Archives for September 2011

Bible Study: Proper 21 (A)

September 25, 2011

Joslyn Schaefer, Episcopal Divinity School

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’” (Matthew 21:31-32)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32

This passage was written in an “in-between time,” after the first deportation of the Hebrews to Babylon in 598 but before the large exile and temple destruction in 587. Here it is God, not the prophet, who speaks in the first person. God sounds like an angry, disappointed, but ever-hopeful parent. God is tired of hearing this proverb repeated among the Hebrews: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” and instead gives a message that could be interpreted as liberating and burdensome. God emphasizes individual accountability and possibility, thus changing older Torah teachings about future generations being held accountable for their forbearers’ decisions.

Intuitively, we know that the feelings and decisions of those who have gone before us affect how we think, feel, and behave. In this reading God affirms, first to Hebrews facing life in exile and now to us, that new choices, new relationships, a “new heart and spirit” for the sake of life are possible.

How have you worked through situations where you feel your “teeth are set on edge” because of the action of another person? How can this reminder from God to “turn and live” liberate you from cycles of blame and shame?

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Feelings of fear and trust are woven together into this poem to God. The speaker is fearful of being shamed, humiliated, and overrun by enemies. And the speaker is afraid of God. Will God remember compassion and love? Will God remember and judge according to God’s love instead of according to the speaker’s past sins and transgressions? Yet we also read of profound hope and trust in God. God is a gracious teacher, and the speaker is a student willing, almost desperate to learn.

What are your spiritual reflexes like when you are afraid? Do you approach God with mixed emotions, like the speaker? Have you ever reminded God of your understanding of God’s character, as this poet does, and expected God to act accordingly? How do you allow God to be your teacher?

Philippians 2:1-13

In Philippians, Paul repeatedly encourages his readers to be joyful despite suffering from external persecution and internal disagreement. Paul suggests that humility is the primary virtue and praxis for this community. He tells them have the same “mind” as was in Christ Jesus and inspires them with a hymn recollecting both the flesh-and-blood person who suffered a horrible death and the majestic Lord who was equal with God before and after his suffering. By imposing their experience of suffering and their hope for resurrection onto Jesus, perhaps the Philippians were able to “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling.”

In a culture that seems hell-bent on avoiding suffering at all costs, is it possible for the church to proclaim a vision in which suffering, especially for the sake of another, is part of the pilgrim’s journey? Is it possible to proclaim and live into the joy that can accompany both suffering and the redemption from suffering?

Matthew 21:23-32

In this text, Matthew continues to build the tension between the Jerusalem Temple authorities and Jesus. They confront him by demanding to know why he dares to disrupt the temple’s “profit-center” and by what power he heals people who flock to him. Perhaps Jesus knows that whatever answer he gives, it will not be the answer the temple authorities want to hear. So rather than giving a direct answer, Jesus responds with a question about how they view another radical, John the Baptist. Matthew shows us the calculation that goes into their unimpressive response. Then Jesus then tells a parable, which reveals that his authority comes from the kingdom of God and casts judgment on those who have too much at stake in the current system to consider the call to repentance.

Imagine that you are one of the temple authorities. Can you remember when you have had too much at stake to answer a question directly? What or who were trying to protect? In retrospect, were you like Jesus – helping people to see truth more clearly ? Or like the Pharisees – purposefully evasive in service of self- or institution-interested power?

Round one goes to Jesus of Nazareth, Pentecost 15, Proper 21 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 (Track 2: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Psalm 25: 1-8); Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Ding, ding, ding! Round one goes to Jesus of Nazareth.

That’s how we’re tempted to see exchanges between Jesus and the religious champions of his day – as theological boxing matches. In today’s gospel passage, the chief priests and elders throw out a cunning challenge, and Jesus sidesteps the attack and lands a one-two, question-dilemma combination that leaves them stunned. Then while they’re staggering, he backs them against the ropes with a parable and pummels them with an insult to their social standing.

We in the crowd may be going wild, but likely we’ve missed the point as entirely as the scribes and Pharisees did before us. Jesus seldom asks questions, poses parables, or challenges the status quo merely to win arguments or to defend himself from accusations. Rather, he does all these things as an extension of the rest of his work – teaching, healing, and saving.

In fact, it’s just this work that the chief priests are challenging. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” What Jesus has been doing is teaching in the temple; before that, healing; before that, cleansing the temple; before that, accepting cries for saving help – “Hosanna!” – as he entered Jerusalem.

But in answering the chief priests’ challenge with a question of his own, Jesus is doing more than deflecting their attack. He is teaching by exposing the assumptions that lie under the priests’ challenge. He asks them whether the baptism of John was from heaven, or of human origin. The priests and elders aren’t happy with either option – and that’s precisely Jesus’ point.

If John’s teaching or the teaching of Jesus or of the priests themselves were solely and unambiguously a matter of channeling God’s will, everyone would recognize its divine origin. The human teacher would be nothing but a mouthpiece for God, but would become less human for being so. On the other hand, if John or Jesus or the priests were acting only from their own human understanding, their teaching about God would lack any special authority.

By leaving his own question unanswered, Jesus suggests that doing God’s will requires a human being in relationship with the divine. If our work is based on an arrogant claim of our own authority, it can’t long remain true to God’s will. But neither does God require that we minimize our own humanity in order to do God’s work in the world. We are fallible creatures trying to teach and heal and love other fallible creatures, and perhaps our humility in teaching, healing, and loving is a more essential ingredient than our authority ever could be.

Paul writes that Jesus, though infallible and in the form of God, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.”

By taking our form, Jesus also humbled himself by setting aside obvious signs of his divinity and divine authority, and instead doing the slow and hard and uncertain work of teaching and healing as a human among humans. His entire life became a great teaching for us – the example of a person wholly in relationship with God.

Jesus’ obedience, even to death on a cross, also shows that he understood completely the role of God’s authority over us as human beings. When Jesus refused to declare to the chief priests and elders “by what authority I am doing these things,” it was because they were asking him about the wrong sort of authority.

In questioning “by what authority” Jesus did his works, and who gave him “this authority” the priests seemed to be concerned with a human hierarchy, a granting of licenses and diplomas and societal roles. “Show us your credentials,” they seemed to be asking him. Instead, Jesus gave them a parable to suggest that the only credentials needed were the works themselves.

The two sons in the parable contrast the saying versus the doing of God’s will. As even the priests and elders could see, it was the son who went and worked who was doing his father’s will. Despite having been rebellious and lippy and arrogant, he changed his mind and went. In doing so, he demonstrated the only authority that mattered – the authority of the one who gave him the assignment. The newly faithful son didn’t get authority of his own for obeying; all he got was work.

That son went into the fields as a flawed and a humbled person, and did his father’s will. Paul encourages the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” That is, to follow Jesus’ example of complete humility and obedience. Fear and respect for God’s authority, trembling in the recognition that we’re mere humans doing God’s own work.

We can only do God’s own work because it is God who is at work in us, enabling us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God’s authority keeps us on track; our humility in accepting God’s grace keeps us from acting in pride by which we might seek our own authority over others in God’s name.

Doing God’s will doesn’t require status in the church hierarchy, or authority gained from years of study – thanks be to God! All that is required is that we change our minds and believe, and that we then go and work in the vineyard – work as human beings, for God’s good pleasure.

Written by the Rev. G. Cole Gruberth

The Rev. G. Cole Gruberth is priest-in-charge of the Allegany County Episcopal Ministry, a community of four houses of worship and welcome, within the Diocese of Rochester, New York.

Bible Study: Proper 20 (A)

September 18, 2011

Catherine Owens, Episcopal Divinity School 

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When Jonah prayed to God from the belly of the great fish he said, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” But now Jonah has forgotten that lesson. Jonah thinks it is his right to judge the people of Ninevah, and to demand their punishment. Then when God changes his mind about destroying the city, Jonah judges God. God’s question to Jonah — God’s question to all of us — is, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah’s judgment is based on his own concerns. God reminds Jonah that God is the source of all, not Jonah, and God’s love embraces all.

Have you ever thought that someone or some group of people should be punished or should suffer? On what did you base your judgment?

Psalm 145:1-8

The psalm expresses our feelings when we center ourselves on God and on God’s marvelous works. Then, instead of being angry or wanting people to suffer, our hearts singe praise to the Lord who is ‘gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.’

Philippians 1:21-30

Paul invites his audience to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. What does this mean to you?

If you lived in this way, would you base your judgments differently, perhaps on love instead of anger? Do you think your judgments might change?

Matthew 20:1-16

Many of us hear this parable and immediately go for the punch line — the Kingdom of Heaven is where the last will be first. Let’s consider that, as well as being good news for the last, this is also an opportunity for the first. In the parable, those who worked all day must watch those who barely worked at all get paid the same wages as they are to get. Their reaction is to put themselves at the center, to expect more, and to judge the landowner harshly when they don’t get it. They are rebuked for their reaction.

Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is not only where the expected order of things is turned upside down. Perhaps it is also where God challenges us with God’s radical love, and gives us the opportunity to turn away from our tendency to be selfish and judgmental. Instead we can move deeper into our relationship with God as we live a God-centered life of generosity and forgiveness.

If you find yourself in a situation that makes you angry or judgmental this week, might you think of it as an opportunity to live in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ”? What might you do differently as a result? How might that change your relationship with God?

We are created to love and to give, Pentecost 14, Proper 20 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6,37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The scene in today’s reading from Matthew becomes more and more familiar. People are waiting for work. Waiting to be hired. Waiting to earn a day’s wage – which in those days was just enough to feed one’s family.

The issue, then, is one of daily bread. Just like manna in the Exodus narrative. Just as in the prayer Jesus gives us when we ask him how we should pray.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” We say this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Does it ever occur to us just what it is we are praying for and saying? How many of us have experienced living one day to the next?

Consider what it feels like to be hired late in the day. To be hired late in the day and get less than a day’s wage means belt-tightening for the entire family. Not to mention what it does to one’s sense of self-worth to be overlooked or passed by when the hiring is being done.

To not be chosen to work creates anxiety, and the anxiety of going home empty handed becomes more and more intense as each hour passes by. Is laboring through the heat of the day any worse than having one’s hope of a meal for the family fade away as the sun begins to set in the western sky?

Even apart from the need for daily bread, work is an integral part of identity, and those denied the opportunity, whether for disability, age, or any other cause often feel a deep sense of despair and a keen lack of purpose and meaning in life. Work can be stressful, monotonous, and difficult; but to be out of work can be even worse.

The lesson in today’s gospel reading is one of extraordinary generosity and fairness. Everyone got a day’s wage. Everyone could go home and feed his or her family. Just as it was with manna, everyone got enough, no one got too much, nothing was left over.

Jesus is somehow trying to engineer a return to the wilderness sojourn, a return to manna season, a return to utter and radical dependence on God and God’s daily provisions. God makes it clear to Moses that you cannot gather the stuff up and save it for a rainy day. It goes sour on you. It spoils. It begins to crawl with worms. Take it one day at a time and all will be well.

So with Jesus, everyone is given a day’s provision, those who worked all day and those who worked just a few hours. Like any household with children, the cry of those hired early in the day is oh so familiar. “It isn’t fair!” they whine. “We were here first. We deserve more because we did more.”

And we glibly reply to our children, “Life isn’t fair.”

Or is it? What Jesus seems to be getting at is that what is fair and what is just, is established by God, not by our standards of merit. What is being discussed, as usual, is God’s kingdom – life lived under the reign of God – a God who is generous to a fault, a God whose generosity offends us and baffles us.

The temptation is always to believe that somehow those who come to the vineyard first and early are more deserving to stake a higher claim on God’s generosity, love, and forgiveness. The temptation is to believe that we can really earn the right to more than bread that is given daily. An even worse temptation is to think that it is always too late to accept the Master’s invitation to work in God’s vineyard.

The good news is that God’s grace is so great and so surprising that it can provide enough no matter how late in the day it is – on the deathbed, in the jail cell, after repeated failures – because the recipient need not add anything to the grace, but simply receive it in order for it to do its life-sustaining work. Even as the sun sets on this life, it is not too late to accept God’s Amazing Grace.

And it is never too soon for the rest of us to begin to consider that heaven is “enough,” heaven’s daily bread and heaven’s daily wage make all earthly comparisons look meaningless and silly.

We are called to be those people who pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and really make an effort to live that out. To live life in God’s kingdom is a journey to return to manna season.

One suspects this journey begins with being as generous toward God and others as God is with us. After all, there must be some reason that God has created us in God’s own image. As John 3:16 states, ‘God so loved the world that God gave his only son.’ We are created to love and to give. And to be as surprisingly generous with our giving to God and to others as God is with us.

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.

Bible Study: Proper 19 (A)

September 11, 2011

Amy Cornell, General Theological Seminary

“Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’” (Matthew 18:32-33)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Genesis 50:15-21

Joseph talks about forgiving his brothers for the things that they did in order to follow his father’s wishes. How difficult must it have been for Joseph to forgive them when they had personally attacked him?

Romans 14:1-12

Most of us have very strong memories of 9/11. Take some time to share what the day and the aftermath was like. Then read the epistle aloud. How does this teaching of Paul help us address our feelings around the day?

How do you deal with the challenge of turning over judgment to God? Think about times when you have personally judged the actions or beliefs of others. Does it help to turn this over to God?

Matthew 18:21-35

The subject of the readings today is very appropriate for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. During this time of remembering those who were lost in the tragic events of the day, we can take this opportunity to discuss the importance of forgiveness.

Read the gospel aloud. Some of the points that Jesus makes are difficult to hear. What aspect of forgiveness is the most challenging for you to address? Is it the fact that you are expected to show mercy, even when you feel you are right? Is it being able to genuinely forgive “from your heart”? Or is there another aspect that challenges you?

In the gospel reading, both slaves ask for patience and mercy. Is it easier or harder to forgive someone who shows remorse? Talk about how different you might feel about the actions of both the king and the first slave if they had not been asked to forgiveness. Does God still expect us to forgive someone if they do not ask for it?

Christ who promises to be present, Pentecost 12, Proper 18 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

 

Today’s gospel lesson is part of Jesus’ teaching about our life together in community, how it is that we are to live and love within the Christian community, especially when things go wrong. And because we are talking about human beings living in community, we can be fairly sure that things will go wrong.

Our Biblical story is quite realistic when it comes to the ability of human beings to get along. Even two people living in paradise can’t seem to manage it very well. Not only do they sin against God, they also turn on one another, playing the blame game. Once they sin, a gap opens up, not only between Adam and Eve, but also between themselves and God. In their shame, the human beings try to hide themselves with fig leaves from the gaze of their Lord, symbolizing their distance from the God who used to walk with them and talk with them in the garden. The effect of sin makes it hard not only for human beings to look each other in the eye, but also for them to encounter God face to face. And sure enough, as the story of the Old Testament unfolds, God makes fewer and fewer face-to-face appearances. Moses gets to see God, but the after-effects of that face-to-face encounter are too much for the Hebrew people to bear. It just becomes too hard, too painful for humans with our failings and flaws to look on the face of God and live.

But that distance doesn’t keep God away. That’s one of the reasons God came among us, as a flesh-and-blood human, to be with people face to face. Imagine the healing power present in the moment when Jesus looked Peter in the eye and said, “Peter, do you love me?” When he cupped in his hands the face of the woman caught in adultery and said, “Your sins are forgiven you. Go and sin no more.” When he healed the man born blind and the first thing the man saw was the face of Jesus looking at his own with eyes of love. When he appeared, face to face, with the women outside the tomb on that first Easter morning and said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The face-to-face encounters of Christians with Christ were not to end when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. One of Christ’s gifts to us is the gift of community, where we meet our brothers and sisters heart to heart, spirit to spirit, and face to face. Christian community is that place, that way of being, where we know, and are known by, the Love at the center of the community: God, a life-giving, sacrificial, persistent love that calls us to reach beyond ourselves, to realize we are connected, woven together into one body, the family of God. Together, in Christian community we can share grief and joy, sorrow and victory, sadness and celebration. Christian community is a gift.

But it’s a gift we don’t fully accept. Living in community is hard. As that growing sector in our society, the spiritual-but-not-religious folks might put it, “Churches have too many people to deal with; we’d rather just be spiritual on our own.”

But Jesus taught that faith is not a private matter. Spirituality is not something we do individually. Our faith is not something we can go off and enjoy by ourselves all alone, sitting by a stream or walking in the woods. Those things and times of private devotion can feed our faith, but our life in Christ happens when we are gathered together, even just two or three together. That’s when Jesus said he would be with his disciples. Not when they are off alone and feeling holy.

Isn’t it easier sometimes to feel holy when there is no one else around? Life, as Christians, living together in a Christian community is not always easy. We are humans, after all, and while we may have God as our Ground and Guide, the Almighty never-ending source of love, for Whom nothing is impossible, we forget and fail and fall out of love with God and each other.

That’s why Jesus taught and Matthew wrote this eighteenth chapter of the gospel. It’s about how to deal with the fact that we fail. What ought we to do, what would Christ have us do, when someone in the community sins? When someone does something harmful to themselves, harmful to another, something that puts a distance between themselves and God, or between themselves and the community?

The first step is to go to them, face to face. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Jesus’ teaching here is first about reconciliation, restoration of a brother or sister to the community. It is not about pointing out sin for the sake of pointing out sin. It is not about making us feel better or proving a point. It is about regaining a brother or sister. It is about living together as one family.

In some families, the illusion of harmony is more important than anything else. In some families, confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. In some families, the way hurt is dealt with is to pretend nothing happened, sweep it under the rug. In some families, silence is golden. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, and if there’s a problem, keep it to yourself.

Jesus’ instruction for his family is very different. In the Christian household, when your brother sins, you go talk with him in private. And if that doesn’t work, step two is to keep going back, taking other people along the next time, and step three is go back again. Do everything in your power to get your sister back.

If the person does not listen over and over again, then we are not to pretend that nothing has happened. If the person won’t let go of the sin, of what’s causing the harm, of what’s endangering the person or the community, then we are to recognize that one of our members has left the family. We are to notice and lament that our brother or sister is missing from the table. There is distance between us and we should best admit it, rather than pretend not to notice or let that person fester in our midst like an untended wound.

Hard teaching, right? Straight forward enough, but hard to act on, right? Often we prefer a love that is out of focus, filmed in soft light and hazy, not the holy love that takes action and risk and is willing to confront, in love, a brother or sister in Christ. And to confront someone, even in love, is scary.

John Wesley, the great eighteenth-century theologian, realized the risk involved when he used today’s text when members of his parish were gossiping, complaining about one another behind each other’s backs. He said of this first step of going privately to speak directly to someone, to confront him about his behavior, “Do not avoid it so as to ‘shun the cross.’”

Shun the Cross! That’s how hard it might feel to go speak directly, rather than taking the easy way out, using some of our more usual ways of dealing with conflict. You know those ways: Pretend it didn’t happen, try to just let it go. Meanwhile, be awkward around the person. A second strategy is the cold shoulder, avoidance. Don’t say anything to the person, but cross the street to avoid having to meet them. There’s a third strategy, called “revenge.” Never talk about what really happened, but make sure everyone knows somehow that person X is not to be trusted. Don’t talk directly with the person, but let your hurt and anger seep into everything you do and say, poison the air around you, and put more and more distance between you and the person who did wrong.

Distance. That’s the key word here, isn’t it? Community is about togetherness, realizing that we are all connected. Heaven is that place where nothing can come between us and God, between us and God’s love for us. Hell is about distance. In a sermon about today’s gospel reading, the writer Randy Hyde recalls that C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Great Divorce, imagines hell as a vast gray city. It’s a city inhabited only at its outer edges with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle, empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and then fought with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving streets of empty houses behind them. That is how hell got so large, Lewis says. It’s empty at the center and lived in only at the distant fringes because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to wrongs done against one another.

We’re back to that word: “confrontation.” It sounds scary, but it really means bringing people face to face, front to front, to talk and hear about what is going on between them. And this is just what Jesus recommends. It seems to be not only the best way to stop the spread of hell, but also the best way of following Christ. Jesus says our relationships with each other are worth it. And he should know. He went to the cross, to take on our sins, to wrestle them away from us, rather than say they don’t matter. He was willing to die and even come back so that we might be reconciled, so that we can come together face to face. So the least we can do is go, sit face to face, talk, listen, go back some more, bring more faces, more ears, let the person know they are so precious, we’re not letting them go easily.

What about when people refuse to acknowledge their sins, change their ways, come back into the house? What if their continued presence in the family would be harmful? Well, then, says Jesus, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Yes, they should be treated as those who are on the outs, those who are outside the family. And here’s the twist: those are the very people Jesus made a special focus of his ministry. He reached out to them with the message that they could turn away from sin, they could come home. Indeed, Jesus was known as a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

There is risk in meeting each other face to face. We might prefer to hide behind fig leaves or whatever is close at hand, rather than take the risks Jesus did. But the story of Jesus and his teaching shows us there is power and promise in meeting each other face to face, especially when we fall, when we fail, when we stumble or hurt. God, who knows every one of us, our weaknesses, our faults and failings, longs to draw us close to God and one another. Someday, maybe, we will even know the joy of seeing God face to face, without fear or shame. In the meantime, we can turn face to face with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and meet Christ who promises to be present when we meet face to face in his name.

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Written by the Rev. Drs. Amy Richter and Joseph S. Pagano

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano are a husband-and-wife team who serve as rector and associate rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland.

Bible Study: Proper 18 (A)

September 4, 2011

Jadon Hartsuff, General Theological Seminary

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Exodus 12:1-14

Today’s reading is a central scene from the story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from their bondage in Egypt. Last week we heard the beginning of that story – the calling of Moses as the people’s leader. Between then and our reading today Moses and pharaoh (Egypt’s political and religious leader) have been engaged in confrontation and Yahweh (the Hebrew’s God) has sent a series of plagues upon Egypt to try to persuade pharaoh to release the Hebrews without further complication. Pharaoh has refused. The instructions to the Hebrew people related in today’s reading are in preparation for Yahweh’s final act, which will reveal his power over Egypt and set in motion the Hebrew people’s deliverance from pharaoh. Yahweh promises to spare his people from the slaughter that is to ensue if they obey the instructions that we hear today. The blood of their Passover (paschal) lambs will be a sign to Yahweh of their devotion to him.

How do you relate to this story as a Christian?

Whether you read it as history or as holy story, so much of our Christian life revolves around the idea that Jesus became our own paschal lamb. What does it mean to be such a lamb? What choice does such a lamb have in its sacrificial role? What does this mean for your understanding of who Jesus was/is?

How does this story influence the way that you think about the Eucharist?

Psalm 149

This psalm is an exuberant song of praise, beginning with a three-verse introit of praise and leading quickly to the psalm’s climax in verse 4. The NRSV translation of verse 4, which tells us the reason for this hymn, says, “For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory.” This reversal of fate theme echoes the reversal of fate that the Hebrew people in Egypt experienced by way of the Passover, which we have just read in our earlier reading from Exodus 12. While the dark, vengeful verses in the second half of the psalm may be troubling to our modern ears, we must remember that for the ancient Israelites, tribal/nationalistic survival was part and parcel of their religious experience. Their political enemies, who worshiped altogether different gods, were generally considerably more powerful than they were. This psalm consecrates the victories of a poor, humble underdog to the power of divine will.

If God works though us as the body of Christ, what can we do to adorn the poor and humble with victory? What are you doing already? What more could you do?

Romans 13:8-14

Continuing in Exodus just a few chapters past where we left off with the Passover instructions, after the Hebrew people have escaped captivity and are headed to their promised land, they receive – by way of Moses – the ten commandments. While the Jewish people developed an extensive code of laws, these ten were the first – and Jewish tradition recognizes them as the basis for all other commandments. It’s significant then that in today’s lection, Paul, a learned Jew himself, boils the entire law down to one word: LOVE. This echoes Jesus’ command as told in the Gospels (Mark 12:31, Matt. 22:39-40) and reverberates in places throughout the New Testament.

So often we think of love as an uncontrollable emotion that we either feel or we don’t. But what does it mean for love to be a commandment? How is practicing love different if it is an obligation . . . to God?

The text shifts to a reminder that salvation is nearer today than it has ever been before. Christ’s light is with us, and the end of the world as we know it – the eschaton – draws near. Scholars agree that Paul thought that the end would come, quite literally, at any moment. Thus, his admonishment to the nascent Roman church toward love for one another and away from selfish, less honorable pursuits reflected his conviction that the judgment day was eminent. Concern for anything else was futile.

How then, are modern Christians, living almost two thousand years later, to understand Paul’s message? Is loving one another (still) enough? Are you waiting each day for the eschaton? If so, how do you keep your sense of anticipation alive? If not, does Paul’s belief in its eminence affect the way that you hear his message? Either way, can you think of anyone in your life that you “ought” to love more, and how might you do that?

Matthew 18:15-20

Scholars believe Matthew 18 to be a collection of diverse sayings that relate not so much to the historical Jesus but to the post-Resurrection church. It is only in such a setting that instructions of this sort would make sense.

Jesus’ instructions require his followers to be bold and assertive. If someone has wronged you, Jesus calls you neither to acquiesce nor to appeal to authority. Rather, you are to confront the offense head-on, first in private and then, only if absolutely necessary, within the broader circle of the community. This method is respectful of all parties: the offended seeks justice; the offender is given the opportunity to mend the situation quietly, and the community is spared from unnecessary drama. In first century Israel, verbal contracts would have needed to be witnessed by the community in order to be best enforced. But here Jesus affirms that, even if two or three are gathered, heaven is alert to the business being transacted. Thus, the discipline and reconciliation of the congregation can proceed between individuals. Christ is present.

These gospel instructions reveal themes from our earlier readings. The Jewish Passover celebration that continues to this day, inspired by the Exodus event, requires that members of a family who sit together at table be reconciled with one another before bread is broken. Similarly, in our own practice, the gathered congregation corporately confesses its sins, asks for forgiveness, and exchanges the peace before sharing our own Paschal feast – the Eucharist. Doing so is an expression of our Christian love for one another – the fulfillment of our obligations to God, as Paul has affirmed for us in Romans. During our Eucharistic celebration we are reminded of a different sense of time, not the immanence of something yet to come but the experience of all that is happing now – binding past, present, and future into one moment, as the community experiences the love of Christ through the sharing of a holy meal.

Think about the people in your congregation, or family, or maybe even your workplace – people who may have wronged you. Do you think you can be as bold as Jesus seems to call us to be? What are the dangers? What might be the rewards? What if someone came to you with a complaint about something you had done? Could you listen? Could you love? Could you love that person and value their hurt feelings more than you value your need to be right? What would it take for you to hear God’s voice in the other? Plagues? Pestilence? A Paschal Lamb?