Monday, October 2, 2017

First Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, October 8th, 2017

I sit to write this post on Monday, October 2nd.  Last night, the worst mass shooting in the United States (to date) took place in Las Vegas, Nevada.  I pray for the victims of the shooting, their families, the people who responded to the shooting and the injured, the hospitals who received the victims, and the shooter and his family, who are left to wrestle with the questions of why, how, and for how long.

At the congregation I serve, we are also holding a "Blessing of the Animals" service on Wednesday, October 4th, the day that the Church commemorates St. Francis of Assisi.  Perhaps your local congregation also offers a "Blessing of the Animals" this week.

For those who may be stumbling onto this blog for the first time, I will put the Bible readings (NRSV) down below.  I will add my initial thoughts in italics after each reading.  I invite you to ask any questions that arise in your mind and offer any insights you might have by leaving a comment below (or, if engaging this through Facebook, asking the question in the comment section of my Facebook post).

Isaiah 5:1 - 7

1Let me sing for my beloved
  my love-song concerning his vineyard:
 My beloved had a vineyard
  on a very fertile hill.
2He dug it and cleared it of stones,
  and planted it with choice vines;
 he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
  and hewed out a wine vat in it;
 he expected it to yield grapes,
  but it yielded wild grapes.

3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
  and people of Judah,
 judge between me
  and my vineyard.
4What more was there to do for my vineyard
  that I have not done in it?
 When I expected it to yield grapes,
  why did it yield wild grapes?

5And now I will tell you
  what I will do to my vineyard.
 I will remove its hedge,
  and it shall be devoured;
 I will break down its wall,
  and it shall be trampled down.
6I will make it a waste;
  it shall not be pruned or hoed,
  and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
 I will also command the clouds
  that they rain no rain upon it.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
  is the house of Israel,
 and the people of Judah
  are his pleasant planting;
 he expected justice,
  but saw bloodshed;
  but heard a cry!

In Isaiah 5, the Lord found “wild grapes” in the vineyard.  Rather than the sweet grapes that were planted, the Lord found sour, bitter grapes that could not be used for wine or for jams/jellies/fruit spreads.  The vineyard is a metaphor for Israel; the grapes represent the people.  The Lord did everything to ensure that the vineyard of Israel would sprout and bloom, but the people have changed to another type of people that are inedible/unusable within the Kingdom of God.  So the Lord will deconstruct the vineyard/allow the exile to happen.  The good news is that the people return from exile and the Lord builds a new vineyard.

Psalm 80:7 - 15

 7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
 8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
 9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.
 10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;
 11 it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.
 12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
 13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.
 14 Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,
 15 the stock that your right hand planted.

Psalm 80 recognizes that the Lord brought this vine from Egypt and planted it in the Holy Land.  The Lord has cared for it and caused it to grow.  But now the people are confused, because they see that the Lord has removed the protective wall from it.  The deconstruction has begun.  The people beg the Lord to “tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”  The psalm ends with the people promising to worship the Lord if the Lord will give them life and restoration.

Philippians 3:4b - 14

4bIf anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
  7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
  12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul declares that he was the best of Jews and could claim righteousness under the Law.  Now, though, he views such righteousness as “skubula” in the light of the “(righteousness) that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God based on faith” (NRSV).  It is likely that we could also translate the Greek to say “(righteousness) that comes through THE faith OF Christ…” How would this change our understanding of the passage and what St. Paul is claiming here?

Matthew 21:33 - 46

[Jesus said to the people:] 33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
  42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: 
 ‘The stone that the builders rejected
  has become the cornerstone;
 this was the Lord’s doing,
  and it is amazing in our eyes’?
43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
  45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

In Matthew 21, Jesus speaks of another vineyard, perhaps drawing a direct comparison to the vineyard of Isaiah 5.  In this vineyard, the quality of the harvest in not mentioned, but we can assume that it is a good harvest with high-quality grapes, and the vineyard owner wants his share.  The tenants, however, conspire with each other to keep all of the harvest for themselves, even killing the vineyard owner’s son to prevent him from claiming what belongs to the family.  Continuing the line of thinking in Isaiah 5, the tenants must be the political and religious leaders of Israel who appear to value power and prestige instead of their service to the Lord and the people.  A question that arises is whether these leaders are cast entirely out of the Kingdom of God or if they have merely lost their control over the operations of the vineyard.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

First Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, October 1st, 2017

Sorry for this one being a little late; I spent the early part of this week at a professional training event.

This coming Sunday, October 1st, is World Communion Sunday.  It is a day to remember and celebrate the unity of the Church, which the Lord creates and sustains through the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  When we gather at the altar for Holy Communion, we gather together with our brothers and sisters in Christ from all times and all places in the world.  Because of this, we keep an eye out for anything in the readings that points us toward this unity in Christ.

Here are the readings for this Sunday.  Following each reading are my first thoughts, shared in italics.

Ezekiel 18:1 - 4, 25 - 32:

1The word of the Lord came to me: 2What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? 3As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
  25Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 27Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. 28Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
  30Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

Ezekiel 18 is the point at which the Lord drops the old stipulation that not only will the person be punished for certain sins, but the person’s children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren will be punished for those sins.  From now on, each person will be accountable for the sins they commit, but not for the sins their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents committed.  Is this unfair?  Some argued so, but the Lord answers back.  The Lord calls for Israel to repent, to turn back from their ways.

Psalm 25:1 - 9

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
 4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD!
 8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

The confession and repentance that Israel needs to offer at the end of Ezekiel 18 may sound a lot like Psalm 25:1-9.

Philippians 2:1 - 13

1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with God
  as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.
 And being found in human form,
  8he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death—
  even death on a cross.

9Therefore God also highly exalted him
  and gave him the name
  that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
  every knee should bend,
  in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue should confess
  that Jesus Christ is Lord,
  to the glory of God the Father.

  12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Philippians 2 is Paul’s call to unity.  This is not an artificial unity, but a unity formed through Christ.  If we have the same mind as Christ, we will work for the good of others rather than for our own good, just as Christ, although/because he was God, put aside his divine glory to humble himself on the cross for the good of all of creation.  This is an entry point to a discussion of unity and what the unity of the Church looks like.

Matthew 21:23 - 32

23When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
  28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

In Matthew 21, Jesus asks a key question: was the baptism from John a baptism from divine authority or human authority?  To answer the question is to answer the question regarding the source of Jesus’ own authority.  To answer the question also points to our answer regarding the question of Jesus’ identity: is Jesus truly the Son of the Most High or is Jesus a fraud?  C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying that Jesus is either the Son of God, a liar, or a lunatic.  To be clear, C. S. Lewis believed that Jesus is indeed the Son of God and made the statement to push us to not uphold Jesus as merely a teacher of good morals.

Monday, September 18, 2017

First Thoughts on the Readings for September 24, 2017

Though we have moved past Matthew 18, we still find the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation in our readings for this upcoming Sunday.  This theme may not be our first thought/reaction to the readings, but it is there if we want to see it.

Reminder: I will share my thoughts in italics after each reading.  I invite you to share your feedback in the comments below.

Jonah 3:10 - 4:11
10When God saw what [the people of Ninevah] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
  6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
  9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

How often are we like Jonah in that we would rather see our “enemies” destroyed by God rather than forgiven by God?  Jonah did the bare minimum so that he could say he was faithful to his calling, but it was enough to get the city of Ninevah to repent.  The Lord heard their confession and extended forgiveness, so Jonah went outside the city to sulk.  When we pray “thy will be done” and “forgive us our sins/trespasses as we forgive those who sin/trespass against us,” we ask the Lord to forgive both ourselves and our enemies, for the Lord’s will is for all people to be reconciled to the Lord and to one another.

Psalm 145:1 - 8
1I will exalt you, my | God and king,
  and bless your name forev- | er and ever.
2Every day | will I bless you
  and praise your name forev- | er and ever.
3Great is the Lord and greatly | to be praised!
  There is no end | to your greatness.
4One generation shall praise your works | to another
  and shall de- | clare your power. R
5I will speak of the glorious splendor | of your majesty
  and all your | marvelous works.
6They shall tell of the might of your | wondrous acts,
  and I will re- | count your greatness.
7They shall publish the remembrance of | your great goodness;
  they shall sing joyfully | of your righteousness.
8The Lord is gracious and full | of compassion,
  slow to anger and abounding in | steadfast love. R

Psalm 145 seems to discuss the Lord’s might and power, but there is some room for interpretation.  What if we understood the Lord’s acts referenced in this psalm as acts of forgiveness rather than acts of power?  How does that change the psalm?  Does that better fit the final verse (referenced by Jonah)?

Philippians 1:21 - 30
21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
  27Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—30since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

St. Paul writes to the Philippians from prison, so prison/oppression may be the suffering that they share together.  In verses 27 – 30, Paul is addressing the community at large; Paul calls the entire community to live together in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.  This makes more sense if we understand “you” in these verses to be a plural you, or “y’all.”

Matthew 20:1 - 16
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The parable told in Matthew 20 is meant to draw us to the generosity of God.  Unfortunately, we often lose that emphasis as we talk about what it means for adult converts to Christianity to receive the same gifts of forgiveness, justification, salvation, and resurrection as those who were baptized into the faith as infants.  Historically, this passage was also used to justify waiting until imminent death before being baptized because people feared that any sin after baptism may cost us the gifts given to us in baptism.