Discipleship 101

On May 1, 2019, this blog became a teenager.  If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, there are more than 2,400 posts for you to go back and read.  You’ll note as you do so that I’ve changed a lot in the last 13 years.  My theology has evolved, ever being re-drafted through study, prayer, and interaction with other disciples.  Several posts from back in the mid-aughts were spent complaining about seminary classmates who in our homiletics classes preached all about love, but didn’t seem to having a working definition of what love really looks like.

Now, to be fair, it was a time of great strife within my denomination.  Sides were taken, lines drawn, and many on the left and the right spent their time deciding who was in and who was out.  At our worst, we became a church of two factions that were caricatures of themselves. One could easily define love as “I’m ok, you’re ok,” the other who would define love as “spare the rod, spoil the child.”  Neither side actually believed those things entirely, but in the religio-political climate of the mid-2000s, no one was really interested in nuance.

Fast forward more than a decade, and we have a Presiding Bishop who became famous a year ago for preaching about love at a Royal Wedding.  Now, I can be critical of how The Episcopal Church and her congregations have tried to capitalize on that fame, but what I’ve most appreciated is seeing how the working definition of love that we are using has grown in depth since those challenging days of yore.  Rather than a concept of divine love which would source love within ourselves, we are now more able and open to seeing that the kind of love that changes the world comes only through the saving power of Jesus Christ.  That kind of love is our Discipleship 101.

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At dinner with his disciples, Jesus invited them, and by extension all of us, to take that love of neighbor out in word and deed. This love isn’t getting everyone around a campfire to agree on some kind of lowest common denominator feelings while singing Kumbaya, but the self-giving love that Jesus modeled in his life, death, and resurrection.  It is a kind of love that is only possible through the grace of God.  In and of ourselves, love can never be fully unselfish, but with God’s help, the kind of love that Jesus commands of us, the kind of love that will show our status as disciples, is a love that is always seeking the good of the other, caring for the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, sharing the love that we’ve come to know in Christ Jesus in word and action.  Episcopalians haven’t always been good at the word bit, and maybe that’s where some of my frustration was found those many years ago, but I know for sure that we’re getting a whole lot better at it.  So much so, that I might even be willing to say by now that we are known as disciples of Jesus because of the love that we share in our communities.

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John’s Epilogue

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John’s Gospel is, for all intents and purposes, over already.  Last week, we heard the author tie the whole thing up with a nice bow, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  We were told to look and listen for other stories.  We were told why this book was written.  We were offered the means to gain eternal life.  The End.  Or maybe not.  Our Gospel lesson this morning somehow comes after the greatest story ever told is over.  Chapter 21 serves as something of an epilogue. It is very clearly a story “added to the end of the book that serves to comment on what has [already] happened.”[1] Scholars have spilled all manner of ink trying to decide who actually wrote John 21.  They’ve argued over why it is included when it is so obviously an addition.  They’ve dug into the nuances of the original Greek to seek any number of answers to questions about why it matters that there were exactly 153 fish in the miraculous catch.

It is a puzzling story, to be sure, but if we take as our basic assumption that the purpose of this chapter is to “comment on what has already happened,” then we might begin to get a richer understanding of why it has been passed down for nearly two thousand years.  See, what has happened, at least how it gets told in John’s Gospel is that the eternal Word of God entered time and space and moved into the neighborhood of our common humanity in order to show us what eternal life looks like.  Through signs and teachings, through relationship building and intentional discipleship, Jesus developed a significant and devoted following that ultimately put enough fear in the hearts of the powers-that-be, that he was killed as a revolutionary, but in so doing, by lifting Jesus up on the cross, they lifted Jesus up upon his throne to reign as King of kings.  In God’s great victory, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, breathed new life into his disciples, and sent them out as apostles to follow in his footsteps by loving, teaching, and discipling the nations.

So, that’s what happened.  As the epilogue on that story, we find the disciples back where Jesus had initially found many of them, in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Just like before, they’ve fished all night, and caught nothing.  Likely, this all serves as a metaphor for the early stages of their new ministry.  Jesus gave them all the tools they needed for success, but it takes time to learn new things.  There is no doubt in my mind that Peter had tried to perform some miracle and failed.  Philip had tried to preach the good news and got all tangled up in his words.  Thomas has tried to make a rational argument for the resurrection of Jesus, and got lost in his own logic web.  They had been fishing for people on their own for a little while and thus far, had caught nothing.

Back on shore, a football field away, Jesus appears and calls out to them.  “Hey y’all try the other side.”  It’s interesting that shortly after this, John tells us that Jesus already had fish cooking over a charcoal fire.  He could have called out and said, “breakfast is ready,” but having completed his work on earth, Jesus’ last mission is that of an encourager, an empowerer, a cheerleader.  Give a person a fish and they eat for a day… yada yada yada.  As the nets came up from the right side of the boat, the catch was so big they couldn’t even begin to haul it in.  This seems to again be a good metaphor for what happens when we try to do ministry on our own.  We get a good idea, we gather a group of interested people, we start to work on it, and we see no fruit because we forgot to invite God along for the ride.  Jesus had promised that he would not leave his disciples abandoned.  The Holy Spirit would come and serve as their advocate and guide.  The Spirit would help them find the mission of their ministry, but it seems as though they couldn’t wait.  Rather, they seem to have been dead set on doing it their way.  John 21 reminds us that it is only when we listen for the Spirit, look for Jesus, and follow the will of the Father that our own good works will be met with success.

Back to what had already happened.  Holy Week started with Jesus and his disciples getting into trouble for eating with sinners and tax collectors.  As I said back then, the act of eating together was a symbol of relationship, an act of true intimacy.  Clean and unclean didn’t share the common cup.  They didn’t pass the broken bread around.  They weren’t supposed to smear it in the same bowl of hummus.  Yet, in the kingdom Jesus’ came to proclaim, those food laws weren’t as important as the community he was sent to establish.  Clean and unclean were invited to share a meal because in the Kingdom of Heaven, clean and unclean are all made whole by God’s never-failing love.  When Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast, it becomes an opportunity for reconciliation for them all.  While Peter seems to be the focus of the story, and he might have needed reconciliation the most, none of the disciples except for the one whom Jesus loved were anywhere near Jesus when he was crucified.  By sharing breakfast with them, breaking biscuits and picking from the same freshly caught fish, Jesus showed the remaining disciples that they were loved, forgiven, and restored to right relationship.  John 21 reminds us that it is in something as simple as the sharing of a meal that we can be reconciled to God and one another.

As breakfast was wrapping up, Jesus took a moment to have a special conversation with Peter.  As the spokesman of the group for three years, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, and the rock upon whom the community would be built, Jesus knew that Peter likely needed a little extra dose of forgiveness and encouragement after what had happened.  Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus meant it would be helpful if maybe Jesus offered Peter a three-fold moment of redemption.  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my lambs.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Tend my sheep.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my sheep.”  Having been fully reconciled to Jesus over breakfast, what this becomes for Peter is something of an ordination into the next phase of his ministry.  This three-fold invitation to service seems to serve as Peter’s anointing for ministry.  As baptized followers of Jesus, we too are reconciled into the Kingdom of God.  Through water, the Holy Spirit, and in our tradition, a good smear of chrism across our foreheads, every baptized follower of Jesus has been anointed for ministry, and specially gifted to serve.  Just like Peter, all of us have fallen short from time to time, but thankfully, God is in the forgiveness business.

As an epilogue, John 21 helps us see what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus might mean for us as modern-day followers.  We learn that faithful ministry starts with listening for the call of God.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit for the work of reconciliation, we are nourished routinely at this table and then we are sent forth, out into the world, as anointed ministers of Christ, to help bring about the restoration of all of humanity to God and to each other.  It isn’t work that we can do on our own or even as a faithful community apart from God, but with God’s help, success has already been secured for all who have come to believe and through believing, have found their way to the resurrection life.  Amen.

[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=epilogue

Empowerment

In my introductory letter to Christ Episcopal Church, I noted that I thought the role of the Rector is to be “an empowerer and encourager of ministry.”  This comes from my understanding of ministry as a shared activity.  As an ordained minister, I am not paid a salary to do ministry on behalf of a group of people, but rather, I am paid a stipend in order to be free to look around, listen for where God is calling, and to bring people along in support of that calling.  This is based in stories like the one that we will hear from John’s Gospel on Sunday.

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Despite the context seeming to suggest that Jesus already has fish roasting over the coals, he is not content to just hand his disciples what they have spent all night looking for.  No, instead, he serves as an encourager of their own self-worth.  “Try the other side of the boat,” he shouts from the shoreline, and then, when the haul is nearly impossible to bring in, he doesn’t jump into the water to save them, but let’s them live into who they are, seasoned fishermen who know their way around boats and the sea.

This model of ministry has been highlighted for me of late.  As we’ve struggled to figure out how to respond to those who are experiencing homelessness and find shelter on our porches, we have worked very intentionally not to “minister to them,” but to “walk alongside our neighbors.”  We’ve learned names.  We listened to and shared stories.  We’ve prayed with, for, and asked them to pray with and for us as well.  The same has been true of our other members as well.  It isn’t just the clergy who are doing this work on behalf of the people who pay our salaries, but the invitation continues to be made for anyone who has a heart for those in need to come alongside us in loving service for all in our community – housed or not, regular attendee or not.

This isn’t a Joel Osteen, boot-strap heresy, your best life now story.  There have been fits and starts.  There have been moments of joy and moments of true heart ache.  We’ve made mistakes, learned, forgotten what we’ve learned, and, I’m sure, on more than one occasion, fallen back into, “let us fix you” types of ministry.  But, with God’s help, we are trying to encourage one another toward the common goal of loving our neighbors and seeking justice and peace for all people.

Already Restored

The focus of a lot of [my] preaching on John 21:1-19 has been the somewhat uncomfortable exchange between Jesus and Simon Peter that takes place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  We know it well.  Three times, Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves Jesus.  Three times, Peter replies in the affirmative.  Three time, Peter is invited to care for the flock.  This encounter is often lifted up as the restoration of Peter.  After his three-fold denial of Jesus late Maundy Thursday and early Good Friday, we often read this text as Peter’s three-fold renunciation of that denial.  This is Peter’s moment of redemption.  If he was a Baptist seeking ordination, it is the charcoal fire story that he would tell as his salvation event.

This morning, however, I noticed something.  John notes that this conversation happens “When they had finished breakfast.”  Jesus, Peter, and the rest of the fishing crew had already shared a meal together.  Remember back when Holy Week first started?  The complaint levied by the religious authorities against Jesus was that he “ate with sinners and tax collectors.”  The act of eating together in first century Judaism was a symbol of relationship, an act of intimacy.  Clean and unclean didn’t share the common cup.  They didn’t pass the broken bread around.  They weren’t allowed to smear it in the same bowl of hummus.  Yet, in Jesus’ kingdom, those food laws weren’t as important as the community that he was sent to establish.  Clean and unclean were invited to share a meal because in the Kingdom of Heaven, clean and unclean are all made whole by God’s never-failing love.

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So, what if Jesus and Peter sharing breakfast – breaking bread and picking meat from the same freshly caught fish – was actually Peter’s moment of restoration?  What if all that back and forth that happens after, the thing that ultimately breaks Peter’s heart, is really just an exchange between two friends, one who was the leader, and one who will take that mantel shortly?  What if that conversation is less moment of restoration and more Peter’s moment of ordination?  What if the three-fold invitation to care for the flock is Jesus anointing Peter for his ministry?

Spy Wednesday Cliché

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When I was a freshman in college, instead of doing my homework, I watched all of the Bond movies back to back, as they playing on TNT, or some equivalent cable network.  I love spy movies.  I love the action.  I love the intrigue.  Above all, I love the tropes that one expects to see fulfilled in any good spy movie.  Perhaps the best cliché in a spy movie is the stupidity that surrounds the spy.  Usually taking the form of the villain that takes extra time to spell out the intricacies of his evil plan, giving the spy an opportunity to escape the trap in which she in snared, the comic relief in most spy movies is just how dumb the people around the story can act.

On this Spy Wednesday, all twelve disciples have the chance to fulfill their destiny as spy story clichés.  In Matthew, Judas has his starring role at the table.  Jesus predicts that one of them will betray him, and Judas says, “Surely not I, Rabbi,” which is, of course, the title used by Jesus’ adversaries in Matthew’s Gospel.  Our appointed lesson for Spy Wednesday comes from John’s Gospel, and it is the other eleven who get to look foolish in John’s account.

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After Jesus tells them that one of the group will betray him, Peter and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, undertake a clandestine mission to figure out who it will be.  John, who had the seat next to Jesus at their table for 26, point blank asks Jesus, “Who is it going to be?”  Jesus, in perhaps the only example we have of him actually answering a question, says, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread.”  Then, when he hands Judas the piece of bread and says, “Do quickly what you are going to do,” nobody understands what is happening.

It is comedic gold, set amidst the intrigue that is Jesus’ final few days.  I love how, after three years of traveling with Jesus, listening to his teaching, witnessing his miracles, and even sharing in his ministry, the disciples can still prove to be so very dense.  It means there is hope for us all in the Kingdom of God.  The life of discipleship is, as the title of a great book by Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren says so perfectly, a series of Adventures in Missing the Point. We all tend to not quite understand what God is up to in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  We all fail to accurately interpret what the Spirit is calling us to do.  At any given moment, any one of us is the comedic foil in the ongoing saga of missio dei.  But God is full of compassion, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  Jesus, despite the foolishness of the 11, went through with the difficult end game, knowing that the rain falls on the smart and the stupid alike.  The Spirit continues to gift us, knowing that we’ll likely misunderstand what those gifts are to be used for.  We are all, from time to time, a Spy Wednesday Cliché, but thanks be to God for the grace that overcomes our foolishness.

What is your Reward?

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Every school day at 6:30 AM, I trudge up the stairs to make sure Eliza and Lainey are starting to wake up.  Yesterday, I had more of a lilt in my step as I came through the bedroom door smiling and saying, “Happy Pancake Day!”  They were a bit confused by my excitement, and weren’t quite sure what to make of Pancake Day.  We chatted for a moment about Shrove Tuesday and the practice, at least in the Episcopal Church, of eating pancakes before the beginning of Lent.  I realized in the course of that conversation that I’ve probably eaten pancakes on Shrove Tuesday for each of the last 36 years.  While our girls have been doing it since birth, for them, these habits are still rather new, and in a lot of ways, foreign.

I had a similar experience about two weeks ago when I invited Vonda, our Parish Administrator, to join me for the burning of the palms.  Vonda didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, and so, much of what we do around here – from albs, cinctures, stoles, and chasubles, to Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Easter Triduum – are brand new to her.  We talked a bit about the ways in which the liturgical actions of Palm Sunday help us remember Jesus’ last week, from marching up 12th Avenue waving palm fronds shouting “Hosanna!” to hearing the Passion and crying out “Crucify him!”  I shared with her how we save those palms each year to be burned and ground into ashes that, on Ash Wednesday, get smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and a symbol of our penitence – an outward and visible sign of our need for forgiveness and God’s deep desire to forgive.

It is easy, especially for me as a clergy person, to get so used to these symbols and events that I forget what they are really meant to be about.  I can get so caught up in the details of a printer that is acting up, palms that need to be burned, and new fronds that need to be ordered, that the whole season of Lent can turn into one long to-do list.  Before I know it, a season that is meant to be set aside for the intentional work of holiness can just become another season of busy work.  I imagine that clergy aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to this condition.  Cultural LentÔ, with its 2 for six-dollar fast food fish sandwiches and giving-up-chocolate, can become so routine that it loses all of its depth of meaning.

I think this might be what Jesus was on to when he admonished his disciples to beware of practicing their personal piety before others.  To Jesus’ mind, the regular practices of the faithful had become so monotonous as to have lost all real meaning.  Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, the three-legged stool of spirituality for the faithful Jew had become, for some, nothing more than a chance to show off.  Going to the Synagogue was, for some, merely a chance to get their ticket punched, to go through the motions required by the law, and then to go back out into the world as if nothing had really changed.  “When you approach the throne of God just so others will see you, being seen is all the reward you will get,” Jesus says, “But, if you approach the throne of God with humility, penitence, and the desire to be changed, then God, who sees in secret, will reward you with a depth of relationship that is beyond even your wildest imagination.”

In just a minute, Mother Becca will invite us, on behalf of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  She will ask us all to take on intentional practices of self-examination, self-denial, and prayer.  As a symbol of our accepting that invitation, an ashen cross will be marked upon our foreheads, not so that everyone can see that we got our Ash Wednesday merit badges, but so that, when you see yourself in the mirror later today, you might remember that the season of Lent is meant to change you.  The practices you take on this season, those done in public and those done in secret, are meant to bring you into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship with God who, Lent also reminds us, sent God the Son into the world, who taught and lived a life of love, compassion, and grace, who was betrayed by one of his closest friends, condemned to death in a sham trial, crucified on a trash heap, died an excruciating death, and was hastily buried in shame on the eve of the sabbath.

The work of a holy Lent is not easy work, but it is of great reward to those who engage it with integrity.  Whether this is your first or your ninety-first Ash Wednesday, I hope you will heed the invitation and spend these next forty days engaging in the practices of holiness and preparing yourself, your body and soul, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the indwelling of the Kingdom of God, and for the resurrection life to which God invites us all.  May your Father who sees in secret reward you richly with grace and mercy this Lent.  Amen.

Finding Good in the Flat Land – a sermon

The Sermon begins at 15:35


Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that post-industrial Americans are pre-disposed against flat land.  Back when we had to rely on agriculture, people coveted long stretches of flat, rich soil, but these days, nobody ever says that they are hoping to vacation in Kansas, Iowa, or central Illinois.  We seem to prefer topography, whether it is the soft, wind-swept dunes of the coast or the majesty of the mountains rising up on the skyline.  This prejudice might explain why we tend to love reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, but only rarely get any bits of the Sermon on the Plain from Luke.

One might wonder why these two Gospel writers chose different geographic locations for Jesus’ foundational teachings.  New Testament Scholar, Ronald Allen, suggest that Luke uses the location on the “plain” or the “level place” very intentionally.[1]  In prophetic literature, the level places of this world were thought to be the home of death, disgrace, misery, hunger, and mourning.  But the prophets who spoke of God’s great redemption knew that even those level places would one day be redeemed.  In the coming Kingdom of God, no longer will the world be a place of highs and lows, haves and have nots, rich and poor, east coast, west coast, or flyover country.  Rather, the world as God intends it will be flat, all will be made level.  It is the promise of Isaiah, repurposed by John the Baptist, that the highway of God will be made when the valleys are filled in and the rough places made smooth.  On one particular level place, Jesus shared his vision of the great level place that God has been longing to create since Adam and Eve first broke relationship.

Our rare foray into the Sermon on the Plain began last week when Jesus, surrounded by a great crowd of followers from all over Judea, began to preach.  He began his Sermon on the Plain with a series of blessings and woes that essentially turned human expectation on its ear.  This morning, we get part two, which starts with Jesus doing a kind of check in with the crowd.  After that list of blessings and woes – blessed are the poor, woe to you who are laughing, and the like – I’m guessing some in the crowd were already beginning to back away from Jesus.  Looking at them, he says, “Are y’all still listening to me?”  They could certainly hear him, but were they really listening to what he had to say?  The world of Jesus’ time didn’t carry quite so many demands on one’s attention as ours does, but he knew that humans have always struggled to truly listen.

“If any of y’all are still listening to me,” Jesus went on, “I say this, love your enemies.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I want to listen to Jesus on this one.  I’d like to use my prejudice against flat land and ignore a good portion of the Sermon on the Plain, thank you very much.  We’ve had a week to recover from those blessings and woes, but for the crowd gathered on the level place, this is happening in rapid succession.  Right on the heels of “Woe to you when people speak well of you,” Jesus adds, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.”  The life to which Jesus is calling the crowd, and all of us, seems to be downright impossible.  At best, we will make ourselves to be doormats for those who want to take advantage of us.  At worst, our faith will be crushed by the impossibility of the demands that Jesus is laying upon our shoulders.  It is as if Jesus didn’t care one bit about the kinds of sermons preachers would someday have to write for late Epiphany, Year C.  Didn’t he say somewhere else that his yoke is easy and his burden is light?

Anyway, the longer I wrestled with this text this week, the more I began to wonder if the impossibility of it all might not be the whole point of the Sermon on the Plain.  The great equalizer for us all is our ability to fall into sin, to build up ourselves, and to fail to live lives that are totally devoted to love of God and love of neighbor.  Back in my old evangelical days, where we would talk more openly about our need for a savior, one of the images that got thrown around to describe the chasm that sin has put between human beings and God was trying to swim the Atlantic Ocean.  If I tried to swim the Atlantic Ocean in one go, I might, might make it a half mile before I drowned.  Ironman Triathlete Shawn Rhodes might make it three or four miles.  A few crazy fools who have swam the English Channel, might make it 20 or more miles, but all of us would fall way short of the 3,716 mile trek.  Zoomed out to view the whole thing, all of our attempts would look quite meager. The same is true of all of our attempts to follow the example of Jesus.  Our attempts, noble as they might be, will inevitably fall woefully short.

We know that no one can live up to the expectations that Jesus lays out in this sermon, but we also know that God desires to bring us all back into right relationship.  It doesn’t make sense then, that God would just leave us out here floundering all on our own.  No, what Jesus lays out here is a case for a relationship with him.  Jesus invites us to trust in him, to follow his example, and to seek a relationship with God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, and merciful to all.  It is, after all, God who sent Jesus here to begin with.  It is by God’s grace that we are invited into relationship and it is with God’s help that we can strive toward the kind of life that Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Plain.

This whole concept has been summed up in the theological idea of theosis, or the transforming effect of divine grace.  Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the mid-fourth century summed up the idea of theosis quite simply when he wrote, “God became human so that humanity might become like God.”  It is through our relationship with God, being guided by the Holy Spirit to live Christlike lives, that we can even begin to follow the difficult teaching that Jesus espouses in the Sermon on the Plain.  It is only when we find ourselves on a level playing field, all in need of the saving work of Christ, that we can begin to see the world the way God sees it, and live the way Jesus invites us to live.

Now, don’t get me wrong, none of this makes me actually like the Sermon on the Plain, but difficult as it may be, it is a teaching from which we can learn quite a bit about the dream that God has for creation and for each of us.  I may not be scheduling a vacation to central Kansas anytime soon, but this week I gained a bit more of an appreciation for the things that can happen in level places.  I pray that in the days to come, we all might experience the difficult teachings of Jesus as an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God, to trust the Holy Spirit, and to model our lives after the impossible example of Jesus, knowing that even in our feeblest attempts at love, the kingdom of God is made known on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3960 (Accessed Feb 21, 2019)