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 June 15, 2014

All readings for the Week

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Focus Questions

1. What are your thoughts about the story of creation and the views of science?

2. Do you think of yourself as a “consumer”? What difference does it make one way or the other?

3. What difference does it make that God pronounced creation “good”? Or do you believe creation is “neutral”?

4. Would God look upon our use of the earth today and pronounce it “very good”?

5. What story do we intend to tell our children, and what story will our great-grandchildren tell their descendants about us?

 

It’s only human to want to tell the stories of who we are and where we came from, of what came before us that shapes who we are today and who we are becoming. These stories, handed down from generation to generation in every culture, are voices in themselves, voices of protest and consolation, voices of clarity and courage. They are influenced, at least in part, by the situation in which the storytellers find themselves.
In The Luminous Web, Barbara Brown Taylor describes the shaping of the creation narrative of Genesis as a counter-cultural protest of the people of Israel against the creation story of their Babylonian captors. While their oppressors saw the origins of the universe as violent and bloody, the Israelites told their children a different story, a story rooted in goodness and blessing. Light came from the deepest night, they said, and order from chaos. The sun and the moon and the stars were set in the over-arching sky as signs of beauty and the changing of the seasons, providing light and direction and the keeping of time. God filled the earth with vegetation that was fruitful and nourishing, moved the waters back from the land and provided a home for the creatures that crawled across it, walked upon it, and flew over it. In the midst of this loveliness, humankind was tenderly placed and blessed and called to be caretakers and stewards. And God looked upon all this, and found it good.

In today’s psalm reading, the voice of the psalmist puts the praise and wonder of ancient Israel into the mouths of worshipers who are astounded by God’s amazing creative powers, God’s splendid works, even as they appreciate the place of humans, just “a little lower than the angels,” in the midst of God’s plan for all of these things. Creation is God’s love expressed and admired even by God Herself! If we had more of their same sense of wonder, perhaps our prayer-life would include more praise, along with the requests we so often make and the thanks we give when those prayers are answered.

Today our culture teems with a multitude of voices, coming at us from every side. Some voices tell very different stories of our origins, of who we are and who we are becoming. Voices of science and religion carry on a lively (and not always friendly) conversation about our origins, and the debate over evolution turns political for those whose anxiety misses the main point: we were created, by whatever process and whatever length it took, by a gracious Creator, in love and goodness, and we are called to care for this earth, this good creation, not to dominate or abuse it. (Perhaps, as long as we distract ourselves with arguing about HOW we were created, we can ignore HOW we are treating that creation!) (Reflection by Kate Huey) Read more at:  http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/this-is-goodexpressed-love.html

 

Home Study June 8, 2014 Pentecost

All readings for the Week
Acts 2:1-21 or Num 11:24-30
Ps 104:24-34, 35b
1 Cor 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23 or John 7:34-39

Focus Questions

1. What are the different kinds of “languages” spoken in church today?

2. In what ways do you share Peter’s experience, of interpreting the present moment in your life through the lens of Scripture?

3. How do our differences enrich our experience of unity?

4. What is the greatest obstacle to good communication?

5. How much does the Pentecost story relate to the life of your church today?

 

Our psalm reading for this Pentecost Sunday speaks of God sending forth God’s Spirit in a creative burst that is both productive and renewing. In our story from the Acts of the Apostles, it must have felt like creation all over again, with wind and fire, and something new bursting forth. Then there was the amazing linguistic experience of speaking in other languages yet being understood by people of many different languages and lands, the names of which represented the known world at that time and have caused no small anxiety to worship leaders in every time. No matter: in that moment, all the people were one in their hearing, if not their understanding of the deeper meaning of what they heard. Despite their differences, they could all hear what the disciples were saying, each in their own language.

Fire, wind, and humble Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing a new thing that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place. Maybe it was a little frightening, something people would want to explain away, or to contain with cynical comments that blamed it all on drunkenness.

There have been manifestations, remarkable displays of God’s Spirit in the Bible before, of course, with sound and light and amazing “special effects,” as we call them today. But those events, like Moses on the mountaintop and Jesus transfigured, were reserved for only a few witnesses, the most inside of insiders. Here, at the dawn of a new era, on the birthday of a church called to spread to the ends of the earth, the display is for everyone. Not just the disciples, gathered in a room, getting themselves together after Jesus is once again departed. Not just the holiest or the most faithful or the most learned, not just the believers, not just those who were with Jesus on the road or witnesses to his Resurrection. No, in this case, at this moment, “all flesh,” male and female, old and young, slave and free, are invited and included–and not just invited but expected to prophesy and dream, too!

And just to make sure that they know they’re included, the formidable obstacle of a multitude of languages is overcome by a sweeping wind, an uplifting Spirit that drives those disciples out, out into the world beyond their walls, beyond the theoretical but fragile safety those walls provide. Out into the world, and compelled to spread the Good News of what God is doing in a new day. On Pentecost, a Jewish feast that celebrated new life and new crops by offering a gift of first fruits in gratitude and praise, Matthew L. Skinner tells us, these Jewish “ignorant, backwater folks” (a stereotype conveyed by the term “Galileans,” but lost to us today as we read the text) become impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation is drawing near.

(Reflection by Kate Huey:  http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/pentecost-sunday.html)

Home Study June 1, 2014

All readings for the Week
Acts 1:6-14
Ps 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Pet 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Focus Questions

1. Would it change the way you see yourself, and others, if you thought of us as belonging to God?

2. What do your prayers reveal about your beliefs?

3. How would you describe “the already but not-yet” of your own life?

4. How does Jesus’ prayer illustrate the need for a community of faith?

5. How would you describe “eternal life”?

There are subtle shifts here at the beginning of the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel: Jesus’ farewell speech, now more than four chapters long, becomes a closing prayer, a move that would have been familiar to the first-century Christian hearers of the story. That’s what farewell speeches did in those days: it was as familiar to them as, for example, the prayer before the sermon is to many in the church today. It would have sounded “right” to John’s audience, and they listened in on the prayer just as the disciples did that night, and just as we listen in today. It’s true that the gospel is good news that we “overhear.”

Another change is the very different picture Jesus’ words paint of his disciples, not as their usual clueless selves, as they had seemed, earlier in the evening. Charles Cousar writes that Jesus describes them instead “as God’s possession,” the ones who “understood that Jesus has come from God.” This hushed little group gathered at table are precious in Jesus’ eyes, and he entrusts them to God, Cousar says, asking God to take care of them, but not out of “condescension or pity. He describes them as they are seen by God.”

There is much to be said for seeing Christ in each other, but there is also something to be said for seeing ourselves as God sees us, with steadfast love and compassion, and with hope, too, for the future and what is yet to be. The disciples that night are a band with great promise, and Jesus sees that promise within them, but he also knows that they will carry the gospel, and embody its message, in a hostile and curiously unwelcoming world, a world that doesn’t seem to know what it needs most, then or now. In such a world full of challenges to people of faith, Gail O’Day wonders how the church’s “self-definition would be changed if it took as its beginning point, ‘We are a community for whom Jesus prays.’” How would such an understanding affect the way your church sees itself, its strength, its possibilities, and its mission in the world?

This reflection is by Kate Huey.  Read more at: http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/spirit-of-witnesscontinuing.html.