Archives for November 2011

Bible Study: 1 Advent (B) – 2011

November 27, 2011

Grey Maggiano, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’” (Mark 13:35-37)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

Isaiah 64:1-9

This reading is fantastic! Presented here as a song, Isaiah starts proclaiming God’s awesome power and glory, and somewhere in the middle he realizes that in the presence of that glory, we all messed up! “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” We finish this song not proclaiming God’s glory, but rather begging for his grace. What starts out as a song of praise becomes a lament and apology, and we, along with Isaiah, realize how far we have fallen.

As we work our way into Advent, it is tempting for us to see Jesus as we imagine him at his birth: perfect, glorious and beautiful, but also sweet, fragile, and powerless. Isaiah’s prophecy then is critical here because it reminds us that even the most faithful among us falls short in the face of the fullness of God’s glory.

As we approach Advent (and Christmas), are we really willing to let ourselves be God’s clay?

What are the awesome deeds God has done in our lives this year? Are they awesome enough to encourage us to give up a little bit more of ourselves to God?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Psalm 80 is an incredibly rich text, and it echoes many of the messages found in the reading from Isaiah. Let’s focus on verse 3 (repeated in verses 7, 18): “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” This should be our hope and prayer, that the Lord will show us His light, so that we can find salvation. If we are to truly use Advent as a time to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ arrival, we need to consider the prayers offered in this psalm. We can’t be truly ready for Christmas if we haven’t restored our relationship with God.

Before we are ready to welcome Jesus into the world, what needs to be restored within us? Who have we fed with the bread of tears? Which of our neighbors have we derided? Have we been laughing at our enemies?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

In the middle of the lectionary, right where we need it, and when we least expect it, we are given this gift of grace. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us of the strength given to us through our faith, and that this strength will ensure we are blameless on the day of our Lord, which is rapidly approaching. Step back. Breathe. Have faith. God loves you.

Mark 13:24-37

The readings for the First Sunday of Advent are a reminder of the constant cycle of sin and redemption that we, as humans and as believers, are party to. We strive for righteousness, fall short, beg God for assistance, are lifted back up, and then fall down again. It is only through Jesus’ grace that we achieve righteousness. These readings always strike a dissonant chord for me in the liturgical season of Advent; but as our professors remind us in seminary, Dissonance is good! Listen to it!

We close out today’s readings with a meditation on the end times: Sun darkening, no light from the moon, stars falling from the sky, the very powers of heaven shaken. These do not sound like good times. What’s more is that these do not sound like particularly appropriate messages for Christmas! Whose idea was this? Didn’t we get enough penance in Isaiah and today’s psalm? Where is our happy, hopeful, celebratory message to get us ready for the next four weeks?

Well, we should always be a little unsettled about the prospect of Jesus’ return. Just as Jesus’ birth was unsettling in his time; being born to an unmarried couple, far from home, into a politically volatile world that he was destined to destabilize. Perhaps this reading encourages us to consider a new way celebrate Christmas?

Instead of hymns and presents, maybe it should be about considering whether we are ready for Jesus?

Instead of celebrating the birth of the Savior, maybe we should take the opportunity to question whether we are really living up to the life that same Savior has called us to?

Rather than giving thanks for all the wonderful things Jesus has given to our world, perhaps we should take a second look at Mark’s words here and remember that Jesus is the master of his House. It is his world; are we really doing all we need to do to keep it up, so that we are ready for his return?

Bible Study: Christ the King (A)

November 20, 2011

The Rev. Joel O. Atong,  Virginia Theological Seminary

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Ephesians 1:15-23

Paul’s exuberant prayer of thanksgiving for the church in Ephesus is like the joy of a parent who observes a child’s development from one milestone to the next. His joy is that their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ could be seen and testified of in their love for fellow believers. This is the intersection between the vertical and the horizontal relationships. Growth in the Christian life is not seen in the many ecstatic experiences of the spirit but in works of mercy and charity done out of an attitude of love.

How would you practice love in the electronic world would of today where the points of contact are getting limited every day?

Second, Paul prays in anticipation for their continued growth. He prays for their deeper understanding of Christian faith. The spirit of wisdom is necessary to distinguish between good and evil in the world so full of archetypes. The spirit of revelation is important for growth in the knowledge of Christ. This is the kind of knowledge that enlightens the heart and enlivens the hope of our calling in Christ. It is through this calling that we receive the right of sonship and/hence become co-heirs of the heavenly blessings with Christ.

Reflect on your prayer life today. Take a few minutes to write your own prayer for a church that you know but you are not a regular member.

Matthew 25:31-46

St. Matthew’s description of the judgment at the second coming of Jesus reminds me of my first experience at the airport ready for my first ever international flight. Once I got my boarding pass and checked into the waiting room, my friends with whom I had been talking just a few minutes past seemed very near yet very far from me. Even though I could see them right across the glass wall partition made a permanent separation between us. Those waiting to board the domestic flights were completely cut off from us waiting for international flights. To interact with them one had to go through the whole checking in process all over again.

Do you think Matthew’s imagery of the sheep and goats is effective today? If not, how can you describe it in your own context?

That the Son of Man will separate his people like a man separates sheep from goats tells of the similarity in difference that exists in God’s family, the church. Even though the goats and sheep look alike, and share a great deal in their characteristics, they are distinctively different from each other. Like the shepherd who is familiar with his flock and conscious of their unique differences, the Son of Man will separate the righteous from the wicked.

Think of a moment when you performed an act of mercy to the needy. What were your presuppositions, or what was your attitude?

Yet even though the criteria of separation is whether one has done works of mercy and charity to those in great need in the present world or not, Matthew does not so much intend to glorify the deeds for the sake of them. The inner motive in performing such works of mercy is most important for Jesus. For it is not that the people who were thrown into damnation never fed the hungry nor welcomed the stranger in their lifetime. Probably in doing so, they failed to discern the brother/sister in the persons because their attitudes were not right.

Why do you think both groups asked the King the same question? Take a few minutes to discuss the question in verses 39, 44.

Bible Study: Proper 28 (A)

November 13, 2011

Jabriel S. Ballentine, Virginia Theological Seminary

“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Judges 4:1-7

“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

As the people of God, Israel repeatedly turned their backs on God, who saved them and gave them the Law by which to direct their lives. And, turning their backs on Him – doing evil – always landed them in a state of oppression (i.e., laden with heavy burdens). It wasn’t until they made a return to God, through His appointed religious leaders, and submitted to judgment that the Lord vanquished them of the things which oppressed them.

What are those things you see, which unjustly burden our society?

In light of this passage, and in the face of those burdens you’ve listed, how do you feel we (as the people of God) have done evil in the sight of the Lord?

Psalm 123

“We have had more than enough of contempt.”

As did the psalmist, we have had too much of contempt and have every right to be fed up with it. There has been too much scorn from the rich and ridicule from the proud, both of whom scoff at our present dilemma. So, we lift our eyes to our Father in heaven, seeking the mercy that is denied us by the rich and proud.

Do you think the frustrations of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement have anything to do with the scorn and derision of the rich and proud of our society?

If so, to whom should protestors be directing their appeals?

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

“Let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”

In times of darkness, those who lack faith, hope and love submit themselves to drunkenness – seeking to escape reality and indulge their lusts. Yet, people of faith ought endeavor to keep the faith and their hope, refusing to allow the darkness of the times to subdue them. If we are able so to do, we will be able to persevere in love for one another and the other, encouraging all that the night should pass and salvation be revealed in the Glory of His day!

How can you be an agent of day to those surrounded by darkness?

Matthew 25:14-30

“Well done, good and trustworthy slave.”

God has entrusted each of us with various talents and His property, according to our ability, and He expects those talents to be made fruitful and multiplied. When He returns, He will demand an accounting from us, for what we’ve done with what was, and is, His. Will we be found to be good and trustworthy?

Take time to realize and understand your talents.

Have you multiplied them for His glory or have you simply buried them?

Bible Study: Proper 27 (A)

November 6, 2011

Matt Seddon, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

If we want to read this passage as it was originally intended, we have to replace “the LORD” with YHWH, the way of conveying the name of the One the author of this text understood to be Israel’s God, a particular God, “our God” among many Gods. This fierce particularity can be tough to read in our multicultural, multifaith, multireligious world. What do we do with a “jealous God” in a world where we have neighbors serving other gods, neighbors who we do and should love?

We must, therefore, remember that this is the story and cry of a dispossessed people, a people at the time of writing trying to find their place in a hostile world, a people at the time of the final editing dealing with empire and exile. Most of us are no longer dispossessed, we are now often either the powerful or benefiting from the actions of the powerful. We can hear in this text the longing of the dispossessed for the salvation of our God, remember that we too still need to turn to this God for guidance and salvation and perhaps, look to the dispossessed and pray for them, seek our way to bring this message of hope and salvation to them.

Psalm 78:1-7

The great passing on of faith – telling the glorious deeds of God to our children, and their children – with all its ambiguity and complexity, remains one of our most profound callings. I wonder if the context has changed so much. The psalmist wants to be sure Israel can recount the glorious deeds of YHWH, as opposed to all those other Gods, those Ba’als. Today we speak of the glorious deeds of God in the face of an increasingly comfortable society, where salvation takes the form of a level of material prosperity reached by many and unseen in previous eras.

But the wonders and mysteries of God must be remembered, must be retained, must be passed on. Even in this rich world there remain many, a growing many, who do not see the material prosperity, who live a life closer to that of the wandering Israel, who climb atop freight trains bound for El Norte (the North, the US) and pray that God will keep them from falling off in the night. These, our brothers and sisters, need to hear of the glorious deeds of the Lord, of the making of the last first. And the rest of us need to remember that until we are all living in abundance, none of us are saved. How do we connect the “dark sayings” the “parables” of old in a world that is still in need of glorious deeds and wonders and hope?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Ah, Rapture! Paul’s road map to the end of the world! For Episcopalians uncomfortable with a more literal reading of the Bible, they can be reassured that scholarship has demonstrated that Paul is addressing specific questions of the Thessalonian community here regarding some of their members who have died and he is employing fairly standard Jewish apocalyptic imagery. There is no doubt Paul deeply believed what he told his community, but it is not clear that this passage reflects a particular divine revelation. Taking these passages as specific revelations and putting them on a bumper sticker is, in fact, a hermeneutical mistake, even if it does honor the seriousness with which Paul spoke them. It also raises the dangerous possibility of deciding that we are the elect, and that we can indulge in feelings of superiority over those who don’t happen to sit beside us in our particular pews.

I think it is worth looking at this passage in terms of the hope (c.f. 4:13) Paul is giving us. We hear of a God who is Lord of the living and the dead, who will leave no one behind, gather them all together. We should encourage one another, all the world, with these words.

Matthew 25:1-13

I am always amazed in this story by the utter foolishness of the bridesmaids. They seem to have so many opportunities to ensure sufficient oil for their lamps or, failing that, still meet their obligation of celebrating with the bride and groom. As the waiting drags on, they continue to burn their scarce oil. And finally as the alarm is sounded that the bridegroom is “here” (verse 6), they run off, more concerned with their oil/lamp than making it into the party. In other words, it is more than just a bit of poor planning, the story seems to highlight that it is monumental failure to meet their duty even when they had many opportunities to do so.

But we can also be surprised at the bridegroom, who, for Pete’s sake, was so late that people fell asleep. Could he not be more understanding? Could not the wise loan just a little oil, could they not be a little more compassionate?

It is a world of frustrations and foolishness, oil and overreactions. Maybe for we who watch for Jesus keeping awake is to look not only to our selves, but to those around us, to find out who is tired, who is missing oil, to ensure they too have the hope we find in the coming of Christ.