02-03-19 A Conversation Between Malachi and Paul

Malachi 3:1-4

1 Corinthians 12:1-3, 11-13

 First and foremost, I want to stress that these two texts are unrelated to one another. They were written for different people in a different time. The Malachi text is a prophetic message to the Israelites after the exile when they were allowed to worship together in their homeland again. The letter to the Corinthians is addressing a diverse congregation established as a church of Jesus Christ with prominent members and members of a lower social class. Malachi’s text is before the Messiah, while Paul’s letter is after Christ has died, resurrected, and has been ascended into heaven for quite some time. But both passages are challenging the audience, pushing them to grow, and making them uncomfortable all so that all who hear might be transformed into a more just and loving community that glorifies God. This is why I have put them in conversation with one another, to examine the similarities and differences between Malachi’s and Paul’s calling for transformation. We are inviting a prophet and an apostle to sit down together and discuss what is required of their audience to honor God. Imagine if you will, these two meeting together to discuss the problems they are facing and how they might address their communities. They are crossing space and time to speak to each other face to face, as friends and colleagues.

            In this conversation Malachi might take a seat across a table from Paul and stare down into his coffee deep in thought. Paul would wait patiently as Malachi gathered his thoughts, knowing how hard it is to speak difficult truths. After taking a deep breath, Malachi would begin by telling Paul about the mess that he and his people are in now that they are no longer exiled. They are dealing with the trauma of homelessness and displacement, while struggling to find their identity as God’s people. Just as they have suffered, their worship to God has suffered. Their grain offerings and burnt offerings are not the best that they have to offer, and now God is sending a messenger to set them straight. At this moment Malachi might pause and rub his temples. He’s frustrated and exhausted. He has compassion for his people, and he’s dealing with his own trauma! This is such a heavy load to bear. So, Paul might reach out and give Malachi an encouraging pat on the hand.  Malachi would continue on, saying that the day of the Lord is coming! This is good news because that means God is coming to restore the people of Israel. But God’s presence is overwhelming. If God is coming to be among them who can truly stand before the awesome, terrible, encompassing presence of God? If God is going to transform God’s people, then that means they’re going to be judged and changed before being made good. Such a powerful transformation will not be comfortable. In fact, it will likely be painful.

            Malachi would then sit back in his chair and shake his head. Paul would nod vigorously and agree. Paul knows what it’s like for God to speak from the heavens and transform him completely. He’s well aware of what God’s judgement, although it leads to goodness, really means. So, Paul might take a quick sip of his coffee, and begins telling of the letter he has to send to the church in Corinth. You see, Malachi, this city has so much promise and potential for spreading the good news of Jesus. Corinth was diverse in culture, ethnicity, and in economic trade. Most of the congregation were Gentiles, which meant the message of Jesus was truly reaching the hearts and minds of new people. This church could really reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom! But diversity meant that not everyone had the same social standing and economic income. There were prominent members of means and comfort, while there were also people who were just getting by. Paul had emphasized that all people were important to God and had gifts to offer, but the people who had fewer worldly possessions were being treated as less essential to the church. They were being excluded from all the meals and celebrations of the church because they couldn’t afford to bring food to share. Their spiritual gifts weren’t being used to bless the church. Paul might take a moment to pause to put his head in his hands. Malachi would stand up, squeeze Paul’s shoulder and pour him some fresh coffee. Paul would take a sip of his coffee and tell Malachi that if Christians act without love, then it’s all just noise. If the church has faith but doesn’t have love, then it’s all nothing.

            At this point the two men might take a moment to sit in silence and share a knowing look. This look communicates their desire to honor God, their compassion for their communities, and their frustration with how hard it is to be a leader. Paul would then stand up to stretch his legs and lean against the window. Malachi would stare out the window too, reclining in his seat. He would then tell Paul that as exciting as it is that the day of the Lord is coming, it will be a day of refining fire and fuller’s soap. It will be a day of purification. Being cleansed means checking into habits, being self-reflective of flaws, admitting that there is room for growth and change, and really tearing away all the darkness that’s bound to one’s soul. Are the people of Israel really ready to sacrifice parts of themselves for the sake of the transformation that God brings? Malachi, himself a prophet, may even have doubts about the pain of transformation and the sacrifice that it takes. Malachi would take a break to stretch and take a sip of his coffee. He would then stand up and grab some cheese and crackers from the kitchen counter and set them on the table.

            Paul might sit down and finish his cup of coffee. Then he and Malachi would grab some crackers and cheese and munch on them quietly for a while. Paul then would say that people can do mighty acts of faith, they can give away their possessions and even sacrifice their bodies for the sake of Jesus Christ, but if all of these great faith acts are done without any love then there is nothing to gain from it. The church falls apart without love and the church of Corinth is truly struggling to show love to one another! Honestly, the way that they treat people who are rich and have a high social standing as more important than anyone else is childish. Paul would then stand up suddenly, very frustrated, knocking over Malachi’s coffee. How could these people act like children, reason like children, and speak like children? It’s time for them to set aside their childish ways! The future of the church is at stake! Paul would then see the mess he made and grab some napkins to help clean up. Malachi wouldn’t be angry. Instead he would agree that all people are made in God’s image and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. God calls all to share what they have with one another, instead of making powerful people even more powerful and impoverished people even more oppressed.

            And then as the two are mopping up the spilled coffee, it would click. They would look up each other and nod, coming to an understanding. Both had different people in different circumstances that they would be addressing, but there was an inescapable similarity that both of these messages contained. God’s judgement is never separate from God’s mercy. There is always a way to repent and turn back to God. Malachi was talking to all the Israelites so that their nation would be restored as a whole. Paul was emphasizing the need of unity within the congregation in Corinth so that people in all social classes would be treated with love, honor, and dignity. In both of these scenarios the people of Israel and the church of Corinth needed to be redeemed as a community. Their faith in God was inseparable from their responsibility to love and serve the people around them. Malachi says that this would make the offering of Jerusalem pleasing to God, just like in the days of old. Paul would agree and say that while it’s hard for the church to understand this because they see through a mirror dimly, they would soon fully know that the greatest out of faith, hope, and love is, in fact, love.

            Then two men would be feeling a little more light-hearted, ready to speak to their communities about the hard truths, and the good news that come from God. After they cleaned up the kitchen, the two would share a hand shake and a pat on the back and go their separate ways to do God’s work. Malachi would go to prophesy to Israel, telling them that God’s judgment is coming, and it’s not going to feel good; but if they are willing to withstand transformation then God will restore them. Paul would go to write his letter to Corinth, telling them that they must love each other fully with their whole hearts or else it undercuts all the good and faithful work that they do as a church. And both are going to tell their communities that they have to work together, serving one another. It’s not just about a personal relationship between an individual and the Creator of the universe; a relationship with God is inseparable from relationships with others. Now as we come back to our time, out place, and our congregation we have been fortunate enough to overhear this conversation between a prophet and an apostle. Since we have had an inside look and picked the brains of our ancestors, let us learn from the mistakes of the faith communities past, and move forward into a loving, refined future.


Luke 4: 14-21

A missionary in Zambia wrote these words three years ago:

My blog post today is a little different, but bear with me as I hope it will give you all some insight into who I am as an individual, my faith, and my motivation for service as well as what a great privilege it is to walk this land in service with our partners.

Throughout my time working and serving in Zambia, I have been privileged to visit, live on, and work from many “mission stations”. These mission stations were in the large part set up in the latter part of the 19th century by our missionary forebears. I am always struck by these missionaries’ incredible dedication and sacrifice to God and the communities they served. The attrition rate of these missionaries was huge, close to 100%. Very few ever returned to their homeland and loved ones. In those days you left home with the knowledge, understanding, and expectation that this was going to be a one-way trip.

While the reasons for service may be different, I guess the closest modern day comparison you could make is to NASA’s plan to send a group of volunteers to Mars on a one-way trip. Setting aside the ethical arguments and different theological reasoning attached to this, the circumstances related to the two “journeys” are similar: both involve journeys of great distance in the service of others that have no guarantee of return.

I have always used the stories of these missionaries’ service and sacrifice as a motivational tool. I think that this is a legacy that all those who walked this land in service before us would be proud of.  I am not walking in the footsteps of giants but indeed standing on the shoulders of giants. [Ruairdh Waddell, World Renew Blog)

Over the years, there have been preachers with big shoes to fill. Look at the children of Robert Schuller; the children of Billy Graham; the children of Martin Luther King Jr. Look at people who aspire to go into space following in the steps of astronauts Sally Ride or John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. Look at people who want to be athletes, following in the footsteps of basketball star Michael Jordan or tennis star Serena Williams; or in the footsteps of a quarterback Tom Brady or a gymnast like Simone Biles. Countless people have role models, or people they admire, who inspire them.  Sometimes they are people in history books or biographies; other times it’s people that they’ve met in person.  Having aspirations can lift both a civilization and the human spirit.

Imagine the young man Jesus of Nazareth, the hometown boy, having to step into his new role of listening to Divine guidance. It is likely that he was not uneducated.  Expert in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, Dr. Kenneth Bailey, wrote this:

In Jesus’ day, across the villages of Galilee and Judea, there were associations of serious-minded Jews who called themselves the haberim.  These associations were composed of men who were employed in secular trades but who spent their spare time debating the law and trying to apply it to the world.  A young Jew … had the option of joining such a group. If he decided to do so, he was committed to becoming a “student of the rabbis” and participating in their discussions…. It seems natural to assume that Jesus joined the habirim.  [Jacob and the Prodigal, Intervarsity Press, 2003. Pp. 24-25]

Have you ever had an aspiration to enter a field of study, or play an instrument, or join a sport because someone in your family, or someone you admired, was good at it? And were you scrutinized, and perhaps even dismissed as you tried your hand in that work?  Then you may know what Jesus faced on that day in his hometown. On the day described in Luke chapter 4, Jesus was handed a passage to read; it was from Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets in the annals of Judaism.  There are 66 chapters in the book of Isaiah, but by the providence of God and the selection for Jesus, he read Isaiah 61, words saying that the Spirit of the Lord was upon the great Isaiah, the almost mystical prophet of old, and now this 30 year old Jesus claimed his words as he finished the reading and said to the congregation: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The shoes of Isaiah were too big for Jesus in the sight of the townspeople! They could not buy what he was selling. And—as often happens when an Old Testament passage is included in the New Testament—a few words were dropped or changed. Jesus left out the phrase that he’s been sent to “bind up the brokenhearted.” And he added “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” from Isaiah 58:6.”  “The Mishnah (guidance of Jewish practices) stipulates that in any public reading of the Prophets, the reader is permitting some editing.” [Bailey, p.25]

Clearly Jesus was trying to slip himself into very big shoes; the shoes of the great Prophet Isaiah. And the listeners were caught off-guard. They were there to hear a local man read Scripture, not a declaration of God doing a new thing through him. It was a rough time for both the congregation and the speaker. Can you imagine Jesus saying in his nightly prayer: “Father, things aren’t going too well here!” When we start to do a new thing, and not just follow in the paths of the great people who have gone before us, people will resist you.  Jesus felt it that day.

After so much time has passed, we in the 21st century may take that scene flat-footed, not getting the radical nature of what was said and claimed. But it was radical. And thus Jesus’ began his impact on our world. And he met resistance. Stepping into a role filled by other competent men or women has always been a challenge.  If you recall such times, perhaps we stepping into big shoes or, standing on the shoulders of giants. In golf new golfers stand on the shoulders of Ben Hogan or Arnold Palmer. People in government today may feel like they are standing on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln or Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  Who are the people who have gone before us, carving a niche in our chosen field, or setting the standard for the tasks?  Instead of feeling like we can’t measure up, imagine all of those who have gone before you are calling out their encouragement to you!  Turn off the voice of the critical mother, or father, or coach.  Listen to the great cloud of witnesses, both here and in the hereafter, who are smiling at, and calling out to, you.  I wonder if in Jesus’ prayer time, he heard not only encouraging words from his Heavenly Father, but perhaps good words from his insightful mother Mary. And who know? Maybe he heard words from angels or prophets themselves.

Breaking new ground is never easy. Imagine if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates just let IBM keep cornering the market with giant, heavy, slow computers. Imagine where NASA might be now if an insightful manager had not realized the brilliance of three women—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—depicted in the wonderful film “Hidden Figures,” and counted on them for their calculations to steer rockets out of harm’s way and back to earth.  What a contribution they made. Some just stood in their own shoes, cutting a whole new course across time. They had no prior shoes to fill. Sometimes we need people of courage, skill, and integrity to offer the shoulders on which the next generation can stand.

In addition to great prophets and great judges in the Old Testament, God decided to do a new thing. He did it through Jesus. There was no glass ceiling to break, but there were townspeople to convince. It didn’t go well. Take comfort in knowing things didn’t go well for Jesus. But it was necessary. Sometimes we listen to our heart, where God dwells, and forge ahead. May you listen to God as you choose the path you will take today, and in all of your tomorrows.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 27, 2019


John 2: 1-11

Dr. David H.C. Read was a minister in Scotland first, before he became the Pastor (now Emeritus) of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He preached from this very pulpit on October 9, 1986.  In his book This Grace Given, he told this story:

One wintry day in the late nineteen-forties I was driving in my ramshackle open car from Edinburgh to St. Andrews, where I had an engagement at the university. After crossing the Firth of Forth I was soon in the vicinity of Cupar, the capital of the county of Fife, which happens to be my birthplace. (Happens to be? The cliché slipped out. Does anything just happen to be? Since the point of these reflections is the search for the directing presence of God, I should avoid this expression, which really conceals a popular pagan philosophy of sheer chance, the goddess of Fortune.)…To add to my confusion it was growing dark and so great clouds of mist came rolling in from the North Sea.  By the time I was a mile or two beyond Cupar I was totally lost. Peering through and over the windshield, I caught sight of an ancient signpost and pulled over to the side of the road. As I stood for a moment looking around, a curious feeling swept over me. As I far as I could see through the mist, I was stranded on a bleak stretch of moorland, and there was not a sound, not a trace of a human being, not even an animal. Yet I sensed what I could only call a Presence, not exactly spooky but vaguely disturbing. There are quite a few places in Scotland where this seems to happen. In fact someone recently remarked to me that the island of Iona is a “thin” place—where the barrier between the seen and the unseen worlds are stretched thin.

[Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1984, pp. 1,2]

Others have told me that thin places are where heaven seems to connect with earth, or where God’s presence on earth is felt more earnestly. It is a wonderful yet mysterious concept. Some have found such places in their travels and they’ve retraced their steps to feel that divine presence, the wind of the Spirit, or even to hear divine words.

Being in touch with, or in the presence of the divine, is classically what we call “Holy Ground.”  When you find it, you’ll want to return.

The start of such an event in Jesus’ life was at the wedding in Cana.

If you have been in a church the last three weeks, you know that Christians first remembered the birth of Jesus, then Jesus going to the Temple as a boy, and last week Jesus being baptized as a man. Perhaps he gradually understood his divine role after living a mortal life for 30 years. Theologians such as Eric Butterworth suggest—I think credibly—that Jesus had a progressive revelation of his divine work in the world. Listen to this description from his book, Discover the Power Within You.

About a hundred generations ago in far-off Palestine, something happened that may well be the greatest event in human history…It happened to a young lad, the son of a simple carpenter. His name was Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph. This was no ordinary boy ….I can imagine the young boy, Jesus, spending many hours in the hills of Galilee, like any normal youth pondering the wonders of the heavens—the sun and drifting clouds by day, the moon and stars by night. I can visualize Him asking the question posed by the shepherd Psalmist a thousand years before: “What is man?” And then, one day it happened. Into the consciousness of this thoughtful lad came an idea so great that he probably didn’t catch its full implications at first. It was the concept leading to the full realization of His unity with God….We don’t know how this great breakthrough was actually accomplished in Jesus, how long the process took, or when he achieved self-mastery. But we know he made his appearance at the Jordan River to be baptized by John. He was a committed and polished teacher with the amazing message that “the Kingdom of God is within you. [HarperOne, 1992, p. 6-7]

That brings us to this time a few days later, when Jesus and his new disciples were invited to a wedding.  Jesus was certainly aware of his divine gifts and was preparing for his ministry. It was a “soon but not yet” time in his life. The clock was about to start ticking for the three years he would have until his death. Calendar time is commonly called chronos; God’s time is known as kairos-officially defined as “a propitious moment for time or action.” It was almost God’s time for Jesus to begin his work according to John 1 and 2.  “Some scholars … believe the Fourth Gospel wishe[d] to portray a week of seven days to open his ministry.” [Raymond Brown, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN Doubleday & Company, New York, 1966, p. 105-106] God, in effect, was “ramping up” the revelation of Jesus’ role in the world from John 1: 19 through John 2: 11. First, John the Baptist gave testimony to his own role on Jesus’ behalf; then Jesus was baptized, then he called his disciples, and then they went to the wedding at Cana. It was at the wedding when what might be called a holy hand-off occurred: it was from Jesus’ earthly mother to his Heavenly Father from whom he was about to take instructions. Here’s what John records about that first miracle: It started in John chapter 2: “On the third day.” Sunday is the first day, Monday the second day, and Tuesday is the third—not an unusual wedding day in first century Galilee. There was a situation—either from too many guests or too little wine— in a region where hospitality was famous, and no one wanted to put the host to shame. We hear about a rare time when the older Mary—mother of Jesus—is with her grown Son. He is about to take his ministry reigns: does he know how? Or when? Do any of us know how, or when, a divine awareness may come to us, instructing us to carry out a task or a ministry, or to change a ministry? That day Jesus relented and began to claim his new power. As his mother informed Jesus of the social dilemma (she didn’t ask him to do anything, just informed him of the situation,) Jesus said to her these key words: “My hour has not yet come.” Dr. Gail R. O’Day of the Candler School of Theology observed: “The reference to Jesus’ hour in verse 4 explains why Jesus adopts a posture of disengagement toward his mother. While “hour” is used in the Fourth Gospel to indicate the passing of time, it also is used metaphorically to refer to the time of eschatological fulfillment …. [THE NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press. Nashville, 1995, p. 537.] In other words: the time for which Jesus was born was about to begin. As his mother makes the request, he, for the first time, performs a glorious miracle: not just changing water into wine, but also drawing his followers into the metaphor of a wedding feast.  Heaven is like a wedding feast; the Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, and later on, the imagery of Jesus as the groom and the church as his bride will fill many commentaries!

Perhaps your awareness of God’s presence started with a baptism, or your Confirmation; a retreat; an Ordination; or an urging. Some people follow Jesus because they were urged by family members or friends to do so. Others follow Jesus while family members or friends discourage them from doing so. But as many will tell you: when God calls you, you go. Or “when the Master calls,” (as Scottish American preacher Peter Marshall said in his book Mr. Jones, Meet the Master), you go.Last week we sang “Here I am Lord,” and some, I’m sure, sang it as an answer to God’s call. Maybe this too is such a day; a day when you’ll remember the “thin spaces” you visited where you felt the brush of angel’s wings. Maybe this too is a day to join Jesus on his journey, and ultimately for the wedding feast. The journey will include tensions and rejections along the way as you let Divine light shine through your words and your actions.  Instead of wondering “What Would Jesus Do?” in the weeks ahead, try asking this instead: “How can I let the light of God shine through my words and my actions?” It we can do that, perhaps we can create even more thin places on the earth, and become aware of our wonderful God who lives in the temple of human hearts.

Hear now this prayer from the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland: “O God, whose blessed Son came into the world to do Thy will: grant that we may ever have the pattern of his holy life before our eyes and so it will be our delight to do thy will and finish thy work; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 January 20, 2019


Luke 3: 15-17; 21-22

A wonderful long time congregation member gave me a special book a few years ago. Written by Carol Hamblet Adams, My Beautiful Broken Shell tells about the author’s quest to be up early in the mornings at her beachfront home to go searching for perfect shells. She loved the quest. One day, in the midst of things falling apart in her life, she had an awakening: instead of searching for perfect shells, she had a desire to pick up broken ones; the ones left behind; the ones nobody wanted. In some ways, that’s the way she was feeling.  So her beautiful broken shells—as she called them— were a reflection of her own life. Broken.  The Gospels tell us that “Jesus came to save the lost.” But by his words and actions, we also know he came to love and encourage those who were broken.  Author Shel Silverstein also touched many lives with his book The Missing Piece.  It’s the story of what looks like a stone disc, personified, rolling down the highways and byways of life “looking for the missing piece.” You see, the stone disc has a slice taken out of it, like someone who took the first piece out of a pie. So as the disc goes down the road, it bumps; life is not smooth; it is bumpy and that slice of emptiness hits the road with each revolution. 
“Looking for my missing piece” went the song.  I think there are plenty of people today who are looking for their missing p-i-e-c-e; and at the same time, seeking their missing p-e-a-c-e.  I believe that in part because people of many ages—from 18 or 80; boys or girls, men or women—have told me: they have longed to hear wonderful words of life from a parent.  A woman I know never heard the words: “I love you” from her mother. I’ve known men who look secure and successful, but were aching in their heart—because Dad never said, “I’m proud of you.”  Sure, there was a roof over their head and food on their tables, but it is not true that “sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us.” Words can hurt. And a lack of the right words, from the right person, can leave a hole in one’s soul.  I think God absolutely knew that. At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he took the time—with people gathered for the adult baptism—to say wonderful words of life to the Son, with other people looking on:  “You are my son; I love you; I am so pleased with you!” Do you know what gold that had to be for Jesus? Sure you do! Maybe you wish you heard it from someone, or hopefully you have! But as our Presbyterian Counseling Center now sees over 400 clients a month, I know there are more in the world who have not heard those words.  In the biography Henry Bushkin wrote about Tonight Show host Johnny Carson (Johnny called him “Bombastic Bushkin,”) the author said that Johnny told him that his mother was one of the coldest women he knew; she never praised him; and she never thought his work—until her life’s end—amounted to anything. All his life he sought her approval, but no wonderful words ever came from her mouth. Johnny, as his biography points out, believed that it caused him relationship problems. Away from the camera he was caustic, broken and insecure.  Who else among us is going through life that way? Jesus came to save the lost; to love those who were broken; and to say words to people in all stages of brokenness: “Take up your pallet and walk.”

At a child’s baptism, there certainly can be a grand celebration with pictures, a party, or a meal.  It may make parents proud, but the helpless child will have no recollection of the event.  In part that’s why we make a big deal of affirming young people at ages 12-17 who have decided to go through the months of Confirmation; so they will hear words of affirmation from their teachers, their parents, their pastors, and their congregation.   Certainly when Jesus was born there were shepherds who gathered at the stable to adore the Christ child. But the baby was oblivious. Instead, as Jesus began his ministry at age 30, the voice from heaven rang out, just as others have hoped to hear it on the big days in their lives: graduation; a first job; a wedding.  Sometimes the words are just offered because the time feels right. Figure out sometime for the time to be right.  Even older children who have received AARP invitations may still have a missing piece.

Dr. Myron Madden, who was once the Director of Pastoral Care at Southern Baptist Hospital in New Orleans, came to Daytona Beach for one of Halifax Hospital’s early Pastoral Care Institutes coordinated by Chaplain Jim Smith. In his book The Power to Bless, he writes these thought-provoking words:

Whoever brings acceptance in a total way brings healing. Whoever cannot accept affirmation from another cannot be healed. Those who shut themselves off from sharing their deeper selves impose on themselves a kind of isolation or banishment from healing. In seeking to work things out “by themselves” one can only revolve from self-hate to self pit and back again….A genuine self-acceptance must be started at some point outside of self; it must come from someone else who has, in turn, been able to accept healing for their own brokenness. That person cannot intrude or force themself into the picture. They must be authorized or given power by the broken one to accept and heal….Just as one life comes from another life, so blessing comes from another.”

[Broadman Press, 1970, p 141-142.]

Did you understand that the wonderful words of life are infused with unconditional love? If you haven’t heard words your heart longs to hear, it may be because a parent has, or had, a missing piece.  This is not about blame; it’s about helping us embrace our brokenness. Sometimes rolling down the road bumping is what some people do best. Even those on the cusp of being ordained as Ruling Elders today may be looking for their missing piece. Many in our world are.  But what they have learned in their training, is what I am reminding you of today: Jesus had unconditional love from God: what God offered him, and us, is the voice of affirmation that might be missing in your life: “You are my beloved; I am well pleased with you.” Never assume that the professionally put together girl or boy, woman or man is not, inside, a beautiful broken shell; or a person bumping through life. Jesus sought such people and still does.

Conversely, the dark side of words is criticism, even when it is gift wrapped as “constructive criticism.” There is a barb inside of that gift.  Beloved wife of the late Rev. Peter Marshall, Catherine Marshall, heard words of criticism flowing from her own mouth. She was determined to change it. Her energy was low, and she seemed to be living with some unresolved bitterness. She found herself being critical of others.  This was Catherine Marshall! So she dealt with it head-on. Remembering that her Savior was critical of religious people, she hoped she wasn’t become Pharisaical. She decided she was going to have a fast from criticalness.  She wrote:

“The Lord continues to deal with me about my critical spirit, convicting me that I have been wrong to judge another person or situation.  [Jesus said, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7: 1-2)]  “One morning [the Lord] gave [her] an assignment: for one day I was to go on a “fast” from criticism. I was not to criticize anybody or anything. Into my mind crowded all the usual objections. “But then what happens to value judgments?” she asked Jesus “You Yourself, Lord, spoke of ‘righteous judgment.’ How could society operate without standards and limits?”

She wrote how difficult the fast was, but it pointed out a more critical nature than she initially believed she had. It was a learning and growing experience.  At the end of the fast she wrote: “Convicted of the true destructiveness of a critical mind-set, on my knees I [repeated] this prayer: “Lord, I repent of this sin of judgment. I am deeply sorry for having committed so gross an offense…. I claim your promise of forgiveness, and seek a new beginning.” [SPIRITUAL CLASSICS, Richard J. Foster and Emilie Griffin, ed. HarperSanFransisco, 2000, pp. 57-59.}

Perhaps today can also be for us, a day of new beginnings.

Let us pray:

Loving God: you know those here who are broken; those who need to hear wonderful words from you and from others. You also know that at our baptism you filled our soul with rejuvenating waters of love, a gift that can overflow into the lives of others.  Help us change our lives one relationship at a time. And thank you for showing us how life can be changed through the words you shared with Jesus as he and others gathered at the river. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 13, 2019 ��


Matthew 2: 1-12

Gold; frankincense; and, myrrh; three gifts are ones that so called “wisemen” brought for a newborn baby. On the Internet I saw a cartoon with three women in different colored clothing looking at Mary, Joseph, and the baby. The caption read: “After the three wise men left, the three wiser women arrived bringing diapers, casseroles, and wine.” You decide what were the best gifts!  Yes, of course, the wise women’s gifts were much more practical; but history his shown that the wise men’s gifts were more meaningful. Let’s see why. Today I want to connect some dots that occurred to me on Wednesday, and then in yesterday’s News Journal, Pastor Shane Looper confirmed them too. I’ll get to those dots in a minute.

Some have said that it’s not the gift that is most important, but what is behind the giving of a gift.  If a father gives keys to a car to his oldest teenage son, it is not just a new car, it is a symbol of trust in the son.  If a woman gives a family Bible to her daughter who is expecting a child—a Bible that was had belonged to her parents before her—she is not just giving a Bible, she is passing on a tradition and her faith.  And if a woman gives hand made and cross stitched dinner napkins and a table cloth to a friend, it is not just a nice gift, it’s a sign that she’s giving some thing special to some one special!  Think about why you give gifts, and what others may have been thinking when they gave you a gift. Today I have some gifts that I appreciate more with each passing year. My grandparents gave me my first Timex watch; I have it with me today. It was a loving gift, to help me learn how to tell time when I was six years old. I wonder how many children today can tell time from a clock with hands; an analogue clock?  My grandmother also gave me an heirloom wooden box with a musical movement inside. She knew I had admired it; it has belonged to her son who died at age 14. I think she wanted her first born grandson to have it. It’s here today too. The best gifts are not just the first thing picked up dashing through an airport or going in a discount store. Sometimes the gift is emotionally costly or chosen carefully.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we find a sketchy report about men coming quite a distance to see baby Jesus.  We don’t even know if there were three men; we only assume that because there were three gifts. And where was the “East” from whence they came? The late Biblical scholar Raymond Brown wrote a 600 page commentary called The Birth of the Messiah on just Luke chapters 1& 2; and Matthew chapters 1 & 2. Yikes! In that commentary he reminds us that the ones we call “wisemen” or “kings” were called magoi in Matthew and we have Anglicized it into the word “magi.”  Says Brown, “The magi were Zoroastrian priests….In the Greek form of the Book of Daniel (second century B.C.) the author describes magoi as flourishing in every corner of the Babylonian kingdom  of Nebuchanezzar.  Along with the enchanters and the astronomers, they were thought to have the power of interpreting dreams and visionary messages.” (Daniel chapters 1, 2, 4, & 5) [Image Books, 1979, p. 167]  I hope you heard those words! Did they ring a bell? When Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem in those days and took precious vessels from the house of God back to his land of Babylon, he also took four men with him. That was in the second century B.C. And among those Jews he took back to his kingdom were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, but he changed their names as they became his prisoners in Babylon to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! According to a Bible Study website, King Nebuchadnezzar promoted them to the rank of magi. The ruthless King from the land dreamers, visionaries, and astrologers eventually died, but the tradition continued in Babylon. And where is Babylon compared to Jerusalem and Bethlehem? Due east, 300 miles! So the mag—if they came from there—had a long history of reading stars and interpreting dreams. Could the idea of a king to be born in Judah have been planted in the minds of the Babylonian magi by none other than Daniel years before! Magi saw in the stars that a king was to be born when there was a confluence of light appearing in the constellation of Leo—symbolized symbolized by a lion—when a scepter was prophesied to appear at the feet of Judah. Could it be that these people of both faith and science believed that a king, a special king, was to be born in Judah? And if so, maybe even the treasures taken from the temple centuries before that were never returned, were used to honor God in the Temple? Gold was there—the most precious of metals and most beautiful. Frankincense was there—burned regularly in the Temple. As people smelled the aroma and watched the smoke rise, they believed it was pleasing to God. And Myrrh was there; a fragrant oil used in Jewish practice to anoint the bodies of the dead.  The Temple would have had all of those.  The magi would have traveled for many, many weeks or months, not knowing exactly when the newborn king was to be born, but having historical traditions that told his identity! In the giving of those particular gifts-instead of more practical ones—they might have been the actual items stolen from the Jerusalem Temple centuries before by Nebuchadnezzar, or similar gifts given to pay homage to a newborn King.

Gifts matter. It is one thing to get something that pleases the recipient; that’s what we usually do.  But sometimes, the gift pleases the giver more, like giving the gifts of historical family stories, or items that have been in a family for generations.  This summer, as my mother moved from our house to an independent living facility, we began to consider what to do with all the things my parents had collected. The piano that was bought by her parents for her to play—a piano that was in the house where she grew up—had gotten transported to our house in a moving van in 1966.  It had it’s home in our living room all that time. I took piano lessons on it; and my mother played it for special occasions. But there was no space for that piano in my mother’s independent living facility. What would we do with it? She asked her children who would like it. None wanted to move a piano across many states. We thought about selling it, but wondered how much to ask. Then my sister came up with a brilliant idea: my mother’s next door neighbor—the one who had driven my mother to see my dad the day he died—had a daughter who was interested in playing the piano! Well it took no time at all for my brothers and sisters and my mother and I to agree to give the piano to the neighbor! It was so natural! We don’t know if they will love it forever, but my mother could not be happier with the new home of her childhood piano. What we know is that the giver—my mother—is delighted, and perhaps her parents before her would have been delighted with helpful neighbor getting the piano for her daughter to practice playing.  Sometimes a gift carries more meaning to the giver than to the oblivious recipient. Could it be these gifts of the magi pointed to Jesus as the greatest gift of all; the gift that God loved to give? Sometimes a gift lovingly given only gets appreciated in hindsight.  Who knew that a newborn King would change the world? I know who knew: the magi. And now, you do too.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           January 6, 2019



Luke 2:41-52

We live in a world where people on both sides of politics have claimed “Fake News” at one point or another. In Christianity, there is a version of what one might call “Fake News.” It is called the Gnostic Gospels. What are those, you ask? They are scrolls discovered near the Upper Egypt town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. They are written in the Coptic language that is native to Egypt. Gnostics were a group of Jewish-Christians mainly in the Second Century. Part of their belief, that Christianity of today debunks, was that the divine spark was “housed” inside our evil human bodies. They believed all matter was evil and all spiritual thoughts were good. Another scroll that has been found is thought to be from the late second Century. Here is part of that “Fake News” scroll, called “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Scholar Bart Ehrman says:

          The narrative begins with Jesus as a five-year old boy and relates a number of incidents, most of them miraculous, that betray a streak of the mischievous in Joseph and Mary’s precocious son. Here are anecdotes of Jesus at play with his childhood companions (sometimes harming them with his divine power, sometimes healing them), in confrontation with his elders (usually bettering them), and in school with his teachers (revealing their ignorance) and in the workshop with his father (miraculously correcting his mistakes.  [Lost Scriptures, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 57.]

Today’s Luke text carries us over from the Christmas Eve texts when Mary, and the man to whom she was engaged-Joseph, go to great lengths to be together at the time of Jesus’ birth: instead of leaving Mary behind in Nazareth—where her family could certainly have cared for her and may have wanted to tend to her as she gave birth—Joseph took her with him in her condition as he fulfilled the census requirement put out by decree.  In fact, if I were her mother and father, I might have insisted that she stay home to give birth in Nazareth. The Daytona Beach News Journal, just this week, ran a series of 8 stories about midwives having babies die due to complicated births. We will never know if it was Mary’s understanding of the angel’s decree that made her agree to go to Bethlehem in her condition  or if it was just at the urging of Joseph. The Bible doesn’t say how they got to Bethlehem; the apocryphal (some might call it “fake news”) Infancy Narrative of James claims that Mary started to deliver the child before they arrived in Bethlehem and that Joseph left her in a cave while he ran into Bethlehem for two midwives. But no matter the exact details, the birth of Jesus came at great personal sacrifice on both of the parts of his parents, like a child born today takes sacrifices of time, money, and attention. On the eighth day, according to the law set out in Leviticus 12, Joseph and Mary made all the arrangements to have Jesus circumcised (Luke 2: 21). What followed after 33 days (a law from Leviticus 12) was the trip Mary, Joseph, and Jesus took to Jerusalem for her purification (Luke 2:22). What ordeals children bring into our lives!  Nothing done to that point was done because Jesus was the Son of God; it was done just because Mary had a baby boy! What a difference there is between gifts such as a dolls or stuffed animals, compared with a real child!

Children around the world, and certainly those of us near Disney World, know one story of magic when a toy marionette is changed into a real boy!  It’s the story of a blue fairy that magically brought a toy maker’s favorite toy to life. The marionette that became a boy was Pinocchio, and he only came to life when he gained the virtues of bravery, loyalty, and honesty, that would be needed in a real life. The toy maker, Gepetto, loved Pinocchio like a son. In another story that we studied during Advent, “The Gift of the Nutcracker,” we also learned that in her dream, Clara saw the inanimate nutcracker become a real king. Stories about people longing to be real are all around us. Isn’t it amazing that we sometimes complain about the cost of humanness: the heartbreak, the body aches, and the disappointments, and yet God wanted to feel humanness, and stories keep describing unreal things becoming real?

In Margery Williams’ tale of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the stuffed animal rabbit sat on the nursery floor one day and asked the Skin Horse, who looked old and wise, what it was to be REAL.

“What is real?” the rabbit asked.

 “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes” replied the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are REAL you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” replied the Skin Horse. …  “It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are REAL most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joins and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL you can’t be ugly. The Boy’s Uncle made me REAL” said the Skin Horse. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are REAL you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

[Doubleday, New York, 1991 Reissue, pp. 2-3]

God chose humanness to know the gamut of our emotions; to know what it was like to have skin, and to know both the joy a Zacchaeus conversion, and the sorrow of a Judas betrayal. In Jesus Christ, God chose to become human, with all of its complications.  And then, as Jesus grew up, he came to a milestone year: 12. Twelve years old was a special age for a Jewish boy. He had a right of passage from a boy to a young man. But this young man had more than his share of Godly knowledge. So as his parents attended to their religious obligations in Jerusalem, Jesus wandered around the Temple Mount. It was a time to discuss his faith with someone other than his father. This was surely a time when Jesus would not just begin to learn his earthly father’s trade in Nazareth, but also go to his Heavenly Father’s house. His questions of the Temple elders foreshadowed what was to come, even though he would not begin his ministry for another 18 years.

Life’s milestones come and go. As we are on the cusp of a new year, how might you make different decisions? What might you decide to do, that you haven’t done so far? What practices do you deem good to continue? At light speed in the Bible, Jesus goes from infancy, to age 12 to age 30, (disregarding those stories of him as a boy in the Gnostic Gospels.) Life can move very fast for us too! Take time to remember your milestones, to learn from them. What milestones may occur in your life this year?  God in Christ stands ready to shine a light unto your path.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                     December 30, 2018 050

12-23-18 Perplexed and Pondering

Perplexed and Pondering

Luke 1:26-38

Year in and year out we celebrate Advent and Christmas. We know all about the angels, the virgin, the manger, the baby, the star, the shepherds, and the wise men.  We know all the special buzzwords like Bethlehem, the stable, gold, frankincense and myrrh, glory to God in the highest. We put on our mismatched hand sewn costumes of tunics and head coverings and we perform the story in our hand built stable that fits neatly at the front of the church with enough straw to fit cleanly in the manger, but not to sully the church carpet. If we want to get really adventurous, we might even have a real baby in swaddling clothes, and maybe a live donkey and sheep in an outdoor nativity scene. The story of Jesus’ birth has become very familiar. We know it by heart. Since we know it so well that we can retell it by memory, sometimes I find that we have ceased our wonder and marvel of such an unimaginable story. We skip right to the nativity without sitting with Mary as she is perplexed by the words of the angel and ponders what all of this news means. We get antsy if we’re not singing Christmas carols during Advent, instead of leaning into the anticipation and expectation. Then we’re ready to take the tree down as soon as Christmas day is over, because by the time it gets here we’re all partied out! Instead of waiting, expecting, and pondering in Advent, and then celebrating Christmas for 12 days, it seems like we’re dragging out Christmas. What’s really happening is that we don’t have the patience to wait for it so that it might be celebrated properly. How can we celebrate with jubilation if we didn’t have to first long for something to celebrate? How do we know we are ready for the Christ child if we do not take time to sit with Mary and be perplexed and ponder this great mystery with her?

I, like many of you, have more than one nativity scene in my home. I want a visual reminder of what Christmas is about and what we’ve been waiting for during all of Advent. But in our rush to the manger, we forget all the wild events that lead up to the birth of Jesus, the grit and surprise of the birth, and the terror that follows. Our mantel piece nativity scenes are a wonderful reminder, but they are just that: a reminder. They do not contain the whole of the Gospel, and sometimes I fear that we’ve tamed the Gospel as if it’s a children’s fairytale. In fact, let’s visit a popular fairytale that shows us an infinite God cannot be contained but breaks through the barriers of heaven and earth.

In C.S. Lewis’ children’s story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four siblings Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter go through an old wardrobe into a magical world known as Narnia. Here they meet magical creatures that can speak, like Mr. Tumnus who is a faun, half man and half goat. The world of Narnia is stuck in an eternal winter brought on by the White Witch, who is evil and powerful. The White Witch wants to capture these four children for fear that they will overthrow her from her throne, and she arrests Mr. Tumnus for helping them instead of turning them over to the authorities. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who are two talking beavers as we learn that the animals in Narnia can speak, decide to help the four children find Mr. Tumnus and set other prisoners free from the White Witch. The Beavers are excited and confident in their mission because they know that Aslan is coming. Aslan is a lion and the King of Narnia. The Beavers know that Aslan the King can save everyone from the White Witch and the eternal winter plaguing Narnia. The children are a little concerned, wondering if this lion that they don’t know is dangerous. Susan asks if Aslan is safe, and Mrs. Beaver says that anyone who doesn’t approach Aslan with knees knocking is a fool. Lucy then says that he mustn’t be a safe lion. Mr. Beaver says that of course he isn’t safe, but he is the King and he is good. Aslan indeed comes as a metaphorical Christ figure to save the day and overcome the death and evil that has choked Narnia for so long.

Just as Aslan is good and a savior, but cannot be assumed to be safe and tame, we too cannot tame the story of the Gospel, forgetting the divine mystery that causes us to be perplexed. What a wild story this is of a virgin named Mary, who is unexpectedly visited by an angel. With no warning, a heavenly being suddenly appears to her, greeting her as a favored one and being told that the Lord is with her. Well, what on earth does that mean? Is the Lord with everyone or just Mary? And since when did Mary become favored? No wonder she was perplexed! Where is this conversation going? What’s about to happen? And then the angel says not to be afraid, when we all know that telling people to calm down doesn’t really help anyone calm down. Then Gabriel continues to say that she will conceive a son, name him Jesus, and he will have the throne of his ancestor David. Excuse me, what? The David, the man after God’s own heart, Jesus will have that throne? This is so outlandish! And it’s impossible, since Mary is a virgin. Oh wait, no, no, apparently that’s not a problem. The Holy Spirit will overshadow her so that she’ll conceive, because that happens everyday. Oh, and no big deal or anything, but this child will be called the Son of God. There’s nothing written in this passage to indicate that time passed for Mary to process this bombshell. But what we do see is something absolutely miraculous: Mary consents. She accepts this task. Regardless of whether she truly comprehended the immensity of the mission set before her, she says, “Let it be.” This enormous, breathtaking story gives us an opportunity to pause, to marvel, and to really mull over what this miracle means. We can’t truly appreciate the child in the manger, if we blow past this sensation at break-neck speed.

If we lose our wonder and awe, then we lose the essence of what it means to have Emmanuel, God with us. In her book, Bright Evening Star, Madeleine L’Engle describes the wonder of Christmas that she had as a child. She would climb into her grandmother’s lap at the family beach house, and they would sway back and forth together in the rocking chair on the porch overlooking the sand dunes. Madeleine would feel safe in her grandmother’s arms as they watched the waves roll in, and her grandmother would sing about the baby Jesus, the little lamb. This made Madeleine marvel at the Maker of the Universe who would be born in this world to show love for us. Her grandmother would then read her an illustrated picture book about Bible stories, and she believed all of the stories about God’s love to be “gloriously true.” She pondered this perplexing mystery of Jesus being born into the world, and she poses the question, “ Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?” She asks the reader this question because she believes that the story of Christ’s coming has become over sentimentalized, and the truth is no longer so striking. Instead of awed silence, we meet the incarnation of Christ with a season of frantic stress, depression, and alienation. Madeleine challenges us to continue to be perplexed by the mystery of the coming of Jesus, and ponder on what it means in our hearts so that we do not lose our wonder and awe.

It’s the last week of Advent, and Christmas will be here in just a few short days. When we do finally get to Christmas day, let’s try not to jump straight to hallelujahs and praises, but pause and continue to be perplexed and pondering. Be perplexed at the God of the universe deciding to enter the world through a woman’s womb, covered in after birth only to be placed in a manger among barn animals. Ponder what it means for the first people in the world to know about the birth of Christ to be shepherds, people who, in this society, had no power or influence. Let’s sit in awe with Mary for a few more days. When we look at the nativity sets on our mantle, let them drive us deeper into the mystery of God instead of letting them be a sentimental, tame fairytale. I leave you with this poem by Ann Weems. May it inspire a wonder in your hearts:

In each heart lies a Bethlehem// An inn where we must ultimately answer// Whether there is room or not.// When we are Bethlehem-bound// We experience our own advent in his.// When we are Bethlehem-bound// We can no longer look the other way// Conveniently not seeing stars// Not hearing angel voices.// We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily// Tending our sheep or our kingdoms.// This advent, let’s go to Bethlehem// and see this thing that the Lord has made known to us.// In the midst of shopping sprees // Let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of gifts.// Through the tinsel// Let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.// In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos,// Let’s listen for the brush of angel’ wings.// This advent let’s go to Bethlehem// And find our kneeling places.



Luke 3: 7-18

When it comes to epitaphs—you know, the sayings some people add to their tombstone—some of them are downright startling. I remember going through the cemetery in Princeton New Jersey while I attended Princeton Seminary. One of the headstones had this startling sentence: “I told you I was sick.” Ouch. Talk about reaching out from the dead! Tim Hawk of the New Jersey Advanced Media wrote this about that cemetery and others:

We live to leave a legacy. In this short life, we hope to have an impact on the lives of those close to us and those we encounter for a fleeting moment. Whether it’s with our family, friends or in the community, our personality will follow us to our grave.  

When it’s time to cash in one’s chips, how do you want to be remembered? What would be your epitaph? 

  •                 “Devoted husband.”
  •                 “Gone but not forgotten.”
  •                 “Forever in our hearts.”
  •                 “Beloved wife.”

What phrase would be your lasting memory?

  • .”

Gravestones tell a story. More than the deceased’s name, age and date of death, the engravings often give us insight about how they lived or how they died. Some even reveal funny sayings or phrases leaving us wondering what they were like when they walked with the living.

Established in 1757, the Princeton Cemetery is the final resting place of Revolutionary War soldiers, scientists, musicians, writers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grover Cleveland, the 24th president of the United States, and Aaron Burr, the third vice president are also buried there. But among the breath-taking monuments and picturesque views lies, [are words] etched forever in stone. Here are three:

  •                 “I told you I was sick.” “Life is short, eat dessert first.” 

          “She was not afraid of bears.

That cemetery is worth a visit!

In truth, many people in our day do not choose big headstones with memorable epitaphs. So for us, we may not want to consider what is etched in stone on our behalf, but what is indelibly placed in people’s minds. How might you like to be remembered? What good deeds for your community, your church, your family or your nation might be remembered about you with gratitude?  The fiery prophet John the Baptist proclaimed to those who came to be baptized by him: “Bear fruit.” “Bear fruit worthy of your repentance.” In other words, do the works to show others the change that is in your heart. Or, “Let there be evidence that you are wanting to make a difference in this world.” Words are cheap; actions matter. As I learned from a man with citrus trees in his yard, the purpose of the trees was to bear fruit. Fruit trees are not grown to be shade trees or just for beauty; they are grown to bear fruit. That is their purpose.

Pastor Rick Warren created a publishing bonanza with his 2002 book The Purpose Driven Life. Its subtitle: “What on Earth am I Hear for?” The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives as some good guidance with its words “Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” I once had an elder ask me,  “What are your goals in life?” And I said, “To be the best husband, the best father, and the best pastor I can be.” He said, “You’re already doing those, you need some new goals!” What are your goals in life? One of them, says John, is to “bear fruit.” In God’s eyes, you are a blessing not just by being; but once we know that, a major purpose in life becomes “bearing fruit.” Even a blessed person can wear on one’s nerves if they never get out of bed or off the couch! I remember a woman in our congregation who, because of chemotherapy, had to stay in her home because her immune system was compromised. Did she just sit? No, she systematically went through our list of shut-ins, and our prayer list, and called them to visit by phone! And here I am talking about it because it is part of her legacy. Will others be able to say, at the end of your life, that you made your community, or family, or church, or friends a little better because of who you were and what you did?  As Mary Ann and I guided our children to this stage in their lives, we fulfilled some of our hopes: 1) That they would find good employment; 2) find a wonderful person with whom to share their life; and 3) and that they would contribute to society in ways that are meaningful to them. Instead of just coasting through life at whatever age, think about your legacy; think about “Bearing fruit.”

As one starts to read the Gospel of Luke, they can get lulled into “sleeping in heavenly peace” as angels appear; babies are born (both John and Jesus), weary parents make their journey to Bethlehem; and shepherd go to see the Christ Child. Then in comes “Wreck it Ralph,” only this time it’s “Wreck it John.” John the Baptist, who seems like a prophetic bull in a china shop, thunders a warning from God: “God” he says in so many words,” is not pleased with the levels of sin without acknowledgment or repentance, so there could be estrangement ahead! John illustrates it with an ax cutting at the root of a tree. Those who keep on their own chosen path may be cut off from blessings; cut off from encouragement; cut off from the one who gave them life. They cannot claim to be ‘chosen people’ as if their genealogy earns them favor. Instead of having the habits of highly successful people, John’s listeners—and perhaps we—have developed habits of highly sinful people, and it doomd the relationship with God.” John tells them what they—and we—need to do. If we were to boil down his response, it would be “Live Differently! Share instead of hold; earn instead of cheat; repent instead of deny!”  Today, John steps out of the pages of Luke and preaches to us and to others: That message could be delivered to our national leaders who may badly need to change: to local leaders who have recently shown unyielding stances against others; and to state leaders. Maybe you need to hear John too, or a family member needs to hear John. I know there are days when I need to repent. Making a rugged self-examination is not just a Twelve-step activity; it is an activity of Godly people. When I am on certain roads, warning strips strategically placed at the sides of the pavement rumble through my car, telling me I’m going off the road. John the Baptist is our rumble strip, warning us that we might be off the road. Some arrogantly answer John, “Leave me alone! I’m saved!” Or “I’ve already been baptized!” To that John says, “Act like it! Live Differently! Bear good fruit!” So today: what might you need to change in your life? What relationship needs attention? Are you emulating good role models in your life, or poor ones? The political climate is so toxic in our nation and in other nations as we move toward Christmas. Who gets your respect for truth, for integrity, and for Christian actions? Which ones do you follow; which ones do you reject? In addition to Jesus, pick high quality people and see how they deal with issues and conflicts. Notice their work or their generosity. Choose the qualities that you want to exemplify, and take any bushel off the light of Christ so his light can shine in the darkness. God is watching. God’s eyes flash at the sound of lies. May each of us work on our relationship with God Almighty, rather than facing the ax.  Let us pray:

Almighty God: as troubled as we are with our nation and the world, we know that you judge us one by one. Help us to be a prophetic mouthpiece in written and spoken ways when needed, and a bridge over troubled waters where we can. Remind us that the reasons for our names to be included in the book of life are still unfolding.  We will seek to bear good fruit in the garden of your world. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 December 16, 2018

12-09-18 PREPARING


Luke 3: 1-6

Matt Raule, the author of our “Gift of the Nutcracker” series we offer on Wednesday nights, noted the human tendency to put off until tomorrow what doesn’t need to be done today. He says tongue in cheek, “If we knew that Christ was returning on Tuesday, our sanctuaries wouldn’t be full until Monday.” He then goes on to say: “It’s like the afternoon that someone came into my office asking me if I thought the recent solar eclipse was a sign of Christ’s return. I asked him what he might do if it was a sign. He said that he would return to church to ‘get right’ with the Lord. I asked him what he might do if the eclipse wasn’t a sign of Christ’s return. He replied with ‘I guess I’d keep looking.’ I invited him to start looking with us in church.[Abingdon Press, 2018, p. 50.] Lots of people talk about what they call “the hereafter.” One woman quipped, “I talk about hereafter all the time! I walk into a room and say to myself, ‘Now what am I here after?’” We in Christianity are always looking for the return of Christ; not as an obsession, but as I said last week, “by watching, and not just waiting. This week we add “preparing” to the plan of “watching.” It is a fool who comes to God to get right just as the celestial railroad is pulling in to your station, or just as you see him descending from the clouds. People time die in their sleep. But are they prepared for that to happen? Just this week I learned of another person who died in her sleep.

Instead, many good teachers know the five “P’s- Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” What a providential blessing it was to have President George Herbert Walker Bush’s funeral on television for all to see this past week. What planning it took to arrange for the speakers, the spaces, and the transportation! But that President planned beautifully well in advance of his last breath. Presidential biographer Jon Meacham was asked to speak when the time came, and he actually shared his words with the aging  president ahead of time to get his approval. After hearing him read it, President Bush turned to Meachem and said in a self-deprecating fashion, “That’s a lot about me, Jon.” But it was part of the preparation for the day. Arranging for Air Force One to become Special Air Mission 41 to honor the late President. And to get the train delivering the body to its final resting place to his library in College Station to be painted in Air Force One in light blue colors with the side reading “George Bush” along with the number 4141 took time to prepare. He even selected the menu of foods that would be served to his family and friends on that train! This week was a textbook case of how things can go if one prepares well.

As we head to the Christmas holiday some here will have guests coming into your home, and some may be the guest in someone else’s home.  When that happens, the host begins to get ready: to dust, to straighten, to see that sheets are clean and food is in.  Some bake cookies or pies so ingredients are bought ahead of time.  I remember one time Mary Ann was missing an ingredient for Christmas dinner, and the only place I could find open on Christmas Day was 7-11! We’ve now pulled our Christmas books and decorations out because we will see four grandsons and their parents Christmas week. Meanwhile we are buying gifts, not just the many adult gifts we gladly bought at our Christmas Market last week, but gifts for the little ones too. The stories of life include times of preparing: preparing for a baby, preparing for death, preparing to welcome Jesus, preparing to take tests. The Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” is good advice in any situation. An old axiom puts it this way: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

The Advent season is the time to prepare for the coming of Christ into our world. I told our Wednesday class that we push a reset button each year in Advent, almost like other churches have yearly revivals. It is our time to reset; to consider our life; to consider our Lord, and to consider the connections we have with others.  Like in the children’s plays when the innkeeper cries: “No room!” to kids dressed like Mary and Joseph, the world seems to have a “No Vacancy” sign for Jesus too. Only in the hearts of Christians does he find a place to, as the carol tells us, “to lay “down his sweet head.” His first bed was a manger perhaps filled with hay with swaddling clothes added. His next bed is in our hearts. John the Baptist drew his message from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord!! Make straight his paths!” It has been the prophet’s warning for generations. Prophets have neither a crystal ball nor a Ouija Board to predict the future. They listen to God—as we could do—and they watch the world and stars and the sun—as we could do—and they connect dots—as we could do.  It is not easy. The paths cows and other animals make are crooked. To get ready for a King, the paths need to be straightened! Good preparations make for a wonderful welcome for a King!  In addition, road crews make interstates roads through very hilly or rocky places by leveling off the hills with machines that my Construction son-law-Brian teaches to his 3 year old son Marshall: they are road graders and excavators. They smooth out the hills. We need that preparation to welcome our King; how good it is if he arrives after the work is done instead of before we gat around to the work. The work includes praying, but John the Baptist also insisted on repenting—which is making amends with God and others you might have ignored or hurt—and opening our eyes to see places where we can make a difference, and then engaging our bodies, minds, and souls to do so.

In the 1930s, at the depth of the depression, a play called “Green Pastures” by Marc Connelly was setting a new record on Broadway. It ran for 1,653 performances and continued until it leading actor, seventy-year-old Richard Berry Henderson, collapsed and died. The play depicted God and the angel Gabriel in heaven, peering down at the earth. It was an enlightening interpretation of God’s care and concern for a world in which he allows the freedom of choice, yet he is despairing over the terrible consequences of the people’s choices. God watched over his world and tried to prepare his children to meet the demands of life on earth.  After God sent Moses and prophets to the world, he then sent his Son, who shared the sufferings and heartaches of being mortal. Over and over, Gabriel wanted to blow his trumpet and bring an end to all the bad choices and evil deeds going on in the world. “Now Lawd?” he asked, “Now can I blow the trumpet?” The trumpet would mean the end of the world as we know it. But God held out in patience, hoping that people would finally learn the consequences of their choices. “Everything nailed down is comin’ a-loose!” Gabriel told God as he watched chaos and confusions amongst the peoples of the world. Still, as the play goes, God wouldn’t give up, but kept preparing his people for a day when they would welcome him. The time to get ready for God is now; not tomorrow! Even though he comes as a helpless infant at Christmas, he can come with either warning or welcome as he appears in the clouds!

 “Get ready!” the prophets said. “The Lord is coming soon.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           December 9, 2018

Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church – Daytona Beach, Florida, USA