Monthly Archives: September 2009

09-27-09 LESSONS IN HYPERBOLE

LESSONS IN HYPERBOLE

Mark 9, 38-50

 

If you remember your English classes from whenever you took them, you perhaps will recall that a metaphor is a figure of speech used to make a point but is not a literal description. For example, “the long arm of the law.” The law doesn’t actually have a long arm, but people in our day understand what that means. Jesus used metaphor. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” he said, knowing full well that he was not a spindly rope-like plant and that we are not wooden shoots attached to the plant. He used metaphor to make a point; likely everyone in the area knew what a vineyard looked like since they were plentiful. Another figure of speech is called a simile, that is, a comparison using “like or as.”  “Our team is as solid as a rock” is a simile. “Her smile was as radiant as the sun,” is a simile. Jesus used similes. “The Kingdom of heaven is like a man who goes forth to sow.” That’s a simile. Jesus does that all the time, using something known to describe what is otherwise indescribable. “The Kingdom is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour;” “The Kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field;” or “The Kingdom is like the grain of a mustard seed;” all of those are similes. They are useful in speech. We use them too: “The oil in my car was as thick as mud;” or finding my car keys was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Figures of speech make our language more descriptive.

 

Today we are talking about one final figure of speech: it is hyperbole, which is an exaggerated metaphor.  At our son’s wedding, there was a dance song by a group called the B-52s. In it is this line: “I got me a car it’s as big as a whale and it’s about to set sail! I got me a Chrysler it seats about 20, so come on, and get your juke box money!” Of course there is no car that is truly the size of a whale; no production car that could begin to seat 20 or one that could actually set sail. But as we listened to or danced to the catchy tune, we all got the message: This was probably one of those 1970s Chryslers’ with wide bench seats, perhaps with worn springs, and a very long wheelbase! We get that when we say it. We use hyperbole all the time: I have heard linebackers described as being “big as a house.” I have heard excited or drug-influenced persons say they were “high as a kite.” And I have heard people describe others as being “quiet as a mouse.” Not any of those statements were exactly true. But I knew there was exaggeration to make a point. We all get it.

 

Jesus also used hyperbole; he did it to make points. The Biblical writers used metaphors all the time. But here’s what we need to know. In Biblical times, days when information was passed on orally because there were few inexpensive or mass-produced way of sharing written documents, people had common expressions, as we have, that they all understood. When one goes to a Flea Market today, they are not shopping for fleas: we understand that! Getting caught up with exact wording, as literalists want to do with the Bible, can make people question or even lose their faith. Four gospels, for example, describe things Jesus did in four different ways. We cannot simplistically say: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” We have to know how the Biblical writers and characters made their points.

 

Now we come to today’s passage:  A lot has been happening to the disciples: Peter announced Jesus was the Christ; and Jesus said to “tell no one.” He said he must go to Jerusalem, be rejected, killed, and rise from the dead. When Peter said he would keep that from happening, Jesus called him “Satan.” (Remember, we are dealing with figures of speech!) He then said those who try to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their life for him will have their life saved. He then said if we are ashamed to tell others about him, he’ll be ashamed of us on the last day. My head spins with all that information, doesn’t yours? And we’ve had time to understand it! What about the poor disciples? (Again calling them “poor” is also a figure of speech!) I think Jesus is sensing his time with them is growing short, so his descriptions are short and terse.  We begin with verse 42: “If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,” he says. The first thing we must know by looking at this earlier words, is that these little ones may be children; but they are also those young in their faith; people who are trying to follow him. “Don’t discourage them!” Jesus says. Then he goes into a memorable hyperbole to make a point: “Better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck and thrown into the sea then if you caused one of my young disciples to stumble!” I would never frighten children with that description because they are literal thinkers. But some adults are also threatened by it when it’s intent to change people’s actions. We saw a millstone in Capernaum this last March; they are huge and round usually with a circle cut in the middle; they are put in a circular stone trench and a rope is ties around it so, like a giant stone tire, a donkey can walk in a circle all day with a rope around its neck, and the stone will crush the wheat that has been laid in the trough. It is a horrifying thought to have that tied around one’s neck and thrown into the sea. Likewise, is Jesus advocating amputation of one’s own hands? Only to make a point: his reference to what is here called “Hell” is actually the Greek word, Gehenna, which was known as the place of eternal burning and decaying. Jesus likely is referring back to the quote from Isaiah 66: verse 24. God said this to Isaiah about the people who rebelled against him: “They shall go forth and look on the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Those words are strong warnings against sin, aren’t they?  Is Jesus advocating mutilation and murder, or is he making dramatic comparisons to say how important making right choices are?

 

In our world now, and in the world then, figures of speech make points. Sometimes we just want Jesus to be the welcoming fellow who took children on his knee and blessed them. But Jesus came to save your soul and mine; to extend eternal life to all. Some have the ears to hear; some have the eyes to see; some don’t. And some give his words the weight they deserve. Is that you?  Will you, or have you already, surrendered your life to the one who says he’s light, shepherd, and savior?  Look at all the figures of speech that help us understand Jesus, and the Kingdom, and our eternal home! Light or darkness; flight or fire; up or down; a child might hear the message in literal ways and be terrified. But if we hear the message and know it’s the language of eternity, then the way to eternal truth and life i
s made clear. In a world with millstones, ropes, hunting knives and fear all around us, we can walk through the fire, and choose life. Jesus wants our faith and trust.

 

Let us affirm what we believe about God as we stand and sing this statement of faith based on Psalm 23: My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                               September 27, 2009

09-20-09 DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK!

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK!

Mark 9: 30-37

 

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has some wonderful new resources that start with questions and end with answers. Such tools are called catechisms, which anyone who has gone through my confirmation class knows are “statements of faith in a question and answer format.” Based on the classic Westminster Confession of Faith (for which our church was named), are two catechisms: the Larger Catechism, which is a question and answer tool for preachers, and the Shorter Catechism which is intended for new members. A question from the Larger Catechism is “Are there more Gods than one?” Answer: “There is but one only, the living and true God.” What scripture backs that up? Deuteronomy 6:4, Jeremiah 10:10, and 1 Corinthians 8:4 & 8:6. Those who believe in other gods go against the Bible and its teachings, yet there are those in this world who worship other gods. From the Shorter Catechism we read this question: “What is sin?” Answer: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” What Scripture backs that up? The first letter of John, chapter 3, verse 4; James 4; 17, & Romans 3:23. Many Presbyterians in the 50s and before grew up learning questions and answers from catechisms; they were the curriculum of the day. But in the 60s and later, there was less and less memorization, and with it came more and more moral relativism, that is, people began saying “What is right for you is not necessarily right for me! “And who are you to judge me?” We are not the judge, but there is a judge, and there is a record of what our judge deems right and wrong. We just have to get back to it.

 

My friend Keith Curran is also a Presbyterian minister and he traveled with us to the Holy Land this past March. In his book called MEDITATIONS ON BELONGING TO GOD, he writes: “Social scientists tell us that we are living in a post-Christian age, a time when our values and norms no longer automatically reflect Judeo-Christian ethics and moral patterns. It is a time in history when pluralism and nonreligious values hold at least as much sway in society as the traditional Judeo-Christian value system, long the standard for Western civilization and the basis of our North American way of life. This means that much of what the church teaches in Sunday school, youth group, confirmation class, and in the weekly sermon is at odds with the values expressed on those endless repeats of Friends or the current issue of People magazine.” [Witherspoon Press, 2006, p. 2] You feel the shift, don’t you?  If our young adults watched hours of Friends, or 90210, The Hills, or South Park, do the hours of church, Sunday school, youth group, or worship even begin to sway those who watch any of those shows or other shows? Yes, if children have been brought to those church events, and have parents who model good behavior, and they choose good friends, then yes they can turn out to be fine Christian citizens. But that’s a lot of qualification, isn’t it? Our new catechism keeps up the tradition of answering good questions, but now with more understandable answers. Question: “Why do Christians gather for worship on the first day of the week?” Answer: “Because it is the day when God raised our Lord Jesus from the dead. Our hearts are glad with the memory of our Lord’s resurrection.” That’s the reason Christians gather on Sunday, the first day of the week; of course, we are in a post-Christian age, so we watch people worship on Saturdays, and Mondays and Wednesday, and the list goes on. But there’s a reason why from New Testament times, Christians worshipped on the first day of the week and named it “The Lord’s Day.” It’s exciting to know reasons behind actions, isn’t it? Often I hear people wish they had lived when Jesus lived so they could see him, touch his hands, and ask him all the questions that they had stockpiled. But look at the record, especially in Mark: Jesus could be intimidating with his answers. I know what that feels like. I was never good at math; my father is very good at math. When he would try to help me with my homework, and I’d be struggling with an answer, he’d say “Can’t you do that in your head?” “No” I would say silently, “If I could do it in my head I wouldn’t have asked you to help me.” So asking questions can get a little intimidating. In our text today, the Savior Jesus, who called others to follow him, the friend with whom they had fished and shared meals, taught them a college level lesson when they could only understand an elementary school one. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” “Wait a minute Jesus; first are you the Son of Man? Who will betray you; we’ll stop ‘em! You who walked on water, cured a deaf man, and shone at the top of a mountain will surely be strong enough to ward off your killers! If you rise again does that mean you really won’t die?” I can imagine a flood of questions filling the minds of his disciples. But they had already been puzzled when he questioned their faith while they were tossed about in a boat by a storm; they had just witnessed him going to the land of the unclean on the east side of the Sea, healing a desperate and demon-possessed man, and sending the demon into pigs that thundered into the sea. We know they didn’t understand about him walking on water according to 6:52, and he had just finished scolding them in 8:17: “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? … Do you not yet understand?”  Now I understand one thing, don’t you? I understand why they were afraid to ask Jesus for clarification in chapter 9; they had already tried it in chapter 8 and were shut down! I’ve known the feeling when someone has an answer that I don’t have; I know the feeling when a professor wants to impress me with his position and not help me understand what I don’t know. I understand why 12 men, who dropped their livelihoods to follow this man, were confused! There is no record of them attending seminary or Rabbinical school after Jesus called them!  They just followed; and sometimes, they did not understand.

 

As I told you, I’ve been around people who knew more than I did in particular subjects. You have too. I now am feeling grateful for the Bible recording that they were afraid to ask! I have a kinship with Peter, James, John, and even Thomas. So perhaps being enamored with being back in the days of Jesus is not as important as we thought. In our Disciple class, we read these words of John: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name.” In many ways, we have it easier to be disciples of Jesus: First, we have the benefit of hindsight and can see all that happened to Jesus. The story of Jesus’ death they had to take on faith; we have a record that it happened. Second, we also have the recor
d of God’s Word and actions in the Bible if we choose to use it as our guide for living, giving it the place it deserves will trump all of the other world-views and values that bombard our minds from television, talk radio, family, friends, and books. Third, we have the privilege of reclaiming what the 60s, 70s, and 80s wanted to throw away: catechisms: well-researched questions that might be our questions, with clear answers based on Scripture. They are there for the reading. Much of our youth class is based on a catechism, and next year’s confirmation class will be too.  Sometimes adults think Sunday school is for kids, but George’s Cara’s and Mimi’s classes all welcome people with question about the Bible, God, and faith. Our library has most of the catechisms I mentioned, and another good book called PRESBYTERIAN QUESTIONS, PRESBYTERIAN ANSWERS. Finally, we need not fear: “I’ve even had a continuing file that I’ve kept over the years that I call “Ask Pastor Jeff.” Children, youth, and adults need honest answers, and thoughtful well-grounded ones. This week I didn’t know what was meant when I heard someone’s hospital tests indicated a high level of enzymes. I wasn’t afraid to ask. I asked a nurse, who told me there had likely been a heart attack, and high enzymes often indicate heart damage. Now I know! Children ask questions all the time; we are never too old too learn. Ministers are often called “Teaching Elders.” I commit myself to that, as we wrestle with questions of faith and doubt, questions about the Bible and the world, and not leave answers to be doled out by media personalities who want to stay on the air, by actors playing a role, or by stars who often have confusing and godless views of the world. People are asking questions; may the church be a source of dialogue, prayer, and support as, together we seek the truth that sets us free. These are the words of Jesus in John 8:31: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                    September 20, 2009

09-13-09 TURNING EMBARRASSMENT INTO EMPOWERMENT

TURNING EMBARRASSMENT INTO EMPOWERMENT

Mark 8: 27-38

 

There are times when people just want to get away from it all. “In 1960 John Steinbeck traveled by trailer truck all over the United States.” In the Book TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, “he encountered, young and old, green with envy to do what he was doing- getting away, moving about free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. He saw the look of longing in so many faces. “You goin’ in that? (Motioning to his beat up truck.) “Sure!” “Where?” “All over!” And the reply was almost always the same: “Lord I wish I could go.” [RELIGION: ESCAPE OR INVOLVEMENT, by Robert J. McCracken.]There are people who just leave their home, their family, their responsibilities, and their bills, and set out on such a trip as that. It makes for a good story or movie. But most people who set out that way end up with new problems: homelessness and poverty. What is a good choice when we want to get away?

There are also times when people of faith just don’t want to be identified as such. They want to be left alone.  Elijah, in full burnout mode, ran from Ahab and Jezebel, afraid because he had already taken a stand for God and against them, and now the King and his wife were after him with a vengeance. What do we do when people want to retaliate against us?The Bible records that Elijah, the mighty prophet, went into a cave and hid.

The Bible also has the famous story about Jonah: a prophet of God who was also a bigot: he despised Ninevites. When God asks his faithful preacher to go to Nineveh and invite them to follow God too, Jonah says: “No way!” He stows away on a cargo ship going in the opposite direction of Nineveh. The crew found him, threatened him, and threw him overboard. We know that he even got swallowed by a great fish, all because he didn’t want to do what God asked!

Sometimes Christians do not want to be connected with Jesus. It started with Peter, the head of the apostles who, amidst the tension of Jesus’ trials in Jerusalem, was asked more than once if he was a follower of Jesus. “I don’t know him!” Peter retorted, and then retreated. Finally, he wept.  My pastor when I was growing up said he would tell fellow passengers on planes that he was a battery salesman from Wisconsin instead of a Christian minister. Why you might ask? Because his answer either caused him to be shunned, or to be grilled with questions his whole flight. Sometimes we just want to blend in.

          As children grow into youth attending middle and high schools, they can get especially shy about showing and saying they are Christian. Jesus freaks were vocal about their faith when I was growing up; the rest of us mainliners just quietly went about our school work, music, and athletics, and met for youth groups at church on Sundays. To this day I do not wear Christian identification because when I’ve seen priests enter a conversation that’ I’m having with others, people stop talking normally. They curb their jokes, the get polite–“Hello Father” they say, and things like that. The Christian life is intended to be lived, not faked when clergy are around. I also see some who wear a cross, or cross earrings, or Jesus tee-shirts. Sometimes I can tell they are Christians, and sometimes I’m ashamed of the way they are acting. So what do I do? What do you do? The Bible records at least two responses.

First, we could correct, reprove, or admonish. Even the Rules of Discipline in our Presbyterian Book of Order call for that. Paul said to in his letter to the Colossians describing the way of the Christian life: “Teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.” Instead of denying that we are Christians, if the time is appropriate we pull our brother or sister aside and ask them to think about their actions. That choice is not without risk! Many people acting terribly will not want to be called out on it, even in private. You will need to decide if this is your choice of actions.

But the second choice calls for us to at least not cower in corners, nor hide our light under a bushel! Jesus put it this way in Mark 8:38: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

“Oh Jesus! Now I have to reconsider letting passengers on a plane know that I’m a minister. I have to reconsider the way I live because a cross that I might wear or a Bible verse on my shirt or bumper will make people examine what I say and what I do!  I have to not do things that would embarrass you! And another thing: I have to consider the risk of admonishing other Christians who are acting badly!

Oh Jesus! You are putting me on the hook!”

“Others put me on the cross,” Jesus would say back to me, and to you. It’s in verses 34 -36. “If you are not ready to take up my cross—to face scorn and mocking, to say the truth in love, and to live in a way that matches your words—then you cannot truly follow me. You might be an onlooker, but not a follower.”

“Oh Jesus! I need to move from embarrassment to empowerment! Mold me and make me after your will! What’s my problem?” Might Jesus say to you, as I believe he has said to me: “You are so much of this world that it is influencing your allegiance! You know how to be devoted! Some are devoted to a sports team or to a band or to a singer; to a company or to a political stripe or to a best friend or to a weekend ritual with “the boys,” or “with the girls.” But are you willing to be devoted to me instead? Show me!”

In all of my high level training classes, like Confirmation, like Elder Training, and like DISCIPLE classes, costly devotion to discipleship is required.  The cost for devotion to God and allegiance to Christ is a lifetime of different living. Everything worthwhile costs; but look what it costs us if we decide just to live for today, to put self first, and to blend in to the society in which we live. Jesus says there will come a day of accounting (which is a cost term), also called a day of reckoning (which is a jud
icial term) when he (the Son of Man) could be ashamed of you, or of me, when he comes again in glory. If you are ashamed of me in this world, I’ll be ashamed of you in the next.” Do we want to take our time on earth and act embarrassed by or ashamed of being a Christian, and perhaps risk eternity? Or can Jesus’ words, this very day, empower every one of us to say “No!” to all the temptations and dazzling attractions of the world, and to say “Yes!” to a closer walk with God? If we find our backbones—and our voices—we have a world filled with many belief systems; and the citizens of the nations need to hear the story of Jesus and his great Kingdom, and hear how he cared for the downtrodden, the orphaned, the weak, and the diseased. What actions might you take, what decisions might you make, if doing what Jesus would do became your rule of faith and practice?

“Go into the world,” he said, “and make disciples of all nations; teach them to observe all that I’ve commanded you. And if you do that, I will be with you always, and will not be ashamed of you when I return in glory.”

Jeffrey Sumner                                                      September 13, 2009

09-06-09 THE LESSON ABOUT TWO EARS AND ONE MOUTH

THE LESSON ABOUT TWO EARS AND ONE MOUTH

Mark 7: 31-37

 

One of the most useful tools in assessing why people act the way they do is the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. This insightful international test that comes from our own state describes test-takers personalities, preferences, and natural ways of making choices. One part of the test describes why in school most of us had a boy in class who would frantically wave his hand to answer a question when he hadn’t yet come up with an answer. The way he processed was called “external:” he had to talk it through out loud before he could end up with an answer! Some girls process that way too. Many others in my class were “internal” processors: they had a conversation going on in their mind: their brain was running while their mouth wasn’t, and they only spoke once their mind came to a conclusion. In marriage counseling, often when couples disagree, the husband, for example might say: “When we get mad at each other I need to get away and think for awhile, but she keeps pursuing me saying ‘No! We need to talk this out!’” But he can’t hear himself think. When I explain that she’s an external processor, and he’s an internal processor, couples stop blaming and demonizing one another. I counsel the external processor to be as patient as she (or he) can be to give the partner space to process the problem. And I tell the internal processor to work as fast as he (or she) can to get ready to talk about an issue. Understanding why we are the way we are helps build patience and understanding, diffusing anger and a willingness to give up.

 

As I read the story of Jesus’ healing of the man who was deaf, and therefore, had problems with speech, I was wondering if Jesus healed a deaf person today would he be doing the person any favors.  First of all, he puts his fingers in the man’s ears, an unnerving entry into one’s personal space; and secondly and more disgustingly by today’s health standards, he apparently spat on his own fingers and then touched that spit to the man’s tongue. In our day, what do we think about that healing?  Most of the time we celebrate that Jesus gave this hearing, and thus, he could speak more clearly so people could understand him. But at the cost of changing spit with another man? Of course we know that people in love don’t care about that, but people afraid of catching the flu or something else still are! It bothered me growing up when I went to church with in the summer with one of my grandparents. If I had the littlest spot of dirt on my face, my grandmother would lick her finger or her handkerchief and proceed to cleanse me right in front of God and everybody.  This story about healing has some strange parts to it. The other part that I’m not sure is a blessing is letting a person hear, who before could not; and giving the man both the privilege—and the responsibility of speech. Now he’d have to decide kind comments from cutting ones, and gossip from gospel. The old fable says that God gave us two ears and one mouth so we could listen more and speak less. How are we doing? (Oh, oh, condemnation of preachers!)  In our day, what if a child is given the gift of hearing that she did not have before? Yes she can listen to or make music, but will she get attached to the uplifting kind, or the revolutionary and angry kind? What music you listen to can change your outlook on life. Yes, she could hear television and radio; she can hear parents and teachers. But which one will be her main source of news and choices? Some sources will be slick, packaged, and persuasive, and some sources will it be from a person she has grown to trust. There are those of us who are adults here, some with good hearing, some with failing hearing, who still are mightily changed by what we hear and the tone of what we hear. The debates across America recently have been shouted with such rancor, such anxiety-producing pitch, with such vitriolic exchanges that I wonder if having the gift of hearing these days is really a gift. Years ago I scoffed at what seemed like very gullible attitudes when Orson Wells broadcast his fictional radio program, “War of the Worlds” even with disclaimers that it was fiction, and it still sent the nation into a panic. I am not surprised that the strong personality of a popular boy or girl in school can talk both bright and needy youth into doing foolish things. But as our news is filled with men trying to proposition or kidnap kids; with women with high alcohol levels denying that they are drunk; or with screaming matches that are called town hall discussions, I am concerned about the gift of hearing. Does what we hear make us happier or healthier? Clearly the answer is “it depends what we listen to.” Judson Rogers tells the choir that practice does not make perfect; “perfect practice makes perfect,” otherwise we learn bad habits or techniques for singing. Likewise discerning listening makes hearing a gift; but marketers and opportunists everywhere are paid to influence our minds through our ears. The decision for those who can hear is, “What will I listen to and how will I engage my mind to process it?

 

The last part of this passage describes the gift of speech given to a man by Jesus. What you listen to will affect you. But if you have a voice, you will need to decide when and how to use it. A fraternity brother of mine used to chidingly say to the brothers: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who abstain in times when a decision is needed.” It is sometimes a tough call to know when to speak up, and when to remain silent. And if you do speak, comments from others like: “You’re fat,” or “you’re stupid” can stick like Velcro on the heart of the hearer. But so can “You’re beautiful,” “You lift me up,” and “I know you can do it!” How will you use your voice? We cannot be limited to compliments; as Christians we are also called to enter the moral, medical, marriage, and educational dialogues so that those who talk first and think later do not dominate national and community debates.

 

So I will seek to listen closely, but not to everything; and I will speak when I can add something constructive or uplifting. Jesus’ healing of that man long ago, remind us that hearing and speaking are precious gifts. Using both well will determine the direction of our children, our youth, and our nation.

 

Jeffrey Sumner                                                       September 6, 2009