Tenebre:  Service of Darkness

The last 7 sayings of Jesus on the Cross

The service of darkness is a reflection of Jesus’s crucifixion and death. The service begins with the lighting of seven candles. As each of Jesus’s last sayings is read, a candle is put out. The service ends in silence and darkness.

There is a Taize chorus that will be sung before each saying. This chorus should be repeated three times.

Taizé song, Jesus Remember Me

Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom

Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom

Luke 23:34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

This phrase could sum up the human dilemma.  We do not know what we are doing.  Not just then but now as well.  There is a question that is used in helping people to understand what we do.  It has to do with rules and expectations.  If you own something, if it is yours, do you have a right to set the rules for its usage?  If the rules are broken and your property is harmed, do you have a right to be angry?  This is God’s world, and we are God’s creation.  He has set his rules and we break them.  Still, God loves us.  In the OT, the psalmist asks the question, “Who are humans that you are mindful of them?” We are earthen vessels (jars of clay) whom God has chosen to place great treasure. (2 Cor. 4:7)  But we are sinners in need of forgiveness, every single one.

First candle is put out. The chorus is sung.

John 19:26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,”

Even in the pain of dying, Jesus’s concern was not directed just at himself, but at those whom he loved.  He calls on his disciple to care for his mother.  Jesus was always fostering relationships of caring.  Now there are many people who worship Mary, and I believe she should be honored, as the highly favored of God, but honored not in a manner that would distract from her Son.  Perhaps the best way to honor Mary is to honor what she said in John 2:5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”   He tells us to deny ourselves, take the cross and follow him.

Second candle is put out. The chorus is sung.

Luke 23:43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Two men were crucified with Jesus.  They were both criminals, duly tried and convicted, facing the justice of Rome.  One was hateful and angry.  He would not go gentle into the night.  He cursed and let his passionate poison flow from himself toward the Lord.  You saved others, save us, he sneered in a mocking and vengeful way.  The other thief had come to realize that he reaped what he had sown.  He knew he was about to face God and he was afraid.  He tried to remind the other thief that this was not the time for remonstration but for repentance.  He was looking for hope and he found it right there next to him.  His life was not one of holiness or service.  He had not been a good person.  Surely his fate was sealed, but when he turned to Jesus.  He found not condemnation but comfort.  Not judgment but grace.  Even in his last hour he is snatched from the evil one and given the gift of God. 

Third candle is put out. The chorus is sung.

Matthew 27:46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”– which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These words are some of the most troubling in Scripture.  How could Jesus feel abandoned?  How could he doubt his father’s love?  We must be reminded that Jesus is human like us.  He had emptied himself of his divine power in order to face all we face, even the dark night of the soul.

Again we see how much Jesus suffered for us.  Did God abandon him?  No, for Jesus and the Father are one.  God’s silence is a part of God’s suffering, suffering from love as humanity is given hope through the agony of his son.

Fourth candle is put out. The chorus is sung.

John 19:28 Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”

Thirst, is a human need.  Again, we are reminded that this is not an act, this is not a shame, this is real suffering, real agony, real pain.  His thirst is not near as great as our thirst would be if he had not gone through this.  For there is a thirst for God within each of us. Only Jesus and his sacrifice can begin to quench this thirst.

Fifth candle is put out. The chorus is sung

John 19:30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

It is finished.  Jesus had won the battle.  The temptation to not go through the cross has passed.  He is beyond the pain.  He is facing the final moments.  Finished.  The debt he did not owe is paid; the debt we could not pay is redeemed.  But what a price he paid.  What a work he did. No great love has anyone than to be willing to give up our life for theirs. Jesus did for us.

Sixth candle is put out. The chorus is sung.

Luke 23:46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last

Folks, God has tasted death.  God has gone through the portal.  God has faced humanity’s greatest fear and foe.  Jesus gives up his life.  It has not been taken, for he could have come down from the cross.  With a word, the angels of heaven would have rushed to his aid, but he would not allow it.  He needed to show us how?  He knows what he must do, what he has always done. Jesus will trust the will of the Father.  Darkness now covers the land.  Jesus has descended into death.  He will preach to the captives. He will await the power of God to bring him out of the grave.  But for now, all seems hopeless.  The disciples are defeated, the crowd pacified, and the leaders still have a little apprehension, but the threat seems over.  But it is not.  We await the sequel.  We await the third day. 

Seventh candle is put out. Chorus is sung.

Depart in silence (if with a group). Spend some time in silence if doing this as a personal devotion.

The Clandestine Educator: TV in the Modern World

Since its inception, television has captured the cultural imagination. Outside of work and sleep, it is now the primary preoccupation of most Americans. Individuals consume upward of five hours of TV daily, even more when taking into account viewing done online and on mobile devices. TV is so ingrained in the fabric of everyday life that it can’t help but function as one of the primary means through which we make sense of our lives and the world.[1]

I quit watching my favorite television shows, Big Brother and Survivor. I really did enjoy these “reality TV” shows and that was my problem. I enjoyed watching a program for entertainment that promoted lying, deceiving, and manipulating others in order to win a monetary reward. Now, please do not think that I am judging others who do watch these programs. The Holy Spirit was working on me, and I can only speak to the Spirit’s action in my own life. God does deal with us individually.

But in all honesty, to watch TV is to risk being entertained by a make-believe world in which sin is not often considered and which promotes a worldview that is contrary to the morality that comes from growing in the Christian faith. Cohabitation is taken for granted. Adultery is considered commonplace. Violence is glorified. Lying is an accepted practice. The act of killing another human being is just part of being entertained. Often, the Christian faith is portrayed in a bad light. So why should someone who is serious about their Christian faith not be concerned about how this type of entertainment influences them? This is just a question but a question I believe we should do some serious reflecting on.

We cannot escape TV. Even if we throw our TVs away, we will still encounter the screen that influences so much of our time. We can recognize its influence and we can decide how we will screen the screen.

I have come up with some questions for myself. Perhaps these questions can be helpful to you in deciding what you consider entertainment.

1) Would I watch this show if I was aware that Jesus was sitting beside me?

2) What do I find entertaining about what I watch?

3) How do I feel about the accepting portrayals given to what is taught in Scripture as being immoral?

4) Is my faith being insulted or mocked in the programs I watch?

5) Do I care about who is made the victim or do I ignore victimization on TV?

6) Do I reflect theologically on the programs I watch?

7) What would someone be led to believe about me by the TV I watch?

I am sure you could come up with other questions that would make you a more discerning consumer of television programming. I do believe it is important to our spiritual development to be aware and discerning about this clandestine educator that takes up so much time in our culture.


[1] Watching TV Religiously (Engaging Culture): Television and Theology in Dialogue, Introduction

Aren’t You Afraid of Rejection?

I have had some friends that worry about me. They are afraid I am setting myself up for a fall. They are afraid that if I do not find a church to serve that I will slip back into the darkness and self-doubt that lead me into the crisis of a few years ago. I can fully understand their concern. As I stated in a previous blog, I face an uphill battle in our current culture. Everything from my age, my defeats, and my struggles make me a not-very-likely candidate to pastor a church. One friend even told me I was trying to reinvent myself again. I replied to this friend that if I was trying to reinvent myself, I hope I would fail miserably.

I am seeking to serve again because I have felt a movement of God in my soul to do so. This gives me all the confidence that I need to pursue this path. Also, God has given me a gift. The gift is that of patience. I am not going to go into panic mode if I do not immediately get an invitation to return to the pastorate. The very fact that God wants me to seek is good enough for me.

I have already faced a multitude of doubts and fears. I have already faced waves of discouragement and disappointment. These have come during attempts by the enemy to bind me to desolation. However, I know that desolation does not come from God. I will not let the enemy’s efforts overcome me. God has made me a promise that I now fully understand. God will not forsake me, abandon me, or give up on me. God will act in my favor. The Holy Spirit of God lives in my heart. God will not make a church call me. God does not work in this manner. I would not want God to work in this manner.

I have never felt closer to the Lord than I feel now. Even though I now live on the edge of poverty, living with the physical challenges that aging has brought into my life, and must contend with mean memories, I know God loves me. I know that the time I have now I have because of God. I have been given the opportunity to learn how to love more deeply. I have learned that the mean memories do not define me. I know that I can find peace no matter what situation or circumstance I will face.

I have learned to reflect. I have learned to contemplate. I have learned to meditate. I have found prayer much more satisfying. I am a traveler on a spiritual journey. I have discovered which paths are beneficial and which lead to snares and traps. I know I do not walk alone.  I feel certain there is a church, a gathering, that can benefit from my experiences and knowledge granted to me by our Lord. It may take a long, long time to find somewhere to land. Until that time I will rejoice in patience, promise, and the purpose that God has given to me. I will write sermons and blogs. I will witness and love. I will study and be ready.

People used to say, “If you see David and a bear get into a fight, pray for the bear.” Now, I have no doubt the bear would win, but instead of fighting the bear you will see me striving to feed the bear. Such are the blessings of God.

Sermon for Palm Sunday

Luke 19: 28-40    Fickle Friends and Focused Foes

I love watching people when they gather at the church on Sunday mornings.  As I see people who are once again comfortable hugging, shaking hands and smiling at one another without the need of a mask it is obvious that there are many friendships among those who attend church. I am thankful that most people took wearing a mask seriously during the pandemic, but now we are starting to wear them less. We should always put the safety of others above our own convenience. As believers, we need to keep this forefront in our thinking.

I have a question. What exactly is a friend?  I am sure if I were to ask you to define the meaning of the word “friend”, there would be as many different answers as there are people here today. Some of us only have a very few people we call friends. Others of us would say anyone who’s not my enemy is my friend. The definition does depend upon the person making the claim or assigning the title.

Social networking has become a big thing in our culture. With social media, to be a friend means to accept someone who sends you a friend request.  Then, if they make you mad or you just want to ignore them you can click an icon on the computer screen and defriend them. 

Some people would likely admit they have friends they have never met in person. They are “friends” on social media.

I believe a friendship is a relationship.  It can be a deep, intimate involved relationship or a simple shallow acquaintance. When a friendship is deep, it is a form of love.

In fact, the Bible states, no greater love has anyone than their willingness to lie down their lives for their friends. To give one’s life would be a very committed friendship.

But would we be willing to give our lives for someone who did not like us, someone who considered us an enemy?  Not very likely.  Many people find it hard to be civil to someone who does not like them, much less be willing to make self-sacrifice on their behalf.

Yet, this is exactly what Jesus did.  The scripture states, “while we were yet enemies of God Jesus died for us”, so great was his love for each and every person who ever lived.  In reality, we worship God who loves.

Still, some would say, I don’t care what the Bible says. It is just an old book of myths and legends that people believed before our modern scientific age gave us better knowledge.

Forgive my thoughts but I am amazed at how arrogant people can be in their ignorance. I know the words arrogant and ignorant are harsh, but they need to be because of the damage that can be done.

The insights we can gain from the Bible regarding God’s love have been proven true experientially over the centuries and still teach us more about life-and-death, love, and hate, good and evil, hope and hopelessness, than any other knowledge human beings have been able to acquire.  This knowledge can change our lives or our circumstances and give us answers and assurance that transcends mere facts or philosophies. It is the knowledge that is experiential.

Today, on this Palm Sunday, we focus the account of Jesus’s arrival at Jerusalem. Today is the beginning of Passion Week, the last week before Jesus’s crucifixion.

In the passage, we find Jesus interacting with three different groups of people. He’s interacting with his disciples, the crowd, and the religious leaders who are there wanting him to just go away. In this encounter, we find both fickle friends and focused foes amid them all.

In the account, Jesus sends some of the disciples on a mission, a special task, to get a donkey.  Even though this directive seems strange, they willingly comply. This is what a disciple does.

You hear the word disciple a lot at church. What exactly is a disciple? It is someone who’s dedicated to learning from a teacher.  Someone who is committed to following and learning.  Someone who seeks to become like the one they are following.

It is the purpose of the church to make disciples. Jesus’s last command to his followers was, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.  (Matt. 28:19-20 CEB)

Since this is the task of the church, the forces that work against humanity have done everything possible to get the church off track concerning its disciple-making responsibilities. Thus, the church is growing weaker, and more and more people do not get the blessing for the resources to spiritually thrive.  The result of this failure produces the multitude of social, moral, and spiritual problems human beings face today.

The disciples traveling with Jesus have seen Jesus reveal the wonders of the kingdom of heaven. They followed Jesus, often stumbling, and staggering on the way, as he taught and demonstrated the will of God and the way to God. They had insight and what Jesus could do through their experience with him and their desire to follow him faithfully is confirmed in their attempts at obedience whenever Jesus asked them to do something. The disciples who were sent to get the donkey found that donkey exactly where Jesus said it would be in the question that was asked they responded exactly as Jesus told them to do and as usual everything went just as Jesus said it would. When Jesus speaks what he says will be.

This is the most important aspect of faith. Faith is not just believing but knowing that God will do what God says God will do. It is the decision and commitment to be a friend of God in the deepest sense.

But one of the disciples was a fickle friend who became a focused foe.  Judas became dissatisfied with Jesus and then became a betrayer of Jesus.  In Matt. 26, just four days later, we are told, “His betrayer (Judas) had given them a sign: “Arrest the man I kiss.” Just then he came to Jesus and said, “Hello, Rabbi.” Then he kissed him.  But Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came and grabbed Jesus and arrested him. (Matt. 26:48-50 CEB)

Many people will say they are your friend if they can get something from you. These are the fickle friends of life. However, once you don’t have anything they want they move on to someone else. A whole lot of people think they can be a fickle friend of God and if things are going their way, they are fine, but as soon as they don’t get what they want they are upset. Usually, they blame God, blame the church, blame life, however, the real problem is with their hearts.

Many people join a church, walk down an aisle, and prayed a prayer; believing God now owes them heaven. Maybe they listen to some preacher who was after numbers called decisions.  Maybe they are fed a line about cheap grace and easy believe-ism have never been taught to be a disciple of Jesus. I really feel sorry for those who have been so deceived. They are like people who buy insurance from a con man to find out later that it is worthless.

I encounter people in crisis who cannot understand why God let whatever happens to them happen. Then they get mad at God because their faith does not sustain them. It is not God’s fault.

God has told us what is required. If we are to be God’s disciples, we must be willing to trust, even to the point of caring our own cross. When we make a true decision, however, it is not long before we realized just how good and true God is. God will be our friend.  Again, I stress when Jesus tells us, it will be!

The next people we meet is the crowd. These folks want to make Jesus a king but a week later they will cry crucify him. The crowd can be a very fickle friend who can become a focused, very focused foe.

We live in a time of crowds. The crowd consumes. The crowd becomes the wave of culture. The crowd thinks it should get its way. The crowd worships its own way. There is no darker dictatorship in this world than the dictatorship of the majority.

Crowds are not our friends. A deceptive person or persons can manipulate a crowd. A crowd is easily used. The crowd wanted to make Moses take them back to slavery in Egypt. The crowd was implicated in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is the crowd, manipulated by the religious leaders, which will force Pilate to order Jesus’s death.

Today the crowd wants to be entertained. The crowd wants to accept that which God says is unacceptable. Too many crowds are manipulated by the prejudices of past and present, by the pandering politicians, and by the phony promises of commercial corporate culture that push us to the point of selfishness and away from God.   We wonder why things are as bad as they are. If you are part of the crowd, you have the risk of compromising your soul.

The last group is religious leaders. These are the keepers of the status quo. These leaders seek to manipulate the crowd. They tell Jesus to shut the people up.  They are not friends of God.  Their interest is themselves.

When religious leaders are concerned more about their positions, their profits, and the privileges they believe they are entitled to, the church suffers from scandals, decline, and corruption. Look at verse 39.

They cannot even tell the disciples from the crowd they are so myopic in trying to save their own status. They have forgotten their purpose.

When we forget our purpose.  When we ignore God’s love and grace, we are not friends of God.  When we treat God as a commodity, a status symbol, or simply another way to try and make ourselves better than other people, we are at the best fickle friends, shallow in every way, but more likely foes who are focused on our own agendas.

This is not a good place to be. 

In the book of Jude, the Scripture starts, “But you, dear friends: build each other upon the foundation of your most holy faith, pray in the Holy Spirit, keep each other in the love of God, wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will give you eternal life. Have mercy on those who doubt. Save some by snatching them from the fire. Fearing God, have mercy on some, hating even the clothing contaminated by their sinful urges. (Jude 1:20-23 CEB)

This is what it means to be a disciple.  This is what it means to be a friend of God.  Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn. 15:14 CEB)

There is no better time than now to decide, to commit, to give your all to become a friend of Jesus, a friend of God.

The 70th Psalm and the Monks of the Thebaid

There is a paraphrase at the beginning of Palm 70 that makes the following plea, “O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me!” This prayer of pleading is used as the beginning invocation in many devotions and office hours (scheduled times of prayer) that people use in prayer. The Psalm itself is a prayer of pleading concerning the enemies one is facing. This is a prayer for rescue. It is not a prayer for strength, for courage, for perseverance, it is a pleading to God because only God can change the outcome. There is nothing we can do and everything we can do. We can pray.

Can we really change the outcome? This is the wrong question. The right question is, “Can God influence this situation; respond to this prayer? Do we believe God will consider our cry? A prayer willing to trust, “Not my will Lord but your will,” is that needs to be God’s need for us to understand.

From the fourth century A.D., the desert Thebaid of Egypt was the home of thousands of monks and nuns who made the desert a city peopled with Christians striving toward heaven in the angelic way of life.[1] This prayer from the beginning of Psalm 70 vocalizes the real struggle we face every day. Our existence in this world is one of physical struggles and of a spiritual struggle every day of our lives. Psalm 70 speaks to the very real possibility of threat, a feeling of coming despair, and the fear we encounter when we realize we are not in control. We often just do not realize how much we are embraced by God’s grace and control in this world. We live in a relationship with a God who is always working for our good. Not through force but with the influence of faith.

A ritual of prayer invoking the fast intercession and immediate mercy can help us maintain a good anchor for the discernment of God’s desire for us daily. Such is the gift of information and aid of the contemplative practices of believers of the past. In this way, we do not just connect, but build roots.


[1] sjkp.org/products/the-northern-thebaid-monastic-saints-of-the-russian-north

An Attitude of Attention

My lectio time today was spent on the Gospel reading from Year C for March 23, 2022. In this passage, Jesus is tying himself to the faith of God’s people. Jesus is making a commitment to keep the law and use it properly. In this passage, Jesus warns those who would “edit” the commands of Scripture they are hurting themselves. I love the ESV Bible’s translation that uses the word relax to describe what this editing does.

No one knows the dangers of fundamentalism more than I do. I know how it can seem like a lifejacket but then changes to a straitjacket as it hardens our hearts and turns us into Pharisees and Sadducees. I know how the Bible can be used as a tool of indoctrination rather than illumination. But I have also seen how, in the name of popular theology, the Bible’s instructions and directions are called old-fashioned, legalistic, irrelevant for our cultural setting.

The first recorded temptation in the Scripture was one of taking a “relaxed” view of the instructions given to human beings by the Lord, “And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ “But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. (Gen. 3:2-4 ESV)

I recently sat through a seminar in which the speaker claimed that, especially in the Old Testament, the writers made mistakes. They got it wrong. But we, with our modern scholarship and “new” philosophical insights do not have to pay attention to those difficult passages. We can edit them. We can help to relax them. We need to do whatever we can to make the Bible fit us rather than trying to get us to fit the Bible. We must make the Bible fit into our version of relevant.

I think I would rather just say that there are certain things in the Bible I do not understand nor believe we can ever understand this side of eternity. I am not afraid of mystery. I am not intimidated by the words, “I don’t know.”

I fully understand that each of us makes choices about what we accept as truth, as guidance, as direction, and expectations from the Scripture. Each of us has been created with the power of choice. Through choice, we decide what we will have faith in and what we will not. Jesus speaks of the fulfillment of the law. Do we believe Jesus? This is a choice of faith. If we look for reasons not to believe the Bible, we will find them. If we look for reasons to reject the Bible, I have no doubt we will succeed. There will always be tares (weeds) among the wheat. There are always reasons to doubt.

I prefer to take the path of knowledge that I can confirm and trust. The vast majority of the Scripture speaks about the blessings God gives. If speaks of God’s patience and of God’s unconditional love. The commandments and directives of Scripture give us parameters and insights into how to live the best life we can. I have yet to discover a relaxing of any commandment as beneficial to me or others. I fact, I have found the opposite to be true. The more I grow in the gift and skill of discernment, the more I realize just how much the commandments and directives save me from suffering and pain.

I can live with mystery. I do not worship at the idol of certainty. I can live with some confusion or lack of understanding. I cannot abide by an attitude of judgment and control. I ask God that I not be tempted to relax any part of the law. I ask God to help me with issues of unbelief. I am grateful for the blessings I have received from my faith in a world filled with skepticism. I am thankful for an attitude of attention that leads me to trust God’s word rather than edit it on my own.

An Apophatic Prayer

Happy those who can make this prayer their own:

Christ, you see who I am. For me, not to hide anything in my heart from you is a necessity. You were a human being, too. And when my inner self seems to be pulled in a thousand different directions, my thirsting heart reaches the point of praying: “Enable me to live a life rooted in you, Jesus the Christ; unify my desire and my thirst.” [1]

This is a sound prayer. This is a prayer of a desire that has the potential of leading what I believe is the right direction. A prayer of desire that mirrors the desire of God for us.

I recently added a spiritual practice to my own life for Lent. I use the first part of the breath prayer and the prayer Jesus repeated in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but thy will.” If Jesus found comfort and nurturing strength during a difficult time of spiritual endurance, then I feel I can trust such a repeated prayer to be able to help me.  This is what I pray as I breathe in, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and when I breathe out I pray, “Lord not my will but thine.” I use this form in apophatic prayer twice a day when possible. I do find it to be a source of comfort and assurance in this prayer. It is a practice worth exploring.

Just a brief note to share with others traveling on the Way.


[1] From <http://www.taize.fr/en_article75.html>&nbsp;

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12:1-8    What Do You Think About Most?

In the book of Romans, Paul makes the following statement, “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:5 CEB)

In the book of Philippians, the Holy Spirit leads Paul to write, “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.” (Phil. 4:8 CEB)

In our passage today, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are hosting a meal in honor of Jesus.   They want to honor Jesus because Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead.  Good reason to honor someone. 

The gathering takes place at the home of Simon, a man who had a skin disease and was likely healed by Jesus.  Why at Simon’s home and not Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’s?  The account does not tell us the reason, but the most likely home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus was too small. 

Who else attended this gathering?  There is no guess list, but in Matthew and Mark the versions indicate the disciples were there. 

Our passage tells us Martha was doing what she loved to do, serving the guest and Lazarus joined the people at the table.  However, Mary, dear sweet Mary, does something unusual.   She comes in with a jar of very expensive perfume and wipes Jesus’s feet with it. 

Now, we might think this is very strange behavior.  Perfume on the feet?  I could be wrong, but today, a man might wear cologne but not many would embrace perfuming the feet.

Before we judge Mary to be just short of a full deck, we need to remember what it was like to live in that culture.  They did not have air conditioning.  They did not have electricity.  The only fans they had worked by human muscle.  There was no sewage system, clothes received washing by hand and most people could not change into new clothing every day.  Needless to say, the odor in a home, a room, could be at times unpleasant. 

Our passage tells us, “The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume.” Mary’s gift not only was an act of love to Jesus but a gift to all who were present as well.  Still, Mary’s act of love causes agitation in some.  Judas is especially upset.  In Matthew’s account, the disciple is angry.  In Mark’s account, some of the disciples are angry.  John puts his focus on Judas and then tells us why Judas is angry.  John tells us Judas was a thief.  John affirms what Paul writes, “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.”

I am sure some of the disciples heard Judas complain and some likely agreed.  Why did Jesus let this happen?  Was all Jesus’s talk about caring for the poor just a political ploy? 

Make no mistake, Jesus cares for the poor.  God cares for the poor.  God knows their plight.  God speaks to us of embracing empathy and compassion toward the poor. God is very much aware of injustice, inequality, and oppressive systems that benefit a few at the expense of many.  Jesus did not grow up in a wealthy house.  Carpenters had to work hard for low wages to survive economically.  Jesus knew what it meant to be poor.

The Psalmist writes, “Because the poor won’t be forgotten forever, the hope of those who suffer won’t be lost for all time.” (Ps. 9:18 CEB)

Proverbs tells us, “Those who exploit the powerless anger their maker, while those who are kind to the poor honor God.” (Prov. 14:31 CEB) and, “Those who close their ears to the cries of the poor will themselves call out but receive no answer.” (Prov. 21:13 CEB) Jesus himself said a key part of his mission was, “The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” Which is from Isaiah 61:1.

In addition, let’s not forget what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus raised his eyes to the disciples and said: “Happy are you who are poor because God’s kingdom is yours.” (Lk. 6:20 CEB)

So this is not a situation of Jesus backtracking.  The issue is not the poor, the value of the perfume, but the action of Mary and what motivated her to do this.  Mary had been attacked before for how she responded to Jesus.  When Jesus visited Mary and Martha the first time, Martha criticized both Jesus and Mary for not worrying about dinner.   Martha came to Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.” (Lk. 10:40-42 CEB)

Mary had made a discovery.  Mary had discovered that as one listens and learns from Jesus, one got closer to God.  Mary discovered putting one’s focus on loving Jesus made an incredible difference in one’s life.

So, when Judas tries to make Mary feel guilty about lavishing this expensive perfume upon Jesus, (which also made the room more pleasant for everyone else), it did not get to her because she had chosen the better part. 

In Matthew and Mark, both accounts also add the following, “I tell you the truth that wherever in the whole world this good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matt. 26:13 CEB)

Mary’s thoughts, her actions, her focus was on Jesus.  She grasps the importance of his life.  She craves insight into his message.  She accepted the affirmation he gave her that she had chosen the best path. Mary wanted to give Jesus her best because of the best Jesus gave to her. 

How much did that perfume cost to rub on Jesus’s feet?  Mark says three hundred denaria with a denaria being about a day’s pay.  Luke states it was 500 denaria.  John says it was worth a year’s wages.  But for Mary, the opportunity to love Jesus is priceless. For those who can imagine what it would have been like to love Jesus as Mary did. Imagine being able to look in his eyes, to feel love directed to you by the One who is Emanual, God with us. The One who is the beginning and the end. Mary was able to experience Jesus, the one, we all are seeking to know as deeply as we can.

God gives us grace, forgiveness, and hope.  Jesus gave us his life.  The Holy Spirit gives us guidance and spiritual gifts.  And what does the trinity ask from us?  We are asked to accept the love and to be restored to the person we are created to be. We are invited to an ancient dance of dancing with God.

“People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:5 CEB)

Mary was thinking and acting on a love for the Lord.  What do we spend the most time thinking about?  What is the most important commandment a person can fulfill?  Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mk. 12:29-30 CEB)

Finally, let us follow the example of Mary as directed by the Holy Spirit, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is– what is good and pleasing and mature.  (Rom. 12:2 CEB)

It is time for God’s people to give ourselves over to thinking, “What can we do for our God, our Lord, who has done so much for us.” There is a group of believers in Dallas who say, “let me extend an umbrella to you.” What an umbrella of love Jesus extends to Mary.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus, therefore, came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So, they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table.  Mary, therefore, took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” “He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (Jn. 12:1-8 ESV)

Each day, we can be like Mary. We can be like Mary when we are showing love to the least of these and thus doing then for Jesus. Each day. Maybe we can begin to think of Jesus more and more.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Prodigal Son, this story is perhaps one of the best-known parables Jesus spoke. It is a story that resonates with forgiveness and acceptance. Yet, this parable would have been shocking to the people who first heard it. Why, because it violated so many of the cultural norms of Jesus’s day. First, there was the emphasis the culture put on honoring one’s parents. Both sons did not seem to do so. Then there is cultural theology that believed you reap what you sow. Also, in this culture, it was the older brother who was supposed to be celebrated and not the prodigal. So, in many ways, this parable in Jesus’s day was all kinds of wrong.

The word prodigal is not a word we often use. It is a word meaning spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant (I looked it up). Why would Jesus use this parable? Jesus is striving to let people know about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is where all are welcome, where all can be restored, where all are loved no matter what has happened in the past. This parable teaches us about what it means that God is love.

In Jesus’s day, and in ours as well, it is easy to make God into a cultural symbol, a spiritual abstract. The Pharisees and Sadducees used the idea of God to build a religious system and a social control device. They believed they could manipulate the concept of God to serve their interests. They even felt a need to defend God. A god who needs defending is not much of a god at all. These symptoms of spiritual dysfunction seem to still be with us today. God does not want to be a perception but a being who personally cares for us regardless of anything. A God of limitless compassion and patient perseverance.

But what about the questions. Questions can easily arise from this parable. Why did the son want to leave the father’s home? Why did he think he could ask for the money? Why did the father give it to him?

We can also focus on what happens to the young man. How can he be so naïve, so taken in by so-called friends who only want to take advantage of him? Perhaps we can identify with the young man in some of our own foolish choices. I know I can. Was he angry for how he was used? Was he bitter? And then, when “he came to himself” was this not just more a matter of his own self-interest? Was he truly sorry for what he had done? What are our thoughts about this young man?

Then there is the resentment of the older brother. Perhaps some of us can sympathize with his feelings. Have you had feelings of being treated unfairly? Can you think of times you were bitter against someone to whom you are related? Have you ever felt you were owed more for your efforts?

This older brother seems to be caught up in his own party, a pity party.

Sometimes the privileged get upset when they are not recognized for what they see as their right. This son felt his father owed him for being “the good son.” This son was angry. The son seemed to be sickened but the extravagant event thrown by the father for this loser son. Resentment can breed a lot of spiritual problems. Resentment fuels disrespect, disdain, and delivers us into the hands of an egocentric poor-me mindset. Resentment can poison relationships and degrade love. It clouds the mind and feeds the bitterness we find in the older brother’s words.

And then there is the father. Poor gullible father. Don’t you think the father knew this could happen when he gave his son the money? Isn’t the father an enabler of the prodigal behavior? Should he not have done more for the older brother? Was it fair the way he welcomed the son back with no apparent consequences?

Let’s stop our questions and speculations. Our questions do not do justice to the parable. Questions like these miss the point. The Kingdom of God is about God’s love, God’s acceptance, not our social values, not our opinion of ethical references, or any misguided theology. The father has the right to love his son. The father has the right to accept his son back. The father has the right to celebrate. The father has the right to exhort his older son. What the father receives is pure joy.

Listen to the words of Jesus, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk. 15:7 ESV)

The father has no preconceived conditions. The father has only joy. The father does not ask for any explanation. The father has no need for any reasons. The father is just elated that his son, his prodigal son, is standing there before him. This is what matters.

From the beginning to the end of the Bible, God is there for people. God accepts people. God waits for people. God loves people. God rejoices when people turn to God for guidance, help, and restoration. Jesus loves people. If any son had reason to question the father, it was Jesus himself. The path for Jesus to come to the Father was not through a “when he came to himself situation,” (Lk. 15:17 ESV) but to a deliberate choice, Jesus himself accepted through the crucifixion and resurrection. For Jesus, the focus was God the Father’s will not his own.

Parables can lead us to reflection. How does this parable make you feel? How do you relate to it? As I relate to the parable, I would like to think I was not the prodigal. I would like to think I was not the older brother, but I know that I am both. I have made many foolish decisions that lead me away from my heavenly Father. I have made foolish evaluations of what I thought God should do or not do. Questioning what I perceived as God’s action, God’s intention.

I am so thankful for a God that is willing to accept me. A God who acts like the father in this parable. A Father Jesus calls, Abba, daddy. That I too can call, Abba, daddy.

Perhaps we want to know more. Did the younger prodigal change his ways and become a faithful son who learned a valuable lesson? Did the older brother come around and allow forgiveness, family, and faith to take the place of resentment? We are not told. Maybe, we are supposed to finish the story in our own lives? What do you think?

I close with these words for the first letter written by the Apostle John, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 Jn. 4:7-11 ESV)

Why Do I Hope?

“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” (1 Pet. 3:15 ESV)

I have a strong desire to be a pastor again. I believe this desire is from God. I have this desire knowing full well that to have the opportunity to be a pastor again is going to require overcoming a mountain of obstacles.

First, I have not pastored a church in the last four years. My last pastorate was a disaster. The denomination I was serving in seemed to be very glad to get rid of me. Also, I do not interview well. I cannot sell myself. Second, I am sixty-seven years old in a culture that no long views age as being an asset. Churches want young pastors with families. I have a wonderful family, but I am not young. Third, a few years ago, in a pit of despair and pain, I took my own life. Not tried, but did kill myself. I shot myself in the head with a .45 caliber pistol. God performed a miracle. God sent me back. Most churches today would see this as a sign of instability, not a miracle, thus will avoid me like the plague. Fourth, with this act of despair, I damaged my voice, disfigured myself, and I must deal with chronic pain (which I am managing well). I still have a lot of energy, creativity, little if no brain damage, and I am overall healthy but I do look old. Fifth, I have no network, no social structure to help me get my foot in the door. Sixth, when I was younger, my being an activist for truth and integrity, I made a whole lot of enemies who do not forget. Lastly, my last name, Montoya, has its own baggage. The last church I served was horrified by my last name. When people first see me and find out I am not Hispanic, I usually get the question, “Montoya, what nationality is that.” This is sad, but a reality in our fallen world.

So why do I have any hope of again being a pastor again? I hope because I know my desire comes from the Holy Spirit. I know God will not manipulate a church to call me, but God will aid me in my quest. God will sustain me. I know God didn’t call Abraham or Moses until they were advanced in age and I likely have many more years to give in service. I know God has given me the gifts and graces to shepherd a church and guide people to experience growth in their relationship with God. I know God will not let me sink back into the despair I allowed myself to sink to in the past. I know where God guides, God provides, even if what God provides is only patience and hope.

Also, through this blog I know I am contributing to the Kingdom. I know my blog is read throughout the world. I know my sermons are being used. I know my posts on spiritual direction and discernment are useful to others.

Desire and hope fuel action and intent. Action and intent are what God desires from us. God has performed miracles in my life, and I have no doubt God will do so again. Even if I am not called by a church, just having the desire God gives is encouragement enough to sustain my hope.