Archives for 2018

Bible Study, Pentecost 21 (B) – October 14, 2018

Proper 23


[RCL]: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31              

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

In this reading, we find the ever-faithful Job trusting in his God but nonetheless turning bitter and confused as the realities of life begin to torment him. As his pitiful situation drags on with his friends and family adding to his problems instead of encouraging him, he wakes up heavily burdened with a new set of complaints for his God. He seems to say, “Where is this mighty God in whom I trust? Show yourself so that I may present my case of injustice that has been handed to me.” Is this situation familiar to us? Do our friends and family watch and ridicule the suffering of the faithful in their midst and even encourage us to give up? “What kind of God would allow you to suffer that way? Why even bother believing?” they may say. But in the end, we know that Job’s heart remains faithful, his life eventually becomes even better than before, and those who tried to discourage him are humiliated. Let us, therefore, learn the lesson of Job and remain steadfast in our faith, trusting that the worst will soon be over and that our lives may even be better once the storm has passed.

  • Have you experienced this kind of situation before? How did you feel about God?
  • What were the effects on your life after weathering the storm?
  • How would you encourage others who are suffering in this kind of situation?

Psalm 22:1-15

In this psalm, we find the distressing scene of somebody who feels abandoned by God in his time of great need while being surrounded by his enemies. Even his own people have deserted him; it is a cry of defeat. He is conflicted by thoughts of his lifelong faithfulness to God and even the faithfulness of his ancestors. While he continues to pray in earnest, calling out to God to rescue him, there is no answer. Often this psalm is associated with the last moments of Jesus on the cross with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. This should allow us to reflect on the character of Jesus and our understanding of him. His emotion shows that while Jesus is truly divine, he was also truly human. He understands our pain and suffering, and perhaps even a feeling of abandonment by God. Jesus also clearly knew well the Hebrew Scriptures—our Old Testament—valued the writings, and could relate them to his own life and ministry.

  • Why do think the feeling of abandonment by God is a regular theme throughout the Old Testament? Have you also experienced these feelings?
  • How do you feel knowing that Jesus understands our pain, suffering, and even doubt through his own human experiences?
  • How do you feel about the Old Testament, knowing that Jesus himself studied and applied it to his own life?

Hebrews 4:12-16

In this section of a letter written to those in danger of abandoning their Christian faith because of outside pressures, the writer tells us of the power of the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God, in awakening our consciousness to our true faithfulness to Jesus. The writer encourages us to be courageous in remaining faithful to him. As Episcopalians, it seems that sometimes we try to avoid engaging meaningfully with Scripture. It can intimidate us, and we are sometimes afraid to be challenged by it, preferring to be ignorant of its messages. It can be painful to imagine how far we really are from being true followers of Jesus. If we want to grow in faith and find a new confidence in being his followers in these days of merciless attacks against the Church from both inside and out, let us learn to enjoy actively engaging with the Word of God, and as the catechism of this church tells us, allow him to speak to us through it, so that we may be more faithful in knowing his will for us both as a Christian community and in our own daily lives.

  • Do you feel or know others who feel pressure to abandon their Christian faith?
  • Reflecting on the “Holy Scriptures” section of the catechism found in the Book of Common Prayer, how is your own understanding of the Bible confirmed or challenged?
  • What can we do to encourage more Episcopalians to engage with the Holy Scriptures?

Mark 10:17-31

In this story, we are confronted by the reality of our dependence on the mercy of God for our salvation. It is not intended to tell us that the rich cannot be saved. The story tells us of a good and faithful man who is loved by Jesus, but there is one problem: he is more attached to the cares of this world than he is to following Jesus. Instead of being willing to give up his possessions, the things that stood between him and the freedom to follow, it was easier to walk away. If we are honest, many of us are like the rich man, unwilling to pay the cost of truly following Jesus. If too much sacrifice is involved, we would often prefer to walk away. While we must always strive to be the most faithful followers of Jesus that we can, we are assured that we have a merciful God who does love us, just as Jesus still loved the rich man. This is also a humble reminder that even the richest of the rich cannot save themselves even with all the possessions in the world, but our faithful God through our faith in him has the power to save us.

  • How would you feel if Jesus asked you to sell all your possessions and follow him?
  • What have you sacrificed in your life to be a follower of Jesus?
  • How has this story been presented to you in the past? How has your understanding of it been confirmed or changed after reading it for yourself?

This Bible study was written by Daniel Woods of St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in Quezon City, the Philippines.

Download the Bible study for Pentecost 21 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 20 (B) – October 7, 2018

Proper 22


[RCL]: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Job 1:1; 2:1-10

We encounter in the Book of Job an incredible story in which a blameless and upright man experiences suffering for no reason. This book has been interpreted by many as responding to the question of divine justice – is God just? However, when we delve more deeply into the story, and as we see in the selection of verses today, there is a different question that is being explored. The Satan, or the adversary, asks of God the question regarding the possibility for selfless love. Can non-transactional love exist? Job is upright and blameless, but will he remain so if his circumstances are not so great? Satan thinks not, and therefore asks God to test Job. God allows Satan to cause Job to suffer, so long as Job is not killed. Missing from our section is the first test of Job’s integrity and uprightness; he loses his children, his livestock, and his possessions. Through all of this, Job remains sinless. This is important because it sheds some light on Job’s wife’s reaction to Job’s second test—that of receiving sores all over his body. Remember that she, too, has lost her children. “Curse God, and die” she almost begs. How can Job hold on to his integrity after all this suffering?

  • How do you respond to Job’s question: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

Psalm 26

Continuing with the theme of integrity, the psalmist calls out a lament to God, wanting vindication for good behavior, for walking rightly. The structure of the psalm is almost chiastic, beginning and ending by mentioning walking in integrity, desiring vindication and redemption (vv. 1-3, 11-12). There is an active turning from those who are considered wicked (vv. 4-5) and the request not to be considered as one of them by God (vv. 9-10). The center of the psalm uses language that evokes imagery of liturgical action, suggesting that the psalmist is from the priestly order – washing hands, walking around the altar, singing a song of thanksgiving, telling the deeds of God (vv. 6-7), and claiming love for the house of God (v. 8). In the end, the psalmist trusts in God and continues to walk the path with integrity.

  • If you were writing a lament to God, how might yours be similar or different to this psalmist’s?

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Hebrews paints a picture of Jesus Christ in the fullness of his divinity and humanity. In the first four verses, we are introduced to Jesus as the Son, heir, participating in creation, as sustainer, the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (v. 1:3), the one who made purification for sins, and one greater than the prophets and the angels. When we move to the second chapter, the author quotes Psalm 8, which discusses humanity as lower than angels and yet having all things subject to them. Noting that humanity has not yet fulfilled this psalmist’s claim, the author points to Jesus in his humanity as the model for this kind of movement from lower-than-angels to glory and honor. The achievement of this, however, is not through ascent in the human realm, but rather through a path of descent with suffering and death. It is in this experience of full humanity, unto death, that we are made siblings of Christ.

  • What does “subjecting all things under their feet” (v. 2:8) mean in light of Jesus’ example?
  • What does being a brother or sister of Christ mean to you?

Mark 10:2-16

This passage from Mark has three episodes – one with the Pharisees, one in the house with the disciples, and the final one with children. It begins with the Pharisees questioning Jesus about the legality of divorce. Jesus points them to the laws of Moses, asking them to answer their own question. Upon their affirmative answer, Jesus refers them back to Genesis, to our creation as male and female, and the ideal of marriage that makes two people become one. The disciples need clarification, however, and so when they are in the house, they ask Jesus to explain further. Here, Jesus expands the original question by introducing the possibility of the wife also divorcing the husband. This is significant, and more relevant for today, given that divorce is a common occurrence now. While the result is the same, Jesus points out to the disciples that societal expectations are too limited, focusing merely upon the rights of the man to divorce the woman. Creation shows us a more expansive ethic.

The disciples continue to participate in societal and earthly norms, attempting to keep the children – those without rights, the weakest of society – from coming to Jesus. But he tells them that the kingdom of God belongs to these innocent and weak children of God.

  • Jesus refers to Genesis, pointing out an egalitarian system between male and female. How might this change our understanding of other aspects of our creation stories?
  • What is your understanding of receiving the kingdom of God as a little child?
  • Who in our society are we keeping at a distance from Jesus’ feet? Why?

Download the Bible study for Pentecost 20 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 19 (B) – September 30, 2018

Proper 21


[RCL]: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

The book of Esther does not contain a direct mention of the name of God. Many have asked through the centuries why this is so, or where God is in the book. This is an important observation to make because any skeptic could make a clear case that God is absent in the modern age as well. We must be the interpreters that reveal God in Esther’s story, as well as in the world today.

At the moment when Esther is asked what she requests of her King, we can see God’s will prevail. It is rare that anyone is offered half of a kingdom by the king himself, and even more so when that person would not ask for riches, but only for a life of peace for their religious family. Then, the one who worships only his own power turns out to die upon the very device that he planned to use in his domination of others. In this passage, as in the book as a whole, human instinct to dominate is proven to backfire. The uncommon notion to protect the weak prevails. This prevailing intuition—which is at the same time life-giving, selfless, and sacrificial—is the fingerprint of God on our lives, as it was for Esther and Mordecai, directly named or not. Its fruits prevail too, much longer than any personal gain could have; the Feast of Purim that began in this story continues today through generous giving and the celebration of life.

  • Risking oneself against governing forces on behalf of others seems foolish. Why does God urge us to put the needs of the poor above our own? In other words, what are the rewards that outweigh the immediate risks?

Psalm 124

This psalm ends by repeating the answer to the great question of Psalm 121: “From where is my help to come?” Again, we are reminded that our help is from the LORD, who created all that is (earth) as well as all that we can only hold in faith (the heavens). This psalm uses vivid imagery to acknowledge the painful feeling of helplessness. In the face of angry attackers and engulfing waters, the experience of helplessness is almost overwhelming. But here, we are given a promise of escaping our trap like a fleeing bird, perhaps a dove that appears after we emerge from those waters, and that guides us to safety. And the reminder: our savior is the one who created the waters in the first place and can make drowning seem like new life.

  • What are some of the more common, but faulty, answers to that great question, “From where is my help to come?”
  • Which are the usual suspects that we mistakenly turn to as our help, but eventually find empty?

James 5:13-20

James encourages all believers to take our faith into our own hands, and here in the final verses, into each other’s hands. A parishioner once said that one of the most difficult mission trips to embark upon is the “3-foot mission trip” – where you see someone looking troubled just down the pew from you in church. He said that this missionary work turns out to be his favorite type, reaching out to friends and strangers alike, face to face, to offer comfort and friendship. Is this what we mean by the phrase “priesthood of the laity?”

James also asks us to call upon the elders for anointing and healing, which I’m sure is to strengthen us for these 3-foot missions. We receive these very actionable requests: “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another,” and “bring back a sinner from wandering.” These missionary opportunities are abundant and among the most uncomfortable. That may be a sign that they are also the most urgent and productive as we usher in God’s reign. It is our very own hands, feet, faces and voices that have the power to make Jesus known to those in need.

  • Perhaps Elijah is mentioned here to bring our awareness to tangible results of prayer. Do you have stories of tangible impact from prayer and/or from the “priesthood of the laity?”

Mark 9:38-50

My grandfather is known to have said, “My purpose in life is to get to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.” Here, Jesus gives us a piece of that roadmap. First, the well-known, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” warning us to avoid looking for reasons to make enemies. Then, a dramatic and thorough drama about the more perilous parts of the journey. There may be temptation on the way, but stay the course and sacrifice anything to persist in the journey. Winding up in heaven without an eye, hand, or foot is still better than wandering around for eternity. In fact, wandering so far off course so as to cause sinfulness in a child is worse than a painful death itself.

After all that, it’s the third piece that is the hardest to interpret. Taking salt to represent a purification, preservative, or maybe a binding contract, Jesus says that we will all be purified and preserved eventually. We will soon be bound by an everlasting contract. So, it’s best to start here and now, to purify ourselves to prepare for this journey. “Be at peace with each other” – this must be the way to properly train for an expedient trip, no detours. Perhaps Jesus is hinting that the best way to get to heaven is to start living now like we are already there.

  • The phrases used here are about entering into life and the kingdom of God, not heaven. How would our choices and behaviors change if we believed that heaven could actually begin in this life?

The Rev. Darren Steadman was ordained as a deacon in June of 2018 after graduating from Virginia Theological Seminary. He is a native of the Shenandoah Valley and serves at Christ Church Episcopal near Richmond, VA. Before accepting a call to the priesthood, Darren was a classroom teacher and spent most summers working and playing at summer camp.

Download the Bible study for Pentecost 19 (B).

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.

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Bible Study, Pentecost 14 (B) – August 26, 2018

Proper 16

Pentecost 14 Episcopal Bible Study


[RCL]: 1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43

What a day it must have been to dedicate the Temple at Jerusalem. The dedication of the temple can stand in for many things and help us expand our imaginations: the dedication of our own churches, the dedication of our gifts, the dedication of our lives. Indeed, we need to dedicate ourselves daily to the work that God has given us to do. The pageantry of this event certainly helped to set the scene and reveal its importance. We must find ways to commit deeply to our own dedication to God, so that people may come to hear God’s great name because of the way we live our lives.

  • How can we more fully dedicate our lives to God, making an offering of ourselves, our souls and bodies? What do we need to do so that we may always deepen our commitment to God and grow into deeper dedication?

Psalm 84

The psalm clearly echoes the themes of the reading from the Hebrew Bible, and it is easy to imagine it has a hymn on that day. Can we live in God’s house? We cannot live in the Temple at Jerusalem – no one can. Likewise, we cannot dwell in our churches. This is probably a good thing for us and for the gospel. After all, all of creation is God’s house. As a result, we can live in God’s temple always and everywhere.

  • Do we live our lives like we live in God’s dwelling? How might our lives change if we remember that we do indeed live in God’s house?

Ephesians 6:10-20

The imagery of this passage is tricky. Most of us live far from military imagery, and even farther from military imagery of the Roman Empire. With youth groups, I have done an activity where we re-imagine this text using modern and personal metaphors. Cell phones, Facebook, cars, and any number of modern devices – even lucky shoes – have been suggested by these youth. How might you re-imagine this passage to convey Paul’s point?

This passage continues the themes that I have highlighted in the Kings reading and the psalm. We must put on the whole armor of God because our whole lives must be dedicated to God’s work. Christ never asks for a little bit. As a result, the closing thought of this passage is of vital importance. Paul’s prayer must become our own. We must pray to be alert and to persevere. We must also make a bold witness for the gospel.

  • What would our lives look like if we lived into Paul’s prayer?

John 6:56-69

The disciples found this teaching difficult. I think we are a lot like them. Jesus is teaching us the words of spirit and life, but there are those among us who do not believe, and often Jesus’ teaching is just plain difficult. Truly, much ink has been spilled trying to figure out what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood! I’m not sure that it is helpful to become bogged down in those theological debates. Rather, what does it mean to nourish the spirit and live by it instead of the flesh?

Jesus asks the twelve if they wish to leave. Peter answers that there is nowhere to go; Jesus gives the word of eternal life. As we know, it is easy to turn to sources other than Jesus for sustenance. As Jesus says, those things – that is, the flesh – are useless.

  • Are we sustaining ourselves in spirit? Are we taking Jesus’ words, the words of eternal life, and feasting on them?

This Bible study, written by the Rev. JK Melton, originally ran August 26, 2012.

Download the Bible Study for Pentecost 14 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 13 (B) – August 19, 2018

Proper 15


[RCL]: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

“Ask what I should give you.” The Lord comes to Solomon in genie-like fashion soon after he has taken over David’s throne. I remember preparing myself for versions of this scenario as a kid: what if God (or someone else) came to me and told me I could have anything I wanted? What would I choose? There was a time when what I most wanted was a life-size talking family dollhouse; a few years later, I wanted a baby sister, then a dog. Solomon was more sophisticated than I was as a child; he asks God for an understanding mind. God is so pleased with Solomon’s request that God grants not only an understanding mind, but riches and honor to go with it. God is not likely to come to us in the middle of the night with an offer to grant wishes, but God’s invitation to Solomon is available to us, too: “Ask what I should give you.” We, like Solomon, can imagine our own hearts and minds transformed by the wisdom and grace of God.

  • What would our lives look like if we earnestly asked that our hearts and minds would be transformed by the wisdom and grace of God? What would change?

Psalm 111

The final verse of Psalm 111 has always struck me: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding.” Until now, the psalmist has focused wholly on singing God’s praises and marveling at God’s amazing works. At the very end, the psalmist turns his attention to the reader, offering the directive to “fear the Lord” in order to gain wisdom and understanding. It can be hard to connect to instructions like this; what does it really mean to “fear” God anyway? When some read “fear,” they hear awe and wonder, but for many, this language is confusing and distracting.

  • What do you hear? How does your relationship with God bring wisdom and understanding into your life?

Ephesians 5:15-20

Jesus’ followers were familiar with accusations of drunkenness and debauchery. On Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the hearts and mouths of the multitudes so that everyone speaking different languages and dialects could understand one another, skeptical onlookers accused the disciples of being “filled with new wine.” In this letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul warns against excessive drinking, but he offers an exciting alternative: be filled with the Spirit, instead. Both passages suggest that to be filled with the Spirit of God can look as rowdy and slap-happy as being drunk. In our churches and faith lives today, it is hard to imagine an outsider confusing our worship with a lively bar scene, but we can seek ways to be filled with the joy of the Spirit that is invigorating and refreshing. Saint Paul identifies music and communal singing as a healthy way to express love and gratitude to God.

  • What other ways can we fill ourselves with the Spirit? How do we experience the joy of Christ in our communities?

John 6:51-58

Some version of the term “eat my flesh” occurs half a dozen times in this short passage from the Gospel of John. This is one of those passages that makes me cringe, not because there is anything wrong with it—I believe whole-heartedly in the beauty and life-giving power of the Eucharist—but because it just doesn’t make sense to non-Christians, or even to many Christians, for that matter. In a world where what it means to be a Christian seems increasingly fragile and complex, I find myself looking for ways to make Christianity more accessible to those who may struggle with how it is portrayed in the news or pop culture.

Well, the warning “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” is not very accessible. In fact, this is the kind of passage that caused skeptics to accuse the early church of cannibalism. But if we can get beyond the living-dead-like tone of this passage, we encounter something unique and challenging about Christian faith: following Jesus is meant to be a visceral, embodied experience. There is something vitally important about taking on the person of Christ physically, in our bodies, through the most simple, everyday practices of eating and drinking. This may not be the best Gospel reading for a newcomer, but the invitation to experience new life through the power of Christ’s body and blood is something we can all chew on (with apologies for the pun!).

  • How would you explain this Gospel text to a newcomer? Is there anything about it you find challenging? 

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 Pentecost 13 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 12 (B) – August 12, 2018

Proper 14


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

In this passage, Absalom, one of David’s sons, has rebelled against his father for the kingship of Israel, but this act of rebellion doesn’t change the fact that David still loves his son and doesn’t want him to be a casualty of the ensuing war. That’s why he says to his commanders, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” This instruction, however, is in vain. Chillingly, it’s as if the Cushite (here, Ethiopian) who brings the “good tidings” of Absalom’s death has no idea either that Absalom is David’s son, or that David had given instructions that Absalom not be harmed. As everyone else celebrates, David grieves the death of his son all by himself, in his “chamber over the gate.”

  • In a world of constant war and violence, some people may rejoice over the death of people deemed to “deserve it,” whether they be terrorists, enemy combatants, murderers, or people otherwise considered dangerous to public order. How does our thinking change in light of:
    • the fact that all people, including our mortal enemies, have parents and loved ones who mourn just as we do?
    • the sanctity of all human life?

Psalm 130

This psalm of mourning, (proverbially) written by David himself, asks a central question of the human condition: “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?” The answer, of course, is nobody. Nobody except God is sinless, and it’s this inescapable reality of human sin that the psalmist is mourning.

But the psalmist is not without some hope, when he says to God, “For there is forgiveness with you.” The psalmist knows that with God—and God alone—rests the authority to forgive sins. Since God’s judgment is ultimate and true, our ability to turn to God for forgiveness should elicit some apprehension on our part: “Therefore you shall be feared.”

And yet, notice that the psalmist doesn’t dwell on this fear, but rather on hope that “[God] shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” This is a sneak-peek of God’s plan to definitively redeem all of God’s people. As Christians, we believe this “plenteous redemption” is Jesus Christ, himself the very same God who has the authority to forgive sins.

  • What are the ways in which you and/or your congregation make the mercy of God known to your community?

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

This passage from Ephesians does a pretty great job of showing how the above themes apply to our daily lives. Here, Paul discusses the importance of minimizing harshness and maximizing forgiveness in Christian community. It follows naturally from the above psalm that, if God is the one who forgives sins, our own acts of forgiveness are a participation in and a reflection of God’s forgiveness: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” That’s how we become “imitators of God.”

In other words, it’s not enough simply to meditate on God’s forgiveness of our own sins; rather, our active forgiveness of one another is a necessary part of how we make God’s forgiveness known in the world. This also means that, even though Paul is talking about behavior in a specific Christian community (i.e., Ephesus), we must extend forgiveness to everyone, even if they’re not part of the Body of Christ, as far as we can tell.

  • Are the following verses paradoxical? Discuss in context Paul’s treatment of anger.
    • “Be angry but do not sin…” (4:26)
    • “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger…” (4:31)

John 6:35, 41-51

As Christians in a Eucharistic tradition, we know, believe, and experience the truth of what Jesus is saying in this passage, often on a weekly or even daily basis. In the Eucharist, we have the great benefit of seeing how these words of Jesus are pointing to himself not simply in a figurative (or, for that matter, literal) sense, but in a much more profound sense, transcending categories like “literal” and “figurative,” implicating the entire creation story and transforming all of reality: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

And yet, to many in Jesus’ immediate audience – described here (polemically) as “Jews” but which could also be skeptics of any background – this talk of “living bread” and “eternal life” makes zero sense. Even now, to many people in the modern world, both those who are secular and those who adhere to other faiths, Jesus’ claims are outlandish are unbelievable, perhaps nowhere more so than this passage.

  • How do we, as Christians, respond to skeptics who are unaccustomed to how Jesus is talking in this passage?

Zachary (Zak) Fletcher just received his Master of Divinity in May 2018 from Yale Divinity School, where he was affiliated jointly with Berkeley Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. In 2015 Zak received his bachelor’s degree in Classics, with a minor in historical linguistics, from Harvard University. Currently Zak is a chaplain resident in The Mount Sinai Health System in New York.

Download the Bible study for Pentecost 12 (B).