Monday, September 24, 2018

Pentecost 18B

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

3 13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

4 1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. …

Old Testament & Wisdom Literature

A few weeks ago on Pentecost 13 / August 20, when we studied a passage from the book of Proverbs we did an overview of the content of the Hebrew Bible, especially contrasting the Wisdom literature Proverbs belongs to with the rest of scripture.

The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible has three major sections: Torah; Prophets; Writings. Torah or Pentateuch ("penta" refers to the number five, as in pentagram, pentagon, pentatonic).

* Torah carries and conveys a sense of God's definitive self-revelation, along with covenantal and other history, and includes commandments and related instructions for human behavior.

* Prophets break into the current setting or situation with words or challenges from God, often speaking truth to power, frequently revealing restored hope for the future, promises of resurrection from the dead.

* Writings are a diverse body of literature that aren't so much as words from heaven to earth as they are words from earth to heaven. The writings include books of Proverbs, Psalms, Esther, Daniel, Chronicles, Song of Solomon, Job. …

To review some characteristics of Proverbs for today's discussion, in alignment with many wisdom writings in the Ancient Near East, its articles, exhortations, essays, and poetry tend to be about discernment from the human side, rather than revelation from God's side; they emphasize obedience, learning from living together in community, and obeying God's word along the way: heart knowledge and foot knowledge we acquire from walking the talk! They have a sense of mystery and hiddenness rather than an aura of command.

James: Author & Content

The Revised Common Lectionary that provides most of our Sunday scripture readings has been in a semi-continuous reading of the New Testament epistle or letter of James. Like Proverbs, James is within the tradition of wisdom literature. Most weeks we have time to discuss only one lection, so this group has been missing out and this is our first Sunday with James; maybe not the best passage to start with, but here we are, anyway.

Jesus' apostle James Zebedee almost definitely didn't write the book of James. It might have been by Jesus' biological brother James; someone else could have written it and honored either of those James by using their name. Even most recent critical scholarship considers dating uncertain; it remotely could have been written even before Paul's 1 Thessalonians we generally regard as the earliest NT book; it could have been written several decades later. Steve's Study Bible suggested possibly well into the 2nd century, but that feels way too late. For what it's worth, James' grammar and syntax are quite consistent. In any case, James wrote to scattered, dispersed Jewish Christians in a diaspora either fairly nearby or relatively far away.

Throughout five short chapters, James is about neighborology, how to live together in community, how to obey the commandments so everyone will be their healthiest and best. James brings us echoes of Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, and Luke. Remember how often we discussed those books during Luke's lectionary year A? James also sounds like Jesus in his Sermon on the Plain and Sermon on the Mount.

Luther & James / James & Luther

The reformer Martin Luther famously did not like Jimmy, notoriously referred to the book as an "epistle of straw." Reasons for Luther's opinion aren't entirely clear. It could have been because so much of James emphasizes we need to be doers of the word of God, and not merely hearers of the word; that would appear to be works-righteousness that violated Luther's theology of grace. It could have been because Pastor Martin wasn't crazy about the idea of serving some of his more boorish, bumpkin-like nearby neighbors. It well may have been because James nowhere affirms or confesses Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God, so the epistle does not contain even a hint of the high Christology Luther would have desired.

One more note: in addition to James, Luther did not want to include Revelation, Hebrews, or Jude in the canon of scripture. He also had lesser opinions of 2 John, 3 John, and 2 Peter. That group of Luther's leftovers sometimes gets referred to as antilegomena, literally "spoken against."

Monday, September 17, 2018

Pentecost 17B

Mark 8:27-38

27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" 28And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." 29He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31Then Jesus began to teach them 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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."

34Jesus 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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."

The church is more than three quarters of the way through this year of grace that especially features gospel readings from St. Mark, the earliest, shortest, most concise narrative of Jesus' earthly ministry. Today's passage is considered a literary and theological hinge between the two major sections of Mark. Moat of the first half happens around Jesus' hometown area of Galilee; most of the second occurs on the way to, near, and in Jerusalem.

Jesus and his disciples are in a Caesarville—Caesarea Philippi, a center of worship of the god Pan (Pastor Peg told us our word panic relates to Pan's activities; I mentioned Pan was a musician), worship of the Ba'al place gods, worship of the Roman Emperor. Besides dividing different locations of first and second half of Mark, these verses form a kind of hinge between sections of Mark because they demand an answer to the question of Jesus' identity and call, and, by extension, a response to the question of our identity and calling as people of God who bear the name of Christ Jesus.

Especially in the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the cross is particularly incessant and intentional. Surprisingly(!), this is the very first place in Mark where Jesus uses the word "cross."

Like many during the last three or four millennia, we live in a Caesarville—a place defined by one empire or another. Do we live where Trumpville, Forty Five City, Big Pharma Nation or Mass Violence Villa hold sway and try to have the final say? Yes, all of those, and lots more we can think of too easily.

Mark 8:34 – the cross Jesus calls us to carry is not the sorrows, losses, struggles, trials, disappointments. difficulties everyone experiences to some degree in life. Jesus' especially calls us to carry the cross that's a loud "no" to death, "no" to violence, "no" to exploitation, "no" to inequality, "no" to imperial excesses of every kind, "no" to hatred, etc. When we carry the cross of Jesus Christ, we speak a resounding "yes" to life, "yes" to peace, to equality, community, to neighborology, to love, to inclusion, etc.

We had surprisingly little discussion of the famous conversational exchange between Jesus and Peter. One class participant pointed out what a deep level of trusting friendship Jesus and Peter must have had to speak so freely and openly to each other. Think about it! No risk of a sudden angry de-friending between them!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Pentecost 16B

Isaiah 35:4-7a

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you."

5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

The church – that's us! – has journeyed ¾ of the way through another year of grace as we've concentrated on gospel readings from Mark, the earliest, most concise, most direct account of Jesus' ministry; maybe you've noticed I like to call Mark the gospel for the texting and tweeting crowd?

Today we'll consider a passage that's very much "God's work – our hands." Today we'll study a passage from the 66 chapter long book of Isaiah that includes a "do not fear" charge (command!). You may remember we divide Isaiah into three main sections:

• chapters 1-39, 1st Isaiah, before the Babylonian exile;
• chapters 40-55, 2nd Isaiah, during the exile;
• chapters 56-66, 3rd Isaiah, after the exile—

though it's not quite that neatly delineated. Since 1st Isaiah comprises chapter 1 through 39, at first glance it looks as if Isaiah 35 comes from the individual or committee that wrote down most of the first section, though in many ways chapter 35 conveys the same spirit of hope, renewal, and resurrection from the dead we find in the second section. Someone observed, "2nd Isaiah funded Handel's Messiah." The Messiah even opens with the same words that open 2nd Isaiah, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God."

Quick note: vengeance in verse 4 is not necessarily violence, but can refer to vindication, benefit, a payment that restores justice, or simply God's response or answer, as "He will come and save you" suggests.

Do you remember when John the Baptist was in prison and he told his followers to go ask his cousin Jesus if he (Jesus) was the promised one "who is to come," or if they needed to keep looking and searching for someone else? Jesus told John's followers, "Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, dead are raised, good news proclaimed to the poor…" [and blessed are those who take no offense, do not consider me a stumbling block/ scandal…"] Matthew 11:4,5,6 Luke 7:22,23

With lame people not only walking, but leaping like deers, speechless people not only talking but singing, this Isaiah passage is even more dramatic.

Do you know Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by farmer / poet / theologian Wendell Berry? Among other things he advises us:
Every day do something that won't compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Practice resurrection.

In baptism we received God's Spirit of Resurrection from the dead. Discussion of how sometimes life out of death is physical and bodily, sometimes it's most spiritual, it can be emotional or psychological. Sometimes we don't receive a cure for physical ailments in this life, but healing always is possible. Like God's promise through whichever Isaiah recorded today's scripture passage, like Jesus' reply to his cousin John the Baptist, God often calls us to be the reversal, the newness, the resurrection to new life God promises and people need. God calls and enables us to help the blind see, deaf hear, lame walk (or leap), speechless talk (or sing). Jesus was the promised one who'd change the course of history; now we are Jesus' presence in the world as our hands do God's work. As we practice resurrection!

Pastor Peg suggested considering an event or a person that has changed our perspective on something, or even changed the direction of our life.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Pentecost 15B

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

1So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.

2You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.

6You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!"

7For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

9But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children.

At the 15th Sunday – and still counting! – after the Festival of the Day of Pentecost, we've journeyed three quarters of the way through the Church's Year of Grace. We're continuing in Revised Common Lectionary Year B with its focus on the gospel according to Mark that's the earliest, shortest account of Jesus' life and ministry. I often call Mark the gospel for the texting and tweeting crowd.

Today we have another passage from Deuteronomy. You may remember we heard a lot of Deuteronomy during Luke's lectionary year C. We recently discussed some of the desert wanderings of God's people Israel from the book of Exodus.

Deuteronomy 4:7 asks, what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? But in Exodus 3 we've discovered a God who hears the cries, sees the pain, heeds the complaints, and is there before anyone thinks to summon God. This is not a new or different God than before; this is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One we meet as the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

Exodus 3:7-8 "I have seen the pain of my people; I have heard their cry; I know their sufferings. I have come down to deliver them and bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey." Similar reminders of God remembering, not forgetting, maintaining the covenant of grace with Abraham continue through the first half of Exodus.

Deuteronomy 4:8 asks what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just, as righteous, as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

What other nation, what country, gathered people, community, assembly, has such a wonderful way of being, way of living, lifestyle, Torah, set of guidelines for living together, for loving the neighbor, for maintaining the common-wealth, for neighborology? We talked about neighborology a lot during Luke's year when we also discussed Jeremiah and Deuteronomy.

Exodus and Deuteronomy refer to the ten commandments of the Sinai Covenant not as statues, ordinances, or commandants, but as words.

At least twice in Exodus, the account of the formation of Israel as a people, God's people / Moses' people who are one and the same, announce "we will do all the words the Lord has spoken." Exodus 19:8; 24:3, 7

Reformer John Calvin insisted "there is no pre-obedience knowledge of God." Reformer Martin Luther began his Small Catechism – traditional preparation for first Holy Communion – with the Commandments. Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us, "It is the God of the Commandments with Whom we commune."

Continuing Sunday's discussion: backtracking to our recent five weeks of John 6 along with hearing about manna and quail from heaven, water from the rock in Exodus, we constantly receive signs or evidence of God's presence. These signs or symbols include bread and wine of holy communion; waters of baptism. Signs or symbols of God's nearness include the commandments that share God's attributes of holiness, righteousness, justice for the neighbor. Signs of God's presence include us, the contemporary people of God, wherever we go...