Archives for 2018

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).

Bible Study, Lent 2 (B) – February 25, 2018

[RCL] Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Although Abraham and Sarah enacted their own solution in response to Sarah being unable to conceive a child (Abram had a child, Ishmael, with Hagar, Sarai’s slave-girl), thirteen years later, God appears and reveals that Sarah will conceive a son, through whom Abraham will “be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Sarah “will give rise to nations,” and “kings of people will come from her.” Abraham does not rationalize or make excuses for enacting his and Sarah’s solution; he prostrates himself in response to being in the presence of Almighty God.

Reviewing one’s life in the presence of God and identifying areas for correction need not cause shame and guilt; being in the presence of the Divine can evoke awe and humility, whatever one’s present state of being. While one may sense that he or she has lost the way in discerning and following the ways of God, there are repeated invitations to turn back to God. Every day we may come before God to renew our relationship and the course of our lives in response to God’s call.

  • Are there any areas of your life in which God might be inviting you to change course or start anew?

Psalm 22:23-30

The passage from this psalm reveals an invitation to praise God in thanksgiving for God’s acceptance of us. Our praise may take various forms, one of which is gathering for common worship. Gathering with our local communities, as communities of faith gather throughout the world, we are reminded of God’s loving, merciful presence to all peoples. Moreover, our worship of God transcends time and space; through God, we remain connected with those whom we love, but see no longer.

  • How might your praise and worship of God draw you into closer relationship with others?
  • As you consider the people whom you love, but see no longer, how might worshipping God be an experience of being connected with them?

Romans 4:13-25

The themes of God’s justice and righteousness are woven together throughout Paul’s letter to the Romans. Today’s reading explores the righteousness of Abraham, a righteousness bestowed through faith. Some of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries boasted in their covenantal relationship with God as a unique bond between themselves and God—a relationship to which the Gentiles did not have access. Paul, on the contrary, asserted that righteousness ultimately comes through faith. He presents Abraham as the ancestor of all the faithful, Jews and Gentiles alike. One’s righteousness through a covenantal relationship with God extends beyond ethnic identity; it is available to all people. Paul offers a message of unity in a context of division; that context of division is rooted in valuing ethnic identity above common humanity.

  • As we reflect on the relevance of this message today, what conversations are creating divisions in the Church and in the world, and how might we, like the apostle Paul, be messengers of unity?

Mark 8:31-38

This passage from Mark includes an announcement of Jesus’ passion and a statement of conditions of discipleship. The juxtaposition of these two ideas reveals the connection between self-sacrifice and being a follower of Jesus.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Jesus addresses these challenging words to the crowd and his disciples. We, his present-day disciples, can hear these words addressed to our lives– what we wish to save or preserve, and what we are willing to give up. Being inordinately attached to aspects of one’s “life,” in terms of external attributes and circumstances, can diminish the vitality of one’s interior life, one’s soul. Jesus invites us, as we consider his life and ours, to seek the perspective of God in discerning how to nurture our souls and devote ourselves to living the Gospel in faithful service to Jesus.

  • What areas of your life might God be inviting you to let go of in order to deepen and strengthen your interior life?
  • What might it mean for you to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus,” in the present circumstances of your life?

The Reverend Denise Muller is a transitional deacon, canonically resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. She will complete a Diploma of Anglican Studies at the Seminary of the Southwest in May 2018. She received a Master of Arts in Theology and Biblical Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Master of Public Health from Loma Linda University. She completed a Certificate of Spiritual Direction through Christian Formation and Direction Ministries and a Certificate of Supervision of Spiritual Directors through Mercy Center. She is a spiritual director and has served as the Arizona Field Director for a national prison ministry organization. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and visiting art museums.

Download the Bible study for Lent 2 (B).

Bible Study, Lent 1 (B) – February 18, 2018

[RCL] Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Genesis 9:8-17

Since the time of humanity’s disobedience in the Garden, covenants have been the means by which we re-enter into relationship with God. It’s important to note that God’s covenant extends past Noah through his descendants, to all of creation. This shows a significant point about the grace of God: it extends beyond all sense of righteousness on our part. The life of creation is by God’s grace, Noah is the righteous one that God beholds, but the payment of this righteousness is not just salvation for Noah, but the promise of life for the world. God’s faithfulness to his covenantal promises is a theme that runs throughout Scripture and unites the likes of Noah and Jesus. Bound by God’s grace, we need not simply bear the burdens of our flesh, but rather we may rejoice in that flesh which God has promised to both keep and redeem.

  • In what ways can Noah be seen as a type of Christ?
  • How do we rectify our understanding of grace with our understanding of justice (e.g., is it fair that others will benefit by God’s acknowledgement of Noah’s righteousness)?

Psalm 25:1-9

This portion of Psalm 25 expresses the contrasts between God’s way and the ways of humanity. The ways of humanity are enmity with others, scheming and treachery, shame, disappointment, and ultimately, sin. God’s ways are everlasting compassion and love, grace, faithfulness, and ultimately, salvation. The Psalmist recognizes not only the disparity between these two paths, but also the necessity that God should lead us on them – that we cannot walk in the ways of God without his grace. “Gracious and upright is the Lord; therefore he teaches sinners in his way. He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly.” Ultimately, our sins are overcome by his saving love.

  • In what ways may we ask God to lead us on our paths today?
  • What must we surrender to God in order to follow him?

1 Peter 3:18-22

1 Peter exposes the new covenant under which God calls the unrighteous to himself. As we saw in the reading from Genesis, God’s covenant with one righteous man, Noah, extends his grace to all; the new covenant, by which we are now being saved, extends that grace even further. The promised faithfulness of God is fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ, who now sits at the right hand of the Father. By baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s body and given a righteousness that human beings cannot attain in and of themselves. By baptism, we die to ourselves and are resurrected to a new covenant and a new relationship with God.

  • Which sins still keep you from living fully into your new spiritual life?
  • In what ways can we proclaim the good news to others who are also still imprisoned by their selfishness and sinfulness? 

Mark 1:9-15

Mark’s narratives of the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness, and the commencement of his ministry are the sparsest of all the Synoptic Gospels. But his no-frills retelling of these three events, in short order, reveals their deepest truths. The baptism of our Lord stands as a significant transition from an early life that (according to Mark’s omissions) is essentially without note, to a life that is driven by ministry and marked by a growing intensity of purpose toward the cross. Jesus moves seamlessly from the beloved to the tempted. He is waited on by God’s messengers, so that he might be the messenger of the coming Kingdom to those who are in desperate need.

With a handful of verses, we can begin to discern what it truly means to be God’s beloved Son – to endure a baptism of repentance, which he does not need; to face the temptations that are part and parcel of human flesh, so that he may know our plight; to be waited on by those who are closest to God, in order to bring a message of good news to those who are furthest from him. To be a beloved son of God is to live a life for others, in order that they might live the life that God intended.

  • If Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his ministry, what does that mean for our own baptisms and ministries?
  • If Jesus does not need a baptism of repentance, what might be his purpose for being baptized? 

The Reverend Andrew Cruz Lillegard is a transitional Deacon, canonically resident in the Diocese of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Currently in his senior year of the MDiv program, he lives with his wife (Theresa) and two sons (Christopher and Wyatt) on the beautiful campus of Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin. He serves as a Sacristan and Chair of the Student Commons. Surrendering to a call from God in mid-life, Andrew and Theresa discerned a path that would require selling their home and settling into a life of intentional community at seminary. While Andrew is the only Wisconsin native currently attending Nashotah House, he and his family are preparing to leave their state after graduation (May 2018) to further answer God’s call. When not responding to the demands of school, Andrew is spending time with his family – particularly fishing and enjoying a wide variety of film genres.

Download the Bible study for Lent 1 (B).

Bible Study, Last Sunday after Epiphany (B) – February 11, 2018

[RCL] 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

2 Kings 2:1-12

“I will not leave you.”

Elisha repeats these words to his teacher three times before the Lord takes Elijah away in a whirlwind ascension to heaven. The scene is dramatic and majestic; Elijah parts a sea like Moses and becomes part of a tableau of fiery angelic figures, somewhat like Jesus in the Transfiguration centuries later. We might feel tempted to focus on the theater of this story, but the narrative itself illuminates some of the most grounded elements of human experience—life, death, companionship, loyalty, legacy.

“I will not leave you,” Elisha says to his master. When given the opportunity to stay behind or peel off, Elisha is resolute; he is making this journey toward death with his teacher, no matter what. In the final scene, Elijah expresses gratitude for Elisha’s loyalty by asking what can he do for Elisha before he dies. Elisha responds in a cryptic, but completely understandable way: “Leave me a double share of your spirit,” he asks. In other words, leave me part of yourself; allow me to carry on your legacy. Elijah agrees but warns him that it will not be easy.

  • Have you ever lost a loved one or been with someone toward the end of life?
  • What are some of the ways that you strive or struggle to carry on the legacies of those you admire and respect?

Psalm 50:1-6

The first part of Psalm 50 is a gathering call. God is preparing to judge the people and is calling all of heaven and earth to be witnesses. The word “judgment” always has an ominous tone, but these verses do not hint at how destructive (or glorious) God’s judgment will be; instead, the focus is on the power and reach of God’s voice. “The Lord…has spoken.” “Our God…will not keep silent.”He calls the heavens and the earth.” We often think of prophets and teachers doing the work of ingathering, or preparing the way for God’s glory to be revealed, but the psalmist here imagines God in that role. God’s voice resounds across creation, inviting those who will bear witness as well as those who will be judged to come together.

  • In what ways do you hear God speaking in your life?
  • How do you hear the voice of God in the world today?

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

The season of Epiphany invites us to celebrate the in-breaking of God’s light in a dark world. This passage in 2 Corinthians reminds us that seeking the light of Christ is a continual journey. While the powers-that-be of this world strive to “veil” or “blind” us from the good news, we are called to receive the light of Christ in our hearts and reflect that light back to creation. As Epiphany comes to a close and we prepare to enter the season of Lent, our focus shifts from a celebration of light to a reckoning with darkness. Still, the gift of God’s light in our heart does not go away with the change of liturgical seasons; even as we begin this season of reflection and repentance, we carry God’s light with us and rely upon it for hope and strength.

  • When has it been hard to receive the light of Christ? When has it been easy?

Mark 9:2-9

In what ways do you see the light of Christ stifled or dimmed by the “god of this world”? How do you help shine the light of Christ on those experiencing dark or troubled times?

This passage in Mark (and similar passages in Matthew and Luke) tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. As readers, we are drawn into a scene that is actually quite intimate—Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a remote location where they alone witness a dazzling theophany and hear a definitive claim to Jesus’ authority and status as the Son of God. If any of us had been present in that moment, we might have reacted like Peter, “terrified” and fumbling for something to say or do. Whether or not we have ever had our own vision of God, the story of the Transfiguration invites us to imagine what it is like to be in the fullness of God’s presence. What would we do? What would we say? James and John are silent, but we can imagine that they are not indifferent; perhaps awe has left them speechless. The Transfiguration, while intimate, reveals a Jesus unlike the gentle, human teacher we have come to know in earlier passages. The Jesus of the Transfiguration may feel distant or fantastical to some, while others may be captured by the majesty, mystery, and beauty of God shown in this way.

  • How do you experience God most fully?
  • What images of Jesus draw you into the mystery and beauty of God? 

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 Last Sunday after Epiphany (B).