11-30-08 WAKE UP!

Wake up!


What do you mean, wake up? Of course I’m awake! I have errands to run and kids to drop off and meals to cook and presents to wrap and a house to clean and parties to attend. How on earth could I have time to sleep?


It would make more sense for me to tell people to go to bed than to push their rushed schedule. But while the world is busy around Christmas, we are rarely paying attention to the reason for our business.


Like the person who moves in near the highway, the noise that originally was so clear has faded into the background. The wonder of advent has become common place over the years. We’ve become numb to this time. And we’ve forgotten how to wait.


We’re entertained in convenient ½ hour portions available at the click of a remote control. We’ve been fattened by fast food and by the promise of getting there faster if we drive instead of walk. We’ve been indoctrinated by an economic system based on the false promise of buy now, pay later. We’re up to our eyeballs in debt.


We’re programmed to expect instant gratification. We quicken our pep up in the morning with a cup of caffeine and quicken our relaxation at night with a glass (or three) or red. The questions “why wait?” is now only offered rhetorically and we are faced with the temptation of responding with the great cliché of our time: why wait? Just do it!


Advent, a season devoted to our watchfully waiting, is sacrificed to that mentality.


This world of ‘why wait’ is my world – and I, most of the time, live in it quite comfortably. So that struggle is my struggle too, and when I stand here to talk about the season of waiting, of ‘not yet’ – I am not standing here as an authority, or as one well-practiced in the art and discipline of patience. I’m actually extremely bad at patience. I’m terrible at meditating. I don’t grow my own vegetables, I sometimes drive when I could walk.


But the problem of right now also goes deeper than that. Many of us are struggling in a wait for things which are far more important than the superficial ones I’ve described. People who are lonely and desperately hoping to find someone to share their lives with are forced to live in a time of waiting. People who hope to have a child but are unable to conceive or have not found a partner to share this with wait – often painfully. Those who are sick wait to feel better, to move out of their depression, to be able to move without pain.


Those who have had relationships break down or whose relationships are marked by awful tension or violence or lack of communication are waiting for something to change; waiting for reconciliation; or waiting for the courage to leave; or simply the wisdom to know what to do. Some are plagued by the feeling they are meant for something different than the job or role they have today. Some feel they have potential they cannot find a way to fulfill. Many of us have a vision for the world – a vision of no more poverty, injustice and war and some have prayed for these things for years. And yet – here we are. Have we even made any progress? Where is God and what is God doing? When will we see the things we hope for?


In today’s reading from Isaiah we hear the prophet join with us in our hopeful yet painful wait: “If only, LORD; if only you would rip the sky open and come on down!” Together we wait.


And as much as I as an individual, and us collectively, seem to struggle with waiting for anything, deeper inside our spirits and memories I believe we know more than we realize about the goodness and necessity of the wait. It still takes 9 months to grow a baby, and the wait is not always pleasant. We know that old wine is far finer than new wine. Those of us who have made terrible, stupid mistakes in life know that wisdom is not gained quickly or easily but is discovered over time through the sometimes messy episodes of a life lived.


Like us, the people of the New Testament churches lived in the tension of the wait. Jesus had been and lived among them. He had authored their faith and promised to return. He had come yet there was still more to wait for. He had been with them, yet they were still waiting for him. In today’s gospel reading we find a people impatient – as we are – for God to once again “rip the sky open and come on down!” The people of Mark’s community struggle in their wait for their Saviour to come back. When will he come? What will it be like?


The biblical answer gives us our cue to advent waiting: people of faith are marked not by quick answers to prayer or special knowledge about future events; people of faith are marked by the way in which we wait. The message from today’s gospel passage is to not wait passively but to use this time to get ready, to live rightly, to be active in bringing about God’s vision of what the world could be like, rather than waiting for God to do it alone.


For us, there are times in life, in faith, in the history of the world where it feels much like the movie Groundhog Day. We make the same mistakes over and over. We live the same routine over and over. We long to have greater faith or a more experience of God. We go to church – over and over. We wait.


We wait, but we aren’t really paying attention to our waiting. We wait, but we blame God for the waiting. We wait, but only reluctantly. We have failed to keep watch while we wait. As I said, I’m terrible at waiting. I refuse to go anywhere I might have to stand in line without a book. Airports, bus stops, particularly busy days at the store, I can be found standing in line, reading. When I notice the line has moved I’ll shuffle forward with everyone else, but I can hardly can be said to be paying attention. I have found a way to avoid the boring part.


Yet what can seem like the meaningless marching on of time, what can seem like the same thing over and over, can be part of God’s work of redemption. Sometimes, the prolonging of history – the time we are given which can be seen as too much time – too much waiting – can be a gift that allows us to become aware of God’s purposes. Sometimes our advent task – our task in the season of ‘not yet’ is to become more of who we were created to be and to join with Mark’s New Testament friends and “get ready”. But in order to see that, we need to be paying attention while we wait. We must be watchful. We must keep awake.


For me, today’s passage from Mark is not actually offered to us as to inspire a debate about how many hurricanes constitute the end times or how many wars indicate the apocalypse is near. (Sorry to disappoint anyone who was hoping to hear that.)


But I hear this message as actually the antithesis of this kind of ranting. Its message is that living as people of faith is as much about how we live in between huge events and great moments as it is about the great events or celebrations of faith. Christian faith is seen as much in Advent as in Christmas because it is here that we can demonstrate to a world which struggles with the “not yet” of life that people of faith wait differently. Advent waiting is different from hopeless, passive waiting. We cry out with Isaiah, “If only, LORD; if only you would rip the sky open and come on down!” but we do so knowing that God has and will “come on down”. We wait with hope and with purpose, watchfully.


Advent is the season of “not yet”


In Advent we refuse to jump straight to Christmas and to take for granted the presence of God. We wait to discern more carefully the One for whom we wait, and the One who waits for us.


To me, waiting in watchfulness is embodied in my dog, Dylan.


I have never in his entire life fed him while I am eating. Yet when I sit down at the couch with a bowl of popcorn, Dylan stations himself at my feet and sits ramrod straight. Every piece of popcorn I lift from the bowl, he watches leaning forward slightly to track its progress to my mouth. During each bite, he tenses, ready to spring into action to snatch up the piece should I drop it or choose to toss it his way. He doesn’t leave his vigilant post until he’s sure that there isn’t a morsel left.


I have never fed him, yet he eternally waits in hope, tensed in eager anticipation for the feast that might come.


That is how the Scriptures call us to wait during Advent. Tensed in eager anticipation and hope. That is how I lived during Advent in my childhood – eagerly watching the signs of the season: the advent wreath appearing, the decorating of the church. If I was lucky, the first snowfall. A room lit with Christmas tree lights was to me a holy place – they filled the ordinary with a sense of wonder.


But I grew up. I went to college. I didn’t take the time to go to church. Instead of Advent, I focused on finals in the weeks before Christmas. Even when I went back to church on a regular basis, it wasn’t the same. I had become numb to the wonder of Advent. But I didn’t have to be. With some effort, I reminded myself of why this was my favorite time of the church year.


You don’t have to be numb either! We can still be filled with the joyful, watchfulness of the season that we are called to. If you feel yourself just being carried along by the errands of the season and the business of your lives, stop for a moment. Remember what it is we are waiting for. When I find myself growing impatient or feeling overwhelmed during this season, I picture a little dog waiting on faith alone.


Waiting here and now is not so different from the waiting that happened so long ago in Bethlehem, except that we have already received a part of the great gift of God-with-us. We already know something of the story of Jesus – the unique one who came to tell us that it is reasonable and worthwhile to hope and to expect God’s vision of the world to come to be. Jesus has come but we are also still waiting for his coming. We have seen God – but God is still hidden from us so much of the time.


We wait for Christmas – because we have a sense – even if it is only a small sense – of what it might mean for God to be here among us in the fullest, closest way. And because the Messiah who came to Bethlehem did not look anything like the world was expecting, we learn during Advent and Christmas to wait for all those things we long for with the humbling understanding that the perfect gifts of God – the things we are really longing for, sometimes without even knowing it, may not look anything like those things we think we are hoping for.


And so during the season of ‘not yet’ we join with Isaiah, and the New Testament church in crying out, “O Lord, rip the sky open and come on down!” if in slightly different words. So let us pray together in song: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”


We all are waiting during this Advent season – some more anxiously than others. If you are looking for a church home to wait in, we would be happy to have you join our church family. Just speak with one of us after the service and we’ll get you started.


Rev. Cara Gee November 30th, 2008





Matthew 25: 31-46


For years a beloved baritone soloist in this congregation, Reid Morrison, would sing these words: “Then, then shall the King say unto them, upon his right hand: ‘Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world: inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.’”  Taken from Matthew 25 in the King James Bible, there has been no clearer passage to show that there will be a Day of Judgment. On that day, the King of kings, the one seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, will look toward faithful ones who have sometimes been confused and afraid, but who always needed the Savior, and bless them. Likewise he will look to those who have been willful, who put their trust in others or who did whatever society told them to do, and he’ll tell them they will end up elsewhere. Those goats were, figuratively or literally speaking, on the left hand of the King.  Such imagery makes its way throughout the Bible. It was a source of great consternation to Joseph in Genesis 48 that his father, Jacob (also called Israel), when asked to bless his grandsons, took his hands and crossed them, blessing the younger grandson with his right hand, and his older grandson with his left. To a left-hander like me, I might have hoped that this was a greater blessing to the older of the two, but it was not. The right hand always wins in the Bible! David wrote in Psalm 16: “I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” And it was the words of our Lord himself who, when challenged as to whether or not he was the Christ, proclaimed with frightening authority: “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven!” Being on the right hand of someone meant something then, and in many parts of our world it means something even now. For that reason, I always counsel wedding ushers to escort with their right arm, which is the hand of honor; and I counsel those training for the ministry to offer benedictions and to baptize only with their right hand. The left hand might be welcome here, but not in other cultures. How our foreign policy could improve if we made sure to honor the blessings and curses, the holy ground and the unholy ground of other cultures, instead of ignoring theirs or imposing ours. Cultural practices matter.


As a left-hander, my hand smears the wet ink from fountain pens as it brushes across paper, and I go home with ballpoint pen ink on the edge of my left hand daily. When trying to use scissors in my left hand, most of the time they simply won’t cut.  In grade school I used to have to wait for the one or two pairs of scissors labeled “lefty” so I eventually learned to cut right handed. I learned I could play golf equally poorly with left-handed or right-handed clubs, so my father said since most courses are designed for right-handers, to play right handed!  The world is a right handed world now, as it was in Biblical days. There are some famous left-handers in every sport from Tim Tebow to Barry Bonds to Ty Cobb. There are former presidents like Ford, Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, and Clinton who were left-handed. There are artists like DaVinci and Michelangelo; musicians like Cole Porter and Paul McCartney; and leaders such as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Norman Schwarzkopf. America has stopped labeling left-handedness as something that needs to be corrected, but in what we call the Middle East, which includes Biblical areas, there is an understanding today that was also in place in Bible times: it is that the right hand is the hand of power and blessing and the left hand is the hand for dirty work and personal hygiene. In the Middle East even today, where water is scarce and hand sanitizer is almost not existent, to remain healthy many people use their left hand for work that is around germs, their right hand for eating and blessing. It was so ages ago as it is so in many parts of the world today.


As Cara’s class studies the Apostles’ Creed, they will be studying the line we will say today: Christ “ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” What did our Lord do when he left the earth? Quoting mostly from Psalm 110 verse 1, the New Testament describes Jesus the Lord as being seated at God’s right hand, the position of supreme majesty and authority. He sits there while God makes his enemies his footstool! …” We already quoted Jesus declaring he would be seated at the right hand of power. Peter also told the crowd on Pentecost that Jesus was “exalted at the right hand of God.” Just before Stephen was stoned to death in Acts 7, he said “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” And in Romans 8, Paul declares, “Is it Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God who intercedes for us?”   


So today, on a Sunday when we honor Christ as King and Lord, what do we make of all of this emphasis of blessed ones being on the right hand of a King? Just as Jesus, through faithful actions, is seated at the right hand of his Father, so we, through faithful actions, can be seated at the right hand of the King. Sheep are not brilliant animals, but they are ones who are wholly dependent on a Good Shepherd.  The faithful are said to be like sheep. The shepherd takes care of his flock. Goats, on the other hand, wander, stir up trouble, nibble on the bottom of the clothes of anyone near them, and can be aggressive.


In learning that, we have life lessons for this week: The King is looking for those who serve, as he served; those who follow him as he followed the directions from his Father; and those who know they need a Good Shepherd to keep them from straying and to rescue them from the dark and dangerous places of life. The King is also looking for people to feed, clothe and visit others as if you are feeding, clothing, and visiting Jesus. If you are willing to do that, then this proclamation is for you: “Then shall the King say unto you, upon his right hand: ‘Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.’” Kingdom, or outer darkness; where will your actions lead you at the end of your life’s journey?


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                   November 23, 2008



Matthew 25: 14-30


Our Westminster Institute classes, which have produced groups such as the Handbells Choir we heard today, a radio controlled airplane class for a parent and a child, the prayer beads seminar, and the knitting class among others, already has a man who has volunteered to share his talent and training to help couples and individuals manage their money.  Lowell Winn’s class will be held in the first semester of 2009. Our treasurer, Dave Hughes, has also offered his training to help people with their personal finances. Our Parish Associate, Richard Hills, in banking before the ministry, is also good at helping people manage money. And another in the congregation, Martin Lies, who taught the airplane class, has given me wise advice about personal finance.  Every one of those I just mentioned has helped me with either personal investment, retirement savings, or church finance.  Who do you go to when you need money guidance?  It is wise to be suspicious of those wanting to help you if they profit when you profit. On the other hand, if they profit, then they are even more motivated to help you profit: had you thought about that?  There are smart people who profited from the tech stock boom, and some who lost big; there are those who profited from the dot.com boom and some lost big; there are some who profited from the housing boom of a few years ago, and some who have lost big since.  And now there are those who think Certificates of Deposit, bonds, a safe, or an old mattress are better choices than the stock market, although history tells us that market investors will pass the slow steady income of bank investments or money in a mattress with enough of a time window.  What is your choice? Does your money work for you, or does it just sit around somewhere? Does it produce enough for a comfortable retirement or will you be left high and dry? 


Money, and what to do with money entrusted to us by God, has been on people’s minds since the invention of currency. We think about getting kids through college, paying for weddings, supporting organizations in which we believe, and paying our bills.  Those who don’t have it are desperate to get it, with measures from begging, to stealing to lottery tickets. Those who do have it have, in many cases, seen to have less of it this year. What a perfect time to be in the crowd, a crowd that spans the ages of time, as Jesus tells the parable of the talents. Perfect, because, you see: a talent was a measure of money, worth about 15 years of a laborer’s wages in those days. So, like many of you, we are talking about retirement investments, long term investments, planned giving, and the like in this parable. As much as we think about talents as a gift or skill, in Jesus’ description it is about what to do with your saved money.


In this story, if Jesus were to be the master, and we were to be his servants, in a sense we have been asked to take Jesus’ money and use it in a way that best pleases our master, Jesus. So whether we like it or not, our role in the story is to be a financial investor for Jesus: in fact, we could think about the one who made 5 more talents as being an investor in stocks in a good year, or an investor in a fledgling new company, or a person who purchased autographed items from a sports star the day before he or she died. Such investments could double in value in short order. But let’s face it: that investor might not have been exceptional; he or she might have just been fortunate! Even the best financiers don’t double their money in short order every day.


The servant with two talents might have been like the slightly more cautious investors among us. Those who invested in CDs in the early 1980s, for as few as 2 years, received from 16 to 21% interest in that period of time when the stock market did not keep up. But in the 1990s the cautious CD investor would have been passed 10 fold by the more aggressive stock investor as everyone who could, boarded the prosperity train.


The servant given one talent, it is usually assumed, was known to be cautious by his master; the master gave him less because his experience with the others taught him that he would likely make more money with them. Sure enough: this servant was paralyzed when asked to take care of his master’s money. He wanted no part in taking a chance at losing it. So he took the money and put it in a cookie jar, or in a hole, or under a mattress. He just kept it so it could be returned intact. 


Now if the master were just interested in protecting his investment, he would have given the last servant the highest praise. In the days before FDIC insured banks, the first two servants would certainly have been seen as risking their master’s money; and as we know, risk means, if circumstances aren’t exactly in their favor, they could lose their master’s money. The story would have had very different consequences if that had happened. But instead, the master, (who we might even think of as Jesus) perhaps gave the first one the greatest amount because of his track record of investing; likewise the second and the third. But notice, in giving more money to the first one, even the master assumed the risk of losing his money; likewise with the second one he gave him less but the master certainly could have lost it. The third one had almost no chance of losing his master’s money, yet he is not only reprimanded, the master took his original investment and gave it to the first servant. The one who carefully guarded what he was given got nothing.


You have probably heard of churches that, at the end of the service, gave out fifty dollar bills to those in attendance, challenging them to invest it and bring back the principle and the profits. This is not such a church!  But in a way we are one of those servants of Jesus, just as you are individually his servants. Jesus entrusts Kingdom money to us. “How will they use it?” he wonders. The church uses it to bring others in, to lift others up, and even to invest so that the Master can have more. If you are a fortunate investor of money that Jesus entrusted to you, then he hopes you will return with more than he gave you. If you are a cautious investor, then Jesus gives you permission to, with a measure of risk, try to make more for yourself, which, in the life of a faithful Christian, means more is tithed to Jesus too. See, when the client makes money, in this case the money manager makes it too. You and I are money managers for Jesus. And if we are faithful to him and plan to tithe, we will return the first 10% back to him and get to keep the rest for ourselves: it is win/win when we win; it is lose/lose when we lose. But Jesus, according to this parable, not only is willing to accept those odds, he encourages our wise risks to receive blessings and to give them. The one who only held the master’s money got no blessing, nor commendation, and built no relationship with the master.


So, which person are you with the master’s money? Do you risk it with daring action, knowing that losses could be big, but so could the gains? Nowhere in this parable does Jesus encourage his servants to be brash or careless, just to be bold and careful! It seems that the master blesses those who work to earn for the Master, since he lets us have a 90% commission with his money! What a deal! Do you take some risks but not big ones? Then the master will give you less of his money, as he agrees to rise or fall a little bit, with your moderate risk comfort level. And if all you do is take what your master gives you and put it under a bushel, then the master actually wants it back: you get nothing, and he gets nothing.  So where will you invest the 90% of your master’s money that you can keep? And how faithfully will you give your master his 10% due?  He is watching you, and he is watching me, to see which one of us he will trust with more of his estate than the others. Will it be you? Or your neighbor? Or a child? Or a young person? Your actions direct the choices of the master.  So let us, today and always, give of our best to the master.


That’s the name of a hymn, you know! I only know that since the choir at my first church chose to sing it for my ordination to ministry service. It turns out that in the book of Malachi, people were bringing substandard sacrifices to the Temple and the Lord didn’t like it. It wasn’t that people were too poor to afford healthy animals as sacrifices, they just brought the Lord their cast-offs. The Lord chastised his people with these words: “You say ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at the altar contemptuously.” The Lord thought he deserved better. The New Testament echoes that sentiment as Paul said to the slaves at Colossae that all we’ve been given should be used to bless God so that God can chose to bless us as well.


I’ll close with the way songwriter Howard Benjamin Gross put it in my ordination hymn:

Give of your best to the Master, give Him first place in your heart.

Give Him first place in your service, consecrate every part.

Give and to you shall be given—God His beloved Son gave;

Gratefully seeking to serve Him, give Him the best that you havei.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          November 16, 2008



Matthew 25: 1-13 

There are a number of commodities that can be given or loaned to someone else: at Thanksgiving a neighbor who is unable to get to the store herself can knock on your door and ask to borrow a cup of sugar, two eggs, or any of a dozen ingredients one might need for a feast. On golf courses I’ve seen players borrow a sand wedge or “bum” cigarettes. And as the choir sits up front in plain view of all, and one starts to cough, silent hands around the person, without being asked, offer cough drops.  But there are some things that are hard to borrow.  When I was growing up, gas could be siphoned from automobile gas tanks if necessary; with today’s cars it is much more difficult, and people have learned how dangerous it can be with the electronic devices we carry that can spark. In today’s lesson, we learn about a crisis of oil, lamp oil, for bridesmaids in Jesus’ day who are waiting for the return of the groom. Some ask for oil, but are turned down. Some have wondered about the lack of kindness that seems to exhibit.  There are two ways of looking at that request and denial: one way is to understand the gravity of the situation: if you give something that will deny you something important (Like water, air, life, salvation) then you  yourself will have the heavy burden instead of the one who was unprepared. In this lesson it’s about getting in to the banquet to which you were invited and asked to attend. “But it’s just a banquet” you say. As we get ready for our second wedding in a year, I’ll tell the men present here that there really is no such thing as “Just a wedding banquet” to a bridesmaid! They want to be included, be featured, and be important. The day of a service, if one has forgotten her contrasting colored belt that is part of her dress, no other bridesmaid can afford to loan hers, or she’ll have none!  Likewise, as one faces death with one parachute between two people on a crashing plane there is nothing that can be successfully shared.  But when it comes to the oil in these lamps, we have come to know that Jesus uses well-known examples to stand for other things. When he teaches the parable of the sower, it is not about farming but about witnessing; when he teaches the parable of laborers in the vineyard it is not about promptness but about grace.  Now when he talks about lamp for the oil of the bridesmaids, he is not talking about actual oil. He is talking about how those, who are waiting for Christ’s return one day, should do to be ready. His crowd knows the wedding tradition of the day: that a father and son choose a bride, pay the bride price to her father, and then go off to build a room on the groom’s father’s house in which they will live. The crowd understands that only the father knows when it is decided it is time for his son to return to claim his bride, the time in which the bridesmaids would be called on for their invited service. But if they are not ready or available when the groom returns, they are not included. We already heard about a man who was kept out of a wedding because his heart was not clothed in the garments of Christ in the sermon “Wedding Crashers.” Now we must decide what the oil stands for in the lamps of the bridesmaids: if we want to be ready when Christ comes again, do we just buy gallons of oil and dozens of wicks? Or is there a more subtle message than that? 

George Painter’s class is now studying a book by Episcopal Priest Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault, that, in one part, examines this parable. She notices that Jesus in most cases is all about sharing, but in this parable, there is no sharing that occurs. Why would he be telling this story? She asks, “How do you make this parable fit with the ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ of the fourth beatitude? At some point the light begins to dawn that Jesus is teaching at a whole different level here ….These hard teachings are exclusively about inner transformation (not outer actions) and make sense only within that frame of reference. The reason the five bridesmaids who have oil can’t give it to the five who don’t is that the oil symbolizes something that has to be individually created in you…. Nobody can give it to you….The oil stands for the quality of your transformed consciousness, and unfortunately, it’s impossible to it [get] through a donation from someone else.” [THE WISDOM JESUS, Shambhala Publications, 2008, p.52.]  If you prefer a classic example, back in 1949 Methodist preacher Halford E. Luccock who was professor of preaching at Yale Divinity School, introduced the featured Lyman Beecher lecturer, Leslie Weatherhead (whose book Pete Zahn’s class is studying) with these words: “I have read his sermons, and they are good; I have preached his sermons, and lo, they are very good.” It was Luccock who noted that the oil in this parable stands for character. These are his words: “It was one of the truths which were recovered from neglect by the Protestant Reformation that character cannot actually be borrowed. No merit from another person’s acts, or faithfulness, or his service can pass to us.  The foolish virgins could not borrow oil from the wise; they must buy for themselves. This was not due to arbitrary hard-heartedness on the part of the wise virgins…. Personal reserves of spirit and character cannot be transferred in any immediate and easy way. It is impossible for one person to impart to another the spiritual power which comes from frequent communion with God and continued practice of his will. No religious person can give of his character; he can only tell how it may be obtained—no more than a firm-muscled, broad-shouldered athlete can give his strength to an invalid.” [STUDIES IN THE PARABLES OF JESUS, The Methodist Book Concern, 1917.] 

We know from our studies in October of Jesus’ parables that banquets and weddings refer to the great second coming of Christ when we will be with him forever. Even as he walked the lanes of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem, he knew he was not long for this world; he himself knew he would be crucified but he did not know the time when he would return again. No one knew except his Father. That is still true. Those who are busy trying to read the signs of Jesus’ return are feverishly digging for clues for an answer that is not ours to know.  Suppose you had a son or daughter coming back from a classified mission of war, but you didn’t know the exact date of their arrival. Would it be better to sit by the window and wait for days or weeks, and make ceaseless calls, trying to obtain information about their return that is not yours to know? Or would your child be most pleased if you busied yourself getting their room ready, notifying their friends, stocking the cupboard and refrigerator with their favorite foods and beverages, and opening a photo album of family pictures to display on the coffee table? We need to be ready to meet Jesus.  Last Saturday Warren Cole met Jesus as he left his mortal life and inherited eternal life. Did he know he was going to die last Saturday? No. Do you know the day you will die? Instead of wondering when you will meet Jesus, the wisest among us will see that our hearts are filled with the oil of good character, humble service, tireless devotion to knowing the Lord and making him known, ceaseless prayer life, and communion both in sacrament and in closeness.  You cannot expect to be ready for Jesus when you hardly know Jesus or know about him. You cannot expect Jesus to know you when you have just called on him during family emergencies. You cannot expect that there will be enough oil in the lamp of your heart just by knowing the words to Amazing Grace and attending Christmas Candlelight Services. The words that Jesus said long ago—“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”—are not so that we will press our faces to the windows in our homes like a child looking for Santa, but like wise persons who are ready for the return of their king. Superficial actions do not fill the lamps in our hearts with oil; counting on childhood learning about the Son of God alone does not fill the lamps in our souls; deciding to be a devoted disciple of Jesus replenishes your lamp with oil; deciding to live differently, as Ebenezer Scrooge did in Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, starts to fill your lamp with oil; studying the Word of God and praying for direction starts to fill your lamp; and heartfelt worship of and gratitude to God really fills the lamps of the faithful. For those who do those things: you go from being foolish to wise. It’s not about begging, borrowing, or stealing the oil from another Christian heart; it’s about transforming your own.  May Jesus come one day, perhaps soon, and find the cup of your heart overflowing, aglow with joy, with anticipation, and with readiness for his return.  

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      November 8, 2008




Matthew 23: 1-12


One of the side benefits of having four days in Philadelphia this summer for our son’s wedding was the chance to see all that one of America’s earliest cities offers.  The very first Presbyterian Church in America was once there, the building gone, but the oldest standing Presbyterian Church, the Old Pine Church, is there and is free for people to go in and explore. It is a functioning congregation still!  As I went in, I read the names on plaques on the walls, silently thanking them for their part in lifting up Christ in that neighborhood.  Although the Presbyterian Church did not have plaques on reserved pews, the Episcopal Church a block away did.  That astounding church had pew boxes for families, with two pews in each box: one facing the front where the giant pulpit was, and one facing the back where the altar and communion ware was placed: an astounding decision of church architecture.  The oldest continuously run hospital in the country is there, but going in to it one could tell it was completely modernized. The Presbyterian Historical Society, similar to the one that used to be in Montreat, is just another block away, containing achieves with names of faithful men and women who have served local congregations. And, of course, just two blocks away is where our nation was founded: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross house, and other pieces of Americana. What an honor it was to look in to the roped off room where the Constitution was forged, with many original pieces of furniture still there! What a chill we got as we climbed the same stairs that Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and others climbed to see the upstairs meeting room.  How generous it was to learn that the room where our early statesmen met was given over to them by the Pennsylvanian Congress, who gave up their meeting room so the nation could hammer out its founding papers. The great third President, Thomas Jefferson, had put his skillful writing to work on both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. But it was a visit to the humble rooming house where he actually wrote the Declaration of Independence that made him feel most human. Original drafts, later amended by the Continental Congress, were shown under archival light. Back at Independence Hall, seeing the worn chairs where he and others sat, using candles for lighting if they met at night, that humbled all of us who stared in to the preserved room. With imagination, and the help of an audiotape, we imagined the impassioned exchanges that went on in that hall. We learned of Jefferson’s dismay when his original Declaration did not get approved without changes and amendments.  And we ate in the Tavern where those same Americans met after meetings for food and drink.  In one respect, we were in awe; in another, we felt how human they all were, how they were elected to do their jobs, and they did so forging a nation out of work done in a single building in our country, a building that still stands, and is visited by thousands daily.


In March over forty people will join me in making a visit to the Holy Lands, to visit the Land where Moses grew up, to see the birthplace, hometown, and burial place of our Lord Jesus, to walk actually where he walked, and to walk also in towns still intact where the Apostle Paul walked. How enriching it is to see what our Bibles just describe in print! We will also be in Jerusalem, where Jesus called out some of the faithful of his day, Pharisees, the class to which Jesus most related. You see, rather than Jesus being diametrically opposed to the people he was describing in our text today, they were some of his own, the faithful, who had lost their way of humbleness, and had gotten their heads filled with their own importance and power.  One thing we learned in Philadelphia was that some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were masterful contributors, and others just signers; only one was a clergymen, a Presbyterian named John Witherspoon who went on to become President of Princeton; and though John Hancock had the biggest signature, he did not write it; Jefferson did mostly, and his signature is obscurely towards the bottom of the document. In Jesus’ day, there were Pharisees who were less important than they’d like to think, and some who were wonderful and faithful, like the Apostle Paul, like Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, like the historian Josephus, and others. Jesus in today’s text was calling some of his own to step back into line, to not put on airs, and to move from acting like kings to acting like servants. His teaching was plain: you are called rabbi, but indeed you only have one teacher. You may call a man on earth your father, but the true Father of us all is in Heaven. You may have servants who call you “master” but you only have one master, who is a servant master called “Christ.” The greatest among you will be the servant of others; and whoever makes himself out to be great and powerful shall fall; and whoever serves others first will be lifted up. What a message for us about what is most important in life.


Today on this All Saint’s Sunday, we believe that we will go into communion with all the saints again in just a few minutes. A job description for saints would certainly include humble living, serving others, and honoring the Lord Jesus. Take a moment to think in your mind about the people who have gone before you: people of faith in the Bible, in the nation, in the world, and even in your family. Especially, think about your family. Today during the prayer, I will be giving you guided time to think about who you have chosen, but I encourage you to think about someone you knew who mentored you, or passed on good traits, or blessed you by their words or by their presence. Perhaps you’ll want to write a name or two down of those who, in your life, were saints. Saints are not perfect or unreachable, as I learned in Philadelphia and in Israel. Saints are people who set examples of faith, put their faith into action, and learn from mistakes. Who would that be in your life? Who has gone to be with God, who has blessed or influenced you today? Who is that person, or those persons, who have given you a part of your personality, your convictions, your work ethic, or your Christianity? Picture them; appreciate them; thank them. In a few minutes, we will be connected in “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” Who will be there? Certainly Jesus, and Paul, and Mary, and the other Mary. But who among your ancestors will be sitting at this table with us as well? Think about them, appreciate them, and thank them. Take time to reflect today, beginning now. Take one minute to picture and remember your loved ones:

(60 seconds)

Now let us sing a song of the saints of God.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      November 2, 2008