Archives for September 2017

Bible Study, 20th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – October 22, 2017

Proper 24

[RCL]: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Exodus 33:12-23

The context of this passage is the sin of the golden calf and Moses’ responding intercession on behalf of the Israelites. That act had granted a tentative reprieve, but Moses here reengages God with a frantic, bulldog-like quality that recalls Abraham’s interaction with God over Sodom (Genesis 18). Moses thus has the courage to seek God, to ask for the forgiveness of his people, and even to fight for a further concession. In response, God’s revelation is limited and partial, with the curiously round-about quality of God’s self-description in verse 19: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,” echoing the famous “I am” formula concerning God’s name (Exodus 3:14).

At stake, then, is our understanding of God as transcendent, untouchable, and unviewable, versus God’s willingness to intervene on behalf of even the most stiff-necked of folks. The theophany that occurs in this story beautifully bears witness to both. Elsewhere, God will answer this question with another: “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” (Jeremiah 23:23).

  • In our prayer lives, when do we know that “enough is enough” and one should let go of a prayer? When is it more important to keep pushing?
  • What do you imagine that Moses sees in this scene? 

Psalm 99

In this psalm, we hear both of God’s particularity, as revealed through God’s relationship with Israel, and God’s universality, through the magnificent language of holiness. Importantly, it balances both mercy and justice, such that holiness is not a “separatist stance but a relational stance” and, like the Exodus reading, it speaks to the paradox of a God “not set apart from the world, but rather set apart to the world.”[1] Israel is called to have such a relationship reciprocally with God.

How does the psalm suggest we manage that? It appeals to the great tradition of famous intercessors from the past who have done that very thing, mediated in awesome and fabulous ways, throughout Israel’s history. Moses receives particular attention as an interlocutor between humanity and God, with six references occurring in this section of the Book of Psalms (90-106).

Our challenge is to recognize our capacity to be such an intercessor, in the line of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, so that we might help God’s people speak with God today.

  • Some translations render the second half of 99:3, referring to God’s holiness, as “Holy is He!” (ESV) or “He is Holy” (NIV). (Interestingly, the King James Version reads “for it is”) How do those translations, and the Book of Common Prayer’s “he is the Holy One,” add to or detract from your understanding of God?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Since they are generally recognized to be the oldest Christian writing available to us, I read these lines of Scripture with a particular awe. That understanding, of course, must be tempered by the reality that the letter itself was written deep into Paul’s ministerial career. Thus, although we are reading 1 Thessalonians as the earliest of Christian witness among the extant letters, it demonstrates a writer already well-versed in his subject material. Already present then are Paul’s famous triad of “faith, hope and love” in verse 3, the statement of High Christology in verse 1, and all the tantalizing clues to the history of the Early Church.

For us today, we might encounter Paul’s statement about becoming “imitators of us and of the Lord” (v. 6) as somewhat arrogant. Given Paul’s context, one without the long history and tradition of Christian apologetics with which we are blessed, it is not only logical that Paul would point to himself as a model but, given the persecution that he mentions in the same line, utterly brave.

  • After reading this selection, how do you read the second person pronoun in the next chapter’s verse 4? As singular or plural? Why?

Matthew 22:15-22

If there had been a modern press pool following Jesus and the Pharisees’ exchange, an enterprising journalist might have asked the follow-up question: “What are the things entitled to the emperor? And what are the things entitled to God?” Such a clarifying rejoinder was not, however, asked or recorded, as in fact, Matthew continues his narrative with yet another exchange between Jesus and the hostile opposition.

The “coin debate” has vexed readers ever since. One noble attempt to answer it was provided by Roger Williams, the 17th-century theologian, who was an early proponent of the separation of church and state. Williams is a fascinating figure in the history of the Church; he tried to argue (against the Puritan concept of Christendom dominant in his day) that Scripture itself supported both freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Williams suffered for that belief, but always maintained that “God is too large to be housed under one roof.”

Our modern understanding of church-state relations is as flawed and limited as the Pharisees’ original. Williams’ witness and Jesus’ response are, at the very least, a reminder that criticism of the government has itself a long lineage in the Church.

  • How does one effectively discern when one should cooperate with governmental authority and when one should resist?

[1] Brueggemann, Walter, & William H. Bellinger (2015). Psalms. New York: Cambridge. 425.

Originally from St. Stephen’s, Culpeper, Charles Cowherd is a candidate for the priesthood in the Diocese of Virginia.

Download the Bible Study for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bible Study, 19th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – October 15, 2017

Proper 23

[RCL] Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Exodus 32:1-14

In today’s culture, it is easy to expect immediate results. Fad diets, wireless internet, and other trends and technologies have taught us that we can stay connected and get feedback without waiting. It appears the people of Israel suffered the same expectations; a lack of patience for Moses to return drove them to build and worship false idols. It is hard to remember that our time is not God’s time. When we sit before the Lord, it is in our stillness and patience that God becomes clearer.

  • What idols do we build and worship instead of God in our own impatience?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.” This psalm is the antithesis of the Exodus passage. It speaks of divine goodness and eternal gladness and glory, which we can dwell upon if we keep our hearts pointed toward God. It notes the wrongdoing of the people of Israel when they made and worshiped the golden calf, and acknowledges the continued wickedness of which humanity is capable. But it turns our hearts back toward God, reminds us of the intervention of Moses, and praises the Lord who has mercy eternal.

  • How do we turn our shortcomings into praises for God like the psalmist here?

Philippians 4:1-9

St. Paul loves the community at Philippi. Philippians is often referred to as the friendship letter because of his affectionate tone and reassurances. This passage seems to fit right in with that assertion. We are reminded, not for the first time in this letter, to be of the same mind as Christ. And he gives examples of good people doing that work. Then we encounter the juxtaposition of worry and peace. This can be one of the hardest things to do as human beings, to not worry in the face of all the uncertainty of the world. But St. Paul assures us that Godly peace which we could never fathom will guard our hearts and minds if we commit to the practice of releasing our worries to God.

  • Research says it takes 21 days to create a habit – how can we commit to prayerfully submit our requests to God for at least three weeks? Do you think it will actually yield peace beyond understanding? What might that feel like in comparison to worry? Can we trust the wisdom of St. Paul and try it?

Matthew 22:1-14

This is a parable that weaves very tightly the themes of invitation and judgment. It’s hard to determine where the hope is when so many people are disregarded or thrown out. But the message is this: the work of God in the world takes commitment. Once we get past the people who choose their own selfishness and cruelty over the invitation (which we read as the love and work of God in the world), we find that all are invited to the banquet. The issue becomes that even though all are invited, not all are ready to fully participate or commit to the experience. The transformation of our lives in God is complete. There is nothing that is not changed by the love and work of God in us. So to only be partially ready is to not be ready at all, hence why the man without a robe is thrown out. It is serious work, and we must take the invitation to do it seriously.

  • Each of us has a wedding robe to put on to attend the banquet. That is, each of us must be fully committed to the Christian life when God calls on us. What does your robe look like? What must you do or think or get rid of to be ready and willing to answer the invitation?

 

Download the Bible Study for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bible Study, 18th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – October 8, 2017

Proper 22

[RCL:] Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Isaiah 5:1-7

In this reading, we hear the consequences of God’s deep disappointment. Regardless of the goodness of God’s creation and the abundance of God’s provision for God’s people, all this careful work and love has not yielded good fruit. Instead it has brought forth “bad grapes.” God provided and Israel did not hold up their end of the covenant. God’s threats of destruction and wrath are possible for me to understand on a human level, but make me very uncomfortable when it comes to God. However, hearing of God’s heartbreak and disappointment does make me mindful of how what I do impacts not only me and others, but also God’s self. With the gifts I have been given, I am accountable to all to use them justly and rightly. 

Psalm 80:7-14

As Psalm 80 responds to the Isaiah passage, one can hear a dialogue going across these two readings. God issues the complaint against Israel in Isaiah. Then, after danger, destruction and hardship, Israel reaches back out to God. The psalmist remembers how God once tended and cared for Israel. This suggests that the tending and restoration of Israel is about more than rebuilding with bricks and mortar, but that it has to do with repairing a strained, or even broken, relationship with God. There is a deep trust in God’s own faithfulness to Israel expressed, which gives voice to the hope that whatever may be broken and lost can only be restored with God’s help and care.

Philippians 3:4b-14

Paul’s account in this reading from Philippians shows how his world was completely turned upside down by Jesus. As much as Paul was transformed, there is a lot of the zeal and passion in Saul the Pharisee that remains in Paul the Apostle. Paul admits that he had utmost confidence in his righteousness and faithfulness as a Pharisee. He lived out those beliefs fiercely. Paul tells of his radical transformation from trusting in his own abilities to be a faithful follower to acknowledging that all his trust and confidence must rest in God alone. His conversion included the understanding that righteousness, grace and faith are all gifts from God. In Philippians, we hear of Paul’s passionate faith in Christ Jesus. His story of conversion reveals that while we may be transformed into new life in our faith, we do not necessarily lose those essential parts of ourselves that may be offered up in service to the spreading of the Gospel and following Christ.

Matthew 21:33-46

Who do you imagine you are in this parable? Do you feel like a persecuted messenger? Have you been the persecuting tenant? Do you wonder if you are producing fruits of the kingdom or falling and stumbling all over the cornerstone?

Today’s readings illustrate from a variety of perspectives a desire for and resistance to relationship with God. God’s people throughout the ages, not only in the Bible have rejected God, Christ and God’s other faithful messengers. We hear from Paul in Philippians that this is a risk worth taking for the sake of the Gospel. God’s desire for reaching and reconciling humanity goes so far as to send God’s own Son, God’s self to reach us, even if it means a humiliating death on a cross. Threats of God laying waste to Israel (in Isaiah) and of being broken or crushed by the cornerstone (in Matthew) are unsettling and challenging. Yet the pleas of the psalmist and the radical transformation of Paul give me hope. In the brokenness in our relationships with God and each other, where faith still rests in God, there is hope in restoration and resurrection.

This Bible Study by Jennifer Landis originally ran for Proper 22 (A) in 2011.

Download the Bible Study for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (A).