Bible Study, Advent 2 (B) – December 10, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8 

Isaiah 40:1-11

Many scholars identify this oracle as the beginning of “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55), in which a disciple of the earlier prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem takes up some of the themes of the oracles recorded in “First Isaiah” (Isaiah 1-39) and applies them to the later experience of the 6th-century BC exile in Babylon. The overwhelming theme of these chapters is consolation in the face of despair; the prophet speaks from a sense of joyous certainty that the people of Israel will be restored to their homeland.

This message of God’s tender, shepherding love has inspired generations of poets; many Episcopalians know it well from Catherine Winkworth’s hymn, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People.

  • Where do you see people in exile in your life? In our world? How can you proclaim a message of comfort and consolation, even as they remain in the midst of despair?
  • What does it mean to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3)? How can we make highways in our churches for God to pass through?

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Psalm 85 connects with the themes of forgiveness and consolation in Isaiah 40. It carries an interesting balance between the past and the present, from “You have restored the good fortune of Jacob” (v. 1) to “The Lord will indeed grant prosperity” (v. 12). Has God restored the people already, or is God going to restore them in the future? The same past/future tension appears in 2 Peter 3 and in Isaiah 40. This psalm, like many others, reminds God—and the people singing or hearing it—of God’s saving work in the past, as part of a prayer for God to do the same thing in the present.

  • How has God acted in your life in the past? How does this give you hope for the future?

2 Peter 3:8-15

Even in the earliest years of the Church, when some parts of the New Testament were still being written, many people who had been taught to expect Jesus’ imminent return had become worried. While scholars debate whether this letter was written by the historical Peter (in the 60s AD) or by a later Christian writing in the voice of Peter (in the second century AD), the problem is the same. It’s been years—where is Jesus?

The author of 2 Peter attempts to comfort these Christians, telling them that God’s time is not like our time. Just before this passage, the author has encouraged his audience to ignore the scoffers who say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” Instead, the author exhorts them to remember that Jesus could return at any time and that they ought to live in patient “holiness and godliness” (v. 11).

  • The author says that God is patient because God “does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (v. 9). How does this fit with what you believe about evangelism and the relationship of Christians to people of other faiths?
  • Think about a time when you have suffered. Would you find the message of God’s patience comforting? Why or why not?

Mark 1:1-8

The opening verses of the Gospel of Mark set the stage for the entire story of the life of Jesus. Mark is the earliest gospel, and scholars believe Matthew and Luke drew on it. It begins late in Jesus’ life, at the beginning of his ministry. The first verse announces the theme of the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” “Christ” and “the Son of God” both carry political connotations in their original context that may be obscure for modern congregations. “Christ” is well known as the Greek translation of the Hebrew term “Messiah,” or “Anointed One,” which refers to a king or priest. “Son of God” was not a “theological” term in our modern sense, but one of the political titles of the Roman emperors since Augustus.

  • Why is it “good news” that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the King, the Son of God? What does it mean to spread that news in our world today?
  • The gospel uses two of the verses of today’s reading from Isaiah to introduce John the Baptist, who is himself “one crying out in the wilderness.” If you heard about a modern-day John the Baptist, eating insects and preaching in the desert—how would you respond?

Greg Johnston is a third-year student at Berkeley Divinity School and a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Massachusetts. He has served the Church in urban parishes, campus ministry, and community organizing, in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He currently lives in New Haven with his wife Alice Kenney, and he spends most of his free time running, cooking, or reading mystery novels.

Download the Bible study for Advent 2 (B).

Bible Study, Advent 1 (B) – December 3, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Isaiah 64:1-9

On this first day of the liturgical year, we remember who we are as God’s children, in total need of God’s mercy. In Isaiah, this reality points to an underlying theme of Advent: our collective hope that God would address our separation from him, “would tear open the heavens and come down” (v. 1) and “consider” us (v. 9). The important word here in the first verse is “would,” which is not the same as “will”! We have no right to say to God, “We know you will come down and help us.” Because we’re not in any position to get what we want from God, since “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (v. 6a). If God is going to help us this Advent, it’s because God does so completely voluntarily.

It’s funny that Isaiah says to God, “because you hid yourself we transgressed” (v. 5b). How human of Isaiah! It’s almost like he’s attributing fault to God for our sinfulness – “we sin because you’re not here, God!” But in the person of Jesus, God gently corrects us, saying “Yes, I am here; now go and sin no more.”

  • Isaiah imagines “that the nations might tremble at [God’s] presence” when God comes (v. 2). What does that look like to you? What about God’s impending reign should the powers of the world be afraid of?
  • Have you ever found yourself blaming God for your own wrongdoing?

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

When we sing psalms in worship, there’s often an “antiphon,” a particularly resonant verse which bears repeating. If a choir or cantor is singing the psalm, the congregation might chime in every few verses with the antiphon. Or maybe everyone will sing the antiphon at the beginning and end of the psalm. The antiphon is usually inserted by an editor, in order to enhance congregational participation.

But in today’s psalm excerpt, we have an antiphon that’s built into the psalm itself, not inserted by a modern editor: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (vv. 3, 7, 19). We repeat this because our desire to be saved and restored in the image of God is not a one-time thing; it’s constant. Our life consists of seeking God, losing God, and finding God, over and over again.

The liturgical year is by definition repetitive. Advent is celebrated every year. Moreover, we’ll read these exact lessons again in three years, once the lectionary circles back on itself. In repeating these holy days and seasons, we’re reminded to think of our lives, as best we can, in line with God’s time.

  • How would you characterize “God’s time”? Are there times when you’ve felt that God’s sense of time matched well, or poorly, with your own sense of time?
  • Do you like repetition (habit, routine), or do you find it annoying? Maybe this has an impact on what kind of worship you or your parish gravitate toward. In terms of worship life, what about repetition can be fun, or challenging, to a faith community?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Paul congratulates the Christians at Corinth for being open to the testimony of Christ, such that “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7). But now that we’re in the New Testament, can’t we say that “the revealing” of Jesus already happened? Why is Paul talking about it now, as if it’s something that has yet to happen?

This is another curiosity of Christian time – in a sense, it’s trans-time. Yes, Jesus has come, but we also believe that he existed before the foundation of the world as the Supreme Word. Plus, we believe that he will come again to be our judge. Paul and his compatriots believed something like this: that Jesus would return very soon, to put an end to the corrupt Roman world order.

In Advent, we look forward not only to Jesus being born in Bethlehem, but also to that “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the end of time (v. 8).

  • Does it bother you that Paul talked so much about Christ coming again, but that Christ didn’t end up doing that in Paul’s time? How do we, as modern Christians, wrestle with our belief in Christ’s return?
  • Paul says, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9). How were you called, in particular? What is the story of your arrival to Christian faith and fellowship?

Mark 13:24-37

Speaking of Jesus coming again…

In this reading, Jesus speaks cryptically about the end times, in which God “will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (v. 27). Not only is this described in a visually scary way, with eclipses and falling stars, but in fact, there’s something even more terrifying about it: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (vv. 33).

So, Jesus tells us to “keep awake” (v. 37). This is exactly what we’re doing during Advent: trying to stay focused on Christ’s entering into the world. Because when it happens, it’ll happen in a way we never expected: not in the form of a king or warrior (as traditionally understood!), but with Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace.

  • Living in a world that faces so many existential threats, we truly don’t know when the end of the world will come. Does this modern reality make you read this passage differently?
  • What does “keep[ing] awake” look like in your faith community? In your personal faith life?

 

Zachary (Zak) Fletcher is a third-year Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School, where he is affiliated jointly with Berkeley Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. Zak is a seminary intern at Christ Church, New Haven, and is discerning a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (ECCT). Zak received his Bachelor’s degree in 2015 from Harvard University, where he studied classics (Latin & Greek) with a minor in historical linguistics. His life in the church began with music, both at Trinity on the Green, New Haven (2001-2002), and Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York (2002-2007), where he spent time as a chorister. When not involved in seminarian duties, Zak continues to sing in choirs, including Yale Schola Cantorum, a group dedicated to the performance of sacred music.

Download the Bible study for Advent 1.

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.

Download the Bible study for Christ the King Sunday (A).

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.

Download the Bible study for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

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.

Download the Bible Study for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

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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