Monthly Archives: April 2009

04-26-09 ANOTHER GREAT COMMISSION

ANOTHER GREAT COMMISSION

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

 

And with that Christ blesses the disciples and leaves them. I imagine some joyful and tearful partings then. I can see them waving to Christ as he leaves. Then, after the glory fades and Christ is gone, I can see the disciples looking around at each other, each with the same question on his lips.

 

What happens now?  They were called to be witnesses for Christ. Called to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. How on earth should they begin?

 

We have the same question today a lot of the time. What does it mean to be a witness? Where do we begin?

 

The mission of the church here is nothing less than to go into the world as God’s people, and proclaim a subversive, transforming message about a suffering God who calls anyone without discrimination to respond. It will not be a popular message. In fact, it will be scandalous for some. And people will not be so eager to accept just anyone into their fellowship, as we learn all too quickly in Acts. The task will be far more enormous than anyone imagined, confirmed by the fact that the church still faces the same issues today.

 

The words of Jesus were to his followers and they were to be delivered to their followers and on through the ages to our own time.  To truly, fully understand the resurrection of Jesus Christ is to understand that we are witnesses to these things.

 

The message is one of hope and liberation for all who will receive it.  It is a message that is to be proclaimed throughout the world.

 

And you are a part of that!

 

Let’s start by trying to understand what we are asked to proclaim. The word we translate as Repentance is Metanoia, which literally means to change one’s mind, in the sense of embracing thoughts beyond its present limitations. I think that repentance is a good word to use here, but this definition lacks some of the negative connotations we tend to think of when we say Repent.

 

Forgiveness or aphesis is a release from bondage. A pardon of sins without paying the penalty for them. What an amazing message! What a wonderful thing to have to tell. If you see that what you are doing is not the way to live, and open your mind to a new way, you will be released from the burdens of what you have done. Released from the emptiness that has over taken you. This is something that is worth proclaiming!

 

And to proclaim, Kerusso, is to preach, but it also means to go forward (pro) and own (claim).  This means that preaching is not just speaking at people; it is sharing in their lives. We preach loudest when we step down from a podium and into the everyday life of those around us.

 

So how are we to proclaim this good news? Notice how it is given to all in the room—and it is not just the “guys” who are there. Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh, except for you women here.” Nor, does he say except for the elderly (surely Mary was there) or except for you kids. There are no exceptions. Everyone is called to proclaim.

 

And in order to proclaim, we have to go out into the world, just like Christ did. According to one count, the gospels record 132 contacts that Jesus had with people. Six were in the Temple, four in the synagogues and 122 were out with the people in the mainstream of life.  He didn’t only go to people who had already made that first step and come to the Temple. He met people where they were instead of assuming they would come to him.

 

According to the book Life of Francis d’Assisi, Francis once invited a young monk to join him on a trip to town to preach. Honored to be given the invitation, the monk readily accepted. All day long he and Francis walked through the streets, byways, and alleys, and even into the suburbs. They rubbed shoulders with hundreds of people. At day’s end, the two headed back home.  Not even once had Francis addressed a crowd, nor had he talked to anyone about the gospel. Greatly disappointed, his young companion said, “I thought we were going into town to preach.”

 

Francis responded, “My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk! 

 

This isn’t an easy task or a light burden. Yes we have joyful news, but the world doesn’t want to hear it. Yes, it is an amazing message, but it calls us to move outside what we are comfortable with. We have to do more. We are called to share meals with those hungry and lonely. We are called to be a proclamation of God’s forgiveness and inclusion. We can blame no one else if the world is a hostile place towards children or the elderly. We can point fingers at no other entity if there is genocide, war, and poverty in our world. We are the ones sent to be the great news. We have to do something about it.

 

This is story told by Ralph Neighbour, pastor of Houston’s West Memorial Baptist Church. Jack had been president of a large corporation, and when he got cancer, they ruthlessly dumped him. He went through his insurance, used his life savings, and had practically nothing left.

 

Ralph visited him with one of his deacons, who said, “Jack, you speak so openly about the brief life you have left. I wonder if you’ve prepared for your life after death?”

Jack stood up, livid with rage. “You Blankety Blank Christians. All you ever think about is what’s going to happen to me after I die. If your God is so great, why doesn’t He do something about the real problems of life?” He went on to tell us he was leaving his wife penniless and his daughter without money for college. The he ordered us out.

 

Later the deacon insisted they go back. They did. “Jack, I know I offended you,” he said. “I humbly apologize. But I want you to know I’ve been working since then. Your first problem is where your family will live after you die. A realtor in our church has agreed to sell your house and give your wife his commission.  I guarantee you that, if you’ll permit us, some other men and I will make the house payments until it’s sold. Then, I’ve contacted the owner of an apartment house down the street. He’s offered your wife a three-bedroom apartment plus free utilities and an $850-a-month salary in return for her collecting rents and supervising plumbing and electrical repairs. The income from your house should pay for your daughter’s college. I just want you to know your family will be cared for.”

 

Jack cried like a baby. He died shortly thereafter, so wrapped in pain he never accepted Christ. But he experienced God’s love even while rejecting Him. And his widow, touched by the caring Christians, responded to the gospel message.

 

That is witnessing. That is proclaiming. We must not keep silent. We don’t have to shout or bully people into believing, but somehow the world must see that we believe in the Risen Christ, that the power of the resurrection to forgive and to heal is real. Jesus commissions us to take the message of unconditional love and forgiveness to all peoples and to witness to this message, to share it, speak it, spread it, teach it and most importantly, to the best of our abilities, to live it.

 

Jesus ends his commission with a clear call of who forgiveness has come to. The word for nations, ethnos, actually means “all ethnic groups except your own.” To the Hebrew quite literally it would mean the “other” people; those heathens.

 

To us I think it means ‘them.’ Anyone we would not include in the word us – all the thems of the world. That is to whom we are to proclaim this great and wonderful news. In the disciples day that meant the Romans who oppressed them, the heathen gentiles throughout their land. In our day it is the poor, the marginalized and the criminals.

Some of these people aren’t very pleasant to be around. Some we may think don’t deserve forgiveness. Some may never accept it. None of that matters. We are called to proclaim forgiveness and repentance to all nations. Not just the people we like.

 

We are witnesses. That is a large part of what being a Christian means – witnesses to the resurrection of Christ, and proclaimers of the forgiveness of sins.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is more than a spectacular event that gives us hope for eternal life.  It is a mission given to every believing person.  It is a partnership with Christ.

 

This partnership will ask us to do hard things, things we really won’t want to do. It will ask us to do wonderful things, like sharing this joyful news with people who see what a gift it really is. But hard or easy, this partnership is what it means to be Christian. So I ask you to go out today and witness the joyous message of Christ to someone who is a them. Go to where they are and live out your witness of Christ. In so doing may you join with a tradition of Christians throughout the ages, back to Christ, proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Amen.

04-19-09 LEARNING TO DOUBT YOUR DOUBTS

LEARNING TO DOUBT YOUR DOUBTS

John 20: 19-31

 

A memo was sent to David O. Selznick, the head of the old RKO studios, after a man screen tested for films. The memo said: “Man can’t act, is slightly bald, dances some.” Selznick had earlier been concerned about this particular man’s “enormous ears and bad chin line.” What doubts he had that this man could ever be a star! Of course you have probably figured out that he was talking about Fred Astaire, the master dancer, who also sang and acted in some of the world’s most beloved musicals! What a good thing it was that Selznick didn’t follow his doubts! On the other hand another actor listened to his doubts and turned down the Rhett Butler roll that ultimately made Clark Gable so famous. The man who turned down the roll?  Gary Cooper! Cooper was quoted as saying: “I’m just glad that it’ll be Clark Gable and not Gary Cooper who’ll be falling flat on his face!” He listened to his doubts! In the rookie year of a famous baseball player, a Boston sportswriter named Bill Cunningham said this about the new player: “I don’t believe this kid will ever hit half a singer midget’s weight in a bathing suit.” Yes that’s the exact quote; no one is sure what it meant, but it wasn’t nice! Cunningham should have doubted his sarcastic doubts, for he was describing the great slugger, Ted Williams. One last example: Back in 1903 the President of the Michigan Savings Bank advised Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company. His reason: quote “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty.” Sometimes people should think twice before speaking! The attorney ignored the banker’s advice; he invested $5000 that he later sold for $12.5 million!

 

Today we know what the gnawing power of doubt is like:  “Do I have enough faith in a company today to buy its stock or not? Do I love this man, or do I love this woman enough to take the step of getting engaged? Do I think I know the answer to this SAT question well enough to guess, or should I leave it blank?” Should I put away my own doubts and try out for “Britain’s Got Talent!” or let the doubts and jeers and the public keep me away? Surely there are times when doubt has its place as we quote “listen to our gut instead of our heart.” Even in Christianity, I think good healthy doubt means a person cares enough about an answer to wonder if it is true or not: “How do we know where Jesus was born, or that he rose from the dead, or that he made a blind man see, or that he appeared to his disciples, and even to Thomas?”  All good questions; and we could say- like a number of people who rationally, aimlessly or hopelessly say they are atheists or agnostics- “There is no God;” or say, “There is something, but I’m not sure what to believe.” To those people, and to questioning Christians, it was the famous 20th century preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick who first addressed “The Importance of Doubting Your Doubts.”  Today we are visiting that old story of Thomas that has repeatedly saddled him with the name “Doubting Thomas.”  Sometimes nicknames are unfortunate. I wonder if Dale Earnhardt Jr. will ever live long enough to not be called “Little E.” or “Junior.”  Judging by Doubting Thomas, it doesn’t look good. The Doubting Thomas incident overshadows “another occasion which showed Thomas’s intense loyalty and bravery. When Jesus decided to make the dangerous journey from beyond the Jordan to go to help his friend, Lazarus, the disciples besides Thomas tried to dissuade Him, for they were sure that His enemies would capture Him and kill Him. But Thomas said to them, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him!’ (John 11: 16.) Thomas showed his courage, his faith, and his support for Jesus.  Thomas perhaps was among the most loyal of disciples, who still, understandably, couldn’t believe that the man he saw die on a cross could have lived beyond such torture. Could you have seen Jesus’ agonizing death and then believed he was alive and well without seeing him? Perhaps the thing about the Thomas story is that most of us would say and act exactly as he did!  When I moved to Missouri in 1966, one of the first things I learned was the state motto: It’s the “show-me” state. My parents said that means, “If you want me to believe you, you’ll have to show me!”  Of course, illusionists and magicians have taught me that I really can’t even trust my eyes. Through the trick of 3-D glasses, I can put my hand out, and believe an object is floating inches in front of my face when it isn’t. When I watch Star Wars, with surround sound, I can be made to believe that the Empire’s gigantic “Death Star” is passing right over my head. So why is seeing, or hearing, believing? Instead of relying on senses, perhaps Jesus was most pleased by those who relied on, first, people whom they trusted. Certainly Jesus had said on more than one occasion that the son of Man would be delivered into the hands of evil men, that he would be killed, and on the third day rise again.  Jesus had said it; did they not have ears to hear? Do we?  Second, Jesus was most pleased by those who relied on their faith instead of their doubts. Very little has been accomplished in life by mean children or thoughtless adults telling children that they are no good, or stupid, or clumsy. There are countless numbers of examples of people who have gained fulfillment, happiness, success, or all three by moving forward in faith and listening to the encouraging voice of a grandparent, teacher, or friend who believes in them. And there are others who have tapped into the quiet voice of God that says, “You are my child; I am so pleased with you, and I am with you whatever you try!

Doubts can part of living, but they are not meant to stay; they are meant to bring up a question, an issue, or something that needs exploration or resolution.  Doubting our doubts is a springboard for faith. What would it hurt if we just believed?  Even if all the things we believe about Jesus life weren’t true, his teachings have changed and transformed generations. Add on top of that the news that Mary Magdalene told Peter, and that, together, they told the others, and we have a belief in him, as captured in the Apostles’ Creed: “On the third day, Jesus Christ rose from the dead; he ascended in Heaven (after appearing to Thomas of course!) and sits at the place of honor to the right of his Heavenly Father.”

So, what are your doubts? It is all right to name them; Cara deals with doubts in her Apostles’ Creed class; I deal with doubts in my Wednesday morning Bible Class, and my Wednesday evening Disciple class. And George Painter deals with doubts in his Tuesday “All Things Religious Considered” class.  We are called into ministry to help people grow in faith, believe in God, and follow Jesus as Lord. Everyone here can be an example of faith when some may call you a fool; or an example of withering doubt- as others wonder how you live with such gnawing hopelessness. One person put it this way: “Doubters invert the metaphor and insist that they need faith as big as a mountain to move a mere mustard seed.”  What does it take for you? More than a dozen times in the Gospels
, Jesus instructs others to only believe, tells crowds that healing has taken place because of faith, and is most sorrowful when people who should believe in him, don’t. As Jesus looks into your heart, what will he find, and what will he feel?  Perhaps we can, in this Easter season, take the step of faith and be among the blessed followers who believe, even if we do not see.

Jeffrey Sumner                            April 19, 2009

04-12-09 MY LORD, WHAT A MORNING!

MY LORD, WHAT A MORNING!

Mark 16: 1-8

 

In a stage whisper, I can imagine Christians thinking about the day when God created the waters of the deep, and the sky above, and exclaiming “My Lord, what a mornin’!” I can imagine Christians on the day of Christ’s return, a time perhaps when stars will fall from the sky, or when the earth will shake, or when a radiant beam comes from heaven, proclaiming “My Lord, what a mornin’!” And today on Easter, when we remember that Mary Magdalene and Peter and the others found that brand new tomb, where Jesus’ body was placed and a stone rolled over the entrance, empty,  Christians around the world hopefully are saying in a breathless fashion, “My Lord, what a morning!” The old Spiritual song from whence that title comes captures the sense of awe, and wonder and amazement that gets buried under layers of our prior knowledge that the tomb was empty. We know the tomb was empty! The Bible tells us so. We believe that Jesus’ body was not stolen from a guarded and sealed tomb. We believe that the ground shook and the stone rolled away and that Jesus rose from the dead!  Risen from the dead: we sometimes sing about it as if it happens every day; well, it does now, but only because Christ the Lord broke the bonds of death and came to life again. It’s not every day that such things happen! My Lord, what a morning!

 

As I was telling the children, I began thinking about times in my life that took my breath away: going to my first World Series game was never to be forgotten by a boy seeing his favorite team! Getting old precious coins from my late uncle’s collection; seeing my wife on our wedding day and my children on their day of birth; seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time; seeing a double rainbow; seeing York Minister in England and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  In 1985 watching the cameras of Dr. Robert Ballard find the Titanic after 73 years. The ship was sailing for New York in great luxury 93 years ago this very night! The whole event astounds me. Someone else’s list included seeing pictures of earth from deep space; hearing about the first heart transplant, the wonder of the Internet, and the time when the Berlin wall was dismantled. But perhaps the event that made the whole nation look on in awe happened on July 20, 1969. If you were alive then, you were likely watching a television set, not to witness an assassination, or war, or a terrorist attack, but to see what had never happened before: a man stepped on the moon for the first time. Do you realize how many decades we’ve been flying the Space Shuttle just up into the air or to the Space Station? The first Space Shuttle Columbia went into the air this day, April 12th, in 1981- 28 years ago! After President Kennedy’s challenge to get there, Neil Armstrong put his foot on the lunar surface just 7 years later. Seven years! My Lord, what an event. It brought wonder, awe, and unity back to a bitter and jaded nation. What are the events that have taken your breath away? Picture or think about them now.

 

The disciples of Jesus also had some breathtaking experiences occur as they were following the Savior. What were some of their amazing events?  At a wedding, Jesus’ mother watched him change water into wine; certainly one of his more popular miracles! Just last month 35 of us stood at the Sea of Galilee where Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed 5000 people with them! My Lord, what a miracle! Can you imagine seeing that? How about seeing a man sitting by the pool of Bethesda for 38 years, and then one day Jesus said, “Just get up and walk,” and he did! “Mind over matter” you might say. “The power of suggestion” you might think.  Not so fast! How about the day that blind Bartimaeus, a persistent beggar, had Jesus ask him, “What do you want?” “I want to see” he replied without hesitating. And Jesus made him see. What a miracle!  We in our day are not without our miracles either.  Respected psychiatrist and physician Dr. Harold Koenig, in his book THE HEALING POWER OF PRAYER, gives dozens of real examples of healings considered to be miraculous, going even back to 1858 to a case in Lourdes, France, when a peasant girl of fourteen, being prepared for her first communion, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary nineteen times, and she was directed to uncover a spring that reportedly helped heal thousands who visited it over the years. In our modern era, even this last week there was the case of everyone in a house barricaded in a closet while a tornado came and tore every single part of their house down except the closet! They were in the closet praying. It takes my breath away to hear a story like that.

 

Perhaps you have not been spared in a storm, or perhaps you have. Perhaps you haven’t had a doctor turn to you as your husband miraculously recovered from a stroke and say, “There was more than medicine at work here! Prayer brought about this outcome!” Or perhaps you have heard words like that. And it is likely that none of us can know what is was like to approach the tomb of a man who was said to be the Son of God, and, when going in to prepare the body, find it gone!  But God did that for us, according to many faithful witnesses. The tomb was empty; it didn’t just matter to them; it matters to us; and as used to the news as I’ve become, when I sing about it, pray about it, and try to picture it, it still has the power to take my breath away. I hope the events of Easter never lose their edge of awe. My Lord, what a morning!

 

One man put to paper what it must have been like on the day of Jesus’ death.

On the day of Jesus’ death and the next day, Nicodemus might have wished Jesus knew what he had done for him, for his gift was great, but the man Jesus had died. Disciples may have given up on their dream of a Messiah. Some gathered to talk about Jesus as friends do with casseroles or finger foods in our day. But he was gone. Second day disciples are called that if they never hear of the empty tomb. They have memories, but hope is missing. The memory of Christ’s strength could keep them strong; the memory of his courage could breed courage; the memory of his tenderness could encourage grace. But they are just memories. Second-day disciples are to be praised and pitied, third day disciples are to be praised and envied! They have more than a memory to recall, they have a person to call upon! Even if the third day had never dawned, even without Easter, Christ’s teachings were true. His principles were valid and practicable. But third-day disciples have more than principles: they have a presence; they have the presence of a living Lord with them.” [LaRue A. Loughhead, EYEWITNESSES AT THE CROSS, 1974, Judson Press. P. 68, 69.]  We are not stuck in the night of his arrest; we are not mired in the afternoon at Golgotha when the sky turned black. A new day dawned, and birds sang, and the earth shook, and the stone was rolled away, and a risen Lord offered the miraculous way to eternal life. Let us give him th
e crown of Glory, as he offers us the Crown of Life.

Jeffrey Sumner                                                                       April 12, 2009

 

04-05-09 HONORING JESUS IN THE LAND OF PALMS

HONORING JESUS IN THE LAND OF PALMS

John 12: 12-16

 

The latest edition of the AAA Guide to Florida is 1166 pages. It weighs over a pound, and is filled with information about history, attractions, hotels, restaurants, and events.  The book begins with: “When you hear the word ‘Florida,’ there’s a good chance that you conjure a vivid mental picture. It probably includes swaying palms, sandy beaches, and piercing rays of sunlight ….Perhaps you envision the emerald green waters that caress the Gulf beaches of Pensacola. Or the shark’s teeth sprinkled across the sand in Venice. Or the colorful varieties of seashells blanketing the coast on the islands of Captiva or Sanibel. Or the rolling waves lapping at the sugary shore of Ponce Inlet.” Ponce Inlet, you made it on to the first page about Florida! Of course, the book reminds us of other draws: the Space Center, Disney and the other Theme Parks, and the weather.  Nowhere does it say that the state spends under the federal minimum for each child in school, or that our largely retirement population is suffering with the diminished value of their retirement savings, or that our prisons are jammed with criminals. Of course not; this is the land of palms, and a travel guide wants to paint the picture with as much attraction as possible. Who, when selling a car or a house, points out all the flaws first?  No, the first line of the guide features palm trees, made to sound exotic, but in truth they are one of the more useless trees that grow, giving little shade, with a shallow root ball that makes them tip in the wind, and having their wood too soft for construction. Yet when the palm tree that graced our front lawn for more than two decades died last fall, the price of a replacement tree was over $11,000. Now, as you may have noticed, we have no palm tree out front.

 

Palm Sundays at most churches are a little like a travel guide.  Most who attend church services on this day are looking for a few the following: a joyous procession of children with palms, and the singing of one or more of these hymns: “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus, Hosanna Loud Hosanna, and All Glory Laud and Honor” –check, check, check, and check. It is a day that features children imagining themselves praising and cheering the Savior! Check.  Most who come have their Sunday School, chamber of commerce, attractive church ad idea of Palm Sunday.  And, of course, on the church ad page of the Hometown News on Friday, we joined six other churches in trying to “out attract” unchurched people to come to our services.  Today all churches promote themselves as “churches of the palms.”  Of course tomorrow, today’s palm branches will begin to curl, and turn brown, and later, in some traditions, they will be burned to ash, that will  be mixed with Holy Oil and saved to be applied to people’s foreheads on the following year’s Ash Wednesday.  Palms, like ice cream or ice sculptures, must be enjoyed quickly.

 

It is John’s Gospel that, at first glance, seems like the Jerusalem guidebook about Jesus Palm Sunday.  It is only in John that palms are mentioned, did you know that? It is John’s record of what people shouted that is most often said in church liturgies: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  “Hosanna!” has been turned into a child-like cheer by the guidebooks, but in its original day it was the Hebrew word of frustrated anger that translated as “Save us!” It was the symbol of Judaism during their time of self-rule, during the wonderful and romanticized age when the Hasmonean Dynasty governed in peace: Jewish leaders for a Jewish nation.  But now Romans were all in control of Jewish territories and Holy sites.  Cheering crowds, trying to incite Jesus to action upon entering Jerusalem during the crowded and testy Passover crowds, hoped that he would be a warrior king. But Jesus had different plans. Verse 16 of today’s John text reads: “Jesus disciples did not understand his message at first, but when Jesus was glorified, they remembered that this had been done to him.” What had been done? He had called for a donkey’s small colt to ride on – a sign of change through peace- he did not call the white horse of a warrior. His people thought back to the words of prophets that told him what that meant: In Zechariah 9:9, the prophet told all who belonged to the Jewish lineage-daughters of Zion and of Jerusalem they called them- to expect a Savior who would enter Jerusalem on a donkey. Check. And the words for Psalm 118 gave the people the words they chose to shout and the actions they clearly took.  Check. This was Messiah! They believed Jesus to be Savior, at least on that day. The hymns all talk about the children and it is popular and fun; the Bible talks about the Savior, and the direction his kingdom will take paints a disturbing and agonizing picture.

 

Today the good news about this day is this: as you leave this sanctuary and drive home, it is unlikely that you will miss seeing palms in some form. When you see them, you can think about how beautiful or how useless they are as a tree if you wish; but today, at least for today: let’s remember to honor Jesus in the land of Palms: joining the crowd of his day in proclaiming “Hosanna!” (Jesus, I need a Savior, and you are he) Blessed (anointed from above) are you who comes in the name of the one who first owned the title Lord, (Adonai, or Kyrie): the Lordship of the Almighty is passed on to the one called Christ. May palm branches forever remind you of the one who came to others in his day, and now he comes to you, and to me, in our day, and shows us the way to Kingdom living, and perfect Earthly living. His name is Jesus.

Jeffrey Sumner                                                            April 5, 2009

(Now we move from the guidebook Jesus into a brief reminder of what Jesus came to do: join me in singing verses 1 & 4 of this hymn, “Ride on Ride on in Majesty.”)