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?

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?

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?

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?