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.

Luke 9:28-36 | Transfiguration Sunday

The Last Sunday of Epiphany C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

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

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Luke 9:28-36

The Gospel of the Lord.

The mysterious event in this morning’s Gospel reading, Transfiguration, is one of my favorites. It says so many things in so many ways. There is the temporary pulling back of a veil so that we catch a glimpse of His divinity. And in that glimpse there is understandable confusion and misunderstanding. There is the divine voice interpreting the event. And there is a subtlety easily missed:  The encouragement given to him as he begins his journey to the cross and the encouragement given to all disciples as they reflect upon this. And there is the implied promise there is more to come. Now may the Lord of revelation lift a little more of the veil and throw light on that which is holy.  

Luke. Welcome. Please come in and sit down.  It’s been a long time.  I read your letter eagerly. I was pleased to learn you are traveling with Paul and his co-workers full time now in the Gentile mission.  Your letter said you were doing interviews piecing together a story about Jesus for one of your supporters, Theophilus. Thank you so much for taking the time to come to Ephesus to speak with me.

Now concerning the “Mountain” you asked about in your letter.  Well, yes, I was an eyewitness on that day along with my brother James and Peter. What I’m about to tell you happened a long time ago.  We didn’t talk about it much back then or since.  But I’ve had a lot of time to think about that day. I remember it as if it took place just a few minutes ago. 

We had left behind the familiar sights and sounds of Bethsaida and the Galilee walking north on the western road toward Syria. 

Jesus had this amazing ability to gather ordinary folk around him as he passed through villages. The crowds grew bigger and bigger as we walked.  Jesus started urging the folk to become disciples following him like we were.  He was using some strong words to make the full weight of commitment clear. He began speaking about taking up one’s cross daily, losing one’s life. He was making discipleship more and more difficult. He even had the twelve of us rethinking our commitments.

Well all these things he was saying had people curious, wanting to catch a glimpse of him, questioning who he thought he was.  And there sure were a lot of ideas floating around. Some folks thought he was Elijah, some John the Baptizer returned from the dead, others thought he was one of the old prophets returned to life, still others thought he was the prophet who would renew the kingdom.

After a couple of days of walking, we were passing by a high mountain. Jesus slowed to a stop, singled Peter, my older brother James and myself out of the other disciples motioning us to follow him.  It turns out he was going to climb up that mountain. 

So we left the crowd and the others and set off with Jesus. We didn’t know what to expect. But I do think we hoped we might have a chance to talk Jesus out of all the strange, scary stuff he had been saying about suffering and dying, about saving or losing lives.

We walked steadily, past the tree line, until we nearly reached the peak.  Now we’re not used to high altitude. We’re fisherman-sea level and all that you know. So after the long climb we were short of breath and sleepy. Jesus went off a little further by himself and we settled in among the rocks for a nap.

Luke, I want to pause here to make this point clear. The three of us are Galilean fishermen like our fathers and our father’s fathers.  Jesus chose us to go with him. We didn’t set this up.  What started unfolding around us snapped us awake. It rocked our boat. All of a sudden there was a brightness that was and is beyond my ability to describe.  What was occurring all around us made the day feel like darkness. And there I was without a hat, sunglasses or sunscreen!

And then Elijah and Moses were standing with him, talking about his exodus about to happen in Jerusalem. Light bearers and light sharers, the Torah and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, two mountains in Israel’s story: Mt. Sinai where YHWH lit up the face of Moses with his presence and Mt. Horeb where YHWH spoke ever so softly from a raging, fiery storm to Elijah hidden in the rocks. We listened to them discussing Jesus’ Passover and his decision to pass through water deeper than the Red Sea to another mountain: Mount Golgotha. 

An awesome realization came over us, wave upon terrifying wave. We were looking into a brilliant lit face. We beheld his glory, glory as of the Father’s only Son full of grace and truth. Our storm of awe and bewilderment would not reach its frenzied height until we realized his glory was most recognizable wearing a crown of thorns.

Then this fog bank rolled in. We were terrified. Couldn’t see them any longer but I’d recognize that voice anywhere. Portable sheds. Three portable sheds. Really. Peter, what are you talking about? Did you look around? Did you see trees or even many shrubs? Do you know how many trips we would have to make up and down this mountain to build just one shed? We’re fishermen, for heaven’s sake, not carpenters or long distance truckers. I didn’t know about my brother but coming up that mountain one time was enough for me.  Well…. Well, it’s a good thing the divine Voice broke in and shut both of us up. I was well on the way to saying something I would regret.

Down the mountain, everyone wanted to know who he was but for us the Voice from the fog confirmed his identity and his mission. The divine command “Listen to him” was a call to understand Jesus: who he is as the Son of God, as well as a subtle call for us to understand the implications of following him. We didn’t realize it then but this was a turning point in Jesus’ life, a point of major transition as he shifted from his active ministry among us to face Jerusalem, the place of his death and resurrection.

So Luke, all of this “stuff” on the mountain prepared Jesus to go back down the mountain and continue his ministry until he reached Jerusalem. Simply, the mountain event set out the shape of and direction for the rest of his ministry. And for me, at least, the light turned on when I realized every disciple needs to live out his/her own journey. But hastily let me add not as individuals but as a community. Most disciples don’t seem to ever go up onto a mountain; some of those that do, want to camp out. In the end, however, every disciple has to come down from the mountain into a world of daily ministry, facing the consequences of his/her faith. Mountain experience can look appealing, sometimes more appealing than daily ministry. Nevertheless, disciples are called to daily ministry. Yes it’s true mountain experiences get your head out of the day to day but they also show disciples how important others are. Sometimes I’m tempted to go it alone rather than ask for help, sometimes to hesitate to help when I’m asked.  But the Kingdom of God asks me to do both: to humble myself to receive help and to help others in humility. I now know that’s why I needed to go back down the mountain.

You see Luke Jesus chooses disciples to make a difference in the valleys, on the roads, in the shops. Remember there aren’t that many resources above the timberline of a mountain. But there are a lot more down the mountain.  There are a lot more resources to draw upon when trying to be a friend to the working poor or the homeless, to being a friend to the person suffering significant medical or mental health issues or simply,  encouraging, comforting a husband, wife or child. 

Luke, I live and work at an intersection here in Ephesus, a common street corner far from the mountain. This place is full of congestion and accidents waiting to happen. Ordinary occasions filling daily life. There are all kinds of conflicts: religion, lifestyles, politics, and ideology. But all these folk here need the picture of Jesus that I experienced on the mountain and they also need a practical faith down from the mountain.  Disciples don’t need to sell a newer, better version of Jesus, the latest bells and whistles. But they do need to come alongside folk and meet them where they are living in homes and shops, on highways- bringing a self-giving, transforming love into their lives.  Down from the mountain, practical ministry is to make the secular sacred.

Jesus’ ministry is about meeting us where we are. When we were called by the Lord, we were not promised a mountaintop event. Rather we are plunged into the depths of daily life. It seems clear that the Lord wants most of us, when called, to stay where we are, or to sometimes go where He wants, but always to do His work… most often to live and work in places far removed from the mountaintop. The presence of the kingdom of God brings incredible light into our lives. But it doesn’t show us everything at one time. Some things are still shrouded in the fog bank. We will not know the direction of our journey until we actually travel the path following Jesus. If we as disciples were never tested we would never know the Lord’s strength or faithfulness.  If we were never discouraged or broken we would never know the Lord’s ability to heal and mold us in his image. Valleys surround every mountain so may the Lord give us grace to support one another in this ministry down from the mountain.

You know, Luke, your questions and our conversation have brought back a lot of memories. As I said earlier We beheld his glory, glory as of the Father’s only Son full of grace and truth.  I think I’ll get some parchment and write my narrative about the good news of Jesus’ mission. 

Transfiguration Grace to you all this morning.

Psalm 1 | Epiphany 6C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

A Reading from Psalms

1 Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly,                   

  nor stood in the way of sinners, and has not sat in the seat of the scornful;                    

2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD,                                                                                              and on his law will he meditate day and night.                                                                       

3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the waterside,                                                    

 that will bring forth his fruit in due season.                                                                             

4 His leaf also shall not wither;                                                                                             

and look, whatever he does, it shall prosper.                                                                         

 5 As for the ungodly, it is not so with them;                                                                         

but they are like the chaff, which the wind scatters away from the face of the earth.     

6 Therefore the ungodly shall not be able to stand in the judgment,                          

neither the sinners in the congregation of the righteous.                                                     

7 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,                                                                  

but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

Psalm 1:1-7

For me, the preparation of a message for Sunday morning is a multi-step process. In the Anglican Communion, I find the lectionary calendars wonderfully layered. The architects suggestively frame theology placing selections from the Bible’s library side by side. The yearly and three year lectionary cycles build into our lives rhythms where we are instructed about redemption in Israel and in the ministry of our Lord. Now for someone like me who has a habit of diving head first into theological rabbit holes, when I looked over the lectionary fields this morning, the holes were irresistible. This morning’s theological rabbit hole is a Wisdom word “blessed” read in Luke’s Gospel , Jeremiah and in Psalm 1. So please turn in your prayer book to Psalm 1.

Psalm 1 is strategically placed in Israel’s library promoting the wisdom of obedience to divine instruction and the tragedy of rejection. So the psalmist invites believers to reflect on influences that affect obedient living and to reflect on the effect of socializing with those who rebel against the Lord. Psalm 1 sets before us Wisdom’s vision of life where there is very little in the way of nuance. Everyone is either a righteous person or a wicked person. Everyone comes to a fork in life’s road: turn onto the Lord’s road – wellbeing; turn onto the other – judgment (vs. 7).  

Wisdom in Israel and in the Jesus community is rooted in humble service to the total claim of YHWH on a person’s total life experience.  So here are two larger proposals I want to make regarding Wisdom theology this morning.  First, Wisdom in Israel and in the Jesus community orient actions and intrinsic motivations that make up our daily life. Believers are yoked to moral principles and concerns. Yoked to the Lord’s instruction, believers are plowing a furrow of truth we couldn’t dig alone. Believers were/are a minority society within society, and that minority status had/has its pressures. Notice please wisdom comes about from mixing it up in everyday life not in isolation from everyday life. However, second, Wisdom in Israel and in the Jesus community challenge and undercut a surrounding culture’s understanding of its identity, status and behavior in everyday life. In other words, Wisdom lived out by believers forms a judgment on not a selective affirmation of a culture. Believers should not expect to be warmly embraced nor even to be tolerated. Jesus observes in our Gospel reading  “Praiseworthy are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice, in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Lk. 6.22-23). 

Our Bibles are so English-y sounding sometimes word meanings often come across as mushy. Translators do their best to find reasonable matches for words from language to language. What they can”t control is when languages change meaning. Such is the case with the word “Blessed” now “happy” in most contemporary translations of vs. 1. Currently, happiness has become something of an experience, a feeling we get when our circumstances are good. In Wisdom’s theological perspective, the word behind “Blessed/happy” is about something so deep that surface experiences can’t take it away or overpower it. It’s about choice. It’s about obedience. May I suggest a good English-y translation is “praiseworthy”. Moving a bit forward to vs. 2 “Praiseworthy is the one who delights in the Lord’s Torah”. 

With “praiseworthy” hanging in the air, with a preacher’s pulpit thumping intensity, the psalmist now brings forward three cultured despisers: Not the disloyal, don’t walk in their path….not sinners, don’t stand in their road….not scorners, don’t take a seat in their congregation (vs. 1). 

All three are frequent visitors to Wisdom literature. In Wisdom theology, one’s relationship to the LORD and the community is inseparable, So these three groups portray non-praiseworthy departures from YHWH’s guidance. They represent deliberate offenses actively removing themselves from the common wellbeing of the community (TDOT 3: 272-273).They fancy themselves on the right side of history, in tune with the times, living authentically, affirming and celebrating feelings and behavior, considering those who live by Torah as not nice, haters, abusers, hypocrites. They know what they know and think and don’t want anyone to tell them otherwise. They fortify their positions with strong dislike for correction. They are not teachable “Oh, yeah, I know but…”. And they’re also debunkers, deconstructors with their finely polished phrases willfully seeking to deceive others with lies as old as Eden. 

In an effort to get the listener to think about ways of living nurturing wellbeing and ways of living vandalizing wellbeing, the psalmist uses some brilliant poetic skill. Notice how the psalmist slows down acceleration in their thinking and behavior. First, there is “walk in step with” a pattern of thinking, then “stand in the road with” a pattern of behavior, and finally “sit in their congregation”, a pattern of identification. Wisdom’s irony: actively participating in this kind of thinking or behavior ends in a dead stop! 

Now Psalm 1 is not a call to retreat into a religious abbey surrounded by high walls keeping us physically and socially separated from society. Rather, the Psalmist says don’t order our lives: “walk with” the advice of the disloyal, don’t commit ourselves: “stand with” the lifestyles of sinners, and don’t identify ourselves: “sit with” those who scorn the realities of the Lord and the wellbeing of the community. The psalmist is drawing a line between ways of living, telling us to be vigilant about the influences in our lives.  Take an honest look at what we find attractive, where we spend our time, what really excites us.  We can’t expect to walk, stand or sit in theaters of disobedience and social contagion with people who are devious, resentful, and just plain wicked and grow in righteousness. It just doesn’t work that way. The praiseworthy person avoids these patterns. Therein lies the start of praiseworthy acclaim. 

The positive reversal of the three “nots” is stated in vs. 2 “Praiseworthy is the one who delights in the Lord’s Torah”. Torah is Wisdom’s interpretative platform. Choosing Torah’s wisdom is to be transformed before the Lord and others, to present our very ordinary selves, our daily selves, to the Lord and to others. Choosing Torah’s wisdom enables us to make the right choices, to live the right way, to arrive at the right end. Here’s some more Wisdom irony: only obedient believers are truly moving forward in truth in their thinking and behavior.

Torah, then, is best understood as divinely revealed instruction, guidance voicing the very structures of life YHWH’s intends. Torah is not the way to be saved, but the way believers live if they are to be praiseworthy. Torah is a delight because YHWH reaches out, touches and shapes us. Torah is a means of grace by which YHWH shows us how to live when confronted with the astonishing brokenness in society.

Now you aren’t going to wake up one morning in delight with the Lord’s Torah. Delight is not going to just “happen”. Delight involves hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting. The cost for character formation means turning from the path that seems wise in one’s own eyes to value, to cherish revealed truth enough to act on it. This psalmist says one of the activities leading to delight involves meditation or more precisely translated “whispering”. In the ANE people who could read did not read silently. People read out loud in a barely audible tone, a whisper. In our ego-centered world meditation is pictured as silence, as quieting, feeling our mind emptying of any thoughts. This is about as far from Biblical thinking as you can get. The psalmist intends Biblical meditation, that is, whispering to fill the mouth and mind with the Lord’s Torah. Biblical whispering speaks to the mind and heart – what you say and hear are the weighty words of revelation, directed by the truth of the word of God. Biblical whispering is a deep look into the story of Israel and of the church, a deep look into YHWH’s dealings and instruction in/through Jesus shaping both Israel and the church into communities that serve others.

 Ah, here’s Wisdom for you. In vs. 3-5 agricultural images raise self-reflective questions about the directions we’re going. Or better yet, in what directions are we growing? Are we growing toward “praiseworthy” or “non-praiseworthy” thinking and behavior?

It seems to me the mature, fruit bearing tree points out how Torah provides cover for every aspect of human life toward YHWH, others (friend and foe) and self. Sinking one’s roots into revealed instruction by YHWH, that is, absorbing its nourishment gives a constant supply of streams of grace, mercy and deliverance making the obedient person grow and mature in righteousness. Simply, the person who sinks roots deeply into Torah reaches the “praiseworthy” goal.

Here comes that  pulpit thumping psalmist again “Not so the Wicked”! making a bold claim that evil is not sustainable (vs. 5). The supposed success of the wicked is short lived. Sin is actually more like chaff, or for us urbanites, “dandelion fuzzies”. Because it has no roots in the divine vision of creation, it blows away in the wind. 

These psalmist’s lines remind me of the final conflict between Harry Potter and “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named ” aka Voldemort.  Voldemort was an evil, strong, and fierce master wizard. Previously, Voldemort had squirreled away pieces of his soul in various objects thinking he could make himself immortal.  Before this final scene Harry and his friends had managed to destroy all those pieces. Voldemort was vulnerable and mortal. In that final, fatal conflict Voldemeort literally dissolves into what looks like flimsy ash and paper blowing away by a whispering breeze.  He had been nothing after all. This is very much Psalm 1’s description of the wicked. The wicked, like Voldemort, had been chaff all along even when they seemed to be at their most substantial and formidable.  

Now notice the Psalm doesn’t give us graphic pictures of wickedness, but focuses on its end.  The “disloyal/sinner/scorner” are  “like chaff that the wind drives away,” and they “will not stand in the judgment.”  Life apart from YHWH in a broken world, is weightless, like chaff.  It has no grounding, no lasting source of nourishment. So the contrast of praiseworthy is nothingness, meaningless. Notice YHWH does not exclude “the wicked” from “the congregation of the righteous.” Rather, “the wicked” choose not to be there. Remember they choose to sit in their congregation (vs. 1). To be sure, one may conclude the consequences of this choice are “punishing.” But if you want to go there, this is not a punishment YHWH intends. Judgment’s door is not locked on the inside.

In vs. 7 the Psalmist closes by pointing to the road less traveled: The path of those whose delight is in the Lord’s Torah. A path labeled restrictive and abusive by the disobedient – all those pesky “you shall not….”. People are complex. Life is not so simple. Yet this psalm depicts only the two ways and the consequences in stark reality. At any moment we can find ourselves moving in one direction or the other but we are always moving to a final judgment. 

Notice, however, the psalmist observes someone else on the road: YHWH knows the path of  the obedient. Jim Packer (of blessed memory) writes in Knowing God: “What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that He knows me. I am inscribed on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters”.

Believers delight in Torah because it is divinely given structure and order speaking of Jesus Christ who fulfills scripture and to whom it points “in Christ, are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2.3). Wisdom is knowable and personal. Wisdom, when you find Him, can tell you about what sort of person you were created to be. It can be painful to learn, initially, that doing whatever you think you want in the moment is not good for you, or even that interesting. What “seems” best is often–too, too often–something that enslaves those who don’t know their right hand from their left. But in the long run, you’ll discover Someone who cares for you so much that you will be delighted to do what He thinks is praiseworthy. 

Now Beloved, may the word of the Lord richly dwell in us in all wisdom.

Luke 3.15-22 | Epiphany 1C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. 19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison. 21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:15-22

The Gospel of the Lord

Well, here we are again. This is the third time we’ve teamed up with the Baptizer in this third chapter in this third lectionary year. Every day the past weeks I have looked over Luke’s shoulder at his writing desk. I’ve pondered his skilled editing of sentences, history and theology into a Gospel narrative from his research. I have been amazed, thrilled. The kind of wonder that says “well, I sure didn’t see that coming”! So please turn to Luke Ch. 3 in your Bibles or tablets

Our lesson this morning transitions our attention away from the Baptizer to Jesus.  So, to set the stage for our lesson, let’s reread Luke’s brilliantly crafted opening sentence for Ch. 3. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (vs. 1-2).  Now this isn’t some archived historical record. No, it’s his skilled theological pen collapsing the culture’s political and religious “might makes right” power into a seven-name list: there’s the Roman rulers Tiberius, Pilate, the appointed political puppets Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, Lysanias and the installed religious pawns Annas and Caiaphas. Before us in this list is political, military, and religious power claiming the right to dominate the life and fate of Israel. Jewish folk were in reality a “conquered people” forced to enjoy the Pax Romana. The political and religious situation for the Jewish people was tense, to state the obvious.

But here’s Luke’s point. Should anyone in Israel look to this list, to their imposed power, to their exalted claims, to their laws and proclamations for truth, meaning or purpose? Luke, abruptly, suddenly, definitively, says ‘No’. Why? Because “the Word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the Wilderness” (3.2). Truth and meaning will not be found in the values and lived experiences told by might makes right power in smoke-filled backrooms, corner offices or the white mansions of Rome, Caesarea, and Jerusalem. John the Baptizer, an odd, strange figure, in a harsh landscape, captures Israel’s attention in the ancient words of Isaiah the prophet “to prepare YHWH’s highway because all flesh shall see the salvation of our God”, telling Israel the Lord’s deep, deep truth, meaning and purposes are going to be revealed in One who is more powerful, One who baptizes with the Spirit. And may I suggest to you John’s use of “more powerful” was a “not so subtle” jab at totalitarian authority (vs. 16 cf. 3.1-2). 

So, let’s explore Luke’s skill in pulling us into this morning’s lesson using the theme of expectation in vs. 15 “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah”. And it seems to me Luke encourages us to ponder anew the messiah’s identity. The prophetic landscape in which the people were living, the valleys and the hills, needed change. There was something wrong. No argument there. But could this Baptizer be the Messiah?  What ordinary folk were expecting about a messiah, it seems to me, is a bit fuzzy.  In my study of turbulent post-exilic Israel, I think it’s fair to say the hope for a messiah was particularly acute. But I don’t find information ordinary people had a clear understanding of who the Messiah might be, what the Messiah might do or even, how the Messiah might accomplish some of their hopeful expectations. For example, some Jewish folk, particularly militant types, looked for a Davidic king with muscle to lead a revolt against the Romans. Others expected an Aaronic Priest to cleanse the Temple restoring authentic worship. Still others expected a Teacher like Moses leading the way to renewed Torah obedience. And there was a Qumran “Son of Man” with authority as YHWH’s agent of liberating judgment. 

Expectations are complicated, then and now.  Don’t we, like them, equate expectations with hope. Little did they know Jewish messianic expectations are about to be shattered through the presence of and in the ministry of Jesus. And it seems to me, our own expectations are not too far from these Jewish options sometimes. Whenever the phrase gets invoked that the Gospel needs more power, aren’t we looking for a mighty messiah as well? Don’t we often expect a 30 min. “Hour of power” “the Lord reigns” or “our God is an awesome God” to bring us a victorious, purpose filled life? And don’t we mean power freeing us from life’s worries?  Sometimes don’t we find ourselves in love with, wanting more and more of the prosperity advertised in the political / economic / military / medical / technological frontlines? When it comes to Biblical faith and life, such social/cultural power is as useless as the empty seed pods in vs. 17. Cultural muscle has never and will never lift us where we expect. Most certainly not where biblical faith and life expects us to be. 

Now, the Baptizer’s reply to the crowd’s expectations is both subtle and disengaging “But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (vs. 16). It is subtle because it’s not what the crowd expected. Why? Because John is talking about someone coming who has “power” stronger than those listed in vs. 1-2. It’s disengaging because he’s not the Word, he’s a voice. He’s not the light, he’s a witness to the light. He’s not the messiah, he’s the messenger. He’s not YHWH’s Servant either and in a most humble disengagement, “the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” he’s a non-slave among slaves.  

And notice this, the Baptizer doesn’t identify Jesus as Messiah either but as “One who comes baptizing in/with the Holy Spirit and fire (vs. 16). For Luke, Jesus, the Spirit and fire are not about end time experiences. Luke centers Jesus’ unfolding mission for transformation and spiritual reform in the Baptizer’s fearsome imagery. John’s water immersion was characterized as for repentance. Jesus’?  Well, allow me to push us ahead a few pages to Luke’s recording of Jesus’ ministry statement after his Spirit baptism (3.22) and Spirit driven Wilderness authentication (4.1-13). In Nazareth’s synagogue, Jesus’ Spirit driven Sabbath lesson (4.14ff.) was a self-identifying quote from who else but Isaiah “YHWH’s Spirit is on me, because YHWH has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and to release the blind from darkness, to proclaim the year of YHWH’s favor” (4.17-19; Isa. 61.1-2a). In Luke’s two volume theology, Baptism in/with the Spirit is the gateway to Spirit empowered ministry for Jesus, the disciples and the believing community. The Spirit is the Lord’s very breath and power to change everything, including the little corner of the world where you and I live and work every Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon. Spirit Baptism is cleansing immersion by which one’s life is oriented to servant ministry in ordinary relationships in everyday life. It seems to me, Luke’s intention for the believing community by including the Baptizer’s harvest imagery is this:  true character will be separated in the winds of the Spirit. By breaking open and discarding useless husks, the Spirit reveals and preserves what is valuable in us. Finishing the harvest process with fire is a common practice, that is, burning the seed pods to clean up the fields before replanting. It seems to me Luke’s theological intention is: Jesus immerses us into YHWH’s river of fiery breath. Baptism in/with the Spirit reveals the fiery Spirit’s deep-seated cleansing, bringing change and renewal in us. Baptism in/with the Spirit burns holiness into the heart and soul of a person radically changing that person from the inside forever. As Luke’s co-worker Paul will tell the Corinthians “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creature: old things have passed away; the new has come”!  (2 Cor. 5.17).

As I said in the opening remarks, Luke’s intention is to transition from the Baptizer to Jesus. So, let’s look more closely at his skill using what looks like a narrative sidebar. He sends us back to the authority list in vs. 1-2. From that list, he pulls Herod Antipas and his half-brother Herod Philip. In the ANE and in Greco-Roman times, marriages among the Elite Aristocracy, were not usually romantic relationships. Rather marriages were attempts to consolidate alliances, to gain or expand political, military, economic and social power. And as Suetonius tells us over and over in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, some of the most expensive marriage gifts were murders of family and assassination of supposed rivals. From what we know historically, the Herods seemed to practice this gift-giving also (Herod [family], IDB 2.585-594; Enc. Jud.8.375-391). This was so well known that Augustus Caesar, who was no pussycat, even quipped in a play-on-words “Better to be Herod’s pig (sus) than his son (filius)” (Saturnalia, dicta 56 Malc.). Boldly, the Baptizer raises his wilderness voice against Herod Antipas not only because it’s another reality show sexual affair among the rich and famous. But also, because he tipped the tables on his half-brother Herod Philip in a political power play, a misuse of power and authority whatever the family relationship. Now the Baptizer is astute, focusing on authoritarian regime’s weakest component – image, image, image. The Baptizer’s socially influential spoken media was too much for Herod’s Greco-Roman fragility. Herod silences the Voice in the Wilderness slapping the Baptizer behind bars (vs. 19-20). Political/military power 1; Biblical servant ministry 0. Final score? Maybe, maybe not. 

The Baptizer’s imprisonment is not merely “historical recording”, however. No, this is Luke setting the scene for a theological push. Clearly, throughout the Gospel, he’s been tracking the Baptizer and Jesus. Luke sums up John’s ministry “And with many other words . . . John preached the good news to them.” (vs. 18). Now it’s time for Jesus’ ministry. It’s time to separate Jesus, directing him to the onramp of YHWH’s Gospel highway. And so, it’s enormously important for us to carefully consider how Luke crafts this separation at Jesus’ baptism. It’s brilliant. 

With Herod’s slammed jail door still ringing in our ears, the first thing we realize about Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s narrative is: John is shut up in prison. He won’t baptize Jesus. So how does Luke get around this? Well, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too” (vs. 21). Luke smuggles Jesus in amongst the people who had flocked to the Jordan River. No one seems to notice Jesus’ arrival. By wading into the waters with them Luke has him standing shoulder to shoulder with them, beside them and among them. Unnoticed, Jesus intentionally takes sides with ordinary people of the land – fishermen, women, tax collectors, lepers, farmers, craftsmen. Theologically Jesus openly, decisively demonstrates he immerses himself with faults and failures, needs and fears, the pains, and problems of repentant people. And Luke will expand this profound theology in the Gospel as Jesus reaches out to those who are of no importance at all. 

Second, Jesus’ plunge into the Jordan River might be unnoticed by the crowds but it turns out to be a big splash. No social distancing here! Luke now smuggles the Father and the Spirit in amongst the Jordan River crowd.  Luke soaks up the baptismal water with three theological verifications for Jesus’ identity: heaven opens, that is, the barrier to divine revelation is removed, the unexpected descent of the Spirit as a fluttering dove and verbal endorsement by YHWH (vs. 21-22). Luke wants us to take all this in: The Baptizer’s proclamation is true. Jesus is the One who comes. The opened heaven signals the days of the Spirit’s absence have ended. Revelation’s barrier has been removed and messianic ministry is set in motion. The return of the Spirit was a familiar Second Temple expectation indicating the messianic age has begun (Ezk. 10.15-19; 1 Enoch 49. 3; Ps. Sol 17.42; T. Levi 18.7; T. Judah 24.2; b. Hagiggah 15a; m. Berakoth 3a). Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit identifies him as the Messiah. The voice identifying Jesus as “my son, the beloved.” is unmistakably YHWH’s. May I suggest “well pleased” is code for obedient messianic authority. But notice this. YHWH doesn’t put bubble wrap around the Beloved Son. And we’re not to be taken in by the seemingly docile dove-like image used to describe the Spirit (vs. 22). The determination to validate Jesus’ Messianic identity is dramatized for us in the next scene. The Spirit yanks Jesus away from the Jordan river and throws him far out into the Judean Wilderness! (4.1ff). Being the messiah will be a good thing. It just won’t be an easy thing. And it sure won’t be a safe thing. 

May I say quite boldly then, in Luke’s theological intention: a believer’s identity, like Jesus’ identity, is grounded in baptism in/with the Spirit. It incorporates the truth of the vitality of faith, repentance in the active presence of the Spirit. It is an utterly revolutionary identity transformation of a person. It incorporates the Father’s voice: “It’s you who are my sons and daughters. It’s you who are my beloved”. We are set on the path toward holiness by realizing we are sons and daughters of a holy Father.

Becoming Christian through faith and baptism in/with the Spirit, we are transformed to have a different understanding of our place in the world. Why is Jesus’s baptism so enormously important? It’s because in this event Jesus divests himself of power, position, and authority to stand among us. The Lord in Jesus loves us so much that he stands with us in our everyday place. Although we have yet to hear in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus stands for us in our place of redemption giving his life as the price to set a lot of other people free. 

Lastly, a few words about a unique, one-of-a-kind participial clause in vs. 21 “And as Jesus was praying …”.  This often overlooked/passed over Lucan observation is in my opinion perhaps the most important comment he makes in the entire scene. Why? Because prayer in Luke’s Gospel signifies Jesus’ direct relationship, deep devotion, and commitment to God the Father. Luke will tell us Jesus prayed at nine important junctures in his ministry (5:16, 6:12, 9:18, 28-29, 11:1, 22:32, 41, 23:34, 46). In this baptismal scene Jesus’ submission was acknowledged by heaven opening and the descending Holy Spirit empowering him for ministry. It seems to me a case can be made Luke intends to draw a parallel in his second volume between this scene and the early Christian community gathered in prayer and the descent of the Spirit (Acts 1:14). It is in prayerful submission to the Father, the Holy Spirit empowers ministry.

And it seems to me, there are several application takeaways from a close reading of Spirit driven prayer modeled by Jesus throughout the Gospel. Prayer is an invitation to God the Father and God the Spirit to intervene in my life, to let the Divine will prevail in my affairs. Prayer is the opening of a window into my will, an effort to make God the Lord. Prayer submits my interests to the Lord’s concern, seeking to be allied with what is ultimately right. I don’t turn prayer on and off like a light switch. Prayer begins by letting the thought of Him engage my mind, by realizing the coins of prayer bear his name, by moving in thought from understanding to devotion. And as my own shortcomings remind me, the ability to express what is hidden in the heart is a rare gift and cannot be counted upon. Prayer words are not dead tools but living, full of spiritual power. So, the power of words so often surpasses the power of my mind. Sometimes prayer needs to seize me as amazement, not understanding; as awe, not reasoning; as a sweep of emotion, as an identification of my will with the living will of God. Prayer enables me to respond to the service in ministry disentangling my heart from the bulky, stupid conceit of cultural/political power and hollow self-reliance.

If who you’re expecting this Epiphany season is One who baptizes in/with the Spirit, One whose ministry is to transform your identity grounded in the vitality of faith, prayer and repentance, binding up the brokenhearted, releasing captives, comforting the poor, One who is a suffering, dying Savior then Jesus is the One. If not, then, you will need to expect another. 

May the Lord richly bless us, Beloved.