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.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 21(C).

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.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 20(C).

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.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 19(C).

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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Bible Study, Proper 17(C) – August 28, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14 

Jeremiah 2:4-13

In this passage of contrasts, God’s people are confronted with the senselessness of turning away from their God. Prophets falsely prophesy for no profit. The people, whom God has blessed over and over, chase after gods who are not even gods. Pursuing worthless things made the people themselves worthless. And the one true God, who is described as the fountain of living water, is abandoned and the people try to collect life-water in containers with cracks.

It is our tendency as humans to try to satisfy our deepest desires with cheap substitutes. By looking at our sins we will have clues as to what we really need. The people dug cracked cisterns indicating they knew they needed water. How might our misguided attempts to fill our deepest longings be a way to find our true heart’s desire in God?

The prophet brings a strong indictment against the leaders. As leaders of God’s people we have a responsibility to ask, “Where is the Lord?” It is our job to interpret life’s situations in light of God’s reality and lead people to see how God is there for them. Only then will we be able to offer the water that truly satisfies.

  • Where do you see the Lord in your present situation?
  • What worthless things are you chasing after that diminish your own worth?
  • How might your sin be the very thing that can lead you to the fountain of living water?

Psalm 81:1, 10-16

In Psalm 81 a connection is made between hearing and obeying. The people do not obey because they don’t listen to God’s voice. Our English words obey and listen both share the same Latin root audire.

The psalmist suggests praise and remembering as ways to hear God. As we sing songs declaring who God is, and tell stories about all God has done, we will be open to hearing God’s voice. We will also desire to do God’s will, knowing God only wants the best for us.

God’s desire is to fill God’s people with good things. As we choose not to listen to God we are given over to the consequences of going it alone. As we turn back to God, our needs are met.

  • What are some ways you have seen God show up on your behalf in the past?
  • What practices help you listen to God’s voice?
  • What good things are you missing from God because you have forgotten God’s goodness?

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Hebrews 13 tells us how to give thanks for “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). By showing care for those in our communities of faith, as well as those who are strangers, we live out our gratitude for our place in God’s kingdom.

We are invited to use our imaginations to place ourselves with prisoners and those who are tortured. Rather than locking them away and forgetting about them, we are urged to enter their pain as if our own bodies were suffering with them. In God’s kingdom no one is outside of God’s concern.

We are also called to show our gratitude in how we deal with sex and money. In our temptation to meet these needs outside of God’s provision, we are reminded that God sees us and that God is with us. As we seek to care more about others and less about money we are reminded that God is always caring for us. God invites us to trust as we participate in this kingdom work.

  • What would it look like for you to care for strangers and those suffering in prison?
  • In what ways is your care for money and sex inhibiting your participation in God’s kingdom? 

Luke 14:1, 7-14        

Luke uses a familiar wedding banquet metaphor to show us what honor looks like in God’s kingdom.

Jesus notices that the guests at the dinner assume their own privilege in choosing their place at the table.  He invites them to let go of whatever it is that they feel makes them better than the others. His message is for those of us who feel we have a choice as to where we belong in the world. As we release our need to play the comparison game, and then identify with the lowly, we will be honored by God.

Jesus perfectly displayed this path of letting go of privilege in becoming human so that God could lift him up to the highest place (Philippians 2). Through this parable Jesus is inviting us to join him in this same journey of going down and being lifted up.

In the second half of this parable Jesus teaches what it looks like to use privilege to lift up others. Like God we are invited to do the same work in lifting up the humble. So in this great cycle of humility and being lifted up we participate with God in the lifting up of others.

  • What privileged position are you being invited to let go of?
  • How can you use the place God has given you to lift up those whom life has brought low? 

Written by Louise Samuelson. Louise is a second-year seminarian at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. She is a candidate to the priesthood in the Diocese of Central Florida. Louise lives with her husband, Frank, who is also a candidate to the priesthood. 

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Bible Study, Proper 16(C) – August 21, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Jeremiah 1:4–10

For readers interested in learning about biblical prophecy, the description of the call of the prophet Jeremiah rewards careful study. Consider reading this passage alongside three others:Deuteronomy 18 with its advice for recognizing authentic prophets; Exodus 4 with its description of Moses resisting a call to prophecy; and Isaiah 6 with its vision of seraphs and a burning coal touching the prophet’s mouth. Beside these passages, the call of Jeremiah seems striking for how carefully it casts the prophet in a Mosaic mold and for how intimately the Lord calls to Jeremiah. No seraphs and burning coals here—or burning bushes, for that matter; just the “word of the Lord” saying that Jeremiah was born for the task ahead of him.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

But readers don’t need to approach this passage with curiosity about prophecy or even with a desire to learn more about Jeremiah. For the account of Jeremiah’s call raises a more universal question: Is God calling me?

  • Have you ever felt called by God?
  • Jeremiah hears the Lord’s call and protests: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” What excuses do we make to keep us from living the lives God calls us to live? How can we learn to overcome them?

Psalm 71:1–6

The rich language of the psalms can sometimes be hard to parse, as piled-up metaphors grow slippery. In these six verses, God is described abstractly (as hope, confidence, strength); concretely (as a strong rock, a castle, a crag); as an object of a supplicant’s petitions (to be free from shame, delivered from oppressors, and simply to be heard) and as an object of praise.

As happens so often in Biblical poetry, the literary features of the text take on theological force and meaning. Whatever the threat we face – however strong the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor or however weak we feel to oppose them – God can be our refuge. The range of metaphors suggests the breadth of God’s power and the wideness of God’s mercy – and that both, blessedly, are expansive enough in their reach for even you and for me.

  • How can steadfast faith be a bulwark against shame and a guard against the powers our enemies seek to exert over us? Can you think of an instance in which this has been true for you?
  • How might we turn to God to keep us in safety when our enemies are not other people but rather aspects of ourselves (e.g., our love of gossip, our bitter envy, our genius for selfishness)?

 Hebrews 12:18–29

After contrasting Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion and the old and new covenants, the author of Hebrews addresses us: “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking…”

It’s safe to presume that most mature Christians have known occasions when God’s voice seemed – for some time anyway – to have fallen silent.God’s apparent absences, whether real or imagined, can provoke spiritual crises that turn us from belief – or (if we are wise or lucky) they can lead to newer, deeper forms of faith.

This passage suggests a different sort of crisis, one triggered not by God’s silence but by God’s clarity. It’s safe to presume that most mature Christians have encountered this sort of dilemma, too:when scripture couldn’t be clearer; when our conscience awakens us to another’s suffering; when the wafer and the wine we receive at the communion rail become to us the body and blood of Christ. How can we then stubbornly refuse to reply to God’s voice? How can reverence and awe melt away till we are returned to our numb routines of carelessness and sin? The author of Hebrews urges us to respond to such instances of clarity with steadfastness and gratitude. May God help us to do so.

  • What spiritual practices have helped you through instances when God’s voice seemed silent to you?
  • What practices have helped nurture your gratitude for God?

Luke 13: 10–17

“But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

Why is the leader of the synagogue so indignant? Does he feel his own authority is threatened by Jesus’s display of love and power? Is he sincerely worried that the apparent (and public) violation of one of God’s laws might weaken his people’s will to adhere to others?

Perhaps he is worried about losing pledging members. If so, he has something in common with those of us today, who sometimes look around our pews on Sunday mornings with insecure thoughts buzzing about those who are not in church rather than being attentive to those who are.In an age of falling membership numbers, perhaps this passage ought to be read as a cautionary tale about how fear for an institution’s security can blind us to God’s activity in the world.

Or perhaps we ought not be so quick to dismiss the synagogue leader. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured.” Sure, he got it wrong about the seventh day, but don’t we get it wrong about the other six? Jesus is the Great Physician, but don’t we too often behave as though his office is only open for an hour or so on Sunday mornings?

  • What practices help you grow spiritually during the week?What else might be worth trying?
  • How do you keep the Sabbath holy?

Written by Robert Pennoyer.
Robert Pennoyer is a third-year seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, where he is also a member of the Institute of Sacred Music. He is a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of New York. He lives in New Haven with his wife and their one-year-old daughter.

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Bible Study, Proper 15 (C) – August 14, 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah’s poetic lament is a masterful piece of irony that can be read on different levels. In its literal imagery, it speaks of the disappointment that must have been as well known to farmers in ancient Israel as it is in our own time: after days and weeks of tedious labor, one may find that the crop that appears is valueless. In metaphorical language that was common in the ancient world, though, planting and tending a vineyard could represent courtship. A man wooing a woman to be his wife did so, at least in part, in the hope that she would be a faithful and fruitful partner, bearing many strong children for his heritage. Verse 3 begins to reveal this bitter undertone, alluding to a relationship gone sour when it was founded on great hope.

If we read the “characters” in this story as the best man (the prophet, singing of his friend’s plight), the bridegroom (Yahweh) and the faithless woman (Israel), suddenly the prophetic intent of Isaiah’s poem becomes painfully clear. Speaking through the singer, Yahweh challenges the hearers to choose sides, to judge whether the relationship has been neglected. Tthe story is told in such a way that almost anyone would sympathize with the disappointed suitor – setting the faithless people up to pass judgment against themselves! In verse 7, the identities are made clear, and so it the indictment: the vineyard will be destroyed, abandoned, because “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.”

  • In our human relationships, do we sometimes “get what we have coming to us?”
  • Is that a reasonable model for the way in which God relates to God’s people, or not?

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18

The collection of the Psalms is so ancient that we can never really identify the composers or the dates of their composition. Still, they often give internal hints that provide a historical context. It is important to the setting of this psalm that verse 2 calls for the Lord to act “in the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manesseh.” These were among the smaller tribes of the northern kingdom – that portion of the Hebrew people who became identified as Israel when the Davidic monarchy broke apart. They cry out for rescue of “the vine” brought out of Egypt; here is the metaphor of planter and vineyard again!  In the psalm, though, we hear the distressed cry of God’s people when they find themselves indeed being broken down (v. 12), ravaged (v. 13), and burned like rubbish (v. 15). These references can almost certainly be connected to the invasion of the Assyrians who conquered and largely destroyed Israel in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.

Paired as they are in the Lectionary, the Psalm offers us “the other side” of the relationship described in Isaiah.  Now Israel really is suffering the punishment threatened in the prophecy, and they are raising – perhaps belatedly – a cry for mercy, restoration, and salvation.

  • Why do we so often find ourselves with “20/20 hindsight?”
  • How often is it really the result of naïvete?
  • Are there times when we persist in acting in self-interest, until we discover that we have brought pain on ourselves and others – and realize it too late?

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

The lessons from the Old Testament have been rather troubling, speaking of disappointment, estrangement, and retribution. The writer of Hebrews looks back through the checkered history of the Jewish people from a post-Resurrection perspective and calls his readers to recognize God’s work even in the bleakest of times. In relating the stories of Abraham, Moses, and all the lesser heroes of Israel, the author acknowledges their suffering. The author weaves the thread of heroic faith throughout, though, reminding his audience that faith always leans forward into the unknown because of an unshakeable trust in God’s goodness.

Jesus, by the example of his human life and by his divine transformation of shame and violence into victory over death’s finality, became “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (12:2) Each believer is now called to run the race with renewed assurance and hope, but we are also surrounded and encouraged by the “great cloud of witnesses” who lived faithfully in their own times, by the signs and promises they had received.

  • What is the source of faith?
  • Is its origin in logic? Is it based on our own experience?
  • Does faith come from accepting the teaching or testimony of people we consider to have wisdom or authority?
  • If all those sources of validation were stripped away, on what would you base your faith?

Luke 12:49-56

Ouch! Jesus is not offering us much comfort and assurance in this passage. Within the book of Luke, chapter 12 falls within the long “journey narrative,” in which most of Jesus’s teaching and his confrontations with the religious establishment occur at various stages along the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. We are caught up in the growing intensity of his ministry and Luke’s dramatic foreshadowing of the crucifixion that awaits him.

Here we return pointedly to the prophetic theme introduced in Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80. Jesus challenges us very directly to see beyond our rosy expectations and recognize the conflict inherent in being his followers – a conflict between God’s reign and the world’s values, between human loyalties and the call to follow something greater.

Our own expectations are not so different from those of Jesus’s original hearers, who were holding out hope for a Messiah in the form of a great conquering warrior who would at last restore the kingdom of Israel on earth and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Our modern version is the tendency to see Jesus as a benign, peaceful, and loyal friend who comforts and defends us. While he is all that, he is representing himself very differently here!  His reference to bringing fire to the earth, and to bringing division rather than peace, tells us that a moment of crisis, of judgment, and of commitment awaits every believer who intends to take Jesus seriously.

Fire does not always imply destruction, but might also be an instrument of refinement – purifying, strengthening, and catalyzing us into a new being. Jesus’s baptism of fire and crisis of decision can mean his own impending trial and execution, or it can mean the turning point in our own lives when we are called to choose a path of discipleship that will bring with it some form of pain as well. Ultimately, like all of Jesus’ teachings, this lesson points us toward the full fruition of God’s kingdom – that redemption and salvation Jesus came to accomplish — and calls us to live in hope and preparation for that time.

  • How do these lectionary readings, taken together, bring a Gospel message that encompasses both judgment and hope, retribution and mercy?
  • How do they ask us to broaden our understanding of faith?
  • How do they show us a more vivid, more faithful way for living our own lives, within our own relationships?

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Jennifer Shadle is a transitional Deacon and a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Colorado. Before recognizing the call to ordained ministry, Jennifer taught vocal music and music history at the secondary and collegiate levels, most recently at Colorado State University-Pueblo. As a seminarian, she takes delight in the liturgy and worship of the Church, theology, and pastoral ministry. She is completing a Concentration in Hispanic Church Studies, and hopes to serve in a multicultural parish setting or to develop a missional ministry among immigrant populations.