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.

Monday, September 11, 2017

First Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, September 17th, 2017

My apologies for not sharing a post last week.  The posting did not happen due to the Labor Day holiday.  After taking Monday off, I did not get a chance to share my initial thoughts on the passages for September 10th.  We will pick up the practice today and attempt to get future posts up on Wednesday if I have Monday meetings/holidays.

This week's readings pick up the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation.  This theme builds on Jesus' proclamation that we have the power to bind and loose, to hold grudges and to release/forgive those who sin against us.

Reminder: my thoughts are in italics after each of the readings.  If you have any impressions to add or any questions to ask, share them in the comments below!

Genesis 50:15-21:

15Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Joseph’s brothers were worried that Joseph may still be carrying a grudge against them, one that he has hidden and chosen not to act upon until their father’s death.  Now that Jacob has died, they want reassurance that Joseph will not take his revenge against them.  Joseph proclaims that the Lord has taken their betrayal and turned it into something good for the known world: the survival of many thanks to the Lord acting through Joseph.

Psalm 103:1-13

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
 2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits--
 3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
 4 who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
 5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
 6 The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
 7 He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
 8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
 9 He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
 11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
 13 As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.

Psalm 103 can be broken into three parts.  We have the option of reading part one alongside part two.  Part one focuses on the Lord’s acts of healing and salvation.  Part two focuses on the Lord’s forgiveness and love, comparable to a parent’s love for the parent’s children.  Both are words of comfort that deserve to be heard on Sunday.

Romans 14:1-12

1Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
  5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
  7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
  10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11For it is written, 
 “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
  and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Romans 14 first builds from earlier discussions of eating meat sold in the local marketplaces.  Such meat often came from animal sacrifices at local temples dedicated to other “gods,” and many Christians wondered whether eating any form of meat sold at the marketplaces constituted worship of another god.  Paul’s conclusion was that we know that these “gods” are merely idols and we are free to eat meat sold at the marketplace.  However, if someone specifically claims that the meat in question was offered as a sacrifice at these local temples, then one should refrain from eating to avoid the appearance of participating in the worship of another god.  Verses 7-8 are often read as part of the funeral liturgy, usually when the procession arrives at the graveside (we could also include verse 9 in the reading).  The final verses push us toward forgiving others rather than acting as judges over others; judgment is in God’s hands, not our own.

Matthew 18:21-35

21Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
  23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Does it matter whether Jesus said 77 times or 490 times?  Either way, the message is to forgive without limitation.  An early glimpse of commentary notes suggested that the debt of 10,000 talents was an “unfathomable” sum of money in those days, well above the 900 talents of tax money the Roman Empire collected every year from their provinces in the Middle East.  If we assume that this is meant to be talents of silver, the value of this debt today is $161,722,500 (assuming that one pound of silver is worth $215.63, the value as of September 1, 2017).  If we assume that this is meant to be talents of gold, the value of this debt today is $16,059,930,681.80 (assuming that one kilogram of gold is worth $47,109.13, the value as of September 11, 2017).  To compare the debts, a denarius was the payment for one day of labor, comparable to a minimum wage.  At the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, 100 8-hour days of labor will earn you $5,800.  This is not an insignificant sum, but it pales in comparison to $161 million or $16 billion.  And yet, not even $16 billion can truly reveal the depth of forgiveness given to us by the Lord through the death and resurrection of Christ and the sacraments of baptism and holy communion!