Archives for July 2013

Bible Study: 13 Pentecost, Proper 15 (C)

August 18, 2013

Colin Mathewson, Sewanee

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Isaiah 5:1-7

First Isaiah Chapters 1-39 are generally attributed to the mid eighth-century prophet Isaiah, who witnessed a rise in Assyrian aggression toward Syria, Israel and Judah that resulted in military invasions through the end of the century and the downfall of Israel (the northern kingdom). In this text, Isaiah is asserting that Israel’s disobedience will lead to a divine rebuke in the form of the Assyrian army. The words “justice” and “bloodshed,” as well as the words “righteousness” and “cry,” sound similar in Hebrew. See Isaiah 27:2-6 for an intertextual response that anticipates the Lord’s restoration of care for the beloved’s vineyard.

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18

The psalmist’s words immediately call to mind Isaiah’s vineyard imagery, while referring to a current state of desolation. The destruction the prophet promised has occurred, most likely by the hand of the Babylonians in the early sixth century. Now many of Jerusalem’s elite – royal officials, priests, scribes and the wealthy – are in exile and trying to make sense of their new lives in Babylon. They struggle to understand what the purpose was of the Lord’s deliverance of their people from Egyptian slavery and their possession of the promised land if the story would suddenly end in divine abandonment and foreign misery. Their call for restoration includes a plea to return to their homeland as well as a renewed spirit so that they “may never turn away” from the Lord again.

Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2

This is an astonishing, and even horrific, listing of the trials endured by Israel’s judges, kings and prophets, made possible by their faith in God. And “yet all these … did not receive what was promised.” What a breathtaking remark! It recalls the show-stopping ending of Moses’ life on a peak in view of the promised land after all his travails to lead his people home.

Surely our faith and actions wilt in comparison to these saintly figures – so where does that leave us? For the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, it leaves Christians in sore need of Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

The Greek word for “witness” is the origin of the English word “martyr.” Christians’ cloud of saints crowds around us to support our often-feeble attempts to continue along the road before us. The Christian life is a marathon that cannot be sprinted for long, nor even run constantly by most. God calls then to perseverance in walking toward our heavenly home.

Luke 12:49-56

The theme of judgment that ran through the Old Testament reading and psalm for today continues in this gospel passage. Jesus’ tone is hard, determined, angry and sorrowful. Inevitably, we read (as Luke wrote) these lines in light of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and so it appears reasonable to understand Jesus’ “baptism” as that of the Passion. But this self-referential statement does not easily release the wider world from the fire and division to come. Verse 53 alludes to Micah 7:6, in which the prophet upbraids the people for their perversion of justice so that even one’s household is the site of conflict.

How do we interpret the present time? How is Jesus calling each of us, the church, and the world to repentance?

Bible Study: 12 Pentecost, Proper 14 (C)

August 11, 2013

Steven King, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” (Luke 12:35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16Luke 12:32-40

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

In this, the beginning of the book of the prophet Isaiah, we read of the many things that people have been offering to God, such as burnt offerings and animal sacrifices, but we read that this not what God actually desires. Instead, some of the clearest direction that we get in the whole Bible about what God asks of God’s followers comes in verses 15 and 16.

In these verses, we read that God desires for us to make ourselves clean by removing evil from our lives and to do good and serve those in need. This is not breaking news for believers. We have been taught and we believe that this is our ultimate call – to love God and love our neighbor. And yet, we can struggle with comprehending that God would love us unconditionally and we stumble in seeing the image of God in our neighbors. But this remains our ultimate call and one of the deepest truths our faith. You are loved by God unconditionally and perfectly, and because of that, you are called to share that love with all of God’s children. This is what God desires and asks of God’s servants.

Consider and identify those things that may be keeping you from a deeper love of God and neighbor.

What helps you to connect with this love more fully and then to share it with others?

Psalm 50: 1-8, 23-24

The beginning of this portion of Psalm 50 reveals both God’s mighty power and constant presence with us: “The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.” We read here that God summons the earth – what awesome power! – and also that God is present constantly from the sun’s rising to its setting.

God’s presence is not just in the sunrise and sunset but it is also with us, individually. God rules the earth with omnipotence and, at the very same time, deeply cares for and loves each small creature that God has made. This idea is one that can be hard to fathom or believe. Why would God love each of us, individually and unconditionally? What have we done to deserve that? The answer, of course, is nothing. And further, there is nothing that can take that love away because nothing is stronger than God’s strength and power.

How is the power and awesomeness of God revealed to you in your life?

Consider where you see God’s love revealed both in the large things in life and in the details. God is in all and loves all.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

This passage from the letter to the Hebrews opens with one of the most famous and beautiful verses in scripture. This definition, if you will, of faith is a profound one: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

It sounds very lovely and, for many, remains one of the favorite pieces of scripture. Not only is it beautiful and lovely and a favorite, it is also a deep call to a belief in something that we cannot see, only hope for.

This is a demanding and difficult call. Those things that are tangible and directly in front of us are much easier to have faith in. But as we continue to read this passage, we come to understand why this demanding and difficult call is also one that is profoundly rooted in a God who loves us and will provide for us. We read that it was by faith that the world was created. It was by faith that Abraham trusted God to guide him when he did not know where God would lead him. It was by faith that Abraham arrived in the land of promise, and it was by faith that that which was previously impossible for Abraham and Sarah became possible.

It is by our faith that we know God’s deep faithfulness to us. In our trust, even in the things that we cannot see, including and especially God, we come to see and know God’s loving mercy and profound power to do those things that we can neither ask nor imagine. It is for us to trust and believe.

Each of us sees and feels God in different ways or places. For some it is in nature or art or exercise or relationships. Where do you most readily see and feel God in your life?

Consider how your faithfulness in God has helped to reveal the deep faithfulness of God in your life.

Luke 12: 32-40

This passage from the Gospel According to Luke does not contain a parable or story as we might expect from a gospel lesson. Instead, this passage gives clear instruction for what we should be doing now in order to prepare for the Messiah’s return.

Ultimately, the lessons here focus us on being ready by preparing our bodies, our hearts and our lives for the Kingdom of God. This calls to mind the image of physical exercise, like running in order to prepare for a race. In maintaining a regular running regimen, we can steadily increase our conditioning and be prepared to run any distance whenever the race may be.

Luke’s message to the reader here calls us to a spiritual exercise regimen. We do not know when God will return, but we believe God will. So, we are called to prepare ourselves – our souls and bodies –for this return so that we may join in the reign of God’s Kingdom.

What would your spiritual exercise regimen look like? Consider adding a portion or all of the Daily Office to your routine. Perhaps you can take on regular scripture reading. And still, for some, there will be other things that will be more of a benefit. The point is that we do these things not for the sake of completing a task. Instead, in bringing our lives more fully into God’s constant presence, we make ourselves ready to serve God as followers more fully formed into God’s image.

Bible Study: 11 Pentecost, Proper 13 (C)

August 4, 2013

Daniel Stroud, Virginia Theological Seminary

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23Psalm 49:1-11Colossians 3:1-11Luke 12:13-21

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

All is vanity, all is vanity. This reading seems similar to an episode of Oprah. Your work is vanity, my work is vanity, everyone’s work is vanity!

Even so, it makes a valid point about our concern for the world. When we labor, we know that our labors, in the end, are not for our own good because we, like all things in this world, will pass away. When we worry, this is vanity, because the world will pass away. When we do not toil, it is also vanity.

It all sounds so existential. But what seems to be happening here looks like it may be a bit of rabbinic hyperbole. Like most teachers and preachers, sometimes the scriptures, ahem, exaggerate a bit to make a point.

In the end, is everything vanity? Is every single act we do in this world only for ourselves? Do we do nothing worthwhile? Of course we do. Of course our actions are important, of course it matters how we live our lives. Of course it matters whether we work and leave things better for the next generation than they were for us.

But the point of this particular reading seems to be that, in the end, while all these things are important and in fact are the most important things we will do during our short time on this spinning rock, that importance pales in comparison to the eschatological, heavenly hope and life that we will lead.

In the end, our worship of God, our praise of God, and our relationship with God are the most important things. And those things manifest themselves in a variety of areas of our lives, all of which are important. But when that last day comes, when we find ourselves raised again into our new life with Christ, when light perpetual shines upon us and we are overwhelmed with the glory of the Lord God Almighty, all we had done prior, all of our previous successes, sins and shortcomings will fade away as insignificant in the face of that overwhelming love. And it will all seem to be vanity.

What details do we get caught up in that are unimportant?

What minutia is distracting us from a life with God?

What small things are interfering with our relationship with God that may be overshadowed by the big things interfering with our relationship with God?

Psalm 49:1-11

In today’s psalm we see that “the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish” and that “we can never ransom ourselves, or deliver to God the price of our life.” This reading has a grim but liberating equality to it. It is a reminder of the ultimate equality of every person; king and beggar alike both molder into dust in the end. And yet, this seemingly hopeless psalm fits with our other readings for the day. This reminder that we are dust easily sets up a premise for a sermon, presenting us with a problem that needs the redemption offered by the readings in both Colossians and Luke. When we are reminded we are going to die, and that rich and poor die alike, fertile ground is plowed for a reminder that not only do we die, but we are also raised in Christ.

Likewise, it reminds us that no matter how many toys we have, we still die, and that our greed is not our goal. While potentially dark and heavy on its own, this reading offers up an existential problem that is met with powerful and affirming solutions in the other readings of the day. Incorporating this psalm gives the preacher a chance to scripturally ground feelings of fear or worry that are redeemed in Christ.

Why are good works not enough to ransom ourselves?

What is the folly of trusting in riches?

What must we do to never see the grave?

Colossians 3:1-11

Today’s reading from Colossians leads with the best of news: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. … When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” It continues on, exhorting and encouraging good behavior, but reminding us that in Christ it does not matter, and that even the death we suffered has enabled us to be clothed in the “new self.”

While we cannot be saved by our own acts, we can be saved by Christ. We invite upon ourselves death if we rely upon our own actions or our own abilities, but Christ, who is all in all, does not worry about our sins and inadequacies; Christ redeems us anyway.

What failings or iniquities can the power of Christ wash away?

What does a new life in Christ look like?

What relation is there between this universal life in Christ (neither Jew nor Greek, etc.) and a life in which we rely on human ability?

Luke 12:13-21

In this reading we hear Jesus rebuking greed and worldliness and giving us an example of bad stewardship. Normally, we would consider a man who had stored enough to fill his silos and storehouses to be a good steward of the resources given to him, having multiplied them like the servants with the talents. The difference is that here, the talents have not been given back to the master in gratitude. This man has saved more than he can use, and yet he shows no gratitude to God for the gifts he has been given. He does not care for the widow, the orphan, the starving, or the helpless. He even speaks only in the first person. “I,” “I,” “I,” “I,” all throughout the parable.

Saving and being prudent with resources is a virtue, but this man has become an idolater, greedily taking more than he needs or can use, failing to use the gifts he had been given. While his grain may have multiplied, is storing it in a silo where he can come back and get it later any different than the servant who buried the talent? This parable warns us against the idolatry of greed, the glorification of excessive wealth. Jesus does not condemn the man for his success, or even for his wealth. He is shown as a negative example because he fails to serve anyone but himself and his own wealth. His greed has caused him to think only of having more for himself, to the detriment of those around him. And in his actions, he has forgotten that most important of financial truths: You can’t take it with you. He who dies with the most toys is still just as dead. And in death, this man will have to stand before God in judgment, with his greed and selfishness on full display.

Stewardship is about more than getting as much as possible. It is about more than stockpiling resources. It is certainly about more than idolizing that which we are greedy for. It is about making sure that we have enough, certainly, but about making sure those around us have enough as well.

What are our idols? For what are we greedy? What is it that we pursue to the detriment of those around us?

What material goods or wants are we putting above God and service?

Are we more worried about the judgment of the world or about the judgment of God?

Bible Study: 10 Pentecost, Proper 12 (C)

July 28, 2013

Josh HoslerVirginia Theological Seminary

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

Hosea 1:2-10

No one could accuse Hosea of “talking the talk” without “walking the walk.” In his work as a prophet, God has him act out his prophecies in ways that strike us as destructive and abusive. He marries a prostitute, Gomer, specifically to explicate the metaphor of Israel whoring herself out to other gods. Gomer gives birth to three children, only the first of whom is specifically said to be Hosea’s. Hosea names Jezreel after the place where Jezebel met her violent end in 2 Kings 10. The second child is named “no compassion,” and the third, “not my people.”

Hosea is demonstrating quite graphically – and unfairly to his poor family! – that God is revoking the promises made to Moses and Abraham. Or is he? Even this book, one of the bleakest of the prophetic books, concludes with a beautiful passage assuring that the people will someday be forgiven.

This is a very difficult passage to read. We might not feel comfortable reading such crudity in church, in front of children, in polite company. But then, who says the church is supposed to be polite company, or that we should be comfortable? That’s a very recent cultural expectation. Hosea does not shy away from using graphic language to describe the break in relationship between God and humankind.

Psalm 85

The Israelites were an audacious people. In their sacred stories and writings, they did not hide their own sin, but neither did they believe that God had given up on them. They interpreted the disasters in their lives as punishment from God, but they never lost sight of their understanding that God loved them and wanted healing and wholeness for them. A promise had been made to them, and the living God does not break promises.

This psalm puts that audacity on full display. God’s fury, while real and terrifying, is short-lived and shall soon give way to mercy and truth; righteousness and peace shall kiss each other. God’s forgiveness is tied directly to the ability of the people to survive. The land, with God’s help, will produce food, and the people will be prosperous.

Are you ever tempted to view the Old Testament as the home of the angry, wrathful God, as opposed to the all-loving, all-forgiving God of the New? Don’t believe it for a second. The God of the Old Testament has no trouble being both. When God is angry, it is because God cares so deeply. The imagery may disturb us, but when we hang in there, we see that it always leads to forgiveness.

Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)

Christians love to argue about what exactly Jesus did on the cross, and what that says about Jesus’ relationship with God. In fact, we’ve been arguing nearly from the beginning. Did God send Jesus to pay a price because we broke some unyielding law? If God is really in charge, couldn’t God just revoke the wages of sin? Was Jesus’ purpose, instead, to serve as an example of how we should live our lives? But if so, how do we deal with our obviously sinful nature? If God and Jesus are one and the same anyway, can we even say that God “sent” Jesus at all? Does baptism save us? If so, aren’t we capable of saving ourselves?

This brief passage from the letter to the Colossians begins to cover these very issues. It asserts the divinity of Christ, it sets out a couple possible takes on the crucifixion, and it proclaims a baptismal theology. Perhaps it can be a comfort to know that these things were mysteries even in the early church. These debates need not divide us. When we wrestle with faith, we show our faithfulness to God – as long as we also love our neighbor.

Luke 11:1-13

Some people think that we have made God in our image, rather than the other way around. This does happen. When we imagine God as capricious, eager to punish, ready to fly off the handle and destroy us, we are indeed fashioning for ourselves a god we can wrap our minds around. This is a god who is like us, like an impatient mother or an irritable father, a parent so wrapped up in ego that the powerless child must suffer for it.

But in the church’s better moments, we remember Jesus’ words and speak of the living God, the one whom we have longed for but who even the better parents among us could never hope to imitate. Is this God merely a form of wish-fulfillment brought on by our childhood insecurities? Or could it be that this longing in us, this desire for a God who loves and cherishes us, points toward a reality we catch only in glimpses?

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we put all our trust in Jesus to guide even our praying. But the familiar words can begin to seem old hat. This week, try praying the Lord’s Prayer, line by line, in your own words, and trust Jesus to guide you.

Bible Study: 9 Pentecost, Proper 11 (C)

July 21, 2013

Sarah Ginolfi, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:40-42)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Amos 8:1-12

Our immediate surroundings are not always the best indicators of the great world around us. Sometimes we, like Amos, can see only that the basket of fruit sitting before us is, well, a basket of fruit. That basket of fruit, however, might be one person’s livelihood. Or it could be the means to ward off another person’s constant hunger. God’s work in the world transcends the boundaries of time and space, but we humans must endure the boundaries of time and space – if only for a little while. Amos’ message of social justice demonstrates that how we treat people ultimately reflects how we treat God. May we constantly ask ourselves: What lies beyond that basket of fruit?

How do you see beyond what is right in front of you?

Psalm 52

This psalm attributed to David condemns an unidentified leader. The speaker attacks the enemy’s language in a way that criticizes the enemy’s entire way of living in the world. The speaker claims further that God will easily uproot and destroy the one who speaks with such wickedness. On the other hand, the psalmist, like the olive tree, remains firmly planted in the ground. This passage reveals a God many of us don’t like to think about. It also reveals some of the harmful ways that we interact with one another. No matter how we spin this psalm, it illustrates a grueling portrait of the struggle of walking with God and each other. It also reveals the struggle of walking against God in the company of those who are attempting to walk with God. Ultimately, every word and phrase matters.

How do words shape what we believe?

How do words identify who we are?

Colossians 1:15-28

Oftentimes, the home in Christ feels contrary to the fast-paced culture in our surroundings. And so we gather together as Christians to celebrate the God we love and to learn more about this home we occupy. At times, the family lodging in Christ can start to feel a little too cramped, a bit too familiar. On some days, we may even wish to leave this dwelling in search of something more comfortable. Paul encourages us, however, to focus on the vastness of the life in Christ and to cherish the great diversity that God represents. Further, the life in Christ compels us to share this lovely dwelling place with those who might not even know that such a place exists. Can you imagine what it would be like to hear of such a place for the first time? How glorious it is to welcome new members to such an infinite home!

How do you dwell in Christ? God? Each other?

What are some ways that you share your life in Christ with others?

Luke 10:38-42

What a joy it is to take a break in the company of friends who love us when traveling! Luke’s gospel account teems with short vignettes of Jesus’ encounters with his neighbors: he heals children and a centurion slave, and feeds a multitude with few ingredients. The account of Mary and Martha portrayed here comes just after the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus attempts to illustrate what a neighbor is. In the account of Mary and Martha, it is all too easy for us to get caught up in judgment labels: Mary, Good Neighbor; Martha, Bad Neighbor. The deeper meaning to this story, however, is the need for us to build spaces in our life where relationships are the No. 1 priority. Our houses may not always look the way we want them to, but even a house worthy of being featured in the latest Better Homes and Gardens does not always create a space where relationships can grow. That space begins within our hearts.

What determines a neighbor?

What is your neighbor ministry?