:69, where after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes Peter attests to Jesus’ status. There is authority in the rebuke that Jesus’ gives to the demon. For Mark, however, the real authority is Jesus’ word – his teaching. This is a good point to revisit the psalm for this day.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        What do you find amazing about the Teachings of Jesus?
2.        Who has spiritual authority in your life?
3.        What does it mean that Jesus is the “Holy One of God”?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; 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 © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Alter, R. (2000), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 8834.