Bible Study, Christ the King Sunday (A) – November 26, 2017

[RCL]: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

The term “shepherd” is a common motif in the ancient Near East, and is metaphorically used for the rulers, kings, and leaders of Israel. In this reading, the shepherds have fed themselves instead of the sheep, and the leaders have ruled with tyranny and cruelty (v. 4). Thus, the sheep lack a shepherd.

In verse 11, Yahweh will take personal responsibility to seek the lost, restore the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak sheep who have suffered as a result of unjust shepherds, and gather them to himself on a safe pasture where they will be healed. The day of thick clouds refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, “the day of the Lord” (Joel 2:2), when the people were carried to Babylon (v. 12). Contrastingly, the new pasture is metaphorically linked to mountain ranges, watercourses, and uninhabited fields which are signs of life, suggesting a change of social, political, economic, and spiritual status for the sheep.

The binary use of sheep and goats, a ram and goats, lean sheep and fat sheep, the fat and the strong, and one group of sheep set apart from another reflects a cosmological setting: a rescue mission taking on a global dimension, in which God begins to reconcile the nations. God’s justice will intervene for the oppressed. In our contemporary understanding, the temptation to satisfy personal ego, materialism, and power at the expense of an ailing society are reminiscent of the fat and the strong sheep. The scattered and bruised sheep represent marginalized persons and communities, like the increasing numbers of refugees the world over, the homeless in our society, and those facing other insecurities.

We must reflect on questions such as “What is our role in protecting and restoring God’s creation?” (v. 18-19), with the understanding that God is determined to bring about a fairness where everyone will be held accountable (v. 20). God will achieve this through his servant David, a symbol of unity bringing together Israel and Judah, and upon whose leadership the Messianic reign will be announced.

  • What do you think of when you think of a new pasture for God’s sheep?

 Psalm 100

This psalm is Deuteronomic in rhythm, and therefore emphasizes the identity of Yahweh’s role as a God of action. The whole earth—all nations—are called by the psalmist to make a joyful noise to God. Our act of worship is equated to service to God. This in turn invites devotion, which brings humanity happiness at the end. Singing is a powerful mode of worship; it stays in one’s memory easier than reading and is often more entertaining. Because of this, it resonates well with offering thanksgiving in the court of the Lord.

Since humans are often tempted to play God by demonstrating ability in the first-person pronouns of “I,” “me,” and “we,” rather than in the humility of a servant or God’s instrument, the Psalmist emphasizes “Know this: that the Lord is God” (v 3). This phrase is intentionally inserted to remind us that all that we are and have is God’s. In fact, St. Paul echoes with the same tone, as when he writes, “We brought nothing into this world” (1 Tim 6:7).

Because Christians belong to God’s pasture, our confines are by nature within the shepherd- sheep paradigm. Listening to the shepherd’s voice is important. The sheep are safe entering by the gate, where the master takes stock and assesses the welfare of each animal, and they can appreciate the goodness of Yahweh for the permanent virtue of mercy by which he reconciles and draws people to his fold.

  • Have you ever needed a reminder like the one in verse 3? When?

Ephesians 1:15-21

Paul writes concerning the faith and love of the Ephesians, upon which he expresses his gratitude and prayers for the growing community of God.

Faith, which is the state of trust, in this context is reckoned to have yielded fruits of godly virtues like love and hope for this community of saints. A community where faith and works of love in Christ grow is formative for God’s saints. Like Paul, the Christians are drawn to uphold such a community with constant prayers. It is evident in both Paul’s era and our own that in order to achieve unity, we require faith in Christ, supported by the prayers of all the saints.

Since love is a central theme in Christian teaching, it is imperative that any community of Christians cultivate love for both God and neighbor (cf. Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31). In support of this, Paul invokes divine wisdom, a necessity for every good discernment that leads to truth.

  • How do you pray for the whole Church in your worship services? Do you know the people behind the names?
  • How will you pray for your faith community this week?

Matthew 25:31-46

Cataclysms like recent hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, and more invite human responses to God’s mission in the community.

Matthew’s narrative presents Jesus’ account of eschatological teaching, which comes immediately before the Passion. The good shepherd is now too judge and king, seated on his throne and administering justice. The sheep and the goats represent the human creation, and as in Ezekiel, the shepherd alone can identify his or her rightful flock. The Son of Man, to whom Scripture refers as the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13; 1 Peter 1: 20), will gather all nations and judge humanity.

As Christians, the take-away in this narrative is connected with human existence, a journey that informs our life both in the here-and-now and at our final destiny. The passage forms reasoning for acts of charity (or diakonia). How often did we recognize the Messiah in the little brothers and sisters of the Son of Man? Who is my neighbor? The reign of God, as it draws nearer, presents fresh opportunity for us to ask these questions and offer our hearts and thanksgiving to God.

  • When you read this passage, do you immediately think of yourself in the role of the sheep or the goats—or neither—or both? Why?

Written by The Rev. Fredrick Okoth, a priest from the Anglican Province of Kenya – Diocese of Bondo. He is married to Lilian Oduor and is a father of four children, Okoth holds a World Meteorologist Class II Course Certificate and worked with Kenya’s government in meteorological services for seven years. He holds a diploma in Pastoral Theology from Bishop Okullu College of Theology and Development, a Bachelor’s in Past Pastoral Theology from the Great Lakes University of Kisumu, and is working toward a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from the General Theological Seminary in New York. Okoth has been a priest for thirteen years, serving as priest-in-charge of four congregations in the Diocese of Bondo. He has also served as an area dean, secretary for clergy welfare, and clerical secretary in the diocesan synod.

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Bible Study, 24th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – November 19, 2017

Proper 28

[RCL]: Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Judges 4:1-7

The Israelites are seeking to take the land of Canaan and this chapter of Judges discusses the events that took place leading up to the capture of this land. Deborah is one of the major “Judges” or “charismatic leaders” of the Israelite people; she is also the only female prophet, or prophetess, in the book of Judges. In this passage, Deborah is summoning a general for the army, General Barak, who will lead the Israelite army against the Canaanite leader, Jabin, and his army. Jabin’s army is led by a general, a man named Sisera. Sisera, upon being defeated by Deborah’s army, flees and seeks refuge in the home of a woman named Jael. Jael, in the night, kills Sisera with a tent peg (Judges 4:17-22). Jael’s killing of Sisera completes Deborah’s prophecy that Sisera “will be given into your hand.”

In this passage from Judges, especially as it connects to the story of Sisera and Jael later in chapter 4, depicts two very strong and courageous women. These women in Judges are leading and conquering for Israel in surprising ways. We do not often see women in Scripture performing actions to honor God outside of their ability to bear children or be decent wives to men. But in Judges, we have both a female prophet who leads an Israelite army and an unsuspecting woman working undercover for the Israelite army, who is willing to kill the Canaanite general.

Outside of the violence of this chapter, it is important to uphold and name the impact of these female characters and what it says about women’s gifts for ministry. Women, like men, are capable of anything. Women, created in the image of God, have spiritual gifts that go far beyond biology and the societal definitions and expectations we have attached to that biology. Women have gifts to share in leadership within our congregations and within the larger tent of the Christian tradition.

  • How do you see the spiritual gifts of women being used and utilized in your parish? How are they honored for their gifts?
  • Where is God working within those around you in surprising and unprecedented ways, whether those people be male, female, trans, gay, straight, black, white?

Psalm 123

This psalm is a prayer for help or a psalm of lament. It begins as a personal lamentation, but then goes into a communal plea for help. This psalm describes God as being high above all of creation; you can almost imagine the speaker of this psalm looking up to the sky as he or she cries out to God. The psalmist conjures images of God, describing God as both Master and Mistress, male and female. The psalmist also talks to God directly, “To you I lift up my eyes.” This psalm is short but rich in imagery, displaying a personal relationship with a dynamic God. Most importantly, the psalmist is demonstrating how honest and transparent we can be with God, individually and in community. God hears all our cries and sorrows, all our fears and worries. There is nothing God will not hear, there is nothing we must hide from our God.

  • Do you cry out to God in prayer? How?
  • Do you feel like you must hide your feelings from God? How come?

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

While Paul believed that Jesus would be coming “any day now,” stressing at times that God might catch anyone, at any time, in the act of morally questionable behavior, this letter also suggests that Paul may have been advocating the living of faithful lives for the long haul.

Let’s give Paul the benefit of the doubt; Paul’s metaphor of a woman in labor, for example, articulates the work of transformation that lasts a lifetime. When a woman grows a child and then goes into labor, she and that new life are going through transformation: the woman is going into motherhood, the child is beginning his or her life. This transformation has its pains, but on the other side of the pain is a new life for all involved. This new life is not completely new; the woman is still the woman she was before. However, there’s a shift that has occurred and her life is now full of newness, a newness she is now responsible for nurturing and growing. The woman is now full of the new life that has begun and full of the new ways she now sees and interacts with the world around her, as a result of the transformation.

  • How has becoming a Christian or claiming your faith transformed you?
  • What labor pains have you been through in your faith journey? What does your faith look like on the other side of those labor pains? And where is God in the midst of the pains, the journey, the transformation?

Matthew 25:14-30

If we try to understand this passage as one where the “talents” are the actual talents, or spiritual gifts and skills we each possess, then we may begin to understand this passage differently. Let’s frame it this way: God is the master, and God has written into our individual lives our specific talents and spiritual gifts. God has given us these gifts and talents to be used, to be shared, in order to help make this world a better place. God is asking us to use our gifts, to follow Jesus and help make God’s kingdom manifest on this Earth. But if we are the last servant, the one who goes and hides his gifts and talents for fear of using them, then we are ignoring the gifts we have been given by God and are therefore not helping in the work of making God’s Kingdom manifest.

In this frame, the parable articulates how the relationship between master and servant, God and us, can be broken or at least put “on the rocks”. When we are not in right relationship with God, we are in our own version of despair. When we are not able to live out our individual calls, using our talents and skills for the betterment of God’s creation, then we are suffering. Surely in this place of brokenness, fear, and solitude, there is much “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. If we cannot live fully into our relationship with God by living out those gifts, callings, and skills we have been given, it can surely lead to a state of darkness and confusion.

  • What are the skills, gifts, and talents you have been hiding or have been afraid to share?
  • Heaven and Hell can be states of existence we pass in and out of in this life. Have you ever experienced moments of Heaven and Hell? Where was God in those moments?

 

The Rev. Erin Hougland is currently a transitional Deacon in the Diocese of Indianapolis, working as the Diocesan Pathways to Vitality Minister. As the Pathways to Vitality Minister, Erin is currently working at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, a thriving church plant in the diocese. Erin earned her B.A. in Theological Studies at Hanover College in 2008, her M.Div. from Earlham School of Religion in 2014, and is currently finishing her Anglican Studies Diploma at Bexley Seabury Seminary Federation, expected to finish in December 2017. Erin writes for GrowChristians.org and keeps her own blog at www.ehougland.com. She lives in Indianapolis with her husband and two sons, who keep her on her toes.

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Bible Study, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (A) – November 12, 2017

Proper 27

[RCL]: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

The people of Israel return to holy ground to renew the holy covenant in this, the final chapter of the Book of Joshua. Joshua has led the twelve tribes into the land of Canaan as promised by God, and this renewal of the covenant is the culmination of that period in the life of the people.

The people rehearse the story of God’s saving acts toward them: deliverance from slavery in Egypt, protection on the journey, and arrival in the land promised by God. God is consistently loyal and steadfast; the people often struggle with a similar response.

At this renewal of the covenant, Joshua presents the people with a decision to make: whom will you serve—the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt or other gods? This is not a choice to be made lightly or with verbal assent only. This choice requires the movement of the heart: “Incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

We daily have to answer the question: whom will you serve? The other gods in the lands where we reside work to distract our attention and acquire our service. We daily must say with Joshua, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

  • What are the other gods that reside in the land where you live? (“Isms” are usually a good place to begin.)
  • How do you daily choose to serve the Lord with mind and heart?

Psalm 78:1-7

The speaker in this psalm is a teaching voice from among the people: “Hear my teaching, O my people…” And what is it that the teacher wishes to communicate? The teacher intends to share the story and instruction of God so that it may pass from generation to generation.

As the psalmist notes, God requires this teaching from generation to generation. It is how the community shows a commitment to the covenant given by God. When later generations rely on the commandments as a way to order personal and communal life, God and the covenant are honored.

In the reading from the Book of Joshua, we heard of the need to “Incline your hearts to the Lord.” This psalm begins with the imperative to “Incline your ears to the words of [the teacher’s] mouth.” As people of faith, we incline our hearts to God and also listen and learn within our communities for the teachings that point us to God. We learn the stories of God and of ourselves in community—in the traditions of sacred word and symbol passed from generation to generation.

  • Who were your first “teachers” within the faith community?
  • How can we best equip future generations in the teachings and traditions of our faith?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Paul offers these words to the Thessalonians as words of encouragement. People have died, and Jesus has not yet returned as expected. What does it all mean?

Paul reminds the community that what it all means hinges on belief in Jesus. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus destroyed death. Period. No question mark. As Paul paints the picture of Jesus’ second coming, he assures the Thessalonians that all—both those who have died in Christ and those still alive—will be with the Lord.

The questions come when, after accepting belief in Jesus, there is a delay before Jesus’ triumphant return. The questions come as loved ones die and grieving and suffering continue. Those questions voiced by the Thessalonians continue today. What does it all mean?

Just like the Thessalonians, we too can be encouraged because of our belief in Jesus and Jesus’ destruction of death. Just like the Thessalonians (and Paul), we do not know when Jesus will return. We do know, however, that there is Jesus and that Jesus is resurrection. We are not a people without hope.

  • Have you ever had questions or concerns like those of the Thessalonians?
  • How do we focus on the hope of Jesus in this time while we wait for Jesus’ return?

Matthew 25:1-13

“The kingdom of heaven will be like this.” We know this construction; we know that we are about to hear one of Jesus’ parables. In this week following All Saints’ Sunday where we contemplated the whole company of heaven, we should expect a parable attentive to the second coming.

This theme will command our attention in the season of Advent. As the liturgical year draws to a close, we meditate on the second coming of Christ. We sensed this focus in the reading from 1 Thessalonians, and it is continued in the parable Jesus shares: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The ten bridesmaids wait anxiously—even if falling asleep—for the arrival of the bridegroom. The wise prepare with extra oil for their lamps and the foolish do not. Heralds of the Advent message seem to reverberate: “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3).

With what we know of parables, however, we know better than to try and encapsulate the full meaning of the parable in one, quick reflection (if ever). The parables demand a bit more of us.

We can allow our imaginations to be captivated by the coming bridegroom and the need to prepare while also being open to questions that prompt our further exploration of the parable.

I wonder where the foolish bridesmaids were to go and buy oil at the midnight hour…

  • What further questions (as the “wondering” offered above) do you have when you consider this parable?
  • How do you get ready to get ready? In what ways can we prepare for the season of Advent?

 

Elizabeth Farr is a Candidate for Holy Orders from the Diocese of East Tennessee and a current Senior Seminarian at the School of Theology at The University of the South. A “cradle Episcopalian,” Elizabeth is a 2007 graduate of the University of the South College of Arts and Sciences. In her vocational life before seminary, Elizabeth served as the Youth Director at Bruton Parish, Williamsburg, Virginia, and, most recently, Good Shepherd, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Elizabeth is married to Matthew Farr, a recently ordained priest serving in the Diocese of Tennessee, and they are parents to an active, three-year-old boy.

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Bible Study, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (A) – November 5, 2017

Proper 26

[RCL]: Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Joshua 3:7-17

As Joshua and the Israelites ready to fight against Jericho, they spiritually prepare for battle at the Jordan River. God powerfully reveals his presence with them by stopping the Jordan River and allowing the people of God to cross over on dry ground. This not only reminds them of their redemption and liberation from Egypt at the Red Sea, but it also affirms and validates the leadership of Joshua—who has stepped into the massive leadership footsteps of the great Moses. God’s people are powerfully reminded that God is with them as they head into battle.

  • As you face various “battles” in life, how can our Exodus—our redemption from sin and death in Jesus—be of encouragement to you?
  • Jesus, who is our Moses and our Joshua, now leads us forward in life. Where is he leading you? How can you more closely align yourself with his leadership?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

As a response to the Joshua reading above, this is a psalm of thanksgiving, reminding the readers of all that God has done to redeem them—to gather them and set them on the road to abundance and life. As God calls us to new adventures of faith, we can remember the many ways God has worked in our own lives, bringing us out of meaninglessness and despair onto the pathway toward life and peace. As God has worked in the past, we can be confident that he will continue to work in our future as we seek first his kingdom and look ahead to our full redemption on the Last Day.

  • Consider now how God has worked in your past. How has he shown himself to be a God of redemption and liberation?
  • As you consider the challenges in life before you this day, how can the remembrance of the past help give you proper perspective on your future?

 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

In this epistle, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his tireless work to bring them the Word of God, the gospel. Paul’s ministry was marked by integrity, hard work, and love for those to whom he ministered. He expresses gratitude for the ways in which the Thessalonians recognized and accepted Paul’s message as having a divine origin and not one of Paul’s own making. It should be noted that there was a powerful partnership of both word and deed in Paul’s ministry; he not only spoke the gospel, he lived it out among them.

  • Take stock of the key relationships in your life right now. Think of people that you see regularly and with whom you are highly invested in relationally. How can you more fully live out a holistic expression of the gospel with them – one where you are honest about your faith in Jesus and where you seek to live it with love, integrity, and devotion?

Matthew 23:1-12

In this gospel reading, Jesus discounts the ministry of the Scribes and Pharisees for their hypocritical ways. They love to teach others how to live according to the will of God, yet fail to live what they preach. “Do as I say, not as I do!” Most parents know how little this works. Kids pick up more what you do than what you say – and sometimes to embarrassing results! We want children to use proper etiquette and manners, and yet often we face the embarrassment of kids taking on the bad habits of their parents. We are all called to live out the gospel of Jesus and emulate his life of love and devotion. We have been sent out into the world as agents of peace and reconciliation.

  • In your mind’s eye, walk through the various situations and challenges you are facing today. How can you more faithfully live out the gospel of Jesus in those situations?

Allen Wakabayashi is currently serving as Curate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Gladstone, N.J. He attended Nashotah House seminary. He is currently a deacon and anticipates, God willing, to be ordained to the priesthood early in 2018. He is happily married to his wife, Diane, who is also on the ordination path to the priesthood. Allen’s passion is to see college students fall in love with Jesus and become lifelong agents of the gospel.

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Bible Study, 21st Sunday after Pentecost (A) – October 29, 2017

Proper 25

[RCL]: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Functionally, this passage tells of the geographical conquest that the Israelites have achieved, and the passing of power from Moses to Joshua. However, I think the most intriguing part is just at the end – “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” This idea of God knowing us face to face is so appealing to me. There is an intimacy—a closeness—of looking into someone’s eyes, and I can’t help but wonder what that kind of intimacy with God was like for Moses.

Who knows us face to face in our lives? How might God know us this way, too? When someone looks at us face to face, what do we turn away from?

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

This psalm is all about time. It speaks of the time before the mountains were called forth, and the time that we will return to the earth and become dust. God, though, is timeless through it all – “from age to age, you are God.”

It reminds me of something Audre Lorde said – that time is not linear, but rather like an ocean. The past, present, and future all touch each other in our consciousness and our experiences. In this way, Moses is close to us – because he is held by God, just as we are. All of the Christians who have passed, all who came before, and all who will come after us, and all of us now, are held together by God, who is unchanging and constant.

What are the ways we remember God daily? How do we strive to be faithful to God as God is faithful to us?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

There is something about many of the epistles that appeals to me. I think it is because I love to receive mail so much. I am enamored, in some ways, with the idea of churches writing to one another in encouragement in the faith – I do not always like what Paul has to say, but the idea behind it, that together we are made stronger as the body of Christ, is so appealing to me. Here, in one of the more pastoral letters, Paul talks to the community about his love for them. He talks about how dear the Thessalonians are, and how much he wants to share the gospel with them.

With whom do you want to share the gospel? Who is near to your heart?

Matthew 22:34-46

In this gospel, we see love as the greatest commandment. Those who are trying to trick Jesus are answered with love – that the greatest commandment is to love God and then one another. In this gospel, loving God and loving one another are so intricately tied to each other. I like that we love and serve God, in part, by loving and serving one another. It makes me think, too, of the way we define church. Surely, we should be loving and serving others all day long. Perhaps it is by smiling and saying thank you to the coffee barista in the morning, or maybe we can treat someone to lunch today, or maybe we can give our time and our hearts to be present with a co-worker or friend going through a rough patch, or maybe we can cook dinner for someone else—the opportunities are endless. We are in a world in need, giving us the opportunity to meet and love God wherever we go.

How did you serve God today? How did you love another?

 

Jazzy Bostock is a sun-loving, big-dreaming, laugh-adoring, God-praising, Native Hawaiian woman, in her third year at seminary. She believes deeply in the power of kindness, compassion, gentleness, and most of all, love. She is grateful for the opportunity God has given her to be here, and for all that God is. Mahalo piha.

 

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Bible Study, 20th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – October 22, 2017

Proper 24

[RCL]: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Exodus 33:12-23

The context of this passage is the sin of the golden calf and Moses’ responding intercession on behalf of the Israelites. That act had granted a tentative reprieve, but Moses here reengages God with a frantic, bulldog-like quality that recalls Abraham’s interaction with God over Sodom (Genesis 18). Moses thus has the courage to seek God, to ask for the forgiveness of his people, and even to fight for a further concession. In response, God’s revelation is limited and partial, with the curiously round-about quality of God’s self-description in verse 19: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,” echoing the famous “I am” formula concerning God’s name (Exodus 3:14).

At stake, then, is our understanding of God as transcendent, untouchable, and unviewable, versus God’s willingness to intervene on behalf of even the most stiff-necked of folks. The theophany that occurs in this story beautifully bears witness to both. Elsewhere, God will answer this question with another: “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” (Jeremiah 23:23).

  • In our prayer lives, when do we know that “enough is enough” and one should let go of a prayer? When is it more important to keep pushing?
  • What do you imagine that Moses sees in this scene? 

Psalm 99

In this psalm, we hear both of God’s particularity, as revealed through God’s relationship with Israel, and God’s universality, through the magnificent language of holiness. Importantly, it balances both mercy and justice, such that holiness is not a “separatist stance but a relational stance” and, like the Exodus reading, it speaks to the paradox of a God “not set apart from the world, but rather set apart to the world.”[1] Israel is called to have such a relationship reciprocally with God.

How does the psalm suggest we manage that? It appeals to the great tradition of famous intercessors from the past who have done that very thing, mediated in awesome and fabulous ways, throughout Israel’s history. Moses receives particular attention as an interlocutor between humanity and God, with six references occurring in this section of the Book of Psalms (90-106).

Our challenge is to recognize our capacity to be such an intercessor, in the line of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, so that we might help God’s people speak with God today.

  • Some translations render the second half of 99:3, referring to God’s holiness, as “Holy is He!” (ESV) or “He is Holy” (NIV). (Interestingly, the King James Version reads “for it is”) How do those translations, and the Book of Common Prayer’s “he is the Holy One,” add to or detract from your understanding of God?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Since they are generally recognized to be the oldest Christian writing available to us, I read these lines of Scripture with a particular awe. That understanding, of course, must be tempered by the reality that the letter itself was written deep into Paul’s ministerial career. Thus, although we are reading 1 Thessalonians as the earliest of Christian witness among the extant letters, it demonstrates a writer already well-versed in his subject material. Already present then are Paul’s famous triad of “faith, hope and love” in verse 3, the statement of High Christology in verse 1, and all the tantalizing clues to the history of the Early Church.

For us today, we might encounter Paul’s statement about becoming “imitators of us and of the Lord” (v. 6) as somewhat arrogant. Given Paul’s context, one without the long history and tradition of Christian apologetics with which we are blessed, it is not only logical that Paul would point to himself as a model but, given the persecution that he mentions in the same line, utterly brave.

  • After reading this selection, how do you read the second person pronoun in the next chapter’s verse 4? As singular or plural? Why?

Matthew 22:15-22

If there had been a modern press pool following Jesus and the Pharisees’ exchange, an enterprising journalist might have asked the follow-up question: “What are the things entitled to the emperor? And what are the things entitled to God?” Such a clarifying rejoinder was not, however, asked or recorded, as in fact, Matthew continues his narrative with yet another exchange between Jesus and the hostile opposition.

The “coin debate” has vexed readers ever since. One noble attempt to answer it was provided by Roger Williams, the 17th-century theologian, who was an early proponent of the separation of church and state. Williams is a fascinating figure in the history of the Church; he tried to argue (against the Puritan concept of Christendom dominant in his day) that Scripture itself supported both freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Williams suffered for that belief, but always maintained that “God is too large to be housed under one roof.”

Our modern understanding of church-state relations is as flawed and limited as the Pharisees’ original. Williams’ witness and Jesus’ response are, at the very least, a reminder that criticism of the government has itself a long lineage in the Church.

  • How does one effectively discern when one should cooperate with governmental authority and when one should resist?

[1] Brueggemann, Walter, & William H. Bellinger (2015). Psalms. New York: Cambridge. 425.

Originally from St. Stephen’s, Culpeper, Charles Cowherd is a candidate for the priesthood in the Diocese of Virginia.

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Bible Study, 19th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – October 15, 2017

Proper 23

[RCL] Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Exodus 32:1-14

In today’s culture, it is easy to expect immediate results. Fad diets, wireless internet, and other trends and technologies have taught us that we can stay connected and get feedback without waiting. It appears the people of Israel suffered the same expectations; a lack of patience for Moses to return drove them to build and worship false idols. It is hard to remember that our time is not God’s time. When we sit before the Lord, it is in our stillness and patience that God becomes clearer.

  • What idols do we build and worship instead of God in our own impatience?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.” This psalm is the antithesis of the Exodus passage. It speaks of divine goodness and eternal gladness and glory, which we can dwell upon if we keep our hearts pointed toward God. It notes the wrongdoing of the people of Israel when they made and worshiped the golden calf, and acknowledges the continued wickedness of which humanity is capable. But it turns our hearts back toward God, reminds us of the intervention of Moses, and praises the Lord who has mercy eternal.

  • How do we turn our shortcomings into praises for God like the psalmist here?

Philippians 4:1-9

St. Paul loves the community at Philippi. Philippians is often referred to as the friendship letter because of his affectionate tone and reassurances. This passage seems to fit right in with that assertion. We are reminded, not for the first time in this letter, to be of the same mind as Christ. And he gives examples of good people doing that work. Then we encounter the juxtaposition of worry and peace. This can be one of the hardest things to do as human beings, to not worry in the face of all the uncertainty of the world. But St. Paul assures us that Godly peace which we could never fathom will guard our hearts and minds if we commit to the practice of releasing our worries to God.

  • Research says it takes 21 days to create a habit – how can we commit to prayerfully submit our requests to God for at least three weeks? Do you think it will actually yield peace beyond understanding? What might that feel like in comparison to worry? Can we trust the wisdom of St. Paul and try it?

Matthew 22:1-14

This is a parable that weaves very tightly the themes of invitation and judgment. It’s hard to determine where the hope is when so many people are disregarded or thrown out. But the message is this: the work of God in the world takes commitment. Once we get past the people who choose their own selfishness and cruelty over the invitation (which we read as the love and work of God in the world), we find that all are invited to the banquet. The issue becomes that even though all are invited, not all are ready to fully participate or commit to the experience. The transformation of our lives in God is complete. There is nothing that is not changed by the love and work of God in us. So to only be partially ready is to not be ready at all, hence why the man without a robe is thrown out. It is serious work, and we must take the invitation to do it seriously.

  • Each of us has a wedding robe to put on to attend the banquet. That is, each of us must be fully committed to the Christian life when God calls on us. What does your robe look like? What must you do or think or get rid of to be ready and willing to answer the invitation?

 

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Bible Study, 18th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – October 8, 2017

Proper 22

[RCL:] Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Isaiah 5:1-7

In this reading, we hear the consequences of God’s deep disappointment. Regardless of the goodness of God’s creation and the abundance of God’s provision for God’s people, all this careful work and love has not yielded good fruit. Instead it has brought forth “bad grapes.” God provided and Israel did not hold up their end of the covenant. God’s threats of destruction and wrath are possible for me to understand on a human level, but make me very uncomfortable when it comes to God. However, hearing of God’s heartbreak and disappointment does make me mindful of how what I do impacts not only me and others, but also God’s self. With the gifts I have been given, I am accountable to all to use them justly and rightly. 

Psalm 80:7-14

As Psalm 80 responds to the Isaiah passage, one can hear a dialogue going across these two readings. God issues the complaint against Israel in Isaiah. Then, after danger, destruction and hardship, Israel reaches back out to God. The psalmist remembers how God once tended and cared for Israel. This suggests that the tending and restoration of Israel is about more than rebuilding with bricks and mortar, but that it has to do with repairing a strained, or even broken, relationship with God. There is a deep trust in God’s own faithfulness to Israel expressed, which gives voice to the hope that whatever may be broken and lost can only be restored with God’s help and care.

Philippians 3:4b-14

Paul’s account in this reading from Philippians shows how his world was completely turned upside down by Jesus. As much as Paul was transformed, there is a lot of the zeal and passion in Saul the Pharisee that remains in Paul the Apostle. Paul admits that he had utmost confidence in his righteousness and faithfulness as a Pharisee. He lived out those beliefs fiercely. Paul tells of his radical transformation from trusting in his own abilities to be a faithful follower to acknowledging that all his trust and confidence must rest in God alone. His conversion included the understanding that righteousness, grace and faith are all gifts from God. In Philippians, we hear of Paul’s passionate faith in Christ Jesus. His story of conversion reveals that while we may be transformed into new life in our faith, we do not necessarily lose those essential parts of ourselves that may be offered up in service to the spreading of the Gospel and following Christ.

Matthew 21:33-46

Who do you imagine you are in this parable? Do you feel like a persecuted messenger? Have you been the persecuting tenant? Do you wonder if you are producing fruits of the kingdom or falling and stumbling all over the cornerstone?

Today’s readings illustrate from a variety of perspectives a desire for and resistance to relationship with God. God’s people throughout the ages, not only in the Bible have rejected God, Christ and God’s other faithful messengers. We hear from Paul in Philippians that this is a risk worth taking for the sake of the Gospel. God’s desire for reaching and reconciling humanity goes so far as to send God’s own Son, God’s self to reach us, even if it means a humiliating death on a cross. Threats of God laying waste to Israel (in Isaiah) and of being broken or crushed by the cornerstone (in Matthew) are unsettling and challenging. Yet the pleas of the psalmist and the radical transformation of Paul give me hope. In the brokenness in our relationships with God and each other, where faith still rests in God, there is hope in restoration and resurrection.

This Bible Study by Jennifer Landis originally ran for Proper 22 (A) in 2011.

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Bible Study, 17th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – October 1, 2017

Proper 21

[RCL:] Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Exodus 17:1-7

Anyone who has been in a position of leadership can relate to Moses’ dilemma in this passage.  Acting on faith and with divine guidance, he is leading his people from slavery into the promised land.  Moses might be tempted by the potential for personal power, but he never really gets a chance.  Instead, he finds himself in a “don’t shoot the messenger!” situation when there is a scarcity of water for his people.  His people did what people do: they complained, they quarreled, and they turned on Moses.  And Moses, in turn, sought the ear of the Lord in his frustration, asking, “What shall I do with this people?”  As you might hear, the narrative becomes more about quarreling and blame than it does about the vital, living water.  The instruction Moses receives from the Lord isn’t about managing the people, but about how to draw that life-giving water in abundance from a place of seeming scarcity.  And, no surprise, at the source of this water is the Lord, “I will be standing there in front of you…” reminding us of God’s eternal presence even in times when we are parched, quarrelsome, and doubtful.

  • What are the quarrels and complaints that can keep us from experiencing the providential love of God?
  • When have you noticed unexpected abundance, exactly when you needed it most? Where was God in that time?

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

In these sections of Psalm 78, the narrative from Exodus can be found woven into the larger life and context of the people of Israel.  Psalm 78 is often characterized as a Covenant or Liturgical Psalm.  Neither a lament nor a song of praise, these psalms were used to characterize the public worship of the people as a community of faith.  This psalm recounts praise-worthy actions of divine intervention: freedom from oppression, splitting open the sea, leading by a cloud, splitting open the rocks to provide water.  This ritual of remembering and recounting is a community-building act of worship.  It is, perhaps, the exact opposite of selfish complaining because it draws attention to communal recognition of God, whose actions are greater than any of us individually could accomplish.

  • What is the earliest story you remember hearing about God’s providence for God’s people from the Hebrew Scriptures? What stands out about these “Sunday School Stories” for us today?
  • What are the actions of God toward the people of God that should be remembered and retold to our own children, and our children’s children?

Philippians 2:1-13

“… be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

There are many times in our contemporary lives when it seems like being of one mind is an impossible reality.  Political and ideological differences pull us in different directions and fill our minds with sounds bites of divisive rhetoric.  And yet, the language of this Epistle to the Philippians tells us to be of the same mind, to have the same love and to do all of this because of the lavish and loving example set forth by Jesus Christ.  It is sobering to read words written thousands of years ago and feel them still convicting our hearts and exhorting our actions about how to be Church in the world.  At the core of the reminders of this Epistle are the virtues of humility and service.  Or, in other words, “is it better to be right, or to be kind?”  There are lessons in this Epistle for vestries, for church leaders, for our own devotional reflections.  Jesus is our example: how do we find the humility to live into that example rather than succumbing to our own wants and needs?

  • How does our Baptismal Covenant instruct us to act out of the same mind and the same love of Christ? Name examples of the way you have observed this lived out covenant in your lives both in the church and in the world.
  • What are the areas where you struggle to be of the same mind and the same love as Christ and each other: as a person, as a parish, and/or as the Church? Name these areas, and consider ways to hold both the division and the possibility of reconciliation in Christ in your prayers.

Matthew 21:23-32

This Gospel lesson plays out almost like a theatrical scene: Jesus is met with a question and responds with a question which is lobbed around almost like a tennis ball among the officials and the people.   With all the banter back and forth about how to answer the question and what that answer might imply, it quickly becomes clear that what was posed to Jesus as he approached was really more of a trap than an honest question.  And so it is that Jesus uses a parable to further illustrate the folly of our attempts to please others (or God), which end up revealing our own lack of moral grounding.  Jesus illustrates what we might call the “question behind the question” to strip away all of the pretense and break down the rhetoric around what one should say, in order to reveal one’s true intentions.  The almost incomprehensible reality is that God doesn’t ask us to say and do what we think will please God.  God asks us to come, humbly and honestly, exactly as we are with our hearts open to God’s transforming love.

  • What are places in our lives where our lips are saying “yes” to God, but our actions are not following through? How can we align our yes-saying with our yes-doing?
  • How can we ask questions of others with openness, inviting genuine conversation without expecting a particular response? How does this apply to our lives of prayer, and to our lives of Christian service?

Sarah Kye Price is a postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Virginia and Professor of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is a third-year seminarian in the low-residency program at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, preparing for bi-vocational ministry.

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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 not 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.

Download the Bible Study for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (A).