04-16-17 THE DAY WHEN JOY TRUMPED FEAR

THE DAY WHEN JOY TRUMPED FEAR

Matthew 28: 1-10

 

The Rev Samuel Son, Co-Pastor at a new Presbyterian Worshipping Community in Raleigh, North Carolina, had these thoughts published in a journal last month:

If the church no longer seems to matter in the Western world, it is because Easter no longer matters to the church the way it should. The church doesn’t make the emperor’s knees knock any more—nor that of CEOs or anyone with institutional power—as the early church did, because resurrection has been shaved into a synonym for the spring return of flowers and birds. Easter Sunday is not much more than a Christianized spring festival with bunnies…and no longer a commitment of everything to the death-shattering event of the empty tomb. A shriveled grape doesn’t make good wine, and a mythological resurrection can’t sustain the church against the powers of the world. [Presbyterian Outlook, Vol. 199, No. 5, p. 12]

 

I do not believe in a mythological resurrection; Jesus arose from the dead! But it’s food for thought, isn’t it? People most often hope the resurrection is real especially when they are facing the end of their life or the life of a loved one.  But had you considered the watershed, earth-shaking news and its effect our daily lives: that Christ’s birth changed the calendar because he arose from the dead? If that had not happened, no one would be marking his birth in our day. So Jesus rising from the dead did change the world! How much has it changed you and the way you live, and more particularly, how has it changed what you think about when facing a loved one’s death? One other person wrote this about the impact of Easter:

Resurrection was like the Big Bang of creation. The Big Bang theory  cannot provide explanation for its own initial condition. It is not repeatable…. The blast of the Big Bang is the galaxies, the stars, the earth. The blast of the resurrection is the miraculous and missional birth of the church: Galilean peasants venturing to neighboring Samaria, then as far as Spain and Syria.

Are there kernels of Christianity still planted in Syria? Yes. But the weeds of evil are growing and choking them. We face the Crucified Christ and the Risen Christ with the backdrop of an international chess game of power and destruction. Battles are being fought as a backdrop to our Easter services.

 

I am reminded of the 2 minute rendition that Simon and Garfunkel produced in 1966, when they began a song with actual snippets of news stories from August 3rd that year, that included racial aggression, deaths in Vietnam, drug overdoses, people stabbed and even strangled. The news reports start to fade into the background as Simon and Garfunkel offer their luscious harmonies singing “Silent Night, Holy Night.”  The song was called “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night. We, in turn, hear the news that bombs are dropped and people are gassed as we sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”  What juxtapositions of reality and hope.

 

Carl Hopkins Elmore once told of a Jewish rabbi who was so moved and disturbed by the maltreatment of his race in certain sections of the world that he sent an appeal to all Christendom on the eve of another Easter: “I challenge the Christian world to measure itself by the standards of its Christ. As long as any group is judged by its creed or color or country in place of its character, Christianity is a sacrilege rather than a sanctity.  To this end I summon Christians everywhere to make this Easter to signify Christ realized and not merely Christ risen.” What did he mean exactly by this distinction between Christ risen and Christ realized? Christ realized means Christian faith is alive when it impacts our daily realities. It means we hope that Christ comes out from the annals of history to be a redeeming force for humanity because good Christian men and women are choosing to act: to do something instead of doing nothing, or letting others do something instead. Christ risen is a common chorus for all congregations on Easter, but Christ realized means that sleeves have to be rolled up, votes cast, and changes be made regarding injustice and forgottenness.

The Apostle Paul wrote it this way in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Anyone who is in Christ becomes a new creation. The past is finished and gone. … And he gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” He did not give us the ministry of apathy or of annihilation. Do we then downplay the Risen Christ? By no means! Ours would be a hollow and groundless faith were we not able to say that once, in the pattern of history, a man appeared who was indeed “very God;” who also lived a human existence that reflected things never before seen or known on earth; who taught a way of life more original than any philosopher had been able to frame; who embraced the Will of God so completely that he himself was truth; and who shared our humanity to the extent that he took on death and overthrew the power of Satan. Plus, somehow after death, he appeared again to vindicate his claims! Through the centuries, Christ risen became the impulse and impetus behind the highest and best in our civilization and culture. It is evident in the art and sculpture of Raphael, DaVinci, and Michelangelo; in the music of Handel, Bach, And Beethoven. And it inspired the poetry of Dante, Milton, and Browning.

One of my professors from Princeton Seminary, the late Dr. Donald Macleod said this:

Who among us is happy over what we think and do on Easter Day? Is

that not enough? It becomes increasingly apparent that the fact of Christ risen is not enough. And it will continue to be so, until we turn a first century fact into a living twentieth century reality….This goes to the heart of our worship when we praise God on Sunday and cheat our brother or sister on Monday.”

 

Today, let’s connect the dots between actions during a fateful week in the first century, and actions we may choose to take, this week and later, in the twenty-first century. In the upper room that Passover week, on the day we now call Maundy Thursday, a new commandment was given—Jesus said, “love one another as I have loved you,” and a new covenant was sealed. By Friday morning Jesus was on his way to the cross. God in Christ would suffer and die for us. Jesus breathed his last and died as the shofar was blown in the Temple announcing the sacrifice of the lamb for the sins of the Jews. At that specific time, Jesus: the Lamb of God, gave up his spirit just outside the walls of Jerusalem, paying the price for the sins of the whole world.  Jesus died at the traditional hour of lamb sacrifice: 3:00 p.m. A man moved to action—Joseph of Arimathea, asked for the body of Jesus after he died. He wanted to give him a proper burial.. He asked the authorities Jesus’ body and lovingly buried him in his family tomb. Jewish law said unequal things could not be yoked together, so no one in his family could  be buried in that family tomb since Jesus had been buried there first. Yet Joseph still offered his tomb—a very costly gift. Early in Jesus’ ministry, fisherman dropped their nets and chose to follow him, at great personal cost. What is the cost of following Christ for you? Have you counted the cost and said “Yes?” How can we show our gratitude for a God who loves us unconditionally, and a Savior who has unlocked the gates of Heaven? Christians remember the resurrected Christ around the world today saying: “Together we are the body of Christ, and individually members of Him.”  Let others see Jesus through you. And let his resurrection change your life.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           April 16, 2017

04-09-17 THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE IS REJECTED

THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE IS REJECTED

Psalm 118: 19-29; Luke 19: 29-40

 

Today we will get to the core of the Palm Sunday message as we begin what is called “Holy Week.” The message is about freedom and salvation. I am quite sure that some of you are here because you love Jesus; some are here to learn more about him; and some are here just for the pageantry and joy!  Today we began with the childhood understanding of Palm Sunday as a parade for Jesus.  We then will move to the reality that many adults in that procession were crying out for religious and political revolt. But it all started with celebration! Jesus entered Jerusalem, the disciples cheered, and the crowd was jubilant.

 

Psalm 118, the source of many of our Palm Sunday words, describe a person entering Jerusalem who was rejected by others, but who “has become the head of the corner.”  That is good news with ominous overtones! They used festal branches to celebrate.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is about to enter the city for Passover.

 

Perhaps you grew up, as I did, hearing the children’s song on Palm Sunday “Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear, things I would ask him to tell me if he were here! Scenes by the wayside, tells of the sea, stories of Jesus, tell them to me!” Perhaps you sang those jubilant words years ago. We’ll not take away from that joy! It was a jubilant time. Jesus, a man who might have been the Messiah, was coming into the city! Jesus, a man who might be their new King, was there! Caught up in the moment, people started to wave whatever they had, and to cheer. There were already crowds around. Now the crowds had a focus and Jesus gave people hope. We do not have any video footage of our Savior on the donkey, but I absolutely picture him smiling, glad to see children celebrating! Listen to his later comments to the Pharisees, “Even if my disciples were to quiet down their celebrating, the stones themselves would cry out!” That was the mood of Jesus as he, and others, came down the Mount of Olives to enter Jerusalem. Travelers on each of our Holy Land pilgrimages have joined me in traveling down the Palm Sunday path to Jerusalem. The gate into the city is different, but everything else is what Jesus surely saw on that fateful day.

 

But some clouds were forming over the celebration. Passover was a time of general unrest in crowded Jerusalem. Like Bike Weeks in Daytona, crowds were bigger and security was heightened. There was tension. Any sound of rioting and loud groups drew attention. Therefore as you heard in the passage from Luke today, Jesus came toward the city from the east, and on a donkey: two key descriptions of the messiah in the Old Testament! The people who gathered spread branches and garments on the ground. They started to cry out with joy and intensity. The Pharisees didn’t want Roman interference so they ask Jesus to quiet his disciples down. Jesus, caught up in the event, replies: “If they are silent, these very stones will cry out!” The time was right. The King was coming into the city!

 

According to John’s gospel, palm branches were waved as Jesus entered. Palm branches were the official symbol of the Jewish nation after their freedom had been obtained by a patriot named Judas Maccabaeus. Later that freedom was lost and they were back under Roman rule, oppressed and fed up by taxes. But the palm branch, like the American Eagle, was their symbol of national freedom! When the children waved the palms, it was for the fun of a parade. When the politically connected people waved the palm, it was a cry for upheaval and revolt! But Jesus had a different plan; a plan for salvation. Through the ages people have sometimes referred to him as the “Lamb of God.” That title began to be important on that first Palm Sunday. The Sunday before Passover in the time of Jesus was known as “lamb selection day.” Jesus entered Jerusalem deliberately on that day we call “Palm Sunday.” It was a day that an unblemished lamb was chosen for sacrifice in the Temple for Passover, a sacrifice that symbolically paid the price of the Jewish nation for that year. But on a hill, not too far away, on that terrible Friday, Jesus became the lamb of God who took away the sins of the world. His sacrifice offers us forgiveness, and access to God. When Jesus died on that day, which we will recall next Friday, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. People gained access to God like never before. Jesus did that for us. So in our church, we do not have an altar; we no longer need to offer animal sacrifices to honor or please God. The sacrifice God now accepts is a humble spirit and the proclamation that Jesus is our Lord. The Lamb of God was the sufficient payment for our sins.

 

Matthew’s gospel records that the people cried, “Hosanna!” That Hebrew word does not mean “hooray” or “We love you.” It was a cry of hope and desperation: “Save us!” they cried. “Save us, one who has come in the name of the Lord!” This is the start of that fateful week. A possible timeline is as follows. Jesus and his disciples, it seemed, rarely slept in the Jerusalem; they departed to nearby Bethany or the Mount of Olives. After his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, some suggest that he drove the moneychangers from the Temple because they had set up their tables in the Court of the Gentiles. Jesus declared, “Is it not written that my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations?” [Mark 11:17]

That made the authorities take notice of him and consider him with disdain. Jesus likely returned to Bethany that night. On Tuesday he went to the Mount of Olives and Jerusalem. Along the way he taught his disciples the lesson of the withered fig tree. After visiting the city he returned to the Mount of Olives and prophesied about the destruction of Jerusalem. Scripture indicates that this was the day that Judas negotiated with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus. The Bible does not record any specific event that happened on Wednesday of Holy Week. Perhaps Jesus and his disciples retired to Bethany to prepare for Passover the following day. On that Holy Thursday Jesus gathered his disciples in an Upper Room. He gave them a new commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” In Latin commandment is “Maundy” from which we get our word “mandate;” thus, we will have Maundy Thursday Communion and Tenebrae this week. John’s gospel says this was also the day Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. After the Passover meal that we call the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples retired to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus knew what he was facing. There he prayed so hard that what was planned might be changed, that sweat dropped off of his forehead like great drops of blood. Later that night Judas arrived and betrayed Jesus with a kiss. The Sanhedrin arrested him and took Jesus away. This story will continue this Thursday night.

 

For now, we have had a procession to Jerusalem. Imagine being there with Jesus! What an honor! What excitement! And clearly what joy Jesus received by looking into the faces of children! Thank you for celebrating a special day, as ominous dark clouds begin to roll in this week. May God increase your faith, and keep you well anchored to Jesus Christ, even amid the most heinous week of his life. We need the valleys to appreciate the mountaintops! Sunday’s coming … but not yet! Take the journey with Jesus in your prayers and your activities this week. Along with those who raise the palms, people in our world also cry, “Hosanna! Save us!” Give them Jesus.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 9, 2017

04-02-17 THE MAN WHO CLIMBED FROM A TOMB

THE MAN WHO CLIMBED FROM A TOMB

John 11: 1-6; 17-27; 38-44

 

 

In the 2014, New York Times Bestselling author Dr. Atul Gawande, who is also a surgeon and a Harvard Professor, said this in his book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End:

I learned a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them…. Our textbooks had almost nothing on aging or frailty or dying….The way we saw it, and the way our professors saw it, the purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not now to tend to their demise.

 

In our day I have heard both anger and grief from family members who have lost loved ones. The anger often comes when the medical community does what Dr. Gawande says it is trained to do: they do everything possible to save a life because they are hard-wired to do it. According to Gawande, doctors cannot easily let someone just comfortably pass away. The exception, of course is Hospice, designed to make death as peaceful and painless as possible. Back at the hospital, sometimes a doctor sees medical possibilities that families are reluctant to persue. Health issues in times are anguish are so difficult. A hundred years ago, most people died in their own bed at home.  A doctor would stop by with a black bag and a stethoscope to check a person, and then often give a prescription like, “keep him comfortable. It’s his heart.” But along with knowledge comes power; and along with power come choices. What do we want the end of our life to be like? What conversations could fruitfully take place when one is of sound mind and body instead of in a time of panic?  How often do doctors hear a family member say: “Do whatever you can for him,” or ”for her?” And so they do. Doctors know how to do that. But the vast majority of people in the 21st century now die in hospitals, nursing homes, rehab centers, or Hospice.

 

Here’s a story from the past. In Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ivan is “forty-five years old, and a midlevel St. Petersburg [Russia] magistrate whose life revolves mostly around petty concerns of social status. One day, he falls off a stepladder and develops a pain in his side. Instead of abating, the pain gets worse and he becomes unable to work. Formerly an ‘intelligent, polished, lively, and agreeable man,’ he grows depressed and enabled. Friends and colleagues avoid him. His wife calls in a series of more expensive doctors…. What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.’”  In the story, Ivan does die, but only while people around him didn’t do what he needed most: he someone t to comfort him, to listen to him, and to hold him. That’s what he needed; not what he got. Only at the very end did his torturous journey, after the fall from a ladder, end.

 

Most of the time we want our loved one to be alive and well, and not to die. The denial of death is prevalent in our country. But as I told the children, everything and everyone dies. What if the person is ready to die, or wants to die? Do they not get a part in the conversation? When those who are dying mention their readiness for it, how often do family members say “Don’t talk like that?” And yet those few who have slipped away from life and come back, those who might have had a glimpse of Heaven according to the accounts that have been published, seem to yearn for that next life. Being pulled back to this life sometime was not their first choice. It was the choice of family members who could not bear to say goodbye.

 

Today our Bibles transport us back to an actual small town just east of Jerusalem; Bethany. When Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem, from Galilee they, and others, would usually follow the Jordan River for water and direction, then cut over through Jericho. From there Bethany was nearby. Jesus and his disciples had made friend there- among them, two women named Mary and Martha, and their brother named Lazarus. We know, according to John 11:5, that Jesus loved all three of them.  We also know that Mary once used her hair and some ointment to wipe Jesus’ feet, and that she, according to Luke 10, once listened at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha tried to get some food ready with no help from her sister. We know nothing else about Lazarus except that, in John 11:3, he got sick. Was he sickly before? Was this some illness that was normally terminal? We don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus is not concerned about the news, while Martha was seemingly wringing her hands with worry. Might Jesus have sensed her anxious nature? Jesus hears that Lazarus has “fallen asleep.” Perhaps that was first century code for unconsciousness. In the first century, the proven way to declare death was to watch a person for three days; if he showed no signs of life during that time, he was declared dead. On the second day of Lazarus’ condition, Jesus is told about him; he then waits two more days before going to see him! Jesus said he wanted God’s glory to be seen. But Lazarus: Lazarus was actually wrapped in his burial cloths for four days when Jesus came to Bethany.

 

We never really hear about Lazarus’ health before he falls ill. Likewise, we never really hear how much of his health returned once Jesus issued the command: “Lazarus, come out.” All we know is that a man who smelled like death came out like a horror film mummy, and Jesus told others to “Unbind him, and let him go.” Did he wander the countryside terrifying people? Could he speak again, and walk, and do chores? Did his mind function as before? The story does not take us there. The story is about glorifying God when Jesus calls a man (presumed dead) out of his tomb. You can still visit the tomb in Bethany where tradition says Lazarus came forth.

 

Most of the time we get a snapshot of a miracle in the Bible, and we wish Jesus would revive our loved one too. People think: “If Jesus could raise him from the dead, why didn’t he do that with the one I love?” Again, it’s a moment in time; an incident.  Let me give you an example: My daughter Jenny, and my daughter-in-law Vicki often post cute pictures of their children on Facebook. “You have such photogenic children!” one person commented to them. So they showed how they got the cute shot: it was by holding down the button on the camera and getting 45 photos of tears, squirming, faces, and screaming. But their snapshot made it look like their boys were angels! That’s what snapshots do! I’m suggesting that with Lazarus we also have something of a snapshot. A man gets sick, seems to die, and is brought back from death. How things were going before that, and how things went after that, we do not know. Perhaps, for the sake of glorifying God, Jesus did this to Lazarus, and he lived happily ever after. But Lazarus also could have lived out his days in constant agony or dementia. I know people who have come back from near death experiences and their health was irretrievably compromised. Life was difficult for them and for their caregivers, because doctors did what they were trained to do; and family members requested that their “Lazarus” be brought back from the brink of death.  We should all be careful what we ask for.

 

In England in 1902, author W. W. Jacobs published the story of “The Monkey’s Paw.”

 

The short story involved Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son, Herbert. Sergeant-Major Morris, a friend who served with the British Army in India, introduces them to a mummified monkey’s paw. An old man had placed a spell on the paw; it would grant three wishes, but always with hellish consequences … for tampering with fate.

The White’s son Herbert leaves for work at a local factory. Later that day, word comes to the White home that Herbert has been killed in a terrible machinery accident. Ten days after their son’s death and a week after the funeral, Mrs. White, almost mad with grief, asks her husband to use the paw to wish Herbert back to life. Reluctantly, he does so. Shortly afterward there is a knock at the door. As Mrs. White fumbles at the locks in an attempt to open the door, Mr. White, who had to identify his son’s mutilated body and who knew the corpse had been buried for more than a week, realized that the thing outside is not the son he knew and loved. He makes his third wish.

The knocking suddenly stops. Mrs. White opens the door to find no one is there.

 

An event in the little town of Bethany was done to glorify God.

Everyone dies. For some, there are miracles; for some, eternal life. Could it be that sometimes the most merciful gift our Creator gives us is death? The Apostle Paul personified death saying: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Consider whether the snapshot at a tomb in Bethany is really your gold standard, for the “Lazarus” in your life.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 2, 2017

03-26-17 THE BLIND SEE

THE BLIND SEE

John 9: 1-17

 

Thanks to the plethora of medical commercials on television, I have now been exposed to something called Non-24. It is a circadian rhythm disorder. Some sighted people can experience this syndrome, but most often it affects those who are blind.  The Non-24 website says:

Though Non-24 may appear to be a sleep disorder, it isn’t. It’s actually a serious, chronic circadian rhythm disorder very common in people who are totally blind and it can arise at any age. Currently there are 1.3 million people who are legally blind in the United States. Of the legally blind, 130,000 have no light perception (i.e. totally blind) and as many as 70% suffer from Non-24.

 

If you are sighted you know doctors often advise patients who have trouble sleeping to darken their room as much as possible. That triggers the sleep hormones in their body. But what if your world was dark 24 hours a day? How would you know day from night? By sounds? By an audio clock? By friends telling you the time of day? Like the children today who tried on the face masks in the children’s sermon, it can be unnerving to not be able to see what, or who, is around you. Amazingly, a number of blind people have excelled in their dark world: Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Fanny Crosby are three of them. Interestingly their lives were tied to music! Fanny Crosby, whose hymns we are singing today, was a physically blind person who perhaps was able to lean on the everlasting arms of a God she could not see, in part because her daily living depended on having faith in humans she could not see! We sighted people have as many as five good senses to test the world around us; we usually live much more by sight than by faith! Those who are blind must put faith in others.  William P. Sherwin, the man who wrote the tune for the hymn “Break Thou the Bread of Life,” said Crosby was “a blind lady whose eyes can see splendidly in the sunshine of God’s love.” And Frances Ridley Havergal, the writer of the hymn “Take My Life and Let it Be,” called Crosby “the woman with a seeing heart.” She learned to “see” through the eyes of faith and love. How else could she write, “Perfect submission, perfect delight, visions of rapture now burst on my sight!”

 

In our text today, John describes a crowd gathered in Jerusalem. It was a crowd not unlike those surrounding celebrities in our day. They had heard that Jesus—one called “Son of David”—would pass that way today. He seemed to have the religious leaders of the day uneasy. But others wanted to see him!  The streets were lined with people like they were waiting for a parade. Today we hear about a man whose life Jesus changed. He had at least two strikes against him: one, he was blind; two he was described as a beggar. Two strikes for people of the world, but two reasons for Jesus to notice him! Our Savior was not willing to walk by or ignore those in need.  And this man needed others. In our day those who are blind can ask for a guide-dog to be a constant companion; or for Braille or Talking Books to be sent to their home. For your information: the largest talking books library in the United States in here in Daytona Beach! But the blind man in Jesus’ day had no such resources. He was solely dependent on others. The old spiritual declares, “When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, O Lord have mercy on me.”  When was the last time you did that in prayer; when you actually dropped to your knees to pray? That is a posture of helplessness and submission. It shows the kind of helplessness that the blind man felt. Some people pray in that kneeling posture daily. But others just imagine themselves kneeling in prayer. This beggar needed help.  And in the midst of that, a discussion started, by Jesus’ disciples no less, about who sinned to cause his blindness: one of the most unhelpful conversations to have when there is a serious problem is about placing blame. Taking the energy to assign blame in a family, in politics, or among friends does not move the conversation toward a solution. It deflects the conversation to causes, and reasons, why such and such happened. It is a response that is encouraged by actors on stage or screen, or in the plots in novels. But if your goal is to come to Jesus, to be real, and to be honest, a different conversation has to take place. When the disciples ask Jesus “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus must have sighed. Then Jesus said pointedly, “It was not this man or his parents who sinned; through his blindness, you will see the mighty acts of God!” I have not told you how Fanny Crosby, or Stevie Wonder, or Ray Charles became blind. How they became blind is a distraction from the music they made!  So Jesus turned a question from disciples into a teachable moment with people watching. The blind man proceeded to do something seemingly odd, but he complied because he was trusting Jesus to save him. He does what he was told to do. Jesus spat on the ground, and made a kind of clay from the dirt and moisture, pressed it to both of his eyes, and directed him to go to a nearby pool, called Siloam to wash his eyes. All through the Bible, God asks people to do some unusual things. God asked Abraham to leave his country and to go to another country where he had never been before. And he went. An angel of God asked Mary to bear the Son of God. “May it be according to your word,” she replied. Jesus told Peter to come to him by walking on water. He did … until he thought about it, and he sank. Our Lord asks some strange things. But maybe it takes learning from a man who has had to depend on others his entire life; maybe a blind man has something to teach us about submitting to our Lord’s requests. Our text says of the blind man: “He went, and washed, and came back seeing.” That should have been the end of the blessing. But, as we heard, there was a lot of diversion: people deflected, and they questioned how the man could have been healed.

 

This is the way of the world. We see it with reporters who ask questions that have been asked and answered. We see it with children who ask questions on top of other questions. And we see it even in dysfunctional families that continue to harp on or pick on another family member who has barely broken free of a toxic lifestyle. “Who caused this?” one asks. “This was your father’s fault!” another cries out. “Your sobriety won’t last” someone else predicts. “You’ve fallen off the wagon before.” Not helpful; not at all. May those blind people see today! For thirty verses Jesus did not speak, while others got distracted with every issue—except for the work of God that had given a blind man sight. Read it in John chapter 9! It is a microcosm of people.  Jesus had a consciousness that functioned above the fray of human responses. Some through the ages have gained his insights too. Read your Bibles carefully. The Jesus you think you know is not always the Jesus John describes.

 

There are plenty of sighted people around who are blind, aren’t there? At times, I’ve been one of them. I have missed the beauty that God wanted me to see; or I missed seeing the needs around me, or I missed how important it was for a child to share a picture with me. But I have learned; I have learned by watching others; I have learned from my grandsons; but mostly I have learned by looking at Jesus again, and hearing what he said, seeing what he did, and noticing when he said nothing. I now look at the reasons I have to be grateful; I’ve looked at my past when my first responses were anger and irritation, and I do not answer with deflecting answers assigning blame. What a misguided waste of time that was. But because I am sighted, I now try to be the eyes of Jesus, seeing what he might see: not the crowds, but the little man, or the gentle woman, or the child, or the blind man, and to see them through eyes of love. I was blind; then I, like Fanny Crosby, prayed:

“Pass me not, O gentle Savior hear my humble cry; while on others Thou art calling, do not pass me by.”

Now I see, at least I see others better.

Pray to see through the eyes of faith. Then see what you can see.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 23, 2017

03-19-17 ENCOUNTERING THE WOMAN AT THE WELL

ENCOUNTERING THE WOMAN AT THE WELL

John 4: 5-26

 

Long before modern pop psychologists like Dr. Phil McGraw or even Eckhart Tolle, and long before classical psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, people walked through life had to deal with moral burdens and the consequences of their ethical choices in a hit and miss kind of fashion. Perhaps one of the most helpful activities of the burdened soul was and is confession: confession of sin to one who is sometimes called a Confessor. The Roman Catholic Church gives that role to priests. Mystic Teresa of Avila had a confessor in whom she confided: Fr. Diego Yepes. About her he was later permitted to write: “[God] showed her a beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendour, illumining and brightening them all…. While she was wondering at this beauty, which by God’s grace can dwell in the human soul, the light suddenly vanished. Although the King of Glory did not leave the mansions, the crystal globe was plunged into darkness ….” These words were included as the introduction to St. Teresa’s masterpiece work called Interior Castle.

 

Certainly there are times when people plunge into emotional darkness, sometimes leading to clinical depression. And other times people just need to confess burdens, or even talk with a perceptive person such as a counselor or a pastor. For centuries through the act of confession, the Roman Catholic Church has done something that helped people transform their sin sick souls. The old spiritual declared: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul. The balms in Gilead were known to be medicinal, but healing a soul was the work of legend. Taking your burdens to Jesus, instead, can heal your soul! Encountering Jesus in a heartfelt prayer can change the trajectory of your life! To carry unconfessed sins for an extended period of time can overly burden your soul. Several years ago our Body, Mind, and Soul ministry had a seminar on posture.  We learned that plenty of people go around with an unhealthy stooped over posture. Sometimes it is caused by genetic issues. But other times, the presenter suggested, such posture is an indication of emotional issues. Yes, emotional issues have a measurable impact on one’s body and mind too!  We can be burdened by our inability to cope with the world around us; we can be burdened by unconfessed sins. Many people today think that if what they are doing does not break a law, or even worse, it breaks a law but they are never getting caught, then no infraction has been committed. They think it doesn’t hurt anybody. But unlawful activities,  acts of emotional torment of family members or neighbors, bullying under the radar of a school, or tempting others to start down a dark path indicate, in biblical language, that the Tempter is at work in those person’s lives.

 

Today we will look at a woman Jesus’ encounters at a well in Samaria. The story tells about three ingredients that can have the power to heal the sin-sick soul: confessions, forgiveness, and unconditional love. John’s gospel and his letters are filled with the message of God’s unconditional love. Let’s look at our text today. Verse three says: “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” Had to? When did Jesus have to do anything that was not part of the Father’s plan?  It makes one think: did Jesus cut through Samaria as a geographical shortcut, or did he go for a theological necessity? We are made to wonder if this journey home for Jesus going through an area that might be called “the other side of the tracks” was an intentional choice that he made. People of Samaria were shunned and avoided by Jews. They believed that God lived on their mountain, Mount Gerizim, instead of on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Jews thought it was blasphemy. The Samaritans, they said, also polluted their bloodlines by marrying people who worshipped other gods. If a Jew touched a Samaritan, a Rabbi would declare that the Jew was ritually unclean, and he would be cut off from communion with God. The story of the Good Samaritan throws us off because Jesus praised a Samaritan. But no Jew would have thought of a Samaritan as “good.” Nowhere else do we find this amazing encounter described of Jesus’ ministry.

 

Our Presbyterian Women are studying a book this year called Twelve Women of the Bible. In Session 11, author Lysa TerKuerst writes this about the woman at the well:

We never learn her name. She is simply called a Samaritan Woman. But this amazing individual whom we meet in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel teaches us a very important lesson. Three things are obvious, but very important to remember. First, she was a woman. In her world and time, this was one strike against her. Women were not trusted, invited into religious discourse, or even spoken to in public by rabbis. In addition to being a woman, she was a Samaritan—strike two! The Jews looked down on the Samaritans because they had intermarried with the nations around them and were no longer pureblooded enough to be considered true Jews. Finally, the woman had a sinful past … and her present circumstances were questionable as well—strike three! We learn that she had been married and divorced five times and was now living with a man who was not her husband. [p. 132]

 

First, confession is at work in this encounter. Without accusing, but by asking, Jesus gets the woman at the well to unburden herself. Jesus said “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Our Lord suspected more than he was letting on. The healing begins as she replies: “I have no husband.” He replies, “You are right; you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”  In her confession she felt no condemnation, perhaps for the first time in her life. The pieces of her puzzle were coming together for Jesus. She was likely poor; wealthy people sent servants to get water. She was also likely judged and outcast by her town. It is widely believed she came at noon to draw water intentionally. Other women came in the morning, when it is cool. Perhaps her society led her to be the lone person at the well at noon. In those days a woman could not divorce a husband. That meant five had divorced her! If she had been arrogant she could have been beaten or killed. Instead her spirit may have been broken, burdening her heart as she was found unacceptable time and time again. Jesus did not attach a scarlet letter to her garment; there was no apparent sin, (sin would likely have ended in her death.) Others in her town, however, may have decided on her guilt. Perhaps someone you know is just looking for acceptance. They carry around the baggage of unforgiveness. They may long to meet Jesus at a well of living water. If you know people who are causing hurt, harm, or anguish to another person by their deliberate heartless actions, imagine how their lives might change if they knew unconditional love, like the endless supply of living water. If you are the one who is hurt, Jesus truly loves you endlessly; he will go out of his way to meet you, and to offer you living water.

 

Second, forgiveness is at work here. The disciples are astonished find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. [verse 27] Without even hearing Jesus say “you are forgiven,” the woman seems to gain the energy of a child and the message of a convert. This new evangelist goes back to her city, telling people that she had met a prophet, one who made her feel so different she wondered if he could be the Messiah! That encounter with the woman at the well was so profound that John says: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” [verse 39] Here’s the unbelievable thing the Samaritans did:  They found Jesus and “asked him to stay there two days. And many more became believers.” [verse 40] Jesus had crossed a cultural line. Here’s a cultural line crossed in 2017:

 

In Victoria, Texas, on January 28th—

Early on that Saturday morning, members of the Victoria Islamic Center were notified that that their mosque had been destroyed by a fire overnight.

The small town of 62,000 immediately came together, with leaders of different faiths sharing their support.

Members of the one Jewish temple in the town, the Congregation B’Nai Israel, were the first to offer their house of worship. They handed their synagogue’s keys to one of the mosque’s founders.

“We were very happy to do this,” Melvin Lack, treasurer of Congregation B’Nai Israel tells USA TODAY. “You feel what’s happening in the community and everyone reacts.”

Soon, a GoFundMe page was created to raise money for        reconstruction. Within only a few days, over $1 million

had been donated, far surpassing the initial goal of $850,000.

 

Grace still changes lives today, as it changed lives in Samaria.

 

Finally: unconditional love is at work here. Preacher Patrick Willson once wrote:

If we read the right stories, we know what kind John is telling. We have been to the well before. A man meets a woman at a well. It was at a well that Abraham’s servant, sent on a mission to find a suitable wife for Isaac, met Rebekah. At a well, Jacob met Rachel. Zipporah comes to a well to water her flocks and is rescued by dashing Moses….All the cues tell us that this is a love story, [but] certainly not the kind we expect. This isn’t the kind the movies give us, nor the kind in paperback novels. This love story has a different author…an author who loves people, but not because they are beautiful maidens or handsome princes by the world’s standards. No; this author, like a loving Father, looks at his daughter through the eyes of love. She is beautiful, no matter how she looks to the world; she is loveable, no matter what she’s done; she is redeemable no matter how many husbands said she wasn’t. This is a love story in many ways; about a Father’s love for his people, ….

 

We too have done things that need confession; we too need to be forgiven; and we too need unconditional love, not conditional love based on our performance, our bank account, or on what we give to get it. We need love, like God’s love, that is never withdrawn: not in judgment, not in disappointment, not in brokenness. The only way you may not experience God’s love and forgiveness is if you turn away from it. But God seeks us out, crossing over barriers of religion, culture, gender, and hostility, like a prophet who deliberately went by a well in Samaria…Samaria… and encountered that broken woman.  Finally, finally …it was well with her soul.

Is it well with yours?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 19, 2017

 

03-12-17 LESS JUDGMENT; MORE CURIOSITY

LESS JUDGMENT; MORE CURIOSITY

John 3: 1-17

One year ago this month I began meeting with a monthly Task Force whose purpose was to look at the future of our Presbyterian Counseling Center when our Director, Dr. Lex Baer, announced he was going to retire last June 2016. We ran close to the bone every month, sometimes in the red, as we tried to cover the costs of doing good therapy with people who had various means of payment. Today, a year later, I am pleased to tell you that we are not only operating in the black, we got a $10,000 support grant from Central Florida Presbytery. We also now take credit cards and are on most insurance panels, plus we accept Medicare and even Medicaid. We have nine providers on our clinical staff with various specialties, including a Doctor of Psychiatry and three people on our administrative staff. We now have our main office at First Presbyterian Church and two satellite offices at Christ Presbyterian in Ormond and at Port Orange Presbyterian. Our Center is back on its feet and even better than before! But today I want to credit Dr. Lex Baer with giving me the title of this sermon. One day I ended up following him in his Mazda Miata convertible and noticed his bumper sticker: “Less Judgment; More Curiosity.” For him it worked like this: anytime a client was sharing information, or a story with him, one that seemed unusual, he would not say “Why did you make that choice?” in an accusative tone. He would say something like: “Hmm. That’s interesting! Tell me more about that.” Less judgment; more curiosity.

 

The Gospel of John, among other books in the Bible, begs to be read in that manner. My New Testament Professor at Princeton, Dr. Bruce Metzger, spoke to my Disciple class on videotape. One thing he taught about that book was this: “Revelation doesn’t mean what it says, it means what it means.” By that we learned that fierce creatures didn’t represent literal Godzilla-like monsters, they represented tyrants in the Roman Empire. So the book had to be read with a light touch, not taking the images literally. The late Dr. Marcus Borg, in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, advocated for “Taking the Bible Seriously, but not Literally.” Writers in the Bible, especially Jesus, often used allegories, metaphors, similes, and parables to describe the Kingdom of God. Therefore it is helpful to approach Bible from that perspective. Here’s an example of the kind of question and answer we can expect in John. A tourist in New York City asks a man on the street, “Excuse me; how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice” is the answer he gets. Now if you get the two meanings of that answer, turn to your neighbors and explain it to them. I’ll wait! …………There is no book where that is more true than the gospel of John. Today’s text is a great example of how Jesus descriptions went way over the heads of many of his listeners; those who want to understand Jesus today need to adjust your receivers.  Let me describe one more reason people can miss the answers to questions. Traditionally people said to be Left Brain thinkers value logic, analysis, sequencing, linear thinking, mathematics, facts, and so on.

Traditionally people said to be Right Brain thinkers value creativity, imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, the arts, rhythm, non-verbal communication, feelings, and visualization.  I, as a traditionally Left Brained person, am stretching myself to take in the world through my Right Brained receivers. In so doing, I’ve found whole new ways to understand Jesus!  For example, today Nicodemus, a Pharisee, sounds like he is a Left Brain kind of man. “He asks a Left Brain question of Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” In response, Jesus gives him a Right Brain answer: “Truly truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again. (Our text says born from above, but if that were the case, Nicodemus would not have misunderstood him. Born again is more accurate as Nicodemus, listening with his Left Brain, doesn’t understand.) Here’s Nicodemus’ reply: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Do you see the problem with literal interpretations of Scripture? The words, so many times, are meant to be figurative, or metaphorical, or heard in a different way than the way a child would hear it. As I told the children today, if you tell a young boy, “You need to clean up your act,” he might go to the sink to wash his hands, not change his attitude or actions!  In 1960 my wife Mary Ann was in second grade. Her father was in the Marines all her life, and on November 10th each year, he had a cake to celebrate the birthday of the Marines. The Marines began in 1775 so in 1960 they were 185 years old. Well it just so happened that her mother’s birthday was also November 10th. She went to school that day, after seeing the cake that day, and told her teacher that it was her mother’s birthday, and that she was 185 years old! “Now Mary Ann, tell the truth, your mother isn’t really 185 years old.” “Yes she is!” insisted Mary Ann. “It’s on the cake.” So Mary Ann’s teacher called her parents to report her for lying to a teacher; except she didn’t lie to a teacher. She had yet to learn that the cake every year was a Marine cake, not her mother’s cake. She was thinking like a child. Even the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, told them, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child. But when I became a man I gave up childish ways.” [1 Corinthians 13:11]

 

In John chapter 1, John the Baptist sees Jesus and says to his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” What did they think? Yes, a lamb was sacrificed at the Temple each year, but how can a man be a Lamb? Or a door? Or bread? Or a gate? We have drifted into our Right Brains to understand that, and actually, into our mature brains. Mature people need to be able to listen and process with their full minds. But an unusual phenomenon has been discovered, according to Dr. Rodger Nishioka, former professor at Columbia Theological Seminary.  By nature, our brains should mature into minds that can hear things metaphorically or symbolically and around the age of 24 to 28. But astonishingly, some in our day have never “made the jump to light speed.” See, that’s an analogy from Star Wars, but it’s not about Star Wars! It’s an expression that some people never gain a fully functional adult brain; so they can only absorb things literally and actually. Many such people love Christian fundamentalism because it spells things out in black and white. But more things in adulthood are shades of gray.

 

Here’s one more example: In John chapter 2, Jesus says this to those in the Temple. The Sadducees asked him, “What sign have you to show for [overturning the tables of the moneychangers?] And Jesus responded saying: “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

(It’s a mature, metaphorical response.) Here is the literal response from the Sadducees: “It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” (That’s literal thinking.) But John, who thinks like Jesus did, rescues the readers when he explains: “But Jesus spoke of the Temple of his body.”

 

The Bible is the inspired Word of God. To take it literally can lead one’s mind down some confusing paths. But to take it seriously, and to believe Jesus said these words, invites us to follow the master, and to listen to him, not as 21st century listeners for our best interpretation, but as first century listeners, imaging what Jesus, or John meant, not just what they said. When you invite the other part of your mind to interpret your world, you will gain new insights and find less objection from film, literature, and particularly from the Bible, where stories are rife with metaphors. Why not take Marcus Borg’s suggestion to heart, and with new openness, read the Bible again, for the first time.

 

Let us pray:

God of Wonder: how can mortals describe Heaven, or your wonders, without using disciplined imaginations? How can we think of Jesus as a door, a gate, or a lamb without engaging our full minds, hearts, and souls? Help us to hear the Bible afresh, perhaps for the first time, so that we can avoid the stumble of a Nicodemus response. Thank you also for Jesus, who reached people on many levels, with many messages, all of them wrapped in love. In His name we pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          March 12, 2017

 

 

 

03-05-17 TEMPTATION

I always find the transition from Christmas to Lent to be an abrupt one. Even when Lent starts in March it still feels like a bit of a whiplash when it comes to subject matter.

 

Because during Christmas the focus is on the divinity of Jesus: his Godness. We have a miraculous conception. We have angel choruses in the sky. We have mysterious strangers following a star to worship the child. Sure, any of us who have been around babies can guess that this child nursed and spit up and messed his swaddling clothes. But that’s not the focus of our stories at Christmas time. It’s all about angels and stars.

 

Then, in just a few short weeks, Lent comes along. Now it’s thirty years later and Jesus is getting dunked under the water and thrown into the wilderness where his humanity is painfully evident. And just so we know how human Jesus is, the writer of Matthew assures us that after fasting for forty days, Jesus was very hungry. Lent is about Jesus human side.

 

And part of being human is being tempted. Tempted to take the shorter path, the easier way. Tempted to cut corners. Tempted to reach for what we shouldn’t. Tempted to behave differently when no one else is watching. Our old testament lesson begins humanity’s story with us falling to temptation. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And so we reach out, even when we know we shouldn’t.

 

I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for Jesus, throughout his life, to wrestle with these two natures inside of himself. To have all of the insights, abilities, power of God. And yet to have thoughts, emotions, and the limitations of humanity.

 

In today’s passage, Jesus knows he has a divine nature. He knows can turn rocks into food. That the angels would catch him if he fell. He could easily claim military and political power over the empires. Satan is only reminding him about what he knows when he tempts him.

 

So the test is about Jesus’ faithfulness to who he is and what God is calling him to do: not to ask for special privileges or place or relief, but to enter fully into this human condition of want and need and pain. The temptations attack him in those places, F. Dean Lueking writes, “where humans expect the best: daily bread, sacred spaces, the devotion of the heart.” Or, in other words, at his core.

 

Satan tempts Jesus to settle his identity crisis the easy way: by acting out of his divine nature and leaving behind that pesky human stuff. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, Jesus’ options come down to this: he “could play God, or he could remain human.” And playing God is so much easier than being human.

 

And yet, over and over again, Jesus stays with his human self. Remaining human is a tough call, but a necessary decision for Jesus to make if he is going to fulfill his role as Messiah, savior, the one who will reconcile God and humanity. If he can’t say no to power and the avoidance of suffering now, how will he ever make it through the crucifixion and death that is coming? So no. I will not turn the stones to bread.  No, I will not tempt God.  No, I will not take on power.

 

We have a habit of equating the temptations of Jesus with various types of temptations we face today. I will admit there are some parallels to be made, because we are all tempted. But let’s be honest, we do not face these types of temptations. The temptations of Jesus are unique to Jesus. Tempting me to turn a rock into bread would be like tempting me to play “Ode to Joy” on the piano. It’s no temptation at all, because I simply can’t do it.

 

The temptations Jesus faced were about remaining human when he could embrace his divinity. He doesn’t have to suffer. He can choose to change it. The fact that he doesnt, shows us just what kind of a person our savior is.

 

We are not fully divine, as Jesus was. We are human and we really have no choice but to remain human. So we don’t have to deal with the temptation to eliminate our suffering and take up power. Instead we have far more insidious temptations.

 

The great CS Lewis wrote a book called the Screwtape Letters about our temptations. The story is two demons, young Wormwood and his uncle Screwtape, writing back and forth about the best way to tempt people into falling. Uncle Screwtape advises his nephew on such things as keeping a person self-involved, and clueless. Keep him spiritual and not practical. Make sure he thinks he is doing better than those around him. Have him pray for tangible things and let him boast.

 

Because Screwtape and Wormwood aren’t trying to create a group of raving, evil madmen. They don’t have to. Instead they are creating people who are defined by selfishness and insincerity, pettiness, fear and a need to control the world. That is all they need to cause good people to become theirs.  

 

And that is what our own temptations are.  Very few of us agree to fast for forty days and know that sort of hunger. We are never dangled off the top of the empire state building and told to tempt God to save us. And most people are never offered the powers of all the people in the world bowing down to us.

 

Instead we are tempted with the things that Screwtape is so familiar with: vanity, selfishness, pride, and indifference. In many ways they are worse, because we meet those temptations on a daily basis and must keep rejecting them.

 

As Maryetta Anschutz puts it: “Temptation comes to us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough. Temptation comes in judgements we make about strangers and friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger and disease. Temptation rages in the moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth power, influence over others, vanity or an inordinate need for control defines who we are. Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, small sins: a racist joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself.”

 

It’s easy to say no to the big things. It’s easy to know what to do when it comes to the clear cut right and wrong. It is much harder to say no to the little things we run across every day. The things we do when no one else will know.

 

So how do we deal with temptation?

 

We begin by knowing that we will be tempted. And chances are good that temptation is not going to come in the form of Satan offering us the world. Instead it will come in the choices we make, or do not make, every day. Knowing that we are going to be tempted allows us to be prepared to say no.  

 

And we know that sometimes, we are going to make the wrong choices.  God doesn’t expect us to be as perfect as Jesus. God does expect us to try.In the end, it is God’s grace that saves us, and not our perfect ability to resist temptation. We are saved by the saving work of God in Christ Jesus on the cross.

 

But that doesn’t get us off the hook.  It doesn’t make it so we don’t have to even bother trying to be good and righteous people. One wrong choice is no reason to make more of them. When we slide, we go right back to trying again. We look to our Lord, who said no every time. We turn to scripture to give us strength.

 

As we begin our Lenten journey, we voluntarily enter into our own sort of spiritual wilderness. We take time to contemplate, or pray, or fast. We turn our attention to the temptations we might face and prepare ourselves to do as our Lord did, and chose God’s way instead. As we journey to Jerusalem, ask yourself: what temptations are you facing? What choice will you make? Amen.

02-26-17 SEEING GOD’S GLORY

SEEING GOD’S GLORY

Exodus 24:12-18   Matthew 17: 1-9

 

“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.”

You see? You have heard of that word “transfigured,” haven’t you? Transfigured: a word found in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, ascribing great blessing on Americans. We are, in so many ways, blessed.

Transfigured: to change radically the figure or appearance of; to exalt or glorify.

That’s what we’re talking about today.

We’re talking about a day of wonder, of mystery, and even delight for Peter, James, John, and ages before: Moses.

We’re talking about a chance for personal counsel and divine insight.

We’re talking about a chance to get perspective on that which is beyond us.

We’re talking about a proverbial “mountaintop experience.”

 

Can you remember some of the people who were your heroes, or persons you idolized? My love for and intrigue with ocean liners started with a Titanic survivor coming to my elementary school in Richmond Virginia. I’ll never forget the woman’s story about how that great ship went down. My becoming a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals included a meeting with pitcher Nelson Briles who came to speak at our church. You may not know his name, but he had a name then. Meeting him intensified my love for the game.   Can you think of people who made such an impact on you that they changed your life? Those are mountaintop days, and when you have them, you hope they’ll never end. Mary Ann and I have waited in line to meet characters at Walt Disney World or at Universal Studios with one of our little grandsons who was star struck to meet a princess.

Teenagers in the late fifties loved to see Elvis, and in the 60s they loved to see the Beatles. Today as the Daytona 500 takes place, I will be reminded what a thrill it was to meet “the King:” Richard Petty.

 

All of those examples, put together, can’t measure up to going up a mountain with Jesus and seeing him “transfigured;” or going up a different mountain and being in the presence of God as Moses did. Like any special meeting you may have had, none one wants it to end.  Peter, James, and John wanted to stay on the mountain and be enraptured by the glory. But God, as always, had other plans. On the day of a baptism, God is issuing a commission, not an insurance policy. A God has special things for Moses, and Peter, and James, and John to do; and for you and me as well. Experiencing God’s glory is to get empowered, not enamored. Being enamored is for fans; being empowered is for followers. Even Moses wanted to stay on the mountain and not face the people, who had already begun to sin. Even Peter, James, and John wanted to stay close to Jesus on the mountain, not face the valley of suffering and need. It was an extraordinary day with ordinary reactions.  Some groups of climbers who have climbed to the summit of mountains have wanted to stay if their food held out. Who wants a special day to come to an end? But mountains aren’t appreciated without valleys. The days of joy are not so appreciated until one of those Murphy’s Law days, comes along, when anything that can go wrong, does go wrong! Just as this week of Mardi Gras, ending in two days on “Fat Tuesday,” is seen by some as the final fling of fantasy and fun before Lent, so the day on the mountaintop ends with the descent into the valley; where the people were; where the needs were; where the journey continued.

 

Mountaintop experiences are ones from which we might date our lives as B.E., before the event, and A.E., after the event. They are that pivotal. Some have told me about the spiritual mountaintop experience they had at Cursillo, De Colores, Via de Christo, or on an Emmaus Walk.  For many Presbyterians, a trip to Montreat, North Carolina creates such a memory. Some of our mission trip youth have been changed forever by their summer pilgrimage. Am I helping you recall any special events?

 

Now, how does one describe God’s glory?  Might we be searching for the right words to say? If you remember the brilliant Anne Bancroft depicting the teacher of the Blind, Annie Sullivan, as she tried to help Helen Keller, portrayed by the late Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker,” she celebrated the amazing time when Helen made the connection between the sign language she formed and the object she described. How do you teach someone how to connect “water” with the word when she never had the concept of words?  Similarly, in the new non-fiction book The Awakening of HK Derryberry, a boy born prematurely never gained sight and lives to this day with cerebral palsy. Only his grandmother stepped up and cared for that poor child, taking him with her to the coffee shop where she worked eight hours a day. He sat in a booth the whole time. Jim Bradford, a local businessman and Christian from Brentwood, Tennessee, chose that coffee shop over his normal one. HK changed his life; they became best buddies, and HK began to learn about a world he had never seen. At one point in the book, he innocently asks, “Mr. Bradford, what does white look like?”  What does white look like when you have never seen anything?  Grasping for descriptive words might be what it would be like if we were to ask Moses:  “Tell me about God’s glory.” Or ask Peter, James, and John, “What did Jesus look like that day on the mountain?”  Singer and songwriter Bart Millard of the Christian group “MercyMe” tried to capture that idea with these words written to his Lord:  (I Can Only Imagine)

I can only imagine what it will be like when I walk by your side;

I can only imagine what my eyes will see when your face is before me

I can only imagine.

Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel, will I dance for

You Jesus, or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall,

Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all,

I can only imagine.

 

Wow. What a good stab at describing the indescribable. All these examples are just attempts to describe the indescribable. Here’s a final one.

 

Oscar Hijuelos, in his national bestseller from 1995 called Mr. Ives’ Christmas, tells of the unusual transfiguration experience his main character has. At the corner of Madison Avenue and Forty-First Street in New York City, Ives begins to feel certain sensations: the sidewalk seems to lift under him ever so slightly; the street begins to flutter and stretch on forever; the buildings bow as if they recognize Ives, and in those moments, he could feel the very lift of the concrete below him. It was as if he could, for a few seconds, hear molecules grinding, light shifting, and the vibrancy of things everywhere. “In one slip of a second, anything seemed possible—had the moon risen and started to sing, had pyramids appeared over the Chrysler building weeping, Ives would have been no more surprised…. He began to experience a thorough love for all things. In the glow of such feelings people truly seemed blessed; truck and car horns sounded like heavenly trumpets; [and] the murmur of crowds and the other voices fell upon his ears like music…. Catching his own reflection in a window, Ives’ face [was] like a sphinx’s one minute, the next like Saint Paul’s, as it might have been when he was stricken with divine light…. To hear, to smell, to see, to feel, all were miraculous. [HarperCollins, 1995, pp.101,102] And looking back on his life-changing day, “He would have liked to tell his son how each time he walked along the street on a clear day, he vividly remembered his mystical experience. He had wanted to explain how a sensation of impending glory came over him, and how, for a few moments, he became aware of God that was like no God he had previously conceived.” [p. 111]

 

On a mountaintop; at the ocean; in a store window; in the face of a child; on a Damascus road experience; or in that time in Gloryland where we all hope to land, may you watch hopefully, and even longingly, for the glory of God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 26, 2017

02-19-17 EPIPHANY 7a

Who are your enemies? That’s always the first question that springs to mind when I come across this passage. Who is my enemy?

 

Now, very few people have real enemies: dark hatted villains with curling mustaches that cackle and unleash dastardly schemes.  Instead you have the people who disagree with you. The people who cut you off in traffic. The people who are on the other side of the political spectrum and love to argue about it. The person who just rubs you the wrong way. Or maybe it’s the person you thought you could trust and instead they betrayed you. We can all think of someone we have less than fond feelings for. The question is, how do we deal with them?

 

There are some people who relish the arguments and drama these enemies can stir up. They seem to seek out arguments. Many people just try to avoid their enemies and get on with their lives. But Jesus comes along this morning and tells us to love them. Just like that. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

 

Now, that’s not a very good way to sell the argument Jesus. If I have to love my enemies, tell me what’s in it for me, right?

 

Tell me that I need to love my enemies because hatred and negativity is bad for my mental and physical health. Or that I need to love my enemies because spending energy hating them gives them power over me. Or that it proves who is the better person. Or do what Paul did: tell me to love my enemies because, being kind to my enemies is a way to “heap burning coals on their heads.” Now that’s motivating!

 

But Jesus doesn’t offer any common sense reason to love our enemies. Instead we are told only that we should live that way because that’s the way God lives. We should be perfect as God as perfect.

 

I don’t know about you, but when I hear that I’m supposed to be perfect, my first inclination is to laugh. I know I’ll never be perfect. I know I’ll never get close. After all, only Christ was perfect.

 

But the word we translate as “perfect” is the Greek word telos and it actually implies less moral perfection and more reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Telos is reaching the best you, you can be. Fulfilling your purpose completely.

 

Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.”

 

So yeah, in that sense when we are called to love our enemies we are also doing it for ourselves. Because by doing so, we live into the best of who we are called to be.

 

Right, but what about the times when it isn’t just someone we disagree with? Is it realistic to expect the families of murder victims to forgive and love the people who took their loved ones from them? Is Jesus asking a battered wife to pray for the one who abuses her, to offer the other cheek to the husband who has struck the first one? Yes, God sends sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, but are we called to love and be merciful to people who take us for granted and use us for their own advantage? When someone hurts us or cheats us or those we love, how are we supposed to love them without suffering abuse us again?

 

Because loving them doesn’t mean that we must suffer at their hands. It doesn’t mean condoning actions that are harmful. Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote: ‘Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship … We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy.”

 

King concludes that when Jesus asks us to love our enemies he is pleading with us to offer understanding and creative goodwill to all people. This is the only way we can truly be children of a loving God.

 

To love the enemy does not mean to like the enemy. Even if you don’t like someone you can still treat them with respect. You don’t have to like someone to behave as though their life and feelings matter.  And loving our enemies also doesn’t mean that we must remain in situations that are harmful to our physical or emotional well-being. Instead to love our enemies means to understand them as human beings, troubled and sinful human beings who have hurt us because they themselves hurt inside. It means to make a decision to respond to them in ways which will benefit them and perhaps lead to healing.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets right at the heart of this text:  “By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, … [but] Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it.  And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and utterly devoid of love?” We cannot control how they may behave, but we can still treat them as though they are also children of God.

 

But just because our enemies may need our love, that doesn’t make it easier to love them, does it? I think it many ways this is the hardest thing Jesus ever tells us to do. Not just to not hate our enemies, but to love them and pray for them. Praying for our enemies is so much more difficult than not-hating them. After all, not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active. And Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies.

 

Now, I don’t believe that prayer will necessarily “change their hearts,” as people often say about the ones they are trying to not hate. But I do believe it will likely change my heart. When I pray for someone, I start to see that person as I imagine God does: as a flawed human being made in God’s image. Just like me.

 

So yes, I pray for my enemies. The prayer usually begins along the lines of “Lord, please love this person for me because I don’t know how right now. I’ll keep working on forgiving them in the meantime.” My enemy’s actions probably won’t change. They won’t suddenly see my side or become a better person or apologize for their past actions. But I will change. And I will come closer to the telos that I should be.  

 

I hear in this passage today the invitation to be those people God has created us to be. When we do we have the chance to flourish, making a difference to those around us by sharing the abundant life Jesus has given us

 

Jesus is calling us to a better way to live, to a higher path than the world sets before us. We can be more than petty arguments and deep resentments. We can be the people Christ calls us to be:  ones who love even the unlovable. We can reach our telos and that will shape the world around us.

 

So today I say to you: Love your enemies. Love the ones who annoy you, the ones who hurt you, the ones who betray you. Pray for them. And grow into the people God always knew you could be.

02-12-17 WHAT IT MEANS TO CHOOSE LIFE

WHAT IT MEANS TO CHOOSE LIFE

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

 

Years ago I was invited to be on the floor of our state legislature when they voted to create the “Choose life” license plates. In that context it was a message affirming adoption over abortion.  That’s one way a person can choose life. And I know there are anguishing decisions about which life to save when pregnant mother is in distressed labor: the mother’s or the baby’s, when saving both is not an option. In cases like that, “choosing life” is not as easy as it sounds. When we prepare for a flight on a commercial aircraft, we are always reminded that if there is the need for an oxygen mask and we’re traveling with a small child, it’s important to put your own oxygen mask on first. Otherwise, in your desire to save the life of your child, two lives might be lost. Have you wondered what conditions lead people to jump to their death from the Golden Gate bridge, or from a cruise ship, or to lie on the tracks in front of an oncoming train?  What conditions make people see life, as we know it, as painful or agonizing?  I was heartbroken last month to read the story on social media suicide of a young Miami teenaged girl who took her own life live on a Facebook feed. Her constant torment and bullying at the hands of others had driven her to find death more fulfilling than life, and as it happened, the video feed recorded texted comments of people still mocking her, calling her names, and posting laughing emojis as she hanged herself from the bathroom door of her Miami Gardens home. Sometimes people make a choice other than the anguish of living. We also know there are times when we take the lives of animals and call it humane, and we prolong the lives of suffering family members and say it is God’s will. Choosing life is not always a clear decision; it is not as easy as choosing to stay on the bank of a river or plummeting over a waterfall. What is the best way to choose life?  Clearly situational ethics are involved, and each situation merits our careful examination before acting like we have the moral high ground.

 

The text I have chosen from Deuteronomy is excised often from its context. What I mean by that is people love saying: God says “Choose life.” But there is more to the quote than that. First, these words are spoken by Moses who received them from God. They were part of Moses’ final address to the people. Second, the longer quote from Moses is the whole passage today,  and it is a dependent clause. Listen to it; and listen for the words “if” and “then.” Moses said: “I have set before you today, life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live ….” Everything described in the beginning of this proposition must be met for the listeners to have life.  There’s a lot riding on it! And there’s more: its a warning. Listen: “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, and are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him.”  Goodness. In order to have life, there is a lot of small print we have to follow! It’s not as easy as many make it out to be. There is a cost at the front end of choosing life; but on the other hand there is great cost on the back end if you choose death or curse, no matter how enticing it might initially be. All that glitters is not gold.

 

When we agree to a contract whether on paper, a phone, or a computer, there is often a requirement to check a box saying “I have read the terms of agreement and understand them.”  Countless people, maybe many of you, just check the box without reading it! The terms can be so long and complicated, filled with exceptions that will void the contract. In Moses’ day, the life choosing covenant was written out by God were on those tablets of stone that we call the Ten Commandments. But the contract was sealed only if the people agreed to the fine print! Even though we may quickly check the box without reading the agreement, the contract in the Bible is talking about how to have life on earth; and in the gospels when Jesus offered his interpretation of the commandments, he was talking about eternal lives! Now, perhaps you are ready to hear the ways that you can choose life:

 

  • Obey the commandments of your Lord God. (verse 15) If you need to re-read the commandments, they are in chapter 5. But following chapter 5 in Deuteronomy are any number of examples of how to apply those commandments. Chapter 6 includes “The Great Commandment” also known as the “Shema” by Jews. Moses said, “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you…. Hear or Israel: the Lord our God is the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Teach them to your children, and discuss them when you are at home, and when you are away, when you lie down, and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as a frontlet on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Orthodox Jews take those words and actions literally; but all faithful Jews and Christians would do well to take them In addition to the Ten Commandments, that commandment is one everyone would do well to keep and follow. If you want life, you cannot discard or ignore this fine print. Again, choosing life is front-loaded with conditions; the alternative is back-loaded with consequences. All that glitters is not gold. Moses also cautions against disobedience later in chapter 6, and he tells of the blessings one can receive for obedience in chapter 7. Moses warns not to forget God in one’s prosperity, and he tells the consequences for rebelling. I know there are people who know the stories of Jesus well; many are here today. But if you want to know the words that Jesus knew as a child and by which he lived, these words in Deuteronomy are those words. These words are the contract and the fine print: the Ten Commandments and remembering to the love God and teach your children the same thing. But the details of the agreement spell out how to obtain life; there we also find the warnings regarding how we can lose the life we desire but not keeping our part of the contract. The Bible calls it a covenant and God wants that for us.
  • Love the Lord your God. Put God first. The Christian Mystics did this in ways that straight-laced or more orthodox Christians would do well to emulate. They called God their beloved! God mostly wants to be adored and loved! And in return, you will know without a doubt that God unconditionally loves you too.
  • Walk in the ways of the Lord. Get out your owner’s manual, the one with the code words “Holy Bible” on it, and read it. Particularly read Moses’ words in Deuteronomy.  When Jesus was teaching in those three powerful years of his ministry, he certainly leaned heavily on his knowledge of Deuteronomy for guidance. If you want to see a stellar example of one who “walks in the ways of the Lord,” look at Jesus. Ask yourself often “What would Jesus do?” That will guide you well.

 

Now, you can choose life, but only when you decide to meet the prerequisites, and agree to the small print. It is hard work to choose life, but the alternative can be brutal.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      February 12, 2017