By Sam Gutierrez
Once again, we have celebrated the gift of God’s life-giving Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. Now we’ve moved into the second half of the liturgical year called Ordinary Time.
Ordinary Time is the longest liturgical season. It begins on Trinity Sunday and ends with Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent. At the start, Trinity Sunday reminds us that we (and the church) live, move and have our being within the life of the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At the end, Christ the King Sunday puts the spotlight firmly on Christ who is the centerpiece and avenue through which God is bringing about wholeness and healing to the entire created order (see Colossians 1:15-20).
Ordinary Time is ordinary in the sense that the days are numbered. The word ordinary stems from the Latin word “ordo,” which means order, and the Latin word “ordinalis,” which refers to numbers in a series. Simply, Ordinary Time is numbered time.
But Ordinary Time is not ordinary, nor is it merely “numbered time.” Some have noticed that the liturgical calendar can be divided into two distinct but connected parts: The story of Jesus and the story of the Church. The story of Jesus starts in Advent and transitions at Pentecost, when the ascended Jesus sends the Spirit to empower the church to be his hands and feet in the world – his body. Pentecost kicks off the second part of the liturgical year. In fact, Ordinary Time could be called Pentecost time.
As the church goes into the world as the body of Christ (by the power of the Spirit), it’s important that the church remembers that its work is really the work of Christ. More specifically, it’s Trinitarian work – Father, Son, and Spirit all working to heal and bring about wholeness to a fracture and broken creation because of the devastating effects of sin. Through faith (by the power of the Spirit), the church participates in this good work.
By Sam Gutierrez
Some time ago, I was on a hike with a group of friends. Eventually we reached the peak and after a short time of taking in the view, we turned and started back down the mountain.
On the way down, I was having trouble with my knee and began to lag behind the group. Everything was going fine until about halfway down. All alone with the rest of the group no longer in sight… I came to a fork in trail. Without much to go on, I said a prayer, chose a path and started following it down the mountain. It wasn’t long before the path I had chosen became obscure. With the sun starting to set, it was too late to turn around, so I forged on. As the path further disintegrated, a sense of panic began to set in. I started climbing over fallen logs, and jagged rocks with no clear sense of direction.
I was lost.
After forty-five minutes, I stumbled my way down through the thick forest to a deserted road. Still disoriented, I followed the road for a while and eventually found the parking lot where my friends were waiting for me with a look of concern and relief.
Too often in life, we get lost.
Sometimes we get lost because of a sudden circumstance that is out of our control. It’s as if we get pushed into a wilderness. Sometimes we make a decision to go one way instead of another – a fork in the road. But sometimes we get lost in a more subtle way. Rather than a sudden circumstance or a bad decision, we get lost by putting one foot in front of the other, day after day. We get lost in routine and we stop paying attention to the important and essential. Getting lost in this way is like a slow drift from the shore… we don’t notice right away, but after a while, we look around and we feel unsure of where we are and how we got there.
By circumstance, decision, or neglecting the essentials, human beings have a tendency to get lost. But all this talk about “lost-ness” presupposes something. It assumes a center. A place of belonging and purpose. A place to wander from and come back to.
Jesus said to his disciples in John 14:1-4, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
At the center of the universe, there is a home.
God’s home is big with enough room for everyone. On Ascension Sunday, Jesus rises to heaven to sit on the throne at the right hand of God. But that throne isn’t on an asteroid floating through space somewhere. The throne sits in a grand room in a very grand house. Jesus goes there to sit on the throne, but also to take up one of this favorite passions – interior decorating. Jesus ascends to prepare a place for us. To prepare a room is to get it ready with fresh sheets, puffed up pillows, chocolate mints on the nightstand, and a handwritten note of welcome with some instructions about how to connect to the wifi. But it’s even more than a nice hotel room. It’s all that, but with a personalized touch – a room just for you.
Ascension Sunday is about Jesus returning to sit on the throne as the exalted king – He came down, took on human flesh, lived, died and rose again. He ends up where he started – on the throne. But this time, he bears the marks of his human journey with him – now he is a wounded king. He goes to get our rooms ready – welcoming his wounded children to find their place of belonging in the house of God.
We get lost.
It happens in lots of ways and it happens over and over again. In our lost-ness, we get wounded and we often wound those who care and love us the most.
At the center of the universe, there is a home.
Our truest destiny is not to wander around with a sense of dread in a unfamiliar forest. The call of Jesus is to follow him as he leads us through the darkest valleys of life, past our enemies as he feeds us at his table of grace, anoints our heads with oil, prepares a room for us, and leads us home – wounds and all.
Reprint by permission from Reformed Worship 2021 Worship Ministries
By Sam Gutierrez
A few weeks back, I noted an observation made by John and Sarah Crossan in their traveling theological investigation called “Resurrecting Easter” where they pointed out that no one was a direct witness of the resurrection of Jesus as it was actually happening. The tomb was sealed. We have direct eyewitness accounts of many moments of Jesus' life – including the key ones of his birth and death, and even his burial. But on Easter morning, Jesus rose from the dead...and no one saw it.
Then I posed the question – why? Why would the climax of the gospels and the most significant event in human history have no eyewitnesses to the “moment” of resurrection?
I’ve been thinking about this over the past few weeks. Here is my best thought:
New Life is an act of faith. The spark of new life is always initially hidden from us. We have to trust that it is happening, even when we have no evidence. Let me give you a few examples to highlight my point.
Every spring, old “dead” seeds sit in the ground waiting for the rain and the warm sun. Long before the green delicate stem pushes and then pokes through the wet and dark ground, the dead seed casing has already broken open and given way to new life. Before green pushes through, we look at the ground and it looks like nothing is happening. New life has begun, but it’s hidden. We only notice it at a later point. With astonishment, we exclaim and point– “look at that!”
The same thing is true of human life. The beginnings of new life are hidden from us. We only see signs of new life as the baby grows in darkness. Then, after 9 long months, we see life – fully formed as it exits the womb. As human beings, (without the aid of scientific instruments) we are not privileged to behold the moment (or spark) of new life.
It’s true that Jesus raised people from the dead in the gospels and there were eyewitnesses to these resurrections. Jesus raised a woman in plain sight of everyone in Luke 7:11-17 – but the difference here is that they were getting their old life back in their old tired body. All these folks eventually died again.
The difference between these “momentary” resurrections and Christ’s “permanent” resurrection was just that – The kind of new life and new body Jesus “awoke” with is a major turning point in history – it was and is unique. And again, we are talking about brand new life – and that, apparently, is a mystery that is too much for us.
So, long before we see signs of new life, we have to trust that it is happening. This is perhaps why “the moment” of Jesus' resurrection had no eyewitnesses.
New life happens in the dark.
By Sam Gutierrez
As a way to live more deeply into the Easter story, I’ve been reading a book by John and Sarah Crossan called Resurrecting Easter. Part travelogue and part theological investigation, the book chronicles the Crossans as they travel and visit multiple ancient Eastern churches and monasteries. In those places, they encounter historical images that reveal a completely different model for understanding Easter’s resurrection story. In the opening chapters, they make a rather startling observation. They simply state,
“The major events in Christ’s life and therefore the major feasts in the church’s liturgy – from the Annunciation to the Ascension – are described in the Gospel stories… but there is one exception to that overall sequence, one event in the life of Christ that is never described in any Gospel story. Furthermore, this is not some minor happening, but the most important and climactic one of them all… this is the moment of Christ’s Resurrection as it is actually happening.” (2)
Isn’t that odd? No one was there to witness the actual moment of Christ rising from the dead. The tomb was sealed. No one went in and no one went out. Later, after Christ’s resurrection, some of the disciples find evidence of the Resurrection – the stone is rolled back, the tomb is empty, the burial shrouds are folded up and placed to the side. An angel sits on top of the stone to say that, “Christ is not here, He is risen.” Later, Mary encounters the already risen Christ and mistakes him for the gardener.
Christ rose, and no one was there to witness the exact moment. No cameras. No infrared sensors. No journalist with a computer ready to capture the moment in words. No breaking news TV crew ready to broadcast “LIVE – from the TOMB!”
Christ rising from the dead was the most significant moment in history and no one saw it. There were eye-witnesses of his birth, his miracles, his teachings, his crucifixion and his burial – but not his resurrection.
This begs the question – why?
If you’re reading this blog, I want you (and us) to sit with that questions for a while. In a few weeks, I’ll follow up with some thoughts of my own. But in the meantime ask yourself the question, “Why were there no eye-witnesses of the actual moment of rising?” and feel free to email me (Pastor Sam) with some reflections of your own.
By Sam Gutierrez
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
The journey of Lent is an exercise in trust. The days and weeks of this liturgical season culminate in an intense series of events called “Holy Week.” Holy means set apart for a special purpose. The main lesson of Lent that is condensed and amplified during Holy Week is simple, but hard – If you want to live, then you have to die first.
If there is one universal experience that I’ve witnessed in my years as a Care Pastor, it is this: Dying is hard. Nobody wants to die. There is something instinctual inside of us – a powerful survival mechanism. We resist death. We hold on to life. We don’t want to let go.
Death is about letting go. In order to help us let go, we get a thousand “practice attempts” throughout our lives. We get a myriad of opportunities to practicing dying before we die so that when we stand before capital “D” death, we’ll know how to let go with confidence.
Why do I say with confidence?
When we practice letting go (dying) many times every day, we also experience mini-resurrections. We see that even we when “die” new life springs up. The more we practice the pattern of dying and life springing up (rising) the more confident we’ll be that right behind capital “D” death is capital “L” life. We’ll not only believe – but know deep in our bones what Jesus said about seeds in John 12:24 is really true: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
The Lenten journey and the intensity of Holy Week is a 40-day lesson with one key takeaway – don’t be afraid to let go – God will be there to catch you.
If all of this sounds a little abstract, then let me conclude with a story that Henri Nouwen likes to tell in his book Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring (Harper Collins, 1995). Towards the end of his life, Henri became fascinated by trapeze artists who seemed to effortless fly through the air. He writes:
“One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, ‘As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.’
‘How does it work?’ I asked.
‘The secret,’ Rodleigh said, ‘is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catch bar.’
‘You do nothing!’ I said, surprised.
‘Nothing,’ Rodleigh repeated. ‘The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.’
When Rodleigh said this with so much conviction, the words of Jesus flashed through my mind: ‘Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.’ Dying is trusting in the catcher. To care for the dying is to say, ‘Don’t be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don’t try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.’ “
By Sam Gutierrez
This Wednesday, February 17, Alger Park Church will join churches around the world in marking the beginning of the season of Lent with an Ash Wednesday worship service. One of the highlights of this unique service is the imposition of ashes, where people are marked with the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the words, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust". These words are a summary of the words from Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
And so, the season of Lent begins with a sobering tone.
These are hard words to swallow. The reality of our “dust-ness” can easily lead us to despair. Knowing that everything we do and say and accomplish will one day be forgotten can make some of us want to shrug our shoulders and whisper, “What’s the point of doing anything, then?” Others of us live much of our lives trying to overcome our “dust-ness” through work, with academic success, with the accumulation of things, or by having children--all in an attempt to do something that will last or to ensure our legacy will endure.
But the Scriptures point us in another direction. The secret to living a meaningful “dust filled” life is found in the ash-marking that happens on Ash Wednesday – the ashes spread on the forehead are not just an undefined smudge, but marked in the powerful symbol we recognize as the sign of the cross.
That is the secret. Christ became dust and died for us. We are not just dust…
We are beloved dust.
More than that, Jesus rose from the dust as a resurrected human with a new body that will never return to dust again. God promises that one day, God will raise our dusty bones from the grave and give us new, incorruptible bodies that will last forever. In and through Jesus, Genesis 3:19 gets an addendum. Just listen to what Paul tells the Corinthian church: Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)
Friends, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, but Lent does not last forever...it points the way to the quiet Sunday morning when Jesus overcomes death once and for all.
By Sam Gutierrez
When I was a kid, someone gave me some important instructions that came with a dire warning: Don’t stare directly at the sun or you will go blind.
This warning was usually followed up with a story about “some kid” on “some playground” that ignored the warnings and did just that – stared at the sun and is now suffering the lifelong repercussion of permanent blindness.
Of course, as a kid, you have to test this scary fact by looking at the sun for maybe 2 or 3 seconds… which seems ok until you close your eyes and see strange spots floating around on the back of your eyelids. For my little heart and mind – that was enough evidence to prove that playground warning to be true – staring at the sun will cause permanent blindness.
It’s true – energetic photons streaming from the sun’s surface even at an astounding distance of 91 million miles is just too powerful for our delicate eyes to handle. So, just imagine the scene in Matthew 17:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.
This event is known as the Transfiguration of Jesus and is celebrated liturgically on the last Sunday in Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday. Every year, we get the opportunity to walk up the mountain with the disciples and ponder this amazing event while asking the question, “What does this mean?”
Quite simply – the “transfigured” or “transformed” Jesus we see on the mountain top – human, but shining like the sun (glorified) is a glimpse of God’s end game for humanity – resurrected human beings – fully human and fully divine. Jesus is the first fruit (1st edition) of what is to come for the rest of humanity. Here is another way to put it: What happened on the mountain top was a short “preview” of a full length feature film that is coming soon to a theater near you!
Mountain tops are places of revelation. We travel with the disciples and catch a glimpse of who Jesus truly is – and in doing so, we catch a glimpse of who we are and who we are to become.
But notice what the text says in Matthew 17:9, “As they were coming down the mountain…” With Jesus, we come down from the mountain back into our cities and neighborhoods. As we continue to live our ordinary lives, we do so with an amazing hope – the story of the world has a very, very good ending!
So, this coming Sunday, go ahead and look at the SON – be blinded by his glorious light – and when you find yourself blind with hope, you’ll paradoxically discover that you see more clearly than ever before.
By Janelle Gaudet
In John 14:5-6, Jesus and the disciples are gathered for what will become known as the Last Supper. They are rightfully worried about their uncertain present and future. While they eat, Jesus speaks words of prophecy and comfort to them.
Thomas speaks up and asks the question on everyone’s mind, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Centuries later, Scottish poet and minister George MacDonald grappled with this same question. Where can we find security in times of uncertainty? How can we know the right paths to take and choices to make? These thoughts influenced him as wrote the fantasy novel The Princess and the Goblin.
In MacDonald's story, Princess Irene and her father, the king, live in a mountainous realm that is threatened by sinister goblins. Frightened and unequipped to meet this challenge, Irene looks for support and help. Through magic and providence, Irene meets her grandmother who gives her a special ring to help her on her quest. The ring is connected to a peculiar ball of thread that was hand spun by the elderly woman.
Irene is concerned that she cannot see the thread attached to the ring. Her grandmother assures her that it is too fine for her to see. When Irene then questions the purpose of the ring and thread, her grandmother replies, “If ever you find yourself in any danger… you must take off your ring… Then you must lay your finger, the same that wore the ring, upon the thread, and follow the thread wherever it leads you.”
“Oh, how delightful! It will lead me to you, Grandmother, I know!”
“Yes. But, remember, it may seem to you a very roundabout way indeed, and you must not doubt the thread. Of one thing you may be sure, that while you hold it, I hold it too.”
Irene ends up deep underground in the lair of the Goblin King. Darkness envelopes the young princess, and despair overwhelms her. Unable to protect herself, she uses her ring and follows the thread to safety. The goblins’ evil plans are thwarted. The reader is relieved as good triumphs over evil once again.
The Rev. George MacDonald knew that we all walk through seasons for which we are ill-equipped and unable to protect ourselves.
Friends, there is good news - we have powerful help at hand. We may not necessarily be able to see what Jesus is doing around us and in us, but He is there. We need only to take off our self-sufficiency and reach out to Him.
The same thread of salvation that we follow through the story of the Bible runs through our lives as well. The way may seem very roundabout indeed, but Jesus is bigger than our doubts and fears. While we hold onto Him, He is holding us.
By Sam Gutierrez
What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2:11
For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the key “framing” stories for the liturgical season of Epiphany. The first week we examined the story of the Magi (Matthew 2) and saw how Jesus is not just a Jewish king, but the King of Kings – for all God’s children both near and far. The second week we took a look at the story of Jesus’ baptism and saw through words and water that Jesus is the beloved Son of God who brings grace and blessing to a broken world.
Now, in the third framing story, we take a look at Jesus’ first miracle in his public ministry–changing water to wine at a wedding feast in Cana. So, what is significant about this story and how does it tie into the season of Epiphany?
Like I’ve mentioned before, Epiphany is a season of light. It is the third season (along with Advent and Christmas) that has light as its main theme. Light has many meanings, but in Epiphany light symbolizes revelation. Epiphany emphasis the teachings and miracles of Jesus as a way of revealing his true identity. It’s no wonder, then, that Epiphany ends with the revelatory light at a maximum on Transfiguration Sunday. On the mountain top we see the human and divine nature of Jesus together in one glorious form.
So, if Epiphany is about revelation, then what does the miracle at Cana teach us?
First of all, it’s interesting to note that Jesus’ first miracle is a reluctant one. It seems like he’s not too excited to exercise his miraculous power in such a public setting. He says that the timing is not right, but does so anyway at the urging of his mother, Mary. We don’t have any examples of this, but Mary has probably witnessed his “special abilities” and now calls on him to do something about the tragic lack of wine at a local wedding. Jesus obeys his mother and changes six large stone jars of water into vats of the very best wine – and thus performs his first of seven “signs” in the book of John.
These large vessels were not for thirst, but used by the Jews for ceremonial washing. Remember that in Jesus’s day there were many, many religious rules and laws about what was “clean” and “unclean.” To stand in God’s presence and to be in relationship with God, a person had to be “clean.” If anyone violated a law that made them “unclean,” they had to go through a series of practices/rituals in order to become clean again. These included the sacrificial system happening in the temple courts, but also included the “washing of hands” to stand in for a full body cleansing. If I could make a crude analogy, this ceremonial washing was like our version of hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer does not take the place of a shower or bath, but rather acts as a quick “cleansing.”
Jesus turns the water used for ceremonial cleansing into expensive wine. The most obvious conclusion is to draw a straight line from Cana to Calvary. This miracle points to what Jesus is going to do on the cross – shedding his own blood (symbolized in wine at the last supper) in order to cleanse us from our sin once and for all.
But, the wine also symbolizes the manifestation of a new age (the kingdom of God is here). Now, the the intoxicating love of God available to all. After all, what else could be the reason for so much wine? The coming of Jesus is also the coming of a kingdom marked by a grace that is abundant, absurd, and free to anyone who wants to dip their cup in and drink. There is enough grace available to make you lightheaded and intoxicated with gratitude.
Friends, may this Epiphany be filled with light and God’s lavish love.
Then [the master of the banquet] called the Bridegroom aside and said “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” John 2:10
By Sam Gutierrez
Last week, we looked at one of the three key framing stories of the season of Epiphany – the story of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-2) and discovered that this story is important in two ways.
First, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham – the Lord will bless all nations through him. The visit of the Magi to worship Jesus and pay homage to him as King expands the rule of Jesus beyond Jewish boundary lines. In fact, you could say that the book of Acts is an expansion upon the Magi story – the gospel going out to the ends of the earth to bring in all God’s estranged children.
Second, we looked at how God is not bound to communicate in ways that we think are appropriate or familiar. To those who had no access to the Jewish Scriptures, God gets creative and uses a dream and a star to communicate his grace.
But the story of the Magi is just one framing story that sheds light on the ministry of Jesus during the season of Epiphany. This past Sunday we took a look at the second framing story: The Baptism of Jesus. Here we learn two critical things that can be summed up with Words and Water.
First, God’s grace comes in the form of words.
When Jesus comes up out of the water, a voice from heaven booms. The voice speaks a blessing over Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well-pleased.” (Mark 1:11) Remember – Jesus hasn’t “done” anything yet. His ministry hasn’t started. He has been living a life of obscurity in a small town. This reminds us that identity not earned or achieved, but given. This is why we practice baptismal remembrance on Sunday mornings. Just like Jesus was baptized and a blessing was spoken over him, we too receive baptism and a blessing is spoken over us. God is giving us our deepest identity as his beloved children. Just as Jesus begins his ministry with God's blessing and his indentity firmly established, we too live out our lives as beloved children of God.
Second, God’s grace comes in the form of water.
When Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan river, it is a legitimizing of the “John way” – which is God’s grace working outside the boundaries of the temple courts. Remember, in Jesus' day, there was a complicated system of priests, temples, sacrifices and religious laws. Many of the conflicts we see in the gospels center on Jesus not doing “the system” correctly. But in going out to John, who was standing in the river in the middle of the wilderness, Jesus gives his stamp of approval. In essence, Jesus is saying that God’s grace is like a river. It flows freely like water. It is generous, immersive, alive and it gets all over you. We might think of Jesus’ public ministry as an expression of how he sees and experiences God’s grace and love. In every teaching, miracle and healing, Jesus exhibits God’s river of grace – powerful, generous, immersive, cleansing, uncontrollable, refreshing, and flowing.
So, now we have two key stories that are signs pointing to who Jesus is and what Jesus is about. In the story of the Magi, Jesus is the conduit through which God fulfills his promise to bless all nations – Jesus is not just a Jewish king, but the King of Kings who rules and reigns over all things. Now, in the story of the baptism of Jesus, we learn that Jesus is the beloved Son of God who has come with a message: God’s grace is abundant and flowing. In the Jordan River, Jesus gets drenched in God’s grace in order to communicate that we, too, are God's beloved children and God’s grace soaks us. Now we can see more clearly the “good news” that Jesus came to proclaim.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the third framing story of Epiphany: the wedding feast at Cana.
“In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5