Finding the Lessons

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

You will want to scroll down to find the bible study for the lessons closest to the upcoming Sunday.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Proper 12A/Ordinary 17A/Pentecost +7 July 30, 2017


Good and generous God, fountain of all wisdom, in Christ you have revealed your kingdom to us, a treasure hidden in a field, a pearl of great price.  Grant us your Spirit's gift of discernment, that we may learn to distinguish aright between the passing wealth of this present world and the enduring value of your kingdom.  Then make us swift to renounce all else to acquire the treasure you alone can bestow. 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 13:31-52

"Jesus’ parables, the words of St. Paul, and much of the Bible should serve as a reminder that when it comes to the enormity of God, God’s Kingdom, God’s Salvation, etc. we are not only merely privy to dim reflection—silhouettes—but a silhouette is all we can handle."

"Splashing Water on the Floor," Fr. Rick Morley, a garden path, 2011.

"In the Treasure parable, one's "treasure" (thesaurus in Greek) is an important metaphor in Matthew indicating where one's allegiance ultimately lies and its nature."

Commentary, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, Preaching This Week,, 2011.

Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

We continue with our parable teaching of Jesus this week.  It it good to remember that Matthew's Gospel account tells us of a number of Jesus' parables.

13.24-30 The weeds and wheat
13.44-6 The hidden treasure and the pearl of great price
13.47-50 The net
13.23-35 The unfaithful servant
20.1-16 The workers in the vineyard
21.29-32 The two sons
22.1-14 The marriage supper
25.1-13 The ten virgins
25.31-46 The last judgment
Together these are about the kingdom of God, and they helps us understand the urgency of following, the cost of following, the importance of not being divided along the way, and the need for preparedness.  The kingdom of God is at hand. We must be ready and we must be willing to make our journey not concerned about the cost nor our traveling partners!

The Hidden Treasure and Pearl of Great Price
This Sunday we read three of these: Hidden Treasure; Pearl of Great Price; and The Drag Net

Each begins in a similar manner: “The kingdom of Heaven is like.…” One of the interesting things is that none of this Sunday's material appears in any of the other Gospels; so this is a special Sunday that gives the preacher an opportunity to really grasp the Matthean Gospel message of kingdom and kingdom community.

The first image that Jesus gives us is that finding the kingdom of Heaven is like finding a treasure hidden in a field, for the sake of which one will sell everything. Treasure was often hidden in fields.  We might remember the find in England called the Staffordshire Hoard. Found in 2009 you can read and watch the story by following the link above.  The treasure included 1500 pieces of Anglo Saxon treasure.  Unlike treasure buried in a tomb the scholars believe this treasure was buried for safe keeping.

We note that this parable presupposes that the kingdom is hidden, that it is not yet revealed to everyone.  This fits well with the thrust of the rest of the chapter. The Kingdom of God is breaking forth and not everyone either sees it or is able to live within it yet.  Not unlike previous parables the revelation of Jesus and God's kingdom is not perfectly clear to all…it can only be perceived by those with ears to hear and eyes to see.  We think immediately of Jesus as he returns to his home town:
54 He came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?55Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?56And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’57And they took offence at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’58And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.
The next parable is the one most often called the Pearl of Great Price.  The rawness of these three parable is so very like what most scholars believe would have been Jesus' teaching style.  Many presuppose that this is exactly how Jesus would have talked and would have taught those who followed him.  Not unlike the the parable of the treasure hidden in a field the meaning is similar.
Unlike the previous parable though we are challenged to ask the question: why does a merchant purchase a pearl?  Merchants purchase items to resell them.  So we have a spin on the hidden treasure. The hidden treasure is for the pleasure of the finder. The pearl’s pleasure is in its sale.  We might say that the pearl becomes symbolically connected with the Gospel itself and the discipleship of giving away the grace received.

The last parable in our teaching is The Parable of The Drag-Net.  Perhaps like the wheat and the weeds we are being reminded once again that in the end the wicked and the righteous will be separated out.  I don't think that the preacher can get around the message here that Jesus, and likely his followers, saw a very tragic end of those who reject the Messiah.  This was rooted in their history and in the prophetic teachings they received.  This too is our understanding.  We believe as a church that there will be judgment in the end. The argument about who is saved and who is not is as old as the scriptures themselves.  Recently this argument has been ignited by the writings of N. T. Wright and Rob Bell.  Certainly we have our catholic faith which tells us there is judgement.  We have our own desire that tells us that we hope everyone is saved; in part because we worry about our own salvation and life lived.

A Missional Hermeneutic Approach to the Treasure and the Pearl
One of the problems that the typical parable approach takes is that it easily places the Church at the center. It puts the treasure and the pearl as the kingdom. We put the price to be paid as our discipleship. We are the merchant or the one who finds the treasure.

But if we put God in Christ Jesus back at the center of the parable what we find is a bit of a different message. Here then we might read that God is is the one who has the treasure in creation and humanity and so is willing to risk everything even the incarnation to be in relationship - to regain what was lost. Similarly, the Kingdom of God is as if God was a merchant and desired a pearl, humanity and creation, which was of great value. Again, God was willing to give all in order to redeem it.

In this way then the church as the body of Christ is invited into a new question. As the body of Christ int he world, what is the Church willing to do as its work of the Gospel? What is the body of Christ willing to sell, redeem, give away in order to be part of the treasure and pearl which even now is buried in the world around us?
The Drag Net
It seems to me though that not unlike the message of the sower and the weeds we must ask ourselves about the net itself. Is our mission work like the drag net? Are we so working and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we are encircling and bringing in such a bounty that there will be many saints and sinners caught by the kingdom of God and the Gospel we proclaim.  A dragnet brings up fish and wood and weeds. Certainly Jesus will do the sorting out (not us!) but is our net big enough? Are we strong enough to live as saints and sinners, as sinners and saints, shoulder to shoulder with a diverse community.  We might remember the other stories of nets in the Gospel...  Is our mission broad enough so that our net is about to break?

You see the parable of the drag net includes a Greek word: genos.  Before the parable is explained Jesus says: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind." (Every KIND, every genos.)  This word was most often used to mean race, nation, or tribe.  I would offer that before you spend a lot of time preaching about judgement the church as a whole could use a good dose of preaching on mission and that the parable of the drag net challenges us to be a church in mission where all are drawn in.  Let us as a church mirror the culture around us in our diversity of race and language. Let each church represent the people in the neighborhoods around them.  Let each diocese be challenged to represent the people (in all their diversity) of the geography in which they have been planted.

A Missional Hermeneutic Approach to the Drag Net
But let us push the metaphor a bit more. I have begun to think that while the above is all very good and strong theological thinking it is also imprisoned by a church hermeneutic. What I mean by this is that the boat is probably a better and more historical metaphor for church...not the net. In this way what we quickly realize is that deep within the assumed hermeneutic is a flaw. And, that being that somehow the organization itself is to do this work. That it is the net. That the net work is itself something that belongs to others.

Instead, when we reorient this around a missional hermeneutic what we see is that the net is an image for the Gospel - for when using this kind of net, many times the people are out of the boat/church and in the water with the net. So when we completely contextualize the parable within Jesus' teaching and the nature of fishing and Jesus' call to repeatedly get out of the boat and back on the shore or in the water...we discover that we are to be proclaiming a Gospel that gathers people of all kinds and that this work of Gospel proclamation is to go out in the world and not wait for them to jump into the boat. 

Some Thoughts on Romans 8:26-39

"Without the future hope, God's present involvement in the lives of the suffering might amount to little more than a feeble expression of the company that misery loves."

Commentary, Romans 8:26-39, Mary Hinkle Shore, Preaching This Week,, 2011.

"And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all 'come to maturity,' as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we're like him, he said - 'to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that."

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

God loves us and reconciles himself to us. He sets aside the result of the law in order to have us be together eternally.  We can see and hope in this very real adoption received by Christ's death and resurrection and marked upon us in baptism.  We know death is not final and that we will live with God eternally and that nothing can separate us from God's love. This has been the theme of Romans.  In our passage today Paul reminds us that we need help from the Spirit in order to navigate and live in the mean time.

We are limited both by our vision and because of our sinful broken nature.  We just can't seem to do the things we want to do and are forever doing the things we do not want to do.  For this reason the Spirit helps us.  God created us to love and respond to him.  God knew we would do this and and that we would need help.  Paul says this is part of the plan to which creation is following.  We are struggling and so the Spirit is sent to us to help us.

When we open ourselves up to God and God's love the Spirit intercedes where we are weak and gives us strength.  We are recreated in this world as preparation for the next. God is remaking us.  God is enabling us to be faithful...though we will surely fail again.  

So how do we know? How are we certain God will be successful?  Paul says God is for us, God has decided not to condemn us, and God has and is justifying us.  Christ Jesus who knows us in now with God. He himself is preparing a place for us. Christ Jesus is advocating for us and pleading our case.  God has come into the world and has returned and so knows us intimately and knows our struggles and our faithfulness.  

It is this reason, this presence of Christ Jesus with God, that assures our triumph and the certain hope of those things promised - our eternal adoption. Then Paul gives that wonderful few words that are some of the most comforting in all of scripture - especially for a sinner like me...
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
No matter what we may suffer in this life we will have victory because of God in Christ Jesus.  Nothing can separate us from God's love.

Some Thoughts on Genesis 29:15-28

"The almost invisible presence of Zilpah and Bilhah in a passage that includes discussion of appropriate wages (Genesis 29:15) encourages reflection on the precarious status of minimum wage earners, surrogate and birth mothers, domestic workers, and others who perform vital but largely underappreciated work in our society."

Commentary, Genesis 29:15-28, Esther M. Menn, Preaching This Week,, 2014.

"These characters are all intent on using and subverting a system of conventional social and cultural arrangements for their own ends. In this sense they echo the God behind the narrative, whose promise and blessing also subvert conventional social (and political) systems."

The Old Testament Readings: Genesis 29:15-28. Weekly Comments on the Revised Common Lectionary, Theological Hall of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia.

Oremus Online NRSV Old Testament Text

The passage this week continues with the story of Jacob. Jacob and Laban are bound together in a battle of wits. Essentially Laban tricks Jacob who loves Rachel into marrying Leah. Jacob has to work even more to have Rachel. 

The passage gives us insight into the nature of relationships, property, work, and the oppressive social and communal conditions of women living at the time. Often times Christians and others will make an argument that some tradition or another is part of our ancient inherited faith. 

This Sunday's readings remind us that marriage for instance, is relatively a new phenomenon in our culture along with the ability for women to have a say in their future and relationships. And, we should be quick to remember that in many other parts of the world there are in fact cultural traditions that are much more in line with our reading today. 

This story, and the well, where Jacob meets his future family, is the same well mentioned in John's Gospel in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. We have covered this in the past few posts and so I encourage you to look back. 

Nevertheless, let me say that what is clear is that the image here for the first Christians is one that clearly invites us to consider the similar passage invitations above. How is God like Jacob who meets humanity at the well and will do anything that the world requires. If we put the story within the missional hermeneutic and not the church hermeneutic what we can easily see is God postured as Jesus and as Jacob, the world as Laban and Rachel and Leah as the pearl of great price or the treasure. God in this way, through the work of the cross, a labor of love, is willing to give of God's self for the other. God is willing to pay whatever the cost.

The one issue here and above is that we must be careful not to slip into the memetic (re-occurring and repetitive) cycles of violence perpetuated without pausing to think about language. God in the incarnation and particular and unique revelation of Christ Jesus does in fact give himself over into the world. René Girard offers that from his annunciation God comes not to overthrow with the same old systems of violence but with new ones. It would be far to easy in both the treasure, pearl, and the story of Rachel to offer a vision of a God who continues to overthrow the world through violent means and required sacrifices. This is the way of lesser gods.

Girard says in an interview found here:
The authentic knowledge about violence and all its works to be found in the Gospels cannot be the result of human action alone. Our own inability to grasp knowledge that has been waiting there for two millennia confirms theological intuitions that are no less certain for being incapable of setting out explicitly their foundations in reason. These rational foundations can only become intelligible if we proceed beyond the sacrificial version of Christianity, and are guided by the non-sacrificial reading which can emerge when the other one has fallen away.
A non-violent deity can only signal his existence to mankind by having himself driven out by violence -- by demonstrating that he is not able to establish himself in the Kingdom of Violence.
...and speaking of the birth of Christ:
Throughout these episodes, the Gospels and the Christian tradition, taking their cue from the Old Testament, place in the foreground beings foredoomed to play the part of victim -- the child, the woman, the pauper and domestic animals.
...and finally:
Saying that Christ is God, born of God, and saying that he has been conceived without sin is stating over again that he is completely alien to the world of violence within which humankind has been imprisoned ever since the foundation of the world: that is to say, ever since Adam. The first Adam was himself also without sin, and it was he who, in becoming the first sinner, caused humankind to enter the vicious circle from which it has never been able to break out. Christ is thus in the same situation as Adam, facing the same temptations as he did -- the same temptations as all humanity, in effect. But he wins the struggle against violence; he wins, on behalf of all humankind, the paradoxical struggle that all people, in the succession of Adam, have always been fated to lose.

While Paul does not use this particular story in his letters, and it is only vaguely referred to in the New Testament, there is nothing that keeps you as a preacher from pulling a Pauline allegory out of the text in order to speak of God's mission and elevate the story from one simply of origins to one of redemption. But let us be careful that as we do so we do not repeat the systems of violence that have always been at work taking advantage of the least, lost and powerless in our communities.

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