Monthly Archives: March 2013

Holy Week, and a Sermon about Malchus

Holy Week in Guatemala brings together religious spectacle with R & R. It’s a strange mix of solemn rituals, frivolous diversions, and family vacations. I expect it’s a struggle for most people to make it fit neatly together. DSC01059Our kids are on school break, by the way. We’re enjoying having two teenagers from Chajul join us for the week. Kristina Pacheco and Katalyna Laynez , both from the congregation in Chajul, are scholarship students at the La Patria school in Cobán. Kristina’s studying pre-law, and Katalyna pre-medicine. The Bi-national Walton Committee, on which I serve, is sponsoring their room and board in Cobán with funds from the PC(USA).

As for family outings, we’ve kept them simple—swimming near Lake Amatitlan on Tuesday, and hiking in the mountains of Jalapa on Wednesday. (See photos)  DSC01079

Today, Maundy Thursday, we went to Central Presbyterian Church. Preparations for the Lord’s Supper kept Bacilia and other deacons busy, and I preached at the morning service. Afterwards, we walked to lunch as a long Catholic procession passed by. (See photo) We were amazed by the sight of an unusual alfombra (processional carpet)  on Sixth Avenue. It’s a tradition in Guatemala to carefully fashion these carpets out of colored sawdust and pine needles. They’re often 20-30 feet long. The alfombra we saw today, however, stretches for 12 blocks—over 4,000 feet! The local diocese organized over 1,000 volunteers from the city’s parishes to construct this elaborate alfombra as an invitation to Pope Francis to visit Guatemala. They also hope to be recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. (See photo)DSC01095

On Sunday, I’ll preach at the sunrise service the Bethel Presbyterian Church at 4:30 AM. (Isn’t that too early to qualify as a sunrise service?)  Then it’s off to Central Church for their annual Easter parade and worship. Finally, we’ll drive Kristina and Katalyna to the bus station for their return trip to Cobán.  DSC01090

My sermon this morning dealt with the slave Malchus, whose ear was sliced off by Peter during the arrest of Jesus. It’s based on Luke 22:47-51 and John 18:10-11. Here’s the essence of the message:

Jesus’ miracle in the Garden of Gethsemane was the last one he performed before his death. This miracle tells us plenty about the kind of Savior he is. It happened when the Roman soldiers and Temple guards came to arrest him. Peter quickly drew his sword to defend Jesus, and he took a swing at one of the Jewish guards. Either the guard had quick reflexes, or Peter didn’t have very good aim, for the guard lost only an ear in the scuffle.

The guard’s name was Malchus, which means “king” in Greek and Arabic. Ironically, this “king” was an enslaved Jew. He was owned by Caiaphas, the High Priest, and whatever animus Malchus felt toward Jesus was likely caused by hours of overhearing Caiaphas badmouth Jesus and his followers. Malchus had no inkling that Jesus came to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free.

While everyone else lost their cool, Jesus kept his.  First, he had Peter put up his sword. While Peter was well-meaning and brave, he also was wrong. Jesus didn’t use traditional weapons. At times using physical force might be the lesser of two evils, but it’s still an evil, and Scripture shows a strong preference for non-violence.  And especially in the case of advancing God’s work, the sword has no place.

For Jesus, it wasn’t sufficient to just stop Peter’s sword fight. Amidst the chaos and brutality, Jesus managed to pick up Malchus’ ear from the ground and restore it to its proper place. Even as he was being dragged off to prison and to Calvary, Jesus paused to heal a wound and touch a life. And of all people, he touched Malchus, a slave worth so little in the world’s eyes, an accomplice to Jesus’ arrest.

Why, we might wonder, would Jesus be so concerned about Malchus? Perhaps it’s because if anyone could relate to what it meant to be a suffering servant, Jesus could.  Philippians 2:7 tells us about Jesus, “who, being in very nature God… made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a slave.” Not only did Jesus and Malchus have slavery in common, they also shared something else—the designation of “king.” Indeed, Jesus was mockingly called a king by his tormentors, while Malchus was jokingly called a king by his oppressors. The very next day Jesus would hang on a cross underneath a sign that read in Hebrew, Latin and Greek “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” This means that Jesus was crucified under a sign that included the Malchus’ very name. Perhaps it was meant to be that way, with Malchus somehow representing all of us who are persecuted, hurting and confused, the people for whom Jesus gave his life.

We can’t be sure what happened to Malchus afterwards. Surely he was one of those people who Jesus had in mind when, on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’ve done.”  Christian tradition has it that he became a believer.  But, as in the case of all miracles, its purpose wasn’t only to change one person’s life, but to give witness to the power of God for all life, the Savior who continues to touch lives, heal wounds, and restore people who get caught up in the ways of our fallen world.

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The Lost Son and His Dysfunctional Family

This is the sermon I preached at Guatemala City’s Central Presbyterian Church last Sunday, translated into English. It’s based on the parable of the prodigal son, which is found in Luke 15:11-32.  

The prodigal son is featured in one of several parables in the 15th chapter of Luke in which Jesus responds to grumbling from Pharisees and Scribes about his outreach to sinners and tax collectors. In these parables we hear about losing and finding a sheep, losing and finding a coin, and losing and finding a son. The main theme of these stories is the pain of DSC01006losing something valuable, and the joy of getting it back.

Contrary to lots of popular opinion, the point of the parable of the prodigal son isn’t to showcase the father’s virtue, or to depict him as a kind of God-figure. Preachers, in particular, tend to deify the father as an inspiring model of wisdom, mercy and long-suffering. Some even retitle the story “The Parable of the Loving Father.” This view distorts and limits this beautiful story by making it almost impossible to question the father’s deeds. If the father is a divine figure, then he presumably didn’t make errors in raising his sons and used perfect judgment in dealing with their struggles. How wonderful the world would be, we’re led to conclude, if every parent were just like him.

If we don’t assume the father is a metaphor for God, we open up to the possibility that maybe the father wasn’t perfect after all. The reality in the parable becomes one we can identify with, which was the aim of Jesus’ parables. We can view this family like many other families—dysfunctional, brimming over with disappointments, riddled with resentments—therefore giving hope to people with this kind of family.

As a pastor, I’d really like to facilitate a counseling session with this family. I’d like to offer some pastoral care and spiritual support. My first step would be to explore how their problems arise from family dynamics, not just the bad behavior of one son.  I’d point out the likelihood that everyone, including the father, could be partly to blame for the conflict in this family.

After all, the father is a large land-holder and a powerful businessman, perhaps a workaholic. He probably expects his sons to learn the family business and be like him—with lots of servants, field workers, livestock, barns, and money. If this is his goal, it’s not necessarily the goal of both of his sons. When fathers place too high a value on business, they often don’t devote enough attention to troublesome children. In these kinds of families, there’s a tendency to substitute material things for loving relationships. Things, however, don’t solve family problems. Instead, they make it easier to avoid them.

The older brother enjoys the advantages of the first-born son, and he seems to be living up to the father’s expectations. He’s working hard and helping the family business grow. He probably can’t figure out why his younger brother isn’t more like him. His poor regard for his brother is in keeping with other sibling rivalries in the Bible, especially the book of Genesis. From Cain killing Abel and Jacob cheating Esau, to Joseph’s ten brothers selling him to the Midianites, we see a similar melodrama. Unfortunately this kind of melodrama between siblings has never ended, and continues today in many homes. Only in Exodus, with Moses and Aaron, do we find brothers who get along.

The younger brother shows signs of an inferiority complex. He senses that his father and brother aren’t interested in him as an individual. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be a rancher. Maybe he’d rather learn a different trade, or else study to become a scholar. Maybe he’d rather travel to other cultures and learn about them. If so, this no doubt would lead to arguments between him, his father and his brother, eventually leading to his tragic and typical decision to break family ties. He flees his home, expecting that life will be wonderful without his old man’s domineering attitude and rigid expectations.

Could it be that the father was relieved to see his younger child go? Why else would he so readily give the son his inheritance in advance? The father must have thought that his home would become a haven of tranquility once his trouble-making, spoiled loser of a son was gone. Good riddance… he thought… for a while… until he starts to miss his little boy.

As is the case with most runaways, the younger son discovered that life on his own was much worse, and that he couldn’t escape problems when he’s a part of them. What at first was thrilling and fun led him to lose everything, his money, his fake friends, and his sense of worth. Eventually he saw only one way to survive—go home. The homecoming would be humiliating and risky. He practiced what he’d say, and when at last he and his father reunited, he said, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you; I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

Instead of giving his son a hard time, the father couldn’t believe that he was getting another chance at fatherhood. He ran to embrace his son. Wow! Praise God! What a royal welcome! Well, maybe even too royal! I can imagine the son saying, “Thanks, dad, this is great! As for the fatted calf, the nice clothes, the cool jewelry, and the comfortable shoes, they aren’t really necessary. What I’d like more than anything is for us to have time to talk some things over, and get to the bottom of our conflict.” If the younger son said something like that, I’d say he was right.

But I’d also say that the father was right when he said it’s “fitting to celebrate and be glad.” “Fitting” means it’s more than just permissible to celebrate or good to be glad, but that they’re necessary. We need them to get by. We can’t wait until every problem is solved to throw a party. God doesn’t want us to put off singing joyful songs until we get to heaven. When the Bible says laughter is good medicine, the message is that we should laugh even though we’re still sick, because it helps the healing process.

And I’d also say that the older brother was right when he complained about the party. Not only wasn’t the party for him, but nobody bothered to go out and invite him while he was working in the field. Just as it’s fitting to celebrate, it’s fitting to invite others, to include our brothers, to reach out to our sisters, and to make sure that no one’s left out. Sure, it’s hard to break away from the party to invite others.  Nonetheless, we can’t forget about our brothers and sisters out in the field.

Yet, God’s mercy is for everyone, the brother that’s in the fold just as much as the brother who’s lost his way.  The love of Christ is for all, for the sister that’s prospering as well as the sister that’s failing. God’s grace is for everyone, for parents that get along with their children and those that don’t to relate well to their children. That’s what the Pharisees and the Scribes didn’t see. Yet, even while they grumbled about it, Jesus kept inviting, receiving and loving sinners.

Two weeks ago I was in Cobán for the start of a theological training program. Among the students there was Francisco Chamay, a lay pastor from the Ixil town of San Juan Cotzal. (That’s a photo of him with this post.) Once I asked him what he’d say if someone asked why he’s a Presbyterian. His reply was longer than what I expected, but it was a fascinating testimony. Francisco told how once he used to prowl the cantinas of Guatemala City as a philandering drunkard. One night he passed out in the street, and a truck ran over his legs. Waking up in the hospital, he found out that he might lose his legs. Members of a church came to visit him, and they prayed with him. This touched his heart, and they continued to visit. Soon he became a Christian, and was discharged from the hospital with his legs recovered. He was fired up to serve Christ, and began to enter cantinas again, but now to invite people to church. Francisco studied the Bible, and eventually returned to San Juan Cotzal, his hometown. His passion for preaching in remote places got him into hot water with his church leaders, and they put limits on his evangelizing. This didn’t set well with him, and he resigned. After someone told him about the Presbyterian Church, he sought and received permission to work under the auspices of the Presbyterians. When others wouldn’t support his outreach efforts, the Presbyterians did. Now he wanders on his frail legs through the mountains and valleys around San Juan Cotzal, praying for people and inviting them to hear the Good News. And, he said in conclusion, if anyone asks why he’s a Presbyterian, this testimony would be his answer. By the way, when asked if he needed anything, he replied that a mule would helpful for him travel longer distances on rugged terrain.

It’s clear that Francisco believes that it’s necessary to invite everyone to the party. And that he’s happy in a church that gives him permission to do so. All of us have permission to share the Gospel. It’s necessary for us. This permission, incidentally, doesn’t just come from the Presbyterians; it’s a calling from God. We need to celebrate the love and goodness of God, and we need to invite all of God’s people to the celebration.

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