09-20-20 LETTING GOD BE GOD

LETTING GOD BE GOD
Matthew 20: 1-16

If you didn’t get to see my Children’s Message today because you are receiving this message by mail, I’ll tell you of its point. I made an agreement with our worship team, saying I needed them to be in the sanctuary at a certain time. Three of them were there on time, and so I gave them each a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The others came in later, but I still had candy so I gave them each one too! They too are my friends! The ones ready on time got the deal I told them about; the second ones got more than they expected. But the ones on time were not happy that I gave the same candy to the others. Matthew tells us words that people repeat again and again even today: sometimes “the last shall be first, and the first last.” In potluck fellowship dinners before Covid, we often had people arrive early. They chose the table they wanted and waited for others to gather. They eyed the plates of food as people brought them in and placed them on the buffet table. As they eyed the food they wanted, an emcee called people to attention, asked me to offer a prayer, and then—surprise—she called tables either at random or on her own whim, and the table where the first people sat was not first. Was there resentment? Was there a cry of “unfair?” Or did they say, “It’s just dinner.” Issues of fairness and the grace of the giver are at odds in this parable. Here’s another example. When I was applying to colleges my A- average in high school and my SAT and ACT grades produced no scholarships for me. So my college tuition was $4500 a year- no scholarship. My Dad sat with me and said he had to save some money for my three other siblings to attend college too, but he would pay half the cost each year, and I was expected to pay for the rest. So each summer I came home and worked at Six Flags Over Mid-America for $1.70 and hour, and was our church Assistant Custodian for $2.35 an hour. During the school year, I applied to be and became the Head Waiter at Mary Ann’ sorority, and that kept my fraternity expenses down! But I heard how many fraternity brothers were at college on scholarships: some from in state, some from other states. Their costs were much less than mine. Still, it never occurred to me to dwell on that. There was an agreement for tuition I had, and an agreement that others received. When my own children went to University of Florida, they earned what are called Bright Futures Scholarships, which made their tuition zero or nearly zero. The big expense then was housing, but they learned, and I learned, how many others paid the full in-state tuition, some paid out of state tuition, and some attend for free on athletic scholarships. This is how the world works. There are agreements, and there are gifts.

Now, let’s turn the screws a little tighter. Years ago, there were some people of color who were invited to attend places of higher education through grants called Affirmative Action. Some Anglo persons felt offended because the others attended for less money and perhaps even lower qualifications. To some it was a gift; to others it was an outrage. I remember a cry went up among those in my parent’s circle of friends who resented it. But like my college tuition, I paid what my college said was the tuition. College Boards and Administrators decided who to invite from other states, or from other religious or cultural backgrounds. My deal was an agreement; a tuition amount. Their offer to attend was more like a gift. I think a reason Jesus tells us this parable is to name situations when we feel slighted; to name situations when others feel slighted, and to help us deal with our feelings regarding an agreement from a boss, a school, or a parent, and a gift any of those persons offer.
In this time of heightened awareness of how people of color are treated at traffic stops or even in their own apartment, I looked back over my life. These days I am more aware of my privilege as a white male. In the three traffic stops in my life, I was nervous about getting a ticket, but never nervous about losing my life. I was shocked to learn the parents of black teenagers have to give their sons “the talk,” not about sex, but about how to react when they are pulled over in a traffic stop. We live in such different realities because of the color of our skin. In the time our daughter was getting ready to accept her call to ministry and then put on the mantle of “Chaplain,” I learned how differently she was treated as a woman in ministry. Even now, she has some people ask for a male chaplain, and she gets one for them. I’ve never had someone ask for a different pastor, or different teacher! But this truly happened to me: when I was being tested for ministry in the Presbytery of Arkansas, I had over 40 minutes of questions put to me, much longer than anyone else. I learned later it was not because I was a white male, but because I was a Yankee from Princeton Seminary. The Secretary in my first church in Arkansas told me she had never met an actual Yankee ‘till she met me! And that was my welcome to ministry! I only know my own experiences; I really don’t truly know what it is like to be female in America, or an LGBT or Q person, or a person of color in America. My feeling is, people like me: male, white- could easily be asked to work at 5:00 p.m. and be given the same wage as the crack of dawn laborers. In Arkansas my congregation taught me that when I was bringing up uncomfortable topics from the pulpit, that I was “meddling.” Today I’m meddling. I think as I see our world, my Bible call me to “meddle.” People are reacting to issues of agreement and of grace in intense ways. But it is not new. The book of Genesis is filled with favoritism and human reactions.

Mary Ann suggested that we watch a movie two weeks ago called “The Green Book.” I knew nothing about it, but I’ve learned to trust my librarian wife’s recommendations. What a phenomenal film. It is based on the true story of a black man named Don Shirley. He was highly educated, getting degrees from the Catholic University of America, and from St. Petersburg Conservatory. As a cultured concert pianist and composer living in New York City and being treated as a treasure, he decided to have his manager arrange a tour to the deep south to perform. That was in 1962! He was wise enough to know he’d need a good, strong, protector/driver to take him from concert to concert. He chose an Italian American named Tony, who had street smarts but no higher education. Tony was given “The Green Book” as they set out, but Dr. Shirley had no idea what was really in store during their journey. Tony could have accommodations wherever he chose along the way; and Tony could eat wherever he chose along the way, but Dr. Shirley, the featured performer, could not eat at the venues that invited him; he could not use the restroom at venues that invited him; and he could not stay in the decent hotels where Tony could stay. He had to stay in flophouses for “Negros” listed in “The Green Book.” The full name of the book was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” listing recommended places for people of color to eat and stay. The carte blanche that was given to Tony, and that were withheld from Dr. Shirley, the featured artist, was eye-opening. The film was not without controversy: family members of Dr. Shirley said all depictions were not accurate, but my point is this: if ever there was a black man who was not treated fairly, whose contract had no asterisks about accommodations, here is one example. But he is not the only example. Sometimes there are groups in our nation that can get better treatment as the 5:00 p.m. arriver (metaphorically speaking) than others who have worked hard for the same … or less. A Harvard Study published in December of 2018 concluded that the “Gender Wage Gap” was wider than we thought, with women only earning half the income of men in the same positions. I’ve never been in that situation. And I keep trying to step into the shoes of “the others.” Jesus did that all the time. I suspect he was trying to reach people like me, and perhaps people like you, when he told this parable.

Last Tuesday a story in the Orlando Sentinel intrigued me. A Central Florida man of color was jogging in his Deltona neighborhood when he was detained by a Volusia County Sheriff’s deputy saying he matched the description of a burglary suspect. He was suddenly surrounded by deputies. The man, after being detained, was told he was no longer a suspect, and was released. All were safe. But it occurred to me: I used to walk at night for my exercise, with a dark jacket and ball cap and headphones on through two subdivisions. I mean night: 9:00 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mary Ann finally told me to stop, thinking I might get mugged. Neither of us thought I might be identified as a suspect for something. But why not? Sheriff Chitwood turned a bad situation into a good one: he invited the black man to participate in the department’s bias training series. My mind went back to the 2016 Brock Turner case, a 19-year-old white male who assaulted a 22 year old female while she was unconscious. He was indicted on five charges and convicted on three felonies. For his heinous acts, he served just 3 months in jail.

What must it be like to be “the other?” The one who is treated differently? How do you feel when others seem to get treatment that you have not gotten, either because of money, or influence, or skin color, or gender? There are people in this very congregation who went from a white-collar world of privilege to getting up every morning at 4 am to be at the labor pool, shoveling rocks, along with others, for $40.00 a day. It can happen; It does happen. Many people say, “There but by the grace of God go I.” But does that imply that God withholds hold grace from others, but has chosen to make you feel blessed? It’s worth pondering as our Christian heart call us to see people as “children of God,” and not as “those others.” Some say Jesus offered this parable to describe how the Jews who were following Jesus were treated as favored, while Gentiles who chose to follow Jesus had to prove their devotion. Even Peter and Paul wrestled with how to welcome Gentiles who wanted to follow “The Way.” How will you react when God sheds extra grace, even amazing grace, on someone else instead of on you? We can give thanks for grace, but we should not expect it. God gets to do whatever God chooses to do! That’s God’s job description! “I Am Who I Am!” Let God be God.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 20, 2020

09-13-20 THE QUESTION ABOUT FORGIVENESS


Genesis 50: 15-21; Matthew 18:21-25

There are pockets of people in our nation today who are seething with anger; some are angry because justice no longer seems to happen like an ever-flowing stream. Lady Justice—the supposed moral force in judicial systems, the one who is blindfolded, indicating no partiality, who holds a balancing scale, and a sword—doesn’t seem to be consulted in the courts of public opinion. People cry out from polarized corners, believing that their cries are unheard and their pain is not acknowledged. Therefore, we are wounding ourselves again and again in our nation that is busy keeping score of wrongs. And those who keep score often move to destruction and then to an action with a terrible R word: Retaliation. In the 1960s marches by John Lewis and others, those freedom marchers lived by words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But today, we are not, as a nation, at the threshold of forgiveness: forgiving those who shot men; forgiving those who created anarchy; forgiving those who beat others. And justice is not rolling down like mighty waters. We are, instead, in a cauldron of anger in a number of cities. Today I want to identify how caustic anger destroys, and how forgiveness can be an answer for healing.

You may have heard the story of the young man who lost his temper often. His father came up with a way for him to visualize how much his anger affected others. “I want you to do something for me,’ his father said. “Every time you lash out at someone in anger, I want you to go out to our back fence and hammer the biggest nail you can find into it. At the end of the month, we’ll talk again.” The boy agreed. At the end of the month, the two went into the back yard to look at the fence; it had more than a dozen large nails driven into it. The father said, “Now have you made amends with any of those people; told any of them that you are sorry?” The son brightened up. “Yeah, I sure have!” (clearly thinking that an apology would make everything all right again.) The father said, “Okay, now for every situation that you asked for forgiveness and said you were sorry, pull out a nail.” Nine of the fourteen nails came out, leaving deep holes in the fence. “You see, son,” the father said, “even if you ask for forgiveness and say you are sorry, the holes are still there. The wood is now more susceptible to rot and decay. The fence is never good as new again; with putty and new paint it may look as good as new, but it is never put back as you found it. That’s the way with people you hurt; the scars still remain.”

The father was right. Even though Jesus took the nails for us, presenting our repentant souls on the throne of grace just as if we had not sinned, that’s called “Justification.” Forgiveness is different. Clearly somebody has gotten hurt; someone has lost “a pound of flesh” or a pound of something else. A relationship is broken. A new one, hopefully, can be built on verification and promises kept. Today we will hear Jesus’ words and see if we can mend some fences too.

When Peter asked Jesus “How many times must I forgive?” how many times do you think he imagined? I’m wondering if he guessed “7 times” as if it were a magnanimous answer? Yet Jesus multiplied his answer. Did Peter’s eyes get wide as he heard it? There is greater chance for forgiveness between two parties if the injured one believes the request to be forgiven is offer in “good faith” and backed up with actions. If the word, “ Sorry” is offered flippantly or through self-serving motives, little progress toward a bridge can be made. Jesus reminds us through the parable I read today, that if God forgives us our debts, we need to forgive the debts of others! That’s the way he worded his prayer: “Forgive us our debts” we pray to God, “with the same degree as we forgiven our debtors; as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” If we want forgiveness, we need to offer forgiveness. Do you recall what Joseph said to his brothers who were afraid of him since they sold him into slavery? Joseph said to them: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. Relationships were restored through his forgiveness.

Second, forgiveness and wellness are interconnected. Those who walk around carrying a grudge, refusing to forgive, or acting like a walking victim are the ones who grow old with bitterness and isolation. Do you know how much unconscious energy it takes for you to not forgive someone who has hurt you? I remember Mary Ann taking her computer to an Apple store years ago, saying everything was running so slowly, maybe she needed another computer. The good technician said, “Look how many programs you have running in the background! Do you need all of these?” She didn’t, so the tech turned off the unnecessary programs and her computer ran at its normal spread again. If you do not turn off those unforgiven or unrepentant programs in the back of your soul, they will continue to sap energy from your life. Next week our Jewish friends come to Yom Kippur, “The Day of Atonement.” It’s the day they bring the year’s sins to God and ask with full humility, for forgiveness. Can you imagine collecting all your sins and not getting a Holy Word of pardon about it for 12 months? Hear God’s words to us: I will forgive your sins with the same degree that you forgive those who sin against you.” The ball is in your court.

Here is a true story that illustrates our human struggle with forgiveness. The Holocaust was a living nightmare that many survivors have tried to forget, in which 6 million Jews and 5 million gypsies Poles, and other so-called “undesirables” were sent to their deaths. One man who experienced firsthand what hatred could do was Simon Wiesenthal. He spent years, from 1945 until his death, hunting down and bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. His heart burned with torment at not being able to forgive any of them, even those he had not met. In his book called The Sunflower, he tells the story of a young Jewish prisoner taken outside of a Nazi death camp to a make-shift hospital for German soldiers. A nurse sneaks him upstairs to a 21-year-old German young man who is dying and wants to confess—not to a priest, but to a Jew—the horrible crimes he committed as part of the German offensive in Russia. The young man was particularly haunted as he helped to burn alive whole Jewish families and shot Jewish children who ran to escape the flames. Over a period of days, he poured out his heart to the Jewish man and begged for forgiveness. The Jewish prisoner reflected on the words. “Here is a dying man,” he thought to himself, a murderer who did not want to be a murderer who had been made one by the Third Reich’s murderous ideology. He is confessing his crime to a man who perhaps tomorrow night might die at the hands of those same murderers. Yet in his confession is true repentance.” Wiesenthal was that Jewish prisoner. After hearing the last of the young German soldier’s confession and his plea for forgiveness, Wiesenthal himself finally walked out of the room, never to return, without saying a word. In his book, he posed this profound moral question to his readers: “Was my silence at the bedside of a dying Nazi right, or wrong?”
The young soldier died without receiving the peace he hoped to get. He could not just ask God to forgive him. God had sent him to his enemy, a Jew, to ask for forgiveness, and he had not received it. Both were tormented. In the Torah, in the book of Leviticus, this is written, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” yet Wiesenthal couldn’t do it. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount “First be reconciled to your brother.” Instead, a Jewish man lived on and a German soldier died, neither getting the peace of God. Vengeance and justice fueled the rest of Wiesenthal’s life.

Jesus said: “The king … said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

Jesus took the nails for us. He also set the supreme example, as he was hanging from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Pull the nails out of your fence of anguish, and let the holes be filled by the Carpenter from Nazareth. Ask for forgiveness from those you have hurt before you ask for forgiveness from God. And if you are the one being wronged and no apology has come, release the hurt into the cross of Christ. Don’t burn your bridges. God has built a bridge for you and the rest of the human race: it is the crossbar of the cross of Christ. Go to Calvary, and cross the bridge of forgiveness.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 13, 2020

09-06-20 OWE EACH OTHER LOVE


Romans 13: 8-14

As I was growing up, I got the lesson that debt was bad; except for large purchases like a home, I was taught to save for things I wanted to buy. I paid cash for my brand new Schwinn bicycle in 1969: $80. I paid cash for my first car: a 57 Chevy: $250. Even my parents didn’t finance their cars. Certainly, there are times when such actions are impractical or impossible. I had a lesson in college when I was trying to establish my credit rating. I had credit cards from petroleum companies but paid them off monthly. A banker told me, “In order to establish credit, you must take out some credit. You must pay for something over time, even if you can pay for it outright, to show lenders your good faith in paying things back.” What a strange lesson that was, but I learned it. So Paul’s words in Romans confirmed my lifestyle when he said, “Do not owe anyone anything.” But then the other shoe dropped, “Do not owe anyone anything except to love one another.” All these years I had missed that guidance from Paul: that we “owe each other love.” I always thought that love was something that I controlled; I chose who I loved, and who I didn’t. Others chose whether they loved me, or if they didn’t. But digging into my childhood Sunday School, I was reminded of this song:
“We love, because God first loved us! We love, because God first loved us!
We love! We love! We love, because God first loved us.”
Of course! How could I forget what I was taught in Sunday School opening assemblies? God pours love into our hearts; it is a limitless supply, not a limited supply as if we have to limit the love we share, protecting it from running out. It can’t run out! If we limit the love we share, it is self-limiting, not limited by the God who is love. Paul knew that and said it in a unique way: “Do not owe anyone anything except to love one another.” I don’t know about you, but I am a saver. (Almost a hoarder.) That instinct was buried in my soul by grandparents who washed out plastic bags to reuse them and washed off aluminum foil to re-use it. I don’t go that far, but my instinct is to not run out of supplies, especially in this Covid-19 and this hurricane season. So, is my inclination to guard the love I have? I hope not! Why would I guard something that is limitless and lush? Why would I limit what God gives in limitless fashion? Paul tells me love is something I owe to others. Now that computes to me! If I were to ever borrow an item (or rarely money) from someone else, I virtually rush to get it back to them; to pay them back. So now I am told that I owe love to others; and you owe love to others! That is a Christian mandate. That is something we must do! Learning that, it is something I will rush to give. What a helpful way of reframing that we love because God first loved us! I owe it to the Lord not to hoard the love God has given me! I owe it to others to love them! After all, if I, along with other Christians, am the voice, the ears, the arms and the legs of Christ, he is loving the world through me, and through you! Who are we to withhold the love of Christ from others? We owe love to others. But there is a slippery slope: what kind of love do we mean? English just has one word: love. Greek, in which the New Testament was written, has four words, as described in C.S. Lewis’s classic book The Four Loves. They are these:
Storge- when you love someone through fondness or familiarity.
Philia- the love between friends or siblings; “Brotherly love.”
Eros- Romantic love
Agape-Unconditional love. I spoke about that last week.
We do not owe everyone Eros, but could you see loving others through Storge, Philia, or Agape? Agape is the love Paul described in First Corinthians 13, and the love John described in his gospel and first letter. You might recall that Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” That referred to squaring the emotional or financial account with those we harmed or from whom we had taken something, even if it was a piece of their heart. But this is different; we owe people love in addition to owing people our apology and restitution if we have hurt them. Today let’s also remember this: there is one other person we can harm by withholding love: ourselves. By not loving ourselves with the endless flow of unconditional love that God offers, we cannot offer our best selves to others. Sadly, some people filter God’s unconditional love and it becomes a toxic voice in their heads: conditional love. They hear: “You always disappoint me;” or “I can never depend on you,” instead of God’s message to you and me: “You are mine; you are precious to me; precious child, you are mine.” How many incarcerated people spend years trying to turn those toxic voices off in their heads and tune in to the voice of God? Chaplains or friends that understand genuine love can retune the narratives in their heads to Holy messages. But sometimes a person can’t turn off the toxic voices; then in some form, they get to the end of their rope and take their own life. “How tragic,” I say. “How tragic” God says, after having holy help drowned out by human bile. Let’s offer love; true love; unconditional love, love divine; the kind that never runs out. Then find out how freeing Agape is to our souls.

Let us pray:
Dear Lord Jesus: you showed amazing love for all you met. You loved even as you were taken to the cross, and you forgave even those who cried out for your death. As you host our meal today, remind us how powerfully it is a meal of love, prepared by loving hands, offered to others in love. Thank you, dear Lord Jesus, as we prepare our hearts to join you in this Holy Supper. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 6, 2020

08-30-20 THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP

Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Viewers and readers have the chance to view the life of Jesus and his followers through fresh eyes in a production called “The Chosen” directed by Dallas Jenkins. Our youth and adults will receive instructions this fall on how to view the series, and we will hold discussions on each episode afterward. These words are recorded in the accompanying devotional book: “The Word was in the beginning, before the heavens and earth, before sunsets and the Pacific, before wildflowers and whales and strawberries and freckles. He was before all of it because He made all of it. The Word spoke the world into existence, which is perhaps why Jesus was called the Word. By His words came all that we know, and by his words come light and knowledge, healing and hope.” [The Chosen: 40 Days with Jesus, Minnesota: Broadstreet Publishing Group, 2019, p. 24-25.] When Christians want to re-orient their spiritual compass—we could call it their moral compass too—they turn to the Good Book and to the Good Savior contained in the pages of the New Testament. There we find the archetype of Godly living, and we find at least 12 persons who try to follow his example with varying degrees of imperfection. Can you imagine what it might have been like in that day to actually walk with and listen to Jesus? That’s what Peter, James, and John did and the rest of the Twelve. But there were more: Mary Magdalene and Joanna. There were those who were changed by his presence and his words: the Canaanite woman; the woman at the well; the man possessed by demons. Everywhere Jesus went, he cut a swath of redemption and renewal. So those who believe they need personal redemption or renewal would do well to learn from his actions and his words. And through an amazing vision, a man was changed by his encounter with Jesus: his name was first Saul, later changed to Paul. Letter after letter in the New Testament were written by him! Today we will study Jesus though his message in Matthew with a continuation from last week of Paul’s letter to the Romans, continuing with chapter 12.
First, what can we learn from Matthew 16? Jesus had a deliberate teachable moment as he led the Twelve out of Galilee to a place apart. He asked them who they believed he was: Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus blessed him for his answer! There was surely excitement in the air. Would Peter’s answer be your answer? I wonder if it would be the answer of others in our nation today. “You are Messiah.” It was certainly Peter’s answer, and on it Jesus said he would build his church. Now get this: immediately after Jesus said those words, he said other words that must have been a gut punch to those disciples: He said he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed. He also said on the third day he would be raised, but I wonder how many disciples heard that part. Suffer. Killed. The one they were following; and admiring; and telling others about would suffer and be killed. Stunned silence must have preceded Peter’s protest. “No!” Then temptation to revel in that adoration must have dangled before Jesus’ eyes. “We need a hero!” the 12 might have thought. But that wasn’t his Father’s plan; that was Satan’s plan: taking the easy road instead of the hard road; taking the road of self-adulation instead of redemption. Then, only then, the other shoe dropped. I can imagine the Twelve leaning in to catch his words: “Whoever of you wishes to save his own life, will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” How does someone process something like that? Even 2000 years since those words were spoken, we still contemplate them and study them. Words are only powerful and perpetual if they are mated to actions that reflect them. Jesus not only taught with great words, the Bible says he IS the Word. [John1] “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word WAS God.” Such a powerful statement! But this man plainly laid out the “Cost of Discipleship.” The Cost is very high. It is not just singing praises, belonging to a church, and carrying a Bible. It is talking the talk; and it is walking the walk We can change our nation and our world by living more like Jesus.
Second, we continue with the words of Romans 12 where we left off last week. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we put legs on our faith. This is where we cast off the garment of “hypocrite” with which the world might try to label us. Instead we match our words with our actions! If you have your Bible, open it to Romans 12:9. This part of Paul’s letter is a masterpiece of how to transform your life.

  1. Let love be genuine. A man named Greg Baer is the founder of “Real Love Ministries”. He grew up in a family with parents who exhibited “Conditional love.” What he learned was that if he obeyed them, they praised him. If he followed the course they mapped out for him, he was praised. So he became a doctor and, according to him, he gained a lot of much money and an empty soul. He married the woman his parents hoped he would marry, and she offered him conditional love too. He was so unhappy that he planned to take his own life. He made a plan as he and his first wife divorced. And then, he met a woman who embodied unconditional love. He felt alive, and free, and grace coursed through his veins. They married. He wrote a book on his discovery and he called it “Real Love.” His wife is his life partner in all things now, and he is genuinely filled with joy. His soul was longing for genuine love. That’s what Jesus taught too! “Let love be genuine.”
  2. Never lag in zeal (in common language means “Do not give up.”) I am especially proud of a lesson our daughter Jenny taught to their son Marshall. He used to get frustrated and give up on a task, declaring in tears, “I can’t do it!” “Marshall,” she said, “Don’t say you can’t do something; instead say: ‘I need help.’” Now he does! What a great life lesson for adults too!
  3. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, be constant in prayer. Recently a person in church asked us to pray for a loved one, saying: “The doctor gave us no hope that he would get better.” I think it’s a shame when people feel like a situation has no hope! I’ve seen sick people get better; and I’ve seen addicts get clean. Hope is powerful. Being patient in suffering is difficult. Years ago a man in the church learned he had Parkinson’s Disease. He knew his symptoms would be hard on his wife, so one day he went into his garage turned on his car, and took his own life. He did not have patience or hope. But two weeks after he died, the Michael J Fox Foundation announced the discovery of palliative medications that would calm down Parkinson’s Symptoms. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, be constant in prayer.”
  4. Bless those who persecute you. Jesus’ point is simple: others curse those who persecute them. We take the high road, asking God to bless them in their bitterness and their situation in life.
  5. Here’s a hard one: “Extend hospitality to strangers.” Walking down a street and encountering strangers, some people hold their belongings tighter, look away, or look down as they approach the other. It is a protective action. But there are other ways to extend hospitality. When my son Chris and his son Calvin were leaving an Orlando City Soccer game, they had to walk to their car. Calvin had a pouch of water with him, and as they approached a corner, a man there said he didn’t have any money and he was hungry. Calvin stopped and said to the man, “I don’t have any money or food, but I will share some of my water.” And he did. The man thanked him. Each step Chris took with his son as they got closer to their car moved him. So at his car, Chris got the spare change he kept in his car and together, father and son walked back in the darkness. Chris, said, “I was so moved by my son that I brought you lots of coins for your cup too.” Extend hospitality to strangers.
  6. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. That seems natural unless we think about it. Some resent when another person has something to rejoice about, and some can’t let themselves be vulnerable enough to cry with someone who is sad. But people love to have others celebrate with them, and people are comforted by someone just sitting with them in their sorrow: on a chair; on the edge of a bed; or even on the floor as they weep. That is holy work if you can do it.
  7. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Part of the problem with our world is people who feel wronged who retaliate. It happens in America; it happens in Israel and Palestine; and it happens in domestic violence cases in the world. There is higher ground than that. Take that road instead.
    What a masterpiece of instruction Paul’s letter is! And the 12th chapter: wow!
    Re-read it this week and think of at least one way that you can make a change for the better in your life, and therefore, in our world.
    Let us pray: Holy God: wrap us with qualities that make us disciples of Jesus; love, grace, mercy, hospitality, hope. Remind us, however, of the price Jesus paid and the price some disciples may pay to exhibit the qualities and take the stands Jesus took. Give us the courage to make at least one change this week that will give us a closer walk with Thee. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner August 30, 2020

MANY GIFTS: ONE SPIRIT

Romans 12: 1-8

When I was growing up, I used to check out books from the school library about notable Americans. I remember reading about George Washington and Betsy Ross; Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin; Paul Revere and Thomas Edison. I gobbled up those stories. To paraphrase the words Jack Nicholson used in the film, “As Good as it Gets,” “They inspired me to be a better boy.” I was in 4th grade when I began reading them. Then I read Bible stories about Paul and Silas; Abraham and Sarah; Mary and Joseph. I then looked at people in life who I admired. I began to assimilate the qualities that I thought were good ones. I still do that to some extinct; I try to cherry-pick some of the best examples of persons in our world, and when I do, I feel lifted up. These days, the cherry trees are pretty bare. I find fewer shining examples of people. But they are there; we just have to have discerning eyes. Of course, our good God has given us an archetype of an example. In our Savior Jesus, we have faith, hope, and love. In him we have a man who stood against brittle religious leaders and stood for the disenfranchised. In the Gospels we have him helping foreigners, healing those with disabilities, empowering women, noticing and caring for children. When I look at our world today, I am disappointed in the few Christ-like examples. Even very public men who declare themselves as Christians for the world to see live very tarnished lives and have embraced hypocrisy. So today I am inviting you to join me in reading about Paul’s description of the Christian life and to choose to live differently; to be someone those around you might look up to; to be one who doesn’t just say you are a Christian, but shows people that you are a Christian. It is a tall order, but our world today cries out for it.
As President Ronald Reagan gave his Farewell Address to the Nation in 1989, he borrowed words from the Puritan pilgrim John Winthrop, as he dreamed of America being called a “city on a hill;” an inspiration to other nations. In 1630, while still aboard a ship bound for Massachusetts Bay, Winthrop delivered his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” He said, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” I do not feel like America is a “City on a Hill” for other nations to admire right now! It is time for Christians to not just sit on the premises of churches or on couches of their lives, but to exhibit and stand on the promises of God! It is time for us to write diligently; to speak out convincingly, to stand for Christ in our world! If sincere Christians are praying for God to heal our nation, I think God would put the ball back in our court, saying: “What are you doing to be a light to your nation? What are you doing to see that justice is done, not keeping your mouth shut over wrongdoing? What are you doing to help the foreigner, to acknowledge women and children, and to love your neighbor? What are you doing to help those who are disabled in some way? Then, the King will say to you: “whenever you have done that to the least of these, you have done it unto me.” Jesus is waiting for Christians in our nation to speak up and step up, acting like his disciples who offer help and hope. The Apostle Paul had an idea that the Christians in Rome could also stand a little cleaning up too. So he wrote them a letter that has become a Christian masterpiece: the Book of Romans. In it, the Twelfth Chapter is one of its high watermarks. As I arrived to be Pastor of this congregation in 1985, it was a very troubled and conflicted place. A wise elder volunteered to teach an adult Bible class, and the first week he taught from the 12th chapter of Romans. It was his insight that the congregation members were not acting like Christians at all, and they were doing their Lord a disservice. So he taught from Romans and other passages. Today in our nation, I’m having trouble finding shining examples of leadership. Christians need to revisit the 12th Chapter of Romans. Let’s see what Christians can learn about re-setting our life in Christ today.
Romans 12: “I appeal to you by the mercies of God: present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God.” It is a call for us to throw ourselves into the work at hand, even if at times we sacrifice sleep or self. Few people who I have read from my childhood until this year made changes for the better without sleepless nights or sacrifices of self! This is such a time! It was said that as the corrupt Emperor Nero fiddled—blaming others for his misdeeds—Rome burned! America is burning! We, with the light of Christ in us, can call on the crew of the ship to change course as we see people in peril. Here’s Paul’s guidance: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Why? “So you may discern the will of God, that is what is good, acceptable, and even perfect.” God is ready to guide our nation, but God’s holy words are falling on the ears of people who are disrupting our nation by their actions or their inactions. God’s holy words are falling on the ears of leaders who seem unwilling to come together in ways that would benefit our citizens. And God’s holy words are falling on the ears of citizens whose focus is attacking those supporting the other political party. As God tries to speak to any of us, are our prayer phones unplugged? Are our prayer modems overwhelmed with other conversations? The good ship America is in heavy seas; how is she handling the beating? Paul goes on to say, “By the grace given to me I say to everyone not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” That’s a message that is not getting through in our day. “Use sober judgment,” Paul continues, “with the faith that God has given you.” It is not as if we are not equipped for the work ahead! We are equipped, according to Paul; use what you’ve been given to help the cause! The great reminder from Paul is: “We don’t have to be good at everything, but we should use what we are good at to fulfill a better vision for America! Not all are orators; not all can write effective bills for Congress; not all can teach. But our nation is torn apart even in these issues; and for those who can teach, they wonder if they can do it safely! The church has regularly been called the “Body of Christ,” with Christ as the Head. We, with our many and sundry gifts, are called to exhibit the light of Christ, to transform those darkened by sin and self.
Paul said “We have different gifts, given by God in grace: some can preach; some can teach; some have the ability make persuasive arguments, some have the means to lift up the hearts and lives of broken people. Together we need to do what needs to be done with diligence, (not throw in the towel with disgust); with compassion (which is a willingness to suffer with others); and not just stand on the road while others lie hurting in the ditch. If we do this together, and not think that we are moving from inaction to action alone, arm in arm we can move from darkness to light.
Paul was talking to Roman Christians when Rome and the Roman Empire was the center of world power. Today, Paul could be talking to us. What can you do as your part to lift our nation and put our communications back online with the Almighty? Jesus is counting on you, and on me. With God’s help, we can lift our land from the fires of conflicts and hateful stands. May the light of our nation be bright once again.
Let us pray: Holy God: you stand ready for human beings to fall on their knees, or fold their hands and say, “We need your help. We are broken and we admit it. Rule our unruly lives again, we pray, in the name of Jesus, who changed people for the better every day.” Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner August 23, 2020

081620 – JESUS – WIDE CIRCLE OF WITNESS

Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8; Matthew 15: 21-28

You may remember the very popular song sung by Bette Midler in 1990 “From a Distance.” Today as our nation is deeply divided between those with means and those without; people of color and others who identify as white; people of one political party affiliation and those of “the other” party; the lines seem to be drawn as we move through our lives. With our situation in mind, listen to some of the words of that Bette Midler song that was written by Julie Gold in 1985:
From a distance the world looks blue and green and the snow-capped mountains white.
From a distance the ocean meets the stream, and the eagle takes to flight
From a distance there is harmony and it echoes through the land
It’s the voice of hope, It’s the voice of peace, It’s the voice of every man

From a distance we all have enough, and no one is in need
And there are no guns, no bombs and no disease, no hungry mouths to feed
From a distance we are instruments marching in a common band
Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace, they are the songs of every man.

Ten years before the world was listening to that song, they were listening to this: “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” That was written by a man named Bill Backer. It seems that in every age, we long for harmony, for connection, for healing, and for “enough.” But still news of the “others” was still in the headlines for decades: people like the Japanese in the 1940, the Koreans in the 1950s, the Viet Cong in the 1960s, the hippies in the 1970s. Every age has had its “others.” Children’s clubs or secret societies still form around welcoming only boys, or welcoming only girls, or welcoming certain other groups of people. Who are the “others” in your life? Sometimes even churches may unconsciously show who the “others” are. I’ve heard this story told in several places, so I believe it is based on an actual event:
A man who looked like he was homeless walked into a church. It was really a man who was to become the new pastor of their church, Jeremiah Steepek; he transformed his look into a homeless person. He was to be introduced as the new pastor that morning. He walked around outside the sanctuary. Only three people out of the many who were attending spoke to him. He went in the sanctuary and sat near the front, but he was asked by an usher if he would please sit in the back. He greeted others, but they did not greet him back; they just looked at him. He felt judged. He listened to the church announcements. Then an Elder got up to announce that their new Pastor was here today! They called his name and asked Jeremiah Steepek to come down! The congregation stood and clapped. The man who looked homeless sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the center aisle. All the clapping stopped. He took the microphone, looked at the people and said, “It is recorded in Matthew 25, “Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance—the kingdom—prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave him something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I needed clothes and you gave me some, I was sick and you helped me, I was in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer, “Lord, when did we see you in those ways?” And the King will reply: Truly I tell you, whenever you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for me.” He said “Today I see a gathering of people, not disciples of Jesus. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples of Jesus. When will you decide to become disciples?” He then dismissed the service until the next week. (BestThings.us)

Who are the “others” in your life today? Jesus had to answer that question one day, quite a few days before he proclaimed the words from Matthew 25 I just read to you. Our Presbytery of Central Florida declared itself to be a Matthew 25 presbytery, calling on our congregations in Central Florida to work intentionally to make people feel welcomed instead of separated. The church I just described was not our church. I have seen many of you welcoming and assisting those who you did not know. But there is always room to see everyone as a child of God. Jesus went to the districts of Tyre and Sidon which were filled with people who believed in other deities. One woman came up to Jesus shouting for him to help; her daughter was possessed by a demon. Notice some things about the exchange: “First, she called him, Lord, Son of David.” That would have been most unexpected in that territory. Second the disciples wanted to treat her as an “other.” “Send her away,” they urged Jesus. But he said: “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” To hear that line makes my mind fill with biblical images of lost sheep. The shepherd leaves the flock and goes to find the lost sheep. And third, in this passage that woman came and knelt before Jesus as sign of honor and humbleness and pleading. Jesus starts making a statement with an argumentative tone like I’ve heard others express in the Holy Land. “It is an argumentative statement. He says: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” And she replies: “Even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” That kind of exchange is typical of the Middle Easter cultures. Jesus is convinced of her honor, her sincerity, and her persistence. Perhaps like the widow who came to a judge again and again until he granted her request, Jesus complied. The woman’s daughter was instantly healed An “other” was seen as a person; a lost sheep of Israel was claimed. Jesus knew that he was not just sent to Israel, but to others. He deliberately crossed into Samaria to greet a woman at the well for that purpose. He crossed, “to the other side” of the Galilee, the land of the Gadarenes, to heal a man possessed of demons, and the word spread far about him. And when Jesus cleansed the Temple by tearing down the booths of the money changers, he quoted from our Old Testament text we heard today: Isaiah 56: “Is it not written that my Father’s house shall be a house of prayer for all nations?” That’s what Jesus’ Heavenly Father said through Isaiah. That’s what Jesus remembered as he spoke with the woman in Canaan; that’s what he remembered when he spoke to the woman of Samaria; and that’s what he declared as he overturned the tables of the moneychangers who set up their tables in Court of the Gentiles; so Gentiles would have no reverent place to worship God. Likewise, our gathering places shall be a house of prayer for all, so that Christ can draw them to himself. People need to hear about Christ before they can be changed by him! Will they learn that “out there?” Or will they learn about Christ “In here; from you; from me; from our actions, and our words? Will they learn about Christ by our love?
Over the years, church doctrines have sometimes created “others.” Baptized or not baptized? Immersed or sprinkled? Catholic or Protestant? Eastern Orthodox Christians or Western Christianity? Christians have sought to bridge the divide worldwide with Councils of the Church, and locally we have sought to build bridges with our Port Orange Ministerial Association. Councils can seem stiff and fall short; but when brothers and sisters break bread together, share a meal monthly or pray for one another, Christ is lifted up. We too are not just called for the sheep of the church. There are already congregation members who may stay in this place, while others move to other congregations, but the net number of Christians then stays the same. But we, to paraphrase what Jesus said in Matthew 25: “Are sent to the lost sheep of the world.” In the name of Jesus, who do you know who might be spiritually lost? Sometimes it is a teenager or a twenty-year-old who labels themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” Is their church “Wikipedia?” Could we be their church? How about parents who are struggling with getting children safely into a school? Could they use a Christian friend that our church that has supported back-to-school supply drives and blessings? Our church has done that for several years. How about those who are struggling with their employer or suffering in a layoff? Could we pray for and assist them, welcoming them to know Christ, and if we know a potential job lead, to share it? What about sorrowful widows or widowers? Could Caring Friends and others offer them the love and welcome of Christ? Our work is to reach who? Oh yes, the “others.” Our work is to live for others. In 1902, these words were penned and are now in public domain. They have been sung by many. Perhaps these words can be added to the tablet of your heart today:

Lord, help me live from day to day in such a self-forgetful way,
        That even when I kneel and pray, my prayer shall be for others.
        Yes, others, Lord, yes, others, let this my motto be:
Help me to live for others. Help me to live for others,
        That I may live like Thee, that I may live like Thee.     (Charles D. Meigs)

Jeffrey A. Sumner August 16, 2020

Let us pray:
Remind us O Lord, of how you ministered to the woman at the well.
Remind us O Lord, or how you healed the child of the Canaanite woman.
Remind us O Lord, of how you seek lost sheep.
And remind us to do what Thou wouldst do. Amen.

080920 – GET OUT OF THE BOAT!


Matthew 14: 22-33

In the days before cellphones, three pastors—one Catholic, one Methodist, and one Presbyterian went out fishing together in a small boat. Quite a few yards from shore, the Presbyterian pastor realized he left his fishing pole in the car. He stepped out of the boat, walked across the water to the shore, and started walking to his car. Just then, the priest’s beeper went off and he decided he needed to respond. He got out of the boat, walked across the water, and went to find a phone. The Methodist pastor watched with disbelief! He thought to himself, “My faith has to be as strong as theirs!” So, he anchored the boat and stepped out. He sank immediately and began to flail. The Priest said to the Presbyterian Pastor, “Do you think we should tell him where the rocks are?” To which the Presbyterian replied: “What rocks?”

You know the phrase often aimed at people who are acting like they know more than anyone: “He thinks he walks on water!” That’s said of people whose actions—or egos—make them seem larger than life. God once told Moses to lead his people out of Egypt by way of the Red Sea. “How will we get across?” Moses might have wondered. And yet the Lord provided a way: the waters parted in one of the miraculous events of the Old Testament and the Israelites crossed. Only when the Egyptians tried to follow did the waters flood the divide. Sometimes, to test our faith and to show what is possible with God, our Lord asks us to walk on water. Jesus asked Peter to do it, and Yahweh-the Lord of Israel-asked his people to do it, only he surprised them when he parted the waters instead. Today I submit that those are not isolated incidents in the mighty acts of God. Instead, they are actual events, reminding us that today, yes even today, our Lord might ask us to do the very same thing, or to do some other thing that rational non-believing men or women would dismiss as impossible. Lord, increase our faith.
One of my professors at Princeton Seminary, Dr. James Loder, was known all over campus as the professor who every semester repeated the story of his re-awakening to the Christian faith. It happened after an experience he and his wife had one day. They were driving along a road when suddenly one of their tires blew out. They pulled the care to the side of the road and looked at the flat tire in dismay. Begrudgingly, Dr. Loder got the jack out of the trunk and began to change the tire. At one point he really had to wrestle with it; the wheel seemed stuck even when the lug nuts were off. In one sickening moment, the tire came loose, but he lost his balance and got pinned as the underbody of the car came down on his chest. On his back, even with all his strength, he could not lift that car. His wife, who was the one with great faith in the family, was standing at the edge of the road when the horrible event took place. In an instant, she was by the car. She grabbed the front bumper, shouted to the sky, “Help me, Lord Jesus!” and she lifted the car off her husband’s crushed body. Her husband’s eyes got wide as saucers, but he couldn’t sit up. His chest cavity was crushed, and he was short of breath. He finally managed to roll out from under the car. Mrs. Loder stopped a passing car and asked for them to hurry and get an ambulance. When it arrived, they whisked him off to the hospital.
Now, what do you make of that story? Does it give you an example of how the faith of one person helped save another? Or do non-believers dismiss it as the body’s natural response to a crisis? That must be your decision, since miracle responses to prayers are most easily believed if experienced first-hand. Before you decide, I should tell you the happy ending to the story. When Dr. Loder was examined at the hospital, they found his chest cavity was not crushed any more like it was at the roadside, and the x-rays indicated no broken bones, and no punctured lung. With just a small bruise, he was free to go.

That was an event that one man experienced first-hand. It became his conversion to Christ, like the Apostle Paul’s on the road to Damascus. To the cry, “Increase my faith!” sometimes people get a deafening reply. From that point on, Dr. Loder’s walk with Christ began. And he always shared his conversion story with new students the first week of every semester. God got his attention and his faith. He began to witness to his faith, telling others how he was saved by Jesus Christ and by the faith of his wife. His life was different from that day forward.

Look with me at the way faith can change the outcome of an event. There have been many in our congregation who have lived longer or healed faster because of their faith, and our prayers. We believe prayer changes things and that God hears them. We bring our prayers believing that they will be heard, and that there will be a response. In the summer of 1996, the movie “Phenomenon” was released in theatres. The premise of the film was that we could learn to tap more brainpower than we are currently using. What would happen if we tapped into the huge faith supply that Jesus says we have? He said if we had the faith of a mustard seed, we could move a mountain. Some people say that there are those who don’t heal because their faith is not strong enough, or our faith is not strong enough. Could there be truth in that? Have we rationalized our way out of faith? In a scientific experiment over 20 years ago, Dr. Larry Dossey showed that people who were treated medically and prayed for healed at a higher rate than those treated medically but without prayer. Without telling people in a specific hospital, he had a number of people praying for healing for those on one side of the building. The patients were unaware of that activity. The people on the other side of the building got no specific prayers from the group. The results were groundbreaking and published in his book called Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine. The ones who were prayed for healed faster and more completely than those who were not. “O Lord, increase our faith!” Think with me about today’s text. What guided Peter to even consider that he could walk on water? I think he had three guides, perhaps more, as we read Matthew chapter 14. The first guide was his faith. Jesus had placed faith in him, and he had his faith grow from listening to Jesus. When Jesus invited a discouraged Simon Peter to cast his net on the other side of the boat in Luke chapter 5, he reluctantly did so and saw the power of his faith as he pulled in fish! That lesson is for us too! He put his faith in Jesus as Jesus called him and his brother Andrew from their trade and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And here was the leap of faith: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” [Matthew 4:20] Would you leave a previous line of work to follow Jesus? What faith that takes.

The second guide Simon Peter had as he contemplated stepping out of the boat was the command from Jesus: “Come.” Just one word. “Come.” That command was so similar to the one he had heard when Jesus told him: “Follow me.” Did that familiar voice give him the courage to step out of the boat? He did, and he walked on water. “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and began to sink, crying out ‘Save me!” And hearing his plea, Jesus reached out and caught him. If Mrs. Loder had looked around as she was lifting the car from her husband’s chest and said to herself, “What am I doing?” would her husband have lived to tell about it? Sometimes the voice in our head can convince us that something is not possible when it is. When I was a camp counselor at a Middle School water sports camp in Arkansas, the highlight for many kids was learning how to water ski. I remember one boy got up on the skis on his first try! He stayed up looking good for about a half a minute, then he lost control and fell into the water. After we pulled him into the boat, the other counselor asked him what happened. “Well,” he said, “all you guys who know how to ski told me before we started that I could do it, so I knew I could! But then once I was up on the skis, and I looked around at the water and the speed, I said to myself ‘What am I doing up here?’ That’s when I fell.” That’s just how it happened! If somebody believes in us, we can soar. But if the doubts from others or self-doubts fill our heads, we can sink like a rock in the water. If we hold fast to prayer and its power, we can do amazing things.

Fortunately, Simon Peter had a third guide to convince him to step out in faith: Jesus’ example. Jesus himself walked on water just before he asked Peter to do it, remember? Peter gained confidence in seeing his Lord do what he was being asked to do. All of those guides: faith; Jesus’ command to “come”; and Jesus’ example can give even us the encouragement to step out of our boats today! The waters of life may threaten to undo us, or mock us, or drown us, but those waters shall not flow over us if we are on top of them, looking into the eyes of Jesus. Jesus walked on water for an example, not for a show. In every path of life—joy or sorrow; conflict or tranquility; heaven or hell—Jesus has been there before us. He calls us because he knows if follow him, we will find a life abundant. Walking on water is not about showing off, it’s about doing what Jesus believes we can do! Walking on water is not about magic, it’s about miracle. Walking on water is not about being reasonable, it’s about being faithful.

This month I’m inviting you to join me in concerted prayers. Prayers for the healing of our nation; prayers for leaders to listen to Jesus instead of to their constituents; prayers to change the course of our spiral. I hope other Christians will use the power they also have in prayer to pull situations out from under the crushing weight of that car too. Our prayer meetings on Wednesdays just have a dozen people tune in. We need more to pray, instead of just floating down the river of life. Won’t you join us, in your own way, to put the power of Jesus, and the power of prayer, to work for the healing of this nation, including sin-sick souls and Covid-filled bodies?
Let us pray or continue to pray, beginning today.
Creator God: what you must have had in mind when you made the earth cannot be how it is now. Even as astronauts have seen the earth from space, we imagine the ways you watch us, and encourage us, and call us in ways like Jesus called Peter. O God, in humbleness we will seek to acknowledge the log in our own eye before pointing out the splinter in the eyes of others. Then, we believe through faith and prayer we can change the world. We can lift the car; we can stand up on skis; we can step out of the boat! Give us the voice and strong hands of Jesus to guide us, and to catch us if we listen too much to other voices. Then redirect us to his voice, his hand, and his way. In His name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner August 9, 2020

08-02-20 FEEDING WITH FAITH

Matthew 14: 13-21

The successful Christian mission “Habitat for Humanity” with Millard Fuller as its founder took off once he invited their most famous volunteers to join in the cause. Former President, Jimmy Carter from Plains, Georgia, along with his wife Roselyn, signed on to help give people have “a decent place to live.” President and Mrs. Carter have just celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary if you can believe it! What a Christian witness- people who not only have faith, but put “legs” on their faith. Those who qualify for a home put in their sweat equity and a payment plan is arranged. Habitat holds the mortgage until the house is paid off. Members of our church are still involved with Habitat for Humanity, and our congregation built the first Habitat house ever to be built in Port Orange. That was in 1992.

As the initial government assistance during this pandemic has now expired, the issues of rent payments, mortgage payments, and food expenses are on the minds of many. Perhaps you will volunteer for Habitat for Humanity or encourage our legislators to continue to offer assistance during this unprecedented time. But we could also help feel one another, imagining Jesus saying to us: “You give them something to eat!” As we have been talking about what the Kingdom of God is like, and all the clues Jesus gave us to learn what that Kingdom is like, a thread of meaning runs through his examples: The Kingdom is one of abundance; where people have enough, where farmers sow with abandon, when people make three loaves of bread when one would do! Then, away from normal merchants where supplies could be purchased, 5000 people followed Jesus, amazed at his teachings and healings. Do you recall what happened before this event? It was horrible. The disciples had just come, one verse earlier, to tell their Rabbi Jesus that his cousin, known as John the Baptizer, had just been beheaded by Herod. They buried him even before telling Jesus about it! So they bring him that news while a crowd is ready to swamp him. In this time when people are dying left and right, and bodies are piling up outside of some mortuaries in our country, how do we function when we hear that someone close to us has died? Sometimes we cannot function well, especially with crowds of well-wishers wanting to stop and see us. But they can’t in this pandemic. How might Jesus have reacted to the news about John? Shock? Sadness? Anger? All we know is he got in a boat and went to a deserted place: perhaps he needed to think, or grieve, or pray. If you have ever seen the Sea of Galilee, you know that the crowd could figure out where Jesus was taking the boat, so they ran along the bank to meet him there as he arrived! Jesus in grief had these crowds around him. And then, the disciples who he had just been empowered by Jesus in Matthew 10 to “cast our unclean spirits, to heal, and even to raise the dead, while the proclaim the Lord’s reign” were standing before him acting helpless. I wonder if Jesus was thinking then: “I gave you the power! Can’t you handle this for me please?” Don’t we often want to depend on Jesus, or our parents, or our government for help when, under the circumstances, God might be saying to us: “I’ve given you a mind and a body, and human connections with others! Figure it out!” Still, there are certainly times when we might want to say to Jesus: “Please, YOU give them something to eat.” But still, our Lord mustered the strength and love that is part of his fiber, and he prayed over the food.

Do you imagine the loaves and the fish multiplied before their eyes? Of do you imagine that the disciples started handing it out and it became “enough?” The first time I preached on this story back in 1982, I suggested the latter: that as the loaves and fish were passed, people saw it would not be enough, so they reached in their bags to share what they had as well. Was the “miracle” that Kingdom extravagance and generosity made sure that everyone had “enough?” Or perhaps there was a multiplication miracle and the opening of human hearts? We have no Scriptural guidance on how exactly this happened except clues: those closest to our Lord might have had compassion on him as word about his loss spread. Still after all had “enough” there was even food collected at the end. Miraculous. It’s miraculous. Our Tender Loving Care team has to get guidance from families in their time of loss to learn about how many guests to expect at the funeral, and for a reception we provide. Many times, families understate how many will come, sometimes by half! On those days, our TLC committee and I pray over the food in a special way, that there will be “enough.” And there is.

What can we do when Jesus looks at us and says “You give them something to eat.?” Some in our congregation regularly volunteer in the Halifax Urban Ministries hot meal program. Others give a smile, a conversation, and a bag of groceries from our Port Orange Pantry. But still others of you buy one can of food, or box of food, and put another in a box to bring to church. Having neighbors over to share a meal is a challenge at this time. So sharing food safely is so appreciated! The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle contained in every gospel. The take-away theme: extravagant sharing; generous giving; holy hospitality. They all the make up of the nature of God’s kingdom. Finally, this crowd knew the Scriptural teaching of gleaning: when farmers left the outside rows of crops for passers-by to eat along their way. And hospitality was instilled in God’s people from a young age. Perhaps we, in sharing our food or other resources, might model Biblical gleaning and hospitality too, making a difference in the lives of others.
Let us pray: Give us wonderful examples from our Bibles, O Creator God, to make a difference even now in the lives of hungry people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner ` July 27, 2020

07-26-20 WHAT IS GOD’S KINGDOM LIKE?

Matthew 13: 31-33; 44-50

In 2017, the world learned a secret that seemed to be hidden from our eyes as the award-winning film “Hidden Figures” hit the screens. In its magnificent true story, it was revealed that three women of color—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—did the hard calculations at NASA in the 1960s, with pencil and paper, figures that cumbersome computers were not yet trusted to produce. Even John Glenn, it was said, did not trust the NASA calculations until Katherine had said they were right. Who knew? These were hidden figures in history, until, in this case, a film brought the story to light. Another story recently was brought to my attention by the death of Congressman John Lewis: that the bridge in Selma, Alabama—where police clashed with marchers intending to walk from Selma to Montgomery—is named for a man who served as the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. This time in history has brought that fact to the surface. I just knew that he had been a Commander in the Confederate Army. Sometimes it takes action, or a deliberate revealing, for important information to be heard. As I was working on my Doctoral Thesis, “Discovery in the Dark Night of the Soul” I came upon the concept of the “Divine Hiddenness” of God: Quoting from my thesis:
Robert Oakes argues for the idea that if we have a God who at times is hidden from us, it is something of a paradox. As he puts it, ‘Might there not, after all, be something odd about the view that there can exist a Being who is both omniscient and hidden?’ Those who cannot find or hear God for a period of time are not, in their anxiety, denying the existence of God; they are alarmed by a sense of the absence or silence of the Divine. John of the Cross, in one of his other works, Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom of Christ writes, ‘Where have you hidden Yourself, and abandoned me to my sorrow, O my Beloved? (as he cries out to God.) [Jeffrey Alan Sumner, Columbia Theological Seminary Library, p. 14]

God even seems hidden at times for those who seek that Holy Presence. Some even wonder where God is now. Our Lord Jesus certainly had insights into the intricacies and mysteries of God, and the Kingdom. Here’s one more fact that you might not know: whenever Matthew writes about the “Kingdom of Heaven,” the original Greek has “The Kingdom of God.” Matthew, a Jew, believed it disrespectful to say or write the name of God, so he used a euphemism, “Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus in Matthew, is not describing the hereafter; they are describing the “here and now.” So today, in the next set of parables, we learn that they contain mysteries, secrets, and hidden treasures for living on earth. The Psalmist, long before Jesus shared parables, the Psalmist wrote these words in Psalm 78:2, in the NIV: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old.” Jesus even quotes it in Matthew 13:35. Parables, then, were not cute stories for slow learners; they were designed for insightful people to grasp; for those who had eyes to see or ears to hear. Parables are not about Heaven; they are clues about how God wants mortals to live in the here and now. Parable wrap stories like a mantle (or a cloak,) around the listeners, sharing meanings and secrets sparingly. So we will not be surprised if some come away from hearing parables scratching their heads.

After hearing two parables that seemed like they were about farming, we learned they were about the Kingdom instead. Now we move into staccato presentations of new parables. Wise listeners will have their ears tuned for hidden meanings. The first has to do with a mustard seed. Although small, we must acknowledge they were not the smallest seeds around. And we must acknowledge that mustard shrubs can grow large, but hardly into trees. Birds cannot actually build nest in its branches because they will not support the weight. And this parable is paired with the parable of the leaven, (or yeast) comparing things big with things small. So, like with all parables, we cannot read them with flatfooted literalism. The late Biblical scholar Douglas R. A. Hare says this about these parables:
The two parables are not “teaching” but “preaching”; they do not give instruction about what the kingdom is like but call for faith in God who is active in the tiny movement initiated by Jesus. … The twin parables challenge the hearer to leave behind the pedestrian, pragmatic everyday world that treats God as irrelevant and enters a new world where God is the primary reality. [Interpretation: Matthew; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993, p. 156.]

Even a kernel of faith in God can bring about generous outcomes! Insignificant items or people bring about amazing results! God is extravagant, casting Gospel seeds without a care about where they land. God is extravagant, taking a small seed and creating a large shrub (or tree!) Like leaven (or yeast) can change bread, God can change our world with the stories of people reaching out to others. The yeast story tells about three measures of flour, indicating the baking of three loaves of bread, enough for an extravagant feast! Listeners in Jesus’ day would have remembered when Abraham instructed Sarah to prepare cakes from three measures of flour for their heavenly visitors in Genesis 18:6. Like Abraham and Sarah, might we prepare the table of our hearts too for visits from God’s angels unawares, pulling out the good china and fine silver to welcome holy guests in our midst? Who knows who our extravagant actions might touch others?

For years I would find uplifting stories in Guideposts magazines or in the “Chicken Soul for the Soul” books. Now the internet brings hidden stories to light and onto our news feeds almost instantly. Take, for example the amazing story of Captain Tom Moore in England, a very old man who wanted to raise awareness of and support for England’s National Health Service. To do so, he used a walker with wheels since breaking his hip, and set himself the target of walking 25 meters around his garden 100 times by his 100th birthday which was on April 30th. His hope was to raise 1000 English pounds. He finished his mission, but instead as the word spread, people he didn’t even know donated to his cause, raising 33 million pounds, (or 40 Million dollars.) Queen Elizabeth II knighted now 100-year-old World War II Captain Tom Moore on Friday in an outdoor ceremony at Windsor Castle. Sometimes a small act of kindness can be turned into a profound, extravagant gift. You may have also heard about Chris Evans, the actor who played Captain America in the films, who sent a special video message and gift to a brave 6-year-old boy named Bridger Walker, who saved his four-year-old sister from a dog attack. The boy was badly injured, requiring a two-hour surgery and 90 stitches to his face. Chris Evans decided to contact Bridger and his family, giving a special gift that very brave boy. When he called, Chris went into character saying: “Captain America here, Bridger! I read your story, I saw what you did …and pal, you’re a hero! What you did was so brave, so selfless; your sister is so lucky to have you as a big brother! Your parents must be so proud of you. I’m going to track down your address and I’m going to send you an authentic Captain America shield because pal, you deserve it.” When some asked Bridger why he did what he did, the boy answered: “If someone had to die, I thought it should be me.” What extravagant brotherly love.

Now on to the next parables! Jesus came back on land, went into a house, and began addressing only his disciples. He shared another pair of parables, one about a hidden treasure, and one about a valuable pearl. They might be boiled down to a song we sing as new members join this congregation: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness. And all these things shall be added unto you. Alleluia!” People may seek the Kingdom all their lives, but once they find it, like those who have find a hidden treasure, or like those who find a pearl of great price, there is great rejoicing! Perhaps they use their extravagant treasure to help save their business or family from huge debt; or perhaps to help neighbors. Perhaps a parallel story was when Jesus came to the house of the tax collector Zacchaeus, who earned lots of money and tucked it away, being despised by others for his miserliness. But in Jesus’ presence, Zacchaeus had a change of heart, and pulled his money out of its hiding place, promising to compensate anyone he cheated and to give even more for the insult! Finding a treasure or a pearl gives one the chance to decide what to do with them. A child -like response was my young decision to save my 4 old pennies, holding onto them and keeping them hidden, letting them not help others. A mature Christian response might have invested or sold them as a way to lessen debt or help others. What might your extravagant Kingdom response be?

Finally, this is the third parable in this set—after the sower, and the weeds and tares, to talk actually talk about the end of the age. It means that God fishes with a big net, pulling in “rotten” fish with good fish, only separating them once they are in the boat.

Listen to John Calvin’s comments as we conclude: “We commonly set a high value on what is visible, and therefore the new and spiritual life, which is held out to us in the Gospel, is little esteemed by us, because it is hidden ….One pearl, though it is small, is so highly valued, that a skilled merchant does not hesitate to sell houses and land in order to purchase it. The excellence of the heavenly life is not perceived by the sense of flesh; and we do not [value] its real worth unless we are prepared to deny, on account of it, all that glitters in our eyes.”
[Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XVI, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005, p. 131.]

Let us pray: God who is sometimes hidden to us: you remind us that you are, nevertheless, present. Help our eyes see, our ears hear, and our hearts grasp the Kingdom as Jesus continuously sought to live it and describe it. In his name I ask this. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner July 26, 2020

07-19-20 WEEDS AMONG OUR WHEAT

Matthew 13: 24-30; 36-43

Today we are faced with a with a firehose of information regarding the virus, the election, and news in Florida. Due to the internet and some televisions receiving hundreds of channels, plus talk radio being as prevalent as ever, we hear voices from the religious left and voices from the religious right; voices from the political left and voices from the political right. We have vaccers and anti-vaccers; we have maskers and anti-maskers. We have advocates for traditional worship and advocates for contemporary worship. The list is long, and if someone takes one side over another, it is almost like creating a sword fight in days of yore. So what do we do? Many people choose the lane in which they are most comfortable. In those lanes, is the truth slanted to be more palatable toward them and more critical toward what others think? Only baby boomers and older ones remember the news that seemed to be just reported, rarely with commentary, brought by Walter Cronkite, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, and other nightly news for 30-60 minutes a day, not all day long. We live in a different world now. News now is a-la-carte.

In our day, when it comes to sharing our message—the Christian message as we understand it from our Gospels—we learned last week that our audience might not be fully receptive to it. Some have heard personal witness stories before and don’t want to hear another one. Some have said “no” and don’t plan to say “yes.” Some, however, are ready to hear what you, or what I, have to say if we share a spiritual event that has changed our life. And last week we learned that the message could be polluted if the seeds we sow are not pure. We carry that thought over to today. Here we are, sitting as if we are on the banks of the Sea of Galilee with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is still in the boat as he was last week, and we get the next chapter in the saga of parables. We are still on the subject of seeds. Some parables stand on their own, but last week’s and this week’s Jesus decided explanations were needed. This week, Jesus’ tells listeners that his second parable is an allegory. Do you recall what an allegory is? It’s a story where things stand for something—or someone—else. Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is a spiritual allegory. Animal Farm by George Orwell is a political allegory. The Faerie Queens by Edmund Spenser is a moral allegory. Let’s set the allegorical interpretation aside for a moment as we hear Jesus’ second parable in Matthew 13. Someone sowed good seed (so that takes out the possibility that they chose inferior or polluted seeds to sow.) The assumption is that during the night after planting, someone came in the darkness and planted weeds in the field with the wheat. Just as some people in our day are quick to point fingers at others, trying to avoid any personal responsibility, in this story the servants came to the master of the field doing the same thing. They said to the Master, “Didn’t you sow good seed in the field?” (The story doesn’t tell us how they could tell there was bad seed planted after just one night, but the master answered,) “An enemy has done this.” Even the master puts blame on an unknown “enemy,” never asking how they could already tell how weeds were mixed with wheat. So the servants offer to go pull up the weeds, (how big can they be?) but the master says, “No, you might mistakenly pull up some of the good wheat while doing it.” When it is time to harvest the crop, then the reapers can collect the weeds first and gather them to be burned, but the wheat shall be gathered and put into the barn, or storehouse.” If that image takes you to a Thanksgiving theme, you are not alone. Truly the hymn “Come Ye Thankful People, Come” belongs more in a summer service with a Matthew 13 text, or in an Evangelistic revival than in our tradition time to use it in November. Remember since we are all moving to allegorical thinking, this hymn is not about farming; it’s about the Kingdom of God and people gathering persons in whom gospel seeds have grown in their soul. If you believe this passage is about that, then perhaps you’ll think about this hymn that we often sing at Thanksgiving differently: Listen:
“Come, ye thankful people come” (be thankful you’re being brought into God’s garner—the Kingdom—instead of being burned in flames.)
“All is safely gathered in …come to God’s own temple, come.”
Then these words: “All the world is God’s own field, fruit in thankful praise to yield,” (receptive people let the fruit of the Spirit grow in their souls.)
Now you’ll know this hymn belongs more with our text than with turkey dinners! “Wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown.” (Are you getting it?) “Lord of harvest grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.” …“For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take the harvest home, from each field that in that day, all offenses purge away.” This is about people! Saints and sinners; not actually about grains. “Give the angels charge at last, in the fire the tares to cast, but the fruitful ears to store in God’s garner ever more!”

As we learned last week that the hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” is not about farming, “Come, ye Thankful People, Come” is not about planting! It reminds us that our world is filled with good seed, and bad seed; that some have chosen to bear good fruit from the gospel seeds planted in their soul, while others have produced nothing redemptive.

Now we can turn to Jesus’s first century explanation of his parable. Jesus says he himself is the one who sows the good seed. He says the field is the world, the good seeds are the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the seeds from the evil one. See, even here fingers are being pointed at others, blaming them for bad things. Those blaming actions go back as early as the Garden of Eden. Jesus said the one who sowed the bad seed was the devil, and the reapers were God’s angels.
What a strong message, encouraging people to choose Christ! The reward now is good, and the reward later is even better! That’s a reason to invite thankful people to “Come!” In our day, good pure information can become distorted by people, sometimes with less than honorable intent. When that happens, pure information can become propaganda. The evil one continues to use people to sow such weeds in our world. When propaganda or editorial opinion passes for truth, buyer beware. And early in the sowing of such information, it might be hard to tell if the wheat planted in our souls and minds is good information or evil. The master allowed both to grow together for a while. But at some point, the true colors of those bearing the fruit of Christ, and of those bearing the fruit of the devil, start to show. It is then that we take the highest ground by not putting our heads in the sand like an ostrich, or pretending we just don’t see. Folk singer Bob Dylan during all the governmental and societal issues of race and war in the 1960s wrote: “How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” [Blowin’ in the Wind] And it was Sir Edmund Burke who famously once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.”

Let’s not do nothing! Let’s join the angels of God in spreading the good seed, calling out those who spread counterfeit seeds as good ones. Let us work to encourage virtue and vanquish vice, as John Calvin would put it! This was the job of the first disciples, and the beloved Reformers 1500 years later.
Now it is our job too.
Let us pray: Jesus our Savior: who rooted out corruption and treated forgotten and marginalized persons with grace and justice: help us to go into God’s fields in the world and be able to recognize and name the wicked weeds, taking the good seeds into God’s garner, evermore. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner July 19, 2020