Archives for February 2018

Bible Study, Palm Sunday (B) – March 25, 2018

[RCL]: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 

Isaiah 50:4-9a

As we begin Holy Week, this passage in Isaiah reminds us of God’s help in times of distress. This passage was likely written during the time of Babylonian exile in the 6th Century BC—a time of great suffering and disorientation for the Israelites. Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion would have been similarly devastating for the disciples. The Israelites experienced the destruction of their temple and physical exile to a foreign land; the disciples faced the death of their teacher and the fear and uncertainty of what the future might hold. This passage assures us that even in times of persecution and doubt, God is our help. Isaiah finds strength from God both in confronting his adversaries and in comforting those in need. We, too, can find sustenance from God this week and in our own moments of exile, pain, or uncertainty.

  • Isaiah writes, “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (v. 50:4). How have you been comforted by the words of others? How has God helped you to speak words of comfort to those in need?

Psalm 31:9-16

Psalm 31 is a particularly visceral depiction of the author’s pain and suffering. The author’s entire body—his eye, throat, belly, and bones—are consumed by affliction. The Psalmist also conveys a deep sense of loneliness, abandonment, and self-loathing. He writes, “I am forgotten like a dead man,” and “I am as useless as a broken pot” (v. 31:12).

At times, we may find ourselves in a similar state to this psalmist. We may know what it is like to feel as though our bodies and minds are completely overtaken by sadness and fear. Yet the Psalmist does not lose sight of God’s goodness, even in the midst of his pain. He calls on God to save him by God’s “loving kindness.” He affirms his trust in God and asks for God to rescue him.

  • How do you find comfort and strength in times of sadness? What feelings—physical or emotional—does this Psalm bring up for you?

Philippians 2:5-11

Holy Week is an opportunity for us to confront the tension between Jesus’ humanity and his Lordship. In this passage, Paul reminds us that Jesus chose to journey alongside humanity. As part of that journey, he endured the worst of human suffering, even to the point of death. This week, we will imagine what it was like for Jesus and the disciples in his final days; some of us will reenact aspects of Jesus’ last acts on earth through foot washing, overnight vigils, and dramatic passion narratives. At the same time, we will anticipate the joy of Easter and the hope of the Resurrection that affirms our faith in Jesus, the Messiah.

Paul implores us to take on the “same mind” as Christ. We are asked to embrace humanity in its fullness and to appreciate the paradoxical proximity of humanity to God: the more we empty and humble ourselves, the closer we draw to experiencing the glory of God.

  • How do you relate to Jesus during Holy Week? Which parts of Jesus’ final days on earth capture your heart and imagination the most?

Mark 15:1-47

When we read the Passion in our services on Palm Sunday, we ask the congregation to identify with the “crowd” (v. 15:8). The congregation shouts, “Crucify him!” when Pilate offers to release Jesus. It makes sense that we would cast the congregation in this role—after all, it offers the congregation a speaking part and it gives us an opportunity to imagine that we might be responsible, in some way, for the brokenness of the world—but there are many other players in this narrative with whom we might identify. In the final verses of Mark’s passion narrative, we learn that the women who have followed and provided for Jesus throughout his ministry were watching his crucifixion from a distance. The scripture does not tell us about the whereabouts of the male disciples; they seem to be absent from the whole scene, but several women have stayed to watch Jesus die and to see what will become of his body.

  • Imagine what it would have been like to be one of the women who followed Jesus. Why do you think the women stayed after all the other disciples left? 

Anne Marie Witchger is a candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church. She received a B.A. in Religion from Earlham College, a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and will complete a Master of Arts in Ministry from General Theological Seminary in 2018. Anne Marie currently works as the Outreach Coordinator and Chief of Staff at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan. In her free time, Anne Marie loves to bake, write, ride her bike, and brew kombucha with her husband, Joshua.

Download the Bible study for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (B).

Bible Study, Lent 5 (B) – March 18, 2018

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The prophet Jeremiah was active in the final years of the kingdom of Judah, leading up to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BC and the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon. In the face of this impending destruction, he nevertheless foresaw a restored life for the people, one in which they would be even closer to God than before. God promised to maintain a covenantal relationship with the people, just as he had after the Exodus—but instead of a law written on stone tablets, God would write the law of the new covenant on their hearts. Later Christian interpreters would see themselves as the recipients of this “new covenant” or, in one Latin translation, Novum Testamentum, from which we get the term “New Testament.”

  • Have you ever felt comforted by a promise during a difficult time?
  • What would it look like for God to write his law on your heart? Has your Lenten practice helped you move toward this vision?

Psalm 51:1-13

The Church has long recognized Psalm 51 as a central psalm of penitence and contrition; it is a major part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, where its penitential tone sets the stage for Lent. The editors of the Psalms described it as “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba,” linking its general themes of sin and repentance to a specific instance of sin. The words of the psalm, when lifted out of the context of this story, can apply to almost any human life. The psalm’s great power comes from the potential each person has to find herself or himself in it.

  • We frequently confess our sins against God and our neighbor, but the psalm claims that, “Against you only have I sinned” (v. 4). In what sense are sins against neighbors sins against God?
  • The psalm builds toward a prayer for a “clean heart” and a “right spirit,” for the joy and sustenance of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever felt refreshed or renewed by confessing where you’ve gone wrong?

Hebrews 5:5-10

The curious figure of Melchizedek appears twice in the Old Testament. Melchizedek, whose name means “King of Righteousness,” is called the “King of Salem” (that is, Jerusalem) and a “priest of God Most High” in Genesis 14, where he offers bread and wine and blesses Abram. Psalm 110 addresses the king in a royal psalm, saying, as Hebrews quotes here, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In ancient Judaism, priests regularly offered sacrifices of many kinds in the Temple, which was the main form of worship. The high priest played the key role of cleansing the Temple of impurity on the annual Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In this passage, Hebrews combines these and other images from Scripture to describe Jesus: Son of God, righteous king, high priest, suffering servant, obedient follower.

  • What are some of the images that help you understand Jesus? Righteous King? Royal priest? Shepherd? Brother? How do these different names change the way you see him?

John 12:20-33

This “passion prediction” is one of the instances in the gospels in which Jesus says something suggesting the way he will die, and what effect his death will have. This passage is only about halfway through the gospel, continuing a series of sayings beginning in the earliest chapters of John, in which Jesus proclaims the saving power of his coming death. After hearing that “some Greeks” have come to see him, Jesus promises that he will “draw all people” to himself. “Greeks” here likely means “people who are not Jews,” as it does elsewhere in the New Testament, rather than people from what we would now call Greece. The idea that Greeks are coming to Jesus is therefore a physical embodiment of his relationship with “all people.”

  • How has Jesus drawn you to himself? Has his death on the cross been an important part of that attraction? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean in the 21st century that Jesus will draw “all people” to himself? Do you have a part to play in that process?

Greg Johnston is a third-year student at Berkeley Divinity School and a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Massachusetts. He has served the Church in urban parishes, campus ministry, and community organizing, in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He currently lives in New Haven with his wife Alice Kenney, and he spends most of his free time running, cooking, or reading mystery novels.

Download the Bible study for Lent 5 (B).

Bible Study, Lent 4 (B) – March 11, 2018

[RCL] Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9

Earlier this year, I made my first transatlantic flight from the United States to Italy. When I first received my plane ticket, I took note of the fact that I would be on an airplane for close to ten hours, but I didn’t fully grasp what it would be like to be confined to such a small space for such a long period of time. Only a few short hours into the flight and I found myself obsessively checking the “flight tracker” on the screen on the back of the seat in front of me. I was overcome with impatience, yet I was powerless to change anything about my situation. Knowing from my own experience that patience is a rare virtue, I can’t blame the Israelites for growing restless as they wandered in the desert. If you or I were in their place, chances are we would have reacted in a similar way. Perhaps then the lesson we may learn from this passage is not that we should be able to remain perfectly patient at all times, but that we should not allow our impatience to cause us to lose sight of the God who calls us out, journeys with us, and will not abandon us in the wilderness.

  • Imagining your life as a journey, to what destination are you currently traveling?
  • In moments where you have felt lost, how have you been reminded of the presence of God in your life?

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

“[The Lord’s] mercy endures for ever.” Forever? Forever is a long time—unfathomable even at the limits of our imagination. We struggle to comprehend how anything could last forever, because all of our life is defined by limitations and boundaries. We are born and soon after we discover that this life, as we currently know it, will not last forever. For this reason and if we are wise, we seek to make the most of our lives—living fully into each moment. Still, even in our knowing that this life will not last forever, we fail. We make mistakes and we fall short of the plans we make to become the best version of our selves. Today—in our Psalm, we are reminded that it is in our limitedness that we find reason to give thanks to the Lord, for we have been redeemed and his mercy endures forever, extending beyond the limits of our wildest imagination and the boundaries of this temporal life.

  • As we contemplate the everlasting mercy of God, in what ways do you feel challenged to be more merciful to others in your life?

Ephesians 2:1-10

As we contemplate our futures, it is easy to allow our hearts and minds to become anxious about how our lives will turn out. Will I get the job or promotion I’ve been wanting? Have I saved enough to retire or to help my children get a good education? Have I invested my time and efforts in the right relationships? So often, our anxieties about the future are products of our own desire to earn and control the future we desire. In today’s epistle, we are reminded that our ultimate future is not the product of our own hands and hard work, nor is it based on our own worthiness or our ability to discern the most fruitful decisions. Rather—our future was determined for us when we were most unworthy. God, “who is rich in mercy” chose us while we were yet sinners and gave us the gift of salvation. Today, we give thanks for we are what God made us—created in Christ Jesus for good works.

  • What questions about the future currently keep you up at night?
  • How might attempting to turn these worries over to God, who is “rich in mercy,” help relieve anxiety in your life?

John 3:14-21

Several years ago, in an attempt to live a healthier lifestyle, I took up the hobby of running. Now—even after running several times a week for almost five years, I find that I still learn new things, on a regular basis, that make me a better runner. Last year, for example, I discovered the importance of looking up and beyond my current stride while running. I learned this while jogging up a steep incline with my head down and not noticing a raised edge in the sidewalk just tall enough to catch the toe of my shoe. Suddenly and without warning I lost control of my stride and began to fall—for what seemed like a solid minute of trying to regain my balance. My downfall—no pun intended—was brought on by my stubborn refusal to look up beyond the present moment to see and prepare myself for what was coming next. Similarly—in life, it is tempting to be so fixated on our current circumstances that we can forget to look up and see that God has already lifted up and provided a Savior for all the world—who seeks to redeem and make all things new—even our present circumstance.

  • How might trusting God to provide for your present circumstance free you up to see and prepare for what lies ahead?

Josh Woods is currently an M.Div. student in his senior year at the Seminary of the Southwest. He is also a Chaplain Candidate for the United States Air Force Reserve, preparing for parish ministry and reserve chaplaincy after his ordination. He lives in Austin, Tex., with his wife Laura and their two dogs, Roxie and Ezra.

Download the Bible study for Lent 4 (B).

Bible Study, Lent 3 (B) – March 4, 2018

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

Exodus 20:1-17

The recitation of the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, will likely be familiar to listeners of this week’s Old Testament reading, and many might have images of a technicolor Charlton Heston descending from the mountain, tablets in hand. But what’s striking in this reading is that God—not Moses—is speaking directly to the Israelites. Hearing directly from the Divine would have left quite an impact on these former Egyptian slaves as they made their way through the desert.

There’s an order to the commandments as well—get in right relationship with God (the first four commandments) and then you can be in right relationship with each other (the remaining six). The directives aren’t meant to micro-manage our lives, but to apply constant pressure, the pressure of discipleship and formation, that can continue to guide us toward a life that is in right relationship with God, creation, and each other.

  • Where are some areas where we are individually or collectively out of synch with God’s directives?
  • What are some small practices that we might initiate to help re-form our lives to be in better relationship with God and with each other?

Psalm 19

The psalm opens with what might be imagined as a wondrous cacophony of sound as all creation attests to God’s glory. Each day eagerly shouts to the next, and each night whispers God’s glory above our slumber—yet the sounds aren’t heard (v. 3). One is tempted to hold an ear to the ground to catch even a glimmer of the joyous noise.

It takes God’s laws and decrees—Torah—to help translate the celestial symphony for our ears. By letting ourselves be molded by God’s directives, we can begin to hear and see the glorious celebration going on around us all the time. Finally, as we journey deeper and deeper into our relationship with God—allowing ourselves to be formed and shaped and forgiven—we can humbly submit our own voice to the worship, with the plea: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” What a joyous noise indeed!

  • Where can we hear the celebration of God’s glory in the world around us? What is it calling us to do in response?

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

When looked at from the outside—as many of the Greeks and Jews of Corinth would have seen them—these Christ believers had an “upside-down” view of reality. Weakness is strength and death is salvation. The Apostle Paul highlights the paradox of the cross and establishes a neat dichotomy to drive unity for the church in Corinth: be among those who are perishing or with those who are living. Who wouldn’t choose life, under the circumstances?

Paul is trying to mend a divided church in Corinth, where the wealthy members, lured by the Corinthian ideal of clever oratory (and possibly disappointed with Paul’s own admitted mumblings) are tempted to segregate from their poorer counterparts and create their own ideal of church. Paul recognizes that they are missing the point. He forces them—and us—to stare directly into the shame and tragedy of the cross and, in so doing, put all humankind on equal footing. None of us is greater than another—no matter what our earthly skills or accomplishments might suggest—and all are far weaker than God’s apparent weakness and more foolish than God’s seeming foolishness.

  • What divisions do we still see that threaten to divide us today? How might a Divine view of things yield solidarity across division?

John 2:13-22

This week’s gospel reading plays with the notion of time in a number of ways. First, Jesus’ disruption at the Temple takes place at the beginning of his mission, not at the end as it appears in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Second, his zeal causes his disciples to reflect back on Psalm 69—“Zeal for your house has eaten me up”—as Jesus unexpectedly turns over tables and throws money on the floor. Finally, there’s what might be called a memory nugget—something said that might not make total sense in the moment but, in hindsight, is clear as day. When asked for a sign, Jesus radically states that the temple, under construction for many years, can be razed and reconstructed in merely three days. One imagines the quizzical looks exchanged by the disciples in the moment, their own disbelief at Jesus’ wild overture. Only in looking back, through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection, would the statement make sense. What seemed an impossible claim in the moment would become, in the end, a proof point that Jesus as Christ had replaced the earthly temple once and for all.

  • What memory nuggets in your own formation, in retrospect, serve as proof points for your own faith?
  • What difficult or challenging events or, conversely, times of wonder and awe, still serve to strengthen your faith?

This Bible study was written by Gregory Warren of the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Download the Bible study for Lent 3 (B).