Archives for August 2011

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?

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?

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?