Archives for July 2017

Bible Study, 12th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – August 27, 2017

[RCL:] Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Exodus 1:8-2:10

We enter this reading on the on the happy note of how God saved Israel from hunger through Joseph and enter the story of why Egypt did not remain the home of the fruitful and strong nation. If the nation could have been lost in Joseph’s story by betrayal of brothers, then this story is about the betrayal by others, neighbors really. The death of every boy would also leave mothers and sisters without clans to protect and appeal for them. The women have their own means of resistance to oppression. We see honor given to the nervy midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Their names are recorded while the Egyptian princess remains unnamed. This time, God would use another son, Moses, lost in Egypt, drawn up from the water (instead of a well) to save his people.

  • How do we talk about God’s redemption of the bitterness in our lives?
  • The communion of saints includes the named and unnamed. Are you more comfortable with those whose lives have been recorded or those known only to a few?

Psalm 124

This psalm recounts God’s extraordinary acts to aid the escape of the whole people of Israel. It is meant to comfort the individual in times of trouble and may have been recited by pilgrims headed to Jerusalem. It is a fitting complement to the Exodus story and it is easy to imagine the Israelites telling similar stories as they walked in the wilderness. There are repeating phrases in this psalm, such as “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,” for poetic emphasis and to aid in recollection. This repetition is common in Hebrew poetry. The phrases that begin with “then” are meant to build on each other. The climactic declaration “Our help is in the name of the Lord” is the thanksgiving for Israel’s deliverance and ours.

  • Escape is a common biblical theme but not one we speak of often in contemporary culture. Reflect on escape. Did you feel God’s presence more acutely after an escape?
  • What does the name “Maker of heaven and earth” mean to you? Does that image make God seem nearer or farther from your circumstances? Are you comforted by your understanding of God’s intimacy or holiness?

Romans 12:1-8

This is one of the most beloved passages in the New Testament for its egalitarianism and accessible imagery. It begins Paul’s instruction on Christian community that contrasts our bodies, which stand for our entire selves, with the community as a body. He calls for faithful, sober, and wholesome living (often translated as “perfect”) in contrast to the passions in Romans 1:18-32. Paul supports an austere, communal life with times of ecstatic prayer but was not a believer in marriage and family life.

  • What social structures and practices support Paul’s exhortation for faithful, sober and wholesome living today?
  • How do we reconcile his image of the church as one body with a variety of household types?

Matthew 16:13-20

This passage is a climax for Jesus’ teaching, healing, and feeding in Matthew. The Pharisees and Sadducees want yet another sign at the beginning of the chapter, but ordinary Peter is confident that Jesus is the Messiah.

Peter receives honor in each of the gospels, but in Matthew, there is a direct reference to the Church. There is no Church without the confession of Jesus as the promised Messiah, and even at this moment, the Church is in conflict with “gates of Hades” (NRSV). Further, the Church is aggressive against the gates of hell, entrusted with authority and ultimately victorious. It is done. Death is permanently defeated but continues to terrorize and deceive unaware souls. Fear of death is not the same as death.

  • Is confession of Jesus as Messiah an aggressive statement in your community or more customary?
  • In your spiritual imagination, what do you understand to be Peter’s keys?

Download the Bible study for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bible Study, 11th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – August 20, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

Genesis 45:1-15

Oftentimes, when we read the stories of Genesis (and other biblical books), we are perplexed at the turn of events attributed to God. For example, why would God place a forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden? Why would God destroy the world through a devastating flood? Why would God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son? In today’s Genesis text, we might ask, “Why did God put Joseph and his family through such an ordeal, just to get Joseph into Egypt (as it says in verse 8)?” These stories might not be seen as literal presentations of God’s actions and motives.

Rather, they may be understood as myths, in the sense of stories that use symbolism to speak about reality, or, in the case of the Patriarch stories, legends, that is, interpretive stories of historic events. We should ask ourselves then what theological points the author was trying to make through this story. The answer might be that God can act in our lives and provide for us, even through circumstances that are apparently without hope, such as severe family strife or times of deprivation.

Notice also how Joseph’s tearful reunion with his brothers (and his observation that this has all been God’s work) comes after a few chapters of devious dealing on Joseph’s part. Of course, his brothers previously had sold him into slavery. And they are all the sons of Jacob, the one who took advantage of his own brother and deceived his elderly father. These are not people with whom we would want to share a long car ride! Despite their flaws and bad behavior, however, God still chooses them and manages to do great things through them. Proof indeed that God can write straight with crooked lines!

  • Where might God be acting unexpectedly in our church, families, and other experiences, especially in those circumstances where we feel there is no hope?
  • How does God’s choice of Joseph, his brothers and father, despite their unsavoriness and failings, speak to your own experience of God’s grace in those circumstances and people who might not have been our first choice?

Psalm 133

Commentators suggest that this psalm could be extolling either the joys of harmony in the family, or the fittingness of worshippers participating in the sacred liturgy in the Temple on Mt. Zion. Regardless, this psalm, despite its joyful tone, can serve as a sharp warning and even rebuke to our modern Christianity, so often fraught with divisiveness. We are reminded here that our fellow worshippers are indeed our “brethren”. Sometimes it can be difficult to be mindful of this reality, especially when we differ on matters of liturgical practice, discipline, ideology, or theology. Notice how the sacred author frames this Psalm with a beginning mention of harmony among people and a concluding statement that the blessing of the Lord is life.

Undoubtedly, the two are linked – the fullness of life can only be experienced when there is harmony within the family of faith.

  • How might each of us reform our own actions, thoughts, and words so that we can be “brethren living in unity”?
  • The biblical notion of salvation is often characterized as a communal experience of the fullness of life. How does this psalm serve as a challenge to some popular ideas that equate “being saved” with getting into heaven?
  • What emotions, ideals, or hopes are evoked in the psalmist’s use of “precious oil …  running,” and “the dew of Hermon”? What is being said about the effects of unity?

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Paul continues to ponder the conundrum of Israel’s failure to accept the gospel of Jesus. His references to Abraham and the tribe of Benjamin might serve to evoke Paul’s namesake, Saul the king, of this same tribe, who also struggled with the unbelief of his people. Prior to Saul’s becoming king, God told the prophet Samuel, “They have rejected me as their king” (1 Sam 8:7). The people are greatly afraid of God’s anger, but Samuel assures them that God will not cast them off, just as Paul says that the Lord will not reject his people now. Paul thus situates Israel’s rejection of Jesus in a larger narrative of his peoples’ struggle to believe.

Paul’s reflections on God’s mercy illustrate how redemption can be brought out of what appears to be a great failure. Just as non-Israelites had previously rejected God, they now have experienced redemption through the sheer mercy of God, not because they did anything to deserve it. So too will Israel’s failure to accept Jesus serve as an occasion for God’s mercy. Above all, Paul tries to illustrate that human disobedience and failure cannot frustrate God’s grace. Grace is a free and abundant gift; nothing can stand in its way.

  • How does your personal narrative of faith mirror that of Israel, i.e. the waxing and waning of belief and unbelief?
  • Where in our experience of faith and life has God brought about redemption and grace despite our actions that appear to obstruct God’s gifts?

Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

This short pericope provides a raw, telling glimpse of the human Jesus, for this is the only instance in the Gospels when he loses an argument! Whenever he is confronted publically, Jesus always has a response to his questioners. But in this instance, his female Canaanite interlocutor manages to stump him. More significantly, it appears that Jesus evolves in his thinking about the nature and scope of his ministry. He initially makes it clear to the woman that he has come for the sake of Israel, but by the conclusion of this episode something has changed.

  • This story serves as a challenge to the closed religious mind – those who see faith as static and not subject to development. Jesus exhibits a willingness and ability to change and take on a new perspective. Are there any areas of your faith life where you might be closed-minded or short-sighted?
  • How have you been challenged with a new perspective and way of articulating some aspect of your faith that made you feel uncomfortable, but resonated with you nonetheless?
  • How does our encounter with and contemplation of the humanness of Jesus nourish our spirituality, identity as disciples, and faith life?

Download the Bible study for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bible Study, 10th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – August 13, 2017

[RCL] 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

Our reading today begins with the note that it is “the story of the family of Jacob.” Of course, for the last few chapters of Genesis, we’ve been hearing about Jacob and his family—his parents, his in-laws, his wives, and all their tricks and travails. A study of this week’s reading would benefit from a quick review of what comes before. What does the Bible tell us about this family? How have its members spoken to God? In what manner have they followed God’s will? As many commentators have remarked, the brevity of this literature goes hand-in-hand with its psychological complexity. The entire story of Joseph tells us about God and God’s relationship to us in a much more complex way than “lessons” or moral summations.

  • Has there been a time when you have had something of value (beautiful objects, a position of power, someone’s love) which other people did not have? How might this experience inform your reading of the story? After thinking about it, does any word or phrase stand out to you?
  • Has there been a time when you have watched someone else receive or achieve something of value that you did not have? How might this experience inform your reading of the story? After thinking about it, does any word or phrase stand out to you?
  • What other stories from Genesis does this first excerpt recall?

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

Our Collect of the Day asks for the Spirit to think and do what is right, and this Psalm elaborates on how we might also make steps towards that with God’s help—by giving thanks to God, by continually seeking him, and by remembering what he has done. The Psalm also offers another interpretation of the Joseph story (echoing how Joseph himself will interpret it near the end), that God steered the events from the start, sending a famine and testing Joseph in his struggles. This appointed reading is a carefully cut excerpt from a long Psalm full of history, and this portion on Joseph comes in the middle (not chronologically). For the Psalmist, the whole ordeal is, as we see in the last verse, a reason for exclaiming, “Hallelujah!”

  • The Psalmist calls us to remember the marvels God has done, including “his wonders and the judgments of his mouth.” When you remember how God has acted in your life, what are some of the marvels he has done?
  • Do you agree with the interpretation in verse 16—that God sent a famine to the land? Keeping in mind that there is a range of orthodox beliefs on this topic, consider discussing how God intervenes in our lives and in the life of the world. How have you understood the mixture of challenges and blessings in your own life?

Romans 10:5-15

Romans is a theologically complex and occasionally stylistically baffling long work of the Apostle. This portion of Romans is a delightfully typical rush of clauses and phrases, running like an enthusiastic preacher’s poetic logic from one to another. The verse which asks us to confess with our lips and believe with our hearts is one that has been often used in some churches to suggest that only a moment of verbal confession is what “salvation” really means. But Paul then talks about justification (the English translation of a word from Greek, which was used to translate the Hebrew word for righteousness) as well as salvation, and emphasizes this with two citations about Jesus’ acceptance of all who turn to him. The final paragraph is a rush of movement from this moment of belief out of the door, into the streets, on the beautiful feet of a bearer of good tidings—that’s us!

  • What do you think it means to “believe in” Christ? How has your own belief come about in your life, and how has it changed over time?
  • When have you asked God for help before?
  • How do you understand being sent out to share the news about Christ?

Matthew 14:22-33

The disciples have had a hard time of it of late, what with parables they truly couldn’t parse and mistakes over who would be feeding whom. Their confusion continues here when they greet a sign of power with fear, and Peter rises from fear to trust to fear again. Jesus’ question about doubt goes unanswered. In chapter 13, we had heard parable upon parable about the kingdom of heaven. This story comes near the end of chapter 14, which begins with John the Baptist’s beheading and continues with the feeding of the five thousand. Scholars believe that Matthew was writing in a time of incredible division and oppression for the Jesus-following communities; these stories of mistaken understanding, violence, need, and Christ’s power in those moments were written for these suffering communities.

  • Have you had moments when you felt like Jesus invited you to walk on water, and you were able to join him? When have you felt like you were invited to do so, but felt like you were sinking?
  • What do you think this story might mean to someone who is suffering? Who in your community—your church, your neighborhood—has something in common with the hurting communities of Matthew’s time?
  • What is your understanding of miracles like this? Do you look for material or psychological explanations, or do you take the story as we hear it here?

Download the Bible study for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bible Study, The Transfiguration (A) – August 6, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Exodus 34:29-35

Moses returns to the people with the gift of the tablets of the covenant in his arms. He has been speaking with God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Ex 33:7-11). The Israelites stand in awe of the startling effect of Moses’ shining face. And the people are frightened by the change in him.

Moses calls the people close to hear God’s most holy words to them and to share in the renewed covenant. Eventually, despite their fear of the change in him, they come—the radiance of his face evidence of God working within him.

Don’t we long to be in the presence of our Creator? We pray for that very thing, to see the face of God, to be there with the Presence, to know what it is like. And indeed, it is a scary thing, knowing we will certainly be changed by the experience. Might others turn away, afraid of our shining faces and the truth we speak?

  • Moses veils his face unless he is with God or speaking God’s word to the people. Why do you think that is?
  • How is your faith visible to others?
  • What has been your experience of speaking God’s word to others? Do you think they see you differently afterward?

Psalm 99

Psalm 99 is the last of the “enthronement psalms” where we have a vision of God seated above all in the highest of holy places: in this case, upon the very Ark of the Covenant. In her translation of Psalm 99, Nan Merrill writes, “Awaken you people! Entrust your hearts to Love.” [1] In the face of very Love, the leaders of the world bow down and proclaim the mighty King, the lover of justice, who brings equity.

The psalmist, keenly aware of the failings of human kings and of the effect of their failings on the people, recalls for them their ancestral relationship with the Lord God. God is a king who can be relied upon to bring justice and mercy, while also holding us accountable. There are safety and assurance in boundaries and covenant. We know where God stands: God stands with us.

“Awaken you people, entrust your hearts to Love.”

  • Where do you find boundaries and structure help you in your relationship with God and others?
  • Are there “lesser gods” in your life that compete for your time with the Beloved?

2 Peter 1:13-21

The author of 2 Peter is obviously concerned about authority, credibility, and trust. We aren’t sure to whom he is referring when he contrasts “cleverly devised myths” with the eyewitness account of the Transfiguration. His are not words of boasting, but of concern that the readers or listeners know the truth of Jesus Christ, the Beloved Son of the Majestic Glory.

The writer also makes it clear that the Bible is a powerful and dangerous text, not to be interpreted without careful discernment and reliance upon the Spirit as mediator. In the Early Church, it was important (as it is for us today) to have confidence in those that interpreted Scripture. Prophecy never begins and ends with human beings, but from and with the Holy Spirit who enlightens our efforts, that the Word may serve as a lamp to illumine our hearts.

  • With the many interpretations of truth that swirl around us, where do you look for guidance and counsel?
  • This letter, purportedly written by Peter, apostle of Jesus, was most likely written by a later prophetic author. How does that change, if at all, how we might unlock our own interpretation of the “eyewitness” testimony?

Luke 9:28-36

The telling of the Transfiguration is found in all three synoptic gospels. All have similar elements – Jesus’ changing appearance, his shining face and dazzling white garments, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and the cloud from which God affirms Jesus’ authority, giving a foretaste of his glory as the Son of the Most High. The differences in Luke’s gospel lie in some specifics related to the conversation Jesus has with Elijah and Moses.

“They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Here Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, bear witness to Jesus’ departure, his exodus, as still another saving act of God. Jesus and his companions will now begin the journey, traveling from the mountaintop to the valley, and from there the glory of God in Christ Jesus will be made known to all the nations.

We can’t blame Peter for wanting to hold onto the three shining figures transfigured by their proximity to the Holy One. How many times have we experienced the shining of Christ in our lives in a moment of inspired worship and prayer, only to find the image fading days or perhaps hours later? Unfortunately, we can’t stop time. Perhaps what we might seek to transfigure is how we see the world in the light of Christ, and then to reflect that out to the world.

  • What are some ways we can listen to Jesus’ voice that might transfigure our lives?
  • How do you shine the light of Christ in small and not-so-small ways?

[1] Merrill, Nan C. Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Sandi Albom is a recent May 2017 graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School with a Master of Divinity. She is serving as curate at All Saints’ Parish, Peterborough, N.H. and will be ordained to the transitional diaconate in September 2017. Sandi is active in the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire Recovery Ministries. Sandi, her husband Bob, a professor at Southern New Hampshire University, and their two feline companions, Mandy and Quinn, live in Hooksett, N.H.

 

 

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