Monthly Archives: December 2007

12-30-07 A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY

A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY

Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23

 

In the political year in which we find ourselves, there is much talk about securing our borders.  Of course, we know that has to do with keeping out those who come to our country without legal papers.  We also know there is a cost to our government from those who are in this country yet not citizens and who, therefore, are not paying income taxes. Yes, they pay taxes on goods and on gasoline like the rest of us.  But why do people come to America? To get away from something; get away from someone? Look for a safe place to raise a family?  Ironic, isn’t it, that if Egypt had had secure borders in 6 A.D. the Holy Family would have had a difficult time protecting baby Jesus from Herod. Gladly, we recall that stories have made it into our history books, like the Diary of Anne Frank, that remind us people how protected Jewish refugees at great personal cost. Gladly we remember Oscar Schindler’s, made famous in SCHINDLER’S LIST, protected Jews from annihilation.  Today we look at this Christmas story of a family leaving Bethlehem and departing Herod’s jurisdiction through new eyes.

 

The text in verse 13 starts out “After they had left,” and of course, this means the Magi, the Wiseman. We will talk more about them next week. We recall from last week that God wisely chose a human father for his son who would listen to his dreams. That quality would come in handy again today as God’s messenger didn’t have to do the convincing that originally had to take place. The angel gave an imperative command, perhaps like a hissed whisper shared out of earshot of Nazi soldiers in World War II: “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” What would it be like, parents, to believe your child, in this case your baby, was in danger of being kidnapped, or contracting a disease, or being killed? Would every instinct in your body be called to attention to protect your child?  In this case, the killing machine was not one of today’s terrorists or a man named Hitler, but he was just as bad: a maniacal, powerful, Middle Eastern Dictator self named “Herod The Great,” who had proven his threats in the past by killing some of his sons, his wives, and his armies to keep them from seizing control from his empire. He ruled all of Israel in his day, and no part of Israel would have been outside of his domain. But Egypt was; it had been under Roman control since 30 B.C. Scholars like Raymond Brown and William Barclay tell us that Egypt was already a place that had welcomed so many refugee Jews to the outskirts of its cities that there were already a number of Jewish communities there.  Mary and Joseph would not have been the first to seek their political asylum in the land of the pyramids. There is no record of a border patrol or checkpoint: they just migrated and situated there for probably two years.  Jews in Egypt, like Jews who left Germany for Austria, or for the United States, or other countries, came with their God, and their hard work ethic, and were allowed to live among the people of the country. We do not know if they were liked or despised; but we know that they got to be there, probably as part of a close-knit community, for quite a length of time. It would have been longer than seasonal visitors coming to Florida, but shorter than an across state line transfer.  What would make a Jew leave his homeland to find safe rest in a foreign land? In this case, an angel, a warning, and a belief that the threats would come to pass if they stayed.

 

I cut out the verses from 16-18 so children would not hear the harsh words of killing that Herod carried out.  Often dramatized as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it is depicted as the killing of hundreds of children two years old and under. In all likelihood, with Bethlehem and the surrounding areas just having a thousand inhabitants, with a yearly birth rate of about 10-20, and perhaps half of them boys,  that the number of boys under 2 who might have been killed was around 20. Still, 20 is too many, even one is too many, for the grieving mothers and fathers.  But for Mary and Joseph, there was no time to extend their stay in Bethlehem visiting with family or friends, for their newborn was in danger. Going back to Nazareth was no answer since Herod ruled that territory as well, and Herod’s army would have spotted a family with a newborn traveling back. So under cover of darkness, Joseph, again, the right man chosen to protect and raise the Son of God, got his family ready and headed out, not to a promised land, but a land known to Jews from the Exodus story, a place where Moses had been born, a place of civilization and pluralism and safety. This was not the first time a Jew had traveled to Egypt for safety. Raymond Brown reminds us that “It was the classic land of refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon sought to put Jeroboam to death in 1 Kings 11:40, he ‘arose and fled to Egypt.’ When King Jehoiakim sought to kill the prophet Uriah, son of Shemaiah in Jeremiah 26:21, he fled and escaped to Egypt; and about 172 B.C. the high priest Onias IV fled to Egypt to escape from King Antiochus Epiphanes, [the horrible ruler in the Daniel story.] [BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, Doubleday, 1979, p. 203] Whether Mary and Joseph and Jesus just went over the border or deep into Egypt is a matter of speculation and legend as we have heard today; but that Christmas journey saved the life of their child, the one born to save the world.

 

Historians tell us that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. in all likelihood. (Yes, B.C. because the monk who created our modern day calendars got the date wrong for Jesus’ birth, which was most likely in 6 B.C.) Herod the Great had divided up Israel and bequeathed a portion to each of his sons: to Herod Archelaus, who was almost as ruthless as his father, he gave Judea which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem; to his son Herod Antipas, who was a more sensible ruler, he gave Galilee, which included Nazareth and Capernaum; to his son Herod Philip, he gave the northeastern section of Israel. Joseph, then, upon getting word of which son was ruling which territory, decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth and go around the territory of Judea in doing so. The family finally started, at that point, to put down some roots.  Matthew says this was done to fulfill a prophesy saying “He will be called a Nazarene.” Interesting because there is no recorded prophet who said that, about the Messiah or anyone else! But what we do learn is that Nazareth, according to William Barclay, was the perfect setting for Joseph to raise his new step son.  Both Mary and Joseph had family there for support; construction of Roman amphitheatres in the area would have given stone masons and carpenters like Joseph, and later Jesus, the connection to other workers and the Roman leaders. And with a short climb up a back hill in Nazareth, the boy Jesus could see the mount where the great Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal years before; and the valley of Megiddo, where two great pathways crossed: the way of the sea and the north-south way, where more people and tribes passed through and where more battles had been fought then any place known in the recorded world.  So the boy Jesus had the perfect perch from which to see the world and to grow into its Savior.  But it never would have happened had there not been a country, like Egypt, that welcomed refuges into their land.  Today we are thankful for God’s angels, for Joseph’s open heart, and for the country that gave safe haven to the Holy Family.

 

Let us pray:  O God of Wonder and God of Might: we have had a glimpse of your divine plan to bring Jesus into the world and protect him from harm until his time had come.  Your steadfast love for us makes us feel humble and grateful. In this season, for those who are ready to live differently, here on the cusp of a new year, fill them and let them become changed in ways that people notice, and ask, so they can witness to your wondrous love; in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                              December 30, 2007

12-23-07 THE VISIT

THE VISIT

Matthew 1: 18-25

 

Our world today would be a tough one for God to enter to plan for any other divine event, like God did so long ago with Jesus.  This week, and this week alone, we and the country watched as council proceedings in New Orleans were disrupted by those who tried to storm the courtroom and by police officers who tried to hold them back with shields, physical force, verbal orders, tazers, and chemical sprays. The crowds did not listen to the warnings of those in authority. In our media frenzied world, some cried that police officers crossed a line of justice with the use of force, while others supported their efforts to keep control. How many television chases make your blood boil when persons driving a car are told to stop and they don’t, driving through cities and highways with careless abandon? What part of stop don’t they understand? “Make them pay for every car, house, and person they hit with their own cash or their own prison term with no leniency!” I say under my breath to the television screen.  But I digress ….   The nation watched as a woman in one of our own electronics stories had to be held and tazed for acting in a totally defiant manner when an officer asked her to stop.  Then the media asked bystanders if they believe the police for overreacted! What part of “Just a moment ma’am” did she not understand? I hope we will still have honorable men and women going into law enforcement after all the scrutiny these officers are under.  May God raise up a new generation of children who respect those whose job it is to teach, govern, or protect them. And may those in positions of authority work to keep conduct high and to bring to justice those among their group who don’t.  Our sense of outrage was raised again this week as a young TV star announced that she would have a child, without marriage, one who just was old enough to shift from a learner’s permit to a driver’s license. “According to one source, she plays a perfect, well-liked and pure teenaged girl in the show Zoey 101 on the Nickelodeon channel. Even our world, with its “blowin’ in the wind” sense of morals, has had trouble with this one, and with good reason.  Children and teenagers have trouble separating a movie or TV character from the actor who plays the part. I’m grown up and I still have trouble with that!  So it can be seen as incongruous when we act differently “at work” than when we’re “at home.”  But still, there are still boys and girls who have a sense of what is right and wrong, who have been taught about God, and who are learning how to connect the dots in their life.  I witnessed some of that good focus as we were preparing children and youth for the 5:30 service tomorrow night; I almost always see it in those playing a part or those reading from the Bible, who treat their role with such careful attention that tears cloud my vision for a few moments. God looks for ones such as them to collaborate with life changing plans for tomorrow.

 

A long time ago, in a rural region called Galilee, not a power region like Jerusalem; and from a small and unimportant town in that rural region called Nazareth, God searched not for a young woman and young man who were stars, nor those who were popular. God searched for and, through an angel, visited two who had hearts that would not react adversely to the request that came from the authority of God, nor did they react to the messenger by suggesting better ways to carry out the plan.  God needed two people who, when visited by rather frightful creatures called angels, would listen, withhold judgment, trust the request, and then follow orders. I used the word “orders” deliberately.  Our Confirmation Class learned that a “multitude of the Heavenly Host” was a description of the army of God, literally, those who were asking/drafting people for a greater cause, including following orders from on high.  So the visit was made, first to Mary, according Luke, and then to Joseph, according to Matthew.  Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters revere Mary to a fault, perhaps, some would say, going overboard with reverence. But from such theologians we find this description of what happened in Luke chapter 1: “Mary is not the initiator. Her ‘Yes’ is a response, an Amen to the saving initiative of God…. Her response is active, not passive. God deals with her as a free agent, not as an object to be manipulated. As St. Augustine put it, ‘she conceived the word in her mind before giving the Word a body in her womb.”… All of us are invited to … copy her faith, her patience, her obedience, her meditative spirit, her fortitude, her surrender, and her spotless purity.” [Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J, THE LIVING PULPIT Vol. 10, No. 4, p. 30-31]  Most sermons on this Sunday deal with Mary, and certainly not without good reason. What that young woman said and did in response to the request almost certainly made her ostracized by her village because a child was growing in her that didn’t belong to the man to whom she was engaged, but it also made her revered for generations to come.  The hymn known as the Magnificat in Luke chapter 1, shared between Mary at her young age expecting Jesus, and her cousin, Elizabeth, in her old age, expecting a child who would be called John (“the Baptist”), is the song of her young heart and will, as she magnifies God for choosing her.

 

But few sermons talk about the step father, Joseph, the one who an angel also visited to calm him down before news of his fiancée’s condition reached him. What the Heavenly Father could not teach his son, he knew the earthly father would teach, so God made the selection carefully. This man had to have some extraordinary qualities. For instance, if Galilean women were generally submissive in the first century, Galilean men were generally stubborn and sure of what they knew even when they had no business being as sure as they were. I know some men like that today.  So to find a man, already engaged to a young woman by prior arrangement of her father, and have him exhibit the same good heart and character as the young woman, makes me also wonder if God had picked these two long before their daddies had picked each other’s children! Oh, God can be very patient in plans that change eternity!  But even after so much planning, there was still a question mark in the mind of our Creator: God had always agreed not to breech our human will, with the hope that we would choose God’s way, but that we could also choose otherwise. The Heavenly Father must have held his breath until Mary had said “yes” to the request from the visitor, and until the news reached Joseph and he had reacted favorably. Being the honorable man that God knew he was, he decided to “break off the engagement, and part from her,” even though by law he could have had her stoned.  I know that some Bibles translate the Greek word there as “divorce” but there had not yet been a marriage. The word “divorce” is used by some to show the full and complete agreement that had been decided by the fathers for their marriage. Calling one off almost never happened, but could be justified under these circumstances. Joseph, you see, would have been perceived as an honorable man in this event, and Mary, well, much less than honorable. As Joseph laid down for his troubled night sleep, wondering how he and his father could have so misjudged Mary, God had an angel visit him in a dream. Who listens to dreams?  Psychologists tell us that some dream in black and white and some in color. My experience is that some of my dreams make sense but many don’t. God chose a man who listened to his dream: what a rare man indeed, although another Biblical Joseph also interpreted dreams, didn’t he? From today’s dream in Matthew chapter 1, we read that Joseph, not by God’s crushing will, but by his own human will, agreed to the arrangements that the angel outlined. And in next week’s sermon, when a dream again guided him, Joseph took Mary and baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s maniacal rampage.

One thing some have learned from Joseph is to be a better listener to our dreams. But more than that, to trust that God has a bigger plan in mind for our lives and our world comes through in the Christmas story. If Joseph had had a problem with authorities he may never had said “yes” to the angel’s words of assurance. If Mary had had a smart remark or a quick temper the Savior might not have been born, and certainly not in the same way.  As we look at others from store clerks to co-workers to family members, and children look at parents, and adults look at their parents and at teenagers, we find that attitude, spirit, patience, and faithfulness matter when dealing with others. They mattered as God planned the soul saving events that involved the tiny villages of Nazareth and Bethlehem, and they matter today. How could such qualities either invite or hinder God if holy plans for our world were being formulated even now? With all the clamor of merry muzak in stores and chasing lights on houses, even tonight, God may be looking for a quiet corner, in a rural area, with only the glow of starlight, where hope could be born again into the hearts of those ready to hear and receive a visit; a visit from an angel prepared to break through the crusty, arrogant, or stubborn hearts of those with authority … and the crushed spirits of those with none.  May every heart prepare him room; prepare the way of the Lord.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                              December 23, 2007

12-16-07 GRACE

GRACE

Luke 15

 

Once upon a time a teenaged girl in Florida was getting bored with school, was not in a relationship, (partly because she had an “I’m too good for this town and these friends” attitude) and so she isolated herself from others. Her own sister, who had little respect for her because she never pulled her weight around the house or offered to help her out, would often get asked by her mother to do more than her share of household chores. The girl would often be found watching shows that other girls watched like “American Idol,” “Project Runway,” “the Hills,” and “Dancing with the Stars.”  She saw people carrying out their dreams and getting shots at stardom who seemed to have less talent than she thought she had. It was getting close to her 17th birthday, but she would not have true liberation, as she saw it, from her miserable life for another year!  That was an eternity!  So she hatched a plan in her fervent, yet swirling teenage mind to go to Hollywood, to Zac Efron land, to where dreams come true and films like High School Musical 2 are made.  Her mother had been more than generous with her, getting her a decent second hand car and one credit card with a low credit limit. She had rashly maxed out the card almost every month, but with birthday money coming she could soon have a little extra spending money. So with her sweetest charm, and with her bad attitude left behind, she spent an entire evening doing things with her mom. Her father was so out of the picture in this broken household that her mother, doing all she could to both work and parent, did not catch on to her daughter’s ploy, but mistook it for perhaps a fleeting day of maturity when a daughter and mother might bond.  The mother relished the evening.  On her way home from work she stopped to get Chinese take out food for them to share, and they settled into sofas with plates on their laps and the television on for some Dr. Phil and some Tim Gunn’s Guide to Fashion.  What a girl’s night! They even shared some hot fudge sundaes just to splurge on the calories.  And then, the girl asked the question of her mother:  “For my birthday, Mom, I was wondering if there was any possible way, so that I can begin to manage my money better and not be overwhelmed by it, that you could pay off the $1000 I have on my credit card as my birthday gift? I would be soooo grateful and promise to do better! After all, I’m practically 17 and will have something of a right of passage, so starting my account at zero would be the best birthday present!” Her mother, so enjoying the night and not wanting to have the hateful side of her daughter come out and ruin everything, decided to give in to her daughter’s request.  They hugged and shared some tears.  The deal had been made for the sake of peace, the way many parents get manipulated by their children. By the next Monday morning, life for both of them would change forever.

 

The girl, over the weekend, called the one that she called her BFF on Facebook.  She told her she had money and a plan and wanted company.

She was going to Hollywood (on her own, of course!) The best friend, also thinking that Hollywood would have a place for a face like hers, said she’d sign on for the cross country trip. They did not have enough money between them for two one-way airline tickets, and even if they did, how would they get around once they got there? So they decided to take the decent but used car and head across I-10 on the Monday morning they were supposed to be at school.  At first it was exciting: they each had luggage in the trunk, cell phones in their purse, and one credit card each.  They were free! 

 

But, foolishly, they had not added up the miles to get to California. Fortunately when they stopped at rest areas they found some coupon books for motels so they could get off the road each night in modestly priced motels.  They began by eating out, but saw their money dropping alarmingly from gas and food.  They learned how convenience store prices also add up quickly, and that few grocery stores were near highways. But they believed they would get their break in Hollywood, and that’s what drove them on.  Even though the car didn’t break down, at one point the oil light wouldn’t go off as they were about to leave a gas station. A college aged guy asked if he could help, opened the hood, and found their oil was over two quarts low.  They bought the oil and the guy thought perhaps he might get more than just their thanks, but they held firm. Off they went, still best friends forever.

 

After five solid days of driving, the luster was wearing off of their original good idea of fame and fortune. Their clothes were now dirty, their money was low, and they had nothing else between them except the car and themselves. The California state line sign perked them up, but later the traffic around L.A. overwhelmed them: six lanes, eight lanes, and a hillside with the words “Hollywood” but the actual place was hard to find. It was December so the weather was nice, but the places to stay were outrageously expensive.  What would they do?  Every place they tried to stop was a tow away zone. In desperation, they turned off the highway late one night, parked in an “Always Open” restaurant parking lot, put their seats back, and fell into an exhausted sleep. By four A.M. a car door startled them and they watched a police car pull up on the other side of the parking lot. Deciding not to risk getting checked out, they started the car and drove away.  That day they spent looking for talent agencies where they were told that to leave an application would cost an application fee that was more than they could pay. They went to movie studios and found guards everywhere and no one would admit them onto a lot.  Now their credit limit was almost reached.  They found themselves crying more than laughing. When they stopped by the famous Hollywood and Vine, they were propositioned.  With money so tight and their stomachs growling from just eating raw Ramen noodles, the offer to make hundreds a day in the world of drugs and prostitution rang in their heads: was this what the Lindsey’s and Britney’s meant by having to pay their dues to be famous? Surely not. Their dream had become a nightmare, and this time without their moms and their mom’s money and love to bail them out. Finally, the worst day of their life started as the one along for the ride actually had a guy come up and ask her to ride with him, and she went! She got out of the car to the “What are you thinking???!!!” protests from the “Best Friend Forever” who, all of a sudden, was sounding frighteningly like her mom.  The one who thought she needed this trip now thought it had become a bad idea. But how could she get back to Florida by herself and with no money? The tears began to fall as she started driving again. She was reaching for her cell phone to call for her best friend when she momentarily took her eyes off the road. All the cars in front of her had stopped due to a bus in the right lane. She looked up too late, plowing into the back of a big Cadillac.  Her not really new car crumpled in front of her as her eyes and skin burned from the airbags inflating. Her horn started constantly blowing. She heard a person shout: “Someone call 911!” Unable to free her leg from her disabled car, all she could do was wait and cry.

 

At the hospital, they asked for her ID and her insurance card. When they found she was not 18, they insisted that they would give her first aid treatment, but that she needed other medical attention that would require a parent’s authorization.  She knew she was at the end of her rope.  It was time to call mom. 

 

Back in Florida, the caller ID on her home phone listed the name of a hospital that made the color drain from her red-eyed mother’s face: “Good Samaritan Hospital of Los Angeles.” She had filed a missing person’s report, as had the parents of her daughter’s best friend; they had tracked her credit card activity to California, but once the girls ran out of money, finding them in L.A. was like a needle in a haystack for the police. The accident, ID request, and the phone call were the missing links. “Hello?” her mother answered cautiously.  “Mom” her daughter said, starting to cry, “I’ve been in an accident.”  The daughter was just about to say how sorry she was for what she had done, and to say she wanted to come home, and that she was so sorry, when her mother interrupted her. “Hurt? Oh my goodness, honey, thank you, thank you for calling me! I will be right there. Would you like me to come?” “Oh Mom, yes, I’m so sorry; I made a mess of things and the hospital needs your consent to treat me.” “Put them on the phone honey. I’ll talk to them and find out the directions to the hospital. Oh, I was afraid you were gone for good, or abducted, but now I’ve found you!  I’ll be right there, as soon as I can. Hang on, love.”  And story ends, not with a death, or an estrangement, or an abduction, but with a reunion. And is said that it was no accident, that the name of the prodigal daughter’s mother . . . was Grace.

 

 

Let us pray:

Dear God, in life’s estrangements, we sometimes hold out hope that, in a month, a year, or a decade that loved ones will reunite. You wait even longer than that for us to return unto Thee.  When we have an accident along life’s highway, give us the good sense to reconnect, to call home, and to get well.  And show us how to offer grace to others who we love. In Jesus’ name, who first told us the story of a prodigal son. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                              December 16, 2007

12-09-07 SIN: THE TROUBLE WE’RE IN

SIN: THE TROUBLE WE’RE IN

Genesis 4:1-16; Romans 3: 10-26

 

Dr. James Forbes, Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, once preached a sermon called “Finding and Fixing the Fatal Flaw.” It was not the sense of alliteration which his title possessed that made it memorable: it was the topic-which was human sinfulness-and the congregation that made it most memorable: he was preaching to the graduating class of New York Theological Seminary’s program at Sing Sing Prison.  There was both gravity and hope in his message to those who truly wanted to bring good news to captives.  There were those within earshot paying the price for (and, in some ways, hoping that they might one day get free from) the terrible burden that their actions wrought. Inmates start to get black and white understandings of sin along with lessons on taking responsibility for their actions. Some who start to be changed by Christ even dare to pray for amazing grace and unforgettable forgiveness. In our world there are those who sin which includes everyone. But there are also those who put what they think is sin in the spotlight of condemnation. In Jesus’ day Pharisees did it enough that Jesus targeted them. In our day the sick hate group that they have the nerve to call a church that stands and claps at the funerals of fallen soldiers is one such twisted group that tries to condemn others. It has happened over the years. For example, back in the 1980s, Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association used to send out unsolicited newsletters to me and other pastors that told which shows had violent or sexual story lines or crude language. He condemned those programs in his newsletter that ran for pages covering all the words and actions deemed offensive. His style was “in your face” but he had a point: the standards that movies and television had until the 1960s had gone out the window and were replaced by a rather loose rating system still in place today. But since the 1980s, the potentially offensive and even harmful scenes on cable television today could fill volumes, coming across our airwaves to wide eyed kids and seemingly savvy teenagers whose knowledge of drug use, violence, and sexual acts far surpasses their maturity to make good decisions regarding them.  What is on our airwaves has not just pushed the envelope: it has torn it wide open.  Without youth equipped to discern and absorb the good stuff, and discern and push away the bad stuff, our society will keep spiraling into the excesses that brought down the Greek and Roman Empires in earlier days. Author Annie Dillard, in her book PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK, tells about an Eskimo hunter asking a local missionary priest this question: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” To which the hunter replied “Then why did you tell me?”  One only has to look at William Golding’s book LORD OF THE FLIES, about a group of stranded boys who made the rules by which they lived and were tortured and killed by their own lawlessness, to realize the answer to “Why.” One only has to look at Genesis chapter 3 and 4 and beyond, when humans first learned right from wrong but had not yet received commandments or consequences for choosing the latter instead of the former, to understand that without rules for living, one’s life runs like a train without tracks, getting bogged down, heading pell-mell down hillsides, and tearing apart the men, women, and children who are in its path. Without knowledge and correction, there is murder, rape, anarchy, looting, and piracy. Again, it began to be described in Genesis and was recaptured in Paul’s masterpiece that we call his Letter to the Romans. The trouble we’re in is not the knowledge of sin: it’s the trampling on the right choices and setting course for the wrong ones.  Now I know this topic—sin—stereotypically belongs to the church:  some may even feel that the church is out of touch with the world because “sin” seems to be the “Johnny one note” of our musical keyboard. Well let’s lighten up for just a moment. Humorist Garrison Keillor once said “I’m not sure I’m in favor of repentance. Sinners are the ones who get the work done. A strong sense of personal guilt is what makes people willing to serve on committees.” Keillor loves to describe his beloved Minnesota “Lutherans,” but he described guilt as heavily felt by the Catholics, the Methodists and, of course, the Presbyterians, and the Baptists! American Baptist minister Keith Russell recalled “As a young person, I was very clear about the nature of sin. Sin, as described in my Iowa Baptist upbringing, was a series of behaviors to be avoided. It was both simple and clear: Do not smoke, drink, dance, swear, or gamble….It was exceedingly clear in my appropriation of the faith that sin was personal….Evil was a set of behaviors to be exposed and changed.” Now let’s get serious again: like John the Baptist ages ago, it is the church, it is the preacher, and it is the congregation who holds each other accountable, who simply must be the voice crying in the wilderness of our lost society to prepare the way of the Lord; to make straight the crooked paths. But where to draw the perimeter lines around living like Christ or living against him has to be measured by the only rule of faith and practice God has left us: the Bible, and, more specifically, the New Testament.  It is most interesting that the word for “sin” in Greek is hamartia, but Jesus uses it in Matthew’s gospel only a few times and in Mark only twice.  So sinning is mildly addressed, certainly not because people didn’t do it, but because everyone was, and is, a sinner. The gospel and letters of John say it frequently and so does Paul in his letters. So what was Jesus’ great focus? It was on another word-skandalizo- which was to cause one to stumble or to sin.  It is one thing to take responsibility for one’s own sinful actions. It is another to push, seduce, or entice someone to fall: on that topic and toward those people Jesus showed no mercy.  Toward the tempter in Genesis 2, toward the Satan character in Matthew chapter 4, toward the Pharisees in numerous places Jesus had cutting comments; it was toward those who encouraged others to sin. Sinners, it seems, can be forgiven through their remorse, repentance, and restitution. But to those who entice someone into stealing, adultery, excessive gambling, lying, or scheming to get what someone else has, Jesus has eyes and a heart filled with condemnation. This is where the bride-the church-joins her husband- Jesus Christ-in united outrage: on casting out those who, with delight, make others stumble; and, working to save those who are lost and following wolves in sheep’s clothing. What do such people sound like?  “Come on; I know a store where you can take stuff and no one will stop you.” “Come on, no one will miss just a few dollars out of the drawer.” “Come on, whose going to find out what we do in a motel behind closed doors?” Come on, every tries this at our age.” “Come on, I can show you a way to bring that girl (insert a worse word here) down so you can be the winner instead!” The light of truth shines itself into the dark corners where such despicable persons lurk.  You see, the other word that Jesus says a lot in Matthew is poneros, which means evil, although the NIV Bible translates it as “wicked” or “sinful” and the NRSV uses the word “evil” for another word, kakos, that simply means “wrong” such as in 1 Thess. 5:15.  Scholar Judith Wray says “While none of our translations is necessarily inaccurate, the nuances implied in the Greek text are often lost in the theology of the translators.” Such is why Presbyterian ministers learn both the Greek and Hebrew languages: to not go first to an English translation of God’s Word, but to the original language and it’s meaning. While Paul was convinced of our sinfulness and described it as “missing the mark” as I described to the children with a target, Jesus himself spent much more time condemning the laws and l
awmakers of his day who were so busy calling others sinners and making people sin that they could not see the egregiousness of their own actions. That’s when Jesus said the humorous retort “How can you see the splinter in the eye of another with such a log stuck in your own eye?”

 

So in the Advent season, the preacher- whether it is James Forbes or John the Baptist or someone else- is swift to remind all sinners who have possibly forgotten their own state of misery, that there can be deliverance to the captives: those who are held captive by sin, by glitter, by money, by threats, by walls, or by government. The preacher, like James or John, dips deeply into the well of Isaiah, for example, with words like: “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder!”  It should be shouted from the rooftops; it should be enacted in branches of the legislature; it should be offered in halls of incarceration and on the street corners of corruption. Jesus coming into people’s lives giving us not only the power, but also the mandate, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” And our mandate is to tell the world, the whole world, about Jesus Christ, who came to save us from our sins. But first we tell the world about sin and the trouble we’re in, so no one can claim ignorance of it as they do it. May the coming birth of this child empower you and me to, like the angel that holy night, proclaim the good news to the lowly and the powerful of our world, and tell them to come and hear what all the commotion, that occurs every December around the world, is all about.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                            December 9, 2007

 

 

 

12-02-07 HUMANKIND

HUMANKIND

Psalm 8: 1-9; Ephesians 2: 1-7

 

During our trip to Germany and Italy in November, I noticed a number of copies, in Italian or English, of the original story of Pinocchio, written by a man named Carlo Lorenzini whose pen name was Carlo Collodi, the last name being that of his mother’s home town. Collodi was born and died in Florence. Walt Disney toned down some of the painful encounters of the puppet turned boy, but the original story has to do with a wooden puppet that was made by a woodcarver, and in the imagination and fantasy of the author the puppet longs to be real; to be human; to be, as Disney’s version put it “a real boy.”  Yet when he was magically transformed into a real boy, he got into trouble, he lied, he learned, and he developed a conscience- a little like what happened when God made men and women in the beginning according to Genesis 2 and beyond. In literature, however, there are fairy tales about mermaids wanting to be human, puppets wanting to be human, robots developing human characteristics, and even horror stories of animals turning human. In the heart of many writers and film writers’ imaginations is the longing for humanness.  And what exactly does that mean?  You could tell others, couldn’t you?  Being human means your body aches much of your life, perhaps from age or injury or athletics, but to be human means to live with pain. To be human means you make choices, choices between right and wrong, and to accept the consequences of poor choices.  To be human means that you are finite and mortal, having been given a life span on this earth and in these bodies. This- this flesh and blood, this burden of choices, this life of consequences- is what writers and dreamers have longed to have happen to their puppets or mermaids or robots?  Yes; humanness, with all its weaknesses, has unmistakable drawing power.  Humans know what it means to touch and be touched: sometimes it is harmful, but many times it’s wonderful. Animals know devotion, but humans experience the richness of love with all of its powers and complexities. People live and die for love; it is the topic of songs and poems and troubadours. Yet as good as human ingenuity is, no one has been able to make a prosthetic arm, leg, eye, or organ that equals the wonder of the God-created ones.  To be human is not just a burden because of pain, conflict, and choice; on the contrary to be human is a gift, a blessing, and a fleeting lifetime that is gone too soon.  Humanness is more than just the moaning, self-destruction, and defeatism into which some people turn it. Today, let us remember why God, who loves, knows, and sees all, still wanted the experience and insight on the world from becoming human.

 

Psalm 8 reminds us that we are made higher than creatures and lower than angels and God. So we have a place in the created order! And we are the only ones capable of choices including praise! God needed the human creation to feel complete and glad, to feel appreciated and honored. All creatures great and small God made; but God’s relationship with humans has been the most tortured, yet most desired.  Ages ago, and in some cultures even today, fathers chose marriage partners for their children. Most children resented not having a choice. Like a wooden puppet whose creator made him do everything with strings and a carving knife, not having choices was stifling. Choices, in spite of their risks, were worth fighting for in human history. As Ephesians chapter 2 describes it, once the boy (or girl) turned from wooden choicelessness to human choices, desires of the flesh (gluttony, lust, greed, and others) came into play. It was from those deadly sins that God, having experienced their temptations through Jesus Christ, sought to save us through the one who was and is truly human, but also truly God. God did not choose to get trapped in the weaknesses of humanness, but to have a full and sufficient taste for it and then rescue us from its worst parts. Through God in Christ, we can have the greatest living situation on the planet: humanness; but instead of just ending our human life with nothing beyond, we can, through Christ, end up rising from death, not only to life, but to heavenly life. This is why God came to earth in Jesus Christ. God came to save us and to know us. Today, the bread and cup will barely feed your body, but, if you let it, it will feed your soul.  Let us give thanks to God today for the intricacies and celebrations of being human.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   December 2, 2007