Archives for 2011

Bible Study: 4 Advent (B)

December 18, 2011

Carol Morehead, Seminary of the Southwest

“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:38)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

In today’s Old Testament reading, we find David trying to take care of God. In response, God firmly reminds David that, in fact, it is God who is in charge, who will make a house for David. So often we, like David, allow our own anxiety to propel us into action. We fail to recognize God’s abundant care in our lives. Rather than slowing down to listen to God, we race to control our lives: our churches, our families, our bank accounts. We often squander so much energy taking care of the details of our lives that there is no room left for God. We don’t actually turn to God, rely on God. Yet God tells David, and with him all of Israel, that God is ever with him, every moment of every day. So for David to want to build a house of cedar for God’s presence is to fundamentally misunderstand who God is and how God works in the world and in human lives. We don’t take care of God; God takes care of us.

What are you anxious about that God may be waiting to provide for you this Advent?

Canticle 3 / Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-55) The Song of Mary Magnificat

This is a familiar song, yet I am struck each time I come to it by the depth of the transformation it presents. Mary’s words here are part of a broader conversation. Just prior to this, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth honors Mary as the mother of God. Mary, though, turns the praise back toward God, honoring the way God uses the lowly and insignificant, the poor and unimportant, who will receive the deliverance of God. The rich and powerful, though, will reject it and walk away empty. God’s mercy transforms lives, turns things upside down, liberates us so that we can see with new eyes the changes that God brings into the world.

In what aspects of your life do you feel lowly and poor?

In what ways might God be using these to transform and liberate you?

Romans 16:25-27

Romans ends as it began: in praise of God, whose story is given through the prophets and revealed in Jesus Christ so that believers can be faithfully obedient. In these closing verses of chapter 16 (which is one long sentence), the author is giving a doxology – a saying about God’s glory. In it we find again that God works throughout the ages to be revealed. What was once mystery has been revealed: Jesus’ coming is how God’s glory is disclosed. God breaks into history for all humanity – Jew and Gentile. And as we approach the culmination of Advent, this passage points us to anticipate the ways in which God’s glory is revealed – in our lives, in our churches, in our world, in all history.

What does Jesus’ coming disclose about God?

How is God’s glory shown in lives today?

Luke 1:26-38

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:37-38).

We live in a modern world, based on scientific hypotheses and observations. Even the most unscientifically minded of us is a product of the scientific revolution. So we come to this passage full of questions, seeking explanations, demanding that things make sense. Yet this is a story of faith. Gabriel, here for the second time in this first chapter of Luke, gives a birth announcement, much like that of Samson or John the Baptist. Only this birth is special, miraculous. Mary is confused at first, but Gabriel’s words reassure her: with God nothing is impossible. By accepting God’s initiation, Mary becomes part of the in-breaking of God into the world through the incarnation in Jesus. Mary accepts the unexplainable and offers herself to God’s service.

What are the unexplainable things in your world today about which you seek answers from God?

In what way may God be calling you to bring to birth some part of God’s kingdom?

Bible Study: 3 Advent (B)

December 11, 2011

Rae Hadley; Episcopal Theology School, Claremont, Calif.

“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’” (John 1:23)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Isaiah is the first book of the Latter Prophets, which are mostly made up of prophecies written in a poetic style. Isaiah is closely linked with the books of Kings, which together address the destiny of Jerusalem. The books of Kings end with the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, and the resulting exile of her people. Isaiah picks up the story and speaks to the destiny of Jerusalem into the ravages of its exile and through the promise of future redemption. The first part of Isaiah speaks to the destruction of Jerusalem, the second part anticipates Jerusalem’s restoration, and the third part deals with the shaping of the Jerusalem to come. Isaiah 61 speaks to hope, the promise of a better future, and anticipation of a “new age” when YHWH’s rule is fully established. Jesus, read some of the prophecy of Isaiah 61 while in the synagogue, in Luke 4:18-19, then declared that this scripture had been fulfilled in the hearing of those present. Isaiah demonstrated that YHWH is the God of all, who both judged and punished Jerusalem, and in turn restored her to a new age of prosperity.

Advent is a time that we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ, as Jerusalem anticipated the coming of the end of her exile and the return of her people to prosperity. As you reflect on your life, what does the anticipation of the coming of Christ during this season draw you to long for?

What do you see in your life and community of faith that you could help with to make our world reflect a little more of the promise of a new age? What is one thing you can do for your family, community or church to encourage justice?

Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is a Song of Ascents, which is a collection of songs sung by pilgrims as they made their way into Jerusalem or into the Temple precincts. This particular song begins as thanksgiving from those who are no longer captive, and moves into a community prayer for all those still exiled to return from Babylon, and for the restoration of Israel. Exile can take many forms. Time, distance, an old argument, differing values can all drive us away from others and press us to drive others from us.

When have you experienced the being exiled? Whom have you exiled from your life? In what way?

When have you had the experience of going through a time of great difficulty? How did your faith support you through that hardship?

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

First Thessalonians is accepted as being Paul’s first pastoral letter, written to provide encouragement and guidance. Paul had and expressed in this letter, fond parental affection and pastoral concern for the converts in this city, who had suffered persecution but remained strong in their faith. Remember that the apostles believed that Jesus would come again in their lifetimes. This belief caused some anxiety regarding those Christians who died before the expected return of Christ, and Paul’s teachings about the coming of the Lord and salvation for all believers, both living and dead, have been very influential in development of Christian hope. The last chapter of the letter addresses practicalities of living in a Christian community—the good, the bad, the joyous, and conflicted. We see these aspects of community in our daily lives at home, in school, at work, in social organizations, and in our churches.

What do you struggle with about faith? What causes you to doubt?

What is helpful to you during those times, and how can you share that with someone else who may be struggling?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

These sections of John talk about John the Baptist as a prophet, sent to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. People didn’t understand who John was, and suspected that he might be the prophet Elijah, who the Jews believed would return to earth before the Messiah came. Some even suspected that John was the Messiah. John knew that his role was to prepare the way for the coming of Christ, and clearly denied being Elijah or the Messiah. The religious authorities questioning John were not interested in actually getting information from him, but wanted to discredit him. This same sort of tactic would be used to try to trip-up Jesus as well. John was not deceived by their questioning and remained clear about who he was and was not, and what his purpose was.

How do these passages speak to you and your own role in your community of faith?

Who are the “Pharisees” in your life? How do they challenge your faith?

Bible Study: 2 Advent (B) – 2011

December 4, 2011

Kerlin Richter, General Theological Seminary

“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Isaiah 40:1-11

The chapel of the Good Shepherd here at General Theological Seminary has a really sweet-looking Jesus with a lamb in his arms behind the altar. He is gazing into its little lamby face with gentle love. On the outside of the chapel, however, is another image of Jesus the Good Shepherd; in that one he is down on his knees pulling a lamb out of thorns. As much as I want to be that lamb safely in the arms of Jesus, I have felt so much more often like the lamb in the thorns. The good news of Isaiah that John the Baptist gets to “shout from the mountains” is that Jesus is coming and will get down on his knees and reach into the thorny places and pull us out.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10).

Do you think that having mercy and being right are somehow at odds with each other?

Is it “realistic” to offer mercy?

What kind of world has mercy as an equal value with justice?

2 Peter 3:8-15a

“Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

When my son was a very small baby, people would tell us “Oh, savor these times, they go so quickly,” and I would scream silently in my head while trying really hard to look like a good mom. Because the days would drag by, and sometimes an afternoon could last a lifetime. Now my son is seven and I am starting to understand. Not just with my intellect, which can easily grasp that children are precious and their development can be astoundingly fast, but to really get it in my bones that these days will never come again. That his whole life up until now fits in one hand of my memory.

This is how life is with God. Our little grain-of-sand lives are infinitely precious to the one who spoke time into being. …. Beloved, do not forget this.

Mark 1:1-8

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:2-3).

Advent is a time of good tidings, but sometimes what God considers good news and what we consider good news can seem very different. The good news of God will change us and challenge us, and we are called to join in with the work of lifting our voices.

Where in the world most needs to hear “good tidings”?

What is holding you back from lifting your voice with strength?

Are we ready to hear that God is coming? Are we able to imagine an in-breaking of love that can transform the world?

I think sometimes we look forward to Christmas as a time when everything will be warm and safe, but the incarnation is as wild and terrifying as our locust-eating friend John the Baptist.

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.

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.