Archives for July 2011

Bible Study: Proper 14 (A)

July 31, 2011

Jakki Flanagan, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

“Then Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” (Matthew 14:19-20)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17: 1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Genesis 32:22-31

Forgiveness.

“He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone…”
Despite readings, prayer, and support from others, when we have been wronged, the path to forgiveness often feels like an isolated journey. It is a stripping down to the essence of who we are.

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

Forgiveness is a struggle, a wrestling with ourselves, with understanding, and ultimately, with God. Often we want to forgive, but forgiveness is not an intellectual exercise. The deeper the wound, the more profound the struggle. The thought of Jacob’s wrestling until daybreak could at times seem a blessing – if only a day, rather than a year, a lifetime.

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

When finally we have reached a place of forgiveness, we are no longer the same person we were. We have wrestled with questions of Why. We have struggled with our own and others’ humanity. As Christians we profess that God desires the reconciliation of all creation through Christ. Every act of forgiveness is a step towards that ultimate act of reconciliation. Through it we are forever changed. As we walk into the sunlight, though, we do so with a limp, to remind us of what we have overcome.

Psalm 17:1-7, 16

When reading this psalm through the lens of forgiveness, we hear the psalmist pleading to God in desperation for understanding. What is the connection between forgiveness and understanding? This seems to be a never-ending struggle, if only a reason can be found, if only sense can be made of this, then possibly forgiveness and healing will come more easily. It is interesting to consider as well the lines of this psalm that were omitted. Those lines have to do with the perpetrator, the one causing the harm. It is almost as if, in selecting which parts of the psalm to include, an attempt was made to move past blame, to seeking understanding. The last line, a prayer of hope, speaks of “vindication” though the word can also be viewed as a right making, or deliverance. The deliverance from feelings that prevent us from forgiving. That deliverance can bring us closer to God, providing a glimpse of God’s face. In seeing God’s face we are given the mirror opportunity to see God in ourselves.

Romans 9:1-5

In the epistle we hear the voice of a person grappling to understand. Why is this happening? Better to have this happen to me than my loved one. We would give so much to protect those we love from adversity.

How do we make sense of the injustices that befall those we love? Often they have done nothing to bring about the place in which they find themselves. But what about those who have? We still suffer for their struggles and pain. However much we may try to distance ourselves, we still wish and pray that their lives were easier, that this hardship was taken from them. Can we find a ray of hope, a place of forgiveness, to offer ourselves and those we love, while we witness their struggles?

Matthew 14:13-21

“We have nothing here.”

I do not have what it takes, God, to deal with this situation. I have nothing – a few fish, some bread. How can I possibly do what you are asking me to do?

Forgiveness, healing.

Where, in your life, do you struggle with forgiveness? For others, for yourself?

How can you even consider forgiveness for horrible wrongs, atrocities, unspeakable violence? There is no easy answer, no simple fix.

“And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’”

We are human. We ache, we suffer, we hate. When we feel we have nothing, when we feel we are nothing, can we look to God? Seeking God’s face, remembering through Jesus Christ, that yes, we are human, and God loves our humanness deeply, can we remember the depth of that unimaginable love and give our terrible burden to God? Can we give our nothing to God, in the hope that God will do something with it?

Bible Study: Proper 12 (A)

July 24, 2011

Eric Gregory,  Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’” (Matthew 13:52)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

1 Kings 3:5-12

Desire is important. Not the sort of desire we might have for cars or money or sex or fame, but the deepest desires and longings of our hearts. Our inmost desires can clue us into what God truly desires for us. Desires can help us understand who we are becoming and what we are supposed to do with our lives – what we want, more than anything, to be.

Solomon’s vocation was pretty clear (he may have even, as the son of the David, desired it). But what else did he desire? Who was he? What sort of king did he want to be? Today’s reading shows us a person who was able to understand himself and his own desires well enough to know that he wanted to wield his authority with a concern for equity and justice. And he did not hesitate to ask God for that ability.

Do we know what we most deeply desire? Are we able, like Solomon, to hear God’s voice encouraging us to ask for this?

Psalm 119:129-136

Notions of complete obedience to laws and regulations – even the statutes of God – can be daunting, especially when we do not have the psalmist’s experience of “panting” for them.

This psalm can cause conflict for many modern-day Christians, with our vast amounts of scientific and historical knowledge. As soon as the Psalmist says, “When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple,” we want to remind him of the importance of modern education to bring understanding, the moral issues with calling parts of the Bible “the Word of God,” or the dangers of accepting everything that someone might say about what God wants or wills.

The challenge for us today is to hold these well-founded concerns in tension with the revelation and tradition that has been delivered to us through the Church and the Scriptures.

“Rescue me from those who oppress me, and I will keep your commandments.”

Bargaining with God. Conditional obedience and love. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.

What do sentiments like this tell us about God’s relationship to God’s children? Is the Psalmist suggesting that she won’t keep God’s commandments if she isn’t rescued (or simply that she won’t be alive to be able to keep God’s commandments)? Are we to think, based on this passage as well as similar stories in the Bible (ex: Gen. 18:23-33, Ex. 32:7-14), that bartering is an acceptable (or even effective) practice when interacting with God?

Romans 8:26-39

Intercession is a powerful form of prayer. When our loved ones ask us to pray for them, we engage in a conversation with God about them. In doing so, we ask God to listen to our compassionate hearts for these persons.

St. Paul reminds us that, in the very same way, the Spirit intercedes before God on our behalf. When we are overwhelmed, tired, frustrated, bored, or in some other way weak, the Advocate speaks to God, asking God to consider God’s own compassionate heart for us. In the mystery of the communion of the Trinity, God speaks to Godself, remembering anew God’s heart for us.

When we follow the Spirit’s example of intercessory prayer, we participate even more fully in the communal life of the Triune God.

When we pray for others, are we able to envision our petition as a conversation with God about someone who is mutually cherished? How might this affect our prayers? Are we able to remind ourselves that our prayers for others are interwoven with the Spirit’s own intercessions for them? How might this affect our prayers?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Familiarity can breed contempt.

For many Christians who have grown up in church, the parables of Jesus are some of the most recognizable texts from the Bible. The mustard seed, the lost sheep, the prodigal son – these are all very well-known, and all of the gospels have many of these in common. Because of this familiarity, we may believe, like the disciples in today’s reading, that we “get it” – we understand what Jesus is saying.

But do we?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. Do we recognize that the death and transformation of the seed is necessary for the growth of the tree? Or that the ground must be cracked and broken to allow the tree to well up from within?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. Do we know that this fungal microorganism reproduces asexually, expanding uncontrollably? Or that it is a central ingredient in not only bread, but also alcohol (bringing to mind the Elements of the Eucharist)?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. Do we know who hid the treasure? Or appreciate the strength, effort and toil that digging up that treasure requires?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of pearls.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net, catching good and bad fish alike. “Have you understood all this?” Can our answer, as was the disciples, be “Yes”?

Bible Study: Proper 11 (A)

July 17, 2011

Jessica Abell, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

“Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.” (Matthew 13:40)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 28:10-19a and Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23 or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 (Track 2: Isaiah 44:6-8 and Psalm 86:11-17); Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

“Let anyone with ears listen!” This week’s gospel reminds us of the powerful message that God’s righteousness will prevail. We must trust this for indeed, trying to act as God will cause harm.

Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob has left home. He has recently bribed the ancestral birthright from his twin brother Esau and he must surely be somewhat anxious as he embarks on his journey. The dream of Jacob is what is needed for such a worried mind and troubled heart. The stream of rising and falling angels connects Jacob to God. God speaks to Jacob and makes another covenant of abundance and presence between God and God’s chosen. God will be with Jacob on his travels and throughout his life. God is always with us and may indeed feel especially close in those times when we run away or when we journey. How are we connected to God and how is this manifest in our lives? How will we mark the odd places where God finds us along the way?

Isaiah 44:6-8

This declaration of the eminence of God is a powerful statement. Hebrew scripture does assert that the Lord God is the only “god” around, for divinities of all kinds were abundant in the Ancient Near East. But here, the Lord God of the Hebrews claims to the very beginning and the end of all things, the God who has always been and who has always known what is to come. How do we witness to this in our experiences?

Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23

Psalm 139 uses incredibly intimate images of God’s relationship with humankind.

I have relied on Psalm 139 in my hospital chaplaincy work continually. These words of comfort and promises of being known are familiar to people of faith and were even effective with those who had long ago left any faith system. Psalm 139 stares directly into the infinity of the divine and speaks to the all encompassing presence of God, before and behind, in speech and thought. We each are part of God’s beloved creation that the psalmist tells us is marvelously made, woven in the depths of the earth and known to our inmost parts. No matter where we go or flee, we cannot evade God.

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

We rarely see the Wisdom of Solomon in our lectionary cycles, indeed the “wisdom teachings” in general are not emphasized. But within them can be found some of the most beautiful and accessible passages of scripture. This passage discusses the righteousness of God and the gifts borne. The reign of God is not like the reign of humanity; it is one of both strength and mercy, of both hope and repentance. What are the gifts that give you hope? What things open up for you when you contemplate of a “completeness of power” might look like?

Psalm 86:11-17

The psalms often tell us a story of persecution, of being set upon or misunderstood. Consolation and comfort stem from an intimate relationship with God, one of teacher and student, of parent and child, of weaver and loom. What might it mean to have our hearts knit to God?

Romans 8:12-25

There is one guarantee with Holy Spirit work, one result that will happen when we live in, through and with the Holy Spirit: you will be changed. You will be transformed. This Romans passage uses the metaphor of fertility and birth to relay this. The Message translates a portion of verses 23 and 24: The Spirit does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. She knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.

I like that image of the pains of the world being the pains of a divine birth, of god’s will being made manifest in the world, and that when we are distracted by this pain of transformation, The Spirit upholds us. When you engage in co-creation with God, when you say yes to this cosmic dance of the Spirit, you will be transformed. When you allow the Holy Spirit to be your inner guide, you will be brought to places you could never have imagined into God’s new creation.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I am living in California while in seminary. One of the fascinating things about being here is the abundant food one sees while just walking down the street. Lemon and orange trees serve as municipal foliage, rosemary and lavender as landscaping accents. What may not be not so obvious are the remaining edibles. There is an urban scavenger movement that promotes dandelion leaf salad and fiddlehead fern seed bread, healthy edible foodstuffs found in the weeds.

Over and over Jesus tells us that the work of judgment is not ours. We should not pull the weeds but rather let it all be sorted by God. Jesus is very clear that we will uproot good wheat when we think we are pulling unwanted weeds in God’s garden. We will be doing the work of the enemy ourselves.

What are those things we are quite sure are weeds? Could these things be food instead?

Bible Study: Proper 10 (A)

July 10, 2011

Amy Spagna, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Genesis 25:19-34

The layers of meaning in this passage go far beyond its being a simple tale of sibling rivalry. Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s hunger in order to get the birthright, or blessing, that rightly belongs to Esau. It says something about the human condition that Esau is willing to give it all up just for a bowl of red lentil stew and a piece of bread. We will pay nearly any price to feel good, without necessarily giving a second thought to what the immediate consequences are.

It also says much that Esau regrets what he’s done. He despises his birthright, though the writers of Genesis don’t tell us exactly why. It could be that he’s upset with himself for giving up his rightful inheritance to his two-timing younger brother. It could also be that he fears he’s lost God’s blessing as well as his father’s. Even in the midst of his physical hunger, Esau begins to realize God’s favor – and the land which is the material sign thereof – is the one thing which can reliably sustain him. That special blessing doesn’t seem to be a fair price to pay just for lunch.

Psalm 119:105-112

How does righteousness, both God’s and the psalmist’s own, manifest itself? Is there a difference between them, and if so, what is it and why might it exist in the first place?

Do you think Esau might be able to make the same claims as the psalmist does in this passage, especially as one who has had a trap set for him? Why or why not

Romans 8:1-11

What point is Paul trying to make by drawing flesh (sarx) and spirit (pneuma) as polar opposites in verses 1-8?

Does “being in the Spirit” have practical implications about how we are to live, beyond what Paul suggests in verses 10-11?

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Does Jesus really expect people to understand his teaching? What’s his point, anyway?

Jesus’ expectations seem to depend on his audience. While he makes sure the disciples understand what he means, the same isn’t necessarily true of the crowd. The ones who, like the disciples, are truly capable of hearing and receiving the seeds of Jesus’ preaching, are the ones who will flourish. Unlike the “temporary” believer (proskairos), they will not give up their faith or fall into sin (skandalizetai) when difficulty arises.

Part of Jesus’ point in telling this story is that sharing the gospel is not always about the sheer number of people who are genuinely converted to a new life of faith. The sower does not seem to be all that interested in getting the highest yield out of his bag of seeds. Otherwise he might restrict his planting to areas he is certain are fertile. What he is interested in, however, is the possibility contained within each seed he drops. Those seeds could take root anywhere, despite the presence of things which might impede their growth. He sows them anyway, with the hope that at least some of them will bear fruit and yield.

Bible Study: 3 Pentecost, Proper 9 (A) – 2011

July 3, 2011

Emilie Finn, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67Psalm 45: 11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

When the lectionary skips verses in a reading, it is often helpful to check in with the Bible and see what got left out. In this week’s reading, Abraham’s servant asks Laban and Bethuel a question in Genesis 24:49, and then the reading skips to verse 58, where they call Rebekah and ask her if she will go with Abraham’s servant. It seems that leaving is Rebekah’s own choice. But now look at Genesis 24:50-57. Laban and Bethuel actually answer for Rebekah: “This thing comes from the LORD; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go…” Rebekah has no choice about leaving her family and venturing into the unknown to be the wife of a man she has not met. The only choice she is given is whether she will leave immediately, or wait a few days longer. She chooses to go right away.

Have you been in a situation in which you were not given a choice about where you would go or what role you would fill? What was that experience like? Did you go along, or did you fight against it? Where was God in that experience?

Psalm 45: 11-18

Psalm 45 is a royal psalm, one of those that celebrates the Davidic kingship and glorifies the king almost to the level of God himself. The inscription at the beginning of Psalm 45 describes it as “a love song,” composed, perhaps, on the occasion of a royal wedding.

Romans 7:15-25a

In this reading, Paul describes the difficulty of living under an abstract code of conduct. Intellectually, we may know and even want what the law tells us is right, but our bodies are not abstract, and do not always conform to our ideals. Some theologians interpret this passage as Paul’s description of life before a convert has experienced the saving grace of Christ. Others see it as a description of the constant challenge of the Christian life.

Whichever way it is interpreted, in this passage, it is our inability to obey the law that shows us that we are trapped in sin and need the new life in the Spirit that Jesus offers us.

Paul says, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” Have you experienced this in your own life? When in your life has Christ freed you from this law and given you the ability to live a new life in the Spirit?

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is a note of frustration in the words of Jesus at the beginning of this week’s Gospel reading. The Son of God and a major prophet are right under the people’s noses, but no one sees them for who they are. Preconceived ideas can often prevent us from seeing something for what it really is. The more we learn, the more preconceived ideas we develop, and we need that knowledge to survive. But God almost never comes to us when or in the way we expect, so sometimes it is necessary to put down the heavy burden of everything we know and look at the world as if we have never seen it before. If we do, we just might recognize God in a place we never would have thought to look.

For the next few days, make a practice of noticing ordinary, everyday people, tasks, and events in your life. Pay special attention to things you know well, take for granted, or do by rote. Can you hear God’s flute? Or God’s wailing?