St. Peter’s Fish: Proper 9, Year A

Matthew 17:24-27; Romans 13:1-10

It seems that the temple tax collectors challenged Peter about whether Jesus and his followers paid the tax.  All Judean males were required to pay a tax beginning at age 20 to support the temple in Jerusalem (Exodus 30:11-16).  Peter claims that Jesus does pay the tax, but Jesus seems to be a bit ambiguous.  He asks Peter, “On whom do secular rulers levy taxes and tolls?  Do they levy them on their own people or on aliens?”  Peter says, “On aliens” – which would seem to be an obvious condition for secular occupiers of a land such as Palestine to do.  Jesus says, “Then their own people are exempt.  Still, we don’t want to get in trouble with them, so go down to the sea, cast your line in, and take the first fish that rises.  Open its mouth and you will find a coin.  Take it and pay them for both of us.”

While the Elves disdain to include Matthew’s fable in the lectionary, “St Peter’s Fish” is well known.  Turns out St. Peter’s Fish is Talapia. The tilapia, also known as the musht, is native to the Lake Tiberias.  They are bottom feeders, and “mouth breeders.”  That means, they scoop up plankton and other objects into their mouths.  They also carry their eggs in their mouths until they hatch, and the young are ready to swim on their own.  The temple taxes were collected in the month before Passover, any time from February to March.  During that season in Tiberius, the tilapia were likely to be in shallow, warmer water where there was more plankton than in the deep waters.  They would be moving gravel on the bottom to build spawning pits, or searching for plant material on the bottom.  It is not unusual for these fish to scoop up coins.

Matthew’s magic story reflects the magic of the loaves and fishes, and perhaps anticipates the magic of the colt the disciples borrowed for Jesus to ride in the Palm Sunday parade. But beneath the distracting magic lie some ambiguities. …

Transfiguration – It’s never too late: Proper 8 Year A

Matthew 17:1-23; 2 Corinthians 10-12 (Paul’s Fools Speech), various

Because of the moon-based Easter calendar, Christendom skips Matthew 7 (4th, 5th, and 6th Sundays after Epiphany) and 9 and picks up on 10. Matthew 8 is never read (see 7th and 8th Sundays in Epiphany 2011).  Even though this is an unusual Year A, with the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday plunging everyone else into Matthew 10, it seems once again that – theologically – consideration of the legend of Jesus’ transfiguration is more appropriate now than right before Ash Wednesday.  Combining moon-based with sun-based liturgical and lexionary calendars seems a daunting enough challenge to send anyone to the liquor cabinet, if not the fridge for a cold one.  The Elves are not entirely to blame.…

One in the Spirit: Trinity Sunday

Matthew 16:13-28; Romans 6:5-11

This commentary is going directly through Matthew without regard for the traditional Christian liturgical year, so will not skip to the end of the gospel to Jesus’ “great commission” to “make followers of all peoples . . . ][and] baptize them in the name of the Father and the son and the holy spirit.”  The trinitarian debate began three hundred years later.  Along the way, not a few heretics went up in flames rather than subscribe to a “trinitarian” view of God.  Among them was Michael Servetus, who ran afoul of John Calvin in 1553.  Indeed, it is still to this day anathema to some Protestants to be thought of as “unitarian.” (That some Unitarian Universalists return the favor by declining to acknowledge – let alone claim – their Christian heritage is a blog for another day.)

The rest of Christendom will get back to Matthew 16 at the end of the summer.  But the story of the revelation that Jesus was the Anointed One may be more relevant to post-Pentecost themes for Christian worship than Trinity Sunday. …

Liturgy For A Celebration of Pentecost

Servetus Society
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland
Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Servetus Society at UUCF is a chapter of Unitarian Universalist Christians.  Michael Servetus (1509 or 1511-October 27, 1553), was a Spaniard martyred in the Reformation for his criticism of the doctrine of the trinity and his opposition to infant baptism; he has often been considered an early unitarian.  Widespread aversion to his death signaled the birth in Europe of religious tolerance, a principle now more important to modern Unitarian Universalists than antitrinitarianism.

Pentecost is perhaps the first festival appropriated from an ancient tradition to serve the purposes of the new Christian Way.  We celebrate “the Church’s birthday,” and proclaim“Christ is our Passover,” but what does that really mean?

Pentecost is the Jewish Festival of Weeks, which takes place fifty days after Passover – and Passover, as we know, is the commemoration of an archetypal deliverance from oppression and injustice.  So Pentecost – fifty days after Passover – is really about life after liberation.  In Leviticus, we find that the Hebrew people were directed by the priests (God’s representatives) to make holy offerings of grain, bread, lambs, and incense.  The purposes for the ritual sacrifices were for sin – for which a goat was sacrificed –  and for well-being – for which two male lambs were sacrificed.  This seems to be a very practical acknowledgment of what usually happens in normal human civilization after liberation is accomplished.  Pretty soon, we get back to the usual failures and fights.

But, once the ritual sacrifices are done and all is well again between God and the people, it’s party time, and work is forbidden.  Just in case the people might forget why they were liberated in the first place, the priests made it clear that “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

In the midst of a holiday, certain that sins have been forgiven and that future well-being is assured, the people remember that God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s imperial rule, means that God’s people live in distributive justice-compassion.

Reading:    John 20:19-23
Liturgist At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, first given by John’s Jesus, descends in tongues of flames on the Christian community gathered in Jerusalem.  They are empowered to tell the story of Jesus – the new, sacrificial paschal lamb – in every language of the known world.
[Light Chalice]
Liturgist The imagery of fire represents the outpouring of the presence of sacred being and of creative power.  Fire transforms, destroys, purifies, enlightens, inspires, and protects.  But post-modern, “first world” people have no experience or appreciation for that kind of power.  In order to live with and through the Pentecost fires – whether of ancient commitment and sacrifice, or of the certainty of a transformational message – would-be prophets must remember that fire does not care what feeds it.  Fire can be fed by injustice as well as justice-compassion.  Perhaps that is why the ancient Priests were careful to remind the people to leave something for the poor and for the alien seeking hospitality in a hostile world.

Psalm 104:24-35
Hymn     Eli, Eli

Acts 2:1-21
Hechos 2:1-4
Français Actes 2:1-4

MEDITATION: Here’s Some Holy Spirit Sea Raven, D.Min.
1 Corinthians 12:3-13

What is missing from most Christian Pentecost celebrations is a sense of purpose, ownership, liberation, and commitment.  Theologically, Jesus’s death and resurrection supposedly replace any need for a “scape-goat” as a sacrifice for sin, and reconciles humanity with God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion.  But sin, and guilt about sin, continues to plague church-goers, as though Jesus’s death and resurrection didn’t really do the trick.

Jesus’s life and teachings illustrated a profound one-ness with a mysterious, non-interventionist, kenotic god, in a realm of radical fairness, inclusiveness, and distributive justice-compassion.  When we identify with that kind of God, and commit to that kind of covenant, it is possible to experience a sense of integrity, not just within ourselves, but rippling out from ourselves to encompass all of God’s creation.  That is what I would call a transformed life.  When we get in touch with that, we can access the power to address systems of injustice.

In his lengthy letter to his community in Corinth, Paul makes the point that Jesus’ execution was a sacrifice; in the translation from the Scholars Version: “the Anointed died to free us from the seductive power of corruption,” which is the force that seems to impel us toward the unjust systems that seem inevitable in civilized societies. But post-modern Christians are separated from God’s realm, unable to open our eyes and ears and look and listen.  Most of us have no personal stake in the conditions in which we live, or in which we observe others to be living.  We have reduced “sacrifice” to an “offering” of money.  We are unable to act with personal power.

Paul uses two intimate metaphors to show the Corinthians (and us) how to get in touch with that personal power, and continue to live in opposition to that disabling, seductive, corruption.

The first metaphor is the human body.  The second metaphor is food and drink that nourishes that body.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:3-13, “There are different gifts, but the same power of God, and there are different kinds of service, but the same Lord, and there are different activities, but the same God makes them all effective in everyone.  Some expression of God’s power is given to each of us for the benefit of all. . . . Just as the body has many parts and all of the parts, even though there are many of them, are still parts of one body, so is the body of the Anointed” – the body of Christ – the community.

Paul then says, “For we were all baptized by the same power of God into one body, whether we were Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and we were all invited to imbibe the same divine power.”  That word the scholars use – imbibe – carries with it a sense of taking in, of allowing that divine power to infuse every aspect of our being.

For Paul, the lord’s supper – the ritual community meal that became the defining action in Christian worship – was a symbol for the transformed life that was filled with the spirit of Christ, and assured the establishment on earth of God’s covenantal rule.

So now we have two images to contemplate as we move into a time of prayer and meditation.  The first is the image of fire – that transforms, destroys, purifies, enlightens, inspires, and protects.  The second is the image of water – that like fire – transforms, destroys, and purifies, but also provides nourishment, comfort, and transportation.

Liturgist: Let’s chant the words from the Taize Community “Come and pray in us, come and visit us, Holy Spirit.” Let’s chant it a few times, and see if you can just close your eyes and remember the words.  Then we will have a time of prayer – you may pray aloud if you wish.

Chant:    Vieni Spirito Creatore

One: The Eucharist is heart food from the cosmos – the “mystical body of Christ” and the Cosmic Christ or Buddha nature found in all beings in the universe – to us.  Christ is the light of the world, which we now know is made only of light. Flesh is light and light is flesh.  We eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and love that light.

All: The Eucharist is also our hearts expanding and responding generously: “Yes we will” We will carry on the heart-work called compassion, the work of the cosmos itself.  (From Matthew Fox Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh (Harmony Books, New York, 1999) p. 271.

One: The cup of God’s gracious benefits that we consecrate means that we are involved in the blood of the Anointed. . . . The bread that we break means that we are involved in the body of the Anointed. . . That there is one loaf means that we who are many constitute one body, because we all partake of the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Scholars Version).

One: Lift up your hearts
All: We lift them up to God
One: Let us give thanks for the spirit of wisdom and understanding, which gives us courage in the struggle for justice and peace.
All: Thanks be to the Spirit of Life, and Light.

Institution (1 Corinthians 11:23b-26, Scholars Version)
One: On the night when he was handed over, the lord Jesus took bread and after he gave thanks he broke it and said, “This means my body broken for you.  Do this to remember me.”
[Break Bread]
And in the same way he took the wine cup after the meal and said, “This cup means the new covenant ratified by my blood.  Whenever you drink this, do it to remember me.”
[Pour Wine]
So every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you are proclaiming the death of the lord until the day when he returns. . . . All who eat and drink recognize that the community is the body of the Anointed.

One: The gifts of God for the People of God
All: Thanks be to God.

HYMN: Gather the Spirit

BENEDICTION (Isaiah 55:12-13)

One: For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Men: Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
Women: Instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
All:        And it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

All: We extinguish the flame, but not the light of truth and justice that lights our way until we meet again.  Peace, Shalom, Amen, Hoh, Blessed be.

Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees! 7th Sunday in Eastertide

Matthew 15:21-39; 16:1-12; Acts 1:6-14

This section of Matthew seems to be dealing with bread, belief, signs, and wonders.  Chapter 15:21-28 features Matthew’s version of Mark’s vignette of the Canaanite woman whom Jesus at first declines to pay any attention to at all.  She is a foreigner.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus sneers, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs.”  But she dishes right back: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”  This is one of those difficult passages that fly in the face of what we assume Jesus was like – and indeed it does contradict who Jesus was.  Matthew is trying to claim Jesus for Jerusalem, not the pagan outsiders.

But that point is a diversion.  Matthew follows the exchange with the Canaanite woman with a variation on the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (again, straight from Mark, but without Mark’s context).  Right after threatening to ignore the foreigner’s need for bread and healing, he is afraid those “lost sheep” might collapse on the road, so – illustrating what might have been the shared ritual meal of the early Jesus movement – Matthew’s Jesus once again takes “seven loaves and a few fish,” gives thanks, and breaks them into pieces for distribution to the crowd.  Alakazam!  Everyone gets more than enough to eat and they pick up seven baskets of leftover scraps.  Not counting the women and children (of course), this crowd numbered 4,000.

Then Jesus takes a boat to Magadan, where the Pharisees and Sadducees try again to get him to give them a sign.  Having just performed the second miraculous feeding of a huge crowd of people, which the Jewish leadership apparently refused to accept, he tells them again that the only sign they will get is “the sign of Jonah.”  For Matthew that sign means repentance, from rejection to belief, in Jesus’ resurrection.  See Matthew 12:38-40.

After that scene, Matthew returns to the bread motif.  When the disciples join Jesus on the shore, he tells them “Guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  They think he is talking about bread, but they have forgotten to bring any.  In Mark’s version (Mark 8:14-21) Jesus rails at the followers because they continue to miss the point that providing food for two separate crowds was a demonstration of the radicality of God’s covenant where distributive justice holds sway.  Matthew’s purpose is to warn would-be followers of Jesus’ Way to ignore the teachings of traditional Jewish religious leaders, who despite their belief in the resurrection of the dead, refuse to believe that Jesus was the resurrected Messiah.

Once again, we see the contrast between the two Gospel writers: Mark’s story about the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem is an extended parable about Jesus and the nature of the kingdom (realm, covenant) of God, and how to participate in it.  Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, Jesus’ teachings as the new law, and his Gospel as a five-part replacement for Torah.  Interpreters of Matthew must be constantly on guard against anti-semitism – the “leaven of the Pharisees and Saducees” that still plagues Christianity today. Simply put, 21st century exiles from the Christian church have a choice between “belief” in an impossible legend and participation in a possible transformation in human life.…