Monday, 12 August 2019

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 18 August 2019,
Ninth Sunday after Trinity

‘When you see a cloud rising in the west … and when you see the south wind blowing’ (Luke 12: 54-55) … clouds and sunshine at Inishmore on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 18 August 2019, is the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IX).

The appointed readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland, are in two groups, continuous and paired readings.

The readings are:

The Continuous Readings: Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80: 1-2, 9-20; Hebrews 11: 29 to 12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56. There is a link to the continuous readings HERE.

The Paired Readings: Jeremiah 23: 23–29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11: 29 to 12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56. There is a link to the paired readings HERE.

‘My beloved had a vineyard’ (Isaiah 5: 1) … in a vineyard in Rivesaltes near Perpignan in France (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Introducing the continuous readings:

Both Isaiah and the sayings in the Gospel reading talk about strife and wrangling, conflict and division.

This is our second reading from the Prophet Isaiah before beginning a series of readings from the Prophet Jeremiah the following Sunday. Isaiah brings us bleak images of vineyards that should yield sweet grapes, but instead produce wild, sour grapes.

The Psalmist, too speaks of the Lord’s vineyard that has been torn down, where the grapes have been devoured and the vines burned with fire and laid waste.

Both the Psalmist and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews refer to the people being brought out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. The epistle reading tells of those who have suffered in the past but who now surround us as a cloud of witnesses.

The Gospel reading challenges us to think about whether Christ has come to bring peace or conflict, unity or division. How do we read the signs of the times?

These notes also look at the need for caution in preparing the readings because of the difficulty in following the numbering of verses in the Psalm, which are not the same in Lectionary, the NRSV translation, and the numbering of verses in the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer.

‘When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes’ (Isaiah 5: 4) … grapes on a vine in Cordoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Isaiah 5: 1-7:

This reading is a poem written during the reign of King Jotham (750-734 BC). It takes the form of a popular ballad. It and may have been sung at the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, the thanksgiving festival in autumn.

But this is also a parable that opens on a happy note but reaches the hard truth in verse 7.

The farmer prepares his vineyard on a hillside with care, clears the ground of stones, plants choice vines, and sets up hedges or walls and a watchtower to protect it against those who would devour the grapes and temple down the vines, men or beasts.

But the people of Israel and Judah turned their backs on God and God’s expectations. The neglected the vineyard and fought over it, and so God neglected it too, and instead of yielding sweet grapes, wild grapes grew there; it became overgrown with briers and thorns, and no rain fell on it to nurture the vines.

God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; he expected righteousness, but heard the poor crying.

‘Cherish this vine which your right hand has planted … let those who burnt it with fire … perish at the rebuke of your condemnation’ (Psalm 80: 16) … winter in a vineyard on the island of Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Psalm 80: 1-2, 9-20:

Psalm 80 is a prayer for Israel’s restoration, and the incipit says: ‘To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.’

This psalm opens with a cry for help from the people in the northern kingdom. They believe their current plight is a consequence of God’s anger. The freedom brought about at the Exodus is compared with the planting of a new vine, and the vineyard is the Promised Land.

God’s creative works were like one great vineyard that stretched from the sea (the Mediterranean) to the river (the Euphrates). But the protective walls around this great field or vineyard have been torn down, the grapes devoured and the vines burned with fire and laid waste.

God is asked to restore the vineyard that is his people, and in return they will be faithful and no longer turn their back on God:

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80: 19)

It is essential when preparing the Psalm for use on Sunday, to notice with care that the verses given in the Church of Ireland version of the Lectionary apply to versification in the Book of Common Prayer (see pp 685-686) and not in the NRSV and many other translations.

Verses 1-2 in the NRSV and the Lectionary correspond to verses 1-2a in the psalter in the Book of Common Prayer, while verses 8-19 in the NRSV and the Lectionary correspond to verses 9-20 in the Book of Common Prayer.

‘We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12: 1) … a mosaic in Westminster Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Hebrews 11: 29 to 12: 2:

The author of this letter has given examples of figures mentioned in Genesis and Exodus who did not have the promise of eternal life with Christ yet acted on faith in God, doing God’s will.

In this reading, he now tells of other people who relied on God’s promise for the future. They include the people who the crossed the Red Sea as if they were on dry land, those who were present at the fall of the walls of Jericho, and Rahab who hid the spies sent to scout out the defences of Jericho’s defences.

Other examples include several judges, David, Samuel and the prophets, who conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped death by the sword …

Others were tortured, mocked, flogged, chained, stoned to death, sawn in two, killed, murdered or reduced to poverty, but their faith remained strong despite their sufferings. They knew God planned something greater for them.

In many cases, it is not clear who the author is referring to in the descriptions of sufferings. But the sufferings described in verses 11:35b-38 are mainly those endured by faithful Jews during the Maccabean revolt in the mid-100s BC, and so indicates how the author accepted I and II Maccabees.

But is the world worthy of these exemplars of faith? In each example, God was pleased with their actions. But, while their suffering and shame became signs of their faith, God’s promises were not fulfilled during their lifetimes. Instead, it was delayed until Christ’s saving work was completed.

Now we are ‘surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.’

‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens’ (Luke 12: 54) … clouds above the beach in Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Luke 12: 49-56:

In his Gospel, Saint Luke presents several sayings of Christ, and this reading opens with one of these many sayings: ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’

We may think of the image in the Psalm of the vineyard of the Lord that has been burned with fire like rubbish (Psalm 80: 15), or the image in the Epistle reading of those among the great cloud of witnesses who, through faith ‘quenched raging fires’ (Hebrews 11: 34). Fire here is a symbol of purification and separation of the godly from the ungodly as God exercises judgment.

In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Christ tells James and John: ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ (Mark 10: 38). This is the sense of baptism in this reading (Luke 12: 50), and Christ’s baptism is to be completed in his suffering, death and resurrection.

Another set of sayings are found in verses 51-53. One commentator suggests it is helpful to read the question in verse 51, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?’ as ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace at any cost to the earth?’

The images in verses 52-53 compare with those of the Prophet Micah when he condemns the total corruption of the people. Christ comes into the division between the godly and the ungodly.

In verses 54-56, we have yet another such saying. People are able to interpret the signs of impending weather, but they are unable to see the signs in the present time that carry implications for the end of the era.

‘I have a baptism with which to be baptized’ (Luke 12: 50) … the new font in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reflecting on the readings:

When I was a student at the Irish School of Ecumenics in the early 1980s, we all had to do a residential placement in Northern Ireland in a church in a tradition other than our own. I spent time with Shankill Road Methodist Church in Belfast, while others went to Roman Catholic, Presbyterian or Anglican churches.

One Anglican student, from Barbados and now a priest in Massachusetts, was placed with the Redemptorists in the Clonard Monastery.

As his placement came to end, there was one experience he had not yet explored. On his last Sunday evening, he went to hear Ian Paisley preach in the Martyrs’ Memorial Church on Ravenhill Road.

When he returned to Clonard Monastery, unscathed, an old priest asked my colleague: ‘Well, did the Big Man give you an old-style Redemptorist sermon filled with hellfire and brimstone?’

Perhaps this is the sort of sermon some people may expect next Sunday with these lectionary readings.

The Prophet Isaiah, in words that echo the Psalm, speaks of vineyards that yield only wild grapes (verses 2, 4); breaking and trampling down walls (verse 4); vines giving way to briars and thorns (verse 6); bloodshed instead of justice, a cry instead of righteousness (verse 7).

The New Testament reading speaks of mockings and floggings (verse 36), chains and jails (verse 36), prophets being stoned to death, sawn in two and killed by the sword (verse 37), or wandering in deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes (verse 38).

And then, we hear the warnings in the Gospel reading of fire on earth (verse 49), families and households divided and fighting each other to the death (verses 52-53), people being blown about by the storms and tempests of the day verses 54-56).

They are images that might have inspired Ian Paisley’s sermons. But they have inspired too great creative and literary minds, from William Shakespeare and William Blake to TS Eliot in the Four Quartets:

This is the death of earth.

Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire. ( – Little Gidding)

If we dismiss these apocalyptic images because they have been hijacked by fundamentalist extremists, for their own religious and political ideals, then we miss an opportunity to allow our values to challenge those ways we may be allowing our lives to drift along without question or examination.

Fire and water were a challenge for me during a recent visit to Longford. One Sunday afternoon, three of us headed off on what we had come to call a church history ‘field trip.’ We wanted to see the completed restoration work at Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Longford.

The cathedral was destroyed in a blazing fire early on Christmas morning ten years ago [2009], but was restored and rebuilt so beautifully that it has been voted Ireland’s favourite building.

Outside, it still looks like a grey, classical revival, fortress-style cathedral. But inside it is filled with light and joy. It has risen from the ashes, and its restoration is truly a story of redemption and resurrection.

As I walked into the cathedral, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful baptismal font that has been placed at the main entrance door to the cathedral.

The font was sculpted by Tom Glendon and the blue mosaic work by Laura O’Hagan is a creative representation of the Water of Life.

This font is a challenge to all who enter the church and is placed exactly where it should be, for Baptism is entry to the Church.

Baptism is not a naming ceremony, it is not about my individual experience, it is never a private event. It is a public event, and it incorporates me into the unity, the community of the Body of Christ.

In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Christ challenges us with three themes: Fire, Baptism and Division.

In the Bible, fire can represent the presence of God – think of the pillar of fire in the wilderness (Exodus 13: 17-22) and the tongues of flame at Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-4).

It can represent judgment (see Revelation 20: 7-10), and it can represent purification – the prophets Zachariah (13: 9) and Malachi (3: 2-3) speak of the refiner’s fire in which God purifies his people, as a refiner purifies silver by fire.

At the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2: 22-38), old Simeon foresees how the Christ Child ‘is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inward thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (verses 34-35).

The sword that pierces the soul of the Virgin Mary, the sword that has killed the prophets, the sword the divides families, is a reminder that Christ, who embodies the presence of God, simultaneously judges and purifies.

In the New Testament, Baptism represents both judgment and purification and Saint John the Baptist connects it with fire (Luke 3: 16-17).

In this Gospel reading, however, Christ is referring not to the baptism he brings but to the baptism he receives. He not only brings the fire of judgment and purification, but he bears it himself also.

The Kingdom of God he proclaims is governed not by might but by forgiveness (think of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, Luke 11: 4), not by fear but by courage (‘be not afraid’ in Luke 1: 13, 30, 2: 10, 5: 11, 8: 50, 12: 4, 7, 32), not by power but by humility (see Magnificat, Luke 1: 46-55).

But it is easy to be lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power rather than the promises that come with our Baptism.

In the second half of the Gospel reading, Christ chides the crowd for not recognising the signs he bears. They know how to forecast the weather, but they cannot forecast, watch for the signs of the coming Kingdom of God.

There is a fashion in the Church today for ‘fresh expressions of the Church’ that blow where the wind blows. They seek to be fashionable and claim that they are relevant.

Sometimes, you may not know whether you are in a coffee shop or in a church, whether you are in the guiding hands of a barista or of a priest. The old forms of church have been abandoned, and with it we may ask whether they have thrown out the core content too.

I visited one of these churches recently. Yes, there was a rambling sermon of 35 or more minutes. Yes, there was a time of ‘fellowship’ where people turned around their chairs and were chummy with one another, in a clumsy sort of way.

There was one reading, but no Gospel reading. There was no confession and absolution, no Creedal statement, no Trinitarian formula in the prayers. The prayers prayed for those present and those like them, but there were no prayers for those outside, no prayers for a world that is divided and suffering, no challenge or judgment for those who have created the plight and sufferings of wars, refugees, racism, economic injustice and climate justice.

In this smug self-assurance, without any reference to the world outside, there was no challenge to discipleship, to live up to the promises and challenges of Baptism.

And, needless to say, there was no Sacrament, and no hint of there ever being a Sacramental ministry.

Content had been abandoned for the sake of form. But the form had become a charade. For the sake of relevance, the church had become irrelevant.

The challenge of our Baptism is a challenge for the Church to be a sign of, a sacrament of, the Kingdom of God.

We can be distracted by the demands and fashions of what pass as ‘fresh expressions of Church’ and never meet the needs of a divided and suffering world.

Or we can be nourished by Word and Sacrament and respond to the demands of our Baptism in a discipleship that seeks to challenge and confront a suffering and divided world with the values and promises of the Kingdom of God.

But it is costly, and like Simeon warns Mary, you may find ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

‘End of the beach’ at Platanias in Rethymnon … but do we know how to read the signs of the end of the times? (see Luke 12: 54-56) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Luke 12: 49-56 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said to his disciples:]

49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’

The White-Robed Army of Martyrs (see Hebrews 11: 35-40) … a fresco on the walls of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect of the Word:

Merciful Lord,
cleanse and defend your Church by the sacrifice of Christ.
United with him in holy baptism,
give us grace to receive with thanksgiving
the fruits of his redeeming work
and daily follow in his way;
through the same Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
In that new world where you reveal the fulness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet
of Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘Holy Father, who gathered us here around the table of your Son to share this meal with the whole household of God’ (Post-Communion Prayer) … the Supper at Emmaus depicted in a mosaic in the Church of the Holy Name, Ranelagh, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

Isaiah 5: 1-7:

51, Awake, my soul, and with the sun

Psalm 80: 1-2, 9-20:

686, Bless the Lord, the God of our forebears
688, Come, bless the Lord, God of our forebears
695, God of mercy, God of grace
614, Great Shepherd of your people, hear
305, O Breath of life, come sweeping through us
657, O God of Bethel, by whose hand

Jeremiah 23: 23-29:

381, God has spoken – by his prophets
388, Word of the living God

Psalm 82:

125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
535, Judge eternal, throned in splendour
140, The Lord will come and not be slow
509, Your kingdom come, O God

Hebrews 11: 29 to 12: 2:

645, Father, hear the prayer we offer
566, Fight the good fight with all thy might
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart
463, Give us the wings of faith to rise
696, God, we praise you! God, we bless you!
417, He gave his life in selfless love
636, May the mind of Christ our Saviour
285, The head that once was crowned with thorns
376, Ye holy angels bright

Luke 12: 49-56:

550, ‘Forgive our sins as we forgive’
639, O thou who camest from above

‘By faith the people of Israel passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land’ (Hebrews 11: 26) … a fresco in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The hymn suggestions are provided in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling. The hymn numbers refer to the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal (5th edition, Oxford: OUP, 2000)

‘When you see a cloud rising in the west … and when you see the south wind blowing’ (Luke 12: 54-55) … clouds and sunshine at Saint Mary's Cathedral and the River Shannon in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your work on this blog week by week. I'm finding it a great help both with sermon prep and choosing songs for worship.