Worship Notes will return next week.
General Observations and Background
This week’s readings take God’s love and saving power from the individual and community level to the global and cosmic. God’s desire is to restore, to create anew all of creation. The kicker is that we are called to be a part of that desire and plan.
The reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah comes from its very beginning, and it follows a typical pattern of God’s call. God points out a task and communicates with the one he has chosen to be his agent; that person then offers excuses, and God promises to be with him and gives a sign. Just because the pattern is the same doesn’t mean that every call is identical. In Jeremiah’s case there is a larger historical reality that determines the nature of his calling. When God says, “I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,” his words indicate that Jeremiah’s mission occurs at a significant historical moment. Judah was increasingly threatened by the growing power of the Babylonian Empire, and during Jeremiah’s times the exile to Babylon of the ruling and elite classes occurred. In fact, Jeremiah himself was carried there, against his will. What followed was the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem. God’s message to God’s people, delivered through Jeremiah was not only a warning of the judgment and destruction to come-it was also a promise of rebuilding and restoration, of new life to come through faithful following of God’s ways.
The letter to the Hebrews, near its conclusion, also presents God’s promise of a new kingdom, this time in light of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The comparison in this passage is between historical, “touchable” reality of Mount Sinai as experienced by Moses and the “unshakable” kingdom of Mount Zion, the “city of the living God,” that believers in and followers of Jesus have come to through the “sprinkling of his blood,” that “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Receiving this kingdom requires a response from us-giving thanks, offering “an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”
God’s desire to free all of creation from bondage to the powers of this broken world (the power of the denier, the satan) is expressed in Jesus’ healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath in Luke’s gospel. Jesus relates the suffering of this woman for eighteen years with all the work of satan in the world: it stands in direct conflict with God’s purpose of salvation, extending from the covenant with Abraham to the present of Jesus’ ministry and its promise of fulfillment. Isn’t, then, the Lord’s Day, the Sabbath, the most appropriate time for her-and for all of us-to be set free and give thanks for that freedom? The crowd in the synagogue that day understood what Jesus was saying, and “was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.”
Thoughts For Connecting Lessons To Living
1.) Each of these three lessons, in its own way, reminds us of God’s intimate knowledge of our lives and his presence with us even when we don’t know it. Each lesson also tells us that God’s presence calls for a response from us-reverence and awe, worship, rejoicing, and speaking his words of justice and hope to the world. Two things then, for me, emerge as requirements: focused attention to God in worship and, emerging from that, taking my experience of God out into the world in my daily life. The world is transformed, not by programs, but by the loving witness of one relationship at a time.
2.) What does the Sabbath mean to you? How is it related to the rest of your life?
General Background and Observations
The scripture lessons this week all continue their themes of last week, this time using highly visual examples to emphasize their points. Isaiah continues to address Israel concerning its failure to live up to the terms of God’s covenant with them. The prophet uses a didactic song as an allegory for Israel’s relationship with God. After an extended description of God’s work and loving tending of the vineyard—and of the vineyard’s failure to produce good grapes, resulting in God’s displeasure—the prophet states the analogy’s meaning plainly: “For 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; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
The structure of the song’s argument leaves Israel little choice but to pronounce judgment on itself. After such considered planning and good care, the vineyard had every reason to be productive. If Israel had faithfully applied God’s will to daily living, justice would have flourished; if they had lived in right and mutual relationship with God, righteousness would have resulted. Absent that, “a cry” from the oppressed goes up to God, who will respond to their need, to the possible destruction of Israel.
The letter to the Hebrews concludes its roll call of heroes and heroines of the faith, used as inspiring examples to exhort the faithful to confidence and endurance. The passage concludes with the familiar appeal to the “great cloud of witnesses” and to the ultimate example of Jesus: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus goes before and points the way for all his followers: discipline, putting aside all encumbrances and hindrances to running the “race,” results in joy. As in Isaiah, following the ways of God lead to loving and fruitful relationship with God, and all who live in Him.
Jesus continues his message of preparation and watchfulness in our reading from Luke’s gospel. His tone becomes even more emphatic, to a point that makes us uncomfortable: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! […] Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” This is not the Jesus we like to talk about. This prophetic Jesus follows Isaiah in announcing the inevitability of God’s judgment, this time represented as fire. Why, Jesus asks, are you unable to see how far from God’s ways you have gone? Then he uses a vivid visual appeal: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Jesus’ analogy makes sense to us all, and we all stand accused. Here is one more illustration. The artwork accompanying the lectionary this week is J.M.W. Turner’s “The Burning of the Houses of Parliament” (1835). Turner often used dynamic, emotionally charged color to depict scenes indicting the social structures of his day. “The Slave Ship” (1840) is perhaps the most famous. The painting we see this week captures the urban structure that was the seat of power in 19th-century England, here being laid to waste (like Isaiah’s vineyard) by the encumbrance of its own weight. The fire began in the disposal of old, worm-eaten wood. Rather than being given to the neighboring poor for fuel, the wood was stuffed into the furnaces of Parliament, and the fire resulting from overheating burned not only the Houses of Parliament but the neighborhoods of the poor.
Thoughts For Connecting Lessons To Living
1.) Our uneasiness with parts of scripture that focus on judgment points us toward our awareness of the reality of suffering and our anxiety surrounding how to deal with difficult problems. How do we make choices in our daily living that reflect poorly on our relationship with God?
2.) Isaiah’s purpose was to inspire change in Israel. The letter to the Hebrews aimed to promote the faith and solidify the young Church. Jesus was (and is) leading his followers. How do they speak to you about the need for discipline in your life of faith?
3.) Joan Chittester, a writer and speaker on Christian living, has responded in a pithy way to cultural claims of the irrelevance of the Church: “Religion is dead. So what do you want to be caught dead doing?”
General Observations and Background
Our readings for this fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost give us direction for uncertain and troubled times: look forward, focus on the future, and prepare yourselves to do good work.
The first lesson, from the beginning of the book of the prophet Isaiah, takes us back to a time in Israel’s history when the nation was in disarray, desolate. Giving voice to the Lord, the words of the prophet tell us that God has grown tired of and no longer desires the ritual sacrifices of the people. This does not mean that Isaiah opposes such ritual on principle, but rather indicates that God calls for moral action accompanying Temple worship. God instructs them, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” And he holds out bright hope for the future if they do so: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”
The letter to the Hebrews hearkens to history to demonstrate the life of faith that Isaiah espouses. The “great cloud of witnesses” constituting Israel’s ancestors maintained right action in hope of the fulfillment of God’s promises. Faith, the letter says, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Abraham embodied such faith, leaving what he knew for the unknown, believing God’s promises, even though he did not see their fruits. Abraham, Sarah, and their offspring saw and greeted these promises “from a distance.” They did not think of what lay behind, but made clear by their looking forward that they desired a “better country, that is, a heavenly one.” This is pleasing to God, who has prepared a city for them.
The heavenly country that they desire is also the focus of Jesus’ teaching in Luke’s gospel. He continues his point from last week’s lesson about being “on your guard against all kinds of greed.” Jesus is not necessarily telling his followers that they have to get rid of all their possessions; he is advocating the opposite of focusing of “getting and spending,” encouraging them to focus on being “rich toward God.” The “treasure in heaven” is not the reward you will get after you die. “Heaven” is God’s reality, God’s way of being, here and now and always. When we say, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,” this is what we are speaking of. The more we focus on the finding the “treasure of heaven” here, of making this present reality more like God’s reality, the closer to heaven we will come. The second half of this week’s lesson focuses on preparation, being watchful and ready for the coming of the kingdom, here described as the coming of the bridegroom to the wedding banquet. Jesus is giving advice in this passage that would have been familiar to his audience as the advice given to people preparing for a journey like that of Israel in the Exodus-dress properly, be ready to eat the meal served to you, and then follow the master. You do not know when the coming of the kingdom may occur, so always be looking for it.
Thoughts For Connecting Lessons to Living
1.) We often speak of preparing for the future in terms of financial planning or education or strategic thinking. While these things are not worthless or wrong, our lessons suggest that in God’s terms preparation for the future involves something else. What might that be?
2.) The Greek word translated in Hebrews as assurance might also be translated as reality. Likewise, the word translated as conviction might be translated as evidence. In that case, “faith is the reality of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” How does that change your understanding of the lesson-and of hope and faith?
The Very Reverend Beverly Gibson, Ph.D., Dean of the Cathedral