Saturday, May 28, 2016

Preacher’s Study – Year C, Proper 5 (10) 2016

The Preacher’s Study

3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 2016

John W.B. Hill  

1 Kings 17.8-16 (17-24)
Psalm 96;
Galatians 1.11-24;
Luke 7.11-17

The first reading, from the cycle of stories about the prophet Elijah, resonates with the gospel reading (provided the semicontinuous selection includes the optional verses).  But the resonance goes deeper than the miracle of bringing a young man back to life.  For centuries the church has been preoccupied with a Christology grounded in proof texts rather than in the paschal mystery; and miracle stories have been at the centre of this power-play (raising the dead as the revelation of Jesus divine identity).  But “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength,” as the crucifixion of Jesus reveals (1 Cor. 1:25).

In both stories, the context is critical to the meaning of the miracle.  The context of 1 Kings 17 is the national idolatry sanctioned by King Ahab, and the drought predicted by Elijah (who is keeping out of harm’s way by holing up with the widow of Zarephath).  Is there a connection?  Drought as divine punishment for idolatry?  Perhaps even the death of the widow’s son as divine punishment, as she seems to think?

It is ironic that the ‘fertile crescent’ (as we sometimes call it) has become, over the centuries, one of the more arid regions on earth.  Once covered in lush forests (remember the cedars of Lebanon?), the forests have disappeared, burned as fuel: not just to cook with, but to fuel kilns for brick and smelters for copper and iron.  Today we would call this a problem of resource management; but that would simply be exposing our anthropocentrism.  ‘The earth is ours to plunder’? or ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’?  Forests are much more than a ‘resource;’ yet we still haven’t learned!  Even worse consequences await us and our children as a result.  Blaming it on God is nothing other than fatalism.

So drought is not God’s punishment but the result of our idolatry – of money, of human prowess – both then and now.  God is the source of life in all its vast richness; and God is the compassionate Saviour who hears the cry of the widow, that perennial victim of our idolatry.

The context of Luke 7 is a social order in which widows without family are doomed to a life of poverty and prostitution.  Patriarchal order is yet another form of idolatry, with cruel consequences.  But the God revealed by Jesus calls us out of such fatalism, raising the dead and making all things new.  The crowd’s response is fear, and the recognition that “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has looked favourably on his people!”  Indeed!

In light of this encounter with ‘prophets’ who awaken us from our idolatry, we should note that it was the memory of Elijah that shaped Paul’s account of his conversion in Galatians 1.  If we had read one verse more last Sunday in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, we would have heard how Elijah massacred those humiliated prophets; and Paul reminds us of his own record, “violently persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it,” because he was so “zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”  That was exactly Elijah’s excuse: “I have been very zealous for the Lord” (1 Kings 19:10,14).  James Alison observes that Paul’s conversion was “the recognition that in his zeal to serve God, it had been God whom he had been persecuting.  For him, the still small voice was the voice of the crucified and risen victim...” Any god we serve with violence is an idol.

NOTE: In last week’s post, I suggested waiting to comment at length on the Elijah narrative until the second half of the story is told on June 12. However, I should have said “June 19,” when 1 Kings 19 is read.

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.

Etchings of the biblical story of Elijah and The Widow of Zarephath, by Marc Chagall.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Preacher’s Study – Year C, Proper 4 (9) 2016

The Preacher’s Study

2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 2016

John W.B. Hill  

1 Kings 18.20-21, (22-29), 30-39;
Psalm 96;
Galatians 1.1-12;
Luke 7.1-10

This Sunday we enter ‘ordinary time,’ and the Revised Common Lectionary offers a unique opportunity, from now until late November, to attend to three different voices of scripture, each in sustained discourse (that is, if we are using the semicontinuous readings for the Old Testament).

This is the moment, therefore, to take stock of such opportunities and choose homiletic strategies that can make the most of them.

This being the ‘Year of Luke’ (the version of the Gospel known especially for its compassion for those who are in trouble, and its attention to what God is doing in history), the Old Testament readings chosen to accompany this gospel are from the prophets, from Elijah to Haggai, with Jeremiah as the dominant voice.  Prophets are people who see what the rest of us miss, who speak truth to power, who summon us to return to the ways of God.

How then shall we honour the unique character of the lectionary during this stretch of the year?  How shall we help God’s people to weigh the cumulative force of three persistent voices, from Sunday to Sunday? 

First, we can stay alert to the recurring resonances, and draw attention to them.  This Sunday, for example, we encounter contrasts between a true prophet and false prophets, between a genuine apostle and self-serving apostles, between a teacher who speaks with authority and the scribes and teachers of the law.

Second, we can look ahead to discover how to seize the best moment for gathering up the elements (extended over a number of Sunday’s) of one particular scriptural voice, inviting people to integrate what they are hearing from week to week.  It is not necessary to preach on the Gospel text every Sunday — so long as we make clear that it is a gospel lens through which we look to discover the deepest meaning of a text. 

This Sunday’s readings call us to courageous faith.  Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal is a high-risk public drama designed to puncture the undiscriminating assumption that all forms of piety are equally valid.  But the preacher may wish to wait before commenting at any length until the second half of this story is told (on June 12).

Paul’s challenge to the disciples in Galatia is no less heated than Elijah’s challenge to his fellow Israelites.  His appeal to them will be spelled out in readings from this letter over six Sundays, so this may be the moment to introduce the letter and help people to hear the extreme tone of Paul’s concern.  Does it really make a difference what you believe about the ways of God?

Sometimes it takes a stranger in our midst to awaken us to the unique revelation with which we have been entrusted, to break through our dazed familiarity with the gospel.  So it was in the episode recounted in today’s Gospel reading: a Gentile, a hard-bitten centurion no less, has recognized something in Jesus to which his fellow Israelites are still blind.

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.

The above depictions of Elijah’s challenge of “the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19) were found on the walls of the third-century C.E. synagogue at Dura-Europos in modern Syria.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Preacher’s Study – Pentecost C (2016)

The Preacher’s Study
The Day of Pentecost, Year C

Mark W. Stamm 

Acts 2: 1-21 or Genesis 11: 1-9,
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b,
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2: 1-21,
John 14: 8-17 (25-27)

Pastors and parishes committed to the baptismal dynamics of Lent and the Great Fifty Days may arrive at the Day of Pentecost feeling a sense of accomplishment.  Perhaps catechumens have been accompanied through intense preparation for baptism.  Perhaps they have been led into the baptismal waters, and then, as neophytes, into a period of mystagogical reflection.  Perhaps many in the parish have walked this sacramental pathway with them and thus have experienced their own renewal.

Or not. 

Some church leaders may feel a sense of regret or frustration at a general failure to engage these paschal dynamics.  Many of us will stand somewhere in the middle. between our ideals and the realities of parish life.  We may be tempted to grade our parishes (and ourselves) on our conduct of the paschal cycle, but that’s not particularly helpful.

The texts for the Day of Pentecost remind us that our task of engaging the Paschal Mystery is an ongoing one.  As much as we cherish the work of Lent, the Triduum, and the Great Fifty Days, these rites and celebrations are not end points, but rather they shape us to engage that mystery at all times, both pastorally and prophetically.  Consider that the 9/11 attacks came during Ordinary Time, and that domestic abuse, which rarely makes the news, occurs in all seasons.  In such cases the formation that we receive during Lent and Eastertide shapes our response, and a similar formative work continues every time the church gathers for worship and service.

Both today’s feast (and the Great Fifty Days) draw their names from the Acts 2 text and its reference to the fiftieth day (v. 2:1).  Its place within the wider context of Acts reminds us about God’s intention to pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh (v. 2:17) even “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  That work, we are reminded, comes through “(our) sons and daughters (who) shall prophesy and … see visions,” and it also includes the dreams of the elderly (v. 2:17).  Acts 2 suggests that this movement toward the world brings both blessing and judgment (vv. 19-20), and that simultaneously.  Indeed, a church that takes its baptismal vocation seriously--receiving all as brothers and sisters and feeding them in generous measure--presents a hopeful sign, yet one that will trouble many.

The Romans text reminds us “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14), yet such life in the Spirit does not exempt us from the Paschal dynamic of suffering (v. 8:17).  Much less does it allow a withdrawal from the world.  We are part of God’s ongoing project.  We should hear this pericope within the entirety of Romans 8, beginning with its call to live not by “the flesh … but according to the Spirit” (v. 8:4).  The whole chapter presents the call into suffering (v. 8:17) ... groaning with Creation (v. 8:23) … believing that we can never be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus (v. 8:39).  Receiving the Spirit, along with refusing to retreat back into fearing all of the things that can go wrong (v. 8:15), is to follow in the Missio Dei. Inevitably, that mission leads to suffering but also to glimpses of Resurrection.

The John 14 reading brings a similar reminder, a promise that the Spirit of truth will continue Christ’s work through us, doing even “greater works” (v. 14 12), guiding and teaching (vv. 14:25-26).  One hears a stunning promise here—the “greater works.”  At the same time the way forward seems strikingly mundane.  Says Jesus, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).  That word speaks to an important truth that Christians need to learn again and again.  We were not baptized to become religious, but rather to live Christ’s way in the midst of a suffering world.  And so, on the Day of Pentecost and every other time we gather, the Spirit sends us back into the cosmos that God loves, to do the loving works of that same God.

Mark W. Stamm is Professor of Christian Worship, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX. He is the author of Sacraments and Discipleship, Understanding Baptism and the Lord's Supper in a United Methodist Context; Let Every Soul Be Jesus’ Guest, A Theology of the Open Table; and Extending the Table, A Guide for a Ministry of Home Communion Serving. A member of the North American Academy of Liturgy (NAAL), he is a participant in, and former convener of NAAL’s Christian Initiation Seminar.