Monthly Archives: September 2007

09-30-07 GOD’S WORD IN A SHAKY HOUSING MARKET

GOD’S WORD IN A SHAKY HOUSING MARKET

Jeremiah 32: 1-3a; 6-15

 

My grandparents used to live outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a land that, decades ago, was home to dozens of steel mills. The industry of Western Pennsylvania carried our nation in the middle of the 20th century. But as recently as the 1960s and certainly the 70s and later, steel mills have all but completely shut down.  As a child visiting each summer in the 60s, I remember the concerns residents had about the mills starting to close and the unemployment that would result. Lower income later meant lower revenues for cities, and the infrastructure- roads, bridges, sidewalks, and parks- just began to look more and more run down. In the gray overcast skies of that state, people began to grow blue or anxious.  Some of those laid off drank more heavily; some faced foreclosure on their home or repossession of their car.  Young people couldn’t wait to get out of their dead-end small town and head somewhere warm or sunny, or at least different, where a job could be found.

 

On a video tape that I gave Pete Zahn’s class to view next week, the Presbyterian Churches of Western Pennsylvania, during the 1980s, looked at ways, not to leave, but ways to do faithful work amidst a changing climate.  They smartly canvassed their neighborhoods and asked people, (whether they were Presbyterian or not) what their greatest needs were. Then they got their most creative and willing people together, some blue collar, some white collar, to address the issues. Instead of just thinking how to keep church doors open, they decided to take Christ to their community.  One huge concern was children in school without health care. Well-connected people knew who to contact with Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Pennsylvania and worked with the company to create a low cost group policy that would allow children to at least have minimal coverage.  Many older people could no longer get out because of limited mobility and harsh winters, so one of the churches started a meals-on-wheels program for them. Other working mothers needed affordable after-school care so one of the churches began to offer that.  And as they, together, weathered their winters of discontent, Pittsburgh Urbanization teams began to get a vision and a plan for revitalizing downtown. Gleaming new buildings, shops, a ballpark, arts museums and halls began drawing businesses back to the city and the surrounding areas. There are still some dreary places in the land that I love in Western Pennsylvania. But instead of everyone moving away, now there are many, including young families, who have stayed, moved back, or even moved there for the first time to cities where vision helped to keep people from perishing.

 

As new home sales across the nation hit a seven year low this week, those of us who live here in Volusia County, which the News Journal dubbed “Low-tech Land,” have wages below the national average while rents and mortgages have climbed.  We have areas still hurt from hurricanes three years ago, and some areas have been nicely rebuilt. We have leadership in Daytona Beach and surrounding cities that seems more sensible and visionary than in years past. And yet plenty are still leaving Daytona while others move in.  What could a church do–ours for example–to take a lead in helping our community like the successful Pennsylvanian Presbyterians did? What could a church do in hopeful ways to make God’s earlier promise true even for us: “Houses and fields will again be bought in this land?”  Realtors take heart.  There will be more people moving here and we will seek to be their caring community after they arrive. Our church deliberately works to provide health ministries and vaccinations, to become a cultural lighthouse for music and a haven for families with quality educational programs. We have had Kids Klub and MOPS until the need for such abated, and something new will take their places. We have spiritual growth Disciple groups for all ages and monthly mission work. We have fellowship outings from cruises to pilgrimages, ballgames to golf, and picnics for all ages. We feed hungry people and give children a home who don’t have one. And we support a counseling center that helps make wounded people whole. Even as church receipts are down, as income is also down for many, taxes are up, and homestead exemptions have changed: there is hope on the horizon.  Many areas in our communities are gleaming again, even as there is more to be done.  But if we Presbyterians are called to live faithfully in our communities, to look carefully at Scripture, and listen prayerfully to God, what might it look like if we mobilize our spiritual armies and not become obsessed with institutional maintenance? Our work would need to be planned well; some could encourage those in government, construction, law, or social services by sharing ideas and a vision of directions that would be mutually beneficial. Together we could plan for a future, not like today, but better, letting God guide our feet and minds and hearts.

 

As we conclude our month long study of Jeremiah, (a book assembled in the midst of national calamity) we find that—although terrible judgment came on the people of Judah for their sloppy servanthood, faulty faithfulness, and endless desire to have all the toys that the Babylonians had, God said, “Enough. You want to be like the Babylonians, then you shall be Babylonians.” And with God’s blessing, if you can believe it, Babylonian King Nebuchadrezzar stormed and pillaged the city, including the heart of Jerusalem, the Temple.  It became Babylonian territory and many, mostly the best craftsmen and leaders, went back to Babylon to work as slaves of progress and infrastructure.  So the people of Judah, because of their careless and lackadaisical worship of God and study of Torah, experienced the consequences of their decision. That’s how God works: from your decisions will either come blessing or curse, depending on your heart and your goals. But now in the Jeremiah text, the price has been paid, the lesson has been learned, and the agony was over.  With the interesting lesson about buying houses, fields, and vineyards, God called his people to repopulate Judah again, to come home, and to bring their newly learned skills to bear to rebuild of the Temple and make Jerusalem the grand city it was intended to be. 

 

Proverbs says “Without vision, people will perish.” Others have said without hope, nothing makes us trust that, as it has been said “the sun will come out tomorrow.” All the possibilities of a new day will be light unto thy path of what seemed hopeless yesterday.  What has made your heart sink in the past, or has made you feel low today? What is your Pittsburgh, your Daytona, or your Jerusalem? Is it a job or lack of one? Is it the feeling that you have lost your ability to motivate others? Is it this fall term at school or perhaps a yearning to change majors? Is it making a decision that impacts your family or a decision regarding your health that you dread? Is it the dread of wondering how long you can live alone or whether now is a good time to look into assisted living?  Everything that happened in the Jeremiah passage flowed out of the re-emphasized message: “Thus says the Lord.” God’s word and will can be consulted in the decisions before you. God will accompany and encourage you in your unknown lands, if, as it has been said, “you will but trust in God to guide thee.” None of the strange business deals of today’s text were Jeremiah’s ideas, they were God’s. And it was another Jew, later named Paul, who took that Jewish idea and made it Christian with these words: “We know that in everything God works for God, with those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” Robert Schuller once put it, “God can turn your scars into stars!” And so he can. Even when some people mean things for harm, God can turn them into good; watch for it with hopeful and faithful eyes.  The timing may not be your own, but in God’s time, with faithful people catching the vision of a new day, there will be light where before there was darkness, and creation where before there was destruction.  God’s Word gave faithful people guidance in the past, in the present, and, if we pray for it: in the future.  May God in Christ be Lord of our lives through all our circling years. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                        September 30, 2007

09-23-07 YOUR SPIRITUAL PREPAREDNESS KIT

YOUR SPIRITUAL PREPAREDNESS KIT

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

 

Dr. Dan Hale and Dr. Richard Bennett are revising their book that came out ahead of it’s time in 1999: BUILDING HEALTHY COMMUNITIES THROUGH MEDICAL-RELIGIOUS PARTNERSHIP. In the revised addition, due out in 2009, the first chapter will be about this church and how I and dozens of others have been helped by our Body, Mind, and Soul health ministry.  Dr. Hale and I have sat down twice in the last two months to go over the programs that have literally changed people’s lives.  Because of Billy Walter and David Corcoran, we have had skin screenings that have helped catch melanoma and carcinoma cancers in early stages and treatment has brought healing. Because I discovered I had diabetes, we continue to feature people describing the symptoms and having people see if they or someone they know might have it and not know it. In fact, the wonderful diabetic educator, Janet Connors, who sat across from me in our fellowship hall and gently told me, with blood sugar numbers of 355, that I should see my doctor because she suspected I had diabetes, will be here next month to speak again on that topic. Because we learned that strokes are sometimes called “brain attacks” and quick treatment is vital to healthy recovery, people like Woody Starrett are fine now after getting prompt treatment and prayers after a stroke.  And with the offering of flu and influenza vaccines and information on topics ranging from colon cancer to home safety and avoiding scams, the Body, Mind, & Soul ministry of this church continues to bring good physical results. In addition, speakers such as Dr. Lex Baer from our Presbyterian Counseling Center, who spoke last week, help us with our emotional well-being, while DISCIPLE Ministries stretch our spiritual lives and Biblical knowledge. We have learned what power we have in preparedness. 

 

As hurricanes and tornadoes have still hit or threatened to hit Central Florida, some of you have your hurricane kit ready, some have one from an earlier year and, like bread that has gotten moldy from being kept too long, it needs to be refreshed. Others live by the seat of their pants and plan to hit Home Depot or Lowe’s a day or two before a storm comes near.  Those who are ready with batteries, food, tarps, or even generators are the ones who will make it through that dreadful day, and the ones who feel more peace at being prepared.  We have had some hard lessons to learn about preparedness over the years.

 

A long time ago, it is believed that a man in the bondage of slavery was remembering what he had heard a preacher say.  “Some days,” the preacher moaned, “Don’t we all feel like Jeremiah? Our land, our women, our children are ravaged and as the harvest winds down, there still is little income and even less hope? There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” Jeremiah and God’s dialogue in Jeremiah 8 and 9 were the backing text for those words. They said: “My grief is beyond healing and my heart is sick within me. Listen to the cry of the daughter of my people from the length and breadth of the land. … I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”  Musicologist Austin Lovelace has written that “in Jeremiah 8:22 the question is asked ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ and the expected answer is ‘No.’ But the spiritual [There is a balm in Gilead] turns the negative into an affirmation, and hopelessness into hope. The balm in Gilead may have been from a local tree, or brought from Eastern Caravans passing through, but the balm of the spiritual is Christ.” {HYMN NOTE FOR CHURCH BULLETINS, GIA, 1997, p. 103.] And black historian James Cone has written “Hope in the black spirituals, is not a denial of history. Black hope accepts history but believes that the historical is in motion, moving toward a divine fulfillment.” {THE SPIRITUALS AND THE BLUES, Orbis Books, 1991, p. 86.} Could it be that the preacher long ago read the prophet Jeremiah and answered his own question with a spiritual answer? Could it be that, instead of just reaching for a medicine cabinet, or first aid kit, or only consulting a doctor, that something else heals the sin-sick soul and that prayer completes the body, mind, and soul connection?  Countless testimonies and blind scientific studies by Dr. Larry Dossey and others have shown that medicine and prayed-for people do better than medically treated people for whom prayer was not offered. Even in our own church, on at least three different occasions, I’ve had people at the front door or on the phone say, “I can tell that my name is no longer on the prayer list!  I feel worse! Please put me back on the list!” And we do; and they actually feel better.

 

Austin Lovelace, in the quote just mentioned, made a leap that others may not be willing to take. He closed his quote from Jeremiah, an Old Testament book, by saying “The balm of the spiritual is Christ.”  Do you believe that? And if you do, just as you believe that one day you will die, and just as you believe one day another storm will come this way, are you ready for Jesus Christ?  I can’t tell you how many ways spiritually unprepared people are harmed by their lackluster planning for their souls.  They fall for theological drivel that appears in print or in conversation; they get blown by whatever church advertising campaign is the most clever or most popular.  They don’t understand the theology of their baptisms, the power of Holy Communion, or how important it is to move deeper into Biblical discussions than the Bible stories and interpretations they learned as a child. And they certainly aren’t ready when it comes to death.  So what are the things, if we were to pack your spiritual preparedness kit, that should be included?  Here are some things to put in, along with faith, hope, and love, that can heal a sin-sick soul.

 

First, John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Even as God created the Heavens and the Earth, Jesus the Word was also God, and with a word (ruach, wind, spirit) God created.  God was in the beginning; God will be in the end. To not acknowledge God in the middle can, in a manner of speaking, cause you to be written out of God’s will, that is called the Lamb’s Book of Life. How important it is to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, in this worldly life! Second, at Jesus’ baptism, recorded in Mark chapter 1 and two other places, a voice came from heaven saying “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”  Your baptism, either received as a child and confirmed as a youth, or received and confirmed as an adult, is the beginning of God’s sanctifying work in you. God’s Spirit is in you spending this lifetime trying to make you into mature Christians that can mentor younger ones and to get you ready for Heaven. For those who do not include God in their lives, they have a virtually insurmountable task of sanctification in their last moments of life. Too many hang their hope on Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” There is serious repentance and soul searching that is part of our life long journey. Counting on a deathbed confession of faith discounts not only times when your life might be snuffed out instantly, but also misses the blessings of a Christ-filled life. Third, being active in a church is vital for spiritual growth.  The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, said to even those who were listening to Peter, or to Apollos that “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. … For just as the body is one and has many members, all of the members of the body, though many, are one, so it is with Christ.” We need to be challenged by, lifted up by, and walking along side of others. Like a car in a road race that goes into a ditch and is left behind, people who try to figure out their own salvation without corrections or challenges are also left behind. They hold on to cherished beliefs that are simply not true because, away from the strength of the body of Christ and the learning that comes from discussion, their hearts grow cold and their minds become lame. Always risk running the race with others. The mystic sweet communion that people have sung about for ages is more than the spiritual nurture of bread and cup; it is also the risk of and strength gained from being together. Like after a dreadful storm when you find that neighbors near and far can be a great help, God wants you to need others and to need the Lord Jesus.

Finally, know God’s Word.  There is no one more helpless than someone unarmed with the Sword of the Lord; God’s Word is sharper than any two-edged sword,” (Hebrews 4:12).  And I must tell you that the way one congregation teaches the Bible can be drastically different from another one. Stay with the place you trust.  Here we encourage people to get Bibles with good notes, suggest good commentaries and make available sound study guides to help people grow closer to their Savior. Of course others do that just as passionately.  Like different ways of treating pain, either with medicine, or surgery, or acupuncture or herbs or prayer, so preachers also take vastly different approaches. Some Christian churches, for example, do not treat Jeremiah as Scripture the way we do. Choose wisely; and then don’t just put your foot in the River Jordan to see if the water is just right! Like Stephen Curtis Chapman’s song suggests, dive in!  Take the plunge; risk being with one another!  Together we will work to care for our bodies, our minds, and sin-sick souls. All can be made whole. 

 

Let us offer our prayers for change and wholeness in our lives today as we pray “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. We’ll sing it twice.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  September 23, 2007

09-16-07 AVOIDING HEAVENLY WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

AVOIDING HEAVENLY WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

Jeremiah 4: 11-12; 22-28

 

The Rev. Clyde Fant, respected former Dean of the Chapel at Stetson University, endeavored to once describe the delivery and content of, perhaps, the most famous sermon ever preached. Fant describes the 18th century preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who was a strong Calvinist with Puritan persuasion. From a pulpit in Enfield, Massachusetts, a frail, soft-spoken, weak-eyed, sickly man scared the wits out of his congregation one day with his address to them ominously called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This was the text of his sermon: Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.”  That was it. The congregation he was addressing was, from the youngest child to the oldest man or woman, “apathetic and unconcerned about spiritual matters. At one place in the sermon Edwards referred to Suffield, a town in the neighborhood where he had earlier preached, and asked the people of Enfield if they were not equally concerned about entering the kingdom as were the people of Suffield, ‘where they are flocking day and night to Christ?’ … At one point the preacher was obliged to speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard! At another point in the sermon a minister sitting behind him became so overcome with distress at the severity of Edward’s presentation of God’s judgment that he tugged upon his coat and cried, ‘Mr. Edwards! Mr. Edwards! Is not God merciful?” [20 CENTURIES OF GREAT PREACHING, Vol. III, Word Publishing, pp. 51-52] As far was we know, Edwards neither stopped preaching nor turned to answer him, creating even more dread in the congregation as this little man was reminding men, women, and children personally by pointing them out, that they were sinners in the hands of an angry God. No sermon title has been as etched in the annals of history as that one. His sermon’s first sentence could be our first sentence: “In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked, unbelieving Israelites,” except our text is Jeremiah and the vengeance is aimed at the inhabitants of Judah who just took God and the commandments too lightly, as if they just had advisory authority.  Every Presbyterian who knows the Book of Order realizes that there are those who have the power to cast a vote at a meeting, called the power of vote, and others who just have the power to discuss and advise, called the power of voice.  Surely God’s Word is not to be taken into the lives of Jews in Jeremiah’s day, or into the lives of Christians in our day, as just being treated as moral advice, with the same authority as Dear Abby, Dr. Phil, or a horoscope. Surely NO!! But that’s the level of complacency that had swept over Jerusalem and the surrounding area like a plague. And that’s the kind of complacency that sweeps not only across this nation, but across this community; not only across this community but, in corners of even this congregation!  And so Jeremiah, perhaps as a frail young man with a Jonathan Edwards thin voice, that seemed as diabolical as if coming from a maniacal Hannibal Lecter, had had enough of trying to plead with his people. That day long ago, his blood ran cold; his eyes grew dark and menacing, and with the measured voice of one someone might mistake as a madman, said these words according to former Union Seminary Professor Dr. John Bright, in his translation from the Hebrew. Verse 23: “I saw the earth—lo, chaos primeval!  The heavens too—its light was gone!! I saw the mountains—and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills rocked too and fro. I looked—and behold, no human was left, and the birds of the skies had all flown. I looked—and behold, the tilled land was a desert before Yahweh, before his fierce anger.  And Yahweh said: ‘A waste shall the whole land be; for this, let the earth lament. The Heavens above don mourning clothes, for I’ve spoken … and not relented; I’ve purposed, and will not turn back.”  In modern terms we might call such a barrage, “God’s weapons of mass destruction.” They are terrifying and awesome, not like Alfred Hitchcock horror, but like Orson Wells’ frightful broadcast of “War of the Worlds” on Halloween eve of 1938. Or in non-fiction terms, one recalls Elie Wiesel’s Short account he called NIGHT about the annihilations he witnessed in Auschwitz; or even what was in the mind of the spiritual writer of our introit today, who moaned those words in fear of the power of that dreaded night for unbelievers: “My Lord, what a morning; my LORD what a morning; MY LORD what a morning: when the stars begin to fall.” And one of you, too frightening to ask it, considers in his mind: “I thought God was gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  And the answer is that God is not, not to those with flippant, arrogant, or indifferent attitudes: could YOU be among those for who grace is not offered by God? Are you, brother or sister, one who has muttered, “I can do without you God, leave me alone!” God has no use for people who treat the Almighty like a pesky fly or like a vending machine where money is put in and products drop down from Heaven as if mechanically determined to do so.  God will not be made to orbit your life, or yours or yours or mine!!!  The sun will not orbit planets; the source of all light will not be at the behest of planets that would be dark and lifeless without them.  Jews in Jerusalem were treating God like that as Jeremiah preached, and Christians in Massachusetts were doing it as Edwards preached.  No one should fall in to the trap of thinking that God will grade arrogance on a curve, or give self-sufficiency his pleasure, or fail to see that we deserve God’s condemnation. The Bible reminds us that destruction is what we deserve; getting something besides destruction takes a different approach.  How do you rebuild a broken relationship? Does it work to go to the family member, friend, or boss and say all the ways they are wrong and you are right? Does it build bridges to explain that you walked away because you were tired of all the rules, or that you just can’t stand being around the other person?  Those tactics bring on Heavenly Weapons of Mass Destruction if you try them on God by offering excuses, defending of your position, or with backtalk. Conversely if, hat in hand so to speak, and head bowed, and a lowered voice, and a remorseful heart, you say you can’t make it alone, and you are ready to try it God’s way, then in the glare of the porch light that has been turned on for your homecoming, with the aroma of  roast beef wafting in from the grill, with trails of tears making cheeks shine, and arms that open wide, there is forgiveness offered in countless ways, by a Heavenly Father who sent his son so that we could clearly know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

 

There are two sides to every story; there are the “heads or tails” sides of a coin, and there are two sides of the love of God: judgment and grace.  Even when I was being spanked as a child, I was been corrected, not destroyed; even when I was rewarded as a child, it was to encourage and not to spoil. Our Lord still wants to hear us say something like Jesus said: “Father, I need you. ‘As the song once put it: melt me, mold, me, fill me use me.’  Guide my unruly life. I am moving from the driver’s seat of my life and asking Jesus to take the wheel. I’m tired of driving in the glare and rainstorms of life through which I cannot see well. I am glad to have Jesus running things now. Thank you for Him. Amen.” The God who longs to have a relationship with you never forces his Son into your heart. He stands at the door and knocks; some here today will invite him in, and others already have, but others need to stop back-seat-driving for Jesus! Either let him drive, or you drive! You can’t say you’re a Christian and then call all your own shots. Still others think that prayers are for the weak, that church gets in the way of life, and that God is just needed when it is time to be sprinkled with water, sprinkled with rice, and sprinkled with dirt. If you think that, my friend, then you will need far more protection than man made devices can give you, for you yourself will face Heavenly weapons of mass destruction. 

The choice, today, is yours.

 

Jeffrey Sumner                                                      September 16, 2007

09-09-07 THE MISTAKE OF THINKING YOU DON’T NEED GOD

THE MISTAKE OF THINKING YOU DON’T NEED GOD

Jeremiah 11: 1-12

 

Do you remember what was happening in the first half of 2001? You’ll recall one president leaving office with a tarnished and slick image, and another taking office in a controversial election with Florida being accused of “hanging chads!” You’ll remember the good news that we began the year with national surplus of funds rather than a debt, but an expensive defense system and cutting off talks with North Korea made for a tense stage that summer. Here in Daytona Beach, news of the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 500 made world wide headlines. Members of our church went to the Holy Land just before tensions escalated, precluding anyone else from feeling safe visiting Israel for several years. Tech stocks had been a gravy train for investors, but by then the bottom had dropped out.  The nation was, perhaps, no more and no less a nation under God than it had been over the past several decades.  But then as three elders joined me at a Presbytery meeting on 9/11/01, life was about to change. (Ironically, our next meeting this week is on 9/11!) But on that Tuesday in 2001, life changed. The morning news stories made it seem like Armageddon, or World War III, or an invasion from outer space. Cell phones started ringing all across the room where we had gathered in that isolated, retreat like setting in Lake County. For periods of time, the world grew smaller as help and messages of concern poured in from other countries, some of whom we had helped in the past. Who, we wondered, could have done such an audacious act to the huge towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.? The smoldering images will stay with us forever. But has that event brought you or our nation closer to God?  Do wars and natural disasters make a difference in moving us from lives focused on other things?  Listen to these prophetic words by Lutheran preacher Walter Maier, all the way back in 1942:  “What is the worst disaster that can overtake our beloved land? We ought to agree that the most devastating danger comes not from without, but from within. Just as a man can recover from ghastly surface wounds, broken or even amputated limbs, while below the surface, diseases like cancer or internal injuries can [make healing more challenging], so a nation with its cities, towns, and villages can be restored to health after wide epidemics of influenza or typhus. It can also rise victoriously from the ashes of fire, the debris of flood, earthquake, tornado, and the ruin of bombs and cannon. Yet history testifies that there is one inner loss which is final; one can remove national glory forever and permanently reduce any country, however rich and powerful. That deadliest danger is unbelief, ingratitude toward God Almighty, the blasphemous ridiculing of his Word, the rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the denial of his cleansing blood, the contempt for the Gospel, and with this comes a carnival of crime, the sweeping rule of sin, and  the glorification of evil. God’s truth, majestic in its plain unalterable force warns, ‘the nation and kingdom that will not serve [the Lord] shall perish, and every time an empire has collapsed: Egypt, Babylonia, Syria, Media, Persia, Greece, Rome, and above all Judah—the truth of that warning is fulfilled. The most vital necessity for America today is, therefore, to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ’s power to forgive sins and restore us to God.”  Ages ago, it was God’s Word through Jeremiah that told the Southern Kingdom of Judah to put away all that distracted them and return to their roots and to their God.  When they did not, God instructed Jeremiah to give a children’s sermon the point of which no one would miss: God, the great potter, could take the vessel he had made, which no longer was serving it’s intended purpose, and would make a new vessel instead that would be purposeful. Such was the message then; could it also be a message for you personally, or for our nation, or even for other nations?

 

Like the prodigal son who left his Father because he was tired of all the rules; like his brother who moved far away from his father emotionally because he didn’t believe in grace; like Jonah who tried to run from both the demands of and the message of salvation; like the radical religious practitioners who condemn others—wrongly taking the judgment seat of God with divine designs but human minds, the Lord watches and weighs his pleasure and displeasure. There are actually religious persons who think it pleased the Almighty to kill perceived infidels in towers in New York City, to kill doctors, nurses, or mothers in planned parenthood clinics as justification for ended pregnancies; who have set off bombs in Israeli or Palestinian villages, mistakenly calling human anger “Divine retribution.” Some live lives grief-stricken and devoid of grace; others stop believing in God and just go on calculated rampages against humanity.  There will come a time in every man and woman’s life, if their souls are hate-filled, or if they are tormented about the abyss of hell or the uncertainty of forgiveness, when they will either emotionally self-destruct, or they will fall to their knees in a moment of, (in some regards, being born again) giving in to and giving up to a Lord is waiting to put control in their out of control lives. In a Pauline-like Damascus road experience, they cry Heavenward with words like this: “All right, Lord, if there is anything you can do with this rotten stinking mess I have made of my life, then do it.  I am yours, and you are my Savior.  Take control of my out-of-control life. I am tired of trying to run from you, fight you, and deny you. I need you now.”  I’ve known good people with rational, or stubborn, or scientific minds who don’t believe there is an active, loving God who works among us in this world and to whom we will return one day. To them I say: “If you don’t believe in God, and in so doing you do not live for him or honor him with your choices, when you die, you’d better be right! Could the hope of truth and grace and love be enough to have you, my friend, to live differently the rest of your days and open some new portal to the possibility of life beyond this life? Is your choice, which doesn’t hold out the possibility of an afterlife of either darkness or light, (the most logical stance to take in a world when countless new discoveries make science and medical books be revised yearly, to continue to try life without God? Or conversely, if you do believe in God, but don’t worship, thank, or acknowledge God because the great trickster and tempter of the world has planted seeds of doubt, sarcasm, false assurance, or the fantasy of purely independent living, then running from, hiding from, or living life adjacent to God but without God is the most foolish of positions to try to defend in the end.  Like the spy cameras from space such as Google Earth, God is watching and is following your every move, and, like the Hound of Heaven that He is, the Lord waits until you tire of the game of running, or the children’s game of thinking if you close your eyes to God’s presence tat God will not see you, and then God waits until you paint yourself into a corner. Only then you look heavenward, and with a sense of the futility of your actions, saying “All right Lord. I’m ready to stop running and try it your way; I’m ready to stop sitting out on Sunday mornings as others go to church, pretending that reading a paper or playing golf or going to theme parks or getting extra work done is best for me and that you really don’t mind. Now I’m ready to put you first, not only because it will be better for you, but also because it will be better for me.”

 

Christian writers like Bruce Wilkinson and Max Lucado have pointed out that “God has bundles of blessings he’s just waiting to pour out on those who, with pure motives, ask for them. Also, if God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it! Like a caring mother or a concerned Father, God cries out to all who are lost or wandering: ‘Come home, child!’ And like the child who does return to the arms of God finds out, home is not without its responsibilities, but they seem much lighter and can be done more joyously when you’ve experienced the agony and loneliness of the Godless life.

 

Years ago, with the image of a skilled potter remaking what was no longer working, God showed Jeremiah what he could do with his people whose lives had been broken by their choices lived outside of the commandments and with an inability to see the consequences of their actions.  Perhaps there are parts of your emotional or personal or professional life that—like pottery—have shattered, and human ingenuity has not been able to glue them back together well.  God-the great potter-can take your mess, and with great warmth and care, remold your life into one that not only pleases you, but ultimately pleases the potter. Even if your life is not in a total shambles, but there are parts of it that are, will you turn over those parts, along with the rest of your life, to a Lord Jesus who can show you how to be human and to still honor God?  Today you can change your life; God waits for moments like these, not with a judge’s gavel, but with the open arms of a perfect parent. Come back to God through Jesus Christ, won’t you? You can do it now, by acknowledging what God’s heart longs to hear:  “I Need Thee Every Hour, Most Precious Lord.” Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  September 9, 2007

09-02-07 JEREMIAH

DEALING WITH UNFAITHFULNESS

Jeremiah 2: 4-13

 

There are dates in the minds of individuals and in the minds of communities that are etched in stone, perhaps never to be forgotten. Some are historic, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the date that will live in infamy. Others remember November 23, 1963 when America lost a president to an assassin’s bullet. Last Friday was (can you believe it) the 10th anniversary of the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales. Dates become part of our human lexicon, our mental calendar. You might remember the death of someone close to you or your anniversary or the birthday of others. But some also remember times of personal disaster, such as a time when someone you love broke promises or vows made to you, or an employer went back on its promise to give you pension and medical coverage after your retirement. For some here, life changed 3 years ago when three hurricanes in a row destroyed parts of their lives, not to the degree, but in the same manner that hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf states 2 years ago.  “You are in the nation’s thoughts and prayers; we will assist you.” said voices from Washington. And clearly millions of dollars did come, but some never did receive the help they needed. Bungled local and state government distribution plans along with inadequate insurance coverage made some people say that their neighbors, the government, and perhaps even their God had forgotten them.  Pictures from devastated areas today show FEMA trailers inches apart from one another and the government saying they were not meant to be permanent homes. And then what happens? Blame, finger-pointing, hurt, and anger: it happens with catastrophic losses dealing with insurance companies, it happens in divorces, it happens when your pension or medical coverage is yanked, it happens anytime  one person believes another has not acted in good faith.  These are human, normal reactions.

 

That takes us to another important date: January 588 B.C.  Assyrians had been the ruthless power in the region for many years, but Babylon was gaining power and the Kingdom of Judah was being led by Zedekiah, a well intentioned but weak king who began at age 21. He was unable to control the ultra-nationalists already in place, and worked on foreign policy with his neighboring leaders to no avail.  The finger pointing was rampant: the people accused their King of forgetting them; King Zedekiah said that Jehoiachin, his chief advisor, was at fault for giving him faulty intelligence, (we’ve heard that charge before!). God finally said to Jeremiah that he had better warn the people that their unfaithful living would bring consequences.  Jeremiah pointed to all who gathered and cried out: “See what you are bringing on yourselves and me!”  Even though the idea of Karma is popular today in casual conversations, there in no doctrine of bad things happening mainly to bad people in Christianity. In Judaism, however, it was thought that unheeded warnings from prophets from God could certainly bring dire consequences, and it was illustrated time and again in the Old Testament.  But this time, it was God who was crying “unfaithful!” about his chosen people. What were some of the things God pointed to as unfaithful, and which of them, if any, speak to our situations today?  Certainly Jeremiah could have gone down the 10 Commandments, the Decalogue, and found plenty of reasons for guilt, even as they are a plumb line for right living in our country today. “Thou shalt not spend more time, give more attention to, or show more devotion to something else more than to me.”  That’s what the first commandment means.  What is your “obsession” besides God? About what are you a “fanatic?” In Jeremiah’s day prophets said problems usually involved sports figures, lust, and greed; is there anything new under the sun?  Here is how God pleads with his children to change: “Thus says the Lord” Jeremiah preached, “I remember how devoted you were as youth, and how you earnestly listened to and followed me.  I didn’t lead you wrong, so why have you decided to try a different path? I gave you a place to live, and food, and values, but you have defiled them by breaking your promises to me and to others.”  The people remembered that a law book had been found in the Temple and that they had read from it a short time before: “do not use my name for swearing;” “do not work on the Sabbath,” “do not take what you did not pay for;” do not be unfaithful to your spouse.”  These rules are so old and this prophesy so time-locked that who could possibly think we could learn anything from them?  Who indeed ….

 

And so the rest is history: Jerusalem—Jeremiah’s city—warned of the coming consequences and was as ravaged by Babylonians as our gulf cities were by Katrina. Almost everything was destroyed.  Sometimes our personal lives feel that ravaged, brought on by unfaithfulness, don’t they?  We know that responding like angry or undisciplined individuals just moves us from civilization to anarchy, so what does our faithful God do with our unfaithfulness?  The first thing God says, and Jesus repeated, is no eye-for-an-eye:  unfaithfulness is not rebuffed by unfaithfulness in return. The Lord our God, like the father we learned about in the prodigal son story, and like God in the Jonah story, never stops being faithful. Some have accused God of being too patient as a judge, until they themselves are on trial! When you have been wronged, energy to “get even” can better be spent to make others admire you and for your God to say, in so many words: “well done; all that I have is yours. I will not abandon you.” Those who have done acts of unfaithfulness have, for a time, abandoned God.  By contrast, you haven’t when you channel your anger into purposeful, new living.  If you are slighted by a broken corporate promise, by infidelity, or by the lies of a friend, bring all the godly qualities of truthfulness, trust, and loyalty to bear on a solution, but to say “I’ll get even with him or her if it’s the last thing I do” belongs on film or TV; there is no place for that if we expect to lift our personal lives out of the ditch where they’ve been pushed. There are better ways. Today, consider the times you have been hurt by unfaithfulness; you have been hurt and hurt badly. Our God, and even our Savior, had to deal with unfaithfulness and betrayal as well; you are not alone.  Pray for, go into counseling for, and work for control over your actions and emotions.  Then, like a mighty army for change, or like church groups that have rebuilt home after home in Louisiana and Mississippi, we can show government leaders, neighbors, and people stuck in a state of feeling victimized what a band of believers can do in the name of God. There is a world that has been stung by unfaithfulness, and it probably resides in your heart as well. What a difference if you choose to respond like your Savior, instead of like a savage. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           September 2, 2007