Archives for September 2013

Bible Study: 21 Pentecost, Proper 23 (C)

October 13, 2013

Alan Cowart, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’” (Luke 17:17-19)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7Psalm 66:1-112 Timothy 2:8-15Luke 17:11-19

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

The children of Israel, God’s chosen people have been taken captive and live in exile. God and the prophets warned and foretold, and now it is happening. God will not intervene. That time – that opportunity – has passed. This exile is God’s method of intervention.

Hope is not always easy. It is not a removal from this life. It is not something that rescues us and magically takes us away. It is a long-term vision; it is what gets us through.

Israel is not to wait for rescue, but to live into their exile life. It is important that they do just that: live. They are to continue in the things that make them a community, building, growing, marrying. They are to live and participate in the exact time and place to which God has brought them.

This act of living faithfully in a time of what should be tragedy is its own triumph and its own end. In a tumultuous time of empire and conquest, the exiled people will be safe, will continue to be a people. They will continue to be called and special and chosen. And God will lead them home.

What part of your life have you been wishing away but you realize will be part of your life for a long time? Is there a place of exile in your life that you need to come to terms with?

Can you see a spark of life in a painful place in your world?

Imagine you have replaced your hope of rescue with the hope of re-creation and life; how will this change your view of God? Of yourself? Of others in your life?

Psalm 66:1-11

Children get excited over the strangest things. They will grab your hand and lead you to a room and say, “Look! Look! Look at what we did,” and they will show you something that is amazing to them, and they are so thrilled and beaming when you say with enthusiasm, “That is amazing! That is the BEST thing I have ever seen.”

It could be a picture or a fort or a frog. They are so proud and you hope they remember that feeling for as long as they are alive.

This psalm is like that – a psalm of praise and unbridled joy. “Look at what my God has done. God, Just LOOK at how awesome you are.”

What are you excited about in your life?

Can you list a few of the things God is doing today?

How can you share your thanks for God’s action in your life?

2 Timothy 2:8-15

The hope of the gospel is to overcome. The admonition to “remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead” is the justification not simply for enduring hardship but for “salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” And it is God who is faithful to bring us through rather than our willingness or ability to suffer.

Our own actions, even our own suffering, are potentially a part of our life, but they are not an end to themselves. Like the reading from Jeremiah, we have an ultimate, better home in sight but this home, this place is where we are. This is very “here and now.”

Reading Second Timothy, we remember that in everything we are bound together through our faith in Christ and by God’s grace. Many of the letters of the New Testament speak as much of behavior within the community of Christ as our actions in the world. Here, we are reminded that our unity with Christ in our own suffering, and our shared life together in a broken, dangerous world is the reason that we can cease our quarrelling over things that do not matter and use our words to lift each other up. Hope is something to cultivate together.

What keeps you from participating fully in your faith community?

How can you share your story with someone who needs to know they are not alone?

Luke 17:11-19

The lepers are faithful people. They respect the distance the law requires as they call out for mercy. Like many outsiders who encounter Jesus, they know whom they are seeking: “Jesus, Master,” they cry. They know what he can do. The mercy they seek is not a generic quality of help, but a specific request for assistance. They need healing. They seek restoration. So it is all the more shocking when nine keep walking.

Ten are made clean, and one returns. Luke has again chosen to share a story of Jesus that highlights the outsider, the “foreigner.” The one who returns to thank Jesus is a Samaritan among lepers, an outsider among outcasts. He is the model for this story, and we are not sure if, in the end, he receives something more.

All of the lepers were cleansed; the Greek word for “cleanse” is the one used in many healing stories in the gospel for leprosy and other conditions that were cleared up by a healing act. But Jesus concludes this encounter by saying, “Your faith has made you well,” using the word for “salvation” so that it might be translated “Your faith has saved you.” This is the same word Jesus often uses when he connects an individual’s faithful act with their healing. Our salvation is inextricably tied to our healing of soul and self. We are not saved from having to walk to the mailbox today; we are saved to walk in newness of life.

In this case, the leper’s faith (the faith of a foreigner who most assume doesn’t “get it”) compels him to return to Jesus, singing. This faith leads to something more than healing, it leads to wholeness, a blend of wellness and healing. This encounter with God through a lens of faith and trust changed a leper forever. The difference from his friends was that he was the only one who knew it.

What intervention of God in your life causes you to return, singing?

Are there people you have met in the last few days who are outsiders? How might they need to see God today?

Where do you need mercy and healing?

Bible Study: 20 Pentecost, Proper 22 (C)

October 6, 2013

Steven King, Virginia Theological Seminary

“The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’ (Luke 17:6) 

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Lamentations 1:1-6

The book of Lamentations is composed of five lament poems. In this passage, we read the first one, written with a female voice proclaiming deep despair and loss. Other poems in this book are written with a male voice and, thus, in this book we read of much of the human experience of despair and loss – at least as it was understood by the authors of these poems.

This poem, in particular, metaphorically describes the city of Jerusalem, which has had to endure God’s actions caused by the sins of its inhabitants. While we should not assume that this chapter is the biblical standard on divine justice, we can embrace this passage as a true and deep experience of human emotion.

God has created human beings in God’s image and we are called to be in constant relationship with God. We know that God will never abandon us, but that does not mean that we do not fear that he will sometimes. When it feels as if we are not in contact with God any longer, that can cause deep despair and sadness.

Let us lift this up as a very real, human emotion and experience and also remind ourselves that God is always present and will not abandon us. We are called, then, to turn our hearts and minds back to God’s love and mercy.

If God has felt far off for you recently, consider why this may be. What helps you to reconnect with God who is always present and always quick to love?

If God has been particularly close for you recently, consider how you may deepen that relationship. What prayer practices help you connect with God more fully?

Lamentations 3:19-26

This, the third poem in the book of Lamentations, is listed as the response to the first reading in the lectionary. It is the middle of the five poems in the book and its location is theologically significant. It is at the heart of the book and its message is at the heart of our faith: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”

While the first poem reminds us of true and profound human experience of the world, this poem calls to mind the eternal truths to which we hold: God loves us abundantly and unconditionally and nothing can separate us from that love. Even when we have sinned or turned away from God, God does not turn away from us. God is slow to anger and quick to forgive, so let us always – even if we do not feel far off from God – always examine our lives and consider how we may give ourselves to the love of God more fully.

What is the most tangible way you feel or see the love of God in the world? What are signs of the hope of God in your life?

Consider how you might more fully share and embody the love of God in a broken and despairing world.

2 Timothy 1:1-14

I can hear Paul’s earnest cheerleading in this passage to continue in the faith Timothy has known for generations in his family and one that we also know deeply in our lives. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

Through our faith and in our baptism, we are given the charge to powerfully embody God’s love in the world. One way we can tap into that sense of God’s love in our lives is through self-discipline. One discipline I have is to say Morning Prayer each day and, in doing so, hear scripture and be in prayer with God for me and for those whom I love. This centers my day on the love of God and reminds me of my call to embody that love to help renew and restore creation to a more full expression of the image of God.

What disciplines do you have that help you in your life with God? What do you learn from those disciplines?

Perhaps you do not currently have a practice of self-discipline as a part of your faith. Consider one that may work for you. This may not be the one that works for me or others but should be one that fits your rhythm of life and prayer. Perhaps it is a journal reflecting on Scripture or a contemplative or meditative prayer time or saying the Daily Office.

Luke 17:5-10

The beginning of this passage shows a classic moment of the disciples thinking they know what they need and Jesus promptly reversing that thought. Isn’t that true with our lives also? The disciples want more and bigger and better faith. Jesus says one does not need that, only faith the size of a tiny mustard seed. With faith this size, you could have some serious power – even enough to move a mulberry tree!

I am reminded in this passage that my sense within myself that I am not doing enough or faithful enough or praying enough to be a good follower of Christ is a very flawed thought process. In Christ, it is not about whether we are doing enough or have bigger and better faith, but that we work to deepen our faith and trust and love of God. We do not need more or better; instead we are called to humble ourselves to love and serve God and our neighbor fully. In this, we demonstrate very powerful faith, even if it feels small.

Have you ever felt like the disciples? Consider how Jesus’ reversal of thought speaks to you and your faith.

Bible Study: 19 Pentecost, Proper 21 (C)

September 29, 2013

Josh Hosler, Virginia Theological Seminary

“The rich man called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’” (Luke 16:24)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15Psalm 91:1-6, 14-161 Timothy 6:6-19Luke 16:19-31

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

The Hebrew prophets were renowned not just for prophetic words, but also for prophetic actions. Ezekiel lay on his side for a whole year. Hosea married a prostitute and gave her children insulting names. As for Jeremiah, well, he buys his cousin’s field. We hear every detail of this seemingly ordinary financial transaction, and we may find ourselves yawning.

But Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians, and it has become clear to everyone that the kingdom soon will be overrun. Does Jeremiah have no understanding of basic economics? To spend money now on a long-term investment is foolhardy – far worse, even, than signing off on an adjustable-rate mortgage!

Yet the prophet gives a proclamation from the Lord’s mouth: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” This is Jeremiah’s prophecy, but it’s not just words. The prophet demonstrates his faith: He’s “all in,” as they say.

Did Jeremiah change some hearts with his action? Perhaps some said, “Oh, that crazy Jeremiah. He’s always making a fool of himself.” But others may have said, “Whoa, that Jeremiah is really close to God. If he believes that this imminent invasion isn’t the end of the world, maybe there’s something to it.”

Hope is catching, and the prophets of Israel, in spite of their inflammatory rhetoric, were always messengers of hope. Even when they outlined in detail God’s unavoidable punishments on the people, they always came back to a long-term future in which Israel would once again become God’s favored people.

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

At first reading, this psalm seems to say that God protects us from violence and disease. Is this true? Many people have experienced a narrow brush with danger or death and attribute their protection to God’s action. But what about people who are not protected? Does Psalm 91 not apply to people in plane crashes, or innocent people shot in hazardous neighborhoods, or people who die of cancer? This seeming incongruity is enough to make some people throw up their hands and give up on God altogether. Clearly God doesn’t protect everyone, and God doesn’t even succeed in protecting the innocent much of the time. So what good is a psalm like this?

Yet here we all are, living in a world that is so often uncertain and dangerous. These words can be used in superstitious ways, but they are not mere folly. Many people who suffer incredible hardships come through them feeling that God has walked with them, and they do not demand an explanation as to why the hardship occurred. Tragedy happens with alarming frequency, but so do opportunities for compassion and love in the face of horror. Is God testing us? I don’t want to think so. But are we tested anyway? Undoubtedly. And perhaps God’s protection is more spiritual than physical: No matter what happens to us in life, ultimately, we are under God’s eternal care and protection.

1 Timothy 6:6-19

This passage isn’t about having; it’s about the ability to let go. It’s about priorities. When you have money, what will you do with it?

I’m reminded of a craft I was taught as a kid at camp, about how to make a “warm fuzzy,” a little puffy ball of yarn strung together a certain way. Along with the craft came a story about “warm fuzzies” and “cold pricklies.” If you try to hoard warm fuzzies, they will turn into cold pricklies. You can’t keep them; you must give them away. This is what it means to be “rich in good works.” This is how we “take hold of the life that really is life,” as opposed to the life that really is a living death.

To what are you clinging tightly? Money isn’t the only offender. In his series of books on the parables, Robert Farrar Capon wrote that God constantly showers us with gifts, and we are to enjoy those gifts while they are here. All gifts pass away. If we cling to them tightly, we may succeed in hanging on to them for a while. But if we do, our clenched fist will not be open to receive the next gift that comes along.

Luke 16:19-31

In this gripping story, Jesus gave us much of the imagery we still attribute to the afterlife: a heaven above, a burning fire of hell beneath, and a giant chasm between them. Doubtless Dante drew on these images and expanded on them when he created “The Inferno” and “The Divine Comedy.” I always try to remember that this is a parable, not a description of a metaphysical reality. Jesus seems to be illustrating a continuity between our lives now and our lives on the other side of death.

Sometimes it takes personal misfortune to awaken us to our selfishness and to spark our compassion. From Hades, the rich man begins to worry about the fate of his brothers, but it is too late.

Many of Jesus’ later parables urge us not to wait to change our lives. We don’t like to imagine a time, on either side of the grave, after which it will be too late to change. But at what point will change just become too difficult for us to bear? Must it take death to spark change in our lives? And is this moment, right now, too soon to begin really living?

Bible Study: 18 Pentecost, Proper 20 (C)

September 22, 2013

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” (Luke 16:10)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1Psalm 79:1-91 Timothy 2:1-7Luke 16:1-13

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

This passage comes from the section of Jeremiah that contains a series of poetic oracles of God’s judgment in the form of conquest and destruction by Babylon, the foe from the north. It is a dialogue between the prophet Jeremiah, God and the people of Israel. It is not always clear who is speaking, and it is quite likely that at times Jeremiah is expressing God’s anguish over the coming destruction of God’s people. God is in despair over the behavior of the people who have forsaken their covenant by worshiping foreign idols. Jeremiah echoes God’s anguish. The people are confused; they expect God to provide for them, yet it seems that He has abandoned them. The well-known verse “Is there no balm in Gilead?” is a rhetorical question. The healing that the people seek can come only from God.

Consider the paradox of God’s nature. God longs for peace and healing. At the same time, God longs for justice and truth. A compassionate God weeps for the world that turns away from honesty and integrity. How does this paradox affect your understanding of the disasters in the world and in your life? How does God react to terrible events?

The spiritual “There is a balm in Gilead” assumes an answer to the question “Is there no balm in Gilead?” What is the answer, according to the song? How does the poetic imagery of the hymn reflect the poetic imagery of this passage from Jeremiah?

Psalm 79:1-9

Psalm 79 is a lament, or community prayer for help, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians. The selection begins with a poetic description of the disaster and laments the seeming absence of God in these events. “We have become a taunt to our neighbors” refers to line 10: “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” “Why me?” the psalmist seems to say, as he pleads with God to pour out God’s anger on “the nations that do not know you.” The passage ends with a plea for compassion, help and forgiveness.

The Prayers of the People are an example of community intercessory prayer in the Episcopal tradition. You might try re-writing this psalm in one of the forms of the Prayers of the People in the Book of Common Prayer. Or you might write a prayer that addresses a time of disaster or defeat in your own community life, using Psalm 79 as a model.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

First Timothy is one of the pastoral epistles, presented as a letter by Paul to Timothy, who is guiding the community of believers in Ephesus. The pastoral epistles address rules for life in the early Christian community. Paul suggests that Timothy’s community should conform to prevailing social values and live quiet, dignified lives while waiting for Jesus’ return. The writer urges the community to pray for the welfare of the government as a practical way of co-existing in peace with the surrounding dominant community. He supports his position by explaining that God wants everyone to be saved and that salvation is attained through knowledge of the truth of Christ’s sacrifice. Above all, the passage supports the idea that the community must pray, that Christ is the mediator or intercessor and that everyone is worthy of prayer.

What are the different aspects of prayer that the writer of First Timothy advocates? Why is it important to pray for those who do not share faith in Jesus as savior? Do you think it is possible to pray with those whose faith does not include belief in Jesus as mediator and teacher?

The passage urges Christians to live “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” How can such a life witness the character of God and our faith to those around us who may not know anything about the Christian faith? How do these instructions apply to living as faithful Christians in a secular world?

Luke 16:1-13

The parable of the Dishonest Manager is one of the most puzzling texts in the New Testament. The passage is rich with paradox. The steward is indeed corrupt, yet he seems to be both condemned and commended by his rich master and by Luke. The diverse possibilities of interpretations are frustrating. Is the message that the children of light should learn from the economy of their corrupt neighbors? Are we to make friends by the use of dishonest wealth? Do the ends justify the means? Or must we be honest with ordinary wealth so that we can be entrusted with true riches? An interesting aspect of this parable is that it features a manager of some status – in charge of considerable assets – who must consider his alternatives once his corruption is exposed. He isn’t strong enough to dig; he is too proud to beg; how can he earn acceptance in the homes he is accustomed to entering? Even the final line of the passage – “You cannot serve God and wealth” – which seems relatively clear, is a paradox. Does this mean we are not meant to enjoy material possessions? Or does this address the difficulty of not letting our possessions be a barrier between God and us?

How does the relationship between God and wealth work in your own life? Do you prefer to keep them in separate compartments in your mind? Can you reconcile the wealth of the world with the riches of faith? How does the stewardship of wealth affect your church?

Can you recognize the corrupt steward anywhere in current financial news? Shady Wall Street practices? Insider trading? Do we both condemn and commend such practices? What lessons can we learn from corrupt stewards in the contemporary world? Can we make use of the techniques of corrupt stewards for godly purposes?