Archives for July 2012

Bible Study: 12 Pentecost, Proper 15 (B) – Aug. 19, 2012

Discussion Leader: Jordan Haynie, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’” (John 6:53)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and Psalm 111 (or Proverbs 9:1-6 and Psalm 34:9-14); Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Proverbs 9:1-6

In this passage, Wisdom builds her house and lays her table for all, and most especially for the simple. In the previous chapter, she has called out for all people to follow her. Indeed, she claims that whoever finds her, also finds the Lord and life. She calls all people to herself, asking them to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Ancient Jewish tradition thought of Wisdom almost as a person; some believed she was God’s first offspring, the one who assisted in Creation, others thought of her as God’s wife. Later Jewish philosophers, such as Philo, called her the Logos. Logos is a Greek word for “Word” or “Reason” that early Christians used to speak of Jesus (“In the beginning was the Word (Logos)” John 1:1.)

In this passage, Wisdom prefigures the all-encompassing welcome of Jesus, who invited prostitutes and tax collectors to join him at table. She invites all who are simple as He invites all who are weary and heavy-laden. God’s invitation is open to all, in both Old and New Testaments. How can you be one of Wisdom’s servant-girls, and invite all to her table?

Psalm 111

Great are the deeds of the Lord! The psalmist praises God for all of God’s marvelous works, for God’s graciousness and compassion. Particularly, the psalmist mentions God’s gift of food “to those who fear him.” We don’t often think of God working this way, because we see so many deserving people go hungry. Clearly, not all who fear God have enough food to eat. But God has also sent redemption to his people, which should make us mindful that God will redeem those who are hungry from those who oppress them; as the Magnificat proclaims, when the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent empty away.

We pray that God’s redemption might be made manifest here on earth as in heaven, but are we prepared for the reversals that will bring to our society? Are we prepared to fulfill our role as God’s hands in the world to make His will a reality, even if it may mean a material loss to ourselves?

Ephesians 5:15-20

The author of Ephesians commends to us the task the psalmist has just done: “Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.” Praise the Lord, he writes, and give thanks to God always, in the name of Christ.

For what are you particularly thankful? If singing is not your forte, how can you best express that thankfulness to God?

How does this idea of thankfulness and praise tie in with God’s abundant welcome as shown in Wisdom’s table? How can you carry that with you at all times, not just when singing?

John 6:51-58

As Wisdom invited all to her table, and as the psalmist declared that God would give food to those who fear him, so Jesus declares that He will give His own body for food for the life of the world. Jesus is the very Bread of Life that nourishes us in times of hardship.

This in no way excuses those of us who have ordinary bread from sharing with our neighbors who have none – far from it! If Jesus gives His own body for our food, we must be generous with what we have and give to others. But Jesus declares that the food that God will give will be greater than mere bread. Christ abides in those who receive Him, and they abide in Him.

Through the Eucharist, we are connected with Christ eternally, and made one with Him. Through the Eucharist, we are assured eternal life. But that life is not meant for us alone. We are charged to cry out, like Wisdom and her servant-girls, to invite everyone in, that all might share in Christ’s living bread, not just in the Eucharist, but in the community of love and shared burdens that is Christ’s Body, the church.

Bible Study: 11 Pentecost, Proper 14 (B) – Aug. 12, 2012

Discussion Leader: Dan Bell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’” (John 6:51)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 and Psalm 130 (or 1 Kings 19:4-8 and Psalm 34:1-8); Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

1 Kings 19:4-8

Elijah is terrified and running for his life in this passage. Jezebel has vowed to take revenge on him for having killed the prophets of Baal, so he is justly afraid and flees into the wilderness. The prophet is clearly overwhelmed by his circumstances and at the end of his rope. He runs away to escape sure and certain death, yet we find him sitting under a tree and crying out for God to bring his life to an end. Elijah doesn’t want to die at the hands of Jezebel, but at the same time he’s not sure that he can go on living. “It is enough … take away my life,” he says to God. Remember, this is the same Elijah who, in just the chapter before this, displays his awesome faith in the Almighty by calling down fire on Mount Carmel and vanquishing the false prophets of Baal. How could he go from such amazing, faith-filled triumph to such pathetic defeat and despair? Perhaps simply for this reason: he may be a prophet, but he remains a man and therefore weak, fearful and inconstant. Indeed, Elijah’s sheer humanity is made obvious by the means procured by an angel to give him the strength to continue on in his journey, a cake and some water. Notice that God didn’t give him any grand exhortations on why he needed to pull himself together and just have more faith. Instead, he sent him the basic necessities of life – food, water and a bit of companionship to keep him going.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been at the end of your rope, without the motivation to continue on? What has kept you going in such circumstances? Do you think that God was with you during those times, and if so, how did God provide for you?

Psalm 34:1-8

This selection from Psalm 34 goes well with the previous reading from 1 Kings. Like Elijah, the psalmist has faced terror and affliction at the hands of his enemies. The difference between the two passages is that, unlike the portion from 1 Kings, in this part of the psalm the one under adversity has been delivered from hardship and so we find him rejoicing in God’s goodness. The psalmist writes that God hears the cries of the faithful and rescues them from all their troubles. Of course, we know that scripture also records times when God does not deliver people who are facing hardships, at least not right away. Elijah’s story shows us this reality, as do various other portions of the Psalter (for example, Ps. 22, the Book of Job, etc.).

How should we respond during such circumstances, when God doesn’t seem to be present or active in life’s struggles? Do we, like Elijah, say that we’ve had enough and give up hope that things will get better? Or do we, like the psalmist here, call out to God and try to taste and see that the Lord is good? Even in the darkness, let us look to God and be radiant

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

The author of Ephesians seems to be asking us to do the impossible when he writes, “be imitators of God” in 5:1. After all, how can we finite and fallen creatures ever presume to try to be like God, who is utterly above and beyond us mortals in every way? Do we dare think that we can be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect (see Matthew 5:48)?

Well, we may not achieve perfect holiness in this world, but this passage from Ephesians gives us some practical hints on how we can begin trying to imitate God. First of all, we’re told to choose truth over falsehood, keeping in mind that relationships that are healthy and holy must be founded on honesty and trust. Second, we’re given permission to be angry, as long as we learn to release our anger in healthy ways, before too much time passes. After this, more instructions follow: do not steal; do honest work and share with the needy; do not speak evil; be kind and forgiving. In all these ways and more, we can truly be like God. As we seek to do so, let us place all our hope in Christ, who has made it possible for us to do the impossible, by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8).

John 6:35, 41-51

Jesus is making some very strong claims in this passage. He promises that anyone who comes to Him shall never be hungry or thirsty. He declares that anyone who has been drawn to Him will be raised on the last day. He asserts that whoever eats of His flesh, the living bread of heaven, will live forever. These are all very striking words and it is no wonder that his fellow Jews, and even the disciples, are scandalized by Jesus’ teaching (see verses 41 and 60f).

Obviously, this text requires a great deal of careful reflection. Salvation looks like bread, which is the Body of Christ broken for us; and wine, which is His Blood shed for us. Through these inestimable gifts, offered to us in the Eucharist, we are made partakers of the divine nature and assured of God’s favor and goodness toward us, now and forever.

An old hymn by Johann Franck, “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,” written in 1649, beautifully captures this great reality of Christ given to us in the Sacrament. Here are some of the hymn’s final lines: “From this supper let me measure, / Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure. / Through the gifts Thou here dost give me / As Thy guest in heaven receive me.”

Bible Study: 10 Pentecost, Proper 13 (B) – Aug. 5, 2012

Discussion Leader: Patrick Collins, General Theological Seminary

“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” (John 6:35)

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a and Psalm 51:1-13 (or Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and Psalm 78:23-29); Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

In this passage, we see the prophet Nathan, being the voice of God, in confronting King David about his behavior. David had abused his authority as the king and had not treated Uriah the Hittite or his wife Bathsheba with justice. This greatly displeased God and God gave hard justice to David by taking from him the child conceived by Bathsheba.

But we discover later that after this first child died, David and Bathsheba conceived another son, named Solomon. Solomon later becomes the next king. So even in God’s justice there is mercy and second chances.

It seems that too often in life we forget to acknowledge that some of the suffering that we endure is caused by our own actions. And at other times we allow ourselves to be caught up in the difficult moments of life and forget to see the joy that can come at a latter time from our suffering.

Have there been times in your personal life or in the life of your faith community when suffering happened that was directly caused by either your decisions and actions or the decisions and actions of the larger community? Were you able to see God’s hand at work in those times of difficulty or was it only later that you were able to see God’s work in the midst of the strife?

Psalm 51:1-13

Our psalm reflects a tone of acknowledging one’s sinfulness and wishing to reestablish a relationship with God. There is no attempt to blame someone else or to pass the buck.

The psalmist clearly believes that (s)he is the one who has wronged God and that God has every right to do what God wills, not what the psalmist wants. The psalmist also freely admits that it is up to God to cleanse or not cleanse. The psalmist can only admit to the sins and desire to be restored to a right and loving relationship with God.

Have there been times in your life when you have wronged another person and have asked for forgiveness? How does it feel to be in the “helpless” position in a relationship?

Ephesians 4:1-16

Paul’s image of the church as a body with different parts is an image that is used to describe how different people have different gifts. We like to think that we have unique gifts and that we can all work together in harmony. But this image depends upon the individual parts all acknowledging that God is in control. This image also insists that our desires are to be secondary to God’s call and God’s plan for us.

But as we have seen with the other readings listed above, we don’t always freely and happily accept God’s control. We also don’t always follow God’s call and plan for us. When these things happen, it is like the body is fighting with itself or even the body is getting sick.

How can we do better at accepting our own place in the body of the church, or in God’s plan for us, even if we aren’t comfortable with that plan or that role? Are there times when our own wrestling with God can throw other parts of the body into discomfort or confusion?

John 6:24-35

Jesus challenges the crowd that is following him to understand that God provides them with the things that they need. He also reminds them that God, not Moses, gave their ancestors manna when they were in the wilderness. At times, it seems that it is very easy to think that a person is doing God’s work, when in fact the person is doing the work with God’s direction and help.

God freely gives us what we need, whether we deserve these things or not. God also provides us these things when we take them for granted or aren’t paying attention to them.

When was the last time that you really saw and appreciated a sunrise or a sunset? How often do we take for granted the multitude of gifts that God gives to us each and every day?

Bible Study: 9 Pentecost, Proper 12 (B) – July 29, 2012

Discussion Leader: Justin Crisp, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’” (John 6:11-12)

2 Samuel 11:1-15 and Psalm 14 (or 2 Kings 4:42-44 and Psalm 145: 10-19); Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

2 Kings 4:42-44

In this passage, we see demonstrated for us two ways of seeing the world and its resources: the logics of scarcity and abundance. The first is illustrated by the servant of the man who has provided food for the group, understandably incredulous at Elisha’s suggestion that 20 loaves and some grain could satiate 100 hungry stomachs. Elisha, however, simply recognizes the gifts that have been given and calls for their just distribution: “Give it to the people and let them eat” (42). And in accordance with God’s faithfulness and Elisha’s prophetic wisdom, there is more than enough.

We today are a paralyzed people, understandably overwhelmed by the weight of terrifyingly complex economic problems. While I don’t mean to suggest that we can simply lift our hands to the sky as bread magically multiplies, I would challenge us to shift from a logic of scarcity – according to which, because there is never enough for everyone, we must protect our treasure to ensure that we and our closest loved ones are safe – to one of abundance and faithfulness. If there never seems to be enough for everyone, we must ask why.

Where have you seen the logics of scarcity and abundance exemplified by the servant and by Elisha evident in our world? How would you propose moving our culture from one attitude to another?

Psalm 145: 10-19

Our psalm speaks of the deep connection between worship and the kingdom, of a fundamental posture of praise that orients all that is toward the God from which all comes: “All your works praise you, O Lord, and your faithful servants bless you” (10). And though the psalmist talks of the “power” and “dominion” of this God, it is evident that this God’s kingdom is characterized by a fundamentally different kind of power than that to which we are usually accustomed. God’s is a dominion without domination that exercises a power the psalmist praises as that which “upholds all those who fall [and] lifts up those who are bowed down” (15).

The sense of creation’s perpetual praise embedded in these prayerful lines should help us see that worship is not just something we do on Sunday morning but, rather, is more fundamentally about that which is most fundamental to us. Praying this psalm should occasion a deep contemplation of our own worship, a re-evaluation of the kingdom(s) to which we actively declare allegiance – for it’s not a matter of if you worship but of what. If we have ears to hear, perhaps we can perceive creation a-hum with praise, the quiet doxology on the heart of every creature.

How would you define or characterize worship? How would you evaluate your life’s worship in light of the rich definition the psalmist presents here? How might we more actively reflect in our liturgies the expanded, political sense of worship depicted by this psalm?

Ephesians 3:14-21

How many times have you heard it said, “Oh, if they would only be more realistic”? It seems to me that our culture increasingly adjudicates everything from truth claims to policy proposals based on how “realistic” they seem to be. But what ought really be the witness of Christians in the public sphere: realism, or a wild and daring hope? What are we to make of the closing doxology of our passage from Ephesians: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever”?

Our theological tradition offers a deep and abiding affirmation of suffering, finitude, and sin – all of which offer a valuable check to a vapid humanism that assumes human history is perpetually on the up. But it also speaks to a God who is always raising us out of those conditions, giving us the good of God’s own life through grace, empowering us to participate in the movement of Christ through history. This is the eschatological tension we must embody as living members of the Body of Christ, maintaining a startling honesty about the human condition while entrusting our wildest and most incredible hopes to the God who refuses to abide by our pitiful definitions of the possible.

Have you ever experienced someone else’s evaluation of what is and is not “realistic” as stifling or disappointing? How do you think we determine what is and is not “realistic,” and do you think we ever set up these definitions in decidedly unrealistic ways? Why do you think our culture values realism more than imagination, and what role do you feel the church plays in this scheme?

John 6:1-21

While growing up, the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 was one of those storybook shock-and-awe confirmations of Christ’s divinity and miracle-making power. Indeed, much ink has been spilt over exactly this question, whether or not the literal multiplication of loaves and fishes is actually what this story depicts. Reading the account given us by the Gospel of John today, however, I am less struck by this debate’s quest to square Jesus up with scientific “reality” and more by what, at first glance, seems like a throw-away clause: “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted” (11). Whatever’s happening in this passage hinges on this, on giving thanks.

What the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates here as “given thanks” is a form of the Greek verb eucharisteó, from which we get a word with which Episcopalians are intimately familiar: “Eucharist.” And it strikes me that this, Jesus giving thanks for gifts given by a young boy, brings to an intersection all our previous topics of discussion. It is a bold declaration of a logic of abundance rooted in a sacred thankfulness for gifts that short-circuit our ordinary conceptions of the possible – and all in a way that invokes for us a sacrament we celebrate week by week in churches around the world. Let us make the Eucharist our new imagination.

For what gifts do you, your family, and/or your congregation give thanks? How might the eschatological feast of the Eucharist offer us a vision of abundance and faithfulness comparable to Jesus feeding the 5,000? How could giving thanks open up impasses – political and otherwise – which stifle and hinder human flourishing?

Bible Study: 8 Pentecost, Proper 11 (B) – July 22, 2012

Discussion Leader: Colin Mathewson, Sewanee

“Jesus said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:31)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Psalm 89:20-37 (or Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Psalm 23); Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Jeremiah 23:1-6

The prophet Jeremiah may have witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in the early sixth century B.C.E. Likely his words were preserved, edited and expanded upon during the exile as a testament to the pain sustained by the people of Judah, an exploration of the reasons behind the tragedy and an offering of hope for a future restoration of the people to their beloved land. For Jews, this “righteous Branch” probably represented a renewed Davidic monarchy that would once more bring peace, stability and productivity to their country – a country that was in a state of political and economic ruins.

Christians can expand the meaning of the “Branch” to include the coming messianic kingship of Christ, but ought to do so in a spirit of respect and gratitude for the largesse of Hebrew sacred texts that have blessed our understanding of what it means to be Christian. An interpretation that expands upon the original intended meaning of the text is not a strictly Christian endeavor; Jewish sects, such as the Essenes and the Qumran community, seem to have been doing much the same thing around the time of Jesus’ life. Still, caution and appreciation are called for in order that Christians might avoid anti-Jewish interpretations of scripture.

Psalm 23

What is it about this psalm that makes us use it time and again at funerals? The Book of Common Prayer offers nine other suggested psalms (pp. 494-495). Certainly tradition plays a role: this is the psalm we might remember from our childhood, or from a favorite movie, so it registers deep within us when heard anew. What emotions does this psalm evoke for you? The words are powerfully comforting, reassuring us that even in the plain face of danger our maker watches over us and protects us.

Focus for a moment on verse 5. At first glance, this image of the table appears disconnected from the previous pastoral and journey motifs. But here is where this psalm can speak to us more clearly in our lives today.

Who troubles us? Why would God invite us into their presence? And what are we to do about this perplexing situation?

We know we are safe – indeed blessed beyond measure. What then is our response to such gifts, particularly given our proximity to the disturbing crew sitting merely on the other side of the table?

Ephesians 2:11-22

A prayer for mission in the Book of Common Prayer builds upon this text (p. 100): “O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near.” How thin is the line between the recognition of our oneness in Christ, and our proclamation of this good news!

Enter into the richness of the text’s imagery: broken dividing walls, strangers into citizens, one body, the household of God, foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ as cornerstone, God’s temple and dwelling place.

What image resonates most with you?

Do you imagine the church in bodily or structural terms? It is easy to get caught up in the physical buildings of our local parishes; reminding ourselves often that the church finds its life in Christ, and its contours in the breathing, pulsing, working and playing bodies of its members. Together we, the people of God, comprise a mystery beyond our comprehension. Thanks be to God!

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

It’s difficult to imagine just how exhausted Jesus must have felt: he hadn’t even time to eat! Jesus’ life had become doggedly public, yet still he found within himself the compassion to teach and heal the lost and the lame.

Would you chase Jesus around the Sea of Galilee?

While the Reformation ushered in importantly fresh perspectives on Christian life and spirituality, perhaps movement leaders’ belief in the straightforward intelligibility of the Bible has led today to the assumption that “getting to know Jesus” isn’t that hard if you try. Just read the Gospels! Well, these inspired accounts tell of crowds traveling dozens of miles on foot to reach a teacher and healer whose true identity could hardly have been known before the resurrection, the ascension or Pentecost. Now we today, gifted by two millennia of theological reflection on the significance of Jesus, can find it easier to take for granted the profundity and power of these insights gained. Try chasing Jesus around a lake once in a while, and be patient: coming to know Christ entails the spiritual trek of a lifetime.