Monday, 30 October 2017

Readings hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 5 November 2017

‘They love to have the place of honour at banquets (Matthew 23: 6) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next, 5 November 2017, is the Fourth Sunday before Advent (Proper 26). The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary, and set out in the Church of Ireland Directory, for next Sunday are:

Joshua 3: 7-17; Psalm 107: 1-7, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2: 9-13; and Matthew 23: 1-12.

These readings are available by clicking this link.

There is also an option to use the readings for All Saints’ Day, which falls on Wednesday, 1 November:

Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 34: 1-10; Revelation 7: 9-17 or I John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12.

Whichever set of readings you decide to use next Sunday, you may constantly ask how to make connections with the different readings each Sunday. You may decide, for example, to preach on the Gospel reading. But it may be one of the other readings that has caught the imagination of the people you need to reach. Making connections helps to bring people on the journey with you.

So, these notes include ideas for the other readings next Sunday.

Joshua 3: 7-17

‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan’ (Joshua 3: 8) … on the edge of the River Deel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In the Old Testament reading, we see the connection between belief and action, but thinking and living. God tells Joshua that he will give a sign to show the people that God will be with him as he was with Moses. Joshua is to give the order to the priests and he tells the people that what they will see will show that God is with them. They believe and show their trust in God not just through intellectual assent, but through their actions, as they dare to cross over the River Jordan as they once crossed through the waters of the Red Sea.

Psalm 107: 1-7, 33-37

‘Some went astray in desert wastes and found no path to a city to dwell in’ (Psalm 107: 4) ... stray footprints in the sand (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In this psalm, the pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem thank God for their escape from various dangers. Their faith in God is a lived, truly living communal experience, and not merely about individual intellectual assent.

I Thessalonians 2: 9-13

Saint Paul reminds the members of the Church in Thessaloniki that they are witnesses to Christ not only in their beliefs but in the way they live their lives and in their conduct towards the new Church members.

Like a father teaching his children, he urges and encourages them, and pleads with them to walk in God’s ways, so that God’s word becomes made active in those who believe.

Matthew 23: 1-12:

‘They love to have the place of honour at banquets (Matthew 23: 6) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In this morning’s Gospel reading, we are still in the Temple with Christ in Holy Week. There Christ has silenced his principal critics, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, showing their lack of understanding of the core message of the Bible and the Law. In this Gospel reading, he turns to speak ‘to the crowds and to his disciples’ about the scribes and the Pharisees, and their attitude to and teaching of the Law and the Bible.

Christ tells the people in the Temple that the Pharisees have authority to teach the Law, and he concedes that they are in an unbroken chain that goes back to Moses, for they ‘sit on Moses’ seat.’

But while honouring their teachings, the people should be wary of their practices. In their interpretation of the Law, they impose heavy burdens on others, yet do not follow the Law themselves.

Externally, they appear pious. They wear teffelin or phylacteries, small, black, leather boxes, on their left arms and foreheads with four Biblical passages as a ‘sign’ and ‘remembrance’ that God liberated their ancestors from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 13: 1-10; Exodus 13: 11-16; Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; and Deuteronomy 11: 13-21). They also have lengthy fringes or tassels on their prayer shawls (tallitot, singular talit), as visible reminders of the 613 commandments in the Law (see Numbers 15: 38, Deuteronomy 22: 12).

In verses 6-7, Christ gives four examples of vanity: they love places of honour at banquets, the best seats in the synagogues, being greeted with respect publicly, and being called ‘Rabbi,’ which means master and later becomes a title for the leader in a synagogue.

In verses 8-10, we are warned about the danger of loving honorific titles, such as ‘teacher,’ ‘father’ and instructor, for we are all students, we are all brothers and sisters, children of God and disciples.

Yet I too a father and have been a teacher and a tutor. Is Christ warning against the position or against seeking honours that have not been earned?

It is a truism that parents must earn the respect of their children, not seek or demand it. Most parents have, at one time or another, said to their children: ‘Do what I tell you, not what I do.’ Needless to say, children never listen to parents when we say something so silly.

All parents know, on the other hand, that actions speak louder than words.

Perhaps this passage in Matthew 23 may reflect later tensions between the Jewish synagogue and the new Christian community. But, in Christ’s own days, people expected a Pharisee to be a careful observer of the Law. Unlike the Temple priests and village elders, the Pharisees did not have a high social status.

Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Pharisees were a relatively modest group of people without political power and they tried live out Jewish tradition and the Torah seriously and conscientiously in their daily lives. The Pharisees saw the Law as applying not only to every aspect of public life, but to every aspect of private, domestic, daily life too.

There is another well-worn statement: ‘It’s not where you start out but where you end up.’ The Pharisees started out with good intentions, but some of them ended by seeking to be great, seeking to be exalted (verses 11-12). They started out being concerned for holiness, but some ended at exclusion. They started out seeking to recognise God in all aspects of life, but some of them ended by seeking recognition at banquets and in the synagogue (verses 6-7).

Christ calls us to live in such a way that we can say to the world: ‘Do as we say and as we do.’

How do we teach this? By remembering that in ‘the greatest among you will be your servant’ (verse 11) and that ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted’ (verse 12).

But the problem here is not so much a conflict between words and actions, but the need to make the connection between words and actions. Words must mean what they point to, and the actions must be capable of being described in words.

Most of us, as children, learned by watching how adults behave, we learn as members of the human community. As a child, when I needed to learn how to use a fork, I did not need a lecture on the hygienic and sanitary contributions that forks have made to the benefit European lifestyles since the introduction of the fork through Byzantium and Venice to mediaeval Europe; I did not need an engineering lecture on the practicalities and difficulties of balancing the prongs and the handle; I would have been too young to read a delightful chapter by Judith Herrin in one of her books on how the fork-using Byzantines were much more sophisticated than their western allies or rivals who ate with their hands (Judith Herrin, Byzantium – the Surprising Life of a Mediaeval Empire, London: Allen Lane, 2007, Chapter 19).

The same principle applies to everything else, as Andrew Davison of Westcott House, Cambridge, points out in his contribution to Imaginative Apologetics (London: SCM Press, 2011), the same principle applies to how we learn about everything else in life – cups, books, bicycles and so on. He might have added love – the love of God and the love of one another.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s steps in the Great Palm House in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some time ago, I was visiting the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. There, in the Great Palm House, are the steps on which the great 20th century German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein regularly sat in contemplation and thought while he was living in Dublin in the late 1940s.

Even if you find Wittgenstein difficult to read – and a good introduction is available in Fergus Kerr’s Theology after Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997) – we can find useful insights in his writings.

Wittgenstein teaches us that thinking and language must be inter-connected. ‘Words have meaning only in the stream of life,’ he says. Thinking requires language, language is a communal experience, and, as Davison points out, we learn language as members of a human community and through induction into common human practices.

We can talk about prayer, forgiveness, and most of all about love itself, to others. But if it only remains talk and has no application, then the words have no meaning.

We might remind ourselves about the previous Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 22: 34-46), when Christ tells the lawyer sent by the Pharisees and the Sadducees that the greatest commandments are to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ and to ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ And, he adds: ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

If the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the young lawyer were teaching and acting in conformity with these laws, if their words and actions were inter-connected, then there would have been an unassailable ring of authenticity to their teaching.

We may try to teach the two great commandments, but we only teach them with credibility when we live them out in our lives. There must be no gap that separates what we teach and how we live out what we teach in our lives.

The table remains bare if our words and our actions are not inter-connected (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Almighty and eternal God,
you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints:
Grant to us the same faith and power of love,
that, as we rejoice in their triumphs,
we may be sustained by their example and fellowship;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this Eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Suggested Hymns:

These are among the hymns suggested in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:

Joshua 3: 7-17:

647, Guide me, O thou great Jehovah
554, Lord Jesus, think on me
323, The God of Abraham praise
681, There is a land of pure delight

Psalm 107: 1-7, 33-37:

683, All people that on earth do dwell
39, For the fruits of his creation
353, Give to our God immortal praise
128, Hills of the north, rejoice
30, Let us with a gladsome mind
484, Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
45, Praise, O praise our God and King
372, Through all the changing scenes of life

I Thessalonians 2: 9-13:

517, Brother, sister, let me serve you
523, Help us to help each other, Lord
634, Love divine, all loves excelling
361, Now thank we all our God
387, Thanks to God, whose Word was spoken
532, Who are we who stand and sing?

Matthew 23: 1-12:

378, Almighty God, your word is cast
630, Blessed are the pure in heart
517, Brother, sister, let me serve you
219, From heav’n you came, helpless babe
614, Great Shepherd of your people, hear
495, Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love
627, What a friend we have in Jesus

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