Archives for October 2013

Bible Study: 25 Pentecost, Proper 27 (C)

November 10, 2013

Andrew Moore, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’” (Luke 20:34-35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Haggai 1:15b-2:9;Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

Haggai 1:15b-2:9

Admit it, you had to check your Bible’s table of contents to find the Book of Haggai. One of the lesser-known prophets, Haggai was written approximately 70 years after the destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile, as many Jews were returning to their homeland. As such, the book of Haggai is less concerned with questions of exile than with reclaiming and rebuilding the land. Specifically, Haggai prophesizes about the importance of rebuilding the temple. In the second chapter of Haggai, the people of Judah seem less than impressed with the beginnings of the rebuilt temple.

In today’s passage, Haggai is admonishing the people of Judah to keep faith, that God will help rebuild the temple to be even more splendid than the first. This must have sounded counterintuitive to the people. They were struggling to meet even their basic human needs. How could they possibly rebuild the temple in glorious fashion? Haggai reminds the people of God’s great promise of faithfulness to God’s chosen people. The work of rebuilding the temple is ultimately God’s work, not the work of the people.

What are ways in which we become discouraged when our attempts to do God’s work in the world are seemingly fruitless? How can we reframe our discouragement into an exercise of faith?

Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21

Psalm 145 is a hymn to God’s gloriousness. The last psalm attributed to David, it precedes the final group of songs of praise that end the book of Psalms. It is effusive in its praise of God and God’s works in the world. It paints a picture of God who is responsive and active in the world, worthy of unending praise. “I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty and all your marvelous works.”

Yet sometimes this effusive praise can be hard to hear, hard to speak. How hard must it be for the long-suffering to hear “He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he hears their cry and helps them.” It can be difficult to reconcile the God of action who is described in Psalm 145 with the God whose action can be difficult to discern. Perhaps the key to reconciling the two lies in verse 2: “Everyday I will bless you and praise your Name for ever and ever.”

Embedded in this song of praise is a call to faithfulness. We are called to continue to praise God and trust in God’s good works, even when we lack the evidence to see them.

What are the challenges you face in praising God effusively?  What holds you back?

How might a daily practice of praising God transform times of discouragement and suffering? What would it take to praise God fully in the most challenging times of our lives?

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

This passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians addresses a key theme continued from the gospels. When will the Kingdom of Heaven arrive? Many people believed that with the coming of the Messiah, the end was imminent. Paul warns the early Christians not to believe those who claim to know that the coming of the kingdom is near. He is essentially reminding us to not get ahead of ourselves and remain present in our earthly lives.

In the second part of the passage, Paul offers thanksgiving that God offers salvation.  This thanksgiving echoes similar passages in 1 Thessalonians. It is also invokes images of the Israelites in Hebrew scriptures. God chose to make promises to the Israelites just as God then chose to offer salvation to those who believe in Christ. Paul seems to be encouraging the Christians of Thessalonica to remain steadfast in their belief and their practices despite the fact that their hopes for the coming of God’s kingdom have not been fulfilled.

What are the ways in which you get ahead of yourself and focus on the promised reward and not your daily life?

How can we have faith in God’s promises even when we don’t see or experience the reward?

Luke 20:27-38

This passage continues a long line of reminders in Luke that we do not place value in the correct places in our earthly lives. The Sadducees were an aristocratic Jewish sect during Jesus’ time, often contrasted with the Pharisees. Historians describe the Sadducees as often being rude to their peers. As the passage indicates, they did not believe in the resurrection of the body or of the soul. They lay a trap for Jesus by invoking the Torah’s requirement that if a man should die before having children, one of his brothers should marry his wife. It was hoped that the woman would have a son so that the man’s family, and property holdings, could continue.

Yet Jesus deftly avoids the trap the Sadducees set for him by challenging the grounds for the question. Jesus reminds us that heaven will not be like earth. We are not able to comprehend just how different heaven will be from our earthly existence. We will not take the things we value with us into the afterlife. It reinforces Luke’s earlier messages about the importance of sharing our earthly abundance with the poor and suffering.

How do you picture God’s kingdom in heaven? How does it compare to your earthly life?

What parts of your earthly life do you value too highly?

Bible Study: 24 Pentecost, Proper 26 (C)

November 3, 2013

Christine Havens, Seminary of the Southwest

“Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:8-9)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

What do we do with the sense of loss with which Habakkuk begins his conversation with God: “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Think of torah – the law – as a cord of words, a guideline, tying the people to YHWH throughout history. In witnessing a lack of righteousness and justice, Habakkuk’s complaint is that the people, and God, have let the cord slacken, resulting in a sense of displacement, for the prophet at least. He petitions the LORD, and then watches for an end to the turmoil through God’s direct and immediate action. God’s responds, however, with a call to action for Habakkuk and for the people: faithfulness. Christians often speak of faith as knowledge one holds, separating it from physical works; but the Hebrew word, emunah, implies a firmness of action (ancient-hebrew.org) toward torah, keeping one connected with that cord of words, with YHWH. God’s response is that God remains with the people, throughout history; the LORD will act, the people must also remain firm in the law.

How do we feel when God’s presence appears to be missing in our individual lives, in that of our community, our history? What is our response? Do we act with faithfulness?

Psalm 119:137-144

Scripture, especially the psalms, is participatory, as is learning and wisdom. Words are not simply lifeless objects on a page; rather, they are everyday reminders and celebrations of God’s word and teaching that encompasses torah. Psalm 119 serves as an excellent example for us. For the psalmist, God’s word must be embodied in one’s life: “Grant me understanding, that I may live” (verse 144).

Try reading these verses aloud in a variety of ways. Begin by reading them aloud to yourself alone, in a quiet, contemplative space. What do the psalmist’s words evoke for you? Discuss this with others.

Read the verses in a small group; each person takes a turn, reading one line each, repeating through the group, until all the lines have been spoken. Discuss the experience. Does this style of reading aloud change your understanding of the psalm? Why? What words stand out?

How do we, as Christians, participate in scripture?

How do Christians understand the psalmist’s words in verse 142: “your law is truth?”

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

As with other Pauline epistles, controversy reigns among scholars as to who is the real author of 2 Thessalonians – was it Paul himself or a disciple? Some commentators even use the word “forgery,” a harsh word. This argument can be extremely distracting. However, if we consider the apocalyptic and eschatological ideas espoused in this epistle, then whether Paul or a disciple wrote the letter can be problematic for some because the author presents us with a christology different from that of other epistles.

Today’s lesson omits verses 5-10, in which the author depicts the Lord Jesus “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (vv.7b-8). This is a very different image than that of 1 Thessalonians 9: “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

How do you interpret and reconcile the dissimilarities? Is it important to you whether Paul or a disciple wrote this epistle?

Today’s passage opens with a greeting from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to the “church of the Thessalonians” (v. 1) and continues with the author(s) giving thanks and praying for the brothers and sisters within the community. The Pauline epistles generally begin this way, so we might often take these lines for granted. We also may dismiss them to some degree because they are written by an apostle, in a pastoral setting. In our postmodern, technological culture, we may also find this opening quaint – we rarely write letters anymore, preferring Facebook, Twitter, email, and texting to communicate.

Is it important that we, as Christians, incorporate prayer and thanksgiving into our daily written communications? How might we be more intentional in participating with scripture in this way?

Luke 19:1-10

One of the themes at the heart of Luke is travel; the gospel depicts the journey motif in multiple ways, primarily through descriptions of Jesus’ and the disciples’ journey toward Jerusalem (Charles Talbert’s “Reading Luke,” Smyth & Helwys, 2013, p. 342). Jesus encounters many along the way; in today’s passage, it is Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. A tax collector in Judea was viewed as a collaborator with the Romans, and so fellow Jews labeled Zacchaeus as “a sinner” (v. 7). Jesus’ interaction with him forms this short part of the narrative.

In their book “Christians Among the Virtues” (University of Notre Dam Press, 1997), Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches contrast the idea of trips versus journeys in terms of the moral life (p. 18). “Trip” carries the connotation of short-term travel, something lightweight and transitory. A “journey,” however, is long-term travel, during which one makes progress toward one’s telos or “goal.” It is a matter of formation rather than transformation. Perhaps Zacchaeus, in running ahead to see Jesus and being willing to overcome the little obstacles in his way, has already traveled far in his formational journey. He is a sinner, but one who is unafraid to encounter Christ anyway.

Narratives themselves, such as the gospels, are journeys, too, inviting us in – narrative hospitality.

How does the story of Zacchaeus invite you into the story of Christ?

How do you interpret Jesus’ words: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is the Son of Abraham” (v. 9)?

Describe your own journey as a Christian.

Bible Study: 23 Pentecost, Proper 25 (C)

October 27, 2013

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“The tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:13-14)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Joel 2:23-32Psalm 652 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18Luke 18:9-14

Joel 2:23-32

The book of the prophet Joel addressed a message of hope to an Israelite people who had experienced devastation by locusts and drought. For those who survived as subsistence, shallow plow farmers, anything that affected crop production – floods, insects, lack of rain, etc. – had profound and lasting effects on their emotional well being and religious imagination. The Israelites perceived the end of these disasters as a sign that Yahweh had not abandoned his people, and in fact, had vindicated them.

Our reading today from Joel illustrates the profound sense of solidarity the people of Israel felt from their God. No event, no experience, nothing at all escaped God’s providential and compassionate gaze. God stood by them through the lean years of trial, and now God’s healing presence feels tangible in a time of plenty. This text evinces the heart of a people who oriented every moment of their lives to be in God. They never conceived of themselves as being alone nor was any moment separate from God. Nothing, neither hardship nor joy, had any meaning outside of their relationship with their God.

How does the joy expressed in this text serve as a call for you to re-orient all your thoughts and actions to a perspective that is in God?

Is there a word, phrase or image from today’s passage that resonates with you?

Psalm 65

This psalm was most likely sung in the Temple at the beginning of a new agricultural year. Recalling God’s blessings upon Israel in the past, the psalmist looks to Yahweh for hope – and rain – as the planting begins anew.

Like today’s passage from the prophet Joel, this psalm illustrates Israel rooting all activity in the context of God. In this way, all work is sanctified, and nothing falls out of God’s purview or blessing.

Our contemporary culture moves us to separate our religiosity to the sphere of private life and Sunday worship. But this psalm calls us to recognize that everything we undertake in life is significant to God, especially the work we do for our “bread and cheese,” so to speak! God cares profoundly about this dimension of our lives and longs bless and affirm our work. More significantly, the psalmist touches a deep desire that rests in the hearts of all people – to experience God’s blessing on what we choose to pour our energies into for our sustenance.

How can you “sanctify your work,” whatever it is, and root it in the context of God?

Is there a word, phrase or image from today’s psalm that resonates with you?

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Although scholars have long questioned the Pauline authorship of the two letters to Timothy, Second Timothy, from which our reading today is drawn, seems a more likely candidate of the two to be from Paul’s pen (at least in part).

Chronologically speaking, Paul writes this letter while under arrest in Rome, shortly before his death. His rhetoric and sentiments are those of a man looking back over a life well lived. Paul faces death at peace with his life, knowing that he did his best in carrying out the work God asked him to do. And now he is prepared for the final letting go. Paul’s life, from the time of his calling on the road to Damascus to this point, has been a grand exercise in letting go of his own plans, desires, hopes.

As Paul says in verse 6, he has allowed himself to be poured out as a libation, a drink for others of God’s grace. Paul here teaches an important lesson – our lives are not about us. We are called to be poured out for others, and it is only in that great act that we will find the peace and satisfaction that Paul speaks of here.

How are Paul’s words a challenge and/or a comfort to you?

What do you feel you must still let go of in order to achieve the peace Paul says he is feeling?

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus teaches a message in our gospel reading today that most of us do not want to hear: The way up is to go down. We cannot “earn” God’s approval by showing ourselves to be loyal, disciplined, rigorous soldiers. Rather, we fall into God and God’s mercy, compassion, and love through humility and the acknowledgement of our brokenness. The crack in our hearts – the broken place that this little tax collector seems to be keenly aware of – is where the light gets in.

Now, the things that the Pharisee is doing – fasting, praying, almsgiving – are all good and necessary parts of authentic religious practice. But the Pharisee has committed the greatest sin; he has given into the greatest temptation – doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Ultimately, his worship is directed toward himself, not God. His own egotism has taken the good practices of religion and put them to an insidious use – self-inflation and judgment.

In the end, Jesus is calling for authenticity of motivation; calling us to do the right thing for the right reason. More significantly, he invites us to fall into the mercy of a loving God who recognizes and embraces our brokenness, if we will allow God to do so.

Where do we face temptations in our spiritual lives to do the right thing for the wrong reason?

Where in yourself do you see the proud Pharisee, and the humble tax collector?

Bible Study: 22 Pentecost, Proper 24 (C)

October 20, 2013

Steven King, Virginia Theological Seminary

“In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (Luke 18:3-5)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Jeremiah 31:27-34

The words that the Lord speaks in this section are some of the most comforting and reassuring in all of scripture, especially in verse 33: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

God’s promise to remain our God and for us to always be held as God’s people is one that is so deeply true that God has written it on our hearts. This promise will remain true forever.

In addition to this profound and reassuring promise, God says in verse 34, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Because God is our God forever, we are free from what binds us and holds us back. We are free to love completely because God has done the same for us.

When do you most deeply experience or feel God’s love? What is that like?

How might you describe that feeling to others so that they may come to share in God’s promises and unconditional love?

Psalm 119:97-104

Verse 97 is particularly poignant: “Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind.” I read this statement as calling me to remember God’s words, commandments, and love throughout each day of my life. Some days I am better at this than others. Some days I really struggle to tune into God’s movement in my life. In my experience, it is on those days when I am able to remain aware of God’s love and will guiding me that I am able to love those around me more readily.

I know that on some days I am quick to judge or speak negatively, and I am grateful that God is a forgiving God.

I also know that God is calling me – and all of us! – to remember that it is God who is constant in our lives even when everything else is changing. It is God who will love us completely and forgive us endlessly. Let us strive to remember not only God’s law and will for us, but also God’s love and mercy toward us, and allow that to shine forth in all that we do each day.

What guides your in your daily life with God? Perhaps it is a daily devotion or practice of Scripture reading. How does that change how you live and interact in the world?

Consider and pray about what may be blocking you from tuning into God’s movement in your life or even causing you to forget it. What helps you to become aware of God’s movement in your life?

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

This journey of faith we have undertaken as servants of God is daunting. It can be exhausting or frightening or even seem futile. Those who are outside the church can be unresponsive and even rude toward those who are believers. But in this passage, we who are believers are given encouragement to stand firm in our calling on this journey with God.

Each person’s call may be different because we have all been given different gifts, but we all still hold strongly to the saving work of Jesus Christ. It is his resurrection from the dead that gives us our ultimate hope, and we press on toward that hope even in the midst of despair and darkness. Let us encourage one another to share God’s love and hope with the world. We are called to do this so that, because we have each other and with God’s help, we cannot fail and will not give up.

What are the situations or experiences in life that can leave you feeling discouraged or afraid?

What helps you to feel hopeful? What part of your faith do you feel called to share? How might you encourage others in their callings?

Luke 18:1-8

It is fascinating to me that, in this passage, God asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I find this question fascinating because our all-knowing God can – and probably does – know the answer to this question. Yet, he still asks. In doing so, I believe God is calling us to get to work to make sure the answer to God’s question is yes.

Part of the answer for how we do that is in the common themes running throughout these pieces of Scripture for today. We rest in the love of God, knowing that God has promised to be our God always and forever. We always keep in mind God’s will for our lives and let that control our wills. We press on, even in the face of despair and darkness, to share the love of God with the whole world. This is our call and this is one way we can do our part to ensure that there will always be faith on earth.

Why do you think God asks this question in verse 8?

Consider how you might participate in the work of ensuring that there will be faith on earth.