Archives for October 2011

Bible Study: Proper 26 (A)

October 30, 2011

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Joshua 3:7-17

Throughout the Book of Joshua, we see parallels and allusions to Moses. For example, Moses sent spies to scout out the land beyond the Jordan, Joshua sent spies to scout out Jericho. Moses leads the Israelites through the Reed Sea; Joshua takes them across the Jordan. Just as Moses directed the Hebrews to hold a Passover meal before leaving Egypt, Joshua and the Israelites celebrate the Passover in the land of Canaan. Above all, however, Joshua is portrayed as an ideal leader, without flaw or hesitation. In fact, the entire Book of Joshua presents an idealized version of leadership and of the nation itself – what Israel wanted to believe it could be when truly and faithfully living the will of God. Our text today portrays a significant moment in the nation’s history – the crossing of the people into the land of Canaan. While written several centuries after the settlement of the people in the hill country, the Book of Joshua served to remind Israel that the land, and their presence there were gifts of God, and that remaining in that special place was contingent on their obedience to God’s law.

As we reflect on our own lives and the life of our church today, what might we call to mind as an example of God’s “exalting” us as God did Joshua and the Israelites? Where has God so generously gifted us?

Just as the Lord called upon Joshua and the Israelites to keep the Mosaic Law as the condition for their continued inhabitance of the land, what is God asking God’s people to do in our contemporary circumstances?

What are we doing and what might we still need to do as signs of our fidelity to God’s will?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

Scholars think that this psalm was most likely written in Israel’s post-exilic period (i.e., after the disastrous Babylonian invasion and exile). The references to gathering from the four directions those who are scattered suggest such a date. The psalmist uses the image of the hungry and thirsty wandering in the desert to underscore God’s redeeming power. While we may not be wandering the deserts of the Middle East as our ancestors in faith were, so many of us continue to wander our interior deserts crying out for God’s help. Like the Israelites, we all carry a sense of loss, sadness and emptiness in our hearts, and like them we often dwell in this deserted place for some time before we turn to God for help, “crying to the Lord in their trouble,” and allow God to deliver us from our distress. It was the 1990’s pop icon Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the group Nirvana, who noted in his diary, shortly before his suicide, that no amount of money, or drugs, or fame could fill the void he felt inside himself. What was he longing for? Most us will also spend some time in our lives in that “desert waste,” as the psalmist says, before we realize that only God can lead us by a straight way to an inhabited town.

Which words or phrases from this psalm selection especially resonate with you and why?

How do you relate to the psalmist’s emotions and longing so beautifully expressed in this text?

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Throughout Paul’s career as a preacher, money was always an issue! Because of the complex dynamics of patron/client relationships characteristic of this era in the Mediterranean world, Paul generally did not accept money for his personal livelihood from the congregations to whom he was currently preaching. Rather, he worked as a tentmaker, a versatile trade that permitted him to stitch everything from ship’s sails to awnings. He reminds his Thessalonian audience that he and his companions asked nothing of his flock financially speaking. More importantly, however, Paul recognizes that the conduct of children reflects the instruction their father has given. The literal sense of the Greek here reminds the Thessalonians to “walk worthily.” This is a very Semitic statement, for it relies heavily on the Israelite sense of halaka, our walking/living in the correct way. It is for this reason the Thessalonians are admonished. Paul wants his spiritual children to be both prepared and worthy to enjoy the glory of God’s reign when it is made manifest on earth, an event which both Paul and his audience believed was to occur within their lifetime. Today’s text concludes with Paul offering a thanksgiving because the Thessalonians have accepted his preaching and have committed their whole selves to the gospel of God. For Paul’s audience at Thessalonica, hearing the message did not remain merely a matter of the intellect, but led to total personal transformation.

Paul was clearly concerned with correct “walking” (living) as he was correct thinking. What are the primary characteristics of “walking worthily” in our contemporary Christian context?

What must we do to allow the words of the gospel transform us? What might be characteristic of our experience of God’s word at work in us?

Matthew 23:1-12

In this episode Jesus pounds on one of his favorite targets for ridicule: those who think of themselves as pious and holy, those who make a show of acting pious and holy, and those who condemn others for not being, in their view, pious and holy enough. Jesus’ criticism of Pharisees and Scribes would widely be seen as ridiculous, because it was these two groups who dedicated much time and energy to the most noble and worthy of professions – the study of God’s law. It is easy to see why Jesus made enemies in the religious establishment! Even today it will raise hackles to suggest to people who already think of themselves as religious and pious that God might want something else of them. But this is what Jesus did, and continues to do. This Gospel text can be taken as a call to self-examination, for us both personally and as a church.

What might Jesus have to say to modern day “scribes” and “Pharisees”?

What “heavy burdens” do we place upon one another in the name of religion?

What elements of our piety and religious thinking today need to be challenged?

Bible Study: Proper 25 (A)

October 23, 2011

Kyle Oliver, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

If we’ve come to love Moses, flawed as he may be, over the course of the four books in which he figures prominently, it’s no surprise that this tableau is bittersweet for us as well as for Israel. It’s tempting to shout out to the page, if not to God, about the leader’s treatment at the LORD’s hands. And our feelings are merely stoked if we go back and read the mystifying story in which Moses receives his sentence (Numbers 20:1-13). But this passage is not without internal reflection on the matter. The writer wants us to notice that Moses – who, after all, did those “signs and wonders,” “mighty deeds,” and “terrifying displays of power” according to God’s own instruction, help, and encouragement – is obedient to the last. He even dies “at the LORD’s command.” If Moses’s “unimpaired sight” was impressed by this mountaintop panorama, we may still assume that the view was as nothing compared with the privilege of knowing God “face to face.” Perhaps this story is a reminder that our ultimate rest is not in an earthly or even heavenly Promised Land but in God’s very self.

Describe a “panorama moment” in your own life.

What leaders have laid their hands on you (verse 9), figuratively or literally, and to what effect?

For whom have you wept in the wilderness? What did the experience teach you?

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

On vivid display in this psalm is our human finitude, especially compared to God’s eternal strength and reliability. Particularly lovely and terrifying to me is the idea that God “sweep[s] us away like a dream” (verse 5). I think what the psalmist is trying to capture is that strange contrast between the realness of our immediate experience in dreams and the way that, almost to a one, they somehow fade from our memories like the altogether less important minutiae of our everyday lives. “How can such substantial experiences, and how can our very lives, be like unto dust?” the psalmist asks. Verses 13-17 sound to me like a prayerful poet’s faithful response in the face of such questions.

What images from this psalm resonate especially powerfully for you? Why do you think that is?

How is this psalm an appropriate reflection on our reading from Deuteronomy?

What “handiwork” do you hope God will “prosper” (verse 17) in your own life?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

God is at the center every step of the way in this letter. In the previous chapter, Paul notes that the Thessalonians have been “chosen” by God “because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:4-5). God is “living and true” (1:9), and it is God’s divine activity at work in the world and in the lives of these Christians to which Paul appeals. God gives Paul the “courage” to “declare … the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.” God has “entrusted” Paul with this mission of proclamation, and God will test his heart. Most moving, then, is what follows: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” When we become aware of God’s activity in our lives, when we get caught up in God’s mission in the world, the experience inspires our personal investment. The work we do and the people we serve become “very dear to us” indeed. Thanks be to God.

When has God given you courage for mission?

What happens inside you when God’s work starts to become your own?

Matthew 22:34-46

In these short exchanges, we and the Pharisees encounter Jesus the playful and discerning teacher and interpreter of scripture. The second (verses 41-46) reminds us of other clever maneuvers designed to both make a point and silence his critics (see, for example, the “Question about Paying Taxes” earlier in the chapter). But more profound is the first exchange. When asked about “the greatest” commandment, he gives a safe answer by quoting Deuteronomy (6:4-5). Indeed, this is the answer that the people of Israel were to keep in their hearts, recite to their children, and talk about at all times and in all places (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). But then he says that a second commandment “is like it”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As he says, much “hangs” on these two commandments and their interrelatedness.

In what ways is love of God like love of neighbor? Do we do the second as a form of obedience to the first? Or do we do the second because it is indistinguishable from the first? (See, for example, Matthew 25:31-46.)

Bible Study: Proper 24 (A)

October 16, 2011

Rhian Roberts, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” (Matthew 22:20-21)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Exodus 33:12-23

How can we have an honest, yet reverent, relationship with God?

Kvetching in Yiddish loosely translates as “complaining”; however, there is a positive element. A good kvetch bears one’s soul and it conveys heart-wrenching pain and frustration; but, there is hope. One trusts that the kvetch will be heard and honored.

Moses is in a dire position. The survival of a people depends on Moses’ leadership. With all of his soul and might, he kvetches to God and asks for supernatural intercession and reassurance. Moses might have feared speaking so liberally with God after God’s reaction to the Golden Calf. Instead, the language Moses uses is daring and intimate. But like many other petitions we find in the Bible, Moses still appeals to God’s powerful role in the universe. In other words, Moses acknowledges both God’s imminence and transcendence. Moses seems fully aware that nothing is worth doing without God’s presence, yet God’s presence can also be dangerous (verse 20). This interaction models a relationship that invites us to be direct, needy and honest with God. This interaction shows us the importance of being sincere.

Psalm 99

How does God convict you while showing you mercy?

God has an intimate relationship with Zion and its people. Moreover, it is a saving relationship. In fact, God’s holiness seems inescapably intertwined with creation. God has the ability to manifest in Zion, in people, and in Jesus. God’s direct involvement with creation demonstrates God’s power. God’s imminence testifies to God’s ability to love and to love better than anyone else could express. Sometimes in church, we sing songs about how much we love God, while in reality, our love is very meager. God’s love is infinitely impressive. This is why the psalmist enthusiastically praises God and refers to God’s intervention in Exodus.

But the end of the psalm presents an obstacle. Verse 8 tells us that God is both forgiving and “an avenger of their wrongdoings.” God “loves justice” (verse 4), but this apparently does not dissuade God from working with the unjust. While there is tension, the same tension is found in the cross: how does God hold us accountable while forgiving us?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

How can we be happy for others?

How can we strengthen our bond with fellow believers? How can we encourage and comfort our brothers and sisters?

The Thessalonians are praised for their exemplary faith. They have joy in the midst of their suffering. This testifies to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God is working through Paul’s ministry team and they have inspired some Thessalonians. Now, the Thessalonians are inspiring Paul; and in return, Paul’s exhorts them. There is so much love flowing back and forth. People are genuinely happy for one another’s spiritual advancements. People are invigorated by God’s presence in each others’ lives. Jesus is the source of their deep connection and closeness.

Paul refers to the receivers of the letter as “brothers.” Even though there is persecution, even though families are being severed, the family lingo employed here compensates for these losses. Paul uses language such as “our God.” God does not belong to him. The gospel does not belong to him. It is for Paul to preach. Salvation is for all.

Matthew 22:15-22

How do we use the scriptures to inform our actions?

In this famous passage, Caesar’s image is on a coin, but God’s imprint is on people. This is one way to sum up Jesus’ clever response to the Pharisees who are trying to trick him. Even though they attempt to manipulate Jesus, Jesus shows everyone that he is in control. He confronts the popular Pharisees and then he does a couple interesting things. One, Jesus affirms their Jewish doctrine. Jesus does not theologically disagree with them. The law is a manifestation of God’s goodness, therefore Jesus is never against the law itself. The second interesting move that Jesus makes is that his response goes beyond the Pharisees’ question. Jesus does not give us concrete boundaries as to how to spend our money, but he gives us an important truth, God permeates all aspects of life. What a beautiful freedom and burden it is to be left individually responsible to figure out what it means to give what belongs to God to God. It is up to us to discern the distinction between what is for and of God, and what is not.

Bible Study: Proper 23 (A)

October 9, 2011

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Exodus 32:1-14

We often might find it hard to accept the ambiguity and uncertainty that mature faith requires. Like the ancient Hebrews in the wilderness, we would rather have clarity, certainty, and the confidence that comes in what can be seen. We do not easily surrender to the wisdom of “let go, let God.” Our ancestors in faith gave into their impatience and desire for certainty by fashioning an idol. Our own age has succumbed to the need for certainty, it could be argued, through fundamentalism, the prevalence in many churches of condemnatory rhetoric directed against fellow members, and juridicism (the Latin Rite Catholic Bishop Stephen Blair of Stockton aptly described the juridicist as one who “searches out laws new or old to justify personal positions or ideologies in the Church. Especially they like to focus on liturgical practices. They incline to creating unnecessary hoops for people to jump through).

Aaron served as a weak and dim-witted accomplice in the rebellion of his people – a classic example of a leader who usurps his responsibility by failing to summon the courage to tell people what they don’t want to hear. How often do we encounter this problem in both ecclesiastical and secular life? Interestingly, this passage concludes with Moses averting disaster by an appeal to Yahweh’s noblesse oblige. Fortunately for all (including us!) Yahweh can be persuaded to change Yahweh’s mind!

How easily do you “let go, let God”?

Has your faith arrived at a point where you can live with ambiguity and uncertainty?

What does Aaron’s example (or bad example) in this episode have to teach us?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

Although our psalm’s lectionary text today is abbreviated to include a hymn of praise and a recounting of a sad event in Israel’s history, the broader context of Psalm 106 is one of lament. Written during Israel’s exile in Babylon, this psalm returns to Israel’s past sins, particularly those recounted in Exodus 32. The psalmist compares the sins of the contemporary people with those of a former generation. Clearly, the writer has in mind the mercy that God showed the ancestors.

In our heterogeneous society it is easier to “move forward” and “get over” what has happened in the past. But for homogenous cultures, the travesties of the long past can still carry great pain and meaning. This is the case for the writer of Psalm 106. The request of verse 4, “Remember me, O LORD, with the favor you have for your people, 
and visit me with your saving help” conjures a sadness and hopefulness that can only come through being in touch with deep historical memories, as well as feelings of lament that transcend the individual.

These emotions encompass an entire people. Much can be discovered in reflecting upon the deepest hurts and shame of one’s self and one’s people. Through such a revisiting, failure can be begin to be transformed into an opportunity for wisdom and “saving help.”

Where can we find wisdom in the trials and failings of the ancestors of our faith tradition, both Israelite and Christian?

Do we allow ourselves to occasionally revisit the pain and sadness experienced by previous generations of believers, caused by either their own mistakes or of those who persecuted them? What might we gain from this practice?

Philippians 4:1-9

Paul closes his letter to the Philippians by urging two women of that city’s Jesus group, Evodia and Syntyche, to put aside their quarrels and seek a resolution to their conflict. Although we cannot be sure what the issue was between the two, Paul, in verse 5, urges all involved to exercise “forbearance,” perhaps a better translation of the Greek word epieikesis than the commonly employed “gentleness.” Paul means to say that sometimes one must put aside the demands of strict justice and be merciful and accommodating to others. Scripture scholars John Pilch and Bruce Malina put it this way: “What the exhortation means is: don’t insist on tit for tat in your interaction with others; be ready to yield.”

While prudence requires that difficult circumstances be addressed accordingly and Christian standards be applied, perhaps there is something to be learned from Paul’s dealing with Evodia’s and Syntyche’s dispute. It can be tempting for those of us deeply committed to our faith and involved in the life of the church to feel a need to punish or condemn those whom we feel stand in our way, treat us unjustly, or oppose us. Sadly, these circumstances often evince feelings of anger and/or hatred. It can be easy to argue that justice requires a response to those who hurt us. Paul, however, urges his fellow disciples of Jesus to consider the path of forbearance and, more importantly, that all maintain their commitment to higher goals. This better way offers more than what can be gained from a vigilant sense of “strict justice.” Rather than be consumed by revenge and a desire to even scores, Paul invites us to think rather of “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable.” How challenging yet wise!

Where might we be asked to exercise forbearance vis a vis those we encounter in the church and our lives?

How might the modern believer characterize the “peace of God” described in verse 7?

How might we concretize and describe those wonderful things Paul characterizes in a general way in verse 8?

Matthew 22:1-14

Contextually speaking, Jesus is addressing this parable to the Jerusalem elites who oppose him. Jesus’ first-century audience would have immediately been drawn in by the irony of the story and would have been very familiar with a number of the cultural clues embedded in the parable. For example, those who made light of the invitation (verse 5), one going to his farm, another to his business, are using an indirect but traditional Mediterranean way of signaling their disapproval of the dinner arrangements. Furthermore, it is rare in traditional cultures for people to share table-fellowship across status lines. (Even Paul ran into this issue, see 1 Cor 11:17-34.) The king depicted in this parable defies the expectations of all, for he is willing to invite those no one thinks worthy of such an honor. (Notice verse 10 – both the good and the bad are brought in.) Jesus affirms that many are invited to be a part of the Kingdom of God, even though the invitation might not be taken seriously. God desires to share the banquet. And among the guests will be some unlikely choices, at least from our point of view. Furthermore, remaining at the banquet is not guaranteed. Verses 11-12 illustrate that those who dishonor the king may not remain. Remaining at the Lord’s banquet, then, requires persistence; one cannot simply rest assured on the invitation alone.

What events/circumstances/people in our faith life have tested our willingness to persist as guests at God’s table?

Are their times when we have made light of God’s invitations?

How do we respond to those whom we see as unlikely choices to be among our fellow guests?

Bible Study: Proper 22 (A)

October 2, 2011

Jennifer Landis, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matthew 21:43)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Isaiah 5:1-7

In this reading, we hear the consequences of God’s deep disappointment. Regardless of the goodness of God’s creation and the abundance of God’s provision for God’s people, all this careful work and love has not yielded good fruit. Instead it has brought forth “bad grapes.” God provided and Israel did not hold up their end of the covenant. God’s threats of destruction and wrath are possible for me to understand on a human level, but make me very uncomfortable when it comes to God. However, hearing of God’s heartbreak and disappointment does make me mindful of how what I do impacts not only me and others, but also God’s self. With the gifts I have been given, I am accountable to all to use them justly and rightly.

Psalm 80:7-14

As Psalm 80 responds to the Isaiah passage, one can hear a dialogue going across these two readings. God issues the complaint against Israel in Isaiah. Then, after danger, destruction and hardship, Israel reaches back out to God. The psalmist remembers how God once tended and cared for Israel. This suggests that the tending and restoration of Israel is about more than rebuilding with bricks and mortar, but that it has to do with repairing a strained, or even broken, relationship with God. There is a deep trust in God’s own faithfulness to Israel expressed, which gives voice to the hope that whatever may be broken and lost can only be restored with God’s help and care.

Philippians 3:4b-14

Paul’s account in this reading from Philippians shows how his world was completely turned upside down by Jesus. As much as Paul was transformed, there is a lot of the zeal and passion in Saul the Pharisee that remains in Paul the Apostle. Paul admits that he had utmost confidence in his righteousness and faithfulness as a Pharisee. He lived out those beliefs fiercely. Paul tells of his radical transformation from trusting in his own abilities to be a faithful follower to acknowledging that all his trust and confidence must rest in God alone. His conversion included the understanding that righteousness, grace and faith are all gifts from God. In Philippians we hear of Paul’s passionate faith in Christ Jesus. His story of conversion reveals that while we may be transformed into new life in our faith, we do not necessarily lose those essential parts of ourselves that may be offered up in service to the spreading of the Gospel and following Christ.

Matthew 21:33-46

Who do you imagine you are in this parable? Do you feel like a persecuted messenger? Have you been the persecuting tenant? Do you wonder if you are producing fruits of the kingdom or falling and stumbling all over the cornerstone?

Today’s readings illustrate from a variety of perspectives a desire for and resistance to relationship with God. God’s people throughout the ages, not only in the Bible have rejected God, Christ and God’s other faithful messengers. We hear from Paul in Philippians that this is a risk worth taking for the sake of the Gospel. God’s desire for reaching and reconciling humanity goes so far as to send God’s own Son, God’s self to reach us, even if it means a humiliating death on a cross. Threats of God laying waste to Israel (in Isaiah) and of being broken or crushed by the cornerstone (in Matthew) are unsettling and challenging. Yet the pleas of the psalmist and the radical transformation of Paul give me hope. In the brokenness in our relationships with God and each other, where faith still rests in God, there is hope in restoration and resurrection.