Archives for February 2014

Bible Study: 2 Lent (A)

March 16, 2014

Brian PinterGeneral Theological Seminary

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Genesis 12:1-4a

The story of Abram’s call is an archetypal narrative that is repeated again and again throughout the biblical record. Artistic in its presentation, this text also presents deep spiritual truths. Notice, for example, the author’s use in verse 1 of a literary device called hendiadys: “your country and your kindred.” A single idea is cleverly expressed through the use of two words. We also see that the number of blessings Abram will receive is the classical biblical number signifying perfection: seven.

Beyond its beautiful, artistic form, this passage invites us to follow in Abram’s footsteps – to abandon ourselves to the guidance of God; to prepare ourselves to commence the great journey; to leave what is familiar, comfortable, but ultimately small and limiting and go to “a land that I will show you.” Our spiritual life is this archetype – going from what we know to what we don’t know; from the secure to the insecure. God calls us to follow God into the unknown. Where this journey will take us we cannot know, but we can be confident that by surrendering ourselves (i.e., our ego and all its small needs), we will be a blessing to many.

Is there a word or phrase in this passage that speaks to you today?

How have you experienced God’s call in your life to leave home “for a land that I will show you”?

Psalm 121

This psalm takes the form of a dialogue between a worshipper and a Temple priest. We notice a shift from first to second person within verses 1-4. The psalmist expresses confidence in the protection of God, reminiscent of the blessing of Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

This text continues the theme begun in our first reading from Genesis – the great spiritual pilgrimage of life. The “hills” of verse 1 represent both the heavenly dwelling place of God as well the holy city. The journey to this spiritual place will require protection and sustenance, and will not be without challenges. (For example, the sun of verse 6 will be hot!) Above all, the God who calls us to this journey will not forget us; will not fall asleep on us, unlike Baal of 1 Kings 18:27, whom Elijah mocked, “Maybe he’s asleep!”

While we will face dark nights and times of doubt, this psalm invites us to trust that God is sustaining us, shading us, supporting us as our pilgrim road bends over the horizon.

Is there a word or phrase in this passage that speaks to you today?

Where do you find yourself now on the spiritual pilgrimage of life – waiting for the call? The first steps? Resting in the shade? In the hot sun? How have you experienced God’s action on your journey?

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

We see the thematic links in today’s reading from Romans with the first reading from Genesis. To understand Paul’s thought here, some background might be helpful. First, Paul did not found the church at Rome and, when he dictated this letter, had not yet visited the city. “Romans” was his way of introducing himself to the Christian community there and making his travel arrangements.

Second, Paul strongly believed that because we are now living in the age of the Messiah, the Mosaic Law is no longer necessary. Paul, in fact, spent a great deal of time in conflict with some Christians who felt otherwise about the Law. It is this issue of the necessity and validity of the Mosaic Law that Paul speaks to in this passage.

Paul points back to Abraham as the example par excellence that obedience to the law does not earn one God’s favor. The Grace of God is a gift. The promise to Abraham of many descendants and blessings was not because Abraham followed any law, but because of Abraham’s trusting faith. If God rewarded people simply because they observe a law, faith would mean nothing.

Furthermore (and this is one of Paul’s favorite issues to hammer), the presence of the Law only makes things worse. As the great biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., noted about Paul’s thought on this, “The prescriptions of the law are honored more in than in observance; in thus furthering transgressions, it promotes the reign of sin.” In other words, when there are more laws, there are more opportunities to break them. Paul saw this as a vicious circle that brought people nowhere.

Is there a word or phrase from this passage that speaks to you today?

Do you accept that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s blessing and grace? What are the obstacles you face to accepting this gift?

John 3:1-17

A key to understanding today’s text lies in the previous chapter, John 2:23: “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.”

Faith cannot be based on signs and wonders, just as God’s grace and blessing cannot be earned through obeying laws and performing works. In this passage, the author of this gospel uses one of his favorite literary devices – misunderstanding. Both those who believed in Jesus because of his miracles, and Nicodemus, misunderstand Jesus. Nicodemus thinks that Jesus’ performing of miraculous deeds is a sign of God’s approval. Jesus, however, explains to Nicodemus that Jesus has come from God’s presence.

Our gospel text is thematically linked with our previous readings through Jesus’ observation about the work of the spirit in verse 8. Entrance into God’s Kingdom cannot be earned by human beings; it requires the outpouring of the Spirit. The final verses of the reading provide the answer to Nicodemus’ question about being reborn of the Spirit – this occurs through the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Once again, a grand biblical archetype is tapped here – the way of ascent is descent; the way to life is through wounding and death; God has the power to transform death. Our challenge is to let God’s Spirit into to our broken hearts in order that the transformation, the rebirth, might begin.

Is there a word or phrase from this passage that speaks to you today?

What are the challenges you face to allowing God’s Spirit to lead to the new birth of which Jesus speaks?

Bible Study: 1 Lent (A)

March 9, 2014

David W. PetersSeminary of the Southwest

“The tempter came and said to Jesus, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’” (Matthew 4:3-4)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7Psalm 32Romans 5:12-19Matthew 4:1-11

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “God made man because he loves stories.” And what is the first story about humans? It is a story of temptation, disobedience and clothing manufacturing. Other than the talking snake, this story in Genesis always strikes me as so ordinary and mundane. When they eat the forbidden fruit, nothing happens. There is no lightning bolt from heaven. There is only the opening of their eyes to their nakedness.

My temptations are ordinary too. I am rarely tempted with high crimes. Most of my temptations are just like Eve’s and Adam’s, they are my desire for physical pleasure (“good for food”), beauty (“delight to the eyes”) or wisdom (“to make one wise”). Like them, I’m always looking for love in all the wrong places. From my reading of human history, and my own history, this seems to be the story of humanity. Perhaps that is why God loves us so much.

What stories in your life contain tragedy and hope?

What are some of the places you have searched for pleasure, beauty or wisdom, and been disappointed?

Psalm 32

Happiness, for the psalmist, comes after the withering of the bones, much groaning, and drying out like a raisin in the sun. By the time this psalm is written, the psalmist’s sin is old news, but the effect on the body is still felt. In the darkest watch of the night, he/she cries out to God.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that repentance always comes at the 11th hour. It is after we have run out of back-up plans and exhausted our limited resources that we turn to God. We run to the only place where the great waters cannot reach us, the hiding place.

My experience as an Episcopalian leads me to conclude that pages 446-452 in the Book of Common Prayer, “The Reconciliation of a Penitent,” are seldom used by most of us. Perhaps they would have more use if we connected confession and reconciliation with a chance for happiness.

How is your physical health connected to my spiritual health?

If God is our hiding place, what is God hiding you from?

Romans 5:12-19

If metaphors become too complicated, they cease to be metaphors. St. Paul’s metaphor of Jesus as the second Adam is simple. Just as Adam’s sin brought death to all people, so Jesus’ act of righteousness brings life to every person. The savvy reader will notice in the Old Testament lesson a small problem. Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, how did sin get passed on from generation to generation, especially when my newborn baby is so cute? Perhaps it is better to keep Paul’s words simple. Perhaps it is better to put them into a Christmas carol as Charles Wesley did in 1739:

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.

How does Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection help us get back to how we were in the Garden of Eden?

Where did you first hear about the free gift of grace in Jesus Christ?

Matthew 4:1-11

Every time I go near the railing on a high balcony a thought pops into my head: What would it feel like to jump? Then I get a nauseating feeling in my stomach and back away from the edge. Every time I skip breakfast because I’m late for work, I long for an egg and bean breakfast taco and hope that it might magically appear on my dashboard. Every time I hear that a former high school classmate of mine won an award, I wonder what it would be like to get it instead of her.

The devil mocks me to force God to accept my timeline for my life, rather than wait for God to show up in God’s time. The devil mocks Jesus to do something spectacular to prove he is the Son of God. He tempts Jesus to force God’s hand to declare him to be the Son of God – or just fall onto the hard stones of the Temple. Jesus needs no more proof of his sonship than that which is written.

Martin Luther wrote about the devil in his words to the hymn, “A mighty fortress”: “One little word shall fell him.”

Jesus quotes the word, thus proving that he is the Word, and the devil disappears.

Both the devil and Jesus quote scripture in this story. How has scripture been used in your life for encouragement or temptation?

Jesus’ temptations take place in the wilderness, far from other people and creature comforts. How is temptation greater when we are alone and uncomfortable?

Bible Study: Last Sunday After Epiphany (A)

March 2, 2014

Charlotte LaForest, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Matthew 17:1-2)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 24:12-18Psalm 22 Peter 1:16-21Matthew 17:1-9

Exodus 24:12-18

Theophany: the technical term for a visible manifestation of God. The clouds and fire in this passage from Exodus are congruent with my imagination of what this kind of encounter might be like. Perhaps my imagination was shaped by previous readings of this passage. Perhaps it was shaped by numerous childhood viewings of the movie “Ghostbusters,” in which the mountain is replaced by a New York City apartment building, and a deity named Gozer appears, surrounded by cloud and flame. In any case, this kind of direct encounter with God seems as though it might be a bit terrifying.

But Moses kept going. He kept climbing further up the mountain, waiting six days in the cloud, climbing higher, and then remaining there, high on the mountain. Moses encountered something on the mountain that made him want to stay for 70 days, over two months’ time! What do you think he was thinking and feeling during that time?

Moses had to keep climbing higher to get closer to God. Are there times in your life that the ways in which God is calling you may seem terrifying but are actually drawing you closer to Him?

Psalm 2

Drama unfolds in this brief psalm, shifting rapidly between perspectives in only a handful of verses. The psalm opens with the psalmist’s questions about the persecution of the faithful. We then shift to the wicked rulers and eavesdrop as they conspire to cast off the people of God. Just as soon as we’ve heard them plot and plan, the psalmist races heavenward and we hear God laugh at the plans of the wicked. God warns the wicked rulers, reminding them that God alone is sovereign.

The psalmist then communicates the message to God’s people, reassurance of God’s faithfulness and the appeal to trust in God to serve justice and defeat the enemies. The kings are reminded again to rule with fairness and wisdom, and called to submit with fear and trembling to the God capable of powerful execution of divine justice. Then the psalm ends on a cheerful note, rejoicing for those who take refuge in God!

This psalm emphasizes trust in God to enact justice and retribution. Do you ever find yourself struggling to trust God for this, wishing to take revenge for yourself?

The psalm concludes with a call for God’s people to rejoice because they have taken refuge in God. Are you able to trust God enough to rejoice, even during times of persecution?

2 Peter 1:16-21

Just like the readers of this letter, we have not been blessed with direct experience of God’s voice, coming audibly from the heavens, identifying Jesus as Son, Beloved. We also have to trust the witness of those who were present with Jesus, passed down through scripture and the traditions of the church. They serve for us as lamps, light for what would otherwise be dark and murky understanding of the person of Christ. Peter gives us hope, however, that at some point the day will dawn, the morning star will rise in our hearts, and we will be able to encounter the light for ourselves.

For now, though, we rely on witnesses. Peter reminds us in the closing lines of this passage that true witnesses, prophets who reveal God’s truth, are not speaking because of their own motivations or desires, but because they have been moved by the Holy Spirit to do so.

Though we may not have encountered God in the same way the Peter did, we can still serve as witnesses for each other. Are there people in your life who have shown you the light of Christ? How have you been a light to others?

Matthew 17:1-9

You may recognize some elements of this story from our Old Testament lesson for today: mountain, clouds, a voice from heaven. Just like the encounter that Moses had upon Mount Sinai, Peter, James and John experience many of the classic elements of an encounter with God.

Yet something is different about this theophany, this encounter. There is more than just the voice and the clouds upon the mountain that day. Peter, James and John see in the dazzling, transfigured Jesus that God is in their midst, has been among them all this time. They see Moses and Elijah, their forefathers, the bearers of their Jewish tradition. It’s no surprise that they want to build tents and say for a while! Moses spent almost two months in God’s presence, but Jesus calls the disciples to get up, to let go of their fear, and to head down the mountain.

The disciples return to the world with a new knowledge of who Jesus is, even though they are instructed not to tell anyone until after Jesus is raised. They may not yet be able to tell the story, but it will shape how they act, how they go about daily life. How could it not?

How have you encountered God? Have you ever wished you could just linger in those holy moments?

Jesus calls us back down the mountain and into the world. How will your encounters with God shape the way you live your life?

Bible Study: 7 Epiphany (A)

February 23, 2014

Christine Havens, Seminary of the Southwest

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18Psalm 119:33-401 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23Matthew 5:38-48

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Leviticus: not the most popular book of scripture among many Christians. How does one read text that does not contain a discernible story with engaging characters, but only seemingly arcane rituals and laws that have no apparent relevance in twenty-first century Western Christian culture? We do not practice them or even believe in their validity for the most part. How can we relate?

Would you read it if it were a life-or-death situation? Scholars such as Robert Alter, Jacob Milgrom and Everett Fox, in their commentaries on Leviticus, all seem to suggest that this central portion of Torah describes a life-or-death situation for the Israelites, their place in the cosmos and their relationship with God. The instructions, both for priests and for lay Israelites, are meant, these scholars suggest, to enable God’s chosen people to attain holiness and set aside impurity by embracing the values found, for example, in today’s reading: caring for the poor and the “sojourner” (both Alter and Fox use this word rather than “alien”); not taking advantage of your neighbor; and generally, not being morally complicit with sin.

How might this reading affect your understanding of holiness? Is holiness related to morality?

Take some time to re-read these verses, but include the omitted ones, 3-8. Are Christian rituals reflective of our values? If so, how?

Is our understanding of holiness different in twenty-first century Christianity than in the writings of seventh-century-B.C. Judaism? How?

How might we see love in these verses? How is holiness related to love?

Psalm 119:33-40

“Teach me.”

“Give me.”

“Make me. ”

Best of all: “Incline my heart.”

Recently, I went to an interfaith retreat held at a Christian ranch near Austin, Texas. Their gift shop is a dangerous place for me; I knew, as was the case last year, that I would find several plaques with sayings that would touch my heart, and I would feel drawn into purchasing at least one for myself, despite my limited budget. I was not disappointed in this; in fact, this year was more difficult because the shop had a collection by an artist named Kelly Rae Roberts, and every time I went into the camp store, I immediately went over to peruse her plaques again. Quite a few spoke to me. One kept drawing me back with the question it asked in big print: “What sets your heart free?” In small print, just under the question, is a single word: “Surrender.” What might it mean to surrender to God?

Perhaps surrendering to God’s action upon us, as suggested by the syntax of the psalmist’s words, is what sets our hearts free. How might you ask God to work upon you?

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Consider the character of Nick Bottom, from Shakespeare’s comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Bottom is a comic figure, a “rude tradesman,” who is often portrayed as what we would now term “socially awkward,” comparable to Sheldon from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” but less of an academic snob. The group of rude tradesmen whom Bottom leads are attempting to put on a play for a duke’s wedding. Shakespeare’s comedy contrasts the actions of the aristocrats with those of the lower class. During the course of the play, an impish fairy, Puck, changes Bottom’s human head into that of an ass because Bottom is such a laughable leader of the group of “actors.” In one scene, after his romantic encounter with the fairy queen, Titania, he shamelessly (mis)quotes the apostle from a different part of 1 Corinthians (2:9) as he attempts to understand his experience:

“I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was – there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was, – and
methought I had, – but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.”
— William Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” lines 1767-1776

How might Bottom’s speech be related to Paul’s words in today’s reading: “If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

How does today’s text affect your understanding of leadership, whether in a religious or a secular setting?

Matthew 5:38-48

Coercion. Oppression. Submission. Resistance. What do these words mean to you? Do you visualize a Hollywood action movie, where the bad guys attempt to coerce the good guys into submission via physical violence, and then the good guys win out by means of armed resistance? Often the directors of these films appear to exalt gunfire, punching and bombing as the means of overcoming the enemy. Both sides use extreme violence to achieve their respective ends. If this is what you visualize, you are obviously not alone. And neither is twenty-first century Western culture. Many in Jesus’ time expected just this of him – armed resistance of the Roman oppressors.

Or do you picture Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., when hearing these words? Do you view turning the other check to your enemies as a loss or a surrendering of your power? As a sign of weakness? David E. Garland, in his book, “Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary” (Smith & Helwys, 2001) reminds his readers that to turn the other cheek affords one power over the “enemy” or the oppressor, because, essentially, you are putting the ball back in that person’s court. He or she must then choose whether to offer more violence. For example, the Roman soldier then becomes the one who must choose how to respond when the person who has been compelled to carry a heavy pack willingly submits to going one more mile; the people on the bus are the ones who must choose to force a black woman from her seat.

How would our lives be different if Martin Luther King, Jr., had led his followers into armed resistance? How would the story of Christianity be different today if Jesus had led an armed uprising against the Roman Empire? How can your life be different if you strive to be perfect in love of neighbor and enemy, as Jesus asks of us in today’s lesson?