08-21-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: SABBATH

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LEARNING FROM LUKE: SABBATH
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

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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?

 

08-07-16 – FAITH

It is easy to look at Hebrews 11 and think of it as a list of great deeds by great people in the Bible. Indeed, the verses that our morning reading skipped include even more faithful people of God and what they had done. These people are pillars of faith so naturally they have great faith stories.  And if we read it only in that way, it is quite easy to let our own selves off the hook.  Of course we don’t have faith like Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob, we say to ourselves. That’s why they are Bible stories and we’re just us.

 

But what if the real point of this reading is instead that all these people shared one important attribute: they all believed that God is going to prevail in the end. Then that conviction informed the decisions they made and the actions they took.

 

In his book “Good to Great” Jim Collins interviews Admiral Jim Stockdale who was a prisoner of war for 8 years during the Vietnam War. During that time he was tortured more than twenty times, had no reason to believe he would ever return home again,  and yet he retained his faith that he would survive throughout that time. Stockdale said: “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

 

But at the same time, Stockdale saw over and over again that it was the most optimistic prisoners who didn’t survive, the ones that were convinced they’d be saved any day now. Stockdale observed,  “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

 

These optimistic prisoners refused to acknowledge the reality of their situations. Closing their eyes and assuming the bad stuff would just go away, helped in the short term, but in the end, the reality of their situation would come crashing down upon them and they couldn’t deal with it.

 

Jim Stockdale on the other hand, accepted the horrible situation he was really in. He knew he was a prisoner, but he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of his fellow prisoners, creating a tapping code so they could communicate with each other. He developed a milestone system that helped them deal with torture. And hidden in the letters he wrote to her, Stockdale sent intelligence information to his wife.

 

Collins, the author of the book, names this mindset the Stockdale Paradox, and puts it like this: “You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time…You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

 

This Stockdale Paradox does a great job of defining the faith that our author of Hebrews talks about this morning. We just need to replace “You will prevail in the end” with  “God will prevail in the end.”

 

Real faith combines a central, core belief in the existence of God and the ultimate triumph of God’s ways, with a realistic appraisal of the world today. It then acts in accordance with God’s ways, even when it seems counter-intuitive, in order to affect the current reality and move it toward God’s reality. In other words, we act as though God’s kingdom is here even as we know it is not.

 

Abraham and Sarah had years where life wasn’t going like God had promised. Where they traveled to lands that were not friendly to them. When Sarah continued to not have a child. They didn’t pretend that life was otherwise. But they continued to follow God and what God promised them, even when that promise was a child long after they were past childbearing years.

 

And then they finally had a child. They saw the beginning of God’s promised fulfilled. But like the scripture says “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” In Isaac, Abraham and Sarah saw the hope of that promise, but they never saw the generation after that. They never saw the descendants that would “outnumber the stars in the sky.” Yet, God kept God’s promise. And Abraham and Sarah lived in that faith, imperfectly, but persistently.

 

I love the end of this passage. Because the writer, after describing these saints who lived in suspense, had their doubts, and admitted that they were strangers on earth who could not ever quite fit in, tells us that they desire a better country, God’s country. And then the scripture says: Because of all of that God was not ashamed to be called their God.

 

In other words, the honest experience of these saints, doubts and stumbles and hard days, made these folks God’s kind of people. God doesn’t want blind faith that ignores the world around it. God doesn’t want us to smile through the worst of things in an effort to cover over the insufficiency of life as it really is. No, God wants honest saints, honest believers, honest strugglers, who somehow manage to keep longing for that better country that just is the kingdom of God, all the while not denying the pain and suffering of living in a world that is still so broken.  

 

That is what faith really is. Not putting on blinders to the world so that we are convinced that everything is great, but instead seeing the world as it is, and living as though God’s kingdom will come anyway.   Just like the Stockdale Paradox, we are called to see the world for the mess that it is, and live as though God will prevail in the end.

 

That means, you get the call saying the test was positive, you deal with the new reality of illness, but still live as though God will prevail. When you lose the job you were counting on, you set up interviews and figure out what comes next, but you still live as though God will prevail. When it seems like nothing can possibly go right in your life, you don’t grin and bear it, but find a way to get help, because God will prevail.

 

Frederick Buechner once said: “Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.”  God loves us. God’s will will prevail in the end. Faith for us means that we take those steps. It means that we live like we really believe that.

 

The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen said received the greatest revelation about faith at the circus! In his book The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life,  Nouwen talks about going  to see the German trapeze group “The Flying Rodleighs” perform.  He was mesmerized by their breath-taking performance as they flew gracefully through the air.  At the end of the show, he spoke with the leader of the troupe, Rodleigh himself.  Nouwen asked him how he was able to perform with such grace and ease so high in the air.  Rodleigh responded, “The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher…The secret is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything.  When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me.  The worst thing the flyer can do is try to catch the catcher.  I’m not supposed to catch Joe.  It’s Joe’s task to catch me”

 

God will catch us. We may not know what that will look like and it may not always be comfortable, but God will catch us. Faith does not stop the bad things in our lives from happening. Faith simply gives us a path to follow while the storm rages.

 

Think about your life today. Things may be going great or maybe not so great. Regardless, how would things change if you lived your life assuming God’s will will prevail? That at the end God’s kingdom will come here to earth. How would that change the decisions you make? How would that change how you behaved?

 

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We may never see all of God’s plans. We may never see the result of God’s promises. But in faith, we shall move forward in God’s direction, trusting that God will indeed catch us. Amen.

 

7-24-16 IN THE CLASSROOM OF CHRIST

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IN THE CLASSROOM OF CHRIST
Luke 11: 1-13

In the summertime, children often want to leave school behind; to forget about classes and assignments. But when I was home dealing with my father’s funeral in June, I went down to the basement of our family home and found what my parents had stored for me; papers from elementary school, junior high, senior high, and even college. Sometimes being a “saver” can turn a person into a “hoarder.” But I was grateful that they held my papers until I, myself, could choose what to keep and what to toss! One day in June, while others were napping, I triaged the old cardboard boxes of papers and notebooks, deciding what to keep and what to pitch. In fact, I recycled more than three-fourths of my papers. But my trip down memory lane reminded me of things I was taught and the teachers who taught them. People like Mrs. Harris, my second grade teacher; like Mrs. Kerth, my Junior High Sunday School teacher; and like Miss Glick, my High School Music Teacher. I began to remember them all, and what I had learned. One thing that was important was what I learned; but another thing that was hard to quantify was how they made me feel: appreciated; valued; encouraged.

Years ago Robert Fulgham captured the country’s warm glow about early childhood with his book All I Really Need Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
In it he wrote:
All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School.
Then he made a list and it included:
Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. And say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

I have witnessed and heard about teachers in our church and in community schools teaching those values; Nursery Teachers in our church exemplifying those values; and I have learned those values from many of the teachers who have molded me. I thank people who have been, and continue to be, good examples for living.

Today we are invited to re-imagine our learning experiences, not with book bags or with chalkboards, but with a relationship to a teacher, and a listening ear. If we imagine that we are with the Twelve Apostles, we find in our text from Luke today that “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” Luke doesn’t find it important enough to say where, or perhaps he wasn’t sure of the location. We know that when Matthew reports the same teachings he says they are on a hillside on the northern bank of the Sea of Galilee. It is not a mountain, nor is it flat farmland. It is a slope. Generally a teacher like Jesus would sit at the top of the slope to be seen and heard by all. There was no man-made amplification; and there were not slates or notebooks or books. It was just the teacher, also called Rabbi, who said, in effect, to people who were learning from him: “Let’s talk. I have some things to teach you.” So the classroom of Christ is more like a gathering, like listening to a sermon outdoors. What is the first thing the disciples wanted to learn: Jesus’ position on issues? What he thinks about Samaritans? How to honor the Sabbath? No. They want to do what he is doing; they want to emulate their teacher. They want to learn how to pray the way Jesus does. Disciples in that day and in our day practice prayer. You may have your way and others have their way. The last time our grandson Calvin was here in May, I talked him and other boys and girls through a line by line prayer for the Children’s Sermon. That night before dinner, he said to us “We have to let us pray!” I asked “What?” And he repeated, “We have to let us pray!” He’s four. So I asked, “Would you like to pray?” And he said: “Yes!” Then he folded his hands the way I showed the children to do. “Dear God Jesus: we love you. Keep us safe this summer. Amen.” And I said, “And thank you for this food?” And he said: “And thank you for this food! Amen.” He was trying to pray like I had taught them. And he moved us all. Boys and girls were learning to pray that day and today. Adults sometimes need a refresher coarse too. When you read what Jesus taught his disciples, you’ll probably recognize it as the prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” But it is likely different from the version you usually say. That’s fine. We all say it a little differently. In Matthew it says Jesus told them to “Pray like this.” In Luke Jesus said, “Pray this.” Regardless, this is his example for prayer. It is where we start taking mental notes. As I said to the children, there are some things they should memorize in their lives, and the Lord’s Prayer is one of them. It’s the prayer that, in times of crisis, many people recite and they find comfort in the experience, even with the different ways of saying it. So the way to pray in Luke is likely not exactly your way. That’s okay too. Pray; talk with God. Do it often, not just when you are in need, or when there is a crisis, but when you are glad or want to celebrate. God wants to be included in your sorrows and your celebrations.

Next, like any good teacher, Jesus doesn’t just give content; he gives examples. Sermons too are supposed to have “windows” in them, which are human illustrations. And Jesus knows it is unlikely anyone is writing down what he says. They are listening and will try to remember. So he helps them. “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.”” Can you imagine such a scenario? If you get a knock on your door at that hour, are you not frightened who it might be, and if it turns out to be a friend, are you wondering what crisis has befallen them? What is a crisis to one person may not be to another. This neighbor wants three loaves of bread. But in those days, people got up early in Israel to make the household bread, because bread gets stale quickly. Who would have three loaves of bread still stored? As we listen, we learn that this window into Jesus’ teaching is not mainly about bread. He goes on. The neighbor wakened from his sleep says “Don’t bother me! I’m in for the night and my children are with me and sleeping. I cannot accommodate you.” That’s what you want to say, wakened up out of a sound sleep. But what many people will do, but only for a friend or neighbor, is respond to them. That’s the point of this lesson.

Here’s an example. On June 5th my mother was wakened from her sound sleep by the telephone ringing. It was the nurse at the Rehab Center who was caring for my Dad. It was 2:30 a.m. “Mrs. Sumner, do you have someone who can drive you over here? We’re having some issues with your husband. “No,” my mother replied in sleepiness, “I’m alone.” Then she thought of something. She had a relatively new next-door neighbor who knew of my Father’s health condition. She was a married woman with children, yet she still had said to my mother, “Carolyn, if you ever need any help, night or day, you call me.” My mother didn’t think she’d have to take her literally. At 2:30 a.m. She called and woke her neighbor out of a sound sleep. She explained what the nurse had said. “Give me 15 minutes to get ready” Lisa, the next door neighbor said. “Watch my house. When my front porch light comes on, I’m on my way over to help you across the grass and into my car.” And that’s exactly what she did. She drove my mother to see my father, and the two of them were there when he breathed his last. She is still the next door for my mother. And I thanked her at Dad’s funeral. What a neighbor. When Jesus was telling his story, was he thinking about that kind of “above and beyond neighbor?” Perhaps so. But what’s the classroom lesson there? Is it about bread? No. It’s about being a good neighbor, about helping where help is needed, because who knows what night you might have to call in a favor. That’s the second thing Jesus taught that day.

But all his lessons in that brief time were leading to this: “Persistence pays off.” Or as it is put in the King James Version, “Ye have not, because ye ask not.” This sounds like a guarantee of results. But instead it describes the heart of God. God hears what we ask, but wisely gives at the right time, in the right way, if the request is a good one. God, like a good parent, loves his children unconditionally, but sometimes appropriately he does not grant some requests. Have you seen how children turn out when they have parents who give them everything they want? I have, and they grow up spoiled and with a warped sense of entitlement. Cautionary tales through the years have warned about what happens when you are given everything for which you ask. Although the story of Aladdin and the [Magic] Lamp appeared in the 1889 edition of Englishman Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book, the tale has roots as far back as 2400 years Before Christ! It tells what can happen if wishes are granted according to one’s own greed or limited ideas of what would make life terrific. In no case does a person, when given the chance to have whatever he or she wants, make good choices. But a loving father or mother will not substitute a fish for a snake either! Jesus says, in so many words, that his Father is love; if we ask, the response might be yes, or might be no, but we will always be heard and will receive what is best. God is not locked by time and can see far beyond what our senses reveal. That’s why the Bible says, in one of my favorite passages of a good father teaching his child: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insights. In all your ways acknowledge the Lord, and he will make straight your paths.” [Proverbs 3: 5-6]

Today we have been in the classroom of Christ. Good students observe what Jesus does and they emulate what he did in their lives moving forward. Good students remember the first point—that Jesus, and followers of Jesus, pray regularly. Good students will never forget the story about a neighbor coming to another neighbor at midnight-it means that when we have a prior relationship with someone, they will often go the extra mile for us. And we can do the same for our neighbors and friends. And finally, good students trust what the teacher Jesus is saying: that in our prayers we can ask, and ask often, even be persistent in prayer: but we should also trust that God’s response—yes, no, or not yet—an answer that comes from the source of pure love, not tainted by jealousy, envy, or anger. What a God we have! And what a friend we have in Jesus! Today Jesus has been our Rabbi, teaching like all good teachers do: with his actions and his words.

Let us pray:

Whether it is in the words of the so-called “Lord’s Prayer,” or just a conversation describing events, feelings, hopes, or needs, you certainly love to hear from us, dear God! We communicate so much on our phones; today we are reminded of the way to stay in touch with you, and that you love to hear from us! We begin today, renew prayer relationships, believing with new reassurance that you love us unconditionally and that you will never stop caring. Thank you for that reassurance. We pray as Jesus prayed.
Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner July 24, 2016

7-17-16 PROPER C11

— sermon audio to be made available shortly —

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

 

That is the question that echoes through our first passage for this morning. Indeed, that question can sum up much of the Bible as a whole. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Is anything impossible for God?

 

And yet, the passage we come to here is the end of Abraham’s story. Abraham, and with him Sarah, first come into view when Abraham is called by God to leave their home and family in Ur in Chaldea.  Full of hope and expectations of a better life,  they set off to find the new land and found the family God had promised to them.

 

And then time goes by. They are side tracked in Egypt and finally end up where God told them to live. Years have passed and still Sarah is childless. They (mostly) did as God told them to do and lived good and faithful lives and yet still Sarah is barren. How are they supposed to have descendants that outnumber the stars if they never have a single child?  Both Sarah and Abraham try to come up with descendants through other methods, but God is having none of it.

 

At that time Sarah’s whole sense of worth depended on how many sons she would be able to bear. Having and raising children is the only thing that women are expected to do at this time.  And being barren in those days was always seen as the woman’s fault. She had to suffer the disgrace, the curious looks and questions, the expectations and the pressure of family and society, and often being put aside by her husband.  Men had the right to send their wives away if they didn’t give birth to children  – had the right to marry another or a second wife and have children with her.  Abraham had never did set her aside, but Sarah had long since ceased to hope for a child.

 

The Bible comes right out and says“…it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” She’d stopped bleeding and it was clear:  Sarah would never have a child of her own.  She was very clearly just too old.

 

And these visitors come along and say “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

 

Of course Sarah laughed. Who wouldn’t in her situation? It is absurd to think she would have a child at her age. We would laugh just as much if we were put in her position.  And if we are being completely fair, Abraham laughed too. He just laughed in an earlier passage when God first told him Sarah would have a son in their twilight years.

 

God tells them they will get what they always wanted and they laugh. They laugh because it’s too much. Too big a promise to follow or accept. Not now God. Earlier when we planned on having a child would have been one thing, but to expect a child now is just too much. And so Sarah laughs from deep within herself when she overhears the news.

God would not let her shrink from the honest emotion of disbelief, seeing through her lie of “I did not laugh” with the simple rebuttal, “Yes, you did laugh.” I don’t think this was said as a reprimand, so much as an acknowledgment of how crazy it sounded.  In a way, maybe what God was saying to Sarah was that, “I know it’s hard to believe what I have promised.  Everything about this seems topsy-turvy to the ways of the world.  You did laugh, but that’s okay.  You’re not the first, nor the last, to laugh at what seems impossible.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”

 

Yes. It can happen. God’s plans, no matter how huge can come true.

 

It seems impossible that a virgin would have a son, but she did. It seems impossible that God would become flesh and dwell among us, but God did. It seems impossible that Christ would rise from the dead, but Christ did. It seems impossible that a tiny movement from one small province of the Roman Empire would become a religion that would span the globe long after the Romans were gone, but it did.

 

As I look at the world today, a lot seems to be impossible. In the last week alone we have seen a coup attempt in Turkey, a truck killing dozens during a celebration of freedom in France, a Pakistani social media star who spoke out for women’s rights was strangled by our brother, and there were thirteen more mass shootings in this country. And that was just last week. It seems every time we look we here more incidents of racism and violence and hatred running rampant in the world.

 

It seems impossible that we will find some sort of hope. That God will work good out of this mess. It seems like the world is getting worse and worse.

 

And yet, many things are actually getting better. The rate of extreme poverty in the world was at 37% in 1990. Today it is only 10%. The rate of undernourishment fell from 18.6 percent to 10.9 percent during that same window. The rate of child mortality due to preventable causes has dropped more than 50%.  Life expectancy increased by 5.8 years for men and 6.6 years for women worldwide. Worldwide gender inequality has dropped 20%. The ozone layer is actually beginning to recover.

 

Now most of these things would have sounded impossible a few decades ago, but they happened. God can do the impossible.

 

God’s plans for the world is not about hatred, discrimination, vitriol and violence. God plans for love and hope. God plans for a world of peace and caring and mercy. And while anyone who watches the news may laugh the same sort of laugh as Sarah did at hearing it, God will bring about all things for good.

 

Okay great, you may be thinking. Why doesn’t God get started? Why does God let this keep happening?

 

Because God gave us the ability to decide for ourselves. We have free will. When we choose the paths of violence and hatred, or even when we turn a blind eye to it happening, that is our choice. We live with the consequences of our decisions.

 

Walter Brueggemann puts it like this: “What God will not (cannot?) do is circumvent the reality of suffering, hurt , the cross. Thus our text does not permit a casual triumphalism that simply believes everything is possible. Because of the character of God, everything is possible for those who stay through the dark night of barrenness with God. For Abraham and Sarah, there is no simple, painless route to an heir.”

 

There is no simple, painless route to good. And yet, we can choose to be the light in the darkness. We talk all the time about how we are the body of Christ in the world. We are the means by which God reaches out. And God will bring about all things for good through us.

 

The impact on the poverty rate and child mortality didn’t just happen. Those numbers changed because people did something. We raised money and sent aid and helped educate others. All of those things worked towards the good plan that God has. And while we are not there yet, look at how far we’ve come.

 

When we talk about racism and hatred and the problems of our country, we have to realize that God is calling us to action. We are supposed to do something about it. We are supposed to speak out and send aid and sign petitions and join campaigns and raise awareness. We begin by praying, and then we start working towards God’s plan.

 

And God’s plan is so much greater than even we can imagine. Frederick Buechner writes: “Sarah and her husband had plenty of hard knocks in their time, and there were plenty more of them still to come, but at that moment when the angel told them they’d better start dipping into their old age pensions for cash to build a nursery, the reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough.”

 

God’s plan for a world of love, for a world that looks like the Kingdom of Heaven sounds impossible. It sounds too wonderful for words. But nothing is too wonderful for God.

 

Startle us, O God, with your truth and your lively, life-giving presence. Come out of the nowhere into the here and now—this day, this morning,  this time together. Touch our hearts with your grace; strengthen our spirits with your love in Jesus Christ, which comes to us in surprising ways. In his holy name we pray. Amen

07-10-16 Proper C10

— sorry, sermon audio is not available —

We all know this parable, don’t we?

 

We know the characters and we know how it ends and there is a comfort in its predictability. We learn this story as young children. Over and over again it is lifted up as a calling to how we are supposed to live. We have heard this story so much that we begin to become numb to it. It is hard to hear it and expect to learn anything new.

 

But there is a reason we have heard this story so much, a reason why it is one of the most well-known parables. In many ways it is the gospel in miniature, and it is worth another look. This morning, I’d like to focus our gaze on neighbors.

 

After all, that is the crux of the story right there, isn’t it? The lawyer, asking about eternal life, knows the answer is loving God and loving neighbor, but who is my neighbor?

 

That’s a question we all ask some days, don’t we? Who are we supposed to love God, because you can’t possibly mean that we are to love everyone. There have to be some limits. The world is just too big otherwise. So, who is my neighbor?

 

And Jesus tells this story. This story that we know so well that the phrase “Good Samaritan” has become part of our culture.  And the answer has nothing to do with distance.

 

Your neighbor is not just the person living next door, in a house you never have to enter, to whom you never have to speak. Your neighbor is not one who happens to be convenient for you to help. Your neighbor is not the one who meets the qualifications of your company.

 

Your neighbor is simply someone who, without a doubt, is experiencing pain, struggles, challenges, and sorrow. Your neighbor is someone whose need you see and do something about.

 

For Jesus then, there is no limit to who our neighbors are. Our world is large, but we are better connected than ever. We hear about travelers on the news every day. From the recent bombings in Baghdad and Istanbul that have killed hundreds, to our own country’s Philando Castle, Alton Sterling and the officers in Dallas:  Lorne Ahrens,  Michael Smith,  Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson. According to Jesus all of them are our neighbors and all of them have been killed in the past week.  We only have to look at the news to see dozens of travelers who are our neighbors.

 

To follow Jesus, to find life, we are called to love our neighbor; to go and show mercy and care and love to those we run across who need it. It is not about saying the right words, or following the rituals exactly. If it was, the priest and the Levite would have gotten it right.

 

You see, they believed that touching the dead would make them unclean. And while they didn’t know for sure if the traveler was dead, he looked close enough to warrant passing by to the other side of the street. Or perhaps they thought the traveler was a trap. After all, this is a dangerous stretch of road filled with bandits. Stopping to help could land them in a world of hurt, so they pass by on the other side.

 

In one of his more famous sermons Martin Luther King Jr talks about this passage. He said “ And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

 

Being a neighbor means you ask about the other first. You tend to the needs that are in front of you and you do it regardless of who that person is. Which is why Jesus uses a Samaritan as the neighbor. By the time he told this story, the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans was ancient, entrenched, and bitter.  The two groups disagreed about everything that mattered: how to honor God, how to interpret the Scriptures, and where to worship.  Truth be told, they hated each other’s guts. Samaritans were the last people a Jew would ever want to talk to, let alone seek help from.

 

Think about it this way: Who is the last person on earth you’d ever want to deem “a good guy?”  The last person you’d ask to save your life?  Whom do you secretly hope to convert, fix, impress, control, or save,  but never, ever need?

 

Perhaps it is someone who is campaigning for that candidate you absolutely despise. Or maybe it is someone with a view point radically different from your own. Or maybe it is someone who you know well, but who has betrayed you in some way.

 

That is who Jesus is lifting up here. That is the person who Jesus says is being a good neighbor. And on the other side of it the Samaritan is helping the last person he probably wants to help too. After all, the Jews had been full of nothing by scorn and derision for them for years. And yet, the Samaritan goes out of his way to make sure the traveler is safe and well taken care of. That is being a neighbor.

 

A few years ago, Israeli soldiers shot 12-year-old Ahmed Khatib in the head during a raid on Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli army apologized and the camp did not erupt into violence over the incident which everyone assumed was the best possible outcome.

 

But it was the reaction of Ahmed’s parents that caught everyone off guard. As life slipped away from their son in an Israeli hospital at the weekend, Ismail and Abla Khatib decided that some good could come of his death. The Palestinian family donated Ahmed’s organs for transplant. The boy was in an Israeli hospital and his parents understood that their son’s body parts were most likely to save people routinely spoken of as “the enemy” in Jenin.

 

Ahmed’s heart was transplanted into a 12-year-old Israeli Arab girl, his lungs into a Jewish teenager suffering from cystic fibrosis and his liver was divided between a seven-month-old Jewish girl and a 58-year-old mother of two suffering from chronic hepatitis. The kidneys were divided between a three-year-old Jewish girl and a five-year-old Bedouin Arab.

 

“It was shocking to know that young boy died like that so Samaah could live,” Yusra Gadbahn, the mother of the girl who received the heart says. “I have lost a son and it is impossible to describe the suffering I know Ahmed’s mother is feeling. But I am also happy that my daughter has the chance to live. I am very grateful that in their pain they thought of our pain.”

 

Ismail and Abla looked beyond the lines drawn in the sand, looked past the long established hatred and resentment between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and instead allowed their suffering to help others. That is being a neighbor.

 

Your neighbor is the one who scandalizes you with compassion, Jesus answered.  Your neighbor is the one who upends all the entrenched categories and shocks you with a fresh face of God.  Your neighbor is the one who mercifully steps over the ancient, bloodied line separating “us” from “them,” and teaches you the real meaning of “Good.”

 

So, as we hear this old story one more time, let us take a minute to look at the world around us. It is full of travelers who are hurt and reeling: from violence and death, from injustice and cruelty, from sickness and disaster. The world needs neighbors right now. It needs us to reach beyond ourselves and care for others.

 

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Go and do likewise.

07-03-16 MINISTRY MARCHING ORDERS

— sorry, but there is no audio for this week’s sermon —

MINISTRY MARCHING ORDERS

Luke 10: 1-11

 

Last week the final message that we gave the children of Vacation Bible School was “God sends.” Our friends at the Methodist Church across the bridge did the Surf Shack Bible School the week before. On their outdoor sign all week of our Bible School, their message was “God sends.” Many times Christians don’t want to be sent; they want others to go; they want to stay in their comfortable seats and hear about others being sent by Jesus.

Today let’s we’ll hear about the original group that Jesus sent, and we’ll note the many reasons why the urgency to “go into all the world with the saving message of Jesus” is more urgent than ever.

 

So let’s set the scene: Jesus has just had several people say they would follow him as soon as they took care of some personal matters.  They were reasonable things to ask to do.  But as those who have spent some time in the armed forces have learned, when there is urgency to carry out a mission, personal agendas get set aside.  Our world is filled with people who make excuses. Perhaps the biggest social laxity these days is people who do not RSVP, even when there are reservations needed and often money at stake.  So many people hold out to see if the invitation is their best option for that day.  As the parent of three children who got married, it was a costly venture to have people send regrets after the money for meals was already sent in; and others who came unexpectedly because they were invited but had never responded.  Our Presbyterian Counseling had to pay almost $200 for meals prepared for people who failed to notify us that they weren’t coming to our last free luncheon. It happens. But Jesus wanted to be sure that his call held the top priority in their minds.  Although they were not battling malicious and diabolical terrorists like we are, they were battling paganism and ruthless regimes in other parts of their world. So Jesus had a plan: Our Lord has never been accused of being a military leader, but on that day long ago, he did give “orders” to seventy selected missionaries. Here’s how Luke puts it in chapter 10: After Jesus squelched all of the excuses people were giving him for not following him just yet in Luke chapter 9, here’s how Luke puts it in chapter 10: “The Lord then appointed seventy others, and sent them ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about the come.”  Let’s break that down. “The Lord appointed.” This was not a democratic vote or a group of volunteers. There were men who Jesus specifically chose. He “appointed seventy.” Why seventy? A first assumption is that 7 was considered the perfect number since the world was created in 7 days. Anything less than that, say the number 6, would be “close but no cigar.” In other words the number six was seen as a counterfeit substitute for the real God. But even that does not explain the number 70 that Jesus chose.  What does explain it is Jesus’ thorough knowledge of the Scripture of his day, our Old Testament. He could have had in mind the number of elders that Moses chose to help him with decisions in Numbers chapter 11: 16-25. The seventy were bestowed with power by God to assist Moses in his many decisions. But there is a second reason that is even more persuasive: according to Genesis 10, after the world was destroyed by a flood, the descendants of Noah numbered seventy who, according to 10: 32- “are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these nations, they spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” So it was assumed that there were seventy original nations that populated the world. Therefore, these seventy men were literally to go into “all the world.” And notice that verse one says specifically “the Lord appointed seventy others.” He passed over anyone who, in the verses before, made excuses about why they could not follow him right then. The church has spent its life listening to people making excuses about why they can’t volunteer, or give, or attend. But the church over the years has highly honored and appreciated those who joined the prophet Isaiah saying “Here I am Lord! Send me.” And the church has chosen those who have served before without complaint, or drama, or incomplete work. So Jesus has shown us how to chose those who will go out into the world in his name! Next, he sends them “two by two.” Some religious groups follow this guideline carefully, sending people “two by two” to our doorsteps. But the practical reasons are many: for safety, for corroboration of information, and for support. Jesus sent these persons “into every town and place where he was about to come.” Listen to that: part of our role is like that of John the Baptist: who said “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his paths!” In other words, the Lord is coming! He is coming soon; put your houses in order! Professor G.B. Caird, retired from Mansfield College in Oxford England, says this about the urgency of their work: “Their mission is urgent because they are harvesters: Israel is ripe for the sickle and must be gathered in to the garner of the kingdom while the brief season lasts. ‘The kingdom of God has come near you’ does not mean that the arrival of the kingdom about which the men must be warned during the interval that remains; it means the kingdom of God is present and [people] must be summoned to enter it before the opportunity goes by forever.”  Last week we saw what happens when people don’t study issues, are involved in their own personal agendas, and don’t pay attention to warnings. Great Britain exited from the European Union, which was their right to do by vote. But what we learned in the days after was how many people wanted a “do-over.” “Let’s try this again! We didn’t know what we were doing!” With colossal financial loss and huge changes in treaties with other countries, they want to “re-vote.” I can imagine, on the day that Jesus comes again, there will be people asking for the same kind of things. “You’re here already! So soon? We didn’t understand how we were supposed to change our lives! And we’re being left behind? Can’t we have a ‘do-over?’” But that ship will have sailed as Kingdom of our Lord replaces the kingdoms of our world. And some will be saying to the news media: “We didn’t know! Can’t we have another chance?” Jesus is looking to mobilize careful listeners and willing doers of his “marching orders.” Others need not apply.

 

We also learn that those who say, “Yes Lord, send me,” may be going into the wilderness of the world like lambs in the midst of wolves. Being Christian is not for the faint of heart or for the coach potatoes. We are preparing for the day when, as the hymn writer Arthur Campbell Ainger put it: “Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be, when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” Like when there is an emergency on a plane they say, “Leave your luggage! Just follow our instructions and depart!”  Like firefighters who warn people not to rush into a burning house to retrieve valuables when they are already outside safe. Jesus says to the seventy and to those with their eyes and ears open to him: (And I’m paraphrasing): “Don’t pack your car to the gills like you are going across country, or pack huge bags like you are going on a cruise! I just need you, and I need you to go into all the world and say, among other things, to every household: ‘Peace be to this house!’ Whoever welcomes you-stay. And whoever doesn’t, shake the dust off your feet and move on!”

In church we often sing: “Jesus Calls us.” But today there’s a different message: “Jesus sends us.” He sends those who don’t make excuses, those who don’t try to hide behind their neighbor, and those who do not say “Let me first do this, this, this and this, then get back to me.” No. Jesus sends those who say: “I’m ready, and I’m here!” And from everything I’ve read, you might be especially helped to know this: Jesus saves those whom he sends. Respond right away; don’t wait to see if this is your best offer. If you do, you might be stuck on the streets of a more deserted earth, talking to media, and asking for a do-over.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                    July 3, 2016

06-26-16 HEARING FROM GOD

— sermon audio to be available shortly —

HEARING FROM GOD

Isaiah 6; 1-8; Matthew 3:13-17

 

Often times children hear with what is called “the third ear.” It means that while they are fidgeting, or squirming, or looking bored, they still hear what is being said. Try telling a secret around them! That’s one of the reasons Mary Ann and I so strongly believe in having children in church. They can color on paper we provide, or they can squirm, but they will learn intuitively. Conversely, many adults learn cognitively better. That means that adults are best at reading books and learning from them, and children are best at being in a sensory setting and learning from it. Yet we so often put children in front of books and adults in sensory settings where they might even dose off for lack of focus! So it is actually very efficient to have children in worship instead of off in some enrichment setting. They learn what it’s like to be in “big church.” When they get to confirmation age, as each of our VBS youth leaders already achieved, they’ll be familiar with the songs, the order of service, and the affirmations. It is so much better than dropping a middle schooler in the deep end of the liturgical pool without getting them used to the water. Having children in worship gets them used to the worship waters.

 

Conversely, although we have taught your children and grandchildren this week with crafts, science experiments, games, and Bible stories, they are not the only ones who can benefit from them. You adults can benefit from them too! This week on Facebook I posted a picture of a clergymen in a robe giving announcements to his congregation. He said this: “Recently I’ve had complaints that my sermons were too intellectual. The following adults are invited to come up for the children’s sermon!” Ask any of the adults who were here all this week and they’ll tell you how enjoyable it can be to learn about the Bible in concrete ways rather than abstract ways! It was like a week-long children’s sermon! We were all reminded of Bible stories in fresh ways and were told some of the great actions God does on our behalf. So welcome to this special message! Our theme verse was from Nehemiah 4:14 “Remember, that the Lord is Great and Awesome!”

 

Let’s begin. On day one we naturally took students to not only the beginning of the Bible, but also the beginning of the world. We learned that “God creates.” We saw the creation story of Genesis 1 acted out and learned that God not only created, but is still creating! There are new things in our world as the Creator keeps sharing the splendor of created things!  And we anchored our beliefs with the words from Psalm 8: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” We learned that the Lord not only loves our praise, but that the Lord God is also worthy of praise! The children told us that the reason they most often prayed to God was to ask for something. Our lessons invited them to also praise and to thank God! Parents often hear a string of questions and requests from their children. How happy and uplifted parents become when their children thank them or show them their love, not just ask for things! God wants that too! Our Creator longs to hear from us, not just at a nightly grace, but also in prayers through the day.

 

On day two we taught students a story from the second book of the Bible. We told them the first book of the Bible is Genesis, which means “beginning.” The second book of the Bible is Exodus which means “exit,” reminding readers of how God delivered his people through the parted waters of the Red Sea. But our story centered on the Nile River, the great river of Egypt, where God acted to allow his special child, Moses, to not only be safe, but also to be raised by his very own mother, a Hebrew woman! It was, as we learned, “amazing!”  God does so many amazing things! And that day we learned that “God helps.” Our verse was a Psalm of David, when God helped him get away from an enemy. When that happened, David said to God in Psalm 18: “Your help has made me great!” Of course we learned that we are never as great as God is, but God helps us when we are in need.

 

Day three was Wednesday and picture Day! The children were reminded, as I remind you, “God loves.” In our drama we took the children to the Jordan River and let them watch John the Baptist baptize Jesus. They also saw how a dove, representing God’s Holy Spirit, came and landed on Jesus just after he was baptized! Then a voice from Heaven said: “This is my son, who I dearly loved; I am well pleased with him.”  That was from Matthew chapter 3. The children thought Jesus must have been so comforted to hear those words from his Heavenly Father. They also decided it’s wonderful when they hear words like that from their parents and grandparents! Finally that day, they learned that love is more than a word, it is an action! So together they offered ways they could show more love: by helping to clear their place after meals, by helping to make their beds, or by sharing their toys or other items with their brother or sister.

 

Day 4 took us to the Sea of Galilee. They learned that Jesus spent a lot of time in and around that Sea. Sometimes the water there is peaceful, but other times it is stormy! On the day that Jesus and his disciples were on the water, the wind grew strong and rain poured down. They learned that Jesus has the power to calm storms! And they came to understand that God calms too. They learned Bible words shared by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “The God of peace will be with you.” I told them the story of how my grandmother had an unusual fear of storms. When I was at her house and it began to thunder and lightning one time, she went and sat on the steps that led to their cellar, and she laid her head on her folder arms and she shook and cried.  I was no bigger than some of the boys or girls at Bible School this week; I was about 8 years old. I wasn’t afraid of storms, so I went and sat on the step next to her, put my hand on her back and my head near her shoulder and said gently, “Don’t be afraid; it’s okay; don’t be afraid. And then I just stayed next to her until the storm passed.  I told the children they too, had the power to calm.

 

Finally day five arrived! We were on the home stretch but we all agreed we had perhaps the most joyful and trouble-free week any of us could remember! We were glad parents and grandparents trusted us with their loved ones. In fact, we had leaders who came from as far away as Virginia, and children from as far away as South Carolina and Georgia to be with us! Praise God! On day five we learned that “God sends,” and Jesus does too! We gathered on the banks of the Sea of Galilee again, but this time there was no storm. This time Jesus’ disciples, thinking that Jesus had died, were gloomy and lost, not sure what to do or where to go. Finally Simon Peter decided to go fishing and other disciples went with him.  But they caught no fish. They didn’t realize it as they were fishing, but Jesus himself walked up on the shore and started a small fire! He told them how to catch many fish and they caught a bunch! They then came ashore and were thrilled that it really was Jesus!  He gave them bread, cooked the fish, and shared it. But he wasn’t there just to feed them; he was there to send them too! And today, Jesus sends us!  Jesus needs boys and girls, and men and women to tell others about God’s love, to tell them about the Savior, and to invite others to follow him!  It is so important, that we ended the week inviting kids to tell people about Jesus, and about what they learned; but more importantly, to show them they are following Jesus by being kind toward others, by standing with people who are afraid or sad; by talking to God in prayer, and by making good choices.  We think these children are making God smile, and making Jesus proud. I hope God will smile because of our worship today too, and that we are making Jesus proud in a good way, by making sure that what we say is what we do; and that our actions back up our words.

 

I have one final thought for today: in a world that often keeps children with children, youth with youth, adults with adults, and sometimes senior adults with senior adults, there is power in having the generations learn from and be with one another. In a minute we’ll sing a song we learned when we did our intergenerational dinner and program that we called “The Epic Story.” The song is called “One Generation Calls to the Next.” Indeed we are richer when we teach and temper each other. Having people in every age engaging with the very young, or the teenagers, helps set aside fears or suspicions, and lets encouragement and gladness take their place! If you say to yourself, “I would never work at Bible School,” we have converts in our midst! We have leaders who came with uncertainty and left saying “I will not say “no” to Bible School next year!” For thirty years I have been a character and leader in Westminster’s Vacation Bible School. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To God be the glory.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           June 26, 2016

06-19-16 DEALING WITH MADNESS AND SADNESS

— the video linked below of Christina Grimmie singing “In Christ Alone” is recommended to be watched either before or after you have read this sermon —

— sorry, but there is no audio for this week’s sermon —

DEALING WITH MADNESS AND SADNESS

Ephesians 6

 

Friday a week ago, news crews began making their way to the city where many of us travel regularly- Orlando Florida. Millions of people come there for theme parks, sporting events, and concerts. But on that Friday, a young singer, a Christian—who has one of the loveliest renditions of the song “In Christ Alone” that I’ve ever heard, (check it out on YouTube and on Godtube) –and was also a competitor on the NBC competition called “The Voice,” had just finished her Orlando concert. She was speaking with fans when she was shot three times by a so-called “fan,” and she died. Her name was Christina Grimmie. Then on Sunday, Orlando experienced the worst massacre by one person with an assault rifle in the history of our country. It was at the Pulse Nightclub. The world was stunned. Then again on Tuesday in France, a Police Commander was shot by a terrorist sympathizer. To add insult to injury, on Wednesday a two-year-old boy was pulled into the Seven Seas Lagoon on Disney property by an alligator. He did not survive, but in all those killings, only the alligator gets a pass as a perpetrator. Certainly there are those here today who have lost loved ones in military service, or to disease, or in auto accidents. But this list of newsworthy events, with the focus on the horrendous “Pulse” nightclub shooting, has caused people to ask: When will the madness stop?  When will the sadness end?  People duped by twisted ideologies and murdering in the name of “Allah” remind me of the words Robert Louis Stevenson once said. The author of, ironically, the novel “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” wrote: “One cold, east windy morning I went, and I met Satan there.”  People who wonder what Satan looks like need only look into the face of those parading as God-fearers; like those who think killing rights a wrong. Mahatma Ghandi, not a Christian but a reader of the Bible and a lover of Jesus, once said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

 

Today is the day when we need to put on our gospel armor again. People through the ages have followed Paul’s instructions for battle. But this uniform does not include guns or knives; and the sword is very different. So today, let’s listen to Paul’s instructions for our daily ritual of putting on our spiritual clothes, not the clothing of Satan that retaliates, kills, or tortures. Paul calls the Ephesians to put on their Gospel Armor, a specific kind of spiritual clothing. By extension he calls us too. The calling is to anyone, male or female, who has decided to do something about evil and not just to feel something because of it. This is a call to action. Here’s what he says:

 

First, “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his strength.” Jesus was strong, but not as the world thought of strong.  Pharisaic peer pressure did not sway him; broken women, children, and men did. He was so strong that he healed; and he eventually took the nails for the sins of others. But he also loved those who others were banned from loving; and he absorbed the pain of others.  Christians are called to that kind of strength in the midst of this pain. Some are giving blood, some are revisiting their old beliefs about people once shunned like those in the LGBT community; and some for the first time are writing to their Congressperson to ask for action.  What form of strength can you exhibit that lets people see Christ in you, no matter how “outside the box” it is for you?

 

Second, Paul says: “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”  This is not following the beat of the popular drum, nor is it falling prey to silver tongued human beings who are enticing. With the armor of God, we listen to the Christ who has made a home in our hearts. We tune out the televisions and put blinders on the editorial pages of our newspapers we read until, and only until, we listen internally, as the Christian Mystics did, to the “Spirit of the Living God,” and ask ourselves: “What would Jesus do?”  Although many of us have not seen a warrior in complete armor, you’ve perhaps seen one in films or photographs. Romans wore such outfits in Paul’s day. Paul wants us to take a physical action: putting on armor as if we’re going into battle, but taking it as a spiritual action, battling against the forces of evil and those who embody evil. In Revelation the beast is said to have a human number: 666. Look around; Satan is dwelling in human beings who seek to destroy others. God’s name, by contrast, embodies creation and redemption, not killing and destruction. Paul also says we will have to wrestle with powers and authorities. In his day many people were superstitious and believed that some powers were stronger or more influential than God. Sadly, when people in our day are lost, or angry, or vulnerable, they often get sold a bill of goods from twisted minds that lead gullible followers not to Godly, but to Satanic actions. We have seen this darkness that Paul calls “malicious spiritual forces.”  These are days when we can fight by: A) reporting when we see something suspicious, B) strengthening collaborative government data bases so that suspicious information or persons do not fall through cracks, and C) circling the wagons around wounded people.

 

Third, we need to “Stand with truth as a belt.” Make no mistake about it. Standing for truth is not easy. In Paul’s day it was speaking up against Roman oppression. During the rise of the Third Reich in the 20th century, it was being the brave, and sometimes martyred, Christians who did not fearfully or blindly follow a diabolical fuhror in Germany, but instead acted against him. Some of those people put on the belt of truth that called out the Nazi Satanic killing machine. And today, people can put on the belt of truth and call out our own government leaders who say words, impersonating people of sorrow and sympathy, but take no corrective actions. Putting on this belt as a Christian can change the world.

 

Fourth, putting on the breastplate of righteousness is your promise to give your conscience a rugged self-examination, asking Jesus to look at the decisions you make each day and to guide you to do what is right. In other words, you and I must decide to do what we think Jesus would do.  Such a stand lifts up the commandments, but it also puts a light on Jesus’ short interpretation of the commandments: to Love God; but also, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When a Pharisee once asked Jesus who his neighbor was, Jesus told the Good Samaritan story. But in those days, Jews believed that there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan. Jews could not converse with, relate to, or touch a Samaritan. They saw them as “the others.” Yet Jesus told his audience that their neighbors, among others, were Samaritans, and that they were to love them as they loved themselves. How radical that was. But nobody would treat Samaritans like neighbors but Jesus. These days, Jesus would likely say that, among others, our neighbors are LGBT people, straight people, Muslim people, and persons of any color. Yes that is radical for some to consider, but that’s how radical the message to love a Samaritan was to Jews. We still have neighbors; and we are called by the man we call “Savior” to love them and others. Do the right thing.

 

Fifth: “Have your feet shod with readiness to preach the gospel of peace.”  Shushing or silencing people does not achieve peace. Peace is achieved by listening, responding, and loving. Peace is achieved by negotiation, working for justice, and sometimes verifying that actions of people who have not proved trustworthy. In Genesis 31, you may recall that Laban was an uncle of Jacob, but he even he could not be completely trusted by Jacob; he had lied to him several times. So they made a covenant, a pact of distrust saying: “May the Lord watch between me and thee, while we are absent one from the other.”  Sometimes peace is achieved with verification.

 

Sixth, we are to take up the “shield of faith.” As we were driving home from my father’s funeral last week, my mother and I were alone in her car. “What do people do on a day like this without faith?” she commented. What indeed. Paul says we need to put on “faith as a shield.” Faith was my mother’s shield, and my shield, when we did not let death get the last word. Because of our faith in Jesus, death never gets the last word, even in a week like this. I have thought way too much about death in the last three weeks; but in each case faith, hope, and love trumped death and destruction, and they are winning in Orlando every day.

 

Finally, we get to put on the “helmet of salvation.” And we learn how to unsheathe “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” If you don’t know the Word of God as a Christian, get reading, get studying, and keep praying. People may try to talk you out of your faith if you do not remain strong in your faith. It is not a Pollyanna way of living; it is the Way, The Truth, and the Life for our souls.

 

Let me close with two examples. Cassie Bernall, at the Columbine Massacre, faced a man with a gun. He asked her if she believed in God. Instead of lying, she told her truth and was gunned down. Contemporary Christian Singer Michael W. Smith was invited to sing at her memorial service. Here’s that story:

 

Michael W. Smith was in the midst of recording his 13th album when the Columbine High School shootings unfolded. Asked to participate in the national memorial service a few days after the shocking April 20, 1999 event, Smith says he felt inadequate, yet was compelled to go.

At the service in in Littleton, Colo., Smith found himself being comforted by Brad and Misty Bernall, the parents of victim Cassie Bernall. “I was blown away by their demeanor,” Smith says. “They were so strong.”

In the weeks that followed, Smith was drawn to the story of Cassie’s confession of faith in God moments before her death. “I literally could not sleep,” he says. “Night after night I laid awake, just thinking about Cassie.” So Smith, seeking emotional healing, entered the studio and wrote a melody, but “…I had to find someone to help me articulate what I was feeling. …. I called Wes King.”

 

Wes wrote these famous words:

It was a test we could all hope to pass

But none of us would want to take

Faced with the choice to deny God and live

For her there was one choice to make

 

This was her time

This was her dance

She lived every moment

Left nothing to chance

She swam in the sea

Drank of the deep

Embraced the mystery

Of all she could be

This was her time

 

Though you are mourning, and grieving your loss,

Death died a long time ago

Swallowed in life, so her life carries on still, it’s so hard to let go ….

 

And then, less than two weeks ago, Christina Grimmie was shot and killed. Back at Easter in 2012, this bright singing star recorded the song that our choir has sung, written by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. I played her YouTube video before our service today.

Christina sang this:

In Christ alone my hope is found,

He is my light, my strength, my song;

this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,

firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,

when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My Comforter, my All in All,

here in the love of Christ I stand.

Put on your Gospel armor. There are people to love; and there is evil to resist. Count on Christ.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 19, 2016