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 (v. 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 (v. 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?” (22:36). 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?

Bible Study: 17 Pentecost, Proper 22 (A)

October 5, 2014

Debra GoebelGeneral Theological Seminary

“Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matthew 21:43)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

The Decalogue begins with one of the most powerful statements in Scripture: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (verse 2).

Who was this mysterious voice, this unquenchable flame, this pillar of cloud? What force parted the vast sea, defeated the mighty Pharaoh and caused manna to fall from the sky like snow? It was not unusual weather phenomena or magic or any human endeavor that rescued the Israelites from a life that was more like death. It was the Lord, the creator and ruler of all the world who reveals herself to humankind through acts of power and grace. It was by these words that God gave to Moses on the mountaintop that she revealed to her people who she was and what she was all about.

What follows is traditionally viewed as a list of commandments, which the Israelites must obey in order to live fully into God’s covenant that she was establishing with her chosen people. This is certainly what is implied in the narrative. However, there may be another way to look at these “writings.”

Perhaps we can approach them from another angle. If God opens her proclamation with a description of who she is, why not read the commandments that follow as a description of who the Israelites were and who we are as their spiritual descendants?

We are the people who believe that it is God who rules the universe, not human beings nor anything we have created with our own hands. Not our institutions, not our technology, not the culture or opinions that we have constructed, but God rules over all.

We are the people who believe that God is sovereign; therefore, we do not use her name in an attempt to manipulate her to do our will. God is not magic, God cannot be coerced and God’s ultimate desire for her creation cannot be subverted.

We are the people who believe it is God’s desire that all her children have a time of rest from their labors, during which they may give thanks for her blessings and the goodness of her creation.

We are the people who honor those who made sacrifices for us in our youth, who have acted as parents and mentors, healers and guardians, equipping us to faithfully serve God.

We are the people who do not murder our neighbors. We believe that violence solves nothing.

We are the people who are faithful to those with whom we share vows of commitment for mutual love and support.

We are the people who do not take what belongs to our neighbor, whether it be possessions, relationships, freedom or hope.

We are the people who do not accuse our neighbors falsely for personal gain of any kind.

We are the people who are content with enough and do not look to our neighbor with jealousy or resentment.

The Israelites, wandering in the desert, surely experienced an identity crisis. They were no longer subjects of the Egyptian Pharaoh. They were no longer slaves. They were no longer city dwellers. Who were they? We all experience times like this in our lives. Social or economic upheaval leave us questioning our place in society, our world is turned upside down by natural disaster. We become spouses or partners or parents. We find ourselves suddenly thrust into positions of authority, or perhaps our intellectual or physical capacities become diminished. All these events can leave us questioning who we are.

Even desired events, such as the Israelites’ release from captivity or our advancement from college student to career seeker can leave us questioning our identity. Perhaps we can look at these Ten Commandments not so much as rules to obey, but our God-given identity into which we strive to live.

The final paragraph in our reading describes the people’s fear as the mountain on which God spoke to Moses was surrounded in thunder and lightning and smoke. They were afraid that God would speak to them and they would die. The people agreed to listen to whatever God said, if only she would not speak directly to them. Moses reassures them that God has no intention of bringing about their death, but only wishes to make them fully understand the importance of living fully into their new identity.

Reflect on the thoughts that come to your mind or the feelings that are triggered when you consider the phrases “rules to be obeyed” and “identity to be claimed.”

God encourages us to claim many identities. We are musicians, sons, accountants, mothers and teachers. By what do you define yourself? By your talents? Your career? Your relationships? What would happen if you could no longer be defined by these things? How would your definition of yourself change?

Experiment with rewriting the Ten Commandments in your own words, interpreting them in the context of your own life.

Psalm 19

This psalm opens with the heavens pouring forth a never-ending proclamation that all the world is the result of God’s creative activity. It echoes our reading in Exodus in which God declares that she, not idols made by human hands, is the architect of the universe. This message is broadcast from heaven not by words, but is plainly evident in creation itself.

The psalmist describes how God has placed a sun in the heavens, from where, like the glowing bridegroom, its light and warmth shine out to every corner of the earth.

The law, or fabric by which God sustains his creation and orders human interaction, lacks nothing. He has decreed his law to humans in order to make even the simple wise so that all have equal opportunity to live fully into their identity. God’s law is just and true and eternal. Obedience to it will bring enlightenment, clarity of vision and happiness. Because only God’s law can bring such happiness, it is to be considered more desirable and more valuable than anything else in his creation.

The law also serves as a reminder to the psalmist that God has promised good things to those who live by it. He restates that there are no errors in God’s law, though the insolent may attempt to convince him that there are loopholes. Finally, the psalmist expresses his hope that he is on the same page as God because God law is the foundation for his life.

It can be difficult sometimes to think of the multitude of laws we encounter every day as better than gold and more desirable than the most delicious food. Yet the psalmist understood the value of God’s law and rejoiced in it. Reflect on laws that have had a positive impact on your life and trace them back to their foundation in the Ten Commandments.

How does nature proclaim God’s law without words?

The psalmist wishes to be blameless. Do you believe this something we should pray for or hope to achieve? If not, what do you believe our prayer should be? What goal do you believe God has set for us?

Philippians 3:4-14

Paul and the Philippian church shared a great deal of affection for one another. It must have been a tremendous comfort to Paul to reflect on their friendship as he wrote this letter during his imprisonment. It appears the Philippian church was also experiencing their own challenges, although at this time it seems to have been internal rather than any kind of persecution.

Paul warns the Philippians, mostly if not all gentile, to beware of those who insist that gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised. He insists that circumcision will not provide them with any benefit, or “confidence in the flesh.” He reminds them that if anyone has cause to believe there is some benefit to circumcision it would be him! After all, he was born into a pious Hebrew family with an illustrious lineage. He had been circumcised as prescribed by the law, was well educated in the faith and in fact became a Pharisee. Paul describes himself as having been “righteous and blameless” with regard to Jewish law. He was so zealous for the Law that he persecuted his fellow Jews who had embraced the teachings of Jesus, who was, of course, a Jew himself. If anyone might attest to the importance of circumcision and insist on adherence to this practice, it would be Paul.

And yet, he claims that if there had been any advantage in it when it had been performed on him as an infant, those advantages have since become a loss, a wasted endeavor. Why? Because for Paul, the knowing Christ Jesus has made his circumcision obsolete. Not wrong, but unnecessary, particularly for gentiles.

Paul believes that it is through his faith in Christ that God will resurrect him, not by any symbolic action regarding the law. These actions cannot achieve resurrection. Paul believes that only in proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord will we be resurrected. It is perhaps like parachuting out of a plane and landing in the ocean. Hanging on to your swimming certificate, a symbol of your knowledge, will not save you! And knowing how to tread water or how to avoid sharks may keep you alive for a while, but you simply can’t rescue yourself. In this case it isn’t what you know that will save you, but who. You need to the captain of the rescue ship, who has a handle on your location and can throw you a floatation device. Paul claims that knowing Christ and sharing in his suffering offers the hope of resurrection; circumcision for gentiles is not a necessary stop on this path.

Paul believes that he had not yet achieved his goal. This statement is somewhat confusing, unless there was some question in the mind of the Philippians that his prison term had ended in execution and the letter was being written by the resurrected Paul! He tells the Philippians that Christ has enabled him to forge ahead, forgetting all that had come before (perhaps his persecution of the church) to answer the “call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Paul tells the Philippians that the symbolic ceremony of circumcision is unnecessary for their resurrection. In a world where degrees and resumes and certificates of achievement are essential for our advancement, can you identify with these gentiles who desire “evidence” of their faith? In the Episcopal Church we cannot be confirmed without evidence, in the form of a certificate, of our baptism. Reflect on the many kinds of “spiritual evidence” we possess, or desire to possess, regarding the “status” of our faith.

Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in death.” How might we become like Christ in death without actually becoming martyrs?

Paul gives us good advice when he says he will forget what he has done in the past and focus on path God has put before him. Think of the times you have been discouraged with your progress as you work to respond to God’s call. Reflecting on our missteps is helpful and necessary, but dwelling on our shortcomings can build a wall between us and God’s will for us. The next time you feel overwhelmed by your mistakes, imagine them written on the bricks of a wall, and simply imagine tearing that wall down!

Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus enters Jerusalem. He is very aware that this is the beginning of the end of his life on earth. He could count the hours he has left in which to teach the disciples, to admonish the Pharisees, to proclaim the coming of his Kingdom. The gospel writer recounts a parable that Jesus no doubt hoped would convince the Pharisees to give to God what was properly his.

Jesus tells the story of a landowner (a metaphor for God), who invests much effort into planting a vineyard (a metaphor for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was a visible representation of the Law). He has done everything possible to ensure that this endeavor will be successful. Upon completion, the landowner hires tenants to live on the land and harvest the vineyard. The arrangement (or covenant) would have been that the tenants give the landowner the profits (a metaphor for obedience) due him.

We learn, however, that the tenants are greedy and refuse to give the owner his due. They kill every messenger (prophet) that the landowner sends to collect his due. In time, the landowner sends his own son to come to terms with these tenants, but they murder him as well to prevent him from claiming his inheritance. Of course, the son is a metaphor for Jesus, who is foretelling his own death. Jesus then asks the Pharisees what justice might await these disobedient tenants. They reply the wicked tenants deserve a “miserable death” and that the vineyard should be given to those who will uphold the agreement made with the landowner.

Jesus tells the Pharisees and chief priests that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to others who will obey the covenant or “bear fruit.” The Temple Law was the proving ground, and the Pharisees were tripped up in it. Some suggest that the destruction of the Temple is alluded to in the phrase “and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” We cannot know for sure, however, we are told that at this point the Pharisees realize they are the “wicked tenants” in Jesus story. The Pharisees wanted to have Jesus arrested, but thought better of it when they realized how popular Jesus had become.

God had entrusted the Pharisees with interpreting the Law justly and with compassion and with the goal of building up God’s people. Instead, they used it to increase their own power. The responsibility of interpreting law is a very powerful thing. Law can be interpreted in such a way that it frees people from fear, from poverty, from ignorance. However even laws meant to help people can be interpreted in ways that enslave them, making the world a dangerous place for many, preventing them from prospering and keeping them in ignorance. Those who interpret law wield great power over others. Jesus tells the Pharisees that because they misused the power given to them by God, it would be taken from them and given to others who would use it justly. As powerful as the Pharisees and chief priests had made themselves, God was still sovereign and his Kingdom greater than any sphere of influence they might have carved out for themselves.

Have you ever been in a situation where others misused their power? Reflect on how this situation affected relationships and the ability to accomplish the job at hand.

Jesus said the Kingdom of God would be taken away from the chief priests and Pharisees and given to his followers. How can we, his followers today, prepare ourselves for the responsibility of cultivating God’s Kingdom? How can we guard against using this power to further our own ends?

Think about how you might retell this parable in a modern context, perhaps using a manager of a restaurant or a teacher at a university.

Bible Study: 16 Pentecost, Proper 21 (A)

September 28, 2014

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Exodus 17:1-7

In this passage, the Israelites seem to be ungrateful to both God and to Moses for delivering them from slavery in Egypt. However, they are not mere petulant, complaining whiners. Lack of water in the Sinai Desert is no joke. They are in dire straits. It is interesting that it is Moses who reacts to the people with frustration, while God reacts by calming Moses and providing water for the people. The test seems to be as much of Moses’ leadership as of God’s presence among the people. God is indeed among us in dire straits, and offers guidance to fearful leaders as well as to the congregation. The God of this passage is present and compassionate.

There have more than likely been times in your life when you have been in great need and wondered if God is present. Have there been times when you have been in a leadership position and focused on the complaining and doubts of the people you are trying to lead or help as a challenge to your leadership? Would it have been more helpful to be compassionate and consider the validity of their concerns? Have there been times when God has helped you to lead more effectively?

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Psalm 78 is a “maskil” or teaching psalm attributed to Asaph, a singer at the Jerusalem temple during the time of David and Solomon. The opening verses present the psalmist’s intent, which is to recount the traditional tales of the Lord’s glorious deeds in the times of their ancestors. In verses 12-16, the psalmist reiterates the story of their salvation: deliverance from Egypt and the miracles in the desert, including the story of providing water from the rock that we read in today’s passage from Exodus. By stating in verse 2 that he is offering a parable, the psalmist makes it clear that he is not merely repeating the old tales, but presenting them as riddles that bear reflection. He asks the reader to seek out the spiritual truths behind the stories.

The psalmist refers to stories from the Hebrew Bible that were already ancient and mysterious (dark) in the days of David and Solomon. What might David and Solomon have learned from the old stories of God’s marvels? What might we learn about the journey of faith from these stories today?

Philippians 2:1-13

Today’s passage from Philippians is particularly rich. It opens with Paul’s affirmation of his joy in proclaiming the gospel, even in the imprisonment that he has acknowledged in his greeting in Chapter 1. Paul reminds the community at Philippi of the need for unity and humility in the fellowship they share in Christ. The beautiful Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 is both an aid to worship in community and a reminder that Christ, though equal with God, did not hesitate to take the form of a slave, an example of humility and service. The admonition to “work out your own salvation” continues the theme of community. Not only are the Philippians to work together in humility, they are to work with God for the salvation of all.

In your Bible study or prayer group, meditate on the Christ hymn as an opening for contemplative prayer or lectio divina. How do you use hymn singing as a form of devotion? What other devotional practices in community move or inspire you?

Matthew 21:23-32

This passage from Matthew follows the scene of Jesus driving out those who were buying and selling in the temple in Jerusalem and overturning the tables of the money changers. When the blind and lame come to the temple to be cured, the chief priests and elders become angry. This is the point where they question him: By whose authority are you doing these things? Jesus’ counter question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” implies divine authority and sends the priest and elders into fear, confusion, argument and a desire to save face.

Jesus continues his teaching with the parable of the two sons. The first son changes his mind, which might be seen as repentance, while the second son is shown to be a liar and a hypocrite. The implication is quite clear. Jesus affirms John the Baptist as righteous and from God, while the chief priests and elders are exposed as hypocrites who privilege human authority over divine authority.

The chief priests and elders exercise damage control when they hesitate to answer Jesus’ question. They fear the crowd’s opinion and they fear loss of power. How often do we see our own leaders doing this? Is there a time when you have done this yourself, holding on to power rather than giving an honest answer that might imply that you do not have control? Do you think that we privilege human authority over divine authority?

The first son in the parable changes his mind. While the term “flip-flopper” is a negative term in our political culture, Jesus suggests that change can be preferable to lies and hypocrisy. Can you think of any examples from politics? Can you think of any local or personal examples?

A theme of the passage is belief versus unbelief. Why do you think the chief priests and elders are reluctant to acknowledge the divine authority of John the Baptist and Jesus, while the tax collectors and the prostitutes believe?

What does repentance mean to you? Is it synonymous with change or does it have another meaning?

Bible Study: 15 Pentecost, Proper 20 (A)

September 21, 2014

Nancy J. Hagner, General Theological Seminary

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45Philippians 1:21-30Matthew 20:1-16

Exodus 16: 2-15

Often people are quick to mis-characterize the God of the Older Testament as a “wrathful God.” In today’s passage from Exodus we see again the seemingly tireless patience God continues to bestow on his “chosen” flock who so quickly return to fear and accusation even though they have experienced God’s salvation and mercy over and over. In chapter 14, the Israelites have been miraculously delivered from the army of Pharaoh. Then at the end of chapter 15, they have been camped at Elin in a desert oasis with palm trees and bountiful water sources, provided by God when they were thirsty. Today’s text tells us that they are only two months into the journey (which we know will last 40 years), and are complaining to Moses and Aaron; lamenting that they would have been better off dying in the land of Egypt rather than suffer the fear and hunger they are experiencing in the wilderness.

Moses correctly points out that “your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” He then reminds them to “draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” God then appears in a cloud, assuring Moses that he has indeed heard the complaints, will provide meat and bread sufficiently, and that perhaps this time the people will know that the Lord is present.

Moses’ steadfast faith that God will provide is inspiring, but it is often much easier to relate to the Israelites as they hesitantly and with great grumbling journey further into the desert. Who does not know the fear of the wilderness? The unknown landscape of setting out on the first day of a new school, or the first days of sobriety, or returning home to an empty house after the death of one’s life partner? The wilderness is a scary place, and we are people who require “earthly things” like food and water, comfort and companionship. How do we trust that God will provide? We know the doubt that settles in after the initial exuberance of a courageous decision to escape a bad marriage, an abusive relationship, a boring job, a house too big and too much for an aging widower? Even happy decisions involve risk and a sense of the unknown: to go on a blind date, go back to college as a second career student, take a vacation alone, step into a new ministry, reach out to a stranger.

It is always our human tendency to say, “It was better and safer to stay home, to not risk being vulnerable.” Today’s passage reminds us that God loves us, hears our cries and provides what we need in mysterious and unrecognizable ways. When faced with the food with which God had covered the ground, they still asked, “What is it?” Moses said, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

When have you been in the wilderness?

How has God provided for you in the wilderness?  Did you recognize the “food”?

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

The psalm is a reminder that it is always “right and a good and joyful to give thanks” to God. It is necessary to do this not because God needs our thanks, but we need to “sing praises to him and speak of all his marvelous works” to remind ourselves of what God has done and is doing in our lives. Verses 36-44 recount the story of the Exodus and God’s provision for the Israelites. It is important to say the words aloud, for that is how we remember the story of our faith and the actions of our God. Also note verse 45: God has done all these things so “that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws.” God’s mercy, blessing, and salvation is for a purpose – so that we may live.

Think about writing your own version of Psalm 105. What praises can you sing today? What “marvels” can you recount?

How have you been “satisfied with bread from heaven”?

Philippians 1:21-30

Paul is writing from prison, thinking about death, which is, of course, a possibility. His words are focused, his confidence that he will be with Christ, robust. We have the sense that he is intentionally distilling a few important things; that he wants to convey to the Philippians what matters, in case he does not have the chance to see them again. We infer from Paul’s words that among the congregation there is conflict, divisiveness and persecution. Paul exhorts them to be unified and to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” and not to be “intimidated by opponents.” These are challenging words, but Paul issues them with confidence that unity, courage, and faithful lives, worthy of Christ, are possible.

Paul tells us to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”; and suggests that “striving side by side with one mind” (i.e., unity) is one way to do that. In what ways is our church realizing this or not? Is the unity Paul describes possible? Desirable?

Matthew 20:1-16

The familiar story of the workers in the vineyard is a wonderful parable about God’s sovereignty. The landowner represents God, who, when confronted with the unhappy day workers who started work early and yet received the same wage as the 5 p.m. latecomers who barely worked at all, asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” He then follows up with a second question: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” which implies to the early workers that they are not exhibiting any generosity, but are only concerned with getting what they have calculated to be their due.

We think we know how the world works, what is fair, what is right, who is deserving of work, of inclusion, of love, or respect, and who is not. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God – God’s vision and plan – is not organized in the ways we, as earthly humans, expect. Everything belongs to God, and God will do what God will do. God will be generous beyond our ability to comprehend.

We receive glimpses of the Kingdom and participate in it when we can let go of our anxiety about earthly things and set our hearts to love things heavenly; not eschewing our lives and the very real concerns of our world, but letting go of our rigid and anxious desire to control. Heavenly things such as love, generosity, forgiveness, grace and peace are available through the love of God and his son, our savior, Jesus Christ.

What would be on your list of heavenly things you would like to help realize on earth? In what ways could these gifts be used to bring about the Kingdom of God?

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.