Featured

Isaiah 57:14-21 | Seventh Sunday after Trinity B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

 14  And it will be said,

     “Rise up, Rise up, Clear the path,

      Remove the obstacle from the path of my people”

15  For this is what the Exalted and Supreme One says:

    — One who resides permanently, his name is Holy One:

     “I reside in an elevated and sacred place,

     and also with the oppressed and downcast,

     to revive the vitality of the dispirited,

     to revive the desire of the downcast.

16 Indeed, I will not contend endlessly,

     nor will I always be angry;

     Otherwise life itself would become weak before me,

      specifically humankind whom I myself made.

17  I was angry on account of the evil of his greed,

      so I struck him; 

      hiding I was angry when he lived

      turning back into the way of his heart.

18  I have diagnosed his condition and decided to heal him;

      I will make compensation for his sorrows,

      especially his heartaches”.

      For this is what the Exalted and Supreme One says:

19  — One who creates speech:

      “Peace, peace, to the one far and to the one near,”

      Yahweh says: “Truly, I have decided to heal him

20  but the disobedient are like the turbulent sea;

      when it is unable to be calm,

      and its breakers toss up mire and muck”.

21 My God says: “There is no peace for the disobedient.”

Isaiah (57:14-21)

The Word of the Lord

Please turn in your pew Bible or tablet to the first of the later prophets Isaiah – chapter 56.1-2. We’ll start there and wind our way to this morning’s lesson in ch. 57.14-21 

Once upon a time, long, long ago, an American flew out of So. California and made a right hand turn at Greenland heading toward Sheffield’s city centre by way of Manchester’s airport. David Clines, one of the American’s advisors, made a gracious rescue from sub-zero English weather. Adapting to the North of England took some time. Adapting to the rigors of post-graduate British Biblical studies also took time. Eventually it was agreed by the American’s advisors that he would take a seat at the grown ups table of Isaiah studies. At the head of the table was the most respected and influential scholar in European and British studies in the last 100 years – Bernhard Duhm. In his published research he asserted chapters 56-66 were a  “collection of unconnected verses” (allerlei zitaten) strung together by a post-Exilic “Third Isaiah”. These assertions had become the standard starting point. All of the others at the table were genuine scholars having done brilliant work. Seated at the table with such highly regarded scholarship, the American wasn’t confident he merited even crumbs from under the table. So the American, deeply respectful of their work, decided that persuasion rather than argument, criticism could reset the table at which he now sat. He would write that an alternative to 100 years of  “accepted scholarly conclusions about a collection of unconnected verses” could be achieved by a close literary reading of Isaiah 56-59 grounded in prophetic judgement speech.  

Like that American, my hope this morning is to persuade you to develop a habit of reading the Bible in its literary forms. Bible literacy, being a serious student of biblical literature, is the greatest asset you can carry into the days ahead. Careful and faithful reading of the divine library will equip you to lay hold of instruction and guidance. 

In the prophetic library, prophets are representatives for the covenant YHWH revealed at Sinai. The Prophetic Judgement Speeches have two priorities. One is showing YHWH as an incomparable, covenantally faithful Ruler and the other is showing the covenant is a close, intimate, voluntary relationship well beyond political, legal or social confinement. Judgement speeches are genuine back and forth dialog by means of a poetic literary convention. So the prophets intend for us to hear the voice of YHWH and others. The use of voice directly involves us in instruction, distress, hopes, questioning, laughter at absurdities and grief about broken relationships, especially with YHWH.

The Covenant theme 56.1-2

Following a thematic introduction at 56.1-2, our lesson will only have its most important meanings when read as a conclusion to the prophetic judgement speech begun at 56.9. Let’s read the theme:

1 This is what YHWH says:

“Watch over what is just

    Do what is right,

for my salvation is close by

    and my deliverance is nearly here.

2 Blessed is the one who does this;

    the person who grasps it,

Watching over the Sabbath without desecrating it,

Watching over one’s hand from doing any evil.”

The command’s objects, Just/Right, are Sinai covenant themes that have been frequent companions throughout Isaiah. For example, read the first chapter of Isaiah for a preview of this text. The Sinai Covenant shaped Israel’s way of life expecting voluntary obedience to the revealed standards balancing encouragement for obedience against warning for those turning from obedience. Biblical themes Just/Right woven into the Sinai covenant opened horizons for newly freed Israel beyond the scope of merely political legality because they are rooted in relationships reaching for allegiance, faithfulness, forgiveness, reconciliation and longings for peace. In other words, Just/Right are dynamically linked to behavior as a display of voluntary obedience to morally informed covenant shaped revelation.

Not immediately apparent in English, the commands “Watch over what is just, Do what is right” are plural not singular – “y’all” –  it’s about community not the individual. Contemporary emphasis on individual faith has caused us to lose sight of the fact that biblical faith is formed in community. Every person in Israel is to know that she and he is absolutely essential for the wellbeing of the whole.The organic idea in the covenant community is that it forgoes authority over one another and works selflessly to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself”.

Maintaining community unity requires attention “for my salvation is close by and my deliverance is nearly here” (vs. 1) and effort “Watching over the Sabbath without desecrating it, Watching over one’s hand from doing any evil” (vs.2). There are many secular powers working against the household of faith. So we must measure unity constantly to the scripture’s narratives in order to discern the Spirit’s true bonds “Blessed is the one who does this; the person who grasps it” (vs. 2). Each member must hold each other accountable when unity is fractured by attitudes, conduct, utterances or choices. These thoughts bring us to Isaiah’s prophetic judgement speech, 56.9-57.21.

The Watchmen, 56.9-57.13

Moving our fingers down the page to 56.9, to the prophetic judgement speech itself, we’re about to hear an interplay of voices. YHWH commands “All wild animals of the field, Come to devour! all wild animals in the forest” (vs. 9). Clearly this is different from the commands at 56.1. Clearly a little short on the Just/Right bits. Right? But it’s Isaiah who gives us an explanation restaging the scene (vs. 10-11). 

10 His (YHWH’s) watchmen are blind- all of them

    they are not alert;

All of them are mute dogs,

    they are unable even to growl;

    Panting, lying sprawled out, desiring to slumber.

11 Those dogs are ravenous;

    they never know satisfaction.

Ah, these are wicked;

They lack discernment.

All of them turn to their own way,

    Each one in pursuit of unlawful personal gain – without exception

After calling the wild animals to attack Israel, the foreboding realization is there are already wild animals inside Israel – more offensive, more dangerous than those approaching. The Watchmen, the supposed guardians, have been revealed as self-serving, brutal, indifferent to the defense of the community yet alert to opportunistic personal benefit.  Clearly they are at odds with the virtues justice/right expected of all in the covenant community, again 56.1-2.

But a watchman interrupts the prophet’s explanation with his own commands worthy of any college frat house (vs. 12)  “Come,” “let us fetch wine! Let us guzzle an intoxicating drink! Tomorrow will be like this day – even far better.”

Having had enough of this Watchman’s defiance and faulty sundial, YHWH re-enters to confront the Watchmen directly with 12 interrogative accusations that would impress Law and Order’s Jack McCoy. I’ll summarize YHWH’s fast paced accusations uncovering the Watchmen’s misguided, misdirected behavior and motivations in 57.3-13. Perpetually hurried, restless, they move fast but they break things – a lot of things. They have a problematic track record. Things don’t go as planned. They have spent most of their time free-lancing. Their apparent charm and dynamism disguised a lack of serious intellectual formation and capability. Abandoning their pursuit of covenant holiness, they sing of hedonism, consumerist narcissism and secularism. They have blocked the covenant path with religious abuse, corruption, betrayal, deception.   

So who are these Watchmen?  Not immediately apparent in translation, “Watchmen” is, first of all, a pointed, skillful  play on words. It’s a form of the verb “watch over” used 3x in 56.1-2. But second, not immediately apparent in translation, it’s a pointed, skillful theological identification.  Watchmen is the covenant identification for the priestly guardians (השומרים) of the sanctuary and temple and YHWH’s priestly agents of covenant teaching (BDB 1036-1038; TLOT 3.1380ff).   

Now hit the pause button: It is important for us to grasp the intentions of a Judgement Speech. The issue is:  the Watchmen have abandoned their pastoral vocation to abuse their position with authority and power. YHWH is in a struggle for their very life. The accusations do not want to drive the Watchmen away but to draw them back through repentance to obedience, faithfulness, back to “watching over” the community. 

So here’s the big idea:  it’s crucial that one does his/her religious leadership job well in Israel and the church, by extension. And here’s the important difference. It’s not our corporate format of top down – follower leadership . No, biblical leadership is pastoral. It’s a release of authority to take responsibility as a servant who serves well. That’s a very difficult idea to put our head around, especially in our follow the leader culture. It’s an ancient issue even Jesus commented on: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk.10.42-45). The pastoral vocation is to become equippers, prodders, encouragers, promoters of all in the household so that each one fulfills his or her vocation. The pastoral vocation in discipleship is not something to be marketed, a commodity to buy, to be successful at. The household of faith isn’t a vending machine of religious goods and services catering to people’s wishes, whims, tastes. Rather a faithful community is an educated, commissioned body of people sent on a mission. Pastoral discipleship is the nurturing of missionary people who warn, evangelize, educate and speak prophetically – risking displeasure and scorn at times. Rightly understood, the pastoral vocation in Israel and the church has been and will always be a highly demanding calling.

The Community 57.14-21

Let’s move our fingers down the verses to our lesson – 57.14-21. I’ll summarize the thoughts. Certainly Israel suffered from the decisions of leaders who sacrificed the good of the people for celebrity, success, and profit. They were unconcerned with the safety, faith or holiness of the men and women YHWH put under their care. Much to everyone’s horror, then, when the leader’s failed, the community was negatively impacted. YHWH’s commands “Rise up, Rise up, Clear the path! Remove the obstacle from the path of my people” direct the first of his closing remarks to the Remnant – those faithful people surviving the Watchmen catastrophe (vs. 14).  In a thematic sense, we’re back where we started – 56.1-2. YHWH’s command, once again, is to every single person in Israel that she and he is absolutely essential for the wellbeing of the whole. Everyone has a responsibility to watch over the work of the Lord in, for and through them. 

After all the accusations against the Watchmen and the disaster that has come down on Israel, it’s YHWH’s internal questioning, wrestling and deliberations in vs. 15-21 that are eye opening. YHWH’s penetrating, thoughtful self-examination leads him to decide to revive (v. 15) and to restore (v.18). Limiting his power and authority, the gravity of the sinfulness is mercifully healed rather than punished “I have diagnosed his condition and decided to heal him” (vs. 17).  Judgement’s sentence is not his choice. Shocking no doubt to a great many who would argue the covenant condemns. But lest you think thoughtful divine decision making is a one off, fast forward to the deliberation embedded in these words: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3.16-17).

The underlying tension in prophetic judgement speeches is always the need for a grounded, embedded faith and obedience that can withstand assaults within and without. I’ll be honest. The process of healing from trauma such as inflicted by the Watchmen is not easy. It can be hard to disentangle the Lord who loves me and the household of faith from misrepresentation by an unhealthy religious leader. We’re left with the shards of broken faith cutting us. The pain seems unstoppable. Understandably, many people get angry, bitter. Others decide to leave all together. Possibly the hardest thing to do when you and I experience the failure of a religious leader is to hold the tension between grace and truth, between justice and reconciliation. Will any of us hold the tension perfectly? No. Does this release us from trying? No. That’s why it’s important to recognize the example of YHWH’s many sided deliberations in vs.15-21. They call us to wisdom, to keep watch over our speech so our response doesn’t add to the tearing down that’s already in action. We must always have the expectation to speak up. But following YHWH’s example, sometimes, this means taking a step back processing the situation before saying anything. It is important to step back for a moment and remind ourselves who the Lord is apart from some hurtful leaders. The life of a first or second covenant believer will always be highly demanding. By the way, I suppose by now you realize I’m that American.

Featured

Mark 5:1-20 | Trinity 3B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

1 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs, a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. 14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

Mark 5:1-20

The Gospel of the Lord

Two things this morning. Turn in your Bibles or tablet  to Mark 4 & 5 and pull up in your head a map of Northern Israel, specifically the NW area of Lake Galilee around Capernaum and then look SE to “the other side of the lake” to the Decapolis. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is a very busy person. Ch 4 begins a day with the crush of villagers, pushing Jesus into a fishing boat along the NW lake shore (vs.1-2). Once seated he talks about aspects of the Kingdom in four Wisdom sayings or parables: first, about how Kingdom Words scattered like seed produce an amazing harvest in spite of seemingly impossible obstacles (vs. 3-20), second,  about how Kingdom truth, more than an oil lamp, can light up a whole life, astonishingly pushing back darkness, revealing the smallest of details (vs. 21-25), third, how the kingdom when planted is unstoppable like seeds that grow into a full harvest (vs. 26-29) and lastly, about how the Kingdom, insignificant like mustard seed, will grow beyond expectation (vs. 30-32).  

Mark details the four parables with four stories taking us to the end of the next day. In the first story (4.35-41), readers ponder Kingdom power over nature. From a boat Jesus quiets  a hurricane tossed lake.  In a demon exorcism story, 5.1-20, our Gospel lesson, readers consider Kingdom power in conflict with evil spirit power. In two interwoven stories, the resurrection of a child and the healing of a hemorrhaging woman (5.21-43), readers ponder Kingdom power as it loosens the grip of death and illness.  

Here’s how I would summarize Mark’s theological intentions in bringing the parables and stories together in a day in the life of Jesus. In Jesus, the Kingdom has been planted in human experience through the Spirit, Word and power.  The kingdom is an insurgent uprising establishing YHWH’s rule and presence in ever increasing proportion.   My goal this morning is to highlight some of the challenges of, the impact of and responses to the Kingdom we read in the exorcism.

 In 1981 at the traditional site of ch. 5, near Gerasa, Israel constructed a state park. The shoreline is level but rises quickly to a hilly wilderness, pocketed with caves – a place suitable for tombs (vs. 2,5) and grazing livestock (vs. 11). I suppose that, in the best of times, it  was a grim place. In the first century, the site was certainly not a place for a stroll in the park. 

On “the other side of the lake”, this site is a place of spiritual opposition. The anguished cries of a man pierce the silence. A terrifying man driven forcefully to the margins of society.  He’s so violent his family, others had tried to shackle him, to bring him under control. He tore chains apart and broke irons from his feet. All attempts at control or subjugation were unsuccessful (vs. 4).  Everyone gave up. He is alive and mercilessly driven by demons among tombs (vs. 3). I suppose it’s natural to want to shut out someone like this man. He’s frightening.  But in the midst of the violent description, Mark turns to us with his hands extended calling attention to the anguish, the utter helplessness “Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones” (vs. 5). Mark’s  gut wrenching cry observing  the man’s tormented life is intended to draw out our compassion. And to set us up for Jesus.

Having sailed to Gerasa with the Twelve, the Gospeler heightens the scene’s dramatic effect and intensity by removing everyone from the scene “They went to the other side of the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat….” (vs. 1-2). A solitary Jesus steps out of the boat to come face to face with a solitary man, whose fearsome force, whose madness was as wild as the hurricane tossed lake. 

In this wild place Mark bids us to remember the spiritual contest Jesus just experienced “resisting Satan in the wilderness” after his baptism (1.12-13).  Jesus exited from that wild place in the power of the Spirit. He won’t be distracted by this man’s craziness, nakedness. The man sees Jesus, adopts a posture of submission but howls in protest “what do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God!” (vs. 7). Jesus is about to engage in a tug of war between the Kingdom and an evil, spiritual power for control over the territory of this man. Momentarily, we reckon something within him can still recognize Jesus: the divine One, the Spirit empowered One, the Holy One.  But the utter helplessness of possession is heard when the man sometimes uses the singular pronoun, sometimes the plural “And he begged Jesus earnestly not to send them out of the country”(vs. 10). The irony of “Swear to God” should not be missed.  Jesus has been identified as “Son of the Most High God”. That’s not a messianic title but a divine one. The desperation invoking divine protection has no force – Jesus is the Son of God!

 But the numbered forces about to be revealed are much harder to understand, clearly frightening.  Before the howl of protest fades, a demon breaks into negotiation “I beg you, don’t torment me” (vs. 7). Why? – because Jesus was pushing past the nameless man demanding a truthful identification. Legion, for we are many – with this blood-curdling response, we learn a weapon-ized 5,000 demon force has set up a camp in the man.  Legion – a word rich in political/military, atrocious power that tears from family, from safety, from community, from everything that makes the world make any sense. Everyone in first century Palestine had seen Roman legions – the ruthless instrument of Roman peace.   

So beginning in vs. 10, YHWH’s salvific commander begins directing the Kingdom’s legion. The powerful demonic Legion, who for everyone but Jesus has been an object of terror, begins a desperate but unsuccessful retreat. Recognizing Jesus has authority to remove them from their camp, the demons negotiate a surrender. They think they might be better off in the nearby pigs.  Jesus says okay. Whereupon they break camp and enter the pigs.  Their violence so brutal and brutalizing to the man replays its vicious character in the pigs. But the pigs stampede, fly  over a cliff into the lake and drown.  The demons had driven a man to live among the dead. Ironically, they are dead;  the man is alive (vs. 11-13). sidebar to humans – even pigs reject evil spirit power!

Mark turns our attention to the dramatically unemployed pig herders (vs. 14).  They flee into the village with a tabloid story – Exorcism, demons fleeing into pigs, pigs stampeding, flying pigs. Not unexpectedly the village people go out to see for themselves looking for the pigs.  But instead, they see the man clothed, in his right mind, sitting calmly in front of Jesus (vs. 15). This demonstration of Kingdom power gets a markedly cool reception by the locals. Fear takes center stage “and they were afraid” (again vs. 15). They were as afraid of the man’s sanity as of his gruesome existence. And note carefully, they were more afraid of the One who had the power to bring about this change. In their hardening posture of suspicion, they plead with Jesus to depart (vs. 17). 

The crush of the villagers pushes Jesus back into the boat. The man wants to be with Jesus so badly, he tries to get into the boat too (vs. 18). He wants to sail away from everything, everyone.  Surprisingly,  Jesus tells the still nameless, once homeless man to Go home with this message “tell how much God has done for you” (vs. 19). But Mark then tells us the man replaces God with Jesus in the message.  Because for Mark Jesus is the Son of God, the promise of YHWH to Israel and now, dramatically to Gentiles also. This still unnamed man is the first messenger for the first mission to Gentiles to the amazement of many (vs. 20). His deliverance, message and mission are a foreshadowing of other Gentile victories expected of the Kingdom. 

Unarguably in words, the reality of supernatural evil and the societal destruction it brings is brought into sharp focus in this Gospel story.  I’m going to make two applications for us from this story.  First, when I first began to study the Bible seriously, to hear the Lord’s voice, I was taken aback that Jesus and the  NT talk about demonic and spiritual evil in very vivid ways. Ways that cannot be explained satisfactorily in modern pathological categories. Or, should I say, downplayed

I believe in and have experience with the real spirit driven evil described in this story. And so does our culture. Just look around. It’s full of books, movies, supermarket tabloids,  television shows, even documentaries that dwell on spiritual evil, demons at length. But this isn’t anything new. In the 4th cent. John Chrysostom in his Three Homilies on the Devil  argued that demonic evil is too often disguised as goodness in society. In our Gospel lesson, when demonic evil is localized, it can be readily recognized. The bigger problem is the more evil is diluted in our society, the more often it goes unrecognized. More often nothing much or specific is done about it.

As this scene in ch. 5 unfolds, let’s not lose sight of vs. 2 “a man with an unclean spirit”. His degraded existence is rooted in spiritual oppression/possession.  We’re not told how or why this happened. Somewhere/sometime the man in the story surrendered – just to the wrong power.  The power of spirit evil in a society may appear energetic, glamorous, compared to the supposedly prim world of holiness. That’s just an outward show as Chrysostom says. I would say from our lesson, in reality, spirit driven evil is flat and superficial. It has no capacity for living at any depth.  Demons are cynical creatures. Demons aren’t opposed to this or that human value. No, they’re opposed to all human value because it embodies the image of God. Demons itch to show humans for the miserable waste of space that they are. The voices of hell mock the preposterous idea that human existence could have any meaning or worth. Demons are cruel creatures. They infest dark, filthy places. They glory in decay and despair. They drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air. Their mission is to reap delight from the destructiveness that we read in this story.  Jesus confronts demonic powers that tear us from wholeness, from one another, from society. So we should note carefully the narrative is telling us Jesus’ kingdom deliverance wasn’t only healing a demon possessed man. He was reconciling and spiritually healing a community by restoring someone who had been shut out. 

Now I freely admit to you this is an area of theology and pastoral practice that’s filled with complications, pitfalls, mysteries, and, I believe sincerely, grave spiritual dangers. But what if we should find ourselves on the other side of the lake.  Should we not, as a believing community, be slow to misidentify, misunderstand, misjudge or dismiss spiritual oppression, possession and deliverance in its many forms? Mark’s Gospel says Jesus the messiah king has gotten out of the boat and is calling all disciples, gifted with the Holy Spirit to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. Should we not be extra careful then? Heaven forbid, we should be the ones to ask King Jesus to get back into the boat.

Now for the second application. Notice in the scene, the man’s name is never disclosed. We only know him by description “a man with an unclean spirit” (vs. 2). His isolation was absolute – cut off from family, from society and also from himself.  Names are nothing new. Starting in the Garden, the Bible’s narratives have always valued names. But it isn’t a name that hangs in the air in this story. It’s another kind of word – a label Legion – an evasive word, it turns out, intended to withhold the demon’s identification. 

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

“They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! (L. Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)

The perceived power in ideologically misrepresenting words/labels can subtly lull us into thinking by measuring, by judging, we are in control, have power over someone or something. Labels are relative, categorical. For good or for bad, as this Gospel suggests, labels influence identity affecting how to think about someone.  We live in a society run amok with evasive labels – political, social and religious.  In our Gospel, Through the Looking Glass and our society, misusing words/labels is a celebration of power.  Labels hope for the suspension of critical faculties so that assumptions go unexamined.

The campaign of changing word meaning is on the march taking control over large areas of our culture.  And the crowded crush of ideological labels in American society is pushing Jesus into the boat.  More and more in public discourse individuals are not free to use the name Jesus Christ, except as a curse, of course. Part of society has already assigned “hate” to the Bible’s words about marriage, conception, sexual identity, justice and race. It has gutted the Bible’s words about love and rejected its words about mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.   And it is no small matter that “pride” is a central word.  I’m with St Augustine on this. ‘Pride’, he said, ‘hates a fellowship of equality under God, and seeks to impose its own dominion on fellow humans, in place of God’s rule” (City of God 19.12). 

Words are at the heart of the conflict. Whenever conversations become irrational, violent, full of hate, scorn, that’s when you see the Devil’s military camp. That’s when you know it’s a spiritual conflict, a tug of war for the territory of someone’s mind/heart. By an Orwellian linguistic trick, a profound corruption/pollution of communication is taking shape, especially when furthered by spiritual evil. Whether Biblical words are politically/socially convenient or not, doesn’t affect their truth. The words of Biblical truth are a great campaign of sabotage against rebellious power and pride.

Whenever people set out to make others verbally, ideologically conform, there’ll always be someone like the Patristic John Chrysostom, the Baptist educator Voddie Bauchman, the Catholic Bishop Barron, the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher, the Anglican archbishops Beach and Sutton, hopefully you and me  – ambassadors of the rightful king, who will resist, push back. Christians can push past labels to speak to the heart of someone pursuing the wrong programs for cultural wholeness, to someone with the wrong interpretation of the human condition or identity. It’s because Kingdom Christians have a proper understanding of human nature and a proper understanding of healing words. 

Yes, it’s all about power. The surrender of power, the sitting of oneself calmly at the feet of Jesus. The solution to the corruption of words is Jesus the Word.  Jesus the Word opens hearts with words of saving power, saving love, repentance, forgiveness, truth, reconciliation. Heaven forbid, we should be the ones to silence Jesus the Word.

John 16.5-15 | Trinity C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

(Jesus said to his disciples) 5 But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. 12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

John 16:5-15

The Gospel of the Lord

This is Trinity Sunday.  The lectionary sages would have us deal with realities much deeper than the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana trench. Trinitarian theology involves issues around the closeness/separation of the interrelationship between Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit. The evidence for the issues is observable in the New Testament writings and especially evident in the Fourth Gospel’s Passover setting, chs. 13-17. At its simplest, the three are all linked together like one of those Celtic knot thingies. You can’t split one off without getting an unbalanced image. 

In the Fourth Gospel the theological theme is: the Spirit will continue to declare what the Father is like, just as Jesus himself came to do (cf. 1:18). So in revealing Jesus to the disciples, the Spirit will also be revealing the Father, just as Jesus did. Now this is also the ninth and final time in Year C the lectionary sages have us reading from the Fourth Gospel. And this is the third time they send us back to Jesus’ concluding Passover communication with his disciples. 

So remember at the Passover meal,  Jesus had washed their feet, dispatched Judas, emphasized the World’s gathering hatred for the disciples standing in stark contrast to his abiding love for them. In chapter 14 he has sketched the multi-faceted activity of the soon-to-be-present Spirit. Certainly for the disciples this Passover festival was full of puzzling thoughts, agonized affections, perplexing questions, parting words and longing glances. Abruptly Jesus says “Get up, let us go from here” (14.31b).  Having left the Passover table, Jesus and the Eleven begin a  fate-filled trek. In chapters 15-17, they will wander the stone streets of Jerusalem before crossing through the Kidron ravine, making their way toward Gethsemanie’s orchard. The narrator alerts us Jesus is well aware of their uncertainty and the anxiety  gnawing at them as they walk. So He opens this walking conversation with a soft start up. “But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” However, remember both Peter (13.6) and Thomas (14.5) had asked him this very question.  Yet Jesus knows it’s possible to see his lips moving but not hear what he’s saying.  The point is they were and are overwhelmed, distracted with their own thoughts. Nevertheless, Jesus is firmly committed to preparing them for what is about to happen. So in this 3 chapter city walk about, he circles back to his Passover table talk: opposition they will experience, necessity of obedience to his instruction, selfless commitments to one another and today’s appointed lectionary reading – the role the soon-to-be-present Spirit will play in supporting them against cultural/social/political pressures.

Jesus asserts he is now going “to the one who sent me.” But he qualifies his leaving  “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (vs. 7). Jesus has to go in order for the Spirit to come.  But the soon-to-arrive-Spirit is not Plan B.

In this  post-Crucifixion/Resurrection/Ascension lectionary reading, we know the narrative has the suffering and crucifixion in the foreground “When Judas Iscariot was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him” (13.31).  And we as readers also know the Gospel attaches complex associations to the crucifixion.  In Jesus, Israel and the World were presented with a renewed understanding of God. God loved the world. So he gave his very own Son, an image bearer,  as an ambassador to bring a renewed relationship and way of living (1.14; 3.16). But the bottom fell out.  He was handed over and crucified. And we don’t really know “how” what happened next – happened. We call it Resurrection.  The resurrection and then the seating of Jesus beside the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7. Jn. 19.) play a central role indicating the faithfulness of Jesus in fulfilling the Father’s will.  A series of events, then, the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension– fill out his “going away” and “glorification”.  In chapters 13-17, the Spirit is the gift of Jesus’ resurrection/ascension. There is a buildup of ideas around the Spirit – the Prosecutor/Advocate/Teacher proceeding from the Father and the Son. In the main the Spirit is the One who comes to prove popular assessment of Jesus is mistaken.

 Jesus lays out three topics for the Spirit’s multidimensional assessment – sin, righteousness and judgment. Now in some American religious circles laying aside sin, holiness and judgment  “love is love” has become a popular sound bite. But in this Gospel, the Spirit as prosecutor has verdicts: 1.  concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 2.  concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer and 3. concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged (vs. 8-11). 

In Johannine theology, “world” refers to spiritual principalities and powers as well as human rulers, whose religious/cultural systems govern, organize and dominate societies. The ideology and “principled posturing” of the rulers of this world has been critiqued by the Spirit and found wanting.  No doubt, the World’s established orthodoxies are attractive, offering stability through economic, political, religious, military and social programs. Of these, the Spirit is a relentless critic. The World does not understand its own ideological situation. The world’s pragmatism is slippery.  It takes the Spirit as prosecutor to argue  truth, justice, integrity and faithfulness. These values are compromised and twisted out of shape by the World’s unremitting propaganda of individualistic, self-determined moral relativism. The truth is truth is the Spirit’s gift to this wayward world. Spirit driven truth unmasks evil in human hearts. Only the Spirit understands how the inner workings of the human heart function.  Only the Spirit as prosecutor can give a vulnerable human heart, defenses against the dark arts of the World’s evil. In this Gospel, “love is love” is God’s unconditional, transforming love. A supernatural love driven by the Spirit as a Prosecutor standing before believing communities teaching them/us to resist cultural subversions and as the Ep. of Jude writes reach out to “be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (vs. 22-23). A most serious summation, indeed! 

From the role of the Spirit as prosecutor, Jesus now turns to the Spirit’s role as Advocate/Teacher to the disciples (vs. 12-15). The Spirit will be prodding them toward the truth; toward a faith, without the presence of Jesus, a faith trusting the Father is with them.

Now the transition from being a band of Jesus’ followers to being disciples, to being a community with its responsibilities, to witnessing about who Jesus is, will not/was not/has not been easy. So the Spirit steps in as Advocate/Teacher enabling the disciples to become a community, to understand and speak to the truth about Jesus and the Father.  The Spirit is the assurance they will not face the future alone. The Spirit will make the teachings of Jesus relevant to them in the times when they are least able to trust, understand, or persevere in new and changing circumstances. The Spirit will help them interpret what they hear/experience in the new circumstances.

Jesus did not promise the Spirit for First or even Second Century Christians only.

The world keeps on turning. Believing communities through the centuries always find themselves trying to understand and live out faith in the midst of changing social, cultural, and moral circumstances.  As heirs of Pentecost our Jesus believing community has received the promised Spirit. In other words, the Spirit makes it possible to understand what Jesus means for “our” time. The challenge to us, then, is where and how do we see Jesus’ teaching played out in our World, in our community? 

It seems to me the future is as open for us as it was for the early church. Our future requires our discernment, our listening, our watching for, and our trusting Jesus will continue to reveal the Father through the Spirit.  Jesus’s sending of the Spirit is not dependent on our complete understanding.  So can we, like the Eleven, learn to trust the Father Jesus has shown us. Can we dare to acknowledge humbly there are still many truths we are not able to grasp? Can we dare to acknowledge humbly the Spirit still urges us along the path toward truth?  Why these questions? Well, to highlight there is no shortcut to long and deep christian character transformation partnered with the Spirit. 

Just like us, the early communities, living in a hostile World, needed to put words to what Jesus taught. Like them, we can learn the Advocate/Teacher Spirit, contemplating human behavior, is not a spirit of “whatever”. Instead, it is time Jesus faith communities stop trying to reconcile the narrative of biblical beliefs with those of a hostile World. We must understand one thing clearly through this lectionary lesson. We have Jesus’s teaching. His disciples were urged not to accommodate themselves to their age.  Instead they were, and we are, to learn the message from the Father taught by the Spirit about life through the Son for all those who would believe. This is the point in the final statement:  “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you” (vs. 15).

To this end, then, a faith community, our faith community need not be hesitant in practicing its faith in a hostile world. The point I am trying to make is this: the mission of disciples, then and now,  is to help in the healing and reconciliation of a broken, hostile World.  It is a weighty and humbling responsibility.  And since this is a Sunday morning, one way, we, as a liturgical community, do this, sometimes unaware, is through Eucharistic liturgy. 

The Eucharistic Liturgy is a public work by our faith community on behalf of the whole world. In the liturgy we have a blueprint, a design for healthy and holy living: gathering, prayer, praise, song, lament, Word, Body, Blood, confession, thanksgiving, dismissal. Eucharistic worship involves our self-offering in prayer and worship to the Trinity on behalf of the World so that all may come to know, love, and serve them fully.  In and through the liturgy, our community shows the World,  it might be transformed to what it was always intended to be through Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension and  the placing of the Spirit among us. 

Although, much traveled “spiritually ”, Annie Dillard has described, insightfully and humorously, the impact Spirit infused liturgy could/should have on us and on into the world:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

(Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), “Living like Weasels”,  pp. 40-41).

As these last words from Annie Dillard fade out, let us return to a renewed hearing of Jesus’ words, for why, then, are we so surprised when the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son makes his presence known to us? Amen.

John 14.8-17 | Pentecost C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. 12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. 15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

John 14:8-17

The Gospel of the Lord


Welcome to Pentecost!  This is an important day in the life of the Church: This is
the day of the Spirit. After seven weeks of the Easter season we finally come to
the great Feast of Pentecost and one more lectionary reading from the Fourth
Gospel. The tomb has been empty for a while now. The ripples of the
resurrection’s waters have smoothed out. There’s less startling news to tell, no
one running to see the grave cloths, no one walking away scratching his/her
head, no one sticking their fingers out, no one astonished, no one shuffling feet
beside a charcoal fire. Pretty soon, in fact, the church will settle in for a long
summer of ordinary time or Trinity season. But, not quite yet!


For Jewish folk, after the Exile, three festivals- Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth –
were formed into pilgrimage feasts. The expectation for Jews, especially
Diaspora Jews, was a journey to Jerusalem. For Christians, Shavuot or Pentecost
is a festival carried over from Israel’s liturgical calendar. Since about the second
century C.E., Christians have celebrated Pentecost as the occasion of the
sending of the Spirit approximately fifty days after the death and resurrection of
Jesus.


Almost automatically Christians visualize Pentecost from Luke’s, quite literally
earth shaking, second volume account. Whatever happened on that Lukan Day,
we clearly think it was different from an average Tuesday morning or Friday
afternoon. But for this Sunday led by the lectionary sages, we’re going to look at “Pentecost” from the pre-crucifixion, pre-resurrection perspective of the guest
room Passover meal. In John 14, Jesus speaks at length about the Spirit as
Teacher/Advocate/Counselor. The Spirit is the enrichment of the Father’s and the
Son’s presence. The Spirit is an everyday experience in the community. The
Spirit will stand beside them, to help them out, to do well by them, to live in their
midst.


Jesus says loving him, keeping his commandments will enable the Father and
the Spirit to come and live with the disciples in community (vs. 15-17). Now
here’s what I’m suggesting about Pentecost from John 14. A believing
community is not going to be merely condo housing for the Spirit. A believing
community will be caught up into the very life and love between the Father, the
Son and the Spirit. That’s the mystery Jesus’ pending departure and the Spirit’s
pending arrival will bring about. That’s the mystery the disciples didn’t understand
yet.


Jesus says simply: the Spirit will reside in the community. We’ll be asking
ourselves what the sending of the Spirit might have meant to the disciples and, of
course, by extension, to our community.


Keep in mind in ch. 14, Jesus’ announcement about the Father’s and the Spirit’s
presence in a community, his exhortations about love and obedience and his
promises of peace were all spoken on the night he was betrayed and arrested.
Let’s just state the merely obvious here. In the next 48-72 or so hours the
remaining Eleven disciples would have plenty of occasions to be very, very
afraid, frightened, disoriented. Feeling “peace” about anything would shortly
become the remotest of any/all possibilities. Over the years I have come to
imagine Jesus’ voice choked with emotion, maybe even something a little
desperate comes through as he urges the remaining Eleven to be calm. It’s
probably the tone of voice you’d hear right after the bus slid off a snowy highway,
landing on its side in a ditch. And someone stands up, with real fear and
trembling in their voice, with eyes widened in fright saying to everyone, “OK,
everybody, now DON’T PANIC!!!!” The truth is in my life—and maybe in your
life—every time someone has told me not to be afraid or not to panic it was
because all things being equal, fear and panic were the best option at that very
moment. But seriously, in this Gospel, the disciples’ deer-in-the-headlights stares
are gathered into Philip’s outburst: “Just show us the Father, already, Master,
and it’ll be good enough for us!” Philip has two speaking parts in the Fourth
Gospel. In both he is portrayed as a “half-empty glass kind of guy” fussing about
what they don’t have.  Remember previously, Philip fretted there wouldn’t be
“enough” food to feed a large crowd (6:7). 


So it’s not likely Philip or the others grasped Jesus’ response. “Have I been with
you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? (vs. 9). It’s not the length
of chronological time, so to speak, leading to “knowing”, but rather grasping who Jesus is.  “The one who has seen me has seen the Father,” he says.  “Seeing”
is one of the Fourth Gospel’s ways of saying someone “gets it.” 


In this Passover table talk, the festival’s child-like FAQs take a different shape.
The disciples ask: Will you show us the Father? Where are you going? Why do
you have to go? Can’t we go with you? Who’ll stay with us when you’re gone?
Answering their childlike inquiries, Jesus promises another, a
Teacher/Advocate/Counselor, the Spirit of Truth who will teach them and will stay
with them as they carry on his ministry. When life gets tough, when the bottom
falls out, the Father via the Spirit will quite surely be there.


Jesus’ words assure the disciples when he is gone from them, they won’t need to
reevaluate their loyalties. He will still be with them. They will still know they are
serving the Father by doing the same works he did while he was among them.
And Jesus offers them his abiding presence through the Spirit. One of the roles
of the Spirit, then, is continuing education. But the Spirit is not merely a substitute
teacher. The teaching role of the Spirit includes Jesus’ previous words. But it also
encompasses new lessons because learning is an ongoing process between
teacher and student. And this is where we come in. The Spirit is in our
community to orient us to the ways of Jesus and the Father. This means each of
us, united in a community, need to be attentive to what the Spirit is teaching us
today for the benefit of the community.


One of the outcomes of Pentecost is: the spirit-driven community is empowered
to do Jesus’ works. It is the Advocate/Counselor who turns us, not simply into
servants or even merely partners but actually, icons, that is, image bearers, if you
will–portals through whom Jesus’ presence, power and work are visible in this
world. We “act” because Jesus and the Father are present with us by the Spirit. 
The focus, however, isn’t on our action so much as our willingness to let the
Spirit be free to work through us in the world.  And the promise embedded in the
table talk is the community indwelt by the Spirit will do greater works than those
done by Jesus.  What these are and how they should be experienced isn’t
revealed.  It’s just a promise from the One who sends the Advocate/Counselor,
who lives among us in community. Pentecost from the perspective of the Fourth
Gospel, then, is essentially experiencing a breakthrough in our experience of
Jesus-led activity. From this Gospel’s “Pentecost”, we are to begin to learn from
the Spirit because the Spirit can be seen and found most readily in the
community. Now there is much work to be done in the world.  And the Spirit is
ready to guide/teach us.  For example, Jesus reminds us the power of the Spirit
comes to us through the ministry of intercession:  “When you ask me for anything
in my name, I will do it” (vs. 14). The Fourth Gospel points us as a community to
reckon ‘greater works’ begin in intercession – in becoming a community of
people who position themselves in the world through prayer. “We are an
intercessory people – a community of go-betweens, fellow-advocates with the
Spirit, bringing Truth to the world, bringing the suffering of the world to the
Father, and bringing the Father’s peace to the world. This invitation to prayer is primarily communal. These words are Jesus’ last words to the remaining
disciples. It’s simply not possible to follow Jesus on our own; we need one
another — ALL of us.


Pentecost, then, is a time to remember the Father and Jesus are present through
the advocacy of the Spirit in an everyday way. For when we encounter nothing
less than the presence of the Father, Son and Spirit, we come to know we cannot
limit who the divine person is, much less how the divine person acts. That’s why
our worship, for example, can’t be reduced to “nothing but” music, readings and a
sermon. The Eucharist can never be described as “nothing but” bread and wine,
any more than baptism is “nothing but” water and words. That is far too limiting.
We are to, in the words of the dismissal, “Go in peace to love and serve the
Lord”. We are empowered to do this by the presence of the Spirit we experience
in our community worship. We who follow Jesus now are called to act on and
share the servant love Jesus brings into the world. We are to share servant love
freely, without limitations. We are to take this Good News and share it by our acts
as well as our words with everyone we meet.


“Wanted: Growing organization looking for workers. Great rewards for great
results. Successful applicants are expected not only to meet but to exceed the
high standards set by the company’s founder.” Sound like a difficult job? It’s the
job description of an ordinary, everyday disciple in community according to
today’s “Pentecost” reading. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will
also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (vs. 12).
Greater works than Jesus? How is that possible? In part, it’s possible because of
the Spirit’s working in the lives of different people in a believing community.
Whereas there was only one Jesus, there are many in a community. All together
are capable of drawing on the resources of the Spirit to accomplish great things.
Jesus went about teaching, healing, and telling others “Good News”. As his
disciples, we are called to carry forward his ministries. Which might mean at
times, laying our hands on people, praying for them to be healed. And at other
times, it might mean visiting and encouraging others during their illness.
Sometimes we may be giving time and money to an organization working to find
a cure for our society’s ills. But in all things and all ways we are to be passing on
to others our understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Maybe we don’t fancy ourselves
something like an evangelist, but by our Spirit-empowered “greater works” we
can lead others to glorify Jesus and the Father. Today’s “Pentecost” reading from
John presents a challenging job description. Would you like an application to fill
out? You can pick up one here at the eucharist table. And there is a cover letter
you should carefully read – the prayer of humble access. Amen.

John 14. 21-29 | Easter 6C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who
loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself
to us and not to the world?” 23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my
teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with
them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you
hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. 25 “All this I have spoken
while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my
name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do
not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. 28 “You heard me say, ‘I am going
away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going
to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29 I have told you now before it happens,
so that when it does happen you will believe.

John 14:21-29

The Gospel of the Lord

On this the sixth Sunday after Easter in year C, we continue to consider the
complexity of Jesus’ resurrection by reading once again the Passover tabletalk,
the pre-crucifixion teaching emphasizing the central place of Jesus in the life and
calling of faith communities through the presence of the Holy Spirit.


This Passover table is punctuated by anxious questions from his disciples. Our
lesson is excerpted from an answer to a question from Judas (not Iscariot). Jesus
had said, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me;
because I live, you also will live” (vs. 19) Judas pressing Jesus for more
information asks: “How is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the
world?” The answer: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will
love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever
does not love me does not keep my words” (vs. 23-24a). Who better than a
Judas to ask such a question? For you see, Jesus is offering another Judas (that
is, Iscariot) at this table a chance to stay at the table. But that Judas chooses to
leave, seeking to force Jesus to show himself in another way -a way using
violence instead of non-violence. It remains forever night for that Judas.


Now remember, we’re reading this post-resurrection. Don’t we think the disciples
could have known beforehand what was going to happen? But remember again,
if we were reading the Gospel from the start we would be discovering the
disciples never seem to get what Jesus tells them—or shows them—the first time
round. At this last Passover, they hear Jesus talking about leaving. His Exodus ,
so to speak. The Eleven are confused, uncertain about what to do, unable to formulate a response. Jesus attempts to explain. After he has gone, a
euphemism for his crucifixion, the Spirit will teach them, guiding out the
significance of Jesus’ teachings. When the disciples revisit Jesus’ teaching they
will recognize and then know what has happened. The Spirit will confirm what
Jesus had said.


No question, I have much the same learning curve as any of the Eleven. But may
I suggest there is some subtle wisdom at work this morning. The lectionary
invites me to recognize myself not as an individual but as a disciple knit into a
faith community. And it’s calling me to voice questions and listen to questions. It
is in listening and hearing, believing communities understand how the Gospel’s
story speaks. For me, for us, like the disciples, often with retrospection, the
penny drops and the light lights. At a new time and in a new place we often see
something more, or see more clearly, or more fully grasp the significance of
Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is an expression of the Spirit’s work in
community. It is seriously important to be knit together into a community.


Now the Fourth Gospel seldom tells us how speech is to be heard. It doesn’t
have descriptive adverbs like “He said sternly” or softly.” So we’re left to imagine
in what tones various sentences were spoken. It seems to me for a long time I
heard Jesus speaking confidently, strongly. But over the years I now hear Jesus
speaking to the Eleven in a tone of voice matching the acoustics of the room.
What if—having just watched one of the Twelve walk out the door to betray him
and having told one of the remaining Eleven, he would soon deny him, not once
but three times—what if Jesus’ tone were, well—what if his lips trembled and
tears formed in the corners of his eyes. Anyone who’s ever been in a similar
situation will understand heartbreak tears. Then the heartfelt sincerity of this
moment finds a home. This will be a dark night. He will be betrayed by one of
them, abandoned by all of them.


So at this Passover, Jesus makes it clear his followers love him by serving others
in word and action. Not in the manner of the one who just left. “Those who love
me will keep my word” (vs. 15). In the Fourth Gospel, love for Jesus is the
touchstone for everything.  Love in Jesus’ teaching is love in action – acts of
service. In Jesus’ day, the Second Temple period, “keeping” or “obeying” Torah
was the acceptable, normal way of expressing a life of faithfulness. “Keeping” or
‘practicing” meant internalizing the teachings of Torah to the extent they shaped
every aspect of one’s daily life.  Jesus is teaching the Eleven faithfulness is
expressed in a “serving love”. This will be a crucial factor in their future.


Coming at it from another angle. The Gospel’s author cannot stress enough that
love for Jesus is the key mark of disciples in community. For them to experience
the love of the Father, they must keep the words of Jesus. To love Jesus is to
love the Father. Not to keep Jesus’ words is to disobey the Father (v. 24). This
furthers the theme from earlier chapters – whoever has seen Jesus has seen the
Father. Jesus adds to the theme “and we will come to them and make our home with them” (vs. 23).  Here the “home” is the disciples in community. The Father
comes to them as a community. The Father will work among them since they will
remain in the world even as Jesus leaves.  In the time of Jesus, the Judeans
believed YHWH’s “dwelling place” was the Jerusalem Temple. In the Fourth
Gospel, Temple has been replaced by Jesus who makes his “dwelling place” in a
community of those who love and follow him. Jesus and the Father call
communities to be at home with them. Disciples will never be unwelcome guests
in this household. So our calling as a disciple-ing community is to make time and
space now to welcome Jesus in his relationship to the Father. Welcoming Jesus
to live with us as we live with him is the primary and preferred way the Fourth
Gospel describes faith – discipleship and community. It should be the primary and
preferred priority of our lives.


This, in turn, lays the groundwork for the close relationship of Jesus with the
Spirit, identified as Teacher. As the Father has sent Jesus into the world, so
Jesus has asked the Spirit be sent to continue teaching them. The return of
Jesus to the Father means the future unfolding of the Father’s purposes.. Feeling
alone can be a profoundly difficult thing to experience, as many of us personally
know. And this is what the disciples are likely to fear most. They sense they are
losing their teacher, their friend. All that they have done for the last three years
has been about being part of Jesus’ life and journey.  But knowing he will be
leaving soon and understanding what that meant for them personally were
probably two different things.


The role of the Spirit is twofold: to “teach” the disciples, and to “remind” them of
what Jesus had taught them (v. 26). He will bring nothing new to the table; the
Father has already revealed Himself fully in Jesus. But the Spirit – Teacher will
deepen their understanding of revelation in ways leading them to follow Jesus
into ministry and to change the world in so many ways.


Countless stories have been told of teachers making an impact on a person’s life
in ways that turned them around or helped them fulfill their potential in profound
ways. I am married to a teacher, who yearly with humility brings home stories
from students, who return to tell her of known but sometimes unknown influences
she has had in their education. I have, myself, had two teachers who have
effected profoundly important directions to my life. All of us need someone
present “in our corner”. Jesus did that for the disciples and all future faith
communities in sending the Spirit – Teacher so they could face the future with a
sense of purpose. The Spirit guides communities when reflecting on what they
have experienced of Jesus. The Spirit guides communities to let love for Jesus
show up in the ways they relate to others. The Spirit helps the disciple-ing
community to understand Jesus and his word and to love Jesus by keeping his
word for the world’s sake.


Understood this way, there is nothing about Jesus’ words suggesting either he’s
promising the disciple-ing community an end to problems or he’s inviting them to ignore problems. Rather, he promises peace.  We need to be cautious about the
meaning of peace, especially if we look in a Webster’s dictionary. The entry you
will find is “freedom from disturbance, the absence of war, or strife”. Now in the
Second Temple period this “dictionary” definition of peace would fit. There was
the so-called “Pax Romana”, a ruthlessly imposed peace by crushing military
force.  But there is another “peace”, a Biblical concept standing against
political/military violence. For Jesus “Peace” is the covenantal or Torah concept
of shalom. Shalom envisions total wellbeing not only for the stand alone
individual but also for the total wellbeing of those bound together as people of
God.  Shalom is biblically characterized by community wholeness, healing,
abundance, concord, reconciliation, harmony, and health both spiritual and
physical. Biblical Peace is, therefore, framed in its corporate aspect, by the way
people get along with one another for the common good, rather than focused on
an individual’s inner tranquility.  The Spirit enables peace in the disciple-ing
community and creates calm concerning fears and doubts about the present and
the future. But more importantly, the Spirit intends to inspire us as a community
to meet our fears with peace so that our love can work to address the world’s
wounds with justice.


All dimensions of a faith community need to be governed by the Spirit. A faith
community is not just a collection of people who share common beliefs or
common efforts. Instead, it is a unity reinforced by the presence of the Spirit who
teaches and calls each one to remembrance who they are: Jesus’ followers. We
are not alone trying to make our own way as best we can. We are guided by the
presence of the Father through the Spirit -Teacher just as they were taught by
the Father through Jesus. And if we receive the Teacher, the Spirit of truth, we
will experience biblical peace going far beyond lack of conflict. It should be
noted, however, there is no guarantee the presence of the Spirit will eliminate
disagreements among those in the community. As a people who are called out of
the world into the community of Christ, it seems to me our protest and
disagreement, in whatever form it takes, should be noticeably different.  There is
a clear sense here. If a community is not governed by love through the work of
the Spirit in their midst, there will be no peace of the kind Jesus gives.


One of the shortcomings with American Chrisitanity is faith has become overly
individualized. Becoming a Christian too often means personal assent to a set of
beliefs rather than to a “lived-in-community”faith. Being a Christian, or better,
being a disciple or even better, being a “disciple-in-community” are not the same
thing. Someone can be a Christian, attend church services, hear sermons, pay
tithes, receive communion, and not be a disciple. A would-be disciple seeks out a
community in order to follow the example and teaching of the One who is called
Lord. A “disciple-in-community” gains a greater awareness of how the Father in
Jesus is at work with them. And how, by becoming more aware of that, they can
become more committed to follow Jesus along the path the Spirit directs. Faith
communities should be attentive to the rhythms and rituals constituting the background hum of life and should consider the end toward which these activities
are oriented.

Jesus is, of course, the key to this. I as an individual am called into a community
by his name, shaped by his life, death, and resurrection and empowered by his
Spirit for “serving love”. The Father does all of this in the effort to install on earth
his own life through human agents loving one another and overseeing the spread
of shalom. I’ve heard this statement ascribed to both Francis of Assisi and Martin
Luther, and I’m not sure either said it, but today Luther won the coin toss so I’ll
claim it for him: Once asked what he would do if he thought the world would end
tomorrow, Luther replied, “I would plant a tree today.” That’s not optimism, but
hope; not simply a lack of fear, but courage; not only the absence of disturbance,
but peace — Jesus’ peace, a peace the world cannot give.

Psalm 100 | Easter 4C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

1     Shout out joyfully to the LORD, all the Land!

2     Serve the LORD with gladness!

       Come into His presence with singing!

3     Acknowledge this:  the LORD He is God!

            He made us, and we are His,       

           His people, the flock He shepherds.

4    Enter His gates with thanksgiving,

      Enter His courtyard with acclamation!

      Give thanks to Him; 

      Bless His name!

5          For the LORD is good;

            His steadfast love endures forever,

            and His faithfulness to all generations

Psalm 100
Translation by john-michael gutierrez, phd

Some of us from Episcopal/Anglican origins have become familiar with Psalm 100 in three ways: First, in 1549 Cranmer’s liturgical Latin inserted Psalm 100’s Jubilate deo into Anglican morning prayer after Psalm 95’s Venite. Second, about a decade later the exiled Wm. Kethe’s paraphrased poetry for the Geneva Bible found its way into Anglican choral tradition with oft jailed Louis Bourgeois’ adapted melody under the heading “The Old Hundredth”. Third is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s beautiful arrangement for Queen Elizabeth’s processional at Westminster Abbey in 1953. Not to overlook contemporary music: Give a listen to Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” from 1997’s Slow Train Coming album where he strums the right chords to the psalm’s theology from vs. 2 “Serve the Lord”. And lastly, not to overlook literature from the pen of Mark Twain, we hear Psalm 100 as a song celebrating the safe return of Tom Sawyer.     

Now this morning let’s go back to Israel.  I invite you to turn to Psalm 100 in the bulletin so you can follow along. By the end of this message, as is my well known habit, I’ll have asked y’all to hold a lot of theology up in the air all at one time. It seems to me it’s worth the effort because this psalm is a poetic masterpiece expressing the fundamental theology of Israel. And it opens the door to the heart of Easter’s realities in our Christian community. 

The volley of invitations to worship actions: Shout out joyfully. Serve gladly. Come singing. Enter thankfully. Enter praising. Give thanks. Bless him – are the psalm’s obvious framework (vss. 1,2,4).

But here’s the teaching point for Israel and by all means include us. Covenant is the psalm’s big idea poetically voiced at the center point, vs. 3 “Acknowledge this:  YHWH He is God! He made us, and we are His. His people, the flock He shepherds” and at its conclusion, vs. 5 “For YHWH is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations”. Covenant is a treaty calling Israel to live by revealed instruction enabling them to be formed into a holy community. This psalm restates what Israel understands – the Covenant’s deep, intimate revelation of YHWH’s character and acts has a claim on their loyalty and allegiance. The Covenant is compelling, demanding but not coercive. YHWH does not overwhelm Israel with imperatives. He is interested in genuine relationships and obedience. He bends his knee, accommodating Israel’s humanness and fallibility. He “evangelizes” Israel, not through overpowering logical propositions but through participating in their very earthly life offering them costly love over and over and over again. Allow me to direct you to one of many similar wordings. This one from Deuteronomy: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day YHWH is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land YHWH your God gives you for all time” (4.39-40). Covenant, then, is an extraordinary blueprint for what Israel’s life can genuinely become when lived in obedience to divine instruction. Understanding the unsurpassing beauty of and practicing this blueprint is what calls forth the delightful, boisterous, rousing invitations in this psalm. 

 In vs. 3 and 5, then, we hear the poet’s skill retracing the language of YHWH’s character, status and acts.  Although portrayed as kings and shepherds, gods and kings in the ANE were seldom described as good, loving, safe or kind.  Not so YHWH, king and shepherd! When YHWH delivered Israel out of slavery, He acted as a great divine king. He made a covenant with them, creating them to be, not slaves, but a priestly serving people – vs. 3a “Acknowledge this: YHWH He is God. He made us. We are his”. In the Exodus-Wilderness, he revealed himself as a great Shepherd King – vs, 3b “His people, the flock He shepherds”. He redeemed them, not to get rid of them but to walk with them, even in the valley of shadows. And through covenant faithfulness, teaching and guidance, he has shown himself to be good, merciful and loyal – vs. 5 “for YHWH is good, his covenant loyalty and faithfulness endures in every generation”.

Together these statements encourage ordinary Israelites (and us) to recalibrate motivations when entering into the realm of the sacred for worship. So I want to put a few more items into your hands. First, worship in Israel is not an individual, isolated experience but is deliberately carried out with others assembled in community. I can’t worship alone. Second, YHWH is approachable. Make my way into his presence acknowledging his character, his saving, mighty acts. He desires me to darken his gate – a doorway into reconciliation. Third, the theological richness and imagery of Exodus-Sinai-Wilderness language pervading scripture and this psalm shouldn’t surprise me. Accepting YHWH’s kingship radically shapes worship’s experience. Which is to say, worship in Israel is a divinely informed, lived experience. Fourth, worship in the psalms is usually multi -directional. Notice how this psalm motions the worshiper back to the Exodus-Sinai foundation of faith. Once again:  “Acknowledge this: YHWH He is God. He made us” (vs. 3a). The poet says this to make the present real in the eight invitations. And yet it doesn’t stop there. Vs. 5 pulls the worshippers into the future “covenant faithfulness endures in every generation”. Worship finds me wherever I am.

Acknowledging who YHWH is roots Israel’s worldview in thankfulness, gratitude. Drawing out their emotions, the revealed word loosens their tongues to sing redemption’s song. The constellation of invitations picture an intimate relationship, sincere mindset and faithful behavior unimaginable without the Covenant’s structure. The invitations affirm the Covenant adds security to Israel’s life – stability, well defined moral, social order. All of which make Israel’s public expressions possible and meaningful.

So Israel’s praise resonates strongly with Covenant’s realities. YHWH is always faithful to his covenant promises. And these promises extend beyond Israel to the nations. How? Well look at the word “Land” in vs. 1. Certainly in Israel’s view “land” is the geography promised to Abraham. But here’s what I’ve come to love about theology in Hebrew poetry – a refusal to be pinned down. The word “land” can also be read as earth. And “earth” can also be read as non-Jewish folk, the “Nations”. That’s us. We also will see, know and experience the commitments and loyalty of YHWH.  YHWH’s covenant loyalty was fulfilled for the Nations in a very creative, innovative way. Listen to the words of St. Paul “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the covenant, to redeem those who were under it, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4.4-7).

Yes! Jesus is the person in whom Covenant and faithfulness come together for the Nations, They come together in an actual event which consisted surprisingly and shockingly in the shameful and cruel death by crucifixion of the One who fulfilled the divine purposes. But the explosive force lies in something radically new, something shocking, something up to that point in time unthinkable. Something the Judean authorities, the Romans, even Satan couldn’t grasp. There was a deeper relationship they did not know. If they could have looked further back into the stillness, the darkness before Time, they would have found there God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit. And from them would emerge a willing Son who would break open the bonds of Sin and Death, trampling Hell and Satan under his feet by his death and resurrection

In Jesus’ death and resurrection, we move from enslavement to sonship, from covenant to new covenant. In Jesus’ resurrection, we move to a new type of human forged in the Spirit- image of the risen Son. This is the shock wave vibrating throughout all of creation at Easter. 

In the Easter weeks, we join a vast community of praise. We bear witness to YHWH’s faithfulness, loyalty and goodness in Jesus. We walk in a procession stretching across time and place. We celebrate the LORD’s enduring commitment to the redemption of the world. Our loud shouts of praise affirm our common identity as His people, the flock He shepherds. Amen.

John 20.19-31 | Easter 2C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you. ”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:19-31

The Gospel of the Lord

Every year, we journey through Lent and Holy Week, arriving at Easter Sunday with a tag team partnership between Matthew, Mark, and Luke as our standardized readings.  But on this first Sunday after Easter, Easter 2 in church speak, we always read from the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel.

The disciples were terrified of the Romans and Judean authorities. So frightened they barricaded themselves behind locked doors. Remember before the crucifixion, Peter shrank in fear over being identified as a follower of Jesus, a potential enemy of Rome. And remember Jesus’ other male followers were so terrified only one could be seen standing at the foot of the cross. A near-unanimous majority, then, was unable to watch Jesus during his final hours. So it’s not hard to imagine their fear intensified. They had no doubts:  “If the Romans and Judean authorities dealt this way with Jesus, they can certainly do the same to us!”

We, as Gospel readers, however, know something has happened already, intended to snap the disciples out of uncertainty, fear and doubt.  We know about the resurrection message declared first by the angels and then Mary’s experience and her message. But for now we know most of them don’t get it.  They’re stunned, full of doubts and fears.  And don’t we think something undeniable, something visible, something tangible will be needed to remove the barricade from the door?

And there you have it. The locked passover room appearance of the risen Jesus. It’s dramatic,  unmistakable. So obvious. It begins the transformation of the terrified disciples.  Jesus is clearly alive. Look, his wounds!  And just as clearly, something is different about him. But, but  it’s still him, for heaven’s sake.

Now to focus our attention on the undermining of faith and loyalty done by the violence of the crucifixion, the narrator tells us Thomas, one of the Twelve, wasn’t in the room.  For whatever,  and for many reasons, he wasn’t there and when he did show up he wouldn’t let himself be convinced by their declarations. Thomas couldn’t believe until or unless he put his hand into Jesus’ wounds. We call him “Doubting Thomas”, a very unfair label.  Firstly, Thomas simply understands the ways of the world:  the dead remain dead. He grasps, as we like to say, the reality of Roman crucifixion. Maybe we should label him, “Reasonable Thomas” not a parade ground example of  doubt. After all, he merely doubts the credible, the reasonable.  Secondly, was Thomas the only person to doubt Jesus’ resurrection? No, of course not. In fact, everyone doubted it!  On any close reading of each of the Gospels, it becomes clear Thomas’s much referenced doubt is not the exception, but the rule. 

Today, we live in an age in which the credibility, the reliability of Gospel eyewitness accounts are increasingly challenged. Here is where I stand. In the narrative, Jesus appeared in the locked room, then left only to reappear about a week later. May I suggest to you when Thomas appears in the room, we have a possible eyewitness independent of Jesus’ first appearance. So, much thanks to Thomas for showing up at the reappearance. Because in the end we now have the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses from the first appearance being confirmed in the second appearance by a skeptical eyewitness. Resurrection is the eyewitness testimony of Christian faith. Acceptance of the resurrection is tough on modern day skeptics and some modern-day Christians. A lot of folk view Jesus as a compassionate sage, as a miracle worker–healing the sick, as a social worker – feeding crowds and the like.  But Jesus, God the Son, laying down his life as a ransom for many, raised from the dead. A God with scars. Well, that can be, to use a theological  term, a stumbling block, a scandal. Allow me to refer you to St. Paul who says repeatedly  in 1 Corinthians the message of the cross and resurrection is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who believe it is the power of God

It is important to note Jesus never corrects Thomas for his doubt: “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (20:29).  And indeed Thomas’s overwhelming affirmation “My Lord and my God” is as powerful a statement of faith among any of  the disciples. Thomas is mistakenly known more for his supposed doubt than for his belief. But he believed as surely as all the rest. He was reconciled to the Lord as surely as anyone.  

What strikes me this year is this: Jesus doesn’t say much, doesn’t make a philosophical case for belief in his having been raised.  Instead let’s listen carefully to what is said. What we realize is doubt and fear in and through the events of the crucifixion have done emotional, spiritual and personal damage to individuals in  this close community.  We realize Jesus is concerned with removing the slivers of disillusionment from their pierced hearts as their fear turns cautiously toward faith. 

He breathes the Holy Spirit into wounds made by the blows of doubts, failures and faults. This Spirit-infused healing will enable them to become reconciled to the Lord. And to carry a message of reconciliation, pardon to those desperately in need of forgiveness. It is the Spirit who will be guiding them, teaching them how such reconciliation and forgiveness is available to sinners in need of a savior.  All this is from the depths of the One who uttered words of forgiveness as he hung dying on the cross. Jesus through the Spirit is determined to heal what is broken, especially what is broken between himself and the disciples as well as between the disciples themselves. And what is broken between himself and us and between us ourselves. And between him and a sinful world. 

Again notice when he appears, he’s not covered up.  Now asking Thomas to touch his wounded body, Jesus reveals a new and restored reality coming from a redemption act.  Jesus’ resurrection reveals a world full of wonder and possibility, a new creation. With horrific wounds in his hands, side and body, wounds that rescued them (and us by the way), he says twice, “Peace be with you.” This is a statement a hard fought peace has been secured. “Peace be with you.” is the reality. Jesus will  instruct them to extend the “wounded healer’s peace” to others. So the early Church believed, as we do today, the Risen Jesus gathered with them. The wounded healer has appeared bringing  peace in the midst of doubts and fears. 

In my early church experiences, the faith modeled for me was largely about gaining certainty, especially about the resurrection. All things considered, it was a good experience. However, that distant experience seems more like a series of information sessions designed to help me gain unwavering confidence. If I didn’t know what I believed, something was clearly wrong, needing to be addressed with a sense of urgency. I remember feeling unsettled at times, needing to be fixed. There was a lot at stake about being certain. There was a lot of peer pressure.

As I have gotten older, I have come to know myself – for better or worse. I have come to know a faith only and always a precious gift.  I have my moments—some longer than others—of doubt and failure. And I’m no longer surprised when I feel or experience times of uncertainty.  My life has always had ways of challenging settled and certain faith. Merely living everyday can stir up the “pushed down” doubts lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to erupt.

The Gospels now  picture for me faith’s certainty coming and going, balancing failures with spiritual growth. And that’s where the crucifixion/resurrection comes to bear down on my life. Like Thomas, it seems to me resurrection faith recognizes and embraces struggles, challenges, and doubts as normal and expected.  When I reflect over the course of my life, I have lived in some relationships I now know were not  life giving. Some were always on the brink of dissolving sometimes because of my faults, sometimes no fault of my own. So I have experienced tensions, frustrations and sadness at times in my life. Not knowing how to negotiate the present, let alone the future. 

Over the years, for times too many to count, I keep returning to the final sentences in our Gospel reading. So let’s read them again.  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name (vs. 30-31). What do these sentences have to do with us? Much in many ways. 

Those terrified men and women of first-century Palestine experienced Jesus raised from the dead. Someone they could see. Reality they would never forget. Reality that would sustain them through long years of ministry. They were to become ambassadors for Christ.  Standing in the place of Christ, making this appeal: Be reconciled to God. In his death and resurrection, Jesus has bent his knee to be made sin for us so that the one who believes might be reconciled to God. And filling out Thomas’ theology  “My Lord and My God has ransomed me by his wounds”!

Standing in this soon to be unlocked room, standing in the place of Christ, they illustrate the household of faith is the only place where life’s wounded are to be cared for, not written off, because of faults and doubts.  And like Thomas, who “reconciled” with the disciples, I have learned it has helped considerably to join myself with others who hang on to their faith and hang in with their lack of faith, their doubts.  I am, like many, compromised, secretive, sinful and most desperately in need of forgiveness, reconciliation and gratefulness. 

 So this second of eight weeks of Eastertide should bring us to Easter resurrection not as a day but as an ongoing part of being a disciple in community. And like Thomas, I give thanks clothed in Jesus’ forgiveness for the wounded hands rescuing me from places I  have fallen.  For he says “Peace be with you”.  This, at least in part, is what Resurrection is about. No doubt.

He and We | Good Friday C                                                    

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

The final hours of Maundy Thursday found us in the Gethsemane orchard – in the darkness – with torches, shifting shadowy shapes, cloaked, muffled, nervous voices, with agonizing, fitful prayer and that equally dark, treacherous kiss.                                     

Like the disciples, we scattered to our homes while Jesus was on the move willingly but no longer free. Silent, without protest he has been arrested, shoved, beaten until he bleeds, sent to different authorities, moved relentlessly forward by whips and verbal abuse. 

Now in the daylight his movement ceases. He has been roped and spiked to a cross, set up above Golgotha’s horizon. The evangelists bring us to fix our gaze on this “Stopped Motion.” 

We are beckoned forward to take a place among surely apprehensive yet determined women, mothers, traveling companions, key witnesses to the crucial events in Jesus’ life – banded together to watch and listen. Once there, the evangelists say to all of us “Can you hear the prophet Isaiah… listen…listen carefully to the perplexing, deeply disturbing portrait of “Yahweh’s Suffering Servant” (Isa. 52.13-53.12). 

Yahweh speaks first in Isaiah’s narrative boldly, fatefully “Behold My servant will act wisely.” “Servant”, not really a name, is evocative, character-driven. In fact there are no names for anyone here. The Servant’s identity and experience with Yahweh is carried only by the pronouns – my, he, him. Just as sparingly, the reader’s experience with Yahweh and the Servant is carried by the pronouns – we, our, us. Pronouns matter, then and now.

As we stand clustered together, listen to the words about the Servant “he will be raised, lifted up, exalted….he grew up before Yahweh like a tender shoot….his appearance was so disfigured, marred beyond human likeness, he was despised, rejected, he was pierced….he was crushed, oppressed, afflicted, he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, he did not open his mouth, he was taken away, struck down… he was assigned a grave….it was Yahweh’s will to crush him, make his life a guilt offering….he poured out his life unto death….by his knowledge My Servant will justify many….he bore the sin of many. 

Even as we stand clustered together the prophet draws us, the “we”, in by a probing question “To whom has Yahweh’s arm been revealed?” We are, then, skillfully set before the Servant. There was no beauty, no majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, we esteemed him not….he took our infirmities, he carried our sorrows….We considered him stricken by Yahweh… he was pierced for our iniquities, our transgressions….his punishment brought us peace….by his wounds we are healed. 

Listening, we can be stunned by the silence, loneliness, the abandonment, the solitary suffering experienced by the Servant. But the prophet doesn’t stop there. He declares….He will see his offspring, prolong his days….he will see the light of life and be satisfied. The Servant’s wounds bring health and reconciliation to us, the “we” by “the arm of Yahweh”.  Such as it is, the Servant’s whole life has been preparation for this ministry of wounded healing. So the Servant’s experience on this day speaks to our loneliness, suffering, rejection, death….and in three days speaks to our hope, our deepest longing. 

Naming today “Good Friday” points out how we know something these pensive, gathered mothers do not – the outcome. Now certainly each “Good Friday” we live with them through this dying scene to learn to hear anew and to let “Yahweh’s arm” take us by the hand, reconciling us, binding us to Father, Son and Spirit, to the creation and to the gathered community. In point of fact we are never farther than a Sunday from the realities of these scenes. Consider the Nicene Creed, where each Sunday, at the doorway to the Eucharist, we say together these same pronouns: For us and for our salvation…. He came down….he became incarnate….he was made man….for our sake he was crucified…..he suffered death….he was buried. 

Now as we leave this somber day, the furious darkness of Chaos with its servant “Death,” gathers around his cross. Creation’s fragile order is beginning to buckle under the horror of this excruciating scene. We must still sit through Saturday’s vigil with its grief, weeping and dashed messianic dreams. 

But for the “transforming conclusion” of this scene, the disciple Mary’s euphoric declaration, and the ever meaningful next sentence in the Nicene Creed, we wait eagerly for Sunday’s morning light.

Luke 20:9-19 | Lent 5C

Reverend Linda A. Crowder

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke.

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to
tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant
to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants
beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat
and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This
one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I
will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they
said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And
they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard
do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When
they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is
this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will
crush him.”
The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived
that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.

Luke 20:9-19

I once went to a clergy conference about time management.  We were trying to learn to better prioritize our time, so that the normal emergencies and regular responsibilities that go with our unusual vocation don’t just create chaos in our lives, and the lives of those around us.  It can be a bit of a challenge.  So we were given a paper with a grid on in and asked to sort out things that were urgent from things that were not urgent, and to further separate out things that were important from things that were not important.

It is pretty easy to think of things that are urgent and important.  Someone is in the hospital with a sudden serious medical condition.  The youth group meeting is getting loud enough to create a problem with the neighbors.  The church is on fire. 

Not urgent/important isn’t too hard, either.  Someone who is homebound with a chronic illness needs to be visited.  Schedule within a few days.  A gift has been given to purchase new vestments.  Arrange a meeting with interested parties as soon as is convenient for everyone involved.  It is Monday, a sermon needs to be ready for Sunday.  This priority changes, of course if it is Saturday night!

Important/not urgent is easy.  Some of these things you actually want to do.  Like read that stack of theological books you have collected over the years.  Or organize your library so that you can find every single one of those important books quickly and easily.  But, that fact that these tasks have remained undone for years indicates that in fact you don’t think that they really are all that important. 

It is harder to think of things that are urgent, but not important.  Should there be any?  I don’t know.  But..

Everything that we just read in today’s readings feels both urgent and important. This Fifth Sunday of Lent, traditionally known as Passion Sunday, is the last Sunday before Palm Sunday.  Lent is coming to an end, and with it, our time to prepare, one more time for the soul-shaking experiences of Holy Week and Easter only one more week away.   

So, taking a close look at the Gospel reading, we have to back up a bit to figure out where we are, and why things are so urgent.  We a just a little bit out of step here with our customary liturgical time.  Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on a colt to shouts of Hosanna, and the waving of Palms.  We will, of course remember that next week on Palm Sunday, but for today, assume that it has already happened.  So once in Jerusalem, Jesus knows that his time is short and that there is still a lot that needs to be done.  He looks at Jerusalem, the site of the Temple, the destination of holiday pilgrimage, the very center of the Jewish world – and he weeps.  Jerusalem does not know him, and it will soon see its own destruction at the hands of the Romans.  Not only does the city fail to recognize Jesus, but the Temple is defiled by those who are more interested in business than in prayer – and so Jesus drives them away.  And then sits down in the temple and begins teaching “as if he owned the place”. 

So, it’s not hard to understand that the Scribes and priests who were supposed to be taking care of the temple, might be concerned to find out just where this Jesus has come by the authority to come into town in a parade of kingly symbolism and attack the finely-balanced little society that functions around the temple.  And that is exactly what the scribes and priest ask Jesus, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority?”  And Jesus tells a story:

“A man planted a vineyard…

The scribes and the chief priests are supposed to see themselves, as the tenants in the vineyard.  These tenants, of course, are unwilling to keep their end of a bargain.  They don’t want to pay their rent, in the form of part of the produce of the land, and they are willing to commit violence in order to hang on to what rightfully belongs to the landowner. 

Worse yet, of course, these wicked tenants are willing to kill the landowner’s son and heir in the mistaken belief that in so doing they will somehow gain control of the land.  Crazy thinking.  Why would anyone leave anything to the murderer of his son?  But then it takes some pretty deluded thinking to go around killing people just to get control of a piece of land.  But, Jesus affirms, the landlord is still in charge, and the tenants will be thrown out of the vineyard so that the vineyard can be leased to other, hopefully more-reliable tenants.  And the scribes and the chief priests understood that this parable was about them, so they were determined to harm Jesus. 

But, in answer to the original question of Jesus’ authority, the tenants – or the scribes- have denied the authority of the owner of the field – God to send his assistants – prophets and then his son – Jesus into the vineyard to do his work.  Who gave Jesus his authority – God of course, and those who don’t recognize this – like the stubborn leadership in the temple will eventually “fall on the cornerstone” that is Jesus.

Traditionally, this parable has been understood by the Church as an allegory about Israel.  Because the leaders of Israel, the “wicked tenants of the vineyard” didn’t heed the calls of the prophets , that is the first three rent collectors, to repent and follow God’s desires for them, the vineyard will be taken from them, and given to others.  After the crucifixion and resurrection, the early Church, naturally, came to understand that the vineyard, that is the state of being God’s “chosen people” has been given to Christians. 

Surely Jesus does mean a harsh criticism of the Jewish leaders of his time.  They are interfering with his important mission.  He has wept over the fate of Jerusalem, and these are her leaders.  But it is probably not helpful for us to dwell on this exclusivist interpretation of the parable for very long, because if we do we will probably decide that that is all there is to see in the story.  And we will miss another important opportunity. 

That is the opportunity to rename this parable and ask it to challenge us, rather than just to let us enjoy some kind of self-satisfied conviction that as Christians, we are somehow the “good guys” of this parable.  So, to take the emphasis off the chief priest and scribes, let’s first rename this story.  Instead of calling it the “Parable of the Wicked Tenants”, let’s call it “The Parable of the Twice-given Vineyard”. 

There was a garden a long, long time ago.  And in that garden everything was lovely.  Because God made it and gave it to two people.  So they could care for it.  And follow instructions.  And enjoy a really good life.  But they didn’t.  And they had to leave the garden and never come back.

But the vineyard we are talking about today is different.  This vineyard was good.  And then it was not.  And then there was hope its redemption!

Because this parable is not only, or perhaps not even mostly, about the history of Israel, or about the history of Christianity.  It is about the history of each of us.  Each of us is one tenant in the vineyard of God’s world.  Given a mission to fulfill.  Our faithful work in the vineyard often yields much fruit.  And that work is often very satisfying to us in ways both material and spiritual.  And that is good.  The workers in the vineyard of the parable are asked, not to turn over everything they have produced, but merely to pay rent, as has been previously agreed between themselves and their landlord.  All they have to do is remember that the land that they occupy is not their own.  And realize that the landlord’s grace has been an essential part of the great successes they have experienced.  And to fashion their response to the landowner accordingly. 

But we tenants have short memories sometimes.  And we conveniently forget that God, the Great Landowner, is always in charge.  And that’s when we start interfering with the way things need to be in the vineyard.  And innocent bystanders, like the rent collectors, get hurt through no fault of their own.  And the vineyard becomes a dangerous place to be instead of the hopeful and productive garden that the world was made to be in the first place. 

And that’s why the landowner finally sent his son into this confused vineyard.  Hoping that we would listen to him.  And that we would finally know that God is in charge.  It took a crucifixion and a resurrection and the permanent presence of the Holy Spirit, but God has finally gotten our attention at least some of the time.

Hear, then the parable, this way.  We are the tenants, and we are the others to whom the vineyard has been given.  We have received as a free gift the vineyard that others tried to gain by violence.  By God’s grace, the vineyard is twice given.  Because we know the Gospel and have experienced it for ourselves, we know God’s love and boundless grace.  But now come the final questions.  If we are the others to whom the vineyard has been given, what will we  do with it?  Will we respond to God’s calling to serve His purposes in that twice-given vineyard?  If so, what does obedience require of us today?

Luke 15.11-32 | Lent 4C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to[a] one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants,[c] ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Luke 15:11-32

Introductions

Anglicans are Bible folk. Our Biblical formation is structured through readings laid out in daily morning and evening prayer and in the Sunday lectionaries. So when Jesus says: “There was a man who had two sons” you’re probably saying to yourself “Hey, Hold on, I’ve heard this before in other stories”. And you’re quite right.

In the library that is the Bible one can leaf through page after page of stories about fathers and children, sons and brothers. Only a few pages into Genesis we are listening to the brothers Cain and Abel and their deadly relationship. And we note once again the absence of their father Adam in word and deed. Not too further on we encounter Noah’s troubled relationship with his sons after the flood recedes. Arguably the most complex and disturbing of all the stories in the whole of the biblical library involve Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael. In the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob, the younger brother, receives the family inheritance by deception. The patriarchal period closes with the longest sustained narrative in the Bible about a father, Jacob and sons and brothers in the Joseph stories. 

The conquest and settlement periods narrate a well known father/son conflict in the Samson saga. A less well known but notable example that overturns the whole father/son cross section is the tragic story of Jephthah and his unnamed daughter. The monarchical period enlarges the anthology narrating sustained conflict between newly crowned Saul, his son Jonathan and the “adopted son/brother” David, then further down this path David’s own family tragically begins breaking up starting with sons Amnon and Absalom and ending eventually in the breaking apart of the united kingdom itself between the brothers Jeroboam and Rehoboam.

There is another father – son/child story that doesn’t get much air-time. Please, allow me to provide a “big picture” theological platform for this morning’s Gospel lesson. The Sinai covenant – Ex. 19 all the way through Deuteronomy – is framed as a relationship between a loving father, YHWH and his son/child, Israel. In covenantal thinking YHWH is not an employer who pays wages but a father who desires a proper relationship with Israel. He is obeyed, not for the reason of compensation, but out of love. Now YHWH, through His compassionate, graced redemption, freed Israel to obey even disobey covenantal directives. His major role, played out as a father, loves Israel enough to let them have freedom to make their own choices/decisions. And as a caring parent is always waiting and willing to help with each child’s individual needs. The Sinai covenant is the Lord’s refusal to limit the measure of grace. Admittedly the results have often been disastrous and painful for both as a quick read through prophetic literature will show. Nevertheless a careful reading of covenant literature discloses sin isn’t defined in legal terms but in relational terms. Disobedience or sin is nothing to be trifled with because it is a breaking of a family relationship. Sin is not a matter of not keeping the rules but deliberate offenses actively failing to maintain an open, loving relationship with YHWH, with community, with family and with neighbors (TDOT 3: 272-273).

 Vs. 1

In this morning’s lectionary Jesus adds a finely crafted story to the biblical archives from his cultural setting. The immediate intention is to take issue with social/religious divisions between “brothers”– “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (15.1). Jesus responds to the raised eyebrows of the “good” folk about his close relationship with “drug dealers and loan sharks” with three parables: first about returning a lost sheep to its flock, the second about successfully finding misplaced money and then this story about the return of a wayward son/brother. 

Luke’s intentions for Theophilus are more subtle. The parables involve the kingdom mission of the Father presenting Israel with “my beloved son whom I have chosen”. They’re not an attack on all Pharisees. Remember he sits at a table with Pharisees and sinners. Rather, the parables lead Theophilus and listener/reader on a collision course with choices, decisions, recognition, responsiveness, forgiveness and repentance. Everything will depend onTheophilus and the reader/listener in the scenes. Who or what are you going to identify with? Are you willing to step onto the stage and act out the scenes? 

Vs. 11-12

The story begins with the youngest son demanding “Show me the money” as if his father is a banker. The dramatic shock effect is that the demand is for an obviously smaller share of any inheritance. That the youngest had the audacity to ask suggests his relationship with the family was not all that great before the demand. So let’s look more closely. It’s actually more stark, more cutting. The father, perhaps like many a parent, knew what the boy was going to do. Nonetheless he grants the demand, dividing the inheritance between the two sons – 2/3rds to the oldest 1/3rd to the youngest. Allow me to point out something subtle. The translation reads property but the sentence reads he divided his “Life” not merely property. The point is to feel the heart wrenching pain that comes when the child who is the light of his life is about to remove himself from his father, his family and the community that nurtured him.  And we as readers are tempted to yell “Don’t do it”! 

Vs. 13

With a saddlebag of cash, he backs his cherry 409 supercharged camel out of the driveway, lays down rubber, and in a cloud of smoke heads for fame and fortune in a land far away. In recklessly, self-indulgent misbehavior, he loses his inheritance. We don’t know the precise details of the wasteful. lavish behavior but remember what he wasted was his father’s life not money or things. 

 Vs. 14-16

His downward mobility into poverty is swift. He encounters a perfect storm – in this story –  famine. Without family, financial support, training or skills and facing starvation, he hires himself out as a day laborer tending pigs and longing to eat with them.

Vs. 17-19

Jesus tells us he “came to his senses” and in a skilled use of interior speech, we  hear what Junior is thinking.  First , he will go to his father, admit that he has sinned against the Lord and wronged his father. Grave words of confession and  repentance over a broken relationship. He was lost and dead in sin. And it’s the subtlety in theological storytelling that thrills me. Here the participles arise and arose in vs. 18 and 20, used in the immediacy of this narrative about repentance suggest coming back to life because they are the theological word for resurrection. And they pre-set us for the father’s joyus exclamation “this brother of yours was dead but is alive again (vs. 32). But second, take note of this: Even though “father” dominates the rehearsed speech, Junior will ask him if he can be hired as a day laborer. Momentarily, he still regards him as a boss/employer who controls the finances.

Vs. 20-23

Now glance back to the opening sentence “there was a man who had two sons”. The youngest is going to step aside from the story as we focus our attention on the central character of the story – the father. This father has been scanning the horizon, waiting and watching eagerly for his son’s outline against the sky.  And when he sees his son far off his response is captured in a rhetorically powerful rush of verbs. The father is “moved with compassion”, without hesitation he gets up, runs, embraces and affectionately kisses him. Interrupting the son’s prepared day worker speech, he commands servants to accessorize the son with robe, ring, sandals – emblems of restoration to sonship and fatherly care. And he commands them to set the table with a festival meal. Overwhelmed by such demonstration of compassion, the son can only say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son”. But the father had long ago made up his mind what he would do if the son ever showed up on the outskirts of the village. His son was dead and lives again;  he was lost and is found.

The lead verb “moved with compassion’ in this rush of verbs is profoundly theological. It is a depth word drawn from Sinai covenant vocabulary.  Here is the central point of the story:  to emphasize to Pharisees, sinners and tax collectors that compassion is the major feature of Jesus’ ministry.  Compassion defines what it means to be Israel’s Lord. To be Lord is to be vulnerable to the suffering of another. To be Lord is to feel your insides churn and to act on it, to do something. To be Lord is to heal, restore, renew, and in all ways to help. Compassion is important as it allows Jesus to imagine himself in our shoes. Compassion is what arises when he is confronted with our suffering and it motivates him to want to do something to relieve that suffering (IDB 3.352-354).  

Vs.25-32

Up to this point in the story the younger is the one who is lost. But before we take a seat at the festival table there is the matter of the lead sentence “there was a man who had two sons”. This story isn’t going to end seated at the table but with two men standing in a field: one emotionally urging compassion; the other angrily resisting reconciliation. 

Like the younger brother the older brother appears on the horizon but stops short of the house and speaks to a slave not his father. He’s angry and refuses to join the festival table. Much to our surprise, the older son will be a lot like the younger  – selfish, preoccupied with his own interests. Will the father bring this lost son home?

Notice the slave’s report actually voices the motives for the older son’s frustration and alienation.  “Your father has received him back safe and sound”. Intentionally he ran out to reconcile with his son while he was still far off deliberately restoring peace where there was discord.  

Now children, unlike sheep and coins, have long memories and a voice of their own. This son blurts out his rage scolding his father with bitter words: ‘Listen old man,  I’ve slaved for you all these years. I’ve never disobeyed your commands. You never gave me so much as a young goat to celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who devoured your life with prostitutes, you killed the festival calf for him!  In a twist he bases his relationship on the finances also. His father’s not following the rules. Smacking of favoritism, he let the “little brat” come back without a plan to pay back what was lost. The father is a boss to be obeyed, a banker to be respected “Show me the reward I deserve; I’ve earned it by being “faithful”. 

Re-affirming their close relationship, the father addresses the older son tenderly, compassionately  “Child, All that is mine is yours”. But more is at stake so he reasserts the older brother’s familial relationship with his younger brother using words of resurrection “and this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” and words of reconciliation “it was necessary to celebrate”.

Conclusions

In a sense, there is no story closure for either of the sons. Did the younger one get his act together? Did the older one continue to ferment? However, how Theophilus and you/I hear this parable somewhat depends upon whether we sit at table with tax collectors and sinners, or stand outside with Pharisees and Scribes in vs. 1. 

May I suggest Luke is exploring for Theophilus divine grace as it has been revealed in Jesus. So in the parable the wayward son is the sinner and tax collector; the oldest son is the pharisee and scribe; Jesus is the father, the central character, the compassionate seeker offering restoration to the relationships. 

The Theophilus intent is about the impact of Jesus’ ministry and the attitudes expected of his disciples. The contrast between the sons mirrors the Lord’s attitude toward repentant sinners and the attitude of those who refuse to celebrate repentance instead disparaging repentant sinners. Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to adopt his attitude to forgive those they disdain as sinners and join in the celebration accompanying the repentant to the kingdom table

The Theophilus point is the illustration of amazing divine patience and love for ungrateful children.  Now the Lord delights in the younger son’s repentance but  probably would prefer he not sink so low before coming to his senses. And the Lord would have liked to see the older son hug his father, go into the house, warmly embrace his brother, kiss him, and weep on his neck. It’s never too late to make the right decision.

The Theophilus lesson, then, is double sided. Real life is often complicated. At different times, don’t we find our lives in either of the son’s. How seamlessly we flip from asking forgiveness for ourselves to denying forgiveness for others, voicing “this son of yours,” not “this brother of mine.” So the lesson: not only are we loved, but we are meant to love; not only are we forgiven, we are meant to forgive.

Although Jesus knew it would not be easy, the Theophilus invitation is to follow as a disciple in the work of reconciliation and peacemaking. This mission is costly and demanding because it requires risk and sacrifice. It requires going to the lost in compassion offering forgiveness to those who are repentant, welcoming them to the Lord’s table.

Siblings in Christ “Welcome to Lent!” Work with me here…. we’re in the business of helping people find what is lost. This is our job description. Amen.

Exodus 3:1-15 | Lent 3C

Rev. Linda A. Crowder

1 Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”[a] And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord,[b] the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Exodus 3:1-15

Let’s slow ourselves down for a minute and think about something. Here’s the question:  how does God communicate with you? Just mull on that now, and maybe later as you have time. There are probably a lot of answers to that question. Anybody want to offer one? How do you know God is there, that he cares about you, or what he wants you to do? There isn’t a wrong answer.

I want to share something today. God talked to me once. It isn’t really that unusual. Studies show that people who have had what might be seen as “out of the ordinary” experiences of God often have never told anyone about them. So, I’m going to tell you. One Sunday, thirty or so years ago, I was kneeling in a pew after Communion in St. Andrew’s Church in Irvine, California. So far, not unusual. I was there every Sunday. Now, there’s a little background that you might need to know. I had just decided that ordination was not the path that my life should take. Because, you know, who am I to do such a thing? I’m a math major, and a computer whiz, and all that. What does that have to do with church? No, I’ll go take care of my little kiddo, and maybe adopt another, and have a happy life. Computer professionals will always be in a great demand. I could make a lot of money if I ever decide to go back to work. So, yeah, that’s it. Anyway, I’m the treasurer of the congregation, and I just taught a well-received class about faith formation. So, you know, I’m good. I’ve got other things to do.

Back to Sunday morning at St. Andrew’s. I wasn’t actively thinking any of these thoughts. I was just in “contemplative hyperspace” as Charles once described my prayerful, meditative state. And I heard (although nobody else did) a gentle, but insistent voice say, “Don’t give up.” Even though I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular at the time, I knew exactly what I wasn’t supposed to give up on. So, I didn’t and here we are! Who knew?

Of course, I’m reminded of this story this week, because our Old Testament lesson is about God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush. Because, of course, God talked to Moses. And their conversation was extensive and important. And it went on for a long time through a long journey through the desert on the way to the promised land. But first, I want to remember someone else who had some important conversations with God.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curse you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” God said to Abram, later to be know as Abraham. A promise of land and descendants. And Abram obeyed God, traveled to Canaan, and saw the land, but without the descendants he was hardly able to take possession of it. So because of famines, and difference of opinion with his nephew, Lot, and other circumstances, Abraham led the life of a nomad, eventually by a great miracle in his old, old age producing Isaac, the child of the promise. The child who would make possible the fulfilling of the covenant that there would be descendants who would eventually occupy Canaan.

And then inexplicably, God spoke to Abraham again, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori’ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” And Abraham obeyed. Here I am. As you wish. Of course, we know that God did intervene to save Isaac, so we can’t say that he was sacrificed – actually we can say he was bound. But the point is, Abraham did what he was told, without question. In spite of the confusing circumstances.

And now, more than four hundred years later, we meet Moses, an outcast, living in the desert, tending sheep. He’s in exile because he’s a murderer, and neither his own Hebrew people nor his adopted Egyptian people want anything to do with him. He’s an unlikely leader, to say the least. But God appears to him. Moses can see the angel – that is the messenger – of the Lord and the bush that burns and is not reduced to ashes. Naturally, this gets his attention, and he turns towards it. And the Lord speaks, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Here I am. I’m at your service. This sounds familiar. God has called Moses, and Moses has responded. Something important is about to happen, and we can expect that it has to do with Abraham and the promise, and probably with God’s whole history with downtrodden, enslaved people.

God continues, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Holy ground. You are in the presence of God. The awesome, overwhelming, frightening, inspirational presence of God. So do something – take off your shoes – to show that you know this. And Moses hides his face, because pure holiness is too much for a mere human to look at. Moses didn’t know it yet, but holiness is exactly what this awe-inspiring, holy God is going to call all of his people to show the world. They are to become a community that is known for its holiness, its justice and charity and goodness. A community that will be blessed so that they can bless the whole world. God told Abraham about being blessed and blessing the world, but now we are going to find out how that promise can be realized!

And yes, this is the God that made the promise to Abraham speaking. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”, He says. And Moses knows that, even though there have been many, many hard years of slavery in Egypt, God has not forgotten the promise that He made to Abraham so long ago. In fact, God makes that promise to Moses again. Right here at the burning bush, God tells Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” Same land, same promise. God has not forgotten his people, even if it has seemed so for a long, long time! God has come down to deliver his people and to bring them up. What a promise!

So, says God, Go to Pharoah and bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Not just go to Pharoah and demand that the people be let go, but lead them out and all the way to Canaan! I don’t know about you, but I do know that I would have no idea how to accomplish that feat, and Moses didn’t either. This is such a bold, and unexpected request, for which Moses has no real preparation – remember he’s an outcast, criminal herding sheep in the desert. So, it is hardly surprising that even though God has a great idea about getting his people out of Egypt finally, Moses is pretty sure he’s not the man for the job. I mean really, I couldn’t even have imagined leading little St. Stephen’s! Much less a huge band of refugee slaves – who might reasonably fear a noted criminal – through the desert! Could you?

So, Moses offers up five objections – only two of which are included in our reading today. “Who am I to do this huge thing?” I’m nobody. I’m less than nobody. You do know about my unsavory history, don’t you, God? “I will be with you,” says God, “and you will know that I am with you because you will serve me again right here again. At Sinai.

Moses recognizes that he has been talking with the one God, the God who made the promise to Abraham, but he wants to know God’s name. To give authenticity to his testimony to Pharaoh and the people, apparently, and God replies, rather cryptically, I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Now a library full of books has been written about what this “I am” is all about, so suffice it to say that God is powerful, faithful, ever-present, the one who creates, and who causes everything to be, But, says God, you could also sum that up nicely by saying ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Here ends the reading, but not the story. As you know, it’s a long story, but it does take Abraham’s descendants to Canaan, and beyond. And there are all kinds of setbacks and complications, but eventually Someone who says “I am the way, the door, the light…” comes down to deliver his people and bring them up to heaven!

And that “I am”, Jesus told a parable, a story about a tree wasn’t doing exactly what it should. And that tree faced the real possibility of being cut down because it wasn’t producing fruit. It wasn’t useful. But a kind and patient and loving gardener gave it one more year. He worked with it and fed it and cared for it. He had hopes for it. He gave more time. To see if it still might answer its call.

Like God, finding an important use for exiled Moses, or Linda, who almost quit. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or what you are doing now, you can always change your direction. May your Lent continue to be a time of blessed change. Amen.

Luke 13:31-35 | Lent 2C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

Luke 13:31-35

The Gospel of the Lord

Lent, historically in the Christian Church, is the 40 weekday period before Holy Week and Easter nurturing simplicity, reflection, reconciliation, fasting and preparation for entry into the community through Baptism. It seems to me Thomas Cranmer’s prayer books shifted Anglican emphasis to the inner life of the Christian: To see ourselves as we are; To know our own weaknesses; To observe our temptations; Changing from what we do to how we understand our relationship to God, and how we relate to others. Anglicans set out on this reflective journey toward the cross and resurrection beginning Ash Wednesday, marked with a cross on our foreheads. As we journey, we pray for God to reveal his grace to us. 

Liturgically, Lent’s scaling back, its sparseness, is essential to the season. It seems to me the lectionary compilers have taken Lent to heart. The seven sentences of the Gospel lesson this morning are scaled back indeed. Don’t you think this Gospel lesson is rather slim? I sure did when I first read it a few weeks ago. Truth be told, I still do. But it seems to me – retrieval – trying to get back to the Scriptures’ own agenda and – exposition – carrying forward Anglican theological tradition, are important to our Lenten journey.

So although not lectionarily apparent, the Gospel lesson is part of a lengthy section of Luke narrating Jesus’ journey to the cross and resurrection that began in ch. 9 “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (vs. 51) and will end at 19:44 when he enters the city. What is apparent, however, is the lesson’s “at-first-glance” different speeches.  In the first, vv. 31-33, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ warning that Herod wants to kill him. In the second, vv. 34-35, Jesus searchingly grieves Jerusalem’s repeated rejection.  He has signed on willingly for a journey whose path he knows will be littered with resistance, rejection, and death. Our Gospel scene is crammed full with intense conflict of wills: the intention of Jesus’ adversaries, the determination of the Messiah, the unwillingness of Jerusalem, and the determination of the LORD to fulfill redemptive objectives. 

Here’s my very unLenten question: Who signs on for this kind of drama? Here’s a very Lenten answer. Jesus says “I must be on my way” (vs. 33). So I’ll ask a more specific question: What’s Luke’s intention for Theophilus?  What does he want him to learn in this narrative excerpt?  Here is something for Theophilus to ponder. Our lesson extracted from Jesus’ journey is a reminder the path determined for the Messiah in God’s mission cannot be sidetracked. The Messiah is well aware of resistance in the struggle of wills and tragic rejection lying in the path of God’s saving purpose.

A sense of urgency stirs through Luke’s introductory sentence. Some Pharisees, who seem to have Herod’s ear, warn Jesus of rising deadly tension “Run for your life, Herod’s on the hunt. He wants to kill you.” (vs. 31). Faced with the option of siding with Herod over against Jesus, some Pharisees align themselves with Jesus. Now I consider myself fortunate to have had my theological education during a period when the Pharisees and Judaism can no longer be considered hostile to Jesus. Although the scenes in Luke-Acts do not play out well for them, the Pharisees were a reform party.  Both Jesus and the Pharisees shared a common devotion to the LORD. They both believed faith could be lived out in daily life. The rub came in how it was lived out.  The Pharisees grounded their obedience in an interpretive program they created called Oral Torah.  Jesus, on the other hand, identified with Israel’s prophetic tradition basing his teaching in Torah itself.

And Herod is a political figure. Jesus appears to be disturbing the peace in Perea and Galilee. Herod speculates he has another Baptizer on his hands (9.9-7).  Now in this one sense, Herod had everything to worry about. Jesus threatened Herod’s political power, not because he sought control over what the king controlled but because he undermined pretentious claims to supremacy. When any political institution views itself as the sole custodian and broker of authority, it can become so obsessed with itself and so determined to perpetuate its authority that any perceived threat to its status must be squelched. Jesus responds in vs. 32, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course”. Jesus’ determined commitment to carry out kingdom ministry seriously undermines political leverage of the Herods of this world.

Whatever the intentions of the Pharisees and Herod, Luke focuses on the substance of Jesus’ response.  Jesus faces the fear embedded in the threat head on. For Heaven’s sake, what was there to say to someone who had beheaded the Baptizer, a prophet of God? Jesus speaks with conviction to make clear the nature of his mission to the Pharasic delegation “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course” (vs. 32).  His aim is the demonstration of Isaiah’s messianic ministry first presented in Nazareth’s synagogue: “the LORD’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is the LORD’s time to shine!” (4.18-19). Here are some of the central aspects for Theophilus: One, no political authority or person will thwart the kingdom ministry Jesus or the church are anointed to accomplish. Two, words of faith/beliefs are most persuasive when conviction leads to action. Jesus’ and the Church’s mission are based in divine necessity thus he/we serve One of greater status and authority than a King Herod, a Caesar or any politician. Three, for Jesus and Christians, faith is a matter of character – character that has emerged from a life of facing fears, shouldering burdens, a life forged in the very moments of accepting challenges and responsibilities one might want to avoid. And lastly, Luke is saying to Theophilus in the references to time “at that very hour, today, tomorrow and the third day”, political fear is a basic part in every time, place and circumstance. And, lest anyone think the fears of this moment are “unprecedented,” one need only saunter over to our Gospel lesson, better yet put your finger in most places in the Bible, to see that that’s not true. There were/are always pressing and terrible storms and tempests and troubles that threaten to destroy the kingdom’s redemptive ministry. In truth, we aren’t in some sort of new time where the dilemmas we are facing have never been faced before. Jesus modeled a willingness to face obstacles and risk personal security in order to carry out kingdom ministry. Here’s Theophilus’ and our Lenten question: What are we willing to risk for the sake of the kingdom “at this very hour, today, tomorrow and the third day”?

As the Gospel unfolds it is Jerusalem, the historic seat where Israel’s kings and priests reside, that has first claim to killing Jesus not king Herod. So Luke continues to frame the urgency in the scene for Theophilus with Jesus’ searching words: “for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”(vs. 33b-35). There is, however, another king to be considered. A king who has made Jerusalem sacred space “the place where the LORD GOD will choose out of all your clans as his habitation to put his name” (Deut. 12.5). A king, who through the Sinai covenant, revealed a world ordering program calling individuals into a way of living characterized by “Love the LORD your GOD with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength’ (Deut. 6.5) and “You will love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19.13). That is, those who would be part of this divinely ordered world must trust themselves to the Great King alone and be responsive to others. This world order proposes no political program but instead something far more strenuous, demanding – Spirit anointed self-sacrificing love. And no self-serving state or political party can indulge this kind of self-sacrifice to lovingly serve the least, the lost and those in harm’s way. 

Jerusalem, the central place for worship and pilgrimage to honor the one, true Great King, is now filled with people who reject this same God. When Israel persecuted, killed one prophet after another, the LORD didn’t quit sending envoys. Even the LORD’s son, Jesus, will be no exception. The image of a hen trying to gather her chirping chicks under the safety of her wings while the chicks keep going their own way is a deeply moving portrait of the LORD. The LORD coaxes and pleads but does not coerce. Thus the tragic words, ” but you would not let me” (vs. 35). When Israel persisted in their rejection of his gracious invitation, He allowed them to go their way and suffer the consequences. Divine judgment eventually comes, but judgment has a redemptive purpose in the sense that sometimes the only way to realize sinfulness is to suffer the consequences  “You’re on your own now. You have refused divine help, so you won’t get it” (vs. 35). 

Characteristic of prophetic speech, there is a flicker of good news, the invitation is still open. And not everyone in Jerusalem and certainly not all Jews were opposed to Jesus’ prophetic ministry. In words from the processional hymn sung at the enthronement of David and the Davidic kings, some will affirm Jesus’ position as he enters Jerusalem in the words of Psalm 118:26. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD”.  

Winding my way into this season of Lent, here are the kinds of questions I have been wrestling with and contemplating. Some or none may be applicable to you. You make your own applications. Like some in Israel, believers are encouraged to seek the shelter of the One who invites them, who seeks to redeem them, setting them free. So I, called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, am faced with a number of sheltering challenges. The Gospel lesson has contrasting pictures. Fear of the loss of power and position drive Herod and some in Jerusalem to murderous ends. And character and conviction move prophets and Jesus to fulfill Kingdom ministry at the cost of their lives.This lesson is a searching call for me to cautiously evaluate my immersion, enmeshment with the politics and culture of this age. And to reckon with the truths and actions of the kingdom. Can I trust in the LORD’s protection in spite of the threats that surround me? Am I frightened from my kingdom mission by those threats of political and cultural rejection? What can I learn from Jesus’ response to the threats?  Jesus speaks to the present reality of foxes in political, social, and economic arenas. But will I raise my voice asserting kingdom ministry?  Am I tempted to flee as the Pharisees recommended? Along that way, will I lose sight of the model Jesus provided: a willingness to face obstacles and risk personal security in order to share the good news? What am I willing to risk for the sake of the gospel today?

Now dearly beloved in the Lord, in this Lenten season, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has spirit anointed servant power to preach good news to the poor, to announce pardon to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, “This is the LORD’s time to shine!” Amen.