05-20-18 PENTECOST: RECEIVE THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH

PENTECOST: RECEIVE THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH

Acts 2: 1-6; 14-21

 

A long time ago, in the Roman Empire far, far, away, a faithful Jew with a special mission to save the world was brought to a cross outside of the Jerusalem walls. He was crucified; likely on April 7, 30 A.D. Three days later by the Jewish counting system, the tomb was found to be empty because he had risen from the dead! His name was Jesus. That would have been on April 9, 30 A.D.  Forty days later around May 17th, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, gave final instructions to his disciples, and ascended into heaven. Ten days after that, the disciples were back in Jerusalem, and the promised Spirit of the Living God—the Holy Spirit—appeared mightily on all who were gathered. They spoke in ways so that people understood each other; people felt empowered, and some, like Peter, even addressed all the gathered people there saying: “This is what the prophets described!” he said. “It is happening right now!” That was the beginning of the Christian church: Christ was gone and the disciples— later called “Christians” –began to tell others about him, heal people, and pray for others. Today, and every Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the Christian church, an event that actually happened in Jerusalem!

 

Fast-forward decades; and decades; and decades. In October 1946, a small Sunday School was started in the unincorporated area of Wilbur-By-The-Sea, Florida, about two miles south of our present location. The Spirit of the Living God was—and is—still alive and well in this congregation!  This was the humble beginning of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church and it was the dream of the Rev. Paul Edris, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church

of Daytona Beach. Paul Edris, along with his Director of Christian Education, Miss Elizabeth McNeill, and with the approval of their Session, conducted the outpost for one year. Then it was decided that more people could be reached with weekly prayer meetings. Those meetings continued yearly until the next stage was reached: In February 1955, 42 people gathered for their first official Sunday worship service. Plans were made weekly until May 22, 1955—63 years ago—when 62 persons signed the charter and a committee of St. John’s Presbytery installed the Rev. Richard Sauerbrun as the first Pastor of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church. The church name was chosen this way: “Westminster” to honor the theological grounding found in the Westminster Confession of Faith; and “by-the-Sea” to honor the local roots at the Wilbur-by-the-Sea Boathouse. It is still there today and more beautiful than it ever was, thanks to the work of charter member James Hunt to get it on the National Register of Historic Places.  Some Sunday slasses in those days met in the living room of Ernest and Mary Hunt two blocks from the Wilbur Clubhouse; other classes met in Gaylord’s Restaurant, a block away. I has since been been torn down. Two bricks at the beginning of the Wilbur Boathouse sidewalk say: “First meeting place of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church.” Indeed it was. The congregation met there from 1955 until 1958, when our current Fellowship Hall, that originally included the new section of our sanctuary, was the first multi-purpose building. The terrazzo floor we still have is original. And as I showed the children today, the storage closet was the original nursery! Jalousie windows allowed humid air to blow through, and tall tilted windows at the top of the hall could be opened with a hooked pole. The choir and pulpit were on this end and parking was on the south end. Today Marianne Sabatka proudly says that her children were baptized in there! And others were too! The church of Jesus Christ was on the move, giving a light to the south peninsula. Church member Fred Gard was the contractor for the Fellowship Hall and again for the Sunday School wing—which includes our existing rooms 8-12B—built in 1959.  These words tell the story of the beginning of a congregation whose spiritual roots were not just in the Westminster Standards, but also in the historic and extraordinary day of Pentecost! The Christian Church has its roots in Jerusalem, a fact particularly ironic this week.  Three major religions claim Jerusalem as their most significant city. Christians may love Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus; or Nazareth for the home of Jesus, but Jerusalem is where the Christian Church had her birth!

 

History is important; it molds our identity; it informs the present and guides our future. We must continually remember where we’ve come from to know who we are. The recent popularity of Ancestry.com and other products help us find our roots and our nationalities. Knowing who you have been helps inform who you are now.

 

Perhaps you’ve read the Richard Adams’ book Watership Down. Episcopal Priest John Westerhoff said this is a book that “illustrates the significance of a common memory and vision for communal life. In his insightful adventure story, the characters (rabbits in this case) become a people only as they acquire a story, a memory, and a vision. They remain a community insofar as they re-tell the story and live the vision. Adams’ depiction of various communities suggests that each is made viable by its ability to sustain a narrative.” [Living in the Faith Community] In other words, telling you what I’m telling you today helps you share in Westminster’s story, and in the story of the Christian Church! Christians are a story-formed community. “The Christian Church was founded upon a story of people’s experiences with Jesus and a vision of God’s reign in human history. Through out the church’s history, this story has formed and transformed, sustained and challenged the community’s faith and life.” [Westerhoff]

 

Today, on the occasion of our 63rd anniversary, I tell you how important it is for us to have a story and a vision. Children who don’t know who they are, or whose they are, have more trouble deciding who they should be. What is your story?  Where have you lived? Who are your mother and your father? Where were their parents from? Where were you baptized? Christian Baptism is an act of the church and of the Christian community. The story of the Holy Spirit appearing on the day of Pentecost is our story too! Yes the Spirit came to those early men and women in Jerusalem, but we celebrate that event even today! We taught our Confirmation Class that if worship were a drama, you-the congregation-are the actors; we-the worship leaders- are the directors, and God is the audience for our worship! My preaching professor at Princeton, Dr. Donald Macleod, wrote this: “The old spiritual song goes ‘Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart.’ Note the phrase, ‘want to be.’ Too many people don’t go to church these days because they say, ‘I don’t get anything out of it.’ You do not come to get; you come in order to be. You come because you want to be somebody, above the average and the ordinary; you come because you want to be a child of God. And you know that it is only here in the fellowship and community of the people of God that you can become what Christ wants you to be.”

 

Westminster By-The-Sea started from scratch; with a dream, a prayer, and a purpose from our mother church. The church is lovingly referred to as the bride of Christ. Yes the congregation was colonized with a rental building and borrowed belongings. But soon gifts, lovingly given, began to equip this congregation for her lifelong work. Our first hymn today affirmed “the Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” Our cornerstone affirms that He is our chief cornerstone. Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ; the Son of the Living God!” And Jesus replied: “Blessed are you Simon! And upon this rock I will build my church.” And so Christ is; churches well grounded have in their beliefs: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Today, may your presence here today bless your life, may your praise bless your God, and may your gratitude thank your Savior.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 20, 2018

05-13-18 EAVESDROPPING ON JESUS

EAVESDROPPING ON JESUS

John 17: 6-19

 

Privacy is an important matter to most of us, isn’t it?  At certain levels of our government, it is believed that no work can be carried out without the benefit of a secure and a soundproof space. Just last week I watched a news story about people flying drones with cameras attached to them, aiming the attached cameras through the windows of people’s homes. Certainly confidential conversations are important in both personnel issues and personal issues.  The safety of our nation is at stake if security leaks or cyber-criminals share top-secret information. We even trust that our phone calls and our Internet connections are secure, when in fact they may not be.

 

With all of that in mind, I still call this message “Eavesdropping on Jesus.” In this case, however, somehow we are given the privilege of hearing encouraging things, guiding things, and uplifting things that Jesus says about his disciples in a prayer. In our house, and in the house in which I grew up, the main bedrooms were upstairs. I can remember sitting on the stairs at night, sometimes with my sister, and hearing the things Mom and Dad were saying downstairs.  Sometimes they had concerns about us; other times they were proud of us! And we got to hear it … by eavesdropping.  My phone has an app on it to turn my phone into a mirror. So while I’m downstairs at night talking with Mary Ann, I have held my phone up at just the right angle to see either our grandson Calvin or Shane sitting there listening! If we say guiding or encouraging things about them, they pick up on it! Today it is apparent that Jesus knew what he is praying to his Heavenly Father, and that others might hear his guidance and his affirmation!

Lets begin with the kinds of prayers one can pray. Remember it with the acronym: ACTS I: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication, and Intercession. All prayer is made up of one or more of these kinds.

 

Last week the Communion prayer, known as “The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving,” was not a meandering prayer but an intentional one, recalling the Judeo/Christian roots we have in the Passover Seder and the historical ways God saved people from Exodus to the Gospels.

 

Up until 1962 in the Roman Catholic Church, priests faced the altar in their church, repeated the Mass in Latin, prayed for the people, then ate the bread and drank the wine on behalf of their parish.  So it is that Christians have called Jesus our Great High Priest and have called his prayer in today’s gospel lesson Jesus’ priestly prayer. Why?  Because Jesus is taking on the role of our priest: going before the throne of grace, pleading our case before his Father in Heaven, and making a sacrifice to pay the price for our sins. The sacrifice was of the Lamb of God, who is, unusually, the same as the priest. On our behalf, Jesus is praying for us, pleading for us, and paying the price for our sins.  He and the Holy Spirit are called Advocate and Counselor; these are courtroom terms; Christianity is filled with them: judge, witness, guilty, and ransom to name a few.  Jesus prayed for his followers like a priest.

 

But Jesus did more than pray for them: Jesus visited them, cared for them, and healed them.  Today I hope you can see the connection Jesus wants his followers to make between our prayers and the care we show for others.  Each Sunday we pray for enough people to fill a letter sized prayer list with single spaced names.  Do we pray fervently? I think many here do; in our Lent Wednesday night services we even called every name out loud in the service. We need to pray for others; but we also need to care for others.  If I visit someone, it is most always appreciated. But there are just so many hours in the day to get to all who are in need. If you visit someone, people often think of it as an unearned blessing: “someone cared enough to visit me.” Many in our Disciple classes have committed to intercessory prayers and support.  Sometimes a call or a card is all it takes. Others among you have offered food, or rides, or to sit with a loved one. These can be godsend ministries.

 

So we know the power of prayer. But what might you pray toward the end of your life, the way Jesus was doing? What might you write down so loved ones could know your feelings and receive your guidance? Here is an example: Theologian Henry Nouwen returned from visiting his father one year and stopped to have dinner with one of his friends named Nathan. “During the meal, Nathan asked [him], ‘Where and how do you want to die?’ He raised the question in a gentle way. It was a question that came from [his] awareness that [he] was soon going to die. The awareness prompted us to ask: “Are we preparing ourselves for death, or are we ignoring death by keeping busy? Will our death give new life, new hope, and new faith to our friends, or will it be no more than another cause for sadness?’ … Nathan’s question brought me face-to-face with a great challenge: (said Nouwen,) not only to live well, but also to die well.’” [OUR GREATEST GIFT, Harper, 1995] How do we come to terms with our own death? What can we do to prepare ourselves and help others with that day? 1) We turn to a sacred moment, described first in John 17: 11: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.” So at first Jesus offers a prayer for protection, knowing there are evil ones everywhere. But this request had a purpose: so that they may be one as we are one. Jesus wants his disciples to be of one mind and one purpose, not broken into religious factions that have conflicts with each other. What Jesus asked for is not a reality in our day. We can do better, not being the same—because we are all different—but honoring our unity in our differences.  Then we could respond to Jesus’ prayer for us. 2) Then in verse 17 Jesus prayed this: “Sanctify them in the truth.” Sanctification is a big word; it means, “Make them holy.” An old hymn had the words “Take time to be holy, speak oft with the Lord.” I always thought of God as holy, and people as human. But I learned over the years how you can be holy, and I can be holy: it happens when we agree to take our lead from God and not from the world. It happens when we follow Jesus and not the latest star in our culture. It happens when we decide to be a light for the world rather than letting the activities of the world put out our light. So Jesus is praying for his disciples to be “sanctified,” to be set apart as a light for a darkened world; to be leaven for the world.

 

Hearing what Jesus hopes for us, I’d like for God to protect you and to protect me. But further, I’m willing to participate in the sanctification process; God can make us more holy only if we agree to be transformed by Jesus’ teachings and God’s Spirit. I’m willing. How about you?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           May 13, 2018

05-06-18 LOVE, LOVE, LOVE

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE

John 15: 9-17

 

Five-year-old Johnny Quinn loved his big brother Tommy. The doctor told Johnny that his brother was very sick and needed a blood transfusion. The doctor asked, “Johnny, would you be willing to give blood to your brother?” Johnny gulped hard and his eyes got big, but after a moment’s hesitation he said, “Sure doctor.” The doctor took the blood while Johnny rested quietly on an examination table. A few minutes later Johnny opened his eyes and asked, “Doctor, when do I die?” It was only then that the doctor realized the extent of this boy’s love for his brother. He adored his big brother. And he thought he was giving all of his blood to save him.

 

Love: a word often lightly used; sometimes loosely used. The meaning of love is all over the map. Should we limit the times and ways that we cast that word around? “Love, love, love, all you need is love,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote and shared with the world in a live broadcast on June 25, 1967. That was one of the anthems of the so-called “summer of love.” How naïve it can seem to say that.  Love isn’t all we need in life, but it does make life worthwhile.  Yet is the same breath we say we love a car or love a movie. And we love chocolate cake and we love money in our pocket and we love ketchup on our fries, in addition to loving a puppy, or a kitten, or a boy, a girl, or a spouse.

 

In spite of the wide variety of ways we treat the word love, the whole of the Christian life rests on the word. It is described in many verses of Scripture. Here are two of them:  Jesus said: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, so you also must love one another.” Please note that little two-letter word: “as.” This is the hinge as well as the hitch- love as he loved us.- that is, in the same way. “As the Father has loved me,” Jesus said, “So I have loved you.” I think Johnny Quinn probably had a grasp of what love means, but how many others grasp it? Certainly some here who’ve been married for any number of years get it, but some don’t. Sometimes weddings these days focus too much on the ceremony and not enough on the commitment. Years ago a couple who got married here had five previous marriages between them.  They picked as their wedding solo: When I Fall in Love, It will be forever.” What irony.  Back to God’s love, the Heavenly Father’s love for Jesus did not mean he would be saved from suffering, temptation, or from human limitations. Jesus was not saved from misunderstanding, rejection, humiliation, or from any of the things the world called “failure.” He was not even saved from feeling abandoned on the cross. But he was loved; and there was a plan decided by Father and Son.

 

What, then, does Scripture reveal about the Father’s love for Jesus? Through it, Jesus received the presence of God, the power of God, of human life, and steadfast love. “The one who sent me is with me,” Jesus would say. He lived out that truth. The praise or blame from others did not define Jesus. The success of his work did not give his life meaning. He was defined by being beloved; he received both his guidance and his grounding in the steadfast love of God. There was nothing he could do to make that love cease.

 

By contrast, some of the anxieties, the neuroses, and insecurities people have are created by situations assumed to be loving ones, but they aren’t really. They are conditional: “I’ll love you if you don’t disappoint me; I’ll love you if you make good choices. I’ll love you if you make me proud. What strings are attached to that love! Conditional love doesn’t feel like love; and it can be toxic. A teenager may hear a parent say, “I love you so much dear, but you will become a doctor like your father.” You may remember the movie Dead Poet’s Society, when the student Neil discovers a love of acting, auditions for a part in a play and he lands the part. He found part of what he wanted to do with his life. But his father would have none of it. The film ends tragically. Love? Listen to what Dr. Greg Baer wrote in a book he called Real Love.

I was valedictorian of my high school class, finished college in two and a half years, and received the highest honors in medical school. After completing my internship and specialty training in eye surgery, …I performed thousands of operations and taught other physicians locally and across the country. I was a leader in church and in the local Boy Scouts organization. I had everything money could by, and I was a husband and father of five beautiful children. [But] I slowly came to the terrible realization that I had not achieved the happiness I’d been promised. …I found it difficult to sleep at night and began to talk some of the sleeping pills we kept at the office for postsurgical patients. When they were no longer effective I took tranquilizers and before long I was injecting narcotics every night…. [Real Love, Gotham Books, New York, 2003, pp. xi-xii]

 

Greg did all of that; and yet he was so unhappy that one evening he went to a desolate place and put a gun to his head. He wanted out. Love? Fortunately someone intervened and counseled him until he found true peace, true happiness, and work that he enjoyed-all by finding someone who loved him unconditionally-the kind of love that God offers. “There is nothing you can do,” to make me withdraw my love for you,” God says.  “Sure, your actions will bring consequences, but they will not ever make me stop loving you.”

 

One other example of what is clearly not love. Dr. Scott Peck in his book The People of the Lie tells the story of a teenaged boy whose brother committed suicide with a 22-caliber rifle. His younger brother, named Bobby, started acting out in his anger and grief. In a counseling session a few weeks after Christmas, his therapist asked him what his parents had gotten him for Christmas. “A gun.” he said. “A gun,” the therapist responded, what kind?” A 22-caliber rifle. “Did you ask for that present Bobby?” “No” said Bobby. “I asked for a tennis racket.” His parents had given their younger son the very gun that had taken their first son’s life. [Touchstone Book, 1983, pp.47-51] Sometimes relationships can get sick … or evil. But God’s love is so very different from that.

 

Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” And he meant it. Dr. Scott Peck, in his more uplifting book called The Road Less Traveled, wrote: “Call it what you will. Genuine love, with the discipline it requires, is the only path to substantial joy …. The more I love, the longer I love, the larger I become. Genuine love is self-replenishing.” It is clear that Jesus had a generous heart, a heart that could hold the very love of God in it. He had a kind heart that suffered over a paralyzed man, a stooped over woman, and a blind man. His heart ached for those in moral bondage, and longing to set them free: like the woman caught in adultery; like Zacchaeus- who was rich in things and poor in spirit.  Jesus’ love persisted in spite of the blunders of friends who betrayed, denied, or deserted him. His was genuine love, the kind that kept on loving even as he died on a cross. A man named Anthony Padovano once put it this way: We are saved not by the physical death of Jesus, but by the absoluteness of love which did not count death too high a price. ”

 

In our finest hours, we are called to love others as God loves us.

Love, love, love; all you need is love. With God’s love—real love—those

words make more sense than ever. Experience God’s love today in bread, and in the cup. It is the body that was broken and the blood that was shed.  Little Johnny Quinn, who adored his brother, was willing to give all of his blood to show his love. How might you change the way you love if you have been trained in the conditional kind of love? How might you begin a life of unconditional love? Living that way, you will not only change your life, but also the lives of those around you. Love one another.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           May 6, 2018

 

 

04-29-18 CONNECTING TO YOUR POWER SOURCE

CONNECTING TO YOUR POWER SOURCE

John 15: 1-8

 

When the Rev. Robert Schuller was broadcasting his ministry across the television airwaves, he called it “The Hour of Power.” Certainly that title took the mantle of “Positive Thinking” ministries from the late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and it has been passed today to Joel Osteen.  But Robert Schuller had a ministry on two levels: there was his broadcast ministry, with the purpose of attracting and inviting people into the Christian life and into the support of his ministries; but he also had a local congregation in Garden Grove, California of members who did not need the milk that new Christians needed across the globe. His local ministry gave members the “meat and potatoes” of Jesus Christ. He was a trained minister in the Reformed Tradition.  Therefore his “Hour of Power” was not just for positive thinking; it was to connect individuals to the power of Jesus Christ. Yes, the Holy Spirit has the power of God; and yes the Heavenly Father of Jesus has the power of God. But through no one is the beam of power so concentrated as through Jesus and his instructions.  “Hymns like “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ name,” draw attention to that power. Healings and exorcisms have occurred, and still occur, along with the pronouncement of the name of Jesus. It is in Jesus’ name that we pray; that we ask for healing; that we ask for comfort.  Jesus is the one who is the power source.

 

In his day, of course, there was no electricity for him to demonstrate how a light bulb could only light up when it was connected to a power source as I demonstrated to the children today.  So Jesus, I suspect, looked around at what was available and used a different metaphor; one that all people would have understood: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing.” A minister was once talking to boys and girls in a children’s sermon. “Who died on the cross?” he asked. “Jesus!” they said. “And who arose from the dead?” he asked. “Jesus!” they said. “And who will come again?” and one exasperated boy said, “Jesus. The answer is ALWAYS Jesus!”  Yep. The answer is always Jesus! Unless you are connected to your power source—to Jesus—you will be like a lamp that is not plugged in! When I travel and wait in airport terminals for my plane, I watch people clump around charging stations to recharge their phones. They are always looking for power! We get it with our phones-we want them regularly charged up. That’s the way to treat our souls and our lives too! When we eat, we charge up our bodies; when we do mental work like learning, testing, or puzzles we charge up our minds. Connecting to Jesus gives power to your soul.  We can connect by personally reading our Bibles; but a supercharged way to connect is to be part of a well-lead Bible study. We can connect with personal prayer, but a supercharged connection happens when we gather as the church to pray. And we can connect not just praying for needs to be met, but also praying for guidance. Then, building in time for listening.

 

Someone once asked me, “Can we really hear from God in our prayers?” My answer is “Yes!” But too often we drop our prayers at the end of making our requests. We say “amen” and close the conversation. By contrast, look at how we communicate on our phones! A text or a conversation is a two-way street: statement or question, and response; statement or question, and response. We are so used to that! But when it comes to connecting with our power source, we think all we have to do is plug in. That is just the first part. The other part is to listen for directions from Jesus.  Some hear his guidance as an actual voice; some hear his guidance in their dreams, or some have their “ahas” when they are busy doing something else! But we need to condition ourselves to expect an answer.

 

Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you.”  Those instructions certainly need a footnote.  This is a conditional statement because it starts with the word “if.” What was the condition that Jesus explained to his disciples? “If you abide in me.” In other words, if they lived as ones who watched him, ate with him, followed him around, and did what he did, then they would be perfectly in tune with his will, and he was perfectly in tune with his Father’s will. That instruction was a little easier for them to hear and carry out than it is for us. We may have more difficulty stepping into first century Galilee and imagining what it was like to “abide in Jesus.” For us it means first that we work on a constant connection with Jesus as much as we have a constant connection with our phone contact lists. It next means coming to a time of worship and instruction regularly to be in the presence of others and to receive guidance. If you cannot be at a service, then other options of connection can suffice. And finally it means praying to, and listening for, the voice of God. Have you noticed that Jesus was always praying? Jesus! He was always connecting with his power source, which was his Heavenly Father.  And he was demonstrating what his followers were to do.  It was only as disciples fulfilled that job description that they could expect things to be done for them. Those outside of a Jesus relationship are just wasting their breath if they point to John 15: 7, and say “Jesus says ‘ask whatever you want and it will be done for you.” “Hold on friend! I would say. “You skipped some mighty important steps just going for the bottom line.”

There is more to having a power source then just having requests granted.

 

I hear from many parents that they wished they heard from their children more. And I know some long-time relationships get dropped because of conflicts, misunderstandings, or distance. If you want a relationship with those people, you and they will need to connect again.  If you want a relationship with Jesus, to understand his ways and receive his power, you will need to connect with him.  His hand is always out for you.  As the old Christian folksong from the early 1970s declared, “Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters; put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea.” That’s his invitation; the response is up to you.

 

Let’s now return to Jesus’ words in John 15. In 2001 Bruce Wilkerson captivated the Christian world with his little books “The Prayer of Jabez,” and his second book “Secrets of the Vine.” In the latter book he wrote these words:

Along the terraces that follow the curve of the [Kidron] valley, [Jesus and his disciples] passed through ancient vineyards. They walked in single file between rows of neatly tended grapes, plants that have been bearing fruit for generations. To the left about them tower the city walls and the ramparts of the temple. Ahead and to the right rises the Mount of Olives….Jesus reaches for a grape branch. Showing signs of new spring growth, its woody stem lies across His hand in the golden light [of a burning lamp]. He begins, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” …In the next few minutes Jesus talks quietly about branches and grapes and how a vinedresser cares for his prize vineyard. It certainly isn’t what His disciples expect to hear. But this is the moment Jesus chooses to reveal their surprising destiny.

 

You see, you and I are part of the prized vineyard of an Almighty vinedresser! Jesus knows that his Father counts on him to be an example, a teacher, and a Savior; Jesus in turn counts on his disciples to be the branches of the vineyard, rooted in him! And what is the purpose of a vineyard? [Yes I know to make wine!] But before that: a vineyard’s purpose is to bear fruit! And as the fruit is picked and distributed, with good care new fruit will grow in its place! But if the grapes are disconnected from the vine by an animal, a careless worker, or strong winds, they drop to the ground and die.  If we are disconnected from the vine like grapes, our souls can drop to the ground and die.  Don’t let that happen! Keep connected with Jesus, the vine, the root, and Jesus will keep connected with his Father’s will. This is the life of being in tune with God. This is where your will, and Jesus’ will, become one.

 

I will close with the words of Mother Theresa in her book, A Simple Path:

I can tell you about my path, but I’m only a little wire—God is the power.”

 

Let us pray:

Many here today, O God, are so good at connecting with others; while some may feel isolated or alone. As they put their hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters, speak to them in their silence, their dreams, or their lives. Let them know that you are listening and that they are loved. Then may your words guide and inspire them.  Through Jesus, our true vine. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 29, 2018

04-22-18 THE CARING SHEPHERD

THE CARING SHEPHERD

Psalm 23; John 10: 11-18

 

In the sixteenth century Joseph ben Ephraim Qaro, … a persecuted Spanish Jew who migrated to Palestine, produced a monumental summary of Jewish law under the title Shulhan Aruk, which means, a “Table Prepared.”  Qaro took the title from the twenty-third Psalm “thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Yes the psalms were the original hymnal of the Jerusalem temple, but they were also used for religious education and spiritual guidance over the ages. The Psalms speak clearly and vividly about religious truths. Even in our day, many small Testament Bibles, handed out to college students or to military personnel by groups like the Gideons, not only contain the New Testament, they also contain the Psalms. The Psalms have served several functions since the days of King David who wrote many of them.  One, they contain pictures of life in countless stages and situations. Two, they run the gamut of human emotions from anguish to praise to comfort. And Three, we find examples of prayers people have offered to God so that we, when tongue tied, might have some templates to follow. Some Psalms resound with joy and thanksgiving; others let us listen in to a hurting soul. They are a resource for Jew and for Christians to this day. When you may be struggling or broken, you can see what people before us said as they turned to God.  And when words hardly form in one’s prayer life, a Psalm can shine a light in your darkness.  Of all the Psalms in the book, Psalms 51, 90, 91, 100, 121, and 150 are used often, but the most beloved Psalm is the twenty-third Psalm.  There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus, addressing his disciples in John 10, knew Psalm 23.  His knowledge of those words molded his message that he was the “good shepherd.” Psalm 23 is often called “the Shepherd’s Psalm,” and it is the most used passage of Scripture at funerals.

 

Psalm 23 is an affirmation of faith; it expresses extreme trust even as it offers personal confession.  David, the writer of the Psalm, shows a child-like trust in the Lord, who he likened to a shepherd. Although the shortest Christian confession in the Bible is “Jesus is Lord,” the first line of this Psalm is also a confession of faith: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” There it is. Still, few in American culture get exposed to the life of a shepherd. That’s why an author and shepherd like Phillip Keller is so helpful. In his book A Shepherd Looks a Psalm 23, he unpacks the meaning of those beloved words. He grew up in East Africa and watched native herders at work. He became a lay pastor, bringing with him his wealth of “pastoral” insights. Even the term “Pastor” refers to “one that looks out for a flock.”

“I shall not want.”  In other words, “I have everything I need.”  The shepherd takes care of the food, the water, the grooming, the doctoring, and the protection of the sheep.  Ah, to be a sheep in the flock of a good shepherd: that’s the pinnacle of care! That’s what David noticed, what he apparently practiced and what he believed about being in God’s care. It was quite a claim.

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Keller wrote:

The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met:

Owing to their timidity, they refuse to lie down unless they are free from fear.

Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.

If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax.

Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they are in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger. [Zondervan, 1970, p. 35]

 

Goodness! Humans … I mean sheep, are needy!

 

“He leadeth me beside the still waters.”  Sheep, I have learned, will not drink from a running stream; they will die of thirst out of their fear of getting water in their nose (a little like humans?) But if they drink from stagnant water, bacteria can grow and infect their digestive system. So a shepherd must find water (available ideally from streams, rivers, or springs in Israel,) and either capture the water and pour it into a trough, or dam up the running water temporarily so the sheep will drink it.  Just like our four little grandsons will absolutely not drink water from their brother’s or cousins assigned cups, so sheep will not drink water unless it is still. Finicky! But they need hydration for sure, and that’s the way a shepherd achieves it.

 

As we hear Psalm 23, it rarely occurs to us that this is shared from the point of view of sheep. These are the needs of sheep! But then we step away from the sheep metaphor and David decides to jump into his own skin, writing:

he restoreth my soul.”  A sheep might put it this way: “He gives me peace.” But David knows there’s more to God than peace; there is also justice; there is mercy; there is love; and there is righteousness. God restored David’s soul; God can restore our soul. It is a rich expression of belief.

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” When the one who owns the sheep, and even the land, is the one taking care of them, his name is on the flock. That is, when your name is on something, and it is your responsibility to have something succeed instead of fail, great care and attention may be poured into that venture. For God’s own sake, the shepherd leads sheep in the right paths.  Sheep do not just wander aimlessly. Where they go and how much they eat is carefully decided by the shepherd. If they eat grass to the ground, it will not quickly grow back. If they go in the direction of a cliff or a predator, they could be hurt or killed. God’s name is on these sheep.  Or as Christians, Christ claims us at our baptism and puts his name on our foreheads and in our hearts. To the public he writes: “This one’s mine!” And to the person he whispers, “You are mine!” What comfort.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. The lands of Israel always created opportunities for danger to sheep.  Valleys were important because water would collect there; but predators or bandits could get the upper hand by being at the top of a ridge, a small cliff, or hiding in a cave. The shepherd always had to watch for the human dangers of bandits that would try to steal sheep, or for predators like coyotes, wolves, cougars, stray dogs, or snakes.  The rod was a stout stick used to stir brush to reveal serpents, or to smack the heads or noses of animals starting to attack.  In our day, cattlemen may refer to a pistol as their “rod,” with the same purpose in mind.  The rod is for protection; the staff is for gathering, collecting, and pulling sheep back from danger. The crook would go gently under the body or around a neck of the sheep.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. A good shepherd prepares the tableland. First, the shepherd searches for just the right place that is level enough and covered with enough healthy grasses.  Then, he also must pluck up certain weeds and flowers that, if ingested by sheep, are poisonous. He finally decides how long to leave the sheep in one place—not too long as to remove all vegetation; because he counts on it growing back. The enemies of sheep may gather nearby while they graze: humans who want to take them, or animals that want to eat them are nearby. The shepherd knows that the rocks and the cliffs can have eyes, so he is always watching for danger while they eat.

Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.  Especially in the summer, sheep can be tormented by biting flies. But like a flea and tick collar for dogs, shepherds concocted a natural insect repellent, made it into an ointment, and applied it to the head of the sheep and to other parts of their body.  If they were tormented, as we are tormented by mosquitoes in Florida or Georgians are tormented gnats, we know what relief a good repellent is. The shepherd knows that too.  It keeps sheep from getting so anxious that they will not eat or sleep. Sheep have their needs met because of their shepherd.

 

Finally, David the writer addressed the reader, human being to human being:
[Yes God is like a good shepherd, and because of that I declare:] Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  The Bible is filled with metaphors; metaphors try to describe what is hard to describe. Calling God a good shepherd, or Jesus a good shepherd, is one such metaphor. Calling us “sheep” is another. But few other words can describe what it is like to be in such good care.  Be comforted by the images; and remind yourself how good it is to be in the flock of a good shepherd.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 April 22, 2018

 

04-15-18 JESUS BY THE SEA

JESUS BY THE SEA

Luke 24: 36b-48

 

A visiting Priest was attending a men’s breakfast in Ohio farm country. He asked one of the impressive older farmers in attendance to say grace that morning. After all were seated, the older farmer began:

“Lord, I hate buttermilk.”

The Priest opened one eye and wondered to himself where this was going.

Then the farmer loudly proclaimed, “Lord, I hate lard.”

Now the Priest was overly worried. However without missing a beat, the farmer prayed on,

“And Lord, you know I don’t care much for raw white flour.”

Just as the Priest was ready to stand and stop everything, the farmer continued,

“But Lord, when you mix ‘em all together and bake ‘em up, I do love fresh biscuits.”

“So Lord, when things come up we don’t like, when life gets hard, when we just don’t understand what you are sayin’ to us, we just need to relax and wait ‘till you are done mixin’, and probably it will be somethin’ even better than biscuits.”

 

I shared that story with our Men’s group several months ago! It’s a wonderful reminder that it takes all kinds of ingredients; all kinds of people; and all kinds of talents, which—on their own—may seem irritating or inadequate. But mix them with the Holy Spirit and great things can happen!

Churches operate on that recipe. Some people initially feel too young, too old, or too inadequate to be of any use. But mix them with prayer, training, and God’s Spirit, and soon we get something better than biscuits!

 

In John’s gospel we learned that the disciples, perhaps like many of us, felt ill equipped to handle the ministry that was asked of them. They were unsure; they did not feel up to the task.  But with prayer and with practice, they carried out their tasks. I deliberately chose liturgists today from our Confirmation Class. By having them here, I am not throwing them in the deep end of the pool; they have practiced this kind of work during our Wednesday prayer services. We practiced together on Wednesday; and we have prayed. So young persons, who perhaps weren’t sure they were up to the task, show us that they are! That’s what Jesus wants from his disciples! He, in effect, says: “Trust me! You are ready for this!” And so, the beginning of Christianity after Jesus arose from the dead began to blossom. The mixer is not a Kitchen Aid or a Sunbeam; it is the Holy Spirit- taking the ingredients of ordinary men, women, and youth, filling in the gaps, mixing in the ingredients that look like talents, and something wonderful is made out of it! To this day God’s Spirit makes wonderful recipes out of ordinary ingredients- you, me, and any inadequacies we may feel.

 

Author John MacArthur wrote two books in particular. One was “Twelve Ordinary Men” and one was a sequel: “Twelve Extraordinary Women.”

In them he describes how God took ordinary people, and set them apart from their common tasks to carry out God’s special tasks, just as we set aside common water, common bread, and common wine from their common uses when they are used for special reasons in our sacraments.  Remember: with ingredients God chooses, and that people God choose, the Spirit can mix them together and mighty things are made!  Listen to how John MacArthur puts it:

If you were going to recruit a team to alter the course of history, how would you begin? Jesus began with a walk by a lake. “Follow me” the Master told them. And they did. Thus began his uncommon mission with twelve most common individuals: men who became Christ’s very first disciples. Have you ever considered who Jesus didn’t choose for his inner circle? He didn’t select a rabbi. He didn’t recruit scholars. He didn’t look within the religious establishment to build his team. Any of these would have given him an inside track with those in power. Instead he assembled a rag-tag bunch of folks with unimpressive resumes….it was part of the plan….Jesus wanted ordinary people—people with hopes and dreams of their own but who were willing to leave their lives behind to follow the Savior. [W Publishing Group, 2002, inside front cover]

 

Jesus was really on to something … and he still is!  Do you know that studies have shown that if you invite someone to church, 90% of those invited will come or consider coming. If a minister invites someone to come, only 10% come or will consider coming! People thinking ministers are paid to do such things; but you do them because you have found a good Savior, and a good church! Look what power you have! And Jesus knew that.  Pastors can teach you and help you with prayer, and guide you in mission, but you are the kingdom of God and you keep growing the Kingdom! My invitations to you and others are always offered, but yours are more effective. Young, old, abled or disabled: God uses each one of us! The Apostle Paul put it this way: “God said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ [and] the knowledge of the glory of God [has shined] in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay pots, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and does not come from us.” [2 Corinthians 4: 6-7] There is a classroom at First Presbyterian Church here in Daytona Beach called the “Cracked Pots” class! It is a constant reminder that class members are not the light; I am not the light; and you are not the light. But we are called to let the light—who is Jesus—shine through all we say and do!

 

By the Sea of Galilee Jesus called his disciples. Now in today’s passage they are still in the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus appeared to them again after he had arisen from the dead! Why did he ask for food? Why did he ask them to touch his hands and his feet? It was for them to believe he was not a ghost; not just an image, he was really there in bodily form.

David Heim tells the true story of a man who served in the Navy—Charles Hubbard, of Austin, Texas. The Vietnam vet received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs informing him that he was dead and that his family needed to return thousands of dollars in benefits! A victim of stolen identity, Hubbard found his checking account closed by the VA. After he made an extensive case for being alive, the VA informed him that it would take eight months for him to be officially brought back to life! That’s when they would restore his pension benefits. The resurrected Christ had his own problems convincing the disciples that he is alive and well, bodily present with them.

 

Having someone rise from death leaves people in wonder and in awe. Most would just think if they saw a man who died they were seeing his ghost. But this was Jesus. He knew they were frightened according to verse 37; he also knew they were falling back into their old trades and ways. But Jesus didn’t come to be a flash in a pan; he came to change the world. And this change would not happen if the 11 remaining apostles just went back to being fisherman or tax collectors. So he needed another meeting with them; a motivational meeting to redirect their work. This was it. And he said this: “the Messiah was supposed to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and [because of that] repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning Jerusalem.” They were already in Jerusalem! This was it! They were being commissioned; and the book of Acts continued to record the work of these apostles—these sent ones—who took the light of Jesus to the nations.

 

Those men have long died. So the message—that Jesus is the light of the world and the Savior—is now ours to share! It’s not just for preachers to do—as I said, we are less effective in reaching others than you are! So you make the most difference in sharing his light! You are the ones Jesus calls to proclaim his name to all nations. But you can start in your condo; or in your neighborhood; or in your school. You may ask: how do I do that? Here’s an actual conversation that occurred several years ago with congregation members: that couple came down a condo elevator on a Sunday morning; they were dressed for church; another couple on the elevator were dressed for tennis. “Going to play tennis?” The church-going couple asked. “Yes!” they said. “Have fun!” the church going couple said. After my class on evangelism that week, their conversation went like this two weeks later:

“Ah, playing tennis?” The church-going couple asked. “Yes!” they said. But this time the church couple said: “We’re going to our church; a wonderful church-Westminster By-the-Sea! Look!” (and they pointed to our building from their glass elevator.) “It’s right there! Come with us sometime! We’ll sit with you!” And the tennis couple said “Thanks! We might just do that!” And they did. People came to church because of that change in the conversation.

 

The hymn we are about to sing proclaims that “Jesus Calls Us.” Jesus does not just call the 12 apostles; he calls us too; to follow him; to let his light shine through us; and to proclaim his name wherever we can! Even in our weak times, our young age, or our old age, we are just cracked pots: vessels committed to letting Jesus be known. May you accept your commission from Jesus today, or redouble your prior efforts for the future.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 15, 2018

 

04-08-18 CAMELOT CHRISTIANITY

CAMELOT CHRISTIANITY

Acts 4: 32-35

Do you recognize these words from a musical?

A law was made a distant moon ago here:

July and August cannot be too hot.

And there’s a legal limit to the snow here

In Camelot.

The winter is forbidden till December

And exits March the second on the dot.

By order, summer lingers through September

In Camelot.

Camelot! Camelot!

I know it sounds a bit bizarre,

But in Camelot, Camelot

That’s how conditions are.

The rain may never fall till after sundown.

By eight, the morning fog must disappear.

In short, there’s simply not

A more congenial spot

For happily-ever-aftering than here

In Camelot.

 

“Camelot is a musical by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe ( music). It is based on the King Arthur legend as adapted from the T. H. White novel The Once and Future King.” [Wikopedia] As much as it describes the way we might like things to be, it is a fairytale; a legend. It is dreamy but not real. Or is it?  Camelot sells.  People describe the years when Kennedy was President as “Camelot.” But they were not. Wedding photographers try to make the wedding day look carefree and joyful! But hundreds of weddings I have witnessed were filled with anxiety and often tears instead. Our daughter posted a picture of our grandson in a text to us. He looked like angel! One time Jenny posted how many pictures she had to take to get a good one: it was 23! 23 pictures to get one that looked like Camelot! I remember old ads for cars in the 60s where a man floated down from the sky and landed in the driver’s seat of a brand new Chevy convertible! Camelot! Camelot sells.  Who has bought a timeshare thinking that it would make for Camelot vacations? That’s sometimes not the case. Camelot is what we hope; what we dream; they way people think things should be. Thomas Kinkade was a Camelot painter of idyllic scenes.

 

Even the Bible has some idyllic, Camelot scenes. Genesis chapter 1 is an example. God was creating and naming everything good! All was well! But perhaps the best Thomas Kinkade-like painter in the Bible was Luke. Luke “painted” the endearing picture of Mary and Joseph and shepherds and animals in a Bethlehem stable when Jesus was born. Luke “painted” the compassionate picture of a Good Samaritan helping a man who was beaten. It was just a story, but one found only in Luke.  And almost all scholars agree that Luke wrote the book of Acts too. So we come to on another picture with a Thomas Kinkade touch: a picture of Camelot Christianity.  Acts 4:32-35:

32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

 

Wonderful pastor, teacher, Bishop, and preacher William Willimon says this about those words:

We are not surprised to hear Luke claim that “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32) because we are accustomed to hearing such pious, often unrealistic claims made by Christian congregations, even within our own day. Preachers sometimes tend toward rosey [sic] exaggerations. But when Luke claims that “no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but that they had everything in common” (4:32), our ears perk up. [Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Study for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta:  John Knox Press, p.

52.]

 

So should this description that Luke writes in Acts chapter 4 be accompanied by lilting “Camelot” music; or be seen with the light paintbrush of Kinkade; or is it possible that it’s really happened in those early years of Christianity?

 

I went through the websites of 7 current major congregations this week. Reading their costly and visually stunning websites made me think I was about to enter the Land of Oz! Everything was puffed up and enhanced! When it comes to advertising and promotion and sales, I think we are all guilty, to some degree, of painting the pictures of our products in generously optimistic ways.  On occasion I have read the ad for a car that included a picture. Then I’ve gone to see the car in person. Sometimes there’s quite a difference! Churches all compete on social media and in newsprint as well. Our well-placed ads for Easter cost money; churches spent so much promoting Easter services in hopes that a portion of the people might come on Easter or consider joining. But we put try to put our best foot forward every week, not just on Easter. Still, last Sunday almost 600 worshippers heard our Easter message and music and had an invitation to follow Jesus.

 

Could it be that Luke, who tends to wrap his message in light and in love, described the early church in an accurate but also in a generous way?  Can you imagine in our day of capitalism and real estate, no one holding any property of their own? That’s what’s described in Acts chapter 4. In a way we have it; just this week we caught the first of at least three distributions of an estate while loving people are sharing the proceeds of possessions, a cabin, and a house with the church.   But Acts is not in 21st Century America. It was a different place when people were filled with the highest hopes for being a Christian community. Do you recall how radical Jesus was?  There is no record of Jesus owning anything except the tunic on his body. No record of him owning an animal, or a piece of land, or a home. He leaned on others and welcomed their hospitality. Indeed it could be that at the beginning of Christianity, and at the beginning of the world in Genesis, there was a kind of Camelot; a kind of innocence and wonder and gladness? Perhaps all new groups of Christians, fresh out of the waters of their baptisms, view their new life through Camelot eyes. The question is, can we keep our hopeful attitudes from souring over a short period of time? Things soured in Genesis 3 when the serpent was introduced. Things soured in Luke chapter 2, just after baby Jesus was dedicated at the temple:  a man douses that lovely day with these dark words: “this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … [and then he turns to the proud mother Mary and says to her] and a sword will pierce your own heart too.” [34,35.]  Come on, man! Couldn’t you wait a day or two before sharing such darkness?

 

Today I confess there’s a little bit of Camelot hope with everything I do at Westminster. When you come to a service, I always hope it is the best we can offer. When people as far away as Virginia and Georgia choose join this congregation, I think they find a little bit of Camelot Christianity here; that they have found nothing in all the miles between their house and their church that is better! We work to offer the best music, best teaching, and the best attention to details. So, do I hope to hold onto a little Camelot in my life? Yes! And I’d imagine you love those times too! What a Camelot time the apostles had in Acts chapter 4! A little Camelot Christianity can be an oasis for visitors at Westminster (and churches like ours,) and it can lift up the hearts of church members! I know people who have told me they had to take antacid tablets before they went to their own church services because of tension and dysfunction. Acts says it need not be like that! To paraphrase the Broadway show, “in short there’s simply not a more congenial spot for living like a Christian, than here, and in other congregations, in Camelot Christianity! We still strive for a church that is like the one described in Acts chapter 2; and Acts chapter 4! Welcome to a little slice of Camelot.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 8, 2018

 

04-01-18 AN ASTOUNDING APPEARANCE

AN ASTOUNDING APPEARANCE

John 20: 1-18

 

A woman whose husband had recently passed away asked me to stop by her home to talk.  In times of grief sometimes people really want to talk, and at other times it’s hard to find anything to say. As we sat down, she said, “I want to tell you something, but I hope you won’t think I’m crazy.” “Go ahead,” I said. “Tell me.”  So she said, “This week I saw Gary (not his real name. She was talking about her recently deceased husband.) She continued: “He was in our bedroom at the foot of the bed. Then he came around the bed and sat on his side of the bed. I could see an indentation on the bed covers. Do you think I’m crazy?” “ I do not think you’re crazy,” I told her so. I had heard such stories before, and since then I have heard them from others: they’ve seen a face, or heard a voice, or felt the presence of a loved one who passed from this world. These are astounding appearances, but I don’t think most, if any, of them are made up. If God is a God of amazing grace, (which I believe,) one who offers steadfast love, and mercy, maybe we get permission in our next life to, if the time is right, reassure our loved one that all will be well. I don’t think everyone is able to experience such events, but some can. Just like Paul said in First Corinthians 12 and 13, some can speak in tongues, and some never will speak in tongues, but that is not an indication of inferior or undeveloped spiritual gifts.  Likewise some may see these loved ones, and some may not. But if you have been equipped to see or feel the presence of someone who has gone before you, share it! I think such witnessing invites others to claim, or at least consider, the mysteries of God.

 

Today, for any of you who have lost a loved one (and who hasn’t, from a pet to a parent to a friend?), I want you to think back to the time when you knew that your loved one had died.  What did you feel? Disbelief? How did you feel? Numb? What did you do? Endlessly call family, or sit in one place on stun or in tears?  Such events are life-jarring. No matter how much we prepare, we are not really prepared for them. Our daughter Jenny is an ordained Presbyterian minister and one of the chaplains at Tampa General Hospital. One of the chaplain’s jobs is to meet with the family when there has been a death. They are a Trauma 1 center so often the deaths are truly traumatic. Their job is to call in next of kin, to listen to them, and to console them.  What a job, but she feels called to do it. Still it can take a toll.

 

Keep that thought as we move back in time 2000 years. Not only had a friend died; not only had a son died, but it was a brutal death. Many of the women, including the man’s own mother, watched him be tortured. And then they saw him breathe his last. They saw his limp, dead, body be taken down from the cross. They likely overheard, perhaps with some comfort, that a man named Joseph of Arimethea gave his family tomb away to this man. The man who had just died? Jesus.  In those days, a tomb was a cave—man-made or natural—and a family had exclusive ownership of it in which they would place the dead bodies of loved ones, anoint them ritually with spices, roll the stone over the tomb, and wait several weeks or months for the body to decompose. Then the bones were collected and placed in an above-ground container called an ossuary. If they were Jews they would ask to be buried as close to the Mount of Olives as possible, where they believed the Messiah would return. On this particular day, outside of the Jerusalem walls, the women and men were at the cross. They likely went away dejected, because the one in whom they had hope for salvation had died; they had seen it with their own eyes. They were like those family members in an emergency room; or those gathered at a funeral home, ones perhaps making plans to embalm or not embalm a body and thinking about a funeral. So the men in John’s gospel were milling around the room set apart for them by Jesus, and the women—also special disciples and friends of Jesus—were there too.  In those days women customarily did the not too pleasant job of preparing the dead body to be left in the tomb. They usually used oils and spices—sometimes even frankincense and myrrh—which wise men foreshadowed.   So those women who had hope that Jesus would be different  now had all their spirits dashed. He was dead; they would do their duty; they would mourn for a period of time, then they’d pick up their lives. They would not have the luxury of going into a deep depression for months- they had families for whom they were responsible.  Those women going to the tomb were like those in a hospital trauma room; or  those in a funeral parlor. They were mourning and just doing what needed to be done.

 

To their great surprise—and I can’t emphasize that enough—they found the stone rolled away!! That was shocking for at least two reasons. No Romans would come and touch, or try to move, the body of a Jew! Romans cared only about taxes in Judea. By contrast, no faithful Jews would come to the tomb before morning because the God sanctioned Sabbath was just ending as the women arrived! No one did work on the Sabbath! Besides, the stone was exceedingly large and would have been very heavy to move. Nevertheless, the stone was rolled away! In John’s passage we read that the women were so stunned they ran back to get help. They asked Simon Peter to come and see it. He and another disciple (likely it was John) ran back to see the unbelievable event. Was it grave robbery? I doubt anyone was thinking “miracle” at that time. This time they went in and found the grave clothes lying on the ground, (like they are at our tomb in this sanctuary) and they were no longer wrapped around a body! Finally, like the apparitions that others have described to me, a person appeared to Mary.  Being in such a state of shock, she did not even entertain the notion that it might have been a ghost of Jesus; she was still going on the assumption that the body had been taken. But after hearing the voice of the one she loved so much, her eyes and ears were opened and her heart filled with hope that she dared not consider earlier. Could it be?  She went to embrace him, only to be warned that she could not do that, because he was in some state between earth and heaven. He said, “Do not hold me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” What a confusing day! The unbelievable had not only become possible, but actual! Jesus had risen from the dead!

 

Now we know: the grave was not the end for Jesus; a rolling stone could not hold his body in; and a cross was not the final chapter! God is with us now, watching us and writing the last chapters of our lives! How will they end? That is largely up to you and me and the situations we face each day. What we do know is that God hopes that all people in the world find their final home in heaven! You can plan on it if you follow Jesus, not only in this life, but into the next life too! Choose Jesus: the risen Son of God! And join him today in the joyful feast of the people of God! Today’s story did not end at a grave; it continued with new life. It continues now at a table. Jesus invited disciples to join him in a meal in John 21: the next chapter. Now he invites you; won’t you join him and share this meal with Jesus?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 1, 2018

03-25-18 (Palm Sunday) – KING FOR A DAY

KING FOR A DAY

John 12: 12-16

 

Have you ever been at an event that was supposed to be a happy one, and feigned joy so you didn’t rain on the parade of someone else?  Perhaps you went to your son or daughter’s wedding after just receiving a diagnosis of cancer.  Or perhaps a best friend of your just lost a baby, but you hoped your face wouldn’t show your sorrow while attending a special event.  One of my favorite singers performed through her illness, seeking to hide her pain: Eva Cassidy. I first heard her sing Sting’s song “Fields of Gold” to accompany an Olympic skater. Her version and her voice were so haunting. On our church cruise, a woman offering the evening’s entertainment sang that, and I was mesmerized hearing it live. Eva, like two young men in our church, died at just 34 years of age. Like them, she had melanoma. Here’s the story of what she did to try to put on a game face in the midst of her illness:

In 1993, Cassidy had a malignant removed from her back. Three years later, during a promotional event she noticed an ache in her hips, which she attributed to stiffness from painting murals while perched on a stepladder. The pain persisted and x-rays revealed a fracture. Further tests found that cancer had spread to her bones as well as to her lungs. Her doctors estimated she had three to five months to live. Eva opted for aggressive treatment, but her health deteriorated rapidly. On September 17 at a benefit concert she made her final public appearance, closing the set with “What a Wonderful World” in front of an audience of family, friends, and fans. She died on November 2, 1996 at her family’s home. [Wikopedia]

 

How many other inspirational stories might come to your mind? So many people push down their pain so as not to disturb other’s joy. Some of them have just months to live; some have just weeks to live. Jesus, I believe, knew he had just days to live. And what did he do? In spite of that knowledge, he joined in the celebration; they wanted a king! He was not the next Caesar, but he was a different kind of king. He may not have had full energy that day, but he knew what he had to do and what prophesies he came to fulfill. Jesus grew up reading from prophets like Zechariah, who predicted: “Your king is coming to you; a righteous king and a saving one; humble and riding on a donkey; on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” [Zechariah 9:9]  Jesus knew the messiah would save the people; but he also knew the cost. That had to be in the back of his mind, even as children cheered and adults shouted “Hosanna!” “Hosanna” doesn’t mean “praise,” it means “save us!”  Yes he had come to save them, but not in the way they hoped. They wanted him to fight, but he came as the prince of peace. They wanted him to save them from burdensome Roman taxes, but he was coming to save them from their sins. They wanted revolt; instead they got a king whose kingdom wasn’t of this world.  God knows how to, as the late Robert Schuller put it, “turn our scars into stars,” but the transformation comes with cost. God sees the big picture, while people hope for instant satisfaction or quick answers. Here’s another story, told 5 years ago tomorrow, by a blogger named Christine Hassler:

 

This past weekend I had the honor of standing up in my bestie Melissa’s wedding.  It was an incredibly beautiful ceremony full of love, connection and tears of joy. I am inspired to share with you their incredible love story which will reaffirm your faith in the universe’s timing…

When they were 19-years-old Melissa and Chris met at a club in New York.  They dated for just three short months, as it seemed they were headed in different directions.  They each went on with their lives and didn’t speak after their short relationship.  Melissa worked her way up the corporate ladder and eventually moved to L.A. Chris established his career on the east coast. They both had other relationships and really never thought about each other until…

One day in 2010 Melissa was having one of those moments we can all relate to when she felt alone, sad, and questioned the universe. In that rather dark moment she threw her hands up to the Divine and asked for help. Instead she heard to “look in the envelope.” Melissa knew exactly what envelope to look in. It was one she had put aside full of old pictures. Knowing not to ignore the voice of her intuition, she looked through the pictures and was surprised to find one photo of her and a guy she dated briefly her sophomore year of college named Chris. “Hmmmm…” she thought, “He was a nice guy, I wonder what happened to him?” Well thanks to Facebook this is an easy question to answer. The Facebook request was quickly accepted and he wrote her back. The emails became longer. Then the emails transitioned to a phone call.  I knew immediately something was different about this guy. “Does this sound crazy?” she asked me. “No,” I replied, “It sounds like a miracle. Keep your mind and heart open.”

 

God has a long-term plan for your life. Part of it is a love story; God loves you, and me, and the world so much that he was willing to pay a great price to have us together here and in the hereafter. Some just see the darkness of the cross as a terrible act: why would a Father send a Son to die? Think of it this way instead: if the church is known as the bride of Christ, then a splendid marriage was in the works! In Jesus’ day a father would select a bride who he thought would be a good match for his son. Sometimes the father would use the services of a yenta—a matchmaker—but sometimes the father would make his own choice. Then the father and the son would go and ask the father of the chosen girl for her hand in marriage. The father might agree, but part of the deal would be the bride price—it was always a very high price for his daughter. Once the deal was struck, the father would take his son home and build a room on the father’s house where his son, and his new bride, would live.  But as I mentioned, the price for the bride was very high.

Today we are facing a week where the arrangements have been made. The Father has selected a bride for his son, and it is you and me. The price will be very high; the prospective groom will pay for our souls with his life. After the price has been paid, the groom—Jesus—and his followers—the disciples and the church today—will together … in the Father’s house!

 

That is the great Easter drama! But the road to Easter includes betrayals, not just bunnies; the road to Easter includes a seamless tunic, not just pretty dresses. And the road to Easter—like other events you might have had in your life—includes conflict, pain, and stress. This time the road will include death. But I hope you will join me for the powerful story: the Upper Room dialogue and Upper Room meal remembered this Thursday night; and the words Jesus said from the cross from the sixth hour until the ninth hour, on Friday from 12 noon until 3. Much of the story will be recalled Thursday night, but you can get more Friday afternoon.  Then and only then—when you understand the price that was paid, and that the Father had already informed his Son of the plan, and that they were in agreement—can you understand what was likely going through Jesus’ mind. Making his way down a steep hillside on a donkey to enter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate was the last beautiful thing that would happen to him that week.

 

Love always has a cost; but to understand the plan, made long before the Palm Sunday ride, we move into the mind of Jesus and into the plan of God had for the world.  Today it’s about palms. But the journey is about to continue. I hope you will take it with Jesus this week.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 25, 2018

03-18-18 SIR, WE WOULD SEE JESUS

SIR, WE WOULD SEE JESUS

John 12: 20-32

 

I have left the sermon topic in the King James translation because that’s the way I once read it.  Under the pulpit in the Columbia Theological Seminary Chapel is a plaque that can only be seen by the preacher who is sitting down before preaching. It says: “We would see Jesus.” John 20:21.  In other words, it imagines that every worshipper, or at least some of them, have come to the chapel service that day to receive a new or a modified picture of Jesus and who he is. John, in his gospel, was always about telling who Jesus was; others gospels by contrast, told a lot about what Jesus did.  The question from John’s gospel today is asked by what we would call “seekers;” people interested in learning more about Jesus. And after the request made to Philip, Philip told Andrew, and they both went to tell Jesus! This was evangelism without work! There was no knocking on doors, or holding a tent revival, or inviting your neighbor to church. These non-believers, called Greeks, wanted to see Jesus. And the disciples complied.  There. That’s all we have to do, right? All we have to do is lead people to Jesus. Yes, but as I showed the children, we’re actually not sure what he looks like. And we don’t know if we’d recognize him if we bumped into him!  If someone came up to me and asked “Sir, we’d like to see Jesus,” I might say, “So would I! And one day I believe I will see him. But until that time, I want to invite you to see what Jesus did, by observing people doing what Jesus would do were he here in the flesh today.”  Christians let others see Jesus through them when they are doing what Jesus would do, or at least what they think he would do. How do we make a list of what Jesus did? We go to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And then we can see if we can see Jesus in others, or if, perhaps, they can see Jesus in us.

 

In 1887 a Congregational pastor from Topeka Kansas had a book published that told a story of a congregational experiment. The book was called “In His Steps,” and the pastor was Charles M. Sheldon. In 1985 the book was reprinted as a tool for evangelism. In the forward, pastor and motivational speaker Tony Campolo wrote this:

Seldom has a book so influenced Christian thinking. Its profound message set forth in a simple style makes an impact on each and every reader…. The author, Charles Sheldon, describes an ordinary church congregation which is challenged by its pastor to ask, in [the] face of every decision and situation in life, the simple question, “What would Jesus do if he were in my place?” {Barbour & Co. 1985, Intro.]

 

Yes, it was that book being read and reclaimed in the 1980s that started the WWJD movement and the bracelets that could be worn with those letters on them as a reminder to the wearers, always asking, “What would Jesus do?” As you walk down our breezeway this year and every year during Lent, you will find our purple WWJD banner, reminding you of that as you depart.

 

If we can’t actually see Jesus, how can we as Christians show Jesus to the world? Part of the answer is to do what Jesus would do. No, Jesus did not have technology in his day as we have, but knowing very well what Jesus did can guide us. We can’t easily figure that out if the last time we went to Sunday School was when we were young. Christians committed to showing Jesus to the world would do well to know what Jesus did! That leads us to study Scripture as youth; and as adults. How can we do what Jesus would do if we don’t know what Jesus did?  Turning to the gospels today, let’s see what Jesus did.  First, Jesus refused to condemn.  In John chapter 8 Scribes and Pharisees brought Jesus a woman caught in adultery (by the way, the woman was caught in adultery because men could not be accused of adultery in that day!) They asked Jesus to rule on any sentence they may dole out. He seemed lost in thought and bent and wrote something on the ground. Feminist theologians have suggested he might have written “Where is the man?” but we don’t know what he wrote. What we do know is that after approaching Jesus, they all went away, one by one, leaving Jesus with the woman. “Where did they go?” he asked the woman. “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied. And Jesus said: “Neither do I condemn you.” [John 8: 1-11] Over the years, Christians have been known to condemn those with long hair, with loud music, with tattoos, those of different skin colors, or different nationalities; or different denominations. Such actions create communities of “us and them.”  Jesus saw all others as children of God, whether they had disabilities, or leprosy; whether they were poor or rich. To let people see Jesus through us, we can cease condemning and seek to listen, ponder, to pray for, and to not call for a judge or jury regarding someone who is different from you. The job of judge is already taken.

 

Second, Jesus fed the hungry and loved the little children.  In all four gospels Jesus feeds 5000 hungry people. Enough said! And in Matthew, Mark, and Luke they record that Jesus famously said: “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” He said in Matthew’s gospel, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  What do we do with these passages? Do we dismiss them as time locked? No; we do what Jesus would do.  Our church has created intergenerational dinners and studies like “The Epic Story” that deliberately placed people of different ages at each table.  When I participated I was so proud to have my three year old friend (she’s older now) Lauren Camp, sitting at my table and working on our projects with me! I was equally proud to have others older than I was sharing the table.  In addition, to the consternation of some parents, my Christian Educator, Mary Ann and I, believe that children belong in worship and not shuttled off to a children’s program. They may have papers on which to draw, or the arm of a grandparent around them, but they are part of our church family. Every time I offer them a message, I think I am doing what Jesus would do! We even have a partnership with Longtreet Elementary School to be an emergency shelter if needed; we have helped purchased backpacks for students, and offered funds to see that children are well fed. We are now approaching that school and others to see what classes need a volunteer adult who, with the guidance of a teacher, can become a mentor or tutor to students who are struggling, or ones who need another good adult role model. We are seeking to do what Jesus would do! This year in Sunday School children put hygiene bags together to help homeless people get clean. We bring canned and dry goods to the food pantry at Grace Episcopal Church each week, and members of our church join members of other churches in staffing it. In addition, a team of men and women go monthly to the Star Center of Halifax Urban Ministries to feed more than 200 people a lunch time meal. We too seek to do what Jesus did.

 

Third, Jesus asked his Heavenly Father to forgive.  The example is to forgive, and to get out of the way so God can offer forgiveness. In our study of the Apostles’ Creed this week, a man named Darrell gave this testimony that was both powerful and moving. He served twenty-four years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and the evidence that would have set him free was suppressed.

For all that time I was in prison, one step from death row and could have been executed. And I was full of hate; prison is a hateful place. I hated the system; I hated the entire criminal justice system. And I was not a believer for at least 15 of those years. Some Christians used to come and they [were] really representing Christ. And I asked myself “What is it about these people and other convicts who believed in Christ?” They were just loving inmates. And they said they were mandated to love inmates regardless of how you got there. And they never knew my story, but I knew I hated the system and I couldn’t forgive, and they spoke of forgiveness. But as I began to read the Scriptures, and began to read about Christ, that verse, Luke 23:34, spoke to me, and that one verse began to transform my heart. When Jesus said on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  And I decided that was divine. And I said “How could he do that, because I’m ripped in this anger and this hate toward the system, and I began to pray; and I began to pray through clenched teeth literally saying ‘I’m going to pray for these people Jesus, but you know what they did to me,’ but this is what I heard the Holy Spirit say to my spirit when I said ‘God I can’t forgive these people; its too hard.’ That’s when the Spirit spoke to my spirit and said ‘Darrell; no, you can’t forgive them; but I can forgive them through you if only you would let me.’ And that’s how forgiveness began to work for me; and I looked closely at that verse that Jesus quoted, and I saw, in his humanness, the he couldn’t forgive them either! He said ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ So I realized that forgiveness can only come from God, and that’s what Jesus said; forgiveness can come from God through us. And if I wanted to be a vessel for God, I had to forgive, and I began to pray that I wanted what was best for those people, just like I wanted what was best for me and my family. Then I realized that forgiveness wasn’t for them, it was for me! It set me free spiritually! 8 to 10 years before I left that place, I was at peace whether they let me go or not. They were forgiven, and I knew it because God forgave them through me; I had nothing to do with it.

Jesus asked his Father to forgive others; we are called to do the same.

 

Finally, Jesus loved his neighbor as himself, and he told us to do likewise. Jesus chose to speak to a Samaritan woman one day, and to a Syrophonicean woman another.  He met with men who had the perceived contagious disease of leprosy, and he healed a gentile man who was possessed by demons. These are four ways that the world can see Jesus through us: Refuse to condemn others; let the judge of the world decide who needs to be condemned and who needs to be saved. Feed hungry people. You can choose to do that from your car window at the end of an exit ramp, but I don’t recommend that. Feed hungry people by bringing your canned goods, or dry goods, to church as often as weekly; offer to help at our food pantry or to feed hundreds at the local Hot Meal program. Some of you are physically able to roll up their sleeves; others can reach into their pockets or their pantry to help us feed hungry people. Jesus also loved the children.  He delighted that they joined him for his Palm Sunday entrance. You too can help us help children as we reach many in our Vacation Bible School program, and as we have intergenerational dinners and weekly classes.  Welcome children as they come to worship; Jesus would do the same. The next is a big one: forgive.  Seek to forgive others so that God can also release forgiveness for you.  We cannot expect forgiveness from God if we personally will not forgive. And finally, Jesus loved; we are to love one another. Sometimes we may not like one another, but we are always called to love one another! Those are ways we can change the world and show people Jesus through our actions. Ask daily: “What would Jesus do?” In so doing, you will—paraphrasing Stephen Schwartz who wrote the musical Godspell—let others “see Him more clearly; love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly, day by day.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 18, 2018

Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church – Daytona Beach, Florida, USA