Bible Study, Pentecost 17 (B) – September 16, 2018

Proper 19

[RCL]: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Proverbs 1:20-33

In this passage from Proverbs, Wisdom herself has some strong warnings for the reader. She shouts from a busy street corner, pointing out the faults of the “simple ones” and “scoffers”. “Because you have not heard me or heeded me,” she says, “I will laugh when calamity strikes you.” What’s more, when panic strikes, when you are distressed and anguished, you will call for me, but I won’t answer. Ouch! This doesn’t exactly seem like the kind of feel-good literature we expect from the Good Book. In fact, reading this passage, we don’t find the comfort we often seek from God, at least not at first blush. It’s important to remember that this passage isn’t meant as an indictment; it is a statement of God’s truth. Wisdom does not withhold herself from those who earnestly desire her. Rather, those who refuse her have already condemned themselves.

  • What kinds of institutions in our world have condemned themselves because they reject Wisdom’s calls and fail to act morally? What lessons do we learn from them?
  • How does God teach us to act over and against the powers and principalities of this world?

Psalm 19

In verses one through six of this well-known psalm, the author contemplates the ways in which the created order displays the glory of God. Though the universe lacks voice or language, it still testifies to its magnificent creator. Partway through the psalm, however, the subject changes. Verses seven through eleven discuss the Lord’s perfect law, righteous judgments, and sure testimony. The question is: What do the two themes have to do with each other? Perhaps both the created world and God’s law are part of a divine natural order, revealing to us truths about God. Just as the rising and setting sun sustains life on earth and gives voice to the splendor of the Creator, so too do God’s laws, statutes, and commandments give purpose to the lives of his people, reviving their hearts and instilling wisdom in them.

  • How do you notice and appreciate God in creation?
  • How is God’s will manifested in the world around you? How is it revealed to you through scripture, tradition, and personal experience?

James 3:1-12

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.”

What we say matters. God has been telling us this from the beginning. Genesis tells us that God spoke the world into being. God then spoke humans into being, making them in God’s own image and giving them the power to name animals—“every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature”—and each other. Almost everyone has had the privilege of naming something, maybe a beloved pet or stuffed animal. Often parents agonize over giving a new baby the perfect name—even going so far as to make sure that his or her initials don’t spell out anything inappropriate! To name something or someone is a tremendous responsibility, because to name something is to begin to form its identity. With that kind of power comes the temptation to believe we are in total control. Just because we have the power to name, doesn’t mean we should confuse ourselves with God. Instead, we would do well to remember that all our language was given to us by a God who made us in his image.

  • Who or what have you had the privilege to name? What was that experience like for you?
  • How does your use of language draw you closer to God? How does it place you further away?

Mark 8:27-38

Peter just doesn’t get it, but we can’t blame him. Sometimes we don’t either. Peter rebukes Jesus for teaching his disciples that he will suffer and die. Those of us on this side of the Resurrection may understand what Jesus is getting at, but Peter doesn’t. In Peter’s mind, a Messiah can’t die! Heck, the words Messiah and dying don’t even belong in the same sentence. Leave it to Jesus to remind Peter that he has some more learning to do. “Get behind me, Satan!” When pondering this famous phrase, don’t get too caught up in the word “Satan.” It simply means “accuser.” Focus instead on the “get behind me” part. Jesus commands Peter to get behind him because it’s from there that Peter can continue to follow Jesus. “Get behind me,” Jesus says. He is reminding Peter that God is in charge. This is an important reminder for us all. We don’t have to have all the answers; that’s why we follow the one who does.

  • Do you ever need to be reminded that it’s enough simply to follow?
  • How might you practice being a better follower of Jesus in the week to come?

The Rev. Warren Swenson is a student in the Master of Sacred Theology degree program at the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. He also serves as curate of the Southeastern Tennessee Episcopal Ministry (STEM). Warren received his Master of Divinity degree from Sewanee in May 2018 and is currently a transitional deacon pursuing priestly ordination (expected fall 2018) in his home diocese of West Missouri. He also serves as a member of Sewanee’s board of trustees and has worked as a mentor to incarcerated youth. Before seminary Warren worked at Baker University in the Office of the President and in strategic planning. Warren lives in Sewanee with his husband Walker. Together they enjoy lingering back-porch conversations and both love to travel.

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Bible Study, Pentecost 16 (B) – September 9, 2018

Proper 18

[RCL]: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

All the readings for this Sunday seem to point toward mercy and justice, reminding us of the first petition of the Collect: “Grant us…to trust in you with all our hearts.” So many times, in our interactions with others, especially with strangers, we find it difficult to trust. We have learned that it can be foolhardy to give someone the “benefit of the doubt,” to enter a relationship by suspending judgment and assuming the person’s motivation is good unless we are proven wrong. The ancient wisdom of Proverbs reminds us that rich and poor, neighbor and stranger, even the just and unjust are all creatures of God. Perhaps our daily encounters do require us to be prudent, and we can blend prudence with a gracious recognition of our shared humanity. We can choose to act with justice and compassion, and to value integrity over prejudice or greedy self-interest.

  • Besides physical and material support, how can we “share our bread with the poor”? Describe an occasion when you have observed someone giving generously of his or her time, attention, labor, or some other resource.
  • What would you be willing to do or say to defend a stranger against injustice?

Psalm 125 

“The hills stand about Jerusalem; so does the LORD stand round about his people…” In the language of the Psalms, God’s power in creation is often mirrored in God’s mercy and protection for God’s chosen people. However, our worldview is often at odds with such a straightforward equation. We have seen too much human domination and cruelty in history and in recent events that makes us dubious, and we can’t help thinking it a bit naïve of the Israelites to proclaim, “The scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway” over those who are just, good, and true of heart.

But read this psalm again and notice how much is expected of the faithful: they are to trust in the Lord, not put their hands to evil, and remain true of heart. It is those who turn aside – who do not look to God for their guidance and strength – who follow crooked paths and end up among evildoers. Here we find an expression of wisdom, possibly even born of hard experience, rather than naïveté. No, we can’t go through life expecting God to keep a protective bubble around us; that would be belief in magic, not faith in God. Perhaps the psalmist is saying that our trust in God should be for our spiritual protection against our own selfish tendencies, more than against any outward enemies.

  • Who do you think is to blame, when calamity befalls a person or group of people? Is the answer always clear?
  • In what ways might God be standing guard over us, if not to prevent us from suffering the pain and injustice inherent in human existence?

James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17 

Scholars have long debated the identity of both the author and the intended audience of this epistle, but its message remains strong and clear: one who claims to have faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord must live in a way consistent with that faith. When we genuinely trust God’s power and love, we cannot turn our backs on the poor or show favor to the rich based on superficial distinctions.

Debating the relative importance of faith and good works is like asking the old question about the chicken and the egg – indeed, neither is viable without the other, and so we must look to the true source of life in both. Some people receive and respond to God’s love in an outpouring of faith that then is expressed through their sharing of that love with others. Some people act in just and compassionate ways out of an intellectual commitment that gradually deepens into faith. What James warns his readers about is the disconnect – we cannot say we have faith and then act unlovingly without violating our own integrity. It is in this sense that he challenges them, “Can faith save you?” The superficial faith that does not urge us to action for the sake of God’s reign and love of God’s children is truly dead and useless.

  • Think of a time when you met a person whose socio-economic condition was greatly different from your own. How did you feel? How would it feel if your positions were reversed?
  • What actions might you take to express your faith as you now understand it? In what ways might your faith grow if you take those actions?

Mark 7:24-37 

What an odd, even awkward pair of stories we read in this Gospel lesson. There is no escaping the fact that they do not present Jesus in the best light, and they were preserved by the earliest Christian communities and included by the author of this first written account of the Good News. We must look a little deeper to find their significance to early Christians, and their importance for us.

Mark weaves the idea of a “Messianic secret” throughout his story of Jesus’ ministry. God is already present and powerfully active in the world, as seen in Jesus’ miraculous healings and exorcisms; but we must also accept that God’s full restoration of creation – the perfection envisioned by ancient prophets – is yet to come at a time we cannot foresee. Through that lens, we might view the stories of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man as prophetic symbols of God’s power to transform and restore the world’s division and isolation.

Mark tells a story in which Jesus has gone a long way from home, and by implication a long way from the Jewish population, the children of Israel for whom his ministry began. When a Gentile woman seeks him out and asks his help, he replies in a way that sounds rude to us but would in fact have made perfect sense in the context of the first-century Church. Jesus had come to the “children” first, but then had extended his compassionate ministry beyond his own ethnic boundaries. Told from within a community of Gentile Christians, this encounter with a desperate mother presents Jesus as validating and blessing their faith, even against the background of a strained history.

Jesus moves on, but in an even wider circle beyond his Galilean base. In this companion story, we find echoes of the same themes – Jesus takes the deaf man aside, away from the crowd; he performs the requested cure, without seeming effort or even difficulty. Finally, he tells everyone to keep quiet about it but they proclaim the news far and wide. Here is the Gospel: the power of God is present, among us, and cannot be contained even though it has not yet been fully revealed.

  • Where are our blind spots, and what messages are we not willing or able to hear? Do we need to understand this passage as an invitation to move outside our own boundaries or our comfort zone?
  • It is hard to keep quiet when we have good news to tell. What kind of joy or gratitude do you have in your heart that wants to be shared? Can you see God present and working in your life somewhere? Do you hear God calling you into something new? Try to articulate those experiences.

This Bible study, written by Jennifer Shadle, originally ran September 6, 2015.

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Bible Study, Pentecost 15 (B) – September 2, 2018

Proper 17

[RCL]: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

What an invitation! There are few more evocative, alluring images of joyful satiation than this excerpt from the Song of Solomon. In fact, this brief book is filled with such sweet, colorful and tantalizing images, it’s worth a fifteen-minute read. Interestingly, you’ll find that there is nothing sentimental or superficially romantic about this poem. Alongside does prancing in gardens and moonlit rendezvous, you’ll find scenes of confusion, loss and violence: these lovers encounter each other in a city prowling with armed guards and cultural, if not racial, prejudice. Enjoy this song of songs for its unbridled joy, and grant also that it speaks to a vision of the fulfillment of time wherein love enters into its most profound consummation.

Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10

Does kingly language work for you? Why or why not? If you do happen to find the monarchical overtones grating, try this: imagine this psalm was written by a poet in the king’s court. Let’s also assume the psalmist was male. What was his purpose in writing this verse? Was it praise to God, the king, or both? While we may never know exactly who wrote the psalms, it can be helpful to imagine different authorial perspectives. It can also be spiritually fruitful to imagine Jesus reciting the psalms in Hebrew in his first-century Palestine synagogue. What did this psalm mean for him? 

James 1:17-27 

That’s quite a powerful concluding statement on the nature of “pure” religion! Intriguingly, the author’s two exhortations appear to stand together tensely, almost in contrast. Caring for orphans and widows, at least today, can be a very messy activity – certainly not one I’d take on if I intended to remain unstained by the world. Did the author mean for this tension to exist, or is this something read into the text by its contemporary audience? For the two projects to complement each other, perhaps the author is imagining an “unstained” church in which orphans and widows behave in orderly fashion (!). Or perhaps he refers to vague aspects of “the world” not necessarily involved in the complicated care of the disenfranchised. The idea that the “church” and the “world” are distinct has gone in and out of fashion over the past two millennia; how does this distinction work for you? If the church is the people of God, then where is the church Monday through Saturday? What is it doing? And where?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It’s hard to discern the emotions behind the words, but if the Pharisees and scribes tossed their question to Jesus innocently, then Our Savior’s response was not entirely gracious. It feels like a bit of an overreaction, really. Of course, the question may have snapped with snark, instead. Either way, it appears that the questioning of whether Jesus’ teaching resided within or outside of the “tradition of the elders” struck a nerve. Jesus didn’t see himself as the founder of a new religion, but rather an interpreter of his own religion, Judaism, as understood through a mysterious and profound relationship with God.

How much ought we to trust tradition in our religion? When does tradition constrain or enable our personal and collective spiritual growth?

This Bible study, written by Laurel Mathewson, originally ran September 2, 2012.

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Bible Study, Pentecost 14 (B) – August 26, 2018

Proper 16

Pentecost 14 Episcopal Bible Study

[RCL]: 1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43

What a day it must have been to dedicate the Temple at Jerusalem. The dedication of the temple can stand in for many things and help us expand our imaginations: the dedication of our own churches, the dedication of our gifts, the dedication of our lives. Indeed, we need to dedicate ourselves daily to the work that God has given us to do. The pageantry of this event certainly helped to set the scene and reveal its importance. We must find ways to commit deeply to our own dedication to God, so that people may come to hear God’s great name because of the way we live our lives.

  • How can we more fully dedicate our lives to God, making an offering of ourselves, our souls and bodies? What do we need to do so that we may always deepen our commitment to God and grow into deeper dedication?

Psalm 84

The psalm clearly echoes the themes of the reading from the Hebrew Bible, and it is easy to imagine it has a hymn on that day. Can we live in God’s house? We cannot live in the Temple at Jerusalem – no one can. Likewise, we cannot dwell in our churches. This is probably a good thing for us and for the gospel. After all, all of creation is God’s house. As a result, we can live in God’s temple always and everywhere.

  • Do we live our lives like we live in God’s dwelling? How might our lives change if we remember that we do indeed live in God’s house?

Ephesians 6:10-20

The imagery of this passage is tricky. Most of us live far from military imagery, and even farther from military imagery of the Roman Empire. With youth groups, I have done an activity where we re-imagine this text using modern and personal metaphors. Cell phones, Facebook, cars, and any number of modern devices – even lucky shoes – have been suggested by these youth. How might you re-imagine this passage to convey Paul’s point?

This passage continues the themes that I have highlighted in the Kings reading and the psalm. We must put on the whole armor of God because our whole lives must be dedicated to God’s work. Christ never asks for a little bit. As a result, the closing thought of this passage is of vital importance. Paul’s prayer must become our own. We must pray to be alert and to persevere. We must also make a bold witness for the gospel.

  • What would our lives look like if we lived into Paul’s prayer?

John 6:56-69

The disciples found this teaching difficult. I think we are a lot like them. Jesus is teaching us the words of spirit and life, but there are those among us who do not believe, and often Jesus’ teaching is just plain difficult. Truly, much ink has been spilled trying to figure out what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood! I’m not sure that it is helpful to become bogged down in those theological debates. Rather, what does it mean to nourish the spirit and live by it instead of the flesh?

Jesus asks the twelve if they wish to leave. Peter answers that there is nowhere to go; Jesus gives the word of eternal life. As we know, it is easy to turn to sources other than Jesus for sustenance. As Jesus says, those things – that is, the flesh – are useless.

  • Are we sustaining ourselves in spirit? Are we taking Jesus’ words, the words of eternal life, and feasting on them?

This Bible study, written by the Rev. JK Melton, originally ran August 26, 2012.

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Bible Study, Pentecost 13 (B) – August 19, 2018

Proper 15

[RCL]: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

“Ask what I should give you.” The Lord comes to Solomon in genie-like fashion soon after he has taken over David’s throne. I remember preparing myself for versions of this scenario as a kid: what if God (or someone else) came to me and told me I could have anything I wanted? What would I choose? There was a time when what I most wanted was a life-size talking family dollhouse; a few years later, I wanted a baby sister, then a dog. Solomon was more sophisticated than I was as a child; he asks God for an understanding mind. God is so pleased with Solomon’s request that God grants not only an understanding mind, but riches and honor to go with it. God is not likely to come to us in the middle of the night with an offer to grant wishes, but God’s invitation to Solomon is available to us, too: “Ask what I should give you.” We, like Solomon, can imagine our own hearts and minds transformed by the wisdom and grace of God.

  • What would our lives look like if we earnestly asked that our hearts and minds would be transformed by the wisdom and grace of God? What would change?

Psalm 111

The final verse of Psalm 111 has always struck me: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding.” Until now, the psalmist has focused wholly on singing God’s praises and marveling at God’s amazing works. At the very end, the psalmist turns his attention to the reader, offering the directive to “fear the Lord” in order to gain wisdom and understanding. It can be hard to connect to instructions like this; what does it really mean to “fear” God anyway? When some read “fear,” they hear awe and wonder, but for many, this language is confusing and distracting.

  • What do you hear? How does your relationship with God bring wisdom and understanding into your life?

Ephesians 5:15-20

Jesus’ followers were familiar with accusations of drunkenness and debauchery. On Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the hearts and mouths of the multitudes so that everyone speaking different languages and dialects could understand one another, skeptical onlookers accused the disciples of being “filled with new wine.” In this letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul warns against excessive drinking, but he offers an exciting alternative: be filled with the Spirit, instead. Both passages suggest that to be filled with the Spirit of God can look as rowdy and slap-happy as being drunk. In our churches and faith lives today, it is hard to imagine an outsider confusing our worship with a lively bar scene, but we can seek ways to be filled with the joy of the Spirit that is invigorating and refreshing. Saint Paul identifies music and communal singing as a healthy way to express love and gratitude to God.

  • What other ways can we fill ourselves with the Spirit? How do we experience the joy of Christ in our communities?

John 6:51-58

Some version of the term “eat my flesh” occurs half a dozen times in this short passage from the Gospel of John. This is one of those passages that makes me cringe, not because there is anything wrong with it—I believe whole-heartedly in the beauty and life-giving power of the Eucharist—but because it just doesn’t make sense to non-Christians, or even to many Christians, for that matter. In a world where what it means to be a Christian seems increasingly fragile and complex, I find myself looking for ways to make Christianity more accessible to those who may struggle with how it is portrayed in the news or pop culture.

Well, the warning “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” is not very accessible. In fact, this is the kind of passage that caused skeptics to accuse the early church of cannibalism. But if we can get beyond the living-dead-like tone of this passage, we encounter something unique and challenging about Christian faith: following Jesus is meant to be a visceral, embodied experience. There is something vitally important about taking on the person of Christ physically, in our bodies, through the most simple, everyday practices of eating and drinking. This may not be the best Gospel reading for a newcomer, but the invitation to experience new life through the power of Christ’s body and blood is something we can all chew on (with apologies for the pun!).

  • How would you explain this Gospel text to a newcomer? Is there anything about it you find challenging? 

Anne Marie Witchger is a candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church. She received a B.A. in Religion from Earlham College, a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and will complete a Master of Arts in Ministry from General Theological Seminary in 2018. Anne Marie currently works as the Outreach Coordinator and Chief of Staff at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan. In her free time, Anne Marie loves to bake, write, ride her bike, and brew kombucha with her husband, Joshua.

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Bible Study, Pentecost 12 (B) – August 12, 2018

Proper 14

[RCL]: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

In this passage, Absalom, one of David’s sons, has rebelled against his father for the kingship of Israel, but this act of rebellion doesn’t change the fact that David still loves his son and doesn’t want him to be a casualty of the ensuing war. That’s why he says to his commanders, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” This instruction, however, is in vain. Chillingly, it’s as if the Cushite (here, Ethiopian) who brings the “good tidings” of Absalom’s death has no idea either that Absalom is David’s son, or that David had given instructions that Absalom not be harmed. As everyone else celebrates, David grieves the death of his son all by himself, in his “chamber over the gate.”

  • In a world of constant war and violence, some people may rejoice over the death of people deemed to “deserve it,” whether they be terrorists, enemy combatants, murderers, or people otherwise considered dangerous to public order. How does our thinking change in light of:
    • the fact that all people, including our mortal enemies, have parents and loved ones who mourn just as we do?
    • the sanctity of all human life?

Psalm 130

This psalm of mourning, (proverbially) written by David himself, asks a central question of the human condition: “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?” The answer, of course, is nobody. Nobody except God is sinless, and it’s this inescapable reality of human sin that the psalmist is mourning.

But the psalmist is not without some hope, when he says to God, “For there is forgiveness with you.” The psalmist knows that with God—and God alone—rests the authority to forgive sins. Since God’s judgment is ultimate and true, our ability to turn to God for forgiveness should elicit some apprehension on our part: “Therefore you shall be feared.”

And yet, notice that the psalmist doesn’t dwell on this fear, but rather on hope that “[God] shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” This is a sneak-peek of God’s plan to definitively redeem all of God’s people. As Christians, we believe this “plenteous redemption” is Jesus Christ, himself the very same God who has the authority to forgive sins.

  • What are the ways in which you and/or your congregation make the mercy of God known to your community?

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

This passage from Ephesians does a pretty great job of showing how the above themes apply to our daily lives. Here, Paul discusses the importance of minimizing harshness and maximizing forgiveness in Christian community. It follows naturally from the above psalm that, if God is the one who forgives sins, our own acts of forgiveness are a participation in and a reflection of God’s forgiveness: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” That’s how we become “imitators of God.”

In other words, it’s not enough simply to meditate on God’s forgiveness of our own sins; rather, our active forgiveness of one another is a necessary part of how we make God’s forgiveness known in the world. This also means that, even though Paul is talking about behavior in a specific Christian community (i.e., Ephesus), we must extend forgiveness to everyone, even if they’re not part of the Body of Christ, as far as we can tell.

  • Are the following verses paradoxical? Discuss in context Paul’s treatment of anger.
    • “Be angry but do not sin…” (4:26)
    • “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger…” (4:31)

John 6:35, 41-51

As Christians in a Eucharistic tradition, we know, believe, and experience the truth of what Jesus is saying in this passage, often on a weekly or even daily basis. In the Eucharist, we have the great benefit of seeing how these words of Jesus are pointing to himself not simply in a figurative (or, for that matter, literal) sense, but in a much more profound sense, transcending categories like “literal” and “figurative,” implicating the entire creation story and transforming all of reality: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

And yet, to many in Jesus’ immediate audience – described here (polemically) as “Jews” but which could also be skeptics of any background – this talk of “living bread” and “eternal life” makes zero sense. Even now, to many people in the modern world, both those who are secular and those who adhere to other faiths, Jesus’ claims are outlandish are unbelievable, perhaps nowhere more so than this passage.

  • How do we, as Christians, respond to skeptics who are unaccustomed to how Jesus is talking in this passage?

Zachary (Zak) Fletcher just received his Master of Divinity in May 2018 from Yale Divinity School, where he was affiliated jointly with Berkeley Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. In 2015 Zak received his bachelor’s degree in Classics, with a minor in historical linguistics, from Harvard University. Currently Zak is a chaplain resident in The Mount Sinai Health System in New York.

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Bible Study, Pentecost 11 (B) – August 5, 2018

Proper 13

[RCL]: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-13; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35 

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

In this passage, we see the prophet Nathan, being the voice of God, in confronting King David about his behavior. David had abused his authority as the king and had not treated Uriah the Hittite or his wife Bathsheba with justice. This greatly displeased God and God gave hard justice to David by taking from him the child conceived by Bathsheba.

But we discover later that after this first child died, David and Bathsheba conceived another son, named Solomon. Solomon later becomes the next king. So even in God’s justice there is mercy and second chances.

It seems that too often in life we forget to acknowledge that some of the suffering that we endure is caused by our own actions. And at other times we allow ourselves to be caught up in the difficult moments of life and forget to see the joy that can come at a latter time from our suffering.

Have there been times in your personal life or in the life of your faith community when suffering happened that was directly caused by either your decisions and actions or the decisions and actions of the larger community? Were you able to see God’s hand at work in those times of difficulty or was it only later that you were able to see God’s work in the midst of the strife?

Psalm 51:1-13

Our psalm reflects a tone of acknowledging one’s sinfulness and wishing to reestablish a relationship with God. There is no attempt to blame someone else or to pass the buck.

The psalmist clearly believes that (s)he is the one who has wronged God and that God has every right to do what God wills, not what the psalmist wants. The psalmist also freely admits that it is up to God to cleanse or not cleanse. The psalmist can only admit to the sins and desire to be restored to a right and loving relationship with God.

Have there been times in your life when you have wronged another person and have asked for forgiveness? How does it feel to be in the “helpless” position in a relationship? 

Ephesians 4:1-16

Paul’s image of the church as a body with different parts is an image that is used to describe how different people have different gifts. We like to think that we have unique gifts and that we can all work together in harmony. But this image depends upon the individual parts all acknowledging that God is in control. This image also insists that our desires are to be secondary to God’s call and God’s plan for us.

But as we have seen with the other readings listed above, we don’t always freely and happily accept God’s control. We also don’t always follow God’s call and plan for us. When these things happen, it is like the body is fighting with itself or even the body is getting sick.

How can we do better at accepting our own place in the body of the church, or in God’s plan for us, even if we aren’t comfortable with that plan or that role? Are there times when our own wrestling with God can throw other parts of the body into discomfort or confusion?

John 6:24-35

Jesus challenges the crowd that is following him to understand that God provides them with the things that they need. He also reminds them that God, not Moses, gave their ancestors manna when they were in the wilderness. At times, it seems that it is very easy to think that a person is doing God’s work, when in fact the person is doing the work with God’s direction and help.

God freely gives us what we need, whether we deserve these things or not. God also provides us these things when we take them for granted or aren’t paying attention to them.

When was the last time that you really saw and appreciated a sunrise or a sunset? How often do we take for granted the multitude of gifts that God gives to us each and every day?

This Bible Study was written by Patrick Collins and originally ran August 5, 2012.

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Bible Study, Pentecost 10 (B) – July 29, 2018

Proper 12

[RCL]: 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21 

2 Samuel 11:1-15 

I recently had a gentleman ask me, “Why do we believe that David is in Heaven? Look at what he did during his life!” Certainly, one could retort, “Well, look at all the good things he did, too.” David wrote so many psalms, for example, and was said to be a person “after [God’s] heart” (Acts 13:22).

You wouldn’t guess that David had so many shining attributes if you were limited to this passage, however. We don’t see any redemptive qualities to David, and this is precisely the point. From this story and its place in the wider Biblical narrative, we learn yet again that God works through even the worst of situations and the worst of intentions to somehow – mysteriously – bring about salvation. It is all too easy to focus on the sin and the brokenness in the present; it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture of God’s unfolding kingdom. Likewise, it is easy in this story to just focus on David’s evil intentions. We should not forget, though, that the Savior came from the lineage which was established through David’s affair with Bathsheba. God used David’s lowest point to bring salvation to the whole world.

  • How has God worked through your brokenness?

Psalm 14

I am truly grateful that psalms like this exist, that they were placed in the Bible, and that we pray them frequently in our liturgies and in our devotional lives. Why? This one in particular, to me, touches on the heart of the human condition. To clarify, I am not talking about the view of human brokenness portrayed in the psalm, what some people would call total depravity. No, I am talking about the disheveled and paradoxical nature of the psalm itself.

The Psalmist seems very confused. He talks about how nobody “does any good” and how no one seeks after God, but he also talks about a people who are righteous. Later, he talks about how evil-doers “eat up” God’s people. Yet, these evil-doers “tremble with fear” because God is in the midst of the very people they are destroying. We are left with a question: What is the Psalmist actually praying for? We see hope comingled with despair, righteousness comingled with sin. We get the sense that the Psalmist both knows and doesn’t know what to pray for. Here we see a truly human prayer.

  • Is it comforting to you whenever it seems as though psalmists don’t seem like they know quite what they want to pray for?

Ephesians 3:14-21 

For the past several months I have been struck by how short-sighted I tend to be whenever it comes to my own spirituality, particularly when the minister comes to the Eucharistic prayer in the liturgy. If you are like me, you believe in the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament. I truly do believe that God is present in the bread and the wine. Yet all too often, I forget that God also dwells in me, and that I should not only contemplate God’s presence within the bread and wine, but that I should also contemplate God’s presence within me.

This passage in Ephesians reminds us that Paul prays for a reality that far too few people actually take the time to think about; that God really is present within human beings. Paul does not simply pray that God’s people would have a little bit of Jesus within their hearts. What does he pray for? That our inner beings would be strengthened, that Christ would live in our hearts, and that we would “comprehend” the breadth, length, height, and depth of this love of God that is within us. Paul would have us comprehend a love which is incomprehensible and, thus, be filled with the “fullness of God.”

  • Have you taken the time to pray (along with Paul) that you would be filled with the fullness of God?

John 6:1-21

Not too long ago, my wife and I were getting ready to go to the seminary chapel service. Just a few minutes before walking out the door, we received a phone call and learned that someone very dear to us had died during the night. After we got off the phone, we began to weep, and we wrestled with whether or not we should still go to chapel. Did we want to weep in front of all our friends? Did we want to mourn in such a public space?

We decided to go. It was one of the most blessed worship experiences we’ve ever had. Life has a tendency to pull us away from church, to pull us away from the grace that God bestows through the sacraments. Sometimes it feels as though the Eucharist – that simple little cracker and that tiny sip of wine – is not enough. Yet, if you are like me, you often walk away amazed by how powerful and redemptive the Eucharist has been in the moments we need it most. Our Gospel reading puts imagery to a feeling that we all feel. Sometimes we doubt, saying, “What can Jesus do with this little cracker and this sip of wine?” Then we walk away from the altar sensing just how much God has multiplied his grace, and how satiated we actually feel.

  • Can you remember a specific time when you didn’t want to go to church and receive the sacrament but walked away feeling transformed by the experience? 

TJ is a Middler at Nashotah House and is pursuing ordination through the Diocese of Milwaukee. Prior to his time at Nashotah House, he served as a Youth Director and Commissioned Pastor for the Christian Reformed Church in the St. Louis area. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

Download the Bible study for Pentecost 10 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 9 (B) – July 22, 2018

Proper 11

[RCL]: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

2 Samuel 7:1-14a

We Episcopalians are fond of building beautiful churches as our places of worship and spend considerable amounts of money maintaining them. Often we are criticized by both outsiders and fellow Episcopalians who are not in favor of spending funds on what some would consider extravagances. There is an argument to be made that this money would be better spent on charitable works for the poor which some believe would be more pleasing to God. However, the prophet Nathan confirms King David’s reflection that it is only right that God also have a permanent house of beauty, worthy of his greatness and faithfulness to his people.

While we should avoid using a disproportionate amount of our financial resources on our church buildings to the detriment of our charitable works (James 2:14-26 mentions that faith without works is dead), let us not consider our places of worship as unnecessary financial burdens or that God himself would disapprove of such places. Instead, let us confidently recall the prophet Nathan’s affirmation to faithful King David: “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

  • How do you feel about financial resources being spent on church buildings?
  • Do you feel your church community is appropriately allocating its funds between its church buildings and its charitable works?
  • How would you respond to a critic of spending large amounts of money on our places of worship?

Psalm 89:20-37

Sometimes when bad news stories—abuse scandals, bitter schisms, and decline—confront the church, we can become disheartened and start to question our loyalty to the institution and our faith. However, we are assured by this psalm that God himself will hold accountable those who stray from what is pleasing to him. We are also encouraged to remain faithful and not to lose heart because King David’s family lineage, including Jesus Christ himself and all Christians by faith, are assured of God’s enduring love and faithfulness until the end of time. Let us, therefore, carry on with confidence in the knowledge that God is always with his faithful people, and offer this encouragement to our fellow Christians.

  • How do you feel about bad news stories confronting the church?
  • Does this psalm encourage you?
  • How can you encourage your fellow Christians in their faith and commitment to the church?

Ephesians 2:11-22

During this era of hostility and even schism within our Anglican Communion, St. Paul’s message of unity to the divided Christians in Ephesus is a great source of reflection and encouragement to our own generation. He reminds us that even though we may be different from each other, we are all united by faith in Jesus Christ who destroys the divisions between us and brings peace. Although there are great diversities of belief and practice among us, whether we like it or not, there is only one Body of Christ of which we are all part. We must therefore never lose sight of our unity in Christ—that in him, we are brothers and sisters with none more superior nor inferior to the other. We must not allow this vision of peace and reconciliation with God and with one another to be overshadowed by the things that divide us. Let us truly become the dwelling places for God that we are intended to be.

  • How do you feel about diversity in the church?
  • What can we do in our daily lives to express our unity in Christ?
  • What can we do to encourage peace and reconciliation within our local church communities and within the wider Anglican Communion?

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

In this scene of overwhelming need from the people, Jesus clearly shows his humanity by understanding that his disciples have been so dedicated to their ministries that they have become exhausted and need some time for themselves. Although they may not want to leave as they know there is still much to do, Jesus is encouraging them to acknowledge their human limitations. He surely knows that if his disciples reach the point of burnout, they will no longer be able to continue their ministries and be of use to anyone. They must take a rest.

Although Jesus must also have been tired, recognizing the great spiritual hunger among the people and the need for guidance that is still unfulfilled, he pushes on and shares with them many things that bring healing and wholeness to their lives. Just as in Jesus’ time, there remains a hunger in society for the timeless values and spirituality that Jesus brought with him through his life and ministry. As Episcopalians within the Anglican Communion, this should remind us of the 2nd Mark of Mission: “To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers.” As followers of Jesus, we are called to continue his mission in our own time and place, bringing the same healing and wholeness that he brought to the people of his own generation.

  • How can we encourage a culture within our church that values the need for rest to promote greater productivity in our ministries?
  • How has the life and ministry of Jesus brought healing and wholeness to your own life and the lives of those around you?
  • How can we better prepare ourselves to fulfill the 2nd Mark of Mission? 

This Bible study was written by Daniel Woods of St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in Quezon City, the Philippines.

Download the Bible study for Pentecost 9 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 8 (B) – July 15, 2018

Proper 10

[RCL]: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

The books attributed to the prophet Samuel tell the history of the Israelites and explain God’s law for Israel under the guidance of the prophets. In chapter 6 of 2 Samuel, King David, after uniting the tribes of Israel under his leadership, takes possession of the Ark of the Covenant, containing a jar of manna, the rod of the prophet Aaron, and stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments from the prophet Moses.

In our reading, we witness a scene of celebration for this new era of unity for the Israelites with Jerusalem as their capital, and King David himself is seen giving thanks to God in praise and worship. The worship described is joyous and heartfelt, with music and dancing. While worship was the first priority for King David, he did not forget his people, blessing them and offering them food. There is one figure, however, that stands out as resenting this joyous scene: the daughter of the former king, Saul.

Every act of worship to God should be joyous and heartfelt, regardless of our preferred style of churchmanship. Our Christian unity, expressed through our common prayer and worship, is worthy of celebration, and the central place of God in this unity is worthy of genuine thanksgiving. Sometimes there are those among us who place greater value upon the form of our worship than on the substance; sometimes a newcomer simply does not understand what all the fuss is about. Either might express resentment when the worship is not exactly how they would like it to be, or when the joyous scene of worship is something to which they cannot relate. It is therefore up to us to ensure that we focus on the substance of our worship rather than the form and to reach out to those who are struggling to relate to our worship in order to be truly pleasing to God. In this way, our common prayer and worship can fulfill their purpose of uniting us as a Christian community and reaching out in love to others who have yet to fully comprehend the joy of worship.

  • How do you feel during worship in your church?
  • How can we ensure that God is always at the center of our worship?
  • What should we do if we or somebody else is feeling resentment about an aspect of our worship?
  • How would you explain our worship to a newcomer?

Psalm 24

Psalm 24, The Earth is the Lord’s, is attributed to Jesus’ ancestor King David, and is recited in Jewish tradition during the return of the Torah scroll to the ark during worship. It has also been used by the musician Handel in his legendary Messiah, and in the Episcopal Church’s 1916 Hymnal for the moving occasion of the consecration of a church. Such is the depth and timelessness of Psalm 24 throughout the ages.

King David reflects that it is natural that all things belong to God, for it is he that created all things. He then wonders who is worthy to stand before such a glorious God and receive his blessings, deciding that it must be those who are pure-hearted and have done no wrong in God’s sight. These are the people who are searching for God, desiring to know him, and acknowledging his glory.

It is a great act of humility to accept that we are not the center of the universe. Rather, God is, and it is ultimately to him that we belong and are accountable. While nobody can claim to be perfect or without fault, we can be sure that we are heading in the right direction if we have already begun seeking to know God and his will for our lives. This in itself is pleasing to him. By humbling ourselves and acknowledging our need for God, we are opening ourselves up to him and allowing him to enter into our lives to be our strength and guide.

  • In your daily life, do you behave as though you are the center of the universe or as though God is?
  • How have you begun seeking to know God and his will for your life?
  • How do you acknowledge God’s glory in the world and in your life?

Ephesians 1:3-14

St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Ephesus, a Greek city in modern-day Turkey, incorporates themes of church unity, purity, and holiness.

In this section of his letter, St. Paul tells us of the blessings received from God the Father through Jesus Christ—blessings which we were destined to receive from the beginning of time. He explains that out of love for God, we should strive to be holy and blameless. Although unworthy, we are forgiven our sins through faith in Jesus, setting us free to do better.

We know God’s will for our lives through the example of Jesus’ own life. As the creator of all things, God desires all things to be united with him through Jesus Christ, a legacy which we who have faith in him have also inherited. We should live with a desire for God to be praised by all. Through our faith in Jesus Christ, we are assured that the Holy Spirit will always enable and empower us in this task.

As Episcopalians, this message from St. Paul should remind us of the Anglican Communion’s First Mark of Mission: “To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom,” which is regarded as Jesus’ own summary of his mission on earth and the key statement about everything we do in mission. This requires all of us to be committed to personal evangelism. Nobody is exempt. In fact, the legal name of the Episcopal Church is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society! Of course, we can be creative in our evangelism, but we are all called to share our faith in Jesus Christ with others in some way. St. Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit is always with us as we engage in this task and we should also be reminded that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). So it should be with these gifts that we fulfill our task of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom.

  • How do you feel when you hear praise being given to God, especially from those new in faith?
  • How is your local church community fulfilling the First Mark of Mission?
  • How are you personally fulfilling the First Mark of Mission?

Mark 6:14-29

This gospel is attributed to St. Mark the Evangelist, regarded as the founder of the Christian community in Alexandria. It was written for Greek-speaking Christian converts with a need to explain unfamiliar Jewish traditions and Aramaic terms.

In this section of St. Mark’s gospel we are told how the life of St. John the Baptist, a man most well-known to us for baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan, came to an end. At this point in the Scriptures, there is still confusion over who Jesus really was, and many, including King Herod, had become convinced that Jesus was the resurrected St. John. The death of John was clearly troubling King Herod’s conscience. However, the king had felt obligated to order his execution because he had promised his step-daughter that he would grant her any wish. When, under the influence of her insecure mother, the step-daughter wished for the head of St. John, the king felt that he could not refuse.

Does this situation seem familiar to us? Have you ever done something that you really did not want to do, knowing it to be wrong and troubling your conscience? Perhaps we have been in positions of power over others, just like King Herod, and have used that power to command somebody else to do something in an attempt to avoid direct responsibility. Like Herod, are we more afraid of the consequences from those around us than from Jesus, who will hold us accountable for all our actions at the end of time? While Jesus offers forgiveness, we must be truly remorseful for the wrongs that we have done and sincerely attempt to change the attitudes that led to those wrongs. Let us, therefore, have the courage to always attempt to do what is right in the eyes of God.

  • Have you ever done something wrong out of the fear of disappointing someone?
  • Are you more worried about the approval of others than the approval of God?
  • If you could relive any of these situations again, what would you do differently?

This Bible study was written by Daniel Woods of St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in Quezon City, the Philippines.

Download the Bible study for Pentecost 8 (B).