02-19-17 EPIPHANY 7a

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

02-12-17 WHAT IT MEANS TO CHOOSE LIFE

WHAT IT MEANS TO CHOOSE LIFE

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      February 12, 2017

 

 

 

02-05-17 LIKE SALT

There is a story that is told in different variations around the world. It has even been immortalized by Shakespeare in the play King Lear. But in it’s simplest form, the story begins when a king asked his daughter how much she loved him. She said she loved him as much as she loved salt, whereupon in a rage the king expelled her from his palace.  But before leaving she arranged for all of the salt to be left out of the king’s food. Only then did he realise that how much being loved like salt meant.

 

Now I would immediately see that as a compliment. I love salt. Give me a choice between salty foods and sweet and I will pick salty almost every time. But even for people with less salty palates know how much of a difference salt can make in their food. Even a pinch leaves it’s mark.

In Jesus day, salt was extremely valuable.   Not only does salt add flavor to food, it also preserved certain foods such as meat or fish from spoiling, which was essential before the invention of refrigeration. Salt also helps to purify or cleanse meats and is useful in healing or cleansing certain ailments. All of these uses were commonly known in first century Palestine. Indeed, such uses were likely the cause for the symbolic use of salt in offerings and sacrifice, as well as in sealing covenants in Israel

 

Let’s say that you and I were going to make a deal with each other. Now, there was no written contract, but instead you would take some salt from your house and I would take some salt from my house. Then we would throw salt across each other’s shoulder. It was called the covenant of salt. Salt was symbolic of the preservation of a contract.

 

Because of its usefulness, salt was prized and even used as currency.  Special salt rations given to early Roman soldiers were known as “salarium argentum,” the forerunner of the English word “salary.”  It seems that one can write a whole history of the world just by tracing what has happened with salt.  In fact, Mark Kulansky did so in his book “Salt: A World History.”

 

And so it matters that Jesus says to those who were listening then and to those who listen still: “You are the salt of the earth.”  In other words, you are of great value.  

 

Jesus isn’t saying, “You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” Or, “You have to be,…” let alone “You better be,….” Rather, he is saying, you are. As in already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing it.

 

Jesus declares what  his followers are here, and it doesn’t matter whether they know it, believe it, or feel it.  They are salt whether they feel flavorful or not.  They are light regardless of whether they feel particularly shiny.    

 

I want to take a moment to talk about children here. Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary-aged children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. And it doesn’t seem like we grow out of that need.

 

Children, to put it another way, become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or anyone) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she or we will live into the name we’ve been assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well.

 

And so Jesus tells us that we are salt of the earth. And light of the world. That is who we are. It is up to us to live into those names.

 

After all, salt does a lot. And if you are salt, just think of all the varied ways the gift you are and the gifts you offer impact the world.  You can help to preserve others and the land around you. You can help to heal and to make covenants. You are what makes the best times better. Just by being you.

 

Take a minute and think about your actions over the last few weeks. Think about the variety of ways God has used you to be salt and light. Did you offer words of encouragement to someone who needed it?  Did you volunteer? Visit the sick? Feed the hungry? Did you speak out against injustice? Did you stand up for the alienated and the marginalized? You have added salt to the world. You have been a light on a hill.

 

Because, so far as I can tell, in spite of Jesus’ assertion, salt never actually loses its taste. It’s a stable element and cannot “go bad.” No, the only way salt can lose its saltiness is when it is never used at all. Think about it. It doesn’t matter how much salt you have sitting on the shelf if you forgot to add it to the soup. Salt is meant to be used, whether it is in soup or on icy roads. It does no good at all stored away.

 

In the same way, a light is only useless if you never see it. If you hide it under something. Light is not meant to be stored up, but rather, to be shared with all who need its guidance and warmth.

 

We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That means we are called  to demonstrate the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis.  Our first lesson from Isaiah 58:6-7 makes it clear how we are to use our salt. What our God desires of us is “to loose the bonds of injustice, … to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.”  When we live our lives in this way, demonstrating the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis, we are being the salt of the earth. We are shining a light on a hill.

 

Matthew even repeats what we are to do in his gospel: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” That is what we are called to do. That is who we are told to be.

 

You are salt. You are light. It is up to you to use your salt and our light “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Because salt cannot help being salty. Light cannot help but shine. They are set apart, unique, endowed with a clear and certain purpose and identity. You too have a clear purpose as a follower of Christ.

 

Jesus says these words to you today.  You are of great value.  Who and what you are and all that you give to the world makes the world a better, richer place.  All you have to do is get out of the shaker, out of the bag, off the shelf and do what you were made to do.

 

“You are the salt of the earth.”  Believe it.

 

01-29-17 WORDS OF COMFORT AND CARE

WORDS OF COMFORT AND CARE

Matthew 5: 1-12

 

Monty Python is the name of the British team of friends who have made fun of dozens of events. In their irreverent and bawdy film called “Life of Brian,” they have a scene that depicts the way the Sermon on the Mount might have gone. The camera zooms in on Jesus while he starts with the text that we just heard from Matthew chapter 5. “Blessed are those of gentle spirit, for they shall have the earth for their possession! How blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail, for they shall be satisfied!” As he continues, the camera pans back to where the people are standing; the voice of Jesus gets fainter and fainter. The people in the back are having trouble hearing his sermon. “Speak up!” one shouts. “What did he say?” asks another. “I think he said “Blessed are the cheese makers!” one farther up replied. “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” the woman in the back then asks. And all the people become agitated because they can’t hear!  Being in an outdoor area, or indoor room where you can’t hear the speaker can be maddening.  A cartoon shared on Facebook last week depicted a minister who was speaking to his congregation, but they were having audio problems. The minister, speaking into a dead microphone, said ‘There’s something wrong with this microphone.” And the crowd, not able to hear him clearly, automatically intoned, “And also with you!”

 

We don’t know how everyone heard what Jesus said in that sermon; we aren’t even sure if Matthew wrote it down initially or if someone else did. But there, on the north end of the Sea of Galilee today, are eight windows in an octagon shaped building that remind us that the Sermon on the Mount—Matthew 5, 6, and 7—happened there.  The beginning of that sermon was thsse few sentences we heard, not a joke nor a quote —both tools that preachers have used over the years. Matthew wrote in chapter 4 verse 25 that “Great crowds followed Jesus from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Jordan, and from beyond the Jordan.” Then in today’s Matthew says: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” As was parodied in  “The Life of Brian,” there was a big crowd present; many more than his 12 apostles. When Matthew said Jesus went up a mountain, we can infer two things: one, going up higher allowed him to be seen and heard a little better. And two, that was not just a geographical description, but also a theological one. The place where Jesus gave this sermon was not mountain; it was just higher ground. So why did Matthew record “Jesus went up the mountain” when Luke, describing the same scene, says “Jesus stood on a level place with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people?” [Luke 6: 17] If you were here last week you remember me saying the Matthew was a faithful Jew when Jesus called him, and Jews did not call the name of God out of respect, so they would say “The Kingdom of Heaven” instead of the “Kingdom of God.” There’s something else that Matthew remembered: when God spoke to Moses about the Ten Commandments, it was on a mountain. When God spoke to his prophet Elijah, it was on a mountain. Matthew believed God-things happened on mountains, and that something holy was happening with Jesus. Therefore he called a hill a “mountain” to shine a light on the importance of these words.

 

One thing that goes through preachers’ minds as they prepare a sermon each week is who the congregation will be: will there be someone who just lost a spouse; someone applying to college; someone starting the raise a baby; or someone feeling the aches and pains of age? Preachers want to “know their audience” and to reach them. It does no good to preach to a hypothetical crowd of people or to guess their issue through statistics. When you do that,  you simply preach a hypothetical sermon to people you don’t know well. I think that when Jesus gave the Beatitudes, it was his initial attempt to connect with the people who had followed him. He had learned who many of them were and what their fears were. So he begins with these words, in effect, saying, “I know you.”  He had met many of them, healed some, and knew their hurts. So our “masterpiece,” the Beatitudes, that some want to turn into an eight-point sermon, is mostly an effective introduction; a way for people to say to one another: “He really sees me; he really knows me; and he really cares about me.”

 

And so, he begins. As all orators learn, timing and pauses create an eagerness to hear. We read in verse two: “He began speak.” Could he have looked out at the large group of people who had gathered and notice the ones he knew and noted others who came? Was he thinking about the issues they likely faced every day, and the ways that some were feeling defeated or exhausted? Well-employed, satisfied persons might not have taken time out of their day to come hear this new preacher. There is no record that this was a Sabbath, so many were at work or doing chores. Who would have come? Perhaps some who were feeling broken were there, or those seeking spiritual help.  Jesus addresses them, first saying: “Blessed are.” Some translations say “How happy are.” But “happy” points toward a joy that people might not yet have felt. “Blessed” means “God loves you and has plans to show you that, even in your trials.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit (verse 3) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What carefully chosen words. “He uses “theirs” instead of “yours” because “yours” would seem too personal; too intrusive; as if this carpenter from Nazareth was speaking directly to you. So he says “theirs” to create some emotional space. There are certainly people here today who feel like they are poor in spirit. But who wants spotlights to be turned on you to reveal who you are? No; a little anonymity is powerful, as the people in 12 Step Programs such as Alcoholic Anonymous know.

 

There were other groups also gathered to hear Jesus. Some likely were lamenting the death of a loved one; it happened often in the first century, and if it has happened to you, loss becomes very real. To them, and perhaps to you, he says, (likely after a pause to let his first blessing sink in) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Again, carefully chosen words. They give the mourners hope that, even though they have yet to find comfort, they will. Maybe soon, maybe in a little while, but that rawness, the unexpected tears at night or even in the day, will subside. And remember: your Heavenly Father knows what it is like to mourn, having his son die brutally. God sees you and knows you. And God even knows the future. Those who finally let faith, hope, and love back into their life will be comforted.

 

I imagine these lines were not offered in a rapid, staccato fashion, but slowly, letting the power of moments, and of time, to sink in. Also, in their world as in our world, there were those who were powerful, surrounded by  laws that favored them and allowed them to keep their money and their status. That is even true today. Those people hardly need to go to a rural region to hear a new preacher; life is treating them well as it is. But what about the others; others who might be sitting around you today? Jesus sees them too, when he says: “Blessed are the meek.” “Oh sure” they think,  “We really feel blessed.” But Jesus surprises them saying, “They will inherit the earth.” Getting an inheritance is a big deal, especially for those with modest income. But to inherit the earth? What could that mean? Then Jesus also offered hopeful words for those who hungered and thirsted “after righteousness.” In their day and our day, it seems that justice systems are broken. Parliamentarian Edmund Burke once famously said: “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Jesus lifted up those who are swimming upstream but still seek to do the right things in life instead of the wrong things, or the expedient things or the things advantageous to themselves.  Every week I hear about people who witness crimes who will not cooperate with officers or detectives trying to get to the truth. They “do not want to get involved” they say. But if your daughter or son or spouse is held at gunpoint, or robbed, or shot, don’t you hope a witness will identify the perpetrator? Doing the right thing is not only right; Jesus says it will be blessed. Then  there is a move toward justice. The world of the first century believed justice was “an eye for an eye,” far better than  “your life for an eye” as some even in our day carry out. But Jesus was a man who believed the human heart could change, and that second chances made the world a better place. One who read Jesus thoroughly was Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” So Jesus holds out hope for people to repent and to consider accepting God’s amazing grace. Solutions By-The-Sea, for example, where our own Tobias Caskey is the chaplain, holds out a hand of mercy to men recently released from incarceration. They believe with the right support, and the guidance to stay free of drugs and drink, that men can become contributors to society and be re-united with families. “Blessed are the merciful” is music to the ears of those men, and to those who unfailingly try to guide them.

 

Those who are pure in heart get to see God. That seems clear to me. They are among the saints who have received the gift of salvation and eternal life with God in Heaven. What a reminder. And those who make peace—not just those who shush children, or suppress protests, or force silence through brutal regimes—but those who work for peace- you are blessed too. Peace happens when people feel heard, they believe justice has been done, and when they conclude that those around them might be more like neighbors more than enemies. Those who work for peace are doing what God wants them to do, so God’s Kingdom can come on Earth, as it is in Heaven.

 

Finally, if you are trying to do the right things in this world, and you are persecuted for it, history and God will rise up and call you blessed.  Many recent people in that category can be a lightning rod of controversy. But history paints people like Abraham Lincoln in a wonderful light. Historians have pointed out the intense persecution he felt, and the threats he received by people in both the Union and the Confederacy. He was a great man, yet was persecuted intensely and assassinated. What reward is that? But Jesus points to a greater notion: “Your reward is great in heaven.” He wants those people to know from his lips, that God is most pleased with them—and with others—who take that the road less traveled.

 

What a way to start a sermon! With those few words, people felt heard and understood. The rest of the message was just a cherry on top of that sundae.  Thanks be to God, that Matthew has shared it with us.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 January 29, 2017

01-22-17 LEAVING HOME LOVING GOD

LEAVING HOME; LOVING GOD

Matthew 4: 12-22

 

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

He was once asked this question:

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

Stanley’s answer…

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“Here I am Lord. Send me.”

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

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

 

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

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 22, 2017

 

01-15-17 BEING A WITNESS FOR CHRIST

BEING A WITNESS FOR CHRIST

John 1: 29-42

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 January 15, 2017

01-08-17 A TIDING OF GREAT JOY

A TIDING OF GREAT JOY

Matthew 3: 13-17

 

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

Very

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                               January 8, 2017

 

 

01-01-17 NEW YEARS DAY

What is your favorite image of Jesus?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Amen.

 

12-25-16 GOD’S GIFT AT CHRISTMAS

GOD’S GIFT AT CHRISTMAS

Matthew 25: 31-45

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  December 25, 2016

 

12-18-16 THE OTHER BIRTH NARRATIVE

Matthew 1: 18-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  December 18, 2016