Archives for August 2016

Bible Study, Proper 20(C) – September 18, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

 Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

There are times of great suffering in which we may feel that all hope is lost and that there may never be joy in our souls again.  This may be triggered by the loss of a loved one or from a tragedy in your local community or nation.  There are painful events in our lives that shake us to our core and may even bring questions to our faith, diminishing our sense of hope.  At other times, it may feel like our prayers in these times are not being answered.

Jeremiah asks:

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

Laments such as this are important to place before the throne of God, as we complain to a compassionate God who deeply cares about us and that which troubles us. There are times in our lives that we need to reclaim the old tradition of lament, a significant tradition that is largely absent in our common life as the Church. Often, we need to air our grievances before we can begin to see hope again.  Sometimes, we even need to get angry at God.  God can take it.  God will also use our vulnerability that we have expressed as a means to bestow grace upon us.

Through this we remember that there is hope in the resurrection, that there is a balm in Gilead, and that God continues to restore all things through Jesus Christ.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Reflect one or two painful times in your life.  How did your relationship with God feel in those times?
  2. How comfortable to you feel complaining to God, or getting angry with God?  How well do you practice lament?
  3. How has God shown you through your pain that there is hope rather than hopelessness, light rather than darkness?  How have you been reassured of God’s goodness and mercy?

Psalm 79:1-9

This psalm is also another prayer of lament to God, likely written in the wake of some sort of national tragedy that had befallen God’s people.  This takes a different tone that the above lament from the Prophet Jeremiah.  In this lament, the author is calling out to God, asking for God to punish those who have unleashed evil upon the people and God’s temple.

One of the beautiful things about the Psalms is that they show us the whole range of human emotion in our spiritual relationship with God.  The fact is, sometimes we do have vengeful feelings and we do wish for God’s wrath to be unleashed on someone who has done a great evil.  This psalm serves as a reminder that these feelings of anger in response to a wrongdoing are nothing to be ashamed of, but rather are a natural part of our human experience and thus are appropriate to bring to God in prayer (regardless of what God chooses to do in response to that prayer).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Have you ever been wronged in such a way that you feel vengeful toward another person?
  2. How do you address those feelings in prayer?
  3. How do you come to terms with the reality that vengeance belongs to God and not to us?
  4. Can you shift your focus, and begin to pray for the person who wronged you?

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Speaking of prayer.  In the first letter addressed to Timothy, Paul writes that we should include everyone in our prayers, naming supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings as different categories of prayer.  We are called as Christians to pray for our neighbors, to pray for our enemies, to pray for our leaders, to pray for our Church and our world, and…everyone.

He writes:

“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Look back at the questions about lamentation and praying to God about someone who has done evil toward you.  There is a significant shift in what happens when you get the anger out of your system and instead begin to pray FOR the person (or people).  What would it take for you to begin to pray for God’s mercy to be upon them?  Can you intercede for God’s saving grace to be with them?  What do you think changes in you when you do that?
  2. Who do you pray for on a daily basis?
  3. What kinds of prayer do you offer to God in your daily prayers?
  4. How might this passage inform your practice?

Luke 16:1-13

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”  It must be getting close to stewardship “season.”  Our use of money seems to be indicative of the nature of our relationship with God.  Perhaps it is not just money, but all that is ours.  “Ours” is the operative word here.  Wealth can become a false idol, a violation of the First Commandment, when we turn to the love of money over the love of God and money.  This happens when we willfully forget that God is the source of all good things and that all we have is but a gift from God.  They are not ours, rather we have been graced with the ability to become stewards over that which is God’s.

God calls us to be faithful stewards.  Jesus says, “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.”  This could be understood to mean faithful stewards may be entrusted with even more.  Another reading is that if we cannot be trusted with something small, why would we ever be trusted in something more significant?  Our faithfulness relies in remembering who God is as the creator and giver of all good gifts.  We are recipients, not entitled to what we possess.  This is important for us to remember, lest the things we believe are ours begin to possess us.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How does this passage challenge you?
  2. Do you sometimes feel entitled to the things you have, or do you recognize that they are gifted to you?
  3. Have you ever thought about writing a gratitude list each day?  It is amazing how this practice can bring the issues of this passage into perspective in your life and how it can inform your payer practice.
  4. What are some of the pressures and stresses that make being a faithful steward difficult?  How can God help you through those struggles in order that you might maintain faithful stewardship?
  5. Do you feel that your use of time, talent, and treasure rightly reflect your relationship with God and the gifts that God has given you?  (Remember the biblical principal of the tithe: 10% of the “first fruits” given to God in gratitude.)

Written by Rev. Paul Castelli, AF.  Castelli is a priest in the Diocese of Michigan, serving as Priest-in-Charge at St. George’s Episcopal Church. He is a vowed member of Anamchara Fellowship, a dispersed Celtic monastic community in the Episcopal Church, serving on the community’s prayer book committee. He is also working on his thesis for an STM from Trinity Lutheran Seminary. Paul lives with his wife, Mechelle, and their three pets.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 20(C).

Bible Study, Proper 19(C) – September 11, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10 

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

This week’s readings feature harsh words from the prophet Jeremiah, “they are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” And the prediction of ominous consequences, “the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black…” The anguish of the prophet Jeremiah seems to mirror the anguish of God witnessing the actions of people who seem bent on self-destruction.

It would be difficult to miss the parallel to today’s world as we suffer the consequences of our actions related to race, gender, the environment…the list could be quite long! In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is that God who brings devastation down on the people. In today’s world, we realize that the consequences we suffer stem from our collective actions as failing stewards of God’s creation, not from a vengeful God.

  • How do you react to Jeremiah’s harshness in these passages? How do they make you feel?
  • Do you believe that Jeremiah’s prophesy is inevitable? Is there still opportunity to make things right?

Psalm 14

As if Jeremiah wasn’t bleak enough, Psalm 14 starts with: “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good.” However, if you read closely you will notice that “the fool” says these things – it is “the fool” who denies God’s existence and acts accordingly. And it is God, despite the acts of the “faithless” – those “evildoers who eat up my people like bread” – who remains a steadfast refuge, one who stands in the company of the righteous and the oppressed. In fact, the psalmist claims that in their very acts of oppression, the fool experiences the folly of denying God and the terror of the consequences of their actions. “See how they tremble with fear, because God is in the company of the righteous.” The psalm ends with a reaffirmation of the power of God, a call for deliverance, and a prayer for God to restore the fortunes of the people.

  • Are the behaviors described in this psalm a description of individual behaviors or societal ones?
  • When the psalmist calls for God to “restore the fortunes of his people,” do you think this is a prayer for ALL people, or just those who did not deny God’s existence?
  • Do you think it is possible for all such “foolishness” to one day come to an end or is it human nature to act in ways apart from God?

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Into the darkness of this week’s readings comes the light of 1 Timothy proclaiming that our God is merciful, that despite our former “foolishness” or denial of God, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. The writer even uses himself as an example of the power of the love and grace of Christ to reform and renew a person’s heart and soul.

  • How have you experienced strength and renewal through Jesus?
  • In what ways can you use your story to share with others the powerful message of renewal and hope?

Luke 15:1-10

Luke 15:1-10 includes one of the most well-known stories of Jesus, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which expresses the deep joy a shepherd feels when he locates that one sheep who wandered off. The parable is rich in meaning about the importance God places on embracing those who have fallen into the ways of “foolishness” described in Psalm 14 above.

  • At what times in your life have you been the lost sheep? How did your community or family welcome you back? How did God welcome you back?
  • How can your community orient itself toward this ministry of finding and welcoming those who do not know God or have turned away from God?

Written by Wendy Johnson. Wendy is the Digital Missioner for Formation for The Episcopal Church. Previously, she served as the Communications Manager for Episcopal Migration Ministries and communications director for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. She has served as a youth minister for 16 years, working in several congregations and at the national, regional, and diocesan level. She lives and works in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 19(C).

Bible Study, Proper 18(C) – September 4, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The potter, the wheel, and the clay – one of the most beautiful and enduring metaphors for our creative and creating God in all of Scripture. The potter does not only mold and shape fresh clay at the wheel; the potter remakes his creations when they become spoiled and broken. The potter’s work of creation is continuous. The potter’s house is a locus of genesis and renewal, death and rebirth, beauty and adaptation. When we find ourselves in the presence of this creative continuity, we can hear God’s holy words.

The clay, and by extension the vessel being shaped, becomes what it is in each new moment only through the imagination of the potter. Thus its very being depends upon the potter’s will. And although human beings may not understand the potter God’s movements and intentions, we can remember that the potter does only that which “seem[s] good to him” (vs. 4).  The potter reworks his spoiled creations, but he never discards or destroys the clay.

  • What might it mean that Jeremiah can only hear God’s words in this place of re/creation?
  • Where do we encounter God’s creative energy, and what messages might we receive in its presence?
  • In verses 8 and 10, God speaks of the ability to “change [God’s own] mind.” How does the concept of changing one’s mind fit (or not fit) with our usual ideas of God’s character and existence?

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

These verses from Psalm 139 describe how intimately God knows each one of us. The juxtaposition of opposites in the first two verses illustrates the extent of God’s knowledge – God knows the fullness of our being, the extremes and the in-betweens, the highs and the lows.  Accepting this level of intimacy may be both breathtakingly beautiful and “too wonderful” for us. God knows our basest instincts and desires, but God also knows the amazing love, joy, and peace in our truest hearts. God knows our full potential even when we are unable to see it ourselves.

Verse 13 reminds us that, as God’s creations, we are glorious. Our essential and innate goodness reflects the quality of divine craftsmanship. There’s no escaping the truth: I am marvelously made, and so are you. You are wonderful, and so am I. There are no asterisks here, no “except for…,” no ifs, ands, or buts. The Psalmist helps us realize that we can never honor and glorify God while maligning or debasing ourselves and each other.

  • The language of creativity is prominent in these verses: “knit” in vs. 12, “woven” in vs. 14, “written” and “fashioned” in vs. 15. How can these metaphors deepen our understanding of and relationship with our Creator?
  • Consider the various references to bodies in verses 12 through 15. How might these references inform our attitudes toward human bodies generally and our own bodies specifically?

Philemon 1-21

The Letter to Philemon is one of the shortest epistles in the New Testament – there are only four verses not included here, comprised of Paul’s request for a guest room, closing greetings, and benediction. But within this comparatively brief letter we find a passionate illustration of historic evangelism which may challenge us to rethink our notions of faithful living. In verse 5, Paul says that he thanks God not because of how the church is growing in numbers or power but because he has heard of the members’ love. He goes on to say that this love is manifested through the sharing of faith and refreshing of hearts (vs. 6-7).

Paul indicates that love is the only worthy basis upon which he will appeal to his fellow Christ-followers, and he asks them to do something patently irrational and illogical – to welcome Onesimus, a former slave, as “a beloved brother” (vs. 16). He then goes a step further, declaring that he will accept Onesimus’s debts as his own and repay them. This kind of selfless sacrifice makes no sense to those whose ultimate measure is money, or honor, or status; but to those whose ultimate measure is love, it is both right and perfectly natural.

  • How can we live, what must we do, for others to hear of our love? Conversely, what has another person or group of people done that has led us to hear of their love?
  • Paul vouches for Onesimus, calls him “my own heart” (vs. 12), and pledges to take on his debts, whatever they may be. For whom (if anyone) might we be willing to give of ourselves similarly? And what does Paul’s selfless generosity tell us about the community of believers?

Luke 14:25-33

When Jesus speaks about the costs of discipleship, we may be tempted to make excuses for ourselves. His words are unsettling. All this talk of hating family, of bearing burdens and doing hard work, of giving up our stuff – it’s challenging to hear. Which probably means, of course, that we need to pay special attention. Here is a message with which we must wrestle, if we seek to follow the one we claim as Messiah and Savior.

Verse 26’s use of the word “hate” may be especially troubling. How can Jesus ask us to “hate” anyone, never mind our own parents and children? A comparative look at the Greek text, along with the conventions of Biblical language and the passage’s context, is useful here. In the preceding verses, Jesus shares the parable of the Great Dinner (when the invited guests make up excuses, and the host opens his home to “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame”). Those whose attachments control them miss out on the glorious banquet. This is the context for the “hating” in verse 26.  Elsewhere in Scripture, we can find instances of the word “hate” being used for dramatic emphasis in comparison (i.e. Genesis 29, where Leah is “hated” because Jacob cares more for Rachel than for her). Jesus is not telling us to cease loving those around us or to harden our hearts; but we cannot put anyone or anything above his Gospel of selfless, unmitigated love if we are to be true disciples.

  • What does it mean to be a disciple? How is a disciple different from a friend, supporter, admirer, student, or fan?
  • Consider the language of “completion” and “finishing” in verses 28-30. What work might Jesus be calling us to complete, and when/why might we be tempted to back down prematurely?

Written by The Rev. Margaret (Maggie) Leidheiser-Stoddard. Rev. Leidheiser-Stoddard graduated from Bexley-Seabury Seminary Federation with her Diploma in Anglican Studies in May 2016. She earned her M.Div. from Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, CA), and an M.A. in Religion & Modernity from Queen’s University (Kingston, ON). She was ordained to the transitional diaconate in June 2016, and will begin a residency at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington, OH this fall. She lives in Bexley, OH with her husband, son, and guinea pig.  

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Bible Study, Proper 17(C) – August 28, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14 

Jeremiah 2:4-13

In this passage of contrasts, God’s people are confronted with the senselessness of turning away from their God. Prophets falsely prophesy for no profit. The people, whom God has blessed over and over, chase after gods who are not even gods. Pursuing worthless things made the people themselves worthless. And the one true God, who is described as the fountain of living water, is abandoned and the people try to collect life-water in containers with cracks.

It is our tendency as humans to try to satisfy our deepest desires with cheap substitutes. By looking at our sins we will have clues as to what we really need. The people dug cracked cisterns indicating they knew they needed water. How might our misguided attempts to fill our deepest longings be a way to find our true heart’s desire in God?

The prophet brings a strong indictment against the leaders. As leaders of God’s people we have a responsibility to ask, “Where is the Lord?” It is our job to interpret life’s situations in light of God’s reality and lead people to see how God is there for them. Only then will we be able to offer the water that truly satisfies.

  • Where do you see the Lord in your present situation?
  • What worthless things are you chasing after that diminish your own worth?
  • How might your sin be the very thing that can lead you to the fountain of living water?

Psalm 81:1, 10-16

In Psalm 81 a connection is made between hearing and obeying. The people do not obey because they don’t listen to God’s voice. Our English words obey and listen both share the same Latin root audire.

The psalmist suggests praise and remembering as ways to hear God. As we sing songs declaring who God is, and tell stories about all God has done, we will be open to hearing God’s voice. We will also desire to do God’s will, knowing God only wants the best for us.

God’s desire is to fill God’s people with good things. As we choose not to listen to God we are given over to the consequences of going it alone. As we turn back to God, our needs are met.

  • What are some ways you have seen God show up on your behalf in the past?
  • What practices help you listen to God’s voice?
  • What good things are you missing from God because you have forgotten God’s goodness?

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Hebrews 13 tells us how to give thanks for “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). By showing care for those in our communities of faith, as well as those who are strangers, we live out our gratitude for our place in God’s kingdom.

We are invited to use our imaginations to place ourselves with prisoners and those who are tortured. Rather than locking them away and forgetting about them, we are urged to enter their pain as if our own bodies were suffering with them. In God’s kingdom no one is outside of God’s concern.

We are also called to show our gratitude in how we deal with sex and money. In our temptation to meet these needs outside of God’s provision, we are reminded that God sees us and that God is with us. As we seek to care more about others and less about money we are reminded that God is always caring for us. God invites us to trust as we participate in this kingdom work.

  • What would it look like for you to care for strangers and those suffering in prison?
  • In what ways is your care for money and sex inhibiting your participation in God’s kingdom? 

Luke 14:1, 7-14        

Luke uses a familiar wedding banquet metaphor to show us what honor looks like in God’s kingdom.

Jesus notices that the guests at the dinner assume their own privilege in choosing their place at the table.  He invites them to let go of whatever it is that they feel makes them better than the others. His message is for those of us who feel we have a choice as to where we belong in the world. As we release our need to play the comparison game, and then identify with the lowly, we will be honored by God.

Jesus perfectly displayed this path of letting go of privilege in becoming human so that God could lift him up to the highest place (Philippians 2). Through this parable Jesus is inviting us to join him in this same journey of going down and being lifted up.

In the second half of this parable Jesus teaches what it looks like to use privilege to lift up others. Like God we are invited to do the same work in lifting up the humble. So in this great cycle of humility and being lifted up we participate with God in the lifting up of others.

  • What privileged position are you being invited to let go of?
  • How can you use the place God has given you to lift up those whom life has brought low? 

Written by Louise Samuelson. Louise is a second-year seminarian at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. She is a candidate to the priesthood in the Diocese of Central Florida. Louise lives with her husband, Frank, who is also a candidate to the priesthood. 

Download the Bible Study for Proper 17(C).

Bible Study, Proper 16(C) – August 21, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Jeremiah 1:4–10

For readers interested in learning about biblical prophecy, the description of the call of the prophet Jeremiah rewards careful study. Consider reading this passage alongside three others:Deuteronomy 18 with its advice for recognizing authentic prophets; Exodus 4 with its description of Moses resisting a call to prophecy; and Isaiah 6 with its vision of seraphs and a burning coal touching the prophet’s mouth. Beside these passages, the call of Jeremiah seems striking for how carefully it casts the prophet in a Mosaic mold and for how intimately the Lord calls to Jeremiah. No seraphs and burning coals here—or burning bushes, for that matter; just the “word of the Lord” saying that Jeremiah was born for the task ahead of him.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

But readers don’t need to approach this passage with curiosity about prophecy or even with a desire to learn more about Jeremiah. For the account of Jeremiah’s call raises a more universal question: Is God calling me?

  • Have you ever felt called by God?
  • Jeremiah hears the Lord’s call and protests: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” What excuses do we make to keep us from living the lives God calls us to live? How can we learn to overcome them?

Psalm 71:1–6

The rich language of the psalms can sometimes be hard to parse, as piled-up metaphors grow slippery. In these six verses, God is described abstractly (as hope, confidence, strength); concretely (as a strong rock, a castle, a crag); as an object of a supplicant’s petitions (to be free from shame, delivered from oppressors, and simply to be heard) and as an object of praise.

As happens so often in Biblical poetry, the literary features of the text take on theological force and meaning. Whatever the threat we face – however strong the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor or however weak we feel to oppose them – God can be our refuge. The range of metaphors suggests the breadth of God’s power and the wideness of God’s mercy – and that both, blessedly, are expansive enough in their reach for even you and for me.

  • How can steadfast faith be a bulwark against shame and a guard against the powers our enemies seek to exert over us? Can you think of an instance in which this has been true for you?
  • How might we turn to God to keep us in safety when our enemies are not other people but rather aspects of ourselves (e.g., our love of gossip, our bitter envy, our genius for selfishness)?

 Hebrews 12:18–29

After contrasting Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion and the old and new covenants, the author of Hebrews addresses us: “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking…”

It’s safe to presume that most mature Christians have known occasions when God’s voice seemed – for some time anyway – to have fallen silent.God’s apparent absences, whether real or imagined, can provoke spiritual crises that turn us from belief – or (if we are wise or lucky) they can lead to newer, deeper forms of faith.

This passage suggests a different sort of crisis, one triggered not by God’s silence but by God’s clarity. It’s safe to presume that most mature Christians have encountered this sort of dilemma, too:when scripture couldn’t be clearer; when our conscience awakens us to another’s suffering; when the wafer and the wine we receive at the communion rail become to us the body and blood of Christ. How can we then stubbornly refuse to reply to God’s voice? How can reverence and awe melt away till we are returned to our numb routines of carelessness and sin? The author of Hebrews urges us to respond to such instances of clarity with steadfastness and gratitude. May God help us to do so.

  • What spiritual practices have helped you through instances when God’s voice seemed silent to you?
  • What practices have helped nurture your gratitude for God?

Luke 13: 10–17

“But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

Why is the leader of the synagogue so indignant? Does he feel his own authority is threatened by Jesus’s display of love and power? Is he sincerely worried that the apparent (and public) violation of one of God’s laws might weaken his people’s will to adhere to others?

Perhaps he is worried about losing pledging members. If so, he has something in common with those of us today, who sometimes look around our pews on Sunday mornings with insecure thoughts buzzing about those who are not in church rather than being attentive to those who are.In an age of falling membership numbers, perhaps this passage ought to be read as a cautionary tale about how fear for an institution’s security can blind us to God’s activity in the world.

Or perhaps we ought not be so quick to dismiss the synagogue leader. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured.” Sure, he got it wrong about the seventh day, but don’t we get it wrong about the other six? Jesus is the Great Physician, but don’t we too often behave as though his office is only open for an hour or so on Sunday mornings?

  • What practices help you grow spiritually during the week?What else might be worth trying?
  • How do you keep the Sabbath holy?

Written by Robert Pennoyer.
Robert Pennoyer is a third-year seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, where he is also a member of the Institute of Sacred Music. He is a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of New York. He lives in New Haven with his wife and their one-year-old daughter.

Download the Proper 16(C) Bible Study.