Bible Study: 14 Pentecost, Proper 19 (A)

September 14, 2014

Steven Balke, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’” (Matthew 18:32-33)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Exodus 14:19-31

The Israelites have escaped their enslavers and are on the way to the land God had promised to them. From the Egyptians’ perspective, however, these Israelites are their rightful possessions that have been stolen away from them. On top of that, these Israelites are responsible for plagues that have laid waste to their land and have caused the deaths of many Egyptians. They probably found it quite reasonable to chase Israelites and bring them to justice.

Yet they are baffled when God steps in and serves as a shield for the escaping Israelites. They are caught by surprise when God jams their chariots and throws them into the sea. They cry out because God is siding with the Israelites even though they surely felt they were the wronged party.

Wars are not fought by good guys and bad guys but rather by two sides that both think they are in the right. All of us are sure we are right sometimes, only to find out that we are mistaken. It is humbling to recognize that there is a greater power at work that knows better than we do, and it takes great strength to accept when we are wrong with grace. Righteousness needs to be held lightly, tempered by open-mindedness to others and prayerfulness to God.

Can you think of a time when you were so sure you were right that you were blind to the perspectives of others?

What will help you gracefully accept times when you are wrong?

Psalm 114

Lots of questions surround the parting of the Red Sea. It is easy to get locked into a discussion over if it really happened or how it could have happened, like trying to figure out the trick behind the magician’s act. This is a distraction, however, that draws us away from the point of the story: It is a story about a people who were powerless to save themselves and about God saving them. It is a story of salvation through grace.

This grand event of the splitting of the sea is an example of God’s grace in action. The Israelites could not pat themselves on the back for a job well done. They shouted psalms of praise to God, knowing that no works they could ever do would be payment enough to buy God’s love. God was to thank for all the blessings of their lives, and these blessings were gifts of grace.

It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we have more power over our lives than we really do, forgetting to give thanks to God. Having self-confidence and taking pride in your accomplishments are great, but a healthy recognition that God’s grace in our lives is important too – especially because God’s love is freely given, regardless of anything we do to try to earn it.

When do you find yourself distracted and forgetting to give thanks to God?

When do you find your attention drawn to God’s presence?

Romans 14:1-12

When Paul is writing the letter to the Christians in Rome, he is writing to a divided community: the Jewish Christians who were exiled from Rome and have since returned, versus the gentile Christians who had populated Rome in their absence. If this fledgling church was to survive, they would need to find a way past their differences, yet they struggle as if they were adversaries. Both the Jewish and gentile converts distrust and think themselves superior to the other, which sows disunity all around.

If there is one message Paul wants them to take to heart, it is that they are all the same in the only way that matters: They are God’s beloved, for whom Christ died so that they may live forever. None of their differences compares to their one, essential similarity.

We, too, are faced with people all around us who seem different. We all have different values and can use those to judge ourselves superior to others, but God has already judged us all and found us all worthy of love, compassion and salvation. Let us not focus too much on how our differences stack up against each other, and instead turn our focus toward the God who sees us and loves us all the same.

What differences with others do you find you have a hard time overcoming?

In what ways do you see judgment and disunity getting in the way of the work of the church?

Matthew 18:21-35

Any community needs to determine how it is going to handle judgment and justice. This parable about the two debtors is often used as an illustration about fairness, saying that the first slave should have treated the second slave as he himself had been treated. After all, the debt his lord had forgiven was more than 500,000 times as much money as the other slave owed him (see Coogan’s “New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition,” Oxford Press, 2007), so the first slave’s behavior was hardly fair! This parable, however, is less about fairness than about how, fundamentally, Jesus values forgiveness.

Jesus precedes this parable by highlighting that forgiveness should be an overabundant principle. We should not even be thinking in terms of how much we should forgive; we should just forgive. We, like Peter, are being told that forgiving others – and forgiving ourselves – is never the wrong answer. The lowliest person is still worthy of forgiveness. The gravest transgression should still be forgiven. The most righteous and powerful people still need to forgive. Think of what a radical statement it would be for a society to say that their guiding principle is forgiveness!

If God has already forgiven Christ’s crucifixion, we should think carefully about what we are telling God and each other if we declare something unforgivable. We can have justice without losing sight of compassion, and righteousness without losing sight of forgiveness.

When have you struggled with forgiving someone?

When have you struggled with forgiving yourself?

Bible Study: 13 Pentecost, Proper 18 (A)

September 7, 2014

David W. Peters, Seminary of the Southwest

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Exodus 12:1-14

After reading this text, I imagine flipping through the most recent church recipe book printed to raise money for the renovations to the parish hall. After perusing the “Rector’s Rhubarb Pie” and the three versions of “Heavenly Hash,” I flip the page and discover a recipe for “Passover”: roasted lamb with unleavened bread and biter herbs. Warning! Do not boil the lamb or eat it raw. (I cringe at the thought of a parishioner eating a lamb raw.)

Not only are there cooking directions, there’s even a dress code and disposal instructions. Sandals on, loins girded and a staff in hand – seems like an easy enough outfit to throw together. All the leftovers needing to be burned is also a cinch, since that’s what will happen if I’m roasting anything over a fire. Further instructions make it clear that the food must by eaten in haste, much like a teenager after football practice. All the old jokes about the Episcopalian who used the wrong salad fork are thrown out. There are no salad forks for this meal. In fact, there aren’t any forks at all.

This recipe is certainly for an extraordinary circumstance. That is, the circumstance of getting out of Dodge fast. The original diners were getting out of town to end their long enslavement to the Egyptians. The people of God were to mark their own doors, lest the Lord kill their firstborn along with the Egyptian firstborn.

Suddenly, my comedic musings on this passage grind to a halt. The lamb must be killed, and its blood used to mark the doorposts of each Israelite home so that the Lord would pass over as he struck down the firstborn children and animals in Egypt. This would be a night of death and destruction, of plague and sorrow. The fury of the Lord will rain down on the land of Egypt while the people of God sheltered in their homes, quickly eating a roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Then, when the aftermath of the death and destruction turned each Egyptian home into a morgue, they would slip away into the desert.

The Passover was a feast that commemorates a violent event after a series of violent events in Egypt. As we have learned from our own nation’s history, human slavery does not just fade away with time and good intentions. Slavery is maintained by violence and usually comes to a violent end. The command to remember the slavery and to remember God’s deliverance is a way to remember God’s grace and deliverance.

Do you remember a time when you felt delivered from a place of hardship? How do you commemorate that deliverance?

Psalm 149

This psalm captures the crazy exuberance that is possible for the people of God. The joy in this psalm is shared by the whole community. This is not private revelry; everyone is involved. Music abounds, and everyone whirls around, dancing. The whole community is singing at the top of its lungs when we notice a peculiar thing about the choir. Everyone in the choir is holding a two-edged sword. They have swords to execute judgment on oppressive kings.

This psalm reminds me of the Magnificat, in which Mary sings that God raises up the lowly and pushes down the proud. In Psalm 149, it is the festive choir that introduces God’s justice in the world.

All this leads me to conclude that the praise and worship that we do on Sunday cannot be disconnected from what God is doing in the world throughout the week. God’s interest in justice flows from the praises of his people. For me, this helps connect my worship with real, practical problems in the world that God is moving to fix.

What are some of the issues in the world where we can see God’s justice?

How is your worship of God moving you toward seeing the world’s inequalities?

Romans 13:8-14

Before he became a follower of Jesus, the great father of the church, St. Augustine, read these words of St. Paul. After reading them, he shut the book, then he observed, “By a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”

I confess that I had a different reaction to these words in Romans. My reading of this passage, at first glance, made me feel like the apostle is chiding me about how I spend my free time in the evenings. I confess that his words seem to be rather meddlesome, even 2,000 years after they were written.

How could this rather negative message be to St. Augustine a message of light and serenity? Perhaps I should remind myself that the power of the Holy Spirit is always to bring the right word at the right time. For St. Augustine, these were the right words for that moment.

Perhaps they are the right words for our moment, too. We are reminded in these verses that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Every time we move toward the light of God, we are moving deeper into the Kingdom of God. We are easily distracted by the neon lights that signal the presence of what tourist brochures call “nightlife,” but we never mistake neon lights for the sun.

For Paul, it is still night, but the dawn is almost here. Get ready, he says, to live the way we will live for eternity, in the light and warmth of God.

What are the worthwhile pursuits of life that you might be missing by staying up too late? What distracts you from being a light to a dark world?

Matthew 18:15-20

“Mr. Peters, we apologize for your long wait at the front desk. In order to keep your loyalty here at our hotel we would like to offer you a complimentary three-night stay at any of our worldwide locations. We will also throw in a couple of spa passes and trays of chocolate-covered strawberries.” Indeed, these are words I always like to hear. I also like to hear that I’m getting a big refund from the IRS. What I don’t like to hear is that I sinned against someone. I don’t like it one bit. I’d much rather talk about something else.

One of the most unpleasant activities in human life is confrontation. Especially when a relationship is at stake. I can come up with a million excuses to put off and avoid confrontation with someone who is hurting me or my community. Jesus clearly states that the responsibility to confront lies with the person who is offended. The community is slowly drawn in to the controversy, but not too soon.

The goal of this confrontation is to “gain your brother.” The goal is always reconciliation. Even when a member is declared a gentile and tax collector, the goal is reconciliation.

How does Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? He engages them with truth and love. In fact, Matthew, the traditional author of this gospel, was a tax collector. Jesus called Matthew just like he calls all of us. He calls us to a ministry of reconciliation, even when it’s difficult and painful.

I have observed confrontation many times, and I can report that the goal of the confrontation was rarely restoration and reconciliation. Too often the goal of the confrontation was to initiate a separation so everyone could go on with their lives.

Reconciliation is difficult. The cross, the ultimate symbol of reconciliation, stands before us and behind us as we pick up the phone and ask if we can meet to talk about something that happened.

Can you think of an example of a confrontation that resulted in reconciliation? What are some practical steps to take that may result in reconciliation after confrontation?

Bible Study: 12 Pentecost, Proper 17 (A)

August 31, 2014

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” (Matthew 16:23)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Exodus 3:1-15

Our reading today from Exodus is a text with mystical tones, while also a foundational scripture that holds a clarion commitment by God to the oppressed. Such riches in an economy of verses! Moses’ encounter with, and commissioning by God sets a theme that will run like a thread through the entirety of the biblical narrative.

First, Moses experiences a theophany – a mystical moment of encounter with God. Notice that God’s presence takes the appearance of fire, a device often used in other biblical accounts. Fire has power – to warm, to light, to guide, to comfort, but also to burn, to destroy, to devour. It is an energy that must be treated with respect; it must be approached with the humility of bare feet. Today’s text, for example, reminds us that nature is a holy setting, an indispensable actor in God’s drama of salvation, touched and blessed by God’s energy in an intimate way. It is holy and must be treated as such. And as we have seen in recent times, when we don’t respect the holy energy of God’s creation, it is apt to respond in powerful ways.

Second, the foundational events of our religion rest in this text. In this moment God reveals God’s self and the great action of salvation begins – God will deliver an oppressed people from their misery. That biblical religion has its origin in this moment is not insignificant. God has chosen to take sides; God has chosen to stand with the marginalized, the voiceless, the weak. Recall that at this period in biblical history, the notion of an afterlife has not entered the religious imagination. Salvation will happen in the here and now, or not at all. Religion, for the ancient Israelites, was about proper, ethical living and concern for the poor.

How have we departed from the expectations of biblical religion’s “foundational moment”? How have we remained faithful to that moment?

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c

Praise and ethical conduct are the themes of today’s psalm, which draws from three sections of a longer “history psalm.” The first six verses stand as a call to seek God’s presence. It is fitting that this theme follows the first reading from Exodus – a text that begins with a powerful encounter of God’s presence. Reaching far back into Israel’s history (scholars suggest that this psalm was written after the period of the Exile, i.e., 587 B.C.), the psalmist draws a portrait of setback, deliverance and renewal.

This text reminds us that God will often work in unexpected ways; that God has the power to turn what appear to be defeats and hopeless situations into pivotal moments that bring new life. Just as “Jacob” (Israel) surely saw their enslavement to be a dead end, God transformed that moment into the foundation of salvation by raising up Moses and Aaron who were to be God’s instruments of hope. Furthermore, trough Israel’s terrible experience of servitude and deliverance, God provided God’s people with the sacred Law – precepts that were seen by all as a great gift, for it was through the law that God was teaching them how to live well; how to walk in holiness. Of course the psalmist says “Praise the Lord!” A God who creates hope and life out of darkness is indeed worthy of our praise!

How has God worked in unexpected ways in your life?

Romans 12:9-21

Paul wrote to the Romans from Corinth, a church well acquainted with individualism and factionalism. It was in Corinth that Paul had experienced disruptive, backstabbing people in his congregation, some of whom went so far as to accuse Paul of skimming from the collection basket. It is not surprising then that Paul includes in this passage a list of maxims, as per Greco Roman letter-writing custom, which touch on themes of forgiveness, reconciliation and harmonious living. Paul appears to draw on a variety of sources for these, including the teaching of Jesus, Israelite wisdom literature, and Greco-Roman philosophy.

A modern interpreter will see Paul’s admonitions as a call to tame the ego. The ego wants vengeance; Paul says that belongs to God. The ego wants praise and recognition; Paul counsels humility. The ego wants to see the defeat of one’s enemies; Paul calls for forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul was certainly well acquainted with the darker desires for punishment and getting even, especially after his heart-breaking experience at Corinth. He speaks to the Romans – and to us – as a man who has journeyed through the crucible of emotional pain, but found the strength to put the demands of the ego aside and let something much larger (and holier) guide his response to his adversaries. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said to a later generation, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

Discuss Paul’s call to tame the demands of the ego, and to offer peace and reconciliation to our adversaries.

Matthew 16:21-28

Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel of a great truth about life and the spiritual journey: Your life is not about you.

To follow Jesus is to give up one’s life (perhaps literally, but also to surrender the ego to a much larger identity) and follow in obedience to Jesus. Obedience is a difficult concept for our culture, even in Christian circles. Our innate disposition is to desire independence, personal choice and autonomy. The gospel, especially today’s text, calls for obedience that is certain to lead to suffering – not something anyone wants! But as scripture scholar Dale Allison observed, “Faith is obedience, and obedience is the grave of the will.”

Jesus teaches that the way of discipleship is the way of the cross. To walk behind Jesus is to walk the way of the wound. This paradigm has been repeated throughout the biblical narrative, from Israel in Egypt, to Job on the ash heap, to Jonah in the belly of the fish, to Israel in exile, to Jesus in the tomb. The wound, however, is not the last word; God brings life and salvation even out of a cross. Peter cannot know this at this point, and despite the testimony of scripture, it is difficult for us to internalize and believe this as well, but Jesus asks for faith and trust; he asks us to get behind him and walk his way.

Discuss your reaction to Jesus’ call for obedience.

Bible Study: 11 Pentecost, Proper 16 (A)

August 24, 2014

Lea ColvillSchool of Theology at Sewanee

“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 1:8-2:10Psalm 124Romans 12:1-8Matthew 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 of 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, dawn 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 compliment 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 climatic 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?

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?