THE OTHER SAMARITAN


Luke 17: 11-19

When I was young and lived in Richmond, Virginia, there was a time when my grandparents took me back with them to their home in Pennsylvania for a visit, not on a plane, for my grandmother was afraid to fly; not in a car for that particular trip, but on a train! I was perhaps 2 or 3 years old, and they said that while we were on the train, I saw a little African American girl, and headed up the aisle to her seat, and started hugging her! I must have thought she was delightful. “No prejudice there!” people on the train exclaimed. Innocence is a wonderful characteristic that can sometimes be worn away by our changing society. Two years ago, one of my grandsons hugged a girl in his school who he considered to be a friend, but her parents to offense to his hug and asked him to be charged with sexual harassment. He and the girl were both five. Later the school talked the parents to agree to a charge of “adoration” instead of harassment. Sometimes adults get alarmed by childhood delight and innocence. Two years ago in a different grandson’s neighborhood, there was a group of 3 and 4 year olds who loved to play with each other every day after pre-school. Almost every day, the parents sat on the front lawn of a home on a dead-end street, watching their children delight in each other’s company, playing together, and riding each other’s tricycles and battery powered cars. They might still be playing with each other except some of the adults had some issues with some of the other adults that tore apart the adult friendships. “You cannot play with those children anymore,” some parents told their children. The children, with great puzzlement, still see their friends at preschool, but only half of them gather now on the dead-end street. The others are told to stay indoors. Sometimes adult issues can change innocence to suspicion and confusion very quickly. Are there ones from whom you keep a distance for some reason or another? Have you created some distance been created between you and a co-worker, or you and a relative, because you learned they are gay? Or because have you created distance with someone who has what might be called a “mixed marriage?” I know students in some high schools who have very accepting connections with Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Jewish students, but those friendships make some of their parents uncomfortable. I know many college students have both straight friends and gay friends, but they don’t label them anything but “friends.” I know some birds of a feather that flock together because of their political party, particularly in this day and age. We end up with imaginary or real walls dividing human beings in the same school, on the same continent, or in the same community. Jesus would ask us to look to the children, and what how they treat others as friends. I was proud when another of my grandsons—Calvin—introduced himself to every other person at the All Children’s Park in Port Orange, when he visited with us this summer. He asked, no matter the color of their skin, boy or girl, “Hey, I’m Calvin! You want to play with me?” It was heartwarming as we departed that he sincerely said goodbye to each one of them.

Today in Israel there is open suspicion and hostility between Israeli and Palestinian adults. But here is one true testimony I share with you today: in 1998 on my first trip to the Holy Land, we watched some boys playing some kind of kickball on a vacant lot. “Look” our guide said. “Those are Palestinian and Israeli boys, all playing together.” Just then, a camera crew from a United States network pulled up to the field. They pulled out their big camera and a microphone, and one man said “Hey boys! This is going back to the States! DO something!” And they began picking up rocks and pelting each other with them. When the cameras stopped, they went back to playing kickball. Even having the media–or being surrounded by cellphone cameras—can change the way people act, often not for the better. There is more than one reason for Jesus to say, “And a little child shall lead them.”

In Jesus’ day, Jews shunned Samaritans, yet in the story Jesus tells today, one man was a Samaritan, the others were likely Jews. Here was a group of people who all had one thing in common—leprosy—that kept them from letting any usual issues get in the way of that bond. Today we too can have a tie that binds us together, like “We’re Christians!” or “We’re band members” or more specifically “We’re the drumline.” Or “we’re Gators,” or “we’re Noles!” Those who have a tie that binds them pull for each other and for their common cause! Sadly, sometimes people are bonded together by disease or illness, like “We are cancer survivors!” That’s the bond, even if group members are very different. In our lesson today, it seems important to Jesus that he share a story about 10 people with leprosy who approached him asking for mercy. There was very little hope of being healed from leprosy. Those who had the dreaded skin disease were shunned by everyone else, so much so that they often supported one another in what were called leper colonies- they had each other, but they had no one else. So we might rightly assume that they identified with one another as men in the same boat-all with almost no hope for healing. They heard about the man named Jesus. The men seemed to be both Jew and Samaritan, living somewhere near the border of the two territories. As Jesus heading toward Jerusalem, this time he deliberately passed through Samaria, something few other Jews would do.

In the typical colony of lepers, no one was put off by the differences between those in the colony. In their request for healing, Jesus replies “Go and show yourself to the priests.” Plural. Perhaps he meant a Samaritan priest and a Jewish priest, for the Jewish priest would never declare a Samaritan man clean. Again the world divides, but some illnesses or groups can set differences aside to be bound together for each other. At least one, but perhaps only one with leprosy, was a Samaritan. But Jesus (a Jew, remember!) honored him because he gave thanks for being healed! He praised God.

Today there are some lessons from Jesus’s story. Their identity as lepers was the tie that bound them, making other differences between them less important. But, only one praised God for the healing. One of the lost arts of our day is how to offer a proper thank you, not to just to another person, but also to God. We pray and pray to God, but some—not everybody—but some, when I asked ,“Did you thank God for your healing?” they hang their head and say, “No.” Others—who got Christmas or birthday gifts, or had a nice thing done for them, or had been invited over for dinner—also have sometimes failed to really thank the giver. Now that may not be you, but it is an issue with many! A shouted “Thanks!” as you are getting into your car does not cut it. A written note of gratitude makes a difference. I am proud that when Mary Ann and I send gifts to my nieces and nephews, we have always get handwritten thank you notes back. I hold them and look at them for several days, or even longer. It gives me a greater connection with each one of them. Gratitude matters to the giver. “Never forget that” Jesus seems to say.

One-time years ago, I spent several weeks meeting with a boy in our church who was working on a God and Me badge for Cub Scouts. He mother brought him faithfully each week, and we enjoyed each other’s company. I got to show him my badges and my work in Scouting, and he got to show me his. At the end of our time together, he told me “thanks.” But it didn’t stop there. He and his mother (I think) framed his thank you note he handwrote to me, and added a photograph of the two of us, then framed it. That was really big thank you! It hangs on my wall and I never forget it, even as one of my own grandsons has started down the Scouting trail. Giving thanks to others or giving praise to God was so important that Jesus highlighted it. One final note: our communion liturgy every month has the minister saying: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!” And the people are invited to reply: “It is right to give our thanks and praise!” And so it is. Give thanks.

Let us pray: God of outstretched arms and abundant mercy: thank you for creating us, for redeeming us, and for sustaining us. Thank you for being just a prayer away. And let this prayer just prime the pump of those who are listening so that they too may give you thanks and praise! We lift up our hearts to you. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 13, 2019

10-06-19 MUSTARD SEED FAITH

MUSTARD SEED FAITH
Luke 17: 5-10

Back in 1986, our church offered a production of a children’s musical called,
“The Greatest Gift of All.” Our daughter Jenny was 3 and she was placed on a stage, in a row with other boys and girls, wearing a Christmas package as a costume! In their neat line they attempted to sing the song “Good Things Come in Little Packages.” Charming! We have it on videotape. Sometimes that saying is true: good things can come in little packages. A woman might be dreaming of getting a new car from her boyfriend, but if the small box she receives has an engagement ring in it, could it be “the greatest gift of all” for her? Conversely, when our son Chris was hoping for a car at Christmas, I had arranged to get him a sporty older car. He looked outside Christmas day. No car. I gave him a small box. In it was a key; one that opened the door of a car we had parked down the street! I also know men whose lives were changed by Jesus, who were so thrilled to receive a little pocket cross when they claimed Christ as Savior. They carry it wherever they go. Today we are asked to consider if having a little bit of faith—the size of a mustard seed—is enough to start a fire of faith. On one of my first cold campouts in Missouri when I was a Tenderfoot Boy Scout, other boys and I were challenged to start a fire with flint, steel, and bits of dried brush called tinder. The goal was to get a substantial, hot fire on which to cook, starting with just a spark. With hungry Patrol members standing around, we began to take flint to steel. Three Tenderfoot Scouts were given the task. I can’t say which of us actually produced the spark, but I saw it land on the dried brush; we gently blew on it, and a small flame appeared. Later we cooked on that fire, started by a tiny spark.

I once heard a woman say to another as her husband faced a cancer diagnosis: “I’m not worried. I have faith that God will heal him.” To that, her friend replied: “I wish I had faith like yours!” This week, the Apostles (the 12) hear Jesus give a lesson on when and how to forgive another person. And then he says, in essence, “When you have even the faith of a mustard seed, you can forgive.” Jesus just told them that if a person who had wronged them over and over, turned back and said “I’m sorry and I’ll not do it again,” then they must forgive them each time. It’s a tough action to take without faith. If you have ever been betrayed by or hurt by another person, you may know how difficult it is for you to come to a point when you can say, “I forgive you.” Perhaps you never have been able to forgive another who has hurt you badly. The Apostles must have sighed and said, “Lord, increase my faith” meaning, “I need lots more trust to give my desire for revenge over to God, and then be able to forgive the one who hurt me.” And Jesus says, in so many words: “You don’t need mountain-sized faith to believe God will give you a bridge over troubled waters, you just need a drop of faith (or as a cook might say, a ‘pinch’ of faith to make it happen.” Do you know how much is in a “pinch?” I don’t either, but I’m told it’s a very small amount!

Now, let’s remind ourselves that Bible stories and parables are best taken seriously but not literally. For example, only in Matthew’s gospel does Jesus say the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds; in our gospel of Luke today, there is no mention of size. But don’t we read that when we hear this story? I know I do, so I created a children’s sermon about small things. In fact, botanists tell us that orchid seeds and cypress seeds were actually smaller than mustard seeds in Jesus’ day. So we say to ourselves, “Don’t argue the facts with Jesus! Just listen.” For example, if you read a recipe that says add, “a pinch of salt,” do you know how much to add? How much is in a pinch? That much I’m told (showing pointer and thumb pushed together. How much faith do we need to forgive another? Just (picks up mustard seed) that much.

Did you hear the result of the trial this week when the white female police officer opened an unlocked apartment door that she thought was her own and shot twice, straight into the chest of a black male who was standing in the apartment, only to discover it was actually his apartment and she had shot the man dead? After the jury reached a verdict of 10 years for Amber Guyger, some felt outrage and expressed it. Others were stunned by what happened next. The brother of the man who was killed asked to be heard. The judge permitted it. He took the stand. The man said to the woman who killed his brother, “I forgive you,” and “Your honor, may I have permission to give her a hug?” The judge paused, then permitted it. They embraced with heavy tears as the brother of the slain man said softly to one who had shot his brother, ‘I forgive you.” “Lord, increase our faith!” And Jesus looks into your soul, and he looks into mine, and says to us: “Hmmm. There’s enough faith in you already! Use it!” And then do we step out in the faith we are told we have, or do we pull back? We are reminded of the faith the Amish community in Pennsylvania had when they immediately forgave the man who walked into one of their schools and shot 10 girls. “Oh Lord, increase our faith!” we cry. “Do we have enough faith to forgive like that?” Sikhs in Wisconsin also forgave a white supremacist who entered their temple, killing six and wounding four. Oh Lord, would we have the faith to do that? And when young white man appeared at predominately African American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he pulled out a gun and shot 9 people who welcomed him to their Bible Study. Later they announced that they forgave the man. “Oh Lord, do we have that much faith to forgive like that? Do we have the faith of a mustard seed?”

Let me close with a prayer from Francis of Assisi. Let us pray:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sew love.
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master:
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 6, 2019

At the end of this service, ushers or the pastors will hold a bowl containing mustard seeds at each of the Narthex doors, and at the double doors of fellowship hall. You are welcome to look at them, touch them, or take one with you as a reminder of today’s lesson about faith.

09-29-19 THE CASE OF POOR MAN LAZARUS


Luke 16:19-31

Writers, playwrights, and filmmakers have, over the years, described and offered social commentary on those who have means, or money; and those who have little, or are poor. For example, Alan Jay Lerner in the musical “Camelot” couched the differences subtly in the whimsical song “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” Listen to the lyrics between King Arthur and Guenevere:
GUENEVERE
What do the simple folk do
To help them escape when they\’re blue?
The shepherd who is ailing, the milkmaid who is glum
The cobbler who is wailing from nailing his thumb
When they\’re beset and besieged
The folk not noblessly obliged
However do they manage to shed their weary lot?
Oh, what do simple folk do we do not?
ARTHUR
I have been informed by those who know them well
They find relief in quite a clever way
When they\’re sorely pressed, they whistle for a spell
And whistling seems to brighten up their day
And that\’s what simple folk do
So they say
GUENEVERE
They whistle?
ARTHUR
So they say
Then they conclude that they sing.
Then they conclude that they dance.
Finally, Guenevere asks:
GUENEVERE
What else do the simple folk do
To help them escape when they\’re blue?
And ARTHUR replies:
They sit around and wonder what royal folk would do
And that\’s what simple folk do

That’s an entertaining look at the poor by the rich. That was in 1960.
In 1983, I first enjoyed a Dan Ackroyd/Eddie Murphy comedy called “Trading Places.” It featured classic actors Ralph Belamy and Don Ameche as two brothers; one thinks rich people have superior intellect and skills and poor people don’t. The other brother bets him that he can turn a poor petty thief into a stock trader and a stock trader into a poor petty thief. Watch the film to see what happens!

When we come to the story Jesus uses, some have suggested that he did not make the story up of poor man Lazarus but had heard it over his life and used it to illustrate his point. In the story only the poor man is given a name—Lazarus—while the rich man has no name. Tradition has called him “Dives” (DI-vees) but that is actual the word for rich man in the old Latin Bible. One thing’s for sure: That story has been sited time and time again in literature. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Summoner says that “Dives and Lazarus lived differently, and their rewards were different.” In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, John Falstaff alludes to the story when he says to Bardolph, “I never see thy face, but I think upon hell-fire and Dives that lived in purple, for there he is in his robes, burning, burning.” In the Victorian Era, Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Barton said “Workers and masters are separate as Dives and Lazarus.” And even though his Christmas Book with Ebenezer Scrooge called A Christmas Carol does not specifically allude to Dives and Lazarus, the introduction to the Oxford edition does. Two other examples of the influence of this New Testament story: Herman Melville, in his novel Moby Dick, has Ishmael describe a freezing and windy night saying “Poor Lazarus, chattering his teeth against the curbstone,” and Dives “the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.” One could afford to build a fire, the other could not. And American poet T. S. Eliot, in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock says: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” referencing Lazarus returning from the dead to tell the brothers of the rich man their fate.

This is not a heaven and hell story primarily, although it has been used that way. This is a story about those who have and those who don’t. Jesus has just finished saying “You can’t love God and money in chapter 16:13. Then we read in verse 14: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at [Jesus.]” But Jesus knows how to tell a story, and how to make it effective. He includes details. See, the rich man “feasted sumptuously” every day, while the poor man lay at his place of homelessness, a gate of the city, and he did not have the strength to stop the dogs coming to lick his sores. That is excruciating detail. This coming year, 2020 ,our government once again will be taking a census. Censuses matter regarding the population of a community and the money our government allows for each of them. Yes, the census takers can count how many people have a house, a condo, or an apartment, but smart community leaders also lead them into the woods at night to count the heads of those who are called homeless. They are called that because they have no address, but try to move them from their spot, or at a gate, or a bridge, or a bench and they will resist. A census taker in 2010, said he was not surprised to find many homeless people in the woods in the exact same spot where he found them the last time! Everyone wants a home, even if society calls them “homeless.” If Jesus returned today, I think he would want to take me, and you, and many others to Halifax Urban Ministries to show how many ordinary people, who’ve gotten behind on rent, or had an accident or an illness that kept them from returning to work, come by each day for a hot meal. Jesus would want us to see, and hear, and smell what hunger is like. He would also want us to show hospitality and kindness to one Lazarus, and to another Lazarus. From Confirmation Classes to youth groups to adults groups, congregation members have gone with Jesus (metaphorically speaking) and have seen Lazarus. You can see Lazarus 7 days a week at the hot meal program. You can also see Lazarus under those bridges and in the woods. Jesus wants us to see them, and know they too are human beings. Jesus would want us to see the 150 men at our ministry for those recently addicted or incarcerated at “Solutions By-The-Sea” too. Jesus would want us to know we too might be one pill, or one injection, one drink, or one snort away from addiction, which leads to a pit of poverty, a hell on earth. If you would like to join Tobias Caskey for one of his Sunday afternoon services as I have, you’ll find Lazarus there recovering. You’ll find kind, welcoming, and hopeful people. It is a deep chasm from poverty to sustainability, or from addiction to sobriety. But people are crossing the chasm with the help of congregations like ours. It takes a lot of time from an ordinary person, to make a connection that matters. Time matters to build trust with those like Lazarus.

But also money matters to people like Lazarus. What is a gift, and what is a sacrifice to a poor man or a rich man? It’s like the story of the chicken and the pig. A pig and a chicken were walking down a road. As they passed a church, they noticed a charity potluck brunch being held. The chicken suggested to the pig that they each make a contribution to the cause. “Let’s offer them ham and eggs!” the chicken suggested. “Not so fast,” the pig replied. “What you’d give would be a contribution, but what I’d have to give is a total commitment!” For a pauper, giving 10% of one’s income could be a genuine sacrifice. But for a prince, giving 10% would be a contribution. Our world is helped by generous gifts. Daytona Beach, for example, has had some significant gifts given for the good of the community. Some people of means have caused the levels of income to rise, because they have invested greatly in this area. Good for them! We are helped by such philanthropy.

There is, of course, the story of Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. This is not that story. This is a story about a nameless rich man (Dives, Latin for “rich man”) and about a poor man with a name. This is a story about not living or dying with regrets. This is a story reminding us: “you can’t take it with you.” And it’s a story that suggests that honoring God, by finding people who can use a leg up, is more honorable than loving your money as you love yourself. People and organizations I’ve learned about have been so pleased to provide a school lunch for those who can’t afford them, or buy new shoes for those sticking cardboard in the soles of their existing shoes. One online sock company says that for every pair of socks you buy from them, they will give another pair to a homeless shelter. They learned that new socks are one of the most requested commodities in homeless shelters.

Can you imagine such poverty where a man sits in a spot next to a gate, and dogs lick his wounds? We need not look overseas for that. We can see it even in this county. Jesus message to the Pharisees is “open your eyes and your hearts to your neighbors!” And he invites us to do the same.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 29, 2019

09-22-19 THE CASE OF THE DISHONEST STEWARD

THE CASE OF THE DISHONEST STEWARD
Luke 16: 1-9

One time growing up I visited a tilt house at a carnival. In it, I found a mirror that distorted my image, walls that were not straight, floors that were not level, and ceilings that were not parallel to the floor. As I went around a corner, I knew I was in a strange place as water appeared to be flowing uphill! So many things played tricks on my mind. When I left the tilt house, I was glad to be able to again tell up from down, and see that water flowed downhill.

As we head into the end of September, Halloween themed nights at theme parks and Halloween types of television shows are starting to appear; they again mess with my mind and my sense of right and wrong. Clowns that used to delight children at circuses or a rodeos are destructive and horrifying this time of the year. Thanks to the macabre mind of Stephen King and his book It, that film about a demented clown had the top grossing box office last week.
Next week a new television show called “Preacher” will air on AMC network. At first I thought a show about a preacher might be interesting for me to see. Then in our tilt house world I read the synopsis: “Jesse Custer is a hard-drinking, chain smoking preacher who becomes infused with an extraordinary power. He embarks on a quest to literally find God alongside his trigger-happy ex-girlfriend, Tulip, and new vampire friend, Cassidy.” (Promotional material) The title to a 1963 film came to my mind: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” And so it is.

Sometimes, I wonder if I am still in a tilt house.
Lies are called truth, and true statements are called lies.
Is there global warming or not?

Are the leaders of Russia and North Korea our friends or our enemies?
Should children be vaccinated or not?
What I used to think was north, south, east or west has been brought into question. So I have tried grounding myself in someone to trust, and something I can trust. I turn to God, and to my Bible. But sometimes, like today, when I open my Bible, I get a story like the one we find in Luke 16: a head scrambler. Then I feel like I’m still in a tilt-house. Who is the good guy in this parable? Who is the bad guy? What is the moral of the story? Is it really that the listeners should make friends with unrighteous mammon, or in common language, with dirty money? Is the moral really that we have to watch our own back because no one else will do it for us? Am I still reading from “The Good Book?” Help me decide.

A rich man had a manager, and someone told the rich man that the manager was wasting his money. There was no inquiry; there was just a rhetorical question to the manager: “What is this that I hear about you?” By definition, that’s hearsay. But on that basis, and that basis alone according the premise, the manager is fired. So that makes the rich man the bad guy, right? Since he fires a man with a snap judgment and no evidence, is he the bad guy? Then I think, “perhaps the manager is the good guy!” So I latch on to him and listen in to him talk to himself saying: “I am not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.” I too know some who would not be strong enough to dig if they were fired without notice. Do you know someone who would be too ashamed to beg? I understand this man’s reflection. But then, his thinking takes a worldly turn instead of a Godly turn. He does something that, to me, seems unethical. But what do I know? I still wonder if I’m in a tilt house! He calls the buyers of his boss’s goods and makes a deal that completely lines his own pockets with money rightfully intended for his boss. Now he’s become a thief!

To the man who owed his boss 100 measures of oil, he says make it fifty; and to the one who owes 100 hundred measures of wheat, he says to make it eighty. We are left to our own assumptions about whether the man took the adjusted amount for himself or gave the lower amount to his boss. I’m inclined to think he kept it, (which is wrong in my world,) but if the boss commends him for what he did, I’m wondering: did he give the lowered amounts to his boss? But then, almost like a conversation between two mobsters, the boss commends the manager for his quick thinking. It is an odd story that fails to give a plumb line to my tilt house. “Jesus, why did you share this story?” I ask.

In his book Parables as Subversive Speech, William R. Herzog, II who was Professor of New Testament at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, wrote this: “The parable of the unjust steward has long been considered one of the most puzzling parables of Jesus. Yet interpreters have not been at a loss to propose possible meanings.” [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, p. 233. Herzog then goes into more than two and a half pages of theories which is why this parable feels tilted to me. Not one theory was completely helpful. So I have drawn my own conclusion: this particular parable was especially aimed at the disenfranchised workers listening to Jesus, especially the ones who felt cheated by management. Was the story told from their perspective? Jesus said the owner of the business was rich, (the perception of the workers?). Then, perhaps, the manager of the business was crooked too, so the story is told as if he stole or worked deals for his own gain.

Finally, we come to what Jesus says about the parable: “Make friends with unrighteous mammon” (or money). What? What does that mean? Listen to expert Herbert Lockyer: “Christ did not commend the cunning deceit, but the astuteness of this steward, (or manager). [All the Parables of the Bible Zondervan, 1963, p.290. Even that doesn’t lead me to a good reason for this story being in the Bible.

In many corners of our world today, we look in vain for paragons of virtue. This story certainly had no one above the fray of deceit. But what did Jesus expect his hearers to glean from it? I’ve heard someone say about a mastermind criminal: “If only he used his vast talents for good!” That means they admired his skill, or thinking, or shrewdness. Jesus does not need Christian nitwits.
What can we learn from felons who continue to escape from maximum security prisons? They seem to have some amazing influence, or intelligence, or both that is misguided. Jesus, it seems, needs people working for the Kingdom of God who are as smart as they are are about making money, or moving money. We need to learn from the best. We can learn from people who lie, or cheat, or steal—not copying their deceit, or their dishonesty, but learning from their shrewdness. How many non-Christians in our world make more money or are more productive than some Christians are? That’s the major lesson, the food for thought, of this strange story. We should learn from the best.

After unpacking the likely meaning of this parable, it feels just a little less disorienting when I read it. But when I look at our world today?
Sometimes it still… seems … tilted.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 22, 2019

09-15-19 Rejoice in God’s Presence

“Rejoice in God’s Presence”
Gospel Luke 15:1-10
God hears us when we speak; God hears us when we think; God hears us when we pray. There is nothing that God doesn’t know about us; there is nothing that God isn’t a part of. God is the constant that is the world. Sometimes that is a cloudy reality as we go through the days trying to figure out maybe why things happen; or the greatest question at any Sunday school class, why bad things happen to good people or vice versa. We try to grasp things that may be out of our control like a family member that is suffering with an addiction or a friend that won’t go the doctors or someone that just won’t do it our way. LOL A friend who I attended Discipleship classes with here by the name of Lou Jacobs; who recently passed away; once told me a story about a hat. She said, I was looking for this hat one day to cover my head to go outside and I couldn’t find it in my house. She continued, I looked all over for it; In every room I looked for this hat everywhere, but to no avail I couldn’t find it. I looked again; I got frustrated; I looked in the closets where I thought it was; and then in the closets where I didn’t think it was; I looked all over for this hat and it was nowhere to be found. She said you know, I finally stopped looking for the hat as I just decided to chalk it up to a loss. As I was walking through the house a little later, I walked into the bedroom and there it was; on the edge of the bed; there was the hat; sitting there waiting to be found. Do we get in our own way sometimes? Do we get in our way thinking too much into something rather than letting God help us and guide us; trying to do things our way; not God’s, as God is the reason, we are alive; as God is the reason we are; The last time I checked I am not the one that makes my heart beat. Thomas Merton, the great theologian and writer wrote “A Sacrifice is an action which is objectively sacred and primarily of a social character, and what is important is not so much the pain or difficulty attached to it as the meaning, the sacred significance which not only conveys an idea but effects a divine and religious transformation in the worshipper, thus consecrating and uniting them more closely to God.” The action of the Holy Spirit.
I fight this a lot; me getting in my own way. I am always trying to think of new ways to write, or not write a sermon; I over think the sermon whether to write part of it down or all of it down; I hear all the clichés of sermon writing; better to have a script in front of you; The worst thing to happen to someone is for them to go blank and then silence; not to know what to say in a situation; not to know how to live out their lives; not to know were to turn who to turn to. Silence. By the time I get done thinking this all out, I’m either writing the sermon the night before, or I am telling it cold with no script so to speak. Of course, times have and will come when I speak a sermon without a script; that is not written down; not knowing what to say; not knowing the answer. Much like life; living on faith; Predestined maybe; as I steal a quote from Francis of Assisi, using words when necessary; that our decisions in life are just simple sermons to live out. That as much as we think we are alone we are not; that everything is and was written down for us to live out easily; for us just to walk through life living out our sermons preaching the Gospel in all our actions. The living action in the life of the Christ. The reality of the Holy Spirit.

Recently I visited the beautiful town of Dubuque Iowa. I have the honor of going there once a year for Seminary as I am an online student at the university of Dubuque, a Presbyterian Seminary, in their Master of Divinity program. Classes start there for the two weeks at eight o’clock in the morning and end at five; hence the word intensive; there is usually a retreat of sorts depending on the class your enrolled in and the year you are attending. For me the class I was enrolled in this year was “The Gospel in Context,” where we studied a community; their likes, dislikes; their practices; what they ate how they ate; what they did for fun; their culture and how scripture lives out in that culture. As Jesus did when he preached and taught, he used the cultural practices of the people for the people to better relate to what he was trying to say to them; much like the scripture today or As when Jesus used the Samaritan as “the Good Samaritan when the Samaritans were actually a hated people. When he preached of the Sheep and the Good shepherd; when he used Manna and other realities of the Jewish faith as these were all well-known parts of these people’s cultures. He used who they were and what they were all about; to show them who they truly were; men and women of God. So, on a Thursday morning at about seven thirty the Gospel in Context class took off on what the Professors called an immersion trip. This was to immerse the students in the cultures of a small town and a growing suburban area which if you read the structure of a suburban area; growth is a subjective word as growth is actually based on movement which has to do with declining numbers in the community as well as increasing; as this was what was happening in the city we visited. We went to Wisconsin and what a beautiful place it was. As it seemed such a faraway place much like in the Bible; it really was much the same life as ours here, much the same people; going through the same problems; fighting the same life changes. As was in our first reading.
What was used as a congregational reading of God’s wrath shifts to a prayer of God’s grace. The purported author of the Psalm 51, David; actually wrote the psalm to repent of sins he had committed at one time in his life; much like the people of Wisconsin; maybe much like us. As the prayer is not repeated for the same reasons as David used it; as we all say the same prayers to be of different meanings in our lives when we pray; to repent or intercede; to ask for or to give away different things; things of the heart; either what we need or don’t need, this prayer; this reading; this reality of life becomes a universal call for all of us to say to God together in one voice as it was meant to be. To be used in our daily lives as Martin Luther calls us to do as his voice wrings out from the depths of the protestant reformation; “We cannot attain to the understanding of Scripture either by study or by the intellect. Your first duty is to begin by prayer. Entreat the Lord to grant you, of His great mercy, the true understanding of His Word. There is no other interpreter of the Word of God than the Author of this Word, as He Himself has said, “They shall be all taught of God” (John 6:45). Hope for nothing from your own labors, from your own understanding: trust solely in God, and in the influence of His Spirit. Believe this on the word of a man who has experience.” (Martin Luther) As much as the Bible is a living word; the living word of God this prayer; this first reading is spoken to us and for us as much as it is spoken by us and through us that we may pray along with all the rest of history; all the rest of time in a prayer that means what it means in our lives; in the lives of the people of Wisconsin; in the lives of the people everywhere. The living word of God; the; living word of prayer; that as we pray with those in the Bahamas; as we pray with those across the sea as we pray with the Church; that we say this scripture together; not at the same time but with the same meaning; with the same reverence to God; for each other; for God; of God.

One of my other Seminary classes this semester is Early and Medieval Church History. As we walk through the thoughts and minds of theologians from Tertullian to Irenaeus to Clement, we walk through the history of the Church and all that it was at the time. This of course is based on the reality of The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and how the one and three and the three in one works and lives and how our lives play apart in the Church of God. I read a great quote that brings to light a reality of history, “That history is crucial for understanding not only the life of Jesus, but also the entire Biblical message.” (Gonzales) In the same manner the Church thrives through the Church knowing and living what the Church was and is now. Learning the past that we may see the present that we may thrive in the future. That we may live the Christian life in a wholeness that is of God. Divine love. As I love to quote Martin Luther; he states “ God is not a God of sadness, death, etc.,Christ is a God of joy, and so the Scriptures often say that we should rejoice … A Christian should and must be a cheerful person. (Martin Luther) To learn to live to love as Jesus shows us as the Christ lives through us; we are called to live; to rejoice; to smile; to love; to be Christian. To know our pasts that we can change our futures. This is for everyone as we all live a theology; as we are all called to bask in the loving grace that is God.
Jesus lives this for us as we walk through the scripture reading of the Gospel of Luke; called by some as “the heart of the Gospel,” As William Barclay portrays it as being called the Gospel in the Gospel, as if it contains the very distilled essence of the Good news which Jesus came to tell.” (William Barclay) When the lost are recovered from Jesus’s call for repentance and conversion a strong note of joy is struck; As this Gospel shows God’s love and mercy for the sinful person. Let us look a little deeper into the scripture. First is the Shephard, someone, weathered, tired leaning on a staff looking out to a flock across a barren landscape of treacherous pitfalls and small fields of joy. Looking out to the flock; all of them the shepherd knows; every hair on their head; Every one of the flock on his heart; concerned for all of them. He knows them all. He lives for them; he goes over hill over valley to save just one of them; just one of the flock, to save them; to bring them home. To save them all. As the women that is looking through her house to find the lost coins; to find the lost that cannot be found; to seek what might not ever come back; looking for the lost that they may be found again.
But as the Shephard sees one of his flock going a stray as he counts and there is one gone from view lost from his heart he strives to save them; he seeks to find the lost one; he lives to bring back the one that has gone astray. In the same manner the women in her house searches with the consistency of a loving God to find the lost coins that have left that have gone away. As the Pharisees attacked Jesus for everything he is, trying to discredit him for the love that he is; as they were standing there watching this man Jesus they said to each other,” This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” Why do people resist God’s searching love? The Pharisees and scribes despised the tax collectors and sinners that came to Jesus. Tax collectors worked for the roman government and were considered traitors who sold themselves to the Romans. The sinners might have committed a serious crime, but the term was also applied to those who had broken ritual purity laws and to women who husbands divorced them. Tax collectors and sinners were considered part of the unacceptable because they did not believe and behave properly or look like them or act like them or dress like them. The scribes and Pharisees were quick to condemn but slow to recognize the hollowness of their own righteous behavior; the log in their own eye.

Jesus comes again from the upside-down reality that is God. That we are to seek the lost; that we are to leave no one behind; that the love of God is endless, and we are to live that love in all that we are.
But how do we do it when we don’t have a script; how do we know the answer in the silence of our everyday; well the script is there as it has been all along; The Bible. It’s written out tested by so many; to show us as it has shown the history of the Church in the same way; the way to live; the way to live out our scripts in our predestined paths in the living Christ. To live out that sermon we have been given; not to over think it or maybe even write it down but to live it faithfully predestined in God; That we see not so much the indifference of others but the sameness in all of us. That in looking at our own gospels in context that we are all fighting the same fight; that we all come from the same place; from the same history; from the same day to day silence. And as Jesus springs to action in this silence to bring us all in from the fields; to bring the lost lambs back to the fold he calls the church to rejoice. As God is the active participant in seeking to save the lost; this gives the parables their urgency and power as expressions of the nature of God enacted in the midst of everyday human life. he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
This is our calling not to be the one to whom repentance is made but to be the ones who rejoice in the vastness of his glory. That when one of the lost comes home that we rejoice as with the angels in heaven; that we rejoice with God as he says rejoice with me for, I have found my sheep that was lost. That we live happy lives as Martin Luther spoke of; That as our scripts play out; as we live out our sermons for God and others; that our faith grows; that our simplicity of action becomes the simplicity of a Child; that we let go of over thinking; doing it our way and that we seek the companionship of the living God to show us how to live; that as we pray those prayers of history; of our history; those prayers of many that they are answered as they always have been. That we celebrate life with God; as God celebrates life through us. that we don’t try to figure out why; that we don’t try figure out who; but just celebrate with God; life as it is right here right now. Our lives in God’s living loving world.
As John puts it, “He will show the world how wrong it was about sin, about who was really in the right, and about true judgment” (16:8). This is what Jesus exposed and defeated on the cross. He did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie. God’s way of work is to seek and save through merciful love. John Knox wrote: I sought neither preeminence, glory, nor riches; my honor was that Jesus Christ should reign; let us join together in that reign; let us celebrate in the history of the Church; that we may live out today; that we may rely on God with the faith and simplicity of Children; Let us bask in that glory and beauty; in the celebration of life our lives in God’s. God’s life in ours.

sought neither preeminence, glory, nor riches; my honor was that Jesus Christ should reign.”
— John Knox
“I sought neither preeminence, glory, nor riches; my Gospel Luke 15:1-10
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 4″Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8″Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

09-08-19 THE THRILL OF VICTORY AND THE AGONY OF DEFEAT

THE THRILL OF VICTORY AND THE AGONY OF DEFEAT

Luke 14:1; 7-14

Be honest. How many of you have heard the sermon title before? Are you old enough to remember ABS’s Wide World of Sports, and the phrase “the agony of defeat” being declared as a skier misses his jump and crashes down the snowy mountain? That was an excellent introduction to the show each week because to this day, I have not forgotten it.  Then again I have also had heard it said that “people learn more from mistakes than perfection.”  For example, Mary Ann learned to not wear dress shoes with the heel worn out when she slipped last February and spent four months in a shoe boot. Radford and I, along with other preachers, must be founts of wisdom from the mistakes we have made leading worship over the years!  But of course, there are more profound examples too. Gymnast Simone Biles took plenty of falls before she finally mastered two moves named after her: a double layout half out on the floor exercise, and the Yurchenko half on with two twists on the vault. Wow. Elon Musk had several false starts with his Space X Starhopper rocket prototype before he sent it up and had it land softly upright on August 27th. Those blast-offs and landings are marvels to see. And it took lots of tries to make them happen. When it comes to storms, when Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead Florida, it devastated the area. But building codes all over Florida were strengthened. With subsequent storms, structure have been made safer. Now our church’s roofs and our steeple have been constructed to the highest codes in our history. Many in the area actually survived the glancing blow of Hurricane Dorian this past week. Live and learn; trial and error. Embarrassment and dignity. These events are part of life.

Jesus had such as sense of wisdom regarding human nature; it is almost as if he could see our foibles and missteps long into the future.  Here’s an example:

When he noticed that guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit in the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host…. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher,’ then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  (Luke 14: 7-10)

These words were said at the time of a special journey to Jerusalem, perhaps for a special holy day, when relatives and friends opened their homes to family members, friends, and dignitaries. Their literally was “no room in the inns” on those weekends. Don’t picture parable just as a banquet for wealthy people. Many in that crowd could have been poor, and opening their home to guests would have been at an enormous cost, when a goat or fatted calf—perhaps supplemented with hummus, breads, and vegetables—was prepared to feed a large crowd,. The gathering might have included people who thought they were “somebody special” back home, but here, all ended up on an equal footing. If you have ever had a guest in your home presume to choose where to sit when you already have a seating chart in mind, you know how stressful that can be. In in the midst of hurricane Dorian, devoted leaders opened shelters to whoever needed them. They were all in a safe place together; there was no VIP section! Even neighbors took in neighbors, and relatives invited family members or friends to cross or leave the state to gain safety. Some stayed here and shared their home with someone who would have been alone. What a great time to have shown humility and thankfulness! Did you receive gratefully? Did you offer graciously? This is what Jesus certainly learned as a boy from Scripture: Proverbs 16:5 says: “Every haughty person is an abomination to the Lord.”  Proverbs 16:18 says: “Pride goes before ruin; arrogance before failure.” And this one nails it, Proverbs 25: 6-7: “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence; do not stand in the place of nobles.  For it is better to be told, ‘Step up here,’ than to be degraded in the presence of the great.” A bit of hyperbole makes Solomon’s point in those Proverbs.  In situations such as Jesus’ parable, and in the situations we faced over the last week, people certainly felt tensions. Some may have cried, some may have stress snacked constantly, and some may have forgotten their manners as they stood in lines for food or sat in line for gas. Some shared a shelter with people they did not know well. So tensions may have risen. Nothing is helped by short tempers, words hotly exchanged, or kindness forgotten. Hopefully with acts of hospitality, some here were able to receive or offer hospitality, reframing this story into one of grace and kindness. We will still run into people who feel special or entitled. But as Mark Twain once observed: “A self-made man is like a self-made egg.”

 Remember: you are a child of God who, like everyone else, needs nourishment, wants safety, and at times, remembers to do unto others as we would like to have done unto us. After the storm, many people got to know their neighbors even better. This week and beyond, we can show not only our Christianity, but also our simple humanity, and our willingness to be a neighbor to others. “What would Jesus do?” He taught us part of what he would do in the parable today. Go and do likewise.

Let us pray:

Holy God, in the storms of life, calm us. Help us to use our resources wisely, to show kindness unselfishly, and always, to walk humbly, following the example of Jesus. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 September 8, 2019

08-25-19 SABBATH: MORE THAN REST

SABBATH: MORE THAN REST Exodus 20:8-11 Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and 15:1-15
Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church Radford Rader, D.Min. August 25, 2019

Did you notice a difference between the Exodus Sabbath Commandment and the Deuteronomic one?
Exodus focuses on our Creator God who rested on the seventh day. Sabbath is commanded rest for all based on the divine pattern. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work and on the Seventh day, you shall rest.
Deuteronomy’s Sabbath commandment is based on remembering Israel’s slavery in Egypt and God’s bringing them out into freedom and into promised land. Sabbath is more than rest; it is a freedom practice. It is the practice of freedom because slaves were not their own person.
Still they have much in common.
Sabbath is a gift from God as Jesus said, “The sabbath is made for mortals.” It is to declare, realize and practice our freedom from the tyranny and oppression of work – which runs rampant today. Sabbath declares that God is Lord and God’s provision continues so we can take time off. If we stop for the day, we live in the belief that the world will not fall apart, that God is in charge and that God is the ultimate provider. Walter Brueggemann shows this by linking the Sabbath rest to the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He declares that this refers to the manna gathered everyday by the Israelites in the wilderness. It should also remind us that they did not gather on the Sabbath. God provided a double portion on the sixth day. Sabbath is always a trust exercise and a freedom practice. We show that, “in God, we trust.” We declare our freedom. Every time we pray, “Give us today our daily bread”, we affirm these things and every day we rest in the Lord we practice what we pray.
In both the Exodus and Deuteronomic commandments Sabbath is shown to be for everyone—not just for the landowner or the employer but for family members, resident aliens and slaves as well as animals–all the creatures which God has made not just the rich but also the poor, not just the master but also the slave, not just the Jew but also the neighbor and the stranger. Sabbath is more than rest; it is to be freeing to us and those who serve us. Chick-fil-a continues that practice as it dares to be closed on Sundays for the sake of its employees.
Sabbath is more than a one day a week event in Deuteronomy. There was the sabbath of seven days, and the sabbath of seven years (the sabbatical year), and the celebration of seven sabbatical years called Jubilee. The sabbatical year and the Jubilee both involved concern for the poor and freedom from slavery. In the sabbatical year, the land rested. They did not sow or reap but whatever came up volunteer was to be left for the poor and needy. Even more so, the sabbatical year freed people from debt slavery. Debt happened and it often meant land had to be sold or heads of households and/or family members were sold into slavery. Sabbath was remembering God’s granting freedom from slavery. The sabbatical year placed limits on debt to keep people out of slavery. In the seventh year, all debts were to be cancelled. If someone indentured themselves in payment of debt, they were released in the sabbatical year. If a Hebrew bought a Hebrew slave, the person was to be freed. God’s people were not to be hard of heart toward their neighbors as Pharaoh was toward the Israelite slaves. “Open hands and hearts” was the commandment, even when someone asked for a loan in the 7th year which meant it was cancelled at the end of that very year. If you freed a slave, you were not to send that person out emptied handed but gave from your flocks and field the means to prosper. The Jubilee year was even more radical; all ancestral land was to be returned to the descendants of the family to whom it was originally granted upon entrance into the Promised Land. All these commandments had one purpose – that neighbors would not be crippled by debt or enslaved without hope. “The poor will never cease out of the land”, Moses says “therefore I command you. You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and the poor in the land.” (15:11). The purpose was to have no poor in the land. God had been generous to ex-slaves and God’s intent is that all should thrive.
Reality is that debt still debilitates and enslaves. Poor people and people helplessly in debt in this world still sell themselves or their children into slavery. Some have no Sabbath time; they work multiple jobs to make ends meet but still slide deeper and deeper into debt. Debt comes from recession and depression, from financial loss and business failure, from family crisis, from foolish over-spending, gambling and addictions. The largest cause of bankruptcy in America is medical debt. The average student loan debt is $38,390.00. For many Americans debt reaches the level that complicates and destroys their lives. Debt can become such a burden that life is compromised, the future disappears, families are ruined, and happiness destroyed.

To be honest, I need to tell you that scholars debate whether the commandments of the sabbatical year and Jubilee were ever practiced. Many Christians have in the past and still today state, “The poor you will always have with you” and throw up their hands but they are corrupting how Deuteronomy 15:11 reads or Jesus uses the text. But Deuteronomy’s commandments do show the divine will for society and they have had effect.
In the New Testament, Paul sought an offering for the destitute Christians in Jerusalem. His words to the churches seek a generosity, with the pattern being Jesus “who was rich but for your sake became poor, so that by his poverty you may be rich.” He continues in II Corinthians 8, “I do not mean that others should be eased, and you burdened; but that as a matter of equality, your abundance at the present time should supply their want. So that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality. As it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing and he who gathered little had no lack.”
In the early settlement in America, the poor often indentured themselves as servants to pay for their passage to this Promised Land. The term of indenture was 7 years.
In January of 1865, Union General W.T. Sherman and Secretary of War, Wm. Stanton, met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Ga. asking what could best be done for the freed slaves. The response was land. Four days later Sherman executed Special Field Order #15 that made available 400,000 acres of land from Savannah to the St. John’s river from the Ocean 30 miles inland be divided into 40-acre parcels each with water access for those who had been freed from slavery. He later ordered that Army mules were to be loaned to these new landowners; thus, the saying “40 Acres and a mule. Unfortunately, the order was revoked 8 months later by President Andrew Johnson; but sabbatical intent was there. One part of his order did have some success in the establishment of self-governing black communities one of which was Etonville, Florida.
And it continues today:
Social security, Medicare and Medicaid were created to protect our citizens.
Bankruptcy laws offer resolution for those in overwhelming debt.
Habitat for Humanity is still hard at work building houses with sweat equity and no interest loans.

Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet created the Giving Pledge which invites billionaires to sign a pledge and give away to charitable causes more than half of their wealth now or in their wills. 40 individuals and couples have signed on with them and supported poverty alleviation, refuge aid, global health, education, women and girls’ empowerment, and environment sustainability to name a few.
This week President Trump authorized the forgiveness of all student loan debt for disabled veterans. Earlier this summer, Robert Smith announced in his commencement address at Moorhouse College that he and his family had granted the money to pay off each graduate’s student loans. He encouraged them “to pay it forward and take care of their own communities and to show it thorough actions, words and deeds.:”
The cost of medical care and prescription drugs and student loan debt are in the forefront of campaign rhetoric. Whether this goes any further than Sherman’s Field Order is yet to be seen.
If I had the grand solution to poverty and debt’s part in that, I should run for president.
I don’t but I do know that God has great concern for the poor and debt-ridden. The goal of God’s kingdom is to have no poor among us (Deut. 15:4).
I do know that scripture calls God’s people to give generously of their wealth. If all, Christians tithed, churches could accomplish much more in alleviating poverty and debt relief, helping members and reaching out into the community.
I also know thanks to Walter Brueggemann that whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are committing ourselves to such endeavors. Not only do we pray “Give us today our daily bread” which connects our daily bread to manna and sabbath but also, we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” which is straight out of Deuteronomy 15 and the sabbatical year. Both of our petitions follow “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” so they are not only petitions for ourselves but promises that we will help God’s kingdom come on this earth in our time.
I want to issue you a challenge today. It isn’t much but it is a small step to addressing poverty, debt and hunger. It is something we all can do. Next Sunday, when I challenge you to bring canned goods and staples and put them on the tables in the narthex and hopefully we will overload the Port Orange Panty with our genorisity.

08-18-19 The Big Mistake of “I Did This!”

The Big Mistake of “I Did This!” Deuteronomy 8: 11-18 August 18, 2019
Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church Radford Rader, D.Min.

This is how Rebecca and I began our life together in 1968. We had my old, used and not so cool 1961 Rambler that dad and I had to rebuild when the engine had blown. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment near the university, an area that became surrounded by the fires started after the assassination of Martin Luther King just weeks after our moving in. There were no rugs on the floors. Our furnishings were sparse: something to sit on in the living room (I don’t remember what), plastic tv trays for end tables, a very small black and white television that sat on the toybox Rebecca’s father had made here when she was a toddler, and my desk which had been my uncle’s when he was a child. In the bedroom were our childhood dressers, her mattresses on a steel frame, and a clock radio. The kitchen had a Formica table and chairs one of the few things we purchased along with hand me down cooking utensils and a few sensible, usable wedding gifts. We’ve come a long way, baby!

Moses’ sermon in Deuteronomy starts in such a place. Remember Egypt where you were slaves. Remember the plagues and how God set you free. Remember those decades in the wilderness where life was hard and tenuous, but God fed you with manna and protected you, guiding you in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Remember how God helped you defeat the kings and nations on whose land you now stand, lands already given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. Most of all remember God’s commandments – that began with “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” While the Israelites are anxiously hopping from one foot to the other as they stand on the banks of the Jordon with the Promised Land in full view, Moses calls Israel to remember the God who is behind all their blessings and warned that they forget this at their peril.

It is hard to remember and stay faithful in a promising land, in a land flowing in milk and honey, rich in resources and made for greatness. Nations and individuals achieve, succeed and prosper. With success and prosperity comes a natural pride in accomplishments but there is the temptation to believe we are self-made. Forgotten are all those who assisted in our success whether they be ancestors, family, mentors, colleagues or employees. It may be our hard work but not ours alone. Forgotten also are the life, health, intelligence and gifts with which we were endowed by our Creator. Forgotten is the good fortune, luck or DIVINE ASSISTANCE when everything could have imploded. Mark Twain observed “A self-made man is like a self-laid egg.”

There is nothing inherently wrong in success and prosperity; they are blessings, even more so if we continuously acknowledge them as blessings. There is something terribly wrong when nations and individuals believe it is all our doing! There is something terribly wrong when in our heart, even if it never passes our lips, is the belief that “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth!” There is something terribly wrong when as Moses says, “Your heart is lifted up”. I believe he means the pride that puffs up, a pride that becomes haughty, when we begin to believe we are worthy of all we have and inviolate in our power and possessions, when nations and individuals no longer think beyond themselves, when we say, “I no longer care about you! I don’t need you.” (Pointing at the people)— “I no longer care about You! I don’t need you!” (Pointing to heaven). We are extremely susceptible to hubris – a pride that exalts itself and believe in its own truth and creates right from its own point of view. It takes and eats the forbidden fruit grasping at equality with God. (Genesis 2-3) As King it takes another man’s wife and has him killed because he thought it his right. (II Samuel 11-12). It becomes Israel where the powerful and wealthy “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. (Amos 2:6-8). It is prayer pretending to address God but only exalting ourselves. (First Reading: Luke 18:9-14)

There is a famous verse in Proverbs 16:8 that reads “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Moses, like the prophets who followed him, warned the Israelite nation and the later nations and people who hear his words, “If you choose this path, you shall surely perish” (Deuteronomy 8:19-20). Jesus in the gospel and the writers of the New Testament are always declaring “those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves shall be humbled.” (Luke 14:11; 18:14; James 4:10; I Peter 5:6)

We are to live humbly. Humility doesn’t mean weak; being humble doesn’t make us a pushover. It doesn’t mean no success or recognition from others. The humble just don’t let it go to their heads. The humble are grateful not greedy…about being a blessing because they know themselves blessed. Humility is not thinking too highly of oneself – the model is Jesus not thinking equality with God a thing to be grasped. The humble remember that we are creatures and did not make ourselves, nor this earth – We belong to God as does the earth we are to cherish as God does. The humble keep a right relationship with God, which is the first commandment…I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other god…not self, not possessions, not power, not nation. To be humble is foremost to be humble with God., which simply means I defer to my Maker…I live for God not for myself…I live to give God glory not to glorify myself. I live like Jesus, humble and lowly of heart (not with heart puffed up), faithful to the Father’s will not my own, compassionate toward others not arrogant or rude.

Carl Jung, the great Christian psychologist, wrote “Through pride, we are self-deceiving but deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still small voice says to us, something is out of tune.” That happened to me several times in my ministry. The church was growing and flourishing. I was praised and loved. But I would lose myself in myself and think I was the reason and the means for all of it. As I lost my way, the church began to flounder. My answer was to double down, expect too much and demand too much. Eventually, it was necessary for me to step back and admit the truth: “This is not my church but God’s church. This is not the work of my hands but the work of the Spirit through whom the church will ultimately grow and prosper.” Eventually I would come to my senses and accept that I was to humbly serve. I had to step back, let God be my God. The Bible points out that I am not the only one who becomes self-sufficient and prideful. It is a rampant virus among us. Perhaps this is where you are today, needing to cease acting like Lord and Master and become again a humble servant where God is first and foremost in all that you do.

08-11-19 HOW TO WAIT FOR JESUS

Luke 12: 32-40

The season has started again; not just the back to school season, but also Hurricane Season; the time when weathercasters alert us to low pressure systems forming in the Caribbean. As they do, viewers have the luxury of watching the progress, and the track, or the forming storm. Like reading a great mystery novel, the story unfolds each day: will it come toward Florida; to Central Florida; or the East Coast; or specifically, to Daytona Beach? If so, what supplies do we have? What supplies do we need? Even with fair warning about hurricane season, I still join others in line to buy water before a storm. Batteries, flashlights: those things I have. But the water I wait to buy. I go through my hurricane checklist of garbage bags, zip locks, and duct tape. I collect rags or towels in case we find leaks. So seasonally, I have a reminder from weathercasters to prepare for hurricane season. If it were a religion, hurricane season would be the annual revival, when we are urged to check the things we “ought to have done, and take care of the things that still need to be done.” Hurricane season is a good practice.

Tuesday I was driving back from seeing my brother who is trying to recover from a brain bleed. While I was in Virginia, my sisters and I had a conference call about the huge adjustment facing us: moving my mother from Independent Living in St. Louis, (where she no longer qualifies to live due to her increased confusion) to a memory care facility near my sister in Phoenix. Just since April when I visited her, she has slipped that much. All of these issues were going through my head as I was driving south on I-95, mesmerized by constant billboards. Then, one billboard stood out: “Are You Preparing to Meet Jesus?” A phone number was listed below, I suppose, so you could call and get more information! I wouldn’t recommend calling the number, however, because the billboard next to it said: “Are you headed for heaven?” and there were pictures of clouds; “or are you headed for hell?” and there were flames of fire. Today, I want us to think about meeting Jesus. As I explained to the boys and girls, if I were preparing to meet Jesus as a child, my list of what to gather would be different. A blanket for comfort and even for security; Linus from the Peanuts comic strip taught us that. Then I would take a small pillow that reminds me that I’m loved. I’d take a Bible and a paperback songbook of old hymns, and a cellphone and charger. But as adults, what we need to do to prepare for Jesus’ return is different, especially if we see him at our death first, instead of at his return to earth. Here is what Jesus himself said: “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” [Luke 12: 32] If we share our hopes and fears with God, then God will know the ways that things can comfort us. My grandparents, when they were alive, asked me, along with my brothers and sisters, what things of theirs we would enjoy having after they were gone. We said “Don’t talk like that!” but my grandmother said, “No, it would really comfort us to know what you would like.” So we named the items. “Here’s some tape.” She said. “Put your name on it and stick it on the bottom of the pieces you want.” And so we did. Every time I walk by a bookcase and a desk in our home, I think of my grandparents and their gifts when they were alive, still blessing me after their death. As I walked through my sister’s house and brother’s house last week, they too lifted up pieces that they got from my grandparents. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” [ vs. 32] Talk with God in this life, so you can receive tailor-made blessings in the next life. “Sell your possessions and give alms” Jesus said. My parents saved things most of their life, and when it was time to sell their house, we sold or disposed of anything the four siblings didn’t want. I don’t know who got our treasures, but I know treasures keep blessing others who buy books, or keepsakes, or furniture for pennies on the dollar at thrift stores and antique stores. What of our treasures will became someone else’s at our death? All of our “stuff” brought us joy in life; As Jesus said, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Later when we die, treasures are stored in our hearts rather than in our homes. As we prepare to go to the Father’s house, we find new treasures, and make new memories.

Jesus then said: “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning.” Those are old expressions that just mean, “Be ready!” That was always Jesus’ message. Dr. Keith Nickle, former Dean of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote this about those words of Jesus:
“Luke emphasizes keeping vigil for Jesus’ return by sustaining the quality of one’s discipleship rather than by seeking to calculate the most likely moment for his appearance and waiting until then to prepare. Energies expended on computations about the calendar and sequence of end-time events are futile and counterproductive…. Being watchfully alert compels Christian service, conducted in the confident conviction that there is no doubt—he is coming! The only uncertainty is when, and that is not something anyone can find out ahead of time.” (vv. 39-40) [Preaching the Gospel of Luke, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2000, p. 141]

So Jesus himself told his followers to “Prepare!” It’s a message we often hear at Advent before the birth of Jesus, but the return of Jesus has even bigger ramifications. And there are plenty of us here today who may not live to see his return, but we will meet him upon our death. How will you prepare to move from this life to the next one?

Here are some practical things to do to prepare for that. These are from my experience, and the experiences of other pastors, attorneys, and family members.
1) Have a will. Leaving the distribution of your treasures to chance actually leaves the distribution to the state of Florida. At my request, a church member who is an attorney drew up a one page document telling what happens to your treasures if you have no will. Copies are on the counter in the fellowship hall. If you want some of your treasure to go to the church, or to your children, or to another charity, say so! A will is that document. You can read Jesus words about not focusing on treasures on earth where moths can destroy them, but in modern day, leaving your goods to chance leads to family fights, and months of legal costs. Have conversations now and put decisions on paper. A will is an inexpensive document to create.
2) Have a Health Care Surrogate, a living will that includes organ donation if desired, or fill out a Five Wishes document. Our Body, Mind & Soul programs have gone over those extensively. Sample copies are on the Fellowship Hall bulletin board by the piano. They give legal guidelines during any sudden transition from wellness to sickness you will likely face.
3) Finally, prepare to meet Jesus one day. Just so you know, he will be a brown-skinned Middle-Eastern man. He loves people with brown skin, and black skin, and tan skin and white skin. There will be Christians in Heaven from Mexico, and Russian, and Egypt and Palestine and Korea. There will be people there that you may not choose to meet in your earthly life. What if Jesus is waiting to return, not for our world to become so acrimonious that people give up on it, but for our world to more be neighborly to people of all colors and nationalities, singing about faith, hope, and love? It could be that Jesus is waiting for the kingdoms of our world to become more like the kingdom of Heaven? Could we do our part by loving our neighbors as ourselves? One hymn writer put it this way: “And Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll, the trumpet shall sound, and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul.” So may it be.
Let us pray: Dear God of Heaven and Earth: Jesus taught us to pray for the day when your kingdom comes both on earth and in heaven. We do not have control of heaven, but we can control our own actions on earth. Help us to be the leaven for the bread and the light for the world, working to transform the world, rather being transformed by the world. Then Jesus can meet us with joy. In his name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner August 11, 2019

08-04-19 JUST BREAD

no sermo

JUST BREAD John 6:25-35 August 4, 2019
Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church Radford Rader, D.Min.

Bread.  It’s still a staple, except for the first two weeks of the South Beach Diet.  It still stands for food and life.  It’s basic.  We may live on steak and potatoes, soup and salad, or ice cream and cake but the hungry say, “Bread, please”.
A disheveled, toxic smelling man appeared at the church one morning early in my ministry.  He claimed to be hungry.  You never know; sometimes they are and sometimes it’s a con.  I had some money in my pocket that day and we had a baker in that church.  I offered to take the man and get him something to eat.  He got in the car with me and we drove to the bakery.  At the counter, I said, “Whatever you want for a couple of bucks.”  He looked around at all the donuts and fine pastries and still warm loaves of bread.  Then, he asked for a bag of day-old donuts that cost one dollar.  I couldn’t believe it.  I added a bottle of milk on my own and paid the proprietor.  The stranger sat down and devoured a dozen semi-stale donuts as if hadn’t eaten in days.
I remembered asking, “Mom, I’m hungry.”
She said, “Go get yourself a slice of dry bread.”
“Just bread…plain bread,” I complained.
“You’ll eat it if you are hungry,” she said.

I thought about that while watching the man eat. I thought about bread from heaven – like manna in the desert to wandering Israelites…or bread napkins from the rich man’s table in the dreams of poor Lazarus…or sacks of flour handed down from relief trucks in drought and disaster devastated parts of the world. If you have steak and potatoes, soup and salad, ice cream and cake, bread isn’t much. Take it or leave it. If you are really hungry, bread is life.

Just bread…plain bread…everyday bread…bread you could toast with jam or spread peanut butter and jelly on or put on either side of ham and cheese.   Yet, it graces this table and becomes communion bread, the bread of heaven to those who hunger and thirst in this life.  It might not satisfy your stomach, but it can fill your soul.  It is more than bread.  This bread is symbol and not only points but also embodies that to which it points:  Bread of life – the Word of God – the Son of God – because we cannot live by bread alone but need also God’s presence in our lives.  

I can’t imagine living without Jesus in my life. Life for me is full only because Jesus tells me I am loved by the only one who really counts. Jesus shows me that love and give me hope for today and tomorrow…a hope that carries over the troubles of this time and plants heavenly plans in my head and heart. I’m like the elderly, nearly blind woman in the nursing home. She was wheeled into the circle for the Sunday afternoon service. They began to sing hymns, but she became very agitated. “Where’s the bread!” she demanded. “Where’s the bread!” She wouldn’t be quieted; she wouldn’t stop. Then the minister went to the loaf and broke off a piece. He took it and put it in her hand. She held it between her thumb and finger, quiet and content. She needed this bread. Communion bread is symbol for Jesus, the man of broken body and the life Christ gives…life freed from the burden and shackles of sin…life that has joyous satisfaction even in the darkest shadows…life that has eternity mixed already in its batter. This is more than bread.

The hard part for us sometimes is getting beyond the bread like it was for the seeking crowd and disbelieving Jews did in today’s scripture. They were stuck on the miracle and couldn’t see the sign. They couldn’t see and believe in Jesus as the bread of life. We can be stuck in the physical — just bread — and be unable to embrace the mystery.
A rabbi told this story: Jacob and Esmerelda were Spanish seraphic Jews who immigrated to Palestine. They went to Sabbath services. They listened for familiar words, not knowing modern Hebrew. “Lehem elohim.” (Bread of God). Jacob recognized those words. He went home thinking: “God loves bread.” That week Jacob made 12 loaves of bread and put them in the ark, glad to please God. Shamat, the caretaker of the synagogue had a huge family with many children and almost no money. He came that day needing bread to feed his family. He prayed for a miracle. Then he entered the worship space and smelled the aroma of the fresh bread. He took it as a gift from God.
This went on for 30 years even as the bread became lump, because arthritic fingers could no longer kneed the bread to a fine consistency. One day Jacob caught Shamat taking the bread for himself and became very angry. The two were arguing to the point of violence when the rabbi came in and intervened. They each complained as they told their side of the story. Jacob said how foolish he was for believing that God had taken the bread. Shamat said he should have known it was no miracle. “Foolish men, maybe,” the rabbi concluded, “but now comes the hard part. Jacob, you must continue to bring your bread for Shamat and believe you are giving it to God. Shamat, you must continue to take the bread, and believe it comes from God.”
Friends, now comes the hard part. We are to partake of this bread, made by human hands, blessed by human clergy and offered by human leaders, even from sinners next to us with whom we may be angry today. We must believe it comes from Jesus himself, who blessed and broke and gave bread to those who followed him. We are to take a piece of bread and believe we are given both unmerited love and forgiveness in our participation in this sacrament. Somehow the incarnation, cross and resurrection are to become efficacious for us in just plain old bread. We are to take what is ordinary and believe in the sacred. We are to do it again, what we have done maybe a thousand times, as if it was our first, eye opening and heart-warming communion experience. We are to take this bread, hungry and thirsty for what Christ alone can give. We are to believe in a miracle of love and forgiveness and heaven and Christ with us, Christ in us, Christ through us all in this bread.
It happens, maybe not every time, maybe not this time, but it happens that the bread we eat and the cup we share become the way in which Christ makes himself know to us and fills us with life anew. Some days it clicks…maybe today is on of those days for you and you will know a satisfaction that doesn’t wear off in three hours but rather real satisfaction, the very presence of the Lord.
Take. Eat. Give thanks. Expect. The Lord is with us!

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