10-16-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: Vindication

Luke 18: 1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10-09-16 Thankfulness


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


10-02-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: Faith

Luke 17: 5-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 2, 2016


Luke 16: 19-31

If we were to look through an old hymnal for songs about Heaven, we could find them: “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” “In the Sweet By and By,” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” among others. But if we look for hymns that mention “Hades,” we’ll not find any that I know of. A few hymns use the word “Hell,” such as in “How Firm a Foundation.” God says: “The soul that all Hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.” Actually in the Old Testament, “Hell” is translated from the Hebrew, “Sheol” which meant “the place of the dead.” It was almost always considered to be a place of refuse (not refuge) and lifelessness. In the New Testament, people in the first century became familiar with the Greek culture that used the word “Hades.” Hades appeared in Greek mythology. In those stories, Hades was the god of the underworld and was the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. It also became the name of the place where Hades lived. One person put it this way: “Hades, as the underworld was called, was a dark and gloomy place. It was much feared by the living. To reach Hades, the dead were taken by ferry across the river Styx.”

The story Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel is not just about Hades; it’s about the disparity between those who have, and those who have not. Stories of the rich verses the poor were actually around long before Jesus used them. But this story, as I said, is also about money. In Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, we find these words: “Of all the winds that blow on love, the demand for money is the coldest and the most destructive.” So today’s parable includes a story about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus, a beggar outside of the rich man’s gate. Lazarus was covered with sores because he had no money for medication and no one would treat him. Stray dogs would lick his sores. But this story is not original with Jesus. “Some scholars trace the story to Egypt where stories of the dead and messages being brought from the dead are in abundance. At least seven versions have been found in the writings of the rabbis.” [INTERPRETATION, Luke, p. 195] One even wonders if Charles Dickens drew upon this old story when he created the characters of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” In Dickens’ tale, however, he allowed Marley, wrapped in chains and tormented in the afterlife because of his stinginess, to come back from the dead to warn his partner, Ebenezer. In the musical version of that story, called “The Stingiest Man in Town,” the prophetic choir sings these words to Scrooge in his nightmarish journey: “Repent your crime! Repent in time! Or you’ll repent in vain! For if you wait until too late, you’ll never break the chains!” Almost all of Dickens’ stories were about poor, sick, downtrodden people oppressed by wicked and wealthy people. That was his interpretation of Great Britain’s society at the time of his writing. Certainly in the wake of banking scandals from 2008 even until today, letting the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is a recipe for societal disaster. A small percent of America is very wealthy; and a rising number of people have dropped from being middle class to being homeless after either receiving a huge medical bill, of having a car break down, or being laid off. A society that has a struggling or shrinking middle class starts to fit the mold of Dickens’ novels and even this parable. The rich man lived an extravagant life in his day. But in the afterlife, not even Father Abraham could get across the great canyon between above and Hades. Lazarus was whisked away by the angels to “the bosom of Abraham” as it is described in the Bible. According to this story, Abraham was “far off” (perhaps in Heaven?) and Lazarus was comforted and protected there. The rich man, by contrast, who had treated the poor man as a slave, went to Hades. From there he could look up, way up, and see Abraham comforting Lazarus while he himself was in anguish! He called out: “Father Abraham! Dip your finger in the water and cool my tongue, for I’m tormented in the flame!!” As Clarence Jordan retold that story in the idiom of the Old South, he gave Abraham’s answer: “Lazarus ain’t gonna run no mo’ yo’ errands, rich man!” [NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE, Volume IX]

As the rich man pleaded with Abraham to warn his brothers, Abraham said they already had been warned. He said if they hadn’t listened to and heeded the warnings of the prophets, neither would they believe someone who rises from the dead.” All who have ears, let them hear. In the Old Testament, Moses himself said: “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted with your needy neighbor.” [Deuteronomy 15:7] And Isaiah said: “The fast that I choose for you is to share your bread with the hungry.” [Isaiah 58:7] In fact, in Jesus’ day, bread was sometimes used by a wealthy person as a napkin, to dry one’s greasy hands after a meal. Then the bread would be dropped on the floor for dogs to devour! Even that bread was not saved for the poor.

In our day, we have noted how Daytona Beach is working on a way to feed and house hungry people. It is not without debate and controversy. Feeding ministries have come to the park on Beach Street, and been told that such activity is a nuisance. So homeless people dig through dumpsters for discarded food or beg at the end of ramps. Two thousand years after Jesus’ parable, the poor man still needs help.
Thankfully the crisis in our community is making thoughtful people come up with helpful responses. There is hope on the horizon. Like with stone soup, which tastes like nothing with just water and stones, if people contribute what they can financially and the soup gets some carrots, and some onions, and celery, and garlic and some over-ripe tomatoes, and pretty soon there is food. Together we can come up with a good solution. Back to our parable: in our world of terrorist attacks, instead of being swooned by a thousand angels when they die, I suspect that terrorists are crying out from darkness: “Tell my brothers to repent! Do it now, for I’m tormented in the flames!!” All who have ears, let them hear. In the dot.com crash, rich people lost their portfolios; companies went bankrupt; and poor people are still with us. Some have recovered with great wealth. As the prophets of every age have done, they cry out today as well, saying there is a price to pay for lavishness and greed. There is still time to repent: to turn from the sin of greed. There is time to re-think what the Pharisees believed: that the wealthy have money because God is more pleased with them, and the poor have little because God is less pleased with them. No. Luke records Jesus’ words to the contrary. “Blessed are you poor, … and woe to you who are rich.” Those words are about greedy, not people with means who help others. There are generous wealthy people in our world and we need them. Just this week Mark Zukerberg and wife Dr. Pricilla Chan announced plans to make a three billion dollar investment to help significantly eradicate diseases over the next generation. Wow. Rethinking self-indulgence can bring great benefits to churches, communities, and to our nation.

Retired seminary professor, Dr. Walter Brueggeman, in his book The Prophetic Imagination says “The prophet’s task is to break through the denial in which so many religious communities live. The first part of the job is to give voice to our worst fears about how far we have fallen from God and what the consequences may be. The second part is to proclaim the good news that change is possible as long as we are willing and God is God.” That’s the message that John the Baptist brought! “Repent!” That’s the message Jesus brought in today’s parable: “Repent! Turn away from ways that serve yourself best; think of ways to serve and care for others.” Jesus illustrates the heart of God with his stories and sayings; like in Luke 15, one chapter earlier: “I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance.” And the father standing in the doorway of his house, looking longingly for a child who had asked for half of his father’s sizeable estate. Then the son left and squandered all of that money; he was so hungry he hoped that some would even give him pig food, but no one gave him anything. The father has a generous heart with his child. Those who seek to follow Jesus do so with glad and generous hearts.

Maybe the rich man is trying to warn us today. Could it be? Is he calling up from Hades, trying to tell us to live differently? Is Jesus hoping we will have ears to hear? Listen to this message that came from heaven: “If they have not listened to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.” Abraham’s answer sounds like he doesn’t believe people can change. Let’s prove him wrong, shall we?

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 25, 2016


Luke 16: 1-13
In 1973, Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan made up the folk/rock group “Stealer’s Wheel.” Their most famous words from their song “Stuck in the Middle” have gotten new life in the presidential campaign: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you!” Sadly in our day, the press reports dishonest and corrupt people on the left, and dishonest and corrupt people on the right; there is blue collar crime and white collar crime; there is Wall Street corruption and Main Street corruption. Today Jesus really has a parable for us! If you are like me, when I watch movies I like to try to figure out who the redemptive character is, the hero, or the one with integrity so I can orient my moral compass in the story. In the old days of westerns, they would stereotype the hero with a “white hat,” and stereotype the villain with a “black hat.” These days, not just in movies but in life, it is often too hard to decide who the redemptive people are. Just when I think I’ve found someone is upstanding, there is a scandal that breaks about him or her. Today in our parable we have a cast of shady characters; don’t bother to look for a good guy except possibly the rich man, also called “the master” in some passages. Yes the Bible is the “Good Book,” but some stories like this one have corrupt characters. Today let’s look at the story from the first century, and see what similarities it has with the twenty-first century.

First, “Many commentators affirm that this parable is the most difficult in all the synoptic gospels.” [Ken Bailey, Poet and Peasant Through Peasant Eyes, Eerdmans’ Publishing, 1983, p. 86.] Further, scholars from Italy, from Germany, and elsewhere have declared: “the problem of unraveling what Jesus meant in this passage is almost insoluble.” But let’s take a crack at it.
Christian scholar and Middle East expert Dr. Ken Bailey says: “The parable of the Unjust Steward is an eschatological warning to sinners.” [Bailey, p. 86] (By that he means it’s about the time when Christ returns again to judge the world.) How might we understand this? “In the parable, a dishonest steward (manager) discovers that his master expects obedience, and judges those who fail him. The steward decides to risk everything on the unqualified mercy of his master. He knows that if he fails, he goes to jail; if he succeeds, he saves himself. Everything hinges on the master being good and upright.” Is the master wearing a “white hat?” He may be the only one who is. In the typical gift for British understatement, English New Testament scholar William Barclay calls all the characters in the parable besides the master, “rascals.” Rascals! We might call them mobsters, or crooks, or corrupt people. We should not look for redemptive people in this parable, other than the master. Jesus might have been pointing fingers at all the corrupt people in his first century world. Or Jesus might have been describing the disappointment and even the anger that the righteous God of the Universe has from watching corrupt people steal from others and hurt the poor. What might the Master say to those of us in the human race who are charged with “managing,” or being stewards, of all of God’s gifts? We are the stewards of creation, and of children, of youth, of old persons, of our water systems, or the continents, and of the seas. What if this story were superimposed on us? Who among us truly follows the instructions God gave to the prophet Micah: “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Where, if anywhere, are people doing the right things even behind closed doors, or when no one is looking; where are people counting their employer’s money honestly even no one auditing their books? Do we live in a world, like the first century world, where we are crawling with corruption; where people hardly know where to find one white hatted person?

Second, let’s take a breath for a minute. This story might have been told with a tone of sarcasm from Jesus. Could you imagine that? Liberal scholar Edward Beutner can. Through that lens he says:
The owner calls the manger to task and decides to dismiss him on
the basis of rumor alone, absent any evidence (“What is this
I hear about you?”) [Goodness; that is as current as our headlines!
Let’s go on.}
“Uh oh” says the audience, (who is not likely to identify with either
the manager or the owner since this kind of action takes place …among those who govern ruthlessly from afar …. [Again in the midst of our current campaigns, what goes on behind the scenes is kept from the voting public, unless a reporter discovers information or a campaign spreads rumors or innuendos. At this late stage, we are more aware of the “back stage” manipulations, as Jesus was in his day.]

The best thing we can do with this story is read it from the perspective of the the white hatted person; and the only one that can be is the Master; the one of great means called The Rich Man.” The Rich Man—I’ll call him the Master as other translations call him—gets incensed when he learns, (literally “hears”) that the manager is doing business dishonestly. A word of personal note: this is God’s house, but as one of the Pastor’s of this house, I would be incensed too if I found people who were lying, cheating, or stealing. I am only aware of that happening twice here in my 31 years as pastor: one when a man who was the Men’s group treasurer took just over 100 dollars from the group without permission; and the other man who took money to build our pipe organ and didn’t finish it. They are both gone. And people of honesty and integrity took their place. If you run a business, you want honest people working for you, not shady, self-serving, or greedy, or desperate ones. In your home, you don’t want to fear that a family member will take your money or valuables if you leave them out in your bedroom. It is unthinkable. But in the world of the first century, and our political year in the twenty-first century, what we thought would be unthinkable is happening: light—that is integrity, honesty, and dependability—is being snuffed out by darkness—that is lying, innuendo, name-calling And the people in our day—like the people in Jesus’ day—are falling prey to the murky morass that is in the wake of that darkness. People can’t find the north star of God to which Jesus was pointing in his parables. People in his day felt like he was pointing a finger toward the cheaters among them, and many people knew who they were. And Jesus’ parable does the same for us: In this parable there is no white hat person or group of persons besides the Master. That’s the morally confusing framework of two-dimensional stories, films, and editorial cartoons can create: “You’re either for me, or against me;” “It’s either my way, or the highway.” Or “If you’re not voting my way, you’re just wrong.” Wise people—like Jesus and some of his audience, and perhaps you—can rise above the wooden characters of innuendo and finger pointing. Wise persons—if they could float up to God with an angel for one day, could see the conflicts, the corruption, and the hateful rhetoric the way God sees them. After gaining that perspective, wise persons may tear up, with sorrow, or they may rise up with indignation and become prophetic, saying: “Enough! The Master has need of us! Let’s stop giving more weight to the voice of people than to the voice of God! Let’s remember who the Savior of the world is! Let’s listen to him!”

So et’s put on the gospel armor; let’s have the eyes, and heart, and ears of Christ. If we do that, we will hear the parable of the dishonest manager with new ears, knowing that if we serve money, or crave wealth, we will follow the money, and do whatever it takes to get and keep money. By contrast, if we are each truly serving God, we will care for the downtrodden, think about our neighbor as well as ourselves, and handle our accounts with honesty. It takes a big sacrifice for some to make the switch. But if this really is an eschatology story, if it is Jesus telling listeners how the great Judge of the world will react to our ugly, hateful, and vile natures, we have some changes to make, or the outcome will be darker than the darkest web of lies we have spun.

Third and finally, the message for today, again, is the message our mothers, our teachers, our principals, or our police officers who have taught those who’ve spent countless hours stealing answers, cheating in life, or shoplifting merchandise. That lesson: “If you spent the same energy on being a good student, or a good citizen, as you have spent on trying to cheat the system, you would be a success.” Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called Children of Darkness “those who see no universal law beyond themself, either individually or nationally.” Children of Light, by contrast, are “those who recognize that self-interest must be disciplined by a more universal law.” In many ways, the parable of the Dishonest Manager is about the children of light and the children of darkness. Jesus has his eyes on both the children of light and the children of darkness. May we be among those leading others into the Kingdom of Light, not the kingdom of darkness.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 18, 2016


Luke 15: 1-11

In October of 2011, Journalist David Grann revisited the notebook of what he recorded the week after 9/11/2001. This is what he wrote:
On the fourth day, I went to get a sense of the devastation. The street outside my building in lower Manhattan was still cordoned off on either end by police, and you needed an escort and proof of ID to get in or out. The young officer who stood guard on the corner said that two of his colleagues from the police station next door were missing. “A man and a woman,” he said. “We’re still hoping.”
I headed uptown to the Pierre Hotel, where I heard that the families from Cantor Fitzgerald—a bond-trading firm that had lost some 700 of its 1,000 New York employees in the World Trade Center attack—had set up an emergency center. It was in the Grand Ballroom on the second floor, where weddings and executive banquets were normally held, a place that seemed utterly incongruous for a crisis room. It was opened, along with the hotel, in 1930 and, according to the hotel’s brochures, had “received royalty, world leaders and celebrities.”
Outside the main door, the company had set up tables with information packets, including hot lines for “investigative tips,” “hospitals,” and “police.” There was a place to fill out missing person reports, and a few people gathered around it. The forms were eight pages thick and asked for anything that might identify the missing, including dental records (“partial plate,” “braces,” “no teeth”) and objects in the body (“pacemaker,” “bullets,” “steel plate”). On page four there was a checklist for build, race, and hair color, as well as items like wigs, toupees, and transplants. “Facial Hair Style: __Fu Manchu __Whiskers Under Lower Lip __Mutton Chops __Pencil Thin Upper Lip __N/Applicable.
Inside the ballroom, tacked along the back walls, were sheaths of white paper, each with a picture and details of one of the missing. Some were written by hand, as if in haste, others typed in bold computer fonts. One said, “Adriane Scibetta, 5 feet w/brown hair/brown eyes,” and had a photo of her with three little girls. Another said, “Francis (also goes by Frank) 28 years old, 5’10”-170s lbs. Light brown hair cut very short. Underneath was a picture of him, his sleeve rolled up, so that you could see the word “Mom” etched on his right bicep. Next to him was a picture of Amy O’Doherty. It had been mimeographed and her face was faded.
Many of us have lost things for a while: keys, household items, and other non-living things. And to lose a dog or a cat: that can put some anxiety in the heart of the owner. Other people have lost their spouse; or a parent; that’s even more-anxiety producing. Perhaps the most dreadful stories over the years are of children being lost. Losing a child in a store or a shopping mall can make a parent’s heart beat faster. But finding your child alive after an abduction really puts exclamation points on the word “Found!!” Fifteen years ago today, planes crashed in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Family members assembled, or called, to see if their loved one had been found safe, or was lost, or declared dead. It was a devastating time for them. In the face of wars or disasters of any kind, people ask others questions through tears like, “Have you seen my son? Here is a picture of him.” Or, “Have you seen my wife? I’ll tell you what she looks like.” They are distraught. They are unglued. Having someone they love be lost is the worst news that they could imagine.
If there ever was someone who knew the heart of God, it was Jesus. His parables of the lost in Luke 15 take listeners on escalating levels of anxiety. Remember when I just mentioned things I have lost? A pet for instance. When I was a young boy my siblings and I were sad to learn that our dog had gotten out of his fence. We drove around our neighborhood, with the kids calling out from the car windows and Dad driving. Jesus talks about a shepherd losing a sheep. Such a loss could hit him emotionally, but certainly financially. He would be responsible to the rancher who owned the sheep. Other people might panic if they loss money. The woman in the parable lost a coin. A coin in those days could buy a loaf of bread, or even more. The woman lost a coin and, like some of us, she turned her house upside down looking for it. For us we might check the sofa cushions, or our pants’ pockets. And if we find it, most often we feel very relieved. Sometimes I tell Mary Ann something I’ve lost, but not all the time, because she might say what she has said before: “You are always losing things!” Who wants to feel sheepish when they are trying to celebrate? On the other hand, if you have lost a pet, you have perhaps spread the word on posters, through phone calls, or on Facebook. Then if he is found, you get that word out with relief, and others can celebrate with that find!
But there are some losses that set panic or sorrow deep into the soul: it is bad enough to lose a child in a store or a shopping mall: your heart goes into your throat and your senses go on full alert. And if that child is soon found, perhaps a minute, or an hour or so after being lost, likely the child, but certainly the parent, never forgets the relief of being found! But things get much worse concerning child abductions. They are the worst. Jaycee Dugard, author of the book A Stolen Life, wrote:
In the summer of 1991 I was a normal kid. I did normal things. I had friends and a mother who loved me. I was just like you until the day my life was stolen. For eighteen years I was a prisoner, and was an object for someone to use and abuse. For eighteen years I was not allowed to speak my own name. I became a mother, and was forced to be a sister. For eighteen years I survived an impossible situation. On August 26, 2009, [I was finally found. I got to take my name back and begin to put my life back together.] And she still is raising the child that her captor fathered.
She was lost from her mother for all of her formative years. No one was with her whom she could trust to talk to as she grew up and her body changed; no one to love her, just someone to trap and imprison her. She was truly lost to her mother, and then she was found after some people might have lost hope. Eighteen years.
Jesus talks about a lost son in this chapter. Such a missing young man weighed on the heart of the father. Christian Songwriter Mark Schultz captured the sentiment of a son, thought to be lost, who was found. The title of the song is “Letters from War”
The son goes off to fight for his country and to honor his dad. His mother writes to him every day saying: “You’re good, and you’re brave, what a father that you’ll be someday. Make it home, make it safe,” she wrote every night as she prayed.

One day she gets a letter back a letter from another soldier saying a bomb hit near her son and others. Her son dragged the letter writer to safety but the son was captured. And so the mother prayed; and she cried; and she prayed some more. Then she went back to writing letters. She wrote all the time, reaffirming what she said before: “You are good, and you’re brave. What a father that you’ll be someday! Make it home; make it safe,” she wrote every night as she prayed. Two years later a military car pulled in the driveway. She dropped to the ground expecting the worst but instead, “Out stepped a captain where her boy used to stand, and he dropped all his bags on the floor, holding all of her letters from war.”

Being lost is terrible; being found is joy. In Luke 15:20, Jesus said: “When [the son] was yet at a distance, his father saw him, had compassion on him, and ran to him, hugging and kissing his son who had been lost.”

Friends, there is no day in the heart of a parent, and no day in the heart of the Almighty, that is more special than having someone who was lost be found.

On September 11th, 2001, some family members and friends had a glad reunion when a person lost in one of the attacks was found. After hours or days of looking at posters or searching though rubble, first responders found many wounded and broken people to reunite with their families. What a grand reunion. But for hundreds of people, family members stayed lost, and some only got to recover bodies and to bury them.

Being found is the greatest joy to parents, to grandparents, or husbands or wives, and to others. And it is grand too for the one who was lost. In the Bible, Jesus told people exactly how the Almighty feels when someone gets lost; lost spiritually; lost to drug or drink; lost to gangs; lost to someone else who is a poor influence; or lost to a terrible peer group. Like the father in Luke 15, God looks at the horizon every day, seeing if the lost one …is coming over the summit’s rise. God longs … longs … for that person to find his way; or her way: hopes that there is a day of “realization,” as the son has in the parable; hopes that the beloved person is released or escapes from a captor. If someone you love is lost to death, that person need not be lost to God, for in Jesus Christ, “death is swallowed up in victory.” [1 Corinthians 15:54] Like a shepherd searching for sheep, your Savior will look for you, if you already know him as your shepherd, and he will lead you to your new home in Heaven.

Someone who is lost weighs on the heart of God like it weighs on the hearts of loved ones. But getting found is one of the greatest joys of heaven. May all those who can be found, get found. And may those who never get found, or who lose their life, find their way back to the open arms, and the searching eyes, of their Lord Jesus.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 11, 2016


Luke 14: 25-33

The family had all come to church. This family had a mom, a dad, and a young son. No one was excited about being there. It was Labor Day weekend. Where else could they have chosen to do instead? The father shifted in his seat as the sermon was given. The mother said under her breath: “Why do we have to sing these new hymns?” The boy just listened and colored on the bulletin the pastor gave him during the Children’s Message. He liked to color and he didn’t mind doing it. At the offering time he watch his father open his wallet, look through the bills there, and drop a dollar in the plate. At the end of the service they were walking through the parking lot to their car. The mother said, “There was too much new music!” The father said, “The sermon didn’t inspire me.” But the little boy looked at the bulletin he colored and said, “Hmm. I thought it was a pretty good show for a dollar!”

Is there anybody who doesn’t count the cost of any activity or purchase?” Churches count the cost of making repairs or purchasing music or curriculum. Just this week we found the company from which we bought our children’s bulletins went out of business without notice! This week three of us in the office looked over the costs of buying Children’s Bulletins from a new supplier. And we got them. At home I’ve count the cost of repairing my older car compared to buying a new one. I’s been so reliable! I have chosen to keep it repaired for now rather than buying a new one. If I always had to pay for repairs, I would think differently. Last month, I heard how some parents are grateful to have school uniforms this year, keeping down the cost of buying a variety of outfits.
Some in our congregation I visited in August are having to count the cost of having an in home caregiver compared with going into a nursing home.

When our children were very young, a friend of mine chastised me for going to three supermarkets to get the best deals from each, rather than just buying everything from one store. I said to her, “You count your costs, I’ll count my costs.” With our children now grown, I shop at one supermarket; we don’t eat baskets of food a week like our whole family did before!

When you plan to buy a car, you should check not only the advertised price, but also other costs that must be paid as well, like taxes and registration. Wise persons who plan to buy a house consider what taxes they’ll incur, how much insurance will cost, and what homeowner’s association costs must be paid. And these days, people are wise to count the cost of homeowners, or renters, or flood insurance. So many people in California and Louisiana lost their home with no insurance to help them. Insurance seems expensive—until you need it. One of the best ads I ever saw (I say that because I’ve not forgotten it) was for a brand of oil filter; not the cheapest brand, but a high quality brand, one that tests showed would keep harmful contaminants from entering my engine. The tag line said: “You can pay us now” and they showed a new oil filter, “or pay them later” and they showed a smoking car with the hood up.

Jesus knew how people thought about costs when he invited them to follow him. “What will it cost me in lost income? What will it cost me in family relationships? Will I have to move and if so, how much will that cost? I used the Chair our Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry, the Committee that guides, instructs, and mentors those who are interested in full time ministry. Those questions I just reported: “What will it cost me in lost income; What will it cost me in family relationships; and Will I have to move and if so, how much will it cost?” are real questions that Inquirers for ministry asked! Did you imagine, like the disciples Jesus called in the Bible, that people would just drop what they were doing and follow him? I thought that, naively, when I started on that committee. But no. They count the cost before they sign up. Perhaps we shouldn’t cast dispersions; that sounds like a wise way to make choices. In fact, it is the way that Jesus teaches. “For which of you,” he asked, “desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” When I first told my parents that I was feeling called to the ministry, I was met with a tepid response. With a somber face, my Dad said “Hmmm. You don’t get paid much in the ministry.” And then he said, “It’s not an easy life.” My Mother didn’t say anything as I recall. Were they counting the cost of my decision?

Over the years there have also been those, like the Apostle Paul, doing “tent-making ministry.” That means that use their trade—in Paul’s case as a tent maker—to support themselves in ministry. I think Jesus says, and I have concluded, that some people need to do ministry full time. Still, others have done it effectively as a part time employee or a volunteer. I am “all in” for this work, this lifestyle, this calling. This is what I do. This ministry gets my constant attention, my tithe, and my focus. I think that’s what Jesus asks for. Now that doesn’t mean you have to do what I do, but somebody, your pastors in our case, steer the ship with a lifetime of experiences. Then others can pour their hearts into being a teacher, a singer, an usher, or a repair person as their time allows. A church of Jesus Christ calls for our focus, our support, and our attention to details, needs, and people. This is our calling, yours and mine: to follow Him, and to invite others to follow him.

Let me finally make reference to the hymn we are about to sing. It was in the old maroon Presbyterian Hymnbook and it is a beloved song based on our first lesson today from Jeremiah 18. “The Lord said to Jeremiah: “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” Rabel Parson, a wonderful organist from Deland and a friend to me and to our church, gave me a book on December 2, 2001 called “The One Year Book of Hymns.” Adelaide Pollard wrote one of the hymns in that book, “Have Thine Own Way Lord,” which we will sing in a minute. And the tune is appropriately called Adelaide. In that devotional book William J. Peterson wrote:
At forty, Adelaide Pollard was trying unsuccessfully to raise support to go to Africa as a missionary. She wondered why the Lord would burden her with the needs of Africa, but not make it possible for her to go. During this time of discouragement, she attended a small prayer meeting where an elderly woman prayed, “Lord, it doesn’t matter what You bring into our lives, just have Your way with us.” That night Pollard went home and read the story of Jeremiah’s visit to the Potter’s House, and later that evening she wrote this hymn. She said she had always felt the Lord was molding her and preparing her for His service.

Whether it is through Jesus, or through Jeremiah, or through someone else, keep your heart open for the work God has in store for you. The potter’s lesson is that even in your brokenness, or weakness, (and God might say especially through you weakness, or your stress, or your issues, or your pain,) God can still use you; God needs you. And you and I need God … like a piece of clay needs a potter to give it purpose.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 4, 2016


Luke 14: 1; 7-14

One of the hottest and driest summers in recent years brought out a couple of
items worth mentioning. For one thing, I heard a joke about baptisms.in the midst of water restrictions. But to do it, I have to ask you: “Do you know how hot it was?” And you call back to me: “How hot was it?” So let’s try it: “Do you know how hot it was?” “How hot was it?” I’m glad you asked! It was so hot that Baptists resorted to sprinkling, Methodists resorted to wet washcloths, and Presbyterians gave out rain checks! What a hot summer it’s been in Volusia County! But that is nothing compared to the heat and fires in California and much of the American West. Out of control fires brought an attitude adjustment among many who were in harm’s way. Fierce fires brought people out who were humbled by the sheer threat. I remember in the Florida fires of 1998, woods were burning near our home in Port Orange. It was not a tragic, blanketing kind of fire, but one that needed attention before it got that way. An attitude of pride and self-confidence allowed one fire truck and a couple of firefighters to think they could put out the fire by themselves. When they finally decided they needed help, a neighbor heard them put in a call for New Smyrna Beach firefighters to come help. “Why,” the neighbor asked them, “don’t you call a fire company closer?” The neighbor learned they would never call one of the other fire companies. It had to do with territorial issues and union vs. non-union firefighters. Meanwhile fires were beginning to threaten structures. Out in California, I have heard nothing about territory. The intensity of the fires has fighters working all for one and one for all. Likewise, I have rarely seen a communities behaving like families of God the way they do when natural disasters strike, or in the face of some human menace. Whether with hurricanes, or with devastating shootings like in Orlando this summer, people set aside pride, nationality, and other dividing issues and choose to just help a fellow human being. In Amatrice, Italy this week, the devastating earthquake has everyone helping others, through dirt, and tears, and pain. A spirit of humbleness set in in all of these situations. “We’re in this together” was the way people were thinking. And the world rallies to these devastating events. Prayers, clothes, and food get offered. In earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, or tornadoes, we are humbled before the forces of nature. God’s comfort and tears are often felt in those moments of panic. When someone sees a man with a gun; or a school or a clinic has a bomb threat called in; one may find neighbors helping neighbors. But the threat of nature brings out some of the greatest feelings of helplessness and humbleness in the midst of shock. The world has felt compassion for the little Syrian boy in Alepo, with his face and hair caked with dirt, blood dried in a trickle by his ears, and his eyes staring out, just occasionally blinking. What a sight. It makes some say “Whatever fighting or hatred that brought this bloodshed needs to stop!” It is an ageless problem. Even the Bible has plenty of lessons about brother rising up against brother and looking out for number one: Cain and Abel; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers; Saul and David; Herod and anybody else! But humbleness was never the crown of the conqueror. A conqueror may be cunning, clever, or ruthless, but never humble. If we contrast them with those God chooses to lead, they are great because they serve their Lord; they are humble to be chosen by God and obedient to him. They end up in the hall of holy fame because they were faithful. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, Mary, Jesus, Paul. They were humble people because they faced human struggles. Humbleness, humility, servanthood; people with those qualities don’t often make the Fortune 500 list. Our world may clamor for polished cars, gleaming towers, streamlined offices, or Martha Stewart perfection in hospitality. Our world may also honor those who sit on thrones of the world or at the head of Board room tables. But what touches God? Who does God seem to notice, and to use to reach others? Think about who Jesus blessed. In today’s text Jesus noticed how some guests invited to a dinner chose to sit in the best seats. Then he told them a story. The story is about the human race. And it is about the people who God spots, through whom God chooses to work; like the small woman from Calcutta who chose to do God’s work with the poorest of the poor. The world called her “Mother Teresa.” Sister Susan of Grace Episcopal Church here in Port Orange worked along side of her for a period of time and will offer a presentation and retreat the Sunday afternoon of 9/11 at her church at 3:00 p.m. called “My Experience with Mother Teresa in India.” Susan saw a woman of humbleness and service. Humbleness and service sometimes look like simple things: like a church member who will give up a day to help comfort another person who has lost a loved one. It’s when an able bodied person decides to stand up in a crowded shuttle so a person struggling to stand can have a seat. It’s about the hostess who serves the guests first before taking a portion for herself, relieved that there is enough food. It’s about not hurrying to be ahead of everyone else in a food line. Treating others as guests, the way Jesus told it in the parable, is also about humility. Sometimes it is even about persons who suffer the humility of embarrassment.

There was a minister years ago who attended a big mission conference in Chicago. He was in a big, downtown church, the kind with the long center aisle that slanted down toward the front. It was time to see the film in the days when churches used a projector and a screen. The host pastor asked the film to be started. But the projectionist hadn’t arrived. He asked the minister who brought the film: “Can you, Pastor, start the film?” “Sure!” he said confidently. Hundreds of people had gathered by that time and were waiting for the film to begin. The projector was in the back of the church and the large screen was set up at the end of the aisle at the front of the church. The master of ceremonies gushed over how grateful he was to have a minister who knew how to handle such equipment. As the minister put the film reel on the projector, the missionary gushed over him, calling him “the audio-visual expert from New York.” The man beamed with pride. The giant reel was in place and the film was threaded to the take up reel. Everything was set; the lights were dimmed, and the movie began. Some of you will remember that on those old movie projectors, some had a little toggle on the stem to hold the reel on the projector. Guess who forgot to latch it? With a quick thwang, the reel with the film fell to the ground and began rolling down the slanted aisle to the front of the church, unraveling film as it went. The flustered minister charged down after it with the movie showing on his backside as he tried to catch and re-roll the runaway reel! Providentially after the film, the program that December evening called for a reading from Mary’s Magnificat. One of the lines was: “God has put down the mighty from their thrones!”

Humility in our day must have set in as some of the Space X rockets they sent into the air blew up or landed and tipped over. But they keep trying! I remember the chagrin at the Cape years ago when two shuttles in a row did not launch successfully. The Space X team will all do their job better next time because the rug of self-assurance has been pulled from under them. In 1912, the White Star Line kept building ships after the Titanic sank, but they added a double hull bottom and stopped allowing headlines like “God himself could not sink this ship.” Smugness and arrogance in part sank that ship. J. Bruce Ismay, head of the company, would not approve having enough lifeboats for all passengers as engineer Thomas Andrews had urged because “too many boats will frighten the passengers and it would give the promenade deck a cluttered appearance.” God brings down the proud, and undergirds the humble. Jesus told parables to back up his words: “Whoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Old Testament has one of the greatest stories of humbleness. You can read about it in 1 Samuel and it includes two main characters: Saul- the tall, handsome, people-pleasing man who had a tarnished character, and the man God chose to succeed, or rather, overthrow him. A humble man with a heart that was true. David was the youngest son of Jesse. He was out tending his father’s sheep when God’s appointed people came looking for a king. After David was asked if he would agree to be king, he was anointed and the Lord’s spirit began to fill him. He who is faithful in the smaller things can be trusted with the greater things: Jesus taught it; God knew it; and David exemplified it. He didn’t go out to run a campaign, or buy new clothes, or hire a manager. He responded with humbleness. Later Saul was jealous and sought to murder David. And at a time when he returned to the land of the Philistines, the one whose giant he killed when he was a boy, David was a desperate man, faking insanity and drooling to escape capture in 1Samuel 21:13. David was panicked. David, the king-elect, retreated to the cave of Engedi. He did what I have done, and perhaps you have done, when he was struggling: he called out to God. David’s cry to God is recorded in Psalm 142. Try reading that lament one night and see if you feel a kindred spirit with David. When you are truly in the cave of your life, humbleness is that quality that starts you back toward God. Pastor and author Chuck Swindoll writes: “some of us are living in an emotional cave, where it is dark and dismal and damp and disillusioning. Perhaps the hardest part of all is that we cannot declare the truth to anybody else because it is so desperate … so lonely. I weary of the philosophy that the Christian life is just one silver-lined cloud after another—just soaring. It is not! Sometimes the Christian life includes a deep, dark cave. The conversion of a soul is a miracle of a moment, but the making of a saint is the task of a lifetime. And god isn’t about to give up [on you.] (Swindoll, DAVID, p. 78.)

Marks of true humbleness: are they yours? Can you give a gift without needing credit for it? Are you expecting God to bless you or choose you for a task, or are you just busy with the tasks of life? Do you push to be first or to be noticed? Do you have an entitlement attitude? As the fires of California and the earthquake in Italy have taken away most of the “I can do this on my own attitudes” there, may we join them, come to our knees before the Almighty, and know that God will be there, for you, and for me.


— sorry, no sermon audio this week —

Luke 13: 10-17

This week I learned that there is a new condition that is becoming more prevalent, especially in the bodies of young adults. It’s called “text neck.” From looking down, excessively texting, people are putting a strain on their neck and shoulders. On the older end of the age scale, some are bent over with balance issues or having to watch where they step. In all stages of life the old maxim “Sursum Corda”- “lift up your heart” might be extended to all of us: “Lift up your head!’ Taking the time to pause, to gaze out across a landscape, or a body of water, or to look out of a window can bring relief and rest to minds and necks under strain.

With the strain of life in mind, I am sure that the Almighty created the Sabbath Day for the health of men and woman. With the inclination of people in our world to take things in print and make them rigid, the Lord Jesus demonstrated the flexibility he believed was intended to keep of the Sabbath Day. Over the years there have been those at both ends of the Sabbath debate. At the rigid end of the spectrum are Orthodox Jews in Israel, for example. During Sabbath hours, absolutely no work may be done; no cooking, no schoolwork, no labor. Some who have been to Israel with us before noticed the “Shabbat” elevators in our hotels; elevators that stopped at each floor automatically so that a person would not have to “work” pushing buttons. Looking out of our hotel windows on the Sabbath, the streets looked like an evacuation order had been given and we’d missed it! The hustling streets of the day before were deserted! On the other end of the Sabbath spectrum are those treating a Sabbath just like any other day: people catch up on work, or shop, or pack restaurants or theme parks or grocery stores. That’s what Florida looks like on every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, no matter what day different faiths observe. We fail to observe the Sabbath to our own detriment. But some people in our society think of non-work as laziness. Ministers such as me often have no business acting like an expert on Sabbath because my days of rest are not regularly done well. Today I will admit to you where I have succeeded and where I’ve failed.

Our daughter Jenny is a Hospital Chaplain, a Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor. She has a trying and taxing profession in addition to being the mother of a one year old. One day last week she told her boss she was overwhelmed and asked if she could take a couple of personal days. (Remember, ministers are always going beyond a 6 day work week) He said, “Of Course.” So on her personal day of exhaustion, she dropped her son off with his teachers and went home to bed. She awoke noticing two text messages: “Jenny, where are you?” And a second one: “Are you alright?” It was from a colleague. He reminded her that they had a meeting that day. Now you should know that Jenny is wired like I am: we always put things on our calendars and are hard on ourselves when we overlook a commitment or let someone down. So Jenny felt terrible; she had missed a meeting. But what was harder on her was hearing the response from that colleague, “Jenny, I’m disappointed in you.” Now, in her state of exhaustion, she experienced shame and tears. Her personal day turned into a day of anguish. Words can be powerful and cutting. By contrast, this summer I had one of the most restful vacations I have ever had. Janet Nace, whose mother died the day before my vacation started, agreed to wait until the end of my vacation for me to do her mother’s memorial service. What a gift. Kristin and Cara and Richard also handled all issues that came up so I did not get regular phone calls or texts. One I sent a business related text to an elder with what I though was an important question. He taught me and encouraged me with his answer: “What are doing texting me now? Take your vacation! You deserve it!” How empowering. Thank you for helping me take time, weekly, or yearly. I am back at 100% because I was granted a hassle-free break.

Sabbaths sometimes have to be molded to the circumstances. People who necessarily work on weekends will need to carve out a different day. I try to make it Mondays. Any of us who keep plowing through the evident stop signs that are intended to point us to a Sabbath time; stop signs like chest pains, tears, depression, excessive drinking, or exhaustion, keep going at our own demise. And God must be watching and saying:” I’ve given you a gift for life; you will see how miserable life can be without regular Sabbaths.” Those of you, like me, who keep your proverbial “nose to the grindstones” will drop in productivity, in joy, and in functionality. So Americans get heart disease, stomach ulcers, or mental illnesses often at a higher rate than those in other countries. One of the reasons: work gives us meaning, to the point at times of giving us our identity. Some get lost when they are disengaged from their work. I have known people who worked very hard, too hard, for years. They told themselves they would work, work, work, until retirement, then take it easy after that. But such a life dwindled the health of their bodies. Others never developed enjoyable hobbies outside of their work. Some I have known became totally bored with retirement; some became hard to live with, and some died soon after they retired. Too much work is detrimental; so is too much free time. Some people in their retirement do other things for their community; things like doing a new kind of work, or volunteering in their church, at a school. My father, for example, a salesman with ALCOA, retired to play golf: something he did all his life. But he also volunteered at their church, read books to children at a local elementary school, and joined the Service Corp of Retired Executives. He was great employee, but he learned how to retire well. The long approach to balance in life is important. But so is the weekly approach. And that brings us back to Sabbath.

On tablets brought down from Mount Sinai, Moses revealed laws for living that he said came from God. We give great weigh to them and have great debates about the meanings of some, like “Thou shalt not kill,” or “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But another commandment, higher in number but not higher or lower in importance is “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” The other commandments I mentioned cause more ethical dilemmas than the last one for many people. But people regularly disregard the Sabbath commandment. Is it because Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath that allows guilt to govern our choices for that day? We would do well to triage legitimate crises that bring us to break Sabbath from non-rest choices driven by guilt or convenience. If a family member becomes critically sick on a Sabbath day, don’t wait for the next day: call 911 or get to an ER right then! Or if a pipe bursts in your kitchen, don’t wait a day to act: turn off the water ASAP! If a hurricane is bearing down on you, or if you are in Louisiana and water has come up to your roof, preparations, safety, and recovery may take weeks without a break. (I’m preaching to myself as well as to you as I do every Sunday) Do not let ordinary events of life take away your Sabbath, and do not let a Sabbath take away your emergency response when necessary! ‘Jesus said, when people chastised him for healing a woman on a Sabbath: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox from a manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”

When I was in Israel, I was keenly aware that a Sabbath day had arrived because things were so different. When I was up at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia working on my Doctor’s degree, on Sunday people went to church. That day classes met, the dining room was closed; even the seminary library was closed until mid Sunday afternoon. There were no distractions from the Lord’s Day. Then I returned from Israel; and I returned from Georgia, …back to Florida. In our state I can hardly tell it’s a Sunday. Cars pack the parking lots of stores, and traffic is still heavy. So I need to do what I advise you to do: carve out your own Sabbath. Receive the gift from God and honor God by observing it. But habits that have been entrenched in our lives can be hard to change. I’ll need your help to keep it. Remind me to keep a Sabbath. And I’ll do my best to help you keep the Sabbath too. To do so honors God, and offers us God’s gift of living that is neither boredom nor a constant grind.

God has given us a gift if we will take it. I will try; I’m not good at it, but I’ll try. What about you?

Jeffrey A. Sumner August 21, 2016

08-14-16 PROPER 15C

This is one of those passages we would all rather pretend didn’t exist. There are several that we come across as we read the Bible and I find this one particularly unsettling. I mean, Jesus is the Prince of Peace right? So why is he talking about dividing families and bringing fire to earth?


Division isn’t something I’m all that crazy about in the first place. I will argue when I think something is important enough, but I don’t understand arguing when no one will budge on their position. This is especially true during election seasons when I know that people won’t change their minds but want to argue about it anyway. People end up yelling until they are red in the face and the only thing that happens is that they grow even farther apart. I want us all to be harmonious and unified over the things that are really important, and not worry too much about the things that aren’t.


I think most people feel that way, except for the few who love a good fight. The problem is, of course, that we can’t agree on the really important things. That’s why there are so many different types of Presbyterians alone. Every time there was a big enough theological issue that people couldn’t agree on, the church divided. For instance, in 1973 the Presbyterian Church of America split off from us, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, because of our policies including the decision to ordain women. That was a big enough issue on both sides to cause literal division. And that is just one example in one denomination. It is estimated that there are over thirty thousand separate Christian denominations in the world.


It’s hard to argue that there isn’t division when it comes to religion, but surely that is our human imperfections. How is it that Jesus, the guy who said “My peace I bring you,” turns around and says: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”


To understand this seeming extreme change of heart from Jesus, I think we need to look at what was happening in the world around him. Jesus lived in an exceptionally volatile time and place; Judea in the first century was a tinderbox of tension and aggression. The Zealots who were active during his time, actively protested Rome’s rule. Several decades after Jesus’ death, Judea revolted against Rome, leading to the Jewish war and the utter destruction of Jerusalem, the surrounding countryside, and much of the people. In the second century, it happened again.


This wouldn’t have been lost on Christians of the second and third generations, who would have read and heard these texts with the knowledge that the Jerusalem temple lay in ruins and that the kind of chaos Jesus described had actually come to pass. Luke writes of these events about forty years after they’ve happened, and as with all the Gospel writers, he shapes his account to address the situation and questions of his community, which had seen the divisions first hand.


There is no getting around the fact that Jesus was indeed an instrument of division. That families split and people were divided over what he said. But the important thing to realize is that division isn’t Jesus’ goal, it is the side effect of his message.


It’s not that Jesus is arguing for division, instead he’s predicting the impact his message of love will have on our self-centered human nature. Some people will follow and some will not. There’s no hidden agenda here. He has come to turn the value system of the world around and that doesn’t happen with complete agreement from everyone.


Did you notice the significance of the divisions Christ talks about? Father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. All places where there are often lots of conflict and divisions to begin with. He’s not breaking apart families deliberately, Jesus merely knows the effect of his message.


The text for today comes right after the passage from last week. Jesus tells everyone that they will not know the day or the hour, and Peter asks “Are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” This passage is the second half of his response where his frustration really shows through.


Jesus is heading to Jerusalem at this point. He is heading towards the cross and his disciples still don’t get what he’s teaching. He comes right out and says “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” That baptism is his own torture and death. Is it any wonder that he says how stressed he is?


Over and over again Jesus makes it clear that following his teachings will not be easy, that not everyone will understand. That some people will mock or ridicule or take advantage of his followers and that they should follow anyway. Though division is far from Christ’s goal, he knows perfectly well that it will happen regardless.


And it still does today. Following Jesus means doing such unpopular things as caring for the poor, showing hospitality to immigrants, honoring the sanctity of all human life, forgiving those who have hurt you, praying for your enemies, showing compassion to the weak, respecting those with whom you disagree, and generally loving your neighbor as yourself. Truly acting this way will leave some people thinking you are naive at best, and crazy at worst. Even if all of the members of your family are Christian, there still can be plenty of division between how you follow Christ.


And following Jesus’ teachings can leave us divided in ourselves, can’t it? On the one hand we want to follow Christ, doing exactly as he did. And on the other hand, we want to see to our own interests first. We don’t always want to stand up for others or love our neighbor. The division goes all the way to our own decisions, between what is right and what is easy.


This passage isn’t a threat, it’s a warning. Follow the teachings of Christ, really live the way he calls us to live, and we will be divided from the rest of the world. Not that being divided is a good thing, but because there will always be some people who do not understand.


Now, Jesus is not saying that we should start the divisions. This passage isn’t a call to war either literal or figurative, or an excuse to exclude those who don’t think just like us. It is just an acknowledgment of the inevitable results of following such a radical way of life.


This is not a comfortable passage. It shouldn’t be. But it is also not a passage we should ignore. We are called, as was Jesus himself, to transform ourselves, to show and to tell the world what it looks like, and how it’s different to live as we are created to live. That may set us at odds with people, even people we love.


And yet the result is people living in such a way that the Kingdom of God is here among us. It may divide us, but it will also allow us to live lives as God calls us to live. It creates a better world, despite the division, not because of it.


Every day we make decisions about how we will live. And those choices put us on one side or another. So the question is, how will you choose?