Search Results for: exodus

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

Proper 23

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

Exodus 32:1-14

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

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

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

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

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

Philippians 4:1-9

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

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

Matthew 22:1-14

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

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


Download the Bible Study for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

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

Proper 21

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

Exodus 17:1-7

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

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

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

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

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

Philippians 2:1-13

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

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

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

Matthew 21:23-32

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

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

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

Download the Bible Study for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bible Study, 16th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – September 24, 2017

Proper 20

[RCL:] Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Exodus 16:2-15

Have you ever felt true physical hunger? The kind that creates a dull, aching delirium in which nothing matters other than finding nourishment? In the West, we are largely removed from this experience, and so it is difficult to fully inhabit the desperation of the hungry Israelites, wandering and woeful. And so we are equally removed from the intense, incarnate miracle of discovering God’s manna in the wilderness.

There is a current in the story of God and God’s people, one of hunger and fulfillment, that shows up again and again. In all cases, true nourishment comes from God, and not from the feeble machinations of humankind—think of Eden, of the Last Supper, of the Eucharist in which we partake. We can survive (for a time) on our own, but the true journey cannot be fulfilled without the abundance of God. We must feel that hunger in ourselves first before we can be fed.

  • What gives you true nourishment? Where, other than in God, have you sought to feed the deep hunger within? How has that worked out for you?

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

This psalm, which extols the wonders of God’s mercy and providence, is worth an introspective pause. The Psalmist praises God for what God has done, not what God thought or felt. God proves the existence of God’s grace and mercy through action. To put a finer point on it, God did not simply send vague “thoughts and prayers” to the starving Israelites.

We live in a time of urgent need, both at home and around the world. More so than ever, through social media and mass communication, we are exposed to the wonders and horrors of our common experience as humans on this planet. If we are to walk as the people of God, we must show up in action, as God does, and not merely in a passive posture of sympathetic thoughts. This is not a matter of “earning salvation” or scoring points with a divine scorekeeper. It is simply that if we are called to “make [God’s] deeds known among the peoples” then we need to embody that in our own deeds.

  • How is your life representative of prayerful action? What might you do, right now, to more fully embody God’s deeds of mercy and providence?

Philippians 1:21-30

Paul sets up an interesting dichotomy here: the choice between dying to “depart and be with Christ” or “striving side by side” with the Church on earth. This raises some challenging questions: is being with Christ in another realm superior to living “in the flesh”? On which realm—the flesh or the spirit—should our focus lie?

Paul makes his choice: to stay and labor alongside the beloved community, even as it suffers. And, implicitly, we are called to the same decision. No matter how great our longing for personal union with Christ, we are here, now. No matter how broken this creation, we are part of it, now. Labor we must, and suffer we may, but in Christ, we find meaning—the Life at the heart of life.

  • What do you want to do with your one, precious life before you die? How can you find Christ in the midst of your messy, earthly existence?

Matthew 20:1-16

Isn’t there a part of you that feels indignant on behalf of the first laborers in this parable? After all, they put a long day’s work; they did what was expected of them; they played by the rules. And then these other people come along, work the bare minimum, and they profit off others’ labor? It’s not fair! Isn’t God supposed to be just

Isn’t there a part of you that feels indignant on behalf of (or as one of) the working poor in this country? After all, you put in a long day’s work; you did what was expected of you; you played by the rules. And then these other people come along, work the bare minimum, and they profit off your labor? It’s not fair!

We should be careful not to make parables into cute little moral stories (ie. God rewards everyone equally, and isn’t that so nice?) Maybe those tidy conclusions are true. Maybe. But also, maybe God isn’t the generous landowner in this pericope. Maybe God is the silent question at the end of the story. Maybe the kingdom of God is our response of righteous anger to such an unfair schema. Maybe.

  • Where do you see God in this parable? Look again; where else might God be? 

Phil Hooper is a second year Master of Divinity student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Ca., and a Postulant for Holy Orders from the Diocese of Nevada. A CDSP Bishop’s Scholar and SIM Carpenter Merit Scholar, Phil is currently focused on the intersection of contemplative Christian spirituality, social action, and community building.

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

To Work in the Vineyard, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 8, 2017

Proper 22

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

The easiest way for a preacher to deal with the challenging story in today’s Gospel reading might be to understand it as simply a metaphor for events we already know well – another tale of deadly confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leadership of his day. As we heard at the end of the passage, the religious chiefs perceived that Jesus was referring to them as the wicked tenants. Therefore, they felt threatened and angry and decided to arrest Jesus. However, they had to wait for a more opportune time because they feared resistance from the crowd of Jesus’ followers. And of course, we remember what happened next – Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion – all followed by the resurrection that concluded the action and began a whole new relationship between God and another people.

To follow the story in this way is to see it as an allegory, explaining how the church grew beyond the control of the then-current religious establishment. In such a symbolic narrative, each character corresponds to something in real life. The wicked tenants represent the religious leaders of Jerusalem, the owner of the vineyard is God, the vineyard itself is Israel, the slaves sent to collect the owner’s share are the Old Testament Prophets, the son is Jesus, and the new tenants who would gain use of the vineyard are the Gentiles and/or Jesus-following Jews.

But, to be honest, all this does is provide for us a history lesson, and, in fact, one that we already know. A more difficult way to deal with the story in today’s Gospel is to find courage enough to reflect on a more general theme that few like to consider – the concept of God as a condemning divinity. We may need to face up to the possibility that the story reveals God to us as a punishing one, prone toward retribution against those who choose not to follow his way. The wicked tenants who failed to give God his due suffered the fate of a miserable death, losing all they had hoped to gain for refusing to pay their fair rent, not giving the owner, not giving God, what he deserved.

How can we face the seeming inconsistency of knowing God as loving and gracious and all-giving on the one hand, and on the other – following the tone of today’s story – seeing God as a punishing and judging entity?

And closer to home – can we face the question, “What connection is there between ourselves and the wicked tenants and the selfish, misguided religious leaders who rejected Jesus?” Could their fate also be ours? After all, don’t we often shy away from what Christ would have us do? Are we not sometimes selfish like the wicked tenants? Do we not refuse to share the fruits of the “vineyard” as stingily and stubbornly as they? How often have we failed to respond lovingly to the gifts of God’s creation that envelope our lives – the good earth, the resources we use to sustain ourselves, other people – our brothers and sisters who dwell beside us in this blessed life? Does it not follow, then, that we also deserve to be put to a miserable death?

But surely there is something wrong with such an assessment. Perhaps a better way to deal with this dilemma is to examine today’s story in the full context of the Gospel, to view it against the backdrop of all we know of God’s action in Christ. Then we can draw a less harsh—and truer—conclusion about the conflict of experiencing a totally loving God and the punishment apparent in today’s story. As Christians, we always start with the fact that God initiates the relationship with us – not we with God. God calls us to be in unity with him and all people. God’s reaching out to us is best understood as his giving us everything we have – with no strings attached and without our deserving it, without our having done anything to gain it. Despite this, Jesus made it clear that we are the most precious beings in all creation – so valuable, as he proved on the cross, that we are worth dying for.

We don’t have to earn God’s love; it is given freely. So, why would a loving God put us to a miserable death? The answer to this question lies not in the possibility that we might wind up experiencing a miserable spiritual death, but, if so, to recognize that such a fate can only result because of our choosing. The wicked tenants received all they needed from the owner, but they refused to accept his graciousness and turned their backs on him, his servants, and even his son. They, by their actions and inactions, cast themselves out of the vineyard, no less than Adam and Eve’s disobedience resulted in their loss of the benefits of the Garden of Eden. The miserable death we might experience can only result from our failure to accept the gifts of God and respond to them in thanksgiving and by reflecting God’s love back on that creation and all people in it. It can only result from our selfishly acting as if the vineyard is all ours – or should be all ours and no one else’s, let alone God’s.

It is not so much that God’s patience with us might eventually run out, causing us to be put to a miserable death. It is more like our time runs out only because we wait too long to catch on to what God wants for us, and then we actually by our actions or inactions cast ourselves out of God’s vineyard, producing a self-inflicted kind of misery that we alone can create.

Today’s Gospel story, of course, provides for us a warning about what we can miss out on if we act like the wicked servants. It reminds us of the great theme of stewardship that is so central to the life of the church and to the healthful focus of individual Christians. When we sing the familiar words, “Praise God from who all blessings flow,” we need to remember the actions that they imply – that we need to “walk the talk” by remembering that what we have is not ours to own, but is on loan from God. We need to remember that God’s way of grace and love is wooing us to respond to our good fortune of living in his vineyard by reflecting that love in our actions toward others. That as we care for, as we exercise stewardship over God’s creation – especially our fellow human beings – we do so as a reflection of God’s love. That love is poured out to us in such measure that it overflows from us, and through us can overflow onto all creation. An overflow that allows us to maintain creation and preserve it and protect it from harm. An overflow that impels us to love others and share with them the Good News of God in Christ – a truth they might miss if we ignore our mission and neglect that which so graciously enriches us.

If, in reflecting on today’s Gospel story, we will concentrate on God’s setting us up on a fabulous vineyard, lovingly and graciously giving us all we have, we can recognize that this is his way of coaxing us and wooing us and encouraging us into being good and faithful servants – good and loving workers in the world he has left to our care – good and faithful followers of his son, Jesus. Wooing us to give and pray for the spread of his kingdom and for the wellbeing of his children, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Download the sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

How Is God Calling Us?, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 1, 2017

Proper 21

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

In March of 1979, a nonprofit organization by the name of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network was launched. It is better-known by its acronym: C-SPAN. The organization’s mission is to provide continuous coverage of the goings-on of the US Government. You may have tuned in on occasion to watch as Congress works—or, depending on your perspective, as Congress doesn’t work.

Along with American programming, there are also occasionally programs from other countries, including one from the United Kingdom: Prime Minister’s Questions. The program airs straight from the British House of Commons and features the British Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition party.

The entire program consists of these two figures, along with other members of the House, pummeling each other with rapid-fire and hard-hitting questions, above a cacophony of cheers, jeers, and occasional pleas for “order” from the Speaker of the House. This can go on for hours! One person bounds to his feet and asks a biting rhetorical question, then someone else jumps up with a pithy answer or an even more searing question. It’s the political version of whack-a-mole!

If C-SPAN were around in Jesus’ day, there might have been a show called The Messiah’s Questions! Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is berated with all manner of rapid-fire rhetorical questions.

At the outset of the Gospel, John asks Jesus, “Are you the one we have been waiting for?” Then the Chief Priests—the opposition party if ever there were one—ask Jesus one question after another. They ask why the disciples don’t abide by the tradition of the elders, they ask about divorce, they ask about taxes, they ask about the role of the Ten Commandments, and on and on it goes until even Pilate himself asks Jesus if he is, in fact, the King of the Jews.

In today’s passage in particular, the Chief Priests and the elders ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this authority?” Then Jesus asks a few questions of his own. The Chief Priests and the elders knew how to play politics, and so they decide not to answer—not because they didn’t have an answer, but because they were afraid of how Jesus might respond to their answer.

And so, Jesus asks yet another question— “What do you think?”—and then launches into a parable about two sons. When their father asks the sons to work in the vineyard, one son says something like, “Sure! I’ll get right on that!” But he doesn’t follow through in the end. Truth be told, most of us can sympathize with this son. How often have we made a promise or a commitment that, for whatever reason, we couldn’t keep?

But the focus of the parable is on the other son—the one who, unlike his brother, initially says he won’t help out but winds up doing so in the end. We might be tempted to ask why he chose to help in the end— “Did he have something else to do first?” “Was his schedule full?” “Was he angry with his father or his brother?” But if we’re not careful, these questions can bog us down in homiletical quicksand and we can lose the larger, more important point: regardless of what initially prevented him, the son eventually accepted his father’s invitation to go to work in the vineyard.

At its core, this parable is the pattern of our life with God. No matter what we’ve done, or what may have initially prevented us, God is always extending an invitation to us. We are constantly being drawn into a new place—to new depths of faith, to a new place of divine discovery.

No matter if this is the first time we’ve ever heard the Gospel, or if we’ve been faithful Christians for decades, this parable lays bare one incontrovertible fact: God isn’t finished with us yet! The baptized life has no emeritus status, and there’s no such thing as a retired or part-time disciple of Jesus!

But here’s the thing: life with God is always forward-looking, always calling us out of the confines of our past and present and into something new. In order to live into God’s invitation, we must be willing to leave the past behind—no matter how comfortable or familiar or profitable—and turn toward the future, complete with all of its uncertainties and questions and anxieties.

And make no mistake: that’s hard!

Consider, for example, the Chief Priests and the elders of Jesus’ day. They had quite a bit invested in the status quo. Leaving the past behind meant forfeiting their claims to power and position, which had become their entire identity. Stepping into life with God meant leaving all of that behind, in favor of a future they couldn’t predict and couldn’t control.

How about in our own day?

How willing are any of us to forfeit our positions, our authority, or our privilege? The truth is that, for most of us, the past is pretty enticing—especially when we enjoy privileges we haven’t earned.

But then there are the tax collectors and prostitutes, whose past was marked by derision and servitude; of being treated as things rather than as persons. For them, God’s future brought new life!

This is the essential question that every single one of us must faithfully discern: How is God calling us out of our past or present circumstances, into something new?

The truth is, sometimes the answer to that question is unsettling. After all, for as hopeful and encouraging as the future might seem, it’s always uncertain. At least we know our past, even if it is limited and dysfunctional.

As people of faith, we are called to hold that tension between the certainty and comfort of our past and the uncertainty and discomfort of God’s future. We’re called to ask ourselves how our past has been allowed to determine our future, how it has restricted our ability to live faithfully, and to consider where it is that we find life and joy and peace, versus where we find resentment and fear and death.

We’re called to ask these questions of our communities of faith, too. How have our churches become entrenched in the structures and strictures of the past? How does doing the same old thing because we’ve always done it that way cut us off from new and life-giving possibilities? What parts of our common life together need holding onto, and what needs letting go?

One final word of caution: when we ask these questions from a place of fear and anxiety—wringing our hands over what our future or our church’s future will be—these questions bear little transformative power. But if we ask them from a place of discernment and faithfulness, we can be sure that as we do this hard and holy work, God will be with us on the journey.

And in the end, we will find life more abundant!


The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia—a lectionary-based preaching resource authored exclusively by Millennial clergy, lay leaders, and teachers. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

Download the sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bible Study, 15th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – September 17, 2017

[RCL:] Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Exodus 14:19-31

The Israelites have escaped their enslavers and are on the way to the land God had promised to them. From the Egyptians’ perspective, however, these Israelites are their rightful possessions that have been stolen away from them. On top of that, these Israelites are responsible for plagues that have laid waste to their land and have caused the deaths of many Egyptians. They probably found it quite reasonable to chase Israelites and bring them to justice.

Yet they are baffled when God steps in and serves as a shield for the escaping Israelites. They are caught by surprise when God jams their chariots and throws them into the sea. They cry out because God is siding with the Israelites even though they surely felt they were the wronged party.

Wars are not fought by good guys and bad guys but rather by two sides that both think they are in the right. All of us are sure we are right sometimes, only to find out that we are mistaken. It is humbling to recognize that there is a greater power at work that knows better than we do, and it takes great strength to accept when we are wrong with grace. Righteousness needs to be held lightly, tempered by open-mindedness to others and prayerfulness to God.

  • Can you think of a time when you were so sure you were right that you were blind to the perspectives of others?
  • What will help you gracefully accept times when you are wrong?

Psalm 114

Lots of questions surround the parting of the Red Sea. It is easy to get locked into a discussion over if it really happened or how it could have happened, like trying to figure out the trick behind the magician’s act. This is a distraction, however, that draws us away from the point of the story: It is a story about a people who were powerless to save themselves and about God saving them.

It is a story of salvation through grace.

This grand event of the splitting of the sea is an example of God’s grace in action. The Israelites could not pat themselves on the back for a job well done. They shouted psalms of praise to God, knowing that no works they could ever do would be payment enough to buy God’s love. God was to thank for all the blessings of their lives, and these blessings were gifts of grace.

It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we have more power over our lives than we really do, forgetting to give thanks to God. Having self-confidence and taking pride in your accomplishments are great, but a healthy recognition that God’s grace in our lives is important too – especially because God’s love is freely given, regardless of anything we do to try to earn it.

  • When do you find yourself distracted and forgetting to give thanks to God?
  • When do you find your attention drawn to God’s presence?

Romans 14:1-12

When Paul is writing the letter to the Christians in Rome, he is writing to a divided community: the Jewish Christians who were exiled from Rome and have since returned, versus the gentile Christians who had populated Rome in their absence. If this fledgling church was to survive, they would need to find a way past their differences, yet they struggle as if they were adversaries. Both the Jewish and gentile converts distrust and think themselves superior to the other, which sows disunity all around.

If there is one message Paul wants them to take to heart, it is that they are all the same in the only way that matters: They are God’s beloved, for whom Christ died so that they may live forever. None of their differences compares to their one, essential similarity.

We, too, are faced with people all around us who seem different. We all have different values and can use those to judge ourselves superior to others, but God has already judged us all and found us all worthy of love, compassion and salvation. Let us not focus too much on how our differences stack up against each other, and instead turn our focus toward the God who sees us and loves us all the same.

  • What differences with others do you find you have a hard time overcoming?
  • In what ways do you see judgment and disunity getting in the way of the work of the church?

Matthew 18:21-35

Any community needs to determine how it is going to handle judgment and justice. This parable about the two debtors is often used as an illustration about fairness, saying that the first slave should have treated the second slave as he himself had been treated. After all, the debt his lord had forgiven was more than 500,000 times as much money as the other slave owed him (see Coogan’s “New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition,” Oxford Press, 2007), so the first slave’s behavior was hardly fair! This parable, however, is less about fairness than about how, fundamentally, Jesus values forgiveness.

Jesus precedes this parable by highlighting that forgiveness should be an overabundant principle. We should not even be thinking in terms of how much we should forgive; we should just forgive. We, like Peter, are being told that forgiving others – and forgiving ourselves – is never the wrong answer. The lowliest person is still worthy of forgiveness. The gravest transgression should still be forgiven. The most righteous and powerful people still need to forgive. Think of what a radical statement it would be for a society to say that their guiding principle is forgiveness!

If God has already forgiven through Christ’s crucifixion, we should think carefully about what we are telling God and each other if we declare something unforgivable. We can have justice without losing sight of compassion, and righteousness without losing sight of forgiveness.

  • When have you struggled with forgiving someone?
  • When have you struggled with forgiving yourself?

This Bible study, written by Steven Balke, originally ran for Proper 19 in 2014.

Download the Bible study for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Bible Study, 14th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – September 10, 2017

[RCL:] Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Exodus 12:1-14

After reading this text, I imagine flipping through the most recent church recipe book printed to raise money for the renovations to the parish hall. After perusing the “Rector’s Rhubarb Pie” and the three versions of “Heavenly Hash,” I flip the page and discover a recipe for “Passover”: roasted lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Warning! Do not boil the lamb or eat it raw. (I cringe at the thought of a parishioner eating a lamb raw.)

Not only are there cooking directions, there’s even a dress code and disposal instructions. Sandals on, loins girded and a staff in hand – seems like an easy enough outfit to throw together. All the leftovers needing to be burned is also a cinch, since that’s what will happen if I’m roasting anything over a fire. Further instructions make it clear that the food must by eaten in haste, much like a teenager after football practice. All the old jokes about the Episcopalian who used the wrong salad fork are thrown out. There are no salad forks for this meal. In fact, there aren’t any forks at all.

This recipe is certainly for an extraordinary circumstance. That is, the circumstance of getting out of Dodge fast. The original diners were getting out of town to end their long enslavement to the Egyptians. The people of God were to mark their own doors, lest the Lord kill their firstborn along with the Egyptian firstborn.

Suddenly, my comedic musings on this passage grind to a halt. The lamb must be killed, and its blood used to mark the doorposts of each Israelite home so that the Lord would pass over as he struck down the firstborn children and animals in Egypt. This would be a night of death and destruction, of plague and sorrow. The fury of the Lord will rain down on the land of Egypt while the people of God sheltered in their homes, quickly eating a roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Then, when the aftermath of the death and destruction turned each Egyptian home into a morgue, they would slip away into the desert.

The Passover was a feast that commemorates a violent event after a series of violent events in Egypt. As we have learned from our own nation’s history, human slavery does not just fade away with time and good intentions. Slavery is maintained by violence and usually comes to a violent end. The command to remember the slavery and to remember God’s deliverance is a way to remember God’s grace and deliverance.

  • Do you remember a time when you felt delivered from a place of hardship? How do you commemorate that deliverance?

Psalm 149

This psalm captures the crazy exuberance that is possible for the people of God. The joy in this psalm is shared by the whole community. This is not private revelry; everyone is involved. Music abounds, and everyone whirls around, dancing. The whole community is singing at the top of its lungs when we notice a peculiar thing about the choir. Everyone in the choir is holding a two-edged sword. They have swords to execute judgment on oppressive kings.

This psalm reminds me of the Magnificat, in which Mary sings that God raises up the lowly and pushes down the proud. In Psalm 149, it is the festive choir that introduces God’s justice in the world.

All this leads me to conclude that the praise and worship that we do on Sunday cannot be disconnected from what God is doing in the world throughout the week. God’s interest in justice flows from the praises of his people. For me, this helps connect my worship with real, practical problems in the world that God is moving to fix.

  • What are some of the issues in the world where we can see God’s justice?
  • How is your worship of God moving you toward seeing the world’s inequalities?

Romans 13:8-14

Before he became a follower of Jesus, the great father of the church, St. Augustine, read these words of St. Paul. After reading them, he shut the book, then he observed, “By a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”

I confess that I had a different reaction to these words in Romans. My reading of this passage, at first glance, made me feel like the apostle is chiding me about how I spend my free time in the evenings. I confess that his words seem to be rather meddlesome, even 2,000 years after they were written.

How could this rather negative message be to St. Augustine a message of light and serenity? Perhaps I should remind myself that the power of the Holy Spirit is always to bring the right word at the right time. For St. Augustine, these were the right words for that moment.

Perhaps they are the right words for our moment, too. We are reminded in these verses that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Every time we move toward the light of God, we are moving deeper into the Kingdom of God. We are easily distracted by the neon lights that signal the presence of what tourist brochures call “nightlife,” but we never mistake neon lights for the sun.

For Paul, it is still night, but the dawn is almost here. Get ready, he says, to live the way we will live for eternity, in the light and warmth of God.

  • What are the worthwhile pursuits of life that you might be missing by staying up too late? What distracts you from being a light to a dark world?

Matthew 18:15-20

“Mr. Peters, we apologize for your long wait at the front desk. In order to keep your loyalty here at our hotel we would like to offer you a complimentary three-night stay at any of our worldwide locations. We will also throw in a couple of spa passes and trays of chocolate-covered strawberries.” Indeed, these are words I always like to hear. I also like to hear that I’m getting a big refund from the IRS. What I don’t like to hear is that I sinned against someone. I don’t like it one bit. I’d much rather talk about something else.

One of the most unpleasant activities in human life is confrontation. Especially when a relationship is at stake. I can come up with a million excuses to put off and avoid confrontation with someone who is hurting me or my community. Jesus clearly states that the responsibility to confront lies with the person who is offended. The community is slowly drawn in to the controversy, but not too soon.

The goal of this confrontation is to “gain your brother.” The goal is always reconciliation. Even when a member is declared a gentile and tax collector, the goal is reconciliation.

How does Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? He engages them with truth and love. In fact, Matthew, the traditional author of this gospel, was a tax collector. Jesus called Matthew just like he calls all of us. He calls us to a ministry of reconciliation, even when it’s difficult and painful.

I have observed confrontation many times, and I can report that the goal of the confrontation was rarely restoration and reconciliation. Too often the goal of the confrontation was to initiate a separation so everyone could go on with their lives.

Reconciliation is difficult. The cross, the ultimate symbol of reconciliation, stands before us and behind us as we pick up the phone and ask if we can meet to talk about something that happened.

  • Can you think of an example of a confrontation that resulted in reconciliation? What are some practical steps to take that may result in reconciliation after confrontation?

This Bible study, written by the Rev. David Peters, originally ran for Proper 18 in 2014.

Download the Bible study for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Gratitude, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017

Proper 20

[RCL] Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Children’s books seem to fall into categories: one appears to be about obedience or learning to follow the rules, a great number are about bravery and perseverance, others are about understanding the world around you, but a great many of the books for children today are about teaching our children that they are loved unconditionally. There seems to be a lot of these books, yearning to reassure us that we are lovable. One book, Mama, Do You Love Me?, follows an Alaskan mother and daughter through a conversation where the toddler tests the boundaries and limits of her mother’s love, only to find that even if mama is angry, she loves her daughter still. It’s a story about how fragile we are as humans and how each of us is intrinsically good and worthy of love. It’s a great and honest book, and in some way tells the story of how much God loves us.

Today we find Jesus telling a parable that is also about how much we are loved. The parable of the five o’clock people tells of how fragile we are as humans and how boundless God’s love truly is. Many of us have heard a sermon every year on this parable. Sometimes it focuses on the anger and resentment of the people who showed up earlier in the day, sometimes it looks at why the people showed up at five, and other times we hear about how grace is given freely to all simply because they showed up. All of these ring true.

There is something quite fragile about humans; our fragility shows up when we baptize babies and ask their families to protect them from evil and for the community gathered to look after them. Each of us is born with the love and hope of God implanted in our hearts; unfortunately, we are born into a fragile and broken world. At baptism, each of us had people promise to look after us as we grew into the person God imagined us to be in the midst of our communities.

This is the world of the parable: good and fragile people doing their best, wondering why some got more for doing less. What we and the workers forget is that God is not like us. God is better and more loving than we can imagine being. God looks at the workers and says, “I love you regardless of what time you showed up for work, I’m just glad you showed up.” Like the mother in the book, God’s love is not conditional on our behavior, God just wants us to show up and work. It is a reminder that we need to be grateful for help in the work God has given us to do, regardless of what time that help arrives. The work is often about being a sign of love to the world, and finding ways to love others even if they don’t agree with us, look like us, or behave the way we want them to… or show up first thing in the morning for work.

One of the best ways we can be signs of love in the world is to say thank you. Gratitude is an expression of love. When someone does something kind for us, regardless of whether they had to or not, it is a reminder of the goodness in them meeting the goodness in us—and the natural response to kindness is gratitude. Gratitude is extraordinarily important because it is a way for us to remember the goodness in others and ourselves—but still, it is easy to forget to be grateful.

Today in the Episcopal Church, we are remembering and giving thanks for the birth of Julia Chester Emery. One could argue that she was one who showed up early to work and that she worked without complaint. In the early 1900s, Julia helped organize the women of the church to participate in a daily spiritual discipline of gratitude. She asked that everyone remember that when something good happens in his or her day, that this is a gift from God, and to make a thank offering in remembrance that all good things come from God.

With this simple task, she began inviting people to participate in a spiritual discipline of gratitude. She worked tirelessly to promote gratitude and to support mission in the Episcopal Church with the funds collected each year. She did all of this at a time when women were not allowed to work if married and had very little status in the working world. She overcame much adversity to do the good thing that God planted in her heart. She was well known for her tireless dedication to her goal of helping support innovative ministries in the Episcopal Church. She rarely took “no” for an answer. Julia Chester Emery exemplified grit, faith, and the willingness to live more fully into being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

A spiritual discipline of gratitude doesn’t sound like much, but how often do we forget to say thank you? Thank you seems too simple, and yet it has the power to transform our lives. Have you ever tried genuinely thanking someone from whom you ordered food or coffee? Yes, it is that person’s job to make the coffee, but aren’t you glad that he or she said “yes” to doing the job that day? What about people you work with? Have you thanked them for all they do to support you? Have you thanked your family and friends? Most of us know the pain of someone dying suddenly with words of gratitude left unspoken between us. Saying thank you is simple, but it is transformative.

The simple thank offering collected in 1883 continues to this day in the form of the United Thank Offering. All of the funds collected are given away to support innovative mission and ministry in our church, as a sign of gratitude for the good that God has done in our lives and a sign of gratitude for the good being done through others.

Today we give thanks for Julia Chester Emery, for her vision, dedication, and belief that we should all be more grateful. We’re thankful for the workers, missionaries, and grant sites that the United Thank Offering has supported. We give thanks for those that showed up early to labor to make the world better, and for those who are still showing up. We give thanks for all of those who promised to support us at our baptism, and we give thanks for all who do ministry on our behalf. Today we give thanks for the goodness planted in our hearts, and we ask that we might be brave and tireless in our task, just like Julia Chester Emery.

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

Corpses in the Corridor, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 17, 2017

Proper 19

[RCL] Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

As you heard today’s gospel, did it make you uncomfortable, so that you shifted your weight from one foot to another, or perhaps gazed awkwardly into space?

That parable Jesus tells does not pack a dose of sweet comfort but challenges us outrageously in a spot where we are most tender: the trouble we have with forgiveness.

The story has two scenes: first, inside the throne room of a powerful king; second, just outside in a palace corridor. Moreover, the story tells of two worlds: the world as we know it, and the world as God wants it.

The throne room changes in a moment from the world as we know it to the world as God wants it. That palace corridor, however, starts out as the world we know but fails to become the world as God wants it.

The throne room, as I said, starts out as the world we know. It’s a world of calculation and control. The boss man is reviewing accounts, and somebody, a slave, owes him big time—really big time. The slave gets called on the carpet, but that’s only a formality. No way can this loser pay back what he owes. Might as well sell this guy, his house, his car, his boat, his wife, his kids, and get a couple pennies on the dollar. This guy is ruined. Financially, he’s dead as a doornail.

Everybody there in the throne room thinks his appearance is a mere formality. Everybody, that is, except him. Upon hearing the sentence imposed on him by the banker king, this guy drops to his knees, weeps, wails, and writhes around, crying out for mercy. He makes promises he knows he can never keep. What a pathetic sight. And so useless.

This is, after all, a bottom line world. The king’s guards are not soldiers in plumed hats, holding lances. No, they are guys in suits holding calculators. The cold steel is in their hearts.

Do you know this world of calculation and control? Have you ever been there, filling in one role or another? Are you there today?

Well, in the story Jesus tells, something unexpected happens. The king drops dead. No, I don’t mean literally, right there on the red carpet in front of the throne. But it might as well have been that way. The king drops dead to the world as we know it, that world of calculation and control. Against the advice his accountants and lawyers would have given him had he bothered to ask them, he goes with his gut and forgives the poor slob his astronomical debt.

To add to the excitement, the poor slob drops dead. Again, I don’t mean literally, though it might as well have been. He dies to the world of calculation and control, which a moment before had been like an entire mountain on his chest. He’s now living somewhere else. So too is the boss man.

There we are, my friends. If the cross of Christ and the Christian life mean anything, this is what they mean: that to this world, we are dead, and so is God. By forgiving us the sins we cannot make up on our own, God dies to the world of power and control. God’s not playing that game. God has taken a one-way trip out of there.

This is a part of Christianity that is scandalous, shocking, and hopeful. It’s good news, hot off the presses, for anyone who even suspects that God is the Great Bully in the Sky. Now God has died to all that; God’s throne room is not a center for calculation and control.

God is dead to that sort of world, and so are we. We are pulled out from under that mountain which was resting on our chests. We are dead to the world of calculation and control that once held us captive. We are out the door and down the street.

What happens next to the guy in the story? His learning curve is, well, pretty pathetic. He’s not even outside the building when he runs into somebody who owes him something. There in the palace corridor, he grabs the fellow by the collar and tries—unsuccessfully—to shake the money out of him.

Welcome back to the world of calculation and control.

This second debtor does his own song and dance pleading for mercy. Is anybody going to die this time? Will there be corpses in the corridor? You’d think it would be a no-brainer for the forgiven debtor to remember that as of a few moments ago, he was dead to the world of calculation and control and that he should act accordingly in dealing with his debtor out there in the corridor. You’d think that mercy received would result in mercy given.

But that doesn’t happen. He has a strategically-timed bout of amnesia, forgets he’s dead, and acts out the world of calculation and control as though it were his big chance for Broadway. He refuses to show mercy, he fails to help his debtor die to a world of oppression. Instead, he’s ready to boot him into the nearest prison for what will be, well, an indefinite stay.

The palace corridor remains stuck. It remains in the world of calculation and control.

Here we get to the heart of why forgiveness is hard. We suffer strategically-timed amnesia. We conveniently forget—or maybe we’ve never acknowledged—that we are forgiven sinners, debtors who have been let off the hook.

We don’t admit that the king has dropped dead, dead to the world of power and control so that we might have another chance, and another, and another.

We don’t realize that if faith means anything, it means we’re free from this world of control and calculation, dead to it and all it claims, thanks to a king who dies for us.

And so a debtor who crosses our path–even just outside the throne room–will get a taste of calculation and control, and it will be bitter.

Christianity states that forgiveness is necessary. It is not an option, but an imperative. Christianity also makes it clear that forgiveness is hard. It is costly. There is nothing soft and sentimental about it.

The one who forgives dies to the world as we know it in order to usher in the world as God wants it.

This death brings with it a challenge to the one forgiven. That one is then confronted with the imperative of dying to the world as we know it in order to accept forgiveness, an imperative to pass on the gift of forgiveness. By accepting and passing on forgiveness, such a one bears witness to the scandalous truth that, yes, everybody is a sinner, and everybody is forgiven by a mercy that is God-sized.

It’s easy to fall prey to strategically-timed amnesia and forget to forgive. That is why Christians gather Sunday by Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. Here we present time after time, through prayerful word and action, how the king died on a cross, died to the world of calculation and control, died to the world as we know it, in order to set us free from a debt we could never repay.

We gather here in this throne room, and the king drops dead, and we drop dead too. We’re out of that world, out of that world of control and calculation that once held us captive.

Then the time comes to leave this throne room and go elsewhere. We meet someone who needs our mercy. Will we die again to the world of calculation and control? Will we die to that world, or will we fall victim to strategically-timed amnesia?

There’s the challenge. We can have the ancient pattern of the world as we know it, a life that feels like death. Or we can die to the world as we know it, we can have corpses in the corridor, and await our resurrection.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland, with his wife, Helena Mirtova. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals from Cowley Publications. Many of his sermons appear on He can be reached by Email at

Download the sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Congregations and Conflict, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2017

Proper 18

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” (Matt. 18:15)

Congregations are communities of people. They usually function well. Some have very strong central authorities, and others work better with leadership by consensus. And all of them, from time to time, have conflicts that arise between members.

Speed Leas, a well-known expert in church conflict resolution, identifies levels of conflict which range from “Level One: a problem to solve,” to “Level Five: intractable situations where personalities have become the focus and energy centers on the elimination of the persons involved.” In this extreme condition, it is often necessary to bring in an outside person to deal with the explosive situation.[1]

Keeping congregations healthy is a mutual responsibility that requires the participation of everyone. In unhealthy churches, people often create a toxic triangle made up of the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. Once the triangle is established, it becomes more difficult to resolve a condition or address an issue. Often, the pastor is drawn in and expected to rescue everyone, but sometimes the pastor is the victim or even the persecutor. Wise leaders try to avoid getting triangulated so they can help resolve the situation from a detached perspective, but it isn’t always possible.

In Matthew’s text for today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses personal conflict by urging people to resolve their differences directly first, and then, if necessary, to bring others into the discussion. We aren’t given details or examples. Jesus’s mission is to create committed communities of believers that will witness God’s love to a battered and broken world.

There are some basic premises at work here: One is that Jesus teaches that God loves all God’s children and that our need to be right is not always helpful. The organization for families of alcoholics, Al-Anon, teaches this premise and reminds its members that all of us, including the alcoholic, have a Higher Power who is not taking sides.

The congregation is a place where people can work out differences in community by listening as much as lecturing, by understanding as much as demanding to be understood.

Another premise of Jesus is that healthy leaders are loving and primarily concerned about others. A small church in the Middle South has developed a strong core of healthy leadership over several decades. It carefully steers troubled people into places where they are loved and cared about, without allowing them to become leaders who, because of their own pain and suffering, could become toxic to others. This works, not because there is some secret group that puts people in their place, but because the entire leadership core cares about all the members, and helps troubled newcomers and long-time members fit in without being tagged as problem people.

The opposite situation is also common: a church where conflict is the main menu whenever the community is gathered. A small rural church was beset with conflict among its members, and quite proud of the fact. A number of diocesan clergy had taken turns at trying to help resolve the conflicts and were sent packing. The lifestyle of conflict became obvious to one pastor on a day when a new family showed up and two people got into a verbal spat in front of them. The family left, never to return. The pastor tried to point out that this behavior was damaging, but the people involved said this was who they were – like it or leave it! It was only after years of this conflict that a faithful and loving priest came to live in their community and slowly began to help them learn new behavior, mainly by modeling it himself.

If you are listening at this point you have likely been thinking of how your own faith community compares with these anecdotes. There are countless ways to evaluate the health of a congregation, and some are better than others. Every faith community has its own style of life that is built into its identity and history, and it can be difficult to change if it is unhealthy.

The passage from Matthew for this Sunday concludes with a well-known teaching: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” This is always heard as a reassurance that God desires us to be in community, whether small or large. Being alone is not necessarily bad, but it can lead to isolation and arrogance. The Divine Triune God is a God of relationships, a dynamic force that empowers our spirituality and grounds us in faith.  The Trinity models what our relationships are to be: fully in unity and desiring of diversity.

Depression in congregations often comes from our tendency to allow only like-minded or similar types of people into the community of believers. Things become static and nothing challenges us to grow and become more like what God desires the Church to be. The healing of depression in a congregation comes when new relationships are formed. Some smaller congregations are organized into clusters or regional groups with shared leadership for that very reason. Vitality comes when new people enter the scene, new ideas are introduced, and the same old way of doing things is transformed.

Jesus does not envision the Church to be a place of contention and conflict. But we know stories of his disciples and from the Book of Acts that the Early Church experienced a lot of tension and disagreement, even among its apostolic leaders. However, as the church expanded into the Greco-Roman civilization in the West, it had to take on and embrace different norms and customs, as it does even today. The challenge for the Church will always be to find and implement new ways of proclaiming the Good News. When we are engaged in that enterprise, when we are more concerned about serving others than survival, there will be less conflict and more delight in the people that God sends to us and sends us to. The health of any congregation rests on its sense of mission, and its willingness to be flexible and welcoming, as Christ welcomes each of us. Amen.

[1] Much of Leas’s material is available on the Internet and from his books available through the Alban Institute.

Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

Download the sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (A).