Bible Study, All Saints (C) – November 1, 2016

[RCL] Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Visions and dreams in the Bible are fascinating, perhaps because they are often considered sacred. At the time that Daniel was living, these visions were interpreted to be about politics, foretelling a possible future. Daniel decided to write down his dream and also to seek out someone else to help him make sense of what he had seen.

  • Do you interpret your dreams?
  • What might God be telling you in your dreams?
  • Who do you trust to help you interpret things in your life? 

Psalm 149

The beginning of this psalm is all about joy and rejoicing. Praise God with song, and dance, and noise. So often we get used to the quiet in our liturgy, and we forget that it is okay to bring our shouts to God as well. God asks for us to love with all that we have, and that includes dancing with our bodies and shouting with our lungs. We are told that ‘the Lord takes pleasure in His people,’ and we should take pleasure in God too!

  • How can the praises of God be in our throat?
  • What are you afraid to bring to God, and how might you think of it as worship?

Ephesians 1:11-23

This letter to the Ephesians suggests that we “might live for the praise of Christ’s glory.” I am always struck in reading through this set of letters how important it is to encourage one another in faith. Christianity is not undertaken alone, but rather is the work of community – it takes all of us speaking words of encouragement to one another so that we might not forget Christ and what He has done for us.

  • Who is someone you can pray for, to encourage them in the faith?
  • What do you think is ‘the hope to which we are called?’ 

Luke 6:20-31

On this All Saints celebration, the words of the beatitudes are particularly striking, specifically in the places where Jesus mentions “for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” We are connected to those who came before us, and it can be powerful to remember our place. I am reminded that each of us walks on the shoulders of our ancestors, and brings to life a legacy much larger than us. We walk in the footsteps of giants – not just in the ones who came before us in our family, but also in the ones who came before us in our story of faith. A beautiful song by Sweet Honey in the Rock, is called We Are.

“We are our Grandmother’s prayers. We are our grandfather’s dreamings. We are the breath of the ancestors. We are the spirit of God”.

We are in a moment of time now to think not only of the ones whose footsteps we walk in, or whose shoulders we are carried on – but also to think about the legacy that we are leaving for the next generation.

  • What are we doing to the prophets of this age?
  • How will we carry our future generations on our shoulders?

Written by Jazzy Bostock. Bostock is a self-described sun-loving, big-dreaming, laugh-adoring, God-praising, Native Hawaiian woman attending 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 me to be here, and for all that God is. Mahalo piha.”

Download the Bible Study for All Saints, Year C.

Bible Study, Proper 26(C) – October 30, 2016

[RCL] Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Habakkuk’s prophecy begins with pointed questions addressed to God. Habakkuk sees injustice all around. He cries to God, but feels that God does not listen, or does not save. To hear Habakkuk tell it, God even makes Habakkuk witness wrongdoing and evil, and nothing is done about it. In short, Habakkuk is a prophet for our times, who seethes at injustice and isn’t afraid to demand where God is. The whole first chapter is a description of just such a trying situation. Far from giving up in frustration or surrendering to injustice, however, Habakkuk resolves to remain faithful. In return, God promises justice, and that the proud will be humbled, and the righteous will live.

  • What situations or issues today make you wonder where God is?
  • Just as Habakkuk resolved to stand at his watch-post, how can you remain faithful to God and God’s mission in the face of injustice?

Psalm 119:137-144

In this section of Psalm 119, the Psalmist is vexed that God’s word is not being followed properly. God and God’s decrees are described as good, upright, and just. For the Psalmist, following God’s word is both an obligation and a delight. Despite being “small” and “of little account,” the author of this song to God follows God’s word, and prays that all creation will do likewise. Moreover, the Psalmist seeks understanding of God’s word, and that understanding is equated with life. God sits in righteous judgment of all, but many simply do not realize, or do not understand. Yet even in distress, the author revels in God’s commandments.

  • In what ways do we fail to recognize God’s justice and faithfulness?
  • What is the benefit of recognizing oneself as “small” and “of little account” in relation to God?
  • What understanding might we pray for, in relation to God’s will for us and for the world?

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

In the beginning of his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul gives thanks for the faithfulness and love found in that community. He says that he holds them up as an example to everyone he meets, and also that he continues to pray for them, that they might continue along the path that they seem to be on. In addition to faith and love, however, Paul prays for resolve for them, and works of faith. He prays that these will occur by God’s power, but it is clear that he thinks these a naturally outgrowth or next step following from faithfulness. It is by resolve and good works that Paul says the name of Jesus will be glorified in the community.

  • Is there someone whose faithfulness and love you admire? Have you thought about praying for them, that they might continue on this path?
  • Have you ever asked anyone to pray for your faith, or that you might be more loving?
  • What works do you feel that God may be leading you to? How might you work to glorify the name of Jesus in your community?

Luke 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus is an interesting one. Jesus simply happens to be passing through Jericho when he sees Zacchaeus in a sycamore tree and tells him to come down so that Jesus can stay at his home that evening. Zacchaeus, of course, is a rich man and a tax collector, and for this reason is a known sinner in the community. He has profited off of his neighbors. And yet, Jesus still comes to him. In the end, Zacchaeus gives away half of his possessions to the poor and pays back anyone he has wronged, but he promises to do so only after he encounters Jesus. Jesus uses Zacchaeus as an example, proclaiming that he, too, is a son of Abraham. While we often speak (and rightly so) of a preferential option for the poor. Zacchaeus, however, is something of a counterexample, showing us that while we should indeed privilege the marginalized, that does not necessarily mean that we should marginalize the privileged.

  • How do we as Christians bring the Gospel to all, even those we might think to be sinners?
  • What privileges might you have that could be used to spread the Good News?

Written by Ian Lasch. Lasch graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary in May 2016. He was ordained to the transitional diaconate in the same month through the Diocese of Georgia, and now serves as the Associate Rector for Formation and Fellowship at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis, MO.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 26(C).

Bible Study, Proper 25(C) – October 23, 2016

[RCL] Joel 2:23-32; Ps. 65: 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Joel 2:23-32

In the brief writings of the prophet Joel, Israel has suffered a devastating loss of crops due to swarms of locusts. This destruction of natural resources seems to have come as a kind of discipline that pointed toward “the day of the Lord” in which God’s justice would come and eliminate the evil and unrighteous, and restore the faithful. Once again, however, we see the Lord graciously call his people to repentance and restoration — always his primary goal! When the nation turns back to him, a celebration is called for: “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God” (v.23). The Lord promises to restore their crops abundantly – bread, wine, and oil for all! Not only is the Lord’s mercy poured out in his blessing of natural resources, but the promise of his very Spirit is given. Joel speaks of a time when God’s Spirit will be poured out “on all flesh” (v.28). We know this to be fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2), the so-called “birth of the church”.

  • Recall a time that you felt the Lord’s displeasure. How did you go about seeking to be restored? When you turn back to the Lord, how do you rejoice in his grace and in his love for you?
  • How have you experienced the pouring out of God’s Spirit in your own life? Are you aware of particular spiritual gifts God has given you?

Psalm 65

Psalmists know how to revel in the beauty of God’s creation. In today’s psalm, you can imagine the author praying in the temple, barely able to contain his joy. Perhaps his hands are lifted heavenward; perhaps tears of joy, of gratitude, stream down his face. He is bubbling up with thanksgiving that he is invited to dwell in the “courts” of the Lord, the locus of God’s Holy Presence. As Christians, we have the joy of knowing God’s presence resides in us as individuals throughout each day, but also that the Holy Spirit is with us powerfully when we worship corporately in our churches. The One who set the boundaries of the seas, provides grain, and laid green pastures upon the earth, meets us each time we gather for the liturgy, and our hearts are turned toward Him in praise, wonder, and thanksgiving. He then gives us his very Self in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine.

  • How have church buildings shaped the way you think about God?
  • Are there particular things in your church (icons, statues, architecture, etc.) that touch your senses and lift your heart towards God in worship?
  • Do you experience God’s presence in a different way when you are gathered with others than when you are worshiping alone?

2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

Paul is always calling his apprentice-in-the-Lord Timothy to boldly embrace the gifts he has been given, and to proclaim the Gospel in all situations. Here, Timothy is given imagery of Paul’s life as a drink offering, poured out before the Lord. Paul has emptied himself out, giving everything that he may obtain the “crown of righteousness” that God will give to “all who have longed for his appearing” (v.8). Paul had a strong sense that, even in the face of opposition, the Lord was right there with him, enabling him to be bold and to announce the Gospel to all. We too live in an age where the Gospel message is not always received favorably. In some parts of the world, to proclaim that message is to seal one’s imminent fate. Yet, we are called by our Lord to be resolutely committed to the proclamation of his forgiveness and saving love in Jesus Christ.

  • How do you proclaim the Gospel? Have you tried different ways of telling people about Jesus? What has worked best for you?
  • Have you ever felt rejected or scorned by the people around you because of your faith? Were you aware of the Lord’s presence with you in that situation?

Luke 18:9-14

You will often hear people saying that Jesus preferred the company of prostitutes and sinners to the religious folks of his day. Certainly Jesus did hang out with such people, but the statement often becomes an argument for what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” – that is, an understanding of grace which minimizes concern about sin, and simply “rests in God’s grace.” But when someone receives God’s grace, they will show signs of truly loving God, which Jesus says is manifested in obedience to his commandments (John 14:15). And to even recognize the need for God’s grace, one must first recognize a problem in oneself — sinfulness. Jesus’ parable criticizes a self-righteous Pharisee who believes himself to be right with God by contrasting him with a tax collector who recognizes the depths of his own sinfulness. The latter cries out to God, admitting his unworthiness and his need for redemption. Jesus says that this infamous sinner is the one who is justified because of his humility. He doesn’t simply praise him because he is a sinner; he calls him “justified” because of his willingness to admit his sin and to seek forgiveness. To this humble cry, God is always pleased to respond in acceptance, and the angels in heaven rejoice.

  • Have you heard anyone use “cheap grace” theology to justify sin?
  • Notice how Jesus’ interactions with “sinners” often ends – he announces forgiveness and sends them off, telling them to cease from their sinfulness. Why is this cessation necessary for the life of the Christian disciple?
  • Do you use any practices or spiritual disciplines which help cultivate humility? How have they made you more aware of your need for God’s grace?

Written by Cameron MacMillan. He is a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Central Florida. He and his wife enjoy outdoor adventures with their border collie, Charleigh. His passions are cross-cultural ministry, evangelism, and liturgical theology.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 25(C).

Bible Study, Proper 24(C) – October 16, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Jeremiah 31:27-34

 The prophet’s words vividly illustrate the much-anticipated community of the new covenant to a people who have been suffering in estrangement from YHWH for many years. Verses 27 through 30 use a potentially confusing metaphor to describe a common complaint, namely that innocent generations of God’s covenant people are languishing as divine punishment for the sins of their forebears. In the future, Jeremiah tells us, only those who eat the sour grapes of disobedience will experience the troubling results.

Verse 31 is the only place in the Old Testament canon where we find the particular phrase translated here as “a new covenant.” The next three verses, then, may provide us with a uniquely significant vision of this new covenant from a prophetic perspective that is firmly situated within (and honors) the community of the first covenant. This new covenant will be initiated by YHWH, who will write the law on each person’s heart and forgive all sins.

  • Consider the concept of God’s law written on human hearts. How might an intuitive, uniquely personal divine law be more or less useful/interpretable/valuable than a physically written one?
  • Verse 34 speaks of knowing the Lord. What kind of knowledge is being described? Is it an intellectual awareness of God’s existence, or is there something more to Jeremiah’s knowledge?

Psalm 119:97-104

These verses are undeniably beautiful. However, today’s readers may find ourselves confused in the midst of this unrestrained praise of divine law. American Christians tend not to associate words like law, commandments, and decrees with concepts like love and sweetness. Generally speaking, we don’t like being told what to do (even if God is the one telling us)! But the Psalmist carries no such baggage. These verses celebrate and rejoice over the law – not so much as a written document of rules to be followed, but as a dynamic and invaluable revelation of God’s will and character for the benefit of human lives.

  • Compare and contrast verse 97’s “in my mind” with the description of the law being written on hearts from Jeremiah 31:33. How do these two metaphors complement each other, and what differences of nuance might we infer?
  • What might this effusive celebration of divine commandments teach us if we consider it in light of Jesus’s commandments, as recorded in the Gospels? Where can we find sweetness easily, and where are we challenged to find sweetness?

2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5

Paul’s second letter to Timothy strikes a more personal, almost fatherly, tone than his first. In 3:14-15, Paul refers to Timothy’s younger years and the people who first taught him about God, namely his mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois. Paul himself was a later instructor to Timothy (hence the fatherly tone), and his recognition of the foundational importance of Eunice’s and Lois’s teachings may serve to solidify his emphasis on the role of the Hebrew scriptures with regards to the Gospel of Christ. The Old Testament (although of course Paul would not have used such language) is not to be discarded or ignored; rather, it is divinely inspired and perpetually useful alongside the Gospel.

In 4:1-5, Paul encourages Timothy to remain steadfast in his Gospel ministry, with special attention to the challenge of “itching ears” (vs. 3). These “itching ears” do not necessarily indicate malicious or destructive intent on the part of the hearer. One’s ears might itch out of curiosity, intrigue, or excitement, but the potential result of scratching the itch is spiritual disaster. Our “itching ears” can lead us away from the challenging but saving Gospel to the more palatable but empty myths that surround us.

  • How does Paul’s description of the Old Testament as sacred and inspired challenge us, particularly regarding places where we may sense a contrast between OT messages and the words of Jesus?
  • What causes our ears to “itch,” and what practices or strategies can help us resist scratching those itches?

Luke 18:1-8

The parable of the widow and the unjust judge does not appear in any of the other canonical Gospels. Equally intriguing is the author’s statement of the lesson in the first verse. Why does Luke bother recording the entire parable when he has already told us that it means we should “pray always and not [to] lose heart”? Perhaps there is more depth to this parable than is captured in verse 1.

Consider the judge and the widow. This judge appears to be the opposite of what a judge should be – whereas a judge in this context should be the widow’s ally and should use his power to render justice in light of God’s laws and in favor of the needy, this judge doesn’t care about the widow, or her problems, or even God! And the widow, who is powerless in her society, uses the only assets she has at her disposal – persistence and honesty.

The judge eventually rules in the widow’s favor, not because he cares for justice, but because her honesty and persistence are a problem for him. The language of verse 5, where the judge says that the widow is “bothering” him and may “wear [him] out” by repeatedly bringing her complaint, has some illuminating alternate translations including “shaming,” “embarrassing,” and even “slapping [the judge] in the face!” Thus the widow, conventionally powerless, has claimed a righteous power and brought about justice and vindication through her persistence and honesty.

  • Where might we see persistent cries for justice from those who lack conventional power in our own communities, and how might we be called to engage and/or respond?
  • Jesus ends the parable with a striking question: “[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” How can we support one another in persistence, honesty, and faith in spite of tragedy, injustice, and division?

The Rev. Margaret (Maggie) Leidheiser-Stoddard graduated from Bexley-Seabury Seminary Federation with her Diploma in Anglican Studies in May 2016. She earned her M.Div. from Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, CA), and an M.A. in Religion & Modernity from Queen’s University (Kingston, ON). She was ordained to the transitional diaconate in June 2016, and will begin a residency at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington, OH this fall. She lives in Bexley, OH with her husband, son, and guinea pig.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 24(C).

Bible Study, Proper 23(C) – October 9, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Jeremiah 29:1,4-7

The Rule of St. Benedict talks about the virtue of stability. In being stable, we open ourselves to find Christ in people and places and situations that are unpleasant or mundane. God’s people in the reading from Jeremiah found themselves in exile for their sins. While our circumstances are not nearly as disheartening or dramatic, the feeling of being stuck in a job/family/city/church that is particularly undesirable will be familiar to most of us. However, if we are always preoccupied with the Next Big Thing to add meaning and value and purpose to our life, we will certainly miss all that God has for us in the present. “You are now far from home, and you aren’t going back anytime soon. Settle in. Build houses, plant gardens, grow families, pray for and work for the betterment of your new city.”

  • How do you find God in the ordinary?
  • How do you combat the selfishness of endless wanderlust, and seek the welfare of wherever you are currently planted?

Psalm 66:1-12

The call to worship in today’s Psalm remembers the crossing of the Jordan, it remembers God’s “awesome deeds” and his protection of his own, and at the same time it acknowledges God’s testing of them. “You have refined us like silver. You made us carry burdens. Our enemies trampled us. We went through fire and water.” I can imagine the Psalmist raging in prayer with these statements. It is completely natural to be resistant, to be angry, to desire that such a cup should pass from us. It is perhaps only supernatural (with the power of the Holy Spirit), to be able to accept difficulties in life that come from God. “Job told his wife, ‘Shall we receive only good from God, and not evil?’ and he did not sin with his lips.”

  • In what ways has it been difficult for you to trust God in a time where he seemed absent?
  • If you feel this testing of God in your life now, what might he be trying to show you?

2 Timothy 2:8-15

As often happens, the lectionary might be a bit more helpful for us today if it expanded the selection from the epistle. Paul’s instruction to Timothy about remaining faithful and “wrangling over words” comes wrapped inside a context of instruction on community living. The warning against apostasy (abandoning faith), “if we deny him, he will deny us” is not instruction merely for Timothy; Timothy is to relay this to those in his pastoral charge, and remind them of the necessity of staying faithful together and avoiding the false teaching of Hymenaeus and Philetus, so your group might be aided by extending the reading to verse 19.

  • If you identify teaching in your parish that goes against the truths of Christ’s Church, how should you confront it?
  • What do you do to ensure that you church community remains faithful to Christ together?

Luke 17:11-19

In keeping with St. Luke’s focus on the downtrodden, poor, and marginalized, this gospel recalls the story of Jesus healing ten lepers, and only a Samaritan, despised by his neighbors, returns to give thanks. Jesus commands the lepers to show themselves to the priests, honoring the prescription in Leviticus 13-14 for determining whether one had leprosy. If the priests determined that one had leprosy, this person was made to live away from others, “outside the camp,” as the disease was thought to be highly contagious. The social ostracization was extreme, leaving one out of ecclesial, civil, and family gatherings. The healing from leprosy must have come with unbelievable gratitude and emotion, and yet, only one returned…

  • Do you remember to thank God for the good gifts he has given you?
  • How can you practice this thankfulness today?

Written by Ryan Pollock. Pollock is a postulant for Holy Orders from the Diocese of Dallas, TX and a seminarian at Nashotah House, where he is a choral scholar and a refectorian. When not engaged in seminary business, these days he can be found alchemizing in the kitchen or attempting to play heavy metal guitar in the basement. He is married to Jessica, an artist and photographer who is studying astronomy at the University of Wisconsin. 

Download the Bible Study for Proper 23(C).

Bible Study, Proper 22(C) – October 2, 2016

[RCL] Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Lamentations 1:1-6

For the people of Judah the fall of Jerusalem and exile must have been a shock. They lost the security that their great city provided. They lost all their possessions. They lost their freedom. Through it all they felt abandoned by God. Their theological understanding was that God gave them their economic and military might. They had come to take it for granted. During the exile they came to understand, through the prophets, that God had taken these things away and allowed them to suffer so because they deserved it.

While our theological understanding of God is centered on Grace, we do not think our suffering is punishment for our sins. But what we can relate to is the pain and grief of loss. We do see the suffering of others and experience it ourselves. This passage lists loneliness, loss of social status and power, dislocation, captivity, being betrayed and tricked as ways that the people suffer.

  • Many people feel that God punishes them because they have done bad things. How can we help each other understand how God’s grace works?
  • When you see that someone is suffering, do you think it would help him or her to hear about a time of suffering in your life that you experienced? Did you feel that God helped you through that time?

Psalm 137

This is a difficult passage. Who knows how to deal with the last two verses of revenge and that horrible last line of this Psalm? But the rest of the psalm gives the first steps in recovering from the suffering described in the first Lamentations reading above. While in exile, the people are reminded of their beloved Jerusalem. Their captors taunt them, eager to ridicule their songs of Zion. But the songs remind them of a time when they felt the love of God and lived gratefully in God’s service. It is the beginning of moving out of despair and finding a glimmer of hope. Next comes the choice of anger and revenge, or forgiveness and love.

  • When we have been wronged, don’t anger and desire for revenge come easily? If you look to Jesus for inspiration to strive to forgive, do you think of a particular story from the gospels that help you?
  • Can you think of a person whom you wronged who blessed you with forgiveness?

2 Timothy 1:1-14

There is an implication that Timothy is suffering. Certainly, it seems that Paul thinks Timothy needs encouragement. Timothy’s faith is deep and is rooted in the faith of his grandmother and mother. Paul says that he is suffering too but they must rely on the spirit of power and love and self-discipline that God has given them.

What gets Paul through the tough times is the knowledge that the work he is about is not his own but that of God. Paul suffers in order to spread the gospel that Jesus has abolished death and brought immortality. Paul tells Timothy that his trust in God is what gets him through. It certainly helps to get through tough times if we feel that there is something to live for. Especially if we think that something is greater than us. Paul feels a responsibility to God. The Gospel is the good treasure entrusted to him and Timothy. Paul essentially tells Timothy, buck up. You have work to do and God has given you the strength and power to do it. Trust that.

  • Do you feel as though God has entrusted you with the Gospel? Does that feel like a heavy burden or an invigorating challenge?
  • When you are discouraged and feeling hopeless would it help to imagine God saying to you “Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy”? Not that our sadness makes God happy, but that our turning to and being with God does.
  • Try to identify the gifts that God has given you to keep going when things are tough. What gifts do you have to do the work God trusts you to do?

Luke 17:5-10 

At first these two paragraphs seem unrelated. They look like two random bits of wise advice, one following the other like the verses of Proverbs. But perhaps the part about the slave serving the master at dinner is a continuation of Jesus’ response to the apostles’ request for more faith. Perhaps this is Jesus statement about faith without works.

Jesus tells them that even with a tiny bit of faith they could tell a mulberry tree to jump into the sea. This wouldn’t be a very useful miracle though. In a way the apostles have just asked the master to let them eat at the table rather than serve. Through his metaphor, Jesus tells them to get the work done instead. Do all that you are ordered to do without expecting reward. It is not that Jesus says we don’t need faith. He’s telling us that lot’s of faith isn’t the most important thing. Doing what he tells us to do is what is important.

  • Do you feel that you have found the right balance of faith and works?
  • Can you identify good works that you see need to be done in your faith community?
  • What work can or are you involved in outside your faith community?
  • Do you rely on your faith to inspire you and empower you to do the work Jesus asks us to do?

Written by Greg Hamlin. Hamlin is a lay leader seminarian at Bloy House in Southern California. He and his wife, Karen, are involved members of St. James’ Church in South Pasadena. They have two grown daughters. Anouska is a graduate of Brooklyn Law School, and Natasha is working on a Marriage and Family Therapy degree at Fuller Seminary.  

Download the Bible Study for Proper 22(C).

Bible Study, Proper 21(C) – September 25, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

In our passage today, we hear about a besieged city. Jeremiah is told by God to buy land. He buys it for 30 pieces of silver, a hefty sum that is echoed later in the story of Judas’ death. If the three most important things in real estate are location, location, and location, the fourth thing is DON’T BUY LAND THAT’S ABOUT TO BE CONQURED BY THE BABYLONIANS!

Only a foolish buyer would make such a purchase. Only a buyer who thought his people would own that land again. Jeremiah shows us that God sometimes calls us to make an investment that may seem foolish today, but is a statement of faith for the future.

  • What faith-filled, foolish decision is God calling you to make?
  • Have you ever given a gift in an uncertain time?

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

While serving as an Army chaplain in Baghdad, Iraq I received a gift in the mail. It was a camo handkerchief that had Psalm 91, “The Soldier’s Psalm,” printed on it. We were supposed to put it in our helmets to keep us safe. The legend was that a unit in World War II had a zero casualty rate because everyone carried these handkerchiefs. Soon, boxes and boxes of them arrived from the USA and thousands of soldiers were stuffing them in their helmets.

Although I memorized this Psalm, in the King James Version of course, as a child, the Psalm suddenly took on a new meaning for me. That was around ten years ago, and my conversation with this Psalm is still ongoing. This Psalm is beloved since it promises so much. Deliverance from disease, massacre, and falling. It was so over-the-top that the Satan quotes it to Jesus when he tempts him. Was Satan tempting me in Iraq with these same words? Is Satan still tempting me as I write this reflection?

Around the same time I put the hanky in my helmet I also started praying the Compline office with some other Army chaplains. Even though Psalm 91 was the longest choice, it was often picked by my fellow chaplains because it spoke to us in our uncertainty.

Today, I understand the Psalm liturgically, and refuse to make it a talisman—a rabbit’s foot in war. It comforts me not because I think it will keep me from all suffering (for it certainly did not in Iraq), but because it centers me in my relationship with God and with the community I pray Compline with as often as I can.

  • How does our practice (Praying together, reading, meditating) give us confidence during difficult times?
  • IS there a difference between praying alone and praying with others?

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Since we are mere days away from electing a new President of the United States, St. Paul’s political statements in this letter to his disciple, Timothy, give us much to ponder. He urges Timothy to be strong in the face of judgement by political rulers. He uses the example of Jesus to show him how it’s done. Pontius Pilate was probably not elected, but was likely appointed by Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome who succeeded Caesar Augustus, who appears in Luke’s nativity.

Roman Caesars were not kings. They actively avoided royal titles like emperor or king because of their ongoing insistence that Rome was still a republic. But, in Judea and elsewhere in the empire, everyone knew better. They knew they were kings. At Jesus’ trial the crowd shouts, “We have no king but Caesar!”

Even though Herod and his sons were called “King” they still had to buy their kingship from the emperor in Rome. It is in this context that St. Paul’s spiritual statement, that Jesus is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” becomes a political statement.

The Apostle reminds Timothy, and us, that money or political power are not the ultimate authority in our lives.

  • How might you pray the words, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” during this election season?
  • How do we remind our fellow American citizens of our king of kings and lord of lords?

Luke 16:19-31

When I was about eight, I was surprised by the death of our family dog, Licorice. I did not like the dog. She scared me with her incessant barking, so I avoided her. When she bit a boy in the neighborhood, she had to be killed. Later, we found out the boy often threw stones at her, but a bite was a bite.

I am sadder now than I was then about her death. Back then, I was just surprised. The most surprising thing about her death was the slow realization that she was NEVER COMING BACK. Never. Not in a day, in a week, or in five hundred years.

Is that why death is so disturbing and fascinating to us? Is that why this story Jesus tells about the rich man and Lazarus is so compelling?

We often abstract this story to figure out how Hades works, or to determine the final abode of the rich and the poor. The larger point of Jesus story is not so much about Lazarus and the rich man, or even Abraham. The main point is about himself. He is inviting us to contemplate the stranglehold of unbelief that caused his original audience and us to pull the wool over our own eyes, so we cannot be open to the kingdom of love and justice that Jesus is inaugurating. As C.S. Lewis observed, “The door to hell is locked from the inside.”

  • What experience brought you to consider the love of Jesus?
  • What are you fooling yourself about?

Written by The Rev. Dr. David W. Peters. Peters serves as the Assistant Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX. Before parish ministry, he served as an Army chaplain in Iraq. He is the author of Post-Traumatic God: How the Church Cares For People Who Have Been to Hell and Back.

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Bible Study, Proper 20(C) – September 18, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

 Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

There are times of great suffering in which we may feel that all hope is lost and that there may never be joy in our souls again.  This may be triggered by the loss of a loved one or from a tragedy in your local community or nation.  There are painful events in our lives that shake us to our core and may even bring questions to our faith, diminishing our sense of hope.  At other times, it may feel like our prayers in these times are not being answered.

Jeremiah asks:

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

Laments such as this are important to place before the throne of God, as we complain to a compassionate God who deeply cares about us and that which troubles us. There are times in our lives that we need to reclaim the old tradition of lament, a significant tradition that is largely absent in our common life as the Church. Often, we need to air our grievances before we can begin to see hope again.  Sometimes, we even need to get angry at God.  God can take it.  God will also use our vulnerability that we have expressed as a means to bestow grace upon us.

Through this we remember that there is hope in the resurrection, that there is a balm in Gilead, and that God continues to restore all things through Jesus Christ.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Reflect one or two painful times in your life.  How did your relationship with God feel in those times?
  2. How comfortable to you feel complaining to God, or getting angry with God?  How well do you practice lament?
  3. How has God shown you through your pain that there is hope rather than hopelessness, light rather than darkness?  How have you been reassured of God’s goodness and mercy?

Psalm 79:1-9

This psalm is also another prayer of lament to God, likely written in the wake of some sort of national tragedy that had befallen God’s people.  This takes a different tone that the above lament from the Prophet Jeremiah.  In this lament, the author is calling out to God, asking for God to punish those who have unleashed evil upon the people and God’s temple.

One of the beautiful things about the Psalms is that they show us the whole range of human emotion in our spiritual relationship with God.  The fact is, sometimes we do have vengeful feelings and we do wish for God’s wrath to be unleashed on someone who has done a great evil.  This psalm serves as a reminder that these feelings of anger in response to a wrongdoing are nothing to be ashamed of, but rather are a natural part of our human experience and thus are appropriate to bring to God in prayer (regardless of what God chooses to do in response to that prayer).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Have you ever been wronged in such a way that you feel vengeful toward another person?
  2. How do you address those feelings in prayer?
  3. How do you come to terms with the reality that vengeance belongs to God and not to us?
  4. Can you shift your focus, and begin to pray for the person who wronged you?

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Speaking of prayer.  In the first letter addressed to Timothy, Paul writes that we should include everyone in our prayers, naming supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings as different categories of prayer.  We are called as Christians to pray for our neighbors, to pray for our enemies, to pray for our leaders, to pray for our Church and our world, and…everyone.

He writes:

“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Look back at the questions about lamentation and praying to God about someone who has done evil toward you.  There is a significant shift in what happens when you get the anger out of your system and instead begin to pray FOR the person (or people).  What would it take for you to begin to pray for God’s mercy to be upon them?  Can you intercede for God’s saving grace to be with them?  What do you think changes in you when you do that?
  2. Who do you pray for on a daily basis?
  3. What kinds of prayer do you offer to God in your daily prayers?
  4. How might this passage inform your practice?

Luke 16:1-13

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”  It must be getting close to stewardship “season.”  Our use of money seems to be indicative of the nature of our relationship with God.  Perhaps it is not just money, but all that is ours.  “Ours” is the operative word here.  Wealth can become a false idol, a violation of the First Commandment, when we turn to the love of money over the love of God and money.  This happens when we willfully forget that God is the source of all good things and that all we have is but a gift from God.  They are not ours, rather we have been graced with the ability to become stewards over that which is God’s.

God calls us to be faithful stewards.  Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”  This could be understood to mean faithful stewards may be entrusted with even more.  Another reading is that if we cannot be trusted with something small, why would we ever be trusted in something more significant?  Our faithfulness relies in remembering who God is as the creator and giver of all good gifts.  We are recipients, not entitled to what we possess.  This is important for us to remember, lest the things we believe are ours begin to possess us.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How does this passage challenge you?
  2. Do you sometimes feel entitled to the things you have, or do you recognize that they are gifted to you?
  3. Have you ever thought about writing a gratitude list each day?  It is amazing how this practice can bring the issues of this passage into perspective in your life and how it can inform your payer practice.
  4. What are some of the pressures and stresses that make being a faithful steward difficult?  How can God help you through those struggles in order that you might maintain faithful stewardship?
  5. Do you feel that your use of time, talent, and treasure rightly reflect your relationship with God and the gifts that God has given you?  (Remember the biblical principal of the tithe: 10% of the “first fruits” given to God in gratitude.)

Written by Rev. Paul Castelli, AF.  Castelli is a priest in the Diocese of Michigan, serving as Priest-in-Charge at St. George’s Episcopal Church. He is a vowed member of Anamchara Fellowship, a dispersed Celtic monastic community in the Episcopal Church, serving on the community’s prayer book committee. He is also working on his thesis for an STM from Trinity Lutheran Seminary. Paul lives with his wife, Mechelle, and their three pets.

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Bible Study, Proper 19(C) – September 11, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10 

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

This week’s readings feature harsh words from the prophet Jeremiah, “they are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” And the prediction of ominous consequences, “the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black…” The anguish of the prophet Jeremiah seems to mirror the anguish of God witnessing the actions of people who seem bent on self-destruction.

It would be difficult to miss the parallel to today’s world as we suffer the consequences of our actions related to race, gender, the environment…the list could be quite long! In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is that God who brings devastation down on the people. In today’s world, we realize that the consequences we suffer stem from our collective actions as failing stewards of God’s creation, not from a vengeful God.

  • How do you react to Jeremiah’s harshness in these passages? How do they make you feel?
  • Do you believe that Jeremiah’s prophesy is inevitable? Is there still opportunity to make things right?

Psalm 14

As if Jeremiah wasn’t bleak enough, Psalm 14 starts with: “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good.” However, if you read closely you will notice that “the fool” says these things – it is “the fool” who denies God’s existence and acts accordingly. And it is God, despite the acts of the “faithless” – those “evildoers who eat up my people like bread” – who remains a steadfast refuge, one who stands in the company of the righteous and the oppressed. In fact, the psalmist claims that in their very acts of oppression, the fool experiences the folly of denying God and the terror of the consequences of their actions. “See how they tremble with fear, because God is in the company of the righteous.” The psalm ends with a reaffirmation of the power of God, a call for deliverance, and a prayer for God to restore the fortunes of the people.

  • Are the behaviors described in this psalm a description of individual behaviors or societal ones?
  • When the psalmist calls for God to “restore the fortunes of his people,” do you think this is a prayer for ALL people, or just those who did not deny God’s existence?
  • Do you think it is possible for all such “foolishness” to one day come to an end or is it human nature to act in ways apart from God?

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Into the darkness of this week’s readings comes the light of 1 Timothy proclaiming that our God is merciful, that despite our former “foolishness” or denial of God, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. The writer even uses himself as an example of the power of the love and grace of Christ to reform and renew a person’s heart and soul.

  • How have you experienced strength and renewal through Jesus?
  • In what ways can you use your story to share with others the powerful message of renewal and hope?

Luke 15:1-10

Luke 15:1-10 includes one of the most well-known stories of Jesus, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which expresses the deep joy a shepherd feels when he locates that one sheep who wandered off. The parable is rich in meaning about the importance God places on embracing those who have fallen into the ways of “foolishness” described in Psalm 14 above.

  • At what times in your life have you been the lost sheep? How did your community or family welcome you back? How did God welcome you back?
  • How can your community orient itself toward this ministry of finding and welcoming those who do not know God or have turned away from God?

Written by Wendy Johnson. Wendy is the Digital Missioner for Formation for The Episcopal Church. Previously, she served as the Communications Manager for Episcopal Migration Ministries and communications director for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. She has served as a youth minister for 16 years, working in several congregations and at the national, regional, and diocesan level. She lives and works in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Bible Study, Proper 18(C) – September 4, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The potter, the wheel, and the clay – one of the most beautiful and enduring metaphors for our creative and creating God in all of Scripture. The potter does not only mold and shape fresh clay at the wheel; the potter remakes his creations when they become spoiled and broken. The potter’s work of creation is continuous. The potter’s house is a locus of genesis and renewal, death and rebirth, beauty and adaptation. When we find ourselves in the presence of this creative continuity, we can hear God’s holy words.

The clay, and by extension the vessel being shaped, becomes what it is in each new moment only through the imagination of the potter. Thus its very being depends upon the potter’s will. And although human beings may not understand the potter God’s movements and intentions, we can remember that the potter does only that which “seem[s] good to him” (vs. 4).  The potter reworks his spoiled creations, but he never discards or destroys the clay.

  • What might it mean that Jeremiah can only hear God’s words in this place of re/creation?
  • Where do we encounter God’s creative energy, and what messages might we receive in its presence?
  • In verses 8 and 10, God speaks of the ability to “change [God’s own] mind.” How does the concept of changing one’s mind fit (or not fit) with our usual ideas of God’s character and existence?

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

These verses from Psalm 139 describe how intimately God knows each one of us. The juxtaposition of opposites in the first two verses illustrates the extent of God’s knowledge – God knows the fullness of our being, the extremes and the in-betweens, the highs and the lows.  Accepting this level of intimacy may be both breathtakingly beautiful and “too wonderful” for us. God knows our basest instincts and desires, but God also knows the amazing love, joy, and peace in our truest hearts. God knows our full potential even when we are unable to see it ourselves.

Verse 13 reminds us that, as God’s creations, we are glorious. Our essential and innate goodness reflects the quality of divine craftsmanship. There’s no escaping the truth: I am marvelously made, and so are you. You are wonderful, and so am I. There are no asterisks here, no “except for…,” no ifs, ands, or buts. The Psalmist helps us realize that we can never honor and glorify God while maligning or debasing ourselves and each other.

  • The language of creativity is prominent in these verses: “knit” in vs. 12, “woven” in vs. 14, “written” and “fashioned” in vs. 15. How can these metaphors deepen our understanding of and relationship with our Creator?
  • Consider the various references to bodies in verses 12 through 15. How might these references inform our attitudes toward human bodies generally and our own bodies specifically?

Philemon 1-21

The Letter to Philemon is one of the shortest epistles in the New Testament – there are only four verses not included here, comprised of Paul’s request for a guest room, closing greetings, and benediction. But within this comparatively brief letter we find a passionate illustration of historic evangelism which may challenge us to rethink our notions of faithful living. In verse 5, Paul says that he thanks God not because of how the church is growing in numbers or power but because he has heard of the members’ love. He goes on to say that this love is manifested through the sharing of faith and refreshing of hearts (vs. 6-7).

Paul indicates that love is the only worthy basis upon which he will appeal to his fellow Christ-followers, and he asks them to do something patently irrational and illogical – to welcome Onesimus, a former slave, as “a beloved brother” (vs. 16). He then goes a step further, declaring that he will accept Onesimus’s debts as his own and repay them. This kind of selfless sacrifice makes no sense to those whose ultimate measure is money, or honor, or status; but to those whose ultimate measure is love, it is both right and perfectly natural.

  • How can we live, what must we do, for others to hear of our love? Conversely, what has another person or group of people done that has led us to hear of their love?
  • Paul vouches for Onesimus, calls him “my own heart” (vs. 12), and pledges to take on his debts, whatever they may be. For whom (if anyone) might we be willing to give of ourselves similarly? And what does Paul’s selfless generosity tell us about the community of believers?

Luke 14:25-33

When Jesus speaks about the costs of discipleship, we may be tempted to make excuses for ourselves. His words are unsettling. All this talk of hating family, of bearing burdens and doing hard work, of giving up our stuff – it’s challenging to hear. Which probably means, of course, that we need to pay special attention. Here is a message with which we must wrestle, if we seek to follow the one we claim as Messiah and Savior.

Verse 26’s use of the word “hate” may be especially troubling. How can Jesus ask us to “hate” anyone, never mind our own parents and children? A comparative look at the Greek text, along with the conventions of Biblical language and the passage’s context, is useful here. In the preceding verses, Jesus shares the parable of the Great Dinner (when the invited guests make up excuses, and the host opens his home to “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame”). Those whose attachments control them miss out on the glorious banquet. This is the context for the “hating” in verse 26.  Elsewhere in Scripture, we can find instances of the word “hate” being used for dramatic emphasis in comparison (i.e. Genesis 29, where Leah is “hated” because Jacob cares more for Rachel than for her). Jesus is not telling us to cease loving those around us or to harden our hearts; but we cannot put anyone or anything above his Gospel of selfless, unmitigated love if we are to be true disciples.

  • What does it mean to be a disciple? How is a disciple different from a friend, supporter, admirer, student, or fan?
  • Consider the language of “completion” and “finishing” in verses 28-30. What work might Jesus be calling us to complete, and when/why might we be tempted to back down prematurely?

Written by The Rev. Margaret (Maggie) Leidheiser-Stoddard. Rev. Leidheiser-Stoddard graduated from Bexley-Seabury Seminary Federation with her Diploma in Anglican Studies in May 2016. She earned her M.Div. from Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, CA), and an M.A. in Religion & Modernity from Queen’s University (Kingston, ON). She was ordained to the transitional diaconate in June 2016, and will begin a residency at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington, OH this fall. She lives in Bexley, OH with her husband, son, and guinea pig.  

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