Luke 3.7-20 | Advent 3C

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke

7 He (John) said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” 15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap 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 the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

Luke 3:7-20

The Gospel of the Lord

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year. Advent observance is also our Anglican way of becoming re-formed to the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world. The Church’s observance of Advent was established, perhaps, as early as the year 380. It seems to me the Early Church Fathers recognized in the culture an ache. During Advent ancient texts give voice to hope in hearts of people longing for the promised savior. Advent observance, like Lent, would be a time of reflection and prayer, a time of letting go of things cluttering one’s life, a time to take a break from a culture’s excessive scrubbing away of religious content, a time to prepare one’s life for Christ’s coming, past, and future. Advent, then, finds its spiritual mark when it reaches the hearts of those who are waiting for the coming of the Son.

Please turn in your Bibles or tablets to Luke, ch. 3. The Gospel lesson this morning follows on from last Sunday’s lesson where Luke introduced John the Baptizer to Israel. In the opening chapters of the Gospel, Luke frames up the Baptizer’s story inside this real world, replete with all its unhappy events and apparent signs that chaos is in charge.  Having made it clear grand, galactic events were afoot, Luke now throttles us back a bit reminding us faith must cling to God’s plan when things aren’t nearly as obvious as angels dancing in the skies. John himself is the embodiment of another prophet, Isaiah, who declared: “A voice crying out: In the wilderness prepare the way for YHWH; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of YHWH will be revealed, and all people will see it together” (Isa. 40.3-5). 

John’s words, like Isaiah’s, were clearly associated with turmoil in Israel. One part of “making the highway straight” was about correcting the crooked thinking present in people’s minds and telling the difficult truths about what was occurring. That inner landscape in which people were living, the valleys, the mountains, and the hills, needed tumultuous transformation to prepare the highway. Lord knows each of us knows how difficult it can be to change any one of our behaviors, to turn in a new direction.

So, John’s baptism for the repentance of sin was about taking a first step in a different direction in the belief YHWH will break into Israel helping them to see, know and experience salvation. We too live in a culture filled with turmoil just as much as in the time when John wandered in the wilderness inviting people to repent. In our Advent observance we look with hope to the Lord to bring transformation in our lives personally and to the larger society. The ancient Advent texts intend to bring clarity to the first coming of Jesus and the promise he will come again to help us see beyond our current experiences and be a transforming presence in the society.

In our lesson, Luke’s narrative moves us to the content of the Baptizer’s message. Here’s how I would summarize the message. When a person’s heart and mind are changed, actions change too. Words are empty if they don’t result in deeds. If the community of faith identifies itself as the Lord’s through a rite such as baptism but does not bear fruit, the Lord is always capable of beginning again with people who are willing to listen and obey.

John’s words “Dad gum it, you durn, nest of sidewinders, who put the heat on you to run from the fury about to break on your heads?” sound harsh to modern ears. But I’d like to suggest to you we’ve got the tone wrong because while we don’t have the verbal cues, we do have the scene. The Baptizer is a wilderness man identified with Isaiah placing him within the Jewish prophetic tradition. Yes, he was coming to upend everything. And yes, his mission was to warn the multi-lingual, multi-national, perhaps, multi-faithed crowds coming out to him of the consequences of their current path.  Unless, of course, they change direction toward covenant obedience. May I suggest to you while John’s sermonic rhetoric runs to the hot side of prophetic love, he knows the landless poor, tax collectors and soldiers in this scene. They are the people of the land, sinners. They are in the view of the Elites, deplorables, marginalized in the land. And they know how they’re viewed. But as we will hear, they don’t hang their heads or grumble.  As for John, he accepts them into his flock in their lowly status. Because he knows forgiveness, mercy and acceptance by the Lord is available in truck loads specifically to those who repent.

Repentance is about changed ways of living.  If any in the crowd thought a dunk in the Jordan would get them right with God, they are sorely mistaken. If they really want to be on God’s side, don’t talk a good game – change. Don’t learn the language of repentance as a cover up. Rather, show evidence of the inner changes by your behavior changes. Baptism is the gateway to ministry so one needs to produce actions worthy of repentance.

John turns his attention to the Jewish folk in the crowd (vs. 8-9). One of the central elements of the covenant is ancestral promise, begun with Abraham and extended to them as descendants (cf. Exodus 3:6; Jeremiah 33:26). The only points John makes are: 1) claiming Abraham’s covenant promise without the faith of Abraham simply doesn’t work. Ancestry alone is no big deal. Replacement may not be that difficult. So for comic effect, John observes the Lord can make Abraham’s children out of rocks. Now if you ever have a chance to go to Palestine, may I suggest you put on a good pair of walking shoes. Get off the beaten path. Go beyond city limits. Go out into the Shfelah, the Judean Wilderness, into the Jordan rift anywhere between Hazor and Arad or into the Negev around Beersheva. Then you’ll know. There’re rocks everywhere!  And 2) they (and with your permission, we) can become very slippery with the truth and evade needed changes. So, he employs the image of a diseased tree being cut down and burned. This is a way of protecting the health of the orchard. Producing good fruit, to use the imagery, grows out of having repented, having a changed, heart, mind, and behavior. The imagery implies they (again with your permission, we) will have branches pruned a bit here and there. But the uncomfortable implication is there will also be an inspection of the inner trunk and the roots. The hidden source of one’s life. As I stated in my summary: If the community of faith identifies itself as the Lord’s but does not bear fruit, the Lord is always capable of beginning again with people who are willing to listen and obey.

Well, don’t you agree he’s got everybody’s attention? Here’s where I suppose an aching hush has fallen over the crowd. Notice rather than the common responses to prophetic speech, slithering away from or being angered by it, three groups in the crowd ask a refreshingly pragmatic question: “We want to produce something. We want to do what the Lord would have us do. What should it be?” (vs.10, 12, 14). It is the people asking for guidance in living obedient lives after baptism. John doesn’t recommend grand things or practices. He doesn’t give them ten easy steps to follow from his best-selling book. Neither does he advise people to eat as he does, or wear animal skins, as he does, or come live where he is living. Basically, he sends every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation. Repentant, obedient life is lived in everyday life.

John does pull the rug out from under them, however. In vs. 11-14, he asks for actions exposing self-centeredness lurking in the comprehensive nature of greed. Turning to the Lord in repentance and baptism asks for radical commitment. It’s not just doing good things for others, but about doing them from Spirit directed guidance. With the same energy, Paul will tell the Philippian church “my dear friends, as you have always obeyed continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you to choose and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2.12-13). All that gets in the way of love for the Lord and neighbor must go. Measuring others by their circumstance and priorities not by mine illustrate “fruit worthy of repentance”. This is timeless teaching. So much so listen to Bob Dylan, our contemporary Baptizer-like voice crying in the Wilderness to a generation gripped in intravenous consumerism “People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting. Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it does to give it. They say lose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions. They talk about a life of brotherly love. Show me someone who knows how to live it”. (Slow Train Coming. 1979).

Gospel fidelity does not have to be heroic. There are opportunities to do the Lord’s will, to be the Lord’s people, all around us.  These opportunities are shaped by our context; the roles in which we find ourselves and the needs of the neighbor with which we are confronted. Opportunities abound. John may draw us out into the wilderness, but make no mistake, the crowds — and we — live in towns, villages, and marketplaces, and these, too, are places of testing and the arenas in which we offer our fidelity through service to our neighbor. Even the bare minimum of what we have is to be shared with others. That’s a revolutionary statement in our culture. Currently status, prestige, power, recognition, and influence are almost exclusively tied to one’s possessions.

It seems like a long time ago. I participated in a weekly evening prayer ministry for the homeless and working poor. Out of this very text one evening came a startling Gospel action. Standing up, one of the working poor in the little flock was saying how difficult it was for him to give to others in need. When he looked around there were needs everywhere. And he felt he had so little. Now it was my practice to walk down into the midst of the folk. It was an opportunity to listen and to develop the conversation further for everyone. This night the words I heard over my shoulder were nothing less than eternal, sacred. When I turned around, Rich, one of the homeless folks, had taken a quarter out of his pocket, and tossed it to the speaker, saying “take this and learn how to give it away”!

May the Lord richly bless us, my Beloved.

John 18.33-37 | Christ the King B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters* again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

John 18:33-37

The Gospel of the Lord

For the last few weeks, I have been pouring over the twelve sentences in our Gospel lesson. Notice our lectionary architects stopped short of Pilate’s most famous, most distracting question in all of Western philosophy “What is truth”? (vs.38). Absent that distraction I found myself considering a dramatic political confrontation, the darkest, most troubling series of religious, political events in world history – Jesus’ tug-o-war clash with Judean religious leaders and Pilate over two kings and two kingdoms, and the allegiance they each solicited. 

In 1925, still under the dark shadow cast by WW1, Pope Pius XI observed Christians were being influenced and drawn away practically and theologically by increasingly progressive political/militarist activism. As a witness against this destructive cultural force rearing its ugly head in the history of nations, he inserted the Feast of Christ the King into the lectionary to close each liturgical year providing a platform to proclaim a biblical kingdom message.

In the same year, 1925, related, but 6300 miles away, a young Mexican priest, Fr. Miguel Pro, chose to resist Mexico’s rising political/militarist aggression against the Church. He was finally caught, arrested and sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of attempted assassination. Led to execution in Mexico City’s police courtyard, with arms outstretched like a cross, as the volley of bullets tore into his body, he shouted VIVA CHRISTO REY! which translated is “Long live Christ the King”! 

As we prepare to begin a new church year – Advent – revisiting the coming of Jesus, not only to Bethlehem, but in the Second Coming, as well, we pause on Christ the King Sunday. We do this in the spirit of Pius XI to reflect upon the kingship of Jesus in our progressive political setting. To challenge our thinking, we turn to the trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. There we will look upon this lowly prisoner, reflecting on Pilate’s skeptical comment “So, you’re the “King of the Jews”. 

Find, if you will, in your Bible, John 18.33-37 where Jesus has been forced by Judean religious leaders into the presence of Roman political/military authority in Jerusalem. Let me pause to set the stage with some of this Gospel’s theological ideas. First, here is the Word who was in the beginning, who was with God, who is God, the only begotten Son who was born in an earthen jar/ a clay pot to reveal to men and women – God. He now stands in the presence of religious leaders and a militarist politician in apparent weakness. After all, he is YHWH’s servant who will be lifted up (crucified) to draw everyone to himself and the Father (Jn. 12.32-33). Humanly speaking there is nothing darker than a traitor, religious conspirators or a militarist politician brutally mistreating then killing Jesus. But second, allow me to highlight a thematic verb in chapters 18-19, the “handing over” of Jesus implicating several characters responsible for his death. Although Judas Iscariot is widely recognized as the one who “betrayed”, that is, “handed over” Jesus to the authorities (cf. John 18:2, 5), the same verb “handed over” also describes the actions of the religious leaders and Pilate. In John 18:35, Jesus has been “handed over” by the Judeans to Pilate. At the end of the trial, Pilate “hands over” the most certainly innocent Jesus to be crucified (19:16). Thus, the responsibility in Jesus’ death does not rest with Judas alone but is shared through betrayals captured in the verb “handed over”. Are you still with me? Well, the same verb also describes the action of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus, in an act of prayer, in an act of worship, in an act of allegiance “hands over” his spirit to the Father (19:30). In the end, it is Jesus, not Judas, not the Judean leaders, not Pilate, who exerts authority over his death. So lastly, let’s keep this in mind. Jesus did this for you and me. Let’s review Isaiah writing about the Suffering Servant.  “But he was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was on him and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to our own way. And YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53.5-6). These couple of ideas, then, should change our perspective about our Gospel lesson. Jesus is not the hapless victim of others. Nothing in this series of events narrated in John 18-19 occurred accidentally, outside of divine purpose and intention. The Father’s plan included the suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf. Behind every movement in these events is YHWH’s opened arms.

Jesus’ trial before Pilate (John 18:28 -19:1) is a series of seven start-stop “time outs”. Now we readers know the Judeans have been seeking ways to arrest and kill Jesus. So, their goal is to have him put to death for breaking religious law. Something they cannot do. So, the Judean leaders must engage the Romans to do that. Pilate tries to send these pesky Judean leaders away, but they persist. Somewhat comically he, who commands the Empire’s power, repeatedly runs in and out of the Judgement Room to question the Judean leaders and their mob in the street. 

Our Gospel lesson draws us into one of the “time outs”. Standing before Pilate, Jesus is under arrest on a trumped-up charge of being a kingly threat to Rome. Sitting in the power, strength and apparent security of the Empire, Pilate tries to engage Jesus in conversation “So You’re the king of the Jews” (vs. 33). Pilate knows he’s not the king of the Jews. But he seems to fit the bill of an arrested defeated humiliated revolutionary. How perfect!  But perfect for whom? Now Rome, like all authoritarian governments, is not immune to provocative threats from inside or outside.

And what does Pilate’s comment sound like?  We don’t know. But we do know Jesus won’t play along. “King is your word, not mine. Did you come up with the word on your own or have people been talking to you?” (vs.34). Both know “others” have been talking. It seems to me, Pilate as a Roman official, has limited interest in or knowledge of Jewish customs or beliefs. His objective is the maintenance of Roman control, and he recognizes a threat in this prisoner’s charges.  And what he does know is he has had to come from Caesarea to Jerusalem to direct his military in suppressing any rebellion during Passover.  And what he also knows is he’s had to get up out of bed early in the morning because of this religious power play. If the question came from Pilate, it would be something like this: Are you claiming to be king challenging the authority of Rome?  The answer is clearly, No.  But if it was a Jewish question, it would be something like this: Are you the messianic king of Israel?  To that the answer would be, yes.  Pilate is put on the spot, and he doesn’t like it.  His mouth is going dry, but he spits his scorn with the Judean leaders who wouldn’t even enter the Herodian building; “I am not a Jew am I?  It’s your own people who have handed you over.  It’s all part of their political-religious rubbish with self-proclaimed messiahs who were nothing but dangerous terrorists.  Now let’s get down to brass tacks. What have you done”? (vs. 35). The implication is that whatever it was, it must have been bad, because the Judean leaders didn’t like the Romans, yet here they are handing over one of their own. Carefully note Jesus’ response. “OK, you want to know who I am and what I’m all about, I’ll tell you. You can call me a King, I’ll accept that, but then you must understand it by my terms, my definitions, or you won’t understand it at all.” “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my officers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over by the Judeans. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (vs. 36). Note carefully what Jesus means. Two kingdoms occupy the same temporal space. But his kingdom is not one of militarist constraint or political calculation. Biblical kingship is revealed in Israel’s covenant with its emphasis on character, relationship, and obedience. Pilate is a practical leader and the business at hand is the defense of the empire. Once again, he says shrewdly “So you are a king” (vs. 37a). But Jesus is not about to be trapped in Pilate’s politics where behind every structure, every relationship is an oppressive power dynamic that needs to be equalized. Again, Jesus counters “In a sense you’re right. Still King is your word, not mine. Because I was born for this, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.” (vs. 37b). 

Like other kings in the ANE, Jesus’ kingly mission involves a journey with a mandate – deliver divine truth. Superficially the biblical kingdom may look political, but it isn’t interested in politics. In this politicized scene when Jesus talks about truth he’s not just talking about honesty or saying true things. Truth in the Fourth Gospel is a personal reality. What motivates Jesus is deeply embedded in him. His mission as the Word involves unveiling himself and the Father. He is the living, truthful Way and no one will come to the Father except through him (Jn. 14.6). Roman politicians, in fact, any politician’s thinking about kingship is way too narrow to contain the scope of Israel’s covenant kingship.

Well, let’s turn some of the thoughts in these twelve sentences in our direction. I’ll ask you to make your own applications. All things considered, presently Christians are in a position like Jesus – standing in apparent weakness before political/cultural authorities. So how can believing communities speak to progressive, political activism rather than mimicking it’s grouped selfies and working the room in some misguided parody? It seems to me politics only divides believers who elevate political affiliation above faith. So, I’m going to frame some applications as observations about discipleship modeled by Jesus. Specifically, if the believing community carries out the Kingdom mission in the same manner as Jesus there may come a time when we stand in the presence of cultural/political authorities.  

Theologically, the Fourth Gospel presents Jesus’ mission and message within the setting of Israel’s covenant story. Israel’s God, YHWH, is the Great King and Father, the covenant maker. And Israel is his servant nation and Son. In Jesus, the servant Son, YHWH is once again demonstrating his kingship authority over Israel. In chs. 18-19, the concepts of king and kingdom are recalculated. For seventeen chapters, words for “king” and “kingdom” are virtually non-existent. Coming now to the climax of this Gospel, sixteen times the words explode on the page as John highlights in trial and crucifixion, the kingly role of Jesus as the dying Savior.  When King and kingdom are bundled into the truths of covenant loyalty relationships not militarist political authoritarian power, in the incarnation not identity politics, in transformed character and behavior not social fragility then Jesus as Truth will ring true. That’s a whole different perspective on king and kingdom, especially with application to us. 

Can I remind you early on John informed us that to recognize king and kingdom, we must be “born from above by the Spirit ” (John 3:3)? In his Nicodemus’ scene, Jesus invites him and us to align with YHWH’s covenant instruction and practices. By word and deed, we participate in his mission to establish YHWH’s royal rule. Unless I have experienced this new birth, I am unable to recognize YHWH’s kingship surrounding me on all sides. If I do accept Jesus as the one who has come from the Father. If I am teachable about the truth. Then I will move away from loyalty to this world’s kingdom toward allegiance to the rule of YHWH through Jesus. Remember the Judean religious leaders bowed to the empire, “We have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15). To say Christ is king is to say nothing until it is clear to which king I belong. May I point out a most subversive political act said in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If I pray and live this, then I have a loyalty different from Caesar’s political, social activism and its historical descendants for I pledge allegiance “Long live, Christ the King ”.

Now let’s reflect on how this Gospel, actually all four Gospels, have portrayed the substance of Jesus’s kingdom mission and message, his public witness, that got him, rather ironically, into this controversy. Where has Jesus taken his divine mandate to declare the truth? Well not to the structures housing political or religious authority. But to villages, synagogues, homes, non-urban places. And what has he done in those places? He has cared for folk, come alongside them, had his stomach tied up in knots at their grief, touched them, instructed them, healed them, and raised some of them from the dead. By the Spirit he preached good news to the poor, released prisoners, and brought recovery of health to the sick. Jesus, the friend of sinners, empowered the most unlikely ragtag followers and used his kingdom authority to wash the feet of those he led. He spends his life on them, every ounce of it. He gives his life to bring life. Jesus’ kingdom is deeply pastoral, practically involved in the grit of everyday life. 

Jesus’ sustained, visible message and pastoral action highlights the miscalculations in this political scene. However, I propose this scene directs us to an engagement of personal, pastoral care for the good, the whole of everyone in our influence. Each of us is called to witness, to witness to the One who demonstrated power through weakness, who manifested strength through vulnerability, who showed character is more important than celebrity, who embraced a confused, chaotic, and violent world, taking its pain into his own body, dying the death it decreed, and yet rose again. Our witness is not a retreat from society, but personal engagement of society about its manner of life, establishing ourselves pastorally at the very heart of villages, urban centers, crowded apartments, and suburbs addressing the pressing need for biblical faith, engaging individuals, families offering them the suffering/resurrection life of Jesus through Word and Sacrament and folding them into close knit communities. Our witness is the poor walking among the poor, the confused, the misguided, the sick and dying for their care. And this kind of public ministry, in the current culture, may stand us in the presence of political/cultural authorities.

May the Lord richly bless us, My Beloved

Psalm 13 | Trinity 21B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

A reading from the Psalms

1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

5 But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

Please turn to Psalm 13 in your Bible or to page 281 in your prayer book.

Reading psalms, reading this psalm, on Sundays can give the impression everything happened at once. We don’t know how long it took to write any psalm. Yet we do know all psalms were written after a life experience. So as someone who tries to write, it seems to me “things” must have bounced around the psalmist’s head and heart a long time before they were put into words and then into, of all things, poetic words.  

I have never been so low but couldn’t find a psalmist who was lower. And I never climbed so high but couldn’t find a psalmist who was higher still. I’ve never been backed into a corner, but a psalmist hasn’t already been there. It’s my opinion complete psalms express faith in a variety of ways in a lot of different situations. Unpacking Psalm 13, that is, understanding its literary and poetic progress allows for richer, more responsible exposition. Psalm 13 is a lament, the shortest of at least 60 psalms seeking relief from enemies or sickness. Whenever we sit before a lament psalm, I believe we are doing several things. As I hope to show, reading through Psalm 13, we are being led by the Spirit in and out of some difficult corners. We’ll set out on a journey of discovery, exploring suffering and misfortune poetically and the mystery of life in the presence of God with us. And we’ll explore the lively interaction between the spiritual and the physical, the divine and the human and social interaction in a faith community. Please keep this in mind: The Lord was really relating to his people before Christ came and it’s worth seeking to discover what He was saying to them. And it’s worthwhile discovering what this psalmist was bringing as God’s message to the people in his/her day. 

Laments in Israel’s prayer book have several important features. Laments give us a pattern for prayer in times of adversity. Laments also give us insight into the variety of responses believers have to suffering. Laments let us hear nothing in life’s troubles are barriers to speaking directly with the Lord in the confidence of being heard.  Laments are models of conversation with the Lord when the psalmist is plunged into a fierce reality where things go from bad to worse to worst of all. But note this, laments don’t usually provide specific information about specific controversy. Instead, they most often acknowledge the reality of misfortune/suffering while leading the hearer/reader to focus on the impending threat to the psalmist’s relationship with the Lord. That’s why Psalm 13 and many other laments are arranged around a familiar triangle of pronouns: a “You” that is, YHWH is the subject/object of the protests and petitions. There’s the, “I/Me”, that is, the psalmist who voices the protests and petitions. And there are the “they”, that is, adversaries who express open hostility toward the psalmist and often toward the Lord. In laments, suffering drives a psalmist to question divine, sustaining authority. In his/her suffering it is the adversaries who seem to have gained the upper hand. Laments are loaded with emotional expressions, protests, disillusionment and sharp swings such as we will read in vss. 5-6, where hope in search of YHWH’s covenant loyalty reshapes belief. 

And here’s an observation of my own thinking and study. You can take it or leave it. There’s always the delete key. I propose laments are re-exploration of intense pain, grief and suffering voiced to the community gathered in the Temple. There is no such Biblical faith as self-managed “snuggled under the blankets with a cup of coffee and a Bible”. Biblical faith is community faith. So, it seems to me, laments bring folk together into the temple to sit alongside the psalmist with him/her in tears, acknowledging the pain, assuring him/her of their capacity to be compassionate. I suggest for your consideration one of the intentions of Lament prayer is to raise the issue of compassion in the listening community. It seems to me compassion is woven into Laments for the hearers to peek inside the inner world of the psalmist, to feel sorrow for what the psalmist is going through. Simply said, the point for those in the temple who hear this lament prayer after the event is for them to leave the Temple. Go home. Re-enter their situation. Be compassionate. Compassion, sympathy, empathy and kindness are Spirit-infused into believers and lead to lots of good. When believers see suffering in others, they can have similar feelings, especially if they have had similar experiences. Believers can share another person’s perspective. So go ahead, weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice. Since the Early Church, Christians have been especially noted for their care of immigrants and their willingness to care for the sick and the dying, especially in times of plague or natural disasters.  Indeed, one could say, without exaggeration, compassion and kindness have been at the core of Christian witness. You don’t have to evaluate everything first. Maybe you don’t agree with someone. You can tell them that in due time. But they can know, especially since you are a Christian, you have been redeemed by someone who cares and that is why you care.

So, this morning I invite you to walk with me into the world of a lament having as its reality “We ask you in your goodness, O Lord, to comfort and sustain all who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity….”.

By now I suppose you realize I’m setting you up to hear in Psalm 13’s poetry severe distress. It’s a poetic ambush evoking an emotional response. Even for the psalms, it’s not the politest of conversation. The situation is so bad there’s no time for niceties.  So may I suggest to you the four “How long will you…. How long must I….” in vss. 1-2 approach something of a scream. “It’s dark, too dark to see, it hurts and I’m helpless” says the psalmist, “So much pain, the sound of silence, the echo of darkness, so close”.  Even time itself has become a destructive force wearing the psalmist down. Allow me to stretch the poetics a bit: How long Lord? How long will you forget me? Forever? How could you do that? (vs. 1). The growing intensity of an emotionally charged “forever” is played off the psalmist’s time bound anxiety “day after day, I have sorrow in my heart” in vs. 2. These aren’t merely wordy questions, but the intensification of reality woven into suffering pitched higher, higher again and higher still.  The four “How longs?” directed to YHWH, express deep misgivings about His character and lack of activity. But here’s a poetic subtlety to which we will return in a few minutes. The psalmist’s questions also reveal faith wanting to understand and seek deliverance from the only person who can help. 

In vss. 2, 4 the psalmist uses the “they”, the enemy or adversary, to punch up the lament’s intensity voiced in a strong, deeply affected protest “Your irresponsible absence has allowed enemies to get a foot in the door. How long will my enemy triumph over me…? how long my enemy will say, “I have overcome him and how long will my foes rejoice when I fall….”.

Feeling abandoned, forgotten, neglected, in the choke hold of adversaries, the psalmist resorted to self–advice “How long must I wrestle with my own thoughts?” (vs. 2). It’s a reflection on failed attempts to deal with his/her troubles. Failed plans only caused more grief. No longer a way out. Life was an emotional roller coaster rising and plunging so often his/her stomach couldn’t take much more. It’s Pepto-Bismol time!

Can you sense the psalmist feels hope slipping away? External and internal inability to keep everything together intensified adversity and suffering to a terminal level. He/she walks us up to the ledge of the most perplexing, most bitter and most feared experience in the ancient world – death: “Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death” (vs. 3). For ancient Israel there is an additional revealed factor: the sting in death is the result of Eden’s sin (Gen. 2.17). Hosea will one day tell us YHWH desires to remove that sting (13.14) but it will not be realized until the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15.54-57). Then death will become an opened doorway into life. 

Well, this psalmist has walked us to a very certain ledge. Everyone travels across the space between birth and death. A journey that is shorter for some, longer for others. Everyone, sooner or later, will experience a time of tension, conflict, suffering. Isn’t it obvious to us in these four questions, the burden of suffering is keenly felt by the psalmist? And putting his/her experience into poetry resists demands for rational explanation from reasoned calculations. Suffering can mess with our heads, our emotions just as much as our body. Our whole life can become disordered. Everything we think and desire is slightly askew. Just like the psalmist, we can be moved along a complex and painful path of baffling, grievous harms and a cacophony of voices, some self-inflicted (vs. 2). The feeling is real and painful.  

But remember this is a psalm voiced after an experience of deliverance. He/she didn’t fall over the edge. So, how does this psalmist take a step back from the edge? Earlier I proposed the psalmist’s four questions reveal faith wanting to understand and seek deliverance from the only person who can help. In one sense, the psalmist believes YHWH turned his ‘face’ away and doesn’t see “How long will you hide your face from me?” (vs. 1). According to this psalmist’s experience, YHWH’s not looking.  But keep this in mind, instead of completely turning his/her face away from YHWH, the psalmist turned toward Him. During the psalmist’s twisting and turning from the uncertainty of feelings/experiences, he/she realized suffering needs YHWH’s presence. This question in vs. 1, then, is a plea for relationship. And the poetry of facial expression will be heard in vs 3 “Look on me…. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death”. In other words, when YHWH looks, he/she will see YHWH’s face and his/her eyes will light up. With all this light, he/she won’t slip into death’s darkness, that great adversary of all men and women. The psalmist embraces the truthfulness of Scripture grounded in the faithful presence of YHWH. We hear that hopeful embrace clearly voiced in his/her closing words “But I trust in your covenant loyalty; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (vs. 5-6).

The world’s wisdom is “live and learn”. Biblical wisdom is “learn and live”. The psalmist takes hold of the hope in covenant revelation. Scripture is the important ingredient in the wrestling match of faith in the experience of suffering. It gives guardrails to keep the path clear for revealed wisdom to have its saving effect. Honestly seeking YHWH doesn’t come easily especially when there’s been hurt. When I’ve had an experience like this psalmist, I certainly sensed hope slipping away and darkness closing in. Don’t you suppose for some unknown amount of time this psalmist wasn’t in a place to trust or praise either? Actually, I suspect most psalmists sometimes took days, weeks, even years before they could find the heart to face YHWH about hard times. Certainly, this has been my experience also. Yet the psalmist isn’t calling out, especially to me, to escape the reality of suffering, rather to discover hope in the scriptures, to step into reality and to experience transformation in the circumstances. So teachability is a big part of growth in Biblical faith. Biblical formation is a learning process involving day to day transformation of patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and behaving. Biblical formation intends to create the capacity to embrace hope, to discover, envision and ignite my imagination in his Word. Again, the psalmist isn’t calling me to wishful thinking or living in a fantasy. Hope is “this worldly” inside the present ordering of reality. Working through issues, such as suffering, toward covenant faithfulness is not so much the invention of something completely new but making connections between revealed truths that haven’t been adequately linked in my thinking and experience. Faith comes by connecting dots already there. Hope in the biblical sense develops by connecting “belief dots” in a God who acts, a God who is with us, a God who turns his face to us, a God who can be trusted because He is loyal to the covenant He has revealed and sustains. 

For the Christian community, Biblical hope has emerged unobscured in Jesus. In his crucifixion suffering, Jesus revoiced these questions from Psalm 22’s lament “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far from saving me?” (vs.1).  As the letter to the Hebrews says “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death. He was heard because of his reverent submission. Son, though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb. 5.7-9). Christian hope is not the world’s elusive optimism, but truth based on YHWH’s character in real salvation events that have real assurance: Jesus has suffered, has died, is risen and will come again. 

Ruth Graham’s father, L. Nelson Bell, was a missionary doctor in China. One of his patient’s, a convert, told him this story. While walking on a path a man slipped and fell into a muddy pit. The more he struggled, the more he sank into the mud. Hopeless in his suffering he began to fail. Suddenly he heard footsteps, looking up, he saw Confucius. He cried out for help. Confucius responded by saying if he had listened to him, he would not have fallen into the pit. He turned and walked away. The man sank further. Helpless. But in a moment, he heard more steps. This time he looked up and saw the Buddha. He pleaded for help. The Buddha only said, “if you come up here, I will show you how to not fall into the pit again”. He turned and walked away. The man despaired. Firmly in the grip of death, once again he heard steps. This time he looked up only to see the face of Jesus. But before he could cry for help, Jesus had jumped into the pit, substituting himself for the man, he lifted him over the edge to safety. 

When you personally entrust yourself to Jesus who was willing to die to put everything to rights, giving every ounce of his life to bring life, you are entrusting yourself to someone who has turned his face to you, that is, someone who has experienced and has compassion for physical, emotional and spiritual suffering.

May the Lord bless you richly, my Beloved.

Mark 10.35-45 | Trinity 20B

Mark 10.35-45 | Trinity 20B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:35-45

The Gospel of the Lord

Our Sunday lectionary has been running consecutively through Mark 9 and 10 the past few weeks. Mark 10:35-45, the Gospel reading appointed for this 20th Sunday after Trinity, gives us a last look at the disciples prior to Jesus’ fateful entry into Jerusalem. And what a last look it will be! However, as we continue our journey through Mark’s Gospel, we, as readers, need to become aware of some “missing signage” on the Gospel lectionary road. Last Sunday the reading ended at chapter 10.31 while this week our reading begins at 10.35. Verses 32-34 would seem to have turned off the road! So, let’s read them “32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again”. On point, they repeat Jesus’ statement about his approaching death and resurrection. The first announcement about Jesus’ approaching death and resurrection at Ch. 8.31 was sandwiched between Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah (vs. 27-29) and a volley of rebukes between Peter and Jesus (vs. 32-33). Later in Capernaum, Jesus repeats his announcement, adding a betrayal into the mix, terrifying the Twelve into silence (9.31-32). Until, that is, they begin arguing with each other about who is the greatest. 

Now from an “information” perspective, we might consider that only one of these announcements would be necessary for Mark to confirm Jesus’ awareness of what was going to happen. But it seems the Gospel’s author presumes some misunderstanding when we hear Jesus say the same thing again and again and again.  So, from Mark’s perspective, repetition is essential to developing our understanding of the theology of the cross and theological formation into a believing community. Each of the three announcements pivots around a specific feature of the suffering servant and servant ministry that plays off the disciples’ characterization. Each of the three have applications to the believer’s ministry.  

Our larger scene opens with a solitary Jesus walking across the horizon. The camera pans out and we see the disciples following behind. The Gospel writer tells us tension, uncertainty and fear, fills the open space between Jesus and the disciples as they begin the climb up towards Jerusalem. We, as readers, already know that as the band moved geographically from Galilee south to Jerusalem, Jesus’ instruction has become more narrowly focused on the Twelve. But we also know they are following without fully knowing why. They are on the Gospel Road toward the cross. But only Jesus seems able to grasp the heaviness of what they are walking toward. 

Jesus stops. He motions the Twelve aside to explain one last time: “See, we are going to Jerusalem…”. he tells them matter-of-factly about his suffering and death. And he tells them matter-of-factly about his resurrection. Jesus is fully aware of the balance of power arrayed against him – the religious and the political/military authorities (vs. 33-34). In Jesus’ stark announcement, we hear him come to terms with his fate. He is the Son of Man, the Davidic Messiah, YHWH’s suffering Servant approaching a perfect storm awaiting him in Jerusalem. 

At least two of the Twelve, brothers, are trying to make sense of what’s happening around them. Like the Ten, they have traveled with Jesus as a part of his inside-out, upside-down ministry. Like the Ten, they still seem to have trouble wrapping their minds around what is ahead. The reader remembers from ch. 9.10, the Twelve don’t understand what “rising from the dead” means. Like the Ten, they flat out reject the notion of suffering and death as unacceptable, definitely unrealistic. So here two brothers pull back the curtain to reveal at least one idea. After all, kings and other rulers are held in honor and wield great power. They’ve been faithful followers of Jesus so shouldn’t they be entitled to share in some of his honor when Jesus “rises” to be crowned the Davidic messiah?

So in their best “cousin-like” request, James and John step up to Jesus “Rabbi, we want you to do for us whatever we ask you”. The rules are very simple: whoever sees the car first gets to call “shotgun” and sit in the front seat. They think they “see” Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem will be triumphant, regal so they’ve claimed the front seats. Travel-wise, Jesus and the Twelve were going “up” to Jerusalem but paradoxically Jesus knew they were actually going down. It’s too bad we can’t “hear” Jesus’ voice since I suppose the Gospel writer wants us to hear some suspicion in questioning their willingness to drink from his cup, submersed into the daunting, overwhelming reality awaiting him – suffering and death. He tells them this isn’t going to be “shotgun”. They will have a part in this. Not exactly the kind they were hoping for. Little do they know. From this affirmation to the brothers, the author wants readers to view Jesus, not as a singular Messiah who goes to the cross alone, but as the one who calls disciples to follow him in the way of the cross, as the one who calls disciples to move from a personal, safe space toward daring, submissive discipleship. Nonetheless, positions of honor are not Jesus’ to give. James’ and John’s “shotgun” call may have been motivated by thinking to beat out even Moses and Elijah whom they recently saw at Jesus’ side at the Transfiguration event (9:2-8). Ironically, the Gospel’s dramatic closure will unfold with rebels sitting shotgun on both sides of a crucified Jesus when he is “enthroned” King of the Jews (15:27)!

In some settings their “what’s in it for me” request might provoke snickers. But in vs. 41, the Ten narrowed their eyes into sharp slits in the direction of James and John, looking for daggers, grumbling about such brazen jockeying for position by calling “shotgun” so fast. Anyway, THEY had been hoping for the same opportunity themselves!

So for a second time in the scene Jesus calls the Twelve into a time out huddle in order to revisit the “servant” theme (vs. 42-45). Twice, He recently said, “The first shall be last”. And He has already redirected the disciples concerning their desire for greatness, telling them that to save their lives they must lose them. At this point, the reader could be thinking their jockeying for position in a supposed top-down structure has betrayed them. And you’d be right. 

“Authority” in Jesus’ community is not in the Roman world’s power mold of the business–as-usual tyranny. “It is not so among you.” Jesus says. One of the awful effects on the disciples from living under the Empire’s dark shadow is the temptation to imitate its status and authority structure.  Jesus tells the disciples straight off they simply are not a group that can organize itself according to a secular hierarchy. “You are different”. Once again Jesus points to a reversal of values and norms challenging popular assumptions about celebrity, power and status. He pushes matters to an extreme when he says that to be first is to be a servant of all. Servants were at the bottom of the social ladder. There was no honor or status in being a servant.

The long painful history of Christianity is a history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, status over the cross, being a leader over being a servant. Shared glory, honored positions, closeness to powerful people — these are the popular means for being somebody. If we can’t be the honored guest, the one with the power, then riding “shotgun” is the next best thing.

Conventionally, a useful servant role is not one of upward mobility. Authentic ministry usefulness is downward mobility ending on a cross. Servant ministry is not CEO and CFO authority but powerlessness and humility through which the suffering servant Jesus is manifested.  The way of Jesus is service to others, not service to self. It seems to me, Jesus insists that authority is not transferred executively. Status and authority belong only to those who serve and suffer at Jesus’ side. Authority is fine, so long as it derives from serving others. When churches are expressions of dominance and control, they deny everything that Jesus represents. 

To be great is to be a servant. That certainly challenges normal expectations. But Jesus is more than an exemplary servant. He also came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Exodus-Wilderness narrative was Israel’s great redemption story. This Gospel has repeatedly connected the ministry of Jesus to that multi-faceted redeeming event. Jesus has come to free Israel from the domination of Gentile powers and set the kingdom of YHWH in motion once again. A little referenced event from Israel’s sacred memory – Numbers 3 on the consecration of the Levites – provides important theological insight into Jesus’ final statement about being a servant giving his life as a ransom for many. After the first-born Egyptians died in the final event that led to Israel’s expulsion, YHWH consecrated the first-born of Israel to himself as a memorial of that deliverance.  But now in the Wilderness, Israel is itself a covenantal community, a holy, priestly nation, a chosen people. In the Wilderness, the Levites have been set apart for the ransom of all the first-born in Israel. So, once in the Land their priestly presence will become a perpetual remembrance of Israel’s redemption and deliverance.  To say it another way, the presence of Levites in the community continuously declared to all Israel YHWH has ransomed and delivered them through the redemption of the first-born.  The Levites, then, take the place of the first-born, not for death but for service to YHWH.  In a similar way, Jesus is put forward as a ransom not only for death but also for service.  What YHWH wants is not the death of Jesus but his life, although paradoxically it requires his death! YHWH wants his obedient service, so he becomes, by his rising from death, the proclamation YHWH has reconciled Israel and the world.

Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we eat the bread then drink from the cup. We are participating in a sign that we believe the Gospel’s alternative to success. Every week we approach the Lord’s Table—where a broken body and cup of suffering sit before us. As Jesus was a servant who gave his life as our ransom, so we are called to be servants of one another. We do not need to push ourselves forward in order that we might become what our culture calls “winners.” Like Jesus the servant, we can be content to be what our culture thinks of as losers, because that’s what Jesus calls “servants.” Jesus’ suffering servant shows us a different way of measuring success. In Oprah-speak – good things happen to good people – by that measure Jesus was a failure. His life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross. No one would call dying by crucifixion a “good” thing. Certainly no one would call it a “success.” But the cross’s way of measuring success is not that of an entertainment celebrity. The path of kingdom ministry is following in the path of the suffering Servant who gave himself for us and calls us to be servants to others as he was a servant to us.

Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we eat the bread then drink from the cup.  We are participating in a sign that we believe suffering is a part of discipleship. Jesus’s community is not spared from the pains of living in a world not our own. Our membership in the “suffer” club puts each one of us in a community that crosses over time and place to others who belong to the same Servant’s club. It’s a big club, with a vast table and good company, where there’s always room for one more.

Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we eat the bread then drink from the cup.  We are participating in a sign that we believe in the Servant. Jesus’ way means to follow and serve, and it may even mean to suffer. He came to serve, not be served. And so if it’s kingdom greatness you’re looking for, you can start by calling “shotgun” to stand at the far end of the table. Unless, of course, you do decide to call “shotgun” for one of the seats next to Jesus on the cross. Either way, it’s your choice. You decide.

May the Lord richly bless you, My Beloved

Psalm 90 | Trinity 19B

Dr. John Michael Gutierrez

A reading from Psalms

1 Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. 2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth and the world were made, you are God from everlasting, and world without end. 3 You turn man back to the dust; you say, “Return, O children of men.” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, even as a day that is past. 5 You scatter them as a night-watch that comes quickly to an end; they are even as a dream and fade away. 6 They are like the grass, which in the morning is green, but in the evening is dried up and withered. 7 For we consume away in your displeasure and are afraid at your wrathful indignation. 8 You have set our misdeeds before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance. 9 For when you are angry, all our days are gone; we bring our years to an end, as a tale that is told. 10 The days of our life are seventy years, and though some be so strong that they come to eighty years yet is their span but labor and sorrow; so soon it passes away, and we are gone. 11 But who regards the power of your wrath, and who considers the fierceness of your anger? 12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. 13 Turn again, O Lord, and tarry not; be gracious unto your servants. 14 O satisfy us with your mercy in the morning; so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life. 15 Comfort us again, according to the measure of the days that you have afflicted us, and for the years in which we have suffered adversity.16 Show your servants your work and their children your glory.17 And may the grace of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; O prosper our handiwork.

Psalm 90

Please turn with me to page 388 in your prayer book – Psalm 90. If you are a regular visitor to morning prayer, then you will be familiar with this psalm. In my 1662 English prayer book, Psalm 90 is read entirely in the burial liturgy. The psalm sets forth in stately rhythm, majestic cadence and style and” firmness of faith”, human frailty and mortality in eternal words. It was prayer supremely matched to an age acquainted with grief, ready to reflect on sorrow. It seems to me Psalm 90, with its firm grasp on the passing of time and our tenuous place in it, is a fitting lectionary choice as we near the end of Trinity this year. 

Scott Peck was on his way to Christian faith when he made this observation in the first sentences of his book The Road Less Traveled “Life is difficult. This is a great truth. One of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.” As we explore Psalm 90 this morning, his balanced observation is very much in the spirit of this psalm’s intention.

Understanding of the literature, poetic progress and themes of a complete psalm allows for richer and more responsible exposition. Whenever we enter a complete psalm, I believe we are doing two things. We are setting out on a journey of discovery to explore our humanness poetically in the face of the mystery of life in the presence of God With Us. And we are exploring energetic interaction between the spiritual, the physical, the divine and the human.

This morning I invite you to walk with me into the world of a lament psalm – a psalm having as its reality “Almighty God to you all hearts are open. all desires known and from you no secrets are hid……..”

We often approach the psalms under the heading “praise”.  Ancient Israel gathered them together under the heading “prayer”. Written in poetry, the psalms are prayerful communication spoken in real hope to a real God who has a real answer. And more than a third of the 150 collected were put under the sub-heading “Lament”. Laments are part of the Wisdom tradition of Israel fit into a world where the wheels seem to be coming off the wagon. In laments, the Jewish architects of the psalm’s collection offer us a reminder cries for help are part of life in the midst of praise. Laments, then, are complaint and protest prayers spoken in the community fiercely pursuing a realistic examination of who YHWH is and who we are in relation to him.

Laments are the liberation of speech vividly picturing what the heart feels. They throw caution to the wind with bold down to earth language. Laments say “if you’re going to pray then pray with urgency and shamelessness”. The “buck stops with him” to fine tune former American president Truman. Laments insist life’s experiences are in every instance proper and appropriate topics for conversation with the Lord.  Every conversation of the heart is open to the Lord. Every heart belongs in conversation with the Lord. 

Our lesson this morning – Psalm 90 – is a wisdom reflection. It explores life’s persistent troubles with protests and pleas for discernment. It seeks to know how to deal with life’s brevity and frailty. The psalmist opens with affirmation on life’s meaning and value when we have a relationship with the Lord (vs. 1-2). Looking back at how things are too often misunderstood (vs. 3-7), the psalmist sees Israel ill-fitted for eternity because of sin and its consequence – death. He then explores how things are and how the Lord deals with them (vs.8-12). If life really is as described in verses 1-10, then Israel really needs the Lord’s help. And that help is the subject of the petitions to YHWH to make things right (vs. 11-17).

The first voice we hear is the psalmist speaking for the community “Lord you are our refuge”. It’s a soft start. The psalmist affirms both authority and majesty using the word “sovereign ruler” or “master” instead of the name YHWH,. The Lord is presented as “our refuge” highlighting intimacy, reliability, protection inaccessible to an adversary. The psalmist acknowledges Israel has been securely in the Lord’s hands “from generation to generation”.  Certainly, the psalmist is overwhelmed in the presence of mountains, the Land and the inhabited world. But the psalmist is more overwhelmed in the presence of Israel’s creative, immense, even timeless “everlasting to forever” Lord. So, the psalmist assures the hearer’s the Lord is a certain, secure refuge. Verses 1-2, then, are affirmations of trust, submission and commitment. But hold on. Buckle your seatbelts. We’re about to discover this is a lament psalm framed around this soft start.

The psalmist rolls up his shirt sleeves. Vss. 3-7 offer a grocery list of protests opposing the affirmation in vs. 1-2. Paraphrasing “Ok, you’ve always been there as Sovereign. I like what you’ve done with the refuge but there’s a need for some serious remodeling. Listen to me. You are Sovereign and you have authority to command, to judge but you’ve gone too far. When you say “turn back humankind”, I say, “You turn humans back to lowliness” What ‘s the matter with you? That’s a bridge too far.” The psalmist lets the complaints hang in the air for the moment. Only at vs. 8 will another explanation begin to take shape.

What he is lamenting is a popular idea. People in ancient Israel, people today, recoil at the idea of God as Sovereign Judge based upon their experience with authority figures. They blame Him for the ills in their life. They see Him as harsh with a whip in His hand and a cold, calculating heart. To their minds, He is an angry God who makes impossible demands and then casts people away for failing to keep them. This is the stone of stumbling for many an unbeliever and sadly the source of uncertainty for many believers.  As the psalm unfolds, there will be more than a little truth – the Lord is Judge who has the authority to command. A lot of people have done a lot of things to shake off this idea, instead of, as the psalmist proposes, seek refuge in the Lord.

Joining “generation to generation” with “everlasting without end”, the psalmist turns “forever” into a time telescope searching the depths of the human condition. In eloquent poetry the complaint’s vision is narrowed – 1000 years down to 24 hours – a day, down to a mere 4 hours – part of a night watch in vs. 4. Then in a dizzy turn around 24 hours – a day in the life is expanded back to 70, maybe 80 years, or in the lyrics of the KJV,  “threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore” (vs. 10). In effect while complaining, the psalmist is humbling human pride putting “timed lived experience” into comparison with forever.

The psalmist protests “Lord, you’re immense, you’re timeless. We’re like grass on a hillside in comparison. When you come at our brief moment in the sun like a Sovereign then we’re going to wither like grass in a hot wind”. Images of insecurity, dust, withered grass, a vanished dream in the morning – life at its best is uncertain, feeble, forgettable (vs. 5-10).  Not exactly a Thomas Kinkade painting! The complaints are valid. But seen from another perspective the psalmist is also showing us we think too lowly of the Lord and too highly of ourselves. Human beings’ dwell in a house of clay taken from the ground and must return to it. Yet we look upon the Lord as having little right to judge us and upon ourselves as having every right to judge Him. That the Lord is Judge is shocking in some of our religious gatherings where the Lord has been reduced to a useful “love” notion, someone to pal around with, a life coach helping us to lose weight or a vending machine full of prosperity. This isn’t the Sovereign who laid the foundation of the heavens and the earth. This is some other god hawking a cheap, boring, irrelevant gospel.

While the Lord’s judgement is vigorous, it’s also just. Summarizing these complaints, the psalmist asserts death casts a long, deep shadow (vs. 8-10). The enduring finality of death has been poetically played off against “ the permanence, the firmness, the stability, the foreverness” of the Lord our refuge, the mountains and the world in vs. 2. But the psalmist makes this point: death entered this world as a result of “anger” and “wrath” over human’s believing and acting on the talking serpent’s lie in the Garden “You will not die. You will be like God” (vs, 7, 11 and vs. 8, cf. Gen. 3). Death, then, is the ultimate “no” that cancels pretension to human timelessness. In any case, even the longest human life “is only toil and trouble” (verse 10). In short, the psalm arrives at this conclusion, can I say, judgment, unpleasant as it may be, “Who knows the power of your anger?  For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you” (verse 11).

Humans beguiled by short-lived flourishes of life are dull to the reality of the basis for the Lord’s judgement. However, our situation “dust and dried grass” is not set in eternal concrete rather is set in YHWH, the covenantal refuge. The psalmist now looks YHWH in the face (vs. 11-14). Vs. 8 begins a confession of trust. Confession of trust in a lament is like turning a Caribbean cruise ship on a dime. It opens Laments to underlying truths. All the powerful images in the lament representing human suffering and limitations recenter their focus in the confession. Please note Wisdom in Israel teaches us “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). By weaving wisdom elements into this lament in vs. 11-12, the psalmist joins hands with Wisdom in Israel. The confession of trust is an act of faith, of hope. Notice also the name change – the Sovereign’s majesty is transferred to YHWH – God among us in covenant faithfulness.

So here’s the dime: “Teach us to number our days so that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (vs. 12). Although my lack of math skills is legendary, even I know “numbering our days” isn’t about counting but involves understanding believers have responsibilities. So “numbering our days” means being realistic about the fragility of human life and the abiding constancy of YHWH as a refuge. “Numbering our days” means actively engaging, probing the Lord’s purposes with discernment, not throwing in the towel.  A heart of wisdom can be ours when we allow the fear of YHWH to teach us through the days and years of our spiritual, emotional and physical lived experience. And it seems to me the concern of the phrase “the fear of YHWH” is  reverence. It’s a specific attitude toward someone precious and valuable just as much as a specific attitude toward someone who is superior. And “the fear of YHWH” is an awareness of value without seeking any personal advantage from it. A pious man is ever alert to see behind the appearance of things for traces of the divine. Thus, his attitude toward life is one of expectant reverence. A pious woman is at peace with life, in spite of its conflicts. She patiently resists life’s misfortunes because she glimpses their spiritual potential. A pious woman accepts life’s ordeals as belonging to the totality of life. This does not mean overconfidence or fatalistic resignation. She is not insensitive. On the contrary, she is keenly sensitive to pain and suffering, to adversity and evil in her own life and in that of others. But she has the wisdom to rise above grief with her insightful understanding of what sorrows really are. A pious woman will never overestimate the weight of momentary adversity. Such “fear of YHWH” offers pious men/women the courage and energy to live each day to the fullest, quite literally, for God’s sake!

In verse 12-17, eight times imperative after imperative is hurled at YHWH prayerfully pressing “foreverness” into daily realities – teach us, you turn around, you change your mind, fulfill your covenant loyalty, make us rejoice, show your saving acts, and two times secure our work. The psalmist forcefully petitions YHWH to remove limitations. Because for there to be change in the human condition, YHWH must be actively present. This is the passionate language favored by the psalmists for covenant practices and actions about YHWH’s nearness, his presence. What is at issue here is the psalmist’s refusal to have YHWH stay at arm’s length. Only you YHWH can come close. Only you YHWH can untangle this mess. You,YHWH, cannot take refuge in some “forever-land” indifferent to our wellbeing. In the covenant you have been drawn deeply into our lives. You can’t push us outside the refuge.

Most of us would agree with these petitions. But here’s my problem with the psalm. This psalm is about facing the unwelcome facts of time, sin and death in order to be moved to prayer and assurance. Too often I want change without confronting the issues presented in verses 11-12. Besides that I don’t want to persevere and endure through difficulties, I want a life to be easier so I don’t have to change myself. The message of Psalm 90, while it is somber, is one that is both true to reality and foundational to a believing perspective on life. If I wish only to think positively, I will not want to ponder this psalm too long. But the fact is I am the very person who most needs to grasp its message.

At the heart of the confession lies this truth: death is not the intended outcome of our lives. This is why the good news of the Gospel begins with the bad news of sin and its ugly consequences. If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, then He has saved you from judgement (1 Thess. 1:10). Though you might die, unless Christ returns in your lifetime, you will not face condemnation. But if you are apart from Christ, you are under condemnation. The psalmist describes life that is short and uncertain because of the Lord’s judgement on sin, as seen in the fact of death. The Lord has provided a way for us to live. Not only is there hope for the future, but there is also hope for the present through the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. The sign on the cross reads “The buck stopped here”. Now when the Lord looks at someone who trusts, He is not judgmental or angry. He sees someone who has entered the Refuge He is.

Mark 9.30-37 | Trinity 16 B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but he who sent me.”

Mark 9:30-37

The Gospel of the Lord

For this morning’s message, please turn in your Bibles, tablets or to the Lessons handout at Mark 9.

From the first time Jesus revealed his approaching death at Ch. 8:31ff. and today’s lesson, Jesus has been very busy. He, the Twelve, other disciples and the crowds walking around Caesarea Philippi have been discussing the Kingdom of God. But Jesus breaks away with Peter, James and John for a “Jesus-guided Holy Land climbing expedition” up Mt. Meron (9.2-8). Elijah and Moses have apparently left their Holy Land tours joining everyone at the cloudy, but soon to light up, mountaintop. And the Divine Voice, not heard since Jesus’ baptism (1.11), once again speaks approvingly of Jesus (9.7). While Jesus and the Three were on their “guided expedition”, the remaining Nine were at the foot of Mt. Meron. As we heard last Sunday, they tried to remove a demon from a boy but failed (9:28-29). Ironically in the scene after today’s reading, some of them see a man successfully casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They squawk “We tried to stop him. He’s not following us” (9:38). Jesus seems exasperated “Unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”. It’s a lot of things: the pressing crowds, the suffering folk, the aggressive religious leaders. And it’s the Twelve. I’m voting to read our present story as one that takes place with an atmosphere of tension between Jesus and the Twelve. The issue: What it takes to be useful co-players in kingdom ministry.

In our Lesson, they re-enter central Galilee eventually coming to Peter and Andrew’s house in Capernaum (vs.33).  But note carefully Mark’s Jesus “not wishing that anyone might know” is another example of his wanting to operate “under the radar” (vss.30-31). I suppose most of us find Jesus’ attitude puzzling.  In our society we have difficulty understanding anyone who has no regard for self-promotion, advertising, or creating his/her own brand.  Wherever we turn, our ever-present media is promoting someone (or to be a bit more balanced, taking someone down). It seems, even religious celebrities try to get as much media publicity as possible. So it seems reasonable to think Jesus should be something like a first century evangelist using television, sports stadiums or YouTube to “save” people. So why doesn’t Jesus shout from the rooftops? Stay tuned.

Notice Mark isolates Jesus and the Twelve from everyone in the scene. For the second time he tells them about his mission beginning with his self-designation “Son of Man” (cf.8.31-32 cf. 10.32-45). For the second time Mark also brings into focus a theologically complex identification – Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Jesus says he is about to be killed. This time, however, he says he will be “betrayed”, that is, handed over to human hands. Still, he reminds them “he is to be raised after his death”. His point – you must grasp the heaviness of what I’m facing. There are larger forces, deeper purposes at work in the Father’s plan” (vs.31, cf. Isa. 52.13-53.12). 

Let’s think a little more broadly for a moment. The prospect of a Messianic king being taken and killed just does not compute with most Jewish folk. Surely when YHWH’s Messiah comes, he will conquer his enemies and not be handed over to men who will kill him.  Even early Christian Gentile readers of Mark’s Gospel struggled with what sort of a King would ever let himself get painted into such a corner. Conventional Gentile wisdom knew only kings who conquered enemies, not ones who suffered and died. Such a self-demoting king could hardly be trustworthy. 

 And Mark writes “The Twelve did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (vs.32). For the inner circle Jesus’ suffering and betrayal was so beyond their understanding, they dare not reveal their perplexity. So why don’t the Twelve simply question Jesus? Mark will use this like a swinging door to set the reader up for the visual/verbal illustration in Andrew’s and Peter’s courtyard.  But let’s pause here and focus on the tension.  Perhaps they don’t want to disagree. Remember the first time Jesus disclosed this mission, who he is and the death awaiting him (8.31-32), Peter scolded him. Jesus responded by calling him “Satan”! “Ok”, Peter thinks, “not going to do that again”! But let’s move closer in. Is their distress so deep, they fear addressing it?  Don’t we often think the closer we are to Jesus the more we are supposed to know about God, about prayer, about the Bible, about religious stuff? So why ask questions? Let alone hard questions. May I suggest when we bottle up questions, we do so at our own peril. In our time, no one wants to look uninformed, confused, or clueless. We pretend we don’t have questions, not even hard questions. Yet the deepest mysteries of life do indeed elude us. Why do good people suffer?  How can suffering be instructive? Why did God set up a world like this at all? If God’s own Son is betrayed and killed, then no one is safe. Right? 

Well, I have a hunch that American religious culture tends to equate intelligence with knowing things. I understand that impression from being self-conscious given my own education. Now let’s reimagine intelligence measured not simply by what we know but also by how eager we are to learn. It seems to me it is at the edges of what we know where learning occurs. Which is why questions are so important.  Here’s my take on this. Questions are the mark of a curious and lively mind. Perhaps a more ominous reason religious folk may not want to ask questions is they may think it is a mark of unbelief, faithlessness. Somewhere, sometime, many good folk were taught questions are a sign of doubt. And we all know doubt poisons faith. Right? Toward correcting this unfortunate turn of events, allow me to point out two things. Again, it seems to me, questions are often, far more often, a mark of perceptive curiosity. And second, doubt is not the opposite, the absence, the death of faith. In fact, I am proposing faith grows best in the soil of doubts and challenges. Absent doubt, we may talk of knowledge, but given faith is, as it were, “belief in things not seen,” doubt would seem to be an essential part in a life of faith.  The benefit of questions raised by doubt should make us entertain more questions, even uncomfortable ones.

Well, back to our lesson. Mark opens the gate to the Capernaum house revealing what happened when the Twelve sidestepped questions they were afraid to ask. They began butting heads over pecking order amongst themselves “who will be the greatest” (vs. 34). As our scene unfolds we realize the disciples have a hierarchical misunderstanding of status. The ancient world had no middle class. Most of the wealth accumulated at the very top of the social structure. The rich and powerful flaunted their status and authority by exercising control over others. In the ancient world, Jesus’ humility, lowliness were not virtues but signs of weakness, lack of honor and status.

Mark seats Jesus with the Twelve to begin the lesson challenging cultural norms about status and honor. He says “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, not only that, servant of all” (vs.35). Their dispute “who the greatest will be” is about to make the Twelve look inferior. The kingdom of God is a way of life lived out being a “servant of all”. Jesus insists kingdom status must be understood in a radically different way. Anyone who wants to be a kingdom co-player must not stop at “last of all” but push past to become “servant of all”.  There will be no making oneself look good at the expense of another. Sometimes all anybody needs is a human touch. This is a bold point you don’t want to miss. Jesus brings co-player usefulness out in the open by reaching out, wrapping his arms around a child and saying “Whoever takes into their hands one such child in my name takes me into their hands. Whoever takes me into their hands takes not only me into their hands but the One who sent me” (vss.35-36). In this visual/verbal act, Jesus skillfully illustrates kingdom mission and lifestyle – crosscutting theirs and our status conventions. 

Allow me to explain. Now words are like chameleons. They tend to take on the colors of the words in the sentences around them. Languages and their cultures tend to shade the colors of words that may at first glance seem straightforward. And when you put “plays-on-words” into the hands of a craftsman such as Jesus, then the Twelve’s misunderstanding about participation in ministry is sharp, indeed. The phrase “one such child” in vs.37 is a “play-on-words” with “servant of all” in vs.35. This requires explanations to help us as modern readers get a clearer sense of Jesus’ verbal/visual lesson. Firstly, without question, children were loved. But the ancient world was not child oriented. It was adult oriented. Children had no status/rank. No one expected to gain anything socially from a child. Estimated at about 30%, both infants and small children were likely to contract an illness and die before age six. Here’s the everyday factor – children participated in labor from a very early age. It was a matter of family survival. Not yet fully productive, such as an adult, they were something of a liability.  Children were the first to suffer from famine, war or disease. Bottom line, they were an uncertain mouth to feed. Broadly, the child who was a member of the “family household” did have a status/rank which a slave, in most cases, was unable to attain.  He/she represented the future.  It was conventionally hoped, children would eventually produce the next generation. And certainly, if they were male, and if they lived, they would eventually have status and carry on the family inheritance. But all things considered, children were the weakest, most insecure members of society.  

Secondly in Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ “one such child” is not one of the commonly used words for children but a rather provocative one. This “held in his arms” child is a young servant. Allow me to tweak the status tension in the scene a little more. The phrase indicates a young slave. Slaves have low status. Slaves take direction to serve others from a household authority. So please notice the bite in Jesus’ words. He chooses a provocative description for co-player usefulness and drives it home – slave – subjected, largely invisible, taking direction from an authority. You get the stinger. To be a useful co-player in kingdom ministry you must tumble down the rankings. This is Jesus turning conventions and expectations upside down. In the Twelve’s self-serving view, they wanted to be “greatest”. It turns out a useful co-player is to be focused on something unconventional, that is, being a slave, subject to others. Someone who does not get to be “greatest” at the expense of others. So there’s a jab directed at the Twelve’s jockeying for position over status and authority.  “Servant of all”, “one such child” is the lowest order on the social scale – always under authority and direction by others. In the kingdom, being a “servant of all” requires choice, faithful submission and obedient actions. Saying that the way to gain “usefulness” is to identify with those who are lowly goes against the logic of that ancient society and ours, if you will allow me to say that. 

According to Jesus, then, the Kingdom evaluates co-player usefulness differently than society–at-large. So in this scene vs. 37 becomes an ironic invitation. “Whoever takes into their hands one such child in my name takes me into their hands. Whoever takes me into their hands takes not only me into their hands but the One who sent me”.  Choosing to take on the role of “one such child” or “servant of all” will give a person access to authority beyond their wildest expectations. In other words, the one taking up a “servant of all” role, representing the messiah, will be delegated the Father’s authority, status and honor. Without question it’s a new community with a scale of values differing from conventional society. 

So why doesn’t Jesus shout out from the rooftops?  Well, kingdom ministry is not about exploiting passions, brewing status and bottling up fame. Smack dab in the middle of Jesus’ statement about the heaviness, the fast-approaching horror of his death, our lesson revealed what was on the Twelve’s mind “being the greatest”. But Kingdom ministry involves letting go of prestige, branding and authority. Choosing to be a co-player means choosing to be a servant, that is, someone with delegated authority and lowly status. Our Gospel lesson is a glimpse into what turns out to be an oxymoron: servant leadership. Jesus, the visible representation of Isaiah’s suffering servant, is at the center of this topsy-turvy world (Isa. 52.13-53.12). Jesus’ embrace of the Servant’s lowliness, humility and fate models the deepest mysteries of status, honor and authority. There must be suffering before significance, brokenness before usefulness, humility before authority and the bitter cup of pain before promotion. May I suggest, then, the Servant still walks among us calling into question our perceptions of “co-player usefulness” with his submissive suffering pushing against our attempts at being the “greatest”. 

Now may the Lord richly bless my Beloved.

Proverbs 9:1-18 | Eleventh Sunday after Trinity B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

A Reading from Proverbs (9.1-18)

1 Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. 2 She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. 3 She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, 4 “Let all who are simple come to my house!” To those who have no sense she says, 5 “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. 6 Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight.” 7 Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse. 8 Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you. 9 Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. 10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. 11 For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life. 12 If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you; if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer. 13 Folly is an unruly woman; she is seductive and knows nothing.14 She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city, 15 calling out to those who pass by, who go straight on their way, 16 “Let all who are simple come to my house!” To those who have no sense she says, 17 “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” 18 But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead.

The Word of the Lord.

Proverbs 9:1-18

Please turn in your Bibles or tablets to Proverbs 9. You’ll find it on the library shelf next to the Psalms.  Year B of the Sunday Lectionary focuses on the Gospel of Mark. But you’ll have noticed the first four lessons in August’s Sunday lectionary have been from events in John 6 framed around the Feeding of the 5,000. And you’ll also notice this was the same event from Mark 6 read in July.  Our first lesson this morning from Proverbs will continue a kind of summer Eucharist-fest. 

We live in a time of unprecedented data, information and technological capacity. But do we live in an age of knowledge?  Do we live in a time of Wisdom, specifically, a time of observation and reflection applied to our life and conduct? 

When we open the Bible to Proverbs, we’re deep in the heart of everyday life. In ancient Israel, shared life in common with everyone in every village, was put under the heading Wisdom. In Israel, wisdom comes from hard won knowledge, from the difficult experiences of one’s life where the contrasts become obvious, after the push and pull of decisions become clear. In other words, Wisdom is the result of reflection built on what has been learned through many, many cycles of study, observation, mistakes, corrections and innovation.

So, Wisdom is more than the pursuit of information. Wisdom is information rightly applied. Wisdom is knowledge mixed with experience. Information helps you know a tomato is a fruit; wisdom helps you know not to mix it into a fruit salad. Knowledge gets you to the facts. Wisdom helps you to eat fruitfully. 

Now Wisdom in Israel has a starting place. So, let’s read vs.10 of Ch. 9 “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding”. This is shorthand. Everything about wisdom in Israel will be pushed through the Sinai Covenant grid. The Sinai Covenant’s commands, instructions and stipulations enshrine the customs, habits, manners shaping hearts, minds and behavior in Israel. Anyone who would be wise in Israel begins by submitting to the highest authority YHWH, Sinai’s Holy One. And to be sure, it is eye opening to come face to face with YHWH. This is a real fear in the sense of awe, reverence, honor and trust. Fear honors YHWH as He really is – a Holy, Great King. “Fear” is the kind of fear desiring to live by His revealed will. Covenant Wisdom is the faithful handling of one’s affairs revealing the world for what it is not what we might want it to be. Or said this way, the fear of YHWH is about who a person is, what he/she does and how that is shown to a watching world.

The first nine chapters of Proverbs are in story form. So our first lesson this morning presents a drama of the most serious kind. Two meals in two houses are contrasted for the Simple, the Fool, the Scorner and the Wise. In the first meal (9.1-6), Wisdom is characterized as a gracious hostess with all preparations carefully planned and carried out. This meal is extraordinary, intimate, personal, satisfying and life giving. In the second meal (9.13-18) foolishness characterized as a seductive hostess sets the table with stolen bread and water bringing death to the guests. After hearing about Folly’s meal we should realize the stakes are high in accepting or rejecting Wisdom’s invitation.

A few words about the invited guests before we sit down at the table. In the larger framework of Proverbs, there are four commonly occurring characterizations. Each is found in our lesson this morning. There is the Simple, vs. 4a “Let all who are simple come to my house!” The Simple is an immature but teachable person. Then there is the person “who has no sense (vs. 4b) also named Fool or Gullible in Proverbs. This is a person with a track record of wrong choices. Then there’s the defiant Mocker or Scorner “Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse”. (vs. 7). This person is practiced in, committed to rejecting YHWH’s wisdom. And there’s the Wise, vs 9 “Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still;  teach the righteous and they will add to their learning”. The Wise have a track record of lifelong learning. One never graduates from Wisdom’s university.

Wisdom in Israel teaches life’s education begins in the family home. In Proverbs Ch. 1-9, instruction is given by parents about how to come to know wisdom. A man is the faithful husband and teaching father. A woman is the faithful wife and nurturing mother. They speak with one voice as mediators of YHWH’s revelation. Together they are tasked with teaching Torah and its wisdom to a child, walking together through its instructions, commands and stipulations

In our lesson this morning wisdom and foolishness are portrayed as two women competing for the attention of the four characters. In Israel, it is the task of a wise mother to teach moral, ethical lessons, matters of the heart. A woman is the mother of the living and her task is to support life and oppose death. A woman who is a wise mother is the very best hope for the imprint of YHWH’s image on a child. The father’s voice In the background of our lesson describes Wisdom’s virtues and Folly’s attractions. The father is quite clear regarding the outcome of anyone who sits at the murderous Folly’s table “But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead” (vs. 18).

As I said a few minutes ago, in the first meal (vs. 1-6), Wisdom is characterized as a gracious hostess with the meal’s preparations carefully planned and carried out. This meal is extraordinary, intimate, personal, satisfying and life giving. In vs. 1-2 we read “Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table” The house is spacious, the meal prepared so she sends out her maids to issue an invitation “Let all who are simple come to my house!” (vs. 3-4). The invitation is worded in such a way there is no doubt those who accept will gain spiritual and practical insight “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight” (vs. 5-6). In this meal food becomes a symbol for learning the wisdom of YHWH’s goodness and greatness.

The one who dines with Wisdom must be teachable – open to YHWH’s Torah (10.8), – open to parent’s and other’s advice and criticism (13.10).  Wisdom is saying, “You are hungry, I have what you need to be filled. Let me nourish you.” The movement in the scene pictures the one who dines with Wisdom making a change in direction, that is, leaving aside the old ways and paths. Wisdom’s words give notice that change in direction will be a hard-won struggle – issues of character as much as of mind, of instruction, reproof, understanding, of insight, good sense, of shrewdness, discretion and knowledge. 

In order to frame the conflict wherein YHWH’s wisdom fights for supremacy in the public square of “lived experience” a competing meal is described in vs. 13-18. For the contrast, foolishness is portrayed as a woman sitting at the door of her house, perched on a seat also at the highest point of the city (vs. 14). Folly pitches her invitation to any who pass by “Let all who are simple come to my house! To those who have no sense” (vs. 15-16). But foolishness is deceptive. The hope is to change the direction of the teachable and cripple those who have a track record of bad choices. The meal’s preparations are not carefully planned or carried out – no set table, no meat, no wine, no investment. And the slippery words “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” (vs. 17) convey the seductive idea throwing off the shackles of an antiquated belief system feels good. Wisdom, however, dances with boundaries whereas Foolishness hates and seeks to destroy them. In a sense Wisdom is counter-revolutionary offering things foolishness can’t: restraint and humility. Consumers of foolishness have to go looking for more and more forbidden boundaries in order to keep getting excitement and pleasure from misdeeds. Foolishness rejects covenant’s moral/ethical teaching to pursue the so-called “good things of life” in unhealthy and unholy ways. But know this – great is the fall of a life built on lies. Read vs. 18 again “But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead”. Folly’s house turns out to be a tomb from which no one who enters it is released 

So both Wisdom and Folly require discernment to make the right choice. Or to put it in the words of that great theologian Albus Dumbledore “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”.  Remember Wisdom in Israel falls under the Covenantal foundation of “the fear of YHWH”. Wisdom is, at its simplest, religious faith, a vocation: choices made, and behavior and tasks carried out in light of YHWH’s purpose in the world. To be “wise” is to choose to be a steward of YHWH’s covenant purpose for creation and community. The wise person chooses not to impose his/her will upon YHWH but chooses to impose YHWH’s covenantal instruction upon him/herself. Wisdom, therefore, is not a strategy for occasional use, like Tom Brady fourth and goal. A person without wisdom is a person without a home. This is why the two houses, the two meals are contrasted for the Wise, the Simple, the Fool and the Mocker. 

And in the wondrous, mysterious depth of scripture’s revelation there is another table in an upper room set with a meal for the Wise, the Teachable, the Fool and, if they would have it, the Scorner. To which we now turn. The Anglican Prayer Book resets this table for us in the liturgy called the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion commonly called the Holy Eucharist.  So please open your prayer books to the consecration prayer, pgs. 132-133.

At the heart of the prayer book are the instructions and forms needed to conduct the public service of the church. So it seems to me Anglican liturgical pattern and structure have been shaped to lead us as a community from this meal into a living encounter through scripture, tradition and reason. In other words, the liturgy challenges us to respond to what has been preserved for us tucked away in the words of the consecration prayer. In these lines and in between these lines, wisdom gives us this day a meal of more than bread/wine. Let me explain. The Lord Jesus, on the night before his death and resurrection, conquering sin and reconciling us to God, shared a meal with his disciples. The words in the prayer of consecration focus our attention on the Gospel’s gathering intensity (pg. 133). Notice the scripture’s rhythm of preparation and invitation “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it, saying ‘take it, eat it’” and “he took the cup, gave thanks, gave it, saying ‘drink it’”. To electrify the intensity in the upper room, Jesus says, “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Well He’s not talking about bread/wine anymore. This is deep, deep wisdom. This is a meal taking them into the divine presence. Anglican liturgy calls out to us to accept His preparation and invitation to receive the “bread of Life”, that is, his body and the “wine of the New Covenant”, that is, His blood. And when he said, “Do this in memory of me,” He meant it. The Eucharist liturgy means it too. It is an abiding, real remembering of real presence. In this meal food becomes a symbol for the wisdom of the Father’s saving love and mercy for the believing community. In making bread, grain must be ground, water poured then kneaded into dough. In making wine, grapes must be crushed, juices spilled, staining the winepress. It is only from many grains that one loaf is made, only from many grapes one cup is filled. And it is only from many people one Body in Christ is formed. The “Holy Communion” we celebrate is a “vertical” communion with the Lord and also a “horizontal” communion with each other. The Eucharist is sharing in the Lord’s death, resurrection and return so, it seems to me, those who would dine with Jesus must be willing to be transformed by his real presence. We must become like him like he became like us. No one is exempt. And, it seems to me, those who would dine with Jesus must be willing to reach out with reconciliation to those who are changing direction. Those who would dine with Jesus, it seems to me, must be willing to welcome and nourish those who come to this table. Lastly, it seems to me, those who would dine with Jesus humbly accept the preparation and invitation to this table (p. 135): We do not presume to come to this your table, O Merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. 

And the beloved community says: Amen.

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

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

 14  And it will be said,

     “Rise up, Rise up, Clear the path,

      Remove the obstacle from the path of my people”

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

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

     “I reside in an elevated and sacred place,

     and also with the oppressed and downcast,

     to revive the vitality of the dispirited,

     to revive the desire of the downcast.

16 Indeed, I will not contend endlessly,

     nor will I always be angry;

     Otherwise life itself would become weak before me,

      specifically humankind whom I myself made.

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

      so I struck him; 

      hiding I was angry when he lived

      turning back into the way of his heart.

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

      I will make compensation for his sorrows,

      especially his heartaches”.

      For this is what the Exalted and Supreme One says:

19  — One who creates speech:

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

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

20  but the disobedient are like the turbulent sea;

      when it is unable to be calm,

      and its breakers toss up mire and muck”.

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

Isaiah (57:14-21)

The Word of the Lord

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

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

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

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

The Covenant theme 56.1-2

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

1 This is what YHWH says:

“Watch over what is just

    Do what is right,

for my salvation is close by

    and my deliverance is nearly here.

2 Blessed is the one who does this;

    the person who grasps it,

Watching over the Sabbath without desecrating it,

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

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

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

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

The Watchmen, 56.9-57.13

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

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

    they are not alert;

All of them are mute dogs,

    they are unable even to growl;

    Panting, lying sprawled out, desiring to slumber.

11 Those dogs are ravenous;

    they never know satisfaction.

Ah, these are wicked;

They lack discernment.

All of them turn to their own way,

    Each one in pursuit of unlawful personal gain – without exception

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Community 57.14-21

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

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

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

Mark 5:1-20 | Trinity 3B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

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

Mark 5:1-20

The Gospel of the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 68.1-20 | Sunday after the Ascension B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

1 May God arise, may his enemies be scattered;
    may his foes flee before him.
2 May you blow them away like smoke—
    as wax melts before the fire,
    may the wicked perish before God.
3 But may the righteous be glad
    and rejoice before God;
    may they be happy and joyful.

4 Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
    extol him who rides on the clouds;
    rejoice before him—his name is the Lord.
5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
    is God in his holy dwelling.
6 God sets the lonely in families,
    he leads out the prisoners with singing;
    but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

7 When you, God, went out before your people,
    when you marched through the wilderness,
8 the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain,
    before God, the One of Sinai,
    before God, the God of Israel.
9 You gave abundant showers, O God;
    you refreshed your weary inheritance.
10 Your people settled in it,
    and from your bounty, God, you provided for the poor.

11 The Lord announces the word,
    and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng:
12 “Kings and armies flee in haste;
    the women at home divide the plunder.
13 Even while you sleep among the sheep pens,
    the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver,
    its feathers with shining gold.”
14 When the Almighty scattered the kings in the land,
    it was like snow fallen on Mount Zalmon.

15 Mount Bashan, majestic mountain,
    Mount Bashan, rugged mountain,
16 why gaze in envy, you rugged mountain,
    at the mountain where God chooses to reign,
    where the Lord himself will dwell forever?
17 The chariots of God are tens of thousands
    and thousands of thousands;
    the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary.
18 When you ascended on high,
    you took many captives;
    you received gifts from people,
even from the rebellious—
    that you, Lord God, might dwell there.

19 Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
    who daily bears our burdens.
20 Our God is a God who saves;
    from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.

Psalm 68.1-20

I invite you this morning to put a tab, marker or a finger in Psalm 68.1-20 and in the NT letter to the Ephesians, ch. 4.8-11 .

Reading Psalm 68 closely has always been for me an attempt to hold a lot of  basketballs underwater at one time. It takes a lot of effort and there’s always a lot of splashing. There are two prominent forms of literature in the Jewish Scriptures – story and poetry. Psalm 68 retells Israel’s long, long salvation story prayerfully engaged in poetry. Here’s some more basketballs for starters. There are 13 words in this Psalm that occur nowhere else in classical biblical literature. The unusual words are used to grab and hold the reader’s attention “Say, What?” then the psalmist says “Made you look! Now that I’ve got your attention…..” And there was a lot of splashing between competing gods and authorities in the ancient world. So here’s some more basketballs – actually over 45 more.  This psalm is full of names and descriptions supporting Israel’s contention YHWH is incomparable both in character and actions. In this psalm the proper name YHWH is paired with Elohim (26x), Master (7x), the patriarchal name Almighty (1x), ones of a kind “the One of Sinai, Rider of the clouds” (vs.5), Sky rider (vs. 34), some well-known ones – God of our Salvation (vs. 20), God of deliverance (vs. 21), God of Israel (vs. 36) and even an abbreviation of YH (vs. 19). A long time ago, one of the basketballs popped up out of the water and bonked me on the head.  I’m far from the first to get bonked on the head. That honor belongs to the rabbis who view the Lord in vs. 5-6 as a matchmaker without equal, intimately involved in marriage (B. Sotah 2a). Allow me to illustrate the rabbi’s thinking from my second most favorite movie of all time: Fiddler on the Roof.  While pinning clothes to the lines to dry, Tevye and Golde’s daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava sing about the matchmaker Yente choosing a partner for them. Although excited about their future marriages, Tzeitel warns that, as they are from a poor family, they’ll have to marry whoever Yente brings. Regardless if it’s an unhappy marriage. As the song ends, the sisters quickly realise that they might rather remain on their own than marry just anyone. On the other hand, for the rabbis, the beauty, the mystery of marriage is imaged in “Father of the fatherless, defender of widows….God sets the lonely in families” (vs. 5-6). They pictured the Lord as Patriarch-Matchmaker lovingly bringing together lonely strangers, that is, different persons with different backgrounds, different personalities, with different preferences and divinely, intimately fashioning them into a couple, a family. Wonder of wonders, Miracle of miracles.

Now here’s some more basketballs.  There’s a lot of walking in this psalm, a lot of walking through historical-theological events. The Psalm begins in the Wilderness when the clans were called to pack up the camp, get up and walk (vs. 1-3). A call to follow after the Lord’s presence in the lighted cloud, the moveable sanctuary and the covenant chest. It was a call to walk in obedience with others in the covenant pattern. It’s not a walk to improve their health but a walk to improve their ethical moral behavior, their conduct. Each of the clans is to walk gracefully, patiently, lovingly in order not to impact the overall unity of the Nation. There’s walking out of the cataclysmic upheavals of slavery. There’s ascending to the high mountain into the sunlight of unsurpassed covenant revelation. There’s walking through lowlands, deserts and the Land in failure, doubt and obedience. There’s satisfaction at arriving at the end of a walk – the city of Jerusalem (vs. 16ff). Walking, then, is used skillfully, prayerfully, poetically to express the outworking of covenant revelation. A transformed Israel walking as the Chosen, the treasured possession. A nation of priests walking obediently to YHWH’s summons. YHWH “walked” Israel slowly and deliberately so that they would sense his presence and guidance in every step. The Lord was arranging Israel’s life to make them fit for life with him.

So let’s throw a few more basketballs into the water as we turn to Ephesians but keep your place in the psalm. There’ll be some splashing. But we’ll try to keep them submerged. Liturgically, Psalm 68 is a Jewish Pentecostal psalm commemorating the covenant at Sinai (Jubl 1.5; 6.11, 17; 15.1-24). Liturgically, for us, this morning occurs after Jesus’ ascension – this last Thursday. So this psalm can become pentecostal to us by anticipating the descent of the Spirit to give gifts to the Church. In the message from Psalm 98, 4 weeks ago I asked this question: how do we move from vocal public congregational Temple praise to vocal public congregational Christian praise? At first glance, this might seem easily answered this morning because two lines from Psalm 68.18 seem to be quoted in Ephesians 4.8 “when he ascended on high, he led captives in his procession and distributed gifts to the people”. So that helps us. Right? Maybe. More about this momentarily. First, let me ask the question this way. Of all the lines, in all of the psalms, in all of biblical literature, how/why does Paul choose these two poetic lines from this psalm for Christian instruction for the Ephesus church? One of the things I realized early on and continues to amaze me to this day is how saturated NT writers were in the Bible’s thinking and practice. It seems to me NT writers had a working knowledge of their Bible. And it seems to me their expectation is that we are working on getting a working knowledge also.

So a few introductory words about Ephesians and Paul seem to be in order.  Paul, first arrested in Jerusalem, has now descended to the depths of a Roman prison. From there, this mostly unknown captive ascended to the occasion, composing and sending letters by a revolving door of colleagues to Philippi by Epaphroditus ( 4:18); to Ephesus by Tychicus (6:21); to Colossae by Epaphras (4:12) and to Philemon by his slave Onesimus. All with similar, overlapping messages, collectively, these letters are identified as the prison letters.

Is it stating the obvious that an imprisoned Paul had a lot of time to think about things? Well it seems to me, Jesus’ ascension prompted Paul to think through how this is worked out in his life, his ministry and how the ascension is worked out in these churches. Broadly, the seating of Jesus at the right hand of the Father puts an exclamation mark on the completeness of Jesus as the Davidic messiah. Jesus is Lord, Caesar, not so much.  Paul was no stranger to a militarized triumphal procession in the Greco-Roman world with its wagons full of tribute and lines of shackled captives. Imprisoned as he was, it seems to me, the more important victory march for him was Jesus’ ascension with himself a captive “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ, we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God” (2 Cor. 2. 14-17). And in these letters he portrayed the outworking of that procession as the descent of the Spirit to the churches with “gifts” (charismata) and “gifted ones” (charismenoi). And this gives us an insight into why Paul rewrites the psalm. Notice how Psalm 68.18 reads  “when you (YHWH) ascended on high, you took many captives, you received tribute from the nations”. Now read Eph. 4.8 “when he (Jesus) ascended on high, he led captives in his procession and distributed gifts to the people”.  

Paul situates the Psalm’s lines in an extended section of ethical, moral instruction (4.1-6.18).  The rewritten citation forwards Israel’s perspective in the psalm to that of the inner life of the church in two ways. First about the gifting of the church at large and second, about a more specific gifting of some persons.  In Pauline theology the essence, the scope, the function of ministry is charismatic (cf. 1 Cor. 12; Rom 12). The Spirit is the ministerial Spirit. The Spirit gives gifts to every believer for the good of the whole community. By the Spirit, the ascended Lord seizes us and brings us into the captivity of his service. There is no divine gift which does not bring with it a task. He reminds the Ephesians all of them have a responsibility inside and outside of the church to live distinctively. 

There’s also a lot of walking in this letter. Just as Israel’s clans walked gracefully, patiently, lovingly in order not to impact the unity of the Nation so also the Epheisans are to walk gracefully in unity and order guided by the ascended Lord and the descended Spirit. The ministry of Spirit-gifted service is the outworking, the realization of Christ’s ascension. As in Israel, the quality of a church’s corporate life has everything to do with fulfilling its ministry, its mission in society. The seven exhortations “to walk in unity”, strategically placed in the letter (2.1-3, 8-10; 4.1-3, 17-19; 5.1-2, 5-17) appeal to the readers to play their part with grace, humility, patience and love. “Walking in unity” reinforces the significance and privileges of our calling as a way of living. When you accept Jesus as savior, there’s “no sitting on the curb”. You’re automatically captive in Christ’s procession to the right hand of the Father. The ascended Lord and the descended Spirit guide a believing community slowly and deliberately so that we sense their presence in every step. They’re arranging our life to make us fit for life with them.The goals of charismatic gifting, then, is for a church to walk. As the seated Lord, each and every Christian is gifted for service. Spirit gifts are the common endowment of all who call upon the name of the Lord and are saved. Each believer is to work out their discipleship from the Spirit’s gifts in order to bind themselves to the Lord and to others so they can be both his captives and the servants of all.

We read earlier in 2 Cor. Paul described himself and his co-workers as captives in Christ’s procession. But let’s take a closer look at  Paul’s rewriting of the Psalm. In place of the psalm’s tribute, Paul inserts “captive gifted persons”  (charismenoi) whose ministries involve the proclamation of the Word “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” (4.11). These “gifted ones”, distributed by the ascended Christ to his church, have a vital cohesive role in maintenance, unity and preservation. They’re tasked with bringing believers to states of holiness and maturity.  As captives of the ascended Christ, charismatically endowed persons are under obligation to serve the church to the measure of their gift to the building up of the church. As St. Paul says: “And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ, we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God” (2 Cor. 2.16-17). 

In  the 7th grade at St. John of God parish school, in Bible speak, “I found favor in the eyes of” two assistant priests. For two years they trained me to assist them both in/out of the parish. One Friday, in 8th grade, they arranged for me, that is, got me past the long reach of Sister Elizabeth for the day, to go with them to an ordination at St. Vibiana Cathedral in LA. I piled into Fr. Johnson’s VW bug and we headed out. Fr. Gelb was already there. Fr. Johnson took me up to the choir loft at the rear of the cathedral and sat me in the far right hand corner. I rested my arms and chin on the handrail. St. Vibiana’s didn’t look anything like St. John’s! The center aisle was high, with suspended lights, flanked by columns and arches. Shafts of light cut through stained glass, through dark shadows, lighting marble on the floors and walls. Soon folk began to arrive and fill the pews. The organist and choir began to fill the loft. Latin chant began to flow over me filling the sanctuary. Adding to the mystical setting, clouds of incense began to rise from just below me. Following an acclamation everyone rose to their feet. A dramatic procession began. Crucifier, followed by acolytes, followed by brightly robed clerics, followed by five men in white albs, followed by other priests in cassocks, including Fr.s Gelb and Johnson. They walked together down the aisle to the altar. Once everyone was in place, the five men laid face down on the floor. Their ordination service was underway. Even to a 13 year old, there was a unity, an eloquence, a mystical grandeur in the ceremony. This was a procession revealing their profound captivity – a road less travelled. These were “gifted ones” being given to the church. All these years later, I believe St. Paul would have nodded his head approvingly. 

The Ascension, then, provides the framework for understanding charismatic ministerial functions. Being a captive is the basic role for ministerial service (cf. Mk. 9.35; 10.42-45). “Gifted ones” proclaim the Word and follow the Lord’s lead. Spirit-ized servant authority resides within the act of ministry as they obey the Lord. They are appointed missionaries, church planters, mediators of divine revelation and gospel proclamation, church teaching and leadership. Their function is preserving, transmitting, interpreting and applying the Gospel. Their ministry is to crochet Biblical wisdom, knowledge, norms and values into appropriate conduct. A church’s gifted life is from the ascended Lord and is only to be had in the shadow of the crucified/risen Lord. A Christian community exists insofar as the Spirit’s gifts from the ascension lay hold of us creating us as instruments of service.  

Talk about holding basketballs underwater!