Finding the Lessons

I try to post well in advance of the upcoming Sunday.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

Epiphany 6A February 12, 2017

Quotes That Make Me Think

"As far as I know, there is only one good reason for believing that he was who he said he was. One of
the crooks he was strung up with put it this way: 'If you are the Christ, save yourself and us' (Luke 23:39). Save us from whatever we need most to be saved from. Save us from each other. Save us from ourselves. Save us from death both beyond the grave and before. If he is, he can. If he isn't, he can't. It may be that the only way in the world to find out is to give him the chance, whatever that involves. It may be just as simple and just as complicated as that." 

"Messiah," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

"The season of Ephipany proclaims the good news of God's presence with us. Our response to that proclamation, our recognition of God's life and work here and now, is more than going through the motions of church. Jesus calls us to a whole new life in God."

Commentary, Matthew 5:21-37, Amy Oden, Epiphany 6, Preaching This Week,, 2011.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons from


As we come to offer our gift at your altar, make us eager in seeking reconciliation, so that e may live the gospel of your kingdom with single-hearted devotion, our every thought filled with respect for one another an our every deed with reverence.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year A, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Matthew 5:13-20

Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

Resources for Sunday's Gospel

This part of the Gospel has a number of sections. Our reading today has four of these "antithetical" style teachings. "You have heard that it was said, but I say to you," are the introduction for each one. In each Jesus recalls a teaching and then presses his followers to go deeper. We might remember that in the previous introduction to Jesus' teaching on the mountain he reminds us that he is the one to fulfill the law and not to abolish the law.

A quick read of Daniel J. Harrington's thoughts on the idea of law can help us better place this teaching in context. (Matthew, Sacra Pagina, 91) The English term "Law" can distort the Jewish understanding of Torah. The word "Torah" derives from the Hebrew verb "instruct" (yrh) and refers to the teaching or instruction presented in the Scriptures, especially the Pentateuch. For Jews the Torah was (and is) the revelation of God's will, a kind of divine blueprint for action. It is a gift and privilege given to Israel, not a burden. Acting upon the Torah is the privileged way of responding to the Creator God who has entered into covenant relationship with Israel. It presupposes the prior manifestation of God's love.

The Greek translation of Torah (nomos) is not incorrect since the Torah is concrete and demands action. But the theological context of covenant can never be forgotten if distortion is to be avoided.If we begin then with this understanding we can read these antithesis in a very different way.

If we think of the prerequisite of God's love and covenant, then the baptismal affirmation of that covenant, we arrive at these understanding that these then are a manner of Christian life. When we work on these higher ways of being we engage in the fulfillment of the covenant relationship we have with God. When we do not we turn our backs on the covenant relationship God wishes to have with us.

In the first antithesis Jesus teaches us that when we live and dwell in anger, when we use anger, and lash out or treat others out of our anger we are destroying the creatures of God. Anger leads to death. The higher way of following Jesus is to acknowledge this death and to seek reconciliation. Both illustrations make clear that not only is anger a destructive force in the life of Christian community but that it is an unacceptable manner of leadership. One cannot offer gifts and talents at God's altar unless one is reconciled with ones enemies.

Somehow in our culture we have decided it is okay to be angry and to treat others (service providers and enemies) with scorn, discontent, and hostility. Jesus teaches us that we destroy the creatures of God and one another when we do this. Yes, we live in a country where we honor a person's right to free speech. That does not mean that such manners of speech build up our country or the communities in which we live.

Jesus teaches us another way. Jesus teaches us (and many of his followers need to hear this clearly) that such behavior is unacceptable, destructive, and we are held accountable to a higher standard. Our bodies and person reflect the glory of God and in his second teaching Jesus explains that lust destroys the higher purpose of our flesh. Christianity and the Episcopal Church is uniquely a very incarnational faith. We understand that the beauty of God is reflected in all creation and in one another. When we look on one another with the eyes of Jesus Christ we cannot help but see God's glory revealed.

 Jesus calls us to this higher understanding and tells us that lust leads to adultery. These are two charged words. But if we remember the understanding of the Torah above we have a better and much more clear understanding of the teaching here. Certainly what he says is true. However, there is a higher code being offered here. Lust is a form of viewing individuals as objects of desire. It turns the flesh from being a revelation of God and God's creative and covenantal acts to something that can be possessed by another human being. In this teaching we see the role of dominance and power abusing the creatures of God. Bodies and people are works of Godly art when we treat them otherwise we change them. When we use sex to sell something or when we abuse people sexually we are defaming God's handiwork -- that which he called very good. In our culture we use lust, sex, and images of humans as commodities to be bought and sold for the purpose of individual enrichment or for power gain. Not unlike free speech, our country provides an environment where this is seen as normative. However, for the Christian we must as individuals live a higher standard. Lust destroys that upon which it fixes its gaze. It will also eventually destroy the person who lives a life fed by it.

I would add that divorce enters into the picture here because it is the death of the covenant relationship illustrated in the man and woman's brokenness. While Jesus speaks of lust leading to adultery, we live in world where divorce happens for many different reasons. Jesus is clear about what happens in divorce and how it is rooted in brokenness. When humans have so destroyed the image of the union of God with humanity that in their relationship they can no longer see the love God has for them the relationship is itself broken. When they cannot see the beauty they reflect or the goodness out of which God created them -- the relationship is over.

The Episcopal Church has responded by allowing for divorce and for remarriage. It has done this as a pastoral and caring approach to members of the community who find themselves in this very sad place. The church has more that it can do to help people shoulder the pain of divorce; regardless of its cause. An individual who lives with the false belief that they are no longer good, somehow failed, or that God does not love them can be an incredible mill stone around an individual spiritual life.

The last of the antithetical styled teachings in this Sunday's lesson is about oaths. Here Jesus offers the very simply reminder that yes and no are perfectly good answers. The Torah permits oaths in every day speech as long as they are neither irreverent or false (Allison/Davies, Matthew, vol 1, p. 532). Again, one must be careful in speech to not do damage to that which is God's.

I am struck here by thoughts provided by the Anglican theologian John Milbank offers in a number of his texts that our words have meaning and they have being. They have substance. We believe in a God who created with the and through the Word. We believe in the Word which becomes flesh, the living Word of God. Not unlike how feelings change the world in Jesus' teaching about anger. Not unlike how we look and treat people changes the world. How we speak, for Christians, makes meaning and being in the world. Our words are powerful and we are accountable for them.

These are three very difficult teachings. These teachings are tough no matter who you are, but especially if you claim to follow Jesus. All too often the Christian point the world and calls for transformation. More often than not it is the Christian, me included, who needs to do the transformative work of listening to Jesus' words.

Some Thoughts on I Corinthians 3:1-9

Resources for Sunday's Epistle

"God's grace is manifested not only in the forgiveness of our sins but is also creatively redemptive, the power that works in us to make us perfect in love. Nothing short of perfection, Christlikeness in thought, word, and deed, can measure God's loving purpose for us. It is our faith that the fundamental change wrought in the individual by regeneration is a dynamic process which by growth in grace moves toward "mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." We may quench the Spirit and fall from grace but our divine destiny is perfect love and holiness in this life."

"We Believe in Christian Perfection," Georgia Harkness, Chapter 8 in Beliefs That Count, 1961. At Religion Online.

"This congregation, this people, this great good news of Jesus Christ are not objects to be fought over. No church member and no apostle owns this mission field. It is God's."

"You Are Not Ready," Paul Bellan-Boyer, City Called Heaven, 2011.

I love that we are continuing through the Corinthian readings!  In our passage Paul begins by saying that people are still people. That we, some of us that is, are not fully formed in the spirit and so we are "infants in Christ."  We come from the world into the body of Christ through baptism.  We are cultured and as we move closer to Christ we grow in our understanding that we belong to God and in this being are now made different.  Paul is clear the Corinthians are having a hard time with this and are really struggling with their worldly nature.

Will Willimon is fond of saying: "In baptism our citizenship is transferred from one dominion to another, & we become, in whatever culture we find ourselves, resident aliens."  This is Paul's point...It is as if Paul is saying to the Corinthian church folk look you have got this backwards you are not to be resident aliens in the church; instead you are to be resident aliens in the culture.

Paul says if there is jealousy and strife then there is the world and the world's values.  Those who truly represent God are those who act with gracious conduct towards one another. Regardless of the celebrated cause of the day those who are God's never make their cause God's cause they are focused. They never seek division nor do they cause division.

Paul continues to make his case by pointing out that when we take in so is right and so and so is wrong...we are just parroting the world.  Just because you add Jesus' name before you divide people doesn't make it right.  Whenever you abuse another in God's name (our Matthew reading for today points out) you do murder.  Anger and vengeance are not Godly traits.

Preachers will think it is their role to do this.  Paul believes it is worse when preachers do it. Those who are tasked with building up, uniting, and growing the body should never be about dividing it. This is the sign of a false teacher.  The work of the preacher or leader is to do the work of reconciliation with God for themselves and then to aid in God's reconciling work in creation.  To play a role in politics and divisions is to engage in a worldly act.

It is our job to encourage, to love, to unite, to reconcile, to give God's blessing.  As Paul Zahl says: it is about love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. That is it...what more is there. Love, mercy, forgiveness, grace...repeat...

God grows.  We don't grow things.  We are, Paul says, "nothing" in this process.  We are mere vessels.  Every moment we begin to think we are in charge of the vessel leads us down a terrible world.  Our feelings and our perceptions about our-self are flawed.

Paul does say though that those who do the work faithfully will be blessed. Those who keep to these values of unity and encouragement will in fact be fellow-workers with Christ; rather than frustrating Christ's efforts in us.

"For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building."  It is as Gods and in making ourselves open to God's perfecting Holy Spirit that we are able to become a temple of prayer for all God's people and a field in which rise up the great Harvest Lord's ingathering.

Some Thoughts on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

The Gospel of Matthew offers a vision of the beloved community that is shaped by works of discipleship. The community as envisioned is laid out clearly in the sermon on the mount. The community of followers of Jesus is also deeply rooted in the narrative of Israel and how it was shaped by the boundaries of the Torah. We must be careful here though. While the gospeller tells us that we are tied to the Torah it is always with the lens of Jesus. We must be careful not to take away from the law (would caution Matthew’s author) because to do so is out of step with Jesus’ own understanding. This is certainly seen in his confrontation with the religious leaders of his day. At the same time the Torah must be seen primarily through the eyes of Jesus’ ministry and his instruction. Here is a refocusing of the law with a lens towards justice, mercy, and faith. (Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 121)

So we turn to our reading from Deuteronomy. On the one hand remembering that this is a retelling of the story of the first four books of the Old Testament, with an eye to the faithful community. It is a book cast within the narrative frame of Moses reminding the people what lessons they have learned prior to entering the promised land. Just before this passage Moses says, “These commandments are not too hard for you, and they are not too foreign.” (30:11)

Moses begins our passage with these words: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” (30:15) Then he says that people will know who you are and who you love by the work you undertake in keeping these commandments. Love God and act as followers of God and you will be blessed and those who look upon you will know not only what you do but whose you are.

Furthermore, if you do not then you will perish. You will perish if you worship other gods, if you serve yourself, you will lose what has been promised to you, and you will fail the mission that is yours specifically because you are God’s people. “Everything is before you”, Moses says, “Life and death, blessings and curses.”

The key will be loving God, doing the work of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. This will be understood not simply by worshiping God but as we read the rest of the Old Testament, with an eye to the sermon on the mount, we know it will be remembering the poor, helpless, and hopeless. God has acted for the migrant, the poor, the worker of the land, and those who have nothing. God acts for the motley people of God and God will act for the community that remembers them. Righteousness is to be defined in the prophets to come and in the living out of the covenant not by ritual faithfulness but by communal care of everyone. The land, and creation, is yours, but as will be clear in the rest of the narrative, you will lose it if you forget the lowly. You were delivered, deliver others, or God will go about the delivering Godself and find those who are interested in such works of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

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