Bible Study: 3 Advent (B)

December 14, 2014

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

In this passage from Third Isaiah, the exiles have returned from Babylon. Their task is to rebuild the city: to create a new Jerusalem. The theme is transformation. The messianic overtones and gospel message are unmistakable on this third Sunday of Advent as we rejoice in the expectation of God entering the world in human form to transform and save God’s people. The anointed one heralds the coming of a new era: the Kingdom of God on earth, or in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo: “the city of God.”

The encompassing gospel message of mission is announced: (1) to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; (2) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; (3) to provide for those who mourn in Zion.

The prophet/poet describes the transforming work of the anointed one in vivid metaphor: to give the people of Zion a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. Take a few minutes with a pencil and paper, or drawing materials, to describe some concrete details as you imagine the new Jerusalem, the city of God.

In a single verse, the prophet speaks of how God loves justice, and will make an everlasting covenant with the people of God. What are some of the elements of an ideal covenant, and how might they ensure justice? Is it the work of the city of God or of the earthly city to create such a covenant?

Canticle 3: The Song of Mary

In her song, Mary echoes Isaiah 61:10 “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” Like Isaiah, Mary is a servant-prophet, a handmaiden of the Lord who prophesies “Behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, the day of rejoicing. It is possible that young Mary, upon hearing the news that she was to bear the holy child Jesus, would have doubts. Instead she rejoices and praises God in the most eloquent terms. Mary is transformed by the Holy Spirit. She accepts God’s call with grace and courage.

Mary is not the only woman in the Bible to be called to witness to God’s work. Read the Song of Miriam in the book of Exodus and the Song of Hannah in First Samuel. What do the three women’s songs have in common? How are they different?

In the passage in the first chapter of Luke that precedes this canticle, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth meet. The child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy when he recognizes the mother of his Lord. Try writing a Canticle of Elizabeth, either on your own or as a collaborative writing with your Bible study group.

Describe an experience when you felt called. How have you been transformed by the Holy Spirit?

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

The early Christian community in Thessalonica was waiting for the Second Coming of Christ, the eschaton, God’s return in glory to reign on earth. In his letter to the community, Paul names the work of the Spirit in the midst of life. The Spirit awakens and sustains rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving. Here is another call to radical transformation: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil. Paul suggests a way that believers are to live while they wait for of the return of Christ, a way of living in community and in right relationship with God.

With the best of intentions about praying more often, it is easy to let prayer fall to the bottom of one’s to-do list, to put it aside until there is more time. Share some tips for praying without ceasing that have worked for you. For example, I like to pray in the car or on the train while I am commuting to school. Maybe you like to receive a daily prayer in your email inbox. Are there ways that you can connect with a community of prayer?

The Thessalonians were concerned about what would happen to their loved ones who had died while waiting for the coming of Christ. In the previous chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul has assured the community that the dead will rise to meet God at the last day, and that the living will rise to meet them. The Christmas holidays can be especially difficult for those who have lost loved ones. How might Paul’s words speak to those who grieve?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

This passage from the Gospel of John recalls the passage in the first chapter of Luke when the infant John the Baptist recognized the infant Jesus in Mary’s womb, and leapt for joy. That same child is now the man sent from God to testify to the light. This passage also refers back to the words of the prophet Isaiah. John the Baptist, like Isaiah and Mary, is a servant-prophet, commissioned to “make straight the way of the Lord,” empowered to speak and act in ways that bring hope, comfort and joy to the people of Israel. There is a theme of recognition and of Christ-among-us in this passage when John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” Further, John says, “I baptize with water.” The one who comes after him, the one whose sandal he is not worthy to untie, will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the water of life, salvation.

Think of a time when you have recognized – or failed to recognize – the spirit of God shining in a human being. Share your stories. What words can you use to describe the feeling of the encounter?

Baptism is a form of anointing. What does it mean to you, that the Son of God was anointed by a human being, a man of humble means and demeanor? What is the connection between humility and the voice of one crying in the wilderness?

Look at Isaiah 40:1–11, the passage that John refers to when he says, “I am a voice crying in the wilderness.” How does that passage deepen and enrich your understanding of the scene of John baptizing in Bethany?

Bible Study: 2 Advent (B)

December 7, 2014

Jessie GutgsellBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Isaiah 40:1-11

The book of Isaiah is one of the most well-known and well-loved prophetic books of the Old Testament. Scholars tend to recognize four major divisions within the book: First Isaiah (Chapters 1-39), Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-56), Third Isaiah (Chapters 56-66), and the Isaiah Apocalypse (Chapters 24-27).

Our reading for today comes from the very beginning of Second Isaiah. This section of the book is thought to have been written while the people of Jerusalem were in exile in Babylon. The major focus of the section is the people’s return from exile back to Jerusalem under the Persian King Cyrus.

The passage for today, often associated with the iconic Handel’s “Messiah,” deals directly with the question “What will the community’s role be in the return from exile?”

The community returning from exile is called upon to be active agents, to be comforters. The people fully acknowledge the fall of Jerusalem and the exile as a major failure. But – and this is important – they were never abandoned by God in the process. They’ve gone into exile, they’ve “served their terms” and “paid the penalties.” Now it is time to go home.

A major theme of the Second-Isaiah community is the idea of recreating the old to be something new – a new creation, a new Israel, etc. Verses 3-4, which are later quoted in the gospels, conjure up an image of a new exodus. But this time the exodus will be easier – the valleys will be lifted up, the mountains made low, and so on. This time, the journey will be straighter and easier.

Verse 6 illustrates the struggle of the community to move forward with their return to Jerusalem, their new exodus. The voice in the wilderness is told to cry out, but “What shall I cry?” the voice asks.

The answer, an oft-heard scriptural line, is that people will pass away and fade, but the Word of the Lord will stand forever (v. 8). Thus, the job of the people is to trust in God, to return home and to spread the Word of the Lord from the mountaintops, so that Jerusalem will be a beacon for all.

I invite you to find a recording of Handel’s oratorio quoting these lines and to rest in the deep and rich tradition of music and religion that we have been given. As you sink into the music and into these words, I invite you to let the idea of God comforting you surround you.

The Second-Isaiah community was preparing for a long journey, a journey home. Reflect on your own journeys in life of returning home. Is home a place you can go? A place you want to go or want to avoid?

What gives you strength on this literal or metaphorical journey?

As you prepare to enter into the Christmas season, a season filled with memories and experiences of home, I invite you to remember the words of Isaiah that “the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord will stand forever.”

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

The Bible is rich with imagery, poetry and prose about people and their relationship to the land. This psalm often mentions the land, naming it as God’s in verse 1, and then exhorting that the glory of God will “dwell in our land” (v. 9). An increase in harvest would signal that God, indeed, had blessed the land (v. 12). Thus, for the people of the time when the psalms were written, and for us today, the land is integrally tied up in our relationship to God. When people turn their hearts to God, and when love and faithfulness meet, then “faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (vv. 10-11). Even the earth and the skies will join us in our song of praise and faith.

In what ways would you treat the land differently if you saw it as God’s? How would you treat it differently if you saw the land as a companion in the work of praising God?

This psalm is full of often-used words like “faithfulness” and “righteousness.” How would you define these words in your own language, not in the language of the church? Try describing these words in terms of your five senses. What would faithfulness taste like? Look like? Feel like? And so on.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Peter’s second epistle is one of the shorter books of the Bible, focusing on the responsibilities of Christians as they wait for the end times. The apostle Peter, the named and likely author, is concerned about the actions of Christians as they wait for the Second Coming. Early Christians understandably thought Christ was coming imminently, “like a thief in the night,” but they had to adjust their message when they realized that Christ’s coming was perhaps not quite so imminent.

Second Peter echoes a theme we heard from the Second-Isaiah community, anticipating a “new heaven” and a “new earth.” But while the people and the churches wait for this newness, Peter exhorts them to live lives of integrity, without “spot or blemish.” Peter emphasizes the importance of patience in the Christian journey. Peter likely wrote this book soon before his martyrdom, which adds a level of drama to his message, making it somewhat like a last will and testament. Also, it is interesting to note that Second Peter quotes extensively from the Book of Jude, which likely points to Jude as a major source for the epistle.

In verse 8, Peter speaks of the different way in which God views time. Peter stresses that time is different for God, and that ultimately God is patient and wants us to grow and develop. What in your life has God been patient with you about? What do you need to continue to develop within yourself and your Christian life?

In verse 14, Peter asks Christians to live “without spot or blemish” as they wait for the end times. What in your life feels like it could be a “spot or blemish”? What spiritual practices might “clean” those spots and blemishes?

Mark 1:1-8

The Gospel of Mark is considered by most scholars to be the first gospel written, and subsequently the source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Notably Mark’s gospel doesn’t begin with a birth narrative, but instead begins with the introduction of John the Baptist. Scriptural quotations and Old Testament allusions are woven all throughout the gospels, and this is no exception. Mark’s use of Isaiah establishes John the Baptist as a prophet, and Jesus as the Messiah who will come. Later in the passage, the mention of John’s camel’s hair clothing and diet of locusts and honey is likely meant as an allusion to Elijah, another major prophet of 2 Kings (cf. 2 Kgs 1:8a). While most modern readers miss these allusions, they serve to enrich the gospel text by rooting it in tradition.

John the Baptist is serving a crucial role by paving the way for Jesus. He will baptize people with water, but Jesus will come and baptize people with the Holy Spirit. John paves the way with humility, emphasizing that he’s less powerful than the one who will come after him.

Jesus had John the Baptist to “cry out in the wilderness” and “make the paths straight.” Who in your life has played this role? Who has paved the way for you in your journeys?

Thinking in a larger context, what historical figures do you think have paved the way for our faith and for Jesus Christ? Do you think this is still a relevant role to be filled in our modern times?

What would it look like to pave the way for Christ today?



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Bible Study: 1 Advent (B)

November 26, 2014

Ben Maddison, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:35-37)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah, an Old Testament prophet, is the prophet of Advent, proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God, the Messiah, and the joy and hope of Zion. However, the use of Isaiah in the New Testament betrays an underlying truth of the book – as Paul D. Hanson points out in “Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation” (John Know Press, 1995), it was written over several years, had many writers and editors, and it is difficult to understand as a cohesive whole. Today’s scripture comes in what is known as Third Isaiah – the final and latest addition to the canon of Isaiah’s prophecy. Hanson explains that this passage comes after the joy of Zion is delayed, leaving Third Isaiah to reconcile the current experience of the people of Israel with the one promised in earlier times.

When reading this passage, it is important to remember the narrative of Jewish history. God acted mightily to save the Israelites from Egypt, leading them into the Promised Land and giving them the Law. However, the people of Israel had a difficult time responding to God’s self-giving, straying from God time after time – a normal human tendency. Hanson explains that in this passage, the writer recognizes (and blames) the unfaithfulness of the people of God – and himself – for the delayed promises of Second Isaiah. The writer of Isaiah here implores God to “tear open the heavens and come down” (v.1) that the people of God might believe. Verse 9 gets to the heart of the prophet’s message; recognizing the failures and waywardness of his people, the prophet begs God to “not be angry,” to not “remember iniquity forever” – to remember, that despite all of this, that the prophet’s people are the people of God.

For the reader of this passage today, and at the start of Advent, Isaiah is calling us to remember, to hold ourselves accountable, for the ways that we fail to follow God to the fullest. Isaiah reminds God, and reminds us, that we are God’s people, and although we have strayed, and although we fail to love God and our neighbor, that God does “forgive and forget” and that we are still inheritors of the promises of Second Isaiah – that we might see God, that the Messiah will return, and that we will revel in the joy of the coming Zion.

In what ways have you fallen away from God?

How can you live into the reality of being a child of God?

In what ways will Advent be, for you, a time of return and preparation for that which God is calling you to do?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

The psalms were an integral part for the worship of the Jewish people. In Jewish liturgy, both past and present, the role of history – and how God acted in history on behalf of God’s people – was essential to how Jewish worship was understood and practiced. Psalm 80 is the counterpart psalm to Psalm 79, both answering a simple question: How do God’s people return to God after falling away?

In the Berit Olam series’ book on “Psalms” (Liturgical Press, 2001), Konrad Schaefer writes that Psalm 80 is about returning to a normal relationship with God – a returning after a falling away.

Psalm 80 recognizes several things about the relationship between Israel and God. First, it recognizes God’s sovereignty and role in the lives of the Jewish people – God is a shepherd leading a flock.

Second, that flock has become wayward – and they are suffering under the burden of their waywardness. This psalm might remind a reader of the prayer of confession, “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 331). In this psalm, the people of Israel – as a worshiping community – recognize that they have fallen out of right relationship with God, and suffering under this burden, look to be drawn back into the fold of God their Shepherd. There is an urgency in the psalm, a desire to be again – and immediately – under the care and direction of God.

Verses 7 and 19 serve as a refrain and express the longing of the psalm’s writer: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” The writer of the psalm recognizes that it is in the capacity and graciousness of God to be forgiving – to offer restoration to all who seek God’s face. In the face of our own sinfulness, and our own wanderings from the fold of the Shepherd, God is always there, beckoning us back, offering restoration and salvation for all who seek God.

How will you seek to find the face of God?

In what ways is the psalm speaking to you, your church and your community?

In what ways do you see the potential for God’s restoration of those things in your life and in society, that are wayward – those things that don’t resemble the Kingdom of God?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

We often take for granted that the letters of Paul are actually letters. When we hear them read in church, or in private devotions, we often lose the fact that Paul was writing a letter – opening up a dialogue – with a specific people, in a specific church, in specific region, time and context. The First Letter to the Corinthians in no different. Paul was writing to the Corinthians about certain aspects of their church – problems that they faced in their own, Roman, metropolitan context.

The reading today comes from a section of Paul’s letter known as the “thanksgiving.” It was typical – and rhetorically expected – that first-century letters would begin with a salutation and thanksgiving, usually to a Roman deity. However, Raymond F. Collins, in his analysis “First Corinthians” (Liturgical Press, 1999), points out that Paul subverts this tradition by appealing to the work that Christ is doing, and has done, in the midst of the Corinthian church. In this letter, the thanksgiving has a very eschatological edge – meaning that Paul is looking forward, too, and reminding the Corinthians of the promise of the return of Christ. This foreshadows themes found later in the letter.

Twice in the thanksgiving (vv. 7, 8) Paul reminds the Corinthians of the promise that Jesus would return. Paul’s sentiment has the air of a Markean immediacy – as if Paul is convinced that Jesus could return at any moment. It is easy, when the Bible speaks of the return of Christ, to get lost in the uncertainty and mythos surrounding this item of faith.

However, Paul is clear about what this expectation should do for us, as Christians: exercise and hone one’s spiritual gifts, and work to be blameless. This is not a call for the Corinthians to work harder; Paul’s exhortation is matched by his belief that “God is faithful.” Paul reminds us that it is God who called us through the revelation and person of Jesus Christ. In this way, God will not forget or abandon us; God is preparing us, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to be prepared and blameless before the reign of God is fully realized on earth. Paul is calling the Corinthians, and us, to work toward the ends of the Kingdom of God – undergirded by the faithfulness of God through the life and revelation of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

What are your spiritual gifts? Which ones would you like to hone and improve?

How are you working toward the reality of the Kingdom of God in your church and community? How is the Holy Spirit working in those places, and how can you participate in that work?

Mark 13:24-37

Mark, despite its position in the New Testament, is, historically, the first gospel written – the gospel closest to the ministry of Christ. Key themes, often attributed to its early nature, include the “Messianic Secret” (that Jesus’ nature as the Messiah was a secret known only to a select few), rhetorical immediacy of the gospel message (often identified by Mark’s use of the word “immediately”), as well as Mark’s “eschatological immediacy” (Jesus was coming back, and soon, so we all must be ready).

Narratively, this reading comes during the section of Mark’s Holy Week narrative where the story slows down, and Jesus does a lot of talking. This passage concludes what scholars call Jesus’ “Little Apocalypse” – Jesus looking to the future and proclaiming the mysteries of heavenly things. We often think of Revelation or of the TV show “The Walking Dead” when we think of the word “apocalypse,” but as John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington remind us in their analysis “The Gospel of Mark” (Liturgical Press, 2002), in Jesus’s time, and throughout the Bible, the word “apocalypse” describes a genre of literature that tends to be prophetic and forward thinking. This passage is no different.

One of the ways to read this passage – the image of the Coming Son of Man, the warning metaphor of the fig trees and the call to prepare for the return of the Messiah – is to recognize the dual nature of the comments. The writer of Mark is using Jesus to speak to two parties: his disciples (historically), and to all Christians reading the gospel (narratively). Imagine the writer of Mark using Jesus’ apocalypse as a means of breaking the third wall – Jesus is speaking beyond the narrative setting and talking directly to the reader.

Moreover, what is Jesus saying? After affirming the divinity of Jesus as the Son of Man (v. 24-27), Jesus uses the fig tree and the warning about the impending apocalypse to get the reader’s attention. Mark, through Jesus, is calling Christians into a deeper life of faith and call, calling on them to be prepared for the immediate return of Christ, that they might be ready to join in the work of the Kingdom. (Think of Markean themes.)

Verse 33 is a nice summary of this call: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” The passage is calling Christians to live lives with an eye on the future – and an eye on the fulfillment of the work that God started in the revelation of Jesus Christ. This is an important reminder during the Advent season: We are not only looking forward to the commemoration of the birth of Christ, but we are the church expectant, waiting for God’s reconciliatory work to be fulfilled.

Have you considered how the work of God is made manifest in your life?

How are you participating in making the world look more like the Kingdom of Heaven?

Reflect on whether your faith feels important or immediate? How will you try to express or find that during Advent?



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Bible Study: Christ the King (A)

November 23, 2014

Donna StanfordBishop Kemper School for Ministry

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

In this lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Ezekiel delivers the dual message of God’s judgment and salvation. God warns that he will condemn the irresponsible “fat and strong” shepherd-kings of Israel (v. 16). Because the shepherd-kings neglected their duties, the weak sheep-people of Israel were scattered into exile in Babylon (vv. 12-13). God will also judge the sheep-people themselves, promising to feed with justice the corrupt “fat sheep” people who have mistreated their fellow “lean sheep” people (vv. 20-22).

The counterpoint to God’s judgment of Israel is God’s message of salvation. God promises that He will engage in a search-and-rescue mission. As the good shepherd of Israel, God will seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured and strengthen the weak (v. 16). He will gather the people from exile, feed them with good pasture and make them lie down in good grazing land (vv. 13-14). God will re-establish his flock in Israel, and He will be their God (v. 24).

Why should the exiles believe Ezekiel’s message of promise?

As in Psalm 23, this passage from Ezekiel uses the imagery of God as shepherd and the people as his flock. What has been your experience of God’s deliverance when you felt distressed, sorrowful or forsaken?

Psalm 100:1-4

In Psalm 100, the psalmist marries the image of God as king (“serve the Lord,” “come before his presence”) with the image of God as shepherd (“we are … the sheep of his pasture”) (vv. 1, 2). God is recognized as sovereign over creation (“all you lands”) and over Israel (“he himself has made us,” “we are his people”) (vv. 1, 2).

What response does God as shepherd-king deserve? Because he has created us, we belong to him (v. 2). We are to offer our whole selves to God in service. Our proper response to God’s goodness, mercy and faithfulness is worship – joyful praise and thanksgiving (v. 3). We are to “enter his gates,” “go into his courts,” and “call upon his Name” (v. 3). We are to enjoy His presence in our lives.

How do you open yourself to God’s presence?

During worship, do you glorify and enjoy God? If not, why not?

Ephesians 1:15-23

This pericope, or passage, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians may be divided into three sections.

Verses 15 and 16 are a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the report Paul received about the Ephesians’ faith in the Lord Jesus and about their putting love into practice.

Verses 17 through 19 are Paul’s intercessory prayer on behalf of the Ephesians. Paul names God as “the Father of Glory,” which refers to God’s power. Paul asks God to give the Ephesians wisdom and insight into God’s saving act through Jesus Christ. Paul affirms that God’s power is working in those who believe.

In verses 20 through 23, Paul declares that Christ’s resurrection and glorification is evidence of God’s power at work in Christ. The exalted Christ is depicted in royal terms. He is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (v. 21). The name of Christ is “above every name that is named” (v. 21). The Kingdom of God has been inaugurated – God has put all things under Christ’s authority. The pericope draws to an ecclesial conclusion. Not only was God’s power at work in Christ’s resurrection and glorification, but God’s power is still at work in Christ through his body, the church (vv. 22-23).

Is your faith cerebral assent to a creed or a whole-hearted trust in God that motivates how you live your life?

Have you observed God’s power at work in Christ through the church? Give specific examples.

Matthew 25:31-46

This passage is the end of Jesus’ eschatological discourse. The apocalyptic images reflect Christ’s kingship and his roles as judge and shepherd.

Jesus, referring to himself as the Son of Man, relates that when he comes in glory with his angels, he will be enthroned as king (v. 31). All human beings will be gathered before him (v. 32). Exercising his royal authority, Christ the King will separate the people, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (v. 32). Both the “sheep” and the “goats” will be surprised by the King’s judgment (vv. 37, 44). Neither group sees themselves as the King sees them.

Christ the King invites the “sheep” or the “righteous” to inherit the Kingdom of God that was prepared for them from the foundation of the world (v. 34). The righteous will enjoy eternal life (v. 46). He calls them, “blessed by my Father” (v. 34). On the other hand, the “goats” or the “accursed” will be condemned to eternal punishment (vv. 32-33, 46).

What distinguishes the blessed from the accursed? As described in the Beatitudes, the blessed act with unselfish, loving kindness toward needy people. The righteous welcome strangers, give clothing to the needy, visit the sick and imprisoned without knowing that they are ministering to Christ (vv. 35-36), while the accursed selfishly ignore those in need (vv. 42-43).

Do the apocalyptic images of Christ as King and judge disturb you? If so, why?

Does this parable contradict the doctrine of justification by faith and not by works?

Bible Study: 23 Pentecost, Proper 28 (A)

November 16, 2014

James MillerGeneral Theological Seminary

“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Judges 4:1-7Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Judges 4:1-7

In our Old Testament reading, we find that the Israelites are being punished by the Lord for the evils that they have committed. In fact, they have been “sold” to King Jabin of Canaan. This is about to change. Deborah, who is a prophetess and the only woman in scripture to be a judge, summons Barak and tells her vision: The Lord will bring the army of the Canaanites under Sisera to him, a battle will ensue, but the Lord will make Barak victorious.

There are three important issues here.

First, once again, Israel is being punished for evil: worshipping false Gods.

Second, while there are some notable depictions of prohetesses in scripture (Miriam, sister of Moses in Exodus 15:20; and Huldah, who authenticated the rediscovery of Torah in 2 Kings 22: 14-20, Joel 2:28 and Acts 21: 8-9), Deborah is unique in that she is the only female judge noted in scripture.

Third, Sisera had a commanding military advantage over the Israelites with his 900 chariots of iron. The use of iron was a technique not available to the Israelites at that time. Yet, the prophecy is that Barak will be victorious. This is because it is not physical strength of armies or weapons that will carry the day, but the power of the Lord.

Trusting in the Lord for deliverance is an important theme of scripture. See David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17; Gideon in Judges 6-8, Psalm 37:39 and Psalm 46. Note also God’s reaction to David, who took a census in order to determine Israel’s strength.

Is all of our faith being placed in Jesus, or are we guilty of portioning out to some false gods?

Can we look past gender when we receive God’s Word?

Can we think of ways to increase our faith in Jesus instead of spending time stockpiling physical resources?

Psalm 123

The psalmist is not angry, but is calling for help, for relief. Scorn and contempt has been laid upon the people, and they are either incapable or unwilling to fight against it alone. They turn to the Lord with confidence that they will receive mercy. An important dimension of mercy, רַחֵ֖ם(Isaiah 49:15), is that it can be understood as the tender love a mother has for her children. The psalmist’s wish is for the Lord to show motherly care for the people.

If you feel that there is no place to turn, no one to help, will you turn to the Lord for mercy? In fact, will you turn to the Lord first?

Consider the innocent of the world, those suffering oppression, hunger, disease, those living in war-torn regions, those who have been kidnapped. Can you pray to the Lord for mercy for them?

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Paul is exhorting the church to be vigilant. In using “day of the Lord,” he is invoking code from Old Testament that was well-understood as “judgment day.” He describes it as sudden destruction (v. 3). He calls on the church to be ready – awake and sober (v. 6) – and to use the “weapons” that they have been given: faith, love and hope (v. 8). Most importantly, though, Paul wants them to know that those with faith in Jesus will not receive wrath, but salvation. Finally, note that Paul encourages community. We are not to look to our own futures to the exclusion of others. Part of our calling is to “encourage one another and build each other up” (v. 11).

Do you think that the scenario of destruction that Paul paints is real or symbolic? Either way, are you prepared?

What do you think of the armor Paul describes: breastplate of faith and love; helmet of the hope of salvation? Can you relate this to the passage above from Judges?

How can we build each other up?

Matthew 25:14-30

There are two issues at play in this parable. One has to do with the use of one’s gifts, assets, or as they are called here, “talents.” The other has to do with relationships.

Our reading is a parable (“For it is as if …”), but it is interesting to consider the literal as well as the figurative meaning of “talent.” One source notes that one talent was worth the equivalent of more than 15 years’ wages for a laborer. Another suggests that one talent was worth the equivalent of 7,300 denarii (with 1 denarius = 1 day’s pay). This would work out to more than 26 years’ wages. In any case, it is clear that a talent was extremely valuable. Just consider the one who received five talents was given over a lifetime of earnings.

We read that the owner entrusted these talents with his slaves. There is a settling of accounts upon his return. Two of the slaves traded with their talents and produced a profit. This trading was not reckless gambling; they carefully considered how to increase the value of what had been entrusted to them. They had faith that they were serving their master’s best interests. This looks like a good relationship.

Not so with the third slave. Out of fear, he did not use the talent with which he was entrusted. He was not interested in the betterment of his master, or even his own betterment. He had disdain for his master and accused him of a pattern of theft and injustice.

Think of the talents/gifts with which God has entrusted you. They could be health, physical or mental acumen, friends, family, prayer, the sacraments. Are you using/investing them to your fullest ability? Can you see them as not being yours, but being entrusted to you by God?

Do you view your relationship with God as one of trust and gratitude for the blessings you enjoy, leading you to use them for God’s glory, or do you so fear God that you feel mistrustful and perhaps accuse god of being the source of injustice?

Bible Study: 22 Pentecost, Proper 27 (A)

November 9, 2014

Hunter Ruffin, Seminary of the Southwest

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Memory is a powerful vehicle for us as intellectual creatures. Memory connects the past to the present state of things and helps us recall the stories told by our ancestors. Memory works its magic in the stories that we tell to each other as we recollect the years past, which helps us make sense of the present condition. As L. Daniel Hawk points out in the Berit Olam series’ “Joshua” (Liturgical Press, 2000), in Chapter 24, Joshua begins by connecting the leaders of Israel to the past – both near and far – as a way to exhort Israel to choose life through their worship of the Lord.

In this episode, Joshua calls Israel to make a decision for itself – whom will Israel serve? Will the people choose to serve foreign gods, or will Israel choose to serve the Lord? When the people respond that they will serve the Lord, their response also recounts the history of the people of Israel and the ways that the Lord helped the people of Israel. The result is a covenant that Joshua makes with the people and creates new statutes and ordinances for them. Memory helped the people remember that they are to serve the Lord. Hawk writes that the memory of the past reveals that the covenant is a freely chosen commitment to the Lord of the people’s hearts and lives.

What memories do you keep close to your heart? How do those memories remind you of the love that God showers on God’s people?

In what ways can you recommit your heart and life to God, today?

Psalm 78:1-7

Just as Joshua used memory to call to the people of Israel to choose the Lord, the psalmist also uses memory to remind the present congregation of the “praiseworthy deeds” (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 694-695) of the Lord. The psalmist wants the people to remember the “mysteries of ancient times” (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 694-695) and, as Konrad Schaefer observes in the Berit Olam series on “Psalms” (Liturgical Press, 2001), to remember the ways in which the Lord protected Israel. Memory and remembering continues to instruct the present congregation in the ways of the Lord.

Schaefer also notes that the psalmist’s use of memory is an instruction about faithfulness, fidelity to God. The poet is exhorting the present congregation to remember themselves as God’s people and to commit themselves to being faithful to the Lord by not forgetting the deeds of God. The work of memory and remembering is the way the people avoid past mistakes while forgetting dooms the people to repeat past mistakes.

“Re-membering,” putting the people back together as a whole, stimulates the people’s wonder in God’s deeds within creation and connects them to having a deeper faith and faithfulness in God.

Search through your own memories. Where can you identify that God was at work in your life?

What memories serve as a call to forgiveness for yourself? What memories ask you to forgive another?

How does the act of remembering your own life inform your faith in God?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the power of memory is once again at work; however, the memories of loved ones by the community at Thessalonica now serve to create deep, worrisome questions for the community. As Charles Cousar points out in his commentary “Eschatological Encouragement” (Smyth & Helwys, 2001), though there is no evidence of a letter from the community to Paul, it appears that Paul is attempting to respond to a concern held by the community relating to the fate of those that have died before Christ’s return.

In fashion similar to Joshua and the psalmist, Paul uses memory to call the community into hopefulness through Christ. Through the memory of Christ’s resurrection, Paul speaks words of hope to the people in Thessalonica in a time of grief. Unlike others who have no hope in death, the community is reminded of the hope that is discovered in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Cousar explains that the resurrection of Christ opens a new door to a new future that grants hope to those that live and those that have died.

The death of loved ones prior to Christ’s return does not mean that they will be left or that they will be the last to experience the resurrected Christ. In fact, Paul says the exact opposite: The dead will be the first to bask in the warmth of Christ’s love in the Resurrection. Cousar notes that the cry of command, the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet are all military images that announce the coming of the one that will destroy all powers and principalities, including the power of death.

How do you encounter the risen Christ in your daily living? In what ways is Christ calling you toward the hopefulness of the Resurrection?

How does the return of Christ speak to you? How does remembering the hope experienced in Christ’s resurrection call you into faithfulness to God through Christ?

Matthew 25:1-13

The parable of the 10 maidens in the Gospel According to Matthew is definitely one of the more difficult parables for modern listeners. The parable features a group of 10 women who take lamps to the wedding feast, but only five of the women are wise enough to take extra oil with them in the event that the bridegroom is delayed. The parable features two different realities: the hope of the coming of the bridegroom and the dismissal of those who followed false teachings.

The split in the group of women is a focus on the positive and negative behavior of different members of the community. In his commentary “The Gospel of Matthew” (Liturgical Press, 2001), Daniel Harrington writes that the women who exemplify the positive behavior are granted entry to the wedding feast while the women who exemplify negative behavior are kept out. The parable is one more analysis of the relations between Matthew’s community and the Jewish community surrounding it. The conflict is focused on the acceptance of the apocalyptic nature of Christ’s return by Matthew’s community and the rejection of that by the surrounding Jewish community.

The role the women played was obviously important to Matthew’s community. In her essay “Got Into the Party After All” from “A Feminist Companion to Matthew” (Sheffield Academic Press 2001), Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt writes that the women behave as leaders when they go out with their lamps to meet the bridegroom; as a result, it is important to understand that the parable is not against women’s leadership in the church. The parable seeks to teach all of Matthew’s community about the importance of adhering to true teachings of the church.

What are the sources of division in your own context? Is it appropriate for the church to respond to difference in the way it does at the end of today’s parable?

What might be other ways of addressing division within the church? How might that include a commitment to reconciliation?

In what ways are you divided with family, friends or loved ones? How might Matthew’s idea of being watchful call you toward forgiveness and reconciliation in your own life?

Bible Study: All Saints’ Day (A)

November 2, 2014

Steven M. Balke, Jr.Virginia Theological Seminary

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Revelation 7:9-17

First-century Christians understood the Revelation to John is not predicting future events exactly as they are going to unfold. Rather, it revealed some truth to strengthen them during the trials they faced. The fledgling church was composed of little pockets of Christian communities. They were surrounded by harsh opposition from the larger communities around them that thought they were crazy and misguided. To make matters worse, the newborn churches, faithful as they were, fought amongst themselves over how to live Christian lives. Through all this disunity, it would be very easy to lose one’s hope for what awaited someday.

This revelation, however, assures them that Jesus has not led them astray – he is the Lamb that is also the shepherd (v. 17). Look at the diversity of the multitude in this passage. People are gathered together in love around the God that loves them – all while still being diverse (v. 9)! They need not look the same, speak the same language and have the same culture in order to come together in love. Jesus taught them well, and God assures them that it will all work out one day.

God has not led us astray either. We struggle with the same disunity the first Christians faced, from inside the church as well as outside it. This revelation is also for us, assuring us that loving God and loving one another will prevail. We will remain a great diverse multitude of people who have different values and opinions about a lot of things, but our differences are no match for the God who created, saved and redeemed us.

Where are you letting your differences with someone else get in the way of loving God and loving one another?

In what ways does diversity improve how you love God and one another?

Psalm 34:1-10, 22

We read this psalm on All Saints’ Day and it brings to mind the question: What makes someone a saint? Traditionally, it was more common to think of saints as being those humans who somehow transcended the bounds of mere humanity, full of its brokenness and sinfulness. Some contemporary views on saintliness share that all people who faithfully aspire to follow Christ’s way are saints in their own unique ways.

This psalm is attributed to David, a man who was filled with flaws, sins and brokenness. David is highly revered not because he never made mistakes but rather because, despite how tragically he fell short sometimes, his deep love for God led him to keep trying. He recognized that God was present and active in his life, nurturing him, teaching him and loving him. David praised God for all the blessings in his life, setting an example for a saintly life.

We are not going to be perfect. We may try and try to get it right and still fail sometimes. Fortunately, what makes us saints is not that we are flawless; what makes us saints is that God is present in our lives and loves us. Our job is to pick ourselves – and each other – up, dust ourselves off and keep trying our best. We are blessed because our souls cry out and are heard by our God (v. 6). We need not fear, because we are delivered by our God (v. 7). We are saints because we are redeemed by our God (v. 22).

When facing adversity, when do you turn to God for support and when do you face it alone?

When do you praise God and when do you praise yourself?

1 John 3:1-3

Have you ever known someone and, after meeting that person’s family, really come to understand them in a whole new way? Maybe some interesting quirk suddenly makes more sense. Maybe some skill or struggle that person has is clearer now that you know these important people of influence. As the children of God, the same situation applies. The author of 1 John knows that the actions and motivations of Christians must seem very strange unless you come to know something about God (v. 1).

The problem is that there is such a diverse array of opinions about who God is and what God wants, which leads to an equally diverse array of what Christians are and what they think God wants them to look like. We do not really know who knows it better than whom or who has it more right than the others. As the author points out, there is much that is still so unclear to us (v. 2a).

One thing we do know, however, is that, just as the people who raised us influenced the people we grow to become, our creator has influenced who we have grown to become. We are all, regardless of our vast differences, made in the image of God (v. 2b). Any attempt at understanding other people should start with the recognition that they are children of God.

Can you think of someone who is so different that you cannot “get” him or her? Where do you see God in that person?

What about God’s influence do you wish people to see in you?

Matthew 5:1-12

The Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are often quoted, so let us look at them in the context of All Saints’ Day. Jesus does not want people to think about what will gratify them in the immediate moment, but to think about the bigger picture instead. These Beatitudes are a lesson for the crowd about coming to see the blessedness around them as a great opportunity to change the world.

Mercy, forgiveness, compassion, justice and fairness are not the kinds of things to strive for if we want material gain lavished upon ourselves in the immediacy of life now; they are the virtues for which we strive to achieve the grander prize of a better world. Jesus is continuing a long line of teachers and prophets who explained that we receive what matters most preciously by seeking to give rather than take. Giving away our love does not diminish the supply, but adds to it.

We have all that we need to be saints to those around us. When we are merciful to others, we create a world that is more merciful – for ourselves and everyone else. When we can love ourselves and love others for who they are, honestly, openly and as children of God, we create a world that is more loving. When we do these things, we are joining in the work of all of the saints, past and present, who have come before us to make this world the place God created it to be.

When have you been merciful when you did not need to be? Gracious when you did not need to be?

How does your perspective change if you see yourself as a saint?

Bible Study: 20 Pentecost, Proper 25 (A)

October 26, 2014

Johanna Young, Deacon Formation Program, Diocese of Massachusetts

“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

This passage finds us at the end of the story of Moses and marks the end of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah. It comes at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, often referred to as the Second Law.

Moses sees the Promised Land from the top of Mount Nebo (verse 1). That his last moments are on a mountaintop may remind us of the other mountaintop experiences where Moses met God face to face. But here it is different. It signals the end Moses’ role in the formation of a new community, the people of Israel.

Let’s focus for a moment on the phrase “servant of the Lord,” abad in Hebrew. During the long journey to the Promised Land there were many times when Moses was probably tempted to call it quits. How easy it would have been to say, “I can’t take it anymore! Too much complaining!” However, he gave into the temptation to seek some glory for himself (Numbers 20:12) and for that, God decreed he would not enter the Promised Land. The final story of Moses shows that even great people, who may seem larger than life to us, are, in the end, human. We can take some comfort in that. At the end of the day, it’s the journey that is important. Now Joshua picks up where Moses left off as abad, “servant of the Lord.”

Discuss what characteristics “a servant of Lord,” should possess. What seeds do servants of the Lord plant that inch us closer to the Promised Land.

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

Psalm 90 begins Book Four in the Psalter. According to scholar J. Clinton McCann, the psalm itself is divided into four parts: verse 1-2, God; verses 3-6, the frailty of all life; verses 7-11 (not included in the reading), humankind’s disobedience; and verses 12-17, a plea for God’s mercy and compassion.

Although it is the only psalm attributed to Moses, biblical scholars do not general believe he authored it. The theme of finitude, recall Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34, is carried over in today’s psalm. The psalmist reminds us that we are all dust (recalls Genesis 3) and that we are all on the clock. The clock is ticking; the grass will not stay green forever. This is not the carpe diem philosophy of Ecclesiastes (3:12-13), but an occasion to petition for God’s compassion and mercy while we are alive. Again the word servant, in Hebrew abad, is repeated in verse 13.

Why did the lectionary leave out verses 7-12, and what affect does that have on the reading of the psalm? How do you reconcile God as refuge (v. 1) and God’s affliction and subsequent suffering (verse 15)?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

What are the best practices for building up a Christian community and a ministry of love of one’s neighbor? Paul spells it out in today’s epistle to the community in Thessalonia, using himself and his companions as examples.

First of all, community builders must speak boldly and with courage, according to Paul. In Philipi, Paul’s message, which was spoken boldly and with courage, was met with great opposition. Speaking “truth to power,” as Gandhi phrased it, is often not accepted by those who want to maintain the status quo.

Second, community builders must have integrity. In the first-century, Greco-Roman world, leaders were tested for their strength of character. A community builder who seeks after his/her own glory or personal gain can rip a community apart.

Finally, community builders are “soul-sharers,” as Richard Ascough describes it in his commentary on Working Preacher. As “soul-sharers,” we are called to alleviate suffering in the world, caring for the vulnerable and needy of the community, much as a nurse nurtures the children in her care. In Paul’s time, it was common for the elite to have nurses, nannies, care for their children, and they would remain in close relationships into their adulthood.

“Paul calls each one of us to interact in our present Christian community with bold speech personal integrity, and soul-sharing” (Richard Ascough, Working Preacher, October 26, 2008). What other characteristics of a community builder would you add? How are the characteristics Paul describes to the Thessalonians relevant to today’s church?

Matthew 22:34-46

This week’s passage appears at the end of a series of debates with Sadducees, lawyers, chief priest, elders scribes Pharisees and their followers. Jesus has handily answered all questions, and finally, one of the lawyers asks: “Which commandment is the greatest?” (verse 36). Jesus responds with what Jewish people refer to as the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (See also Deuteronomy 6:4-5.) It expands the first commandment found in Exodus: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We know this as the Golden Rule. Versions of this verse are also found in Leviticus 19:18, Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14. This is not, eros, “erotic love,” but agape, “love” in the sense of “compassion” and “mercy.”

In her “Charter for Compassion,” Karen Armstrong points out that many religions have a version of the Golden Rule:

“Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” — Islam, Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13

“One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This the essence of morality. All other activities are selfish desire.” — Hinduis. Ahabharata, Anunsasana Parva 113.8

Jesus affirms these two commands are foundational. David Ewart writes: “As long as we observe both commandments, we can be confident we are on that Godly path. However if we choose to ignore either love, we will soon find ourselves in a spiritual ditch.”

Discuss what spiritual ditches you find yourself in. How might the love of God and neighbor help to dig you out?

Bible Study: 19 Pentecost, Proper 24 (A)

October 19, 2014

Charlotte LaForestBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” (Matthew 22:20-21)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Exodus 33:12-23

For several weeks now, our Sunday readings from the Hebrew Scriptures have followed Moses through his time at Sinai. After the incident with the golden calf that we heard about in last week’s readings, the Lord sends the Israelites away from Sinai but says he will not accompany them because of his anger. So Moses goes to intercede for the people, and God, out of a pillar of cloud, speaks to Moses “as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11).

In today’s reading, Moses appeals to the closeness of his relationship with the Lord to request the Lord’s presence for the Israelites as they continue their journey. Moses prays boldly, reminding the Lord that he has acted faithfully and found favor in the Lord’s sight, and requests that the Lord, in return, accompany the Israelites. And the Lord agrees. There seems to be a relationship between the boldness with which Moses is able to pray and the intimacy of his relationship with the Lord. This is something we can understand because of our human relationships: We often feel most comfortable speaking openly to those we know best.

Are you able to pray with such boldness? What would it take for you to grow comfortable enough to do so?

The final section of this passage contains Moses’ demand to the Lord, “Show me your glory.” Again, this is a bold request. The Lord grants the request, but has specific requirements and does not allow Moses to see his face, only his back. This is a reminder that, despite the intimacy of Moses’ relationship with the Lord, there is still mystery and beauty that is beyond human capacity to comprehend. This glorious, mysterious God who will lead an entire nation is the same God whom we find and speak to in quiet places.

Which of these understandings of God do you find yourself drawn to? What is it like if you try engaging with God in a new way – as a friend, if his glory and mystery have been more comfortable in the past; and vice versa?

Psalm 99

This psalm is a song of praise to God, part of the group of royal psalms that celebrate different aspects of the sovereignty of God. The emphasis in Psalm 99 is on God’s justice and faithfulness throughout history. The psalm recites the Lord’s works throughout history, the Lord’s justice revealed to Jacob, Moses, Aaron and Samuel.

One surprising element in the psalm is a celebration of God’s punishment in verse 8. We may not normally think of punishment as something praiseworthy, yet when paired with forgiveness as it is in the psalm, it is a component of a properly working system of justice. However, as Christians, a discussion of punishment transitions very quickly to one of mercy and grace. We do not experience God’s punishment for our evil deeds, even when punishment would be a just response, because the punishment was already meted out when Christ died on the cross. Our obedience and faithfulness to God is no longer offered out of fear of punishment, but is a response in deep gratitude for God’s grace.

Are there times when you find yourself living in fear of God’s punishment instead of acting in response to God’s grace?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

This passage is the beginning of the letter to the Thessalonians, bearing greetings from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, all of whom founded the church in this place. These verses praise the faith of the Thessalonian Christians and the example they have set for those around them. The Spirit is present and active among the church in Thessalonica despite the persecution they have endured. Paul writes, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you,” and this is not just a function of preaching, but due to the example they have set in their lives.

The form of Christian witness that the Thessalonians are embodying reminds me of the quote commonly attributed (though not actually traceable) to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always! When necessary, use words.” This quote and the text from Thessalonians speak to the message of the gospel as revealed in the lives of the faithful. This is not just about being well behaved, but embodying the hope, peace and joy of the truth of the resurrected Christ. People aren’t affected or persuaded just because they see someone who follows rules really well. But an encounter with someone who has been radically transformed by the saving love of Christ – that’s something people notice and want to know more about!

What will people notice about their faith when they meet you? Will they see the gospel in your life?

Matthew 22:15-22

Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the Pharisees are plotting, hoping for an excuse to have him arrested. In this particular plot, they are hoping to trap him by asking him a question they think has only two answers: one that will upset religious leaders, and one that will upset the Roman political authority. Jesus uses the example of the coin to make his point to the Pharisees, showing that the coin bears the image of the Emperor and thus should be given up to the Emperor. He provides an unexpected answer that escapes the Pharisees machinations by failing to offend either party.

The fact that this reading has to do with money and appears in the lectionary in October (stewardship season for many parishes) means that it has frequently served as a quick segue into a discussion about financial giving to the church. But instead of looking to the timing of the lectionary, if we look to the timing of the story itself, it takes on an entirely different meaning. This exchange takes place during Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. With this in mind, Jesus’s point that the coin with the visible image of the Emperor should be offered back to the Emperor takes on additional meaning. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (cf. Colossians 1:15), then this passage also serves to foreshadow Jesus’ offering himself as a sacrifice to God, an event that would take place just a few days later.

Jesus was willing to offer everything to God, including his very life, for the benefit of others. Of the gifts God has given you, which are you willing to offer to God for the benefit of God’s people?

Bible Study: 18 Pentecost, Proper 23 (A)

October 12, 2014

Jordan Trumble, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 32:1-14Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Exodus 32:1-14

This week’s reading from Exodus takes place in the aftermath of one of the most recognizable Old Testament events: Moses receiving two tablets with the Ten Commandments from God. Yet, we often stop there and don’t consider what happens next. The reception of God’s commandments wasn’t just a triumphant moment when the Israelites finally knew what they were supposed to do and get on with their lives, living faithfully and blamelessly. As we read in this story, having clear divine direction for how to live doesn’t actually mean that we will be able to fully live into that which God calls us to do.

In this excerpt from Exodus, we hear of Aaron, the brother of Moses, and the Israelites who are waiting from Moses to come down from the mountain where he is communing with God. As they waited for Moses to return, the people grew impatient. To quell the crowd, Aaron took gold from the people and made a symbol, a golden calf, to represent God for the people. Yet, when God saw this, he was angry at the Israelites for worshipping a false god, filled with wrath.

This isn’t an emotion many of us enjoy using to describe God. It’s so much nicer to think of God as loving, gracious, kind and a variety of other things that do not include wrath. Yet, this passage offers us a chance to consider what it might mean for God to be wrathful. As God stormed and seethed over the Israelite’s behavior, Moses stood before God and testified to God’s power and might and God’s faithfulness to the Israelites in bringing them out of Egypt. And as Moses spoke, we read that “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (v. 14).

We often speak about God being unchangeable, yet in this passage we hear a story about God’s mind being changed because of an interaction with Moses. What does it mean to you that God’s mind was changed? Is it possible that God can, at once, be both unchangeable but yet also changed?

At the beginning of this passage, the Israelites are caught up in their own impatience, which leads to their folly. Have you ever let impatience has led you to folly? Have you ever felt impatient with God? What sort of practices can help bring patience and active listening and waiting into your spiritual life?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

This except from Psalm 106 picks up on the themes from the Exodus lesson, even going so far as to reference the “bull-calf” made at Mount Horeb (v. 19). This lesson moves from praise to petition and confession, showing the full range of human emotion and the complexities of being in relationship with God. The psalm begins with praise and thanksgiving for the goodness of God and a petition for God’s continuing faithfulness.

The second portion of the psalm, though, changes to a confessional tone. The psalmist addresses the shortcomings of the Israelites building a golden calf at Mount Horeb and for forgetting the faithfulness of God.

This psalm addresses the broad range of emotions and experiences that are part of the life of faith. When you think of your own faith life, how do you understand the relationship between praise, petition and confession? What spiritual practices do you have that help you balance these things?

Philippians 4:1-9

In this passage from Philippians, we read part of Paul’s letter urging members of the Philippian community to care for one another and to be of the same mind in the Lord (v. 2). He urges to the people of Philippi to stay strong and faithful even in the midst of hardship and to rejoice in the Lord always. He uses himself as a model and encourages the Philippians to remember him and his example of how to behave. We see in this passage that the work of the community is two-fold: Paul seeks to encourage the entire community in their lives of faith but also to promote the support of individuals who are struggling.

In times of hardship or in the midst of struggle, how do you practice spiritual self-care or encourage those around you?

Paul suggests to his readers that they should be of the same mind in Christ. What does it mean for you, personally, to be of the same mind in Christ, and how can you cultivate this practice in your own life?

Matthew 22:1-14

While the parables of Jesus can often be confusing or frustrating, the parable we hear in this week’s gospel lesson is a particularly difficult one. In this passage from Matthew, we hear the story of a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son. The king has invited a long list of guests, but even after being repeatedly sought out, none of those guests will come to the feast. The king then sends his slaves into the streets to find enough people to fill the seats at the wedding banquet. Yet, when the king sees that a man is not dressed appropriately for the event, the king throws him into the outer darkness.

This is, indeed, a difficult parable. So often, we look to the Bible and to the teachings of Christ for a word of hope or a word of grace, but it can sometimes be difficult to find that, especially in parables such as this one.

As you think about this passage, imagine yourself as one of the characters. Are you the king, throwing a lavish wedding banquet? Are you a wedding guest who has denied the generosity of the king? Or are you one of the people brought in from the streets, unprepared for the celebration at hand? When you consider this story from a different vantage point, how does it change how you hear this passage? Do you find a word of Good News in it?