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Where Will the Waters Lead You?

          At seminary, we talk a lot about water.  And it’s not just talk about the drought Georgia and neighboring states faced over the last year.  Usually water came in the context of the theology of baptism and its comparison to the blood of Christ during communion.  This often caused me to glaze over, not out of boredom, but out of udder confusion.  But sometimes we found water to be the topic of discussion outside the class.  During finals week of seminary, our preaching class threw a goodbye party at a local restaurant for our preaching professor, Chuck Campbell.  He had spent the last 19 years teaching at Columbia and was moving to Duke University to start a new doctoral program.  For his goodbye party, we handmade shirts with the words “I love Chuck” on them and gave him a standing ovation as he walked into the restaurant.  We asked Chuck to share with us his favorite memories of teaching.  During one of his dramatic stories, his hand smacked a full glass of water which poured all over the table and floor.  Since no one got soaked, we just wiped it up and continued listening to stories.

          A few minutes later as I was adjusting in my seat, my sandals got in the puddle of water and my foot slipped and I kicked one of the table legs.  I felt my toenail pull back, but tried to play it off like nothing had happened since I was sitting around the table with my entire preaching class.  I felt myself get a little lightheaded, so I calmly excused myself and walked to the bathroom to wash it off.  Once I opened the door to the bathroom, my ears began to ring and the room began to spin.  A minute later, I woke up in a state of confusion.  After a few more minutes, a friend came in and helped me back up.  I went back out to the table, trying to pretend like nothing had happened.  Chuck took one look at my face and said, “You’re awfully pail – did you just faint?”  Indeed I had.  We all laughed it off, but Chuck had to add one more stinger.  He said to me, “You’re going to have a lot of trouble in the ministry if you can’t handle blood and water!”  Communion and baptism…blood and water.  And so I encountered water outside the seminary doors.

          And here in Daytona we encounter water everywhere.  Many of us drive over the Halifax River on our way to the church; others wake up each morning to a view of the ocean out their condo’s window; some might have a swimming pool in their backyards; others find a bathtub full of water to be enough.  This past week, we have seen the not-so-pretty side of water as Tropical Storm Fay hit us with strong winds, rain, and tornadoes.  At the same time, I’m sure many of you have been following the Olympics over the last two weeks.  We watched in anticipation as Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals in swimming as he moved through the waters.  We are indeed surrounded by water.

Our text this morning reminds of the earliest story of Moses. Later in the text, we see that God gave Moses the power to part the seas with his own hands.  But before that, Moses was an infant.  And not just an infant, but a fine baby, fine enough to hide for three months!  At only three months old, he was put into a basket and placed into the bank of a river, with no hope of where he might end up.  In this uncomfortable situation of abandonment, Moses floated in the water in the most comfortable of ways: wrapped up in the warmth of a blanket, not knowing what lies ahead, but his eyes fixed on his Creator above.  Moses was taken out of the water and as he grew older, he would realize he had traveled far from where he started.

It’s kind of like being at the beach with strong rip currents.  Have you ever been in the ocean and realized that when you got out, you were in front of a different building, around a new group of people, and your stuff was nowhere in sight?  I remember that when we were children, our parents would stand in the sand, frantically waving their hands to tell us to swim against the tide until our dad would finally let out the loudest, most distinct whistle which meant we better get out of the water and walk our way back.  And when we’d get out of the water and onto the sand, we would find ourselves in a different place. 

And although Moses wasn’t on a beach in this story, he was placed into a river and pulled back out at a different place by Pharaoh’s daughter.  So it’s clear from Moses’ journey that the water we encounter in our lives can bring us to physically new places.  The waters led the Hebrews out of slavery and into freedom through the parted seas.  The waters brought Noah into a covenant with God after nearly wiping out the earth.  The water carried Paul on his missions to start spreading the gospel.

Yet, water has the power not just to bring us to new physical places, but to transform us, to open our eyes to things we may have never seen. Remember the flow of tears that poured out of the woman’s eyes as she knelt at Jesus’ feet and washed them with her hair.  Think about the water Jesus used to wash the disciples’ feet…or the water that poured out of Jesus’ side as he was speared at his crucifixion.

In our own lives, we know that the smallest drop of water can remind you of its insane power.  It only takes one drop of water on your body to make you realize it’s raining.  And only one drop of water on a piece of paper to distort the page.  And there is nothing quite like a full glass of ice water after a day in the hot sun.  This same water is transformative.

Think of the transformation throughout your life that has brought you to where you are now.  Where have the waters brought you since you joined this church?  Where have the waters brought you this year?  Have you come to church on Sundays, listened to the service, and gone home?  Or have you decided you were going to start giving more of your life to this community of believers?  In the last year, did you join a new group at the church?  Did you increase your tithes?  Did you offer to teach a class or find new ways that you can experience the living Christ in our lives?  You have to let the waters move you.

We heard in our New Testament lesson this morning that we should not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  In doing so, we can discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.  We are one body in Christ, but we are all individual members.  What are you, as an individual member, called to do?  You might be an answered prayer for this church.  Remember that even if you’re not changing the world with every waking moment, it’s about living life with a purpose…and that purpose is to love and glorify God.

In this Roman text, we read a list of gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and offering compassion.  Did you know that this is the only letter that Paul wrote without visiting the people first?  This means that Paul is telling them a list of gifts they have without ever knowing them!  And the gifts Paul listed apply to this church, too.  We excel at many of them and let others slip through the cracks.  Some might see a problem, but hope that someone else is there to fix it.  But it’s at those moments that we need to watch the tide rise and fall in the ocean; feel the drop of rain on your body; remember the water in the font that brought you into a community of believers.  The water in a river doesn’t flow for a while and then decide to stop.  It keeps moving, rising and falling, turning around the bends, and pushing through the rocks.  Let the water transform you.

We are about to enter a new year at the church, which means we are about to split back into two services, so if your pew has been stolen by someone all summer long, you can look forward to getting it back.  Sunday School is about to start up again, giving children and adults a deeper understanding of this great, wonderful mystery.  Our music ministries are going to start up again, new classes will be offered, new trips will be made, new ideas will be presented, and new prayers will come into our lives.  So will you remember the power of water through all of it?  Think of the transforming powers of the water in your baptism.  Think of that moment when you or your parents brought you into a community with Christ, with the promise to love and nurture you.  Some of you may not be baptized, but you have seen the power of moving waters in your life.  That water can push your through anything.

Martin Luther, one the greatest reformers of our history, got himself through the toughest times in life with this phrase: “I am baptized.”  Notice he didn’t say, “I was baptized” as if it were some initiation right.  He says, “I am baptized,” a beginning to a new life that is brought to completion only in the resurrection of the body.  I have heard of pastors leaving a small cup of water on their desk that they can dip their finger into at the tough times and remind themselves that they are a child of God…and that with God, all things are possible.  So remember not that you were baptized, but that you are baptized, and that water has the power to transform you.

          Think of the waters you are swimming in right now: at work, with your family, at church.  If you feel like you’re stuck or can’t move forward, remember that the water in the river keeps on flowing.  Look back at some of those times in life that you thought you could never get through.  Some of those memories might stay in your mind forever, but you have at least moved forward.  Remember that at the beginning of life, we are brought from the water in our mother’s womb.  And remember that at the beginning of creation, God created land and life out of deep, unordered water.

          We know that we can’t sit too long and reflect without realizing that the waters will continue to pull us, to open doors, to transform us.  Will the waters bring you to the gift of ministry as you tell a friend about what you have seen and heard about Jesus?  Will the waters bring you to a deeper study of the Bible so that you might better understand God’s living, breathing word?  Will the waters bring you to a baptism and a profession of faith?  Will the waters bring you to rekindle a friendship or strengthen a relationship?  Or will the water cleanse your eyes, washing away the uncertainty and showing you the clear view ahead?  As we swim through life, sometimes with our heads barely above the waters, let us remember this: the water keeps on moving, keeps on bending, and keeps on transforming our lives if we let it.

Jenny Sumner

August 24, 2008

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When was the last time you were really angry with someone?

What happened? Did you get revenge on them? Did you reconcile with them? Do you still hold that anger?

There is something about anger that we as humans revel in. A favorite theologian, Fredrick Buechner says: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” We love this feast of ourselves.

And we often have justification for our anger. We have been wronged in some way and we deserve to be angry! Joseph is no exception here.

Joseph is such a very human character. From the first he has his faults. All of his vanity and pride at the beginning of his story and when confronted with his brothers he has his terrible anger.  When his brothers arrived in Egypt, they reported to Joseph’s office to learn how they might obtain food and Joseph recognized them in the line. It seems too good to be true. It was a perfect chance for revenge on these men who wanted to kill him and sold him to slavers.

We understand, don’t we? What is more natural, more human than vengeance? These men, his own brothers, threatened to kill him and then sold him into slavery. Because of their actions, he was later imprisoned. They didn’t care a bit about what became of him. Who wouldn’t be furious? Who wouldn’t want to punish them?

The desire for revenge is embedded deep in the human spirit. At best, it’s a survival mechanism. At worst, vengeance becomes slaughter. All of us share the desire to strike back, to punish those who hurt us, to get even and settle scores. We learn revenge in families, practice it on playgrounds, perfect it in social settings from bars to churches, and practice revenge in business, politics, religion, courtrooms, and relationships.

The desire for revenge is so powerful that human legal systems are necessary to regulate it. At the least, the system attempts to exact punishment in proportion to the crime. Most of the human desire for vengeance is out of proportion. We nourish revenge in daydreams. I can remember hurts inflicted years ago, and the memories can stir up old dreams of getting even. Yet, few of us have the opportunity presented to Joseph: his tormentors handed to him on a platter.

When he recognized his brothers, his anger ruled at first. He harshly accused them of being spies from Canaan. And when they protested, Joseph taunted them, accusing them more fiercely. It didn’t matter what they claimed; he threw them all in jail anyway.

He let them stew in there while he plotted his revenge. He sent all of them home with grain but kept one of his brothers in prison. He told them to come back with their only other brother, the son of Joseph’s mother. Then, and only then, would he set the imprisoned brother free. Then he had his servants put the money his brothers had paid for the grain inside their sacks of grain.

Of course the brothers discovered the money in their sacks and were terrified. They didn’t dare go back to Egypt. It didn’t matter if their brother was in prison. Who knew what that devious minister of food and famine might do next? Besides, Jacob simply refused to let the little brother go. He’d lost one son of his beloved wife and declared he could not continue to live if he lost the other.

But the food ran out, and the famine continued. With no other hope, Jacob and sons decided to risk their lives and go back. They took money, gifts and little brother, Benjamin. They left behind their aged father in anguish, certain he’d never see them again.

Trembling, they arrived at Joseph’s office. Now Joseph had them. Ah, sweet revenge. But not until a bit more torment. Joseph invited his brothers to dinner. When he saw little brother, Benjamin, he was overcome and had to leave the room. But he wasn’t finished with his older brothers yet. He told them he forgave them for stealing their money back and hiding it in their grain. And he sold them more grain and sent them on their way – but not before putting their money in the grain sacks and hiding his silver chalice in one of Benjamin’s sacks. When they’d been gone for a few hours, Joseph sent his servant after to accuse them of stealing his chalice and to warn them that whoever stole it would become his slave. The chalice was discovered in Benjamin’s sack just as Joseph planned.

The servant hauled them back to Joseph. The oldest brother, Judah, begged for mercy and offered to exchange himself for Benjamin’s life. Their father could not survive the grief, he said. This was Joseph’s long awaited moment of revenge. They were his to enslave, execute or and/or torture.

But Joseph doesn’t do that. Instead he reveals himself. “I am Joseph.”

And his brothers, instead of rejoicing that their brother is alive and well, are dismayed! They believe at long last that their sin has caught up with them. After: years of trying to hide what they have done, years of lying to their father, years of guilt hanging over their heads, now, at long last, they cower before the one they wronged. Remember, Joseph has spoken harshly to them. They are guilty. The one they wronged has the right and the power to wreak revenge. They know they deserve death. They can only acquiesce.

So they are silent. They offer no excuses. No defense. They quietly fear the judgment that they deserve.

And yet Joseph said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here” Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves.

Stop there. Put yourself in Joseph’ shoes: Wouldn’t you want your brothers to be at least a little angry with themselves? Wouldn’t you want them to feel some distress?

But deep inside Joseph another urge was stirring. His love for Benjamin and their father rose up to challenge his passion for revenge. That moment is astounding. Joseph lets go of his anger – lets go of his need for revenge. He goes beyond that and doesn’t even seek justice. After all – because of them he was a slave for years. Because of them he was imprisoned. It would be perfectly just for him to require the same of them.

But instead he forgives them. And what’s more, by telling them not to be distressed, he asks them to forgive themselves.

There is no accounting for those acts of forgiving mercy except to say that Joseph learned another behavior from God. Rather than take his pattern of behavior from those who victimized him, he patterned his behavior after God. He discovered that the norms and values of the kingdom of God are more powerful than the norms and values of ordinary human behavior. Grace is greater than sin. Love is more powerful than hate. The mercy of forgiveness overpowers the need for vengeance. And, he stopped the cycle of vengeance.

Vengeance spirals upward until someone decides it must stop, and that requires forgiveness. Vengeance seldom “works.” Its cost in human suffering and death can be incalculable. The only benefit seems to be that we feel better. Joseph learned something more powerful. He was finally rid of the burden that corroded his soul, shrunk his heart, and likely controlled his life.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” That means doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, and praying for those who abuse us. What does this mean?

Chuck Swindoll has a story about truly loving your enemies. He reports that a seminary student in Chicago faced a forgiveness test. Although the student preferred to work in some kind of ministry, the only job he could find was driving a bus on Chicago’s south side. One day a gang of tough teens got on board and refused to pay the fare. After a few days of this, the seminarian spotted a policeman on the corner, stopped the bus, and reported them. The officer made them pay, but then he got off.

When the bus rounded a corner, the gang robbed the seminarian and beat him severely. He pressed charges and the gang was rounded up. They were found guilty. But as soon as the jail sentence was given, the young Christian saw their spiritual need and felt pity for them. So he asked the judge if he could serve their sentences for them. The gang members and the judge were dumbfounded. “It’s because I forgive you,” he explained. His request was denied, but he visited the young men in jail and led several of them to faith in Christ. That is truly loving your enemies.

How many of us here today could do the same?

How many of us harbor anger for much smaller slights? Joseph forgave the men who sold him into slavery. This seminary student forgave the men who took advantage of him and severely beat him.

When you hear of people forgiving all of that, can you forgive the one who hurt your feelings?

 Sometimes we can’t. We fail at loving our enemies all the time. I know I do. It seems like one of those impossible tasks God sets before us. So what do we do if we just aren’t strong enough to forgive?

We ask for God’s help. One of my daily prayers is “I know I’m supposed to love this person God, but right now I’m having real trouble with it. Help me to forgive them. And could you please love them for me while I can’t?”

No, we aren’t perfect. We have trouble giving up our anger. Joseph did. But in the end he forgave them. With God’s help he forgave the horrible sins done to him.

Christ calls us to love our enemies. And with Christ’s help, we can. But only if we are willing to step back from the feast of our anger. Only if we are willing to try to forgive. So, my challenge for you today is to let go of that old grudge you bear. Forgive someone who doesn’t necessarily deserve forgiving. Try to love those who hate you. Do as Joseph did and follow God’s way over your own anger.

It won’t be easy, but with Christ, you can. Amen.


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Genesis 32: 22-31


Methodist minister and author William Willimon calls Anne Tyler’s novel SAINT MAYBE “one of our century’s greatest novels about the church. It is the story of Ian, a wonderfully ordinary person who, by the novel’s end, has done some absolutely extraordinary things….” He experiences redemption, but at a price.  He lets his human emotions, feelings, and drives, cloud his judgment and something terrible happens because of it. He is burdened by the event that he indirectly caused and was crafty in trying to lie about the circumstances.  His guilt goes with him in his early life until he has his reckoning with God through a quirky storefront church he finds in his wanderings. And he learns that guilt may sometimes be seen as God trying to set a soul at peace so that learning takes place and good works begin. By the end of the novel, Ian’s difficult adopted daughter looks at the changes that Ian has made in his life, and the ways he has started to think about others and declares that “Ian is a saint … maybe.”


In many ways we are talking about Jacob’s story too, and about your story.  Is there a time or are there times, that either gnaw at you today, or that you have had to stuff under the mattress of the bed made out of your own messes?  If you haven’t yet crossed over the costly bridge of forgiveness, a bridge made of rough timbers as were used by the Romans in their crucifixions, a bridge the timbers of which are lashed together with cords of remorse, lines of repentance, and nails of restitution, then you may not yet have had your renewal and redemption. You may indeed have troubled sleep, an ache in your heart, or physical ailments that are exacerbated by unresolved guilt. Let’s look at Jacob’s story and consider it through the lens of your life.

We have looked at Jacob over the last weeks and wondered why God would honor him with all that he had done that was self-serving. He tries to be the first to be born even though he is second, because being first carried special rewards. He was rewarded with the name his parents gave him: Jacob—supplanter, cheat, mean one, crafty. How nice. Indeed Jacob decided he needed to fulfill the destiny of his name. Together with his mother Rebekah, he cheated his brother out of his birthright blessing by deluding his increasingly blind father, Isaac. He may have won the battle, but until he wrestles with that “angel” in that dream, he had lost the war. He has a time with his dream about the ladder that makes him think that he has found God’s graces.  But like his name change later to Israel, and like the people who bear his name, and perhaps even like you and me, without the cost paid for repentance, his encounter with God did not totally change him; it temporarily changed him. He then began to have some success in life, especially as he finds Laban, one of his relatives, where he has traveled. But Jacob did not yet feel totally blessed by God, he had received a blessing through his father by trickery and he had gotten directions and assurance from God in the dream about the ladder. But then he hoped to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel but must ask for her hand from Laban. Laban tricks the trickster, having him consummate his wedding not with Rachel, but with his older daughter with the weak eyes, Leah. He would get his love Rachel, he then learns,  if he serves Laban another 7 years! And he’s told he’ll gets his freedom if he tends to Laban’s flocks another 7 years beyond that! They end up at Mizpah in a covenant of distrust, Jacob and Laban. Jacob clearly has not cleared his guilt with God. He sees angels of God as he departs according to 32:1, but he still was greatly afraid, even of his brother Esau. He is dreading revenge from the one he had wronged. And as often happens when we are troubled, we may wrestle with our demons in the darkness of night, but Jacob wrestles with a man or an angel of God instead. He believed that he had not yet truly been touched by God; he had heard the words, but his countenance had not changed. That night the way he saw the world changed, as a figure of God, sometimes called an angel, sometimes called a man, wrestled with him all night long. He was tormented in his mind, wrought by fear of revenge by the one he had wronged.  You perhaps know that feeling and that anguish too.

The figure of God did touch him as requested, but his request crippled him for the rest of his life. And the figure/angel of God renames him, taking him out from the burden of his name –supplanter, mean one, cheat—and gives him a new name—Israel—the  one who wrestled with God, in this case to receive God’s blessing, not because he was good, but because he was tormented and sorry.  The blessing, however, did not take away his fear. And Jacob did not face his brother that morning with any less fear. When God blesses you, peace in your heart does not mean the world will not throw trouble at you; it still will. In Jacob’s case, it wasn’t through shrewdness or anything he earned that Jacob felt the touch of God’s blessing; it was purely through grace that poured forth from the brother he had cheated years before. Jacob, now Israel, found peace. Esau, ironically, displayed grace: it’s the one wronged who can decide whether or not to forgive. Without that, Jacob might have had nightmares for a lifetime.

Jacob still was not without his problems: in the next chapter his daughter is molested and his sons, who emulated their father, to vengefully use a crafty method to kill all the men involved. Sins often travel from one generation to another because children learn from their parents.

In SAINT MAYBE, Ian was tormented by his early actions and spent years later trying to atone for them. In Jacob’s story, he was tormented by his early actions and had nightmares about them. He returned more than once to austere surroundings, building altars to God hoping to appease God. But only sincere contrition, lessons truly learned, and atonement that happens personally and from God, can square your account with God and with your brother or sister.

Is there something that still troubles you from a recent experience or from your teenage years? Is there something you did that caused great harm to another?  How can anyone truly get the redeeming experience of Holy Communion when something in their lives is still left undone? Communion with God will only lead to forgiveness and blessing from God when honest confession and remorseful actions take place. So today, Communion may draw you closer to the God who wants to bless you, or push a wedge farther between you because you have left a confession, an apology, or a changed life on the road of good intentions. Nothing ever counts when it is left at the side of the road of good intentions. Make changes today; make changes this week; make communion make a difference in your life, and the blood of Jesus save you instead of stain you.  Two persons convicted of crimes, hung on either side of Jesus on Calvary. One acknowledged his sins and confessed them to Jesus; the other took his unconfessed sins steadfastly to his grave. God wants to bless you, so that your life may be a blessing to him and to others. What do you say? What will you do? May costly grace be offered to you as you face the one you wronged, and ultimately as you face your God. Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                 August 3, 2008