Archives for July 2014

Bible Study: 10 Pentecost, Proper 15 (A)

August 17, 2014

Christine Havens, Seminary of the Southwest

“Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’” (Matthew 15:10-11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

Genesis 45:1-15

A friend, who is a senior Master of Divinity student, and I had a conversation about veterans today. He and a mutual friend, who is an Episcopal priest in the Austin area, work together on the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship here, planning services and pilgrimages; creating safe space for those who served in America’s wars and military actions. At one point in the conversation, my friend stated that many of the veterans have difficulty with reconciliation. He meant the rite – the ministry – of reconciliation found in the Book of Common Prayer. In so many ways, these men and women already feel excluded, set apart, from mainstream culture – the military subculture that they learn in training separates them at the beginning of service, and the treatment they receive after their service are examples. How much more might they feel excluded in having enacted violence against others in the name of their country?

Reconciling this violence within themselves and with God, with the intention of welcoming them back into church, into society, into humanity, into feeling God’s love, may prove painful and difficult; may exacerbate feelings of exclusion.

How might today’s lesson of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers be used to help a veteran overcome these feelings?

Psalm 133

“When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage) –
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage.”

Those are the first 12 lines from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” written in 1475 in England. In this long poem, an assortment of pilgrims travel to the cathedral at Canterbury, where Thomas Beckett was murdered by Henry II – a very popular pilgrimage. Some people also undertook pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Although the above verses have been translated into modern English, Chaucer wrote in Middle English, which, for us, now, is strange and exotic to the ears when heard and difficult to read. And even after translation, some of the images, metaphors and similes are no longer familiar to us either.

Today’s psalm is one of the Songs of Ascent (in Hebrew, Shir Hama’aloth), which scholars believe pilgrims recited or sang on their way to Jerusalem. Read it aloud once or twice; if in a group, have two different people read it. Maybe even attempt to sing it. Does it also contain, like “The Canterbury Tales,” images that may not be familiar to us?

What is important about the dew of Hermon falling upon the hills of Zion? For what might it be a metaphor? What about oil upon the beard of Aaron?

What are the similarities between Psalm 133 and “The Canterbury Tales”? What do you notice about them? What feelings do they evoke? Why?

Does America have any poems or cultural icons relating to pilgrims? How do we relate to pilgrimages in our Christian lives? How do we relate pilgrimages to Christ?

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” What does Paul mean here? The lectionary omits a large portion of verses in this lesson. How does reading them change your understanding of Paul’s statement, if at all?

Some scholars view Paul’s letter to the Romans, a church he did not found, as an attempt to gain support for a trip he wished to undertake to Spain – a mission trip. Re-read all of today’s lessons. How might they speak to us of the differences between mission and pilgrimage?

What are the differences between a mission trip and a pilgrimage?

How is your life as a Christian informed by mission and pilgrimage?

Matthew 15:10-28

In today’s gospel lesson, Matthew relates two powerful episodes in Jesus’ life. The lectionary treats the first story (verses 10-20) as optional. How do these verses, along with the beginning of the chapter, change your perception of the conversation? How is Jesus choosing to relate to the Pharisees and scribes?

Hand sanitizer has become a ubiquitous part of 21st century American culture. Bottles or wipes are available for consumption just about everywhere; a person can choose to use it before grabbing a shopping cart or prior to taking communion. Cruise ships apparently have crew members standing ready to squirt it on the hands of those in line for buffet; the website on which I read this did not mention whether this was optional for passengers. How many, if any, askance glances might one receive for refusing hand sanitizer? Would you judge someone for not using hand sanitizer before partaking in a communal meal?

The Pharisees take offense at the actions of Jesus and the disciples because they “[broke] the tradition of the elders” (verse 2). This tradition reflects Jewish concerns with ritual impurity and preserving the Law (Torah). The Pharisees did not worry about bacteria and germs in their insistence on washing hands prior to a meal; rather, that is our cultural concern.

Might the use of hand sanitizer be a ritual for some people? How might tradition be related to purity for us as Christians? How might tradition be related to purity in 21st century America or Western culture?

How might purity be related to exclusion? What about tradition? Is “that’s the way we’ve always done it” a stumbling block for your church in terms of hospitality and inclusion?

How might concerns about tradition and purity be related to the story of the Canaanite woman?

Bible Study: 9 Pentecost, Proper 14 (A)

August 10, 2014

Ben Maddison, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31).

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Genesis is an origins story. Through Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, and Rachel and Jacob (Israel), God worked and blessed one family – one dynasty – to set aside God’s people on earth. Chapter 37 is the final story of Genesis – that of Joseph recording how the people of Israel would come to Egypt and inevitably be enslaved, leading to the events of Exodus.

Unlike the earlier patriarchal narratives, Joseph’s story is conspicuously lacking any direct intervention, or disclosure, of God’s will or direction. Several times throughout Joseph’s narrative, God’s absence is noticeable, but never more than during the plot to murder Joseph. However, if we look closely, we can see God working throughout the narrative, especially, in this instance, through Ruben, the eldest of the 12 sons of Jacob. While his brothers plot to kill Joseph, Reuben exerts his right as oldest son to change their plans. In verse 22, Reuben demands that his brothers “Shed no blood,” plotting instead to come later and rescue Joseph.

Despite Reuben’s plans, Joseph is still sold into slavery, and the Joseph narrative continues to Egypt. However, Reuben’s act of compassion (whether out of fraternal love, fear, self-interest or expectation) portends Joseph’s words of forgiveness to his brothers in 50:20, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”

Discuss the roles of various parties in this story (Joseph, Jacob, Reuben, the brothers, etc.)

In what ways do you see God working in this story – directly or indirectly?

Have you experienced times of God’s absence? If you have, how did you look for God working in your life?

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b

In New Testament studies there is German word –  heilsgeschichte – that describes the work of God throughout history; in English, heilsgeschichte translates as “salvation history,” culminating in the redemptive and reconciliatory work of Jesus Christ. However, as Paul shows in Romans, salvation history did not begin with Jesus, but with the dynasties of the Israelite families.

Psalm 105 provides us with a brief and poetic retelling of God’s salvation history for the people of Israel, from Joseph to Canna.

The psalm begins with an exhortation of the work of God (verses 1-6). This psalm of praise clues us into the purpose of the psalm – to thank God for the work God has done, and to be affected by and remember that work. In short, this psalm is a call to remember and a call to respond.

However, what is noticeably absent from the psalm is the disobedience of God’s people – of Joseph’s brothers or the Israelites in the wilderness. All records of history have a lens through which they view past events – sometimes it is a whitewash and other times it is an unfair representation. However, the writer of the psalm makes the lens clear to us: “That they might keep his statutes/and observe his laws. /Hallelujah!” (verse 45). In short, we give thanks to God because God provides for us in the past, present and future.

Discuss the elements of Psalm 105:16-22 in relation to Gen 37:1-4, 12-28. What is similar or different?

Where in your life have you seen God’s hand?

How do you give thanks to God, or respond, when you feel that God is moving and working for your benefit?

Romans 10:5-15

For centuries, Romans was used by theologians as a “Cliff’s Notes” for theology, gleaning singular theological truths from Paul’s first-century letter to the Jewish Christians in Rome. However, scholarship that is more recent understands that Romans is Paul’s creative reimagining of Jewish salvation history, now completed by the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world.

Chapter 10 of Romans is the last chapter of Paul’s second section of reimagining salvation history. In this section, Paul shows how the salvation history of Israel is completed through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Verses 12-13 are central to this radical inclusion: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” In this pericope, Paul shows that faith – which in Chapter 4 Paul showed preceded the Law, because Abraham was justified by his faith prior to the covenant of Moses – eliminates the distinctions that separate Jew and Greek. No longer, says Paul, will some be excluded from God’s plan of salvation; the work of Jesus is for everyone!

Discuss how Paul understands salvation history, and how his narrative is similar to and different from the earlier readings.

In what ways are you, your family or your church living into the truth of Paul’s words that there is no “distinction” between any of us?

Matthew 14:22-33

The writer of Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians and to Jews to help them understand the role of Jesus as the Messiah. In his gospel narrative, Matthew includes many miracles to point to the power and authority of Jesus, God’s Son and the Messiah. One such sign, and one of the most well known, appears in today’s gospel reading: Jesus walking on the water.

In verse 33, Peter proclaims to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.” However, two verses earlier, Peter doubts the power of Jesus, and fails to walk on water. How are we to understand the role that Jesus plays in our lives and his power to reconcile us to God if even the disciples doubted Jesus’ authority?

The most important thing to glean from this story comes from verse 28. When Peter sees Jesus, he is so inspired and moved by his power that he asks Jesus to let him participate in the miracle. As the other verses have shown, God’s plan for humanity is a long one, but God is always there to provide. What the story of Jesus walking on the water does is remind us that we are a part of salvation history. We are not passive participants in the work of God, but we are active co-creators, bringing about the Kingdom and will of God on earth. We are Peter; we want to walk on the water with Jesus.

How do you see this passage illuminating the person and work of Jesus?

Have you ever doubted? How were you able to find faith in times of doubt?

How will you participate in salvation history?

Bible Study: 8 Pentecost, Proper 13 (A)

August 3, 2014

James Miller, General Theological Seminary

“Then Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” (Matthew 14:19-20)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Genesis 32:22-31

In the preceding verses (Genesis 32:1-21) we read of Jacob’s fear of his brother, Esau. This fear was well founded. When they were boys, Esau was hungry and asked Jacob to share his food. Jacob agreed, but only on the condition that Esau sell him his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34). The birthright issue emerged again when their father, Isaac, was approaching death. Jacob disguised himself as Esau and tricked Isaac into blessing him as his firstborn. To Jacob, Isaac said, “May God give you of the dew of heaven; and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let the peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers” (Genesis 27:28-29). Once he realized that he had been deceived, Isaac could not take back his blessing from Jacob. So, to Esau he said, “See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be; and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother” (Genesis 27:39-40).

In our passage for today, Jacob makes plans to appease his brother and sends his wives, children and servants on ahead with instructions to make offerings to Esau. Even so, Jacob was worried, and our text describes his wrestling with someone all through the night: perhaps he was sleeping fitfully and dreaming. In Jacob’s lack of brotherly kindness to Esau he received his birthright. Through trickery he received Isaac’s blessing. However, in wrestling with God – essentially turning to God and refusing to let go – he received God’s blessing (Genesis 32:29).

Clearly, God could have prevailed over Jacob, but chose not to do so. What is the significance of what seems to be a standoff? What is the significance of Jacob’s refusal to let go of God?

Each of us has done or said things in the past that we regret, and at some point these things seem to surface and confront us. How can we apply Jacob’s wrestling with God to our lives when this happens?

Psalm 17:1-7, 16

The psalmist is in some trouble. He is turning to God for protection from those who would rise up and cause him harm. Honesty (verse 1), righteousness (verse 3) and adherence to the law (verse 5) describe the psalmist. There is expectancy: God’s “marvelous loving-kindness” will surely result in granting refuge (verse 7) and vindication (verse 16).

How would you describe the attitude of the psalmist? Is it arrogance or is it possible to understand it as confidence in God’s protection of those who strive to lead a righteous life and turn to God in times of trouble?

Can you identify with the psalmist?

Romans 9:1-5

There is tension here. On the one hand, the Israelites are the heirs. They are adopted by God and are parties to all of the covenants (verse 4). God had made a covenant with Israel through David, whom he took from “the pastures from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” (2 Samuel 7:8). God promised that the house of David “shall be made forever before me, your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). Yet, in the Great Commission, Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Paul knows all of this. In his letter to the Galatians, he states, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the Church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age for I was more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Galatians 1:13-14). Now, however, Paul is a Christian. He has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart (verse 2).

Consider how he ends the passage with “Amen”. Is this a prayer, or is the “Amen” another way of saying “this is most certainly true”?

Consider the covenant to the Israelites in the context of the Great Commission. How do you feel about the concept that Jesus is both the universal and the particular for all creation (“all nations”)? Having considered this, what do you think about the covenant with the Israelites “forever”?

Matthew 14:13-21

We begin on a sad note. Jesus has just been told that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been killed. Moreover, his body has been desecrated: his head being placed on a platter and brought to Salome. Jesus withdraws “to a deserted place by himself” (verse 13), but upon seeing the crowds who needed him, he emerged because “he had compassion for them” and went to cure their sick (verse 14).

Jesus surely felt profound grief over John’s fate, but upon seeing the crowds, his sense of mission prevailed. The crowds needed him. The text says that “he had compassion for them” (verse 14). The Greek word that is translated as “compassion” is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη and refers to a sense of profound emotion. “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition,” edited by William Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000) describes it as a burning in “the inward parts of a body. In the ancient world, inner body parts served as referents for psychological aspects. It could be the bowels or the heart.”  Jesus’ emotions for the crowd, his compassion, eclipsed his personal grief.

This was more than a sense of duty. In the “Theological Lexicon of the New Testament” (Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), Ceslas Spicq notes that “translating the passive ἐσπλαγχνίσθη as ‘he took pity’ is almost opposite the true sense; ‘he was taken by (or moved with) pity’ would be better.”

The Hebrew word associated with ἐσπλαγχνίσθη is רַחֵ֖ם and is understood to be felt in a mother’s womb, such that the entrails are the locus of a mother’s pity for her children. (See Isaiah 49:15.) So, if we combine these understandings, we have an even deeper and richer understanding of what is going on. Jesus is overcome with emotion inwardly, as a mother would feel for her children.

Consider this understanding of compassion. Can you think of examples of this in the lives of the saints? Have you felt it?

This story contains a famous miracle: the feeding of the crowds with seemingly not enough food. In today’s post-modern era, how do you receive this story? If you think it to be merely symbolic but unlikely to be factual, how do you then understand the Eucharistic presence, baptism or the Resurrection?

Bible Study: 7 Pentecost, Proper 12 (A)

July 27, 2014

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45bRomans 8:26-39Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Genesis 29:15-28

The stories of Jacob, along with the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph, are part of the ancestral stories of the second part of Genesis. This particular story of Jacob and Laban’s convoluted relationship follows the first cycle of Jacob stories where his relationship to Isaac is also one filled with trickery. Jacob’s mischievous and conniving relationships could certainly lead a person to wonder about the quality of people with whom God makes promises. Along with people’s imperfections, there is also a theme of promise and fulfillment in Jacob’s stories. Both of these major themes can be seen in the passage for this week. This time Jacob has met his match and finds himself tricked by his uncle Laban. Their competitive relationship continues with tales of trickery for the next few chapters in Genesis. Jacob does get what he’s promised eventually (Rachel as a wife), but not until after some complications when Laban gives his older daughter Leah instead.

Often the experiences of Rachel and Leah are overlooked in this story. Consider their unique roles in this story. What would it feel like to be them and to be part of this conspiracy with their father?

What do you make of the imperfections of the characters in the Jacob story? Does it give you hope? Fear? Disappointment? Does it make you consider the imperfections of your peers differently to see whom God loves and chooses to make promises with?

When have you loved something so much that years felt like only a few days?

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

The fidelity and strength of God is a theme running through this week’s readings, and it’s especially present in this psalm. Verses 1 and 5 urge us to remember all that God has done for us. Verses 8-11 use the example of God’s covenant with Israel and how God has never forgotten those promises. But another message of this psalm is that it’s not just enough to remember what God has done in the past. One must search for the Lord and continually seek God’s face. This is a reminder and an invitation to look for God in everything that you do. Look for Christ in each person you meet, no matter how secular or unexpected the setting. What you will find there is God’s strength, God’s loyalty, and an awe-inspiring, forgiving love. Even when you lapse and forget to seek God’s face, remember that God has always been mindful of you.

Ponder what God’s loyalty means to you in your life. Are you aware that God has always been mindful of you and all God’s creatures?

How do you seek God’s face? Through your relationships? Through a spiritual practice? Consider this question and see if you can think of a new way to seek God’s face this week.

What does it mean to always be mindful of something? Is there something in your life that you are constantly mindful of (e.g., your cellphone, how you look, what other people are thinking of you)? What would it feel like to practice a day of mindfulness where you tried to be mindful Christ’s presence in every moment?

Romans 8:26-39

Paul affirms the incredible power of the love of Christ in this moving passage from Romans. Earlier in the same chapter, Paul contrasts the hope of future glory with the present suffering of our human condition. The reading for today begins with one of my favorite images in Romans: the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. How achingly true these words are. Sometimes we do feel that inner, soul-searing ache that not even the deepest sigh can convey. But here we see that God know our innermost pain. Paul urges us to recognize the depth of our human despair, but simultaneously recognize that we are not alone in our struggle. The Spirit will teach us to pray, God will make everything work together for good, and nothing will separate us from the love of God. The rest of the passage solidifies the depth of Christ’s love for us after we have fully committed to our faith. Nothing we do – not missing church too many times a week, having periods of doubt, gossiping with a friends – can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Think of a time when you felt the Spirit interceding for you with sighs too deep for words. When do you sense the Holy Spirit the most? Do you associate the Spirit with comfort, change and/or pain?

What do you do that makes you feel separated from the love of God in Jesus? Do the words from this passage bring you comfort?

Consider memorizing a portion of this passage – perhaps Romans 8:28 or 8:38-39. Carry these words with you throughout your day and notice the presence of God in your everyday actions.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

This time of year many people are beginning to harvest vegetables from their summer gardens. I am one of those people, tending my community garden plot on the seminary campus. This spring I was struck by what it felt like to be a novice gardener, digging my hands into the soil, planting my seeds and hoping for the best. I found myself wondering, “Is this how far I should put the seed down? Are the seeds too close together? Will they grow? Will I know what it’s even supposed to look like when it grows?” These and so many other questions flooded me as I excitedly planted my plot.

It strikes me that this is often how faith feels and what it looks like, and Jesus captures that image when he speaks of the mustard seed. Am I praying for the right things? Am I looking for God? Will I even know how to recognize the divine when I see it? Will I lose my faith just as I could easily drop and lose a small mustard seed? Will I tend my faith enough, just like you weed a garden, so that it can flourish and grow?

Having faith is risky; it’s scary, and it can feel uncharted. But it can also reap an incredible harvest – one that is richer than we could imagine.

These same questions of faith apply with the other images in the passage from Matthew – yeast and nets in the sea. We take a chance with faith, and we trust that our belief will not go unnoticed or forgotten.

Consider the different risks you take in your own faith life – can you relate with my story about gardening?

Try finishing the sentence “The kingdom of heaven is like …” for yourself. What other images can you think of to complete that sentence?