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).

Bulletin Insert – September 23, 2018

Responding to Hurricanes

From our friends at Episcopal Relief & Development

Episcopal Relief & Development invites you to partner with us as we support dioceses that are preparing to respond to hurricanes and other tragic storms.

Right now, your contribution to Episcopal Relief & Development’s Hurricane Relief Fund will support impacted communities as they prepare for and mobilize storms like Hurricane Florence. Your donation will meet urgent needs by providing critical supplies such as food, water and other basics and will help us to provide long-term assistance as needed.

We respond to storms in the United States through partnerships with Episcopal dioceses. Our US Disaster team offers resources and training to help people prepare for disasters and provide emergency support so those most impacted can make a sustained recovery after the storm. The benefit of our partnership with Episcopal churches is that these congregations are already deeply integrated within their communities – they are there before responders arrive and will remain long after the news cameras have gone.

To make a donation, please fill out the coupon below and mail it in with your check or credit card information. You can also contribute online to our Hurricane Relief Fund at https://support.episcopalrelief.org/hurricane-relief .

Thank you for your compassion and prayers. With your partnership, we are working together for lasting change.

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Look for the Commonality, Pentecost 19 (B) – September 30, 2018

Proper 21

Pentecost Episcopal Sermon


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

In today’s gospel, we hear the intriguing story of Jesus’ disciples trying to stop a man who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They seem to have become especially upset because the offender was not one of them. In the eyes of the disciples, he was not part of the inner circle, and he was acting differently from what they considered to be the norm.

As soon as Jesus heard about it, he turned the tables on his closest followers and rebuked their blind, unbending exclusiveness. He told them not to stop the man, because whatever good is done in Jesus’ name would put him in a situation of not speaking evil of the Lord. And tellingly, Jesus concluded, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus made it clear that he and his disciples were not a little clique, working in a corner of life, fenced off from others. His world view, his God’s-eye view, made him well aware that God’s actions are not limited to the forms with which his disciples were familiar.

What is the lesson in this for us? Don’t Jesus’ words ring true as a rebuke of our often blind and unbending exclusiveness, our arrogant assumptions that God’s action among us is limited to forms with which we are most comfortable and most familiar?

What Jesus taught his disciples is equally a lesson for us. Christians cannot fence themselves off from others who have different ways of following Jesus and of finding God. The one who is not against us is for us. The one who is not against Jesus is on the side of Christ.

In this, our Lord gives us a model for a broader view. There is an issue of tolerance. Doesn’t Jesus’ message to the disciples help us stop short when we fall into the all too common trap of thinking in terms of “us” and “them” – seeing life only from the perspective of our own groups?

Intolerance of the other is certainly an attitude that Jesus rejected in today’s gospel reading. Possibly, he realized that the disciples considered the man casting out demons as a threat to their inner-circle status. He was an outsider, so they tried to stop him. Jesus rejected this by making it clear that only in a more narrow sense can one be an outsider.

What was true for the disciples has been true throughout history. The world and the church have fought for centuries in such a fence-building frenzy. The stories of the past schisms and divisions are legion. And living out the tendencies of the same human nature, we still act this way in our time, don’t we?

Standing against this, Jesus’ words remind us that Christianity is not the preserve of a privileged few. He reminds us that no one seeking to do the Lord’s work is an outsider. He reminds us to welcome all people who are willing to join the journey, following our Lord. Over and over again, Jesus’ words remind us to be including – not excluding. Over and over again, Jesus’ words rebuke us when we turn against others because they are different. Over and over again, the life Jesus lived and the way he taught his first disciples remind us of the scandal of our divisions.

There is another side to this, of course. Sometimes, conscience and practicality dictate that we separate ourselves from others, but the message here, at the very least, is not to do so lightly – not to draw a line in the sand except as a last resort. Jesus helps us work against the subtle temptation to think that “for me to be right, anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.”

Jesus seems to be telling the disciples something like this: “Look for the commonality. Recognize that there are many among you who might work or think differently, but don’t jump to the conclusion that that makes them against you – or against me.”

He warns us against simplistic solutions to complex problems. He causes us to see that truth is always bigger than any one person’s, or any one group’s grasp of it. Jesus cautions us against inflexibility of thought or deed. He helps us embrace tolerance of a variety of actions and viewpoints. He helps us re-learn what is so easy to forget: that diversity is not only good; it is absolutely essential for the health of the Body of Christ.

Today’s gospel reinforces a belief that what we need in the church is less “either/or” and more “both/and.”

Where do we find commonality? Why not begin by looking to our earliest roots? Those who can declare that “Jesus is Lord” are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ. Those who can follow the steps of Jesus, taking up their crosses and denying themselves for the sake of God and God’s children are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ.

The story of today’s gospel is about the disciples’ attempt to draw a circle around Jesus and themselves – shutting out the one who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps a concise, powerful poem by Edwin Markham can help us remember that Jesus ordered the disciples not to exclude that man and to recall that those who are not against us are for us.

In his poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham writes:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”

This sermon, written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus, originally ran September 27, 2009.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 19 (B).

Bulletin Insert – September 16, 2018

Holy Cross Day

On September 14, the church celebrated Holy Cross Day in honor of Christ’s self-offering on the cross for our salvation. This feast day is also known in some churches as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. It was one of the 12 great feasts in the Byzantine liturgy and remains a major feast day for the Episcopal Church.

The celebration of the Holy Cross occurs on September 14 to commemorate the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on that day in 335 by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, is said to have discovered the True Cross during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of her discovery. A portion of the Cross is said to have been placed inside the church.

The legend also tells of Persians carrying away that portion of the cross in 614 and that it remained missing until 628, when the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recaptured it and returned it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

As “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church” (Church Publishing, 2000) points out, “Although the authenticity of alleged relics of the cross may be questionable, Holy Cross Day provides an opportunity for a joyous celebration of Christ’s redeeming death on a cross.”

Collect for Holy Cross Day

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer, p. 244

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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).

Vulnerable, Pentecost 18 (B) – September 23, 2018

Proper 20


[RCL]: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Mark’s Gospel was the first written. It is the shortest. Likely it was a one-person play, something that was first memorized and shared via oral tradition. Only in time did it go from one-person dramatic storytelling to gospel text, written down, copied, and eventually read throughout the Church and the world. Mark’s Greek is quick and to the point, not as elegant or poetic as Luke. Jesus and his disciples are always on the move, with Mark constantly saying, “and then.” Mark and the storytellers who gave us his words have a sense of urgency about the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching.

This quick, urgent storytelling also yields excerpts of stories that are very direct and to the point. With such directness and pointedness, the Church in the 21st century can be left asking, “So what?” or “What else is there to take from this?” This is particularly tempting or easy to do if the story is one of familiarity — the likelihood of which increases if a version of the passage is contained in Matthew, Mark, and Luke…like today’s excerpt is.

Jesus is walking through Galilee with his disciples. He’s gathered those closest to him to teach them (not a crowd), and he tells them for a second time what’s to come: that he will die and be raised again. Last week the Church heard Jesus say that the first time in Mark. In the space between last week’s text and this week’s text, Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray and Peter, James, and John see him transfigured with Moses and Elijah there to offer their approval.

On the way down the mountain, Jesus tells those three not to say anything because it’s not time yet. This week he and the disciples are on the move so that others don’t hear the teaching, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Despite Jesus doing a really good job of using his words, saying almost the exact same thing for a second time, having a transfiguration transformation experience, and just healing a demoniac, the disciples don’t understand.

That’s how revolutionary the Resurrection is. Jesus says exactly what he means, and yet the disciples don’t understand. As Christians who find our hope of all things being made right at the end of time in the Resurrection — that death itself has been defeated — we know that Jesus means exactly what he says. The disciples, so used to seeing one self-appointed messiah come and go while their occupation under the Romans remains, can’t fathom that Jesus actually means that he will die and that he will be raised up. It’s not even what they’re looking for! Their imaginations are limited to hoping for a king to lead an army against Caesar, not a man to open his arms on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

This lack of imagination about how the world might be, a world where death isn’t the end, is what fuels the next part of the story from Mark. Jesus and the disciples reach Capernaum and he asks them what they were arguing about. Do you remember being a child and having some argument with your siblings that you were sure your parents didn’t know about? Maybe it was mostly in facial expressions or hushed tones. You may have known it would be something your parents didn’t want you fighting about — or thought wasn’t even worth fighting about — so you kept it a secret. Then they asked you at the end of the car ride or at dinner, “What was that commotion about?”

That’s the disciples with Jesus when they reach Capernaum. He asks what they’ve been arguing about among themselves and they don’t answer him. They probably felt sheepish and might have looked at their feet or food or off into the distance (still inside the house), pretending not to hear him. Again, he sits the twelve down. This is not a crowd or a medium-sized group. This is the twelve, the twelve who have committed to following him — literally following him around the countryside — to whom he is giving the next two teachings.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The disciples — unable to imagine a world where death has been defeated, empire overthrown, and all of creation restored to right relationship — are fighting over who will be first, and Jesus tells them who will be first: the person who doesn’t want to be, the person looked at as not having ambition, the person who shows vulnerability and servanthood rather than seeking their own glory.

Then he takes a child, puts that child in the midst of them, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Children weren’t welcomed in the first century. They were tolerated. They played like all kids do, but children were an economic asset, able and expected to work. They were property until they were either old enough to own property themselves — boys — or sold in marriage to another male — girls. They couldn’t speak for themselves and had no power.

Yet, a child — powerless against the world around her, vulnerable to the powers that existed, and unable to defend herself — is who Jesus tells the disciples to welcome: the powerless, the vulnerable, the ones whose voices are ignored in the world. Jesus says that by welcoming people like that, the ones who can’t influence society and don’t strive to be in charge, they welcome Jesus. Not only do they welcome him, they welcome God who sent him. Welcoming the powerless is a far cry from arguing over who is the greatest!

That’s how these two excerpts of Mark fit together though, the snippet about walking through Galilee and the snippet about being in Capernaum in a house together. When they get to the destination, when the Church continues to come together to a place for understanding, Jesus helps them to see a little more of what he is about and what he’s not about. He’s not about being the greatest. He’s about being a servant of all. He’s not about winning friends and influencing people. He’s about welcoming the vulnerable to be among him and his followers.

Jesus tells his disciples that when they welcome the vulnerable, they welcome him. They’re looking for a leader on a war horse to overthrow the empire. They’re not looking for a vulnerable child. They haven’t been looking for that since he was born, fully God and fully human, as a child himself. Yet Jesus tells him that in welcoming the vulnerable, they welcome him. Jesus tells the Church that in being vulnerable, we are like him.

Being vulnerable, being a servant, being like a child, is what Jesus tells his disciples he’s come to do when he predicts his death and resurrection for a second time. He’s not coming to take over the empire. He’s come to do more than that, something so revolutionary the disciples can’t imagine it: defeat death itself. Death isn’t defeated with a sword, and his revolution is not with generals and battles. Death is defeated with a cross, with Jesus’ cross. And it was defeated in his rising again — just like he told the disciples it would be, even if they didn’t understand him.

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Joseph-St. John Episcopal Church in Lakewood, WA. He began this cure in September 2017. Before moving to the Seattle area, he served as Working Group Head for Communications for the Diocese of California in San Francisco. When not priesting or lifting, Joseph grabs a whistle as a soccer referee. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their cats Maggie and Stanton.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 18 (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).