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FAITH

Genesis 12: 1-9; Hebrews 11: 1-16

 

Every day, you and I will have countless situations that call for faith. Some times in life others betray us, let us down, or neglect to do what is right.  That daily betrayal, or neglect, or sinfulness is what keeps moving our boats farther and farther from the shoreline of our original childlike faith.  What do I mean by that?  When my family went to the beach for vacations when I was growing up- Virginia Beach, Nag’s Head, Myrtle Beach, and now Daytona Beach- we used to ride waves on blow-up rafts. I know it’s not as exotic as surfing, but we could spend hours out there doing that. Now on some days during a week’s vacation, we could paddle out from the shoreline, and waves would push us back into shore just where we started. On other days, or even other times in the same day, we would find waves bringing us in so far from our starting point that we would have to walk our way back after almost every ride in. On rare occasions the waves would even push us in the opposite direction and we would have to walk the other way to get where our family umbrella was jammed into the sand. Think with me about faith for a moment. If we experienced faith, which, for Christians, is unwavering trust in and belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, then in a perfect world, or in a vacuum, it would be like the days the waves drove us directly into the shore from where we started: we would walk out into the water until it was above our waists, wait for a wave, and invariably let it take us in to the shoreline, ready to go again, or ready to rest, or ready for lunch.  But, of course, we do not live in a vacuum; we do not live in a perfect world; and unlike Jesus, people around us let us down.  We have to trust human beings all the time, don’t we?  When we give a restaurant server our credit card after a meal, we trust that he or she is not copying our numbers and security code down while it is out of our sight.  When we leave our vehicles in a repair shop where, for insurance purposes we cannot stand and watch, we have faith that the oil is changed correctly, that the mechanic does not tell us something is wrong that really isn’t, and that all work is done honestly and properly.  When our children compete in Cub or Girl Scout competitions, or in a swim or gymnastics meet, or in a cheerleading competition, we trust that the judges are honest and not swayed by the presence of special friends also competing, that the other contestants are truthful about their work, and that those around us have the same values as we do.  That is a big assumption.  Now I am a man of faith; I have faith in God and seek to exhibit such faithfulness in all that I do, so that the girls who fell back into my arms during my children’s sermon trusted that I would not drop them.  There are also people in this world who I trust implicitly: anyone who works with me here I trust completely.  But, like the times the waves sent me into shore far away from my starting point, I have had quite a list of times over the years when work said to be done on my car was not done; when a Scout leader looked at cheating with a nod and a wink; when a judge at a college level competition chose his girlfriend over our daughter; when medical bills were over charged in intentional fashion, and when friends who I supported with undying devotion betrayed me.  I’d imagine that I am not alone in feeling burned by others. I see especially senior citizens not trusting banks, or clerks, or service technicians, or even churches, and I suspect that iceberg goes deeply below the waterline of their psyches. We all have wanted to have faith in others, have placed faith in some, and have been hurt by misplaced faith over the years. It makes me, and maybe you, get jaded, but hopefully jadedness does not turn to bitterness.  Sometimes we just learn that people will not keep their promises: I can’t remember every having a stranger who came to church who asked for help for food, gas, or bus tickets ever returning the gift as they promised, or even writing to thank me for it; now I just know that when they swear with their hand raised high, it has no more clout than the vaporous cloud of desperation that accompanies their need.  How can we possibly be asked to trust in a Lord we cannot see, who came to earth at a time long before we were born, and who promises to forgive our sins with all the assurance of paper and ink in a book we call the Bible?  It is surely a stretch for any one of us to have faith at all, let alone to muster up enough real faith to fall backwards into the everlasting arms of the risen Christ and trust that he will never drop us.  How difficult is that when we grow up in the world of Charles Schulze’ PEANUTS, where as long as I have been alive, even with every new promise that came from Lucy’s lips, she never actually held the football for Charlie Brown to kick! 

 

That’s our world; a world of teasing, and laughing at, and taking advantage of others.  Perhaps when Jesus said, “If you want to enter the Kingdom of God, you must enter it as a child, or not at all,” he was not thinking of Lucy in the PEANUTS comic strip, but of Brooke and Reagan and others like them.  The two girls I got to do the faith fall did it perfectly for me the first time; all my own children did it perfectly with me; they all knew I would not drop them. Well placed faith in me, or well placed faith in you, will make it easier to trust in Jesus if we do not break the trust others put in us.  Children have not been in this world as long as we grown ups. And yet, we are called to have faith in Jesus as in a “faith fall,” and to have character in which others can believe.  What a tall order. Can a human being actually do that?

 

Actually, yes!  If Mary had not had faith in an angel with the request to bear the son of God, God would have chosen another way. If Joseph had not agreed to stay with Mary, the Bethlehem story and Jesus’ upbringing would have changed radically.  Early on there was a lack of faith from with Adam and Eve, but human nature took a turn back toward faith with Noah. Then the pinnacle of faith for Jews, Muslims, and Christians was described: a wandering Aramean named Abram in Genesis 15.  Notice he is not the picture of perfection, lest any of us think that faith is an impossible dream. No, even he got ahead of God’s plan by having Ishmael through a servant Hagar, thinking his wife was too old to have children. Fortunately, God took Abram’s and Sarai’s lack of trust and turned it in to a teachable moment. “Abraham, Abraham, Sarah, Sarah,” God later said “Have faith.” And with that, Sarah became great with a child who would be named Isaac, and Abraham’s lineage continued from a tree with two branches.”

 

As I discussed next year’s Holy Land trip with people last week, I reminded them that the place where the Temple was built was called Mount Moriah ages before, the very spot where Abraham trusted God beyond what most parents would do. Like a girl falling backwards, (only with much more critical consequences if God failed to provide) Abraham raised a sacrificial knife to his son Isaac; just before he was to faithfully plunge it deep into his son’s chest, God spoke, and told Abraham that he passed the test, and gave him a goat to sacrifice instead. Faith is not easy when the world keeps eating at our innocence like vultures at a road kill.  Sometimes we think we can trust no one any more. And then there is that special mate, or parent, or teacher or pastor or mechanic or financial advisor or … you fill in the blank if you can … who restores a shred of faith to your soul.  And then you think that maybe, just maybe, you can, like Punxatauny Phil, put your head out of your protective burrow and see in the shadows of morning that there are still people, a few bright shining rays of people, who can be trusted in our world.  Those in our world who are trustworthy carry the sacred light of heaven; it flickers through the darkness of each new dawn, exposing opportunists and charlatans. You, my friends, and I have a sacred trust to carry to the world: to be as good as our word; to live faithful lives; and to give honest confession when we fail. Early childhood specialists tell us that children who experience a safe home believe that the world is safe; conversely, those whose homes are filled with broken promises and anger cannot trust the world when they grow up.  Let us show one another that there are those in whom we can have faith; and when we need human yet holy examples, we can look to Abraham and Sarah; and to Mary and Joseph.

Thanks be to God for enough examples of faith around us that we can risk putting faith in a Savior we cannot see, and trust in everlasting arms that never fail.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                              February 15, 2008

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Acts 16: 16-34 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

 

 

 

Who is your Lord?

 

As Americans, Lordship isn’t a concept we are entirely comfortable with. We believe in freedom and equality and justice. We don’t bow for anyone and claiming someone is our lord makes us uncomfortable. We are free. Independent. In control of our own lives.

 

Yet, admit it or not, we all have lords. Someone – person, thing or concept – rules your life. Your lord is the driving force, the director of your life. Sometimes we’re confused or conflicted about who that lord is, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are ruled by someone – some thing. For some its money, and they build their lives to chase the almighty dollar. For others its pride, or power, or lust. Your lord is the ruler of your life.

 

So I ask again. Who is your Lord?

 

On our drive down to Florida last month I got the opportunity to hear an NPR segment I have never heard before. It was called “This I believe” and on that particular Sunday they were featuring a nun called Sister Helen Prejean. She was talking about her work with death row inmates, but what really resonated with me was why she felt it was so important. She said, “The only way I know what I really believe, is by keeping watch over what I do.”

 

This woman moved from reaching to her neighbors a comfortable, safe suburban home to a violent housing project in New Orleans. That led her to working with the people who had been the victims of crimes, of injustices. And that in turn took her to Christ’s statement “Love your enemies.” So Sister Helen began to work with the death row inmates. And the in turn with the families of their victims. It is clear to see who her Lord is.  

 

So here’s how to tell who your Lord truly is. Look at your life. Look at what you do, where you spend your time, money and energy. Your lord is wherever those are directed.

 

So, are you primarily interested in money? Status? Having the right things? The best and brightest toys?

 

Or do you seek to help others? Do you reach out to the outcasts?

 

Nearly 30 years a study was conducted at Princeton University, designed to figure out the conditions under which good people would act for good, or at least be helpful.

Two psychologists asked a group of theology students to walk to another building on campus to give a short speech, either about their motives for studying theology or about the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. Meanwhile, the psychologists had arranged for an actor to be stationed on the path between the two buildings, slumped over, coughing and obviously in bad shape. The two experimenters had also led half the students to believe they were late for their speaking appointment, and half that they had ample time.

 

So, what do you think the responses were? Who was most likely to help: those with the story of the Good Samaritan uppermost in their mind or those thinking about the motives for studying theology?

There was a significance difference between groups, but it was not along the lines of speech content. Contrary to what we might expect, the content of the speech made no difference. About the same number of Good Samaritan speakers and theology motivation students stopped. What did make a difference was how rushed the students thought themselves to be. Only 10 percent of those led to believe they were running late stopped to help. Of those told that they had plenty of time, 60 percent stopped to help.

 

In what group do you fall?

 

Now, the thing is, calling Christ Lord is easy. Anyone can do that. The trick, the hard part is actually living in Christ. Saying and Living are two very different things. Christ says to his disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Go. Do as Christ has commanded us. Not just say the words. That’s the hard part. That’s where everyone will screw up at least once in awhile.

 

Jacob is an excellent example here. His all night struggle wrestling with God mirrors the struggle we have every day of our lives. We fight with God over what we should be doing. We want to follow other lords – ones that seem more flashy, more appealing. Most importantly those other lords have easier paths to follow

 

Christ is firm. The road he leads us down is hard. It’s a struggle and we will frequently tumble. We will make side detours to lords that seem like a better idea. They seem easier and the benefits sure seem nice.

 

Its so hard, because following in Christ’s footsteps is more than just telling others about Christ. It is more than saying you’re a Christian and attending services once in awhile.  Truly calling Christ lord means that you stop and talk to the homeless man on the street. It means that you take the time out of your day to buy a total stranger a sandwich. Or you comfort someone you’ve never even met but who is so desperately in need of your time.

 

The really hard part of it is that living with Christ as your Lord means that you have to step outside your comfort zone. You go out of your way to help those you don’t really want to help. Take time for things you don’t want to do.

 

No wonder we follow other lords! Other lords don’t put such hard demands on us. They offer us much more in material gain. They seem to benefit us far more than Christ does. Christ doesn’t promise us riches, or power, or even an easy life.

 

And yet… And yet. So many of us keep wrestling ourselves away from God, yet God continually calls us back. Of all the possible lords, Christ is the only one that doesn’t give up on us. And Christ is the only one who supports us when things go bad.

 

I feel bad for the jailer in the New Testament passage today. He gets handed two prisoners and his world flips upside down. I picture him as your average guy. Goes to work every day to feed his family. Maybe likes to fish on the weekend. Just a regular Joe.

 

And then in come Paul and Silas. I suspect the jailer has seen people in all sorts of states after they’ve been thrown in jail: shock, tears, anger, despair, but I doubt he’s seen anyone quite like these two.

 

They have just been unjustly beaten and arrested. They were a threat to the status quo and would probably be executed in the morning. Yet instead of bewailing their fate, they spend the night singing and praying to their lord! What strange fellows!

 

Then comes the earthquake. The jailer’s world is turned upside down and the faith that he had put in his lords of routine and the government comes shattering down. He has no support there. He has no protection. No comfort. No hope.

 

And then he hears it. The voice of the prisoners he thought were long gone calling out to him. ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ What a lord these two must have in order to wait patiently in jail when they could easily escape. The jailer wants that faith. These two men are so confident in their salvation that the jailer begs them to show him the way too.

 

He accepts Christ in his heart and is saved. Hallelujah! Does he have days were he slips back into following his old lords? You bet. But I bet he keeps trying to follow this new Lord – a lord that will truly be there for him.

 

So, who is your Lord?

 

Is your lord routine? Status? Possessions?

 

 

Or is your Lord one who loves you so much that he would die for you? Is your Lord someone who will be there no matter what else happens in your life? Is your Lord the one who ate with outcasts and loved the sinners?

 

Who is your lord?

 

As we begin this Lenten season, many people agree to give up something. They give up chocolate or coffee or TV. They deprive themselves of something so they might know what the temptation of Christ was like after his forty days of fasting.

 

This Lenten season I have a challenge for you. I challenge you to seek out the lord you have been following that is calling you away from Christ. I challenge you to give it up. I challenge you to give up all lords who are not Christ in your life. Start with a day. Then a week. Then see if you can follow Christ, and Christ alone for all of Lent.

 

This isn’t an easy thing to do. I suspect I’m going to have trouble but I’ll keep wrestling my way back to God when I’m lead astray. I will keep trying to live my life with the example Christ gave me.

 

You can try to do the same. We can all strive to live our lives so that no one need ask us, Who is our lord. They will know it in every thing that we do. Amen.

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IF IT’S BROKEN, FIX IT!

James 5: 13-16; Mark 8: 22-25

 

The president of Pittsburgh Seminary, where Cara got her degree, is Dr. Bill Carl.  Before he became seminary president, he was a pastor and a professor at different points in his life. But in 1997 instead of visiting parishioners in the hospital, he himself was a patient, for test after test to get to the bottom of his symptoms. Blood work, CT scans, multiple X-rays and more than 5 doctors doing different things were working to hopefully “make the wounded whole.” It was the night before Thanksgiving, and, being a man of faith, he thanked God for his good health that he had enjoyed to that point: good mental, physical, and spiritual health. He said to his nurse: “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I’m truly grateful, not only for God’s healing power but for a new insight into care for myself as part of God’s gift of healing.” He then thought to himself: That’s my testimony, that’s my song, thanking my God all the day long. That night he slipped into being deathly sick with nausea. The nurse tried to medicate him to stop his horrible discomfort, but the night dragged on to the point it felt like the longest night of his life. He thought the healing power of death would be welcome.  He had remembered his doctor saying his readings in 1Corinthians 15 reminded him to treat death is a final healing, not the enemy. He remembered also that even though Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, it was a temporary raising because later he died as we all will.

 

Death is part of living. But sometimes in our age of medicine we make the mistake of equating “healing” with “cure;” of thinking one cannot be “whole” if they have an illness or a disability.  There are some in our world, such as Dr. Greg Baer, who founded the REAL LOVE Institute, and Dr. Bernie Siegel who wrote many books including LOVE, MEDICINE, AND MIRACLES, who have found that unconditional love by someone is the one thing that can bring you wholeness in your brokenness. Writes Dr. Siegel: “I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system. If I told patients to raise their blood levels of immune globulins or killer T cells, no one would know how. But if I can teach them to love themselves and others fully, the same changes happen automatically.  The truth is, love heals. I do not claim love cures everything, but it can heal and in the process of healing, cures occur also.” [p. 181] Dr. Baer’s testimony is even more powerful: he was a successful medical doctor, with a big house, expensive car, children in fine schools, and was so unhappy he went into his back yard and put a gun to his head. It was only by grace that he discovered the secret to wellness: “Real Love,” also known as unconditional love. He is not as rich as he was, but he travels the country telling others about his discovery; and he is happy! And studies show that people with supportive mates, best friends, or loyal pets are people who live longer and healthier lives.

 

In the New Testament we not only find reminders of Jesus healing physically: a paralyzed man took up his mat and walked and raised from the dead the only son of Nain’s widow. And in today’s passage with spit and a prayer Jesus made a blind man see. We also find that Jesus healed psychologically, as he showed Pharisees how a so-called “sinful” woman could show love better than they; and Jesus healed spiritually, going to the cross never believing that it was a dead-end or defeat, but naming it as a victory and a spiritual healing: and it was so.

 

I grew up around axioms like “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” That may apply to appliances or automobiles, but it certainly does not apply to relationships or the healing of our bodies, minds, and souls. This last week in the paper was the story of a homeless man who, contrary to what some politicians think, really did not want to live any other way than on the ground, with $30.00 a day for cigarettes, beer, and to give the rest to his friends. Science would say that not attending to dental and medical needs and eating so poorly would have contributed to the man’s death by now. But he feels loved. Could that be extending his life?  What are our teachable moments about what matters most, my friends? When you’re sick? When you hit bottom? When you face death? Funerals are times when, sometimes, we heal time-crusted wounds or test the waters in relationships that had become strained or distant. Often a sense of well-being can result from closing a door on a toxic relationship or building new bridges to healthy ones. In her book MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN SHELL author Carol Hamblet describes, as a parable, her daily walk on a beach, at first looking for perfect shells, but finally deciding to look for broken shells, for their beauty and uniqueness came alive to her, seeing that their brokenness, like her own, was what made her precious.  Your brokenness makes you precious to Jesus. In our brokenness, we need a Savior!

 

And so I write these words to you this week, my Westminster congregation, as a survivor of diabetes, as one who signed up for every Lifescan health screening on February 29th, as one who had his first MRI for a possible torn rotator cuff this week, and who has coughed and sneezed his way through the last three days. But I know the difference between cured and whole; I know the difference between despair and joy; I know the difference between existing and living. I will make it through my maladies and make it even the Promised Land; for Jesus loves me this I know, and my family and this church family has shown me so much love it can’t help but overflow into loving you. And so today, if you come to the Lord’s Supper or accept an anointing for healing as described in the book of James, ministers will pray that through Jesus Christ, God heals your brokenness; maybe a better way to think of it is to make friends with your brokenness.  It’s a gift of great love, for without it, we wouldn’t need Jesus! Let’s start today, looking at our malfunctioning bodies, wounded psyches, and our sin sick souls as reasons that we need our Savior! We can fix a lot of things in the world with love. May you feel loved today, and in the days ahead. Amen.

 

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  February 3, 2008