Bible Study, 16th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – September 24, 2017

Proper 20

[RCL:] Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Exodus 16:2-15

Have you ever felt true physical hunger? The kind that creates a dull, aching delirium in which nothing matters other than finding nourishment? In the West, we are largely removed from this experience, and so it is difficult to fully inhabit the desperation of the hungry Israelites, wandering and woeful. And so we are equally removed from the intense, incarnate miracle of discovering God’s manna in the wilderness.

There is a current in the story of God and God’s people, one of hunger and fulfillment, that shows up again and again. In all cases, true nourishment comes from God, and not from the feeble machinations of humankind—think of Eden, of the Last Supper, of the Eucharist in which we partake. We can survive (for a time) on our own, but the true journey cannot be fulfilled without the abundance of God. We must feel that hunger in ourselves first before we can be fed.

  • What gives you true nourishment? Where, other than in God, have you sought to feed the deep hunger within? How has that worked out for you?

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

This psalm, which extols the wonders of God’s mercy and providence, is worth an introspective pause. The Psalmist praises God for what God has done, not what God thought or felt. God proves the existence of God’s grace and mercy through action. To put a finer point on it, God did not simply send vague “thoughts and prayers” to the starving Israelites.

We live in a time of urgent need, both at home and around the world. More so than ever, through social media and mass communication, we are exposed to the wonders and horrors of our common experience as humans on this planet. If we are to walk as the people of God, we must show up in action, as God does, and not merely in a passive posture of sympathetic thoughts. This is not a matter of “earning salvation” or scoring points with a divine scorekeeper. It is simply that if we are called to “make [God’s] deeds known among the peoples” then we need to embody that in our own deeds.

  • How is your life representative of prayerful action? What might you do, right now, to more fully embody God’s deeds of mercy and providence?

Philippians 1:21-30

Paul sets up an interesting dichotomy here: the choice between dying to “depart and be with Christ” or “striving side by side” with the Church on earth. This raises some challenging questions: is being with Christ in another realm superior to living “in the flesh”? On which realm—the flesh or the spirit—should our focus lie?

Paul makes his choice: to stay and labor alongside the beloved community, even as it suffers. And, implicitly, we are called to the same decision. No matter how great our longing for personal union with Christ, we are here, now. No matter how broken this creation, we are part of it, now. Labor we must, and suffer we may, but in Christ, we find meaning—the Life at the heart of life.

  • What do you want to do with your one, precious life before you die? How can you find Christ in the midst of your messy, earthly existence?

Matthew 20:1-16

Isn’t there a part of you that feels indignant on behalf of the first laborers in this parable? After all, they put a long day’s work; they did what was expected of them; they played by the rules. And then these other people come along, work the bare minimum, and they profit off others’ labor? It’s not fair! Isn’t God supposed to be just

Isn’t there a part of you that feels indignant on behalf of (or as one of) the working poor in this country? After all, you put in a long day’s work; you did what was expected of you; you played by the rules. And then these other people come along, work the bare minimum, and they profit off your labor? It’s not fair!

We should be careful to make parables into cute little moral stories (ie. God rewards everyone equally, and isn’t that so nice?) Maybe those tidy conclusions are true. Maybe. But also, maybe God isn’t the generous landowner in this pericope. Maybe God is the silent question at the end of the story. Maybe the kingdom of God is our response of righteous anger to such an unfair schema. Maybe.

  • Where do you see God in this parable? Look again; where else might God be? 

Phil Hooper is a second year Master of Divinity student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Ca., and a Postulant for Holy Orders from the Diocese of Nevada. A CDSP Bishop’s Scholar and SIM Carpenter Merit Scholar, Phil is currently focused on the intersection of contemplative Christian spirituality, social action, and community building.

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Bible Study, 15th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – September 17, 2017

[RCL:] Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Exodus 14:19-31

The Israelites have escaped their enslavers and are on the way to the land God had promised to them. From the Egyptians’ perspective, however, these Israelites are their rightful possessions that have been stolen away from them. On top of that, these Israelites are responsible for plagues that have laid waste to their land and have caused the deaths of many Egyptians. They probably found it quite reasonable to chase Israelites and bring them to justice.

Yet they are baffled when God steps in and serves as a shield for the escaping Israelites. They are caught by surprise when God jams their chariots and throws them into the sea. They cry out because God is siding with the Israelites even though they surely felt they were the wronged party.

Wars are not fought by good guys and bad guys but rather by two sides that both think they are in the right. All of us are sure we are right sometimes, only to find out that we are mistaken. It is humbling to recognize that there is a greater power at work that knows better than we do, and it takes great strength to accept when we are wrong with grace. Righteousness needs to be held lightly, tempered by open-mindedness to others and prayerfulness to God.

  • Can you think of a time when you were so sure you were right that you were blind to the perspectives of others?
  • What will help you gracefully accept times when you are wrong?

Psalm 114

Lots of questions surround the parting of the Red Sea. It is easy to get locked into a discussion over if it really happened or how it could have happened, like trying to figure out the trick behind the magician’s act. This is a distraction, however, that draws us away from the point of the story: It is a story about a people who were powerless to save themselves and about God saving them.

It is a story of salvation through grace.

This grand event of the splitting of the sea is an example of God’s grace in action. The Israelites could not pat themselves on the back for a job well done. They shouted psalms of praise to God, knowing that no works they could ever do would be payment enough to buy God’s love. God was to thank for all the blessings of their lives, and these blessings were gifts of grace.

It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we have more power over our lives than we really do, forgetting to give thanks to God. Having self-confidence and taking pride in your accomplishments are great, but a healthy recognition that God’s grace in our lives is important too – especially because God’s love is freely given, regardless of anything we do to try to earn it.

  • When do you find yourself distracted and forgetting to give thanks to God?
  • When do you find your attention drawn to God’s presence?

Romans 14:1-12

When Paul is writing the letter to the Christians in Rome, he is writing to a divided community: the Jewish Christians who were exiled from Rome and have since returned, versus the gentile Christians who had populated Rome in their absence. If this fledgling church was to survive, they would need to find a way past their differences, yet they struggle as if they were adversaries. Both the Jewish and gentile converts distrust and think themselves superior to the other, which sows disunity all around.

If there is one message Paul wants them to take to heart, it is that they are all the same in the only way that matters: They are God’s beloved, for whom Christ died so that they may live forever. None of their differences compares to their one, essential similarity.

We, too, are faced with people all around us who seem different. We all have different values and can use those to judge ourselves superior to others, but God has already judged us all and found us all worthy of love, compassion and salvation. Let us not focus too much on how our differences stack up against each other, and instead turn our focus toward the God who sees us and loves us all the same.

  • What differences with others do you find you have a hard time overcoming?
  • In what ways do you see judgment and disunity getting in the way of the work of the church?

Matthew 18:21-35

Any community needs to determine how it is going to handle judgment and justice. This parable about the two debtors is often used as an illustration about fairness, saying that the first slave should have treated the second slave as he himself had been treated. After all, the debt his lord had forgiven was more than 500,000 times as much money as the other slave owed him (see Coogan’s “New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition,” Oxford Press, 2007), so the first slave’s behavior was hardly fair! This parable, however, is less about fairness than about how, fundamentally, Jesus values forgiveness.

Jesus precedes this parable by highlighting that forgiveness should be an overabundant principle. We should not even be thinking in terms of how much we should forgive; we should just forgive. We, like Peter, are being told that forgiving others – and forgiving ourselves – is never the wrong answer. The lowliest person is still worthy of forgiveness. The gravest transgression should still be forgiven. The most righteous and powerful people still need to forgive. Think of what a radical statement it would be for a society to say that their guiding principle is forgiveness!

If God has already forgiven through Christ’s crucifixion, we should think carefully about what we are telling God and each other if we declare something unforgivable. We can have justice without losing sight of compassion, and righteousness without losing sight of forgiveness.

  • When have you struggled with forgiving someone?
  • When have you struggled with forgiving yourself?

This Bible study, written by Steven Balke, originally ran for Proper 19 in 2014.

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Bible Study, 14th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – September 10, 2017

[RCL:] Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Exodus 12:1-14

After reading this text, I imagine flipping through the most recent church recipe book printed to raise money for the renovations to the parish hall. After perusing the “Rector’s Rhubarb Pie” and the three versions of “Heavenly Hash,” I flip the page and discover a recipe for “Passover”: roasted lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Warning! Do not boil the lamb or eat it raw. (I cringe at the thought of a parishioner eating a lamb raw.)

Not only are there cooking directions, there’s even a dress code and disposal instructions. Sandals on, loins girded and a staff in hand – seems like an easy enough outfit to throw together. All the leftovers needing to be burned is also a cinch, since that’s what will happen if I’m roasting anything over a fire. Further instructions make it clear that the food must by eaten in haste, much like a teenager after football practice. All the old jokes about the Episcopalian who used the wrong salad fork are thrown out. There are no salad forks for this meal. In fact, there aren’t any forks at all.

This recipe is certainly for an extraordinary circumstance. That is, the circumstance of getting out of Dodge fast. The original diners were getting out of town to end their long enslavement to the Egyptians. The people of God were to mark their own doors, lest the Lord kill their firstborn along with the Egyptian firstborn.

Suddenly, my comedic musings on this passage grind to a halt. The lamb must be killed, and its blood used to mark the doorposts of each Israelite home so that the Lord would pass over as he struck down the firstborn children and animals in Egypt. This would be a night of death and destruction, of plague and sorrow. The fury of the Lord will rain down on the land of Egypt while the people of God sheltered in their homes, quickly eating a roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Then, when the aftermath of the death and destruction turned each Egyptian home into a morgue, they would slip away into the desert.

The Passover was a feast that commemorates a violent event after a series of violent events in Egypt. As we have learned from our own nation’s history, human slavery does not just fade away with time and good intentions. Slavery is maintained by violence and usually comes to a violent end. The command to remember the slavery and to remember God’s deliverance is a way to remember God’s grace and deliverance.

  • Do you remember a time when you felt delivered from a place of hardship? How do you commemorate that deliverance?

Psalm 149

This psalm captures the crazy exuberance that is possible for the people of God. The joy in this psalm is shared by the whole community. This is not private revelry; everyone is involved. Music abounds, and everyone whirls around, dancing. The whole community is singing at the top of its lungs when we notice a peculiar thing about the choir. Everyone in the choir is holding a two-edged sword. They have swords to execute judgment on oppressive kings.

This psalm reminds me of the Magnificat, in which Mary sings that God raises up the lowly and pushes down the proud. In Psalm 149, it is the festive choir that introduces God’s justice in the world.

All this leads me to conclude that the praise and worship that we do on Sunday cannot be disconnected from what God is doing in the world throughout the week. God’s interest in justice flows from the praises of his people. For me, this helps connect my worship with real, practical problems in the world that God is moving to fix.

  • What are some of the issues in the world where we can see God’s justice?
  • How is your worship of God moving you toward seeing the world’s inequalities?

Romans 13:8-14

Before he became a follower of Jesus, the great father of the church, St. Augustine, read these words of St. Paul. After reading them, he shut the book, then he observed, “By a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”

I confess that I had a different reaction to these words in Romans. My reading of this passage, at first glance, made me feel like the apostle is chiding me about how I spend my free time in the evenings. I confess that his words seem to be rather meddlesome, even 2,000 years after they were written.

How could this rather negative message be to St. Augustine a message of light and serenity? Perhaps I should remind myself that the power of the Holy Spirit is always to bring the right word at the right time. For St. Augustine, these were the right words for that moment.

Perhaps they are the right words for our moment, too. We are reminded in these verses that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Every time we move toward the light of God, we are moving deeper into the Kingdom of God. We are easily distracted by the neon lights that signal the presence of what tourist brochures call “nightlife,” but we never mistake neon lights for the sun.

For Paul, it is still night, but the dawn is almost here. Get ready, he says, to live the way we will live for eternity, in the light and warmth of God.

  • What are the worthwhile pursuits of life that you might be missing by staying up too late? What distracts you from being a light to a dark world?

Matthew 18:15-20

“Mr. Peters, we apologize for your long wait at the front desk. In order to keep your loyalty here at our hotel we would like to offer you a complimentary three-night stay at any of our worldwide locations. We will also throw in a couple of spa passes and trays of chocolate-covered strawberries.” Indeed, these are words I always like to hear. I also like to hear that I’m getting a big refund from the IRS. What I don’t like to hear is that I sinned against someone. I don’t like it one bit. I’d much rather talk about something else.

One of the most unpleasant activities in human life is confrontation. Especially when a relationship is at stake. I can come up with a million excuses to put off and avoid confrontation with someone who is hurting me or my community. Jesus clearly states that the responsibility to confront lies with the person who is offended. The community is slowly drawn in to the controversy, but not too soon.

The goal of this confrontation is to “gain your brother.” The goal is always reconciliation. Even when a member is declared a gentile and tax collector, the goal is reconciliation.

How does Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? He engages them with truth and love. In fact, Matthew, the traditional author of this gospel, was a tax collector. Jesus called Matthew just like he calls all of us. He calls us to a ministry of reconciliation, even when it’s difficult and painful.

I have observed confrontation many times, and I can report that the goal of the confrontation was rarely restoration and reconciliation. Too often the goal of the confrontation was to initiate a separation so everyone could go on with their lives.

Reconciliation is difficult. The cross, the ultimate symbol of reconciliation, stands before us and behind us as we pick up the phone and ask if we can meet to talk about something that happened.

  • Can you think of an example of a confrontation that resulted in reconciliation? What are some practical steps to take that may result in reconciliation after confrontation?

This Bible study, written by the Rev. David Peters, originally ran for Proper 18 in 2014.

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Bible Study, 13th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – September 3, 2017

[RCL:] Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Exodus 3:1-15 

This passage presents the first portion of God’s self-introduction to Moses. Within this pericope, the reader encounters the well-familiar narrative of Moses and the burning bush. Here, the reader discovers God who, after being roused to action by the cries of a suffering people, commissions the reluctant Moses to appear before Pharaoh with the singular aim of delivering the Israelites out of Egypt. Also, the reader discovers the divine name of God, given by God to Moses, as the imprimatur of Moses’s authority with respect to the Israelites.

Given the familiarity of this passage, we might try finding a fresh entry-point through which to make this text come alive. Perhaps this entry-point may be found in vv. 3-4. Here, the author provides the reader with a glimpse of Moses’s interior monologue as such unfolded when Moses first observed the unconsumed bush. There, Moses makes the express determination to “turn aside and look at this great sight.” Critically, it is “[w]hen the Lord saw that [Moses] had turned aside to see,” that God beckoned Moses, ultimately setting him on a life (and world) changing course. Emulating Moses’s example of turning aside to see, one might do well to consider those instances in one’s own life where God may be poised to speak, if only one would—like Moses—turn aside to see.

  • In what ways do you expect God to speak with you? In what ways has God spoken to you in ways you did not expect?
  • How might we more intentionally turn aside to see in those instances in which God seeks to speak to us?

Psalm 105:1-6; 23-26; 45c

These selected excerpts from Psalm 105 provide a guided meditation that directs the reader, by way of recollection, to worship God in a way that is both participatory and celebratory. The psalter’s meditation instructs the reader to give thanks to, to sing to, to glory in, to seek God and his attributes, and to remember God’s present and pre-existing actions. Anamnesis of God’s great deeds done on behalf of his people fosters the reader’s more-complete performance of each of these directed actions.

Reflection on this pericope invites the reader to do precisely the imperatives set out in vv. 1-5, perhaps by asking the following:

  • What are the deeds done by God in my own life about which I continue to marvel?
  • How may my experience of God further prompt me to glory in and to seek him in my prayers and devotion?

Romans 12:9-21

Romans 12:9-21 falls near the beginning of an almost four chapter-long series of instructions to the reader concerning how one may appropriately function as a member of the body of Christ. (See Rom. 12:5.) Paul’s instructions in this pericope seem, in many respects, to transcend simply behavioral codes (cf. I Cor. 5-8); instead these instructions—and the ones that follow—appear to operate as the means by which the Gentiles matriculate toward sanctification. (See Rom. 15:17).

While each of the directives contained in the lectionary excerpt are sufficiently dense to support multiple sermons, one possible approach toward proclaiming this text might be the identification of a composite theme that underlies vv. 9-21—irrepressible love, perhaps—and subsequent examination of how that theme contributes toward sanctification in Christ.

  • What is genuine love?
  • How is genuine love demonstrative of sanctification?

Matthew 16:21-28

Matthew 16:21-28 provides the narrative sequence in which Jesus first portends to his disciples that he must travel to Jerusalem, where he will suffer, die, and be raised from the dead. What follows Jesus’s prognostication are Peter’s misguided rebuke of Jesus’s forecast and Jesus’s response to the same. After Jesus’s exchange with Peter, Jesus explains to the disciples the consequences of their devotion to him in paradigm-shifting terms: “[f]or those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake will find it” (v. 25). The pericope concludes with Jesus’s apocalyptic and eschatological pronouncement concerning the Son of Man’s coming in glory and reckoning repayment to all, commensurate with the deeds done during their lifetimes.

This pericope provides numerous points of entry for us. One might well consider focusing on the exchange between Peter and Jesus—particularly, Jesus’s response to Peter’s faulty rebuke. There, Jesus challenges the conceptual starting place from which Peter attempts to assuage Jesus’s prediction of his own death. Jesus faults Peter for “setting [his] mind not on divine things but on human things” (v. 23). Perhaps by raising our consciences to those incidences in which we, like Peter, super-prefer human things to divine ones, we may evoke in ourselves a greater receptivity to Christ’s death, resurrection, and coming kingdom.

  • In what ways do I set my mind on human things rather than divine ones?
  • Does my orientation toward human things impede—as a stumbling block—my receptivity to expressions of the divine?

Jeremy L. Carlson is a rising senior at the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Carlson is a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Alabama

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Bible Study, 12th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – August 27, 2017

[RCL:] Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Exodus 1:8-2:10

We enter this reading on the on the happy note of how God saved Israel from hunger through Joseph and enter the story of why Egypt did not remain the home of the fruitful and strong nation. If the nation could have been lost in Joseph’s story by betrayal of brothers, then this story is about the betrayal by others, neighbors really. The death of every boy would also leave mothers and sisters without clans to protect and appeal for them. The women have their own means of resistance to oppression. We see honor given to the nervy midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Their names are recorded while the Egyptian princess remains unnamed. This time, God would use another son, Moses, lost in Egypt, drawn up from the water (instead of a well) to save his people.

  • How do we talk about God’s redemption of the bitterness in our lives?
  • The communion of saints includes the named and unnamed. Are you more comfortable with those whose lives have been recorded or those known only to a few?

Psalm 124

This psalm recounts God’s extraordinary acts to aid the escape of the whole people of Israel. It is meant to comfort the individual in times of trouble and may have been recited by pilgrims headed to Jerusalem. It is a fitting complement to the Exodus story and it is easy to imagine the Israelites telling similar stories as they walked in the wilderness. There are repeating phrases in this psalm, such as “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,” for poetic emphasis and to aid in recollection. This repetition is common in Hebrew poetry. The phrases that begin with “then” are meant to build on each other. The climactic declaration “Our help is in the name of the Lord” is the thanksgiving for Israel’s deliverance and ours.

  • Escape is a common biblical theme but not one we speak of often in contemporary culture. Reflect on escape. Did you feel God’s presence more acutely after an escape?
  • What does the name “Maker of heaven and earth” mean to you? Does that image make God seem nearer or farther from your circumstances? Are you comforted by your understanding of God’s intimacy or holiness?

Romans 12:1-8

This is one of the most beloved passages in the New Testament for its egalitarianism and accessible imagery. It begins Paul’s instruction on Christian community that contrasts our bodies, which stand for our entire selves, with the community as a body. He calls for faithful, sober, and wholesome living (often translated as “perfect”) in contrast to the passions in Romans 1:18-32. Paul supports an austere, communal life with times of ecstatic prayer but was not a believer in marriage and family life.

  • What social structures and practices support Paul’s exhortation for faithful, sober and wholesome living today?
  • How do we reconcile his image of the church as one body with a variety of household types?

Matthew 16:13-20

This passage is a climax for Jesus’ teaching, healing, and feeding in Matthew. The Pharisees and Sadducees want yet another sign at the beginning of the chapter, but ordinary Peter is confident that Jesus is the Messiah.

Peter receives honor in each of the gospels, but in Matthew, there is a direct reference to the Church. There is no Church without the confession of Jesus as the promised Messiah, and even at this moment, the Church is in conflict with “gates of Hades” (NRSV). Further, the Church is aggressive against the gates of hell, entrusted with authority and ultimately victorious. It is done. Death is permanently defeated but continues to terrorize and deceive unaware souls. Fear of death is not the same as death.

  • Is confession of Jesus as Messiah an aggressive statement in your community or more customary?
  • In your spiritual imagination, what do you understand to be Peter’s keys?

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Bible Study, 11th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – August 20, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

Genesis 45:1-15

Oftentimes, when we read the stories of Genesis (and other biblical books), we are perplexed at the turn of events attributed to God. For example, why would God place a forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden? Why would God destroy the world through a devastating flood? Why would God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son? In today’s Genesis text, we might ask, “Why did God put Joseph and his family through such an ordeal, just to get Joseph into Egypt (as it says in verse 8)?” These stories might not be seen as literal presentations of God’s actions and motives.

Rather, they may be understood as myths, in the sense of stories that use symbolism to speak about reality, or, in the case of the Patriarch stories, legends, that is, interpretive stories of historic events. We should ask ourselves then what theological points the author was trying to make through this story. The answer might be that God can act in our lives and provide for us, even through circumstances that are apparently without hope, such as severe family strife or times of deprivation.

Notice also how Joseph’s tearful reunion with his brothers (and his observation that this has all been God’s work) comes after a few chapters of devious dealing on Joseph’s part. Of course, his brothers previously had sold him into slavery. And they are all the sons of Jacob, the one who took advantage of his own brother and deceived his elderly father. These are not people with whom we would want to share a long car ride! Despite their flaws and bad behavior, however, God still chooses them and manages to do great things through them. Proof indeed that God can write straight with crooked lines!

  • Where might God be acting unexpectedly in our church, families, and other experiences, especially in those circumstances where we feel there is no hope?
  • How does God’s choice of Joseph, his brothers and father, despite their unsavoriness and failings, speak to your own experience of God’s grace in those circumstances and people who might not have been our first choice?

Psalm 133

Commentators suggest that this psalm could be extolling either the joys of harmony in the family, or the fittingness of worshippers participating in the sacred liturgy in the Temple on Mt. Zion. Regardless, this psalm, despite its joyful tone, can serve as a sharp warning and even rebuke to our modern Christianity, so often fraught with divisiveness. We are reminded here that our fellow worshippers are indeed our “brethren”. Sometimes it can be difficult to be mindful of this reality, especially when we differ on matters of liturgical practice, discipline, ideology, or theology. Notice how the sacred author frames this Psalm with a beginning mention of harmony among people and a concluding statement that the blessing of the Lord is life.

Undoubtedly, the two are linked – the fullness of life can only be experienced when there is harmony within the family of faith.

  • How might each of us reform our own actions, thoughts, and words so that we can be “brethren living in unity”?
  • The biblical notion of salvation is often characterized as a communal experience of the fullness of life. How does this psalm serve as a challenge to some popular ideas that equate “being saved” with getting into heaven?
  • What emotions, ideals, or hopes are evoked in the psalmist’s use of “precious oil …  running,” and “the dew of Hermon”? What is being said about the effects of unity?

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Paul continues to ponder the conundrum of Israel’s failure to accept the gospel of Jesus. His references to Abraham and the tribe of Benjamin might serve to evoke Paul’s namesake, Saul the king, of this same tribe, who also struggled with the unbelief of his people. Prior to Saul’s becoming king, God told the prophet Samuel, “They have rejected me as their king” (1 Sam 8:7). The people are greatly afraid of God’s anger, but Samuel assures them that God will not cast them off, just as Paul says that the Lord will not reject his people now. Paul thus situates Israel’s rejection of Jesus in a larger narrative of his peoples’ struggle to believe.

Paul’s reflections on God’s mercy illustrate how redemption can be brought out of what appears to be a great failure. Just as non-Israelites had previously rejected God, they now have experienced redemption through the sheer mercy of God, not because they did anything to deserve it. So too will Israel’s failure to accept Jesus serve as an occasion for God’s mercy. Above all, Paul tries to illustrate that human disobedience and failure cannot frustrate God’s grace. Grace is a free and abundant gift; nothing can stand in its way.

  • How does your personal narrative of faith mirror that of Israel, i.e. the waxing and waning of belief and unbelief?
  • Where in our experience of faith and life has God brought about redemption and grace despite our actions that appear to obstruct God’s gifts?

Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

This short pericope provides a raw, telling glimpse of the human Jesus, for this is the only instance in the Gospels when he loses an argument! Whenever he is confronted publically, Jesus always has a response to his questioners. But in this instance, his female Canaanite interlocutor manages to stump him. More significantly, it appears that Jesus evolves in his thinking about the nature and scope of his ministry. He initially makes it clear to the woman that he has come for the sake of Israel, but by the conclusion of this episode something has changed.

  • This story serves as a challenge to the closed religious mind – those who see faith as static and not subject to development. Jesus exhibits a willingness and ability to change and take on a new perspective. Are there any areas of your faith life where you might be closed-minded or short-sighted?
  • How have you been challenged with a new perspective and way of articulating some aspect of your faith that made you feel uncomfortable, but resonated with you nonetheless?
  • How does our encounter with and contemplation of the humanness of Jesus nourish our spirituality, identity as disciples, and faith life?

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Bible Study, 10th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – August 13, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Our reading today begins with the note that it is “the story of the family of Jacob.” Of course, for the last few chapters of Genesis, we’ve been hearing about Jacob and his family—his parents, his in-laws, his wives, and all their tricks and travails. A study of this week’s reading would benefit from a quick review of what comes before. What does the Bible tell us about this family? How have its members spoken to God? In what manner have they followed God’s will? As many commentators have remarked, the brevity of this literature goes hand-in-hand with its psychological complexity. The entire story of Joseph tells us about God and God’s relationship to us in a much more complex way than “lessons” or moral summations.

  • Has there been a time when you have had something of value (beautiful objects, a position of power, someone’s love) which other people did not have? How might this experience inform your reading of the story? After thinking about it, does any word or phrase stand out to you?
  • Has there been a time when you have watched someone else receive or achieve something of value that you did not have? How might this experience inform your reading of the story? After thinking about it, does any word or phrase stand out to you?
  • What other stories from Genesis does this first excerpt recall?

Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b

Our Collect of the Day asks for the Spirit to think and do what is right, and this Psalm elaborates on how we might also make steps towards that with God’s help—by giving thanks to God, by continually seeking him, and by remembering what he has done. The Psalm also offers another interpretation of the Joseph story (echoing how Joseph himself will interpret it near the end), that God steered the events from the start, sending a famine and testing Joseph in his struggles. This appointed reading is a carefully cut excerpt from a long Psalm full of history, and this portion on Joseph comes in the middle (not chronologically). For the Psalmist, the whole ordeal is, as we see in the last verse, a reason for exclaiming, “Hallelujah!”

  • The Psalmist calls us to remember the marvels God has done, including “his wonders and the judgments of his mouth.” When you remember how God has acted in your life, what are some of the marvels he has done?
  • Do you agree with the interpretation in verse 16—that God sent a famine to the land? Keeping in mind that there is a range of orthodox beliefs on this topic, consider discussing how God intervenes in our lives and in the life of the world. How have you understood the mixture of challenges and blessings in your own life?

Romans 10:5-15

Romans is a theologically complex and occasionally stylistically baffling long work of the Apostle. This portion of Romans is a delightfully typical rush of clauses and phrases, running like an enthusiastic preacher’s poetic logic from one to another. The verse which asks us to confess with our lips and believe with our hearts is one that has been often used in some churches to suggest that only a moment of verbal confession is what “salvation” really means. But Paul then talks about justification (the English translation of a word from Greek, which was used to translate the Hebrew word for righteousness) as well as salvation, and emphasizes this with two citations about Jesus’ acceptance of all who turn to him. The final paragraph is a rush of movement from this moment of belief out of the door, into the streets, on the beautiful feet of a bearer of good tidings—that’s us!

  • What do you think it means to “believe in” Christ? How has your own belief come about in your life, and how has it changed over time?
  • When have you asked God for help before?
  • How do you understand being sent out to share the news about Christ?

Matthew 14:22-33

The disciples have had a hard time of it of late, what with parables they truly couldn’t parse and mistakes over who would be feeding whom. Their confusion continues here when they greet a sign of power with fear, and Peter rises from fear to trust to fear again. Jesus’ question about doubt goes unanswered. In chapter 13, we had heard parable upon parable about the kingdom of heaven. This story comes near the end of chapter 14, which begins with John the Baptist’s beheading and continues with the feeding of the five thousand. Scholars believe that Matthew was writing in a time of incredible division and oppression for the Jesus-following communities; these stories of mistaken understanding, violence, need, and Christ’s power in those moments were written for these suffering communities.

  • Have you had moments when you felt like Jesus invited you to walk on water, and you were able to join him? When have you felt like you were invited to do so, but felt like you were sinking?
  • What do you think this story might mean to someone who is suffering? Who in your community—your church, your neighborhood—has something in common with the hurting communities of Matthew’s time?
  • What is your understanding of miracles like this? Do you look for material or psychological explanations, or do you take the story as we hear it here?

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Bible Study, The Transfiguration (A) – August 6, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Exodus 34:29-35

Moses returns to the people with the gift of the tablets of the covenant in his arms. He has been speaking with God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Ex 33:7-11). The Israelites stand in awe of the startling effect of Moses’ shining face. And the people are frightened by the change in him.

Moses calls the people close to hear God’s most holy words to them and to share in the renewed covenant. Eventually, despite their fear of the change in him, they come—the radiance of his face evidence of God working within him.

Don’t we long to be in the presence of our Creator? We pray for that very thing, to see the face of God, to be there with the Presence, to know what it is like. And indeed, it is a scary thing, knowing we will certainly be changed by the experience. Might others turn away, afraid of our shining faces and the truth we speak?

  • Moses veils his face unless he is with God or speaking God’s word to the people. Why do you think that is?
  • How is your faith visible to others?
  • What has been your experience of speaking God’s word to others? Do you think they see you differently afterward?

Psalm 99

Psalm 99 is the last of the “enthronement psalms” where we have a vision of God seated above all in the highest of holy places: in this case, upon the very Ark of the Covenant. In her translation of Psalm 99, Nan Merrill writes, “Awaken you people! Entrust your hearts to Love.” [1] In the face of very Love, the leaders of the world bow down and proclaim the mighty King, the lover of justice, who brings equity.

The psalmist, keenly aware of the failings of human kings and of the effect of their failings on the people, recalls for them their ancestral relationship with the Lord God. God is a king who can be relied upon to bring justice and mercy, while also holding us accountable. There are safety and assurance in boundaries and covenant. We know where God stands: God stands with us.

“Awaken you people, entrust your hearts to Love.”

  • Where do you find boundaries and structure help you in your relationship with God and others?
  • Are there “lesser gods” in your life that compete for your time with the Beloved?

2 Peter 1:13-21

The author of 2 Peter is obviously concerned about authority, credibility, and trust. We aren’t sure to whom he is referring when he contrasts “cleverly devised myths” with the eyewitness account of the Transfiguration. His are not words of boasting, but of concern that the readers or listeners know the truth of Jesus Christ, the Beloved Son of the Majestic Glory.

The writer also makes it clear that the Bible is a powerful and dangerous text, not to be interpreted without careful discernment and reliance upon the Spirit as mediator. In the Early Church, it was important (as it is for us today) to have confidence in those that interpreted Scripture. Prophecy never begins and ends with human beings, but from and with the Holy Spirit who enlightens our efforts, that the Word may serve as a lamp to illumine our hearts.

  • With the many interpretations of truth that swirl around us, where do you look for guidance and counsel?
  • This letter, purportedly written by Peter, apostle of Jesus, was most likely written by a later prophetic author. How does that change, if at all, how we might unlock our own interpretation of the “eyewitness” testimony?

Luke 9:28-36

The telling of the Transfiguration is found in all three synoptic gospels. All have similar elements – Jesus’ changing appearance, his shining face and dazzling white garments, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and the cloud from which God affirms Jesus’ authority, giving a foretaste of his glory as the Son of the Most High. The differences in Luke’s gospel lie in some specifics related to the conversation Jesus has with Elijah and Moses.

“They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Here Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, bear witness to Jesus’ departure, his exodus, as still another saving act of God. Jesus and his companions will now begin the journey, traveling from the mountaintop to the valley, and from there the glory of God in Christ Jesus will be made known to all the nations.

We can’t blame Peter for wanting to hold onto the three shining figures transfigured by their proximity to the Holy One. How many times have we experienced the shining of Christ in our lives in a moment of inspired worship and prayer, only to find the image fading days or perhaps hours later? Unfortunately, we can’t stop time. Perhaps what we might seek to transfigure is how we see the world in the light of Christ, and then to reflect that out to the world.

  • What are some ways we can listen to Jesus’ voice that might transfigure our lives?
  • How do you shine the light of Christ in small and not-so-small ways?

[1] Merrill, Nan C. Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Sandi Albom is a recent May 2017 graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School with a Master of Divinity. She is serving as curate at All Saints’ Parish, Peterborough, N.H. and will be ordained to the transitional diaconate in September 2017. Sandi is active in the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire Recovery Ministries. Sandi, her husband Bob, a professor at Southern New Hampshire University, and their two feline companions, Mandy and Quinn, live in Hooksett, N.H.

 

 

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Bible Study, 8th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – July 30, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Genesis 29:15-28

Jacob was no stranger to deceit, having orchestrated enough of it against his twin brother Esau. Now, the father of his beloved Rachel turns the tables on him, switching out one daughter for the other on the night Jacob expects to consummate a marriage with Rachel. One especially interesting twist to the story is when Laban chides Jacob, saying, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.” It’s as if God is reminding Jacob of his own scheme to displace his older brother’s birthright.

It’s difficult to sympathize with Jacob’s indignation at having been tricked, given his own history of similar behavior, however over the course of the Jacob story, it is illuminating to see that his mother and his uncle Laban manipulated Jacob just as deceitfully. He has come from a family of “players,” but God can still work with him, imperfect as he is. This is important because it affirms that even when we disappoint God, the promises that God has made will still be kept.

  • Can you think of an example in your own life where someone has done something to hurt you, and sometime later, you find yourself doing the same thing?
  • In what ways do you observe God blessing someone into greater holiness, just by being the God of faithfulness?
  • We read that Jacob’s seven years of toil “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for [Rachel].” What does this teach us about the power of love?

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

What a terrific testament to the steadfast love of God. Speaking of “the promise he made for a thousand generations.” The psalmist is singing to the descendants of Jacob/Israel, reminding them, that God’s judgments prevail in all the world.” In times when it seems like it is evil that actually prevails, it’s important to remember that the laws of nature that God has set in motion ultimately prevail, whether or not the human sense of time demands an immediate and particular response to prayer. In particular, when the psalm reminds us to “continually seek [God’s] face, I can imagine God at work, slowly building a great chain of mountains, unobservable over the lifespan of humans, yet profound and triumphant over geologic time scales.

I am reminded of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s poem Trust in the Slow Work of God. A scholar priest, his perspective as a paleontologist gave Teilhard de Chardin the skill to take the long view. I imagine that he understood the slow process of God fashioning Jacob and God’s other agents of change into the leaders he needed them to be at whatever pace their growth required.

  • It seems as though the Bible (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) is full of stories of imperfect heroes. What does their evolution into God’s agents of change teach us?
  • How do you respond when God seems to be slow to answer a prayer?

Romans 8:26-39

There is hardly anything that can be said that is more comforting than the assurance that “there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul thought that the world would end soon, and wrote from that context. He was surrounded by Roman occupation and its associated violence and exploitation.  Even so, he understood that God’s purposes would still be achieved even in the face of significant challenge. It is a hauntingly familiar refrain that so many generations despair of the evil around them, as we do today. Yet Paul tells the believers in the early church at Rome that they are more, or better than the conquerors through Jesus. That message applies to believers now, assuring us that we must stay the course of following Jesus, because we can be more than those who conquer to impose their will with violence.

  • When Paul writes “all things work together for good for those who love God,” what does that mean? Do you believe this?
  • If nothing can separate us from the love of God, why do we sometimes feel estranged from God? Why might we perceive ourselves to be separated from God’s love? 

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven using parables. It’s important that he does not describe it directly, but rather by what it is like. This is somewhat reminiscent of the method we use to look at the sun—we cannot look directly at it, but we can view it through filters that protect the eye from its brightness. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is so bright, we can only approach it obliquely until we put on the protection of our relationship with Jesus—God incarnate in human form that does not blind us?

In the parable of the net and fish of every kind, verse 50 is disturbing in its imagery of the “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is important to consider that it is evil that will be refined in this fire—transformed. While the language is violent, the point is that no evil will follow us into the kingdom of heaven.

  • Why do you think Jesus speaks indirectly about the kingdom of heaven? In verses 34-35, omitted from Proper 12, Matthew explains that Jesus spoke only in parables to fulfill a prophecy. Does this affect your understanding of the kingdom of heaven?
  • How would you describe the kingdom of heaven in contemporary terms?

Pan Conrad, a resident of Annapolis, MD, received her M. Div. from Episcopal Divinity School’s final graduating class this past May. She is a transitional deacon in the Diocese of Maryland, where she serves as clergy-in-charge at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church is Glen Burnie, MD. Pan is also an astrobiologist and planetary scientist, and a scientific co-investigator to the NASA Mars Science Laboratory and Mars 2020 missions.

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Bible Study, 7th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – July 23, 2017

[RCL:] Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25. Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob is on the run. He and Rebekah, his mother, have connived to deceive his father, Isaac, into giving Jacob his older brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob’s deception, which led Isaac to grant him the blessing due the first-born son, fuels hatred in Esau. When Rebekah is told that Esau plans to kill Jacob, she sends Jacob away to her brother in Haran.

Our story begins when Jacob stops on his first night on the road. He lays down with a stone under his head for a pillow and falls asleep. Little does he know that he is on sacred ground. Jacob dreams of a ladder or ziggurat to heaven with angels climbing up and down. However, it is not the angels who speak to Jacob, but God. God stands beside Jacob and introduces himself: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (verse 13).

God makes the same promises to Jacob that he made to Jacob’s ancestors: land and offspring. In a sense, God includes a caveat with his blessings. In essence, God tells Jacob, “You will be blessed when I fulfill my promises to you. But these blessings are not for you to hoard. It is through you and your family that all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God then makes a personal promise to Jacob: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (verse 15). God’s promises of presence and protection – of belonging to God – are central to the covenant relationship between God and his chosen people.

Jacob awakes a transformed man. He recognizes the awesomeness and sacredness of his encounter with God and commemorates it with a shrine made with the stone on which he slept, calling the place Beth-el, “House of God.”

  • Are you hoarding the blessings God has given you? How can you channel your blessings so that you will become a blessing to others?
  • How has your experience of God’s grace transformed you?

 Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23

The psalmist, resting assured in God’s promised presence and protection, turns to God for deliverance from his enemies. His blessing is his relationship with God. The psalmist addresses God by his personal divine name, YHWH (“LORD”) (verses 1, 3), and speaks to God directly: “you know” (verses 1, 3), “you discern” (verse 1), “you trace” (verse 2), “you press” (verse 4), “[you] lay your hand” (verse 4). The psalmist is awed by the completeness of God’s all-encompassing knowledge of him; God knows his actions, thoughts, and words (verses 1-3).

The psalmist affirms that God is always present with him. No matter where the psalmist goes, whether to the extremes of heaven or the grave, “Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast” (verse 9). The psalmist trusts his future to God, assured that he belongs to God. He welcomes God’s testing, which will reveal the psalmist’s righteousness and commitment to following the ways of God (verses 23-24).

  • Does God knowing you fully make you uncomfortable? Are you able to say with the psalmist with no reservations: “LORD, you have searched me out and known me”?
  • Have you ever wanted to escape from the presence of God? When and why?

Romans 8:12-25

To Paul, every human being is subject to some power, and lives either in the domain of the flesh, under the power of sin, death and law; or in the domain of the Spirit, under the power of grace. Paul has assured believers in an earlier verse that they no longer live in the domain of the flesh, but now live in the domain of the Spirit, because the Spirit of God dwells in them (Romans 8:9).In today’s passage, Paul describes life in the Spirit in terms of relationships. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (verse 14). The indwelling Spirit is God’s presence with believers. Believers are blessed; we belong to God’s family – children of God by adoption (verses 14-15). We are God’s heirs and, therefore, joint heirs with Christ, sharing in his suffering, death,

In today’s passage, Paul describes life in the Spirit in terms of relationships. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (verse 14). The indwelling Spirit is God’s presence with believers. Believers are blessed; we belong to God’s family – children of God by adoption (verses 14-15). We are God’s heirs and, therefore, joint heirs with Christ, sharing in his suffering, death, resurrection and glory (verse 17). We are to live unafraid, knowing that we belong to God.Just as God fulfilled his promises to Jacob, Paul admonishes believers to wait with patience because God will fulfill his promise of future glory. God will free all of

Just as God fulfilled his promises to Jacob, Paul admonishes believers to wait with patience because God will fulfill his promise of future glory. God will free all of creation “from its bondage to decay” (verse 21). Believers and all creation must endure the birth pangs of the completion of salvation – of the promised restoration of creation to what God intended it to be, begun when God chose a people to be his instruments of blessing.

  • In what ways do you sense that you are living in the “in-between” time?
  • Discuss your experience of life in the Spirit.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a field sowed by two sowers.

The master sows good wheat seeds in his field. At night, an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat seeds. When the wheat comes up and bears grain, the weeds come up as well. The master refuses to let his slaves gather the weeds. He tells them to let both of them grow together until the harvest, when the reapers will collect the weeds to be burned and gather the wheat into the barn.

Jesus privately interprets the parable to his disciples as an allegory. He is the master, and the good seeds are the children of Kingdom of God. The enemy is the devil, and the weeds are the children of the evil one. At the final judgment, the Son of Man will send his angels to root out sin and evildoers, and the righteous will inherit the Kingdom. God’s promise in the parable is that evil will not overcome the good.

There is a more contemporary dimension to the parable. In a previous chapter from Matthew, Jesus called us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” or “is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Could it be that the final judgment isn’t a distant event in linear time but is now? Could it be that the Kingdom isn’t someplace that will be established in the future but is here now? Were both inaugurated with the coming of God in Jesus?

Jesus issues a warning: Those who reject Jesus’ message are refusing to participate in the Kingdom. They are refusing to be the blessing to all the families of the earth that God calls believers to be. Those who accept Jesus’ message and follow the praxis of the Beatitudes belong to God, are his children and have inherited the promised Kingdom.

  • What is the relationship between the church and the Kingdom of God?
  • How does your faith that God’s Kingdom will triumph over evil and death influence the way you live?

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