This blog is primarily aimed at those who preach and teach, also for those who prepare for Sunday by pondering the upcoming readings

May 5, 2011

This blog is primarily aimed at those who preach and teach. “The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work … [S]ome references hostile to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent Church and the Jewish community. Certain controversies reflect Christian-Jewish relations long after the time of Jesus. To establish this is of capital importance if we wish to bring out the meaning of certain Gospel texts for Christians today.” Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. “Notes,” IV, 21, A. 

Sociological studies of Christian prejudice strongly suggest that Christians learn anti-Jewish bigotry in church. Ap­parently pleas to “love the neighbor” fail to outweigh the incessant drum­’ beat of negative images of the neighbor proclaimed as the Word of God. Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark, Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism (New York: Harper & Row, 1966); Rodney Stark, Bruce D. Foster, Charles Y. Glock, and Harold E. Quinley, Wayward Shepherds: Prejudice & the Protestant Clergy (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).

Even those who trained for ministry quite recently are likely not to have been asked to consider the potential anti-Judaism lurking in New Testament texts because Christian-Jewish relations are absent from the syllabus of most seminaries. (CCJ conducts workshops at Theological Colleges and includes sessions looking at Christian antisemitism in liturgies and hymns. One student responded “(I learned)… that antisemitism, real and perceived is much more of an issue than I realised: the possibility that some CofE liturgy could still be interpreted as antisemitic!”

It would also be useful for study groups such as those who meet to study the forthcoming Sunday’s readings and for Christians and Jews studying texts together; indeed this book originated in a mixed group of the Council of Christians and Jews in Bristol, UK, led by me over three years, spanning the lectionary cycle. I am most grateful to the whole group, but especially to the Rev’d Dr. Paul Spilsbury, who offered many insights from a conservative perspective and challenged my occasionally sloppy thinking.

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most famous and gifted preachers in the US, wrote: ‘a man in my congregation married a Jewish woman who sometimes came with him to church. When she did, I heard the slurs in familiar passages. I tasted the razor blades in beloved hymns. Before long, she had changed my sermons even when she was not there. If what I said did not sound like good news to her, I decided, then it was not the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ quoted in Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism – M. Salmon (Fortress 2006) p. 158

‘In an essay on Mel Gibson’s movie, Rabbi Michael Lerner observed that “if Christians have not confronted anti-Judaism as effectively as they have tackled other ‘isms,’ then that is because doing so requires them to question the historical truth of their own scriptures.”’ quoted in Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism – M. Salmon (Fortress 2006) p. 132

“Repentance of the misdeeds of the past is not by itself sufficient to enable us to come to terms with our different histories. Knowledge instead of ignorance of our common origins is the essential preliminary to greater mutual understanding.” Christian origins – C. Rowland (SPCK 1985) p. 5

I have been involved with interfaith work for forty years and am an Anglican lay Reader (aka licensed lay minister). I am keen that preachers and teachers avoid unintentional anti-Judaism.

If you do not use the lectionary but want to know how to find a comment on a particular passage, see this index.


Sermon for Proper 19/Ordinary 24 Year A Joseph

September 17, 2017

`You intended to harm me but God intended it for good.’ –words from our first reading


In the name…..


In the days before Religious Education was multi-faith


We did Bible stories.


Joseph was fun.


We spent 40 minutes singing along with Joseph and his amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.


OFSTED would probably disapprove – spoilsports.



Then we did a chart called ‘Joseph’s Ups and Downs.


Born – dad’s favourite – up


Given special coat – up


Dreams of greatness – up


His brothers loathe him and throw him down a pit – down


He is rescued – up


Sold as a slave, he works for a high-ranking official in Egypt –up


He’s accused of rape and thrown in jail – down


He gets to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes prime minister – up




Then the kids drew a chart of the ups and downs in their own lives.


One 11-year-old told me he’d been born with a hole in his heart and would face major surgery when he was older.




Many years later I watched Songs of Praise.


Not a programme I like but this one was from Holmfirth


– home of dirty seaside postcards and where they filmed Last of the Summer Wine;


more significantly for me in the catchment of area of my first teaching post.





They interviewed a young man who spoke of how he coped with heart surgery.


He recalled had a teacher years before who did a lesson on life’s ups and downs.


He’d gone into the operation confident that this down would be followed by an up.




Being a hoarder, I still have my records.


Sure enough, 1975, his name – note that he’d told me about his heart problem.




We all reflect on our lives’ ups and downs


So this story appeals


And it’s the life we know.


No angel appears, no sea is divided, no voice of God speaks publicly.


And there’s another version:


An Egyptian papyrus from about 1225 BCE tells of a young man who was much wronged.


His name was Bata, and he worked for his elder brother,


making him clothes, herding his cattle, and harvesting his fields.


One day when both brothers were out sowing, they ran short of seed.


Bata was sent home to fetch more.


He found his brother’s wife doing her hair


and asked her to give him the seed without delay, as his brother was waiting.


‘Do not interrupt me in the middle of my hair­dressing,’ she retorted. ‘Open the bin and take what you want.’


As he loaded himself with five sacks, the woman began to speak admiringly of his strength.


Suddenly she took hold of him, pressed herself upon him and promised to make him fine clothes.


Bata resisted.


But she convinced her husband that he had attacked her and demanded he kill him.


The elder brother sharpened his spear and waited behind the stable door.


Bata looked under the door and saw the waiting feet and fled for his life.


The story continues with many marvels and mythical turns, until Bata becomes ruler of Egypt.


His elder brother is brought to him and Bata appoints him his deputy and heir. Interpreted by love – J. Eaton (BRF 1994) p.41




But the Bible’s version has symbolism:


Young Joseph had been given a special garment which was the envy of his brothers.


Later, Potiphar’s wife grabs his garment in her attempt to seduce him.


The ‘garment’ is referred to no less than five times.


Is the garment something to do with Joseph’s public image,


his armour of detachment?


Perhaps, in a limited way, some chink is made in his defences.




When Joseph is appointed to be governor ‘over all the land of Egypt’ the text describes garments in great detail


Pharaoh gives him the royal signet ring,


arrays him in ‘garments of fine linen’


and puts a gold chain around his neck.


The moment of coming before Pharaoh is perhaps a watershed in Joseph’s life,


a point at which he makes a critical decision about his future.


garments discarded ; garments put on,


symbolically confirming the break with his past.


taking on the Egyptian style of dress and identity.




But Joseph gives his sons Hebrew names.


Manasseh ‘For God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house’


and Ephraim ‘For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction’.


In the Hebrew names of his sons he expresses both his joys and his sorrows, his ups and downs.


In the midst of his determination to forget his father’s house and all his hardships, they are ever present;


Joseph has travelled far.


The untried youth of seventeen has become a great man.


but a deep affliction remains Soul Searching: Psychotheraphy & Judaism – ed. H. Cooper (SCM 1988) p.194f




God’s favour did not spare him suffering.


He had been thrown down a well and later committed to the royal dungeons.


Plenty of time for reflection then.


But he was not beyond the reach of God’s faithful love.


The prison governor came to rely on Joseph as Potiphar had done earlier and as Pharaoh would later.




Then along come his brothers, desperate for food.


And Joseph said to them, Do not fear………While you meant evil against me, God meant it for good, to ensure that many people be kept alive as they are this day.


He says it three times so they do’nt miss the point vv. 5,  7,  8




It was not you who sent me here, but God.


No doubt the brothers in their guilt must have thought, “No, we sent you here, because we hated you and we feared you.”


No doubt Joseph answered his brothers, “I thought that too. But then I became aware that a larger purpose was at work, transcending these petty quarrels, looking far into the future, and I became aware that my life was more than the sum of my little fears, my lit­tle hates, and my little loves. My life is larger than I imagined, and I decided to embrace that largeness that is God’s gift for my life. I acted differently because I acted in ways befitting God’s odd way with my life.”




A larger purpose.




It means that God sees before (pro-video),


that God knows well ahead of us and takes the lead in our lives.


I don’t mean “fate,”


Nor that God deliberately sends suffering.


Rather that he lures something good to come out of it.




And isn’t there a parallel with Jesus?

What the world intended for evil, to crucify the son of God,

God intended for good,

the salvation of many lives.

“As for you, you meant (hasab—planned) evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

The brothers’ purpose was evil, but God took their evil act and brought something good out of it

God transforms evil into good – a common theme throughout the scriptures.

The cross is the most obvious example.

Where has God been working in the ups and downs of your life?

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Sermon for Lent 3 A; Proper 21A continuous track Exodus 17:1-7 Water from the rock

August 16, 2017

porous rockThe water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life- words of Jesus in John’s gospel.


In the name…




It’s good to be back here


Since the last time, I had a stroke and spent nearly three months in hospital.


I can’t help looking back


Last time I could walk unaided.


I could sing.


Now I can’t.


My voice reduced to a growl.




Most of us in this chapel have got more years behind us than ahead of us


And I’m sure most of us look back.




The good old days.



I recently read an article lamenting how modern day life was rife with chemicals, and unsafe artificial food additives


and how much purer and cleaner it must have been 100 years ago.


They seemed to forget that the life expectancy back then was about 55


as people died from smallpox, polio,


and any number of illnesses that these evil chemicals can now cure.




In our first reading, the Israelites look back on the supposedly good old days.


If only we hadn’t left Egypt.


Like us they tended to glorify the past.


“There we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.”


Life was much better back then.


We had all we needed to eat: meat and bread.


But they don’t mention the slave drivers who controlled their every waking moment.


They don’t mention the execution of every male child who was born to them.




The real danger with looking back on the past like this is that it poisons the possibilities of the future.


The people grumble against Moses and Aaron and say “you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”


No hope, no future, only death.




The people want water.


the book of Exodus abounds in water imagery.


Most important is the River Nile.


It flows a thousand miles from deep in the heart of Africa,


90 miles long, its delta fans out to drain into the Mediterranean across 150 miles of coastland.


Inside that area is some of the most fertile territory on earth due to the annual inundation which replenishes the soil and which made Egypt the breadbasket of antiquity.



The baby Moses is placed in water


from water he is drawn out.


Several of the plagues had their origin in water,


water turning to blood


frogs coming forth from water.


The climax is the miracle at the Red Sea


God pushes back and piles up the waters so that the children of Israel can cross safely onto dry land,


and then unleashes the watery chaos onto the army of the ancient world’s greatest superpower.




As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote—“water, water, everywhere; but not a drop to drink”.




My father spent most of his war service in Egypt.


An engineer servicing RAF planes.


Although he was a life-long atheist he was interested in the Bible.


I have some of his black and white photos of the Sinai desert of our reading.


Including porous rocks.




He’d met a local who knew all kinds of places to find water that no one else would think of



If you look at the waves in the sand, you can detect what were rivers


With banks, and clefts in the rock for tributary streams,


and at times even rushes and shrubs fringing their course”


signs of “water, water everywhere, yet not a drop to drink.”


The desert rocks are like sponges.


The water is very rich with calcium


as the water runs over the rocks a calcium deposit forms trapping water inside.


Later when the dry season comes the stream dries up


But you can burst the deposit and the water will come forth.




Whether water from the rock was a miracle or from natural causes,


The point is that God had provided it.


He was ahead of his children and had got it all ready for them.




Jewish feminist scholar Ilona Pardes sees Exodus as a “national biography” in which Israel is born, nursed, fed and reared


in preparation for maturity in the new reality of the Promised Land.


She reads our episode as a tale of Israel beating on God’s rock-hard breast before drinking therefrom.


just as Israel had to learn absolute dependence,


so too must we.


a relationship with this God requires a movement into a zone of aridity and barrenness,


becoming absolutely dependent on the one who will meet even our most basic needs


the narrative does not flinch from the perils of that life in such an environment


moving between fountains and feasts, famine and thirst




We live in a world that promises all kinds of things to fulfil our desires, our thirsts, our needs.


But it’s a dry place when the job dries up.


It’s a dry place when your health which once flowed like a mighty stream now is just a trickle.


We are, all of us, “the thirsty ones.”




Water in the desert is very hard.


The mineral deposit in “hard water.” plays havoc with the pipes and sinks.


left unattended, the mineral deposits need to be chipped away manually or with the use of acid.


When we become hard and brittle. Christ can chip away our hardness so that we might have life and become life-giving to others.



The Israelites are presented with the sure sign of God’s presence, and they can go on for another day.


So can we.




Paul saw the rock as an allegory for Christ.1. Cor.10:4.


His rocklike strength and dependability


He gives the water that will truly satisfy, gushing up into eternal life.

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Sermon for Proper 16/Ordinary 21 year A The rock from which you were hewn

August 5, 2017


Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug – words from our first reading.

In the name…

Isaiah was speaking to a people waiting in exile. God’s salvation will come soon. Jerusalem will again be a garden, where joy and happiness abound, where songs of thanksgiving will again be sung. What has been missing will be restored. What has been lost will be found. God is attentive to what we need to achieve fullness of life. God will act accordingly and swiftly. v. 5 The time of waiting is nearly over.

In just over a week’s time we shall start a period of waiting. For a new vicar.

Maybe Isaiah’s words are for us too. Look to the rock from which you were hewn. One rock was St. Mary’s Tyndalls Park with its anglo-catholic tradition, of transcendent worship and symbolism. And St Saviour, Woolcot Park with its liberal tradition. With evangelicalism currently in the ascendant in the Church of England there is a great need for the liberal catholic stream.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn . The Hebrews learned to associate the idea of “rock” with that of security and unchangeableness. Yet the rock Isaiah was thinking of was primarily Abraham – anything but unchangeable. It was Abraham who moved off into the unknown at the call of God, who left what was safe and comfortable for a land whose name he did not even know. It was Abraham who had the courage to argue with God, who made powerful, daring intercession for the sake of the city of Sodom. It was father Abraham who was willing to risk his only son and his own future for the sake of obedience to God. Remember him and all like him in the past of this church.

Remember Sarah our mother in faith. It was Sarah in her old age who laughed in scorn at God’s promise. But she was transformed. She birthed a son in her old age, created a future, and served God’s impossibility in the world.

We stand on the shoulders of mothers and fathers who have been obedient to the gospel in ways that matter. So remember these great saints in this church, but also remember those around the edges of this church, all of whom belong to this family of risk and obedience, who I like to imagine are in the woodwork around us today.

Today’s reading from Romans has advice for us too. Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God. Paul challenges the assumption that our understanding of truth is limited by our own perspective and experience. As part of God’s new creation, we are called to acknowledge our continual need for renewed perception by God’s Spirit, which results in a clearer understanding of God’s will for the church

Renewed perception – not nostalgic and romantic for the good old days, not seeking a new vicar who is like Fr. Nev or Paul Roberts or Richard Holroyd.

What happened to the dinosaur?  What destroyed him?  Nothing!  The climate around him changed. He didn’t. He died!”

There is a danger that we become excessively nostalgic when usually, by the good old days, we mean only about thirty years ago. The United Church of Christ in New York City was nearly defunct. Every year at strawberry time, the church had a strawberry festival. In previous years they used to fill the church basement with excitement, delight, and many people. Now only about twenty-four people came; all the others were gone. But in an act of nostalgia, they continued the pretence and set up tables for two hundred people, with many uneaten strawberries. Isaiah wrote about people so excessively in love with those wonderful past times that they have completely misunderstood the present tense.

Some congregations expect a new pastor to function exactly like the old pastor. “You can’t do that, because so and so did it this way!” It sets back the ministry of a church for several years

In our Gospel, Jesus promises that the gates of Hell will not prevail against his church. It survived Nero’s persecution in 64 CE but what about the strong churches in North Africa or many in Asia Minor after the Muslim arrival of the 7th century? Perhaps even before that event they were weakened by divisions.

The mission of this church is not finished. The work of this church is not a holding action. The future of this church is not business as usual.

And while we wait, Paul has more advice for us while we are without a priest.Paul had been a Pharisee. Pharisees were laymen. Whereas the Sadducees emphasized the priesthood, the sacrificial cult as the only redemptive activity in Jewish life, the Pharisees felt that people should please God in virtually every action of everyday life. So often maligned in the Gospels, the Pharisees wanted to transfer religion from the Temple to the home giving, in effect, every person the opportunity to serve as a priest of God.

Also, against the arrogant and haughty attitude of the Sadducees, the Pharisees offered a populist and progressive attitude toward observance of the Law. Whereas the Sadducees considered the written texts of the Hebrew Scriptures a closed book, the Pharisees con­tinued to debate and interpret the application of Scripture to everyday life. From the moment he got up to the time he went to sleep, the Pharisee sought solutions for situations that the Mosaic Laws had never anticipated: the foreign occupa­tion of Palestine’s land, the need to pay taxes to a pagan power, the necessity of dealing with Gentiles on a daily basis. They led the ongoing debate to apply the principles of the Law to changing circumstance. The Pharisees embraced the Hellenistic idea of life after death which Jesus followed. They were a minority position in their church but, because of their support among the urban elites of the country, their influence was still strong.

Paul urges us to offer ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’. Not dead animals sacrificed in the temple; not just keeping the show running here but living sacrificial lives in the world; offering our unique gifts in the service of others.

The first spiritual gift he mentions is prophecy. Prophecy is the uttering of God’s will under the impulse of the Holy Spirit: a gift of speech where the Holy Spirit communicates God’s will for His people.

Rather than blessing each community with a few people who could do it all, God bestows each individual with specific gifts. Collectively, these gifts are necessary for the Church to survive and prosper. Spiritual gift diversity is a prerequisite for the congregation’s unity and spiritual prosperity.

The key is for each Christian is to discover their particular gift and to develop it through the grace of the Holy Spirit. So, listen carefully and try to discover: What is your spiritual gift? How is God calling you to serve? How are you going to use that gift for the benefit of the spiritual community?

Finally, in our gospel, Jesus presents Peter with the keys to the kingdom. Keys can be used to either release or to lock something away: to protect or to confine. Who controls them? What is our responsibility as the key holders? Jesus’s words to Peter are a very personal challenge; one Jesus gives to all of us: ‘YOU have the keys. Now unlock the door and let me in!’

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2 Corinthians 9:6-15 Thanksgiving Day/Year A

June 6, 2017

In 9:6, Paul makes a statement whose spirit was widely shared: “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (see Prov. 11:24; 22:8). The word translated “bountifully” is eulogia, which was rendered “voluntary act” in 9:5: participating in the voluntary act of offering creates bountifulness in one’s life. (On the deeper resonance of sowing and harvesting, see below.) When Paul advises the congregation not to give “reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver,” he evokes Deuteronomy 15:7-11, which calls for a generous spirit toward the needy, with no hard 1 hearts or tight fists. God uses liberality as means to blessing. The people do not give to earn God’s love but to express the knowledge that they are loved. The analogy is apt: Deuteronomy gives this advice in anticipation of the seventh-year remission of debt just as the Corinthians await the apocalypse.

Recognizing the tendency toward insecurity when giving up material resources, the apostle reminds the congregation that only God provides, but God does so “with every blessing in abundance” (2 Cor. 9:8). These themes are reinforced in 9:10 with the citation of Psalm 112:9, a passage invoking the larger psalm that depicts the life of the righteous as blessed with land, descendants, and wealth. In gratitude to God and in commit­ment to the covenantal community, they deal generously with others and distribute their own goods to the poor (Ps. 112:1-9). Similarly God pro­vides for the Corinthians so they can fulfill their covenantal responsibil­ity by “sharing abundantly in every good work,” that is, be a means through whom God provides for the needy of their day.

Paul touches a deeper chord in the memory of Israel in 2 Corinthians 9:10 by using language reminiscent of that used in Genesis 8:22 regard­ing God’s covenant with the whole human family through Noah to pro­vide seedtime and harvest as long as the earth endures. The church at Corinth was composed mainly of Gentiles, and this covenant reminds them that God provided faithfully for them before they knew God as God. They can continue to count on that sustenance as they give to the Mace­donians. Moreover, because sowing and harvesting are fundamental life processes, the reader feels an intuitive resonance: as God works reliably through nature, so God provides through their life processes.

The Corinthians will find that their generosity not only provides for the needs of the saints in Jerusalem but enriches the Corinthians them­selves and also adds to the quality of God’s life by increasing the thanks­giving to God (2 Cor. 9:11-12). The latter is especially true as Gentile participation in the offering for Jerusalem signals that final manifestation of the divine realm is almost here, and with it the reunion of God’s scat­tered peoples—Jews and Gentiles (Isa. 60:4-16; 61:5-6). Preaching the Letters without dismissing the Law – R. Allen & C. Williamson (Westminster John Knox Press 2006) pp. 103-4

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1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Proper 28 / Ordinary 33 Year A

June 6, 2017

Just when the Thessalonians think “peace and security” (eirene kai asphaleia) have come about, the apocalypse will occur (5:3). This phrase appeared on some Roman coins, but the authors warn readers not to set­tle for the Gentile life of the empire.

This document joins others in comparing the coming of the Day with a woman who is having labor pains and who cannot escape (Isa. 66:7; 2 Esd. 4:40-42 He answered me and said, “Go and ask a woman who is with child if, when her nine months have been completed, her womb can keep the child within her any longer.” And I said, “No, lord, it cannot.” And he said to me, “In Hades the chambers of the souls are like the womb.  For just as a woman who is in travail makes haste to escape the pangs of birth, so also do these places hasten to give back those things that were committed to them from the beginning).


Because the Thessalonians are in a conflict zone between the commu‑

the breastplate of faith and hope and the helmet of salvation (2:8), lan­guage used similarly by other writers (Isa. 59:17; Wis. 5:18 He shall put on righteousness as a breastplate, and true judgment instead of an helmet). Given the fervour for supporting national wars that sometimes uncritically sweeps through Christian communities, it is worth noting that the breastplate and helmet are to protect the wearer and are not instruments for killing.


Given the way that many people in North America today speak of this hope as “pie in the sky,” it is important to remember that the apocalyptic theologians regarded the apocalyptic hope as the means whereby God would set things right for people who had been denied blessing in the present evil age—for example, the poor, the enslaved, those who suffered injustice and violence. Today’s preacher may not believe that Jesus will return to gather the bereft into the air, but the preacher does need to help the congregation develop both a believable hope that God is at work to set things right and a realistic understanding of how to join God in that work.

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1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Proper 27/Ordinary 32 Year A

June 6, 2017

The problem of the non-appearance of the Parousia manifests itself in a slightly different form in Paul’s early letters to the Thessalonians. In both letters eschatological issues are dominant concerns. In the first it is apparent that there has been a question about the death of Christians before the Parousia (4.13ff.). It would appear that the Thessalonians thought that those who died before the arrival of Christ would have been at a disadvantage and would not participate in the life of the age to come. Such a belief is consistent with Jewish eschatology where, generally speaking, only those who were alive when the Messiah came would be fortunate enough to participate in the life of the messianic kingdom (Syr. Bar 29; cf. Syr. Bar. 50.9 Paul deals with this problem by asserting that those who have died will in fact precede those left alive, in being united with the returning Christ (4.16). The advice given concerning the arrival of the kingdom in 5ff. suggests that the community was in a state of expectancy and was perplexed about its non-arrival. Christian origins – C. Rowland (SPCK 1985) pp. 287-8


Some in the community may be uncertain about what will ultimately happen to those who died before the apocalypse (4:13). The Greek de­scribes them as “sleeping,” an expression that figuratively describes what some writers believed happened at death: the self lost consciousness and awaited the resurrection. Note that the writers of this document do acknowledge that grieving is appropriate at the time of death. Expecting the apocalypse, however, they do not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Even appropriate grief, however, is a sign of the brokenness of the pre­sent age (2 Esd. 7:11-12 For I made the world for their sake, and when Adam transgressed my statutes, what had been made was judged. And so the entrances of this world were made narrow and sorrowful and toilsome; they are few and evil, full of dangers and involved in great hardships).

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1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 Proper 26 / Ordinary 31 Year A

June 6, 2017

In some texts, to be “pure” (hosios) is to be a faithful Jewish people who distance themselves from Gentile predilections (1 Macc. 7:13 The Hasideans were first among the Israelites to seek peace from them; 2 Macc. 14:6 The Jews called Hasideans, whose leader is Judas the Maccabee, maintain a warlike policy and rebel frequently, not permitting the kingdom to have peace). The term rendered “upright” is dikaios that is related to the word for “righteousness” and bespeaks relating with others (and God) in the way that God wants. Abraham, who follows God’s ways, is the paradigm of the “blameless” (amemptos; Gen. 17:5; cf. Wis. 10:5 Once when the nations were frustrated in their wicked plans, Wisdom recognized a righteous man and kept him innocent in God’s sight. She gave him strength to obey God’s command in spite of his love for his son; 18:21 For a blameless man was quick to act as their champion; he brought forward the shield of his ministry, prayer and propitiation by incense; he withstood the anger and put an end to the disaster, showing that he was thy servant).

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1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Proper 24 / Ordinary 29 Year A

June 6, 2017

The “labour of love” (ho kopos tes agapes) of these Gentile converts contrasts with the wicked works of other Gentiles (Wis. 3:10-11 But the ungodly will be punished as their reasoning deserves, who disregarded the righteous man and rebelled against the Lord;  for whoever despises wisdom and instruction is miserable. Their hope is vain, their labours are unprofitable, and their works are useless). “Steadfastness” (hupomone) is of necessity difficult in the days before the apocalypse (2 Esd. 10:2 Then we all put out the lamps, and all my neighbours attempted to console me; and I remained quiet until evening of the second day.; Rev. 1:9).

The Thessalonian practice of the key Jewish virtue (shared with many other people in antiquity) of hospitality—not only welcoming the three apostles but providing food and lodging—is legendary (1:9a). This welcome includes the key act of turning from (epistrepho) idols to the true and living God. Jewish theologians considered idolatry a fundamental Gentile prob­lem leading not only to substituting a lifeless idol for the living God but to destructive qualities of Gentile life (4:1-10; Rom. 1:18-32). For a biting Jewish analysis of idolatry from the world of Paul, see Wisdom 13-15 Yes, naturally stupid are all who are unaware of God, and who, from good things seen, have not been able to discover Him-who-is, or, by studying the works, have not recognised the Artificer. Fire, however, or wind, or the swift air, the sphere of the stars, impetuous water, heaven’s lamps, are what they have held to be the gods who govern the world. If, charmed by their beauty, they have taken these for gods, let them know how much the Master of these excels them, since he was the very source of beauty that created them. And if they have been impressed by their power and energy, let them deduce from these how much mightier is he that has formed them, since through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author. Small blame, however, attaches to them, for perhaps they go astray only in their search for God and their eagerness to find him; familiar with his works, they investigate them and fall victim to appearances, seeing so much beauty. But even so, they have no excuse: if they are capable of acquiring enough knowledge to be able to investigate the world, how have they been so slow to find its Master? But wretched are they, with their hopes set on dead things, who have given the title of gods to human artefacts, gold or silver, skilfully worked, figures of animals, or useless stone, carved by some hand long ago.Take a woodcutter. He fells a suitable tree, neatly strips off the bark all over and then with admirable skill works the wood into an object useful in daily life. The bits left over from his work he uses for cooking his food, then eats his fill. There is still a good-for-nothing bit left over, a gnarled and knotted billet: he takes it and whittles it with the concentration of his leisure hours, he shapes it with the skill of experience, he gives it a human shape or perhaps he makes it into some vile animal, smears it with ochre, paints its surface red, coats over all its blemishes. He next makes a worthy home for it, lets it into the wall, fixes it with an iron clamp.  Thus he makes sure that it will not fall down — being well aware that it cannot help itself, since it is only an image, and needs to be helped. And yet, if he wishes to pray for his goods, for his marriage, for his children, he does not blush to harangue this lifeless thing — for health, he invokes what is weak, for life, he pleads with what is dead, for help, he goes begging to total inexperience, for a journey, what cannot even use its feet, for profit, an undertaking, and success in pursuing his craft, he asks skill from something whose hands have no skill whatever. Or someone else, taking ship to cross the wild waves, loudly invokes a piece of wood frailer than the vessel that bears him. Agreed, the ship is the product of a craving for gain, its building embodies the wisdom of the shipwright; but your providence, Father, is what steers it, you having opened a pathway even through the sea, and a safe way over the waves, showing that you can save, whatever happens, so that, even without experience, someone may put to sea. It is not your will that the works of your Wisdom should be sterile, so people entrust their lives to the smallest piece of wood, cross the waves on a raft, yet are kept safe and sound. Why, in the beginning, when the proud giants were perishing, the hope of the world took refuge on a raft and, steered by your hand, preserved the seed of a new generation for the ages to come. For blessed is the wood which serves the cause of uprightness but accursed the man-made idol, yes, it and its maker, he for having made it, and it because, though perishable, it has been called god. For God holds the godless and his godlessness in equal hatred; both work and workman will alike be punished. Hence even the idols of the nations will have a visitation since, in God’s creation, they have become an abomination, a scandal for human souls, a snare for the feet of the foolish. The idea of making idols was the origin of fornication, their discovery corrupted life. They did not exist at the beginning, they will not exist for ever; human vanity brought them into the world, and a quick end is therefore reserved for them. A father afflicted by untimely mourning has an image made of his child so soon carried off, and now pays divine honours to what yesterday was only a corpse, handing on mysteries and ceremonies to his people; time passes, the custom hardens and is observed as law. Rulers were the ones who ordered that statues should be worshipped: people who could not honour them in person, because they lived too far away, would have a portrait made of their distant countenance, to have an image that they could see of the king whom they honoured; meaning, by such zeal, to flatter the absent as if he were present. Even people who did not know him were stimulated into spreading his cult by the artist’s enthusiasm; for the latter, doubtless wishing to please his ruler, exerted all his skill to surpass the reality, and the crowd, attracted by the beauty of the work, mistook for a god someone whom recently they had honoured as a man. And this became a snare for life: that people, whether enslaved by misfortune or by tyranny, should have conferred the ineffable Name on sticks and stones. It is not enough, however, for them to have such misconceptions about God; for, living in the fierce warfare of ignorance, they call these terrible evils peace. With their child-murdering rites, their occult mysteries, or their frenzied orgies with outlandish customs, they no longer retain any purity in their lives or their marriages, one treacherously murdering another or wronging him by adultery. Everywhere a welter of blood and murder, theft and fraud, corruption, treachery, riot, perjury, disturbance of decent people, forgetfulness of favours, pollution of souls, sins against nature, disorder in marriage, adultery and debauchery. For the worship of idols with no name is the beginning, cause, and end of every evil.  For these people either carry their merrymaking to the point of frenzy, or they prophesy what is not true, or they live wicked lives, or they perjure themselves without hesitation; since they put their trust in lifeless idols they do not reckon their false oaths can harm them. But they will be justly punished for this double crime: for degrading the concept of God by adhering to idols; and for wickedly perjuring themselves in contempt for what is holy. For it is not the power of the things by which they swear but the punishment reserved for sinners that always follows the offences of wicked people. But you, our God, are kind and true, slow to anger, governing the universe with mercy. Even if we sin, we are yours, since we acknowledge your power, but we will not sin, knowing we count as yours. To know you is indeed the perfect virtue, and to know your power is the root of  immortality. We have not been duped by inventions of misapplied human skill, or by the sterile work of painters, by figures daubed with assorted colours, the sight of which sets fools yearning and hankering for the lifeless form of an unbreathing image. Lovers of evil and worthy of such hopes are those who make them, those who want them and those who worship them. Take a potter, now, laboriously working the soft earth, shaping each object for us to use. Out of the self-same clay, he models vessels intended for a noble use and those for a contrary purpose, all alike: but which of these two uses each will have is for the potter himself to decide. Then — ill — spent effort!-from the same clay he models a futile god, although so recently made out of earth himself and shortly to return to what he was taken from, when asked to give back the soul that has been lent to him. Even so, he does not worry about having to die or about the shortness of his life, but strives to outdo the goldsmiths and silversmiths, imitates the bronzeworkers, and prides himself on modelling counterfeits. Ashes, his heart; more vile than earth, his hope; more wretched than clay, his life! For he has misconceived the One who has modelled him, who breathed an active soul into him and inspired a living spirit. What is more, he looks on this life of ours as a kind of game, and our time here like a fair, full of bargains. ‘However foul the means,’ he says, ‘a man must make a living.’ He, more than any other, knows he is sinning, he who from one earthy stuff makes both brittle pots and idols. But most foolish, more pitiable even than the soul of a little child, are the enemies who once played the tyrant with your people, and have taken all the idols of the heathen for gods; these can use neither their eyes for seeing nor their nostrils for breathing the air nor their ears for hearing nor the fingers on their hands for handling nor their feet for walking. They have been made, you see, by a human being, modelled by a being whose own breath is borrowed. No man can model a god to resemble himself; subject to death, his impious hands can produce only something dead. He himself is worthier than the things he worships; he will at least have lived, but never they. And they worship even the most loathsome of animals, worse than the rest in their degree of stupidity, without a trace of beauty — if that is what is attractive in animals- and excluded from God’s praises and blessing.)

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Philippians 4:1-9 Proper 23/Ordinary 28 Year C

June 6, 2017

The content of their disagreement is not clear. Nor do we know anything further about Clement. In any event, they need to recognize that their names are written “in the book of life,” an idea prominent in apocalyptic literature that assumes God kept a list of all who are to be saved or condemned (Dan. 12:1; 2 Esd. 6:20 And when the world that shal begin to vanish away shall bee finished: then will I shew these tokens, the books shalbe opened before the firmament, and they shall see all together; 2 Bar. 24:1 For behold! the days come and the books shall be opened in which are written the sins of all those who have sinned, and again also the treasuries in which the righteousness of all those who have been righteous in creation is gathered; 1QM 12:3 Mercies of blessing […] and Your covenant of peace You engraved for them with a stylus of life in order to reign o[ver them]: for all time; cf. Exod. 32:32-33; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27). When turning to Philippians 4:4-9, the minister needs to be alert not to discuss the motif of joy casually. The apostle’s celebration of joy takes place against the backdrop of the tensions in Philippi and in the convic­tion that God would soon bring about the consummation of history (4:5a).


The NRSV uses “gentleness” for epieikes (4:5), a word that often refers to characteristics of the rule of God and of earthly sovereigns who should mediate divine rule (e.g. Ps. 85:5; Wis. 2:19 Let’s test him by assaulting and torturing him. Then we will know just how good he really is. Let’s test his ability to endure pain; 12:18 Still, though you rule absolutely, you exercise careful judgment. You govern us with amazing restraint. If you wanted to, you could do anything you wished; 2 Macc. 9:27  I firmly believe he will follow my example closely, acting with kindness and generosity, with the intention of accommodating himself to you).


The content of their disagreement is not clear. Nor do we know anything further about Clement. In any event, they need to recognize that their names are written “in the book of life,” an idea prominent in apocalyptic literature that assumes God kept a list of all who are to be saved or condemned (Dan. 12:1; 2 Esd. 6:20 And when the world, that shall begin to vanish away, shall be finished, then will I shew these tokens: the books shall be opened before the firmament, and they shall see all together:; 2 Bar 24:1’For behold! the days come and the books shall be opened in which are written the sins of all those who have sinned, and again also the treasuries in which the righteousness of all those who have been righteous in creation is gathered; 1QM 12:3,; cf. Exod. 32:32-33; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27).


While commentators sometimes turn to Stoicism to understand these expressions, we can more easily understand them in the light of their Jew­ish context. To be “honorable” is to do what God wants (Prov. 8:6; 4 Macc. 5:36 You, O king, shall] not stain the honorable mouth of my old age, nor my long life lived lawfully; 17:5 The moon in heaven, with the stars, does not stand so august as you, who, after lighting the way of your star-like seven sons to piety, stand in honor before God and are firmly set in heaven with them.). In Judaism, justice is a relational notion; the “just” are those who relate to each other as God wants. To be “pure” is be prepared for mis­sion, as for religious ceremony (e.g., Num 6.2, 21; 1 Macc. 14:36 And in his days things prospered in his hands, so that the Gentiles were put out of the] country, as were also the men in the city of David in Jerusalem, who had built themselves a citadel from which they used to sally forth and defile the environs of the sanctuary and do great damage to its purity.; cf. Phil. 1:17). That which is “pleasing” is that which draws a positive reaction (e.g., Eccl. 4:7; 20:13). To be “commendable” is to live so that others will have reason to speak positively about you, and, conversely, it includes speech that elicits the best from others. “Excellence” speaks of moral fidelity (Wis. 8:7 And if any one loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these; 2 Macc. 10:28 At dawn, each side attacked. As an assurance of success and victory, the Jews had their courage and their trust in the Lord, but the Greeks made rage the driving force of their struggles; 4 Macc. 7:22 and knows that it is a privilege to suffer anything for the sake of their moral character, that person will be able to control the emotions through godly practice; 9:8 We will gain the awards of moral character through this suffering, and we will be with God, for whose sake we suffer). “Worthy of praise” is from the lan­guage of citizenship and denotes actions that could be honoured in public.

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Philippians 3:4b-14 Proper 22 /Ordinary 27 Year A

June 6, 2017

Much traditional exegesis regards Paul as criticizing Judaism in this pas­sage. However, a closer look reveals that Paul seeks not to critique Judaism as such but to correct a misunderstanding and misuse of elements of Jew­ish tradition by Gentiles whom Paul calls “dogs” and who teach Gentile Philippians that circumcision is a necessary part of coming into the church. People in antiquity disdained most dogs (e.g., 1 Kgs. 14:11; 2 Kgs. 9:30; Prov. 26:11) and sometimes speak of Gentiles as dogs (Deut. 23:18; 1 Sam. 17:43; Ps. 22: 12-13, 16, 29; Midr. Rab.; Exod. 9:2; 31:3; cf. Matt. 15:26-27; Mark 7:27-28; Rev. 22:15).


In 3:2-23, then, Paul protests not circumcision but its misuse. The dogs “have confidence in the flesh,” that is, they teach that circumcision is a work incurring righteousness. Judaism regarded circumcision not as a work but as a gift from God representing God’s grace (Gen. 17:9-17; Jude 14:10; Rom. 4:9-12). In 3:3 Paul does not depart from Jewish teaching but echoes other Jewish writers (Deut. 10:10-22; 30:6; Jer. 4:1-4; 9:25-26; Ezek. 44:4-8; 1QS 5:5; T Lev. 6:6; cf. Rom. 2:25-29).


“As to righteousness under the law,” Paul is “blameless” (v. 6). The Greek does not contain the word “under” and the passage is better ren­dered “as to righteousness with respect to the law, blameless.” Judaism did not believe that a person achieved righteousness through obedience to the law (Midr. Ps. 119:24; Midr. Deut. 2:1). A person followed the law to embody the righteousness that God bestowed through grace.


In 3:12-16, Paul turns to the language of athletics and apocalypticism to exhort the Philippians to continue their witness until the day of Jesus Christ. The congregation has not reached the goal, a notion that also appears in apocalyptic texts to refer to God’s completed work in the new creation (Dan. 12; 2 Bar. 21:8; 30:3; 59:4; 2 Esd. 5:41 And I said, Behold, O Lord, yet art thou nigh unto them that be reserved till the end: and what shall they do that have been before me, or we that be now, or they that shall come after us?; 6:15 And therefore when it speaketh be not afraid: for the word is of the end, and the foundation of the earth is understood; 13:18 Now understand I the things that are laid up in the latter days, which shall happen unto them, and to those that are left behind; 14:15 And set aside the thoughts that are most heavy unto thee, and haste thee to flee from these times).-Paul employs a wordplay to depict the relationship between divine activity and his own: he presses on to “make it my own,” (katalabo), that is, persevering until the coming of the new world because Christ “has made me his own” (katelamphthen). Paul’s activity testifies to God’s activity in behalf of the world.

Paul forgets “what lies behind” and, in response to the heavenly call, “strains forward to what lies ahead,” namely, the prize. The “prize” is “the heavenly call of God” to participate in the new world (1 En. 14:9 he vision caused me to fly and lifted me upward, and bore me into heaven. And I went in till I drew nigh to a wall which is built of crystals and surrounded by tongues of fire: and it began to affright). Preaching the Letters without dismissing the Law – R. Allen & C. Williamson (Westminster John Knox Press 2006) pp. 90-92

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