Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Major Prophets: Isaiah

In our Bible Challenge we are beginning our look at the major prophets.  They are called major because they are long books in comparison to the other prophetic books in the Old Testament.  However, both Isaiah & Jeremiah are certainly major theological work as well.

Remember that the word "prophecy" in Biblical literature doesn't necessarily refer to foretelling the future, but about calling the people of Israel, or the king, or the religious leaders or all three to repent and return to the ways of God.

This post is about the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah is actually not one book, but three.  The three are set far apart both in time and in the events of the history of Israel.

First Isaiah (sometimes just called Isaiah) is chapters 1 - 39.
This was written in Jerusalem during the years from 742 to 701 BC.  The key ideas of the book are that God, who is holy and just, demands that the people be righteous and that they trust in him.  The people will be judged, but a remnant will be preserved and God will raise up a king from the line of David.

First Isaiah took place during the reigns of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.  Isaiah's call story places his call to be a prophet in the year of Uzziah's death.  Uzziah's reign was a time of peace in Israel and because there was peace, it was a time when wealth increased for many of the people of Israel.  That continued during the reign of Jotham, but when Ahaz came to the throne in 735, the Assyrian empire was gaining in power and more and more Assyria exerted power over Israel, even to the point of a temple being built to the Assyrian god in Jerusalem and the king participating in worship and sacrifice (possibly even including his own son) to that god.

The prophet of first Isaiah calls not only the king, but all the people to return to the ways of God, but fears that they will not and that they will be judged.  He holds out hope that after the judgement of God, a remnant of the people will remain and that from that remnant God will raise up a king from the line of David who will rule not only Israel, but the world and will restore them to righteousness.  Many of the writings about that king were believed, after the Babylonian captivity, to refer to king Cyrus of Persia and by the time of Jesus were being read to refer to the Messiah who would one day come to free the people of Israel.

Second Isaiah is chapters 40 - 55.
This was written in Babylon, during the captivity of the people of Israel.  The book was written shortly before 539 BCE, or about 200 years after First Isaiah.  The main concept is that God has forgiven the people and will restore them to their land.  The ministry of the "servant of God" will extend the knowledge of God to all the nations.

Israel had been defeated by King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon in the 570's BC.  The walls of the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, all the leaders who survived, all the priests, anyone who could read or write and anyone with any skill was taken into captivity, leaving behind the poor and subsistence farmers in Israel.  The author of Second Isaiah was among those taken into captivity. 

After the death of King Nebuchadrezzar in 562, the Babylonian empire began to decline and in 539 BCE Babylon surrendered to King Cyrus of Persia.  King Cyrus sponsored the return of the captives to Israel and sent Nehimiah to oversee the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem.

Second Isaiah holds out hope that the people of Israel will be returned to their land and that a servant of God will prepare the way for them and then spread the knowledge of God beyond the people of Israel.  In it's own time the servant of God was taken to by Cyrus of Persia, but by the time of Jesus these verses had also come to be considered to refer to the coming Messiah.

Third Isaiah is chapters 59 - 66.
This is written in Jerusalem after 538 BC, after Cyrus of Persia had conquered Babylon.  The main concept is that God vindicates the righteous and destroys the wicked.

Third Isaiah focuses a good deal on the universal love of God and the forgiveness and grace of God. 

The Bible Challenge reading of Isaiah is:
March 3 - 9 - Isaiah 1 - 18
March 10 - 16 - Isaiah 19 - 40
March 17 - 23 - Isaiah 41 - 58
March 24 & 25 - Isaiah 59 - 66
 


Monday, January 7, 2019

Bible Challenge: The Minor Prophets

The next section of the Bible Challenge has the books called The Minor Prophets.  They are called this not because they are less important, but because they are shorter than the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah & Lamentations).  These books span a period of about 400 years beginning about 800 years before the birth of Christ.

When we hear the word prophecy we think about people predicting the future.  That is not really what Biblical literature means by prophecy.  In the context of the Bible prophets are people chosen by God to deliver a message to the leaders, the people or both.  Usually this involves telling the king, the religious leaders and/or the people that they have strayed from the ways of God and that they better shape up.  Prophecy usually includes the hope that God will not forsake the people, that God will rescue the people etc.... but that message is in the context of the admonition to shape up and return to the ways of God.

Hosea: This book is basically a rejection of Israel's politics and religious practice.  Hosea appeals to the history of Israel to remind the people that God is their savior and to remind them that faithful love and kindness are the responses that God requires of them.  The book is dated between 750 and 732 BCE.

Joel: This books falls into two sections, the first two chapters, which focus on plague and drought and chapters three and four which focuses on the coming of the Day of the Lord. This book is hard to date, a majority of scholars place it after 515 BCE., but a strong minority place it much earlier, from 837 - 800 BCE.

Amos: This book mostly consists of a series of oracles.  You will find four themes in the book: Judgement; Social Justice; Religious Practice and Ignoring the Word of God.  In all of these areas Amos (and God) find the people wanting.  Internal evidence places this book between 786 and 742 BCE.

Obadiah: Nearly the entirety of the book is oracles against the nation of Edom, a traditional enemy of Israel.  It concludes with a warning of the coming of the Day of the Lord which will include punishment for all nations. The book was written no earlier than 587 BCE and no later than 312 BCE.

Micah: Calls the people out on their rejection of God.  He sees punishment coming.  Sin is the reason for that and the King of Assyria will be the tool God uses.  The book is dated to between 740 and 687 BCE.

Nahum: In this book the prophecy is largely through poetry.  There is only one message to this book, God will execute judgement on Ninevah (the capital of the Assyrian empire). The book is usually dated to between 663 and 612 BCE.

Habakkuk: Some scholars believe that this book in mostly made up of prophecy written for use in worship. Nearly unique in prophetic literature, this book directions questions to God directly and calls God's justice into question. This book is very hard to date, but it is usually placed between 626 BCE and the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE.

Zephaniah:  Written at a time of great political turmoil, the book's dominant theme is the coming of the Day of the Lord, when God will punish both the nations who are enemies of Israel and the people of Israel themselves and will purify the nation. This book is dated to between 640 and 609 BCE.

Haggai: Haggai was one of the people responsible for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem following the captivity of much of the nation of Israel in Babylon.  This book is an effort encourage the people in that effort. The book is dated to between 521 and 486 BCE.

Zechariah: This is actually two different books, probably by two different authors.  Chapters 1 to 8 are the first part, the second is chapters 9 - 14.  It is difficult to precisely date either part, but in and around the end of the Babylonian captivity, around 500 BCE seems likely.

Malachi: Malachi is directed at the priests and it calls them to reform and return to the true worship of God. It is dated to after 515 BCE.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

New Year's Resolution for the Spirit

New Year's Resolutions are a big part of conversation as the end of the year approaches.  Gyms gear up for a January onslaught of people who made resolutions to exercise more (and for the usual March drop off of many of those people).  Book stores also prepare for a rush on self-help books on a variety of topics.

If your New Year's Resolution involves your spiritual life here are some ideas of ways to pick up a spiritual practice for 2019:

You could add prayer to your day (once or several times)

·         The easiest way to begin integrating prayer is to pick a part of your day and add prayer to it.  That can be as simple as saying grace before lunch or dinner every day or saying a prayer when you wake up or go to bed.
·         Prayer, at its base, is talking & listening to God – so it doesn’t have to be formal “Good morning God” is as good a way to begin as any other.
·         Many people find that having a structure to their prayers help a lot
o   Forward Day by Day has a short devotion every day (it also lists the readings for that day at the top).  You can pick up one in any of the literature racks at church or go to http://prayer.forwardmovement.org/  There is a link to Forward Day by Day so you can read it on-line
o   Many people pray some portion of what is called “the Daily Office”  That is Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, & Compline.  You can do all of those or start with one (if you are starting with one, start with Noonday Prayer or Compline, which is late night prayer).  You can find instructions for the Daily Office in the front part of the Book of Common Prayer and a schedule of Daily Office readings in the back.  You can get a Book of Common Prayer for your kindle or on-line at bcponline.org.  If you want a hard copy you can order it from Amazon or let Pastor Vicki know and she can give you one.
o   If you want to pray the daily office on-line you can do that in a couple of places
§  Prayer.forwardmovement.org posts all four of the Daily Office prayers every day
§  Mission Saint Claire also offers the Daily Office on-line every day.  This includes some hymns that you can play if you would like - http://www.missionstclare.com/english/
o   The Book of Common Prayer also has a section called “Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families”.  It is on pages 137 – 140.  There are prayers for Morning, Noon, Early Evening and Close of Day.
·         Many people find that keeping a prayer journal if very helpful.  This can be as simple as writing down each day what you are praying about.  If you want more structure, try making four sections: People & Thinks I’m Praying For: People & Things I’m Thankful for: Things I am sorry about: Praise to God and writing something in each section each day.

You could add Bible Study or Reflection to your day
·         Reading the Bible regularly is one of the best ways to stay connected with God.
·         At the prayer.forwardmovement.org website you can find a link to a series of daily readings.
·         St. Paul’s is also doing a Bible Challenge that has readings for 6 of the 7 days of the week.  In January we are starting the minor prophets – the short books at the end of the Old Testament.  You can pick up a pamphlet about the Bible Challenge on the Way of Love bulletin boards in the hallway and the library.
·         If you want to start reading through the whole Bible, you might with the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) rather than with Genesis.  Another way to start is to read one Psalm each day (there are 150 Psalms)
·         If you are looking to purchase a Bible for you or your child, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is what we read in church on Sunday.  The Common English Bible (CEB) is a newer translation that is accurate and readable.  The CEB aims for a 7th – 8th grade reading level.  The NRSV is at about an 11th grade reading level.
·         If you want to read Bible stories with children there are several good Bible story books
o   Tomie dePaola’s Book of Bible Stories (GP Putnam’s, 1990), ages 2-10.
o   Spark Story Bible: Sunday School Edition (Augsburg Fortress, 2009), ages 3-7.
o   Children of God Storybook Bible by Desmond Tutu (Zonderkidz, 2010), ages 4-8.
o   Shine On: A Story Bible (MennoMedia, 2014), ages 8-11
o   The Complete Illustrated Children’s Bible by Janice Emmerson (Harvest House, 2014), ages 7-11.
o   The Children’s Illustrated Story Bible by Selena Hastings (Dorling Kindersley, 2004), ages 8-12.
o   The Lion Bible for Children by Murray Watts, Helen Cann (Lion Hudson, 2014), ages 9-12.
o   Thank you to Church Publishing Incorporated for this list from their Way of Love for Families resource.

Worship is an important part of the life of the spirit
Gathering with other Christians to praise God and be in community is an important part of keeping our spiritual life balanced.  Committing (or recommitting) to regular attendance at worship can help ground our spiritual lives.

Rest is also a part of the life of the spirit
It is very difficult for us as 21st century Americans to really rest.  We tend to try to schedule or program our rest.  One way to start adding rest to your spiritual practice is to pick a few hours each week (it doesn’t have to be the same time each week) where you don’t schedule anything, create a space of time where you can just be and not have to do.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Giving Thanks

This is a General Thanksgiving prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (it is on page 836)

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us.  We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things.  Amen.

This has been one of my favorite prayers for a long time.  I think it is perfect for the Thanksgiving time. 

My favorite part is the paragraph that thanks God for failure.  I rarely think about failure as something for which I want to give thanks.  But the truth is that I have always learned more from my failures then I have from my successes. 

I also like the part that thanks God for tasks that require our best efforts.  There really is nothing better then accomplishing something that is a challenge.

As we move towards Thanksgiving and we think about what we are thankful for, I invite you to move beyond the usual things that we think about and move into giving thanks for your challenges and failures too.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Great St. Paul's Talent Search

We tried something different for our stewardship theme this year.  We gave everyone an opportunity to participate in the parable of the talents.  If you aren't familiar with it, it is found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25.

For two weeks we had envelopes with $10 bills available.  The instructions were to take an envelope and use the money to bring the presence of Christ into your world and then come back and tell us about it. 

Unlike the landowner in the parable we didn't necessarily ask people to come back with money, just stories.

Well we had some great stories:

One woman purchased fleece on sale and made 19 hats for children at our partner school in Buffalo.

One woman made pies, invited her red hat group to come and purchase slices of pie and share in a social event.  She brought back $70 as well as a story of several people going to read the parable.

One man was thinking about what to do with his $10 when he saw someone collecting cans and bottles from the trash and gave him the $10.

One woman bought gloves to hand out to homeless people.

Several people donated the money to different causes that they cared about from Episcopal Relief and Development to the Heifer Project, to other causes that they cared about.  Several of those people used the $10 as seed money and matched it with their own funds.  Some used the initial $10 to challenge family and friends to also give.

One person reached over her pew and gave the money to another parishioner who was fundraising for a cause that touched her life.

The love of Christ spread out from St. Paul's into a wide variety of places in a wide variety of ways.  We will never know how many lives were touched by all of our talents and willingness to share.

The challenge of stewardship, of course, is to consider how we use all the gifts that God has given us to bring the presence of Christ to our world all the time.  That is the most basic definition of stewardship.

As the landowner in the parable said to his servants: "Well done, good and faithful servants."

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bible Challenge: The Gospels

This week we begin the second section of our Bible Challenge. 

From now through December we will be reading the 4 books that tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus.

Matthew, Mark, Luke & John are the four books, the Gospels in the Bible that tell the life of Jesus.

The Gospels were not written during the life of Jesus.  They were written between about 60 and 100 AD or between 30 and 70 years after Jesus had died.

Immediately after Jesus' death, Christians believed that Jesus was coming again very soon and so they focused on spreading the message of Christ.  It was only when the first generation of Christians began to die that it became important to have the stories of the life of Jesus written down.

When the debates were happening about which books should be considered Scripture for Christians between 350 and 500 AD there were about a dozen "Gospels" under consideration.  These four were chosen.

Each of the four Gospels was written for a different audience and with a different purpose:
Mark is the basic telling of the teachings of Jesus - designed for a broad audience to communicate the basics.
Matthew was written for the community of Jewish believers and focuses on showing Jesus as the promised Messiah and the fulfiller of the law.
Luke was written for the community of gentile believers and as a particular emphasis on the way that Jesus' teaching promoted justice and equality for the marginalized
John was written for a community of people who already knew the basic stories of Jesus and is as much a book of theology as it is the story of the life of Jesus.

A couple of things to notice as you read: 
There is a story of the birth of Jesus only in Matthew & Luke and the two stories are different
Notice the differences in the Easter stories in the four Gospels
Notice that some of the stories only appear in one or two of the Gospels
Look at the story of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew & Luke and how they are different.

Here is the schedule of readings for this part of the challenge

October 29 – November 4 – Matthew
Day 1 – Chapters 1-2   Day 2 – Chapters 3-4
Day 3 – Chapters 5-6   Day 4 – Chapters 7-8
Day 5 – Chapters 9-10 Day 6 – Chapters 11-12

November 5 – 11 – Matthew
Day 1 – Chapters 13-14           Day 2 – Chapters 15-16
Day 3 – Chapters 17-18           Day 4 – Chapters 19-20
Day 5- Chapters 21-24 Day 5 – Chapters 25-28

November 12 – 18 – Mark
Day 1 – Chapters 1-2   Day 2 – Chapters 3-4
Day 3 – Chapters 5-6   Day 4 – Chapters 7-8
Day 5 – Chapters 9-10 Day 6 – Chapters 11-12

November 19 – 25 – Mark & Luke
Day 1 – Chapters 13-14           Day 2 – Chapters 15-16
Begin Luke
Day 3 – Chapters 1-2   Day 4 – Chapters 3-4
Day 5 – Chapters 5-6   Day 6 – Chapters 7-8

November 26-December 1 – Luke
Day 1 – Chapters 9-12 Day 2 – Chapters 13-15
Day 3 – Chapters 16-18           Day 4- Chapters 19-21
Day 5 – Chapters 22-24

December 2 – 8 – John
Day 1- Chapters 1-2    Day 2 – Chapters 3-4
Day 3 – Chapters 5-6   Day 4 – Chapters 7-8
Day 5 – Chapters 9-10 Day 6 – Chapters 11-12

December 9 – 15 – John
Day 1 – Chapters 13-14           Day 2 – Chapters 15-16
Day 3 – Chapters 17-18           Day 4 – Chapters 19-21

Thursday, October 11, 2018

How are the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches Different?

I have had about 10 people ask me to explain the difference between the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches in the last couple of weeks, so I thought it might make a good topic for a blog post.

There are a lot of visible ways that the two Churches are the same: vestments, structure of worship, etc...  There are also a lot of visible ways that they are different - women priests to name just one.  Those similarities and differences all stem from a few fundamentals.

Let's start with:
How are the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches the same?
There are three main similarities between the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches:

  1. Our worship services (especially the Eucharist) follow the ancient pattern of worship that was established in the early Church.  We have the first half of the service, the Liturgy of the Word - where we have an opening prayer, hear portions of Scripture read, have a sermon, recite the Nicene Creed and join in prayers for the Church & the world.  Then the second half of the service is the Liturgy of the Table - where we bless bread and wine using the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, break the bread and share communion.
  2. We have three-fold orders of ordained ministry.  We have deacons, who are ordained to bring the needs of the world to the Church and help the Church connect with the world.  We have priests (all of whom were ordained deacons first) who teach the faith, preside over the sacraments and guide congregations.  We have bishops (all of whom were ordained deacon & priest first) who guard the faith and oversee the ministry of Dioceses.
  3. Our churches have Dioceses (made up of congregations in a geographic region), which are the basic administrative unit of the church.  Geographic groups of Dioceses are formed into provinces and national churches.
How are the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches different?
There are four main differences between the Episcopal and the Roman Catholic Churches:

Theology:  The Episcopal Church is a Protestant Church in terms of theology.  What that means is that in the Roman Catholic Church the magisterium (or teaching authority) of the church tells Roman Catholics what they should believe.  In Protestant theology the role of the Church is to provide boundaries for the believer, within those boundaries, the individual decides (in relationship with God) what they believe.  

For Example:  The Episcopal Church teaches that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth.  Individual Episcopalians can believe that God set off the Big Bang; that God influenced evolution; that God created the world in seven 24-hour days and a wide variety of other ways that God was the creator of the heavens & the earth - all of which are acceptable.

Eucharist: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that what happens at Eucharist is transubstantiation - that the bread and the wine literally become the Body & Blood of Christ while maintaining the outward appearance of bread and wine.  

The Episcopal Church teaches the doctrine of the Real Presence - that is that the Body and Blood of Christ are really present in the bread and wine.  How that happens; transubstantiation, consubstantiation, in some other way is something the Episcopal Church doesn't require specific belief about.

The Role of the Laity: The Episcopal Church believes that the laity have a specific role in the governance of the Church.  Episcopal Churches have vestries that are elected by the members of the Church.  Those vestry members are responsible for the budget of the congregation and for overseeing the programs of the church.  The rector is a part of the vestry and has some specific rights and duties, but the church in governed in collaboration between the rector & the vestry.  When a congregation calls a new rector it is the vestry who votes on who that should be.  The Bishop has to approve the call, but it is the vestry who makes the decision.  

The same thing happens at the Diocesan level.  Each congregation sends lay representatives to Diocesan Convention and those representatives, as well as the priests and deacons in that Diocese, get to make decisions about the life of the Diocese, including electing their bishop.

Authority - in the Episcopal Church the majority of the authority sits with the Diocesan Convention and the Diocesan Bishop.  

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church (which is made up of a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies of elected representatives, lay and clergy, from each Diocese) makes decisions about our Book of Common Prayer & the National Canons, but each Diocese decides how to implement those.  

The House of Bishop elects a Presiding Bishop (currently The Most Rev. Michael Curry) that election is approved by the House of Deputies.  The Presiding Bishop doesn't have any authority to tell Diocesan Bishops what they have to do.  He (or she) even needs the permission of the Diocesan Bishop to preside at Confirmations or Ordinations within the boundaries of a particular Diocese.  

While the Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion, a coalition 38 Churches that are in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury including the Episcopal Church, The Church of England, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Australia among others, no one outside of the Episcopal Church (including the Archbishop of Canterbury) has any authority over how the Episcopal Church governs ourselves.  What this means is that each Church in the Anglican Communion makes its own decisions about our Books of Common Prayer, ordination, structure, budget etc...

For Example:  The Episcopal Church ordained women to the priesthood in 1976 and the first woman as Bishop in 1988.  The Church of England did not ordain women to the priesthood until the 1990's and didn't ordain women as Bishops until a few years ago.  The Anglican Church of Somalia still does not ordain women to the priesthood.

The Episcopal Church does not have an equivalent to the Pope, someone who has authority over the whole church all over the world and everyone who holds any position of authority in the Episcopal Church has been elected to that position by groups who include lay people as well as priests and bishops.

Obviously, this is only a basic description of the difference between the two Churches.  If you have questions or want to know more, please email me at paulsrector@gmail.com