Archives for March 2017

Bible Study, Easter 2(A) – April 23, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

It is fitting that Peter’s Pentecost speech comes to us on the Second Sunday of Easter. While Peter’s audience had just experienced the exhilaration of the Spirit’s outpouring, the church today is recovering from Easter Sunday. Peter’s speech provides the rhetorical jolt needed on this “Low Sunday” that lacks the lilies, crowds, and glorious hymns from the previous week. These words are the first of thirty some speeches in the Book of Acts and, indeed, the first of the innumerable attempts by Christian leaders to explain the faith. Our task is to hear this inaugural attempt at Christian witness both as “good news” and as “new news”. Attention to Peter’s delivery recalls some of the precariousness of the moment: Peter’s refutation of the charge of drunkenness against the apostles (omitted from the lectionary) reveals an uneasiness early in his sermon. This is then steadied by Peter’s usage of Old Testament scripture, which places his effort on more familiar—and more eloquent—footing. This portion of the sermon ends on a powerful note, though, as Peter reminds the audience that “all of us are witnesses” (2.32) to Christ’s resurrection. The “all” refers to both the disciples on the Pentecost stage with him as well as those celebrating 2000 years later, trying to hear the words afresh.

  • What parts of Peter’s speech “cut to the heart” (2.37) of the modern reader?
  • How does the Church maintain the quality of its proclamation throughout the highs and lows of the calendar year?

Psalm 16

In the Acts reading above, Peter/Luke uses Psalm 16 to advance a Christological argument. Given that it is the only portion of the Old Testament in the lectionary, it might be fruitful to consider the verses outside that setting. The Psalm describes an intimate relationship with the Creator, as first and second person pronouns abound throughout and metaphoric imagery implies a tactile closeness. In addition, unlike the many psalms that are in response to particular suffering or trouble, Psalm 16 portrays a relationship of sustained trust. Such an interaction bestows certain blessings on the faithful—blessings that are both material and spiritual in nature. Interestingly, the word “trust” itself is never mentioned—ironically appropriate given the speaker’s understanding of God’s presence as one whereby “my heart teaches me, night after night” (16.7).

  • What are some examples of a “goodly heritage” that God has bestowed in your life?
  • Would you describe your prayer/ devotional life as comparable to verse 7, or more contingent and variegated?

1 Peter 1:3-9

The Epistle reading offers a different understanding of faith from Psalm 16 as the epistle author connects faith with persecution and suffering. At the time of its writing, 1st Peter would have provided comfort to Christians whose families have disowned them because of their new identity. To our modern ears, however, it provides a measure of discomfort about the costs associated with a life in Christ. We are wise to think deeply about the nature of suffering and the power dynamics associated with “various trials.” Beyond that, for both sets of readers, the reading communicates that knowledge of Christ indeed does not equate, necessarily, to either earthly happiness or pain. Rather, the end result of faith in Christ, is to “love him” and the “salvation of your souls.” (1.8-9)

  • In the comfortable settings of Western Christianity, how should the “genuineness of faith” be appropriately “tested by fire”?

 John 20:19-31

The story of “doubting Thomas”, unique to John, renders yet another understanding of faith. It does so in a courtroom-like drama, familiar to the Gospel, where notions of witness and testimony are examined in a taut narrative. Attention to Thomas’ declaration in 20-28 and his strong convictions earlier in the Gospel are responsible for this, along with perhaps the humble realization that we all would likewise require tactile evidence for faith. Thomas would, in fact, make a rather poor witness in today’s courtroom. When Jesus tells him to put his finger in his side, Thomas has the opportunity to become the star witness for all sorts of subsequent theological and historical questions. But, due to the immediate and exclamatory nature of his answer, one doubts that he indeed followed through on Jesus’ directive. Rather, he declares a verdict similar to the one from 1st Peter: by seeing Jesus, Thomas believed in and loved him.

  • When you hear/ read good news, what is your reaction?
  • What prevents us from seeing God in the world around us?

Charles Cowherd is a Middler at Virginia Theological Seminary. A postulant in the Diocese of Virginia, he lives in Alexandria, VA with his wife Michelle – a mental health therapist.

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Bible Study, Easter (A) – April 16, 2017

[RCL] Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

Acts 10:34-43

Imagine a science fiction scenario for Easter 2017. All the pulpits of Christendom become ‘Time and Space portals.’ The preachers who step into all the pulpits around the world on this particular Easter morning are immediately shuffled to another pulpit in Christendom. A priest is Minneapolis suddenly finds herself in the pulpit of a tiny Romanian village Church, a Nigerian Pentecostal pastor finds himself suddenly standing before a large group of sailors on the deck of a US Navy aircraft carrier–you get the idea. Not only are they all the Easter morning preachers switched to another pulpit, they are also switched through time. An Anglo-Saxon bishop from the tenth century finds himself standing on a suburban Baptist mega-church platform with a tiny wire mic wrapped around his ear, a middle aged Episcopal priest from Austin, Texas suddenly materializes in a first century house church in Antioch.

All of us are to deliver our sermons as we prepared them. While each of these sermons would be remarkably different in many ways, we could hope that all of them would sound like the sermon that Peter preaches in Acts chapter 10.

  • So, if you were to preach, would your Easter morning sermon sound something like Peter’s?
  • Would your sermon give a clear account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

This Psalm contains a tiny peek into the liturgical practices in ancient Judaism. There are instructions for “all Israel” to say, “His mercy endures forever.” There is a crescendo from the individual singer to the whole nation praising the Lord.

The Psalm is exuberant and speaks of a new reality coming to light. The day of victory is here, and God’s people are throwing a party of praise unlike any other. The fact that this psalm was written long before the first Easter should remind us that God had acted many times in the past for the people of God. God had delivered them many, many times and this psalm is a testimony to one such deliverance.

Our Easter celebrations should give us a model for how to celebrate all the works of God in our lives, both great and small. We are generally an unthankful people, but, with enough reflection, many of us can see many things that we can be thankful for–things that are marvelous in our eyes.

  • Have you had cause to celebrate lately?
  • How did you celebrate that victory?

Colossians 3:1-4

After attending all the Lenten activities, after coming to worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and maybe even for a bit on Holy Saturday, you may feel that you need bodily resurrection. Catholic Christians, such as ourselves, journey with Jesus to the open tomb so well, that we can actually feel, in our bodies, a deep sense of life, death, and resurrection. Our worship is supposed to work this way. This is why we change our calendars this time of year. This is why we slow down enough to read lengthy passages of Scripture and hear the central story of our faith again and again.

We focus so much on the story of Jesus passion and resurrection because we believe what St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, that we “have been raised with Christ.” We have experienced the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus with him. As closely as we have walked with Jesus to the cross and empty tomb, our final union with Christ still awaits. Our revelation, our revealing still awaits us. Our search for meaning is fulfilled in the living Christ. When we think of Jesus, who is above us, the things down here cannot drag us down.

  • What are some things “down here” that are distracting you?
  • How did it feel to walk with Jesus through Lent and Holy Week?

John 20:1-18

John tells the story of Easter morning chaos. There is confusion, mistaken identities, and rejoicing. The emotions are intense. Disciples run in desperation. Mary is weeping. She is weeping with intensity and passion. She cannot stop herself. We hear her sobs echo down through the ages as she stands not only next to the grave of Jesus, but next to all the graves of the world. For thousands of years we have taken our loved ones, parents, children, teachers, and friends and placed them in the ground. We have covered them with dirt, and all we can do is weep.

Mary is weeping at this grave as she searches for the dead body of her friend and teacher. She is not finding what she expected. In her weeping she hears the question from Jesus, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Like Mary, we must weep in our confusion when we stare into the open grave of this world. But, like Mary we hear the question in our weeping, “Whom are you looking for?” Like Mary, we are so sure we know what we are looking for that we cannot see the resurrected Christ or the resurrection he brings to us in our darkest hour.

A new reality is here, a new humanity in Jesus Christ. A new vision of eternal life is ours in Christ and we will not see it if we, like Mary and the other disciples, are merely expecting to find the dead body of a young hero. No, the Jesus of Easter is alive and comes to us in word and sacrament, and we are filled with the joy of that first Easter.

  • Why are you weeping?
  • Whom are you looking for?

Written by David Peters, who served as an enlisted Marine and an Army Chaplain, deploying to Baghdad, Iraq in 2005. His ministry experience includes youth ministry, hospital and military chaplaincy, as well as parish experience in Central Texas. He is a graduate of Biblical Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Erskine Theological Seminary (D.Min), and the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest (MAR). He contributed a chapter “A Spiritual War: Crises of Faith in Combat Chaplains from Iraq and Afghanistan,” to the award winning book, Listening on the Edge: Oral History in the Aftermath of Crisis, edited by Mark Cave and Stephen M. Sloan (Oxford University Press, 2014). David aslo blogs for the Huffington Post and Oxford University Press and is the author of two books, Death Letter: God, Sex, and War (Tactical 16 Press, 2014) and Post-Traumatic God: How the Church Cares for People who have been to Hell and Back (Morehouse, 2016). His memoir, Death Letter, is currently being adapted for film by director LaJuan Johnson and producer Ecky Malick. His sermon, “Learning War and Reconciliation,” won the Reconciliation Preaching Prize from Trinity Wall Street. On 9/11/2015, he preached it to first responders at Ground Zero in NYC. In 2013 he founded the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship, a missional community for veterans ministry that now includes fellowships in several dioceses. He works in the veteran community as a spiritual director and leads projects that seek to tell the story of Moral Injury and reconciliation to a larger audience such as the forthcoming documentary “Coming Home” by Deidox Films. David currently ministers as an Army Reserve instructor at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Ft. Jackson, SC and as the Associate Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Austin, TX. He enjoys long-distance running, reading novels, extra-dark chocolate, and bicycle commuting. He is the father of three sons and is married to the lovely Sarah Bancroft, a museum curator and the Executive Director of the James Rosenquist Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @dvdpeters or Instagram @trail.padre. Read more about his work at www.davidwpeters.com

Download the Bible Study for Easter Day (A).

Bible Study, Palm Sunday (A) – April 9, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

Isaiah 50:4-9a

This part of Isaiah is interesting. If we look closely, it has a careful balance of human responses to God and each other. First, we find the value of listening and speaking. As God gives the prophet the gift of words, it is to use them to sustain the weary. And as God gives the prophet the power to listen, it is so that the prophet hears, and more importantly, understands God. This understanding is a pivotal part of the prophet’s obedience to God.

Then the passage shifts to a more physical sense of response to God and each other. Mentions of being struck, pulling out a beard, and spitting give a very negative sense of responding to God and each other through physical means. This is particularly interesting because the passage closes with a question of declaring guilt, which is the standard our communities still use in determining who is a free citizen and who is not. But those declarations are only words.

  • How do we use our bodies (in all senses, by speaking, by listening, by acting) as centers of spiritual renewal and connection to God and each other?
  • If this passage is telling us anything, it is that words and how we hear them are significant. How do you use your own words? How do you listen? Would that change based on today’s scripture?

Psalm 31:9-16

When all feels lost, when we find ourselves at the bottom of the well of life, when everything seems to be working against us, it can be easy to just give up. It can be easy to throw in the towel, stop trying to climb out, and just exist in a state of perpetual sadness and fear. But the psalmist today gives us another alternative. When we feel as though we have nothing left, no one to turn to and nothing we can do to change that, God is still present. We can still cry out to God for mercy and love.

  • What is your standard mode of operation when things are tough? Do you lash out? Hide away? How can you bring God into those moments with you?

Philippians 2:5-11

This passage is an incredible and wild statement for its time. Particularly in a time of Roman rule, the typical leader came to conquer by strength and might. When Jesus arrives on the scene, that is largely the expectation of the people. He is supposed to overthrow the Roman empire and lead the people of God into a new and peaceful kingdom. But that is not what Christ does. Instead, Christ models the life of a servant, emptying himself even to the point of death. This was a radical notion at the time.

  • How do we respond to radical ideas?
  • Think of those things which have never been done, things that go against our cultural expectations of how things should be done, and imagine how you might embrace or push back against that sort of thing which goes against it all.

Matthew 26:14-27:66

The reading from Matthew for Palm Sunday is full of the images we associate with the Passion: the betrayal by Judas, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the three denials of Peter, and the angry mom of a crowd crying out for the crucifixion of Jesus. What we focus on today is the constant tension we find between humanity and divinity. It is highlighted again and again.

Christ knows who will betray and deny him. Christ can stay awake and alert in the garden. Christ can look his betrayer in the eyes and call him ‘friend.’ The humanity in the narrative comes in the form of Judas falling prey to monetary bribes, the disciples constantly falling asleep, Peter being so filled with fear that he denies knowing Christ, and the crowds being so worked up that they allow the chief priests and scribes to convince them that Barabas is the one they should pardon.

But the tension is also housed within Christ, himself. Although he knows his path, he pleads for release. And although he knows the consequence of his betrayal, he still calls Judas friend. And even though Peter falls victim to fear and shame, he is still the one chosen to build the church on. These are all ways that humanity and divinity are playing tug-o-war with each other throughout this passage.

  • In what ways do our own wills match or mismatch with God’s will for us?
  • How do we respond when we are in opposition? Do we repent like Judas? Do we get angry like the crowd? Do we weep like Peter?
  • What can we learn from these responses?

Written by Samantha Gottlich, a senior M.Div. student at Virginia Theological Seminary and a candidate for holy orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. She is author of Faith Rules: An Episcopal Manual, and soon-to-be published Lectionary Levity, a lectionary-based preaching resource focused on humor in the pulpit. She is an avid reader, dreamer, and seeker of God’s love in the world.

Download the Bible Study for Palm Sunday (A).

Bible Study, Lent 5(A) – April 2, 2017

[RCL] Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Ezekiel 37:1-14

In this passage from Ezekiel the use of imagery of bodily resurrection explains the genesis of God’s reconciliatory process for the restoration of the exiled community. The prophet echoes the creation imagery in the narrative, the re-ordering of life as evident in the wordplay – Hebrew “ruah” for breath or wind – which in this context designates both physical and spiritual revival, thus offers hope and healing to the people of God.

The allusion to the four winds (God’s spirit) is a demonstration of God’s cosmic intervention in the history of Israel’s salvation process. The Prophet’s frequent reference to “Yahweh” “I AM the Lord”(vs 13), portrays an assurance of God’s imminent salvation. God will surely restore his people to their land and bring them hope in the place of despair.

As the community of God, our spiritual life and hope may have been thwarted by the negative daily life encounters and personal and corporate sins – indicators of spiritual exile. These may include: social-economic, political, and religious reforms of our time which may have dashed hope from many. God’s love promises hope in his son Jesus Christ, through whom by faith all humanity is reconciled to God and to one another, thereby achieving holistic restoration.

  • How is the contemporary church called to renew the life of its members?
  • What is God’s plan in the restoration of the lost relation with humanity?
  • The metaphorical use of dry bones in the passage refers to a state of loss of hope. In what areas, do Christians find their spirituality drained and needs rejuvenation?

Psalm 130

As the Psalmist makes his plea to God for his iniquities, he portrays God as too distant to redeem mankind, and yet his long-suffering and patience with humanity says so much about his immanent and forgiving nature. Humanity is vulnerable to sin, a situation which seeks a sincere and repentant spirit/soul. God is inherently loving and forgiving, hence Israel must depend entirely on this redeeming grace and not lose hope.

The Psalmist is calling the Christian church to a genuine vertical and horizontal reconciliation in which sincere wholeness is found. Sin breaches relationships in families, communities, races, religion, and nations. Human nature may lead to vices like hate, mistrust and revenge, whereas a person with a repentant heart forgives as he/she is forgiven. Christians are called to hope only in God as the origin of our life.

  • What benefits are in store for the church and its members from practicing a penitential life?
  • In what ways, can we harness God’s attributes of love and forgiveness in building the Christian families and our nation?

Romans 8:6-11

Throughout the narrative, Paul endeavors to elucidate the dualistic nature of the development and application of God’s law. The law of the flesh is mechanical and imprisoning and is associated with the old human nature. Hence it leads to death. The new law of the Spirit, which is achieved by faith in Jesus Christ, leads to human freedom and grants life.

According to Paul, an ambivalence created by the contrasting dominion of the law of the flesh and that of the Spirit is broken by the act of adoption by the life-giving spirit, which sets the new order of creation in Christ. The Spirit therefore legitimizes our inheritance as God’s children, who have access to all the benefits of God’s children, including eternal life.

Men and women are here awakened to the acknowledgment of God’s work of salvation which has been perfected by the death and resurrection of Christ. By the spirit of God, our faith in Christ becomes the means of immortality.

Through God’s Spirit, everyone’s aspirations find freedom from the constant intra-personal and inter-personal struggles. For God’s children, the Spirit replaces sin as the indwelling power which determines a person’s life and behavior.

  • Paul tries to explain how the law of the Spirit works to ultimately free us from the struggles of human nature (the law of the flesh). How does this help your understanding of role of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant?
  • In your view, how would the law of the flesh lead to death?
  • When Paul says “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (v.14), how does this statement inform our choice for freedom from the bondage of sin?

John 11:1-45

The narrative of John gives an explicit illustration of the climax of Christ’s reign on earth, being the giver of life and the light of the world. The resurrection of Lazarus from the dead forms the central part in the narrative and is an affirmation of Christ’s divine role of his life-giving ministry on earth. His impending death and resurrection suggested by the plot to arrest him points to the unveiling of God’s glory. According to Jesus, our choice to believe in his name supersedes other choices in this earthly life.

The human Lord here makes a perfect companion, whose love breaks all bonds, reaching deep into our sufferings, groaning, loneliness and ultimately forgives our sins. Just as many people made the choice to believe in Christ upon witnessing his great works, it is possible today that men and women by the power of the Holy Spirit have equal opportunities of experiencing Christ’s love. Christ, as the friend of sinners, is concerned with our outpouring response in faith, upon which he meets us in our diversity and weakness.

  • Lent is a time of self-reflection and repentance through prayers, fasting, and self-denial. As the church focuses on Christ’s Passion and the revealed glory in Resurrection. In what ways does the above narrative prepare us for the same?
  • How is the contemporary church equipped to demonstrate God’s love and compassion in our ailing families, community, and nation?

Written by The Rev. Fredrick Okoth, a priest from the Anglican province of Kenya – Diocese of Bondo. Married to Lilian Oduor and a father of four children, Okoth is a holder of world meteorologist class II course certificate and worked with Kenya Government in meteorological services for seven years. He holds a diploma in Pastoral Theology from Bishop Okullu College of Theology and Development, a Bachelors in Past Pastoral Theology from the Great Lakes University of Kisumu, and is working toward a Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies from General Theological Seminary in New York. Okoth has been a priest for thirteen years, serving as priest-in-charge of four congregations in the Diocese of Bondo. He has also served as an area Dean, secretary clergy welfare and clerical secretary in the Diocesan synod.  

Download the Bible Study for Lent 5(A).