26 February 2018

The Third Sunday in Lent, 4 March 2018

From Köln:

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 1:18-25
St. John 2:12-22

Background: Norms

Last Sunday, I attended church at Christ Church in Amsterdam. If you did not realize that it was an outpost of the Church of England the chancel would have given you several clues, for standing far above the altar in breathtaking color and detail stood the royal arms – just to remind you whose values and cultural patrimony you were under the spell. As a friend of mine wrote about my experience, “the War of the Spanish Succession is not that far away in time or in influence.” Below that were other norms – The Words, or as we call it “The Ten Commandments”, The Lord’s Prayer, and The Apostles’ Creed. All of that was an iconic expression of all you needed to know. Our time is one in which we struggle to know what is the right thing to do. Many use the Ten Commandments as a rule without having taken the time to discover their complexity and their diversity. The simpler explanation is probably not the best. However, Jesus redaction of the Law, “Love the Lord your God, your neighbor, yourself” can serve as a constructive platform for a good and decent Lenten exercise. The temptation will be to dismiss the first reading as something that is already known and understood. Resist that temptation and dive in, remembering the radical nature of the Gospel for today.

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Chagall, "Moses receives the Law"

Robert Alter notes that this is a rather wordy pericope, perhaps a gloss on a much simpler transcription or tradition of the words. You might want to look at Moshe Weinfeld’s proposal about a much simpler redaction in Alter’s book[1]. The wordiness of the second injunction gives us a clue as to its importance, and Weinfeld give us a hint as to its simplicity, “You shall make no carved likeness”.[2] Starting here we could have a lively conversation as have many in the past, giving in to iconoclasm or not. Each of the commandments offers an opportunity for discussion and a search for what is right and proper. What we are looking at in these words is the agreement, the covenant between a sovereign lord and the people. The blessings and curses that accompany the agreement are either implied or are evident as in the fourth (or fifth, depending on how you count them) commandment. What might be interesting in looking at these words would be to commend to them catechetical materials and explanations that work to unfold the words for the people.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. What are the values of your family?
  2. What are your personal values?
  3. How did you derive them?

Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant

       The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
2        One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
3        Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
4        Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
5        In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
6        It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
7        The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
8        The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
9        The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10      More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
11      By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12      Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13      Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
14      Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

We move from verses that celebrate the beauty of creation to verses that see the beauty of God’s words – the commandments and instruction that God gives to God’s people. It’s not a stretch for it is the word of God that creates the beauty of the initial verses, and it is that same word that utters God’s desire, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, and revives the soul.” We live in a time of a multiplicity of words and expression. It is both the blessing and the curse of social media. Some words are false, some are spurious, some are right on – the difficulty is in discerning intent and verity. The psalmist does not see that problem with God’s words and God’s commands. These words enlighten, “and in keeping them there is great reward.” The closing verses express the wish that God’s words become our words so that God might recognize what is right in our words, and forgive us for the wrong.

Breaking open Psalm 19:
  1. Where is the beauty of rules?
  2. How is creation like God’s law?
  3. From where do you seek enlightenment?

Second Reading: I Corinthians 1:18-25

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Gaugin "The Green Crucifix"

Paul’s words to the Corinthians falls in line with our meditation on the words, and for Paul that is an expression of the Wisdom that is Christ. He ponders a bit on Wisdom, and wonders what is true wisdom, as he looks at the wisdom of his own time, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” Like the psalmist he sees the limits of human wisdom, or human attempts to know and discover wisdom. He sees wisdom in God’s word and breath – Jesus Christ. That our faith should make no sense, should be seen as foolishness by so many, should give us cause to understand it in our conversation with others, and with our dialogue of faith with our fellow believers – a Lenten discipline?

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What do you find foolish about your religion?
  2. How do you reconcile that with faith?
  3. How is your religion wise?

The Gospel: St. John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

St. Giles Cathedral, "The Cleansing of the Temple"
The wedding at Cana seems to be a beginning point that is contrasted with our pericope for this day – The Cleansing of the Temple. We have been catapulted from joy into zeal. We seem to see a great zeal in these days, but zeal for what. That is what Jesus wants us to discover and to understand. For what do we have zeal. At the temple he did not see “zeal for (this) house.” Instead there seemed to be a zeal for greed and for the marketplace – but not for prayer and for understanding. Does this sound familiar in our culture? The words that Jesus speaks goes well beyond the understanding that the people had. Where do our words and our understanding of God’s words lead us? Where is our zeal placed?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does the word “zeal” mean to you?
  2. What in life are you zealous about?
  3. How does that passion match your religious values?

Question: What norms do you live by today? What norms are present in our churches and society?

1.     Perhaps Lent could be a time during which we really explore our values and how we got them?
2.     How do the values of our society stand up to the values of the Commandments as we understand them?
3.     How do they stand up to Jesus’ summary of the law?
4.     Something for discussion, is your church a moral leader in your community? How or how is it not?
5.     What does Lenten discipline suggest to you as a way of approaching the community.

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

Otto Dix, "Crucifixion"

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; 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. (2004), The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 9327.
[2]     Ibid.

21 February 2018

The Second Sunday in Lent, 25 February 2018

From Amsterdam:

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
St. Mark 8:31-38

Background: Covenant
This is one of those terms that we assume that people know and understand. However, with the lack of biblical studies in general, such an assumption is probably wrong, and people need to be reminded of the import of such a concept. The notion of covenant appears in several aspects in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The first of the covenants to be described in the Bible is the covenant with Noah (last Sunday’s first reading.) In the story of the flood, God reveals his covenant with Noah not only with words, but also with the sign of the Rainbow. Other covenants follow, with Abraham, Moses, “the new covenant” of Jeremiah, the so-called “Priestly Covenant” made with Aaron and his descendants, the Davidic covenant, and finally the covenant of the Kingdom of Heaven, described by Jesus. All of these agreements have deep roots in the legal systems of the ancient near east, most especially with the legal form of Hittite treaties. Other ideas and actions flow from the covenant: a) The sacrifice that sealed the covenant (see Genesis 15) b) the witnessing of the covenant by heaven and earth (see Deuteronomy 30:19), c) or the trial that comes when the covenant is not kept. These promises and their consequences become an important part of Christian theology, and are best seen at work in the readings for the Easter Vigil, and in the Christian Scriptures that follow in the Mass after the Baptisms. From here we could go on to discuss the Baptismal Covenant, but will save that for a time closer to the Great Vigil.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you."

God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."

On one level this reading is about names. We are introduced to an archaic name for God, “El Shaddai”, and learn that Abram and Sarai’s names will be changed to Abraham and Sarah. The latter may be the tying together two ancient Abrahamic traditions, or in the style of kings, one may be a common name, and the other a “throne name”. This is not the Abraham who argues with God over the fate of Sodom, but rather a quiet individual who falls on his face in the presence of God. The covenant that God proposes has two aspects: a) the promise of a multitude of descendants some of whom will be “nations”, and “kings”, and b) that Sarah will become a mother. Verses omitted from the reading (verses 8-14) include the provision for the circumcision of males, which was not unique to Israel, but also to other Semitic peoples in the western part of the Fertile Crescent, and especially amongst the priestly castes of Egypt. The cutting of flesh (see the reference to the Abrahamic Covenant in the background above) involved both animals and humans in making the covenant incarnate.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. What promises has God made to you?
  2. Have you believed in them? Why or why not?
  3. How is Abraham a symbol of faith?

Psalm 22:22-30 Deus, Deus meus

Praise the LORD, you that fear him; *
stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;
all you of Jacob's line, give glory.

For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them; *
but when they cry to him he hears them.

My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the LORD shall praise him: *
"May your heart live for ever!"

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, *
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

For kingship belongs to the LORD; *
he rules over the nations.

To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *
all who go down to the dust fall before him.

My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him; *
they shall be known as the LORD'S for ever.

They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
the saving deeds that he has done.

We know this psalm from the liturgies of Holy Week, where the initial verses of the psalm connect with the suffering of Jesus. Our usage this morning is limited to the latter verses of the psalm. Here the author gives thanks for preservation from the difficulties outlined in the first half of the psalm, and begins with a shout of thanksgiving. Now we are in the Temple, in the “great assembly” that has gathered there to honor the God who “does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty.”  The extent of God’s grace extends from the Temple to include not only the poor, but also “all the ends of the earth”, including the dead as well, “all who sleep in the earth bow down.” This is very unusual, for the psalter usually does not entertain the notion that the dead can praise God. Indeed it is the opposite – the dead cannot praise God. Here, however, the author expands on the extent of the praise, and exaggerates the number of those who are praising God. The author does not stop there, but includes those yet to come, “a people yet unborn” who will know the love and grace of God, and “the saving deeds that he has done.”

Breaking open Psalm 22:
  1. Are you included in the psalmist’s list of those for whom God is concerned?
  2. Who is on your list of concern?
  3. How wide is God’s mercy for you?

Romans 4:13-25

The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Here we have Paul’s excursus on the first reading (see above). Abraham and Sarah are used as examples in Paul’s argument about the Law and Faith. Paul sees these ancients as primary examples of faith. He observes that the promise given to Abraham and Sarah extends beyond them and their age, to be delivered “also to those who share the faith of Abraham.” What follows then is a midrash on the new recipients of God’s promise and covenant.  The argument is succinct: “Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours as well.”  The task of the Letter to the Romans: to recognize the gifts of Israel in her relationship with God, and the extension of those gifts to the gentiles.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What was the faith of Abraham?
  2. In what or whom do you trust?
  3. In what ways was Israel blessed?

St. Mark 8:31-38

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Again, I offer the suggestion that you read the entirety of the pericope, for the initial verses have been lopped off by the lectionary. They describe an important context for the reading. The answer of the disciples to Jesus’ question, “Who are the people saying that I am?” is made more poignant by a further question to them, “who do you say that I am?” The answer that is forthcoming is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed one, just as priests, prophets, and kings in Israel were anointed. From that confession follows a further examining of what those words of faith are really all about. Jesus wants to press deeper, and with this we join our lectionary reading again. What Jesus teaches now is not about the correctness of Peter or their observations, but of what needs to happen next – a prediction of the Passion. Peter finds this odious, and says as much. Suddenly we are back in the wilderness of temptation, but now it is Peter who is playing the role of Satan, and who must know step behind.

The teaching that follows is what any disciple should know – the cost of the cross not only to Jesus, but also really to all of us. There is here language of denial – Lenten language. It is not denial of trivial things, such as we might suggest in our Lenten disciple, chocolate, meat, movies, etc., but rather the essential thing, life itself.  The author of Psalm 22 (see above) gets at the same thing with his phrase, “my soul (better translated ‘my seed’) shall live for him.” The seed of psalm 22 is the essence of the future and the descendants of Abraham that Paul argues for. What do we give up for Jesus? Ourselves! If we are not ashamed of the Christ (using Peter’s confession) then God will not be ashamed of us.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why does Jesus call Peter “Satan”?
  2. What does Jesus mean about “giving up ourselves”?
  3. Are you ever ashamed of your faith?

Question: Why is Lent a time for somber reflection?

1.     Sometimes we need to dwell on the parts of life that are troublesome.
2.     Where do we find God in those difficulties?
3.     Is it possible to mute our praise, and listen to silence and what God has promised?
4.     In what ways does the church become like Peter in his not wanting to hear what Jesus must face?

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

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller