Archives for February 2013

Bible Study: 5 Lent (C)

March 17, 2013

Steven King, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’” (John 12:7-8)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

Isaiah 43:16-21

After reading this section from the prophet Isaiah, I find myself immediately struck by verse 19. The prophet writes, “I am about to do a new thing … do you not perceive it?”

This is a feeling I am all too familiar with. We trust that God is always re-creating and re-forming the world so that it may be more in the image of God. I know this to be true and certainly believe it, but I still find myself missing the ways God is working in the world and in my life. Our call as Christians, and indeed my call, is to remain in prayer, connected to God. In this, we can see more clearly when – not if – God is making things new.

How can you connect more fully with God’s actions in the world?

What helps you tune into God’s work so that we can participate in and continue this work as God’s followers?

Psalm 126

The language of harvest as a metaphor is one that we are used to seeing in Scripture. There are parables, stories and great teaching moments that all use the harvest to communicate their message. In Psalm 126, I find great comfort once again in this metaphor.

Verse 6 reads, “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” The psalmist’s words about the nature of God and our work help me to remember that when I struggle and when I feel as though I am failing, God promises a harvest of joy for me and for those around me. It is true for all of us as followers of Christ. We may not always see the end that we work toward, but because we trust in God, we know that in the end our dedication to God’s call for our life brings not only joy but also abundant life.

Recall and describe a time or several times when you felt the joy and peace of God.

How can you celebrate and share the joy you have received from following God with others who may not have experienced this?

Philippians 3:4b-14

In the beginning of this reading from the letter to the Philippians, Paul lists all of the reasons he has to be confident and boast in the flesh, in worldly achievements. He was circumcised on the correct day, a strict follower of the law, and even a persecutor of the church. Yet, he is then quick to point out that even with all of these things on his side, he counts them as loss or rubbish or even garbage. He counts them as this because of knowing Christ and knowing that in losing the things of the flesh, he has gained Christ and has come more fully into the life of Christ.

How true this is for our lives, too! There are so many things in this world that give us a sense of pride and confidence. We know how to be successful on this earth. Yet, as Christians, we are called to something more – to a more full life of service to God. In this we gain not worldly ideals and status but we gain Christ and his love.

What gets in the way of your connection to God?

What helps you tune into God’s movement in the world?

John 12:1-8

The contrast between the faithfulness of Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet (most likely foreshadowing his impending death) and the false piety of Judas is stark. Mary uses expensive oil, and a lot of it, to show her dedication and service to Jesus.

Judas, on the other hand, claims that the oil should be sold and the money should be given to the poor. Judas, though, is the one who will betray Jesus and even the author of John makes it clear that Judas’ intentions are not what they seem. Jesus, of course, notices this and returns the attention of the reader and hearer to Mary’s faithful actions to honor and serve him.

Let us remember that, as followers of Christ, we must constantly re-align or re-adjust our lives and wills to that of Christ’s. Our motives and intentions may even be good but it is about more than that. This life as a Christian means that our whole selves, our souls and bodies, are to be given to the will of God.

This call is typically easier said than done. What small steps can you take to begin to further incorporate Christ into your life?

Bible Study: 4 Lent (C)

March 10, 2013

Daniel Stroud, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:31-32)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Joshua 5:9-12

When we think “Joshua,” there’s a good chance we think “conquest” or at least something in that vein. The book is about Israel coming into Canaan and taking the land as their own after the wandering exodus from Egypt. In this rather short pericope, we hit an important turning point in the story. Just before verse 5, Joshua circumcises all of the men. It is upon the fulfilling of this command that God tells Joshua that the disgrace of Egypt has been rolled away.

This step taken toward God’s promise was followed immediately by the passover, which they celebrated on the plains of Jericho. After breaking their fast, they ate unleavened cakes and parched grain, a usual meal for breaking the fast. After a probably short but indeterminate time, the manna ceased as they were able to eat the crops of the land, having arrived in Canaan, their promised land.

This is a major turning point for Israel and is, in some ways, the beginning of the end of their exodus. They have not yet arrived fully into the land God has promised them, but they have begun to eat the fruits of the land, and no longer rely on the manna from heaven for sustenance.

While the themes of conquest and destruction may be uncomfortable for readers in the modern era, the already/not-yet dichotomy of the Israelites’ position is particularly prescient for this particular liturgical season. We know that Christ has redeemed the world, and we know that we have not only been promised eternal life, but that it is done. However, we also know that Christ has not come back to redeem the whole world and draw it unto God, and we know that we still exist in our broken, sinful and very human bodies. This already/not yet as we experience it is primarily eschatological rather than immediate and temporal as it was for the Israelites, but it is no less real.

Where else in the Bible do we see this already/not-yet tension? What other points may be pointing back to this moment?

What aspects of this already/not yet are winding their way through our personal theologies and, for that matter, the personal expression of our faith?

Where is it that we may be being led, but have not yet arrived?

Psalm 32

Psalm 32 seems to be divided into several portions that interact with one another. The first portion consists of verses 1 and 2, where two beatitudes are found. Verses 3-7 emphasize the need for penance and the brokenness that comes from sin and wrongdoing. The remaining portion of the psalm, verses 8-11, praise the Lord and include assurances and instructions from the Lord. This psalm manages to cover a fair amount of territory in the span of 11 verses.

The emphasis during Lent, however, is likely to fall on the middle chunk, where sins are acknowledged and bewailed. It’s important to keep this in context with the rest of the psalm; the four verses that lament sin are bookended and outnumbered by the verses that describe as happy those who are forgiven, and those that remind us to be glad in the Lord, as those who are surrounded by steadfast love. It is also important to note that even in the lament, the cry for penance in verse 7, the psalmist is surrounded by glad cries of deliverance. Even in the midst of sorrow and despair, there is hope to be found in God.

What signs of hope can be found in our introspective repentance this Lent? What shoots of green do we see peaking from the ashes?

What torments fall away as we recognize the steadfast love that surrounds us?

How can we be happy in the forgiveness of our transgressions?

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a beautiful letter full of wonderful language, but it is not always the easiest to follow from chapter to chapter.

Chapter 5 is largely about the promise of our future made possible by our reconciliation to God. This reading is really the central part of an arc that covers what God has done and how it affects us. What Paul is describing here about God’s love and generosity toward us is remarkable. When someone has been wronged, it was required that the person who had transgressed be the person to make amends. The one who had fallen short and wronged a person had to apologize and offer compensation. In the world of politics, the one who caused injury would be required to send an ambassador to make amends to the aggrieved.

However, as God so frequently does, and as Paul so regularly describes, here God upends the expected order of things. It should be on us to make amends to God. It should be our sacrifice that makes it right. It should be that we must pay to make the amends for our sin and shortcomings. Instead, what we see is that God sent an ambassador to us. When the agreement under which we lived required we initiate the approach and reconciliation, God sent an ambassador, and not only an ambassador, but a son, to offer that reconciliation to humanity, to draw us back in to a proper and justified relationship.

What then do we make of the reconciliation offered in Christ? How does that cause us to amend our lives?

Paul tells us that just as Christ was an ambassador for God, now we are ambassadors for Christ. Given that weighty charge, what are we doing in the world to offer that reconciliation to God through Christ?

How are we changed by not only the forgiveness of our debts, but by the initiative of forgiveness coming from the one to whom we are indebted?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The notable issue about this lectionary reading at first glance is the massive gap in the pericope. It appears that Jesus is telling one parable, when really we are getting only the third in a series of parables being told. It seems that what we have been given is a sort of “greatest hit” of the three parables, with the other two winding up on the cutting-room floor. While the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are both fruitful and may bear mentioning, there is more than enough to address in the parable of the Prodigal Son alone.

It is funny, though, how the breaks put in by biblical editors influence us. Why do we know this as the tale of the Prodigal Son? Why do we not know it as the tale of the generous father? What about the tale of the trustworthy son? Jesus certainly never told us it was called the Prodigal Son. Perhaps it is time we begin to approach this from a different angle in order to keep things fresh.

One of the lines that seems to be frequently overlooked is in verse 31: “All that is mine is yours.” If we become more aware of what we have been given already, of all that is offered to us constantly, would that change how we do mission, evangelism or welcome?

Does it take seeing that the grace God extends to those who find their way home to remind us of what we have?

Most importantly, what else can we learn from this parable when we step back and remove the “prodigal” label?

How are we the father who so overwhelmingly generously welcomes back? How are we the son who doesn’t realize what he has? How are we the slaves, serving the one who returns, and celebrating the reunification of the household?

Where is God in this story apart from the timeworn, albeit wonderful welcoming home of the wandering child?

Bible Study: 3 Lent (C)

March 3, 2013

Joe Woodfin, Sewanee

“The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:8-9)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Exodus 3:1-15

I feel comfortable in assuming that no one reading these notes has ever been confronted by God in the physical form of a burning bush. But we do have vocabulary for talking about being “called” by God or following the “leading of the Spirit.” So why do we not see burning bushes as a matter of course?

Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann notes in “The New Interpreters Bible” (Abingdon Press, 1994) that the language at the beginning of this story warns us to “not expect to understand it through our usual categories.” In fact, if we only focus on the physical details, we might miss the point of the theophany: when he takes his sandals off, Moses is symbolizing his becoming a servant of God. The rest of his life would be spent working out what was originally a grudging consent, at best.

If we take some of the other biblical writers seriously, incendiary shrubbery is not a requirement for a life-changing encounter with God. We can meet God in nature, in meditation, and in other people. And if we take this seriously, we ought to be prepared to recognize that potential all around us. If we are not so prepared, a burning bush might not make the difference, no matter how miraculous the flames.

Where is God trying to appear to you in your life?

Are you ready to be called to something completely unexpected? What excuses are you offering for why you can’t respond to God’s call in your life?

Psalm 63:1-8

This psalm is one whose original usage is debated by scholars. Was it a praise psalm, or a royal psalm, or a psalm of thanks? Or all of these? Regardless of its original setting, it is well suited for a variety of circumstances today. The psalmist plays on the ideas of hungering and thirsting for God, which is not a new concept in the tradition, but a concept rich with meaning nonetheless. The soul that seeks God and meditates on God will be filled “as with marrow and fatness.” This conjures images of the eschatological banquet of Isaiah 25: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast…of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”

It is noteworthy that the mouth and lips, which are instruments of eating, play a double role in this metaphor: the same mouth that hungers for God sings God’s praises.

Have you ever experienced a deep hunger for God? Have you ever experienced the contentment of soul that comes from having that hunger filled?

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

St. Paul’s thought progression is sometimes a bit hard to follow. The temptation in considering the passage is to fixate on the amusing depiction of Christ following the Israelites through the wilderness disguised as a rock. But there is more to it than that.

Paul begins this segment of the letter to a mostly gentile audience by calling the Israelites “our ancestors,” which places the church squarely in the line of salvation history of which the exodus was an integral part. He begins with a characterization of their wilderness journey that sounds quite sacramental, but quickly turns to a discussion of their failings, which led to rather severe consequences. It’s hard to see how that big a rhetorical jump can be made in so few phrases, until one remembers one of the motivations for writing the very letter in which this passage is included: the proliferation of immorality in some part of the Corinthian church.

A reading of this text that sees it as smugly supercessionist is possible, and might be justified. However, it might also be considered that Paul is contending that Christ was with Israel on their journey, which is a moving thought. His point then, would not be to denigrate Israel, but to demonstrate a parallel between some in Israel and some in the church. Spiritual food and drink are not sufficient inoculation against immoral behavior – among Israel or the church. The good news, however, is that God is committed to providing an escape route (an exodus, if you like) from the temptation to such behavior. How have you experienced Christ following you on your journey?

Have you experienced a way of escape while in a difficult situation? Can you think of a situation where you did not see any escape route?

Luke 13:1-9

Why do bad things happen to good people? If there is one question that defies a simple theological answer, this is it. But it is a question that needs addressing, especially since it is often cited as the reason why belief in God doesn’t compute.

The answers are multivalent even within biblical documents. The Book of Proverbs, several psalms, and Deuteronomy lean toward a causative relationship: do good and good will follow, do bad and bad will follow. Ecclesiastes suggests that it doesn’t matter anyway, since we’ll all die sooner or later. And Job leads the fight to debunk the idea that people bring the evil things that happen upon themselves.

Luke has Jesus falling squarely in this latter camp. The answers are not simple, but Jesus is clear that calamities, whether human or natural, are not simply the result of bad decisions on the part of those who are afflicted. Jesus doesn’t explain the vicissitudes of life, but he does go one step further: “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” These are not comfortable words.

In all of Luke, temporal prosperity does not equal divine favor. Luke is the gospel that brings us such statements as “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” In Luke’s theology, disposition toward God is what counts, not whatever good or ill might befall someone. If we understand our place in relation to God’s call, we will bear the fruit of repentance.

What does it mean to repent in the context of your life?

What resonates with you in the parable of the fig tree? Are you feeling fruitful at this time in your life?

Bible Study: 2 Lent (C)

February 24, 2013

Anne Thatcher, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Jesus said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox [Herod] for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”’” (Luke 13:32)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Genesis 15:1-18

What was Abram thinking when God responded? I imagine it might have gone something like this:

“Why are you telling me not to be afraid? Your warning only makes me more afraid. You are my protector? Where have you been? Great reward? Yeah right, you haven’t even given me children. For crying out loud, why would I want a great reward when all I have wanted all this time is a family? Do you really understand how much agony and embarrassment this has caused us? I’ve had to ask a slave to be my heir. Now suddenly you are promising not only that I will have children but also that my descendants will outnumber the stars in the sky. What just happened here?”

Sometimes we can ask and yearn for something for a very long time. But when God moves, it is beyond what we even dreamed of. We find ourselves at the intersection of both fear and excitement. Abram’s strong personal relationship with God is shown in this passage, his faith and commitment over time has born fruit as evidenced in God’s promise, an unconditional promise with no strings attached.

What is something your life that you have been praying about for a long time without an answer? Have you given up hope?

Psalm 27

The sheer joy and victory overflowing from this psalm is infectious. It makes me think of fans of a winning team (such as Super Bowl champions). There is a pride in knowing that you were right all along and that your trust in the team has been justified through their performance.

Nothing feels better than to have our choices validated, especially if they are choices that cannot be backed up with hard data. “I just feel it in my gut.” “I’m going on faith.” We still say these things because we are human. At times we are rational, backing up our statements with reason, but other times we follow our spirit as it guides us to make a decision based on something much deeper. Faith.

And when God makes good on a promise, we sing praises, victorious praises, so that everyone around us can hear. Because our faith is justified we recommit ourselves “teach me your way, O Lord.”

What in your life has you singing praises aloud? A sports victory? A raise? Your child’s report card or performance? Take time to reflect on God’s movement in your life.

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Paul addresses the Philippians community as family, a new family in Christ. He calls for everyone to join him in imitating Christ, both as individuals and as a community, for it does no good to follow these guidelines by oneself. As Christians, we are called to be in community and to support one another. To live a life in imitating Christ is difficult, and it is best done with the company of each other.

Paul is challenging the Philippians to hold each other accountable to a higher moral standard than traditional Greco-Roman customs at that time. This call continues in our lives today; Roman’s 12:2 reminds us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Are you currently connected to a Christian community, a church, school, camp or other organization? Do your friends and family know that you are seeking a life lived in Christ? If we hide this journey, we deny ourselves and others the opportunities to challenge us and help us grow in our faith.

Luke 13:31-35

The Pharisees get such a bad rap in the gospels. But we must remember that not all Pharisees were terrible; some were more extreme in their reactions to Jesus than others. Just as today within any religion, sect or denomination there are believers who are extreme enforcers of the law and believers who are more moderate.

Here, they are actually warning Jesus, something that we don’t see much of in the gospels. But Jesus reminds them that it is his destiny to suffer and die, for he is fulfilling his role as a prophet. He tells them that he will die in Jerusalem and that it is Jerusalem that will kill him.

Then he predicts his resurrection in verse 35. How is it that Jesus repeats this over and over again in the gospels and people still could not see, hear or understand the message?

Jesus becomes human; suffering, dying for us, resurrected and now sitting at the right hand of God. Gods don’t become human, and humans don’t become gods. At least, that is what myths and stories in traditions around the world will demonstrate. Even today it is an earth-shattering revelation.

If someone asked you to explain how Jesus dying on the cross is relevant to the world today, what would you say?