Monthly Archives: August 2009

08-30-09 SHIFTING FROM NUETRAL TO DRIVE

SHIFTING FROM NUETRAL TO DRIVE

James 1: 17-27

The decades of the 20th and 21st centuries often get encapsulated into sound bytes.  We had the “Roaring 20s,” filled with many people out for their own gain, as the rich got richer. The 30s are labeled as the era of the Great Depression -the great leveler- as the haves joined the breadlines with many have-nots. The 40s were the era of World War II, in which a common cause brought Rosie the Riveter into the war along side Uncle Sam. In the 50s, after the Korean War, a sense of optimism encouraged returning soldiers to marry, settle down, buy a house, start a family, and pack the pews of churches. The prosperity and rise of corporations continued into the 60s, an era depicted by the popular AMC show, Mad Men. But the 60s were a confusing mixed bag of purpose and pain for our nation; of war and peace; of hippies and Vietnam. The 70s had the bookends of a conservative President Nixon and a liberal President Carter. The 80s became an era of rugged individualism and national pride. The 90s have often been called the decade of the technology and dot.com rise and fall.  Now we find ourselves in the first decade of the 21st century. In all of those eras, revisionist history can make the good old days seem better than they really were, while modern labor-saving devices have caused many people to burn fewer calories than they consume. Cell phones mean people can reach you anywhere, even in church or a movie theatre; the phone’s built-in camera can either capture a crime in progress, or be part of a criminal activity of photographed flesh. If the people will buy it, someone will sell it.

Now in all of these eras, what was the relationship between faith and works; or to put it another way, what eras were self-centered, and which ones were service-centered? A litmus test of a decade is foolish, but you in your life might be able name those whose service to church, nation, or community inspired you. And you might be among those who someone else looks up to because of your kind and tireless work on behalf of others. Eras of boom, such as the 20s, and the 90s, made people depend on one another less as many could meet their own needs. You remember a few years ago when house flipping happened regularly. But then cam the bust: foreclosures, gas prices climbed, fewer bought cars. Values of possessions plummeted but house payments and rents did not. And now the pendulum, with human and holy help, may be swinging back the other way.

 

Today our issue is the relationship between faith and work. In his New Testament letter, James declared in chapter 1 verse 18 that the Father of all Creation breathed life into us with his Word of truth for a purpose: Rick Warren was not wrong when he reminded readers that God created us with purpose in mind! Among those purposes, James says, is for us to become the first fruits, so to speak, of his creatures. The Genesis 2 account of creation has the human being created first: and the Old Testament concept of First Fruits in farming is just this: the first of your crop or your livestock, and even of your firstborn child was to be dedicated back to God. The first born child especially was dedicated back to God for a purpose: to serve the Lord. James says that we human beings are the first fruit of God’s creation; we have been created to serve God and the downtrodden if we can lift them up. Even Jesus said he came not to be served, but to serve.

 

Over the last century, churches, civic groups, and school groups have been hot and cold when it came to service projects. From the government instituted “Peace Corp” of the 60s, to the plan of one Georgia lawyer to give up his wealth and start “Habit for Humanity,” both organizations still are helping others. The question of why we help is one of the faith issues of the ages. It was the great preacher of New York’s Riverside Church Harry Emerson Fosdick who once observed that in his experience, those who reflect upon their lives and conclude that they have received far less than they deserve tend to be among those from whom no great living comes. Others evaluate their lives, thinking they have broken about even, and conclude that they got about what they had earned. Rarely do you see any exceptional living from either. However, those who readily reckon that they have received far more than they deserved are among those who have indulged in great living.” (As quoted by Peter Rhea Jones, from Fosdick’s RIVERSIDE SERMONS, New York, Harper, 1958, p. 174)  As I tried to demonstrate with the children, there are no gold stars given out for good intentions! How many times do the words limp out of one’s mouth “I meant to be there for that event, I just couldn’t seem to find the energy to do it.” What do the actions convey?  Or how about this: “I intended to write a thank-you note to you, I just didn’t get around to it yet.” What do the words mean without the actions? Or one time as I was asking potential new members what time or talent they might want to offer back to the church once they joined, they said, “Oh we don’t want to be asked to do things. We  come to church to be fed.” With that answer, I thought of the great saints of our church, who, every week, work hard for church events, classes, and services. Saints do not become saints because they sat! Saints become saints because they served! James calls out in a stage whisper: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only!  What deafening silence and utter discouragement came over the Board of Directors of my Homeowners’ Association, where many of us served for years, when everyone complained at the annual meetings, but no one said they’d help! Be doers of the word, not hearers only.  Although we have heard a lot about the Kennedys this past week, the famous quote President Kennedy used in January of 1961 was used much earlier by General William Tecumseh Sherman: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It is a rallying cry for citizens, yes, but the one who works in a civic club like Rotary, a fundraising group like the American Cancer Society, or the outreach or care in their local church, the same message would make James from the Bible smile. Of course, work without faith can be like a rudderless boat, moving in circles without a clear destination or purpose in mind.   It is about doing with the goal in mind, not just listening, or complaining, or even thinking about doing! None of those carry the weight that Isaiah’s words carried when God was looking for a worker: “Whom shall I send?” With Isaiah, God didn’t get a man shuffling of feet, a woman trying to be like a wallflower, a youth absorbed in texting, or a child sheepishly looking at the floor. He got Isaiah saying: ‘Here am I Lord! Send me!” And that response, among others, lifted up the Lord, bringing a new chapter to the cities of Judah. “Here am I! I’ll be there! What can I do?” are words that can build a relationship, change the direction of an organization, and honor God. Along with Luther and St. Paul, we may agree that we are saved by faith alone, but like James, we believe that fa
ith without works demonstrates that faith is not fully understood, and God misses our thank you note of gratitude.

Jesus did not just sit in a Temple or a home, or even in a tent. Jesus was a doer of the Word not just a hearer. If actions speak louder than words, what then, will you do this week as a disciple of Jesus?

   

Jeffrey Sumner                                                                August 30, 2009

08-23-09 KNIGHTS IN SHINING ARMOR!

KNIGHTS IN SHINING ARMOR!

Ephesians 6: 10-20

 

When I was growing up, I remember watching cartoon after cartoon, where Wile E. Coyote would fall to the bottom of a cliff, or have an anvil dropped on his head by the Road Runner, and each time he would get up! I remember a Daffy Duck episode when a fly became so pesky to him that he pulled out his shotgun (yes, a duck had a shotgun in that cartoon) and proceeded to try to shoot the fly with a shotgun! Also in those days, Elmer Fudd would have his head blown off more than once trying to get the “waskily-wabbit” Bugs Bunny.  In the cartoon land of make-believe, anything can come and did come back to life. But lessons came soon enough for me and other children, when a pet dog got hit by a car and did not get up, a pet goldfish one day was floating sideways in the water, or a friend who had been nothing but kind to others, was hit by a car when riding his bicycle and died. Reality is certainly different from fantasy. But there are plenty of people in our world who still think in the literal terms of those old cartoons. Some fundamentalist groups have drawn guns and planted bombs, and blown up people, and unlike the cartoons, people are maimed and die. Grief and rage follow. Individuals have also done evil to others, from the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma, to the shooting of a girl named Cassie Bernall in Columbine High School, Colorado because she would not deny God when looking down a barrel of a gun. And who can forget the horrific killings on Sept 11, 2001. There are still fringe people, literalistic people, and radical people who kill.  Certainly in our day and in ages past, there have been wars that have created freedom, protection, and boundaries, but wars have also brought on great heartache, resentment, and brokenness. 

 

As we turn to Ephesians today, we know that the Roman army of Paul’s day could be brutal in its attempts to keep the PAX ROMANA, the Peace of Rome. Although Rome ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, we find Paul merely imprisoned and chained to a Roman guard when he was transported. Remember that story from our Vacation Bible School? Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter, and, much like his Savior Jesus, he looked at what was around him and used it to teach a lesson to his readers; a way to face the trials of their days. He told it through a description of the armor his guard wore! In more recent chivalrous days, damsels in distress have swooned when their knight in shining armor appeared! Knights were saviors and rescuers! In the Middle Ages knights actually wore armor, as did their horses in some instances, so an arrow would not take the life from either of them as easily. Armor was created mostly for defensive stances rather than offensive ones; it was made to protect and defend. In modern day, presidents and Supreme Court justices vow to “protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States of America; that means they are called to guard it. Armor, whether shiny or colorful or black, is designed not to be primarily a weapon, but a protection. As Paul describes it, our task is to bring Christ to the world.

 

Paul, once chained to a Roman guard, uses his armor as a metaphor for the Christian life. Paul is not a literalist, but he is a wordsmith. Paul calls himself a prisoner (3:1) and an “ambassador in chains.” As he does on other occasions, he turns a weakness (being a prisoner) into a fulfillment of God’s purpose. He does not ask for Christians to fight other people (“our struggle is not against enemies made of blood and flesh, but rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this present darkness; against spiritual forces of evil.” Instead, the armor is for protection, to withstand the wiles of the devil. (6:11). So national soldiers fight against flesh and blood. What kind of armor does a spiritual soldier need? Paul says we will need the whole armor of God, never forgetting to don every single piece. Actual knights have little protection if they fail to put on all their pieces.  Football players cannot provide strong defense without pads protecting muscles and vital organs. Like a knight, or an athlete, we cannot forget our equipment as we go into the world. First, says Paul, “Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Lawrence W. Farris has said: “Truth is the most basic virtue, but in a world of spin, purposeful deception, and deceit, it becomes even more precious and crucial.  The dark powers are led, at least metaphorically, by the ‘father of lies’ (John 8: 44), and truth is spoken in the name of the One who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’  The temptation is ever to take up the methods of the enemy, to let noble ends justify ignoble means, to fight fire with fire. [Christ had a different message.] As the fire of evil is fought-not with fire- but with the waters of baptism, the lies of the Evil One are resisted with God’s truth.” First we need, each day to put on the belt of truth. Second, we need the breastplate of righteousness to protect the heart of the believer. If our heart is taken over by a corrupter—whether an enticing woman, a charming man, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing, we have nothing left with which to balance our judgments. Our decisions need not only rational, linear arguments; they need heart and grace as well. Each day we need to put on righteousness, the ability to make right decisions. Third put on your spiritual shoes each day. Those who go without actual shoes may soon step on glass, peal back skin, stub toes, or develop cracks in their heals. Spiritual shoes give you the protection to not only stand longer, but also walk farther and to run faster. We have a gospel to share and the gospel goes nowhere fast without messengers. We are the messengers of the good news of salvation! If that good news does not get shared, people settle for the bad news that is around them. Fourth, arm yourself with the shield of faith. In ages past, actual shields provided considerable protection against enemies! Personal faith, joined with the faith of thousands around us, reminds us there is strength in numbers. Faith near others keeps the faith of the one from buckling. Fifth, unlike Paul’s other description of the church being the Body of Christ with Christ as its Head, this description calls for a helmet of salvation, so that we can continue to learn and reflect what we learn. Without our minds, people under stress or attack clearly fall back into old and worn patterns, or encourage people to imitate the world instead of teaching the world to imitate Christ. Many hymns, such as “Take Thou our Minds, dear Lord,” are not a plea for God to take our minds so much as to remold them, to guide our feet, and to form our words. Again images are often metaphorical not literal. Christ needs us not to relinquish our minds to enemies, so that we might, at the last or before, have the mind of Christ.

 

Finally, at long last we are given but one offensive weapon: the sword. Sword is such an oddly spelled word for its pronunciation, isn’t it? SWORD! But this odd spelling includes the letters w-o-r-d. The sword of the Sp
irit is the Word of God. This is our weapon (the Bible) and, rightly interpreted, God’s Word is our weapon, interpreted by Christian minds and filtered through converted Christian hearts. That Word judges and instructs both the believing community and those it seeks to rescue from evil.

 

So this is what we need to put on each and every day: The belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and pick up the sword of God’s Word.

The hymn “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” is not about human battle; it is about our spiritual battle. The words to prepare for worship I took from this hymn, words that give focus to this Christian rallying cry:

“Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in his strength alone; the arm of flesh will fail you, ye dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer. Where duty calls, or danger, be never wanting there.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                       August 23, 2009

08-16-09 LIVING AS CHILDREN OF LIGHT

LIVING AS CHILDREN OF LIGHT

Ephesians 5: 1-14

 

Children are greatly influenced by what they watch, what they hear, and their friends.  If parents can successfully steer their child away from influential girls who can get them into trouble, or influential boys who do the same, a child has a better chance of staying on the right track. Conversely, parents with children who are strong Christians can also influence others in trouble, by bringing them out of the darkness into the light of truth and integrity. If you can influence your children’s choice of friends, you can change your child. If you can influence the young men and women your youth “hang” with, you can change your child.  But strong Christian youth can also influence dozens of others in positive ways. The world is better to have young men like Florida quarterback Tim Tebow to bring a message that uplifts others. And as adults, either we will influence others with our faith, enthusiasm, and integrity, or others will fill our heads with paranoia, anger, and distrust. Not only the voices that children and youth hear on the television or internet, but also the voices that adults hear, from news pundits to talk radio hosts, can influence any and all listeners. Even as adults, the experiences of life tend to solidify the molds of people’ viewpoints; but if we surround ourselves with those who influence us in clear and uplifting ways, then we can change our attitudes and actions in surprising ways. If, on the other hand, we listen to negativity, sarcasm, or criticism in our homes, our workplaces, or from news sources, the light that Christians are called to shine can get shadowed by darkness.  But, as the children learned today, if you remove one or more layers of critical, hurtful, or dishonest people, light can begin to shine from your life again. The same with youth and adults: you have each been given a precious gift: of knowing Jesus as Lord, and following him as the Light of the world. If he lives in your heart, then your life is the lens that gives focus to His light.

 

The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote an influential book during World War II called THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT AND THE CHILDREN OF DARKNESS, in which he says: “We may well designate moral cynics, who know no law beyond their own will and self-interest, with the scriptural designation ‘children of the world’ or ‘children of darkness.’ Those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law could be termed the ‘children of light.’ The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free of its malice.”

When Paul speaks to the Ephesians, in so many ways he speaks to us too.  “Let no one deceive you with empty words.” In Ephesus the empty words came from government leaders, powerful local orators, and from friends who spoke about innuendo as if it were truth. Today, have the mind of Christ in you as you hear the words of others. Are the words true? Should you pass them on? Can you transform others with a different message from you own heart? You and I are called to be change agents; to change those around us rather than having them change us: that goes for children, youth, and adults. Sometimes it takes an outside witness to say something like: “Hey, do you realize you fight all the time in this house?” Or “I resign, even thought I don’t have another job. I just can’t work in such an uncaring and cutthroat workplace.” It can take the form of others always complaining about the world, or breaking promises to you or others, or people trying to pull others into their personal conspiracies. Paul knew what Jesus knew what God knows: if we can change what happens in our homes—what we hear, how we speak about others, and see ways we can influence others instead of letting them sway us—then we can change the world. Changing the world is what Jesus was about when he came; it’s what Paul worked to do in Jesus’ name; and ultimately it is Jesus’ commandment to us through his Great Commission: “Go into the world and make others my disciples;” that means be people who love, show grace, keep the commandments and acknowledge when they get broken, follow Jesus, and honor God.

 

For all of those around you who pull you slowly or rapidly into darkness, Paul says “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but expose them instead.” You will have to decide when, where, and if to do that. You know the tempting words of the children of darkness: “Come on, everybody’s doing it!” “If someone sold you the answers to the test, why not use them?” “As long as the door is unlocked, it’s not breaking and entering so we can take stuff!” But the imperative from Ephesians is clearly put: “Once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light!” Is Paul describing you? Or have you, in some way, fallen off the track, or let others around you make you cynical or harsh, bitter, or dishonest? If you decide that you are still “In the Lord,” and “have His light,” then Paul has a reminder of your job description: to “live as children of light.” It’s a call to change the world, by changing your surrounding where you are. There are some people, from the very young to the very old, whose clear mission is to make any room better because they’ve entered it, any relationship better because they built it, and any stranger smile because they greeted them. These are light-bearers in the world! There is so much negative in the world, even as there was in Paul’s day. We still have much work to do as Jesus followers! But we are not alone! There are people already shining his light; all we need to do is join them. I can think of people like that! I like to be near them and enjoy when they light up a room. I might not show Christ the same way as a nice young girl does or a wonderful grandfather does, but in my own way I can make people glad that we’ve met; and you can do that too!

 

The movie Schindler’s List is a gripping true story about one man’s attempt to be a light for thousands of Jews who were set to be annihilated. About an hour into the film, as Nazi soldiers are clearing out the Jewish Ghetto, Oskar Schindler is on horseback above the Ghetto watching the treatment of the Jews: people are moving about, being shot, or being herded in one direction. But then the black and white film shifts to an overhead shot, and an unmistakable spot of red is moving in a different direction from the crowd. Upon closer scrutiny, the spot of red turned out to be a little girl in a bright red coat. A glimmer of hope crossed my mind as I saw her closer and closer, and watched her hide under a bed. “This girl is someone I should notice,” I said to myself; “someone who will matter.”

You matter to God! From the satellites of space, from Google Earth, or from the view from heav
en, what would make you be noticed amidst all the other faces in the crowds? Would you stand out by sitting and listening to someone in tears; would you be serving food to hungry people; would you be repairing a neighbor’s home who couldn’t do it for herself? Stand out from the black and white crowds of mediocrity, cynicism, or destruction! Stand out from the children of darkness! You bring the light of Christ! You share his love! You witness to his work. The world so badly needs us to change the world, rather than conform to it. As the acolyte takes the light of Christ out today, how will you take Christ’s light into the world?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                         August 16, 2009

08-02-09 YOU ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST

YOU ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST

Ephesians 4: 1-14

 

Some words can make people cringe, or perk up their ears more than other words.  One word is than. When one person says to another “You are prettier than she is, it can set up smugness or snobbery; but if someone says she is more popular than you are, it can cause hurt feelings or anger. Likewise, when one of the judges on the several dance and talent shows on television says “We thought you were pretty good, but you’re not as good as the others,” the early compliment gets drowned in the critical words. Children especially have an ear for the second half of such sentences; spirits can be crushed with what is perceived as constructive criticism or an honest remark. Some of those children become adults with the tape of those cutting comments still playing in their heads.

 

Ephesians chapter 4 starts with one of those hinge words; in this case it isn’t criticism, it means “to understand what I’m about to tell you, you have to know what I have just told you!” The word is “therefore.” “I therefore,” he says. To what is the author referring? He’s referring to the words that we have in chapter three. And to whom is this letter addressed? It is addressed to seekers of Christ who are either: 1) Jews who kept and knew the Law of God and who were resistant to letting non-Jews become Christians; or 2) Gentiles, who had heard about many false gods now they were seeking the true God. Our world hasn’t changed much in some respects: there are some who are atheists, not believing in any higher power, and some who are agnostics, saying they don’t have enough information to decide if God exists or if Jesus is the Son of God. Conversely we have the life-long believers, the keepers of the faith, who can sometimes look disapprovingly at all the new-believers who become Christians through their non-traditional ways: ways that lift up praise music, witnessing, and an about-face life change. Often these seekers love new paradigm worship in non-denominational churches, where the preachers are  in sport shirts and running shoes with services held several times during the week in worship centers that grow dark to project images on screens like movie theatres. Oh there are still the divides in Christianity today that there were in Ephesus and Corinth in the late first century! Paul’s “therefore” is for good reason: scholars say that Paul’s “imperatives – his descriptions of how believers ought to live,” flow out of his “indicatives –his descriptions of what God is doing ‘In the church and in Christ Jesus.’” (3:21) God’s plan, as Paul describes it through chapter three, is to “gather up all things into Christ (1:10); and to let people know that Christ came to “reconcile both groups [Jews and Gentiles] to God.” (2:16) The same message can be preached today, can it not? Is not God still about bringing new seekers and long time faith-followers to a table across from each other? The news this week featured four different people on the White House lawn hopefully connecting with each other where before there had been a rift. The news over the last several weeks described people of both political parties locked in disagreements over health care and how to pay for it. The church in Ephesus, Paul hoped, and the church in America today, I think Paul would still hope, needs to not play the games that encourage smugness or cause anger. The Christ who appeared to Paul (then Saul) on the Damascus road did not want him to continue his persecuting ways, but to remember that in him “We are all one.” Can Christians rise above the fray of politics and of the infighting of unbelievers? Can we really bring peace to a world filled with conflict, or do we just add to the disagreements?

 

Today this letter has just as powerful a message to us as it did when it was written.  And to make it extra powerful, Paul takes his worldly condition (remember he was a prisoner, locked in a cell) and he turns the image of being chained into one of glad embrace with his words “I am eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond (shackle, chain) of peace. He wants to be bound to peace! Robert Robinson in the opening hymn wanted God, by amazing grace, to bind his wandering heart to Jesus! Even as the churches like in Ephesus and Corinth had their factions, so, sadly, do some splits happen in churches today. Often it is over doctrine (church beliefs.) Some, for example, say if you are baptized in another church your baptism isn’t authentic; some communion can be taken only be members of that particular congregation; some say “Stay away from other churches, they are heretics!” (wrong believers); and some say disparaging things about other Christians. It is just such an audience that Paul writes: “For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for thee!”  “For whom is this passage written? It is written for thee … and for me.”  Paul puts it some clearly: you and I and all others who say they are Christians: WE ARE the “Body of Christ.” There are not many bodies, any more than there are many saviors! “There is—and  here is another hinge word in the passage—one body; we are not intended to be splintered apart by doctrine or name; we are, as the 70s folk song put it “One is the Spirit, we are One in the Lord.” Paul’s earlier words in chapters 1 -3 say “Know it!” Paul’s words in chapter 4 now say “Do it!” “Show it!” and “Live it!” There is also just one hope, meaning God’s plan in Christ is to save the world, not just one congregation. When Paul says in verse 4 that there is “One Lord,” he is really meddling In Ephesus, where the huge statue of the false god, Artemis, towered over their harbor! Today we would do well to remember that if we share the Christian faith it is the one faith that is shared by other Christians. Laypeople are often better at this than clergy, who split doctrinal hairs while new seekers can get disenchanted with church quarrels and say “Can’t we just love each other?” Isn’t that what Jesus would do? He looks at those who live those words, and he is well pleased.

 

As Paul goes on, he shows that he does not have a Pollyanna view of the world. He knows some make better pastors or preachers, some better teachers or evangelists, and that each denomination of people possess different gifts—why?—for the building up of the body of Christ! But people need their hands for some tasks and their feet for others. And some need help with their weakened hands or feet. Sometimes we need our eyes most, and other times our ears, and some have weak eyes or ears. Some need more heart in their decision-making while others need more brain. That’s why we need each other. Ephesians has the themes that our communities, and our churches, need to hear. Verse seven overarches the three main themes with these words: “Grace is given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” And what are the themes? Unity in Christ, diversity in our gifts, and maturity in our faith. If we want to truly be mature in our faith, as verse 13 urges, we’ll need to take a lesson from the prisoner Paul, who changed bondage into a matter
of his own free will.  May we too, be bound through our own choices, with chains of love to Jesus Christ- the head of the church- and the Savior of our souls.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   August 2, 2009