Archives for January 2017

Bible Study, Last Sunday after Epiphany (A) – February 26, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Exodus 24:12-18

Exodus 24:12-18 provides an account of Moses’s ascent of Mt. Sinai for purposes of receiving the law and commandments. The reading begins with God’s two-part instruction to Moses to “come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.” Moses complies with these instructions, and sets out with Joshua toward the mountain. (Before leaving, however, Moses gives a similar instruction to Israel’s elders, directing them to “wait here for us until we come to you again.” The significance of this directive will be keenly observed later in Chapter 32.) Then, alone, Moses continues up toward the mountain. Critically, Moses stops short of reaching its summit. Meanwhile, the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain, covering it in a cloud. Moses waits on the mountain—but outside of the cloud—for six days. On the seventh day, God beckons Moses from within the cloud to enter in it—God’s glory then visibly appearing “like a devouring fire” at the summit. (v. 17). Moses obeys, entering the cloud and climbing to the top of the mountain. Moses remained on the mountaintop and within the cloud of God’s glory for forty days and forty nights.

The sequence of events leading up to Moses’s climactic ascent into the glory of God on the mountaintop is marked by an important pause between Moses’s initial ascent onto the mountain and then his ultimate ascent onto the mountain’s top into the glory of God. In both periods, Moses patently demonstrates obedience to God’s instruction and invitation: God first beckons Moses to come to the mountain, and Moses does. Then, God calls to Moses from within the cloud to enter and Moses does.

Equally important to these incremental sequences of ascending movement, however, is Moses’s obedience to God’s intervening directive to wait. For six days, Moses waits—on the side of the mountain and maybe only halfway up it—until such time that God asks him to continue onward and into God’s immediate and outwardly visible presence. During those six, exposed days, Moses waits in a liminal space between Israel camped below and the cloud of God’s glory above. It is perhaps in this space that Moses, while standing with a full and up-close view of the devouring fire of God’s glory, is prepared to enter into God’s presence. Perhaps for Moses, the coming and the waiting are equally important in experiencing God’s presence and glory.

  • In what ways does God call you into closer proximity with God’s self?
  • In what ways has God called you to simply wait?
  • Do you ever feel as though you are waiting in a liminal space between that which you have always known and something else that is greater than what you can imagine?

Psalm 99

Psalm 99 is a hymn of praise centered on God’s hegemonic attributes. The hymn commences with statements concerning God’s exaltation over and differentiation from the peoples over which God reigns. Included among these statements celebrating God’s governorship over the peoples, stands an attribution of God as a lover and executor of justice. The kingly exaltations that mark the first five verses of the Psalm are interposed by the reinforcing refrain, “Holy is he.” (vv. 3,5).

The latter half of the Psalm (vv. 6-9) demonstrates a shift in focus away from the distinction between God and God’s kingdom and toward a recollection of the historical incidences of obedience, faithfulness and covenant-keeping between them. These verses recount in varying specificities incidences of God as both lawgiver and forgiver and God’s people as wrongdoing but penitent. These incidences are freighted with allusions to the Saini-based, law-giving narratives and include referents to Moses, to God speaking from the cloud, and to God speaking from the holy mountain. The Psalm concludes with a statement that God is holy.

  • In what ways may a law-giver demonstrate an inclination toward justice?
  • What does it mean to say that God is holy?
  • What attributes does God exhibit that demonstrate holiness?

2 Peter 1:16-21

2 Peter 1:16-21 consists of two principal statements—both, three verses in length—purposed to bolster the credibility of the author’s other teachings set out in the letter. In the first section (vv. 16-18), the author establishes their credentials as one personally acquainted with the person and majesty of Jesus Christ. To do this, the author first disclaims “cleverly devised myths” as the sources of inspiration or instructional content. (v. 16). Instead, the author acts as an eyewitness to Jesus Christ’s majesty and as one who was personally present at Jesus’s transfiguration. Given this intimate proximity to God and to Jesus (indeed, the author claims that he heard God’s voice that identified Jesus as God’s son with whom God was well-pleased), the author’s teaching inferentially reliable and authoritative.

In the second section (vv. 19-21), the author describes prophesy as originating from the Holy Spirit rather than from human imagination or from the human will. Implicitly, the author holds out his teachings as confirmed prophetic messages. Using metaphors of darkness and sources of light, the author admonishes the reader to closely attend to these confirmed prophetic messages.

  • What is your understanding of prophecy?
  • Are prophetic messages still heard today?
  • How do we discern the implications of today’s prophetic messages?

Matthew 17:1-9

Matthew 17:1-9 presents a narrative account of Jesus’s transfiguration. The passage begins as Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. Once there, Jesus is “transfigured” in front of them; his face shines “like the sun” and his clothing became “dazzling white.” (v. 2). As this occurs, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear also. This gospel narrative is silent in describing their appearance (cf. Lk. 9:31).

What follows are multiple incidences of audible speech—some preserved as direct quotations—that occurred on the mountain. First, Moses and Elijah talk with the transfigured Jesus. The narrative does not share the merits of their conversation. The narrative does, however, recount Peter’s exclamation that occurs next: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (v. 4). Although Mathew’s gospel does not share the impetus driving Peter’s exclamation (cf. Mk..9:6; Lk. 9:33), its awkwardness is immediately evident to the reader. What’s more, as Peter is speaking, his outburst is interrupted both by a bright cloud overshadows them, and also a voice that emanates from within the cloud.

The voice pronounces: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” (v. 5); compare (Mt. 3:17). Upon hearing this voice, the disciples fall to the ground, altogether rapt in fear. The final narrative quotations contained the reading come from Jesus. First, Jesus urges his disciples to rise and to fear not; second Jesus directs his disciples to not disclose that which they observed until “after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (v. 9).

The spoken passages recounted in this pericope supply a measure of authenticity to its narrative arc. Peter’s interposition of an inappropriate offer to construct makeshift tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is the most useful for this purpose. In hearing Peter’s offer, readers are able to not only share in the palpable discomfort that Peter experienced at the time, but also appreciate the patent incompatibility of Peter’s proposal with that which transpired before him. This incompatibility is, by extension, demonstrative of the differentiation between the human (Peter) and the divine (Jesus transfigured).

The consequence of this differentiation reaches its climax when God announces Jesus’s son-ship: the disciples are reduced to abject fear and Jesus is (ostensibly at least) elevated beyond even his transfigured state. It is at this point of ultimate differentiation that Jesus comes down to his disciples, and touching them, implores them to get up and to fear not. Thus, we observe in microcosm the incarnation of Christ as God with us.

  • When do you feel the farthest from, or the most differentiated from, God?
  • At those points when you perceive the greatest distance between yourself and God, what erases that distance such that you may again participate in communion with God?

Written by Jeremy Carlson. He is a second-year student at the School of Theology at the University of the South and a postulant from the Diocese of Alabama.

Download the Bible Study for Last Sunday after Epiphany (A).

Bible Study, Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (A) – February 19, 2017

[RCL] Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 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.”

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

  • What might it mean in your life to surrender to God?
  • 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?

Written by Christine Havens. This Bible Study was originally posted in February 2014.

Download the Bible Study for Epiphany 7(A).

Bible Study, Epiphany 6(A) – February 12, 2017

[RCL] Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-31

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses is coming to the end of his final sermon. He has laid out before Israel the whole of the law, including its covenantal blessings and curses (28:1-68). He has reminded the people that, if they lose their way, the repentant will be ever-welcomed back into God’s mercies (30:1-10). And, by way of conclusion, he speaks the words we read today: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (v.15).

But lest God’s people then or now misunderstand him, Moses defines what true life, true prosperity, is. It is not a ten-figure bank account, a dream-come-true romance, or a secure and stable future. Instead, it is “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (v. 20). The Lord is our life, and even amidst trouble and trial, “holding fast to him” is our prosperity. It is true God has promised to bless obedience, but the core of this blessing is union with God. All other blessings come as fruit from this union. To “dwell in the land” (v. 20), therefore, is primarily to enjoy the special presence of the Lord, from whom all blessings flow.

  • Love and obedience are tightly linked in this and many other scriptural passages. How does this link transform or deepen our understanding of life with God?
  • What might it look like to “hold fast to God” in daily life?

Psalm 119:1-8

Throughout Psalm 119, we see two contrasting figures: those happy people who keep the law faultlessly and delight in doing so, and the writer of the psalm, who wishes he was one of the people he describes. It is not that the psalmist has no desire to walk the narrow and righteous way of the Lord. On the contrary, he wants nothing more. After describing the ways of the obedient with overwhelming reverence, he writes, “Oh that my ways were made so direct.”

But instead of either promising what he will never be able to produce, or excusing himself from a seemingly impossible way of life, he speaks both a pledge and a plea: “I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me” (v. 8). He cries out in the only posture we frail creatures can rightfully take before an almighty and perfect God. He expresses his longing to be the Lord’s in heart and soul and mind and body—speaks it, in fact, as if it were already the case—and then pleads for the Lord’s assistance, for the Lord alone can accomplish what the psalmist has dared to request.

  • How can Psalm 119 shape the way we pray?
  • How does the psalmist’s clear delight in the law of the Lord transform or inform the way we think about “law”?

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

All of us at some point or another have heard someone’s actions be excused with the acknowledgement, “They’re only human.” The excuse is understandable. Despite the modern world’s discomfort with the word “sin,” most would admit that people aren’t perfect; we’re bound to make mistakes and argue, bound to gossip and complain, bound (at least every now and then, we say,) to act on our lower impulses rather than our more noble ideals.

Paul, however, knocks that excuse flat on its back when it stumbles out of the mouths of the new Christians in Corinth. According to Paul, the follower of Christ who “[behaves] according to human inclinations” (v. 3) and acts as if he or she were still “merely human” (v.4), is a contradiction. For “we know that our old self”—our “only human” self—“was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6). With that in mind, “jealousy and quarrelling” (v. 3) aren’t to be excused as the inevitable outcome of any gathering of people, but they are to be mourned and repented of as sins which mar God’s holy temple. The Church is called always to repent of its sins and to put itself each day anew into the hands of God who both purifies and brings to maturity.

  • What have you been excusing as “only human” which perhaps might call for deeper repentance and the transforming mercy of God?
  • In the second portion of the text, Paul addresses the Corinthians’ confusion between human labor and God’s accomplishment. How can we both appropriately honor human service in the Church while continuing to honor, praise, and follow Christ above all?

Matthew 5:21-37

In ages long past, a servant stood on a mountaintop with a God wrapped in fire, in order to receive the holy law. In our text today, other servants stand on a mountaintop with the same God, now wrapped in flesh, in order to receive a second law which affirms and intensifies the first. Murder has always been forbidden; now unchecked anger is revealed as the heart’s intent to kill. Adultery was never acceptable; now adultery with the eyes and mind is shown to be as evil as adultery with the body.

But how to fulfill such a law, and why even try? We are not saved by works. And yet, Jesus said not only to hear his words, but to do them (Mat 7:24). We are not saved because we are righteous, but we are saved that we might become righteous. Through Christ—who fulfilled the law (Mat 5:17)—anger has no power in us, lust has no dominion. These and every other evil have been taken down to death, and through union with Christ, they are killed daily in us as well. We are called into a higher life—Jesus’ life—and we are given his Spirit to carry on God’s good work in us to the day of its completion, when we are at last made one with Christ (Phil 1:6).

  • How is the Sermon on the Mount a blessing to the Church, as the Mosaic Law was a blessing to Israel?
  • Which portion of the reading can you be practicing through the power of Christ in order to obey his command to not only “hear these words…[but do] them” (Mat. 7:24)? 

Written by Deanna Briody. Briody is studying Church History and Theology at Trinity School for Ministry in Western Pennsylvania. She hopes to pursue further studies at the graduate level. In her spare time she enjoys writing poetry, playing volleyball, and reading novels.

Download the Bible Study for Epiphany 6(A).

Bible Study, Epiphany 5(A) – February 5, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]; Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]

 God has told the prophet Isaiah to “Shout out, do not hold back!”, and Isaiah speaks accordingly, drawing out the hypocrisy of God’s people in their devotional practices. This continues the call for a renewal of heart and behavior that we heard in Micah last week. Isaiah says that the people of God ask, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” He follows it up immediately with the answer: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, / and oppress all your workers.” Fasting (for Isaiah’s community and for ours) is an expression of repentance, but here it is only a cover for more selfish behavior. Isaiah says that in order to be attended to by God, the people must repent in their hearts and behavior: “Is not this the fast that I choose: / to loose the bonds of injustice . . . to let the oppressed go free.” Only then will God answer the people’s cry and say “Here I am.”

  • What can you think of in our common life in America that is a “yoke” to be lifted, or “the bonds of injustice” that must be loosed?
  • In your town or city, what is “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil” that should stop?
  • Where else in the Bible do we find this emphasis on God’s requirement of honest and unhypocritical devotion?

Psalm 112: 1-9 [10] 

Psalm 112 continues Isaiah’s theme and elaborates on what the life of the truly righteous person will be like. They are “merciful and full of compassion,” and are “generous in lending,” “manag[ing] their affairs with justice.” The result of living in true righteousness is a life that is happy, fearless, honorable, and trusting: “their heart is right.” The Psalmist’s words are a description, an exhortation—but also a gesture of hope, a trusting prayer that right behavior will have practical results in the speaker’s heart and mind, and in the world.

  • Which of these descriptions of a righteous person rang most true for you? Did it remind you of anyone?
  • What quality in this description was most immediately appealing to you for your own life?
  • In what ways does this Psalm specifically encourage us to grow in righteousness?
  • Did any of these images or phrases remind you of other parts of Scripture?

1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]

 Paul was writing to a congregation he had built himself a few years before, located in the diverse port city of Corinth. Today’s passage comes in the midst of a longer cry for unity in a divided congregation. Picking up on the idea of divine foolishness we heard last week, Paul admits—boasts!—that he didn’t come to the Corinthians with “plausible words of wisdom.” Instead, the power of his testimony, and of the whole community’s, is in “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” The power and wisdom of God—secret, inexplicable to human rulers—is where our faith should rest. Paul describes this power and wisdom coming to us “through the Spirit,” who helps us understand and speak what God has given us.

  • In your Christian communities, what signs of the Spirit have you seen that are not about “plausible” arguments? (Like extreme generosity, unexpected kindness, etc.)
  • Have you known someone in your lifetime who has made Christ known to you, like Paul, not in “lofty words” but “in weakness and in fear”?
  • How might this metric (humanity’s “plausible words” vs. God’s foolishness) change the way we normally think about justice? or peace?

Matthew 5:13-20

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus gives us another angle on the righteous life. The people of God must be bright—a bright flavor, a bright open light—shining before others “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew’s Jesus also makes explicit here something that runs through the whole Gospel—that he has come as fulfillment of the law, not as its destroyer. The call to righteousness seems to have changed in his new witness, but it has not at all removed it. Those who are “great in the kingdom of heaven” will be following and teaching the words of the law and the prophets.

  • Where else in the Bible do we find images like the flavorful salt or a bright lamp?
  • How might these particular words of Jesus shape the way we think of his relationship to the law?
  • How might our actions in a largely secular society be like a lamp lit in the darkness?

Written by Emily Garcia. Garcia is a candidate in the Diocese of Massachusetts finishing up her last year at Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven, CT.

Download the Bible Study for Epiphany 5(A).