Monthly Archives: August 2007

08-26-07 JONAH

UNDERSTANDING GREAT BIBLE STORIES: JONAH

 

Today our Bible story takes us to Iraq. This last quarter, American armed force recruitment quotas have been down sharply.  A report this week concerning particularly the Army said men and women of color, who have for years found enlistment as a means to afford college and decent income, have their parents imploring their children not to enlist!  Are these parents unpatriotic? They say no; but in these volatile times they do not want their son or daughter being deployed in Iraq.

 

Years ago, like an Uncle Sam poster, the Lord God pointed to a native of Israel and said “I want you to become a chaplain in an Israeli army of one! In other words, I am sending you to the unfaithful Iraqi city of Nineveh.” With an objective, that in his heyday, may have even made Billy Graham shudder, Jonah was asked to Nineveh, which still exists in Iraq, to speak out against their wickedness, their killings and such, and see if they would turn to the true God who had no use for their antics.  Jonah muttered under his breath that he’d rather chew gravel than go to Nineveh, so he decided he’d ponder the choice by taking a European cruise instead.  You can relate, can’t you?  Taking a cruise to get away from obligations and work?  Well he paid his fare and decided that Spain would be a nice place to visit that time of year.  His personal agenda had to come first! He must have left his unselfishness at seminary. None of this enlistment in the army of the Lord for him!  No putting God first, when God asked outrageous things of him like risk, commitment, and changing priorities!  How would you have answered God?   Often we look at Jonah from afar, but isn’t there a lot of you and me, and those around you, and those not in church, in Jonah?   Especially those who are doing something that crowds God out of a busy schedule, they can relate to Jonah, can’t they?  This is the trap of personal agendas; in our day it is encouraged by coworkers, by television programs, and by advertisers. This is the first time the Bible records that Jonah’s spiritual cruise had run aground.  He chose not only to ignore God, he chose to run away from God’s request.  Like a little child who covers her eyes and thinks by doing so that no one can see her, Jonah thinks he can hide where God can’t find him. Nonsense. It is as much nonsense for us today as it was for Jonah. We cannot run from God; God just teaches us lessons along the way and waits us out.

 

Jonah, nevertheless, boards his cruise; even as the steel drum band was playing as they cast off, the crew saw no red sky that night and, being a superstitious lot, they began to get anxious. They could tell a storm was coming. And sure as the National Weather Service, their instincts were right. The storm was so strong, at least a category two, that each crewman cried to his make-believe gods of the sea to save them. But it was fruitless.  They even thought that a costly offering to Poseidon, their ruler of the deep, would settle things down, so they dumped their valuable cargo overboard. Still the wind howled and the ship pitched almost to the point of not righting herself. They knew that an Israelite was with them and that he had a different God.  They asked him to also pray to his God.  Isn’t it just the way when people, who set out on their own agenda, get in to trouble, that they begin praying the Rosary which they haven’t touched since their last crisis; or they dust off their Bible and become religious; or they make a frantic attempt at a remorseful speech like a prodigal son or daughter.  The crew was a desperate group but nothing worked. Finally and unbelievably, Jonah set his personal agenda aside and, in not his first and not his last moment of self-pity, he offered to let them throw him to the sharks.  He almost decided to jump from his balcony but thought the better of it. At wits end, however, the crew pushed him overboard.  Like cold water added boiling water, the sea became instantly still; the ship righted herself and the crew members stopped hanging their head over the side; calm began to prevail.

 

A shark might have put Jonah out of his misery more quickly; but God had other plans for his servant; he wasn’t going to avoid the Lord simply by dying!  So God arranged for a very large fish, some have even said a whale, (which we now know is a mammal) to swallow Jonah and miraculously give him the only spot underwater with breathable air. Now don’t ask me who the narrator of the story was who could follow this escapade like a cable news crew, but they managed to record everything in this book by his name. They even heard his frightful sense of penance, with his seemingly heartfelt prayer: being in the damp and gooey belly of a fish can make even the Army seem inviting to a man!  He was deciding that like Uncle Sam, if the Lord wanted him, he would go.  “Good!” said the Lord after the fish spewed him onto a Mediterranean beach, with no umbrella or cabana to be found.  He would indeed need his sand shoes, but not for the beach; he was headed over the desert east by northeast to face the people he dreaded facing; he thought they were sinful, inferior, and he had no business mixing with their kind. He had built a life-long prejudice.  You know people who have done that; even we have some “learned” prejudices that we can unlearn over time.  When Norman Lear created the character of Archie Bunker for “All in the Family,” he asked Carroll O’Connor to portray an exaggerated caricature of a bigot. He thought people might laugh at him and the foolishness of such attitudes; instead, he was shocked when people agreed with Archie’s ignorant bigoted beliefs! Jonah, however, wasn’t Archie Bunker. Jonah was, in all likelihood, like some in our day who just don’t like certain people, even before they get to know them, because they are of a certain color or orientation or creed or nationality or party affiliation.  “I’ll never accept them!” some people mutter under their breath. That’s how Jonah felt about the Ninevites. But when he delivered his fiery sermon, he was floored when they actually said, “Okay, we have heard you and your God. We will repent, and show true remorse, and change our ways.  Few preachers have such unequivocal success! That would make Jonah happy right?  “Grrrrr” muttered Jonah under his breath. He wanted a reason to continue disliking, griping, and alienating. Have you ever witnessed parents, children, neighbors, or a boss, who wanted you to agree to their terms in a situation, and then after you agreed to them they still groused and made additional demands?  These are small people; Jonah, a prophet of the Lord, a preacher, was a small person that day; wouldn’t be the first believer like that or the last, but it was a low day when God’s army, the Heavenly Host, wanted to cheer for the repentant Ninevites and Jonah’s response took the cold water that had calmed the furious sea and threw it in their faces.

 

Personal agenda; prejudice; and finally pride had brought a man of God down to a level below the ones he hated.  God was more pleased with the ones Jonah hated than with Jonah!  Have you ever had the thought that God may be more pleased with those you hate than with you?  We can make ourselves into an embarrassment before our family, friends, and God just like Jonah did, can’t we?  It’s like holding a mirror up to a time that you hoped others had forgotten.  Chapter 4 of Jonah paints a pathetic picture of a pouting man.  Jonah was unhappy that his enemies had repented, and even more unhappy that God had forgiven them. “I knew you’d do that since you’re so patient and loving!” Jonah cried out.  “That’s why I was running to Spain.  I wish a shark had eaten me rather than be responsible for the salvation of those awful people!”  Jonah stomped away, forgetting that God could follow him as easily as he could on the ship. You or I never really stomp away from God; like a cable news network, God stays on the story and never lets it go. So Jonah sulked under the shade of a plant that God provided, which made him feel back in control, until God let a worm eat at it and the plant died, which made Jonah feel worse.  Finally, in a classic change of subject to close the book, Jonah is arguing with God- not about Ninevites- but about the now withered plant.

 

Although few of us see ourselves as Ninevites, in our most pathetic moments of running from discipleship or the teachings of Jesus if we sound like Jonah, we are most to be pitied. How pathetic.  May you not fall into the traps that this prophet fell in to: traps of personal agenda, of prejudice, and of pride. Instead, the Lord asks for your enlistment, your discipleship, your faithfulness- call it what you may. And when you live more like Jesus and less like Jonah, suddenly for you, there will be a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God and saying, “Glory to God!” For the Bible says that Heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents. Heaven rejoiced over the Ninevites; may Heaven rejoice over your choices and my choices this week as well.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  August 26, 2007  

08-19-07 RUTH

UNDERSTANDING GREAT BIBLE STORIES:

RUTH: (Ruth 2: 14-23)

 

It has been said that desperate times call for desperate measures. Just in the last week, we have prayed for and sent our hearts out to families and friends whose loved ones were trapped in a Utah mine cave-in; we have learned of the deadliest attack in the Iraq war history; we have been shaken by the news of an earthquake in Peru (Where Kendra’s daughter, Anne, lives, although we learned she is alright.)  We also are bracing with the Caribbean islands and the gulf for category 4 hurricane Dean to wreak havoc with their lives.  In our own country besides the mine accident, we have learned of deaths due to record temperatures and poor water quality; even deaths by toys with lead paint have hit our radar screen. Sometimes things seem to come unglued.

 

For generations people have turned to the Bible for words of comfort, guidance, and hope. Some turn to the Psalms, some to the Gospels, some to Paul’s letters. But Ruth; the book of Ruth?  Let’s listen to the storyteller whose story is set in the midst of tragedy.  And by the way, the Woman’s Bible Study that the Circles will use all year is written by Carol M. Bechtel and deals with Ruth and Jonah. I make some references from that study book today and will preach on Jonah next week.

 

Once upon a time a faithful man from the land of Judah and the little town of Bethlehem, (which, ironically means “House of Bread”) did what he thought was necessary to keep his family from starving: Elimelech, by name, took his wife, Naomi (which meant, “pleasant”) to Moab, (the Hebrew people were fond of giving their children meaningful names that they hoped would help them fulfill their God-given destiny. If so, then why did they name their two sons, whom they took with them, Mahlon (which means sickly) and Chilion (which means frail?) Seems like this trip had two strikes against it!  But they must have already been sick and tired from famines and lack of good water because soon after their arrival, Elimelech died. Since the famine was still going on back home, they humbly tried to stay in Moab, almost like an immigrant or illegal alien might come to our country for survival. Naomi, being an Israelite woman, was persona-non-grata in Moab, but along with her sons she and they could offer cheap labor. As they stayed, they found the Moabites not nearly as wretched as the old stories that had been told about them. (And isn’t that true once you meet the ones told in stories? In Arkansas, my secretary at my first church, which turns 125 years old this very day, used to say when she was young that she was told many horrid stories about Yankees: she pictured them with horns and fangs and claws.  When she was about to meet her first Yankee she was terrified, but soon discovered Yankees were “sorta like southerners, only not as good!”) Well, I suspect the Moabites thought Naomi, Mahlon, and Chilion were sorta like Moabites, only not as good! But good, kind young men of marrying age often eye young women who are also interested, and sometimes love is so blind that one falls in love with another regardless of nationality, race, creed, or color.  Such was the case with those boys.  One day they ended up getting married, going  against Jewish tradition never to marry non–Jews, but by that time, the people of Moab had been kind to them and some of their ways had altered them. So down the aisle went Mahlon and Orpah (which Oprah’s mother misspelled when naming her) and Chilion and Ruth. All was well for years, so much so that the men taught their wives about their faith, but they didn’t go back. They grew accustomed to that new land. After 10 years there, the sons of Naomi both died, so the widow by custom had no means of support and her two daughters-in-law had not either.  In the back of Naomi’s mind, she remembered the old levirate marriage law and other customs that said family takes care of family. Perhaps in New Orleans, the Caribbean, in Utah, and other places that has happened. Perhaps if you have experienced the death of a loved one even you were taken in by, or moved closer to, family. So Naomi decides she must go back to her native country and find a relative who will take her in. She expects her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab with their kin. But a bond has been created between them in their hardship. They have been through so much that they can hardly be parted.  Naomi is far beyond marrying age but Ruth and Orpah are not; she sees hope for them if they stay. But they say no; they will take their chances going with her. She has heard rumors that people are surviving in Bethlehem again, but they are only rumors. She cares for these daughters-in-law, which goes against the stereotype. She implores them both to stay in their land for their own survival; they cried in each other’s arms and Orpah finally relented to Naomi’s request. But Ruth could not be persuaded and she goes into the two line speech that is recorded at the beginning of your bulletin and has made it into countless weddings even though it is a daughter-in-law pledging devotion to a mother-in-law and to her God.  Ruth had a chance because she would be considered a convert to Judaism as she came to Judah. But Naomi was already so angry with God and with life that she was going through some of the stages of grief that Dr. Lex Baer of our Presbyterian Counseling Center cited in this month’s Spire, the church newsletter: “Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally and hopefully, acceptance.” People who have lost their home, their spouse, their children, or their homeland go through those stages in different ways. Naomi was so overwhelmed and looked so bad, with her face lined and expression void, that those who once knew her said to her face “Is this Naomi?” to which she replied stoically ( I would imagine) “No longer call me Naomi (pleasant), call me Mara (bitter.)” Life had been hard on her.

 

So there they were in Bethlehem and they found one of Noami’s relatives by marriage. His name was Boaz and was a man of means.  Ruth selflessly began working and gleaning in a field, allowed also by Levitical law in Leviticus 19 and 23.  But Boaz noticed her; she was different, she was working, perhaps she even had a certain beauty! She falls at his feet acknowledging that she is a foreigner. She then says she hopes the Lord, the God of Israel, rewards him for his deeds. What an interesting woman! She is from another country yet she speaks his language (thanks, we are sure, to her late husband and to Naomi). She also believes in his God, shows proper respect, and is willing to work hard.  Why, she would be a welcome immigrant in any country with her good attitude and good work! Sometimes people have grown fond of those from other countries or faiths who have exhibited undying gratitude for blessings and undying devotion to a country whose God is the Lord.  Boaz began to protect and care for Ruth. 

 

Boaz, being an honorable man, begins the social security process for her; he protects Naomi as a kinswoman; but Ruth is of a marrying age and could be made a part of his nation if she were to marry and have children. By the Levirate marriage law, she was to be offered to the man closest by blood to her late Jewish husband, and she was allowed and encouraged to marry him if he wanted it, even if he were already married. (Leviticus 25: 25) So a sort of legal polygamy turns the theological heads of many of us today.  But that man declined the offer, which was perhaps a part of God’s divine plan, and the man who had shown wisdom, maturity, means, lovingkindness, and mercy was next in line: Boaz. Would Boaz like to marry Ruth? Yes. Would Ruth like to marry Boaz even though he was older? Yes. The Bible says in the original Hebrew that Boaz was ish gibbor chayel.  Used when describing a warrior, it meant he was both physically and financially endowed! Yup! There would be a wedding!!

 

And so our story winds down including something that many family albums include: a place for the family tree to be listed. This devoted, converted Moabite woman, and this true-blood Jew who was strong, kind, God-fearing, and blessed, had children. Naomi was even blessed to be asked to be the child’s nurse, so the child was nourished by this Jewish woman who had become smitten bonded to her daughter-in-law Ruth. Five lines from the end of the book it is put this way: “The boy was named Obed; he became the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.” And Matthew knows that story and puts more leaves on the family tree, tracing all of those generations down to who? To the Lord Jesus who was born, of course, in Bethlehem. God’s never-failing goodness can now be traced from the Old Testament to new. Sadly, it is highlighted at times by distorted stories about other nations, creeds, colors, or faiths that aren’t always true; it is also highlighted by times when families took in other people during times of grief and crisis; and it is highlighted by people praising the Lord who shows steadfast love amidst crisis. That God, that story, and those lessons are recorded in history for people like you, and like me, to never forget.  God cares for you; there are good people of many stripes, and you might be among those who, amidst crisis, will be called to practice open-hearted hospitality.  May we each look at others, as God sees us:  through eyes of love and grace.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           August 19, 2007

08-12-07 THE PRODIGAL SON

GREAT STORIES OF THE BIBLE

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15)

 

Mark Twain; Anne Tyler; William Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ken Follett; these are but a few of the countless experts on story-telling and human nature. In each one’s works, we find human flaws: both arrogance and self-pity; we find examples of human learning from humility or from desertion of family or friends; we have examples of community and how others regard their children, their parents, or their friends after little secrets have been exposed.  But one of the master story tellers of all times could lift a mirror up to the lives of his listeners: the Lord Jesus himself.  The parables of Jesus are masterpieces of storytelling and the human condition. And today we learn at the feet of the master with one of the master stories of the Bible. Before we begin, the situation in your own life aligns you with one of the characters in this great drama.  Are you the parent, scorned or hurt by your children? Are you the child who once got tired of house rules and decided to run off to “join a circus,” a band, a boyfriend or girlfriend, to leave school, or to move into a world of drugs, drink, or desperation? Or conversely, are you the child who did the right thing, dutifully, perhaps anxiously, never wanting to disappoint a parent or boss, and secretly resenting those who rashly misplayed the hand that life had dealt them?  Finally, there is a fourth group to which you may belong: it is the townspeople, those who saw what went on and approved or disapproved of it; those who may have been invited to the “fatted calf celebration” and came, or those who, to show disapproval of the son’s behavior, stayed away.  This is one of Jesus’ greatest stories about, well, what IS it about? Grace? Forgiveness? Doing the right thing? Learning from mistakes?  Let’s listen to the storyteller.

 

Once upon a time a man had two sons.  The younger one, apparently tired of the house rules and chores, or not wanting to wait until his brother got the larger share from his father’s will as was the custom in those days, decided life was too short and he was too broke, and there was a whole big world to embrace.  “Father” he said, because he did not feel close enough to call him ‘Dad,’ I know you are still alive, but could you give me what I am bound to get once you die?” Do you ever feel like the children around you act like they are entitled to bling and things, not when they earn the money for it, but because other children have it: like a cell phone,  an I-pod,  an I-phone, a car, or you name it?  “When you earn it you can buy it if you still want it” my parents used to say to me. Why have parents forgotten how to say those words?  Why is the use of the internet for long hours on end an entitlement?  If you are incensed, you are thinking like the brother and the townsfolk in our story. To the younger child, the request seemed quite reasonable.  If you were the parent in this story; would you have said no to the inheritance request? Or as this parent did, holding his tongue, would you have drawn your property lines in the dirt and told your son which part was his? The father had given his son a rope, not to hang himself, but to tangle himself, and what a tangle he created! Few in town would buy his part of the property because they were so disgusted when they heard what he had done. With what money he did put together, he headed out of town fueled by excitement and a little sense of freedom, but no plan. Since he had never known the true cost of living, especially in a hostile environment, he was hit with expenses and with the cost of fun. The money poured from his pockets. You see, children living at home don’t get it when you say “turn off the light when you leave a room!” or don’t get the implications when they whine “Can’t we make it a little cooler in here, I’m burning up?” or think their parents are unreasonable when they hear the voice through the bathroom door, “Turn off that shower!”  Chris’s own auto insurance, Matt’s own utility bill, and Jenny’s own gasoline costs have been sobering experiences for them. These life lessons must be started early!  WHAT A DISSERVICE WE GIVE OUR CHILDREN IF WE DO NOT START TO GIVE THEM SOME RESPONSIBILITY BEFORE FULL RESPONSIBILITY VIRTUALLY DROWNS THEM. So the younger son was learning a lesson; the older son had yet to learn one. The younger son actually ate the most unspeakable and distasteful things to get by, like a human being eating dog food to exist. Finally, the young man reminisced about the good old days of “rules, three hots, and a cot.” He remembered that even his father’s farm workers ate better than he was now. He knew the community and his brother would not just let him slip back onto the property without disdain, so he decided on a plan.  (Most would say this boy was not yet sorry, he was just hungry, but some believe as he formulated his speech he gained remorse.) Again, all he was thinking of was himself; and let’s be frank; children, even teenagers, do not have the mental maturity to predict the outcome of many of their actions. That’s why they make careless choices behind the wheel, try to push the limits of society, and look for ways to say they are grown up when they aren’t. But back home, this boy had been written off; written off by the brother who always found him maddening; written off by the community, literally, who called him irresponsible and disrespectful toward his father. But wait: there was at least one who hadn’t written off that child, and there is still at least one who hasn’t written you or me off either! It’s the one with a mother’s heart and a father’s stature.  Everyone in town still greatly respected the father in the parable. So, why did he seem so downtrodden? Why did he stir his food around his plate so long before eating it? Why did he not fall straight to sleep late into evenings, but stayed sitting up, looking out at the moon by night?  And why, during the day, did he regularly cast furtive glances toward the rise where he last caught a glimpse of his son’s dusty trail? All was NOT right with one of his children missing. The father’s heart was troubled.

 

One day, early in the afternoon, the father sat down to cast his eyes longingly in that direction. This time he was rewarded and troubled at the same time: a dust cloud was forming at the summit’s rise and the unmistakable outline of his boy appeared, in disheveled clothing, but nevertheless, coming home! A homecoming was about to happen! Oh dear!  Without hearing the boy beg for forgiveness and without the father having yet publicly welcomed him, the townspeople would stone him or shun him!!! What could a dignified father, in robes sandals, and necklaces, do to save the situation? Only one thing could be done: for the sake of his child, he would feel foolish and run toward his boy, with fabric tearing and flip flops flying! If he greeted the boy as if he were expecting him, the community would not shun or stone him. They would believe there had been reconciliation! So his father did what he had to do and wanted to do: he RAN to him, EMBRACED him, and KISSED him! AND MOST SCHOLARS AGREE THAT IT WAS IN THAT ACT OF AMAZING GRACE, THE ACTIONS OF UNMERITED FAVOR, THAT SELFISHNESS GOT REPLACED IN THE YOUNG MAN’S HEART WITH REMORSE. IN THAT MOMENT, HIS SPEECH ABOUT SORROW BECAME GENUINE. From the school of hard knocks, the young man came back a little wiser, a little more grateful, and much more humble. There was a changed child in the story from that point on.  And there were a few changed townspeople who came to rejoice at the reunion and share in the gigantic, out-of-proportion feast the father had ordered. There were probably still some townspeople who resented the lad who had been so sassy, spoiled, and selfish.  To them, any new trust or respect had to be earned. Perhaps they were still suspicious and judgmental. But there was one other person in the story who needed to be rescued. He was fuming in the field. 

 

Again, this patient father, who never would have trudged through the fields where his servants and sons worked, left his guests and went outside, though the light was fading, to again meet his son, his other son, the one who could not make his heart rejoice; the one who deeply resented his father’s over-the-top welcome.  “Come in, my son, join us!” “I’ll not do it!!” he replied. “I’ve been good, I’ve been faithful, I’ve worked until I ached and you’ve never thanked me like this! What’s wrong with this picture? It’s wrong when wasteful and lazy people get rewarded!” I can imagine a genuine smile crossing the Father’s face.  “Son, is THAT what you think? NO! I have always noted your hard work and I am especially proud of you! You’ve already seen that the lion’s share of my estate is yours! But, you see, yesterday my hope was fading that your brother was still alive; I thought I’d lost a son, and I wondered where I had failed. Then when he appeared, why, it was like having the dead return to life! Don’t you see? By seeing your brother, I not only have my other son back, I have him back hungry and grateful instead of feeling entitled to what I gave him. He is, in some ways, a new creation!  Now come on; sit with us at the table.” What happened next? Jesus doesn’t tell us; great storytellers usually don’t. But in your mind, haven’t you finished the story? Did the son come in from the field? Did he stay outside? Did the son stay resentful of his brother? Was there one son found that afternoon, and a different son lost son that evening?

 

You’ve really messed up some haven’t you; really done something you wished you hadn’t? Who hasn’t? So what kind of God do you want to judge as you cross the river to the other side and stand at those pearly gates?  Do you want the judgment of a mob that I called the townspeople? Do you want the judgment of the son who believed he never did anything wrong? Or would you settle for the Father, whose exceedingly patient actions showed compassion and whose heart poured out grace? Our Lord is always calling sinners to come home.  Our human condition and our response have been examined in stories again and again. When the winds of mortal sin, choice or corruption blow down the house of cards we call our life, amazing grace can enter and rebuild remorseful lives on the solid rock of Christ. May judgment day will look entirely different than what you may have pictured: perhaps it will look more like a father running to embrace a lost and remorseful child in a homecoming, while, left behind, clouds of disappointment began to form over another child, sulking in the cornfield.

 

“Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling: Calling: ‘O sinner, come home!’”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  August 12, 2007