Archives for August 2011

Let my people go, Pentecost 11 – Proper 17 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c (or Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Psalm 26:1-8); Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

It is a hard job being religious. Perhaps we feel this the more when we compare our lives with those of the saints. Of course we have our excuses. The world was less complicated in their days. People had time to pray seven times a day, like the psalmist. We move from that excuse to a second: saints are people who don’t struggle with our temptations. A saint hears God say “go,” and she goes. Perhaps, we think, even today there are special people who just seem to find the Christian Life natural. They get excited about church, and even sermons! They attend Bible study and spirituality groups, work in the kitchen when the poor are fed, and subscribe to worthy causes.

These understandings or misunderstandings sell short our capacity to serve God. They limit us. So we come to church fairly often, put in a pledge, mutter a few familiar night-time prayers, and only occasionally feel a tug of conscience that perhaps God wants more of us. Like someone who never gets further than “Chopsticks” on the piano because there are pianists who bring an audience to its feet; like someone who doesn’t catch very well and so gives up because of the athletes seen at the ball game, we largely give up. And after all, clergy have been telling us for years that God gives unconditional love. So perhaps when we die we will be in the school for backward believers, but after all, that’s where we have always been.

The lessons today bring us face to face with two saints, Moses and Peter. Both were called to lead the church in the worst of circumstances and both succeeded. There we go again! How can we compare with these giants? But look more closely.

Moses is on the run and has found a home in the tent of a wandering shepherd, a Bedouin, and after being brought up in the King of Egypt’s palace, waited on hand and foot, he is now reduced to the role of assistant shepherd. He has killed an abusive Egyptian official and is on the run. How about that for downward mobility? What was his self esteem like?

Suddenly a bush seems to burst into flames, and Moses hears a voice, the voice of the God of his tribe, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the great Patriarchs. The voice tells Moses to go back to Egypt and rescue the Jewish people, the Old Testament church. Well, you may be thinking, Moses did just that. He was special, different, unlike me. Look more closely. Moses argues with the Voice. In the portion of the story we heard today, Moses basically said that he had no talent or authority to rescue the Jewish people. “Who shall I say sent me?” he asks. God then reveals to Moses his true nature. The Voice said, “I am.” The Voice didn’t say I was, or I will be, but ever present in the “now” of every life and every generation. That Holy Name, which no devout Jew may utter, Yahweh, says to Moses, “Get on with it. This isn’t going to depend on your abilities or talents. It is going to depend on your keeping trust with me, because I am always ever present with you.” And so Moses obeys and goes back into danger, danger of being arrested and executed.

Now let’s look at the gospel. Jesus asks his friends what the gossip is about him. Who do people think he is or what do they think he is? Peter, whose tongue was always ahead of his courage, blurts out, “You are the anointed King, the Son of the Living God.” The story continues today, as you have just heard. Jesus says that Peter is right and that the way forward now is to Jerusalem, to danger and death. Peter argues with Jesus. “God forbid it Lord. This must never happen to you.” Jesus calls his friend “Satan,” the deceiver, because poor Peter is thinking in human terms, thinking about danger and death rather than trusting in God, whose Son, according to Peter, Jesus is.

Jesus then turns his eyes to us, for this account by Matthew was first heard by a group of Jewish converts to Christianity, disowned by their former friends and persecuted as Jews and Christians by the Romans. Matthew talks to the church, in whatever state it finds itself. He lets his listeners hear Jesus’ voice: Listen.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

The church, you and me, is offered no easy path to success. Doing right by God doesn’t depend on any special spiritual talent. Cross-bearing levels everyone, whatever their education, class, economic status, or religiosity. And God through Jesus is saying to us through these lessons, “Let my people go.” Moses rescued the people through God’s covenant, or agreement. Peter rescued the infant church through the new Covenant of the Cross. Jesus tells us that we are called to be outside our buildings, called into danger, even if that danger is no more than the mockery of friends. We are called to walk through the Cross into a new life, one to be shared, one sustainable despite our arguments with God, because God is “I am,” the ever present help at all times and in all places. We were not meant to attempt the life of religion alone. Religion in us becomes possible when we trust God and trust each other enough to be the church. God wants to do great things through the cross-bearing church. He wants us to see that being holy is all about freeing ourselves and freeing others from sin, oppression, and death. Do you trust him enough to be that?

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
Father Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.

Bible Study: Proper 17 (A)

August 28, 2011

Cathy Kerr, General Theological Seminary

“But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” (Matthew 16:23)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Exodus 3:1-15

God knows the suffering of the chosen people. Moses is told that God has heard their cry and has come down to deliver them. God also hears our prayers and knows our suffering. God is with us and will deliver us.

In this Exodus story, Israel will not be led out of Egypt to the Promised Land through direct intervention by God, however. No, God has chosen Moses to be the one who will lead the people to freedom. “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt,” God tells him.

But Moses is frightened. He is too afraid, first of all, even to look at God. When he hears what God wants from him, he tries to argue that he is not up to the task. But God has a plan, and Moses will not win this argument.

Most of us will never be called to take on a charge of this magnitude, but still sometimes our own responsibilities feel overwhelming. What are we afraid of, and where can we find the courage to overcome those fears? Do we have a role to play in working against the injustices we observe in our world? Or do we expect God to be the one who fixes things?

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c

This is a psalm of praise and gratitude for all of the great things God has done for Israel, and especially – in the verses included here – for delivering the chosen people from Egypt. They were freed from their misery there through the actions of Moses and Aaron, who were sent by God to lead the people to the Promised Land.

This is cause for rejoicing, but God’s compassionate action on our behalf also carries with it the responsibility to continue the work of making God’s goodness known to all.

Do we believe that God still does great things in our time, and if so, what would be some examples? Or should we give more credit to the courage and wisdom of human leaders, the modern counterparts of Aaron and Moses? Are there things that enslave us as individuals, things we need to be liberated from? Can we “search for the Lord and his strength” for help in those areas?

Romans 12:9-21

In this series of directives about how to live the Christian life, the guiding principal is love, love for God and for our brothers and sisters. Transformed by faith, we are to love one another affectionately and to live in harmony, to provide hospitality to strangers and to live peaceably to the extent that is possible. None of this is easy to live out consistently, even when we’re talking about family, friends, neighbors, or colleagues at work. Within these circles, however, we can at least aspire to live up to these ideals.

The real challenge comes in the part where Paul goes on to talk about how we are to treat enemies. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil … never avenge yourselves.” It’s hard to accept that this is meant to guide our behavior toward people who have inflicted real evil on us. If we feed them and take care of them, aren’t we just enabling further evil? How does this fit with our obligation to work against evil and injustice? Do these mandates still apply in the circumstances of our world today? If so, how might we go about living them out? If not, why not?

Matthew 16:21-28

This reading comes at a pivotal point in Matthew’s gospel. The phrase “from this time on,” which begins the passage, marks the end of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee and the beginning of his turn toward Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. Here, for the first time in Matthew, Jesus predicts his own death.

This is hard news for Peter, whose protest is quickly silenced by Jesus, but there’s more: Jesus warns his followers that discipleship is going to cost them. Anyone who wants to follow him, he says, must also be willing to “take up his cross.” This was shocking language, for crucifixion was the method of execution reserved for the lowest classes of society and the worst type of criminals, so to die in that way was not only excruciatingly painful but also shameful.

In our own times, however, the cross has lost its power to shock us – we even fashion it into pretty jewelry. We might wear a cross to make a statement about what we believe, but we certainly don’t expect to be crucified for our faith.

What is the cost of discipleship in the 21st century? Has our world really been made safe for Christianity? Are we fooling ourselves if we think there’s no reason we can’t aspire to “gain the whole world” as long as we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus?

God’s Mission has a Church, Pentecost 10, Proper 16 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124 (or Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138); Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

It is not that God’s Church has a Mission, but that God’s Mission has a Church.

It is Peter’s day – the day he is renamed by Jesus. No longer Simon, but Peter. Which in the New Testament Greek makes for a kind of pun – for the word for “rock” is petra, while Peter is PetrosPetros is petra – the rock, the foundation upon which Jesus builds his church.

We say “builds” because we know His church is still under construction in so many ways. The church is always growing, changing, under construction, searching for new, more nimble, more creative, more flexible ways of being God’s people. Each time a new member is added to our rolls, each time a person is baptized, we must be prepared to be called to new and different ways to “do all in our power to support one another in our life in Christ.”

A life which Saint Paul asserts is quite different than that of the world around us. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Paul does not envision a people focused only on our own lives. We are those people who trust that being in the right places at the right times – the places where God promises to be – God will transform. Our hope is not that our resolve will hold, but that God’s resolve will hold.

Consider the book The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittester, of the Order of Saint Benedict. Benedict lived a long time ago – just some 400 years or so after God in Christ walked this earth as Jesus. He tried to get away from the world – a world of Empire marked by power, wealth, violence, aggression. He tried to live in a cave, but others heard of his special gifts in finding a way to live with God so that he was coerced to join and lead a community of like-minded followers of Jesus. Benedict encouraged a disciplined approach to community life, work, study, and prayer. Some thought his methods too difficult and tried to poison his wine. Benedict was onto it, made the sign of the cross over the jug of wine, smashed it on the ground, forgave them for what they had done, and moved on to found a number of monasteries.

Benedict eventually put his ideas about how to know God down on paper, The Rule of Saint Benedict. It begins with the words, “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” After just a few moments of reading Benedict’s Rule and Sister Joan’s reflections upon The Rule one feels that she or he had time-traveled back to that cave on the cliffs overlooking Anio to listen to the voice of a fellow traveler whose wisdom draws one closer to a place where God can have at us and transform us.

It is like bird watching – although bird “watching” is something of a misnomer. Watching and looking is not the primary skill necessary for seeing birds; but rather, listening is what leads the eyes to see that solitary magnolia warbler or indigo bunting. Bird watching is an apt metaphor for the spiritual life as Benedict imagines it: listen carefully with the ear of your heart, and God stands ready to show you the way.

Another book offers further insights into a life with God: Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love. It is a book that also has its origins in Italy, and it takes a look at how the architecture of a particular church, Saint Agnes’ Outside the Wall, expresses the very essence of what it means to join with Peter and say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It examines every detail of what makes a church, a church – a living expression of God’s will – what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect. Visser explores how the center aisle invites one to understand the Christian faith as a journey, a pilgrim journey from the world outside in to the sanctuary of the living God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. We move closer and closer to the Tabernacle of the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus, God incarnate.

And she writes of how it is a church, not just a pile of rocks by the side of the road, but a living reminder returning us to those times and places where we met God along the way – those mystical, privileged experiences of the Holy. She is careful to distinguish that a church is not so much meant to induce such moments of epiphany as to acknowledge the experiences its visitors have had. It is a collective memory of such spiritual insights and mystical moments.

And with the obvious signs of the cross, crucifix, and Stations of the Cross, we are reminded that in order to live, we must die to self – choose the transcendent over the immediate present. The call to follow the Christ, the Son of the living God, is a call to look outward toward others and toward God. Only then can we know what it means to be fully alive. It is not that God’s Church has a mission, but God’s mission has a Church. And we are that Church, the Body of Christ.

The church in bricks and stone and wood and glass tells this story and invites all who would be Christians to continue this story, so at the end of the day we are sent away: Ite missa est – “Go, you are sent!” From which we get the word “mass”: to turn our lives toward others and toward God. To complete the work we begin in here, in actual fact we must return to the world beyond our doors. We are to live with other people and love them, just as we are to live with God and be loved by God. God’s Mission has a Church.

In another time and another place, Charles Moody wrote a song, “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” that seems, due to recent events, to be more relevant today than ever:

Out on the perilous deep
Where danger silently creeps
And storms so violently sweep
You’re drifting too far from the shore

Drifting too far from the shore
You’re drifting too far from the peaceful shore
Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way
You’re drifting too far from the shore

It is all meant – Benedict’s Order, Paul’s Letters, this church, the gospels, Moody’s song – to make us ask ourselves: Are we willing to continue God’s story, be transformed by that story, and so become active participants in God’s transformation of the world in Christ Jesus?

Or have we drifted too far from the shore?

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is co-rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church at Ellicott Mills, Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He is also chaplain and teaches at Saint Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and he may be reached at kkub@aol.com.

Bible Study: Proper 16 (A)

August 21, 2011

Joshua Rodriguez, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Isaiah 51:1-6

This Sunday’s Old Testament reading comes from Second Isaiah, and in it the prophet seeks to comfort the Judean exiles by appealing to YHWH’s past saving actions. The story of Abraham and Sarah’s difficulty in bearing and child is specifically in view. Blenkinsopp notes two interesting aspects of this appeal to tradition: in Second Isaiah, references to Abraham signify “aspirations toward nationhood;” and this is the only reference to Sarah outside of Genesis (Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55, “Anchor Bible, 19A,” Doubleday, 1964, pp. 326-327). This appeal to the past serves as a promise that YHWH will again intervene in history to restore the exiles’ fortunes. Just as YHWH made the barren Sarah fertile, YHWH will make the devastated country of Judea fertile once more, an act which has profound ecological implications for us today.

What is miraculous here is that YHWH’s saving acts are gracious; they do not arrive because of the exiles’ worthiness, but so that YHWH’s teaching might go out to become a light for the peoples of the world (verse 4).

What are the saving acts of God in your own life? In your community’s life? How do these relate to God’s actions in Scripture?

How can we work to restore fertility to the people and world around us?

Psalm 138

This psalm is difficult to date. Some scholars suggest a post-exilic date (Richard A. Puckett, “Psalm 138: Exegetical Perspective,” in “Feasting on the Word: Year A: Pentecost and the Season after Pentecost 1, Propers 3-16,” ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor; Knox, 2011, pp. 369-373), while others suggest a pre-exilic one (Mitchell Dahood,Psalms III: 101-150,“Anchor Bible, 17A,” Doubleday, 1970, pp. 275-276). However, the psalm’s theme of thanksgiving is universal. The psalmist rejoices that God has heard his prayer, and, through this praise, describes who God is. This psalm shares a theme of God’s universal purpose with our reading from Isaiah. Just as YHWH’s teaching will go forth from Judea to all the people of the earth, the psalmist proclaims: “All the kings of the earth with praise you O LORD, when they have heard the words of your mouth” (verse 4). And just as the reading from Isaiah invites us to recall God’s unfolding work of salvation in our own lives, Psalm 138 invites us to move from this remembrance to praise.

What has God’s salvation looked like in your life?

How do we, through our praise of God, participate in the working out of God’s salvation in the world? Is praise ever evangelistic?

Romans 12:1-8

Romans 12 marks a shift from the previous eleven chapters’ theological discussion to a discourse on moral exhortation. The following chapters are filled with apocalyptic ideology, something we see in our lectionary reading in St. Paul’s appeal to “no longer be conformed to this world” (verse 2) (Christopher R. Hutson, “Romans 12:1-8: Exegetical Perspective,” in“Feasting on the Word: Year A: Pentecost and the Season after Pentecost 1, Propers 3-16,” ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor; Knox, 2011, pp. 375-379).

However, it is worth noting that St. Paul’s apocalyptic framework is embodied. That is, while the Apostle does see a fundamental division this age and the future age, which has already begun in Jesus Christ, this division is not marked by the body itself. Misinterpretations of Paul have resulted in Christian theology with a negative body image, something which we should work to correct.

This epistle reading is fundamentally body-positive. Our bodies are to be presented to God as living sacrifices, and the community of the church is compared to one body with many members. Body-positive readings of this passage might focus on our individual giftedness and the grace which we need as a community to promote the flourishing of diverse gifts in the body of Christ.

What might a body-positive Christian theology look like?

An unintended consequence of a focus on the body in Christian theology might be the creation of an “ideal body.” How might we maintain the tension between our diversity as individual bodies and our unity as one body?

Matthew 16:13-20

In our gospel lesson, Jesus confronts us with one of the central questions of Christian life: “Who do you say that I am?” Much exegesis on the passage has focused on the Protestant-Catholic debate over the rock upon which Jesus promises to build his church: is it Peter himself or Peter’s confession of faith? However, verses 21-23 (conveniently left out of the lectionary reading) suggest that neither is all that firm a foundation, since Peter still fails to understand what his confession means and is rebuked by Jesus.

In this, we see the paradox of our Christian faith demonstrated. None of us, not even St. Peter, ever manages a perfect confession of faith. At our best, we offer Jesus imperfect, fragile rocks upon which to build the church. The miracle of this passage and of our own faith is that Jesus accepts these poor building materials and transforms them into a foundation over which not even the “gates of Hades” can triumph.

Where is the “rock” in this story? In your own life?

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Great is your faith! Great is your love, Pentecost 9, Proper 15 – 2011

[RCL] Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 (Track 2: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67); Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Have you ever felt as desperate as the Caananite woman in today’s gospel? Emotions seem to explode from us when we’re desperate. We’ve all seen pictures on the television of women and men wailing with grief over their children slaughtered in a bomb attack in the Middle East. They often collapse in unbearable pain over the bodies of their precious children. We’ve also see almost desperate happiness. Again, emotions physically explode in tears and dancing when an almost hopeless situation turns out right. Remember the flood of joy and relief when the men trapped in the Chilean mine were rescued? It was so different from the desperate sadness of the families who heard their loved ones had died in the West Virginia mine.

Desperate situations seem to make an outward show of emotion acceptable. When we’re surprised by events – death, new life, rescue, fear – we let ourselves go. Usually others around us or those witnessing an event on TV understand why people are suddenly acting differently.

But isn’t it interesting that we often also feel uncomfortable with a show of emotion? How often have we heard the words, “You’ll get over it,” or “Keep a stiff upper lip,” or “Don’t cry, it was only a dog”?

Somehow, our Western culture especially has evolved to a place where keeping it all inside is best. We don’t want to make others uncomfortable, even when we’re being torn apart inside.

Listen to the disciples in today’s gospel reading: “Send her away for she keeps shouting at us!”

The Caananite woman had a very sick daughter. What loving mother can bear to see her child in any kind of pain? And this woman was desperate. She was desperate enough to break many of that culture’s rules concerning encounters between women and men. She shouted not only at a man, but at someone special. But she not only shouted, she threw herself at his feet when he ignored her. But she not only did that – she argued with Jesus. She put herself in danger of severe consequences. Her desperation overcame her fear. Her concern for her daughter made her emotional! It’s easy for us to say, “Yes, yes, good for her!” But what might we have wanted to say to her if we’d been there?

Jesus isn’t at his “good old helpful Jesus” best today. He’d just been teaching about how people relate to others. He was very cleverly sticking it to those Pharisees who commanded the people to keep every law fastidiously while they themselves were – remember Jesus saying this – “whitened sepulchers.” Some Pharisees were less than good examples to their people, leading fairly self-centered lives, while demanding other people live very controlled lives. So Jesus is saying, it’s much more important to consider how you use words, how you speak to others, how you praise God, than to think only about what you put into your mouth. What comes out of the mouth builds up or tears down.

And God bless Peter! “What do you mean?” he asks.

Jesus reminds him that what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. To the Jew, the heart is life. What we say can be life-giving or destructive. This isn’t news to us. So, we see Jesus being very frustrated in this passage. His followers don’t seem to understand. The Pharisees who were trying to trip him up were deliberately not getting it. And so, we’d imagine that when he got the chance to demonstrate, Jesus would immediately be helpful to this woman.

We’re surprised when he first ignores her, and then seems not only to ignore his own teaching, but he is rude to her. “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” What? Isn’t the second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself? Jesus said so himself.

Several things are going on here. We realize, first, that Jesus doesn’t seem bothered that the woman is shouting. It’s the disciples who are uncomfortable. They don’t want to be bothered by an emotional woman breaking the rules, demanding help. Jesus makes no comment about that at all. We certainly can’t presume ever to know what was going on in Jesus’ head at that moment in that time, but perhaps this is an example to us that her emotion and desperation were perfectly understandable and proper. What Jesus seems to point to is his own mission. He’s done this kind of thing before. Remember the wedding feast at Cana? His mother wants him to help out the wedding couple. “They have no wine,” she says. “What’s that to me, it’s not my time,” Jesus replies. Not quite the way we might expect him to answer his mother. But he reacts by expanding his ministry perhaps a little early.

Here, he is first mindful of his mission to the Jews, the first of God’s chosen people. This woman is pushing the boundaries. She’s a Caananite, not of the family. Like Jesus’ own mother, this woman knows he can help her. Jesus very well may have been impressed with her persistence, and he pushes just a bit. “It’s not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs.” How typical of that time. The Caananites were considered less than respectable by the Jews. But is it typical only of that time? Here’s another lesson this passage teaches us. How have we considered the “other” in our own cultures? If we’re honest, there are those we consider less than dogs today.

But this Caananite woman is not only desperate, she’s fearless. “Even the dogs get the crumbs on the floor.” A Pharisee might have slapped her down for that remark, but Jesus seems finally to get by his own frustration and see her as a woman of faith. Once again he expands his mission and breaks down a barrier to accept and include a non-Jew. This is a big step for him. Matthew is showing us how Jesus’ mission and ministry is growing, tearing down centuries old boundaries, and opening up the culturally identified family of God to all God’s people. In both instances, Cana and the need of this woman, Jesus responds to the marginalized. In these cases, to women, but there will be many more – the blind, the crippled, children, outcasts of all kinds. Our first reaction to Jesus’ seeming rudeness is turned to an understanding of what he knows is happening. Jesus seems to enjoy fearless people who aren’t afraid to engage him on human levels of love and emotion.

So what can we learn about ourselves here? Several things come to mind. The obvious lesson is to ask ourselves, whom do we accept as our neighbor? Do we still harbor in our hearts signs of racism? Whom do we think of as less than dogs? Living in our current culture of fear is hard. We’re bombarded with images and words coming out of some of our own leaders’ mouths that put the fear of the “other” into our hearts. Jesus might remind us,“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” Today we have a lot to think about when we consider this.

Another thing we might learn from today’s passage is a simple thing. Emotions are a gift to us from God. We might consider how we react when we’re faced with either our own or others’ expressions of emotion. Do our own cultural boundaries cause us to keep it all in or expect others to do the same? Can we imagine ourselves ever allowing someone to share a real depth of emotion with us, or are we too quick to shut them down too?

We’re missing something if we don’t allow ourselves to be free. The Dalai Lama offers this wonderful saying: “The more you are motivated by love, the more fearless and free your action will be.” This is exactly what Jesus shows us today.

Would that Jesus could say to each of us today, “Great is your faith! Great is your love.”

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Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz

The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Bible Study: Proper 15 (A)

August 14, 2011

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’” (Matthew 15:10-11)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

Genesis 45:1-15

Oftentimes, when we read the stories of Genesis (and other biblical books), we are perplexed at the turns of events attributed to God. For example, why would God place a forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden? Why would God destroy the world through a devastating flood? Why would God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son? In today’s Genesis text we might ask “Why did God put Joseph and his family through such an ordeal, just to get Joseph into Egypt (as it says in verse 8)?” These stories should not be seen as literal presentations of God’s actions and motives. Rather, they are myths (stories that use symbolism to speak about reality) or, in the case of the Patriarch stories, legends (interpretive stories of historic events). We should ask ourselves then what theological points the author was trying to make through this story. The answer might be that God can act in our lives and provide for us, even through circumstances that are apparently without hope such as severe family strife or times of deprivation.

Notice also how Joseph’s tearful reunion with his brothers (and his observation that this has all been God’s work) comes after a few chapters of devious dealing on Joseph’s part. Of course, his brothers previously had sold him into slavery. And they are all the sons of Jacob, the one who took advantage of his own brother and deceived his elderly father. These are not people with whom we would want to share a long car ride! Despite their flaws and bad behavior, however, God still chooses them and manages to do great things through them. Proof indeed that God can write straight with crooked lines!

Where might God be acting unexpectedly in our church, families, and other experiences, especially in those circumstances where we feel there is no hope?

How does God’s choice of Joseph, his brothers and father, despite their unsavoriness and failings, speak to your own experience of God’s grace in those circumstances and people who might not have been our first choice?

Psalm 133

Commentators suggest that this psalm could be extolling either the joys of harmony in the family, or the fittingness of worshippers participating in the sacred liturgy in the Temple on Mt. Zion. Regardless, this psalm, despite its joyful tone, can serve as a sharp warning and even rebuke to our modern Christianity, so often fraught with divisiveness. We are reminded here that our fellow worshippers are indeed our “brethren”. Sometimes it can be difficult to be mindful of this reality, especially when we differ on matters of liturgical practice, disciple, ideology, or theology. Notice how the sacred author frames this Psalm with a beginning mention of harmony among people and a concluding statement that the blessing of the Lord is life.

Undoubtedly, the two are linked – the fullness of life can only be experienced when there is harmony within the family of faith.

How might each of us reform our own actions, thoughts, and words so that we can be “brethren living in unity”

The biblical notion of salvation is often characterized as a communal experience of the fullness of life. How does this psalm serve as a challenge to some popular ideas that equate “being saved” with getting into heaven?
What emotions, ideals, or hopes are evoked in the psalmist’s use of “precious oil …  running,” and “the dew of Hermon”? What is being said about the effects of unity?

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Paul continues to ponder the conundrum of Israel’s failure to accept the gospel of Jesus. His references to Abraham and the tribe of Benjamin might serve to evoke Paul’s namesake Saul the king, of this same tribe, who also struggled with the unbelief of his people. Prior to Saul’s becoming king God told the prophet Samuel, “They have rejected me as their king” (1 Sam 8:7). The people are greatly afraid of God’s anger, but Samuel assures them that God will not cast them off, just as Paul says that the Lord will not reject his people now. Paul thus situates Israel’s rejection of Jesus in a larger narrative of his peoples’ struggle to believe.

Paul’s reflections on God’s mercy illustrate how redemption can be brought out of what appears to be a great failure. Just as non-Israelites had previously rejected God, they now have experienced redemption through the sheer mercy of God, not because they did anything to deserve it. So too will Israel’s failure to accept Jesus serve as an occasion for God’s mercy. Above all, Paul tries to illustrate that human disobedience and failure cannot frustrate God’s grace. Grace is a free and abundant gift; nothing can stand in its way.

How does your personal narrative of faith mirror that of Israel, i.e. the waxing and waning of belief and unbelief?

Where in our experience of faith and life has God brought about redemption and grace despite our actions that appear to obstruct God’s gifts?

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

This short pericope provides a raw, telling glimpse of the human Jesus, for this is the only instance in the Gospels when he loses an argument! Whenever he is confronted publicly Jesus always has a response to his questioners. But in this instance, his female Canaanite interlocutor manages to stump him – a major embarrassment for a middle- eastern man of the 1st century. More significantly, it appears that Jesus evolves in his thinking about the nature and scope of his ministry. He initially makes it clear to the woman that he has come for the sake of Israel, but by the conclusion of this episode something has changed. Could this be the moment when Jesus realized that the salvation he brought was to be for the nations as well?

This story serves as a challenge to the closed religious mind – those who see faith as static and not subject to development. Jesus exhibits a willingness and ability to change and take on a new perspective. Are there any areas of your faith life where you might be closed-minded or short-sighted?

How have you been challenged with a new perspective and way of articulating some aspect of your faith that made you feel uncomfortable, but resonated with you none-the-less?

How does our encounter with and contemplation of the humanness of Jesus nourish our spirituality, identity as disciples, and faith life?

Bible Study: Proper 14 (A)

August 7, 2011

Brandt Montgomery, General Theological Seminary

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

1 Kings 19:9-18

Nobody likes feeling discouraged. When in a rut, our frustration drives us to want to throw our hands up in the air and say, “That’s it! I’m done! I can’t do this anymore!” Granted, although there may be certain situations in which such a response is warranted, the feelings produced still bring about discouragement, which is never a positive thing to feel. There are times in which Christians feel discouraged and are faced with the temptation of giving up. The Rev. Billy Graham once said that “the Christian life is not a constant high. I have my moments of deep discouragement. I have to go to God in prayer and say … ‘Help me.'”

In this pericope from 1 Kings 19, we find Elijah in a discouraging rut. The discouragement is weakening his faith, leaving him scared and helpless. To give Elijah a renewed sense of purpose, God commands him to return to Damascus, anoint Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and Elisha as his prophetic successor. Through this new commission, God gives Elijah the grace and renewed vigor to carry forth in his ministry and the assurance of God’s continued guidance. From this pericope, we are given the assurance that in times of discouragement, God’s grace provides us the encouragement needed to be renewed for continued service. Whenever discouragement comes, remembrance of why we do what we do for God is key to its demise.

How can the “sound of sheer silence” help us find trust in God?

In being silent and just simply listening, how can God renew us for mission and ministry, overcoming discouragement?

Psalm 85:8-13

Having grown up within the spirited emotionalism of the black church, I remember frequently singing the Gospel song “I Will Trust in the Lord.” As I would rock from side to side while singing, a spirit of great rejoicing always encapsulated me. Now being some years later, this old song still gives me a reason to rejoice; its words giving me the comfort and assurance of God’s care for me and reminding me that my trust in God opens myself up to His provisions. Because of God’s proven faithfulness throughout the ages, “I will trust in the Lord … [and] I’m gonna treat everybody right until I die.”

This selection from Psalm 85 tells of the assurances given by having trust in God. Out of anguishing lament, the community is trusting God to “speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.” God’s revealed word proclaims a world in which “love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” The faithfulness of God that arises through our trust in Him never ceases to convey the greatest hope in times of deep need. God’s faithfulness has the power to renew the weary soul and bring wholeness to life. It is a towering strength, bringing about peace from the shadow of fear. For that, we should all say, “Thanks be to God!”

What is it about God that continues to give us confidence in His faithfulness day after day?

In what ways do you see the glory of God “dwell[ing] in our land”?

Romans 10:5-15

Paul presents a contrast of righteousness from two different aspects: righteousness based on the law and on the basis of faith. Under righteousness by law, Leviticus 18.5 states that if we keep the law perfectly, we will live. The only problem is that the law’s extremely high standards prevent us from keeping it perfectly. Just messing up one bullet point of the law renders us breakers of it in its entirety. But with righteousness based on faith, God provides us a more accessible way of achieving salvation and eternal life. Jesus Christ, God the Son, was the only One able to keep the law perfectly and meet its high standards. Therefore, He alone, through his blessed passion and precious death, was able to satisfy the requirement that sin be punished and pave the way for our salvation through faith in Him.

Paul tells us that “if you confess … that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” By having faith in Jesus Christ, sin no longer has dominion over us. Jesus’ saving grace is so wonderful that it drives us to outwardly proclaim His goodness that transforms us from within. His grace and unconditional love is the good news of the gospel. So whatever you do outwardly, may it be a confession of the inward and spiritual grace brought about by faith in Jesus Christ, His grace greatly abounding.

What is Paul getting at in verses 6-8?

Why is it of such great importance that we outwardly confess our faith in Jesus Christ?

Matthew 14:22-33

Fear is something that’s naturally a part of us. It allows us to make decisions as to whether we should stay out of harm’s way or possibly do something stupid. Fear has the ability to completely overwhelm us, causing us to lose the ability to fully think through and assess the potential outcome of certain situations. When overcome by such fear, we become mentally paralyzed, putting us in a state of helplessness and negative vulnerability. When in such a state, we can’t help but to feel that all hope is lost.

In this classic gospel story, Peter (once again) becomes the object of an important teachable moment from Jesus. Peter takes a leap of faith and heeds Jesus’ call to join Him out on the water. This supernatural moment serves as proof to both Peter and to us that Jesus is, indeed, Lord of all creation, thereby assuring us that He is who He says He is and that we have nothing to fear because of Him. It is important that we not let fear get the best of us, for if we do, we will be like Peter and sink down into a sea of despair. The voice of Jesus is the voice of hope, comfort, and reassurance, an everlasting help in the time of trouble. May our gaze always be fixed upon our blessed Lord Jesus, for His call to us has the power to “soothe our sorrows, heal our wounds, and drive away our fears.”

What specific events from your own life have lead you to take a “leap of faith” and have trust in Jesus?

What do you do that reminds you to keep your eyes focused on Jesus and not on your fears?

It is I; have no fear, Pentecost 8, Proper 14 – 2011

[RCL] Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b (Track 2: 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Psalm 85:8-13); Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

If you ever decide to write a book about the gospels, here’s an idea for you.

You might want to tackle the central role of the Sea of Galilee in the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. A great freshwater lake or inland sea about a third the size of Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border, it supported, in Jesus’ time, a sizeable population and a significant commercial fishing industry. The evangelists often use the Sea of Galilee – around whose shores many of Jesus’ stories take place – to advance their account of his work and mission.

By the way, don’t be confused. The Sea of Galilee goes by different names. Some texts refer to it as a lake, which of course it is. And others call it by the alternative names of Tiberias or Gennesaret. But it is all the same place. And of course, it is most definitely not to be confused with the Dead Sea. That is another place entirely. The Sea of Galilee was, in Jesus’ time, very much alive with great varieties and stores of fish.

Our Lord’s disciples were, for the most part, people who made their livelihood from the Sea of Galilee. And Jesus himself is often found near its shores, first calling his disciples there and later teaching the people along its surrounding heights and plains. You will remember that at one point he even began preaching from a boat anchored just offshore while the people gathered near him on the beach.

So, it is no surprise to find the Sea of Galilee figuring prominently again in today’s gospel narrative, as Jesus first sends his disciples off in a boat by themselves “to the other side” – literally forces them to leave, if you read the text carefully – while he goes off to spend some quality time by himself on a mountain in prayer. As morning dawns and the disciples’ boat is being “battered by the waves,” Jesus – seemingly out of nowhere – comes “walking toward them on the Sea.” Needless to say, the disciples are terrified and cry out “in fear.”

Of course they were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? Well, maybe not Peter. At least, not at first. He bravely bids Jesus to call him forth from the boat and then hesitantly starts making his own way across the waves. But fear finally overcomes him too, and in his fright he begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” he calls out. And needless to say, this Jesus promptly does.

What to make of it all?

What those disciples needed, we might be tempted to think, was just a bigger boat, perhaps one better constructed and more suited to withstand the storm and the wind. Technology – human ingenuity – that is the answer. But then we remember. Every storm is the perfect storm if you are paralyzed by fear and worry. This gospel story has fundamental – perhaps even archetypal – implications in it about the human condition, a state that finds all of us suspended precariously between unknown and fearsome depths and the desire to be ourselves the masters of the wind and waves and world around us.

But weathering the storm paradoxically demands that we first come to recognize and accept our own vulnerabilities. There are, after all, few perfect boats. In spite of our occasional bluster, when the storm hits and the winds blow, most of us still call out for the Lord. Only in giving up our own certainty and our very selves do we find our true depth – and our salvation.

At baptism in many Christian denominations today – and in baptism as it was practiced in the early Church – one is quite literally drenched, or nearly drowned, in a stream or lake only to be caught up and raised moments later by the outstretched hand of pastor or minister. Not unlike Peter in our gospel account today. Jesus, it seems, still today, recognizes and surmounts in baptism our fear of death, our fear of drowning in sin and insignificance.

Our baptism and the gift of faith it signifies does not by any means guarantee a lifetime of smooth sailing ahead. The Sea of Galilee is, to this day, subject to squalls and storms. And like Peter and the disciples, we still find ourselves afraid and terrified and calling out to the Lord. But only Christ overcomes our dread and terror of what the waters deep beneath – and within – us may contain. And he does all this, as he did with Peter, by reaching out his hand in rescue. “Take heart,” he says to us again today. “It is I; have no fear.”

And from our own rickety craft, we proclaim as did the disciples centuries ago, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church, www.anglicanbudapest.com, in Budapest, Hungary.