September 20, 2020

Genesis 42

We now reach part 3 of our study of the story of Joseph.  How in the world will this family come to love one another?  Here are some guiding questions for our discussion.

Testing.  In a recent translation of the Lord’s Prayer, we make this request: “Save us from the time of trial/testing.”  In this part of the story, Joseph begins a process of putting his brothers to the test (verse 15).  Do you experience Joseph’s testing of his brothers as vindictive, redemptive, or a little of both?

One is No More.  As Joseph begins his interrogation of his brothers, they initially profess complete innocence (verse 11).  However, when Joseph presses them further, they confess that one of their number “is no more (verse 13).”  What does this admission mean for the forward movement of this story?

For I Fear God.  Though some of Joseph’s actions may not make this apparent, he professes that he will not betray his covenant with his brothers if they keep up their covenant with him.  How does this profession point toward a further shift in Joseph’s character, and in the overall shape and purpose of this story?

Let us remember that while this is a story about “salvation” in a time of famine, it is also a story about the “reconciliation” of a family that is deeply divided.  Sharing bread and loving one another are not only key elements of our sacramental practice, but of our lives lived out in the world.  How might God be at work reconciling us to one another, and all the nations of this world?  Could this be a time of testing for us all?  See you Sunday.  

September 13, 2020

Genesis 41

We got off to an inauspicious start in our story last week.  Joseph comes close to being killed by his brothers, but is instead sold into slavery in Egypt.  We pick up this week after Joseph first finds a job, is accused of rape, and ends up in prison – where he correctly interprets two of his fellow inmates’ dreams.  In this week’s lesson, one of these inmates (the butler) remembers Joseph’s abilities when the Pharaoh has some dreams that no one else can interpret.  Here are some guides for our discussion.

Seeing God’s Plans.  In last week’s lessons, Joseph’s dreams were all about himself.  In this week’s lesson, Joseph makes clear that any correct interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams will come from God (verse 16).  How do we see Joseph’s “vocation” evolving?

Now Let Pharaoh Select.  Once Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, he suggests that Pharaoh select someone “discerning and wise (verse 33)” to set over the land of Egypt.  Pharaoh, seeing the “spirit of God (verse 38)” at work in Joseph, selects him, and makes him a member of the family.  How do you see this theme linking up with the theme of “wisdom” from last summer’s study?

Pharaoh as a Means of Grace.  Pharaohs don’t get much good press in the scriptures.  But this Pharaoh does!  Here’s a “Gentile” who is responsive to the guidance and the providence of God.  What does this teach us about how we go about loving one another – especially those we might count as “enemies”?

This story just keeps getting better the further we go.  How can it continue to give us courage, persistence, and faithfulness as we try to negotiate our own confusing and challenging times?  Looking forward to interpreting some dreams with you on Sunday!

September 6, 2020

Genesis 37: 2-11, 23-24a, 28

We kick off a new series this fall on the topic: “Love for One Another.”  We lead off with four lessons on one of my favorite stories in the Bible: the Joseph story.  This may seem like a strange place to begin a study of love.  But, if we’re honest, this family story sounds a lot like our own!  Some questions to get us started.

Dysfunctional Families.  Most books and movies portray the lives of people we would call “heroic” – based on their strength, or courage, or shrewdness.  The Bible is full of stories about people and families who are far from heroic – in more ways than one.  What comfort do you receive from this fact?

Dysfunctional Dreams.  It’s one thing for people to mess up.  It’s another thing for God to get involved in our messes.  Dreams, in scripture, are usually revelations from God.  The dreams Joseph has do indeed come true.  Why would God share such dreams with a dysfunctional family like Joseph’s?

From Dysfunction to ReconciliationBy the end of this story, not only have Joseph’s dreams come true, but this family becomes reconciled.  Sounds a little “New Testament” to me!  How does a story like this give us courage for the struggle?

We today live in a society riven by divisions, where some people seem to be favorites and others unfavored.  It’s easy to ask: “Why can’t people just get along?”  Answers to this question are more difficult to come by.  I’m looking forward to journeying through this story with you.  I’m hoping it will not only reveal some things about ourselves, but about the God we worship in Jesus Christ.  See you Sunday.

August 30, 2020

James 3:13-18; 5:7-12

And so, we come to the end of our summer-long sojourn with Wisdom. We began with Wisdom crying out to us in the street (Proverbs 1:20). We end with James urging us to pay attention to the Wisdom which comes “down from above (verse 14).” Again, we are confronted with a choice between two ways of living our lives and measuring our faithfulness. Let’s see what Wisdom we can carry forward with us into the fall.

Back to Fruits. The world has many ways of measuring a person’s or a group’s intelligence. James points to a simple way to test both individual and communal wisdom: does the person or group produce disorder or peace? How would you describe the contrast between First Church Wisdom and First Church Folly?

The Coming of the Lord. Here at the end of the letter of James, and the end of our study of Wisdom, we encounter a new motivation for hearing and obeying the voice of Lady Wisdom versus Lady Folly: the coming of the Lord. How does the idea of a “final accounting” affect the living of your days?

Be Patient, Therefore. Because the Lord is coming, those who listen to the Lord’s voice should be patient. But this is patience like that of a farmer, and that of a prophet. According to James, such patience leads to endurance. How can we keep one another “patient” as we wait?

The truth is that all of us – as individuals and as groups – exhibit behaviors that are “pure” and “peaceable,” as well as those that are “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish (verse 15).” As we said again and again, neither perfect Wisdom or perfect behavior is possible for us sinners. Nevertheless, as the farmer is charged with growing a “precious” crop, so we are charged to sow a “harvest of righteousness (verse 18).” “See, the Judge is standing at the door (verse 9).” How can we help one another be ready to greet Him – even today? See you Sunday.

August 23, 2020

James 3:1-12

This week’s lesson can almost teach itself. At this time of social distancing, political maneuvering, and national divisions, the use and misuse of our tongues is a timely topic indeed. If your tongues don’t lead us elsewhere, here are three topics to guide our conversation.

A Warning to Teachers. Any teacher of scripture should read this passage with trepidation. But aren’t we all teachers in some capacity – as parents, and mentors, and coaches? Why do you think James talks more about the misuse of this part of the body than some of its other members?

The Tongue is a Fire. Why do you think the tongue is so difficult to control? And how has the rise of social media both helped and hindered its more proper uses?

By Their Fruits. James makes clear that the tongue is both a source of blessing and cursing. How can the same member produce both fresh and brackish water (verse 11)? Once again, we’re up against matters of the heart. If taming the tongue is difficult, how about a re-orientation of our hearts? Can we accomplish such a “conversion” ourselves?

Before the class is over, I plan to share some words from The Study Catechism on the Ninth Commandment, bearing false witness. Misuse of the tongue, according to this document, may not only break Commandment #9, but Commandment #6: “You shall not murder.” This is serious business, and we’ll need the Spirit’s help to guide our tongues in the way of truth, and justice, and love. Hope to see, and hear you Sunday!

August 16, 2020

James 2:14-26

Now we get to the heart of the controversy regarding the book of James: “Can faith save you (verse 14)?” Most of us, as Presbyterians, have been trained to respond with a hearty, “Yes!” But this Sunday, we come to this question via Proverbs and the gospels, and a summer-long study of Wisdom. Let’s come at this question with the following three steps.

What is Faith? First, we must wrestle with the meaning of faith. Too often we think of faith as intellectual assent or doctrinal purity. If faith is more about trust and loyalty (think of our discussion two weeks ago regarding “double-mindedness”), then how can faith exist without works?

What are Works? We Presbyterians have been trained to reject anything which smacks of “works righteousness.” James quotes Genesis where Abraham’s “belief,” not his “works,” were “reckoned to him as righteousness (verse 23).” But how are “works” any different from the talk of “fruit,” or “deeds,” or “acts,” that we have talked about elsewhere in our survey of wisdom. How can one truly receive the gift of faith without, in turn, producing its fruit, or walking in its way?

Pay Attention to What People Do rather than What They Say. We’ve all heard it said: “Actions speak louder than words.” James pushed it further: “Words without actions are dead.” How do the stories of Abraham and Rahab help us understand this challenge from James to us today?

Yes, most of our class involves “words.” But after class is over, we all engage in “works” – which are either faithful or unfaithful. How can we help one another “walk the walk,” or “put legs” to our faith? See you Sunday.

 

August 9, 2020

James 1:19-27

James has sometimes been listed as “off the main highway” when it comes to its place in the canon of scripture. This week we’ll question that assumption. Let’s do so in three steps.

Acting Fast and Slow. Our passage begins with a proverb about things to do quickly and things to do slowly (verse 19). This proverb drives the rest of the passage (see page 60). How would our world be different if we all listened quickly, spoke slowly, and got angry even more slowly?

Be Doers and not Hearers Only. Let’s think back over our journey from Proverbs, through the gospels, and towards James. Think, for instance, about Jesus’ parable about the house built on rock versus the house built on sand (Matthew 7). Go back and read this parable and ask yourself whether James is “fringe” material or not?

Love God and Love Neighbor. Our passage ends with a summary of what constitutes religion that is “pure and undefiled before God (verse 27).” How does this verse reflect both the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ summary of the same?

Our argument this week is that James is a “highway” versus a “byway” of biblical witness. If so, let’s get to “doing” – for Jesus’ sake. See you Sunday.

August 2, 2020

James 1

We will spend our last five weeks on the theme of wisdom in the book of James. This general epistle shares many of the themes of Proverbs, especially its emphasis on practice/works. We will begin our study with a brief overview, and some questions for discussion.

Double-Mindedness. The author leads off with a strong warning regarding doubt (see verses 6ff). As a pastor, I have urged fellow parishioners to experience doubt as a “catalyst” versus a “contender” to faith. What do you think the author means by “double-mindedness,” and toward what kind of “doubt” does it point?

Riches. One path toward “double-mindedness” is an inordinate fascination with riches. This path leads to a “busy” life that causes faith to “wither away (verse 11).” Why and how are riches such a threat to mature faith (and works)?

Suffering. In contrast, suffering may lead one away from “double-mindedness” and toward a “mature” and “complete” faith (and works, verse 4). Surely, then, our current context is an opportunity for us to grow in our faith. How so?

Throughout our study of James, I will be pushing the notion of faith as “trust” (versus mere intellectual assent). As Proverbs has taught us, there are many voices vying for our attention in our daily walk of faith. To whose voice are we listening, and whose wisdom will we trust? I’m looking forward to growing in wisdom with you Sunday. Remember, if any of us are lacking in wisdom (and who’s not?), “ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly (verse 5).” I’ll be asking. How about you?

July 26, 2020

John 14

We end our gospel/wisdom tour with John. Here, we will try to hear these familiar verses less as a funeral oration and more as an invitation to the way of wisdom. Three points for discussion.

A Homecoming Invitation. Try to remember the form and purpose of Woman Wisdom’s invitation to her house in Proverbs 9. Then compare and contrast this invitation with Jesus’ invitation to his Father’s house in John 14. What are the similarities and the differences?

Knowledge of the Father. Woman Wisdom’s words reveal the character of God, built into the “warp and woof” of creation. How does Jesus reveal the character of God, a character he has shared since the beginning (John 1)? Again, what are the similarities and the differences?

From Words to Works. Note the shift from “words” to “works” in verse 10. Is Jesus more interested in our “words” or our “works,” our “wisdom” or our “way”?

The Gospel of John is often called the least “practical” of the gospels. How has reading John from the perspective of Woman Wisdom changed this? See you Sunday. In this Father’s house, there are plenty of rooms/Zoom squares!

 

July 19, 2020

Mark 6

This week we move from Luke to Mark (from a later, to an earlier gospel). This passage finds Jesus back in his hometown of Nazareth, teaching in the synagogue. At first, the hometown crowd is “astounded” by his teaching (verse 2). But one verse later, they take “offense” at him (verse 3). How do they, how do we, go from A to B?

Wisdom Close to Home. Pastor Nominating Committees often go searching for ministers from far away places. How could “wisdom” emerge from someone like us? Why is “proximity” such a problem when it comes to “wisdom,” especially of a religious nature?

Wisdom and Prophecy. One of the problems interpreting Mark 6 is the lack of content regarding Jesus’ teachings. Is Jesus’ poor reception solely a problem of Jesus’ identity, or the nature of Jesus’ instruction (compare Luke 4). Jesus’ quote regarding prophets seems to point in the latter direction. Why is talk of justice and righteousness particularly offensive when it comes from the mouth of someone we know?

Unbelief. Not only does “proximity” lead to “offense,” it also gives birth to “unbelief (verse 6).” Jesus not only fails to do any “deeds of power” in Nazareth (verse 5), but he gains few, if any followers. We have learned that wisdom can come to us from many directions. Why is wisdom “close to home” the most difficult to believe?

One of the strengths, and weaknesses (!) of our class is that we know each other well. How can we continue to listen to one another’s wisdom, and believe that the Spirit is speaking in our midst? See you, sisters and brothers, Sunday. Hope no one takes “offense”!