Psalm 95 | Christ the King Sunday Year A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

1    Come, let us sing to the LORD;
                   Let us shout to the Rock,  our Rescuer.
2                 Let us come face to face with a thank offering
                   Let us extol Him with song.

3    For the LORD is the great God,
                                      the great King above all gods.

4    His hand holds the earth’s caverns,
      The mountain peaks belong to him.
5    His is the sea,  He made it,
       His hands formed dry land.

6    Come, let us bow down in worship,
                   Let us kneel before the LORD our creator;
7    For He is our God
       and we are the people of his pasture,
                             the flock he guides.

      Here and now,  if you would…. Hear his voice:

8   “Do not harden your hearts as in the day of complaint – Meribah
                                                           as in the day of trial in the wilderness – Massah
9   when your ancestors tested me;
      when they tried me, even though they saw my mighty saving acts.
10 Forty years I felt frustration with a generation;
      I said ‘They are a people whose hearts wander,
                   they don’t know my itinerary.’
11 So I made an oath in my annoyance,
    ‘They will never come to my rest’.”

Psalm 95

Psalm 95 has been a regular visitor to daily prayer formation since the rise of monastic  communities in the 3rd century. If you have been a regular visitor to Anglican morning prayer since Cranmer you have heard the first seven verses said or sung as the canticle Venite, then during Lent, the psalm is heard in its entirety. 

In ancient Israel’s psalms, moods were united in impressive artistic expression.  The conceptually rich, precision in choice of words, tone and style – the agony of one psalmist; the sheer joy of another – draw hearers/readers into the powerful twists and turns of faith and practice. 

Psalm 95 stands within that tradition. Psalms like all poetry can be hard to button hole. Psalm 95 sometimes appears with psalms focused on the reign of YHWH as a Great King. Other times the Covenant lawsuit wording of vs. 8-11 sort it into the prophetic cubby. A number of years ago I made this opening statement to a gathering of psychologists and therapists: “When I read the Bible I hear voices. lots of voices”. Probably not the best way to start a conversation with a group of therapists!  But without doubt one of the best ways to approach the psalms and this morning’s psalm especially. On this, the last Sunday of the Year – Christ the King Sunday, I thought the theology spoken by the psalmist – the presentation of YHWH as the Creator King, Who becomes the Covenant-Shepherd King of the Exodus-Wilderness followed by YHWH speaking about the rejection of his guidance and care – might prove insightful.

The first thing we notice is the psalmist’s enthusiastic rush of words: “Come, Let us sing, Let us shout, Let us come face to face, Let us extol” in vs. 1-2. Translations can’t reproduce the lyrical sound of the Hebrew verbs but we still get the strong sense of the psalmist’s cadence pushing us to gather together.  Worship in the covenantal relationship is congregational, public, crowded together in groups that haven’t been quarantining, meeting in cautiously limited ways. Worship in the covenantal relationship is vocal, loud, not behind Lexan, muffled by a mask. Worship in the covenantal relationship has YHWH alone as its source and its subject. So in the covenantal relationship, worship is personal, practiced  in the phrase “face to face” (vs. 2).

When we hear the psalmist image YHWH as a  “Rock” we picture something along the lines of massive, strong, stable. This will certainly be supported in vs. 4. But words from a poet’s stylus are like chameleons to a psalm. They keep changing meaning from line to line. The phrase “Rock, our Rescuer” is a parade ground example, the first of many indications that this is an Exodus/Covenant/Wilderness themed psalm.  But not until we hear the words “complaint”, named “Meribah” and “trial” named Massah” in the Wilderness context of vs. 8-9 does the psalmist fully unpack the imagery. There he deliberately calls up the Wilderness “Rock” that gushed thirst quenching water rescuing Israel (Ex. 17.1-6; Num. 20.1-13; Dt. 32.13). Here the psalmist wants us to shout to the rock not strike it with a shepherd’s staff like Moses.

In vs. 3-5, the psalmist says his reasons for gathering folk together in the Temple: YHWH is an incomparable great God, great King. The Exodus narrative gives us the first scenery for the declaration. After YHWH’s defeat of Egypt’s “no gods”, Miriam leads Israel in song “Who is like you among the gods, O LORD? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?” And the shouted answer “No one!” (Exod. 15:11). And the covenant at Sinai gives us the naming of YHWH as a great king (Ex. 19.3-6). But vs. 4-5 take us a step further back to another scene. In this scene,“hands” imagine YHWH engaging in a building project like all great kings in the ANE. But in the psalmist’s picture – it’s creation being formed. Playing with the “rock” image in vs. 4 YHWH’s hands form Earth’s unsearchable, deep rock caverns and it’s inaccessible, rocky  mountain peaks. Then looking around, the Psalmist sees other materials “sea and dry land” being handled in the building project (vs. 5).  It’s all hand made. The psalmist emphasises that YHWH has, in the words of the African American spiritual, “the whole world in his hands”.

In vs 5, the Psalmist’ poetic skill is at play in the reference to “sea” and “dry land”.  These words are a theological echo from the Exodus narrative – the parting of the Reed sea and its drying land so Israel could pass over “all that night the LORD drove the SEA back with a strong east wind and turned it into DRY LAND. The SEA was divided,  and the Israelites went through the SEA on DRY LAND (Ex. 14.21-22). YHWH handily created a way of escape for the Hebrew refugees. The psalmist sees YHWH exercising creative control and He becomes Israel’s Rescuer. But the theology of creation is about to take another turn.

At first, “Come” in vs. 6 sounds like repetition of vs. 1-2- the call to gather for worship. The imagery of YHWH as creator now spins off to YHWH as Israel’s creator (vs. 6). The psalmist is directing the Temple crowd to focus on YHWH, Israel’s great Covenant King. Notice the aerobics of posture – bowing down low, bending the knees -are characteristic of approaching royal presence (vs. 6). The psalmist further uses the theological echo in vs. 5 to swing us toward realizing that while creation is “hand made”, Israel is “hand guided” – we are the people of His pasture, the flock He guides (vs. 7ab). This is poetic code to say Israel through the Exodus deliverance and the covenant making at Sinai has been created into a mission community, a holy nation (Ex. 19. 4-8, Deut. 32. 6, 15, 18; Isa. 44. 2; 51. 13; 54. 5; Ps. 100. 3; 149. 2). The deep, resonant notes of the Covenant are heard in the shepherd imagery: YHWH, the Great Shepherd King, delivered Israel from the hand of a murderous Egyptian shepherd king. Israel will never be without his guidance and care.

In the third line of vs. 7, the psalmist makes a third call, an appeal, an invitation. Pause for a moment. “here and now, if you would….Hear his voice”. This is not mere hearing like when my parents said, “LISTEN TO ME!” btw, they only ever said this to my sister, never me. This is “hearing” that leads to obeying. Here, then, is another swinging door connecting Israel’s past to the psalmist’s present. The psalmist implies like ancient Israel, this Temple crowd gathered at worship is prone to indifference, blindness to what is in front of them, going through the motions day after day, week after week, year after year without real heart/head engagement. Oh, No. Not us. May it never be. Well listen to this.

The psalmist’s voice now gives way to the LORD’s voice speaking to those gathered in his royal presence ( vs. 6-7). His declaration in vs. 8-11 is a retelling of a crisis – a reflection from his past experiences told in words of frustration, anguish and distress captured in ….they tested me….they tried me….they saw….I felt frustration….in my annoyance….they’ll never. You get the point. All this is intended to be taken in by the Temple crowd. His past experience is arced – framed in two incidents: one at Rephidim shortly after the exodus (Ex. 17. 1-7) and the other at Kadesh Barnea some 40 years later (Num. 20.1-13).  Geography had changed, time had passed, a generation had drowned in the deep waters of disobedience but the problem has remained the same. Recognizing the mosaic of Israel’s lawsuit language in “complaint” (Meribah) and “trial” (Massah) (vs. 8) and the verbs “tested” and “tried” (vs. 9) is relevant. In both incidents Israel put YHWH into a courtroom trial, prosecuting him, preparing to pass a guilty verdict …. Listen to their words in Numbers: There was no water for the community so they gathered together. They complained to Moses saying, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this evil place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” (Num. 20.2-5). Water has run out. As thirst turns into panic and panic into fury, Israel begins picking up rocks to build a road back to Egypt paving over  Moses— and by extension, paving over YHWH, the Rock, their rescuer.

Now listen to the LORD’s response at Rephidim.. “The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will stand there, face to face, by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah – trial and Meribah – complaint because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17.5-7).

The Lord sums up these two courtroom trials saying “even though they saw my mighty saving acts” (vs. 9). He implies, at the very least, their apathy and indifference to his rescue and sustaining provision. But the summation also highlights his response both times with displays of “Exodus power”. In the end, He will discipline them but not extinguish the covenant relationship. And now we realize “Rock our rescuer” in vs. 1 has been theologically enhanced to portray YHWH as satisfying as a “Thirst Quencher”(Ex. 17.1-6; Num. 20.1-13; Dt. 32.13). 

For the Temple crowd YHWH is worthy of worship because he is satisfying, trustworthy,  faithful and, importantly,  present (Dt. 32.4). The main message in vs. 10-11, then,  for the temple crowd can be stated as “Don’t repeat their mistake! There are consequences”. Notice the play on travel themes in vs. 10 with “whose hearts wander” and “ my itinerary”. It’s important to note that YHWH led Israel like a shepherd to Rephidim and to Kadesh Barnea. Israel’s misguided theology of prosperity, notwithstanding, the LORD who gave water also gave the Wilderness wandering. It’s not a matter of the living conditions in “this wilderness….this evil place” (Num. 20.4-5). “Hearts wandering from my itinerary” comments on a deep disorder – a heart dehydrated in the winds of rebellion, stubbornness and  preference for its own itinerary. The Wilderness places of courtroom complaint were holy places not evil places. And the circumstances they thought pointed to LORD’s absence were the very ones revealing his presence most richly. Only in following YHWH’s itinerary can they hope to be moral. They refused to stay on the faithful Covenant path and strayed.  On the one hand, the Temple crowd knows the reference to “rest” is Israel’s failure to inherit the Land promised to Abraham (vs. 11). But, on the other, “They will never come to my rest” replays the verb “come”from the psalmist’s invitations to worship (vs. 1, 6). The last line here plays out as YHWH’s closing caution to the Temple crowd “Be aware, heirs of the LORD’s saving acts. Don’t be on the wrong side of the road. I was offended then and still can be”.

In the wilderness, Israel’s complaint “Is the LORD among us or not? is answered by YHWH  “I will stand there, face to face, by the rock”.  At stake was his presence in the details of their lives: is the LORD with us here in the desert, in this temple? Is he among us when we thirst, when we bow down, bend our knees? Is the LORD still for us to guide us, care for us? “I will stand there face to face,” YHWH promises, knowing that what Israel and the Temple crowd needed wasn’t only water, but his real presence. In the frenzied mad dash toward the gushing waterfall, over the jostling knees and elbows, did anyone look, did anyone catch a glimpse of the Great Shepherd King? He says He was standing there.

I’ll end with this – one of my cherished Annie Dillard observations supporting the eloquence of this psalm: Why do people in church seem like cheerful tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may lead us to where we can never return.” Annie’s point, like the psalmist’s and YHWH’s, is: anyone who has experienced the saving acts, care and guidance of the LORD should tread lightly.

So Beloved, heirs of the great Shepherd King’s saving acts, care and guidance, Even here and now, the trek toward the LORD’s presence at this table passes by Massah/Meribah where hearts may wander. 

Matthew 22.34-46 | Pentecost 21 Year A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
    under your feet.”’

45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

The Gospel of the Lord

Now concerning the Gospel Lesson: Location, Location, Location.  This well-known real estate advertising banner has application to this morning’s Gospel lesson.  There are three distinct locations. So I have hired the wonderful Dr. Who and his English phone box time machine, the Tardis to take us to each one. For our first journey, he will take us back in time to Moab – modern day Jordan – on the eastern side of the Jordan river valley.

On our trip,  allow me to make some introductory remarks about interpretation. In the late 1970’s currents in Biblical Studies about Judaism that had been trickling since the early 1900’s suddenly gained volume flowing rapidly and bursting banks in some places. There was now space to develop the long sweep of  Israel’s literature and theology for its own message and meanings. This has been a game changer. My British education navigated the whitewater rapids of those currents, the outworking of this new perspective. Candidly, what I am about to say about Ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism reflects some of the leading ideas.

Location #1  Setting coordinates from the Gospel’s quotation, the Tardis sets us down at the Moab location and into the primary writings in Israel’s library – Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together these documents describe for us YHWH’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Exodus), YHWH’s provision of a covenant relationship at Sinai (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) and YHWH’s  fatherly guidance in the Wilderness (Numbers) after Israel’s refusal to enter the Land.  Now 40 years after that refusal, the clans have gathered in Moab. Watching the Jordan flow past, expectantly preparing to enter the Land, they listen to Moses (Deuteronomy) retelling in prose and poetry, how they had uniquely experienced YHWH’s deliverance, the covenant ceremony at Sinai and the raw, visceral reality of Israel’s horrifying rejection of that deliverance and its covenant relationship. 

Some careful distinctions need to be made. Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question comes from the central feature of the Exodus-Wilderness experience- the Sinai Covenant. In Israel’s perspective the Sinai Covenant is not some unbreakable tyranny, something clamped down on the neck of a prostrate Israel. Rather the covenant intends to build up Israel’s imagination to live a holy life, not an isolated one, through instructions, stipulations, precepts and commands that frame their society.  

The Sinai covenant names Israel as a community that is called upon to “Listen and Obey, Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”. (Deut. 6.4-5).  The covenant calls Israel to exclusive allegiance, to a single relationship “I am the LORD your God. you shall have no other god in addition to me” (Ex. 20.3). No other path, no other value, no other authority can be substituted or require the same level of devotion to distract, deter or derail Israel from the unique relationship with the LORD who delivers. Clothed in the covenant’s ordinances, precepts, instructions and commands the stature of a person’s life is measured by “‘Love your neighbor as yourself”. (Lev 19.18). Close reading of Lev. 19 underscores the interpersonal dimensions of Israel’s conduct emphasising that individuals are to be holy as YHWH is holy. Note carefully the rich list of neighbors inhabiting ch. 19: widow, orphan, poor, immigrant, resident immigrant, hired servant, blind, deaf, etc. Covenant love, then, is having committed allegiance to the LORD, to holiness and to the well being of others.  In the covenant’s wider perspective, then, it’s not possible to imagine the One kind of love without the other. In short, the LORD has something to do with everything in Israel’s life. Or at least he should!

Now may I suggest to you the Sinai covenant’s intention concerns mission also.  It is a definitive salvo in YHWH’s program to redeem creation. Not as an aside but as a fact, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus the Messiah is the definitive salvo in YHWH’s plan to redeem creation and Israel. Back to the covenant, however. What do I mean by mission? Well, the Sinai covenant intends Israel to turn the Canaanite culture right side up, not affirm it  “you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 18.3b-4). And may I add quickly, any other culture Israel comes into contact with.  

A careful reading of the details of the covenant reveals it as an unblinking confrontation of cruel and ruthless indifference so clearly part of Canaanite society. In that ancient setting the covenant is a counter action against ideas that are known threats to life and limb. The Sinai covenant is a course of action and thinking for Israel to preserve its faith in an intolerant society, the groundwork for resistance to that culture’s progressive correctness in its streets, marketplaces, schools, temples. Without doubt Israelites are to be holy people embedded in an unholy society.

By remembering their own enslavement and by modeling the actions of their holy and gracious Deliverer, who was attentive to them in their time of need, Israel will extend covenant love toward everyone in their midst. The Exodus thus functions as a lens for understanding the requirements for societal flourishing in a broken world, generating concern by the covenant people for the needy or marginalized. The experience of the Exodus and the stipulations of the covenant ground Israel’s cultural/religious/political structures to properly function, protecting, providing for, and nourishing everyone.

Location #2 With this wider covenant perspective, lets’ pile back into the Tardis and zoom ahead to set down in Jerusalem’s Second Temple where Jesus has just ridden in for a bumpy landing – an unpermitted palm parade, a mostly peaceful protest against money changers and a change to the city’s landscape’s design (ch. 21.1-22).  Only a few days away from being arrested, Matthew winds up Jesus’ ministry over a single day recording challenges disputing his messianic handiwork from Temple officials-Sadducees, Scribes, Chief Priests, popular leaders-Elders, Pharisees and their disciples (ch. 21.12- 23.39) and the always unpopular Herodians (22.15). Matthew brings the day’s challenges to an end with  four questions: three by the various leaders – one about taxes to be paid (22.15-22); one about widows, remarriage and the resurrection (23.23-33), one about Torah’s premier teaching (23.34-40) – our Gospel lesson and then in a turnabout Jesus questions them about the Messiah’s identity (23.41-45) which discussion leaves the leaders speechless (23.46) – again our Gospel lesson.

We have learned in the last 40 years to reshape our understanding of Jewish leadership in the Second Temple period. It’s been all too routine to make Jewish leaders black-hat guys in an ancient hiss-and-boo soap opera.  What we now know is that they were—in the opinion of most people back then— the guys in the white hats, the good guys. Weaknesses and faults exposed in the Gospels specifically relate to their interpretations attempting to over-regulate the generalized and specific details in Torah’s varied contexts. They have come to regard their regulation as of the same cloth as the Torah itself. But Jesus in the Gospels regards these “regulations” for what they are – the teachings of men. Jesus’ scorching critique of the Pharisees in the next chapter (ch. 23) is about their imposition of regulated behavior to indicate faithful obedience.

The four questions collected by Matthew represent theological controversies across the various groups. Three questions are set forth as attempts to force Jesus to take a position for or against established answers. This would enable the leaders to identify Jesus as a follower of someone whose position on this or that question he supported. This would mean that his authority was derived from that school of thought.  The question of our Gospel lesson is not an unfair question.  This was a common question among the various charter schools. Some argued for equality across the Covenant’s stipulations; others argued for gradations. 

It is for these reasons Jesus’ answer is so important. Simply on the face of the question and answer, Jesus and the Pharisees agree that there is a kind of priority in the Covenant’s precepts. For him to answer wisely will be a confirmation of his teaching authority.  His answer draws all these leaders into recognizing and realigning themselves with the Covenant’s intentions. The Covenantal reference is Jesus’ attempt at bringing unity to the trenches, flattening differences among the leadership groups. It doesn’t deny meaningful differences but the quote is an indication there is a commonness across any divide. We stand together. Regrettably they do not. 

It’s subtle but notice when they ask him: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” “Teacher”–respectful, at a minimalist level, though clearly inadequate by Matthew’s theological standards. We know already the idea that Jesus is more than a teacher is gaining traction – he’s being evaluated as the messiah. 

The texture of Matthew”s theology appears as Jesus shifts from defense to offense directing a question to the Pharisees concerning cherished nationalistic hopes – the emergence of the Davidic messiah. Jesus wants to see who they’ll side with. These leaders know their theology; they understand what he has asked them.  Technically the Pharisees were not wrong to say the Messiah is “David’s son”. Matthew has called Jesus “David’s son” in the opening verse of the Gospel.  The Pharisees were “right” in the wrong way.  They call the Messiah “David’s son” because that was the theological orthodoxy.  Messiah is the definitive salvo in the LORD’s plan to redeem Israel and creation. But the implications of Jesus’ interrogation startle them. There is a moment of silence as it begins to sink in—  one of those bottomless, grace filled opportunities for profound reassessment.  Standing in their midst is the messiah – Jesus. The rejection of him is on the same scale as Israel’s ancient rejection.  Jesus is the Messiah even if he ends up looking different than the tradition had come to expect. Jesus did not make many obvious claims to being the Messiah.  But for those with eyes to see and with ears to hear, he did so here.

Location #3 One last time into the phone box as Dr. Who blasts forward through time’s corridors stopping at our Prayer Book’s eucharistic liturgy where we read again the words of our Gospel lesson. 

May I suggest to you by its placement following the Collect for Purity, the words of our Gospel lesson, called the “Summary of the Law”, intertwine the standards for self examination in preparation for communion. Certainly together they assert confession of sin, repentance, moral/ethical behavior are benchmarks for graceful participation in the community of faith. Certainly together they unite us in an act of humility admitting that we are not as we would wish. Certainly together they show us what we need to proclaim, where we need to act, ordering our values and priorities to remain loyal, faithful. 

The “Summary”, then, is as life shaping for us as for Israel, Jesus, Temple officials and Pharisees. The definition of covenant love Moses and Jesus are working with involves commitment, holiness, faithful, obedient behavior.  Love for the LORD and neighbor is demanding and risky. For Israel, for us, being holy, moral, ethical is learned when we develop the capacity to put ourselves into the neighbor’s place and that is a skill only learned by engaging with the neighbor face to face, side by side. This love is a lot more complicated because it’s interdependent not separated. It requires us to expand our whole selves – striving for holiness in all we think, do, say. The Summary “hangs” us together in fellowship, in common ground, in shared mission.  For us “love” is demonstrating to the society around us what matters, what is important and what makes our lives compelling so that others are drawn into that community. In the end, Covenant love is something you don’t want to be caught without.

Now my beloved the words of St. Paul to Galatian churches “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. For the entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Sermon About Faith

The Rev. Steven C. Sterry, M.A./M.B.A.


This morning I was invited to preach the sermon at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Tustin, CA. The lessons for this Sunday that this sermon was based on are:

  • Isaiah 25:1–9
  • Psalm 23
  • Philippians 4:4–13
  • Matthew 22:1–14

Here is that sermon:

It seems like the creators of our Anglican Lectionary have, in the lessons for today, attempted to focus our attention toward our building and maintaining a right relationship with God through faith. Isaiah, in our Old Testament Lesson, for example, reminds us that

God has been faithful to those who have been faithful to Him. Those who follow and worship him will be strengthened, while those who oppose Him will do so in fear. We are God’s people and should rejoice in our salvation. In other words, those who have true faith in God will be rewarded.

The well-known 23rd Psalm reminds us that, like the good shepherd takes care of his sheep, the Lord always takes care of us. Those who loyally follow Him will dwell with Him forever. In other words, because of our faith in the Lord as our shepherd, we will be rewarded with eternal life.

The parable of the wedding feast then reminds us that when God invites us into a relationship with him, we must also be prepared to accept His call when it comes. Otherwise, we may find ourselves on the outside looking in. While many are called, few are chosen, says the Gospel for today. We are called to God, not on our terms, but through his grace and in his expectation of our obedience and faith.

Finally, like the Epistle cautions us, we should not be anxious about worldly things. The word “supplication” suggests that we humble ourselves, we are to pray, and we are to be content in all things and situations. We should always give thanks for what God has given us, even when it is less than we might desire or expect. If we practice what God teaches us, we will enjoy His peace. We can do all things through the Lord, because he will strengthen us in all things. In other words, we are saved through faith and our reward involves not worldly possessions, but, instead, God’s gift of eternal life.

During this past couple of weeks, I read several articles about the subject of faith. It was almost as if God had gifted me in advance with the materials for this sermon.

Faith is the complete trust or confidence in someone or something. And for our purposes, that someone or something is God. Faith is the basic ingredient to begin and maintain our relationship with God, and scripture defines faith as God’s assurance that all things revealed and promised in the Word, both seen and unseen, are true.

Faith comes from two sources:

  • Our observation of the natural world and
  • our hearing and acting upon God’s word.

As we live in this world, we discover that it is so well-ordered that a creator must have been present at the beginning. Molecules and atoms did not just happen to come together overnight to create complexity out of randomness. Everybody can see God’s creative actions, and they can experience the feeling of His presence as we observe the world around us. And, as we feel God’s presence, we are encouraged to learn more about Him.

Feeling God’s presence, however, is not enough to sustain our faith in Him. We also need the specific knowledge of God, which comes from Scripture. And, as Anglicans, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. As we read the Bible, we learn who God is, what he wants from us, when and where we should worship him, how we should love him, as well as how we should love our neighbors, and why He cares so much for us—for mankind/His creation. Faith, then, comes from actively studying and committing ourselves to God’s Word, as well as our commitment to a loving obedience of His Commandments. That doesn’t mean we will be perfect. It just means that we are willing without question to allow his grace to work within us.

Lately, I have been receiving the nightly GAFCON Bible devotionals. GAFCON, for those who are not familiar with this acronym, stands for the groups that make up the Global Anglican Future Conference. In their devotional for Tuesday, October 6, Simon Manchester, in talking about faith, states,

“When are we in most danger? Is it when everything goes wrong and we are in danger of doubting God’s commitment to us? Or is it when everything goes well, and we are in danger of ignoring God’s Word to us? Believers have struggled with both situations but surely the difficult times are more likely to drive us to Him, while the easy times are more likely to drive us to a sense of (naïve) independence.”

It is obvious to us, as we read the books of Judges, Kings, and Chronicles, thatwhat this author states seems to be universally true for both individuals and nations. When we are fat and happy, we tend to forget about God, but when we are struggling, we remember to put on our virtual sackcloth and return to Him. This is not how we want to define our faith.

Revelation Media, an organization that produces religious movies, including The Pilgrim’s Progress, tells the following story about how real faith can change even the worst sinners: “George Muller had grown up the privileged, arrogant son of a lawyer. He drank, gambled, stole money, and skipped out on bills which landed him in jail at the age of 16. After his father paid his debt and rescued him from prison, George tried very hard to “be good” to please his father. But, he still lived a secret life of sin that lead him to become very ill. He was confined to his room for 13 weeks. During these early years, he tried to change his conduct, and though he would succeed for a day or two, changing his behavior was just too difficult—impossible even—without a change of heart.

But then, in a small prayer meeting, George Müller found Jesus, and everything changed.page3image46354944

“I gave myself fully to the Lord. Honors, pleasures, money, my physical powers, my mental powers, all were laid down at the feet of Jesus, and I became a great lover of the Word of God.”

Once a man that was corrupted with money, George had only two shillings (about 50 cents) in his pocket when God pressed on his heart to found an orphanage in Bristol, England. After a life of stealing money and asking for it from men, he was determined to rely on God alone. In every need, from building structures to food for the many orphans, he always presented his prayers to God, and never once to other people. In that time, over $7,000,000 was sent to him for building and maintaining these orphan houses. In all the years since the first orphans arrived, the children never had to go without a meal. Not once. Sometimes the meal time was almost at hand, and they did not know where the food would come from, but the Lord always sent what was needed in due time.

George Müller had complete faith that God was good, and he sought to do all that God called him to do. In his time, he built 5 large orphan houses and cared for 10,024 orphans. He began his life giving in to greed and self-satisfaction, but God transformed him to be self-sacrificial. His chief passion and aim of his ministry was to “live a life and lead a ministry in a way that proves God is real, God is trustworthy, God answers prayer.

It may seem easy to trust in the Lord when things are going well in our lives, but when things are uncertain, it can be hard to commit to prayer and trust in the Lord. George Müller exemplified in his life what the Bible calls believers to do: to serve others who need help, and to trust the Lord for His provision to do so. His faith did not waver when met with adversity. Instead, he continued to believe that God his Father would provide—and He did! May we all find this steadfast confidence in God, and may we encourage it in our children.”

Canon Mark A. Pearson is a Reformed Episcopal Priest who operates a Christian Healing Center, called the Institute for Christian Renewal, in Kingston New Hampshire. He visited my former Episcopal Home Parish, Blessed Sacrament, several times, and I always look forward to receiving his newsletters four times a year. In his Late Summer-Early Fall 2020 newsletter, Canon Mark discusses faith in the context of Mark 12, where Jesus tells his disciples, after they see the fig tree which He cursed, that if they have faith in God they can do anything in His name. Canon Pearson then goes on to define faith, and what we must do to maintain it. The following is my understanding of what I think that Canon Mark is trying to tell us. He first asks, “How do people define ‘faith’? He says that in the Bible, it means “The faith” or the body of true as opposed to false doctrine. These truths, as our faith is concerned, consist of statements that are objectively real and are propositional statements given by God which are valid across all ages, and apply to all different subcultures. Jude, for example, exhorts his listeners to contend earnestly “for the faith which was once and for all delivered unto the saints”. Therefore, our faith embraces the “truth” that is given to us by God. And, it is God’s “truth” that sets us free.

So, how do we establish our faith and make it grow?

  • We must embrace Scripture as God’s infallible Word to humankind.
  • We must honor both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as the definitive summary statements of our church.
  • We need to read classic books, like those written by C.S. Lewis, which hold to the historic faith, without compromise.
  • In order for us to properly grow in our faith, we must accept God’s truth before we understand it. As St. Anselm said, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand…If I did not believe, I would not understand.”
  • We need to study and share our faith with other believers who, like us, are committed to the Christian faith.

Besides our faith being defined as the acceptance and application of biblical truths in our lives, it is also defined as our “trust” in what God promises to us, even though what we need seems to be impossible to achieve. Not only must we trust God in the small things, we must also trust him in the big things, as well. Whatever God tells us is truth is also achievable. God does not try to fool us. We need to trust Him even if we are unable to grasp the big picture.

We can only trust God by knowing about him— by reading about him in scripture, by understanding what he has told us throughout history, and by what he has done for His people. We can also learn to trust Him through the testimony of our Christian brothers and sisters.

In our faith-life, sharing is important. It strengthens us, as well as others. Our daily prayer lives enable us to deepen our relationships with God, and through our daily online prayer sessions, we are also learning how to pray with each other and to share our concerns about those who are less fortunate than us. Praying together also encourages us to share our own concerns with God. And, as we serve others in His Name, we allow Him to work through us, as well as in us. We grow in our knowledge of Him, and we begin to more clearly sense his presence and hear His voice.

As we grow in faith and the trust that it engenders, we begin to see God as He acts in the world around us. We also begin to recognize those special moments of divine intervention in our own lives.

Faith is, therefore, much more than just mild hope. As evidenced in the above stories, it is a commitment to something much greater than ourselves. It is a change of heart that makes us willing to accept the fact that God has a plan for us, and it encourages and prepares us for the obedience to what God both desires and expects in us. It inspires us to seek God’s Grace and accept a right relationship with Him; and as we grow in knowledge of God, we begin to see His works around us and then His work in us.

Matthew 21.(23-27) 28-32 | Pentecost 17

John Michael Guiterrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

The Gospel of the Lord

The first year Sunday lectionary lessons after Pentecost have focused on episodes from Jesus’ ministry providing us a compass in the direction of discipleship. As this lectionary year draws to a close, the Sunday lessons will feature Jesus’ most recognized teaching form – the parable. The point of view in Matthew’s selections gives us glimpses of Jesus’ thoughts about the transforming nature of the Kingdom at work in Israel, in the believing community and in the world. 

The literary/theological context for this morning’s parable begins in chapter 21 with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. It is set into the unfolding events that lead to his crucifixion.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where, in a messianic act, confronting the corruption, he flipped the tables of the money changers declaring the Temple to be a “den of robbers” no longer a “house of prayer for all peoples”. Note carefully, he is not arrested so he leaves the city to stay the night in the village Bethany

The next day, Jesus returns to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  Vs. 23 begins the context for our Gospel lesson. The Temple’s leadership, Chief Priests, Elders, ask Jesus the money question “By what authority have you done this in the Temple?”  The real questions they’re asking: “What right do you have to interfere with the Temple’s financial base and rulers”? and “Are you really claiming to be the Messiah”?  If this Galilean country bumpkin is going to engage in messianic actions, then he had better be able to prove that he has the authority. They’re ever so sure he can’t provide it, so they try to force him to make claims he can’t substantiate. 

Jesus moves the authority conversation to first and goal, asking about John the baptizer: “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from the Lord, or of human origin?” (vs. 25). Before his imprisonment and murder (ch. 14.1-12), John had been preaching a message of repentance and baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins (ch. 3.1-5). John was calling for humility.  Repentance is a visible “about face”, an obvious “change in direction”, an act of reorientation in the Sinai Covenant’s geography. And note this development, his message and baptism only set the stage. Something more powerful was on its way: a cleansing/filling/washing by the Spirit (ch. 3.11-12). In this Second Temple period both these ‘charismatic’ experiences were clearly outside the control of religious authorities.

Jesus’ redirected question puts the officials in line for considerable religious/political/financial embarrassment. On the one hand, cleansing ritual was ordinarily in the hands of the Temple’s priests. While there was technically nothing covenantally wrong with John’s ministry, in the eyes of the priestly elite, it amounted to a maverick enterprise. On the other hand, the question trades on the popular regard for John. It suggests there is something lacking in the Temple’s teaching/practices, something questionable.

So over their shoulders we don’t hear them discuss a genuine answer, only cost-benefit calculations:“If we say, ‘From the Lord,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we’re afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet”. (vs. 25b-26).  Clearly the costs are high. The problem is the Templars are not prepared to entertain that Jesus’ messianic act was done with the “Lord’s authority”. What began as an interrogative attack on Jesus quickly became an exercise in damage control. So they bluff:  “We don’t know” (vs. 27).

Jesus escalates the scene’s tension with a barbed “So what do you think”?(vs. 28).  He intends to call their bluff and to push them further. Quickly he recites a parable about a father, two sons and a vineyard. Images drawn from Israel’s cultural/ theological traditions. In first century Israel, family life rotates around the father who is responsible for the family’s well being. Children are dependent on the family and their active support is important. In this story, the father wants his sons to work in the vineyard. The father approaches the first son for his help. He refuses, “Forget it, Pops! I’ve got things to do, people to see, places to go. Then sometime after his father walks away stunned by the shame to his honor, the son’s sense of family obligation gets him to change his mind and he heads out to the vineyard. (vs. 29).  The father finds the second son to send him to their vineyard. This son says “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way”. The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one son knows how to treat the old man with respect. But then, this son stops at the pub for a quick pint with his friends and never goes into the vineyard (vs. 30). 

Jesus questions the Templars again “Which son obeyed the father ”? The way the story is told we suppose the Templars will probably choose the son who said “no” but later obeyed. And we’re right but we also suppose they admit it through clenched teeth (vs. 31). They have played right into Jesus’ hand. Jesus is about to flip their tables identifying them as the second son – the religious authorities who said they would guard the way of justice in YHWH’s temple, but then did not. Jesus points to those who recognize and believe John’s “temple” work “Truly I tell you, the toll collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not trust him, but the toll collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you still did not repent and trust him (vs. 31b-32). These folk have made a genuine change of direction responding to the Lord’s grace. Notice the religious elite are not excluded. Only the order is reversed. They come in second.

This scene is framed to highlight the issue of the failure of religious authority and position in Israel’s temple. Their failure was maintaining the integrity of the temple’s intentions – “a house of prayer for all people” teaching people, leading them in obedience. Jesus isn’t just throwing eggs, rotten tomatoes. It takes real courage for the temple officials to come to grips with the way of justice and face-to-face with position, power, authority, choices and failures. That’s why this scene is grounded in covenant Wisdom literature. This parable’s characters and storyline have multiple points of resonance with Israel’s narrative. Fathers, sons/brothers is a theological storyline laden with shame/dishonor, envy, betrayal, disobedience, struggles for power, and sometimes reconciliation starting all the way back with Adam, Cain and Abel and forward through Abraham and Issac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Aaron and Moses, and David and his sons and on, and on. “Sons” of Israel” and “vineyard” are stock characterizations of YHWH’’s sometimes rebellious, sometimes repentant community. Jesus is, therefore, not asking the Templars merely to comment on fictitious brothers, but to locate themselves within Israel’s covenant story.  This parable is an attempt to show the religious leaders what they’ve done, giving them a chance to change, to repent, to restore the Temple’s covenant intentions.

Now parables present Wisdom in multiple ways. At one level, Wisdom involves intelligence or shrewdness. At another, it is about good sense, sound judgment, and moral understanding. At still another it is receiving instruction and responding obediently. This is Wisdom Literature so no one gets off the hook. In the parable both sons have made errors in judgement, violations of norms, acted disrespectfully and shown self willed arrogance. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Temple’s officials have made errors in judgement, violations of norms, acted disrespectfully and shown self willed arrogance.  

Now the scene might seem hard for us to believe it applies in a direct personal sense. Maybe we think of this parable as a handy moral tale parents can employ to make their boys feel guilty for not taking out the trash. But as good Bible readers we should step inside a scene to see what’s what. On the inside, the parable is about position and authority and how one responds. Although the chief priests and elders have been skeptical of John and Jesus, their continued rejection was their downfall.

So may I remind you what I said earlier that while this scene is framed to highlight the issue of religious authority and position in Israel, it applies also to the community of faith. And remember also in Wisdom literature no one gets off the hook. Wisdom always wants to know “Am I teachable”? So in Matthew’s teaching intention, disciples, you and I, need to come face to face with the parable’s examination of authority, errors in judgement, violations of norms, disrespectful acts and self willed arrogance.  The parable’s point is “It’s all very well to say I believe, but it means nothing if I’m not teachable, if I don’t live it out”. The difference between the sons is not what they say, but what they do. Such an unvarnished parable addresses the stark realities of self-willed disobedience and the inherent need for repentance. Now the temptation might be to identify with the first son like the temple officials. But the disciple is confronted as the tables are flipped by Wisdom literature. In Matthew’s thinking disciples are both these sons. At times we’re the second son: “Lord, Lord. Yes, yes. Sure, sure.” I’m good. And then we disappear. And at times, we’re the first son: “Ah, no, thanks, I don’t think so…/ leave me alone!” And when neither of these works, perhaps, we roll this spiritual excuse off our tongues “The dog ate my homework so I can’t”.

Now here is where it gets personal. I’ll close with some thoughts on the parable’s points about obedience/disobedience, trust, authority and discipleship. I’ll disclose some of Wisdom’s table flipping in my life and encourage you to reflect on yours. Matthew has laser focused on issues of religious position, authority and discipleship in this Temple scene. His questioning of position and authority led me to ponder seriously what I’m doing right now – a sermon. Here, I suggest, is Matthew’s underlying principle: Authority/position in discipleship and community is tested, proved, earned, lived. So the back and forth dialog in this week’s lesson reminds me that neither position nor authority should be taken for granted. Although a position with a history of authority is occupied, it doesn’t mean that authority is granted. It can be rejected, sometimes with good reasons. A preacher is granted a measure of authority. But it seems to me sermons have no authority if they do not compel a community to live their faith in a fundamentally different way, to tell others what matters, what is important, and what makes our lives so compelling so that we draw others in. The message of biblical faith teaches that we live in a disordered world. The problem of evil is a heart problem – a deeply embedded moral problem. The infusion of any social justice ideological chemotherapy will not eradicate that cancer. Gospel proclamation of the “way of justice” teaches transformation, holiness in living. Only Spirit infused biblical truth can awaken repentance in a broken heart. Only Spirit infused biblical truth has healing power. Do you see then the position, the authority to proclaim biblical truth is sacred. And I mean that. To deliver a sermon I have been invited into a pulpit that is holy. As soon as I think I deserve to be here, I have violated that space. The fact is I have been invited in by an authority that exists outside of me – a community of faith. And the burden on me is to earn the trust to be heard. Authority is derived from serving the community. This is why biblical position and authority is so different from what happens in a secularized culture. Secular authority isn’t built on trust or serving. It’s framed on power given to a defined position, on power out maneuvering the other side. And that’s why it is so devastating to the Temple, to a faith community when secular forms of authority/position creep in.  

And here is where it gets really personal. Discipleship is vineyard work. Discipleship involves obedience to the Father’s instruction. Discipleship begins in the vineyard of the household of faith. Discipleship in the vineyard is first and foremost about people. All too often discipleship in the vineyard involves common grace work, compassion work, mercy work, experiencing helplessness and suffering with others work. Here is where I teeter totter between the wisdom parable’s two sons. Perhaps I’ve said “No” too many times because I’m weary. At times during 50 years of ministry, the work has seemed overwhelming, life’s been too full of woundedness, the vineyard has seemed too difficult to care for. Perhaps I’ve said “No” because I take for granted that the Father will find someone else, that someone else’s “Yes” will meet the need to do the work. Perhaps because of my indifference I’ve taken for granted that harvest will come regardless. Perhaps because of my indifference I’ve taken for granted that the vineyard has no need for my labor – my mercy, my love, my caring. Or perhaps it is because I forget that the life I inhabit is also where work is needed, that I am part of a vineyard: I’m in need of nurture, in need of cultivation, in need of the pruning of Wisdom. Whatever the “perhaps…”, whatever the reasons, may my “No” become “Yes”, and my words become deeds. For I’m the Lord’s “Yes” – Jesus’ caring in action, Jesus’ presence in the vineyard which the Father so loves and is bringing to harvest.

Now my beloved may Jesus flip my/your views of responsiveness to discipleship of the Crucified, so that I/you work wisely in his vineyard.

Matthew 16.13-28 | Pentecost 12

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[c] in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. [ 21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. 28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”]

The Gospel of the Lord

Names and name changing are all the rage these days. Not to offend – too much – and in the spirit of political incorrectness here’s my examples from sports. I have micro-aggression about references to Native Americans and persons of color. Let’s ditch Washington Redskins (done), but what about Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns. Obviously, Carolina Panthers were named for the 60’s Oakland, CA militants. New York Yankees offend the South. Do we have a Confederate team name? No! Well. I’m offended by the preference for Roman Catholics over Protestants: New Orleans Saints, San Diego Padres. Then there are team names that glorify toxic male aggression: Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Pittsburgh Pirates! Finally, what about those teams that clearly send the wrong message to our children. The San Diego Chargers promote irresponsible spending habits and long term debt. New York Giants and San Francisco Giants promote a growing childhood epidemic – obesity. Cincinnati Reds promote drug addiction. Milwaukee Brewers. Wrong message to our children.

As my clumsy raid on political incorrectness demonstrates the point isn’t to focus on the name. It’s about the underlying issues. And that’s the point in our Gospel lesson this morning. Our sustained immersion into Matthew in year A brings us this morning to one of the additional episodes giving this Gospel an intensity and power not found in the others. Vs. 17-20 is that well known addition: Peter’s naming play on words. But it’s a matter of narrative context. If we only consider the lectionary’s surgical cut, vs. 13-20 then we will miss the naming interplay in the wider narrative. And that’s why you’ll notice the reading is, 16.13-28, to widen the episode’s theological  boundary. Matthew’s 4th teaching section, ch. 13.54-18.36, narrates pivotal, climactic events in Jesus’ Galilean ministry as he turns toward Jerusalem and the cross. In previous scenes through Jesus’ teaching and healing Matthew prompts disciples, crowds and us to form opinions about this one called the Son of Man. In this 4th section as Jesus interacts with the disciples, ordinary folk and the religious leaders, Matthew condenses and compresses the issues of faith, discipleship, leadership and ministry. Why? Well, the Jewish-Chrisitan community to which and for which Matthew was writing needed to know that their ministry authority had a divine foundation. But they were still vulnerable to missteps. Discipleship and leadership are sometimes “rocky”. Disciples and leaders have their ups and downs. It’s part of discipleship, leadership. 

In the first scene,16.13-20, Matthew has Jesus question all the disciples. The effect is to show us that they are engaged in the hustle/bustle around Caesarea Philippi. They’re tracking with the events and listening to the various conversations. Initially he asks them “what’s the buzz about me, the son of man? (vs. 13-14). 

In answering, the disciples name only positive opinions, like Israel’s prophet Elijah, who did miraculous deeds, who stood toe-to-toe with kings.  For these folk, even the Baptizer, who stood toe to toe with Herod Antipas, was a prophet (Mt. 11.14). Previewing the second scene (vs. 21ff), it is Matthew who inserts Jeremiah, the rejected, suffering prophet, the intercessor for Israel (2 Macc. 15.12-16). Jesus says, “OK, that’s the talk at the village gate and the synagogue, but what do you think? Surely you can do better than this. You’re close to me”. Jesus is asking for an account of what they’ve said, not an answer to a pop quiz. 

Matthew’s Peter has multiple roles: as an individual, as a stand-in for the 12 and as a representative of a wider Jewish-Christian community.  He is an example of Jewish “corporate solidarity” in which a leader represents a group, e.g., the king or high priest representing Israel before YHWH. So we’re not surprised when he takes the lead and speaks up.

The NT’s Peter has multiple names. In the 4th Gospel Jesus initially knew Peter as Simon Cephas. Simon, Hebrew after the patriarchal ancestor, and Cephas, Aramaic for “rock”  (Jn 1.35-42). Eventually the name Peter, Greek for “rock,” ( Mt 10.2) was used routinely by all Gospel writers. Notice Matthew uses the full name Simon Peter (vs. 16) just before Jesus uses the full name Simon Jonahsson (he fishes in Norway in the off season!) (vs. 17). The double name signals to us the seriousness, the gravity developing in the dialog. 

Peter identifies Jesus as “Messiah, son of the living God” but the more nuanced meaning has yet to be revealed in the second scene (vs.21ff). It is one thing to perceive a messianic identity. It is quite another matter to know precisely how it will be lived out. In our lesson, Jesus makes it clear that the prompt for Peter to identify him and his mission was of divine origin. This prompts Jesus to create a word play about Peter’s identity and mission. It sounds like this “You Petros – rock are petra – rock and on this petra – rock, Petros – rock,  I will assemble my assembly” (vs. 18a). The off the top reading of the word play is that “rock” refers to Peter himself. Peter is the person who steps forward, the corporate solidarity representative, confessing a profound identity of Jesus. Upon this “Peter”, Jesus will build his congregation. Continuing the rock metaphor, Peter becomes the first foundation rock upon which Messiah, the chief cornerstone, will build (see Eph. 2:19-20). So Peter has a foundational role. This is recorded quite effectively in Luke’s second vol. where Peter is the initial preacher about Jesus’ accomplishments to Jewish and almost Jewish folk (ch 2), to Samaritans (ch. 8) and Gentiles proper (ch 10). Here is what we can say with reasonable confidence from the NT writings – Peter had a prominent position among the 12 and after the ascension he was a prominent leader in the Jerusalem community during its earliest years (Gal 2) and was also a prominent leader in the Jewish-Christian mission.  Peter is given recognition for being the receiver of revelation but he is still only one “rock” among many. 

But there is a word play here. Word plays are always slippery.  Community and kingdom are bound in Matthew’s conception of Jesus’ mission. The necessity of something unified – a rock – in the newly forming community involves wider recognition. So Jesus begins outlining the authority for the last days messianic congregation. Only after the resurrection/ascension will the community be fully formed, sent on its mission and death’s grip be broken. The “gates of hades” was a common euphemism for death. It’s gripping power.  I realize we often take this to mean that death cannot assault the church.  Gates, however, in the ANE are defensive, protective when closed.  So what Jesus’ resurrection/ascension means here is: the locks on death’s gates have been picked. The gates have been flung open and the Son of the Living God has rushed in to liberate captives. Where once there was the fear of death, there is now life – triumphant resurrection life.

So confessing Jesus as Messiah, son of the living God, not only changes names. It is a world-changing reality. A synchronicity has formed between what happens on earth and what happens in the Lord’s presence. “Keys” and “Binding what has already been bound” and “untying what has already been loosed” in a Jewish context refers to Wisdom’s guidance in discerning the effectiveness in instructing, passing on, interpreting Jesus’ teachings in the congregation. Peter is a “key holder” (Mk 13:34) but he is neither “master” nor “Father” (cf. a close reading of Isa. 22; also Mt 23:9). Staying in my lane, speaking as a licensed contractor, I consider Peter’s role foundational. In a construction project, a foundation is laid down one time and once the forms are removed and the building is constructed it is no longer seen. So I suggest, as a licensed contractor, that Peter’s role is the foundation’s concrete rock pour, so to speak. And staying with the building imagery, keys are to lock and unlock a building property. Once the certificate of occupancy door is unlocked there is no need to keep keys (vs. 19). It’s up to the new tenants.  At the tip of Matthew’s stylus, Peter is disciple, spokesman for the disciples and an integral person to the development and formation of Jesus’ last days community. 

In the second scene, 16.21-28 Matthew again shows us the disciples are engaged with Jesus’ conversations. His ministry is swinging around toward Jerusalem. So He begins to speak about the road ahead “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life” (vs. 21).

A little further in the narrative vs. 24 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. Followed by the famous paradox vs. 25  “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it”. The high point of acknowledging Jesus as Messiah (vs. 16) is now muddied by his talk of dying – everybody dying. Matthew has arranged this scene to follow the previous one in order to shatter any imagined messianic triumph with the difficult path that lies ahead. The disciples fail to perceive any way YHWH’s will could be accomplished by death. For Peter it doesn’t fit easily with his revelation – mysterious, clouded, even contradictory. So great is his astonishment, he recoils rebuking Jesus “May YHWH prevent this from happening” Like a lightning bolt, Jesus rejects Peter’s refusal to accept his understanding with the same forcefulness he had to use in the Wilderness test in ch. 4 (vs. 1-11) “Get back, who appointed you, my adversarial opponent Satan”? This time there was no divine, no revealing prompt from the Father or if there was – he didn’t hear it.

As I’ve noted word plays are always slippery. So Matthew tempers Peter’s dependable role in the first “rock” word play (vs. 18a) with a rock slide. Jesus’  “you’re a stumbling block” can be translated as “stones “(vs. 23). Peter has become loose, slippery gravel on the road to the cross. Whatever the merits of Peter’s revelation – and there are many- vs. 21ff makes clear it is incomplete without consideration of the Son of Man’s, the Son of the living God’s suffering, death and resurrection. Notice the naming set up in the puzzling “son of man” questions (vs. 13-14) has now arched over to scene closing naming – the “ son of man coming as judge” (vs. 28).  But note carefully it is the “suffering Jesus” (vs. 21) that is the linchpin between the Messianic son of man (vs. 13, 16) and the reigning monarch (vs. 28). Messiah was a nationalistic term implying making Israel great again – economically, politically, militarily. Messiah was David’s anointed heir. But this Jesus, this ”son of man” is not a new, improved David, a more powerful political, military king. No, this messianic son of man is the “son of the living God”  “Living” is applied only to YHWH in Israel. Only YHWH has life in and of himself (Ex. 3.14-16). This “son” stands with, shares “living” so completely that in his suffering, death and resurrection he can assure the congregation he is organizing that even death will be pushed back (vs. 18b)

“If anyone wants to follow me….” Jesus wants complete allegiance, loyalty to his kingdom (vs. 24-26).  Disciples must give themselves up, dying to a self-directing life. No more “What’s in it for me? I’ll do it if it doesn’t interfere with family or my own interests” All self-interested paths are to be closed off. The gate to a cross kind of discipleship opens to a narrow path.  

The two questions that Jesus poses  – “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” are questions that everyone who would be a disciple has to face at some time in their lives. They are questions that we have to keep returning to as we learn more – and change throughout the course of our lives. Matthew’s point for disciples: they/ you/I should be teachable, that is, open to a divine prompt, a new direction, a new instruction, and correction – sometimes. This episode shows every disciple that Peter and the others are wrapped up in limitations and understanding, which in itself is not a negative thing, just a normal thing, a disciple thing.

Like Peter and the others, we still hear all sorts of things about Jesus. Eventually, everyone will have to decide what they believe. Biblical faith involves getting things right about him. Certainly things change and grow as we change and grow – indeed, they should. Biblical faith begins, however, by confessing Jesus as the “son of man, the messiah, the son of the living God, who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; who suffered death and was buried: who on the third day rose again according to the Scriptures: who ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father: who will come again in glory, to judge both the living and the dead; and whose kingdom will have no end. That is solid rock! Anything else is a millstone that drowns you or grinds you to powder. Who do you say Jesus is?

May the Lord richly bless your confession, my beloved.

Pentecost IX

The Rev. Steven C. Sterry, M.A./M.B.A.

As we listened to the lessons and psalm for today, we were provided a picture of God’s people both before and after Christ’s resurrection.  Nehemiah, in our Old Testament reading, describes a stiff-necked people who failed miserably to obey even the simplest Commandments of God.  These were a people who either ignored or forgot the miraculous works that God performed on their behalf, as He led them out of Egypt into the promised land.  Psalm 78 describes those marvelous works, which included

  • God dividing the Red Sea so that His people could cross over and be saved from a pursuing and well-armed Egyptian army with their chariots and cohorts.
  • God leading them in the daytime by a cloud and throughout the night with the light of fire.
  • In the barren wilderness God provided water in great abundance.
  • When they demanded food, God gave them more quail than they could consume, as well as bread to satisfy their hunger.
  • The needs of the Israelites were fully satisfied by God for forty years until they crossed over into the promised land.  Even their clothing did not wear out, and their feet were protected, as well.

And yet, the people still complained and disobeyed His Commandments.

  • First, by appointing themselves a leader who would return them back to slavery in Egypt, and then
  • by making themselves a golden calf and worshiping it 

And yet, despite all of their rancor and anger, God who is described by Nehemiah as a deity of “great mercies”, did not forsake the Israelites and, instead, kept His promise and allowed them to enter into that place which is described in the Bible as a “land of milk and honey.”

This description of God as one of “great mercies” carries over into the Gospel lesson, where the Son, Jesus Christ shows compassion on the five thousand gathered to see and hear Him by healing their sick and feeding them with yet another miracle, one generated from a meager supply of five loaves of bread accompanied by a mere two fish.

So, what does it mean to be “stiff-necked?  Webster’s Dictionary provides us with the following:

Definition of stiff-necked


Synonyms include

Sound familiar?  Yes, even today, we are still that, and more.  Just listen to the news, watch the unruly demonstrations and riots, and even go out and drive in traffic.  We are combative, crude, rude, possessive, selfish, uncompassionate, unruly, untrusting, and we possess many other nasty traits that would take hours to enumerate.   The problem is, like those people described in the Old Testament lesson, we have allowed ourselves to fall away from God.  In doing so, like those who ordered Aaron to construct the Golden Calf, we have also lost our moral focus.  Like Isaiah said in Chapter 53, verses 6 through 8, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned-every one-to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all”.  We are guided by our own faulty compasses, and without God we have lost our direction. 

A difference, however, exists between those Jews described by both Nehemiah and the psalm for today and those Jews and Gentiles who, after Christ’s 

resurrection, followed Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles.  That difference is described in our reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”  The answer is “nobody”.  If we rely on Jesus and focus our lives upon Him, we cannot and we will not go astray.  In Christ, we have the Good Shepperd who will find us when we get lost and will bring us back to the flock.

Of course, I am preaching to the proverbial choir.  But, remember, we are not alone in this world.  We are always being challenged and tempted by forces of greed and evil.  We may not be killed all the day long for Christ’s Sake, but in some parts of our world, even this can often be true.  Governments and people everywhere, even here, as well, are attempting to separate us from our love of God in Christ Jesus, by restricting or prohibiting certain religious activities and assemblies.  And, I am not just talking about the COVID-19 restrictions that apply to everybody.  There are many places, including schools and government facilities where we are not allowed to pray or offer praise to God.  Statues which, for us, have religious significance are being displaced or eliminated.  While our secular history is being altered, we may eventually find that our religious history could also suffer at the hands of secular revisionists.

How can we prevent this?  America needs a religious revival.  Each of us, as Christians, must spread the news of the Gospel to others.  It is only through bringing others to Christ that we may participate in the Great Commission that was given by Jesus to His disciples.  And while, during this period of pandemic, it may be difficult to do so, we still have tools by which people can participate in the Eucharist each Sunday and meet for prayer during the week.  We must discipline ourselves, as well as urge others to participate in corporate worship, even if that only occurs on Zoom.

But once this time of trial has ended, congregations of every one of the churches in our diocese need to focus on God’s love so that we may spread the light of Christ to those who have not yet seen and not yet understood.  COVID-19 may have dampened our Easter in 2020, but for Anglicans, every Sunday is an Easter celebration and a time to spread the love of Christ to the rest of the world.  And, what happens on Sunday should continue into each day of the week.  Afterall, we are Christians who are saved forever.

I am truly amazed at the love that I have experienced from members of this parish, and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you while your Pastor, Linda, is taking much needed respite.  The welcome that you have given to me and Montera has been wonderful, and I pray that my three weeks here will be a good experience for all.  May this time serve to strengthen us all in both faith and resolve so that we can show the world the light of Christ and live God’s promise to us of everlasting life.

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-50 | Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

John Michael Guiterrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds[a] of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Gospel of the Lord

I’ve been fortunate in my academic life to have two mentors- one American, one British – willing to take me from greenhorn to experienced cluelessness –  a far better teachable state. A few words, appreciative ones, about the American who started me down a road I’m still on. In hindsight, it was calculated exposure to the literatures, languages, backgrounds and interpretations in Biblical studies. I was his research and teaching assistant for 4.5 years.  But it started off rather awkwardly – for me, at least (although in reflection I suspect he planned it all along). In the week before I began, he handed me one of his ever present 3 x 5 cards with his home address and a date/time – Saturday 6am – with the directive “Don’t be late!” I arrived on time. Gwen directed me down to the study library where Ed was waiting with another 3 x 5 card. Handing me the card, he said  “I need to know how this fits into Biblical studies”. I looked at the card – it was written in Hebrew. Rather meekly, I observed it’s Hebrew. Right, says he. I don’t know Hebrew. Right again, says he. I don’t know how it fits into biblical studies. Right one more time, says he. He then motioned at his library saying “To the degree you don’t know your Hebrew Bible, to that degree you won’t know you’re NT; to the degree you know your Hebrew Bible, to that degree you will know your NT”.  And so it began like a deer in the headlights. It seems to me the mastery of Biblical Studies is beyond what one can achieve in the normal span of a life. I have dared to hope that where expertise has eluded me, responsible incompetency has not.

Little did I realize how Ed’s axiom about the interplay between the Hebrew Bible and the NT would play out for me. Guided deep into investigating the Judaism of Jesus’ day I became aware of two of Israel’s convictions: 

First, YHWH through the Passover/Exodus and Sinai covenant has acted on Israel’s behalf like a father loves a child. The Sinai covenant is YHWH’s written communication of his love, blessing and continued faithfulness, binding individuals into a community. And the Covenant’s institutions with their reasonably detailed instructions regarding obedience/disobedience are intended to make Israel “wise” (Dt. 4.5-8)  

Second, the long, slow historical arc revealing Israel’s jarring, habitual covenantal disobedience – note the cautions leading into our lesson about Solomon this morning (1 Kgs. 3.1-14) – pushed some among them to consider what is holding Israel back from being obedient, being wise. Wisdom Literature in Israel – its proverbs, parables, riddles, poetry, narrative – is that outworking conveniently expressed in the motto “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom” (Pro. 9.10 et alii.) To be “wise” is to be an obedient steward of YHWH’s covenantal kingdom. To be “wise” one should live obediently for the long run, that is, without making foolish choices or taking foolish risks. To be “wise” is about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in the labyrinth of life to identify the paths actually taken. But the Sages recognized wisdom’s obedience is hidden just enough to require alertness, openness to understand – note again the cautions in the wider Solomon narrative (1 Kgs. 3.1-11.43). That’s why parables, Wisdom Literature in general, are oblique. They’re written as a way of seeing into obedience so differently that it can’t be grasped without everything else being turned upside down. Admittedly, Wisdom in Israel is elusive but it’s not code to be decoded. Rather what it means is what it says – teasing the hearer, at times, refusing to answer, at times, thus requiring thinking, silence, meditation before action. Becoming wise in Israel assumes active engagement with covenant instructions. Rich in life experience, wisdom is always cautious. Life learning does not always guarantee wisdom just like graduation does not guarantee education. 

Covenant and Wisdom themes, then, are written large into Israel’s library. The dual aims of Covenant and Wisdom are to put obedience to YHWH’s oversight into working clothes, into the marketplace. 

In our Gospel lesson this morning, we come to Matthew’s  third teaching section “the kingdom’s presence in society” ( ch.11.2-13.52) for the third successive Sunday . In ch. 11 readers get instruction on the claims and character of Jesus as messiah.  In chapter 12, readers get a blunt glimpse of the varying reactions and growing opposition to Jesus as messiah. In ch. 13 readers hear Jesus’ role as “kingdom teacher” featuring Israel’s Wisdom Literature. Generally speaking, Jesus’ parables draw on daily urban and village life, stock character types, and everyday political, social and religious situations. Chapter 13 is Matthew’s arrangement of some of Jesus’ parables in order to explain YHWH’s presence, Jesus’ hiding place in the kingdom, kingdom character and activities and the nature of discipleship.  As a group, these edited sayings picture for us the invasive, exaggerated, hidden presence of YHWH. They lean in the direction of the surprise and delight we should experience when we discover, even stumble upon the hidden kingdom. Wisdom’s wild card in Matthew’s collection: he hopes we ponder our readings, our misreadings, about the kingdom.

This also highlights Matthew’s authorial skill. He has placed two kingdom comparisons next door to each other: the wheat/weeds (vs. 24-30) and the leaven (vs. 33). With similar and yet artful differences he skilfully asks us to read, to reflect, to catch a glimpse of wisdom. Last week we walked through a weed infested wheat field. This morning we find ourselves in an everyday kitchen after a harvest. 

Initially Jesus’ one line parable might read like a run-of-the-mill domestic scene. Baking leavened bread is an image that everything is ordinary, workaday. Nothing unusual here. Ah, but it’s wisdom literature. So there’s more to say. It’s important to Matthew’s authorial intention that we read Jesus’ actual verbal maneuvers carefully. It is important to restore the translated yeast to “leaven” in our language “sourdough” and the translated mixed to “hid” and calculate the triple recipe- 60 lbs. The parable’s point is to overstate the reader’s understanding of “everyday” expectations of things. So score a touchdown for wisdom. Jesus’ verbal maneuver is not about the woman but about bringing leaven and what she does – hides it – into close proximity with the Kingdom. Leaven and kingdom – there’s words with theological baggage in Israel.  Unleavened dough replacing leavened dough at the Passover/Exodus was a mark, a sign, a remembrance for Israel of its redemption, its break from workaday enslavement (Ex. 13.1-10). The Passover/Exodus set in motion the parade ground example of YHWH’s acting on Israel’s behalf. And notice, instead of the expected “kneading” the leaven is concealed, like its counterpart “weed” spread at night by the enemy (vs. 25). It will have its effect. Disappearing into the dough it puffs up everything. 

Now what has “hidden leaven” to do with wheat/weeds? Well quite a lot. First, in these Kingdom parables Jesus teaches that there is another way to tell Israel’s story. What many folk in Israel, including the disciples, were expecting was the triumph of YHWH’s kingdom. That nothing would be hidden. But what they got in these parables was the intermixing of the kingdom. YHWH’s saving acts in Jesus seem to be hidden into everyday life. But, second, notice so thoroughly was the kingdom mixed into culture the differences weren’t clear. Here’s the subtle difference in the two parables. The wheat is the kingdom’s presence in society. Weedy-ness, secreted into the culture, looks a lot like the kingdom. But it’s a demonic, counterfeit, intended to confuse and corrupt YHWH’s kingdom’s character and mission. In the one liner, the dough is the society and the hidden leaven is the kingdom’s character puffing up the culture’s character. Jesus, the hidden leaven, breaks the everyday of the culture with his theology of the cross reigning in weakness, bringing resurrection out of vulnerability and death. One stealth act deserves another! That’s WisdomLiterature for you.   

Now what has “hidden leaven” and “weed infested wheat” to do with us? Well quite a lot. These parables are incredibly insightful descriptions of how cultural corruption and the kingdom often interact and, even at times, seem to be fed in the same soil or dough. But it takes wisdom to figure out how they are different. These parables invite us to consider the complexity of a society’s weedy and doughy -ness and the Kingdom’s presence. So it seems to me it is very timely that we have read these parables, especially the one-line Leaven/Kingdom comparison. 

Politics and cultures come and go. Certainly as Christians, you and I can occupy a place anywhere in the rough terrain of cultural and political life in Tustin,  California, America. We are – every one of us- being faced increasingly with the question of being a good citizen.  To say it another way, we are living in a time of serious clash of fast forming ideologies  – political, sexual, religious. Here’s an observation I gleaned from the Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul: to truly understand a worldview, an ideology, uncover its roots, trace its conclusions. 

Insofar as the community of faith is concerned, from the Right we are confronted by a secular utopian political power that has become adept at using religious words and rhetoric. We must listen carefully because someone mentioning “God” or “prayer” or quoting from the Bible doesn’t mean it’s the same way we use them. And the Right seems to have overlooked the observation that economic actions, questionable displays of authority and power, at home and abroad, militantly rejecting political compromise are susceptible to a prophetic criticism.  

At such a time as this, Christians must understand that the progressive Left’s routes to utopian political power go through race, gender identity, social justice or antisemitism. Careful investigation reveals the progressive Left’s Pandora’s box opens from the wrong side of Biblical truth – neoMarxism. We should not at all be surprised when we hear shrill, loathing scorn for all things Christian: YHWH as a loving father, Jesus dispatched as a savior, a Holy Spirit,  a person’s real identity, support for marriage and family. The progressive tricolor flag – inclusion, diversity, tolerance- is anything but. Progressive activists don’t know how to change the human heart. They have no words for repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation or sacrificial love. The driving forces of progressive ideological politics is political power, the threat of wrongthink, the chilling tyranny of conformity. At some time, in one way or another, each Chrisitan will be handed the drink of progressive kool aid – dissent or hesitate – it puts a target on your back. 

Cautious partisanship, then, for the political Right or Left by a Christian is not that bad of an outcome. This is not Christianity’s first rodeo. As the early church Fathers amply document being a good Christian sometimes meant being a bad Roman. There was a price to pay. Historically, Christian faith has not flourished when occupying the halls of power or when enveloped by the fleeting blessings of a culture’s commercelized materialism. The fact is Christians lose their ability to prophetically address a culture on vital issues. From the early church onward, Christianity has done some of its best work in the face of opposition.  It’s because Biblical faith doesn’t deal with forces driving cultures in the same way. Jesus’ disciples are a priestly community pursuing holiness with Kingdom loyalty and allegiance first. As Christians, we are to love the Lord our God with heart, soul and mind. In the 4th cent. Augustine made an insightful observation. Created in the Lord’s image, every person is sacred. So there is a homing beacon in the heart of every human. Because the “heart’s” true identity can only be formed by a loving Father, a savior Son and a transforming Spirit, everyone will be restless until they find their heart, their love with them. Only in their presence, is there real power.  And we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. When someone fails to love their neighbor, we don’t shame them, cancel them. As Jesus’ disciples we are to leaven America, California, Tustin with good news of sacrificial love, renewed hearts, forgiveness, Spirit transformed personhood. As Jesus’ priestly community we are to help people grow and walk in holiness through some really difficult and complex issues. We are to “leaven” Jesus into sensitive areas of life. We are to help Jesus reach people beyond reach, to rescue people who can’t be free and renew people who are weary and beaten down.

May we, at St. Stephen’s, “leaven” our neighbors long before politically induced, utopian worldviews. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of love. It’s a matter of holiness. As a community of faith, a priestly community in the 21st century we have challenges different from Matthew’s. But here’s Jesus’ wisdom’s question to us: How many triple recipe leavened loaves of bread will we bake using the Trinitarian resources of the kingdom?

May the Lord grant us ears to hear, wisdom to obey, loving hearts, renewed minds, courageous wills and gracious words so that we might “leaven” our society.

Matthew 10.34-42 | Pentecost 4

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ 37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. 40 “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

The Gospel of the Lord

One of the proven benefits of the prayer book tradition is its generous incorporation of Bible texts into all liturgical services.  Especially beneficial is the prominent place given to readings from the Gospels. This is the third Sunday we have read from Matthew 10. I know what you’re thinking after reading this morning’s rather alarming lesson though “it’s only the fourth Sunday after Pentecost so I hope he preaches from the Psalm!” And your right. As recently as this week I’ve said that to myself too “Don’t be a fool. Preach the psalm.” There is another reason for not being a fool, a personal one. This was the Lectionary reading for our wedding.  But here’s two thoughts that I’ve come to understand over the years. First, the lectionary stops me from approaching the Bible, our wedding and you all as if we were all eating in a cafeteria buffett. We don’t get to pick and choose lessons according to taste. The lectionary’s historical rooted-ness guides us in christian formation. This is specifically the issue when we have a lesson such as this morning’s. We don’t want to pass-by, that is, blunt Jesus’ carefully expressed statements. But we do want to put them into Matthew’s teaching context about discipleship. Second, faith, biblical faith, is a transformative gift. And that faith has its path in the biblical text. When the Bible is studied and voiced, faith is repeatedly given in a person’s life. Never separated from its loving Source, faith sets about busily transforming lives.

When you step back and look at the literary- theological architecture of Matthew’s Gospel, you note there are 5 teaching sections tethered by repeated transitional statements (7.28-29; 11.1; 13.53; 19.1; 26.1). Our Lesson sits in the second grouping, ch.8.1-10.42, where Jesus’ teaching about mission unfolds what life is going to be like for disciples once they commit to “gospeling” on his behalf.  I have identified 4 points in ch. 10 that lead up to and help us to hear the “teaching” intention in this morning’s lesson. One: Chapter 10 begins with naming 12 – 1st round draft picks (vs. 1-4). They’ll soon be suited up for their most important role – modeling what a discipleship vocation looks like. As the Gospel expands so does the circle of disciples; so their discipleship opens up to all who would be disciples. Vs. 7-42, pinpoint Jesus’ insistence that discipleship as a vocation and its mission tasks challenge one’s self-identity, integrity, faithfulness. Discipleship is a “sending” vocation. Discipleship as a vocation is not private but necessarily involves others. But Two: Vs. 5-10 are ground zero for Jesus’ teaching. Initially the 12 are sent to “the lost sheep of Israel” under the authority of Jesus (vs.5-6). Eventually, 18 chapters later, the disciples will be  given the go-ahead to “make disciples of all nations” (28.16-20). This is the thematic back and forth in Matthew’s Gospel we as readers need to maintain. For example, vs. 40 gives us a thumbnail of their/our commission “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the One (YHWH, the Father) who sent me”.  Discipleship vocation is to faithfully represent YHWH the Father and the Son. In this commission Matthew’s Jesus is not simply another avenue but the only authorized way to the Father – then and now.  So Three: Disciples are to announce a hope-filled message “YHWH’s new management is coming soon” “Get on board. Get in on the ground floor” (vs.7). YHWH’s lordship is where Israel’s identity, its vocation is defined. Their message is a gracious “peace” invitation, a call to live in a way that will honor YHWH as Father (vs. 12).  That’s why we hear in vs. 8ff. it matters, how they dress, how they carry themselves, how they speak. Jesus sends the disciples out travelling light -under-packed, under funded, reliant on the hospitality of random households (vs. 8b-10). They are stepping into a new pair of sandals, to carry themselves in a very distinctive way. They leave any advantages they might have to get alongside folk in the community. And Four: Discipleship is a “speaking” vocation.They’re entrusted with a peace message. It’s not in their job description to be argumentative when the going gets tough.  If people don’t like what they say, then they are to move on, simple as that (vs. 13b-14). But what Jesus achieved with  “whatever village….if anyone will not welcome you or hear your words ….leave that household (vs. 11-14) was to call attention to a need for a decision for or against the message. Opposition arising in verse 14 comes then from resistance to the message not the messenger, although it can play out as “roughing up the messenger” (vs. 16ff). Make no mistake, then and especially now, the Gospel message provokes opposition, sometimes violence. Do not be deceived. In our culture, the goalposts keep moving.  If you do not conform completely to the latest social demands, you will be reviled, cancelled. May I say to you, faithful biblical proclamation doesn’t buy into secular driven diversity or tolerance. Faith formed around Jesus is neither inclusive nor exclusive. To the contrary, it’s particular, specific. Christian faith could only be inclusive/exclusive if other religious programs say “you can come to the Father by us”. Fact is not one religious or secular program invites you anywhere near a father. It seems to me they don’t want to talk about fathers/fatherhood, family and certainly not Jesus the son as the only way to the Father. But a faithful gospel message says you have a problem with the heart and disobedience. Jesus says he is the only way to the cure, the solution: YHWH the Father, the creator of all things visible and invisible. He’s a father who pays the price, who forgives and who transforms. As far as I know, at the start of our service this morning, Jesus was still the forgiving, savior of the world. You want another solution, then you must go find it.  

So Matthew has edited details about mission and message into ch. 8-10 to bring us to this morning’s theme: While mission in discipleship provokes opposition in the wider culture, the choice of whole-hearted commitment to Jesus and his message sometimes provokes opposition from the most unexpected, most difficult of settings – one’s family members (vs. 21, 35-39).  

If we were to read this morning’s lesson isolating it from chs. 8-10 then we could propose Jesus is weakening family structures while elevating individuals and their choices. That might have legs in some churches. And I suppose we all might agree these sentences are not ones usually quoted when trying to attract people to discipleship or send a couple off happily on their wedding day. But we do well to remember in ch. 10.7-42, what we hear is Jesus teaching those whom he thinks already have the potential to be totally committed to his mission.

Now, what about reading Jesus’ “family values” dictionary from vs. 21 forward? Set in the narrative of ch. 8-10, vs. 21, 35-39 suggest this line of interpretation to me.  It seems to me Jesus’ dictionary “betrayal to death, sword, opposition, enemy, disown, “loves more than me….” cutting across family affections dares us, begs us not to look the other way, not to sanitize these words into merely poor behavior or misconduct. They’re chilling. They’re meant to challenge a disciples’ discernment. Remember, disciples are always to be on the lookout, to be peace-bearers (vs. 12-13). Peace-bearing may touch, even soften hearts. But it might not. The one thing peace-bearing does ensure is that you will not – even with a knee on your neck – have made the mistake of closing any personal doors from your side. So I am suggesting here this narrative actually uncovers matters of the heart, some of the escalating struggles, hurt, tragedy that can be experienced in families – on both sides. The intention, then, is to teach disciples from this “family” example that message and mission should never be separated from/distanced from such awareness. Especially when they are pitched into a struggle for those they love who continue to reject Jesus and his message. The words are intended to be shocking, yes,  but we should be aware of reading too much or too little into them. The point is to focus on the teaching topic in the chapters – choosing mission responsibility sometimes has a dividing, sometimes a disastrous effect. So Jesus is definitely not dismissing violence, not disaffection either and certainly not disbanding the family.  There is no doubt for Jesus – family is fundamental to a disciples’ identity. Jesus’ kingdom message wants to reconcile us to a father, to experience family life. Jesus’ view of family values here is not to diminish but to redirect a disciples’ responsibilities.  Family is no longer regulated only by biological/cultural ties but is now redirected by a disciples’ mission vocation. This is the mission challenge that Jesus lays out – not to elevate a family of origin above discipleship mission so that it distorts and disrupts commitments to Jesus and to other disciples. From my own experience sometimes it’s not easily worked out. 

Mission integrity is now intensified.  In vs. 37ff. Jesus turns to “C” in the dictionary. For the first time in Matthew’s gospel, the cross is mentioned and it’s a disciple’s cross not Jesus’. “Bearing one’s cross” is not about displaying one’s personal problems or life’s difficulties or putting a piece of jewelry around one’s neck- as all too often promoted in our culture. In that Roman political-military setting you don’t speak about a cross in the abstract. I suspect conversations become hushed around the darker reality of its violence. It must have been deeply uncomfortable. But for Jesus it is important to speak plainly, truthfully. Discipleship is not an abstraction. Mission and message will come through the cross. It is a call to faithfulness, responsibility, to self-denial – indeed a “dying to self”.  And that certainly crosses across our culture, where individual autonomy and self-recognition are commercialized as moral imperatives. Jesus says “Whoever does not lift up a cross and follow me is not “worthy” of me. (vs. 38). It seems to me a clearer understanding of “worthy” here and vs. 37, would be ” not measuring up.” or “not useful”. Jesus says in vs. 24 “a disciple is not above his master”.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sets the bar high – suffering for the kingdom. Such a fate comes to a disciple (vs. 32).  Responsible disciples will walk the Calvary road.  If they do not, then, they are not measuring up to the Lord.  If following Jesus meant some of us had to give up eating cheese instead of being perched on a cross or losing one’s family ties, then discipleship would be very easy! The central point of discipleship involves considering the cost of following Jesus. A disciple measures up to Jesus when he is placed ahead of family relationships, even when they become stormy and hostile. It’s a heartache. Jesus doesn’t deny the deep love or obligations between parents, children, relatives, he just requires a clearcut choice for his message and mission. The discipleship road is costly, individually and corporately. So choose wisely.  “Get on board. Get in on the ground floor”

May the Lord richly bless you my Beloved

John 17.1-11 | Sunday after Ascension Seventh Sunday of Easter

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. 6 “I have revealed you[a] to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of[b] your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.

The Gospel of the Lord

In our Sunday context, every year the lectionary places John 17—Jesus’ prayer—as the 7th Sunday of Easter. It falls between the Ascension (last Thursday) and the Pentecost (next Sunday). In Lectionary speak, Jesus has left the building. He has returned to the Father and arranged to send the Spirit. A closer look at our Lectionary reveals Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is divided into three readings: our lesson in Year A is vs. 1-11 but in Year B vs 12-19 and Year C vs. 20-26. For the most part the lectionary sages get things right but today’s numbering isn’t quite what it should be. There is very little disagreement among scholars or readers that the chapter’s themes are best divided: Jesus’ one on one with the Father “ I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” (vs. 1-5), Jesus referring to the disciples at the table “I’m interceding for them” (vs. 6-19) and remarkably Jesus indirectly referring to us “I’m interceding not only for these but for those who will believe” (vs. 20-26).

In the context of the 4th Gospel Jesus is portrayed as a faithful, obedient Jew who repeatedly travels to Jerusalem to participate in Passover – the yearly reminder of YHWH’s saving act on behalf of Israel.

Passover is unique among Israel’s festivals because it is not done in the temple or the synagogue but in a neighborhood, in a household with family and friends. Gathered around a table, led by the father or the oldest son, the folk remember and give thanks to YHWH for having delivered Israel from Egypt and slavery.

John 13-17 describes such a family/friends Passover meal. After a bit of washing up, chapters 13-16 narrate Jesus’ final words concerning the impending tearing of the social fabric of his family. He’s positioning this core group that he has been training—those that had been walking beside him observing his teaching, preaching and healing— to take over his ministry in his absence. In the deepening shadows, he imparts instruction about what is soon to happen, expresses repeatedly concern for their well being and importantly reveals who will hold the group together – the Spirit (16.4b-15). The 14 sentences of our lesson open the closing prayer of Jesus’ life. The prayer in its entirety is a series of sincere petitions and intercessions asking the Father for the help that his siblings (1.12), his friends (15.`14-15) need in the present and would need in the future. The prayer balances two perspectives: the self-focus on Jesus’ /Father’s substantial and secure relationship with that of the disciples and their not quite yet substantial and secure relationship.

Now a few words about our context. Recognizing that the Lectionary has moved the fence posts in the prayer’s first two thematic sections, I have found it difficult not to move the fence posts to encircle the “us” in the third section. Here’s why. The Passover prayer exposes the deeper divine mystery that Jesus has experienced with YHWH as father. It seems to me the Gospel intends to break through to us, to say there is something life-giving, deeper than we imagined in prayer. So we have here a way of looking at the mission of Jesus, the mystery of his suffering and also the depth of our faith and our prayer experience in a prayer bound up in the Passover.

The narrator breaks the hours of Passover table talk by observing Jesus “looks toward heaven” (vs. 1). Making a well known prayer gesture, he turns away from the disciples to speak directly to YHWH as father. The disciples, and we as readers, become listeners for the next few minutes.

Jesus speaks of an “hour” which we readers of the Gospel know is a code word for the cross. He petitions to fulfill his role as the Son who brings honor. If we as readers are to see honor in the crucifixion, then we must see it in a biblical way. The crucifixion completes Jesus’ mission of honoring YHWH. By laying down his life in an act of love he gives himself so completely that we come to know Jesus’ love for and YHWHs love for the world expressed in loyalty, in service and in unqualified obedience (John 3:16; 14:31). About to cross the fateful threshold he looks back over the course of his life and ministry and is able to point to the eleven at the table – the evidence that he has accomplished one part of the task given to him (vs. 2). Jesus the Son honored the Father by completing this part of the mission he was sent to do (vs. 4).

The prayer’s use of “Father” (vs. 1,5,), only true God (vs. 3), Holy Father (vs. 11), and Name (vs.11) is consistent with the Fourth Gospel. On the one hand, in the ancient near east, accessibility to divinity meant accessibility to power and authority. In John’s world, at this Passover table,“father” is a distinctive designation having its rooted-ness in the Exodus/Covenant traditions of Israel worked out as the love of a father for a son/child (Dt. 1.3,8.5,14.1). In calling YHWH “father,” Jesus embodies the only begotten son who can speak to the revelation of YHWH as the only true loving god. In addressing YHWH as father Jesus, the obedient messianic son, speaks to his trust, his confidence in YHWH’s loving fatherly ways. This covenantal relationship—of utter loving commitment—lies at the heart of Jesus’ prayer.

As the “hour” darkens, with every high lonesome word this prayer pushes us toward intimacy. In calling YHWH father Jesus presents us with a sensitive, nuanced relationship. As the elder son he models our parental relationship with YHWH “I pray for them…for they are yours” (vs.9). Parental relationship is at the core of this prayer. Parental relationships worked out in prayer acknowledges there is a supernatural reality around, above and underneath us. Sometimes for me, perhaps for you, when we as parents pray for our child, we come to know that the motivations of prayer are deep, primal. I am suggesting the deeply loving intercession in this prayer made in our favor by Jesus should be dearly, dearly treasured. Prayer, then, is family table talk, voiced in the most profound words we have on the tip of our tongue “I”,”my”, “you”, “our”, “we”, “they”.

The prayer reveals Jesus has been dispatched by the Father with authority to change people’s lives with a supernatural gift: eternal life (vs. 2). In the Fourth Gospel, eternal life is quality of life, not only life after death. It is a way of living now that makes the presence of the Father/Son/Spirit flourish.The life that Jesus offers us is infused with supernatural revelation. It reveals symptoms of what is going on within our heart. It reveals the wounds and brokenness that often stand in the way of life, our entanglement with others, our service. Eternal life is healing, living life as it is meant to be lived – to the full. It is living who we were meant to be, not living life for ourselves only.

In this Passover prayer, then, I am reminded that how and what Jesus prays for reveals a lot. At a very deep level his prayer describes what our worldview, our life,relationships, priorities and concerns should be. Ultimately his prayer reveals an understanding of who God is as a father. In this Passover prayer, I am reminded that I am not the only child. I belong to a family with siblings, an older Son and a Father who loves all of his children. My destiny in this prayer is to be drawn into a community committed to obedience and honor of the Father and the Son. Jesus’ prayer begins to fill out a pattern for me of what it looks like to be a christian in prayer in a community as the Spirit leads.

By way of illustration, I would like to highlight one pattern of prayer from our Sunday service that shapes the character and quality of community.

On the way to the Eucharist table, where we are invited to meet with the crucified and risen Jesus, we pass through the Prayers of the People. For me, the Prayers of the People is a sacred time in which the priesthood of all believers is experienced. It is a time in the service when you and I speak to the needs, concerns and thanksgivings of family, community, workplace and acknowledge those who have gone before us in faith. As we together voice the petitions/intercessions, they begin to draw us, heart and soul, into discovering how deeply we are loved and cared for and how deeply those we are praying for are loved and cared for. Everyone has been hurt by life’s trauma. Part of the emotional power of the Prayers of the People is its ability to unlock human hearts. Don’t we all know that having someone else who knows and cares is an ointment on a wound. Don’t we all feel hugely relieved to have another bear some of the weight, even if separated by distance. It’s grace-filled.

This final sentence of our lesson “Holy Father, keep watch over these you have given to me in your name so that they may be one as we are” (vs. 11) reminded me of the “encircling” attributed to St. Patrick. At the start of a journey or in uncertain situations, a person draws a circle around herself or himself depicting the Lord’s unifying care, praying:

“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,

Certainly, we are always encircled by Jesus’ unified protection in the midst of the world in which we remain but to which we do not belong, but note the prayer’s final lines

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me”.

– when we unite ourselves with others we can have added confidence in challenging times.

May the Lord richly bless you my beloved