01-22-17 LEAVING HOME LOVING GOD

LEAVING HOME; LOVING GOD

Matthew 4: 12-22

 

In the John Calvin commentaries—the commentaries on God’s Word written by the Father of Presbyterianism—Calvin wrote the way he preached: he preached and wrote in an expository fashion. Expository preaching is when the preacher goes line by line, explaining what is happening in Scripture and what the meaning and message of each line is. Calvin, you may be aware, preached to crowds that did not each have a personal Bible. Most Cathedrals had a large Bible in Latin, but a few other Bibles were available. Most people had to just trust their priests for the sermons they preached, and they had no easy way to check if what was being preached was being properly offered. Calvin decided to include not only interpretation in his sermons, but also the Bible sentences from which he was preaching. It has gone in and out of style over the decades, but I plan to use it today to model the style Calvin often used. Today I am not convinced that people in our age are much more Biblically well read than our forebears were. We have Bibles, but sometimes they go unread! So today I will give a Biblical sermon with Biblical examples. By contrast, the famous Baptist preacher from Atlanta, Charles Stanley, has a son named Andy Stanley who is the pastor of the giant North Point Church in the Atlanta area.

He was once asked this question:

What do you think about preaching verse-by-verse messages through books of the Bible?

Stanley’s answer…

Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible– that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that.

So be it. But today we will join Calvin in his method of preaching!

 

Today hear the Word of God from Matthew chapter 4 beginning with verse 12. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested he withdrew to Galilee.”  What did that mean? John, in this case, was John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus. John was the forerunner, the one who announced, and prepared the way, for the one who was coming after him. John knew he himself was not the light as I told you last week; he bore witness to the light, who was Jesus himself. John had a ministry of baptism and of repentance. It was important. Jesus believed Baptism was so important that he himself got baptized as an example. Have you considered baptism? Or have you ever found your baptism certificate, looked at it, and thanked God for those who led you to that special day? Remember: your certificate is not an insurance policy: it’s a commission! You are the eyes and hands and heart of Jesus because you have been baptized in his name! Jesus also proclaimed John’s message of repentance. He said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” At least that’s the way Matthew recorded it. Matthew, you see, was one of the 12 followers of Jesus, but he was also a Jewish man by birth. Jews never used the name of God in prayers or in conversation out of respect for God. Luke and Mark and John did not have that concern. So wherever Matthew says, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” the other Gospel writers would say “the Kingdom of God.” It was not a message about “going to heaven” at all. It was a message that in Jesus, God was breaking into the world in a distinctive and unmistakable way. So Jesus said, in so many words, “It is time,” and left his dusty hometown of Nazareth and went to a town that became his second home: Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Do you understand the meaning of that line? He was leaving home; and he was loving God by starting a ministry that would make him be tested and derided, thanked, and appreciated. Next is verse 13: “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” What does that mean? Do you recall what Cara read in the first lesson? It was Isaiah chapter nine! When do we generally hear Isaiah chapter 9 each year? Astute ears will remember it is read on Christmas Eve, picked up and made famous by Handel in his magnificent “Messiah.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! Those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, upon them has the light shined! For unto us a child is born! Unto us a son is given!” Is it coming back to you? Hold on to your seats and hear this: Isaiah said those words 700 years before Christ! So are we sure Isaiah was talking about Christ? Here is where knowing your Bible matters. The verses before those famous lines in Isaiah are almost never read. They are: “But there will be no gloom for those who are in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time, he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”  Did you hear it? These places—Zebulun, Naphtali and the region of Galilee—are being changed by God from being places of gloom and nothingness, to become the new hometown of the child who has grown into a man, beginning his ministry where Isaiah said it would begin! You may know that Zebulun and Naphtali were regions to the west and north of the Sea of Galilee divided into twelve territories named after 11 of the sons of Jacob. The other son, Levi, did not get territory; he was in charge of the priesthood. So Jesus is setting the stage for the next events that God has planned for that land, that he claimed for himself, when he sent Abraham there from his own hometown of Ur.

 

Next Matthew quotes Isaiah, the passage that Cara read. Jesus left his home and settled in a new place, just as Abraham had done; just as John Calvin had done when he left France for Geneva, Switzerland; as John Knox had done for a time when he left Scotland and went to study with Calvin in Geneva. And Martin Luther, born in Eisleben Germany, also left his home to go to school in Magdeburg and Eisenach, Germany, and later to become a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg. Leaving home opened their hearts to the message and ministry God had in store for them.

 

What did Jesus do after he relocated to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee? You know because you have Bibles! He began calling men to follow him. He saw them fishing according to verse 19, and he, with a turn of a phrase, said: “Follow me; I will make you fishers of men (or of people we might say today.) Would you imagine these rough fisherman might have said to one another, “How do you fish for people? What a strange idea!” But Jesus meant what he said! He called Simon, who he nicknamed “Peter” (which meant “the rock.”) He also called Simon’s brother Andrew, who to this day is the patron saint of Scotland and is associated with the sea. Of all the things that might have been going through your mind, or my mind, it is humbling to read how these rough fishermen responded. Verse 20 tells us: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Wow. Let’s pause in honor for a moment. Even the Virgin Mary had a question for the angel before agreeing to bear the Son of God. Even Zechariah questioned the angel telling him about the birth of his son John the Baptist, and he was mute until the naming of John. Many ages before, God had approached Abram and they talked. After a brief time, God took Abram outside and said  “Look toward the heaven, and count the stars if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord.” “Immediately” is not the response we usually give when we are asked to move, or drop our employment for something untried and untested to follow someone like the man who stilled the waters and calmed the sea.  But to the credit of Simon Peter and Andrew, they did. And because they did, the discipleship ball started rolling: James and a different man named John (who were brothers) signed on. And they too, verse 22 tells us, “Immediately left their boat and their father and followed him.”

 

One more time, let’s take that in. First fishermen left their nets. Nets don’t grow on trees, they cost money! Yet Simon and Andrew left their nets. And we know how much money a boat costs, and yet James and John left their boat, but at least their father was there. Wait! They left their father with no plan to do so? Like rural farmers in our day, losing two strong sons would leave their father in a bad situation; it would be received as disrespectful and unthinkable. It was expected to happen when was getting married, but not when another man asked them to literally “jump ship!” What higher purpose was being worked out in those amazing first days of Jesus’ ministry! What amazing higher power was reaching into the soul of at least four men and changing their lives forever! That is the power of God! That is the power of the call of Christ. People in our day, and in ages past, have often left their parents to be trained, not only in colleges, but in seminaries, or monasteries, or in convents, or in Divinity schools They sought to know Jesus and to make him known. But today, you have been in a kind of Christian school for these few minutes too! You, with your heart, your experiences, and with your life, can do many of the things that others spent years learning to do! You can commit yourself to learn about Jesus and to know him, if you don’t already. John Calvin’s Christian schools started empowering people to learn about the Bible and Jesus. You can do it through Christian Education classes we offer, or by listening to preachers you trust, or by your own study. There is a great tradition of learning for Presbyterians! Be informed! Come to know Jesus as you Savior! And once you do, make him known! Witness to others with your life, as well as with your lips. Listen for things that Jesus might be calling you to do! And then instead of saying “No! Not me!” You might come to a point of saying:

“Here I am Lord. Send me.”

As we move to our hymn, let me tell you about it.

The text comes from the life of the Iona Community which had a practice of sending youth volunteers to live for a year or two in impoverished parts of Scotland, supported only by welfare payments and working out their discipleship in hard places. At the end of their agreed periods of ministry, there would be a farewell ceremony, always held in the house where they had been living and from which these authors would create an appropriate song. This was such a song… In stanzas 1-4, the voice of Christ calls a person to a life of service and witness; in stanza 5 the person answers affirmatively. [Glory to God: A Companion, by Carl P. Daw Jr., JKP, 2016.]

 

Let us now sing this song of the Iona Community, a community formed in Glasgow and Iona in 1938 by the Rev. George MacLeod.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 22, 2017

 

01-15-17 BEING A WITNESS FOR CHRIST

BEING A WITNESS FOR CHRIST

John 1: 29-42

 

Asking questions of boys and girls in a children’s sermon can be perilous. As one minister dealt with the passage from John that was just read, he thought he could get children to think about some of the names for or titles for Jesus: ones like Lamb of God, Son of God, Messiah, and others. So he asked the children what names or titles they could think of for Jesus. “Teacher” said one boy; “Savior” said another. An older girl, remembering Christmas, said “Emmanuel.” The minister was pleased. And then one final boy said “Andy.” “Andy!” the minister said. Where do you get that? And the boy said, “You know, from the song my grandma sings: “Andy (And he) walks with me and he talks with me!” At least he was a boy who listened! Today we join the disciples who pointed to Jesus and told others who he was. That is essentially what being a Christian witness is: it is pointing to, or telling others about Jesus, and how he has changed your life. It is that kind of testimony that best leads people to know Christ, not a polished script Have you invited Jesus into your heart? Has he changed your life? Did you find him gradually or all of a sudden?

 

Few people want to be a witness. In a trial, being a witness means giving up your time to be interrogated about what you saw. It might mean being in a courtroom. But what about being a Christian witness?  Have you been accosted or confronted by persons who wanted to “witness for Christ” to you over the years? Today we will name the witnessing methods that have been overbearing, or disingenuous, and then we’ll move to authentic witnessing.

 

Here is how John bore witness: “I saw the spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on Jesus.”  …. Then “I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.” Do you understand? He just told what he saw and what he believed. Then he said to two of his own disciples as Jesus walked by, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Now John’s words are not our words. Have you, perhaps, experienced a high-pressure situation where a person or two tried to talk you into believing something that you were not yet ready to believe? That makes people want to steer clear of witnessing. But the church is always just one generation away from extinction.  We must share our faith, to our children, and our children’s children, and even with neighbors. But we do not need to do it with panic or coercion. Let’s look at some of the tactics that have not worked in the history of the church.

 

First, there is the” bulldozer approach.” These are the persons, whether strangers on your doorstep or neighbors when you first moved to town, who bowl you over with questions and a stream of arguments backed up with memorized Scripture, asking you if you know for sure you are going to heaven. This approach generally produces a one-way conservation since you can’t win against their arguments and you often feel too anxious to give a well-thought answer. These people want you to commit to Christ then and there, and if you don’t, they will—in bulldozer fashion—push you along the path until you do. That approach to witnessing never won me over.

 

Second, there is the decoy approach. It occurs when a person draws attention to something—like a friendship—in order to talk people into something else. It can happen when marketing products; it can also happen when you least expect it. An example is the decoy of friendship. When I was in college I had someone approach in an airport while waiting for a flight, strike up a conversation, and try to establish that all of a sudden we were friends. He then tried to give me religious books saying they were “a gift.” I figured out he was member of the Hare Krishnas and broke off that deal. Goodness! No wonder people run from witnessing! This tactic is harder to get out of since you’ve given your name and you have unwanted books in your hand. Such deceptive tactics have no place in my life.

 

The third method is what I’ll call “the jealousy approach.” It is used when someone treats their faith as so special that they include select people in their circle of friends only if they are Christians. It says “I will relate to people who believe the way I do,  but not to others. If you want to be my friend, you need to be part of my church.” It is kind of a snob approach, one that Jesus would detest. John the Baptist proclaimed his words to anyone who would hear them. Jesus invited people in the first chapter of John to “Follow me.” It was not exclusive; it was invitational. Jesus cared about tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and people despised by others. The love of Christ is something we are called to share, not a circle of exclusivity. D.T. Niles said Evangelism, or witnessing, is “One beggar showing another where to find bread.” “Come and see.” Jesus invited interested and curious persons to come and see who he was and where he could be found.  John was a prophet sent from God to bear witness to the Light; not more, not less.

 

So if we don’t want to use the tactics I’ve already described, then we don’t have to witness at all, right? Wrong! We have a call to action, to share what we have found with others. “What’s that you say? You say you don’t think your faith is that strong, or your beliefs aren’t too firm yet? Then you’re perfect for the job! Nothing is more engaging than a person who has found a church they love but still has questions and doubts! That invites a new person to share a the faith journey!” Even more, it gives the new persons someone to sit with when they come to church to try out what you have already found!  That can be very comforting to the seeker who is timid about what and who they may encounter! Some churches deliberately use tactics like the ones I’ve described. At a mega church I know, greeters are trained to meet every car in the very large parking. That person is assigned to get your name, your contact information, and if you are new in town before he hands you over to an inside greeter! Then two church members calls on you that afternoon! This is true! But here, we genuinely greet you and warmly invite you to be part of the congregation that means so much to us.  You are welcomed, not pumped for information.

 

Finally, there are some people who lived through the 1950s—the baby boom era—who remember when all you had to do was open the church doors and people would come. Those days are over. Nor are you witnessing to others if you just say: “I drive to church on Sunday! If a new neighbor sees that, he can ask me questions if he wants to!” That’s not witnessing! I’m a Presbyterian because when we moved to St Louis our next-door neighbor, a few weeks after we moved in, said to my Dad, “Next Sunday would you like to come and try my church? Bonhomme Presbyterian! There are Sunday School classes for your children and I’ll introduce you to others!”  And the rest is history. I’m a Presbyterian because a neighbor invited us to his church! That’s witnessing! I love to tell my story! What’s yours?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 January 15, 2017

01-08-17 A TIDING OF GREAT JOY

A TIDING OF GREAT JOY

Matthew 3: 13-17

 

Next June a group of us will travel to Ireland to see the Celtic Christianity that is there. As part of my preparation for the trip, I have tried to familiarize myself with Irish customs and news from Ireland. On April 9th, 2016 in their newspaper called “The Guardian” Patrick Deeley wrote these words:

Very

The phone line crackled. My sense of someone there faded, returned. I still had to get used to the delay. I knew it was my mother. Seventy seven years old at this time – mid-July 2003 – she had recently had a stroke. But because today was my 50th birthday, she would be less inclined than ever to let the stroke or her other health problems prevent her from making the call.

A clunking noise. She was stooping to place the phone on the table between the two kitchen windows before leaning her hands on the table. A flurry of creaks, scrapes and rustles. She was edging into her chair, making herself comfortable as best she could before speaking. Quietly then, out of the welling silence, she said, “I love you.”

Just those words. The first time she had ever said them to me. The gift I had yearned to receive as a child, the prize I had stopped hoping for – at last it was mine, on the morning of my 50th birthday. Her words delighted me. Yet, for a few moments, I couldn’t rightly take them in. They sounded strange – as if I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two other people.

Why, I have often asked myself, was there this inability on my family’s part to show affection and to express it in words? We “agreed well together”. We were gregarious and close, could say what we thought about anything except the relationships between us.

The conventions of that place and time, the deeply conservative Ireland of the mid-20th century, became a restriction we learned and which seemed to permeate how people around us believed they had to conduct themselves. This reticence applied not only in the rural west of Ireland, where we lived, but also in town and city far and near. In my family’s case, I still regret we couldn’t be more open with our feelings.

But, for whatever reason, the consoling hug or pat of affection was absent…. Now my mother had said the words – to me. I could feel them sinking in. And as the whitebeam tree beyond the window danced in my sunlit back garden, showing its silver under-leaves to the breeze, I could hear her laboured breathing.

 

What power there is in words. We find in Genesis that with words and breath, God created everything that is. Wow! Not with construction vehicles, or blueprints, or with bricks and mortar, but with words. “Let there be light!” And there was light. That is how awesome our God is.  Worship, it turns out, means “giving attention to one who is worthy of praise!”  Not everyone understands the rationale for worship. Why do we worship? Some say worship intensity depends on if they how they feel; what mood they are in, or if they like the sermon or the music. And many come to worship as if they are an audience for a sacred production, with the choir and minister acting on the stage, and God as a cosmic director. But Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says “no.” The reason we worship is the nature and character of God, and in thankfulness for the saving gift of Jesus Christ.” So in the great drama of worship, the actors are you—the congregation—offering the finest praise that you can muster! The script is your bulletin, while the directors are the ministers, the choirmaster, and the choir. Now if that’s the case, who is the audience in worship? Of course, the audience is God. God is waiting with anticipation each Sunday to receive our praise and our thanksgivings! God anticipates our praise!  But what does God see on Sundays?: sometimes apathy; sometimes boredom; sometimes lethargy. If that’s what we’re giving God, it gives the Almighty little motivation for emptying his storehouse of blessings! Why give to ungrateful or fully self-centered children? Unless maybe, maybe, you didn’t understand that you are the main act in worship, and not the audience. Now you know! The Psalms are great examples of worship in the Bible. As the Rev. Mark Yurs, the writer or the study book I  use on Wednesdays and Jan Toles uses on Sundays puts it, “Psalm 33 and the heart of Christian theology place the reason for worship in the nature and character of God.” “Rejoice in the Lord all you who try to make right choices in life” says the Psalmist. “Praise is the right attitude for those who seek to honor and please God.”

 

Certainly there are those who are hearing this for the first time. And there are those who mutter: “Why should I praise God? I lost money last year, there are shootings every day, loved ones have died, and I don’t see God fixing any of the things that are going wrong. Until I do, I’ll not praise God.” Boy have your dug yourself into a hole of isolation if you don’t have faith—the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen—and instead you decide to wait for proof that God cares.  Here is one example of why that’s not a good thing to do.

 

In the 1971 true story of The Hiding Place was published. The ten Booms are a family of Jews in Holland in 1937. Over time Hitler’s brutal and unflinching plan to exterminate the Jews in the world reached their area. The Germans invaded Holland in May of 1940. Corrie ten Boom learns about the underground movement in 1942 and so she tries to keep her family safe and allude the Nazi powers. Finally in 1944 Corrie and her sister Betsie were locked away in a concentration camp. Boredom set in along with extreme discomfort. The only thing she found to read were the Four Gospels of the New Testament. She read them, believed them, and began teaching them to others. She grew weaker and more bitter in her harsh conditions, even as her sister Betsie grew  kinder and more loving. The turning point for both of them was an experience with fleas. Their barrack was infested with fleas and in spite of their torment, Corrie’s sister Betsie was still praising God daily, even thanking God for the fleas! “Sister,” Corrie said, “I will NOT thank God for the source of my anguish! How can you do such a thing?” And Betsie says, “Scriptures teach me to praise God all times and for all things!”  Little did they know that the fleas saved their lives. Because all the guards knew their barrack was flea-infested, they avoided it, taking others to the gas chamber instead.  With faith in a God who loves us very much, we can genuinely offer our thanks and praise, and trust that God loving plan will be revealed at the right time.

 

Today every commentator believes the voice coming from heaven in Matthew chapter 3 is the voice of God, announcing to all who were there, and all who would later read those words; “This is my Son! I love him! And I am so pleased with him!”  God hopes we will share his good news about creation, new births, and other parts of life. But this day, the announcement at Jesus’ baptism was the most important! This was his Son, with whom he was pleased, but also the one who would begin to reveal God’s own nature to the world! Because of this beginning of Jesus’ ministry— we begin to know this: that God wants us to love more than God wants us to fear; and to know that God is with us, not way, way far away. It was a glorious announcement.

 

What is our takeaway from these lessons? First, we learned the power of words. With words, God created the heavens and the earth. God chose to speak at Jesus’ baptism because his joy could not be contained! But words can also be punitive instead of encouraging; withheld instead of spoken. Why should a man have to wait until he is 50 to hear his mother say that she loves him? Think of words you can use to lift others up. The Heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus made his pleasure about his son a public declaration! Even the Almighty could not contain his joy, so it became a tiding of great joy! Second, we learned the motivation to worship God. It is not driven by how good we feel or how lousy we feel, it is driven by how much we are aware of what God has done for us and how much God loves us! Praise, like life, should be one big thank you note to God! How many thank you notes have you gotten from your gifts given this Christmas? I gave a number of gifts, but have received just one thank you note. Imagine how God feels, pouring the holy essence into Christ and into creation: like rainbows, and soaring mountains thunderstorms and powerful seas—and God hears no words of thanks or praise from the ones one whom he is showering with blessings?  Today you are reminded about the one from whom all blessings flow; we sing those words every week in our doxology; we’ll sing them today; but God is waiting for the time when we mean what we sing. Finally, we witnessed God’s exceeding joy! God invited us to the party; to celebrate the joy he has over Jesus! We can continue to celebrate that can’t we? I know I can, and I do. I invite you to look at both the words you use and the worship you offer, with new insights, and intentionality.

 

God is great, and God is good! Now our hymn imagines some of the things God might say to you, and to me, and to your neighbors in the pews, today.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                               January 8, 2017

 

 

01-01-17 NEW YEARS DAY

What is your favorite image of Jesus?

For some it’s the Good Shepherd, like the one we have here at the front of the church. For others it’s the opposite image and they are drawn to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Or maybe it’s one of the images of the Christmas season: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, or Prince of Peace?

For me it has always been Jesus as the Word. Maybe it comes from my roots as an English major, but to me Jesus as the Word has always made the most sense. Words are powerful. Words have the ability to change everything. Words are how we shape our world. All we know of Jesus comes from the words that make up his stories. Words matter.

Think about it. Think about the times when just a few simple words changed your life. “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or even simply “Pregnant.” Those words change everything. Just as Jesus changed everything.

 

Frederick Buechner talks about the power of words in one of his essays, saying,  “In Hebrew the term dabar means both “word” and “deed.” Thus to say something is to do something. “I love you.” “I hate you.” “I forgive you.” “I am afraid of you.” Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it can never be undone. Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly.

 

“Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I both discover and create who I am. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our converse we create each other.

When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light where before there was only darkness. When I say I love you, there is love where before there was only ambiguous silence. In a sense I do not love you first and then speak it, but only by speaking it give it reality.”

 

So Jesus becoming flesh is the Word becoming reality. And why does he do this? Because God wants to change the story of the world. The story of this scripture is the story of creation. That’s why I think John decides to start his story of Jesus by quoting the beginning of Genesis or, really, the whole Bible. It would be kind of like if I wanted to write a novel and decided to begin, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In general, not a particularly good idea to compare myself to Charles Dickens. Same thing with John. Except John does in fact think he’s writing a new Genesis.

 

Why is John so audacious? Because he believes that he is, indeed, writing a new beginning. Actually, the new beginning. Of history. Of humanity. Of God’s involvement in the creation.

 

And God’s “in the beginning” is not simply a reset or change so as to disregard the present or the past. “In the beginning” is the assurance that our hopes for re-creation are not dependent solely on us. They are made possible because that’s what believing in God means. Our recreation is not limited to our own merits because God went first.

 

And today, a day when people think about new beginnings, about resolutions and starting again, I find this promise to be a comfort. It is possible to have a new beginning, to be made new, because God already did it.

 

“In the beginning” is the promise of re-creation, a promise we know to be true because God recreated God’s very self. This is the very nature of God, and since we are God’s witnesses, God’s followers, God’s preachers, we proclaim that God’s re-creation abounds, even in the face of people, situations, and the world’s circumstances that would seek to prove otherwise.

 

And why did God seek out this re-creation? Well, John goes on to tell us: “For God so loved the world…” Because God loves us so much, God changed the very nature of humanity’s relationship with God.

 

Which is why Jesus – the One who was already with God – comes as God’s Word made flesh. To reveal to us God’s parental love. And not just to reveal, but to speak through word and deed as eloquently as possible that there is nothing God wouldn’t do, no where God won’t go, nothing God won’t endure – even the loss of God’s beloved Son – that we might know we are God’s beloved children, worthy of dignity, honor, and love.

 

And to become flesh is no small thing! The Word goes from being formless and containing the power of creation into the form of a crying infant, helpless and at the mercy of the world. Becoming flesh means daily aches and pains that come with age along with sharp bright hurts of accident and injury. Becoming flesh means getting hurt and crying and suffering. For Jesus it meant being tortured and eventually brutally killed.

 

In a similar way, words are safe until they are spoken. If I never say what I am thinking, it cannot be misunderstood, or dismissed, or used against me. By speaking the words, they become vulnerable, just as Jesus does when he becomes flesh. And yet, if I never speak the words, they can never change anything.  

 

And at the same time, never becoming flesh means missing out on a lot. Flesh means the feel of the sun on your skin or a cool breeze through your hair. Flesh means the smell of bread baking or flowers blooming. Flesh means tasting food and running fingers through sand. Flesh means laughter and hugs. Being made flesh gave Jesus our joys as much as our sorrows.

In many ways it is like the very first time you say “I love you” to someone who means the world to you. You don’t know what will happen. You could be rejected, or worse, ridiculed. You could be dismissed or strung along to be dropped later. Or, you could hear the words in return and your world could change. But unless you say the words, you will never know.  

 

This is the heart of John’s audacious Gospel – that in Jesus we receive a love letter written in human flesh and blood from the God who created the vast cosmos in the beginning, continues to sustain the universe even now, and values each and every one of us more than we can possible imagine. And that Word creates all things new, taking our resolutions and hopes as well as our fears and disappointments and binding them together in the promises of God.

 

We can reject or ignore or even ridicule the Word. But God keeps on speaking that Word of love to us. I want to turn again to Buechner who says: “God never seems to weary of trying to get across to us. Word after word God tries in search of the right word. When the creation itself doesn’t seem to say it right—sun, moon, stars, all of it—God tries flesh and blood.

 

‘The word became flesh,’ John said, of all flesh this flesh. Jesus as the Word made flesh means take it or leave it: in this life, death, life, God finally manages to say what God is and what human is. It means: just as your words have you in them—your breath, spirit, power, hiddenness—so Jesus has God in him.”

 

As we begin a new year, the scriptures tell us of this story of God loving us so much, that God became flesh and lived among us. That the Word of God came down to change everything and loves us still.

 

In this time of new beginnings, we can chose again how we will respond to that Word that God is speaking to us. Will we reject it? Will we ignore it? Or will we embrace the Word that God still speaks to us today?

 

Amen.

 

12-25-16 GOD’S GIFT AT CHRISTMAS

GOD’S GIFT AT CHRISTMAS

Matthew 25: 31-45

It is Christmas Day! How rarely we are in this place on Christmas Day. When our children were growing up, Mary Ann and I thought it was only right to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. So we would come on Christmas Day even when it was not on a Sunday, and give everyone else the day off. From 1986 -1999, our family left presents at home, put on some of our new clothes, and came to greet, read a Christmas story, be the “choir,” and be fellowship hour hosts. A volunteer pianist joined us.

 

Well times have changed and here we are on a full service Christmas! But the tradition of sharing a Christmas story has not left me. Last week I told the story of the Legend of the Poinsettia. Last Christmas I told the Story of the Candy Cane. Last night I shared the book “Three Christmas Stories” and read one of the stories. And today for the children I read the short children’s book “Starry, Starry Night.” Last week Lester Holt’s Inspirational story on NBS was about a librarian who, every week, would pack a bag with different children’s stories, and go to places in his community just to read stories to children. He believes it fosters their understanding of language and fosters their imagination. And they hear a good book read to them! Now I want to share a story with you today, a story that encapsulates God’s Gift at Christmas. Before we turn to Matthew 25, I want to reference Luke chapter 10. There was a man of the law who asked Jesus: “What should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him back: “What do you read? And he answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You have answered right; do this,” Jesus said to the man as he says to us, “ and you will live.” Do this and you will live. Then Jesus launches into—what else?—but a story. It was the story of the Good Samaritan and how a man who was not expected to care for a beaten man at the side of the Jericho road actually took care of him. “This is your neighbor too,” Jesus was implying.  Love God; love neighbor. In the First Letter of John, chapter 4 verse 8, we find, in fact, that God is love. And John, in his gospel, said that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word that came into the world was Jesus Christ. Professor Emeritus Dale Bruner from the College of Wooster put it this way: “The Word became flesh and moved into our neighborhood.” How, or where, might we see Jesus around us? This Christmas I have a story that illustrates that point. In the later half of his life, Russian author Leo Tolstoy—famous for huge works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina—had a spiritual awakening and began to write faith stories. Perhaps you wonder how Tolstoy could write such a gospel story, but he did. This, in summary, is it. It is found in the original form in a book called Where Love is, There God is Also, and in the children’s book Martin the Cobbler.

 Once upon a time there lived a man who, as he grew older, wanted to get his spiritual life in order and get closer to God. He had had two death experiences that made him bitter for years: the death of his dear wife and then the death of his only son. Martin was a cobbler, a shoemaker by trade, and he had lived in his town for years. He knew nearly everyone in town and  could even recognize them by the shoes they wore! You see, he had made or repaired most all of them. His little shop was in a basement room that was below street level. The only way he could look outside was through a high window, and then he could only see the shoes of those who walked by. One day he complained to a friend saying: “I have no desire to live any longer. I only wish I could die. I am a man without hope.” “You don’t talk right!” his friend chastised. “We must not judge God’s doings. The world moves not by our skill, but by God’s will. And you are in despair because you wish to live for your own happiness.” “But what should I live for?” asked Martin. “We must live for God,” his friend replied. “He gave you life, and for his sake you must live. When you begin to live for Him, you will not grieve over anything, and all will seem easy to you.” And then, like the lawyer confronting Jesus, Martin asked, “But how can one live for God?” His friend said, “Christ has taught us how to live for God. You know how to read; buy a Testament and read it; there you will learn how to live for God. Everything is explained there.” Well, Martin took his friend’s advice and began to read the Gospels. God changed his life as he read about Jesus. He felt joy and peace; the only thing he wondered was if he might know and recognize Jesus one day. He fell asleep fitfully, Bible in hand, and awoke in the night. “Martin, Martin!” he heard a voice cry out. He awoke with a start, but saw no one. “Look for me tomorrow Martin, for I am coming!” the voice said. Martin still saw no one. In the morning he awoke. It was just another day. He got up, said his prayers to God, had a breakfast of Cabbage soup and gruel, and went to his shop, not thinking much about what he heard. Soon he heard the sound of scraping outside, and he looked out the window. Stephan, the street cleaner, was shoveling snow off the street outside his shop. “Oh,” Martin thought in dismay, “It’s just Stephan … not Jesus.” Then he noticed Stephan was looking particularly old and worn out as he stopped and rested from his heavy work in the bitter cold. Martin went to the door. “Stephan!” he called out. “Come inside for a bit and warm up! I have some hot tea and food I can share with you!”  Stephan gladly came in and felt better sitting by the small fire, drinking tea, eating a bit of salted beef, and talking with Martin. “Thank you Martin!” he said. “I’ll be on my way now.

 

After awhile Martin heard a commotion outside.  Soldiers were walking by. Then he noticed a shabbily dressed woman and her infant daughter, neither of whom had enough clothes to keep warm.  “Here dear lady!” he called from the door of his shop.  “You and the child come in for a minute. You look frozen!” “We are,” said the woman as she and her baby came in. The child seemed to have a cold: coughing and shivering. “I haven’t eaten in a while,” the woman said as Martin give her some tea, and then reached his pantry to give her some food too. She then added, “This is all I have to wear.” The woman started to nurse the baby. Martin remembered an old coat he had in his closet. He went and got it, then wrapped it around the woman and her child. Tears’ filled the woman’s eyes as she said: “God will bless you for such an act of kindness. Thank you! Thank you sir!” Soon she left too. “It’s been a busy day so far,” thought Martin.  He noticed he was behind in his work. He went about catching up. Late in the afternoon he glanced out the window. He noticed a woman across the street carrying a basket of apples she had apparently just bought from a vendor. As she walked by, a young boy started to run past her and he grabbed one of her apples. The woman caught his sleeve. “A tussle ensued, but the woman held fast. Martin dropped his tool and ran out the door. “You young thief!” the woman said to the boy. “You’ll not get away! I’m taking you to the police so they can arrest you!” “Just a minute,” Martin said, a bit out of breath. He turned to the boy. “Young man you were stealing  ;stealing from this poor woman I saw you do it. Tell her you are sorry and ask her to forgive you!” “No!” the woman said, “He’s going to the police!” Martin said gently to her: “Please? If he apologizes, won’t you forgive him this time? I will take him with me and talk with him about what he did.”  Just then, the boy burst into tears. “I’m sorry lady. Real sorry.” The woman still wanted to press charges, but Martin said: “God has forgiven our sins; we are to forgive the sins of others.” The woman started to give in under Martin’s insistence. As Martin was ready to take the boy with him, the boy said: “Lady, you are old and that basket is heavy. Let me carry it for you and we’ll walk together. I am really sorry. What do you say?” As they walked off, Martin watched as the woman began teaching the boy about his choices. She seemed to take him under her wing. Martin went back to his shop.

 

Ad the end of the day before he left for home, he opened his Testament and read one more time. He was wondering about the voice that had awakened him the night before. Suddenly he heard a commotion behind him. He looked, and an image of Stephan appeared. “Martin!” a voice said. Didn’t you recognize me? It was I.”  “And it was I” said another voice and the woman stepped forward with her child. “And it was I” continued a voice and the boy stepped forward with the old woman. Then the images vanished. Martin wondered about what he had just seen. His eyes fell on the page where he was reading: Matthew 25: Suddenly he understood, and his heart rejoiced!  The words on the page said: “For I was a hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was a thirst, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye came to me …. Then his eyes fell on the last line: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.” Love is God’s gift at Christmas. We love, because God first loved us. Love one another with hearts and eyes opened. You may be meeting angels, or your Savior, today.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  December 25, 2016

 

12-18-16 THE OTHER BIRTH NARRATIVE

Matthew 1: 18-25

A gathering of strangers, friends, extended family, and acquaintances; that’s what Christmas Eve is so often at Westminster By-The-Sea. Not that that’s all bad! But many who are with us week in and week out are gone for Christmas. In fact, you’ll get a prelude to Christmas today so those who are always gone get to hear the our wonderful Director of Music offer the beloved “O Holy Night.”  Our choir gets smaller on Christmas Eve instead of larger. Our pews are filled with wonderful people; some regulars, some occasionals some annuals! So next weekend—Christmas weekend—we might be a gathering of strangers, friends, and extended family—not unlike Bethlehem in the time when Caesar Augustus called for a census.  The first Christmas was a gathering of people away from home; some very far from home. So all is well! In a way we are all connected—people again gathering to remember who we are and to remember why Jesus Christ is still the center of the human race. In a way, those who came to Bethlehem were also connected: people of the house and lineage of David, called together to be taxed and to take roll.

It seems that issues regarding the family surround us annually, especially in political years. There are statistics for married people and one harder to tabulate of people married but separated. There are those who live together; and there are those who are single, divorced, or widowed. The Bible, in fact, describes some strange family situations in the Old Testament! But today in Matthew’s gospel, we learn there is a special role for the person who marries a woman who has a child or is about to have a child: that role is of step-father. When you think about it, a man loving and helping to guide the child from his beloved is not new. It even happened in the Christmas story. Jesus had a step-father. His name was Joseph.

The late Professor Emeritus of Pittsburgh Seminary, Douglas Hare writes :

In Matthew’s story of the miraculous conception [otherwise known as the virgin birth] Joseph becomes aware of the pregnancy before he learns the cause. His immediate response is that of a “just” man: he would “dismiss her” that is, let her out of her engagement promise. [This means he would stop his plans to marry her, for they were not yet officially married.] It is not out of anger that he resolves to terminate the relationship but out of deep religious conviction. No matter how much he still loves Mary, it is his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract.

Some of Mary’s statements in Luke indicate that she regards herself as a  willing recipient of the message the angel brought (“I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38), “Matthew, on the other hand, by selecting Joseph as his leading actor, stresses the active component in the human response. Three times Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream, and three times he must do something!” [Hare]

Now Joseph was about to become the stepfather of the Son of God! What big shoes he had to fill! Imagine all that poor man went through that year. He was betrothed to a woman who was already with child by God; it was the year of the census and he traveled with Mary, far along in her pregnancy, almost 90 miles to Bethlehem; and when they arrived, things were crowded. Guest houses generally had women and children stay in one big room, and men stay in another big room. Likely Mary did not want Joseph apart from her; after all he chose to stay with her through everything. So they asked around and found a stable, usually a cave under a house or an inn, where animals could stay. There Mary could have her child without being separated from the man who said “yes” to the angel. Joseph was obedient to God, supportive of Mary, and a good citizen of the Davidic line. Joseph was no deadbeat dad.

Mary Ann’s sister Beth loves genealogy and tracing back the branches of their family tree. In many of today’s blended families, sometimes a family tree starts to look like a family shrub: so many branches! What do you think Jesus’ family tree would look like? According to Luke 3: 23-38 Jesus’ lineage went all the way back to Adam by way of Boaz! (Verse 32) who lived in Bethlehem and whose wife—a gentle and devoted Moabite—was Ruth. Even Jesus’ family tree had the mixed marriage of a Jewish man and a Moabite woman! And that was God’s plan. Behold, it was very good.

When it came to Joseph— stepfather by our standards, but Jesus’ father by Jewish standards—he was “of the house and lineage of David.” By first century ruling, Joseph was legally Jesus’ father. It was his job to bring up that son. God left no doubt that that although the Holy Spirit conceived the child, Joseph was to raise him as his own. In essence, it was an adoption arranged in heaven. An angel gave Joseph specific instructions saying: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife …. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [1: 20-21] Joseph did what the angel commanded, and he got to announce the name of his son! Jesus was to be born in the city of David that is called Bethlehem, a village where a non-traditional marriage of the Jewish man Boaz and the Moabite Ruth produced the branch of Jesse, of David, and of Jesus. Our world is still broken, but as we have seen in Bethlehem over the years, te is still hope. I have visited Bethlehem each time I have led a pilgrimage to Israel. In spite of security checkpoints that must be crossed, the people of Bethlehem are kind and welcoming. Last time we stayed in an inn in Bethlehem, which seemed most appropriate. It was run by a woman, her father, and her children. They were efficient and hard working. We visited the shepherd’s fields and saw sheep on them. We imagined what it must have been like to have an angel visit them.  We visited the cave that for 2000 years is believed to be the place where Jesus was born. And we sang “Silent Night “ at his birth place. Our guide put the video he took of us singing up on Facebook just two months ago to remind us of our visit. It was wonderful.

Let me close with the classic encapsulation of our Lord Jesus:

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty. There for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book.  He never held an office. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind’s progress.

All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected [us] on this earth as much as that One Solitary Life.”

May that one solitary life, impact you today, and forever as your Savior.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  December 18, 2016

12-11-16 THE FORERUNNER OF CHRIST

THE FORERUNNER OF CHRIST

Matthew 11:2-11

A lot of money has been made trying to predict when the Second Coming of Christ will be.  Over the years, shelf after shelf in Christian bookstores have dealt with that subject.  People always want to know: when will Christ come? What are the signs? Are the things I read in newspapers and online about fires, or wars, or famines, or earthquakes things that should demand my attention?  Back in 1986 I received an unsolicited mailing at the church.  A man, (apparently with his own money,) sent booklets to many churches. In them he claimed that world events were predicted by the Bible, and he had figured out that Christ was coming again in 1988!  He was convinced of it. Of course it didn’t happen. Now none of us make light of the Biblical belief that Christ will come again. We believe he will. But to know when that will happen by date is not knowledge we believe anybody has. Jesus himself said, in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, ”Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Still, in this season when we hear the words of prophets to “watch” and “prepare,” our Matthew text today pulls a bit of the curtain back regarding hints about when Christ will come again.

John, who we call the Baptist, was baptizing for the repentance of sins. John also called people to be living wood, not dead wood that would be chopped down for not bearing fruit. Well all of John’s preaching and meddling got him into trouble. He was put in prison. Even John had followers and they came to see him.  He said to his followers (not because he didn’t know the answer, but because he believed they needed to hear the answer,) “Ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come (meaning the Messiah), or shall we look for another?’”  And Jesus answered those followers with these words: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”  That is a giant clue for us! As Jesus was in the midst of his ministry, he wanted them to see for themselves that he was “The Christ.” Christ means “Messiah,” or “anointed one.” Remember the question he asked his disciples in Caesarea Philippi recorded in Matthew 16? “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked Simon Peter. And Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” That was the answer Jesus wanted to hear.  So Jesus wanted people to see and believe that he was the Christ; the Messiah. In the history of Jesus’ people–the Jews–they were always looking for the Messiah. The still are, unless they converted to being Christian. There are a couple of litmus tests for Messiah. One of them we’ll talk about today. It involves what Jesus told John’s followers. Jesus said, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them!  Check! Check! Check! Check! Check! Check!  All those things had happened thanks to Jesus! So that meant the Messiah had come and was among them! His name was Jesus! All those things had taken place. And there was a “forerunner” to prepare the way for the Messiah. His name was John. The Messiah was finally with them.

What about us?  That was then, in the first century A.D.  Has Christ come again? We believe that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is with us even still, but in a spiritual way. It is recorded in John’s gospel that Jesus told his disciple just before his death: “I will not leave you abandoned …. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and help you remember all I have taught you.” In a physical way, Jesus has not returned to the earth.  We believe there will be a second coming of Christ, but it is not yet. How will we know when? We must be careful here not to get tied up with dates, current events, and natural events. Those will not lead us to the answers we seek. We, instead, need to watch for two things.

First we need to watch for a forerunner; someone who seems to speak the truth passionately and who knows Jesus intimately.  John, cousin of Jesus, was such a person. He never claimed to be the light, but to be the witness to the light. Some grand preachers of the airwaves over the years have, at times, seemed to forget that they were not the light. Some drank in the spotlight. But John never forgot. He said, “I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.” That’s the kind of person who will be a forerunner; a humble person, but one who surely and undeniably calls for people to repent of their sins so they are ready to meet their Lord. If Christ returns and we are not ready, if we have not cast sins to the wind, turned around, and put our spiritual houses in order, we could be very sorry indeed! So first, we need to watch for a forerunner; one who warns, baptizes, and points to the light.

Second, we have to notice if certain things in our world have drastically changed.  Are the blind able to see? Not yet. Not across the board. We can do Lasik surgery, can enlarge print, can provide books in Braille, but many people are still blind. Can all the lame walk? Canes, wheelchairs, and walkers remind us that they can’t. Are those with dreadful diseases cured? Not yet. Can those who are deaf hear? No; we have good hearing aids, and assistive listening devices, but not all deaf people can yet be made to hear. And are the dead raised up? Yes in resurrection, but not in earthly living as Jesus did for a young girl and for a man named Lazarus. Not yet. The poor have good news preached to them, but our limited good news has not lifted them from poverty or allowed their voices to be heard over the powerful and the wealthy. No. We are nowhere near having Jesus in our midst yet in his second coming. He will come. But not yet.

So what shall we do? Until he comes again, the people of the church are the body of Christ. We are the hands, and heart, and eyes, and ears of Christ. We will do all within our power, with prayers and technology, to help the blind to see, the lame to walk, the diseased to be healed, the deaf to hear, the dead to live again, and the poor to hear and experience good news. It will be limited but, just as Jesus empowered his disciples to do his work- including healing- after he was gone, so we too can pray for healing, believing that we have the strong power of Jesus instead of the anemic versions embraced by Christians that sometimes populate our churches. There is power in the blood!  Sometimes when I have prayed for healing, people have been healed. Sometimes with the laying on of hands I have been able to watch people be healed. You and I can make a difference! Christ is not fully with us yet, but I believe with all my heart that he is with us spiritually, and he’s given much power to us if we will claim it. Doing the things I just outlined are some examples of how we can prepare the way for him. To use a nautical term: we can “grease the skids.” Christ commissions us to “grease the skids,” to make the way clearer for him to come again.

This season, with random acts of kindness, or gifts of mercy, or prayerful actions, you cannot bring Christmas faster, but together, we can help make the Kingdoms of our world become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, even faster than before.

Every week we pray: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Make it so.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                December 11, 2016

12-04-16 CHOPPING TREES

CHOPPING TREES

Matthew 3: 1-12

Wood is one of nature’s gifts.  In spite of fires like those in East Tennessee last week, trees can grow again out of the ash. Sometimes wood is food for termites, and sometimes wood rots.  Nevertheless, people still choose wood for many reasons. For its beauty and acoustic properties, we chose to have a wood ceiling in our sanctuary. Because of the availability of trees to settlers in the Appalachian region of our country and elsewhere, many a cabin was made out of logs. People who work with wood are sometimes carpenters, lumberjacks, or simply woodcutters. It can be a rough job cutting trees and hauling logs, or it can be a precision job, using small knives to whittle shapes.  From our visit to Bethlehem, Mary Ann and I brought back a substantial manger scene that we display each December: stable, characters, and animals, all carved from olive wood. // I paid extra to have a fireplace in my Florida home, but I was surprised to read on the instructions for its use that it said: “Using real wood logs not recommended.” So we unwrap our fireplace logs from a package! // If you go to the edge of the Sea of Galilee you will find a museum that houses an actual wooden boat from the time of Jesus. Was it one in which Jesus sailed? Who knows? But it was preserved in the muddy bottom of the sea until it’s discovery in 1986. It appeared during a drought when the water had receded. // The story of the Three Trees is a favorite seasonal children’s story with wood having a primary role:  One tree perhaps provided the material from which the Bethlehem manger was made. The next tree perhaps provided the material from which the boat was made that sailed on Sea of Galilee. And the last tree, so the story goes, was used to make the cross on which our Savior died. But that was not the end of the story! He arose from the dead and became Savior of the world!  In wood’s raw form, lumberjacks use axes to chop trees. These days, after the hurricane, we mostly heard chain saws, a much faster way to handle the job. But in more primitive times, axes were used.  On Scout camping trips when I was growing up, each Scout had his own hatchet and a pocketknife, and each troop had an ax to cut wood for our campfires.

Still, John had a different picture of wood as he shouted to the curious onlookers who gathered to hear him near the Jordan River.  His words were a warning: “Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” [Matthew 3:10] Hmm. Let’s explore that claim. There are usually one of four reasons for chopping trees: 1) To make a way clear. If a house is going to go up on a piece of land, or a road is going through a parcel, trees may have to be cut to make the way clear. John even saw himself as one who cleared the way for the Messiah to come. 2) To make a fire. Green or fresh wood is allowed to dry and age, making it burn well so it can be used for warmth or cooking. John knew that power, and the fear, of fire. 3) To make Christmas. Our church every year chooses to buy a real tree to put in our sanctuary and decorate. Trees like this one are grown for that purpose, and they bring joy from their looks and fragrance! You can’t get that fragrance in a can! And 4) Trees can be chopped as a warning, saying that some things in the human race need to change. As John put it metaphorically, if we believe we are following the ways of God, but we cannot produce any evidence of that claim, parts of our souls might be dead. Dead trees can no longer produce fruit. And they can be blown down in a storm because they become brittle. So they get chopped down instead.  The Apostle Paul took John’s metaphor and ran with it! A tree that does not produce fruit, or leaves, or whatever a healthy tree produces, is cut down at its root. John warned of that.  And after what is dead becomes dry, it is chopped up and thrown into a fire, because dead wood burns well. Live wood. Does not.

Glinda, the good witch in the Wizard of Oz asks Dorothy: “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”  If John the Baptist were here today, he might look us in the eyes and ask, “Are you live wood, or are you dead wood?”  Using John’s metaphor, congregations that have members who stop participating, giving, or worshipping are sometimes referred to as “dead wood.” You might wonder how someone can tell if you are dead wood or not: one way is by checking your calendar: what things do you do for others, and what things do you do to honor God? A second way is looking at your checkbook or online account: where does your money go, and who does it help outside of your necessary expenses? Finally, Paul’s letter to the Galatians says “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”   Do you have those qualities? If your wife, or your husband, or your child, or your parent, or your friend is giving you “the look” right now, the look that says “That is you!” perhaps a rugged self-examination is in order!  Do qualities fit you bet that are opposite of the fruit of the Spirit?  Some of those people are sexually inappropriate, or curse constantly, or put other things or people before God, or are constantly hostile or antagonistic, or get drunk, cause strife, create conflicts, or show regular jealousy, or they argue all the time. Those aren’t the qualities for the Kingdom of God.

In the beginning of my Christian journey, on youth retreats we sang,“It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Has the spark of your first connection with Christ gone dim or gone out? Do you feel jaded about churches in general? Are most of your comments sarcastic? Are you just in worship out of a sense of duty? Have your gifts to your Lord slowed down or dried up? Do you feel somehow bitter about life? These are qualities of dead wood people. Through words or actions, you have been burned or broken; perhaps you’ve become angry as well? Today, will you consider letting John the Baptist shake the dust off your soul and your wounded feelings, so this Christmas can be a time of new beginnings?  If you allow your will to surrender to God’s will instead, you can have a new and abundant life, not a broken and bitter one. Today as you prepare to take this Christmas communion, you can press your reset button, and decide to live differently.

On the other hand, if you are live wood, the Spirit of the Living God lifts and restores you again and again. Like endorphins coursing through your body, the Spirit lifts you up. God’s Holy Spirit gives you the energy, and the drive, to minister to broken people whose hearts have been crushed and whose hopes have been dashed.  The Kingdom of God is made up of both dead wood and live wood. Join me in staying connected with, or reconnecting with God. Then the Gardener of the Kingdom can nurture us, and, if necessary, bring us back to life. God has done it before; God can do it again.

Let us pray:

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us; melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Through Jesus Christ we pray.

Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           December 4, 2016

11-27-16 ADVENT 1A

Well, this is not exactly the passage we expect to begin the journey to Christmas, is it?

I mean, here we are ready to start thinking about Christmas, and our lesson is about the flood and thieves and people getting left behind. Not subjects that fill us with a warm and rosy glow, are they?

And yet, to begin Advent this year, this is our Gospel lesson. As we await and prepare for the birth of Christ, we begin by talking about Christ’s coming again.

Every time we talk about Christ’s coming again, there is always someone who is sure they know when it will be. They’ve worked out the math or are positive the signs are in the daily news. So it must be so.

But Jesus is really clear. We don’t know the day. In another passage, he says that even he doesn’t know when it will be. And if Jesus himself doesn’t know, why on earth would we think we are smart enough to figure it out? Jesus stresses that though there will be many signs, many trials, no one knows precisely the day or the hour of the arrival of the Son of Man.

The Scriptures continually remind us that one day God shall, as Isaiah puts it – “. . . judge between nations and shall arbitrate for many people.” In light of which we are reminded by Paul that “. . . it is now the moment for (us) to wake from sleep” and “put on the armor of light.” Jesus reminds us that “about that day and hour no one knows,” so we must “keep awake therefore,” because, “you do not know on what day your Lord is coming, “ and “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Now, let’s be honest, odds are against it happening in our lifetimes. Given the span of history and the fact it hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t happen in the next fifty or sixty years either. But even if the hour doesn’t come for the whole world in our lifetimes, the hour will come for each of us. We are mortal and we each will have our own judgement day. And we don’t know when that day is either. Regardless of health, wealth or situation, we don’t really know when that day is coming.

And maybe, just maybe, this passage is talking about more than just the dramatic judgement day and more than just our own personal judgement days. Maybe it can also refer to our chances to meet Christ in the world today. We talk about Jesus coming to us as one of “the least.” And whatever we do for them, we do for our Lord.

So really, we could be walking past Jesus every day and we don’t recognize him any more than the world did when he was born as a baby in a stable, or lived as a roaming homeless man, or died as a convict on a cross.

Jesus is coming. The best way to be sure we will recognize him when he does is to get lots of practice in the meantime. Whatever we do for “the least of these,” we do for Jesus. If we want to see Jesus and know Jesus, if we want to experience the Good News that Jesus is coming, we need to listen to the stories, the hopes, and the concerns of “the least of these.” If we want Jesus to recognize us as a neighbor, we must become neighbors to the least of these, building real community – shared bread, shared dreams, shared vision – with them. That shared vision is Jesus’ vision. That shared hope is what makes the certain news of Jesus’ coming Good News. That shared dream is coming true among us, and Jesus invites us to make it our own.

As Christians, we should expect to find Jesus in the unexpected places, in the company of unlikely people, at any time of the night or day. We should expect the unexpected. We need to try to ready ourselves for the possibility of divine disruptions as the Spirit moves people and situations into our line of vision and into our all-too-carefully-constructed lives and overbooked schedules.

One way or another, the Son of Man is coming, whether in a big dramatic cloud, as a stranger in the street or to take us home when our day is done. And we do not and cannot know when. Because we cannot know when, we have to be ready whenever it might happen. We have to live as though we might meet Jesus again at any time.

Blogger David Ewart put it like this: “We should live as those who have applied to emigrate to a new country called The Kingdom of God. We haven’t heard yet when our visa will be approved – no one seems to know the day or the hour. But in the meantime, we want to be ready, and so we are already learning the language and practicing the habits and customs of that new land. While we are still citizens of our current country, we also live like citizens of the age to come.”

Jesus told us how to live in the Kingdom of God. He told us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and to care for the widow and the orphan, the outcast and the immigrant. He told us to put others before ourselves. Living for the Kingdom of God looks strange to outsiders. Really following those teachings sounds crazy, but that is what we are called to do.

My favorite example of living in the Kingdom of God is the bishop in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Despite his position of power and influence, the bishop lives a life of simplicity and generosity towards those in need. As a matter of course he shelters Jean Valjean, a convict newly freed after 19 years’ imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. When Valjean becomes a literal thief in the night and makes off with the bishop’s silver, he has every right to demand justice with righteous indignation after this abuse of his generosity.

Instead, confronted by the police who have collared Valjean in possession of expensive cutlery, he chides Valjean for not having taken the silver candlesticks too, as part of his gift. After they leave, the bishop explains his version of justice to his baffled housekeeper: “I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.” Now most of us would be infuriated at being taken advantage of in this way. We would want justice if not vengeance. How many of us would be able to not only forgive the thief, but also save him from the police and give him even more?

The bishop’s response may seem absurd, yet it is entirely consistent with Jesus’ warning to “be ready.” In other words, to live at all times as though Jesus was serious about the way we treat those society deems unstable, outcast, or even morally bankrupt This is how we live so that when Jesus comes we are ready.

In short, on this First Sunday in Advent, we are called upon to take our God and ourselves seriously. We are called upon to recognize that life can be snuffed out in an instant and to live accordingly. We are to stay awake, to watch out for signs of God’s activity in the world.

Advent is a good time to begin to be ready. As we wait and prepare for Christ again, it is easier to focus outside of ourselves. We talk about the spirit of Christmas – the spirit of Christ filling people with generosity and “goodwill.” Even people who only play lip service to following Christ tend towards giving in this season. It has become a secular tradition as well. As a country we make 30% of our charitable gifts in December, while other months average just over 6%; and 38% of Americans who donate to charity said that they are more likely to do so during the holiday season.

Yet, Advent is only four weeks long, roughly one twelfth of our year. So, are we only ready for Christ in December? Or can it be more? Can we begin now, and find a way to change how we live every day?

For God is always up to something good, always seeking to bless and create and restore and bring hope to the chaotic messes of our lives and the dark corners of our fears and hurts. The season of Advent bids us to stop, to breathe, to consider the marvels of creation, of each other, and of the Divine presence that infuses our lives and the world. This is not just another Sunday, another season, and another day. Are you ready to encounter Jesus? Are you ready for the unexpected to change your life, alter your plans, and disrupt your direction? Be ready.

For Jesus is coming again, and again, and again. Don’t miss a single opportunity of this present day. Beginning in this Advent season, may we live in such a way that we are never surprised by the coming of the Son of Man.

11-20-16 THE SONG OF ZECHARIAH

THE SONG OF ZECHARIAH

Luke 1: 67-79

Next week we begin our weekly journey to celebrate the birth of Christ. Over the years these weeks of waiting have been heaped with traditions, decorations, carols, hymns, and the telling of Bible stories. Many people know the story, and some can even re-tell it. But just as the Star Wars saga started with episode IV and cried out for a prequel—for the story that led up to Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and Hans Solo—our Advent and Christmas stories have a prequel too. As we make our way toward the day of Thanksgiving, you will see gratitude in the prequel too. And you also will find out how important the birth of Christ was to the world; so important that another child was born to pave the way for Jesus. So lets go back; back to a Judean town in the hill country, probably between 6 BC. and 4 BC. We’ll pick up the story there.

Two people, faithful people, lived in that town. They honored God with their lives. Zechariah had even served as a priest. On one occasion, he was chosen to enter the holy of holies in the Temple to give an incense offering. All the other priests were outside of the Temple, offering prayers for the holy event. As Zechariah was starting the ritual, all of a sudden someone, or something, appeared to him: an angel from God! Zechariah was faithful, but he was also fearful right then! The angel reassured him, just as the angel reassured Mary and others, saying, “Do not be afraid; your prayers have been answered.” “What prayers?” You might wonder. For more money? For safety? For his health? No; he was praying for a son. He had prayed for so long, but he was up in years, and his wife Elizabeth was up in years too. Still, the angel announced to him, right then and there, that he was going to have a son! But this son was not Jesus. This son was Jesus’ cousin: someone who would be older than Jesus and have a role in paving the way for Jesus. The angel told him what to name his son: John. It meant: “Gift from God.” Can you imagine the surprise of an old man getting such news? So he, naturally had a question: “How will I know this is so, for my wife is up in years?” Instead of saying “thank you Lord!” he questioned God. How good it is to be thankful! Be thankful this week! But his questioning caused him to lose his voice entirely. For nine months. Fast-forward. Elizabeth, his wife, was already counseled Mary, the young relative who would soon be the mother of Jesus. Mary was sent to Elizabeth’s home to a) get her away from her hometown of Nazareth; perhaps because the town disapproved of a girl expecting a child before marriage; and b) to be a mentor for young Mary, a woman older and wiser than Mary, to guide her through the issues of pregnancy. But Elizabeth and Mary already shared a kindred spirit: each of them had been visited by an angel, and each of them were expecting special sons, according to the words from those angels! Sons! Mary Ann and I were thrilled to have sons, but we were also thrilled to have a daughter. But in those days, sons were celebrated. Biblical scholar William Barclay wrote these unbelievable words: “The birth of a boy was an occasion of great joy. When the time of the birth was near at hand, friends and local musicians gathered near the house. When the birth was announced and it was a boy, the musicians broke into music and song, and there was universal congratulations and rejoicing. It it was a girl, the musicians went silently and regretfully away!” [The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke, Westminster Press, 1975,p. 16] Isn’t that unbelievable? It is to me and my twenty-first century American mind! But to have a child in the first century or earlier, and for that child be a son, was a double-blessing.

So John was born, everyone celebrated, and then eight days later came the circumcision and the naming of the child. Now what I described a minute ago will make more sense. The friends asked what the baby would be named, and Elizabeth told them “John” as the angel had instructed. But apparently the friends wanted to hear the answer from Zechariah, the one who couldn’t speak! Goodness. So he asked for a clay tablet, and he wrote the name: “John.” All of a sudden Zechariah could speak again! And the first thing he did was praise and thank God (which the angel reminded him was job one), and then he began to sing, for God had given him a son! It was not unusual for men to sing then, or now. It is celebratory! But while Zechariah sang, he preached. Just as in “O Little Town of Bethlehem” we sing “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” that’s a bit how this father felt. He recounts some history in his song; Jews do this all the time, remembering how good and gracious God has been. That is a great lesson for us. This week why not take time to reflect on how good and gracious God has been? That’s one thing that Zechariah did completely.

Then this man of God, this one who found his voice again, talked about his son, still an infant, and what God’s plan were for him:
“And you, child,” I imagine him saying looking into the eyes of young John, “you will be called the prophet of the Most High; you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of the salvation he brings by the forgiveness of sins.” My goodness; this man is prophetic. He listened to God so carefully that he was the first to identify the Godly role John would have, and the person he was destined be.! Yes other prophets spoke in general terms about the coming of a future messiah, but Zechariah knew he was close to the birth of the messiah from the things Mary had shared with is wife. What a glad day that was; not frightening like the first angelic encounter, but one filled with hope and promise! And here is how Zechariah ended his prophecy: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness; to those who sit in the valley of the shadow of death, to guide their feet in the way of peace.”

That light then came into the world is the person of Jesus, dwelling in the hearts of ones who invite him in. We now are on the threshold of the weeks that lead to Christmas, when light dawned on the world and the Savior was born. Thanks be to God for John—today in Luke’s Gospel a helpless infant—who grew to know God’s plan for his life, a plan embodied in his name: gift from God. Thanks be to God for Elizabeth, who heard what the angel said and reaffirmed it: “His name shall be John.” And thanks be to God for Zechariah, who showed us not only the joy of being a new father, but one who was bold enough to sing the message of good news!

Here now we too can join Zechariah in blessing God for the good tidings of great joy that have come to us as well! The words are adapted from Luke by the late Michael Perry, and the tune is by Hal Hopson.

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 20, 2016