Monthly Archives: June 2009

06-28-09 BECAUSE ‘ONLY BELIEVE’ IS NOT ENOUGH

BECAUSE ‘ONLY BELIEVE’ IS NOT ENOUGH

Mark 5: 35-43

 

One day years ago, the minister of the Riverside Church of New York City was reading a book called CHRISTOLOGY AT THE CROSSROADS by Jon Sobrino, who asked two challenging questions: “Do you follow Jesus as Lord?” and “Do you believe he is the Christ, (The Messiah)?” the way Peter responded when Jesus asked him who others say that he is: “You are the Christ,” Peter said, “the Son of the living God!” On that confession of faith, Jesus said his church would be built. But Ernest T. Campbell found himself in the position that many in our world are in, and he was alarmed: He believed Jesus was the Christ, but in his work daily, he did not follow him: he was not without income like Jesus; he had a home. Unlike Jesus, he did not hang out with prostitutes, tax collectors or lepers. The minister realized that, in his tall steeple position, he was virtually isolated from the things that Jesus did; he had ministries that took care of all of them.  He calmed himself a little when it dawned on him that Jesus did not call us to be his imitators; he called others to be his followers. “Follow me” he said to the Twelve and certainly to dozens of others. Still, Campbell asked himself these questions: ‘If I’m following Jesus, why am I such a good insurance risk [that I can get life insurance for a few dollars a month?] If I’m following Jesus why, when I have done my giving, have I so much left over for myself? If I’m following Jesus, why do my closets bulge when so many are unclothed? If I’m following Jesus,” he asked himself, “Why do I have so many friends among the affluent and so few among the poor? Why do I have so much privacy in a world starved for love? Why am I tempted to overeat in a world where so many beg for bread? And if I’m following Jesus, why am I getting on so well in a world that marked him for death?” Some of those questions make me uneasy. Some don’t apply, … but some do.  Some give me pause; some make me think. And as happened this week as I shared daily lessons with children as the Apostle Paul, I re-heard major New Testament passages. Jesus’ reassuring words in our text today, for example, “only believe,” are another way of saying “Remember: with God all things are possible!” But once we believe—and in some cases it is most difficult to believe in the immortal and invisible God, to believe in miracles, believe that Jesus rose from the dead—then  our lives have to reflect our beliefs! We taught that to the children this week: what we say has to be backed up by what we do; that what we do has to support what we believe!  Jesus was certainly familiar with the theatre; as a carpenter and stone mason he and his father might have watched or help build grand Roman amphitheatres built around the Galilee region, some of which stand to this today. In those dramas, the main actor would often put on a mask to portray his part, and such an actor was called a hypocrite; one who puts on an act for someone else. Jesus wanted no followers who were just putting on an act; no followers who might cry out in public “I believe!” but in private do things to hurt or hold down others. As the children’s message pointed out, if I professed to love my dog, but complaint about walking him, complained about feeding him, didn’t hold him, and complained about cleaning up after him, just how much do I love my dog?  So it is with Christ: the boys and girls notice people who say they are Christians, but attend church rarely; or lose their temper often (continuously getting angry has been listed as one of the seven deadly sins), and do not show kindness toward others.  Children notice that and get mixed signals about what it means to be Christian. Adults notice it and decide Christians are all hypocrites. So the standard of saying we are Christian is a high one. This week, we tried to align what we said and what we did; we tried to push the reset button on some learning so it could be learned again. That is not to say that some children, parents, and grandchildren here today, are not some model Christians! They are; but it only takes a few people around a child acting differently from the way they say they believe to confuse one child, or have another speak up and ask about it. Sometimes the honesty of children puts us right back on track.

 

Today in Mark’s Gospel we learned that Jesus reassured a Synagogue leader who came to him with news that his daughter was dead.  Somewhere in his life he must have heard, “With God, all things are possible!” or he must have thought “It’s my daughter; no request is too foolish if it might bring her back to life!” Indeed Jesus’ words matched his actions. He said “Only believe,” and then he went to the house of the leader. Remember, he was a leader of the synagogue, so he certainly knew Scripture that included the mighty acts of God. He wanted Jesus to make his daughter live as yet another way to show God’s glory. Jesus did just that, saying to her, “Arise!” and she arose.

 

To all of you who follow or seek after Christ: the best example we can give the world is to not only believe he is the Messiah, but also follow him as if he is. The best example we can show others is to have our actions back up our words. For as we taught the children all week: we most want the world to know we are Christians, not by our word, or by our membership evidence. We most want the world to know we are Christians by our love. When we let our actions back up our words, one writer ages ago said he got peace like a river, joy like a fountain, and love like an ocean in his soul. I want that, don’t you? Let us stand and sing hymn # 368, I’ve Got Peace Like a River.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           June 28, 2009 

06-21-09 RIDERS ON THE STORM

RIDERS ON THE STORM

Mark 4: 35-41

 

“The expression a ‘Perfect Storm’ originated from the 1997 book by the same name,” according to Wikipedia. It refers to that time when a simultaneous occurrence of weather, which taken individually, would be far less powerful than the storm resulting from their chance combination. The phrase “The Perfect Storm” has been used so often since the George Clooney film came out in 2000, that Lake Superior State University in its 2007 listing, said that phrase was one of the top ones that should have been banned in everyday use, in their 2007 publication! Other phrases that caught on over the ages but often get overused are “A Catch 22” situation, and “Pay it Forward.” But the perfect storm was a phrase brought to light when author Sabastian Junger spoke with Boston Meteorologist Bob Case, w said that the 1991 Halloween Nor’easter had three different weather-related phenomena to create the perfect situation to generate a storm-thus, the title of Unger’s book.  We are all, at times, riders of life’s storms, aren’t we? The damage we sustained in Volusia County from storms in 2004 was second only to Hurricane Andrew in South Florida because we had four hurricanes in a row:  Charley blew our shingles off, Frances and Jeanne laid down days of ceaseless rain, and Ivan made us wonder if storms would ever stop coming. From those experiences came new codes, new roofs, and new ways to plan for storms. But even through all of those storms, there were some people who were shrill, some who were quiet, some who were calm, and some who were frantic. What made the difference between all of them? Remember that as Jesus and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee, some of them panicked while Jesus slept! What made the difference?

Clearly in most situations, preparation makes a great deal of difference. Sometimes in your plans you can just get hit broadside by something unexpected, and it can leave you reeling! Sometimes even preparation can’t prepare you! But there are times when it can. If you go overboard from a ship with scuba gear and air tank, going overboard is far less traumatic then slipping over the side without a life vest.  If you are laid off from work, the process of picking oneself up is more familiar if you have been out of work before. I remember having Eastern Airlines employees here in the church when Eastern shut down; and General Electric employees when their local operations shut down. People lost their pension, their sense of self-worth, and their good salary. There were some who lost their way in those hard times, as they traveled on “stun” to company networking sites to try to find work. It was a time from which some recovered and some did not. And some in our world have had to work hard to overcome the dread of people dying: those in the armed forces, doctors, nurses, chaplains, and family members. Even with the death of strangers, some struggle with those losses. But with the death of friends or family, the loss is something from which some do not recover. Still, pre-need arrangements, advanced directives, and the Five Wishes booklets help people be more prepared than others. As I was taught growing up: “Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” It does not protect you from all danger or sorrow; but it does help you through the storm. Was Jesus, who was calm through the storm, prepared? As the Son of God he was exposed to nature with all its beauty and fury. He knew that winds and rain could come up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee; they still can. Around Florida we have gotten rather used to sudden storms and the good work of meteorologists. People from some other parts of the country don’t know how to take dry sunny weather one minute, and pummeling hail the next. Preparation and experience help us survive life’s storms.

 

Second, as Jesus pointed out in his Sermon on the Mount, becoming anxious about a situation never wrought one good thing. Anxiety is a response when preparation has been neglected. Instead of anxiety, we could begin planning how we will do better next time since all we can do is become a victim for now. In our Body, Mind, and Soul Health Ministry, we have even had speakers describe how to avoid having your home become a target for a burglar, your purse or wallet a target for a thief, and your body a target for molesters. Certainly those who have been victims once make plans not to be a victim twice. But plenty of people are walking around who will be a new victim in the future. Anxiety doesn’t help; planning helps. In the boat, anxiety rose among the disciples because they had not fully planned for such a storm: they may have dreaded it; they may have avoided that mode of travel because of a fear of sudden storms; and they rarely if ever crossed to the other side by themselves because as an area, it was considered unclean. So they were caught flat-footed when Jesus himself gave them an instruction: “Let’s cross over to the other side.” No on would have chosen to walk to the other side by way of the land; it was way too far and they would still have had to ford the Jordan River. No; ready or not, they were going with Jesus. They were not well prepared- true. And they were not comfortable with their destination or their means of travel, so they became anxious.  But a third help-a lifeline if you will-was with them, and it still didn’t seem to matter: Jesus himself was with them. They panicked as he seemed to have fallen asleep or didn’t care about their predicament. Instead our Lord Jesus felt safe in the everlasting, rocking arms of the Almighty. Like children in the protective arms of their mother or their father, anxiety changes to calm, fretfulness to sleep, and pain to peace. Jesus was so connected with his Father that he felt like that. The beautiful point is this: we too can connect with God the way Jesus did: with trust, a sense of protection, and an experience of love and trustworthiness. What is it like to have that kind of trust? The story is told of a small ocean liner making its way through a treacherous night crossing of the Atlantic. This particular night was not a Titanic night with icebergs, but it was one with crashing waves and insistent spray, so that occasionally the bow went under the waves and the stern rose out of the water. A young girl was in the public area reading a book while anxious and seasick people hurried by her. One of them stopped and asked her: “Young lady, there’s a terrible storm outside. How can you be so calm? To which she stopped reading, and looked at the woman, and said, ‘Because my father is the captain!”

 

Because my father is the captain. There are plenty in peril on life’s seas, the ones we call oceans, and the ones we call predicaments. You can choose to panic from unpreparedness, and let anxiety overcome you. Or you can remember who is your Savior; and who is your Father; and be rocked in the arms of God. Perhaps your prayer today can be like the one Edward Hopper put into the form of this prayerful hymn: Let us pray:

“Jesus Savior Pilot me, over life’s tempestuous sea; unknown waves before me roll, hiding rocks and treach’rous shoal: chart and compass came from thee—Jesus, Savior Pilot me! As a mother still
s her child, Thou canst hush the oceans wild; boist’rous waves obey Thy will, when Thou say’st to them ‘Be still!’ Wondrous Sov’reign of the Sea- Jesus Savior, pilot me!” Amen.

 

Jeffrey Sumner                                                                    June 21, 2009

06-14-09 WHAT A GRAIN OF FAITH CAN DO

WHAT A GRAIN OF FAITH CAN DO

Mark 4: 26-34

 

Last summer when our son Chris and daughter-in-law Amanda decided to have their wedding on 08/08/08 in Philadelphia, the price to be paid was having that day fall on a Friday, and having people arrive for a 6:00 wedding at a church several miles away from our hotels. On the way up to Chestnut Hill from the city, we crept along the interstate, forcing the wedding to start 35 minutes late. On the way back we decided to drive though the towns as we made our way downtown. As we drove through one neighborhood that looked rather worn, all of a sudden the area started looking better. We noticed that we were on the edge of the Temple University campus with impressive buildings and walkways. Then there it was: the church with the story that brought major support to the University: it was the famous Temple Baptist Church! This was the church that a little girl and her gift of 57 cents built! One December 1, 1912 the Rev. Russell H. Conwell was preaching his sermon. He told his congregation of a little girl he had known named Hattie May Wiatt. She lived near the church where the Sunday School building was so crowded that there was no seat for her (what a nice problem to have!) As she sobbed, telling him she him about it, Rev. Conwell took her by the hand, walked her inside, and found her a chair, and dried her tears. He said one day they would have enough money to build a bigger building. The little girl never forgot his words. Some two years, the little girl got ill and, sadly, she died. Her mother asked Rev. Conwell to do her service. At their meeting about the service, she brought him her daughter’s purse with money in it she had been saving to build a bigger church. He carefully opened the little change purse and found 57 cents in it. Her mother gave to him, saying maybe it could be a start for that church building her daughter hoped could be built. Rev. Conwell told about Hattie May’s faith and unselfish gift. People in the church, inspired by that little girl’s generosity, started the Wiatt Mite Society, dedicated to making her money grow as much as possible. They told others about Hattie May, and they wanted to give too. With their initial gifts and investments, they bought some new property on which to build a new Primary Sunday School department! Later a house was also purchased nearby, in part from Hattie May’s money and those who were inspired by her, where the first classes for Temple College, later Temple University, were held! From the faith of a little girl, and her 57 cents, Temple Baptist Church with over 3,000 members, Temple University with alumni such as Bill Cosby, and the Temple University Hospital nearby were all built.  What a grain of faith can do.

 

As we have watched some large corporations crumble in the last year, we have also watched some small businesses, whose leaders have faith and vision, take off.  Sometimes big seems fabulous; at other times it is the smaller the better: the more personal; the more special. Some are enamored with big churches. The largest in our denomination is in Atlanta with 9,500 members, but there are some non-denominational churches in Indiana, Texas, and California with 15,000, 18,000, and 20,000 members. The largest claimed membership in the world is a church in Seoul, Korea with 250,000 members. How enticing!? Or perhaps it is to you! Large churches can do elaborate productions, and ministries, and can have a pastor to those whose names start with A through G, another for those H through L, and another for those M through Z. Sound absurd? A classmate of mine accepted a call out of seminary to a church as the Associate Pastor to those whose last names started with M through Z! Wild.  On the way up interstate 95 in Georgia is a sign for the world’s smallest church; Richard and Mary Hills stopped to see it in April; it had 13 wooden chairs! I wonder what evangelism means to them- the church is deeded in the name of Jesus Christ and there is just room for our Lord and the 12 to be seated there! Certainly in NY State, in Arizona, Iowa, and Illinois there are other tiny church buildings.  Did you know that fully half of the churches in America today have 100 or fewer active members?  One hundred may be small to you, but to a congregation of 12 it is large. What wonderful things have small churches done? Each month in the Presbyterians Today journal, I read about yet another loving ministry. Central Florida Presbytery just this month took the step of closing a church that just had three people left on the roll, but none well enough to attend! They hadn’t had a pastor in years, but they gave the care of those people to a neighboring Presbyterian Church. That church was the smallest of our 75 congregations in Central Florida Presbytery. At 740 members, we are the tenth largest. But every congregation started with a grain of faith, a spark of vision, a few faithful parishioners, and people who sacrificed time, talent, and money to make it a church. Our own congregation started like that with Sunday School meetings in 1946 and the chartering service at the Wilbur By-the-Sea Boathouse in 1955. Who among them didn’t think starting a new church was going to be costly or difficult? Who among them thought it would happen, nevertheless, with God’s help? How many seeds of a dream get planted on rocky soil and do not grow; or how many get planted among the thorns of negative people, and the dream dies? How many get planted in the midst of heat where they were scorched by adversity brought on by others?  But one seed, at least one seed, was planted all those years ago that made Westminster By-The-Sea flourish today. One seed took root at the turn of the 20th century and Temple Baptist Church, University, and Hospital has a little girl’s 57 cents to thank. And before either of those, a seed took root in old Jerusalem, the city that to this day has its share of adversity and negativity. But a sower named Jesus planted the Word of God there because he embodied it; he left his mark on stairways, at healing pools, in the garden, and on a cross. And the world has never been the same.

 

As we were over in Jerusalem in March, we visited the Mount of Olives and there we took pictures of olive trees that were proven to have been there when Jesus and his disciples were there! They have lived over 2000 years! All from someone taking an olive branch, and planting it in a place conducive to growth. The scripture and anthems and hymns today sound like that Jesus’ lessons were all about agriculture; we’ve heard about seeds and planting, harvest and bounty.  But you do know that when Christians talk about the harvest, they’re talking about the final Judgment, don’t you? You do know that when we talk about a mustard seed, it’s not about the seed; it’s about having at least the faith of the smallest of seeds. You do know that when you hear about the wheat getting stored in barns and the weeds or tares being burned that it means … well, you know by now. And when Jesus talks about planting seeds, going to sleep, and waking up to see that they have grown, you now have more insight into what he means. It reminds us that, when we have our times, like a child, when we say to God: “I can do it myself!” that there are some things that we simply cannot do; only God can do some things! No matter how loudly or emphatically the children shout “GROW!” to
their little Easter sprouts planted in our new church garden, they will only grow in God’s good time. What we can do is water them, till the soil, and give them sunshine; even then they may not all grow, or grow at the same pace. Some things are just out of our hands. Some things are just a matter of faith. There are certain things—like the way we care for our bodies, the nurturing we provide our souls, and the stimulation we give our minds—that make us healthy and wise, and perhaps even wealthy! But the rest is up to God. This parable also tells us that sometimes the changes going on in our souls or the souls of those around us are imperceptible. They are happening, though we can’t notice them. When I was growing up the signs I had that I was getting taller were not noticeable to me day by day. But once a month or so I could stretch myself up very tall against the inside of the bedroom closet door where pencil marks measured my height, and I could see that I had grown. I would know it when I would put on a pair of pants I hadn’t worn in a while and kids at school would tease me: “Are you expecting a flood with those high waters on?” It was time to get new pants! We cannot see the changes that a little faith, a little blessing, or a little nurturing will do. But it is changing you, and sometimes through it, you change the world!

My friends, it is hard to know when God decides that it is harvest time for our souls. But your faith journey started at some point in your life, with a grandparent, or friend, or pastor, or teacher planting a seed in you: a faith seed. God’s Spirit is watering it even now; and you are tending it by your attendance today, by your daily prayer and any time spent in God’s Word. As we give thanks to God in just a moment, join me in lifting up silently the names of those who, sometime in your life, planted seeds of faith in you! How much they have grown! And they are still growing! Thanks be to God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                    June 14, 2009

06-07-09 THE GOSPEL IN MINIATURE

THE GOSPEL IN MINIATURE

John 3: 1-17

 

It seems that there is never enough love to go around in our world; few people get enough love. Very few ever come to a point in their lives when they cry out “Stop! That’s enough! I can’t take any more love!” Some get married for love; others stay single for love. Some love children tirelessly; others are drained of love by needy children around them. Books have been written about people selling their soul to the devil for love; but mostly what’s for sale is lust, and sex, and companionship. But love is different.

 

What is love? Is it an emotion; a feeling; a way of living? Are there degrees of love- yes. Are there different kinds of love- yes. C.S. Lewis says that there are four kinds of love; he calls them 1)affection; 2) Friendship; 3) Eros, 4) Charity. There are lots of ways to love; but it is author Greg Baer who reminds us what “Real Love” is: it is unconditional; it is given as a gift, knowing that at the source of love (God) there is a never-ending supply. Author John Powell once asked a psychiatrist friend if people could be taught to love.  The psychiatrist’s answer was somewhat surprising when he answered: “Did you ever have a toothache? Of whom were you thinking during the distress of your toothache?” His point was clear: when we are in pain, we mostly focus on ourselves. Now think of all the discomforts that distract you now: some are aware of back pain, or a headache, or pain in a hip, or stomach, or shoulder. Some may have heartache. Some may have anguish over a tense job situation or no job. Some are thinking about things that need to be done on their mental checklist. How can we be expected to think of others, and be a conduit of heavenly love to another person? Yet getting back to love’s source reboots the way we receive and show love.  I’m so glad I have Mary Ann, and my kids, and our webmasters near me when my computer freezes; in a panic I cry out to them; at the moment, when I am obsessed with nothing else, they can often get me out of a computer jam. On my new laptop computer that I got for my birthday, a tool I will need for my doctoral program, I’m not fearless, but I’ve grown confident with it because I know at least five people I can call to help me if my computer freezes. But when all else fails, they have shown me how to just restart the computer. I have learned to think “Jesus saves,” throughout all my sermon writing, as a reminder to keep saving what I’ve typed so it is not lost in some computer glich! Going back to basics, and to the sources of help, gives me confidence.

 

What is the basic source of help when it comes to eternal salvation and love? In the first letter of John, chapter four, we read “God IS love.” When all the human loves get distorted with possessiveness, or desires to control, or manipulation, or dishonesty, or stipulations, it is good to re-boot, to restart our concept of love: to go back to the Bible and read GOD IS LOVE. That’s one source of rebooting. The other is the verse that gets held up to cameras at sporting events; one that is shared in every evangelism pamphlet I have read; it is called “The Gospel in Miniature.” That means if we could put on the head of a pin what Jesus came for us to know, it would be this one sentence: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  For the longest time I wondered what kind of Heavenly Father showed love by sending his Son into battle to die. “I love you so much, I’ll just send my Son to die for you.” It didn’t seem like real love to read it that way. But today is called Trinity Sunday, and in the mystery and the power of the great Christian doctrine of one God in three persons, based heavily on the Gospel of John, we see that when it comes to the persons of God, it is all for one, and one for all. Let me illustrate that.

 

Last fall George Painter was ahead of the popular curve when he taught one of our Westminster Institute classes on William P. Young’s book THE SHACK. Now that many others have read it, they’ve asked, “Can we have a class to discuss THE SHACK?” Yes, George has agreed to teach a Sunday class on it again starting in September. For those who haven’t read the book, the characters bend your mind so as to make you suspicious of reading it; and for those who have read it, the God characters helped us re-think the concept of God. Suffice it to say there is a very Trinitarian picture of God in this book. At one place in the story, Mack, who has had a great sadness in his life, has a vision of God in three persons. The Papa character tells Mack that everything is about the truth, that the truth sets all people free, and that the Truth has a name: he is a carpenter with nail scarred wrists, and everything is about him. Mack wonders how Papa can know how he feels; then he looks down and notices Papa’s wrists are also nail scarred, with outlines of deep piercing; Papa turns to Mack with tear-filled eyes and said: “Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark; we were there together.” Mack was surprised. “At the cross? No, wait … I thought you left him—you know, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ It was a Scripture that had often haunted Mack in The Great Sadness. This was Papa’s reply: “You misunderstood the mystery there at the cross. Regardless of how he felt at the moment, I never left him.”

 

With human love so tied to all the things I mentioned–emotions, feelings, experiences—grounding ourselves not in what we can see, or smell, or hear, or taste, or touch, but instead grounding ourselves in promise, the promise of the one who is love, we are told: “I will never forsake you; I love you so much that I will take the nails for you; and even though you can’t see me—and that is intentional because I am also Spirit—I still love you and always will.

 

God loves you so much; when everything and everyone else is your world confuses you, or lets you down, or disappoints you because they are human, connect with the source of all love; it is out of this world.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                   June 7, 2009