Home Study July 27, 2014

All readings for the Week
Genesis 29:15-28 with Psalm 105:1-11, 45b  or
1 Kings 3:5-12 with Psalm 128 or Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Focus Questions
1. How do you think most of the people in our church pews hear these stories: do they take comfort, or offense?

2. How is this text good news for some, but perhaps not so much for others?

3. How do these images of Jesus conflict with our own images for God?

4. Where do you think the man’s joy came from, when he found the treasure: from greed, or something else?

5. Do we, like the disciples, “understand” indeed what Jesus is saying, what the message is for us today?

One of my favorite images from the Gospels is the little mustard seed in the parable that begins today’s reading of several parables in a row, followed by Jesus’ checking to make sure his disciples get what he’s saying. (It’s impressive how clueless the disciples are in the Gospel of Mark, but here, in Matthew’s Gospel, they brightly say they understand “all” of what Jesus has said.)

There’s a range of interpretation of these parables (not surprising, since they are parables, after all), beginning with the sweet image of the little tiny seed that grows into (we imagine) a mighty tree, with birds nesting in its branches. The image alone seems straightforward and lovely, and, like the disciples, we can say, “Yes” if someone asks us if we understand: the kingdom of God (so easily identified with the church, of course) begins small, with Jesus and a tiny band of disciples, and grows into a vast, worldwide church.

Even if it’s not identified strictly with the church, the kingdom is something big and powerful and mysterious in its growth. Mysterious, like the process of leavening, when something very small creates a huge batch of bread (enough, in this reading, to feed one hundred people!). Ordinary, homey images, everyday people and activities, things of nature…these are the tools Jesus employs to try to convey how he experiences God, how he hopes we might experience God. And we find them beautiful and encouraging and hopeful, even if we’ve never laid eyes on a mustard seed or baked a loaf of bread. We can tell Jesus that we, too, “get” the idea, that we understand what he’s talking about.

Consider that Jesus is saying these first two parables out in the open, outside a house, to a crowd, perhaps by the water but not in the heart of the city and certainly not in the sacred precincts of the Temple, the center of organized religion in his day and his culture. He doesn’t talk about the Holy of Holies or the religious festivals or the clergy of his time when he tries to lead the people to deeper relationship with God. He tells stories, and he waxes poetic when he says what the kingdom of heaven is “like.” Or, as Arland Hultgren writes, Jesus says that the kingdom isn’t so much like the objects themselves (mustard seed, treasure, leaven) but more like the actual process of what happens in these little stories, the mysterious and powerful things that happen right beneath our eyes, even if our eyes can’t seem to see what’s happening.

Reflection by Kate Huey.  Read more at: http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/weaving-the-future-1.html

 

Home Study July 20, 2014

All readings for the Week
Genesis 28:10-19a with Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 or
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Focus Questions
1. Have you ever found yourself “in a limbo of [your] own making”?

2. When have you found God in “unexpected places”? How did that feel?

3. Do you ever make promises to God, in gratitude or perhaps for persuasion?

4. How do you think our scientific age deals with dreams and their spiritual meanings?

5. What dreams matter most to you, and to all of us?

All alone in this limbo, full of anxiety, and exhausted from his journey, Jacob settles into the vulnerability of sleep, and the dream of heaven and earth before him in that “unplace.” That is exactly where God comes to meet Jacob in “unexpected places” (the theme of the 2015 UCC General Synod, by the way), to talk with him, and to renew the promises that have been given to his grandparents and parents before him. Our colorful history and misdeeds matter not one bit when God decides to call, or better, when God comes looking for us, perhaps even pursuing us. Taylor writes: “Jacob is nowhere, which is where the dream touches down–not where it should be but where he is.”
There is the dream, and there is the interpretation of the dream. Many scholars connect Jacob’s vision of heavenly beings, messengers perhaps, going up and down a ladder to heaven, with the Babylonian ziggurats that the biblical authors would have known well. Richard Pervo writes imaginatively of the “Babylonian temples, with a penthouse apartment for the god and a ground-level chamber for formal receptions,” but–speaking of imagination–Greidanus invites us to picture the response of the people of Israel, in exile in Babylon and so far from home, when they heard these promises of God’s unfailing presence to Jacob (and his descendants, surely), no matter where they go. After all, in a little while, Jacob’s name will even be changed to “Israel,” which surely must have touched the homesick exiles in their deepest hearts.

There is a tension for people of faith in our love for our places of worship, our sacred spaces. While Holly Hearon claims that “God is not associated, ultimately, with place, but in relationship and promise,” we embodied creatures do experience God in places that we can feel, places that we can cherish, places that evoke memories, places that we mourn when they are destroyed. I remember a scene in the movie “Romero,” when the church is destroyed and the people are devastated, and the archbishop walks bravely back in to recover the Eucharist. That is an embodied and sacred experience. In a similar way, so is the sorrow of my friend, whose childhood church and place of her ordination is now closed and for sale.

Terence Fretheim writes beautifully about our need to create places of worship, “because human beings are shaped by place as well as time.” Thinking back to Jacob and thousands of other ancestors who wandered, who were led, who were taken in exile, who went on pilgrimage, we find his words inspiring for us, too, their descendants in faith: “The rhythms of the ancestors include the rhythm of journeying and worship; their journeys are punctuated by moments of worship at specific places. Yet the place never becomes a final objective, where one settles in; it provides sustenance for the ongoing journey.” One of my favorite images for the church is that of a “base camp,” where we are fed and rested for the journey outside its walls, but I must acknowledge that we are prone at times to see ourselves always at work, or to be constantly reminding ourselves dutifully of the need to work, and we miss the encounters with God that may happen at any time, anywhere, in so many places of blessing. Devotion by Kate Huey.  Read more at:  http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/place-of-blessingsearched.html

Home Study July 13, 2014

All readings for the Week
Genesis 25:19-34 with Psalm 119:105-112 or
Isaiah 55:10-13 with Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Focus Questions
1. How do you experience God at work in your life?

2. What is the role of prayer in your life?

3. Who are the exploited within your community who lose what they need in order to live?

4. What are the “divided houses” in which you live?

5. How can we bring unity into places where fault lines exist in relationship?

Sibling rivalry is nothing new. For some, sibling rivalry can be a source of healthy competition which motivates achievement and success while nurturing healthy relationship among siblings. In other cases, we have siblings like Esau and Jacob, destructive, disparate and creating despair and distrust throughout the course of their relationship–even from their mother’s womb. “How the occupants of Rebekah’s womb can know the importance of being delivered first involves prolepsis: a situation in which characters can know something before it is logically possible,” Frank Anthony Spina explains. “In any case, as we shall see, this same struggle continues till the day of birth.” These two begin to create division before they are even born.

The relationship between Esau and Jacob, from the womb, attempts to explain the birth of two nations and their continued discontent with each other. Addressing this conflict between the brothers that is reflected in the familial, cultural and even in the tradition which favors shepherds, Gene Tucker explains: “Finally, it is present on the political, national, and international level, for the two brothers are ancestors of the states of Israel and Edom. Immediate neighbors, their rivalry persisted from earliest times until the end of the Old Testament era, and frequently broke into violence.” While this womb-related conflict points us toward a greater conflict, Hearon provides her own words of caution: “These domestic events anticipate future events to be played out on the world stage. However, they should be viewed less as predictions than perhaps a playing out of human character in dialogue with the larger narrative of God.”

As the brothers grow together, their differences become even more evident. They are twins who are completely dissimilar. Their personalities are not the same. They choose different occupations, and to exacerbate the situation, their parents each favor one over the other, Rebekah loving Jacob while Isaac favors Esau. Their family dynamics fuel the dysfunctional rivalry that begins with their struggle in the womb, jockeying for position to exit the womb first, and continues through their birth, when Esau arrives with Jacob holding on to his heel (v.26). The division between them permeates every aspect of their lives created–a house divided–a family divided. What do we do with these familial dynamics? What, if any lesson(s) is there for us in this story?

This on-going struggle between Esau and Jacob made me think about the many relationships we encounter regularly. Besides familial relationships, there are relationships with colleagues and friends, and relationships in our places of worship and spiritual contexts. There are also our general encounters with people each day. In each of those is the potential for relationship, or not. In those places where we encounter others, we have a role in determining what that relationship will be. There is a place for healthy competition, yet there are some places where competition can be unhealthy, and relationships that are steeped in rivalry prove to be detrimental to community life. Is there room for us to examine our own relationships in the context of these two brothers? And what of our relationships within the church: are there ways in which rivalries are creating breeches in relationships? Is there room for healing the brokenness in those relationships to prevent division in our houses of worship?

Reflection by Karen Georgia Thompson Read more at: http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/a-house-dividedtension-and.html

Home Study July 6, 2014

All readings for the Week
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 with Psalm 45:10-17 or
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 or
Zechariah 9:9-12 with Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Focus Questions

1. How do we know “God’s will” in any given situation?

2. What is your role in the larger story of God’s grace in the world?

3. What difference might it make to leave out certain parts of a story?

4. Is prosperity a blessing?

5. Who are the “Rebekahs” in our own day, whose lives and fates are determined by men?

A simple little story this week from the first book of the Bible provides some interesting challenges for reflection. This may even be a text we will have to wrestle with, and walk away from the struggle with large questions remaining. At first, it just seems like an edited little tale about a family matter between Abraham and his relatives back home in Haran, where he has sent his longtime, trusted assistant, his right-hand man, so to speak, to fetch a bride for his beloved son, Isaac.

We remember Isaac, of course, as the very special and amazing gift of God to ensure that Abraham’s line would go on and multiply, “as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). We also remember that these descendants would both occupy the land that God had given Abraham and be a blessing to all the families of the earth as well (12:3). A sweeping promise that sounds global and even everlasting: a promise of blessing that extends to us, far away in both time and place.

God has been very involved, quite busy, in Abraham’s life throughout the past twelve chapters of Genesis, speaking directly with him (and others on his behalf); making covenants with him; providing children, guidance, and great wealth; and perhaps most famously, staying Abraham’s hand from killing his son Isaac in a test, the story tells us, that had come directly from God.

However, this week’s text is very different: we don’t hear God’s voice speaking directly to anyone, in fact, we mostly overhear the servant’s thought-processes and then listen in on his conversations with Abraham’s relatives. Still, God is at work in this scene, and we’re invited to reflect on a question with which many faithful folks often struggle: God’s providence, and God’s will, in our everyday lives, even though we don’t hear God’s voice addressing us directly. How, then, do we read the signs around us, and know what God wants us to do? How much of what happens is something God wills to happen, and what is our role in it all?

(Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey)

Read more at: http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/chosen-journeysrebekah-and.html

 

 

Home Study June 29, 2014

All readings for the Week
Genesis 22:1-14 with Psalm 13 or
Jeremiah 28:5-9 with Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Focus Questions

1. Who has inspired you in the Christian journey?

2. What is the “little cup of cold water” that you offer to others?

3. Why might someone not welcome “the promises of God”?

4. How did the church move so far away from living in “a place of welcome”?

5. Are people “changed for good” by the life and ministry of your church?

Jesus was very clear in his instructions, as we know from reading this sermon-speech over the course of several Sundays. He told his disciples to “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” That’s what they were supposed to say, but then what should they do after that? What does the kingdom of heaven look like? How will we know it when we see it, or feel it? Jesus’ keynote address, the Sermon on the Mount (which took three chapters, beginning with chapter five in Matthew), tells us a lot about the reign of God.
The speech that ends today has given us even more information about how we can participate in that reign, now that we’re inspired by Jesus’ words and life. Along with those disciples, we’re told to offer gifts of compassion: to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. Isn’t it interesting that there seems to be far more emphasis on healing and raising than on the exact words and teachings they (we) should use? (Church councils would address the words and teachings issue much later, but for the time being, the Holy Spirit would be enough.) More emphasis, it seems, on the doing than on the saying, more emphasis on doing good than on holding the “correct” beliefs.

And then Jesus focuses on two things: have no fear, he says, and have an undivided heart. (As Soren Kierkegaard noted, “pure of heart” means “to will one thing.”) You probably need to be fearless if you’re going to have an undivided heart, because you’re likely to risk a lot for the sake of the treasure that lies in your heart: perhaps you’ll even risk the loss of social standing, family support, physical safety and financial security. There have been Christians in every age and place who have known something of that kind of loss, but many of us in the mainline churches in the United States find it harder to relate. We recall Barbara Brown Taylor’s apt description of the temptation we face: “Sure, it is the gospel, but there is no reason to get all upset about it. Being a good Christian is not all that different from being a good citizen, after all. You just stay out of trouble and be nice to your neighbors and say your prayers at night. There is absolutely no reason to go make a spectacle of yourself…” (Her sermon, “Family Values,” is in Gospel Medicine). Reflection by Kate Huey Read more:  http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/holy-welcomewelcoming-ways.htm