15 September 2014

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, 21 September 2014

Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Jonah 3:10: - 4:11
Psalm 145:1-8

Philippians 1:21-30
St. Matthew 20:1-16

Background: Nineveh
Although Nineveh is depicted as a rich and power city (see the Track 2 First Reading) it was not until 3,000 or more years after its first settlement, ca. 6000 BCE, that the provincial center took on any importance.  Constructed on a fault line it was the victim of many earthquakes that decimated the city built of stone and mud brick.  The ruins of the city, surrounded by a 7.5-mile brick rampart, lie near the modern city of Mosul. 

The city was devoted to the cult of Ishtar, and it was the recipient of many a prophetic oracle against the city that was seen not only as sinful, but was also a considerable political threat to the city states in the Levant.  It’s consummate greatness came in the ninth century during the reigns of Tiglath-Pileser I, Shalmaneser, Senacherib, and especially Ashurnasirpal II. In 627 BCE, the great empire that served this grand city began to experience difficulties.  It was laid to rest by its former constituents, the Babylonians and Chaldeans, and the Medes and the Persians around 616 BCE.  The empire came to a jarring halt in 605 BCE.

Nineveh appears in the bible at several points.  Genesis 10 speaks of its founding, II Kings 19 begins the story of the threat that Assyria posed to Hezekiah, King of Judea, and Isaiah comments on this threat as an act of God.  Although Jonah travels extensively to get away from Nineveh, it is there that he preaches his great sermon, and according to the Bible the city repents.

Exodus 16:2-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."

Then the LORD said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days." So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, "In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?" And Moses said, "When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him-- what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD."

Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, `Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'" And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, `At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'"

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat."

This is a familiar story that has several elements that were seen in earlier stories, and will be seen again in later stories.  The first of these elements is the notion of “murmuring” or complaining.  It becomes a pattern in the Moses Cycle and in the wanderings of Israel.  Here the murmuring turns the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt on its head.  At least during their enslavement, the people reason, they had something decent to eat, every day.  Now, they continue reason, God has freed them only to kill them with hunger.  Other actions have antecedents that also underscore the psychological elements of this spat between God and Israel.  God promises a resolve to their problem of hunger as God “rains down” upon them the quail and the manna.  The same verb that appears with the rains in the Flood Story, and in the plagues of Egypt is used here to describe the agent of God’s providence in providing food to Israel.  There are restrictions, however.  The provisions are not provided on the Sabbath – and this rule supplies another element – that of being tested. 

These patterns and themes of starvation and thirst/food and drink, murmuring/turning to God, the glory of God/the testing by God, and others will form grist for the mill of the prophets that will follow, and will become types used in the later Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Scriptures as well. 

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. Do you have murmurings against God in your life?
  2. What matters do they involve?
  3. How has God provided when you have grumbled?

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 Confitemini Domino

Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.

Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.

Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.

Search for the LORD and his strength; *
continually seek his face.

Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,

O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.

He led out his people with silver and gold; *
in all their tribes there was not one that stumbled.

Egypt was glad of their going, *
because they were afraid of them.

He spread out a cloud for a covering *
and a fire to give light in the night season.

They asked, and quails appeared, *
and he satisfied them with bread from heaven.

He opened the rock, and water flowed, *
so the river ran in the dry places.

For God remembered his holy word *
and Abraham his servant.

So he led forth his people with gladness, *
his chosen with shouts of joy.

He gave his people the lands of the nations, *
and they took the fruit of others' toil,

That they might keep his statutes *
and observe his laws.

In this historical psalm, the author rehearses the story of Israel from Abraham to the Exodus, and finally the Promised Land.  If there is a theme, it is this, “Remember the marvels (God) has done, (God’s) wonders and the judgments of God’s mouth.” Of interest to us this morning are the passages that reflect the first reading, the quail, and the “bread from heaven.” Also noted are the cloud that served not only as a sign and reality of God’s shekinah (glory) but also as a “light” and a “covering.  All of this is rooted in the covenant that was made with Abraham, and from this agreement between humankind and YHWH, flows a story of salvation, event by event.  At the end lies treasure.  First there is “the lands of the nations,” and the “fruit of others’ toil” (a satisfying notion following years of slavery.  The real treasure, however, lies at the absolute end of the psalm, “That they might keep (God’s) statutes and observe (God’s) laws.”

Breaking open Psalm 114:
  1. What has God given you that you really didn’t deserve?
  2. Have you done the same for others? How?
  3. How does the Law help us to love our neighbor?


Track 2:

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what the people of Nineveh 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.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He 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. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" Then 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.

The 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. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When 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."
But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." Then 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. And 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?"

Is this a psychological study of the prophetic mind, or is it a sermon delivered to expound on the universal mercy of God?  Perhaps it is both.  To get into the mind of Jonah, it might be good to read the entire book (it’s short) and discover Jonah’s attitudes toward God, toward Nineveh, and toward humanity in general.  Perhaps Jonah is merely a misanthrope, or perhaps he is merely pushing against a universalistic trend that was seen in the post-exilic period.

It appears that Jonah is a very effective preacher, for the city repents.  It is then that we become acquainted with the peculiarities of Jonah.  He leaves the city, but not entirely.  He does not leave in the direction of his home, but instead moves toward the east, perhaps emphasizing that it is not proximity to Israel that saved Nineveh, but rather God’s mercy.  There he and God have a contest of wills and perception.  Sorry for the plant that had shaded him and is not destroyed by the sun’s heat, Jonah displays a forgetfulness (or perhaps regret) for what God has done for Nineveh.  Jonah’s sympathies seem ill placed and inappropriate.  Jonah seems not to acknowledge God’s final question, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city?” Perhaps the question is not directed at Jonah, so much as it is directed to us, the readers or hearers. 

Breaking open the Jonah:
  1. Was Jonah being reasonable in his objections?
  2. What would you have done?
  3. How would you answer God’s question at the end of the pericope?

Psalm 145:1-8 Exaltabo te, Deus

I will exalt you, O God my King, *
and bless your Name for ever and ever.

Every day will I bless you *
and praise your Name for ever and ever.

Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
there is no end to his greatness.

One generation shall praise your works to another *
and shall declare your power.

I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty *
and all your marvelous works.

They shall speak of the might of your wondrous acts, *
and I will tell of your greatness.

They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
they shall sing of your righteous deeds.

The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.

Like the psalm coming immediately before this one, and the ones following after, this is a true psalm of praise, that rejoices in God’s greatness and power.  The verse that ties it to the first reading (Jonah) would seem to be verse eight, “the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.” It is unfortunate that verse nine is omitted from the liturgical reading.  It’s text, “The Lord is good to all,” really seems to underscore the message of Jonah.

Breaking open the Psalm 103:
  1. What does the phrase, “the Lord is good to all” mean to you?
  2. How do you make that a reality in your own life?
  3. Who is it that needs your love and compassion?

Philippians 1:21-30

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

Only, 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, and 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. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well-- since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Paul writes to the church at Philippi from the belly and heart of the beast – Rome.  He is imprisoned there, and so his comments about life and death are quite poignant.  He observes the economy of faith, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” It’s a reversal of the usual thought.  He knows the tentative nature of his own living in the flesh and calls the Philippians to see the certainty of living in Christ (dying is gain!)  We are on the horns of a dilemma.  Apparently even every day life was difficult for the Philippians.  Their opponents did not appreciate these distinctions about life and living. To them gain was, well, gain – it had nothing to do with this new spiritual reality.  For them it had only to do with faithfulness to the gods and the state. Paul moves his hearers to an understanding of life’s difficulties and dilemmas, “For (God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” This suffering is something that Paul knows well, and he is glad to know that in his own suffering the Philippians can see an aspect of faith.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. How have you suffered for your faith?
  2. Do your neighbors support you in your belief?
  3. Do others see you as a person of faith?

St. Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, `You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And 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?' They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, `You also go into the vineyard.' When 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.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, `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.' But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

There is in this text a sense of urgency, perhaps because this is the harvest of the vintage.  Workers were needed at all times to bring in the precious harvest of grapes.  For Jesus, the urgency was to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, and for Matthew the urgency was for his hearers to understand that those called earlier (Israel) and those called later (the Gentiles) were entitled to the same benefit in the Kingdom.  I am reminded of St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Homily:

First and last alike receive your reward;

rich and poor, rejoice together!

Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast,
and you that have not,

rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

This would have been an issue for Matthew’s readers. For some, their acceptance of Christ was an affront to family and tradition. Perhaps they wondered why the invitation was given to those who hadn’t suffered as much. Were the Gentiles Nineveh, and is Matthew warning us to not be a Jonah?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Is the kingdom of heaven about fairness or equality?
  2. Is there someone more deserving of salvation that you?
  3. Is there someone less deserving of salvation than you? Who?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

10 September 2014

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, 14 September 2014

Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13

Romans 14:1-12
St. Matthew 18:21-35

Background: The Exodus
Central to the Jewish story, and the context and background to the Christian celebration of Easter, the Exodus becomes a difficult text when faced with any effort to discover its roots.  The texts that reveal the Exodus to us were written several centuries after the great event was to have happened.  What might be more fruitful for those who study the religion of the Hebrew Scriptures and its theology might be to look at the images and the underlying themes, and to look at how later ages replicated the event.  The themes of liberation and covenant might suggest themselves to us right away as suitable pursuits.  What is important here is the idea of a God who intervenes in human history.  This is not the only example of God’s action, but it is one of the most stunning.  The other aspect that is worthy of discussion is the humanity of this story, and how this story was meant to gather a people, and give them a status.  What did the people both hear and understand from this story?  Finally, this story needs to be explored from the perspective of the covenant – an agreement between God and humankind to be in relationship. 

Track 1
Exodus 14:19-31

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt."
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Sometimes I think we look at this story with a notion that all the leadership was resident in Moses alone, but the text disabuses us of that right away. “The messenger of God that was going before the camp.” This is a God active in history, moving in front of the people who are to be liberated. God leads and the people follow into a place that had meant to them death.  Water represented death and tragedy, and they were mightily fearful of it.  That notion is the power of this story, as the people are led into an environment with “waters (death) a wall to them on their right and on their left.” We have similar images in Psalm 23, and in the crossing of the Jordan.  God leads the community at risk into the midst of the risk.

It is difficult to talk about the sack of the Egyptian force given the politics and events of the Mid-East during our time. Perhaps the emphasis needs to be placed on the notions of deliverance and liberation rather than on the fate of Pharaoh and his forces.  And this might cause a preacher to explore how we can experience liberation without violence. What is interesting is to think into the minds of the Israelites and to see with their eyes what they were witnessing about the power of God. There are results. “They trusted in the Lord.”

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. In what ways is “liberation” a theological concept?
  2. How is God active in your history?
  3. How does God lead your church?

Psalm 114 In exitu Israel

When Israel came out of Egypt, *
the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech,

Judah became God's sanctuary *
and Israel his dominion.

The sea beheld it and fled; *
Jordan turned and went back.

The mountains skipped like rams, *
and the little hills like young sheep.

What ailed you, O sea, that you fled? *
O Jordan, that you turned back?

You mountains, that you skipped like rams? *
you little hills like young sheep?

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, *
at the presence of the God of Jacob,

Who turned the hard rock into a pool of water *
and flint-stone into a flowing spring.

This psalm drops us into a vortex of action, from the very beginning, “when Israel came out of Egypt.” It celebrates the history of God’s intervention in favor of Israel. Like the story from the book of Exodus, this psalm wants to differentiate those whom God had chosen from the others, “from a people of strange speech.” The Egyptians (among others) do not know the words – the sacred words, nor the Name that cannot be pronounced.

There are some amazing images here.  The first is that “Judah became God’s sanctuary” or, quite literally, “God’s holy place.”  Once again we have covenant talk. Another is the allusion to the Red Sea event being replicated at the Jordan, which I mentioned to earlier.  It is a beautiful pairing of events. ‘The sea beheld it and fled; Jordan turned and went back.” And now the text presses on, both recalling and looking forward to God’s active presence with Israel, water from rock, flint stone into a spring.  The water that was death has become joy.

Breaking open Psalm 114:
  1. What does it mean that God has chosen a certain people?
  2. How could a people become “God’s holy place?”
  3. What words are sacred to you?

Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21

"I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father's God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.

"Pharaoh's chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power--
your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said, `I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.'
You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

"Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?"
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.
And Miriam sang to them:

"Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea."

We can imagine that this might have been the means how many heard the foundational story of the Exodus – through the song and words of one who sang the story.  It is indeed possible that these words, given to Moses, came before the written words that precede it.  The images are geared to trigger memory and sight, “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up.” Again there are water images with all the power that they would have had for these ancient peoples: “waters heaped up, streams stood up like a mound, the depths congealed in the heart of the sea.” This is a God not only active in history but in the primeval heart of the beginning of things.

It is with the introduction of Miriam that we can begin to understand the nature of prophecy – for here she is described as a prophet.  It is her singing and dancing that underscores the ecstatic essence of prophetic life.  She is present in two water stories: Moses sent adrift in the Nile, and now at the Red Sea.  She serves as a prophetic note, to help us understand the true nature of this song.  It is God’s word to the people who hear it in the present, rather than just a recitation of history.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. How does this song help Israel to remember?
  2. In what way is Miriam a prophet?
  3. What images in this song do you find interesting?

Track 2:

Genesis 50:15-21

Realizing 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?" So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died, `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. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even 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. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

The theme here is one of forgiveness, linking this text with the Gospel for today.  The power of death was not only seen in the loss of a strong and powerful character in life, but also in their will for the days to come.  Thus the brothers have fear for how Joseph might act, given their offenses to him.  They hope to convince him of the power of their father’s wishes, “I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers.” If we have followed the story, as those following Track 1 have, we may have some sense of distrust for the story that they foist on Joseph, about the “charge” that was intended for Joseph by Israel. We don’t know whether or not Joseph sees through all of this, but we do know that he sees beyond it. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?” It is a stunning realization for all, and Joseph further enjoins them to see the good that was the end result of their evil intentions.

Breaking open the Genesis:
  1. Do you trust the brothers’ report? Why?
  2. What would you have done?
  3. Have you ever seen good come from evil?

Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 Benedic, anima mea

[Bless the LORD, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, *
and forget not all his benefits.

He forgives all your sins *
and heals all your infirmities;

He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;

He satisfies you with good things, *
and your youth is renewed like an eagle's.

The LORD executes righteousness *
and judgment for all who are oppressed.

He made his ways known to Moses *
and his works to the children of Israel.]

The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.

He will not always accuse us, *
nor will he keep his anger for ever.

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, *
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.

As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.

As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.

This psalm rehearses the gracious nature of God that is reflected in the behavior of Joseph in the first lesson, and in Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel.  Some images of distance and measure are given to help the reader understand the immensity of God’s love.  “For as the heavens loom high over the earth, his kindness is great.” Other comparisons are made to accentuate God’s grace.

Breaking open the Psalm 103:
  1. When has God forgiven you?
  2. When have you had difficulty in forgiving someone else?
  3. Where is God’s grace in your life?

Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those 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. Who 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.

Some 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. Those 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.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If 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. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why 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. For it is written,

"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God."

So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

At the heart of Paul’s problem here is the division of those who advocated keeping the Mosaic Law and those who did not.  We recognize them when Paul inserts the notion of “weakness” into his argument.  Paul, however, doesn’t encourage the distinction, or the judgment of others.  “Who are you to pass judgment?” The mending is done by understanding that whatever is done needs to be done “in honor of the Lord.”

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Do you have freedom in your faith?
  2. What do you forbid yourself, or require of yourself in your faith?
  3. How do you “honor the Lord” in what you do?
St. Matthew 18:21-35

Peter 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?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But 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.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

For the last few Sundays we have been looking at how those who follow Christ are to act toward one another.  In this Sunday’s parable we look at all the exigencies of being a forgiving people who have been forgiven. 

The strength of this parable’s telling argues against embellishing it with more words. The point is simple and strong and perhaps no better explained than in the Our Father, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” The example lies within our own reach of God’s response to our own shortcomings.  The king’s graciousness is not seen, and even worse, not replicated in the life of his servant. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How do you confront those who have done something wrong?
  2. Have you ever followed this procedure outlined in Matthew?  Why not?
  3. How do you confront your own wrong-doings?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, because without you we are not able to please you mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller