12-28-08 IT’S A BOY!


Luke 2: 22-40


In spite of recalling Christmases when my sister got a plastic Wonderhorse, our children got stuffed animals, Jenny got dolls, and the boys got Buzz Lightyear and Batman, taking care of a toy is nothing like taking care of a real pet or child. Over our back fence we love patting a loveable golden retriever named Sam. We get 5 minutes or so at a time of his attention and he gets ours. Only Christmas Eve did I learn that when people come to his house, he has to be locked in a room sometimes because he is too excited to not play rough! Jenny and boyfriend Brian, inspired by Sam, got a Golden Retriever named Hemi nine months ago. He spent a week in our house over Christmas. What a difference it is to pat a dog for 5 minutes and live with a dog 24 hours a day! His feeding and boundary and bathroom habits needed attention, and in spite of his good training, he changed the way we lived for seven days. And that was just a dog!  Those who have had a child, or have lived with a newborn know the responsibilities that come with a child: constant attention to warmth, eating, changing diapers, and identifying angry crying, sick crying, or hungry crying. When Christopher was born I was in my last year at Princeton Seminary. In preparation for his birth we took classes, changed the dining room in our one bedroom apartment into a nursery, and I took movies of Mary Ann acting out her nesting instinct by even vacuuming the furniture and washing the walls! When Matthew was born, we lived in Arkansas and the hospital was 45 miles away from home. It was the 100th anniversary of the church there and I had an evening homecoming service to lead: that was the day he decided to be born! What a hectic time. In those days we didn’t find out the gender of the child until birth—at least we didn’t—so as I arrived for the service that night after his birth at lunchtime, the church elders had changed the outside church sign to read “It’s a boy!”  What a greeting to the world on a day I’ll never forget.  Jenny was born also in Arkansas in that same hospital, but it was such a joy to, instead, pass out announcements that read: “It’s a girl!” All three of them were home for 30 hours over Christmas- hours that we cherished.


Today’s Luke text carries us over from the Christmas Eve texts: Mary, and the man to whom she is engaged-Joseph- go to great lengths to be together at the time of Jesus’ birth: instead of leaving Mary behind in Nazareth, where her family could certainly have cared for her and may have wanted to, he took her with him in her condition as he fulfilled the census requirement put out by decree.  In fact, if I were her mother and father, I might have insisted that she stay to give birth there. We will never know if it was Mary’s understanding of the angel’s decree, or her desire to stay with Joseph since both had been visited by an angel, that made her travel in her condition. The Bible doesn’t say how they got to Bethlehem; the apocryphal Infancy Narrative of James claims that Mary started to deliver the child before they arrived in Bethlehem and that Joseph left her in a cave while he ran into Bethlehem for two midwives. But no matter the exact details, the birth of Jesus came at great personal sacrifice on both of their parts, like a child born today takes sacrifices of time, money, and attention. On the eighth day, according to the law set out in Leviticus 12, they made all the arrangements to have Jesus circumcised (Luke 2: 21). What followed after 33 days (also from Leviticus 12) was the trip Mary, Joseph, and Jesus took to Jerusalem for her purification (Luke 2:22). What ordeals children bring into our lives!  Nothing done to that point was done because Jesus was the Son of God; it was done just because Mary had a baby boy! What a difference there is between gifts such as a dolls or stuffed animals, compared with a real child!


Children around the world, and certainly those of us near Disney World, know one story of magic when a toy marionette is changed into a real boy!  It’s the story of a blue fairy that magically brought a toy maker’s favorite toy to life. The puppet that became a boy was Pinocchio, and he only came to life when he gained the virtues of bravery, loyalty, and honesty, that would be needed in a real life. The toy maker, Gepetto, loved Pinocchio like a son.


People have told stories that describe the cost of real care for a pet or, even more importantly, a child, in any number of stories. In Margery Williams’ classic tale of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the stuffed animal rabbit sat on the nursery floor one day and asked the Skin Horse, who looked old and wise, what it was to be REAL. The dialogue went like this:

“What is real?” the rabbit asked.

 “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes” replied the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are REAL you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” replied the Skin Horse. …  “It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are REAL most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joins and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL you can’t be ugly. The Boy’s Uncle made me REAL” said the Skin Horse. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are REAL you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

If we were but puppets controlled by strings that stretched into Heaven; or if we were stuffed animals that only moved when someone moved us, we would have no knowledge of life and death, or of right and wrong, or have the burdens and joys of feelings- from happiness to sadness, from hurt to healing. To some hurting people such numbness seems like bliss, but clinically such numbness is called death; inanimate, lifeless objects don’t feel; human beings feel, with all of the burdens and joys that come with it.


God chose humanness to know the gamut of our emotions; to know what it was like to have skin, and to know both the joy a Zacchaeus’ conversion, and the sorrow of Judas’ betrayal. God chose to become human, with all of its complications.  Babies are complicated: they have needs, and as they grow they need guidance, and when they are grown they have responsibility. Today we were reminded by a prophet named Simeon, that even the blessed event of Jesus’ birth has its dark side. We’d like to be at the part of the story that say’s we’ll live happily ever after. We’re not there yet; but as we celebrate his birth we have this assurance: Jesus was born to save real people like you and me! Thanks be to God for the greatest gift of all at Christmas.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           December 28, 2008




Luke 1: 26-38


In tonight’s concert you will hear a few phrases that are in Latin- a language easy and beautiful to pronounce and the root language of many that are used today.  When we sing “Alleluia” for example, it is the Latin way of writing the Hebrew word “Hallelujah!” which means “Praise the Lord!” Indeed if I tell you that some have referred to the birth of Christ as the “Divinum Mysterium” those with a good ear could tell that means “the Divine Mystery.” Likewise “O Magnum Mysterium” means “Oh, Magnificent Mystery” which refers to God. And the words of Mary that were just read are called the “Magnificat” in Latin, from the main word of the first sentence, “Magnifies; My soul magnifies the Lord!”  So we can approach these Christmas events with the eyes of detectives, which will unlock some of the meanings that have been before us for years, but not fully understood.


Let’s begin by trying to figure out why the one called Son of God and called Savior, the King of kings and Prince of peace, should come into this world in such a lowly way. Let’s try to figure why the woman God chose to bear his Son had such poor and bustling conditions for the birth of her Son. And let’s try to figure out why the one who sends an angel to tell Mary not to be afraid seems to forget her plight as she has to travel 80 miles, being great with child. And finally let’s try to figure out why Jesus was laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals, instead of in a beautiful wooden crib made from the skilled hands of Joseph, his carpenter father.


As we begin, some of you may hesitate to ask and probe about things concerning Jesus’ birth. The story, after all, is classic, its inspiring, and its beautiful. Christmas Eve we will honor that tradition of reading the story and singing the carols. But there are insights to be learned that will bring detectives closer to him and to the great mystery of his humble birth.

First, the announcement is startling, having a stranger—an angel no less—visit Mary and tell of God’s plans and invite her collaboration. A young woman such a she, certainly just a teenager, faced an overwhelming responsibility for one who had lived under that shelter of her family all her life. She would disappoint her father by having a child during her engagement to Joseph, the man her father certainly arranged for her to marry. She would anger her townspeople by having them think she had been unfaithful to her husband-to-be. Can you imagine trying to tell your family and friends that your pregnancy was from God’s Holy Spirit? If you thought Noah had a hard sell when he told others God said to build and ark, imagine how Mary felt about telling this news! Instead she went away, to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for months. Her cousin was having an exceptional pregnancy of her own announced by an angel to her husband of many years. He would grow to be known as John the Baptist. And what disgrace Mary’s news brought on poor Joseph too! In Matthew we read that he was ready to break off his engagement to her when an angel talked him into the idea, another scene that seems beyond belief. So the announcements are incredible. Second, in Luke’s gospel, in a passage we will read Christmas Eve, we read “you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” For three verses in the Bible, read at Christmas, we hear about a manger. Nowhere else in the Bible is one mentioned, or is this story told. Jesus was in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. You’ll recall that Luke says a census was called for by Caesar, and all had to return to their hometown to be registered. That was the reason for the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Many others were from Bethlehem as well, and the homes of relatives could conceivably have been overloaded. In addition, inns were not like inns today; animals would be tied up in cave-like stables and people stayed in large, often open-air areas with just a roof over their heads. Many people, gathered in crowded conditions, would hardly have been an ideal place for a child to be born. Perhaps God’s plan was most compassionate: having a private area with straw and an animal crib for a place to deliver a child and give him a bed for his first night on earth.  Could the crowded conditions and having no place to lay his head except a manger be foreshadowing of the life of our Lord: always roaming, never claiming a home or articles of his own besides the robe he wore? Could it foreshadow the conditions of human hearts through the ages: crowded with activities and interests that have left the Lord Jesus with no place to call a home with us? 


Again, the message we have to consider each Christmas is this: a young woman conceives a son, not by her husband to be, but by the Holy Spirit. An angel announces this news to her, and in a separate time, speaks to Joseph about it. The child she is carrying is already named—Jesus—and she knows his sex before our best tests today could tell it. He is said to be a holy child. In spite of the holiness, Joseph agrees to a step-father arrangement and is forced to travel 80 miles south with Mary to Bethlehem, a place where they were virtual strangers. Tired and dirty shepherds are also in Luke’s story, and no Christmas is complete without them; but what a gathering: perhaps showing how Jesus was born among the poorest, yet Matthew later points out his royalty by having magi make their way to honor him. It’s a story that has so much built around it, from children’s plays to cantatas, that the Son and Savior message gets gift-wrapped for us each year. The announcements, along with the circumstances of the birth, are almost unbelievable. Followers believe it; others wonder and doubt.


Finally, we recall that the “Son and Savior” message has an equally anguishing story awaiting us at Easter, when the faithful Son of God dies a criminal’s death on a Roman cross.  If it were fiction few would believe this story; because we believe it to be true, it is gospel: God came into the world like one of the poorest of the poor to relate to them; he came in as a king, to relate to those in power. His birth was announced in disgraceful ways in Nazareth so the event became uneventful: except to Mary, Joseph, and finally to us. What an astounding way for God to try to get … and keep … the attention of his children.


Today we thank God for Mary, who had the human choice of saying no, but said yes. We thank God for Joseph, who had the choice of saying no to the strange arrangement before him, but he said yes. We thank God that people of all walks of life—lowly and regal—were represented in the Christmas story because it includes us.  An old spiritual looked at Good Friday and asked the haunting question: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Because of Luke’s gospel, we also have descriptions about the angel and Mary, with dialogue included in such detail that we almost feel as if we were there too. We are on the verge of Christmas Eve; think of ways you can honor not only God for the gift of salvation, but also the cast of characters who said yes to God’s plans. What plans might God have for you in helping others to have a place to lay their head, and a bite of food for hungry travelers? What will be your role in God’s unfolding drama of the Divinum Mysterium?                                       Jeffrey A. Sumner                 December 21, 2008we



John 1: 6-8, 19-23


Witnessing about your faith to others is, by most accounts, not something people do easily. Those who are relentlessly intrusive with their faith, pushing their religion, wearing signboards at rallies, waving John 3;16 posters at football games, and those who ring doorbells more than UPS are seen as fanatics by most. Many are persistent people, taking seriously their job of selling Christ, of presenting confrontational evangelism. We meet those people on our doorsteps, in shopping center, at airports, and on the streets. They know they have a job to do, and they do it with high levels of commitment.  If I had to guess, however, I’d say that most of you do not relish encountering one of those religious people.  By that I mean over-zealous Christians or those in a Christian—like sect are likely to be either shouting and harsh, or persuasive and nice in their desire to win you to their position. It can be a high pressure situation.  That’s what many of you have probably experienced as witnessing. You don’t like it and so you move in the opposite way, refusing to open your mouth about your faith.  “I’ll just let my life be my witness” you tell yourself. But the kingdoms of the world, if they are to become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ need more than that. I’m here today to challenge you to witness; to open your closed mouths! There is more than one was to get a job done, and there is more than one way to witness.


Before I tell you the approaches to witnessing I’ve seen, let me tell you one reason that I started my preparation for ministry with a souring experience. In my second year of college I began to hear God’s call into ministry in the midst of faith that was present and growing. At that point it was necessary to see a certain presbytery official who was charged with certifying my fitness for ministry. Aside from the battery of psychological tests and questions about my faith, there was some time for general discussion. At one point I replied that I didn’t like to push religion on anybody, because that approach never brought me closer to God. In response to me, the man leaned across the table, red-faced, and said firmly and defensively, “ Young man, we are in religions business and we sell Jesus Christ!”  Well I almost gave up the idea of ministry right there if that’s what I had to do. I refused to take the obnoxious approach I had seen others take. But here I am, in a Christian pulpit, charged with the task of preaching Christ and inviting—indeed urging—each of you to do the same. There are good ways and bad ways of doing that. That’s what we will see today. Ultimately John’s gospel implores every follower, like John the Baptist himself, to bear witness to Christ: nothing more (as some do by claiming glory for themselves) and nothing less (as others do by never saying a word about their church or Lord.)


The word “witness” is usually saved for a courtroom: a witness is someone who has personally seen or heard something and has been asked to tell about it. Each Christian is asked to do that: to take the witness stand of life, at appropriate times and say, “it may be hard to believe, but my church prayed for my father and he got better;” or say “I don’t know what to tell you but I was in deep trouble with money, with my family, and was losing my friends and Jesus saved me and turned my life around;” or say “I can’t tell you a day when I was born again, but looking back at my life, like the footprints in the sand story, I can certainly see now the times when God was carrying me.” You see? That’s witnessing; not in someone’s face; not with a cold call at a front door; not with an intimidating stand. It is telling others what you’ve seen or experienced.  Jesus commissioned his followers to tell others about him, and tell others what they’d seen God doing in the world. Yet the approaches to witnessing I have seen often move from being persuasive to being pushy. Have you experienced those people? Here are some styles I have seen.


One style of witnessing I’ve experienced I call the “bulldozer approach.” This is when a person corners you somewhere and bowls you over with a stream of arguments and memorized Scripture. You are asked to commit your life to Christ then and there, if you don’t, they push you along until you agree to their terms, or you say “no” firmly and mean it while they mark you down as a lost and burning soul. That “bulldozer approach” never won me over.  A second way of witnessing that I’ve seen I’ll call the “decoy approach.” It occurs when person pretends to build trust, friendship, or mutual interest in you with the goal of lowering your defenses so they can talk you in to Christianity. If ever, just out of courtesy, I mentioned my name to them, they used it in almost every sentence possible to make me feel like we were friends.  The “decoy approach;” it too can make the person being pursued feel deceived, hardly a genuine way that Jesus would use. Another way of witnessing I’ll call the “jealousy approach.” I find it used most by certain youth groups on other youth.  These youth make it seem that they especially love and care for those who join their group, therefore you are made to feel jealous or outcast unless you become one of them. We might call it “Christian Connection by Clique” and it too is counterfeit. By contrast, John the Baptist proclaimed his message to anyone within earshot. Jesus showed his love to any who would accept it, including tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers: many who were despised by others. So the love of Christ is something we are also called to share, yet some in churches become part of a selective and isolating group of like-minded people. Is that the way the first church lived in Acts chapter 2? Do people want to be “won to Christ” to just be included in a count of saved souls?


This morning’s gospel text says John was a prophet sent from God to give a testimony: to bear witness to the light. When this gospel was written there were some groups of people who wanted to call John the light; the messiah. To go against that tide, John overemphasized that he was just a messenger and that Jesus is the true light. John is not the Christ; he is not even worthy to be his servant he says. He actually goes overboard to lower himself and raise up Jesus.


We can learn a lesson from John. We, too, are called to witnesses. But witness like I described? No; to paraphrase Paul, “let me show you a more excellent way” to bear witness: nothing more, nothing less. Some here today fall into the “nothing less” category. Witnesses in courtrooms cannot give testimony without using their voices. Neither can you! You have a call to action where before you let your actions do your talking. Some of you may even think that you are ashamed because your beliefs aren’t that sure and your own salvation story not that clear. Then you are perfect for this job! Nothing is more effective in reaching some people than to share that you too have questions and doubts! That can be very reassuring to others who also have questions but are searching for other seekers as well. Not everyone has a dramatic story or steel-strong conviction! You have witnessed to your faith best with your life choices and Christian values, and people have known you are Christian by your love. Look for opportunities to share that you go to church, or that you pray, or that you have faith. Don’t miss opportunities to invite others to your church or to know your Savior. 


One couple told a class that I taught that they used to come down the elevator in their condo on their way to church Sunday mornings about the same time as another couple who came down dressed to go play tennis.  One week the conversation went like this: “Playing tennis today I see.” “Yep” the couple replied.  “Where are you going?” “Church,” they said. After their class here about sharing, the next time they were on the elevator they said, “How was tennis last week!” “Alright,” the couple said, “It gives us exercise and some time together. How was church?” And this time the couple was ready. “We heard fabulous music, had a great Sunday School class, heard a sermon that stayed with us all week, and had a fellowship time where we met two new couples! It was great! Sometime if you’d like to join us, we’d love to take you and sit with you.” The tennis couple, after a month, took them up on their offer. Bear witness, nothing less. You cannot take a seat on a courtroom witness stand and give testimony without speaking; to be a witness for Christ, followers also speak to others.


Others need to be reminded to bear witness, but nothing more. Those people lean in to the spotlight intended for Jesus so it shines on them as well! They like the spotlight. They like others to know their good deeds, their faith, and their church membership. Some preachers can become so enamored with their star power that they become more like celebrities, instead of like John who pointed to the light and made sure no one mistook him for the star.


As we draw nearer to Christmas Day, many of those who do not believe in Christ find little meaning in the reason for the season. Some especially this year, face plummeting portfolios, have less buying power, and struggle to pay bills. In their darkness, there is still a light that shines; for over 2000 years, the darkness has not overcome it. There is a light for these dark days in our nation and our world. There is a light and it is not me, it is not you, it is not a political figure. There is a light, and his name is Jesus, the one who saves, who loves, and who came to earth at Christmas. We are called to tell it  from Jordan’s banks to Mount Hermon’s height; from the most prince-like castles and the underpasses that house cold and tired humans; from prison cells to rooms where stockings have been hung by a chimney with care: Jesus loves you, Jesus can save you, and Jesus wants you to, this day, prepare him room in your heart.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 December 14, 2008



Mark 1: 1-8


While visiting the Presbyterian Historical Society in August, I came upon a display case with some coins that didn’t look like any I had seen before. Looking more closely, I learned that they were tokens; communion tokens, given by ministers to parishioners sometime before the next Holy Communion was celebrated, indicating that that person had done a rugged self-examination of his or her sins, had done what was necessary to be reconciled for those sins, and was as consecrated, sanctified, and as clean as approaching the Holy Table required. Can you imagine … doing all of that just to take communion? Today I hope you will do more than imagine it; I invite you to experience what should be happening every time we participate in this extraordinary sacrament of Holy Communion. 


Words from our Directory for Worship always preface our communion as recorded on page 4 of your bulletin. But there are words not recorded in the bulletin that are recorded in the Directory. They state: “In preparing to receive Christ in this Sacrament, the believer is to confess sin and brokenness, to seek reconciliation with God and neighbor, and to trust in Jesus Christ for cleansing and renewal.” All of a sudden, we are transported to the Jordan River, to a time when our dear Lord- who created an example of prayer with “The Lord’s Prayer,” who created an example of a New Covenant meal in the Upper Room- also created an example of baptism for repentance of sins, getting his cousin John to wash him clean, not because he sinned, but because others did, and he wanted them to also be spiritually clean. He gave us the example of how to live, how to be baptized, how to share a holy meal, how to pray, and how to die. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, an action so important that Jesus began his ministry by urging others to do it too, as a step toward holiness. “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee” Frances Ridley Havergal wrote over a hundred years ago. That’s what we are to think as we come to the table of our Lord: “Lord, take my life and let it consecrated- declared holy or sacred, set apart from common use- to thee.”  This is an extraordinary thing we hope to have happen today. Perhaps Holy Communion does not affect some as much as others because they do not do the rugged work of preparing themselves for it.


I remember going an with elder several times to take communion to dear Arlene Byther, who went to be with her Lord in Heaven after living over 90 years here on Earth.  When she would call to request that I bring communion, she would take the days before we arrived—sometimes one week, sometimes two depending on when the next communion elements were prepared—to prepare herself for that meal. To get herself in the proper frame of mind, she thought about those who had hurt her and forgave them either with a phone call, a written note, or if they had died, in a journal. Then she would think about times when she had hurt others and write or call and ask to be forgiven.  When my elder and I would arrive, she would be ready:

in spite of her incapacity in the nursing home, we would arrive to a sanitary room that was neat and tidy.  Her bed would be made, the clothes that she wore were freshly pressed (though I don’t know how), and she had spent the day of our arrival alternating between Bible readings and Guideposts magazine.  She would greet us as if we were the Lord himself, so grateful that we had come. She exuded gratitude. At the time for communion, she would take my hands as I prayed,  then sit up straight with a bowed head as she gently was offered a piece of bread. I then invited her to reach into the velveteen holder from which she took a cup like you will have today, and drank of it. She ate the bread as if it were the first time she had tasted food all day- not eating ravenously but gratefully, glad that it had been lovingly prepared for her. She would then drink from her cup, and her face looked like if she died right then she would have been at peace. I’ll never forget the impact of Holy Communion on Arlene: days of preparation, including prayer, reading, forgiving, pressing clothes, tidying up, and preparing him room at the table of her heart. What an example.


Today I am aware that Twelve Step programs, which have some very healthy components to them, have one step that demands that the person make a rugged self-examination of his or her life that is not unlike an act of contrition and forgiveness. Today’s journey in Scripture to the Jordan River reminds us how important repentance is in the life of a Christian—turning away from, asking forgiveness for, and demonstrating remorse concerning a particular action or attitude.  Today, we can make a thimble full of juice and a piece of bread the most important and meaningful meal of our Advent season instead of another church ritual to endure.  It is all about preparing.


Let me close with words that my preaching professor at Princeton wrote in a book back in 1960: “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, is the crowning event of Reformed Worship, yet few acts are more carelessly performed by a large section of our clergy. And the slovenliness is not always due to a lack of knowledge but chiefly a lack of reverence. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the 1940s, in its report called ‘God’s Will for our Time,’ wrote “never in human history has there been less awe before a holy thing.’” [WORD AND SACRAMENT, Donald Macleod, Prentice-Hall, 1960, p. 129-130] I learned how to do things carefully, reverently, and properly from Dr. Macleod.  The utmost care and reverence is used here with the preparing of the communion elements, the placing of the freshly cleaned and ironed cloth on the table, the polishing of the silver vessels, and the handling of the trays by the elders who are all trained in action and attitude. It is our hope to honor our Lord in such a way that you too might have the life-filling experience that so many of our shut-ins have who, through their careful upbringing, have found the power of this meal.  Preparation is everything. Today I’ve asked that the meal be offered without background music, to set it apart from our days that are often bombarded by noise. Focus on the River, on the Upper Room, and on those who get so much from bread and a cup. Perhaps in the silence you will hear the whisper of God’s voice for the first time.

Preparing and pondering; let us reflect on and rejoice in both today.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                     December 7, 2008