Bible Study: 11 Pentecost, Proper 16 (A)

August 24, 2014

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Nothing can thwart God’s blessings; and the folly of fools can be transformed to serve God’s purposes. The great story of Moses and the deliverance of the Hebrew people gets underway in today’s reading. God’s promise to Abraham has been kept – the Hebrews are many, but they have not yet been delivered to a land of their own. Despite the severely oppressive and seriously lethal foe they face in the Pharaoh, God works with any circumstance to make God’s will be done. As we see throughout the biblical narrative, whenever God’s people appear to be at a dead end or irrevocably defeated, God unexpectedly brings life and hope.

Pharaoh’s assaults are two-fold: first, oppressive labor; second, the killing of the male children. And of course, God seizes both opportunities to bless God’s people – hard labor only makes the number of Israelites increase, and the order of death brings wit and cunning from the midwives (and underscores the dementia of the doomed wicked – Pharaoh orders the elimination of the very men he needs to continue his grand building projects). And God’s ultimate victory lies in Moses, the great prophet-to-be, being saved and protected by Pharaoh’s daughter, and later educated by Pharaoh himself. The irony! Indeed, our God turns death into life.

Do you see parallels of this story in your own life? Has the grace of God brought salvation and life where you saw only defeat?

Psalm 124

Part of the immense beauty of the psalms is that they richly reflect the human condition. There are psalms of hope, of thanksgiving, of celebration, of lament, of despair, of wisdom. Today’s speaks of the nation’s thankfulness and sense of profound relief, for, like Moses, they have been spared. Contextually speaking, the psalmist was most likely speaking of a national deliverance from being overrun by an enemy force. As we seek to adapt this scripture to our own context, we might move beyond its literal/historical situation.

We all have experienced feelings of being attacked by others – emotionally, verbally or physically, and perhaps we felt God’s saving hand carrying us through such dark times. For many, other kinds of assaults are just as real and painful. These are the assaults of loneliness, depression, self-defeating attitudes and actions, low self-esteem and general “stinkin’ thinkin’.” No one can face these times of life alone, and like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, we will only survive, we will only avoid being “swallowed up alive” (v. 3) if someone or something is there to carry us. This psalm might serve as a reminder that God has always been willing to “be on our side” as we journey through the valley of darkness and fear, if we are willing to allow God to guide us.

When in your life have you experienced God’s saving action?

Romans 12:1-8

Paul speaks of community, self-giving, transformation of mind, and the interdependence Christians have upon each other in light of the diversity of God’s gifts. Such an economy of verses brings such a cornucopia of challenges to the Christian hearer of this text.

Paul’s admonition in verse 2 is especially compelling and prescient. In his own historical context, the apostle was speaking of the strongly held belief of the period that the world as we know it was passing away and a new world was being born. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus were a testament and major turning point of this transitional age. While the church no longer clings to expectations of an imminent apocalypse, we can testify to the reality that the world often appears to function by one set of values, while the gospel demands another set. And we know that the values of the world are indeed pervasive; sometimes they are manifested in the running of the church itself. Paul calls us to be aware of this reality, and to bring a transformed perspective to how we might carry the values of the gospel into a world where they remain foreign.

Paul’s preaching of a variety of gifts reminds us that no Christian is an island. God has ordained each of us with gifts – a special, singular gift that we bring to the community and the world. No gift is for ourselves; all gifts are given to be shared. Notice the diversity of the gifts – some have wealth and are expected to share; some have the gift of being compassionate, they are expected to exercise this gift with cheerful generosity. The community needs each; none is important than another.

What is your gift, and how do you bring it to your community?

Matthew 16:13-20

Today’s gospel passage underscores a number of significant themes – Jesus’ identity as Messiah, Peter’s confession and the powers conferred on Peter (later extended to the other apostles in Matthew 18:18).

Let us focus on Matthew’s highlighting of the designation of Peter as holding the power to bind and loosen, as well as Peter’s new nickname: Rocky. We notice that the other gospels that record this story do not contain anything analogous to verse 19. (See Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21.) Matthew’s choice to record Jesus’ instruction and new name to Peter was carefully, for Peter had become, at the time of the writing of Matthew’s text, a sign of unity; a bridge-builder or pontifex. Early Christianity was divided along lines of non-Israelite converts associated with Paul, and Israelites who insisted that Christians must continue to follow the Mosaic Law, especially regarding circumcision and dietary regulations. Peter was recognized early on, according to scripture scholar Benedict Viviano, OP, as one who could hold these two divergent tendencies in the church in an “uneasy synthesis.” In other words, there was tension and paradox in Christian life, and Peter symbolized the one who held these together, preserving the unity of the flock that the Lord so highly valued (John 17:21). In our church and our personal lives of faith, we, too, are called to be Peter, holding tensions with care, holiness, patience.

How have you been challenged to hold paradox and tension in your faith journey?

Bible Study: 10 Pentecost, Proper 15 (A)

August 17, 2014

Christine Havens, Seminary of the Southwest

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

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

Genesis 45:1-15

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

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

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

Psalm 133

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

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

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

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

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

Matthew 15:10-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bible Study: 9 Pentecost, Proper 14 (A)

August 10, 2014

Ben Maddison, Virginia Theological Seminary

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

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

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 10:5-15

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

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

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

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

Matthew 14:22-33

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

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

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

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

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

How will you participate in salvation history?

Bible Study: 8 Pentecost, Proper 13 (A)

August 3, 2014

James Miller, General Theological Seminary

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

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

Genesis 32:22-31

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

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

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

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

Psalm 17:1-7, 16

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

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

Can you identify with the psalmist?

Romans 9:1-5

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

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

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

Matthew 14:13-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bible Study: 7 Pentecost, Proper 12 (A)

July 27, 2014

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

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

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

Genesis 29:15-28

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

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

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

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

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

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

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

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

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

Romans 8:26-39

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

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

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

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

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bible Study: 6 Pentecost, Proper 11 (A)

July 20, 2014

Donna Stanford, Bishop Kemper School for Ministry

“Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.” (Matthew 13:40)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In each of the four lectionary readings for this Sunday, we see expressed the themes of promise, blessing and belonging to God.

Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob is on the run. He and Rebekah, his mother, have connived to deceive his father, Isaac, into giving Jacob his older brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob’s deception, which led Isaac to grant him the blessing due the first-born son, fuels hatred in Esau. When Rebekah is told that Esau plans to kill Jacob, she sends Jacob away to her brother in Haran.

Our story begins when Jacob stops on his first night on the road. He lays down with a stone under his head for a pillow and falls asleep. Little does he know that he is on sacred ground. Jacob dreams of a ladder or ziggurat to heaven with angels climbing up and down. However, it is not the angels who speak to Jacob, but God. God stands beside Jacob and introduces himself: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (verse 13).

God makes the same promises to Jacob that he made to Jacob’s ancestors: land and offspring. In a sense, God includes a caveat with his blessings. In essence, God tells Jacob, “You will be blessed when I fulfill my promises to you. But these blessings are not for you to hoard. It is through you and your family that all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God then makes a personal promise to Jacob: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (verse 15). God’s promises of presence and protection – of belonging to God – are central to the covenant relationship between God and his chosen people.

Jacob awakes a transformed man. He recognizes the awesomeness and sacredness of his encounter with God and commemorates it with a shrine made with the stone on which he slept, calling the place Beth-el, “House of God.”

Are you hoarding the blessings God has given you? How can you channel your blessings so that you will become a blessing to others?

How has your experience of God’s grace transformed you?

Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23

The psalmist, resting assured in God’s promised presence and protection, turns to God for deliverance from his enemies. His blessing is his relationship with God. The psalmist addresses God by his personal divine name, YHWH (“LORD”) (verses 1, 3), and speaks to God directly: “you know” (verses 1, 3), “you discern” (verse 1), “you trace” (verse 2), “you press” (verse 4), “[you] lay your hand” (verse 4). The psalmist is awed by the completeness of God’s all-encompassing knowledge of him; God knows his actions, thoughts, and words (verses 1-3).

The psalmist affirms that God is always present with him. No matter where the psalmist goes, whether to the extremes of heaven or the grave, “Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast” (verse 9). The psalmist trusts his future to God, assured that he belongs to God. He welcomes God’s testing, which will reveal the psalmist’s righteousness and commitment to following the ways of God (verses 23-24).

Does God knowing you fully make you uncomfortable? Are you able to say with the psalmist with no reservations: “LORD, you have searched me out and known me”?

Have you ever wanted to escape from the presence of God? When and why?

Romans 8:12-25

To Paul, every human being is subject to some power, and lives either in the domain of the flesh, under the power of sin, death and law; or in the domain of the Spirit, under the power of grace. Paul has assured believers in an earlier verse that they no longer live in the domain of the flesh, but now live in the domain of the Spirit, because the Spirit of God dwells in them (Romans 8:9).

In today’s passage, Paul describes life in the Spirit in terms of relationships. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (verse 14). The indwelling Spirit is God’s presence with believers. Believers are blessed; we belong to God’s family – children of God by adoption (verses 14-15). We are God’s heirs and, therefore, joint heirs with Christ, sharing in his suffering, death, resurrection and glory (verse 17). We are to live unafraid, knowing that we belong to God.

Just as God fulfilled his promises to Jacob, Paul admonishes believers to wait with patience because God will fulfill his promise of future glory. God will free all of creation “from its bondage to decay” (verse 21). Believers and all creation must endure the birth pangs of the completion of salvation – of the promised restoration of creation to what God intended it to be, begun when God chose a people to be his instruments of blessing.

In what ways do you sense that you are living in the “in-between” time?

Discuss your experience of life in the Spirit.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a field sowed by two sowers.

The master sows good wheat seeds in his field. At night, an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat seeds. When the wheat comes up and bears grain, the weeds come up as well. The master refuses to let his slaves gather the weeds. He tells them to let both of them grow together until the harvest, when the reapers will collect the weeds to be burned and gather the wheat into the barn.

Jesus privately interprets the parable to his disciples as an allegory. He is the master, and the good seeds are the children of Kingdom of God. The enemy is the devil, and the weeds are the children of the evil one. At the final judgment, the Son of Man will send his angels to root out sin and evildoers, and the righteous will inherit the Kingdom. God’s promise in the parable is that evil will not overcome the good.

There is a more contemporary dimension to the parable. In a previous chapter from Matthew, Jesus called us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” or “is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Could it be that the final judgment isn’t a distant event in linear time but is now? Could it be that the Kingdom isn’t someplace that will be established in the future but is here now? Were both inaugurated with the coming of God in Jesus?

Jesus issues a warning: Those who reject Jesus’ message are refusing to participate in the Kingdom. They are refusing to be the blessing to all the families of the earth that God calls believers to be. Those who accept Jesus’ message and follow the praxis of the Beatitudes belong to God, are his children and have inherited the promised Kingdom.

What is the relationship between the church and the Kingdom of God?

How does your faith that God’s Kingdom will triumph over evil and death influence the way you live?

Bible Study: 5 Pentecost, Proper 10 (A)

July 13, 2014

Debra Goebel, General Theological Seminary

“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away” (Matthew 13:20-21).

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Genesis 25:19-34

Our narrative opens with Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage. After many prayers, Rebekah, who was barren, miraculously conceives twins who “struggle together within her.” In great pain, Rebekah inquires of the Lord why she should be subjected to such suffering.  The Lord reveals to Rebekah that she is carrying within her womb the founders of two nations and that the younger twin would one day rule over the older.

We are told that the first twin to be born was named Esau (representing the Edomite’s) and that the second twin emerged from the womb gripping his brother’s heel. He was named Jacob, meaning “one who supplants.”  Jacob’s name would later be changed to Israel.

The boys grew to be very different men. Not only did they look very different, but they acted differently as well. They represented two very different lifestyles, which were in conflict. Esau was a skillful hunter, while Jacob was a shepherd. Esau’s livelihood depended upon a wilderness inhabited with game, while Jacob’s livelihood required pastureland for his flocks. Shepherding would naturally yield a far more consistent source of food for a growing population, therefore, it is possible that pastureland had begun to encroach on hunting lands. Perhaps this is why Esau returns home from hunting one day, unsuccessful and famished.

When Esau asks for some of the stew Jacob is cooking, Jacob demands that Esau first sell him his birthright, which was his inheritance as firstborn son. Esau, on the point of starvation, asks what good this birthright would do him if he died of hunger. If it was the case that the game, which was vital to Esau’s livelihood, was becoming scarce due to the increase in pastureland, this land that Esau stood to inherit no longer held any value for him. Esau agrees to sell Jacob his birthright in exchange for a meal.

Jacob and Esau were twins. They were different in so many ways, and yet they shared the same parents. The same can be said of the two nations they came to represent. They were different in many ways, and yet God was the God of both.

God is the God of all. God sees us all as brothers and sisters. Many times we know this in our heads, but it can sometimes be difficult to feel it in our hearts! When have you struggled to feel that God was also the God of someone very unlike you? What might help you to feel more like a brother or sister to someone quite different from yourself?

This story is about more than two brothers who are very different. It is about the struggle that occurs when the needs and desires of two dissimilar lifestyles come into conflict. Where have you observed this in the world today? How might there be harmony between them without one overpowering the other?

No doubt there are people in your family who live very different lifestyles from your own. Do you sometimes wish they would live a lifestyle more like yours? Conversely, do you sometimes envy their lifestyles? How might you honor your own without being critical of others’, or wishing you lived more like they live?

Psalm 119: 105-112

In these lines, the psalmist professes a deep faith in the Lord and the righteousness of God’s law. He does not view these laws as oppressive, but the means by which God might provide humans with a just, orderly and safe society. Humankind cannot thrive where injustice, chaos and violence reign. The psalmist describes God’s laws as a “light to my feet,” “my heritage forever” and the “joy of my heart.” Humans cannot thrive where injustice, chaos and violence reign. God’s decrees are not a burden for the psalmist, but the means by which God might lighten the sometimes heavy load of being human. Yet it is the psalmist’s experience that others act maliciously toward him. He is “severely afflicted” because “the wicked have laid a snare” for him, intending it would seem to kill him. He asks God to “give me life!” The psalmist declares that, regardless of the cruelty shown to him by others, he will uphold the oath he has sworn to the Lord and “observe” God’s “righteous ordinances” “forever, to the end.”

There are many places in the world where violence, injustice and chaos rob people of their sense of security and their futures. Try using the themes expressed in these lines to write a prayer for those suffering under repressive governments and systems.

Have you ever experienced injustice or a malicious act by another? How has this experience diminished or strengthened your faith? What aspects of your faith were helpful in dealing with this situation? What things were not so helpful?

What precepts of your faith are a “light” to your feet, guide your way, give you stability when the world around you seems to be in chaos?

Romans 8:1-11

Paul proclaims Christ’s victory over sin and death. Through Christ’s obedience he has spared us condemnation for what we were unable to achieve ourselves. According to Paul, our inability to keep the Law of Moses weakened the Law to the point of it being unable to offer salvation, leaving us subject to sin and death.

According to Paul, God sent Jesus to do for us what the Law could not because of our own shortcomings, not because the law was in any way inadequate. Jesus conquered our sin, and through this victory, freed us from its power so that God’s purpose might be fulfilled for everyone who walks “according to the Spirit.”

Paul tells us that to set our minds on “things of the flesh,” that is, our own destructive desires, can only result in death. However, to set our minds on the Spirit is “life and peace.” Paul reminds us that we are in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us. Therefore, even if our bodies are “dead because of sin,” our spirits are still alive because of Christ’s Spirit, which dwells within us as righteousness. It is only possible for us to be in “the Spirit of Christ” because the “Spirit of Christ” is us. Paul adds that because Christ is raised from the dead, that is, because he is immortal, his immortal life is in everyone in whom his Spirit dwells.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel as though Paul is handing me pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I need to get all the pieces in the right places before I can see the big picture. I think the picture Paul wants us to see might look something like this: God gave us some rules to live by in order to provide us with a safe, just society, keeping us in good relationship with God and one another.

Yet because of human weakness, we were unable to obey these laws. In fact, our disobedience amounted to misuse of the Law and made things even worse. The Law could not then fulfill God’s purpose. It did not give life, but death. In order for God’s purpose to be fulfilled, therefore, God sent Jesus Christ who would achieve what the Law, because of our own sinfulness, could not.

According to Paul, Jesus does not replace the Law, but fulfills its purpose – just as a doctor does not replace a medical textbook, but fulfills its purpose. A medical textbook can describe symptoms and recommend treatment, but if it is misunderstood or misused, it can do more damage than good. A doctor can actually save lives; he or she fulfills the purpose of the textbook by understanding it and using that knowledge to heal others. I believe this is the picture that appears when we assemble all the pieces Paul has given us.

What does it mean to you to have the Spirit of Christ “in” you? What does it mean to you to live “in” Christ?

Scripture is often misunderstood and misused, and therefore unable to fulfill God’s purpose. How does the “Holy Spirit” overcome this?

How has your understanding of scripture changed over time? How has this change impacted your life “in” Christ?

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In Chapter 13 of Matthew we can imagine Jesus standing in a boat a little off shore but still within earshot of the crowds. On the beach, they eagerly await his message. What were they hoping to hear? Whatever it was, Jesus tells them in his parable that the message he will deliver will take root in very few of them.

In Jesus’ parable of the sower, the “seed” represents the Kingdom of God. Jesus is represented as the sower, and people as various locations where seeds may fall. When the sower drops a seed on a path, it is exposed and quickly snatched up by a bird. When he drops a seed on rocky ground, it begins to sprout, but without depth of soil soon withers. A seed dropped among the thorns is soon choked and dies. But a seed dropped on fertile ground yields a bountiful harvest.

Jesus proclaims, “Let anyone with ears listen!” Well, it seems further explanation was necessary.

A little later in the gospel, we hear a slightly expanded version of the parable. Jesus explains that the seed sewn on the path, which is snatched away by a bird, depicts how the “evil one” may snatch the Kingdom from one’s heart if one does not properly understand it. The person who is like rocky ground receives the word with joy, but without proper roots, his or her faith cannot withstand the challenges of life. The person who is like a thorny bed yields nothing because the cares of the world are more important than God’s Kingdom. But the seeds that are sewn in good soil, that is, in people who have understanding, produce a tremendous yield.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been all four of these places at various times in my life! I’ve been the path, when I was so wrapped up in where I wanted to go that I never even attempted to understand what God was putting right in front of me. I’ve been the rocky ground, when I neglected to nourish the things that were most important in my life so that they withered and sometimes died. At other times I’ve allowed my daily anxieties, like thorns, to choke out the truly wonderful things God has given me. And yet God, with loving persistence, never ceases to broadcast his unlimited bounty of seeds! God knows that there will be times when I am a rich loam and a seed takes root and grows.

How have you been a well-trodden path, rocky ground, a bed of thorns, and good soil? What were the circumstances in your life at those times? What might have made a difference in how receptive you were to Christ’s Word?

What makes “good soil”? Do you believe people are just born with it, or can good soil be developed?

How does it make you feel when others appear to be rocky ground or beds of thorns? Do you become frustrated? How can we faithfully proclaim the gospel without being pushy?

Bible Study: 4 Pentecost, Proper 9 (A)

July 6, 2014

Nancy J. Hagner, General Theological Seminary

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) 

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:8-15; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart.” (from the Collect for Proper 9, Book of Common Prayer, p. 179)

The readings for July 6 fall two days after our country’s July 4 Independence Day celebrations. As a whole, they are a call to rely on God, “to be devoted to you with our whole heart,” an important reminder that we are utterly dependent upon God’s grace, mercy and power.

Zechariah 9:9-12

Writing after the return from exile, the prophet Zechariah expresses the vision for the restoration of the Kingdom. In the case of today’s passage, the vision is one of God as the Divine Warrior “triumphant and victorious” as he protects Jerusalem from invaders, brings peace and reigns “to the ends of the earth.”

The passage is notable however for verse 9: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This is, of course, the image and text picked up by the gospel writers of Matthew and John when they describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. God is paradoxically both humble and the ruler of the world.

Verses 11-12 remind us that God also remembers God’s covenant, and because of that promise will set prisoners free and “restore to you double.”

The image of Jesus riding on the donkey into Jerusalem is so familiar because of the Palm Sunday liturgy. In what ways is God both humble and powerful?

What does the wonderful turn of phrase “O, prisoners of hope” in verse 12 suggest? In what ways are you a prisoner of hope?

Psalm 145:8-15

Coming near the end of the psalter, this hymn of great praise recalls in verse 8 the passage from Exodus 34:6, which proclaims, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Because God is “good to all,” all things in creation – people, trees, animals –are to give thanks and tell of God’s glory.

How do you praise God?

Does patriotism interfere with our praise of God as sovereign? How do we balance love of country and love of God? What does this psalm suggest?

Romans 7:15-25a

This reading contains Paul’s famous explanation of the human conundrum: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate!” A universal experience for human beings, we cannot “will our way” to righteousness. Even when we know what is right, too often desires overtake us and we behave in ways we would not choose in a perfect world.

But that is Paul’s point; we are not living in a perfect world, but rather in a world filled with sin. Paul asks, “Who will rescue me?” and answers his own question: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus is the One who rescues us from sin and “this body of death.” We have no power in ourselves alone. We must rely on God and God’s saving action through Jesus Christ. Nothing else can save us.

Can you relate to Paul’s dilemma?

How does Christ “rescue”?

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus is speaking to a crowd and laments the ways they have not understood both John the Baptist’s ministry and Jesus’ own ministry. They have accused John of “having a demon” because he fasted, and criticized Jesus for eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” The messages of each were lost in the face of criticism about what and with whom they ate! Jesus says that “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” suggesting that His actions, miracles and healings, which many people had witnessed, were much more important than the petty criticism about who his dinner companions were.

How often do we focus on details of a situation or a person and miss the greater message?

In the last part of today’s gospel, we have Jesus’ invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Thank goodness! In spite of our petty inclinations, and in spite of our blindness to God’s truth so much of the time, Jesus shows us again and again God’s “steadfast love.” He knows that all of us are weary and carrying heavy burdens; this is a wide-open invitation to all of us to “yoke” ourselves to Christ and finally find “rest for [our] souls.” Jesus does not promise that our burdens will be gone, but rather that he will walk next to us, sharing the weight of them as we walk together.

Think about the image of a pair of oxen pulling weight that neither could possibly do on their own. What burdens are you carrying that might be lighter if you were yoked to Christ?

The other meaning of “yoked” is to be like the one you are yoked to, as a student is to a teacher. Jesus says “I am gentle and humble in heart.” In what ways are you gentle and humble as you seek to be more like Jesus?

Bible Study: 3 Pentecost, Proper 8 (A)

June 29, 2014

Doreen Rice, Bishop Kemper School for Ministry

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 22:1-14Psalm 13Romans 6:12-23Matthew 10:40-42

Genesis 22:1-14

This passage has troubled readers for centuries. The image of God asking for the sacrifice of a child is both disturbing and a view of God not universally held by Christians. The passage has provided a number of interesting and varied interpretations from the notion that it is not God testing Abraham, but Satan, to the extrapolation of Jesus as our sacrificial lamb. The passage even inspired the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” where he asks whether one should obey a command from God despite it being morally wrong.

Traditionally, it was believed the text reflected a movement away from the sacrifice of the first-born, which belonged to God, to animal sacrifice instead. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, we read of Abraham’s great faith in God – a faith so strong he would obey any command, including the murder of his child. Following this passage is God’s rewarding of Abraham’s faith by the blessing of all nations through Abraham’s offspring. Isaac’s life is critical for this to occur.

As I write this, Memorial Day activities are being held. One of our local television stations is broadcasting photos of local military men killed in action. It is heartbreaking. And a sacrifice that is almost beyond comprehension.

Does God ask us to sacrifice as we live our lives as Christian witnesses? If so, how does making a sacrifice for our faith help us grow spiritually? Or conversely, hinder this growth?

Is there a sacrifice just too great for you to make as a Christian?

Psalm 13

This psalm reflects the traditional motif of despairing/trusting/rejoicing. Walter Brueggemann describes this as secure orientation / painful disorientation / surprising reorientation.

In verses 1 and 2, we read of confusion: “God, why are these things happening to me?” In verse 3, the writer asks for God’s help. The pivotal verses are 5 and 6. Here, we find the use of the past tense. The writer “put his trust” in God’s mercy in the past and does so again. This faith results in singing to the Lord because he “has dealt” with him richly. God has been present previously during times of pain and confusion. These “Dark Night of the Soul” experiences when pain and suffering can be overwhelming are also times when our faith can be its most powerful. Our faith will carry us through the pain.

The psalms are such a commonplace part of our personal and corporate prayer that they can be rather prosaic. The power of the psalms, however, is their ability to help when we ask God “Why?” during times of crisis. They can provide comfort, because our pain is reflected in the passages. Additionally, the psalms are not simply a “been there, done that” empathetic writing, but a show of force for what happens when we live our lives within God. We lament, we question, we have faith – and God responds.

This psalm is a wonderful example of a Good Friday experience transitioning to Easter Sunday. Through our faith, we understand that the Good Friday experiences we suffer throughout life end in the Easter Sunday experience of God’s steadfast love.

Discuss times during your life when you felt distant from God and how his love broke through this pain. How did your faith play a part in this?

Romans 6:12-23

Reading Paul’s letters is like listening to one end of a telephone conversation. We have Paul’s responses to situations that various churches and people were experiencing that we can only surmise.

Romans is a letter Paul wrote to a church he did not visit nor found. It is believed a mature Christian community existed in Rome at the time Paul wrote the letter.

Romans is the longest of Paul’s letters and singularly important to an understanding of the fundamental doctrines of Christian life. The central theme is God’s redemption offered to Jew and gentile alike through the faith of Jesus Christ. Because of this, Romans is roundly considered to be the most influential of Paul’s letters.

Despite this fact, scholars disagree on Paul’s purpose for writing to the Romans in response to the conflict between the gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians there. Theories include Paul’s wish to counter the notion that the gentile Christian emphasis on justification by grace apart from works of the law encouraged immoral behavior. Another idea is that Paul’s inclusion of the gentiles reflects his belief that God’s promises to Israel had not been fulfilled. At the time of the writing, the Jewish Christians in Rome were being attacked by their gentile counterparts for being too strict with regard to the law and by their non-Christian Jewish peers for being negligent with the law.

The passage here deals with being “slaves” to sin and the death this brings as opposed to being “slaves” to God and the resulting grace. Paul tells us that God’s grace is bigger than any human sin. In verse 14, he writes that sin no longer has dominion, because we live under God’s grace. We can see in verses 15-19, Paul addresses the question he understood the previous verse would elicit among his readers: “If we live in God’s grace, why can’t we continue to sin?” Paul tells us when we live in God’s grace we have an obligation to participate in this grace, to truly live into that grace. In verse 23, Paul explains what sin offers, i.e., death, versus God’s grace, which is eternal life through Jesus Christ.

An interesting discussion with regard to this reading starts with a focus on verses 17 and 18:

“But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

We can read these passages as our freedom from sin, but perhaps a more interesting view is our freedom not to sin. The latter reading offers a more proactive look at the participatory nature of our living into God’s grace. This grace does not simply offer a passive swipe of God’s hand to provide an alternative to sin and death, but demands our partnership. We must be obedient to and active within the teaching entrusted to us.

What does living in God’s grace mean to you? How do you participate in this grace?

Do you see a difference between “freedom from sin” and “freedom not to sin”?

Is the freedom not to sin a hallmark of being a Christian? Does living into God’s grace and all that that offers us trump our human inclination to sin?

Is this freedom empowering? Is it burdensome?

Matthew 10:40-42

Matthew, although appearing first in the New Testament, is believed to have been written after the Gospel of Mark. Matthew’s audience was Jewish, illustrated by a stress on Davidic lineage in the opening verses of the gospel and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and Jesus’ references to Isaiah. In a sense, the Gospel of Matthew acts as a bridge between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Jesus Christ is the authority and the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Jesus is another Moses with a message that extends beyond the Jews to the gentiles as well.

Matthew constructs his gospel around five major points of Jesus’ teaching, including the Sermon on the Mount. These five points reflect the five books of the Pentateuch and Jesus as a new Moses.

The passage here is part of Jesus’ commissioning and sending of the disciples, which is a part of Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus tells the disciples their work is like his work. For example, in verse 40, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” Jesus is imparting knowledge and purpose to the disciples and ultimately to the church. Matthew is the only gospel in which the word “church” appears. The church is the way Jesus is present to us and the way we live out this presence in our interactions with others (“whoever gives even a cup of cold water”) will be rewarded.

In this passage specifically, Jesus reveals the Father and we reveal the Son: Welcoming of disciples = Welcoming of Jesus = Welcoming of the Father.

As we consider our lives as a community of the faithful, this passage can offer inspiration as a corollary to Jesus’ admonition that we love our neighbors as ourselves. A simple act of kindness, which may seem as inconsequential as dropping a small pebble in a pond, may have an exponential effect, just as that small pebble will create ever-larger ripples.

What implications does this passage have for our work as Christian congregations?

What does outreach mean to you personally and corporately? Do you reach out to those at the furthest edges of society, the little one Jesus references, with something as simple as a cup of cold water?

Going one step further, do you welcome “the little ones” as if you were welcoming Jesus? Do you look for Jesus in their faces?

What are the rewards we experience when we look for and see the humanity of those we serve as opposed to simply meeting a physical need they may have?

Bible Study: 2 Pentecost, Proper 7 (A)

June 22, 2014

Jordan TrumbleBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” (Matthew 10:35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Genesis 21:8-21

It seems that every night on the news, there is some story involving religion, often a story involving religious intolerance or persecution by one group or another; these stories are a steady reminder that even if most of our friends and family are part of our own faith tradition, the world is filled with many who are part of myriad other religious traditions. This lesson from Genesis, in which we hear the story of Abraham’s slave Hagar and their son Ishmael who would go on to be a forefather of Islam, reminds us that the conflicts we read about in the newspapers and hear about on our evening news are not simply modern conflicts, but rather ancient conflicts. And so, when we consider difficult passages such as this one, we must remember that it is not just a moment in history we are reading about, but rather part of an ancient struggle that continues to this day.

Yet, despite how difficult this story can be when we consider its broader implications, it is also filled with hope, as God hears and responds to the cries of Hagar. Although she and her son were cast out by Abraham, God was listening and provided the wellspring that sustained Hagar and Ishmael.

In times of hardship, how do you interact with God? Do you call out to God in your pain, or do you quietly rest in your sorrow alone? The next time you are struggling or you feel as though God may be distant, remember Hagar, and consider setting aside a few extra minutes to talk through your hardships with God.

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

This week’s psalm reminds us that having a relationship with God cannot be limited to only petition or only praise, but rather must be a balance of these two acts. The psalmist’s petitions for God to “bow down,” “keep watch,” “be merciful” and “gladden the soul” are followed by the statement that “You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, and great is your love toward all who call upon you” (v. 5). This back-and-forth of petition and praise continues throughout the psalm and concludes, fittingly, with the statement that God has already acted, as the psalmist notes, “You, O Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (v. 17).

How do you understand the relationship between petition and praise? In your own prayer life, are petition and praise an either/or proposition for you, or do you understand them as a both/and entity?

This psalm wonderfully complements the reading from Genesis and, in a sense, seems to give voice to the cries of Hagar we read about earlier. As you are studying this week’s lessons, consider revisiting the Genesis text after studying this psalm and imagining Hagar’s situation as though the pleas from the psalmist are her words. By giving word to Hagar’s cries, is your experience of this story changed?

Romans 6:1b-11

At first glance, this lesson from Romans can feel a little heavy. With seven references to sin and five references to death, this just does not seem like a pleasant or happy little passage. Yet, in this passage, Paul is explaining how, through Christ, our lives are not limited to sin and death. Rather, through the grace of God, we may be united with Christ and escape the bonds of sin and death.

While it may seem like the answer (be united with Jesus) is simple enough, it can be harder to tell what this passage is talking about. Must we literally die to sin in order to be united with Christ? Are our old selves actually crucified, with a cross and nails just as Jesus experienced?

Buried amidst all these references to sin and death, though, is one brief but important statement: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (v.4).

For Paul, baptism is the answer to all the confusing questions that this passage may raise for us. It is through baptism that we are united with Christ and come to share in the joy of the resurrection, but also how we come to participate in Christ’s death. Unlike Christ’s death, however, the death that we encounter through baptism is not a literal, physical death, but rather a death to our old selves. Baptism marks new life, new beginnings and a transformation of the self, a transformation that is only possible through the grace of God.

In this passage, we hear that we are united with Christ through baptism, but what does baptism mean to you? If you are baptized, does baptism play a role in your identity? How has baptism played a part in your life so far?

Matthew 10:24-39

If anyone has an idea of Jesus being meek or mild, this week’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew must surely disabuse him or her of that notion. In what is another difficult lesson, we encounter Jesus preaching what could almost be considered a rallying cry against unity, or so it seems. Indeed, we hear Jesus proclaim, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (vv. 35-36).

Ultimately, this passage teaches us that following Christ and living a life of faith will not always be easy and that, sometimes, doing what is right may cause conflict or damage relationships. Yet, ultimately, we will be rewarded for doing what is right and be acknowledged before God (v. 32).

Consider times in your own life when you have been faced with conflict or with a situation in which you had to take a stand against family or friends. How did you handle the situation, and how did you feel?

In times of conflict, taking a stand is one matter, but ensuring you are engaging conflict in a loving and respectful way can be particularly difficult. How does God shape these difficult interactions in your life and provide guidance for your relationships?