Archives for August 2018

Bible Study, Pentecost 18 (B) – September 23, 2018

Proper 20


[RCL]: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Proverbs 31:10–31

How did this description of “a capable wife” strike you? For some, it may seem a model of self-sacrificing generosity and a poetic celebration of the valuable roles women played in ancient society (and still play, in many cultures, today). For others, it may reek of patriarchal inequality and seem of little relevance given our changed understanding of marriage and gender roles. When a single passage can provoke such differing responses, it is worth pausing to consider the ways our own experiences and personal histories shape our understanding of the text.

As a case study, reread verse 21. To most Episcopalians, the first half of the verse might provoke chuckles: “She is not afraid for her household when it snows…” Good, we might think. Glad there is no irrational fear of white stuff falling from the sky! To others, who may have experienced dangerous cold with inadequate clothing or shelter, the wife’s ability to provide plush (and warm) clothes for her family would hardly seem a laughing matter.

  • What verses in this passage seem most relevant to your life today?
  • What verses seem least relevant?
  • How might someone read those same verses and have an opposite reaction?

Psalm 1

From the very first verses, the psalm connects happiness with faithfulness to the law. Those whose “delight is in the law of the LORD” and who “meditate on his law day and night” shall be like fruitful trees, the psalmist tells us, whereas the wicked are “like chaff which the wind blows away.” Righteousness and wisdom are the foundation of happiness, according to Psalm 1.

But why do bad things happen to good people? Or to ask the more exacerbating question: why do good things happen to bad people? It would be a mistake to dismiss the psalmist as naïvely arguing that faithfulness to God guarantees an easy life. (The psalms are not the place that folks peddling a toxic Prosperity Gospel would have you look, for they are replete with lamentations of the faithful who suffer amid humiliation and defeat.) So the question becomes this:

  • What sort of happiness does faithfulness to the law of the Lord in fact provide?
  • How does that vision of happiness contrast with our contemporary culture’s understanding of happiness?

James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a

This is a beautiful passage that, like Psalm 1, speaks of the value of submitting to God. The author identifies conflicting wisdoms that might govern the actions of those he addresses. There is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom that leads to “envy and selfish ambition” in the individual and “disorder and wickedness of every kind” in society. Against this, there is “wisdom from above” that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits…” Trouble arrives, he tells us, when we act based on earthly wisdom and not out of faithfulness to God.

The Letter of James was controversial for much of Christian history, largely because its emphasis on doing good works seemed to clash with parts of Paul’s writings that emphasized salvation by faith alone and not by works. (Other parts of the Pauline corpus—e.g., Romans 2:13—sound like they could have come straight from the Letter of James.) This passage can help us understand that faith in God and charity towards our neighbor are inseparable. It is our faithful adherence to the “wisdom from above” that spurs us to act gently, justly, and in ways that will yield “good fruits.”

  • Can you think of a conflict in your own life or in the life of your congregation?
  • How does your sense of that conflict shift as you imagine seeking to work through it according to the heavenly wisdom that this passage describes?

Mark 9:30–37

After describing the disciples’ continued misunderstanding of Jesus’ passion prediction, this passage shows us their misunderstanding of Jesus’ values. Just as the psalmist and the letter of James advocate prioritizing heavenly wisdom, Jesus treats others according to a heavenly ethic and wisdom, not according to the hierarchical norms of society. The disciples’ concern for “who was the greatest” reflects their earthly priorities, and Jesus shows how a heavenly ethic reverses earthly expectations. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus says. He illustrates his point by taking a little child (in an age when such children had little social status) and telling his disciples that service to such a child is indistinguishable from service to him. A child without status can be a proxy for God. 

  • In our churches, do our children’s ministries demonstrate that we’ve embraced Jesus’ teaching?
  • Jesus used the little child as a stand-in for all those without status and power. Who in our communities (and, beyond them, in the world) are the powerless or neglected, and what would it mean for us to treat them as though they were proxies for God? 

This Bible study, written by the Rev. Robert Pennoyer, originally ran September 20, 2015.

Download the Bible Study for Pentecost 18 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 17 (B) – September 16, 2018

Proper 19


[RCL]: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Proverbs 1:20-33

In this passage from Proverbs, Wisdom herself has some strong warnings for the reader. She shouts from a busy street corner, pointing out the faults of the “simple ones” and “scoffers”. “Because you have not heard me or heeded me,” she says, “I will laugh when calamity strikes you.” What’s more, when panic strikes, when you are distressed and anguished, you will call for me, but I won’t answer. Ouch! This doesn’t exactly seem like the kind of feel-good literature we expect from the Good Book. In fact, reading this passage, we don’t find the comfort we often seek from God, at least not at first blush. It’s important to remember that this passage isn’t meant as an indictment; it is a statement of God’s truth. Wisdom does not withhold herself from those who earnestly desire her. Rather, those who refuse her have already condemned themselves.

  • What kinds of institutions in our world have condemned themselves because they reject Wisdom’s calls and fail to act morally? What lessons do we learn from them?
  • How does God teach us to act over and against the powers and principalities of this world?

Psalm 19

In verses one through six of this well-known psalm, the author contemplates the ways in which the created order displays the glory of God. Though the universe lacks voice or language, it still testifies to its magnificent creator. Partway through the psalm, however, the subject changes. Verses seven through eleven discuss the Lord’s perfect law, righteous judgments, and sure testimony. The question is: What do the two themes have to do with each other? Perhaps both the created world and God’s law are part of a divine natural order, revealing to us truths about God. Just as the rising and setting sun sustains life on earth and gives voice to the splendor of the Creator, so too do God’s laws, statutes, and commandments give purpose to the lives of his people, reviving their hearts and instilling wisdom in them.

  • How do you notice and appreciate God in creation?
  • How is God’s will manifested in the world around you? How is it revealed to you through scripture, tradition, and personal experience?

James 3:1-12

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.”

What we say matters. God has been telling us this from the beginning. Genesis tells us that God spoke the world into being. God then spoke humans into being, making them in God’s own image and giving them the power to name animals—“every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature”—and each other. Almost everyone has had the privilege of naming something, maybe a beloved pet or stuffed animal. Often parents agonize over giving a new baby the perfect name—even going so far as to make sure that his or her initials don’t spell out anything inappropriate! To name something or someone is a tremendous responsibility, because to name something is to begin to form its identity. With that kind of power comes the temptation to believe we are in total control. Just because we have the power to name, doesn’t mean we should confuse ourselves with God. Instead, we would do well to remember that all our language was given to us by a God who made us in his image.

  • Who or what have you had the privilege to name? What was that experience like for you?
  • How does your use of language draw you closer to God? How does it place you further away?

Mark 8:27-38

Peter just doesn’t get it, but we can’t blame him. Sometimes we don’t either. Peter rebukes Jesus for teaching his disciples that he will suffer and die. Those of us on this side of the Resurrection may understand what Jesus is getting at, but Peter doesn’t. In Peter’s mind, a Messiah can’t die! Heck, the words Messiah and dying don’t even belong in the same sentence. Leave it to Jesus to remind Peter that he has some more learning to do. “Get behind me, Satan!” When pondering this famous phrase, don’t get too caught up in the word “Satan.” It simply means “accuser.” Focus instead on the “get behind me” part. Jesus commands Peter to get behind him because it’s from there that Peter can continue to follow Jesus. “Get behind me,” Jesus says. He is reminding Peter that God is in charge. This is an important reminder for us all. We don’t have to have all the answers; that’s why we follow the one who does.

  • Do you ever need to be reminded that it’s enough simply to follow?
  • How might you practice being a better follower of Jesus in the week to come?

The Rev. Warren Swenson is a student in the Master of Sacred Theology degree program at the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. He also serves as curate of the Southeastern Tennessee Episcopal Ministry (STEM). Warren received his Master of Divinity degree from Sewanee in May 2018 and is currently a transitional deacon pursuing priestly ordination (expected fall 2018) in his home diocese of West Missouri. He also serves as a member of Sewanee’s board of trustees and has worked as a mentor to incarcerated youth. Before seminary Warren worked at Baker University in the Office of the President and in strategic planning. Warren lives in Sewanee with his husband Walker. Together they enjoy lingering back-porch conversations and both love to travel.

Download the Bible Study for Pentecost 17 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 16 (B) – September 9, 2018

Proper 18


[RCL]: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

All the readings for this Sunday seem to point toward mercy and justice, reminding us of the first petition of the Collect: “Grant us…to trust in you with all our hearts.” So many times, in our interactions with others, especially with strangers, we find it difficult to trust. We have learned that it can be foolhardy to give someone the “benefit of the doubt,” to enter a relationship by suspending judgment and assuming the person’s motivation is good unless we are proven wrong. The ancient wisdom of Proverbs reminds us that rich and poor, neighbor and stranger, even the just and unjust are all creatures of God. Perhaps our daily encounters do require us to be prudent, and we can blend prudence with a gracious recognition of our shared humanity. We can choose to act with justice and compassion, and to value integrity over prejudice or greedy self-interest.

  • Besides physical and material support, how can we “share our bread with the poor”? Describe an occasion when you have observed someone giving generously of his or her time, attention, labor, or some other resource.
  • What would you be willing to do or say to defend a stranger against injustice?

Psalm 125 

“The hills stand about Jerusalem; so does the LORD stand round about his people…” In the language of the Psalms, God’s power in creation is often mirrored in God’s mercy and protection for God’s chosen people. However, our worldview is often at odds with such a straightforward equation. We have seen too much human domination and cruelty in history and in recent events that makes us dubious, and we can’t help thinking it a bit naïve of the Israelites to proclaim, “The scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway” over those who are just, good, and true of heart.

But read this psalm again and notice how much is expected of the faithful: they are to trust in the Lord, not put their hands to evil, and remain true of heart. It is those who turn aside – who do not look to God for their guidance and strength – who follow crooked paths and end up among evildoers. Here we find an expression of wisdom, possibly even born of hard experience, rather than naïveté. No, we can’t go through life expecting God to keep a protective bubble around us; that would be belief in magic, not faith in God. Perhaps the psalmist is saying that our trust in God should be for our spiritual protection against our own selfish tendencies, more than against any outward enemies.

  • Who do you think is to blame, when calamity befalls a person or group of people? Is the answer always clear?
  • In what ways might God be standing guard over us, if not to prevent us from suffering the pain and injustice inherent in human existence?

James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17 

Scholars have long debated the identity of both the author and the intended audience of this epistle, but its message remains strong and clear: one who claims to have faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord must live in a way consistent with that faith. When we genuinely trust God’s power and love, we cannot turn our backs on the poor or show favor to the rich based on superficial distinctions.

Debating the relative importance of faith and good works is like asking the old question about the chicken and the egg – indeed, neither is viable without the other, and so we must look to the true source of life in both. Some people receive and respond to God’s love in an outpouring of faith that then is expressed through their sharing of that love with others. Some people act in just and compassionate ways out of an intellectual commitment that gradually deepens into faith. What James warns his readers about is the disconnect – we cannot say we have faith and then act unlovingly without violating our own integrity. It is in this sense that he challenges them, “Can faith save you?” The superficial faith that does not urge us to action for the sake of God’s reign and love of God’s children is truly dead and useless.

  • Think of a time when you met a person whose socio-economic condition was greatly different from your own. How did you feel? How would it feel if your positions were reversed?
  • What actions might you take to express your faith as you now understand it? In what ways might your faith grow if you take those actions?

Mark 7:24-37 

What an odd, even awkward pair of stories we read in this Gospel lesson. There is no escaping the fact that they do not present Jesus in the best light, and they were preserved by the earliest Christian communities and included by the author of this first written account of the Good News. We must look a little deeper to find their significance to early Christians, and their importance for us.

Mark weaves the idea of a “Messianic secret” throughout his story of Jesus’ ministry. God is already present and powerfully active in the world, as seen in Jesus’ miraculous healings and exorcisms; but we must also accept that God’s full restoration of creation – the perfection envisioned by ancient prophets – is yet to come at a time we cannot foresee. Through that lens, we might view the stories of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man as prophetic symbols of God’s power to transform and restore the world’s division and isolation.

Mark tells a story in which Jesus has gone a long way from home, and by implication a long way from the Jewish population, the children of Israel for whom his ministry began. When a Gentile woman seeks him out and asks his help, he replies in a way that sounds rude to us but would in fact have made perfect sense in the context of the first-century Church. Jesus had come to the “children” first, but then had extended his compassionate ministry beyond his own ethnic boundaries. Told from within a community of Gentile Christians, this encounter with a desperate mother presents Jesus as validating and blessing their faith, even against the background of a strained history.

Jesus moves on, but in an even wider circle beyond his Galilean base. In this companion story, we find echoes of the same themes – Jesus takes the deaf man aside, away from the crowd; he performs the requested cure, without seeming effort or even difficulty. Finally, he tells everyone to keep quiet about it but they proclaim the news far and wide. Here is the Gospel: the power of God is present, among us, and cannot be contained even though it has not yet been fully revealed.

  • Where are our blind spots, and what messages are we not willing or able to hear? Do we need to understand this passage as an invitation to move outside our own boundaries or our comfort zone?
  • It is hard to keep quiet when we have good news to tell. What kind of joy or gratitude do you have in your heart that wants to be shared? Can you see God present and working in your life somewhere? Do you hear God calling you into something new? Try to articulate those experiences.

This Bible study, written by Jennifer Shadle, originally ran September 6, 2015.

Download the Bible study for Pentecost 16 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 15 (B) – September 2, 2018

Proper 17


[RCL]: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

What an invitation! There are few more evocative, alluring images of joyful satiation than this excerpt from the Song of Solomon. In fact, this brief book is filled with such sweet, colorful and tantalizing images, it’s worth a fifteen-minute read. Interestingly, you’ll find that there is nothing sentimental or superficially romantic about this poem. Alongside does prancing in gardens and moonlit rendezvous, you’ll find scenes of confusion, loss and violence: these lovers encounter each other in a city prowling with armed guards and cultural, if not racial, prejudice. Enjoy this song of songs for its unbridled joy, and grant also that it speaks to a vision of the fulfillment of time wherein love enters into its most profound consummation.

Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10

Does kingly language work for you? Why or why not? If you do happen to find the monarchical overtones grating, try this: imagine this psalm was written by a poet in the king’s court. Let’s also assume the psalmist was male. What was his purpose in writing this verse? Was it praise to God, the king, or both? While we may never know exactly who wrote the psalms, it can be helpful to imagine different authorial perspectives. It can also be spiritually fruitful to imagine Jesus reciting the psalms in Hebrew in his first-century Palestine synagogue. What did this psalm mean for him? 

James 1:17-27 

That’s quite a powerful concluding statement on the nature of “pure” religion! Intriguingly, the author’s two exhortations appear to stand together tensely, almost in contrast. Caring for orphans and widows, at least today, can be a very messy activity – certainly not one I’d take on if I intended to remain unstained by the world. Did the author mean for this tension to exist, or is this something read into the text by its contemporary audience? For the two projects to complement each other, perhaps the author is imagining an “unstained” church in which orphans and widows behave in orderly fashion (!). Or perhaps he refers to vague aspects of “the world” not necessarily involved in the complicated care of the disenfranchised. The idea that the “church” and the “world” are distinct has gone in and out of fashion over the past two millennia; how does this distinction work for you? If the church is the people of God, then where is the church Monday through Saturday? What is it doing? And where?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It’s hard to discern the emotions behind the words, but if the Pharisees and scribes tossed their question to Jesus innocently, then Our Savior’s response was not entirely gracious. It feels like a bit of an overreaction, really. Of course, the question may have snapped with snark, instead. Either way, it appears that the questioning of whether Jesus’ teaching resided within or outside of the “tradition of the elders” struck a nerve. Jesus didn’t see himself as the founder of a new religion, but rather an interpreter of his own religion, Judaism, as understood through a mysterious and profound relationship with God.

How much ought we to trust tradition in our religion? When does tradition constrain or enable our personal and collective spiritual growth?

This Bible study, written by Laurel Mathewson, originally ran September 2, 2012.

Download the Bible Study for Pentecost 15 (B).