Archives for June 2017

Bible Study, 8th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – July 30, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Genesis 29:15-28

Jacob was no stranger to deceit, having orchestrated enough of it against his twin brother Esau. Now, the father of his beloved Rachel turns the tables on him, switching out one daughter for the other on the night Jacob expects to consummate a marriage with Rachel. One especially interesting twist to the story is when Laban chides Jacob, saying, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.” It’s as if God is reminding Jacob of his own scheme to displace his older brother’s birthright.

It’s difficult to sympathize with Jacob’s indignation at having been tricked, given his own history of similar behavior, however over the course of the Jacob story, it is illuminating to see that his mother and his uncle Laban manipulated Jacob just as deceitfully. He has come from a family of “players,” but God can still work with him, imperfect as he is. This is important because it affirms that even when we disappoint God, the promises that God has made will still be kept.

  • Can you think of an example in your own life where someone has done something to hurt you, and sometime later, you find yourself doing the same thing?
  • In what ways do you observe God blessing someone into greater holiness, just by being the God of faithfulness?
  • We read that Jacob’s seven years of toil “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for [Rachel].” What does this teach us about the power of love?

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

What a terrific testament to the steadfast love of God. Speaking of “the promise he made for a thousand generations.” The psalmist is singing to the descendants of Jacob/Israel, reminding them, that God’s judgments prevail in all the world.” In times when it seems like it is evil that actually prevails, it’s important to remember that the laws of nature that God has set in motion ultimately prevail, whether or not the human sense of time demands an immediate and particular response to prayer. In particular, when the psalm reminds us to “continually seek [God’s] face, I can imagine God at work, slowly building a great chain of mountains, unobservable over the lifespan of humans, yet profound and triumphant over geologic time scales.

I am reminded of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s poem Trust in the Slow Work of God. A scholar priest, his perspective as a paleontologist gave Teilhard de Chardin the skill to take the long view. I imagine that he understood the slow process of God fashioning Jacob and God’s other agents of change into the leaders he needed them to be at whatever pace their growth required.

  • It seems as though the Bible (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) is full of stories of imperfect heroes. What does their evolution into God’s agents of change teach us?
  • How do you respond when God seems to be slow to answer a prayer?

Romans 8:26-39

There is hardly anything that can be said that is more comforting than the assurance that “there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul thought that the world would end soon, and wrote from that context. He was surrounded by Roman occupation and its associated violence and exploitation.  Even so, he understood that God’s purposes would still be achieved even in the face of significant challenge. It is a hauntingly familiar refrain that so many generations despair of the evil around them, as we do today. Yet Paul tells the believers in the early church at Rome that they are more, or better than the conquerors through Jesus. That message applies to believers now, assuring us that we must stay the course of following Jesus, because we can be more than those who conquer to impose their will with violence.

  • When Paul writes “all things work together for good for those who love God,” what does that mean? Do you believe this?
  • If nothing can separate us from the love of God, why do we sometimes feel estranged from God? Why might we perceive ourselves to be separated from God’s love? 

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven using parables. It’s important that he does not describe it directly, but rather by what it is like. This is somewhat reminiscent of the method we use to look at the sun—we cannot look directly at it, but we can view it through filters that protect the eye from its brightness. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is so bright, we can only approach it obliquely until we put on the protection of our relationship with Jesus—God incarnate in human form that does not blind us?

In the parable of the net and fish of every kind, verse 50 is disturbing in its imagery of the “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is important to consider that it is evil that will be refined in this fire—transformed. While the language is violent, the point is that no evil will follow us into the kingdom of heaven.

  • Why do you think Jesus speaks indirectly about the kingdom of heaven? In verses 34-35, omitted from Proper 12, Matthew explains that Jesus spoke only in parables to fulfill a prophecy. Does this affect your understanding of the kingdom of heaven?
  • How would you describe the kingdom of heaven in contemporary terms?

Pan Conrad, a resident of Annapolis, MD, received her M. Div. from Episcopal Divinity School’s final graduating class this past May. She is a transitional deacon in the Diocese of Maryland, where she serves as clergy-in-charge at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church is Glen Burnie, MD. Pan is also an astrobiologist and planetary scientist, and a scientific co-investigator to the NASA Mars Science Laboratory and Mars 2020 missions.

Download the Bible study for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

 

Bible Study, 7th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – July 23, 2017

[RCL:] Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25. Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob is on the run. He and Rebekah, his mother, have connived to deceive his father, Isaac, into giving Jacob his older brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob’s deception, which led Isaac to grant him the blessing due the first-born son, fuels hatred in Esau. When Rebekah is told that Esau plans to kill Jacob, she sends Jacob away to her brother in Haran.

Our story begins when Jacob stops on his first night on the road. He lays down with a stone under his head for a pillow and falls asleep. Little does he know that he is on sacred ground. Jacob dreams of a ladder or ziggurat to heaven with angels climbing up and down. However, it is not the angels who speak to Jacob, but God. God stands beside Jacob and introduces himself: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (verse 13).

God makes the same promises to Jacob that he made to Jacob’s ancestors: land and offspring. In a sense, God includes a caveat with his blessings. In essence, God tells Jacob, “You will be blessed when I fulfill my promises to you. But these blessings are not for you to hoard. It is through you and your family that all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God then makes a personal promise to Jacob: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (verse 15). God’s promises of presence and protection – of belonging to God – are central to the covenant relationship between God and his chosen people.

Jacob awakes a transformed man. He recognizes the awesomeness and sacredness of his encounter with God and commemorates it with a shrine made with the stone on which he slept, calling the place Beth-el, “House of God.”

  • Are you hoarding the blessings God has given you? How can you channel your blessings so that you will become a blessing to others?
  • How has your experience of God’s grace transformed you?

 Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23

The psalmist, resting assured in God’s promised presence and protection, turns to God for deliverance from his enemies. His blessing is his relationship with God. The psalmist addresses God by his personal divine name, YHWH (“LORD”) (verses 1, 3), and speaks to God directly: “you know” (verses 1, 3), “you discern” (verse 1), “you trace” (verse 2), “you press” (verse 4), “[you] lay your hand” (verse 4). The psalmist is awed by the completeness of God’s all-encompassing knowledge of him; God knows his actions, thoughts, and words (verses 1-3).

The psalmist affirms that God is always present with him. No matter where the psalmist goes, whether to the extremes of heaven or the grave, “Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast” (verse 9). The psalmist trusts his future to God, assured that he belongs to God. He welcomes God’s testing, which will reveal the psalmist’s righteousness and commitment to following the ways of God (verses 23-24).

  • Does God knowing you fully make you uncomfortable? Are you able to say with the psalmist with no reservations: “LORD, you have searched me out and known me”?
  • Have you ever wanted to escape from the presence of God? When and why?

Romans 8:12-25

To Paul, every human being is subject to some power, and lives either in the domain of the flesh, under the power of sin, death and law; or in the domain of the Spirit, under the power of grace. Paul has assured believers in an earlier verse that they no longer live in the domain of the flesh, but now live in the domain of the Spirit, because the Spirit of God dwells in them (Romans 8:9).In today’s passage, Paul describes life in the Spirit in terms of relationships. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (verse 14). The indwelling Spirit is God’s presence with believers. Believers are blessed; we belong to God’s family – children of God by adoption (verses 14-15). We are God’s heirs and, therefore, joint heirs with Christ, sharing in his suffering, death,

In today’s passage, Paul describes life in the Spirit in terms of relationships. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (verse 14). The indwelling Spirit is God’s presence with believers. Believers are blessed; we belong to God’s family – children of God by adoption (verses 14-15). We are God’s heirs and, therefore, joint heirs with Christ, sharing in his suffering, death, resurrection and glory (verse 17). We are to live unafraid, knowing that we belong to God.Just as God fulfilled his promises to Jacob, Paul admonishes believers to wait with patience because God will fulfill his promise of future glory. God will free all of

Just as God fulfilled his promises to Jacob, Paul admonishes believers to wait with patience because God will fulfill his promise of future glory. God will free all of creation “from its bondage to decay” (verse 21). Believers and all creation must endure the birth pangs of the completion of salvation – of the promised restoration of creation to what God intended it to be, begun when God chose a people to be his instruments of blessing.

  • In what ways do you sense that you are living in the “in-between” time?
  • Discuss your experience of life in the Spirit.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a field sowed by two sowers.

The master sows good wheat seeds in his field. At night, an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat seeds. When the wheat comes up and bears grain, the weeds come up as well. The master refuses to let his slaves gather the weeds. He tells them to let both of them grow together until the harvest, when the reapers will collect the weeds to be burned and gather the wheat into the barn.

Jesus privately interprets the parable to his disciples as an allegory. He is the master, and the good seeds are the children of Kingdom of God. The enemy is the devil, and the weeds are the children of the evil one. At the final judgment, the Son of Man will send his angels to root out sin and evildoers, and the righteous will inherit the Kingdom. God’s promise in the parable is that evil will not overcome the good.

There is a more contemporary dimension to the parable. In a previous chapter from Matthew, Jesus called us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” or “is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Could it be that the final judgment isn’t a distant event in linear time but is now? Could it be that the Kingdom isn’t someplace that will be established in the future but is here now? Were both inaugurated with the coming of God in Jesus?

Jesus issues a warning: Those who reject Jesus’ message are refusing to participate in the Kingdom. They are refusing to be the blessing to all the families of the earth that God calls believers to be. Those who accept Jesus’ message and follow the praxis of the Beatitudes belong to God, are his children and have inherited the promised Kingdom.

  • What is the relationship between the church and the Kingdom of God?
  • How does your faith that God’s Kingdom will triumph over evil and death influence the way you live?

Download the Bible study for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Stones, Wheat, and Weeds, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 23, 2017

[RCL:] Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Today’s readings offer us a wonderful opportunity to focus on stories. The stories we tell both illuminate and teach the virtues that our communities respect. Stories transmit culture, values, and ethics. Stories often include images and actions that raise questions and confirm values. In our church communities, we tell concrete stories that illustrate our beliefs, rather than using abstract language to try to explain our theology. The book of Genesis contains the foundational stories of our faith, while the gospels contain both the story that Jesus lived and the stories that Jesus told his community of followers.

What does the story of Jacob’s dream tell us about our faith? What does the parable of the weeds of the field tell us about what we value as a community? How do these two stories work together to paint a rich and nuanced picture of the ideals explicit and implicit in our stories?

Both stories contain angels! We might define angels as spiritual beings who possess powers and intelligence superior to humans. Angels are intermediaries between heaven and earth, between God and God’s people. They are God’s messengers.

There is quite a lot going on in today’s passage from Genesis, a rich source for questions. Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, has fled from his home, where he has just tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, deceiving his father in the process. Journeying to the home of his mother’s people, Jacob stops for the night and puts a stone under his head for a pillow. Why a stone for a pillow? The answer to that question is revealed later in the passage after Jacob wakes from his dream. Jacob takes the stone from under his head, sets it up as a pillar, and anoints it as a sacred place, which he calls Bethel, or “house of God.” Thus the stone signifies a sacred space, and sleeping on it induces Jacob’s dream, his message from God.

The first thing that Jacob sees in his dream is a ladder from earth to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. The sacred nature of the site is confirmed, as it is the earthly place of connection to heaven. And what are those angels doing, going up and down? Certainly, they indicate our connection with God, a connection that seems to go two ways. In the Greek and early rabbinic traditions, ladders are associated with judgment. We might explain it this way: God makes ladders. Some folks are raised up; some are brought down. In the words of Psalm 75, verse 7: “It is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.” Having recently used trickery and deceit to steal his brother’s birthright, and fleeing from his brother’s anger, Jacob might well wonder about God’s judgment upon him. But God appears to him and repeats the covenant that God made with Abraham: the promises of land, descendants, and blessing. God confirms the blessing that Isaac had previously given to Jacob. He is to be the new patriarch of God’s people.

Further, and even more awesome, God assures Jacob that God is with him wherever he goes. At a vulnerable moment, fleeing from home, sleeping rough on the road to a foreign land, Jacob receives knowledge of God’s divine presence and help. Jacob, a man on the run, is transformed by God’s grace into a man who is blessed to be the new leader of God’s people.

What has the story of Jacob’s dream taught us about what we value?

  • We value sacred spaces,
  • We value our connection with God, and
  • We acknowledge that fortune moves up and down, but God is always with us.

Implicit in the story of Jacob is the ever-present possibility of redemption. We are reminded that God’s grace, like God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, is unconditional.

What about the parable of weeds among the wheat? Jesus is quite specific about explaining what is happening in the story, but what are the implicit values transmitted to those who have ears to listen?

Jesus lived in an agrarian society, so it isn’t surprising that he used farming metaphors as concrete images to explain the mysterious nature of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven is like someone who has sowed good seed, yet an enemy has come and sowed weeds among the wheat. The kingdom of heaven is messy and complicated and will encounter opposition. In fact, evil exists in the world, and may not be easily rooted out. As the householder wisely advises his slaves, it is not a good idea to pull out the weeds, for their roots are entangled with the wheat and pulling them out will damage the crop. Jesus explains that at the end of the age, the angelic reapers will collect the weeds and throw them into the fire, while the wheat will be gathered into God’s kingdom.

We wonder, along with the slaves in the story, where these weeds came from. Why does God allow evil to grow in God’s kingdom? What can we do about it?

Scholars tell us that the weeds in the parable are likely darnel, a weedy grass that looks like wheat until it matures. While the plants in the field are young, the good wheat and the invasive weeds are indistinguishable and intertwined. Then the heads of the wheat droop over, while the heads of the weeds stand up straight. The image is of humility and pride. Is it up to the humble, true followers of Jesus to identify and destroy their proud, hypocritical neighbors? Is the destiny of wheat and weed fixed, or is there a possibility of redemption? There is a difference between weeds and people. We might argue that weeds are weeds forever, while people, if not torn out by the roots, might be redeemed by God’s grace. We cannot be certain who is good and who is evil.

In the parable, the householder says, “In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” He counsels patience and faith in God’s justice. It is important not to damage the roots of the wheat. A good steward must do what is best for all, even if the weeds will survive in the short term.

What does this narrative tell us about the values and culture of the storytellers?

  • We acknowledge the presence of evil in the world,
  • While evil may be redeemed, that redemption may not happen in this world,
  • It is not our job to judge, and
  • We believe in God’s judgment at the last day.

Does Jesus’ parable encourage passivity? Are the children of God to wait for those end-of-time reapers, for God to take care of the weeds? Or is Jesus offering guidance on how to live in a complicated world? While we wait for God to judge at the last day, how are we to live? Knowing that evil seed grows, that evil roots are allowed to flourish, how are we to live?

These two stories come together in our hearts and our communities in the season of Pentecost, when we commemorate the beginnings of the Church. From Genesis grows our awareness of the sanctity of consecrated sacred space and the certainty of our eternal relationship with God. Through the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus reminds us that we live in a hostile world, that good and bad are intermingled, that we must live cooperatively for the good of all, and that we ought to leave judgment to God. We are to live in awe, as Jacob did on that morning in Bethel, in the presence of a just God who meets us where we are, who is with us and will keep us, wherever we go.

Let us close with a collect from the Book of Common Prayer, a prayer that might have been written by the householder in today’s parable:

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she leads weekly Taizé prayer. She is writing a book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.

Download the sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bible Study, 6th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – July 16, 2017

[RCL:] Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Genesis 25:19-34

The narrator of this passage describes Jacob’s success over his brother Esau, and in doing so we learn something about God. We learn that Jacob, the younger brother, even from the womb will be served by his older brother. We hear of Esau’s displays of masculinity and skills from birth in a variety of trades, while we are only told that Jacob is a quiet man. As the older brother and a successful man, Esau should be the favored choice for God’s future people, and yet it is Jacob whom God chooses. Jacob receives his brother’s birthright, setting him on the path that will lead to his new name, Israel, and his heritage as the father of the twelve tribes. In this passage, we see a God who favors the weaker brother, an individual of lower stature, who is not supposed to be destined to accomplish great deeds. This story presents us with a God who “casts down the mighty and lifts the lowly,” who stands up for the weak and leads them to acts beyond imagination.

  • I wonder who the weak and lowly are in your community. How are you and your community meeting their needs?
  • I wonder who you are in this story today. Do you relate more to Jacob or Esau in the present moment? Why?

Psalm 119:105-112

Psalm 119, written after the Exile, emphasizes the importance of God’s word in living a faithful life, especially in times of need and strife. From verse 112, we hear that the word of God is not simply something to be heard or read, but something to be applied to the heart, inwardly digested and lived. The beauty of the Psalms is their ability to meet us where we are. This psalmist prays in full confidence of God’s support, all the while acknowledging the difficulty in doing so. As 21st-century readers of the Psalms, we can be comforted by the timelessness of God’s guidance. This psalm, prayed thousands of years ago to bring comfort to this people still brings comfort and hope to those who can still feel troubled and trapped.

  • I wonder in what ways has Scripture been a comfort to you in times of trouble.
  • Do you have any portion of Scripture memorized and “applied to your heart”? If so, how did you choose it?

Romans 8:1-11

The juxtaposition of flesh and spirit is repeated over and over again in this passage. It can be easy in our world to attend services on a Sunday morning and switch gears back into our secular lives as we drive out of the parking lot. However, we are called to live into the spirit of God that dwells in us. As humans we are fleshy creatures; our bodies crave food, we grieve over the loss of loved ones, and we don’t have to watch news channels very long to see the weaknesses of governments and societies to protect the weak. These human parts of our lives are not to be turned off or altogether rejected, but as followers of Christ, we are called to live with a spirit of hope as well. It is this spirit, working through us, that will help us create a better world for all those who inhabit it.

  • I wonder how you get ready to listen to the spirit of God.
  • I wonder what distracts you from living in the spirit. What might keep you focused?

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

It is easy to be distracted from living a deep spiritual life. It can be easy to forget how to get ready to come close to the holy, how to open ourselves to the voice of the Good Shepherd. This parable gives imagery to the importance of hearing and understanding God. When this happens our minds can be like good soil, ready for growth and maturity. But often, we find ourselves among thorns, scorched by the sun, or a bird’s snack. While the goal is to be good soil, to always understand and respond to God, it is nearly impossible to accomplish this all the time. We are not just one of these seeds, but we are all of these seeds at one time or another. Growing in faith requires practice; sometimes we find ourselves in the good soil and sometimes we find difficulty and questions, but the key is to keep practicing. God is always present and waiting to greet us, we must continually practice being good soil, knowing that even when we fall among the thorns God will be there to help us try again.

  • I wonder which seed you are today.
  • I wonder if you have found the good soil.
  • I wonder what you hope to grow into.

Reagan Gonzalez is a rising senior MDiv student at the Seminary of the Southwest. She is from the Diocese of Montana where she served as Christian Formation Director at St. James Episcopal Church in Bozeman. She is a Godly Play storyteller and is looking forward to parish ministry after ordination. She lives in Austin, Tex., with her husband, Bryan, and their Welsh Corgi, Maggie.

 

Download the Bible study for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

The Good Sower, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 16, 2017

[RCL:] Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus has such a heart for his church.  In this parable and its explanation, he’s not only addressing his first disciples but, as with all scripture, he’s addressing us too.  This parable could be a way to get us to do a little soil sampling of our hearts, a little analysis to see what kind of ground we are for seed-reception. This parable could be an invitation to ask ourselves, how can we make the soil of our hearts more fertile, more ready to receive the seed that is the word of the kingdom? How can we be the good soil so we can produce grain a hundredfold, and be part of a great agricultural ripple effect that makes more and more seed, that can be sown near and far and take root in places we may never dream of?  How can we clear our little patch of ground of stones and be strengthened to endure even persecution for the sake of the gospel?  How can we root out the thorns of worldly busyness, worry, self-interest, pettiness, and greed, so the word of the kingdom can abide with us, settle deep in us, make a home in us, and bear fruit? These are good questions, and if being good soil is the goal, there is help for us.

Gardeners and farmers tell us that soil that is good for planting has particular characteristics: good soil has a lot of humus—decayed material like grass roots and leaves—that encourages good nutrients, good drainage and good aeration. Good soil has room for water and air to move through it and get to seeds and plant roots. And although it seems like it’s just an inert substance, good soil is full of life.  For instance, earthworms burrow through soil, carrying away dead matter and taking needed material from the surface of the soil down deep where it can decompose and make more rich humus.  In some places, good soil for planting exists because fire has burned off saplings, preventing forests from growing.

So good soil seems to be the result of letting some stuff go, die even, perhaps getting burned away and allowing room for life-promoting organisms to do their work.  The same may be said of our hearts.  To be receptive to the word of the kingdom, we may need to let some old, false ideas go, die even.  To let idols go or have them taken from us may feel as painful as having them burned away, but letting them become compost may be the first step in making healthier soil.  Letting in life-promoting, wholeness-producing understandings of Jesus and the true nature of God’s reign can turn worthless clay into soil good for planting.  We can be the good soil in which seeds take root and grow into healthy, seed-bearing grain. Who wouldn’t want to be part of making God’s bumper crop of growth and new life?

But perhaps Jesus has another good word for us in this parable: not just exhortation—come on, be good, soil!—but  explanation and reassurance that has to do with the sower rather than the soil.  Perhaps Jesus has an invitation for us to be sowers and not just soil.

For the early Church, for those in whom the word of the kingdom initially took root and brought healing, peace, and joy, there was still a conundrum:  why doesn’t everyone who hears the word believe?  Why is what is so plain to us so imperceptible to others?  Why, when we can say, “Jesus is Lord,” even at the risk of our lives, don’t others get it?  What’s wrong here?

We may wonder some of the same things.  Faith in Jesus is important to us.  We go to church.  We’re here listening to this sermon. Why isn’t everyone?  Why are we the minority in our community, showing up, giving, serving, while all around us there are people who choose sports or coffee or sleep over what makes sense to us?  Why are churches getting smaller or struggling?  Is there something wrong with the word?  Is the seed not what we thought it was? Are we wasting our time?  Is there something else we should let take root in our hearts? Keeping soil good for planting can be hard work sometimes, and we want to know, is it worth it?  Did the sower get it wrong?

To the first disciples, to the early Church, to us, Jesus says, there is nothing wrong with the seed.  The sower is dependable.  But here’s what happens when the seed falls on different kinds of ground.  Trust the sower.  Trust the seed.  Be good soil.

Be good soil, but take a clue from the sower too. The sower’s approach to sowing is carefree, to say the least. The sower flings seed willy-nilly as he goes, with seeming disregard for where the seed will end up.  Shouldn’t the precious seed be saved for careful deposit in some meticulously prepared narrow furrow where it has a better chance of germination and survival?  Not with this sower.  To this sower, it’s as if the seed is so precious, he can’t hold on to it—it has to be shared.  To hold onto the seed would be to squander it.  This sower’s method seems to be to fling the seed as he goes, letting it land where it will, and keep going. This sower covers a lot of ground, not sticking to one pathway or field or territory.  The point, for this sower, is to sow.  So he does.

What if Jesus’ word for us has as much to do with the sower as the soil?  The sower is often taken to be God or Jesus, and that’s a good analogy.  God in Jesus flung the seed of the word of the kingdom wherever he went, and it found good soil in some places where others thought nothing good or holy could grow.  God in Jesus never said a word about some people deserving to hear good news and others not, although he did suggest once that a fig tree that sounds a lot like a group of people might benefit from a heaping application of compost (Luke 13:6-9).  Jesus sowed the word of the kingdom, wherever he went.  He himself was even buried like a seed in the soil, and from that sowing, God brought forth an unimaginable harvest.

But in the explanation of the parable, Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the sower.”  He just says that the sower sows the word, wherever the sower is, wherever the sower goes, and sometimes the word gets snatched away by the devil, and sometimes people fall away because the following is costly and risky, and sometimes the cares of the world choke the word, and sometimes, sometimes, the word bears a ridiculously abundant harvest.

What if Jesus is not only saying to be good soil, to be open and receptive, to let dead and death-dealing ideas die, and to welcome all that is holy and life-giving to make room and a hospitable reception for the word?  What if Jesus is also saying, “Sow!”  Don’t worry about whether you think the soil you’re walking over is good or bad, receptive or not.  Don’t be saving up seed for the places you think will be the most fertile.  This seed is so precious, it has to be shared, and there’s plenty more seed where that came from.  Not every bit of fruitful sowing is going to happen in the tidy rows of our pews, although by God’s grace it can happen even there.

There is so much seed to be sown.  Fling it.  Toss it.  Share it.  Get out there. Sow.

Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, Md., and teaches New Testament at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. She is married to the Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano, with whom she has co-authored two collections of sermons: A Man, a Woman, a Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone–Exploring the Christmas Mystery. She is also the author of Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew, which examines intersections of 1 Enoch’s story of the fallen angels and the infancy narratives of Matthew.

Download the sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bulletin Insert – July 9, 2017

Episcopal Youth Event, July 10-14

Every three years, in accordance with General Convention Resolution #1982-D079, the Episcopal Church convenes an international youth event so “that the energy of the youth of the Episcopal Church can continue to be utilized in active ministry as members of the Body of Christ.” Episcopal Youth Event EYE

This year, the 2017 Episcopal Youth Event (EYE17) is set to welcome more than 1,300 participants, workshop leaders, speakers, and volunteers to the campus of the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond from July 10-14.

The Theme for EYE17, Path to Peace, is a call for participants to focus on peacemaking and the ways each member of the Jesus Movement can pursue a path to peace.

The schedule for EYE17 is here: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/eye/eye17-packing-list-draft-schedule and includes three full days of Worship, Plenary Sessions, Praxis (workshops), and hospitality. On Wednesday of EYE17, the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma is sponsoring ‘Oklahoma City Day’ as a pilgrimage of sorts to various locations in the area, including a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum and a candlelight vigil at the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial.

Even if you’re not in Edmond, you can follow along with everything happening at EYE17:

You can also follow EYE17 via the EYE17 mobile app:

The 2017 Episcopal Youth Event was developed and planned by a team of youth, adult mentors, and Presiding Bishop’s staff: http://bit.ly/EYE17MPT.

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Bulletin Insert – July 2, 2017

Independence Day

On July 4th, The Episcopal Church joins the United States in celebrating Independence Day, marking the day the country declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1776. Episcopal American Flags

Collect for Independence Day – Book of Common Prayer, p. 242

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect 17: For the Nation – Book of Common Prayer, p. 258

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Taking on Jesus’ Yoke, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – July 9, 2017

[RCL:] Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is some debate about whether or not people can change. The spiritual and psychological sages throughout the millennia basically agree that people can learn better ways to cope with who and how they are, but people don’t change all that much. Transformation can occur, though that’s for later in this sermon. But changing is hard, maybe even impossible, and changing another person, well, that’s just folly—pure folly. It has been said that having expectations for others and wanting them to be more like we would have them is just a down payment on future disappointment. This might sound down and dour, but good news is on the way.

All notions of progress have to do with growth and change, and personal progress is usually cloaked in the power of our own wills to change ourselves. If we all just had the right information, the right policy, the right data, then we would just be who we are meant to be. But as Derek Sivers says, “If all that we needed was more information, then we would all be millionaires with perfects abs.”

Perhaps you have some experience with trying to stop some behavior only to return again and again to what you don’t want to do, much like St. Paul in the epistle reading today. Maybe you have been trying to lose weight for years only to gain it all back. Maybe you have been trying to grow closer to God through feats of discipline in prayer and study, only to feel cold and distant from God. No. Instead, our happiness, our fulfillment, our satisfaction, and ultimately our growth in Christ has less to do with taking on more data, and more to do with unlearning a great deal.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is clearly frustrated. He indicates that those around him criticized John the Baptist as being possessed by a demon. Then they criticized Jesus for eating and drinking with the wrong people too often. Jesus then prays aloud to God, in thanks for having hidden the purposes of what God is up to in Jesus from the wise and wonderful of his age. He then says something that has become so famous that you could be forgiven for not truly listening to what he says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Aren’t you weary? Aren’t you carrying a heavy burden? Don’t you need a rest? We are all weary and heavy-laden. Each of us is dealing with something, or a whole litany of somethings, that if we all had to wear them outwardly, I daresay we’d have a much more compassionate world.

But Jesus is inviting us into something completely different. Jesus first names our spiritual state. This is an amazingly compassionate thing to do, to notice and name, to tell the truth of a situation. Sometimes it is enough simply to have someone notice our weariness and burdens. This noticing, without judgment or fixing, is a lesson in empathy for all of us. That might be the distinction between empathy and pity, by the way.

Then Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon ourselves. This is an interesting image that most of us modern types might not understand. A yoke is for a donkey or other beast of burden. It is a collar that harnesses the animal for whatever work that the master wants the animal to do, like pulling a cart or plowing a field. The yoke is a symbol of servitude and onerous labor. But the yoke that Jesus is offering is easy and light.

What does this mean, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”? In our world and society, clever and never-ending marketing would have us believe that each and all of us are deficient in some way. Jesus and, by no extension at all, God, accepts us precisely where and what we are with no exceptions. The world has become exceedingly sophisticated in laying heavy burdens upon us. The largest companies in the world deploy deeply effective psychological understandings on us to encourage us to feel that we must scratch this or that itch immediately, or buy into some lifestyle in order to be the happiest or most authentic self we can. This has been captured most recently by the acronym “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out.”

Now the world is not some separate creation or arena of evil. The world, as the church has usually described it, is that which does not proclaim Christ as Lord, so it does not live by the light burdens of Jesus and instead heaps up heavier and heavier burdens. Of course, the history of the Church is littered with teachers and rules that have given heavy burdens to certain people to designate them as less than loved by God, but they were wrong and actively working against the intentions of Jesus.

Jesus does not expect or desire for us to take on more and more in discipleship to him. His learning is an unlearning, his burdens are an unburdening. His work is a rest. What this looks like in a daily practice is a constant reminder that we are enough, we are sufficient. This is not some mere positive thinking, feel-good humanism. Our sufficiency with God is not about our own inherent goodness, though there may well be some inherent goodness in us, it is about God’s goodness and love and acceptance of us. So we remind ourselves every day of God’s goodness and love.

And then, if we are brave and want to be taught by Jesus, we can extend God’s radical love to those whom God presents us with each day. Since God’s love is unconditioned, since this loving yoke is easy, and the burden of acceptance is light, since it is unlearning to judge others, what would it be to live like this? What would it be like to love that person who annoys you? What would it be like to love that estranged relative or friend? What would it be like to love that politician who you not only disagree with but who actively enacts policies that hurt those you already love? Jesus is not asking you to be foolish and merely accept injustice, but he is inviting us to love. And while Jesus meets us all where we are and accepts us for who we are, he does not let us stay that way. To encounter Jesus is to be transformed. I cannot think of a single encounter Jesus has in Scripture where the other person did not leave changed or challenged. Jesus is not in the trans-fixing business, he is in the transforming business. This love can transform you and this world, but it is hard. To follow Jesus is work, it is still a yoke, no matter how easy.

I think this is where the marketers and the fear-of-missing-out folks get life wrong. To change, to be transformed, is not to start with deficiency or want, but with love and acceptance. Now, love and acceptance are simply bad for the economy, but in God’s economy, love and acceptance are the starting point. This is why Jesus describes discipleship to him as easy and light burdens: following him makes a beginning in not requiring a series of good behaviors in an attempt to earn love. Once we understand our status as beloved, we can make the radical turn to do the same: loving others without condition or remainder.

May the Holy Spirit empower each of us to go into the world and love as deeply as we are loved by God. Amen.

The Rev. Joshua Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, N.C., a parish that is very curious about what God is doing in the beautiful world. Josh shares life with his wife Brittany and their three children. Josh holds a Masters of Divinity from the School of Theology at the University of the South and is a current student in the Masters of Sacred Theology track of the Advanced Degrees Program there.

Download the sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bulletin Insert – June 25, 2017

The Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

On June 29th, the Church will remember the martyrdoms of Sts. Peter and Paul, apostles and martyrs.

While there are no explicit testaments to the deaths of St. Peter or St. Paul in Scripture, and though they were not martyred at the same time, tradition has placed the commemoration of their deaths together, as a result of the Neronian persecution of Christians in 64 A.D. Placing the commemoration on June 29th was likely a reference to an event in 258 A.D. when the remains of the martyrs were moved from their resting places to avoid desecration during persecutions ordered by Valerian.

Stained glass, Sts. Peter and Paul and the instruments of their martyrdoms. Church of St. Thomas, Jersey

According to Holy Women, Holy Men, the martyrdoms of these apostles were markedly different. The book records, “As a Roman citizen, Paul would probably have been beheaded with a sword” (HWHM, 446). His death would have been faster and less painful than that of Peter, who, tradition holds, was crucified upside-down at his own request, considering himself unworthy of dying the same way as Jesus.

Images of Sts. Peter and Paul often include the instruments of their martyrdoms. Paul may be depicted holding a sword and holding open a book that reads “Spiritus Gladius,” or “sword of the Spirit.” This references both Paul’s beheading with a sword and his letter to the Ephesians, in which he asks the Church to take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). Peter, along with his traditional symbols of keys to the kingdom of heaven, is regularly depicted with an inverted cross.

The relationship between the two can be instructive to us as modern-day Christians. From Holy Women, Holy Men, “Paul, the well-educated and cosmopolitan Jew of the Dispersion, and Peter, the uneducated fisherman from Galilee, had differences of opinion in the early years of the Church concerning the mission to the Gentiles. More than once, Paul speaks of rebuking Peter for his continued insistence on Jewish exclusiveness; yet their common commitment to Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel proved stronger than their differences; and both eventually carried that mission to Rome” (HWHM, 446). Where might we within the Church learn to appreciate each other’s differing viewpoints? How can our common commitment to Jesus Christ and the Gospel carry us to the testing ground and beyond?

Collect for St. Peter and St. Paul

Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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Whom Ought I Welcome?, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – July 2, 2017

[RCL:] Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”

Just so we get this straight: whoever welcomes you welcomes Jesus, and whoever welcomes your friend or neighbor or family member or work colleague or elected official or mother-in-law or next door neighbor or chatty seat companion on an airplane or vendor at the state fair or grocery checker or barber or the UPS driver or the kid who hit your new car with a soccer ball…and so on and so forth…welcomes God? We could have fun with this! But would there ever be an end to such a list of those who are welcome? If there is an end to such a list of who is welcome, what does this mean? And if not, well- what does that mean?

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. And whoever welcomes any one of us welcomes Jesus, welcomes God.

The message we hear in this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew was important enough to Jesus and to the early church that some variation on this theme shows up in each gospel, and often more than once. Also in Matthew’s gospel from chapter 18 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” and from chapter 25 “The king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, …you did it to me.’” Mark includes similar verses. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus declares that “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” The Jesus in John’s gospel, in true poetic style, declares in chapter 13 “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

There are numerous other examples and variations throughout the New Testament record. The bottom line emphasis seems to be on inclusion, reciprocity, welcome and doing for others—all those things it takes to build up community, to include the stranger as neighbor. If we can believe the record of today’s lesson and so many other passages, Jesus and the early disciples and later apostles put a high value on welcoming and proclaiming the presence of God thereby.

Pause for a moment and think about what we’ve been hearing through all the election drama and to the present day about division, exclusion, keeping people separated, kicking people out.

There may be legitimate and compelling reasons to consider the economic impact or national safety issues in such things, but if an inhospitable, exclusive attitude goes along with these ideas, then they are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus who talked so very much about welcome, inclusion, hospitality.

Hospitality is a primary ethic of the cultures and peoples of the Middle East even now. Whether one is brought into a family home of Muslims, Christians or Jews, there is joy in welcoming, there is the belief that it is desired of God, the welcoming of strangers who are strangers no longer, but beloved friends, believing that in welcoming people into one’s home they are earning their crown in heaven, doing as God would have them do in welcoming the living God among us.

Such an understanding of hospitality, of the obligation of welcome, dates back to well before the time of Jesus. It was a matter of survival and community health which translated into the religious understanding of what God wants of us. Where and how do we experience such welcome today?

“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”

Is this what we hear? Or do we hear, instead, words of separation, words of breaking relationship, words of opposition and repudiation?

So many of the ugly attitudes playing out on the world stage and in the evening news have spilled over into our popular culture, showing up in a variety of television shows with comments about the increase in bullying not only among children in our schools, but flowing out into our neighborhoods, showing up in stepped-up immigration strictures and deportation raids, among other things.

Where is our witness to welcoming others, and thereby welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him?

This Sunday falls between two other occasions marked on the Church calendar: the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul last Thursday, and our celebration of American Independence on the Fourth of July on Tuesday.

It is important to note this for a number of reasons. First, think about Peter and Paul. They did not agree on many things, didn’t get along at all, and finally went their separate ways in the proclamation of the Gospel. Peter insisted that the early believers must follow Jewish ways, must be circumcised, must hold to the Law. Paul’s vision led him to distant lands proclaiming faith in a risen Christ and urging believers to conform their lives to that faith. What they had in common, though, was the conviction that God had visited humanity in Jesus, and that Jesus had brought something new and remarkable to humankind demonstrated in a way to live, a way to relate and a way to witness to God’s love. And they both understood that the welcome of God was an invitation to a place in God’s kingdom.

As we celebrate this Fourth of July, and as we sing God Bless America, and as we roast hot dogs and hamburgers and marvel at fireworks and the good ol’ red, white and blue, let us also ask ourselves what Jesus meant in telling us over and over again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).

We may believe differently about the details of faith, as Peter and Paul certainly did and as Christians are wont to do. We may understand civic responsibility differently; Americans have always held a variety of opinions on things.

But for us as Christian Americans or American Christians, the question of the day growing out of this gospel text asks: What does it mean to welcome, and how do we do that? What does it look like in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our national policies, in our very attitudes? For we are Christians first, as citizens of God’s kingdom, living that faith in an American context of privilege and challenge.

Jesus didn’t say that we have to agree on everything, but he pretty clearly told us to be welcoming. Like Peter and Paul, we won’t all agree on everything. And as Americans, we will stand proudly to celebrate on the Fourth. When we put all that together, one possible outcome is that we may have to agree to disagree on some aspects of American policy as we live our Christian faith in daily practice.

Christian people are called to be welcoming, for in welcoming others we welcome God. Can we at least agree on that?

As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, when we welcome strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware. AMEN.

The Rev. Machrina Blasdell teaches religious studies courses online for Park University, with her greatest interest following the development and idiosyncrasies of religion in today’s world. She enjoys time with her family, a number of cats and many roses, and delights in working with dark chocolate.

Download the sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost.