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

 

 

11-13-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: SIGNS AND SAYINGS

LEARNING FROM LUKE: SIGNS AND SAYINGS

Luke 21: 5-11

 

As far as I know, there were no tea leaves that predicted it; no one consulted a crystal ball and saw this result. The result of Tuesday’s election made some cheer, and some despair. Sadly, only 46% of eligible voters actually voted for the president. But the election has happened; some drastically quoted the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World as We Know it!” Others cheered and said “It’s a new day; a whole new ballgame!” That it is. The new President-elect steps into the world with mostly business and celebrity experience. A tidal wave of things will change because the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives will be comprised mostly of the same party. I will be praying for our country it’s leaders like never before, hoping that they ask for God’s wisdom and guidance. We have been, and always hope to be, one nation under God.

 

Some things in our world we can predict; like hurricanes. With Doppler radar we can see when a catastrophic storm moves our way. But so many other things we cannot predict. Pundits learned that we can’t always predict election outcomes. And contrary to the song, we cannot really predict when the end of the world will be. We hope the end of the world is not even a dream in the mind of God, and so we do well to take care of our earth and preclude escalated warfare to the point of annihilation.

 

But there was a time, ages ago, when our Savior shocked the residents of Jerusalem. He predicted the destruction of the Temple. That event changed the religious world forever. Jews still visit and revere the only remaining wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. How shocking for Jesus to predict such devastation. To hear a prediction for the destruction of the Temple would be akin to a Mormon hearing a prediction that the Temple in Salt Lake would be flattened. It would be more devastating news than the destruction of just a church building; it would destroy a building they believe is consecrated by God where holy and eternal marriages take place among other ceremonies. It would be a punch in the gut to all who love that Holy place.  So when Jesus predicted such a thing the people were in disbelief, not for the first time, nor for the last time. They asked him: “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” If it were the result of an election that was predicted, the sign might have been as easy as people getting fed up with Washington. But Jesus started his answer with a warning: “Beware that you are not led astray.” This is a reminder that no matter who leads our country or who leads our churches, we vote with our heads, our hearts, and souls fully engaged. We vote listening to God for what true North is. And then, we pray for our leaders. In our American form of government, as in our Presbyterian form of government, we even get to give ideas, to voice encouragement, or to express objection to our leaders. We need not sit helplessly by until the next election. We can share our wisdom and hopes with our leaders.

 

Jesus, in his response to the question he was asked, reminded people that false messiahs will come their way. He then cautioned his listeners saying “Many will come in my name; do not follow them.” Then he used words to try to calm their fears: “When you hear of wars and violent uprisings against authority, do not be terrified. These things will happen, but the end is not yet.” Around 33 A.D. Jesus said those words. And yes, they still are prescriptive words for today. “When you hear of wars and violent uprisings against authority, do not be terrified. These things will happen, but the end is not yet.”  Our world has experienced wars and violent uprisings; a lot in the Middle East, including Israel. But even in our own country, the War Between the States (Or the Civil War) was the bloodiest war on our soil. Insurrection and violence permeated our lands and our governments. And yet we survived; those in the South and those in the North still called Jesus their Savior in the midst of it all, even though families were torn asunder. History will never forget those events. And we would be foolish not to learn from them. Fighting amongst ourselves breeds seething resentment without our Higher Power—without the God who did not judge and destroy the warring human race, but chose to redeem and save those who turned toward True North again; to our Creator God, and to his Christ, as Handel quoted in his masterpiece work, “Messiah.”

 

Today we do not have a physical or geographic divide in our country. But we certainly have a divide.  Shall we let the campaign of the past two years, and all of the unrest in America before that, create deep-seated grudges as happened in 1865, grudges that still are manifested today, 150 years later? “God help us. God help us not to hold on to hateful dividing rhetoric or actions between north and south, or red and blue. Help us to work together to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you.”

Undisciplined human nature chooses revenge, retaliation, and violence. Disciplined human nature, guided from above, chooses the road less travelled: love, mercy, and new beginnings.

 

Let’s read the words of Jesus again: “Nation will rise against nation.” May God help us to avoid escalating any national conflicts. They have happened before, and it is predicted that they will happen again. May it not be on our watch.  May our complicity as citizens of the Kingdom of God lead us to connect with others, not get stuck in the rut of criticism. When nations rise against nations the results can include injury, murder, retaliation, and rage.  Those are human-created calamities. They can be managed at least, or avoided at best, to avoid the high cost of conflict. Then there are events from nature—earthquakes, hurricane, droughts, and plagues to name a few—they don’t usually drive wedges between nations or states, but instead bring them together. How many tree trucks have you seen from other states working to pick up the curbside piles caused by Hurricane Matthew? How may power trucks from other states did you see in the 72 hours after the fierce wind? And today, we continue to fund food for hungry people because of a vision to deal with famine that began in 1947. Originally CROP stood for the Christian Rural Overseas Program designed to help Midwest farm families share their crops with hungry people, initially in Europe and Asia. After the first crisis passed, needs were identified in our own country, so CROP Walks now raise money for national food assistance.  What a difference we can make if nations help nations, and states help other states, and neighbors help other neighbors.

 

Today we revisit the words of our Lord Jesus. Scrutinize leaders carefully. Once in power, pray for them. Pray for those you think are your enemies. And lift a hand to help neighbors.

 

Since it was written in 1772, the hymn “Blest Be the Tie That Binds our Hearts in Christian Love” has been a call to work side by side and hand in hand with one another. Perhaps it is optimistic for our pessimistic world, but there are weeks, like this one, when its words call us to a higher response than hate. Search your heart, and at the end of the service, perhaps you’ll join me in the sung affirmation of the day: “Blest Be the Tie That Binds our Hearts in Christian Love.”

 

Let us pray:

Today O Lord, we especially pray for those elected, and those not elected, this past Tuesday.  We offer compassion for those who are deeply disappointed, and we pray for wisdom for those about to lead. Help us to even pray for those who think about politics differently from the way we do, so that divides can be bridged, Help churches to take the lead in this endeavor.  Help us do unto others, as we would have others do unto us.

Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 November 13, 2016

 

 

11-06-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: THE TEST

LEARNING FROM LUKE: THE TEST

Luke 20: 27-38

 

One of the traits of human beings is being suspicious. Sometimes married men are suspicious of other men, and sometimes married women are suspicious of other women. When we walk through a dark part of town and see someone lurking, our suspicions may rise. As our election is coming to a close this week, people who support one candidate are largely suspicious of the other candidate. People of faith may have suspicions in a new church they are attending if church leaders in their last congregation betrayed the people. And religious people through the ages have been suspicious of any one who claims to be the Messiah or says he’s has heard a message directly from God.

 

Last week was Reformation Sunday, and I reminded the congregation how far we had come in Protestant-Roman Catholic relations. Pope Frances even attended a Reformation Service that was held on Monday, All Hallows’ Eve, 499 years after Martin Luther tacked the 95 Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Over the years Catholics and Protestants have cast suspicious glances at each other’s practices. The Rev. Bill Deprater offers an example of how suspicions arise.

In the Roman Catholic service [he wrote], the Eucharist was the central focus of worship, an elevated altar and rail separating the chancel from the nave. The Roman Catholic Church certainly honored the Scripture by carrying the Bible around the sanctuary with great ceremony. Yet the priest rarely read or preached from the Bible. Further, as the service [used to be] in Latin, the people could not understand what was being said during the worship service. The church leadership, however, did not feel that the people needed to understand Latin as long as the priest pronounced the words correctly. The result was the spread of superstition. For example, the phrase, “hocus pocus” was a corruption of the Latin phrase “Hoc est corpus meum.” “This is my body.”

 

Isn’t that interesting? When we feel uniformed, or suspicious, many scoff at practices we don’t understand.

 

In political campaigns, sometimes people ask questions not with the goal of gaining information, but to trap or test their opponent.  Today’s text from Luke 20 contains one example of a question asked as a test.  Verse 27 says “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him this question.” They asked him a complicated question based on Mosaic Law and their belief that only Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were Scripture. Their question was a way to test and corner Jesus, not discover information. After all, their question was based on life after death.  But Sadducees did not believe in a life after death, they just  asked the question as if they did. You might ask “Why didn’t they believe in a life after death?”  Well the Sadducees were a group of conservative Jews who said life beyond death was not described in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) so they did not believe in it.  It is like our Christian brothers and sister in the Church of Christ (not the United Church of Christ). They believe that only the New Testament is Scripture, and the New Testament does not mention musical instruments except the human voice (remember I told you last week about Paul and Silas singing in prison, mentioned in Acts 16). So those in the Church of Christ just sing acapella, that is, without accompaniment! Conversely, Presbyterians and many other Christians believe the entire Bible is Scripture, and the Psalms are filled with instruments! Unlike the Sadducees, Pharisees believed that all of what we call the Old Testament was Scripture, and in those pages stories of people going up to Heaven can be found, including their prized prophet Elijah being taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind according to Second Kings 2:11! So they believed a life after death was possible, but they were not the ones asking the question!

 

Again in the world of the Sadducees, before welfare, there was what was called a Levirate Law, recorded in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, that required a man, even if married, to also marry the widow of his deceased brother to offer protection and financial support. It was a slightly complicated policy to care for a woman suddenly alone. But the Sadducees, remember, didn’t really want to know how that kind of thing would happen in the afterlife. They didn’t believe in the afterlife! So Jesus told them what he tells us: what we do in this life is different from what we will do in the next life. No one gets married in the next life, because the next life is so different from this life. There will be blessings, yes; there will be joy; yes. But not the possible complications and entanglements of new marriages!  Also, Jesus adds, Moses himself talked about God being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—all present tense, not past tense. Therefore if God is the God of the living and not of the dead, he is their God too, and they must be still alive in some sense!  Jesus had an answer, but not to the test question that was asked of him.

 

Today we do not know a lot about Heaven and the resurrected life. We are told it will be a place of great beauty in Revelation 22, and that people will not cry or be sad or have pain anymore there because that is part of this life according to Revelation 21.  With my father’s death this past June still affecting me and my family, I tell you that I believe I will hear from him again, and perhaps see him again. On a day like today, I picture him, and other faithful men and women I’ve loved, coming to join us for this meal  called “The Communion of Saints.” God is the God of the living, and they are very much alive too!

 

So, let’s prepare to share this special meal with them, and with the Lord who saves us all, the Lord who passed “the test.”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          November 6, 2016

 

10-30-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: Little Man Lost

sermon audio unavailable for this week

LEARNING FROM LUKE: Little Man Lost

Luke 19:1-10

 

For all thirty-five years of my ordained ministry, I have taught Elder Training to those elected by the congregation to serve. To begin each session, I ask each person to divide up his or her life into three parts, and to think about their awareness of God in any number of events: growing up, going to church, going to school, moving to a new neighborhood, perhaps being baptized as an adult or going through confirmation. If they were married, I ask about their thoughts about your God at their wedding, and if they divorced, were they feeling close to God, or far away then?  And what about during an illness or an accident, and even the death for family or friends? I ask them to describe if they felt like God was close by or was far away; if they still believed in God or if their belief wavered or went away.

 

These are called “Faith Stories” and they are most helpful to formulate and put down on paper. You might even do it yourself so your children or other relatives know.  I have found that, “the more you tell your story, the more you’ll have a story to tell.” Without my assignment, many say: “I don’t have a faith story.” But you do! You just need a reason to write or tell your story. Further, I ask those I am training, as I ask you now, if you can name when you turned to Christ from some other path.  A number of those I trained said: “It’s hard to tell. I grew up in the church, felt loved and welcomed, and always felt like Jesus was with me.” There are plenty of people with that kind of experience. But at some point, if you joined the church, you declared: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!”  That is your first day of real Christianity. Before you might have been in a Christian family, but Jesus was always waiting to hear from you: “Who do you say that I am?” And he hopes to hear from you, “You are Jesus, my Lord and Savior.”  I remember when I first said that. I was thirteen years old in April of 1969.  My parents wanted me to answer baptism questions at “an age of understanding,” so the day I claimed Jesus as my Savior was the day I was baptized at the end of my  “Communicants Class.” But there are others, who I’ve trained as elders, and others here today, who had a kind of awakening; a “born again” experience. Some said that before that time of decision they were living oblivious to God, or in conflict with God, or even in open rebellion against God. Some of those people were incarcerated; some got addicted to alcohol or drugs, and some were violent. And others were just non-believers. Then one day they met the Lord, and salvation came to their house that day! Some can tell me the exact day when their life changed, when they turned their old willful life over to Christ.

 

There are examples of both kinds of transformations in history. Some are transformed into Christians over time; and some are changed “in the twinkling of an eye.”  Timothy in the Bible is an example of one transformed over time. His mother and grandmother were believers in God and had great influence over him. They were faithful Jews just at the time when the story of Jesus began to be shared. Paul said this to young Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. [2 Timothy 1:5] Paul, on the other hand, found Christ suddenly. He was a rabid persecutor of Christians, actually giving the order to execute one called Stephen. Paul’s name was Saul in those days. But then one day, (in Acts chapter 9), the Lord Jesus appeared to Saul in a “light from heaven,” and Saul fell to the ground. He heard a voice ask: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” From that confrontation, Saul began to change. Astoundingly, instead of persecuting Jesus, he began to call him “Lord.”  He was baptized in Jesus’ name, and in one synagogue he visited he began to proclaim: “He is the Son of God.”  That’s perhaps the most famous conversion story. But there are others. Did you realize that the Luke passage for today is another conversion story? Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus, but he was mostly a scorned tax collector. The public believed he took their money and kept huge amounts for himself, so he was most unpopular. And even though history has shown that people were, on average, shorter centuries ago than they are today, Zacchaeus was much shorter.  The Bible says he was “short in stature.” The song I learned as a child declared that: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he!” Hmm. Sounds like that was written by a Scotsman! Anyway, the real point of the story is lost on children, and on adults who last went to Sunday School as a child. This is another salvation story. It’s the story of a man who was lost, but then was found. Jesus told the little man that climbed up in that sycamore tree: “come on down! For I’m going to your house today!”  Did Zacchaeus wonder if his house was presentable for guests? Did he stumble down the tree and say “No Jesus, maybe another time?” No. The Bible says “He hurried down and was happy to welcome him!” Something amazing was about to happen! Even so, the crowd grumbled, because they had, rightly or wrongly, named Zacchaeus a “sinner.” But right before their eyes the man who was called a “sinner” started giving away his money! All of a sudden, Zacchaeus was everyone’s new best friend! “Zach! Zach! You are my new best friend!” I can imagine someone saying. Sinner or not, he was giving away money! Isn’t it amazing how easily they, and we, can be bought? But there was more to it than that. As Zacchaeus started giving away half of his money, Jesus declared: “Today salvation has come to this house!” Did you hear that? He didn’t say justice was done, or the poor are getting money. That wasn’t what Jesus saw. He saw Zacchaeus’ heart change, and that change, that desire to follow and honor Jesus, saved him. It saves everyone. The desire, and then the decision, to follow Jesus, saves others besides that “wee little man.” It saved me; it saved our elders and church members. And perhaps it saved you too!

 

There are so many salvation stories and no two are alike. Listen to this account from the Rev. Billy Graham. Today he is weak and frail, but in his prime he saved so many souls for Christ! In his sermon called “Saved or Lost?” he declared:

John Newton wrote the song “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, the saved a wretch like me.” Do you know how John Newton was converted? He was converted because he was scared to death in a thunderstorm at sea. Do you know how Martin Luther [the great Reformer] came to Christ? Martin Luther was converted in a thunderstorm….There are a lot of people who think they have to go back and straighten up their lives and change themselves in some way, change their situations, and then they can come to Christ. No, you come just as you are, and it is so simple that millions stumble over it. You don’t have to straighten out your life first. You don’t have to make things right at home or in your business first. You don’t have to try to give up some habit that is keeping you from God. You can come as you are. The blind man came as he was; the leper came as he was; Mary Magdalene with seven devils came as she was; the thief on the cross came as he was. [20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Volume 12, Word Publishing, 1971, p. 308]

 

You may recall that when Paul was in Philippi, “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and was a dealer in  purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” [Acts 16] And she was baptized. Later in chapter 16, Paul and his colleague Silas were imprisoned because they sent demons out of a possessed woman, and the one controlling the woman could no longer make money off of her fortunetelling. So he reported Paul and Silas to the authorities and they were arrested. While in prison, about midnight, they began to sing hymns to God! Then a great earthquake violently shook the prison, and the doors broke loose and flew open! And chains became unfettered. Did you know that jailers who had prisoners escape on their watch in those days were brutally killed? Thinking his prisoners escaped, that jailer was about to fall on his own sword, But Paul and Silas stopped him, crying out “Don’t do that! We are here!” The jailer was so amazed at their faith in God that he asked how he could have what they had. And according to Acts 16:31, Paul told him: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.”

 

Friends, do you see the different ways that salvation came to different people’s lives? Sometimes people come to Jesus progressively and slowly, surrounded by faithful and praying parents or grandparents. Others come “in the twinkling of an eye.”  If you know Jesus as your Savior, you have a story to tell too! Perhaps it’s not as dramatic as others, but it has the same result: that you claim, or reclaim, the faith by saying: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.”  What a difference that has at death, when a person dies knowing Jesus, compared to the ones who die without knowing him! What a difference it has during this earthly life, when you have a Savior!

 

Zacchaeus found joy when he gave others half of what he had, and Jesus said that salvation came to his house that day. John Newton was busy selling and torturing slaves as commodities when he called on Jesus and salvation came to him.. Martin Luther was struggling with the faith he had learned through the lens of his priestly training when the Holy Spirit made his eyes fall on Romans 1:17: “the just,[or the righteous ones] shall live by faith.” He then found salvation and a new Reformation began. So many stories, but only one Savior! What’s your story? Remember: the more you tell your story, no matter how significant it may sound, the more you will have a story to tell. And it will keep grounding you in Jesus as Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 October 30, 2016

10-23-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: THE SPIRIT OF GIVING

sermon audio not available for this week

LEARNING FROM LUKE: THE SPIRIT OF GIVING

Luke 18: 9-14

 

Several years ago I went to visit parishioners in their home.  They had some changes in their lives they wanted to share. As I was about to leave, the man said, “Say, I have one more thing to ask you, preacher! Why do we always have to do a prayer of confession at church every week?” I told him it was a general confession of sinfulness, not a personal prayer of confession, acknowledging to God that we realize we sin. “That’s just it,” the man said, “I don’t think I do.”  “You don’t think you sin?” I asked him.  “No” he said, I try to do the right thing in my life.” “I too try to do the right thing in my life,” I told him, but I also sin. “Hmmm.” He said. “I don’t.” “Do you know what a sin is?” I asked him. Then I went on: “Do you always put God first, not letting other people or things take precedent over God? Do you never take God’s name in vain, do you always honor the Sabbath, did you always honor your father and your mother; have you been faithful in your marital relations; have you never taken something that doesn’t belong to you, have you never lied, and have you never envied what someone else had?” I paused to come up for air. I could have gone on to list the sins of gluttony, lust, fornication, greed, pride, vanity, sloth but I didn’t.  He took a minute, as if doing a personal inventory. “No, no I don’t believe I’ve done those.” “Well,” I said, “This is the first time I’ve met someone like you!” And then I took a little longer to explain some things to him.  I’ll share them with you now. It’s based on our passage today. Jesus shares his editorial cartoon with his listeners again this week, an editorial that we call a parable. Today we heard the story of the Pharisee,  and the tax collector, (sometimes called the “Publican.”)  The Pharisee, like the parishioner I described, believed that he was not a sinner. “O God” he called out in self-righteous arrogance, “I thank you that I am not like other people” (and I picture him looking accusingly at the tax collector when he said this in his vocal prayer) “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector.” Today friends, I want to tell you why, in Christian theology, there is no place in the Kingdom of God for people who do not believe they sin. Yes, in our world many people don’t want to be around needy, whiny, dependent people. America, after all, was founded with a Declaration of Independence, not a declaration of dependence. We honor people—independent people—who get the job done. Many people say they are quoting the Bible when they tell their friends, or the homeless people who ask for things, “God helps those who help themselves.” Those words, perhaps first penned by Englishman Algernon Sydney—a member of Parliament who is credited with writing many of the tenets of free western civilizations—were most famously used by Ben Franklin, in his famous “Poor Richard’s Almanac!” So although it is an idea that capitalists like, as a point of salvation it is misleading. “How can it be misleading?” you ask. Because no matter how many good deeds you do; no matter how many nice kind actions you offer; all your efforts do not add up enough to save your soul. Here is what the Bible says: “All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) That man I spoke to years ago sins; the Pharisee in the story sins; politicians sin; even Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts sin!  We know from the headlines that many sports figures and entertainment figures sin; no matter where you live, no matter where you worship, you are surrounded by sinners! We’re all surrounded by sinners. This might sound like bad news to you, or skewed thinking. But no. That is salvation thinking! It becomes good news!  Why? Because only sinners need saving from their sins! Only sinners acknowledge that they need a Savior; sometimes they do it on their knees, or they cry out in prayer, or they come forward during a church revival and, crumbling, acknowledge how much they need Jesus. It’s not really the American way, to say we need a Savior. But it is the way of those who follow Jesus.

 

Acknowledging the need for a Savior highlights your shortcomings, allows them to be pulled up in front of you for self-examination and reflection. It is what people like the tax collector do; and they say:  “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” There is no mercy offered to those who think they need no mercy. There is no forgiveness offered to those who believe they’ve done nothing that calls for forgiveness. What Jesus was teaching in his editorial for today, his parable, is just that: we all need to be like the tax collector; not like the religious man who thought self-assuredly that because he went to religious services and paid his tithe he had somehow “earned” his salvation. He did not, and he does not. No one can earn salvation, nor can anyone achieve it by their own striving for perfection. Salvation in this life, and Heavenly reward in the next life, is a gift. It is not you pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It is you throwing yourself on the mercy of the court, allowing Jesus to buy your forgiveness and salvation with his life, and his death on a terrible cross that stood outside of the gates of Jerusalem. You see, God loves you, and God loves me, and has a wonderful plan for our lives! Jesus said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly!” “(John 10:10) You may think you have a good life without Jesus, but Jesus offers you an abundant life with him. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans, sin separates us from God, and no amount of good works or good deeds can span that divide.

 

In Jesus’ day, faithful Jews would come to the Temple once a year, with animals or with money, to pay the price for their sins. As they arrived, moneychangers would take their Roman money (if that’s what they brought) and change it into Shekels, or Temple money. With that money they could by an animal that was deemed by a priest to be the right payment for their sins that year. The purchase was made and the animal was sent in for the sacrifice, to “pay for their sins.” One such special holy day is called “Yom Kippur,” or “Day of Atonement:” the day of squaring the debt—the account—with God. On Passover, another holy day, usually an unblemished lamb was sacrificed to pay for the sins of the Hebrew Nation. But on one specific Passover Friday, over 2000 years ago, the moment that the lamb was sacrificed in the Temple for the sins of the Hebrew Nation, outside of the city, in a public place, a man called Jesus—also called the Lamb of God—was sacrificed for the sins of the world. That death, and that death alone, paid the price for the sins of the whole world, for those who believe in the one who took the nails. For those who look at him and say, “You are my Savior,” there is good news! You are saved; you are loved, and nothing more needs to be done regarding your salvation. As with other gifts, the best response to a gift is gratitude, and changes of attitude and of actions that reflect that gratitude. So, the gift of eternal life calls for our lives to demonstrate gratitude. How do we do that? Some do it with their means: by giving from what God has given them so others may have help and hope. Still others do it with their actions: going out in mission to feed the hungry and help give shelter to the homeless (not to put another star in their crown, but to give thanks to God in humbleness). We are showing God that we understand that we are forgiven sinners, and that living as if we are good enough to need no repentance and forgiveness is folly.

 

This, then, is the salvation story. And those who give of their time, their talents, and their treasure show God their gratitude. That is the Christian spirit of giving; not payment for forgiveness; not a down payment on Heaven, but a way to equip the church to invite others to have this abundant life. Today we’ve been energized by a story of one who thought he did not sin, and one who knew he did. So we carry out the Great Commission. Jesus said it this way in Matthew 28: “Go into all the world, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” What a Lord; what a God; a God whose giving knows no ending. Lets go tell it on the mountains, on the beaches, and in the towns: the Savior is here. Jesus Christ is Lord.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          October 23, 2016

 

10-16-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: Vindication

LEARNING FROM LUKE: Vindication
Luke 18: 1-8

The political and social climate of the first century world was clearly different from that of our twenty-first century. One would think that, after 2000 years, we would have made peace with people of different cultures, genders, and incomes. But alas, we have not. We still have inequality of earnings between different groups and inequality of opportunity. In Jesus’ day, Romans ruled the world and Jewish men ruled religion, poor men begged and poor women (usually widows) also begged or prostituted themselves. There were haves and have nots. There were those with power and those without. In some ways things have not changed in 2000 years.

If you were here other times this fall, you’ve heard me say how, in a play or a film, I try to figure out who the redemptive person is, the one, I said, “wearing the white hat.” They are sometimes tough to spot. Editorials in our day can be biting, insightful, or sarcastic, and political cartoons comment on the current state of affairs. But in Jesus’ day, aside from graffiti etched on public walls, no such written means for of discourse were widely used. But Jesus did learn the ways of the world. How? Growing up in Nazareth, there would have been little work to sustain a carpenter, (literally a teckton, or stone mason) certainly not enough to make a living. So most scholars believe that Jesus, and perhaps his father, would have found work in the nearby Roman city of Sephoris. There they would have built structures along side of other men who were Roman, Jewish, or perhaps even Syrian. They would have heard the talk of the day, much like we form our opinions by watching news, reading blogs or newspapers, or talking with friends. Jesus would have heard the prejudice, the frustration, and the heartaches of men with whom he worked. So later as he began his ministry, some believe his parables were part comic section, part editorial section, and part blog for the first century world. The parables were not children’s stories. They are adult stories often told with surprising turns of events. Just as Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” is not a child’s comic, but a biting commentary on current events, so editorials are often written like that. News stories by the media are supposed to have a firm line between facts and opinions, but the line has been clearly blurred in the past 25 years. In Jesus’ day, it was men in town squares, or women at markets, who shared opinions with each other. But there was a new man in town who was riveting with his stories and insightful with his comments. It was Jesus of Nazareth, and he shared his opinions in parables.

In today’s parable, the two main characters are a judge and a widow. When I was growing up, respect for judges was almost beyond reproach, but in recent years even judges have come under attack. Conversely when one thinks about widows, and our church has a number of them, first century stereotypes do not fit. So today, let’s look at this widow, and this judge, with fresh eyes. It is Luke, the narrator of our text, who tells the reader: “ Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” Even though Luke has the best of intentions, he puts his own spin on Jesus’ parable, telling us what HE believes it is about before we hear it. That colors our hearing of the story. Mary Ann, for example, does not like to hear what a movie is about, and certainly not about the ending, before she sees it for herself. I, on the other hand, love people like Luke to guide me: tell me what I’m about to see and hear! The world has both kinds, but if you want to hear this parable afresh, do not read Luke’s interpretation first! As we continue, Luke records exactly what Jesus said: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Already my head whirls, does yours? In am from America, a nation whose coinage says “In God we Trust,” and where some state Supreme Court buildings have had religious writings like the Ten Commandments. To hear that a judge does not respect God makes me question the judge, though if I think it through, there are probably decent judges who are agnostic. But I need to digest what I am hearing. Further, this judge also did not respect people. So that means what? If God is not his authority, and if he doesn’t respect others, does that mean he is his own final authority? Frightening. Who can gain reflection or insights without consulting others? Yet this judge consults no one but himself, as I read it, because he respects no one but himself. So he’s a judge, but maybe he’s not the good guy in this story. Jesus then goes on: “In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’” In the first century, often widows were helpless and needy because the only breadwinner of the household had died. But if this widow had children (and we don’t know if she did) then it changes the story. I have seen single parent women do herculean things to try to provide for her children, working long hours, doing demeaning things, or gaining a backbone to stand up against power and injustice. This, I suspect, was just such a widow: the one who seems weak until an injustice is done; then she seems powerful, present, and in your face.

Again, we may need to keep changing our frame of reference in this parable to understand it. As one New Testament professor put it:
Is the parable about how “You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down”? Or is it about “Persistence in Prayer”? Is it a comic parable meant to make us laugh at the ludicrous picture of a powerful judge cowering before a helpless old widow? Or is it a deadly serious portrait of one small victory for justice in the faith of shameless systems of rampant injustice? [Barbara Reid, Parables for Preachers, Year C, 2000, The Liturgical Press, p. 228]

So is she—the widow—the redemptive character in the story? Let’s look back at the judge, and what Jesus says that he is thinking. According to Jesus, the Judge thinks: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for people, because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me down by continually coming.”
I like the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Jimmy Stewart’s character has pure motive and an innocence of character that makes him believe our government works the way the textbooks say it’s supposed to work. Do you mean to tell me that some judges, at least the one in the story, make decisions based on expediency and levels of irritation? Mr. Smith and I hope that those who sit behind a bench provide a fair trial and due process. But reports, even in the past year, have come out about one judge and an attorney left a courtroom full of people here in Florida to have a fist fight outside! So there is a human factor in justice. Not every judge is like the one in the parable, but that one is. And not every widow is like the one in the parable, but that one is. After this part of the parable is told, Jesus said to the crowd, (and to us as we hear it): “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” Did you hear that? Even Jesus calls him an “unjust judge.” This judge is not God. This judge is not even a good judge. He is one who passes unjust judgments. The quotation marks in the passage are puzzling, making it sound like the entire rest of the passage is said by the judge; but they are said by Jesus actually, as interpretation, like an editorial cartoon of its day. So we have an unjust judge; and we have a widow who needs a good decision offered by the court and she needs it now. But with whom should we identify, if at all, as Jesus goes on to say “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” Ah. Now we have it. Now we have the point of this editorial message called a parable. If a judge that did not fear God nor respect others answered the persistent cry of a widow, how much more will a just judge—like God—listen to and often grant the heartfelt and tearful requests of people our Lord not only cares about, but loves?

So we close looking at the example of Hurricane Matthew. part “As that storm was coming up the east coast of Florida, it was stayed off shore. At one point south of New Smyrna Beach, it jogged west, coming perilously close to making landfall. But people who love this church, and who love their Lord, in this community, across this country, and even across the globe were praying, not just that people would be spared, but that the hurricane would move east, just enough to spare the church building too. Even our missionaries in Sri Lanka were praying that our church building, and our congregation, were spared. And a widow in Pennsylvania, who used to be a Winter Visitor here for years, called my home to ask if her congregational prayers had spared our church. And the hurricane track, if you look back on a weather map, jogged east just off of Daytona Beach! That’s a fact; the editorial musing of a man of faith wonders if our prayers pleaded enough that the hand of God moved the storm right. There is often a debate between science and faith; perhaps something scientific moved the storm. But Jesus taught us, using flawed characters, that if a persistent but powerless widow can get her desired outcome from an unjust judge, why wouldn’t we try asking the just judge of the ages for things that will bring safety and gratitude to many people? Let’s not be afraid to ask.

Let us pray:
Dear Great Judge of us all: some here today plead with you for a good outcome of a procedure, a surgery, or an illness. Some need financial help or human assistance to help put their homes back in order. Hear their prayers for you to intercede in their lives, make changes that will bring others relief, and bring you glory and gratitude. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 16, 2016

10-09-16 Thankfulness

 

What a day to hear a word about gratitude!
Even though many of us are still cleaning and repairing and putting our lives back in order, we can identify with this passage today, can’t we?
After all, for these ten lepers, finding out they had leprosy ended their lives. It was not just that it was fatal, though it was. Leprosy meant that they were immediately cast out, away from their lives, from their homes, from their friends and family and everyone they loved. Leprosy meant that they were doomed to exile until the disease finally ended them.
To be healed from that, to have their lives given back to them, must have been mind blowing. All of a sudden they could return to the loved ones they thought they had said goodbye to forever.
They were given hope again.
Now, none of us were suffering from leprosy this week, I assume, but there were times when the forecasters seemed convinced that the whole area would be blown out to sea. And losing your home to a disaster is pretty life changing for any of us. Living on beach side meant I had to evacuate my home at the risk of injury. Though I have lived here for nearly nine years, this was my first hurricane, and being told I had to leave my home was more than a little scary.
And yet, Matthew managed to stay just far enough off the coast. Yes, we had flooding and downed trees and debris all over the place, but it could have been so much worse. As it was for the nation of Haiti. The death toll has nearly reached 900 people and they still cannot get relief to the remote parts of the island. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed.
I am grateful that we were not hit like that. And at the same time, my heart goes out to them knowing that it could have been me. Knowing I could have come home to the same sort of devastation if the winds had moved just a little bit differently. I am so grateful and that gratitude moves me to respond. In this case, by donating to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and their efforts in Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean. PDA is the relief effort I give to the most often because 100% of the donation actually goes directly to help, instead of paying administrative
costs. In my gratitude, I give to others.
In our passage, Jesus does not heal the ten right then and there, but sends them to the priest for examination. It was only the priest’s okay that could end their unclean status, that could usher them back into normal associations. I think took a real act of faith for them to turn around and start walking, to assume healing and head into temple as if they were allowed to be there. But it was in this act they were healed, while they were on the way.

 

10-02-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: Faith

LEARNING FROM LUKE: Faith
Luke 17: 5-6

There was a time when I was young that my friends and I went up to a neighborhood school to play football. This was sandlot football, so we loosely used football rules. We used no helmets, but we called it “two hand touch” football, which meant you had to touch the runner two hands below his waist for it to be counted at a tackle. The trouble was, when I would touch one guy with both hands as he was running with the ball, he wouldn’t stop! I told the team that I touched him, and he said “no he didn’t!” I DID touch him; with two hands, but my friends believed the runner. That kind of thing happened another time that day. “He stepped out of bounds!” I shouted as he ran for a touchdown. I saw him do it. “No I didn’t” said the runner! I came home that night and said to my mother: “I am never going to play with them again!!” She asked me what happened, and I told her. She said, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I asked her what she meant. She said this, as I remember it: “Don’t make everyone an enemy just because of one person or one day. Wait for another day and things could go your way.” I think that is good advice. And I did eventually play football with them again. It’s a good idea not to right a group of people off just because of the actions of one person. In our day, for example, many people have no use for those who support the political candidates of the opposite party. I remember my social studies teacher bringing in an actual demonstration election machine to our high school class; the kind other states have, with levers to pull next to people’s names. “Now if you want to always vote straight ticket” he said, you can save time and just pull this lever on the left, or this lever on the right. Many people do that.” But in my class, we had people who voted on people for their merits, some were from one party and some from the other. Maybe we didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater! After a bad experience with a car salesman, it took one helpful, apologetic, and honest salesperson in 1997 to restore my trust in that industry. I’ve decided there are honest salespeople, and dishonest ones, but I won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. But seeds of doubt are sown everywhere. Many people now have to rely on Angie’s List, HomeAdvisor, and other sites to find good and trustworthy professionals. Supplying references and recommendations when applying for jobs are always a must. We are a skeptical society; we have gotten burned before, and we fall back on old maxims. Not just hopeful ones like: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” But also skeptical ones like: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” As the group “The Who” sang it, we declare: “We won’t get fooled again!”

Today as we think about the words the apostles said to Jesus—“Increase our faith!” many people just relate faith as to moving mountains. But that’s just an illustration. Most people assume the disciples were asking for their faith to be increased regarding God; but it doesn’t say that. What if they were asking to have their faith restored in humanity; in people? Perhaps that is another area where we need the faith of a mustard seed. As I read the gospels, I notice how Jesus keeps showing his disciples how to have faith in others too; not just in God. Jesus encouraged putting faith in women, not just men; in Samaritans, not just Jews; in Romans, not just Galileans .In Jesus’ day people hated the Romans, at least in general terms. They oppressed the people of Judah and taxed excessively. Was a measure of faith restored when a Roman guard, called a Centurion, was the first to declare that Jesus was the Son of God? Also, poorer Jews resented those of power and means, and even Jesus struggled with them. But did minds change when a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea—gave away his family tomb so Jesus could have a decent burial? Sometimes we need to “have a little faith” in groups we might normally dismiss. Could that be one reason Jesus chose the Twelve he chose, to have them sit at table with men they might not have liked very much? For example, why in the world would Jesus chose a tax collector as an Apostle? And yet he chose Matthew, also called “Levi.” In the book called Jesus and the Twelve, the author writes: “As a class, tax-collectors were generally grasping and extortionate. It is not surprising that the Jews disliked them and refused to associate with them.” Perhaps some of the Twelve were thinking: “Jesus! What are you doing? Why choose a tax collector? Do you hope the faith of a mustard seed will grow within us because of this?

Jesus made other questionable choices as disciples too; like Simon who was a Zealot. Again in the book Jesus and the Twelve, the author writes: “Their tactics were similar to those used by political terrorists today: they killed frequently, attacking both foreigners and Jews whom they suspected of collaboration.” Goodness. In addition, Jesus selected a true skeptic too, not a “Yes-man.” His name was Thomas, and he got the name in perpetuity as “Doubting Thomas.” And the elephant in the room was Jesus’ choice of Judas. I do not believe that Jesus bumbled into the selection of his apostles with no prior planning. I do not believe Jesus just picked the first 12 men he encountered. So why wouldn’t he get an “A-team” of the “best of the best?” Perhaps Jesus’ message is not just about having faith in God; perhaps it is also to having greater faith in those that we would normally dismiss? “Lord, increase our faith!” Increase our faith in a God we cannot see, and in these people you’ve called to be at table with us! Increase our faith in one another!

Would you consider hiring someone who has spent time in jail? Some of the men in Tobias Caskey’s Friends of Francis ministry hope you will; they are men who work every day to turn their life around. Will you try to increase your faith in people like that? Now here’s a tougher question: Can you consider increasing your faith in someone who supports the other presidential candidate? Could that person have some things of value to offer you, as you have things of value to offer to them? You are sitting with some of them today, preparing to break bread with them. Can we increase our faith in one another?

People historically who lose their faith in humanity become recluses; some get dug out of their houses of filth and hoarding; and some, like Howard Hughes, become reclusive and increasingly eccentric. Again we hear the disciples asking for Jesus to “Increase our faith!” Instead of saying “I’ve never trusted (and here you fill in the group of people you’ve never trusted), and I never will,” could you believe that Jesus deliberately choose certain disciples to sit side by side with ones they normally didn’t trust? Jesus even engaged Samaritans in conversation south of Galilee; he talked to a Syrian-Phoenician woman northwest of Galilee; and he acknowledged people with diseases who others shunned. Perhaps Jesus was demonstrating how to have some faith in the human race; faith in others who also have his Heavenly Father’s heart. Some commentators have suggested that we, like the Twelve, already have a seed of faith planted deep within us; we do not have to go on a treasure hunt for faith; it is already in us. Can we water that seed of faith with some optimisim, instead of letting it grow wild into a seed of doubt? Can we tend the seed of faith so it doesn’t start to die, manifesting skepticism or grudges? If we can have a little faith, Jesus can use even us, not because we are special, but because he calls us—great and small, strong and weak—to go into the world and connect with others. Sometimes you can reach a person who your neighbor cannot; and sometimes your neighbor can reach someone you couldn’t. The people gathered at this communion table are people of different cultures, political parties, and ethnicities, here to share the food that he has prepared. It’s like the Last Supper only bigger, and more joyous! Many are at table around the world today. And the make-up of those gathered today, like that original Twelve, is just the collection of people Jesus wants. I suspect that God is looking at our table stretched around the world today, and saying, “Behold, it is very good.”
May you reconsider your relationship to others in the human race, trying to have a little extra faith, and not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Let us pray:
Dear Lord Jesus: some of the Twelve were certainly astonished when you chose them to learn from you and eat with you. Some here today are also humble in your choice of them. We will eat with gratitude today, and will pledge to try to see others in our world a little differently, through new eyes, knowing how many Christians from many nations have joined you, dear Jesus, at table today. “We return thanks to Thee for this food. Bless it to our use, and us to Thy service, in Thy name we ask it.” Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 2, 2016