Monday, October 30, 2017

First Thoughts on the Readings for All Saints Sunday 2017 (November 5th)

After observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Church turns its attention to All Saints Sunday.  The Church created this festival day (set for November 1st, though often observed on the first Sunday in November) after a season of creating numerous commemorations and festivals for saints of the Church.  As the calendar rapidly filled up, the Church realized that it needed a day to recognize all of the past, present, and future saints of the Church because 365 days (or 366 days during a leap year) are not enough to dedicate a festival day to each and every saint that deserves a day of commemoration.  Therefore, November 1st (or the first Sunday of November) becomes a day for us to recognize all of the saints of the Church.

But how do we define a "saint?"  Do we default to the numerous saints honored by the Church?  Do we define saints as those who proclaimed the faith even at the cost of their lives?  Or do we expand that definition?

In the Lutheran tradition, we turn to Martin Luther's understanding of himself and every other member of the Church as both sinner and saint.  Yes, we are sinners, but as baptized children of God, we are also adopted as children of God.  And, as children and heirs of God, we are saints.  So All Saints Sunday is a recognition of every member of the Church.

We may also define two terms for this day: "Church Militant" and "Church Triumphant."  The non-formal definition of these terms is that the "Church Militant" includes all of the living members of the Church while the "Church Triumphant" includes the members of the Church who have died and are now waiting for the resurrection.  How are the two connected?  The two are connected in the body of Christ, for everyone who is baptized and has participated in Holy Communion, whether alive or dead, is united with Christ; therefore, all of the baptized are united with one another.

Now we turn to the readings for Sunday.  My thoughts are in italics after each reading.

Revelation 7:9 - 17
9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, 
 “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, 
 “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
 and thanksgiving and honor
 and power and might
 be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
  13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15For this reason they are before the throne of God,
  and worship him day and night within his temple,
  and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
  the sun will not strike them,
  nor any scorching heat;
17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
  and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
 and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7 is a depiction of the “great multitude” of saints who are gathered around the throne of God during the various scenes of this vision.  These saints come “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”  This is a picture of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” we profess in the Nicene Creed.  When participate in the liturgy, we join this gathering of the church triumphant in worshipping the Lord our God.  Note that this is before the arrival of the New Jerusalem on Earth.  It is a vision of hope for a persecuted community; the message is that the powerful people who persecute them will not, indeed cannot, win against the Lord.

Psalm 34:1 - 10, 22
<Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.> I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
 2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad.
 3 O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.
 4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
 5 Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
 6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble.
 7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
 8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
 9 O fear the LORD, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
 10 The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.

 22 The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Psalm 34 reads like a song that the great multitude can sing during its worship of the Lord.  Though the note about David faking “madness” before a foreign king (note: not Abimelech but Achish in 1 Samuel 21:13; there is a priest named Ahimelech earlier in the chapter) puts the psalm in a different context.

1 John 3:1 - 3
1See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he\ is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

“See what love the Father has given us…”  How has this love been given to us?  Your answers may vary, but I would point to the cross and the sacraments.  The baptized are God’s children NOW, not just some time in the future.  While we do not know what life in the Kingdom of God at the end of the age will be like, we trust that we will be a new people, a resurrection people.

Matthew 5:1 - 12
1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
  3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
  6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
  7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
  8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
  9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
  10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The Beatitudes is a wonderful passage.  Including it on All Saints Sunday assumes that the “blessed” are the saints of the Church.  But this seems to draw a line in the sand, dividing us into the “blessed” and those who are on the outside looking in.  If we are not poor, in mourning, meek, hungry/thirsty for righteousness/justice, merciful, “pure in heart,” peacemakers, persecuted, or reviled, are we a part of the Church?  What does this say to American congregations, many of which do not fall into these categories?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thursday Thoughts for the Readings on Reformation Sunday 2017 (October 29th)

Hey folks, sorry for the break in posting.  I missed one week celebrating my wife's birthday and one week due to vacation.  I'm late in posting this week's notes because I spent Monday presiding over a funeral; any funeral gets priority over all other events scheduled that week.

Anyways, we are hitting a stretch in the liturgical calendar where we have several special events.  This Sunday is Reformation Sunday, when we observe the anniversary of Martin Luther posting his "95 Theses" on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517; this event is widely credited as the beginning of the movement known as The Reformation.  This year is a special observance of the anniversary because it is the 500th anniversary of this event.  Many events have taken place over the course of the year and many events will take place either this weekend or this coming Tuesday, October 31st, to complete our observance of this anniversary.

Before this event, however, there was an important change in Luther's theology.  In his early years as a monk, Luther saw the Lord as a God to be feared.  God was a God of harsh judgment, a God who was waiting to severely punish us if we sinned and did not confess to/repent from our sins.  Therefore, Luther ran to his "confessor," a fellow monk, multiple times a day so that he could be certain that he had confessed each and every sin.  Perhaps in exasperation, his confessor invited Luther to read the New Testament.  As he read the New Testament, Luther's image of the Lord changed from a God to be feared to a God to be loved.  This change lies under many of the ideas Luther brought forward during The Reformation.  Where in these passages do we see support for this shift from seeing the Lord as a God to be feared to seeing the Lord as a God to be loved?

As always, I will share each passage in normal text and my thoughts on each passage in italics.  I invite you to share your opinions, reactions, and questions in the comments.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

A colleague reminded the group of us that the Hebrew word interpreted as “law” in Jeremiah 31 can also be interpreted as “teaching” or “instruction.”  This sounds much softer than carving laws onto our hearts.  The last phrase of verse 34 points to the Lord whom we can love: “…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Psalm 46
Psalm 46:1 <To the leader. Of the Korahites. According to Alamoth. A Song.> God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
 5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
 6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
 7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
 8 Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
 10 "Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth."
 11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Psalm 46 is the biblical basis for Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  God is our refuge/fortress/bulwark/stronghold to which we can run/retreat when we are stressed or under attack.

Romans 3:19-28
19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
  21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
  27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

This passage from Romans 3 and other New Testament passages inspired Martin Luther’s change in perspective from seeing the Lord as someone to fear to seeing the Lord as someone to love.  The Lord takes it upon the Lord’s self to justify the Lord’s people rather than ask the Lord’s people to justify themselves before the law (which we are not able to do).  This free gift of grace and salvation through the faith of Christ (alternative translation to “faith in Christ”) reveals the Lord’s righteousness and brings the Lord’s justification to us.  The Lord’s judgment is in our favor!

John 8:31-36
31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
  34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

What is “the truth” referenced in John 8?  In context, we can connect the truth that sets us free with Jesus’ proclamation that “the Son makes you free.”  Again, this points to a God whom we can love, for the Lord loves us enough to come to Earth and die on a cross in order to free us from sin and death.

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.