Archives for August 2013

Bible Study: 17 Pentecost, Proper 19 (C)

September 15, 2013

Dorian Del Priore, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 ; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

God is absolutely frustrated. His people are not just simply foolish or prone to making mistakes. No, his people are skillfully evil. They have become corrupt to the point that it may be time to wipe the slate clean. God desires to bring a hot wind to scorch and judge. It is almost as if God is going to roll back all the good that he created. He obviously is not happy about the state of his relationship with his people. You know it is bad news when the mountains and hills are quaking and the birds take flight to get out of Dodge.

God’s judgment seems final. Everything is laid to ruin. What could be left? What grace can be found in this? So much for a loving God.

“Yet I will not make a full end” (v. 27).

I am reminded of the song, “Beautiful Things,” by the group Gungor, in which they sing, “You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust.”

Judgment is a declaration of opinion, but it is not condemnation or abandonment. God’s judgment here allows for engagement with his people, a shift in relationship in order to begin anew. God creates out of dust. God can make new things out of broken and ruined things, much like new growth that arises from the ashes of a forest fire. That new growth is hope birthed from the dirt of our brokenness before God.

How can we recognize when we become spiritually desolate, separated from God?

In what ways are we made into fertile soil by our brokenness?

Do you see hope in your brokenness? How so?

Psalm 14

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Psalm 14 captures this reality perfectly. When corruption and evil have permeated society, all are affected, even those who are innocent, and often times, especially those who are innocent. But ultimately, this psalm is a prayer that points beyond the immediate suffering and offers comfort and assurance. It reminds those who are subject to corruption, those who are oppressed, that they will find refuge in God. Hope is found in the promises of God’s care for his people.

What other passages offer you the assurance of God’s comfort and refuge?

How can you be a prophetic witness (much like prayer in action) of God’s refuge for those who are oppressed?

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Paul had a personal encounter with the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. When people encounter Jesus, their lives become changed. This is true of many in the gospel stories, from disciples to blind beggars, and whatever happened on that road to Damascus left Paul a changed man. It broke him. It broke him open.

Paul was skilled at evil, and he acknowledged that he was a man of violence. He had become a land of desolation, laid out in ruin. But it was from these ashes that Jesus began a new work. When Paul was broken open at his encounter with Jesus, he became fertile soil in which grace could work and love could grow.

What is most telling about this passage in First Timothy is the relationship between Paul and Timothy. Paul is the aged mentor bestowing blessings and grace to his protégé and friend. Paul is sharing his experience of the risen Christ in his own life with Timothy. Paul is breaking himself open to Timothy, sharing how God has been at work within himself. This is a gift of grace flooded with vulnerability. The power of story, personal and intimate story, is unparalleled: It changes lives. The story of God at work in us is the heartbeat of Jesus inviting us to share that story with others. Break open yourself and share the story of God at work in you.

What is your story of encountering the risen Jesus?

How is God at work in you?

Who can you share that story with? Who can you be a mentor to?

Who would you like to have as a mentor?

Whose story would you like to hear?

Luke 15:1-10

It’s easy to be a fan of mercy when we are on the receiving end, but mercy can also challenge us. Our culture and inner desires like to decide or have sway over who is worthy of mercy. We want control in those types of relational dynamics. This leads to cynicism and grumbling, usually characterized by witty, snarky comments. Unfortunately, the church, at times, can become kind of like a country club that checks people at the door with dress requirements and moral qualifications.

However, Jesus models a mercy and welcome that is abundant, flowing freely for all people: male, female, rich, poor, tattooed, seer-suckered and bow-tied, sick, healthy, dirty, rough, wrinkly, all colors, all walks of life. Everyone. But also, mercy, freely given, should be a cause for joy: like the father when he sees his prodigal younger son, throwing decorum to the wind and lavishing his son with mercy and love upon his return. There is joy in the finding and being found, of course, but the joy is rooted in being drawn together into the arc of the eternal life of God. Further, just as the characters in the parables invited their neighbors and friends to celebrate, we are invited by Jesus to celebrate radical, abundant mercy joyfully with him.

There is a Eucharistic sense here that we are invited to come together at the table to celebrate our common bond in the mercy of Jesus broken open for our redemption! Maybe abundant and radical mercy should be like a huge party with an angelic choir as the house band. I am reminded of the gusto and joy on Easter with which we proclaim, “Christ is Risen!”

This passage also suggests, though, that abundant and freely given mercy changes lives. Repentance at its core is a change in direction or amendment of life, much like Paul turning away from his violent and evil life. Pursuing the other, the lost and desolate, with a grace and mercy that is abundant and free can change lives. This mercy cultivates hope and fertile soil in the hearts and souls of those with whom it is shared. And this is not a passive welcome; this is a welcome that pursues and loves deeply. And of course, this brings us back to joy. All of this is grounded in joy from the very mercy that we have received ourselves.

What does it feel like to give mercy freely?

What does it feel like to receive mercy freely?

What does it look like to welcome joyfully, passionately, freely, and abundantly?

What would that church look and feel like?

How have you experienced joy because of the work of God in your life?

Bible Study: 16 Pentecost, Proper 18 (C)

September 8, 2013

Kate Balmforth, Boston College

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) 

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 18:1-11Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17Philemon 1-21Luke 14:25-33

Jeremiah 18:1-11

In this passage, Jeremiah intimates the Creation story in Genesis that tells of God forming humanity from clay. However, instead of being molded lovingly from clay in the Garden of Eden, the people of Israel are in the hands of an angry interventionist God.

This latter image of God might be the more difficult for our generation to relate to. However, I find two very positive features within Jeremiah’s vision.

First, I enjoy humanity’s freedom moving toward partnership with God. This is not the same level of partnership that we come to understand through the gospels of Jesus. Still, humanity as the clay on the potter’s wheel is asked to cooperate with the intentions of God the potter, suggesting that God expects a greater level of human participation in divine creation than God did when Adam was placed in the Garden.

Second, I appreciate the challenge to human complacency. Jeremiah’s message is for a people who have taken their relationship with God for granted. This challenge is ever relevant today.

How are we being called to participate in God’s creation?

In what ways have we begun to take our relationship with God for granted?

Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17

In this beautiful psalm, written as a plea for protection in war, we read of God’s omniscience and creative power. Everything the psalmist is, was and will be is already known to the Lord, and for this reason the psalmist offers gratitude and praise to the Lord.

For passages like this one, I find it can be very transformative to attempt to internalize the words of praise through the art of Lectio Divina. Hold the psalm in your hands while sitting in a comfortable position. Take a moment to calm your mind then begin to read the passage aloud. Reread the psalm two or three times. Between each reading, take a moment to reflect on the words that feel most significant to you. When you have finished the exercise, you may want to offer your own prayers to Lord.

Philemon 1-21

This letter to Philemon is one of the shortest of Paul’s letters. It was written during one of Paul’s imprisonments in the mid 50s. The letter was sent to a convert named Philemon, living in the Asia Minor. A slave named Onesimus had apparently escaped from Philemon to join Paul. Paul is writing to encourage Philemon to accept Onesimus back into Philemon’s household without punishment. The challenge to modern readership is the acceptance of the practice of slavery. The reality of slavery, then and now, is a horrific social problem that we must own, not just as Christians, but as human beings. This letter does provide us with a fine example of early church diplomacy and tact.

Luke 14:25-33

For many, including myself, the standards for Christian discipleship outlined in this passage seem harsh and unattainable. Indeed, the message meant to be conveyed is that Christian discipleship is not easy.

This message is for those of us who sometimes lack follow-through, for the visionaries who sometimes forget to attend to detail, or for the warm hearted who might need to reach for greater inward fortitude.

Christ calls us all to service and wants to know that we are prepared for the difficult work ahead. While the request to hate our parents may be prophetic hyperbole intended to emphasize the need for loyalty, it is clear that we must be willing to make sacrifices. The passage is packed with references to previous lessons from the Gospel of Luke, including the call to give up our possessions (Luke 12:33, 18:22), carry the cross (Luke 9:23-27), break family ties and give up our former sense of identity.

Are you prepared for the work ahead?

What challenges are preventing you from fully living into your call to discipleship?

Bible Study: 15 Pentecost, Proper 17 (C)

September 1, 2013

Chelsea Page-Collonge, Episcopal Divinity School

“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (Luke 14:10)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Jeremiah 2:4-13

This oracle of the prophet Jeremiah, popularized during the Babylonian exile, is situated about 40 years before the king of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and sent the prominent citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.

Jeremiah was portrayed as supporting religious reforms initiated by the holy Judean king Josiah against idolatry. The Hebrew Scriptures frequently conceptualize idolatry as the precursor and reason for political misfortune and suffering; thus Jeremiah is pessimistic about the future of his people in this passage (“I accuse your children’s children,” v. 9). He portrays their transgressions (v. 8) as worse than those of other nations, because nations with false gods at least stay faithful to those gods (v. 10-11), and because those nations have never known a true God.

What is “shocking” and “appalling” (v. 12) is the exchange of a truly good heritage (v. 7) and glory (v. 11) for things that are worthless (v. 5) and do not profit (v. 8, 11). Jeremiah hints that this happens when times are hard and the people blame God (“What wrong did your ancestors find in me?” v. 5), and when God does not seem present and the people neglect to look hard for God’s presence (“Where is the Lord?” v. 6, 8).

When people lose trust in the wild, fluid, ephemeral, living water (v. 13) that is the fountain of God’s presence, they are tempted to reject what is received, transitory and undomesticated in favor of something they can create and control “for themselves” (v. 13). Yet what they build and pursue “far from God” (v. 5) also proves transitory and, furthermore, ineffectual and empty, like a “cracked cistern” (v. 13).

What blessings of God have you and your community rejected, and why?

What have you sought to replace those blessings with, and how well is that working?

Psalm 81:1, 10-16

The psalmist presents a divine being who longs, sighs and exclaims with passionate desire for relationship with God’s people. This relationship is characterized by hearing, listening and walking together (v. 11, 13). God is also represented as one who longs to feed, nurture and nourish (v. 10, 16); God’s people have only to “open their mouths wide” (v. 10) and receive in order to be satisfied (v. 16).

In a situation of oppression, to “nurture” God’s oppressed people also requires rescuing and defending the vulnerable from those who oppress them (v. 14). Yet we have to wonder if the divine being is really so eager to punish and intimidate God’s people’s enemies, as if the enemies of God’s people are actually the enemies of God (v. 15). If God rescues a people who are disobedient and stubborn (v. 11-12), God is likely to forgive those who oppress and rescue them from their oppressive ways. To “open wide” is to trust, and rather than cringing in fear and being resigned to eternal punishment (v. 15), we would do better to emulate God’s example of passionate longing for restored relationship, by singing with joy and raising a loud shout (v. 1) as the psalmist urges.

When has the stubbornness of your heart led you away from God’s ways? When has the stubbornness of your heart melted and restored you to relationship with God?

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Hebrews, not actually a letter by St. Paul, but more likely an early Christian sermon, is an extended theological reflection on the nature of Christ, which ends with some exhortations for Christian living.

As Christ is conceptualized to be a holy priest and a holy sacrifice, pleasing to God, Christians are called to a holy “way of life” (v. 7) that is the outcome of faith (“confession” v. 15) and that, in turn, creates certain outcomes (v. 7) or fruits (v. 15).

These fruits of mutual love (v. 13), doing good and sharing (v. 16) are named as “sacrifices” that are pleasing to God (v. 16). Addressed to a Hebrew audience, the message of this sermon is in line with the Hebrew Scriptures, which emphasize right relationship alongside right worship.

While the theology of Christ being a sacrifice on the cross has been problematic, the cross can be understood as a priestly symbol that connects the vertical (divine-human) dimension of relationship with the horizontal (human-human) dimension of relationship.

As followers of Christ, we are all called to stand in this priestly function, directing our witness, praise and way of life toward the belief that what we do in love for our fellow prisoners, leaders, victims, partners and strangers, is of central importance to God. With God and each other, we can be “content with what we have” (v. 5) and confident in our belonging to the holy, needing neither political nor economic power to be secure.

How is the love of God reflected in your actions toward others? If someone looked at your life and not your words, could they see what you truly love and value?

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Why were the people watching Jesus so closely? Were they looking to see if he would break a rule relating to Sabbath observance? (In the section of this story that is omitted, Jesus does indeed heal a person during this Sabbath dinner party.)

Were they looking to see what place at the table he would claim for himself? Would the place he chose be the highest place, consistent with his grand claims of being blasphemously close to God, or the lowest place, consistent with his disturbing message of an upside-down kingdom where the last shall be first? Either way, people were ready to be provoked.

Jesus redirects this occasion of someone else’s esteemed social event toward his own purposes, using it as a living metaphor to challenge his fellow guests to take a different attitude toward social status. He also hints that the true host and judge is God, who is coming (v. 10).  Jesus’ host at this dinner party is described as a leader, a person of prominence. How do you think he felt when his celebrity guest, Jesus, took the role of host to himself and began managing and judging the other guests? Do you think he regretted inviting Jesus?

Jesus reacts to this tension by challenging his host to reevaluate the criteria he has used to invite people to his dinner parties. The story suggests he has invited only people of social status, the kind of people who feel confident enough to seek the places of honor, and celebrities like Jesus, who might be able to repay him in fame and fortune, or at least being a part of the action.

What would happen if the host gave up all social calculations and became the kind of host that God is, a host who seeks out the humble and the last? Jesus indicates that this kind of host will be an invited and welcome guest in the wedding banquet of heaven, the kingdom of God.

How do calculations of social status impact your participation in the kingdom of God?

Bible Study: 14 Pentecost, Proper 16 (C)

August 25, 2013

Joe Woodfin, Sewanee

“But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’” (Luke 13:15-16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Jeremiah 1:4-10

One of my seminary professors is fond of discussing Jeremiah 1:8 as a comforting yet terrifying thought. “‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord.” On one hand, it is a promise of deliverance; on the other hand, it is a promise that Jeremiah is being sent into a situation from which he will need to be delivered! Read in this light, this passage takes on a slightly different meaning than that which is often attached in the modern American milieu.

There is a tendency to read God’s promises of deliverance as a bland assurance that life will be comfortable: bills paid, late model car, and so forth. That is not Jeremiah’s context. At the same time, this particular passage has often been quoted in the last half century in the debate over abortion. Whatever one’s feelings about that issue, neither is that Jeremiah’s context. God’s statement about knowing the prophet in the womb is an assurance that God knows what God is doing – an assurance that might be necessary given the unpleasant circumstances that would confront Jeremiah.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with finding in these verses the assertion that God knows and loves every person intimately; that is a truth worthy of acceptance. But there is more going on here, and it leads one to ask: Are we willing to answer God’s call even if it means discomfort, risk, or peril?

Can we trust that God knows us and loves us and wants what is best for us?

Psalm 71:1-6

This portion of the psalter displays competing pictures of God. God is a rock, a fortress, a stronghold – as in the hymn “A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing.” But God is also portrayed as tenderly bringing a new child into the world, taking the place of a midwife and a nurse: “Upon you have I leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” Insisting on either of these images without recognizing the richness of the other is to miss part of the divine picture. God is prepared to shelter someone who is looking for protection, but God is also ready to cradle someone looking for loving embrace.

Do you experience God as strong and protective, or gentle and compassionate? Or both?

Can you think of circumstances that have changed your experience of God?

Hebrews 12:18-29

In contrast to the psalm, there is no ambiguity in God’s persona in this passage. “Our God is a consuming fire.” It is rather a rather dire image, one that has historically been employed as it was probably originally intended: to terrify persons into accepting and holding fast to the faith.

In the context of the letter to the Hebrews, the argument runs something like this: (1) The “old” covenant is only a shadow of the new one; (2) God punished Israel for not being obedient to that covenant; so (3) now that the “new and improved” covenant is here, you’ll be in much worse shape if you reject it.

It is a compelling argument, enhanced by plenty of rhetorical flourish and vibrant imagery. It is also an extremely troubling argument, because it is founded on a deep Christian supersessionism that intended to replace Judaism entirely. The interpretation of this letter, along with other parts of Christian scripture, has led to a troubling history of anti-Jewish oppression and violence. If we are to acknowledge and renounce that history, we must take a second look at the rhetoric and the motivation of passages such as this one.

Are there ways that we can describe the Christian faith without demeaning others? At the same time, can Christianity be intelligible without connection to its Jewish roots? Answering those questions could keep the church busy for quite some time.

Luke 13:10-17

The woman in today’s gospel reading doesn’t ask to be healed. In other contexts, Jesus makes people ask for what they want before he gives it; in this case, he calls her over and heals her without even asking for her permission!

He should have known this was going to be an issue. Such a Sabbath healing has happened before in this gospel, in Luke 6:6-11, right after Jesus’ famous pronouncement that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” That healing generated a firestorm of controversy, and so did this one.

The leader of the synagogue is indignant, and we can imagine his speech: “This is a church! This is a holy day! Take care of your problems some other time!”

Knowing that Jesus was aware of the ramifications, we are led to a couple of conclusions: Either he was spoiling for a fight, or he was so moved with compassion for the woman that he couldn’t help himself. I prefer the latter, but given the confrontational personality of the Synoptic Jesus, I suspect the former is in play as well.

One view of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is of a Jewish teacher who is consistently given to interpret Torah in a way that is most beneficial for life and health. Torah is a force for good, and therefore, should not be a constraint against healing or life-giving activity – even on the Sabbath. Or put another way, “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).