Archives for September 2014

Bible Study: 19 Pentecost, Proper 24 (A)

October 19, 2014

Charlotte LaForestBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” (Matthew 22:20-21)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Exodus 33:12-23

For several weeks now, our Sunday readings from the Hebrew Scriptures have followed Moses through his time at Sinai. After the incident with the golden calf that we heard about in last week’s readings, the Lord sends the Israelites away from Sinai but says he will not accompany them because of his anger. So Moses goes to intercede for the people, and God, out of a pillar of cloud, speaks to Moses “as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11).

In today’s reading, Moses appeals to the closeness of his relationship with the Lord to request the Lord’s presence for the Israelites as they continue their journey. Moses prays boldly, reminding the Lord that he has acted faithfully and found favor in the Lord’s sight, and requests that the Lord, in return, accompany the Israelites. And the Lord agrees. There seems to be a relationship between the boldness with which Moses is able to pray and the intimacy of his relationship with the Lord. This is something we can understand because of our human relationships: We often feel most comfortable speaking openly to those we know best.

Are you able to pray with such boldness? What would it take for you to grow comfortable enough to do so?

The final section of this passage contains Moses’ demand to the Lord, “Show me your glory.” Again, this is a bold request. The Lord grants the request, but has specific requirements and does not allow Moses to see his face, only his back. This is a reminder that, despite the intimacy of Moses’ relationship with the Lord, there is still mystery and beauty that is beyond human capacity to comprehend. This glorious, mysterious God who will lead an entire nation is the same God whom we find and speak to in quiet places.

Which of these understandings of God do you find yourself drawn to? What is it like if you try engaging with God in a new way – as a friend, if his glory and mystery have been more comfortable in the past; and vice versa?

Psalm 99

This psalm is a song of praise to God, part of the group of royal psalms that celebrate different aspects of the sovereignty of God. The emphasis in Psalm 99 is on God’s justice and faithfulness throughout history. The psalm recites the Lord’s works throughout history, the Lord’s justice revealed to Jacob, Moses, Aaron and Samuel.

One surprising element in the psalm is a celebration of God’s punishment in verse 8. We may not normally think of punishment as something praiseworthy, yet when paired with forgiveness as it is in the psalm, it is a component of a properly working system of justice. However, as Christians, a discussion of punishment transitions very quickly to one of mercy and grace. We do not experience God’s punishment for our evil deeds, even when punishment would be a just response, because the punishment was already meted out when Christ died on the cross. Our obedience and faithfulness to God is no longer offered out of fear of punishment, but is a response in deep gratitude for God’s grace.

Are there times when you find yourself living in fear of God’s punishment instead of acting in response to God’s grace?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

This passage is the beginning of the letter to the Thessalonians, bearing greetings from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, all of whom founded the church in this place. These verses praise the faith of the Thessalonian Christians and the example they have set for those around them. The Spirit is present and active among the church in Thessalonica despite the persecution they have endured. Paul writes, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you,” and this is not just a function of preaching, but due to the example they have set in their lives.

The form of Christian witness that the Thessalonians are embodying reminds me of the quote commonly attributed (though not actually traceable) to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always! When necessary, use words.” This quote and the text from Thessalonians speak to the message of the gospel as revealed in the lives of the faithful. This is not just about being well behaved, but embodying the hope, peace and joy of the truth of the resurrected Christ. People aren’t affected or persuaded just because they see someone who follows rules really well. But an encounter with someone who has been radically transformed by the saving love of Christ – that’s something people notice and want to know more about!

What will people notice about their faith when they meet you? Will they see the gospel in your life?

Matthew 22:15-22

Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the Pharisees are plotting, hoping for an excuse to have him arrested. In this particular plot, they are hoping to trap him by asking him a question they think has only two answers: one that will upset religious leaders, and one that will upset the Roman political authority. Jesus uses the example of the coin to make his point to the Pharisees, showing that the coin bears the image of the Emperor and thus should be given up to the Emperor. He provides an unexpected answer that escapes the Pharisees machinations by failing to offend either party.

The fact that this reading has to do with money and appears in the lectionary in October (stewardship season for many parishes) means that it has frequently served as a quick segue into a discussion about financial giving to the church. But instead of looking to the timing of the lectionary, if we look to the timing of the story itself, it takes on an entirely different meaning. This exchange takes place during Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. With this in mind, Jesus’s point that the coin with the visible image of the Emperor should be offered back to the Emperor takes on additional meaning. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (cf. Colossians 1:15), then this passage also serves to foreshadow Jesus’ offering himself as a sacrifice to God, an event that would take place just a few days later.

Jesus was willing to offer everything to God, including his very life, for the benefit of others. Of the gifts God has given you, which are you willing to offer to God for the benefit of God’s people?

Bible Study: 18 Pentecost, Proper 23 (A)

October 12, 2014

Jordan Trumble, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 32:1-14Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Exodus 32:1-14

This week’s reading from Exodus takes place in the aftermath of one of the most recognizable Old Testament events: Moses receiving two tablets with the Ten Commandments from God. Yet, we often stop there and don’t consider what happens next. The reception of God’s commandments wasn’t just a triumphant moment when the Israelites finally knew what they were supposed to do and get on with their lives, living faithfully and blamelessly. As we read in this story, having clear divine direction for how to live doesn’t actually mean that we will be able to fully live into that which God calls us to do.

In this excerpt from Exodus, we hear of Aaron, the brother of Moses, and the Israelites who are waiting from Moses to come down from the mountain where he is communing with God. As they waited for Moses to return, the people grew impatient. To quell the crowd, Aaron took gold from the people and made a symbol, a golden calf, to represent God for the people. Yet, when God saw this, he was angry at the Israelites for worshipping a false god, filled with wrath.

This isn’t an emotion many of us enjoy using to describe God. It’s so much nicer to think of God as loving, gracious, kind and a variety of other things that do not include wrath. Yet, this passage offers us a chance to consider what it might mean for God to be wrathful. As God stormed and seethed over the Israelite’s behavior, Moses stood before God and testified to God’s power and might and God’s faithfulness to the Israelites in bringing them out of Egypt. And as Moses spoke, we read that “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (v. 14).

We often speak about God being unchangeable, yet in this passage we hear a story about God’s mind being changed because of an interaction with Moses. What does it mean to you that God’s mind was changed? Is it possible that God can, at once, be both unchangeable but yet also changed?

At the beginning of this passage, the Israelites are caught up in their own impatience, which leads to their folly. Have you ever let impatience has led you to folly? Have you ever felt impatient with God? What sort of practices can help bring patience and active listening and waiting into your spiritual life?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

This except from Psalm 106 picks up on the themes from the Exodus lesson, even going so far as to reference the “bull-calf” made at Mount Horeb (v. 19). This lesson moves from praise to petition and confession, showing the full range of human emotion and the complexities of being in relationship with God. The psalm begins with praise and thanksgiving for the goodness of God and a petition for God’s continuing faithfulness.

The second portion of the psalm, though, changes to a confessional tone. The psalmist addresses the shortcomings of the Israelites building a golden calf at Mount Horeb and for forgetting the faithfulness of God.

This psalm addresses the broad range of emotions and experiences that are part of the life of faith. When you think of your own faith life, how do you understand the relationship between praise, petition and confession? What spiritual practices do you have that help you balance these things?

Philippians 4:1-9

In this passage from Philippians, we read part of Paul’s letter urging members of the Philippian community to care for one another and to be of the same mind in the Lord (v. 2). He urges to the people of Philippi to stay strong and faithful even in the midst of hardship and to rejoice in the Lord always. He uses himself as a model and encourages the Philippians to remember him and his example of how to behave. We see in this passage that the work of the community is two-fold: Paul seeks to encourage the entire community in their lives of faith but also to promote the support of individuals who are struggling.

In times of hardship or in the midst of struggle, how do you practice spiritual self-care or encourage those around you?

Paul suggests to his readers that they should be of the same mind in Christ. What does it mean for you, personally, to be of the same mind in Christ, and how can you cultivate this practice in your own life?

Matthew 22:1-14

While the parables of Jesus can often be confusing or frustrating, the parable we hear in this week’s gospel lesson is a particularly difficult one. In this passage from Matthew, we hear the story of a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son. The king has invited a long list of guests, but even after being repeatedly sought out, none of those guests will come to the feast. The king then sends his slaves into the streets to find enough people to fill the seats at the wedding banquet. Yet, when the king sees that a man is not dressed appropriately for the event, the king throws him into the outer darkness.

This is, indeed, a difficult parable. So often, we look to the Bible and to the teachings of Christ for a word of hope or a word of grace, but it can sometimes be difficult to find that, especially in parables such as this one.

As you think about this passage, imagine yourself as one of the characters. Are you the king, throwing a lavish wedding banquet? Are you a wedding guest who has denied the generosity of the king? Or are you one of the people brought in from the streets, unprepared for the celebration at hand? When you consider this story from a different vantage point, how does it change how you hear this passage? Do you find a word of Good News in it?

Bible Study: 17 Pentecost, Proper 22 (A)

October 5, 2014

Debra GoebelGeneral Theological Seminary

“Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matthew 21:43)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

The Decalogue begins with one of the most powerful statements in Scripture: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (verse 2).

Who was this mysterious voice, this unquenchable flame, this pillar of cloud? What force parted the vast sea, defeated the mighty Pharaoh and caused manna to fall from the sky like snow? It was not unusual weather phenomena or magic or any human endeavor that rescued the Israelites from a life that was more like death. It was the Lord, the creator and ruler of all the world who reveals herself to humankind through acts of power and grace. It was by these words that God gave to Moses on the mountaintop that she revealed to her people who she was and what she was all about.

What follows is traditionally viewed as a list of commandments, which the Israelites must obey in order to live fully into God’s covenant that she was establishing with her chosen people. This is certainly what is implied in the narrative. However, there may be another way to look at these “writings.”

Perhaps we can approach them from another angle. If God opens her proclamation with a description of who she is, why not read the commandments that follow as a description of who the Israelites were and who we are as their spiritual descendants?

We are the people who believe that it is God who rules the universe, not human beings nor anything we have created with our own hands. Not our institutions, not our technology, not the culture or opinions that we have constructed, but God rules over all.

We are the people who believe that God is sovereign; therefore, we do not use her name in an attempt to manipulate her to do our will. God is not magic, God cannot be coerced and God’s ultimate desire for her creation cannot be subverted.

We are the people who believe it is God’s desire that all her children have a time of rest from their labors, during which they may give thanks for her blessings and the goodness of her creation.

We are the people who honor those who made sacrifices for us in our youth, who have acted as parents and mentors, healers and guardians, equipping us to faithfully serve God.

We are the people who do not murder our neighbors. We believe that violence solves nothing.

We are the people who are faithful to those with whom we share vows of commitment for mutual love and support.

We are the people who do not take what belongs to our neighbor, whether it be possessions, relationships, freedom or hope.

We are the people who do not accuse our neighbors falsely for personal gain of any kind.

We are the people who are content with enough and do not look to our neighbor with jealousy or resentment.

The Israelites, wandering in the desert, surely experienced an identity crisis. They were no longer subjects of the Egyptian Pharaoh. They were no longer slaves. They were no longer city dwellers. Who were they? We all experience times like this in our lives. Social or economic upheaval leave us questioning our place in society, our world is turned upside down by natural disaster. We become spouses or partners or parents. We find ourselves suddenly thrust into positions of authority, or perhaps our intellectual or physical capacities become diminished. All these events can leave us questioning who we are.

Even desired events, such as the Israelites’ release from captivity or our advancement from college student to career seeker can leave us questioning our identity. Perhaps we can look at these Ten Commandments not so much as rules to obey, but our God-given identity into which we strive to live.

The final paragraph in our reading describes the people’s fear as the mountain on which God spoke to Moses was surrounded in thunder and lightning and smoke. They were afraid that God would speak to them and they would die. The people agreed to listen to whatever God said, if only she would not speak directly to them. Moses reassures them that God has no intention of bringing about their death, but only wishes to make them fully understand the importance of living fully into their new identity.

Reflect on the thoughts that come to your mind or the feelings that are triggered when you consider the phrases “rules to be obeyed” and “identity to be claimed.”

God encourages us to claim many identities. We are musicians, sons, accountants, mothers and teachers. By what do you define yourself? By your talents? Your career? Your relationships? What would happen if you could no longer be defined by these things? How would your definition of yourself change?

Experiment with rewriting the Ten Commandments in your own words, interpreting them in the context of your own life.

Psalm 19

This psalm opens with the heavens pouring forth a never-ending proclamation that all the world is the result of God’s creative activity. It echoes our reading in Exodus in which God declares that she, not idols made by human hands, is the architect of the universe. This message is broadcast from heaven not by words, but is plainly evident in creation itself.

The psalmist describes how God has placed a sun in the heavens, from where, like the glowing bridegroom, its light and warmth shine out to every corner of the earth.

The law, or fabric by which God sustains his creation and orders human interaction, lacks nothing. He has decreed his law to humans in order to make even the simple wise so that all have equal opportunity to live fully into their identity. God’s law is just and true and eternal. Obedience to it will bring enlightenment, clarity of vision and happiness. Because only God’s law can bring such happiness, it is to be considered more desirable and more valuable than anything else in his creation.

The law also serves as a reminder to the psalmist that God has promised good things to those who live by it. He restates that there are no errors in God’s law, though the insolent may attempt to convince him that there are loopholes. Finally, the psalmist expresses his hope that he is on the same page as God because God law is the foundation for his life.

It can be difficult sometimes to think of the multitude of laws we encounter every day as better than gold and more desirable than the most delicious food. Yet the psalmist understood the value of God’s law and rejoiced in it. Reflect on laws that have had a positive impact on your life and trace them back to their foundation in the Ten Commandments.

How does nature proclaim God’s law without words?

The psalmist wishes to be blameless. Do you believe this something we should pray for or hope to achieve? If not, what do you believe our prayer should be? What goal do you believe God has set for us?

Philippians 3:4-14

Paul and the Philippian church shared a great deal of affection for one another. It must have been a tremendous comfort to Paul to reflect on their friendship as he wrote this letter during his imprisonment. It appears the Philippian church was also experiencing their own challenges, although at this time it seems to have been internal rather than any kind of persecution.

Paul warns the Philippians, mostly if not all gentile, to beware of those who insist that gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised. He insists that circumcision will not provide them with any benefit, or “confidence in the flesh.” He reminds them that if anyone has cause to believe there is some benefit to circumcision it would be him! After all, he was born into a pious Hebrew family with an illustrious lineage. He had been circumcised as prescribed by the law, was well educated in the faith and in fact became a Pharisee. Paul describes himself as having been “righteous and blameless” with regard to Jewish law. He was so zealous for the Law that he persecuted his fellow Jews who had embraced the teachings of Jesus, who was, of course, a Jew himself. If anyone might attest to the importance of circumcision and insist on adherence to this practice, it would be Paul.

And yet, he claims that if there had been any advantage in it when it had been performed on him as an infant, those advantages have since become a loss, a wasted endeavor. Why? Because for Paul, the knowing Christ Jesus has made his circumcision obsolete. Not wrong, but unnecessary, particularly for gentiles.

Paul believes that it is through his faith in Christ that God will resurrect him, not by any symbolic action regarding the law. These actions cannot achieve resurrection. Paul believes that only in proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord will we be resurrected. It is perhaps like parachuting out of a plane and landing in the ocean. Hanging on to your swimming certificate, a symbol of your knowledge, will not save you! And knowing how to tread water or how to avoid sharks may keep you alive for a while, but you simply can’t rescue yourself. In this case it isn’t what you know that will save you, but who. You need to the captain of the rescue ship, who has a handle on your location and can throw you a floatation device. Paul claims that knowing Christ and sharing in his suffering offers the hope of resurrection; circumcision for gentiles is not a necessary stop on this path.

Paul believes that he had not yet achieved his goal. This statement is somewhat confusing, unless there was some question in the mind of the Philippians that his prison term had ended in execution and the letter was being written by the resurrected Paul! He tells the Philippians that Christ has enabled him to forge ahead, forgetting all that had come before (perhaps his persecution of the church) to answer the “call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Paul tells the Philippians that the symbolic ceremony of circumcision is unnecessary for their resurrection. In a world where degrees and resumes and certificates of achievement are essential for our advancement, can you identify with these gentiles who desire “evidence” of their faith? In the Episcopal Church we cannot be confirmed without evidence, in the form of a certificate, of our baptism. Reflect on the many kinds of “spiritual evidence” we possess, or desire to possess, regarding the “status” of our faith.

Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in death.” How might we become like Christ in death without actually becoming martyrs?

Paul gives us good advice when he says he will forget what he has done in the past and focus on path God has put before him. Think of the times you have been discouraged with your progress as you work to respond to God’s call. Reflecting on our missteps is helpful and necessary, but dwelling on our shortcomings can build a wall between us and God’s will for us. The next time you feel overwhelmed by your mistakes, imagine them written on the bricks of a wall, and simply imagine tearing that wall down!

Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus enters Jerusalem. He is very aware that this is the beginning of the end of his life on earth. He could count the hours he has left in which to teach the disciples, to admonish the Pharisees, to proclaim the coming of his Kingdom. The gospel writer recounts a parable that Jesus no doubt hoped would convince the Pharisees to give to God what was properly his.

Jesus tells the story of a landowner (a metaphor for God), who invests much effort into planting a vineyard (a metaphor for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was a visible representation of the Law). He has done everything possible to ensure that this endeavor will be successful. Upon completion, the landowner hires tenants to live on the land and harvest the vineyard. The arrangement (or covenant) would have been that the tenants give the landowner the profits (a metaphor for obedience) due him.

We learn, however, that the tenants are greedy and refuse to give the owner his due. They kill every messenger (prophet) that the landowner sends to collect his due. In time, the landowner sends his own son to come to terms with these tenants, but they murder him as well to prevent him from claiming his inheritance. Of course, the son is a metaphor for Jesus, who is foretelling his own death. Jesus then asks the Pharisees what justice might await these disobedient tenants. They reply the wicked tenants deserve a “miserable death” and that the vineyard should be given to those who will uphold the agreement made with the landowner.

Jesus tells the Pharisees and chief priests that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to others who will obey the covenant or “bear fruit.” The Temple Law was the proving ground, and the Pharisees were tripped up in it. Some suggest that the destruction of the Temple is alluded to in the phrase “and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” We cannot know for sure, however, we are told that at this point the Pharisees realize they are the “wicked tenants” in Jesus story. The Pharisees wanted to have Jesus arrested, but thought better of it when they realized how popular Jesus had become.

God had entrusted the Pharisees with interpreting the Law justly and with compassion and with the goal of building up God’s people. Instead, they used it to increase their own power. The responsibility of interpreting law is a very powerful thing. Law can be interpreted in such a way that it frees people from fear, from poverty, from ignorance. However even laws meant to help people can be interpreted in ways that enslave them, making the world a dangerous place for many, preventing them from prospering and keeping them in ignorance. Those who interpret law wield great power over others. Jesus tells the Pharisees that because they misused the power given to them by God, it would be taken from them and given to others who would use it justly. As powerful as the Pharisees and chief priests had made themselves, God was still sovereign and his Kingdom greater than any sphere of influence they might have carved out for themselves.

Have you ever been in a situation where others misused their power? Reflect on how this situation affected relationships and the ability to accomplish the job at hand.

Jesus said the Kingdom of God would be taken away from the chief priests and Pharisees and given to his followers. How can we, his followers today, prepare ourselves for the responsibility of cultivating God’s Kingdom? How can we guard against using this power to further our own ends?

Think about how you might retell this parable in a modern context, perhaps using a manager of a restaurant or a teacher at a university.

Bible Study: 16 Pentecost, Proper 21 (A)

September 28, 2014

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Exodus 17:1-7

In this passage, the Israelites seem to be ungrateful to both God and to Moses for delivering them from slavery in Egypt. However, they are not mere petulant, complaining whiners. Lack of water in the Sinai Desert is no joke. They are in dire straits. It is interesting that it is Moses who reacts to the people with frustration, while God reacts by calming Moses and providing water for the people. The test seems to be as much of Moses’ leadership as of God’s presence among the people. God is indeed among us in dire straits, and offers guidance to fearful leaders as well as to the congregation. The God of this passage is present and compassionate.

There have more than likely been times in your life when you have been in great need and wondered if God is present. Have there been times when you have been in a leadership position and focused on the complaining and doubts of the people you are trying to lead or help as a challenge to your leadership? Would it have been more helpful to be compassionate and consider the validity of their concerns? Have there been times when God has helped you to lead more effectively?

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Psalm 78 is a “maskil” or teaching psalm attributed to Asaph, a singer at the Jerusalem temple during the time of David and Solomon. The opening verses present the psalmist’s intent, which is to recount the traditional tales of the Lord’s glorious deeds in the times of their ancestors. In verses 12-16, the psalmist reiterates the story of their salvation: deliverance from Egypt and the miracles in the desert, including the story of providing water from the rock that we read in today’s passage from Exodus. By stating in verse 2 that he is offering a parable, the psalmist makes it clear that he is not merely repeating the old tales, but presenting them as riddles that bear reflection. He asks the reader to seek out the spiritual truths behind the stories.

The psalmist refers to stories from the Hebrew Bible that were already ancient and mysterious (dark) in the days of David and Solomon. What might David and Solomon have learned from the old stories of God’s marvels? What might we learn about the journey of faith from these stories today?

Philippians 2:1-13

Today’s passage from Philippians is particularly rich. It opens with Paul’s affirmation of his joy in proclaiming the gospel, even in the imprisonment that he has acknowledged in his greeting in Chapter 1. Paul reminds the community at Philippi of the need for unity and humility in the fellowship they share in Christ. The beautiful Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 is both an aid to worship in community and a reminder that Christ, though equal with God, did not hesitate to take the form of a slave, an example of humility and service. The admonition to “work out your own salvation” continues the theme of community. Not only are the Philippians to work together in humility, they are to work with God for the salvation of all.

In your Bible study or prayer group, meditate on the Christ hymn as an opening for contemplative prayer or lectio divina. How do you use hymn singing as a form of devotion? What other devotional practices in community move or inspire you?

Matthew 21:23-32

This passage from Matthew follows the scene of Jesus driving out those who were buying and selling in the temple in Jerusalem and overturning the tables of the money changers. When the blind and lame come to the temple to be cured, the chief priests and elders become angry. This is the point where they question him: By whose authority are you doing these things? Jesus’ counter question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” implies divine authority and sends the priest and elders into fear, confusion, argument and a desire to save face.

Jesus continues his teaching with the parable of the two sons. The first son changes his mind, which might be seen as repentance, while the second son is shown to be a liar and a hypocrite. The implication is quite clear. Jesus affirms John the Baptist as righteous and from God, while the chief priests and elders are exposed as hypocrites who privilege human authority over divine authority.

The chief priests and elders exercise damage control when they hesitate to answer Jesus’ question. They fear the crowd’s opinion and they fear loss of power. How often do we see our own leaders doing this? Is there a time when you have done this yourself, holding on to power rather than giving an honest answer that might imply that you do not have control? Do you think that we privilege human authority over divine authority?

The first son in the parable changes his mind. While the term “flip-flopper” is a negative term in our political culture, Jesus suggests that change can be preferable to lies and hypocrisy. Can you think of any examples from politics? Can you think of any local or personal examples?

A theme of the passage is belief versus unbelief. Why do you think the chief priests and elders are reluctant to acknowledge the divine authority of John the Baptist and Jesus, while the tax collectors and the prostitutes believe?

What does repentance mean to you? Is it synonymous with change or does it have another meaning?

Bible Study: 15 Pentecost, Proper 20 (A)

September 21, 2014

Nancy J. Hagner, General Theological Seminary

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45Philippians 1:21-30Matthew 20:1-16

Exodus 16: 2-15

Often people are quick to mis-characterize the God of the Older Testament as a “wrathful God.” In today’s passage from Exodus we see again the seemingly tireless patience God continues to bestow on his “chosen” flock who so quickly return to fear and accusation even though they have experienced God’s salvation and mercy over and over. In chapter 14, the Israelites have been miraculously delivered from the army of Pharaoh. Then at the end of chapter 15, they have been camped at Elin in a desert oasis with palm trees and bountiful water sources, provided by God when they were thirsty. Today’s text tells us that they are only two months into the journey (which we know will last 40 years), and are complaining to Moses and Aaron; lamenting that they would have been better off dying in the land of Egypt rather than suffer the fear and hunger they are experiencing in the wilderness.

Moses correctly points out that “your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” He then reminds them to “draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” God then appears in a cloud, assuring Moses that he has indeed heard the complaints, will provide meat and bread sufficiently, and that perhaps this time the people will know that the Lord is present.

Moses’ steadfast faith that God will provide is inspiring, but it is often much easier to relate to the Israelites as they hesitantly and with great grumbling journey further into the desert. Who does not know the fear of the wilderness? The unknown landscape of setting out on the first day of a new school, or the first days of sobriety, or returning home to an empty house after the death of one’s life partner? The wilderness is a scary place, and we are people who require “earthly things” like food and water, comfort and companionship. How do we trust that God will provide? We know the doubt that settles in after the initial exuberance of a courageous decision to escape a bad marriage, an abusive relationship, a boring job, a house too big and too much for an aging widower? Even happy decisions involve risk and a sense of the unknown: to go on a blind date, go back to college as a second career student, take a vacation alone, step into a new ministry, reach out to a stranger.

It is always our human tendency to say, “It was better and safer to stay home, to not risk being vulnerable.” Today’s passage reminds us that God loves us, hears our cries and provides what we need in mysterious and unrecognizable ways. When faced with the food with which God had covered the ground, they still asked, “What is it?” Moses said, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

When have you been in the wilderness?

How has God provided for you in the wilderness?  Did you recognize the “food”?

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

The psalm is a reminder that it is always “right and a good and joyful to give thanks” to God. It is necessary to do this not because God needs our thanks, but we need to “sing praises to him and speak of all his marvelous works” to remind ourselves of what God has done and is doing in our lives. Verses 36-44 recount the story of the Exodus and God’s provision for the Israelites. It is important to say the words aloud, for that is how we remember the story of our faith and the actions of our God. Also note verse 45: God has done all these things so “that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws.” God’s mercy, blessing, and salvation is for a purpose – so that we may live.

Think about writing your own version of Psalm 105. What praises can you sing today? What “marvels” can you recount?

How have you been “satisfied with bread from heaven”?

Philippians 1:21-30

Paul is writing from prison, thinking about death, which is, of course, a possibility. His words are focused, his confidence that he will be with Christ, robust. We have the sense that he is intentionally distilling a few important things; that he wants to convey to the Philippians what matters, in case he does not have the chance to see them again. We infer from Paul’s words that among the congregation there is conflict, divisiveness and persecution. Paul exhorts them to be unified and to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” and not to be “intimidated by opponents.” These are challenging words, but Paul issues them with confidence that unity, courage, and faithful lives, worthy of Christ, are possible.

Paul tells us to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”; and suggests that “striving side by side with one mind” (i.e., unity) is one way to do that. In what ways is our church realizing this or not? Is the unity Paul describes possible? Desirable?

Matthew 20:1-16

The familiar story of the workers in the vineyard is a wonderful parable about God’s sovereignty. The landowner represents God, who, when confronted with the unhappy day workers who started work early and yet received the same wage as the 5 p.m. latecomers who barely worked at all, asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” He then follows up with a second question: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” which implies to the early workers that they are not exhibiting any generosity, but are only concerned with getting what they have calculated to be their due.

We think we know how the world works, what is fair, what is right, who is deserving of work, of inclusion, of love, or respect, and who is not. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God – God’s vision and plan – is not organized in the ways we, as earthly humans, expect. Everything belongs to God, and God will do what God will do. God will be generous beyond our ability to comprehend.

We receive glimpses of the Kingdom and participate in it when we can let go of our anxiety about earthly things and set our hearts to love things heavenly; not eschewing our lives and the very real concerns of our world, but letting go of our rigid and anxious desire to control. Heavenly things such as love, generosity, forgiveness, grace and peace are available through the love of God and his son, our savior, Jesus Christ.

What would be on your list of heavenly things you would like to help realize on earth? In what ways could these gifts be used to bring about the Kingdom of God?