Monthly Archives: March 2009

03-29-09 CHRISTIANITY VERSUS CULTURE

CHRISTIANITY VERSUS CULTURE

Acts 18: 1-8; John 12: 20-33

 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached words about the Kingdom of God that had a strikingly different message than the worldly message that others were proclaiming: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; instead lay up for yourselves treasure in Heaven…. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” In every age, there is a battle for our hearts: do we think about eternal things or things that fade? Do we think about people and relationships, or about things? Do we think about others or mostly about ourselves?  Today as the reading from Acts took us to ancient Corinth, and as John’s Gospel took us to Jerusalem, let us see how few new things are under the sun in terms of things that dazzle and attract us, and see how the   Christian message is relevant in the 21st century as it was in the first century. 

 

We don’t know from which direction Paul entered Corinth, but many entered from it’s prominent port of Lechaion.  If one enters from that direction, even today, one comes into Corinth on the Lechaion Road. As one entered through that prominent gate to the city, one thing dominated the skyline: the Acrocorinth, a huge mountain just beyond the city, on the top of which stood a temple to honor the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who the Corinthians  credited for bringing wealth to their city. Certainly when Paul wrote his chapter on love, he could not forget that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was prominently remembered in Corinth. That mountain and temple, a challenge to his Christian beliefs, would have been directly in front of Paul as he entered the city. Today we think about all that retailers, television shows, and fashion magazines do to pull and distract the young, even those of more mature years; they distract with celebrity, with beauty, and with fame.  In their book on Corinth Stetson Professors Clyde Fant and Mitchell Reddish say: “Since steps led from the road … chariots and wagons were prevented from entering the forum.” [A GUIDE TO BIBLICAL SITES IN GREECE AND TURKEY.] This area, then, was a pedestrian walkway, 35 feet wide with shops on both sides, we might call them boutiques, stores that would invite and implore visitors and residents alike to stop and shop, buy their products, wear their handmade articles, or be adorned with famous Corinthian leather, silk, or cosmetics. Sound familiar?  Shops on the left, shops on the right.  To make Paul’s task even more daunting, at the entrance to the Lechaion Road, Paul would have passed the Temple to Apollo, a structure that stands even today. Paul, like us, would have had his work cut out for him, trying to tell a world based on many gods to put its trust in the true God. In how many ways does the church today face the many gods of people’s lives? When people put celebrities, singers, sports figures, or lovers absolutely first in their lives, disaster is sure to loom. Back now to Paul’s entrance to Corinth: straight ahead was, and still is, the BEMA, the place that was the communication center of Corinth. Without newspapers, cell phones, or Facebook, this was the place where pronouncements were made and results of trials were read. It is actually where, in Acts 18: 12, Jews made a united attack against Paul, saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” Later a fight broke out there and certainly the crowds that had gathered stayed to watch. Off to one side of the BEMA was the Fountain of Peirene (pi-REE-nee) a beautiful water source that was breathtaking then as it would be now. The city was a stunning piece of planning. To the right of the BEMA was the Agora, the marketplace of Corinth, the place where ordinary people would by their foods and necessary items. Recently built in Paul’s day would have been a large building that housed both offices and a hotel of sorts. Continuing past the buildings, there would certainly have been signs pointing toward the large ampitheatre on the hillside in the shadow of the towering mountain called the Acrocorinth. Greek trajedies and comedies would have been perfomed weekly, giving entertainment, if not instruction, to the patrons. To one side of the Agora would have been where the trades set up for construction: chiseling marble, pounding brass, heating bronze, tanning leather.  Certainly when Paul wrote his famous First Corinthians 13 he had these sites and sounds around him. For example: “As sounding brass” would have been the deafening noise created at that end of town where brass was beat and polished into everything from cymbals to mirrors. “Giving my body to be burned” was by some accounts a reminder of some who sacrificed, or almost sacrificed, themselves for their faith. And when Paul talks about enough faith as to “remove mountains,” the Acrocorinth with the temple on top would certainly have been on his mind.

 

Now tranport ourselves back thirty years earlier to a country south and east: Israel, and it’s capital city, Jerusalem.  At Passover, the crowds in Jerusalem would have been like Bike Week in Daytona: everyone afraid that the wrong thing said could stir up a fight. There in John we still find the mention of Greeks among the Jews. There again we find Christianity over against culture. Jesus was telling those gathered a gospel message that went contrary to what people thought. Even then, as now, there were plenty of people who were did everything because tradition said it was to be done a certain way. Jesus in many was lifting up an emerging Church from the firm rulings of his own Judasim. The Greeks there and in Asia Minor could, like us, be lured by sales pitches: “You deserve a break today,” “you’re worth it,” and “pay off your debts ahead of schedule” were main street mantras of their day.  To that Jesus said, “Those who love their life in this world will have no future life,  and those who are repulsed by life in this world will love the justice of Heaven.”  Countercultural; upending philosophy. This is the work of Christ and of Christians in the first century; it is the world of Christ and of Christians in the twenty-first century as well.

 

Geographically and archaeologically you can visit Corinth and Jerusalem today like dozens from our church did just over a week ago. It is half way around the globe, but culturally, our world and its values have changed little; the Christian message still can change lives for those who are disenchanted, discouraged, or disheartened by the hollow promises of happiness that the media promises.  “There must be something more” you ask. There is; join us this week and next in the journey to the cross and beyond. Come to know the radical message Jesus brought, that, when followed, brings us not only closer to God, but right into Kingdom living.

 

Jeffrey Sumner                                                             March 29, 2009

03-08-09 WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

 

An article in an AARP magazine listed a number of things that reminded people that they were aging. Depending on your age you may or may not think they are funny! Here are five of them:

You know you are getting older when:

– Your back goes out more than you do;

-your knees buckle but your belt won’t;

-you get winded getting the mail;

-you turn out the lights for economic rather than romantic reasons; and

-you sit in a rocking chair but can’t make it go.

Certainly people of every age have bad days! But we today are talking about things that can be debilitating, and, to our frustration, they seem to happen to us whether we have faith or not; whether we go to church or not; whether we have lived a good life or not; and whether we are old, young or somewhere in between. The list includes: disease, divorce, death, detachment from a joy, depression, and disaster to name a few. In 1982, when Rabbi Harold Kushner knew he was going to lose a son to rare disease called “progeria,” he wrote his book WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE. It struck a chord with the public and Christians also found his question good and timely. He came to his own conclusions as you will come to yours. But I hope our text today will stir you, perhaps even change your thinking, moving you from the question of “why” to his more helpful question of “when.”

In the list of questions for God when people get to Heaven is the question that is different from the title of this sermon; the question you may want to ask; the question that Job wanted to ask: Why do bad things happen to good people?  Some child-like scowls scrunch our faces as we furrow our brows and shout skyward: “It’s not fair!” Alas, we have given our children the shortest answer to that question when they cry out to us “That’s not fair!” “Life isn’t fair” we tell them, and life tells us as adults. There is certainly no place in any religion that makes us think it is. Life is not a question of fairness. To coin the sentence that Dr. Scott Peck used to begin his bestseller, THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED, “Life is difficult.”  It seems especially difficult these days, doesn’t it?  There are times in everyone’s life when things go badly.  Let’s think about the subjects of bad and good today.

 

 We are aware that bad things happened to the good Jesus. Our gospel text points that out. On person put it this way: “Even though constantly tempted, Jesus did not succumb to evil, which constantly bombarded him. Think of it. God, in Jesus Christ, experienced the worst that this life could throw at him. [His Heavenly Father] did not allow Jesus to be insulated from pain and suffering, just as we are not insolated.” Alan Paton, in his book, CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY, [remarked]: ‘I have never thought a Christian would be free of suffering.  For our Lord suffered. And I have come to believe that He suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew there was no life without suffering.’” Jesus put it plainly: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected [by others], and be killed.” [Mark 8:31] All in one sentence, the one who was perhaps the embodiment of good on earth suffered, was rejected, and endured a death that would be called torture by any standard.  Perhaps our question ought not to be, “Why me?” when it comes to suffering, rejection, or death, but “Why not me?  So, dear ones, today let us consider what are we going to do with the hand life has dealt us. Some want to trade in their hand, or fold; but reality teaches that lessons are learned and people are changed by playing the hand we have been dealt. Our second hymn today is written as if it is God ministering to us: Here’s the line that describes our souls as if they were gold, and the heat of life is busy purifying them: “When through fiery trial thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume (which is the worthless stuff in gold before it’s heated and burned up) and thy gold to refine.”  The bad things are not there to overwhelm you, though they sometimes do that; our bad days make us more aware of our good days. A woman was once asked what her favorite passage of Scripture was. “And it came to pass” she said. “That’s it?” her Bible study leader asked. “Yes,” she said, “it reminds me that bad things don’t come to stay, they come to pass.” After weeks in a dark valley, a day on a mountaintop evokes gratitude! Today we remember that sometimes bad things happen for a purpose, and sometimes redemptive actions are produced from bad situations. Bad things happened to Jesus for a purpose. Bad things can be purposeful, like the cross. For some, bad things defeat them. For others, bad things transform them, or even the world.

Second, bad things will never separate us from the good God. Paul assured us that “in everything, God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” [Romans 8: 28]  The Psalmist said the Lord is “our very present help in times of trouble.” And it was Soren Kierkegaard who created the famous saying about “Footprints in the Sand” when the man looked on the ground of his life and noticed that when things were especially bad, the two sets of footprints-one his and one God’s-were no longer, and just one set walked the sand. The man thought that meant that God abandoned him in his most trying times. But God looked at him, and shook his head gently with compassion. “No my precious, precious child; during those bad times I did not abandon you; it was on those days that I carried you.” God will not only see you through your bad days, if you are aware of it, you might even notice, in hindsight, that God carried you.

 

Third, bad things can create good things. Gemologists tell us that a real diamond is not created without intense pressure and time.  Yet there are those in our lives who want to fold under pressure and do not have enough patience for time to do its redemptive work. Our teenagers, for example, rarely become their best selves by being allowed to sleep all day, play all night, and become couch potatoes.  Pressure and trials forge boys into men, and girls into women. It has always been that way. Certainly there are some of you who feel like you’d be just as happy to skip the trials and pressures that you are enduring. But pressure has created cures for diseases, inventions for efficiency, and even music filled with glory. It was a deaf Beethoven who wrote his ninth symphony that includes the music that we sing as “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,” without ever being able to hear it himself. As he conducted the symphony and choir at the inaugural performance, someone had to turn him around to let him see the thunderous applause he could not hear. What can a disability or a tragedy drive you to do, or create, or become, that you would not have had the pressure to do before?

 

We have noted that bad things happened even to the good Jesus.

We noted that bad things will never separate us from our good God.

And we noted that bad things can create good things.

Finally, we are left with a command from Jesus himself: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The one who was not afraid as storms threatened to overturn his small boat on the Sea of Galilee; the one who endured the cross and the one who endured the grave heard the same voice that we can hear if we try: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10).  Jesus came as the Redeemer, not the destroyer. May the Redeemer fill and lift your life today in the valleys of deepest darkness, using strong carpenter hands to carry you.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                March 8, 2009

 

 

03-01-09 TEMPTATION TIMES

TEMPTATION TIMES

Genesis 9: 8-17; Mark 1: 12-15

 

Every Sunday we pray to God saying: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Some have translated the last word as “the evil one,” meaning the one who Jesus encounters in Mark’s gospel today: Satan. Verses 12 and 13 of chapter one tell us that the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. Our youth just finished a 30 hour fast yesterday and it was difficult; Jesus was in a wilderness for forty days of fasting! Forty days to be tempted with food or power or with worldly thoughts that would have made a weaker man give in. Jesus spent forty days in the hands of the master of temptation. And remember, he was no seasoned veteran at the time: he had just experienced his baptism with water and the Holy Spirit. His time with Satan became his baptism by fire. What do you suppose Satan would have used as the tools of his temptation trade? What would he think would seduce Jesus? What has attracted you to fall of the track of the straight and narrow over the years? Certainly most of the time you, like I, have the strength and insight to see temptations for what they are and JUST SAY NO. Oh, if only that were the way it always worked, but it isn’t. Pick up the papers, look in the mirror, look over your life. How many get seduced into committing one of the Seven Deadly sins:  

lust, gluttony, greed, loth, wrath, envy  … or pride?

 

Temptatation can start out seeming to be harmless—like taking a second piece of pie—or blaming someone else for something you did.  But temptation can escalate into something out of control. We heard in Genesis and Mark that trials and temptations can bring us to our knees. When we are tempted, it is God’s chance to see the fiber of our will and the content of your being. It is God’s chance to see where God will end up in the order of priorities for life. It will either be that God is first, or somewhere farther down; and telling God that Heaven comes in a close second in your life counts less than a    hill… of… beans. It counts for nothing. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” God dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. Even Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and neighbor doesn’t undo the First Commandment.  First and foremost in life we are to love and focus on God. Don’t even think about putting someone or something else first in the throne of your life. Why? Because these are temptation times; they are times of testing and trial. God IS watching us to see the choices that we will make. And yes, our choices count.

 

Lest any one of us be tempted still to disregard those words as we journey in the wilderness of Lent, never forget the day God was tempted, the day when God almost gave in to temptation. In the flood story, God put into place things that were not in place before. God said to Noah, and as a reminder to himself: “When I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant  which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”  Jesus said “no” to Satan three times; three times in his physically weakened and famished state. What an example.

 

Temptation times. They come to everyone: Jesus; me; you; even God. What you do with those temptation times is what counts.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   March 1, 2009