Monthly Archives: November 2009

11-29-09 PROMISE: BEYOND NAUGHTY OR NICE

PROMISE: BEYOND NAUGHTY OR NICE

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Luke 21: 25-36

 

Things this Christmas won’t be like earlier Christmases. I heard myself say that this summer. Chris and Amanda had been with us last Christmas and will be with her family in Philadelphia this Christmas. Matt and Vicki will spend Christmas morning with her family, and Brian will spend Christmas morning with his family. So, for the first time, it will just be Jenny, and Mary Ann and me.  Some cherished family traditions will not happen; some will change; and is it even possible that something new will come in the void of missing people?  Do any of you wonder that? Do you wonder what Christmas will be like without your husband, or your wife? Do you wonder what it will be like without a child who is away at school, away in the service, away with friends, or away in Heaven? Or will Christmas be different because there is a new mix of presents around the tree; a new group of people at the table, or a new place that you call home? God’s promise through Jeremiah is not just that hearts will change, and that God will be with them: it is also that as our world is shaken to its foundation, God’s grace and righteousness will redeem it. And God will not forsake you. Is it possible that there is learning to be done in this season when all we really want is for Christmas to be like it used to be, or at least the way our minds remember it?

 

 A week ago I was up in the Atlanta area for my doctoral work. Jenny is also training for the ministry there and was a good tour guide. Two Saturdays ago we drove around the city and stopped for me to experience a store called Trader Joes. Next door to Trader Joes was a store that Emily, Jenny’s friend, said we really needed to see. In we went. I was immediately immersed in this nostalgia variety store. It was like my days growing up with a 5 & 10 cent store, except the prices are higher now! There were authentic Radio Flyer tricycles and sleds! There were the doll sets my sisters used to play with and the Tinker Toys and Tonka trucks our children used to have. I went to the bookshelf and was whisked back in time: There were the books I used to read with my mother: “A Hole is to Dig,” “Make Way for Ducklings” and, one of my favorites, “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.” He was so cool that he named his steam shovel- her name was –yep: Mary Anne! Cowboys named their horses! Mike Mulligan named his earth moving equipment!  I had stepped into a rosy snapshot of Christmases long ago, perhaps even memories that conveniently left out tears, tension, or the discomfort of having so many family members sleeping all over one house. My mind didn’t want to remember that part: just the good parts. And then, in the middle of my nostalgic wonderland, I was struck with reality.  Jenny’s cell phone rang, and the color drained from her face; She sat on a little wooden chair three sizes too small as news was related to her: a Presbyterian Missionary staying at the Mission Haven Home named David Knauert, at age thirty-eight, a runner and the picture of health, with a wife and four small children who was to take the Gospel message to Brazil starting in December, fell over dead on his morning run. Later tests indicated were inconclusive about the cause: possibly an aneurysm. The Columbia students and faculty knew and loved this family. Professors rushed to be with his wife; students prayed and cried; later a casserole brigade was started but before that, students rotated their time babysitting the children and comforting them. It was amazing to see a Christian community—other than our own—go to work. Bell-like passages from the New Testament tolled in my head: “You know not the day or the hour when I am coming;” and “They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud of power.”  David and his family were one hundred percent devoted to Jesus. His children, without protest, were going on this new adventure, leaving behind their school and their friends. David, it seemed to me, would not have feared the warnings Jesus gave in Luke 21. His life was turned over to his Lord. I wondered if David saw Jesus on the clouds of Heaven as he journeyed from this world to the next. I wondered if he saw stars, or if the sky passed under his feet. Things this Christmas won’t be like earlier Christmases. What parts of God’s promise will be real for the Knauert family this year? And who among us won’t look at those we love and say the words we’ve been meaning to say, or show the love we’ve been meaning to show? “O God help us in this and every time of need! Remember your promise to us!”

 

Yet some things about Christmas will continue: they have to do with faith, hope, love, and promise. They have to do with story, and community, and the Christ child. This Christmas will still have our modern prophets sharing their stories on film and in print, like Charles Dickens and Charles Schulz, but Christmas won’t be the same. It will be beyond naughty or nice. Ebenezer Scrooge will tell us once again (this year even in Disney 3-D) that our lives are to be about “keeping Christmas all year long.” Linus will once again clutch his blanket on earth’s stage and remove his thumb long enough to be a prophet of Good News, reciting the Christmas story. People from pulpits will again go against the commercial grain of Rudolph and point to sheep; will point to the Bethlehem baby instead of the ones in toy stores; to a young mother instead of Barbie; and to an enemy of goodness named Herod instead of Darth. Yet the litany will continue: children will still want toys, mothers will still want their children home, and service men and women will still be home for Christmas, if only in their dreams.

 

There is a reminder this time of year; a reminder and a rebirth: We are definitely people of God’s promise: in all of the darkness, and the shaking of our familiar or nostalgic foundations, we will groan with the earth over lost natural resources; we may groan with the poor and sick over health care needs; we may groan with those who are comfortable over stock market losses; but at Christmas we groan also with the Virgin Mother, who after saying “yes” to God, became great with child. It is Luke who will bring us the never-changing scene: the one that is at the heart of our Christmas carols and cantatas; our Christmas plays and tableaus; the one that is at the heart of that Holy Night.  Before we get to the birth, we have to prepare our often rough, sometimes dirty, and sometimes hard hearts as if they were to be the manger bed of our Lord again.  Will you treat Christmas this year as if it will be like Christmases past? Or has life … or death … changed the season for you this year? Like David Knauert, we know the date of Christmas, but we do not know the day of his coming … or of our going. I wonder: what will you say to others? I wonder: what will you pray to God?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 

 

 

11-22-09 CHRIST THE KING

CHRIST THE KING

I have to come clean in talking on the festival of Christ the King, and admit that I’m not exactly an enthusiastic monarchist. Right to rule based on birth, bothers me, which is one of the reasons I’m an American. Here we elect our leaders and at least, theoretically, have some sort of say in the people they are.

 

It’s not just because I have doubts over the whole idea of Royalty, though, that I’m not really sure about this whole festival of Christ the King. It’s quite a recent one, after all. It only got into the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, and into ours some time after that. Yet, what is good about it is that it’s a day that draws to a fitting close the Christian year, which begins anew next Sunday with Advent. We began the year by looking forward to the coming of Jesus into the world, and we end it by reminding ourselves that he is the eternal King.

 

But what does that kingship really mean? Our world has strong ideas of what authority is, of what power and royal splendor should be like. Pilate was very aware of these things. Jesus had been dragged before him early in the morning, with the charge against him that he was claiming to be the King of the Jews. This passage is wonderfully written, and it shows Pilate, the representative of the greatest empire of the day, commander of armies, educated and cultured, meeting the untutored Galilean Jesus. And Pilate begins full of self-assurance. You can see it in that last cynical remark, ‘what is truth?’ But from there on it’s all down hill for Pilate, until he finds himself broken.

 

With the help of Fredrick Buechner, let me start by sketching our Gospel lesson in a bit more contemporary clothes. So allow yourself a little room for imagination this morning and see a man who stands in front of the desk with his hands tied behind his back. You can see that he has been roughed up a little. His upper lip is absurdly puffed out and one eye is swollen shut. He looks unwashed and smells foul. His feet are bare-big, flat peasant feet, although the man himself is not big. There is something almost comic about the way he stands there, bent slightly forward because of the way his hands are tied and goggling down at the floor through his one good eye as if he is looking for something he has lost-a button off his shirt or a buck somebody slipped him for a cup of coffee.

 

It’s hard to see a king in that scene. We don’t think of nobility as a beaten abused prisoner. We don’t really like seeing Christ that way. There are certainly other passages which seem much more worthy for a Sunday called Christ the king. The transfiguration for instance, when Christ appears in light with Moses and Elijah and God says this is my son with whom I’m well pleased. That sounds like a scene for a king, not this one from John.

 

Yet, this is the Gospel lesson for the day. Christ the King. John shows us a setting that offends us-Jesus is a bedraggled, half-naked Jew, back still bloodied from a nasty whipping standing before the Roman authority. Some soldiers in mock, have forced a crown of thorns down upon his head. And now the question: “Are you King?”

 

We see kings as people like David – coming in with trumpets blowing. So why this passage in John 18? What is it about this trial that makes it the best portrayal of Christ as King? I think it could be the way he handles the situation-the stress and pressure. That certainly makes him kingly. He doesn’t panic and he doesn’t cower to save his skin. He is in a stressful situation, yet without coming unglued. How would you have handled that kind of a situation?

 

I read a study recently about how people respond to stressful situations. Quite varied responses. Some of us like to talk it out, give vent to our frustrations, some of us like to take a hike to work off the steam, some like to go out and hit the mall with their credit cards, while others prefer prayer and meditation. Other options-when all else failed-was to yell, sigh, and eat.

 

But to see a man courageously in the presence of his enemies yet without cowering is inspiring. I think this is a perfect image of Christ as King because he turns the table on Pilate. He is the king and Pilate is in the batter’s box:

 

Are you the king of the Jews?

 

Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me? Are you actually speaking for yourself, or as usual, have others told you what to speak?

 

[Pilate regrouping] Am I a Jew?

 

My kingship is not of your world.

 

So are you really a king?

 

You are the one who keeps saying that I am king.

 

Pilate tries to be in control. He keeps raving about his power, but he has very little. He thinks he is in charge, but I think this Jew is in charge. When Jesus says that his kingdom is “not of this world,” he isn’t talking about heaven or some other time. He means now, that his kingdom, unlike that of Pilate or Caiaphas is not dependent upon the methods and means of Caesar’s world. Jesus calls the shots, not because he has some certificate from Rome, but because he is true royalty.

 

I sympathize a bit with Pilate here. I’ve had a number of conversations with God that go like that. I ask a question: What do I do next? And I get silence, or an answer to a completely different question: Those people are hurting. Help them.

 

Yes okay God, I will, but first, where am I going? Everything is changing in my life, please. What do I do?

 

See your friend? He’s going to be shipped off to Iraq next week. Be with his family.

 

Yes God, I’ll do that, but can’t you help me in the meantime?

 

My people are hungry, feed them.

God doesn’t like giving straight answers to any of us. It makes it a bit easier to understand Pilate’s frustration here.

 

And just as Jesus both rejects the word ‘king’ and yet with the same breath speaks of his own ‘kingship’, so we in the Church are using an ironic metaphor whenever we speak of Jesus as king. A metaphor is when we deliberately use the wrong word in order to reveal some deeper but less obvious truth. ‘King’ is not the right word for Jesus. He deliberately fled whenever the crowds wanted to proclaim him king. He does not employ the infrastructure of a monarchy; he does not maintain palaces and royal staff, he does not proclaim the boundaries of a kingdom and establish military forces to defend them, he does not rule with an iron fist. The word ‘king’, as it is understood in our political world, is clearly the wrong word for Jesus, and yet we continue to use it. Why?

 

Because in deliberately using this wrong word we create a powerful metaphor which reveals a more profound truth. When we say that for us, Jesus is King, we are saying that for us, no one else is king. In saying that we belong to the Kingdom of Jesus, we are saying that we are not submissive citizens of any other kingdom. We are saying that Jesus and his agenda sets our agenda, and that we will not give unquestioning allegiance to any other authority. We do not set out to be hostile or seditious towards the countries we live in, but neither are we willing to cooperate with them when they ask us to compromise the values of love and justice and hospitality to advance their own national interests and agendas.

 

There is a scene that is designed to mimic this scene with Pilate and Jesus, only with a human counterpart to Christ. In complete contrast to the trial going on inside the courtroom, did you notice the informal trial going on outside Pilate’s hall?

 

“You’re one of his disciples, aren’t you?”

 

“Are you kidding? Him?”

 

“But I remember you, sure you’re the one who tried to defend Jesus.”

 

“Listen, you’ve got the wrong guy here; I’ve never laid eyes on him.”

 

Peter is us-I wonder if sometimes we think that it’s just too darn dangerous to tell the truth. That’s what happens in government far too much; truth is a commodity that needs positioning and posturing and reshaping. It is seen as just too dangerous. Out there in the darkness slippage is happening-all the disciples’ courage, resolve, and determination begin to lose ground. Peter finally denies the truth of Jesus a final time and that under oath. But on the inside the one who is supposed to be on trial is asking the questions, is in control. What a contrast! Outside in the darkness, the followers of Jesus are being questioned about the truth of their lives and their world is falling apart, coming unraveled.

 

The Gospel that is truth is good news, but in our lesson this morning, the good news is silence first. That silences is filled with news-the evening news, television news, newspaper news-just news. The truth can be stated propositionally; the two plus two type of questions.

 

What is truth? Truth is that eight year old Nasra was out walking with his mother and both were hit by a sniper; the mother lived, her son died. What is truth? Truth is a bunch of answers that help us pass the test; multiple choice, true/false items. Guesswork. But in John’s gospel, truth wears a capital T; it is a question answered by silence. Jesus never gets around to answering Pilate’s question. Just silence-you can hear a pin drop. No answer is necessary.

 

Truth is a Life. A person who in himself contains Truth that moves us beyond propositions, words, and facts toward a King. Before this Truth we can only stand in silence, because his gaze beholds us, judges us, sees us through and through. He knows the truth about us, our aspirations, our secrets, our attitudes. And there is silence.

Jesus does not give a truth to Pilate; he doesn’t talk about the theology of salvation; he simply stands there as the embodiment of Truth. An answer does come, but still not with words, but in an Act of love. Faith and Truth will meet in a Roman execution. There, God stretches out his Truth before the world. Those who come to that Truth will find truth and life and love.

 

So we live our lives as if Christ the King Sunday holds reign every day. Boldly declare as truth what exists only in the imaginations of others: Christ is King. Go forth then, proclaiming the Good News that Christ is King; use words if necessary. Amen.

                                                                                                            Rev. Cara Gee 11/09

11-15-09 THE END

THE END

One of the nicknames for our text today is Mark’s Little Apocalypse.

It talks about destruction and doom and gloom. And if you’re here today hoping for a sermon about the exact timing of the end of the world, I’m afraid you are going to be sadly disappointed.

Human beings seem so obsessed with the end of the world, don’t they? A movie just came out called 2012. It’s about the day the Mayan calendar supposedly predicts the end of the world – December 12, 2012. Somehow I suspect that we will here a lot more predictions about this day over the next few years. Sort of like all of the predictions we had for New Years of 2000. You can look at almost any time period throughout the world and someone somewhere is predicting its end. We want to know when it will be.

I think we have some belief that if we know when the end times will be, we can do something about them. We can thwart the destruction and save ourselves.  That’s been the plot of movies like Armageddon, Deep Impact and Volcano. If we humans pull together and do everything right because we know what is coming, we can save ourselves.

Even the disciples wanted to know when this supposed end would be. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Tell us when the temple will fall Jesus. We want to be in the know. We want to be able to prophecy.

Jesus’ answer is indirect. Instead of saying when the destruction will be, he warns of speculation. “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” Basically he tells them, be very wary of anyone who claims to have the answers to these questions. If anyone is claiming religious-sounding explanations for what is going on and what it all means, be very careful that you are not being led astray. Any mention of the end times will always see the rise of people who claim to be able to make sense of it all and who set themselves up as the trusted leaders who can either save us, or ensure our place in heaven. Be wary of all such claims.

What I think is interesting is that Jesus does not deny that there may be some chronological relationship between violent world events and the hope of what is to come. What he does do is make it clear that it is not a simple cause and effect, or that God is pulling the strings and setting the wheels in motion. “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Jesus is not telling us to ignore wars and famines, or to pretend they don’t matter. But he is telling us to avoid trying to interpret them as signs of God’s activity. Sometimes an earthquake is just the plates of the earth shifting. Wars are always the product of our own human folly. Famine happens in one place in the globe, but there is plenty to eat in others. Yes, there is an inevitability about the level of global catastrophe, but that doesn’t mean that God is engineering it and that it is all part of God’s plan. Christ warns us not to be led astray by such interpretations, however “biblical” and convincing they may sound.

This doesn’t mean that God is idle in the world, either. Jesus does say that the chaos is related to what God is doing — it is the beginning of the birth pangs — but that doesn’t mean that God is controlling the destruction and the famine it. We don’t accuse a baby of orchestrating the labor pains of the mother. But something has to give if the new is to emerge, and sometimes that will be traumatic. What God is bringing to birth has nothing to do with apocalyptic violence and chaos, but human culture being what it is may well be reacting to its approach by plunging itself into chaos.

But, says Jesus, be careful not to get carried away by such interpretations. Don’t start thinking that everything is a sign and that God’s actions can now be reliably predicted by reading the signs in world events. I think we try to hard to control God’s actions with our own limited understanding. God remains free and will not be bound by our theories of culture or cause and effect. God might bring something new to birth from the midst of the current chaos, and God might not. Don’t be led astray by simple tick-off-the-signs doomsday theories.

I think the reason for the inevitability of global violence and catastrophe is actually bound up with the nature of humanity itself, not because God is in any way a contributor to violence. The way the world has always acted to keep violence in check is by identifying a scapegoat. We want someone to blame. Then we employ a sort of God-endorsed official violence to rid ourselves of the scapegoat and re-establish order. After the first world war, the Germans identified the Jews as a scapegoat, claiming a God-given mandate to rid the world of this “problem.” They found someone to blame for their suffering and pain. After the second world war, we thought we were a bit more sophisticated, and rather than scapegoat the entire German and Japanese races, we identified their leaders as our scapegoats, which let us sacrifice them with a neat legally sanctioned process. All of this enables us to avoid the questions about what it was about all of us that drives us to such violence and chaos.

But ever since his crucifixion, what Jesus has been doing is unmasking our “legalized” violence, by showing that it is no better than the violence it pretends to contain. And the more the distinction between “legal” violence and “illegal” violence collapses, the greater the risk that there will no longer be anything to stop the retaliations of violence.

Yet God has a different solution to violence. God sides with the victims and draws the sting out of violence by walking into the face of it and returning only mercy. This is so radically unimaginable to us human beings, we can’t conceive of embracing God’s way. Violence in the world becomes inevitable when both sides are convinced that truth and goodness are on their side. And yet neither are willing to respond to violence by offering themselves as its recipients instead of as its creators, as God teaches.

What then are we to do? Well, if we had read further in this chapter from Mark, we would have heard that Jesus’ basic instruction is “Be Alert. Be on your watch.” We hear the phrase vigilance a lot in today’s world, but this is not the same sort of vigilance. The world wants us to be on the lookout for scapegoats. They want someone to point to and blame so that they can employ their “legally sanctioned” violence to create the illusion that the system is still “keeping us safe.” I think
the illusion is falling apart, though, because after years of the “war on terror” no one really feels any safer.

What Jesus is telling us here is exactly the opposite. Be alert lest you fall into such games. Be alert lest you be led astray by official explanations, even religious explanations, of the present violence and fall into participating again in the same destruction that named Jesus as a scapegoat who must be sacrificed to keep away the violent wrath of Rome fall upon us. Be on your watch, and wherever you see the system making new victims, takes sides with the victim, for in solidarity with the victims you will find yourself in solidarity with the Christ.

During one of my first classes in seminary I was in a small group with two other people. It quickly came out that they identified as ‘Last Dayers,’ which was a term I hadn’t really heard before. I listened with a mixture of fascination and horror as they told me we were in the last days and the end was coming any day now. They were so grateful and blessed to be born in these end times. The righteous shall be saved and the wicked damned. Hallelujah! So it didn’t matter to them that there was poverty and suffering next door to the school, because they would all be saved when the rapture happened. It wasn’t important to search out justice for people because God was coming and would give everyone the justice they deserved.

That scares me. A lot. If we are convinced the end is nigh and just sit back and wait for God to sort it out, what happens to the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden if we’re wrong? Absolutely nothing. They don’t get justice. They don’t get food. Nothing changes for them.

There is a fancy theological term for the study of end times. It’s called eschatology. Kathleen Norris talks about it in her book Amazing Grace. It’s a word she struggles with, but finally comes to terms with a way to reconcile it. She writes, “What I mean is this: an acquaintance of mine, a brilliant young scholar was stricken with cancer, and over the course of several years she came close to dying three times. But after extensive treatment, both radiation and chemotherapy, came a welcome remission. Her prognosis was uncertain at best, but she was able to teach and write. ‘I never want to go back,’ she told her department head, an older woman, ‘because now I know what each morning means, and I am so grateful just to be alive.’ When the older woman said to her, ‘We’ve been through so much together in the last few years,’ the younger woman nodded and smiled. ‘Yes,” she said emphatically, ‘Yes! And hasn’t it been a blessing!’

It is a blessing to see what each morning means. To live each day as if it were your last. That phrase may be cliché, but its cliché for a reason. We need to be present in today or we might miss the last.  Our passage from Hebrews tells us how we should act each day “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Encourage people to do good. Meet people’s needs. Not sit around waiting for the end. Not encourage violent behavior. But do good. Love people. We’re told to live each day fully, liveeach day as a Christians as if you would meet Christ tomorrow and talk about your sins. That is a blessing.

I think that is why Jesus never gave the disciples a straight answer here. He never gave them a time they could point to and predict. If he had, they would have no reason to live each day fully. If you know when the end is coming, you don’t worry about tomorrow. Instead Jesus gives us signs that point to every and any age. We must always be alert. We must always be ready. And we must always live each day as a blessing. Amen.

11-08-09 WHAT SHOULD I GIVE?

WHAT SHOULD I GIVE?

2 Chronicles 31: 2-10, Mark 12: 41-44

 

There are a number of places in the Bible where we can get our cue about giving back to God.  You will perhaps recall from your childhood learning about the story of Cain and Abel.  Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain a tiller of the ground.  They were both farmers with different responsibilities. All the way back in the fourth chapter of Genesis, before the benefits of covenants or laws, the children of God, these brothers who squabbled with each other, knew it was the right thing to do to give back to God. They knew God gave them everything, and God made everything, and if they wanted it blessed, they thanked God with a portion of their means. Cain brought an offering from his crops, and Abel an offering from his livestock. The Bible says that the Lord had regard for Abel’s offering, but for Cain’s he had no regard.  There is no reason given to think that an offering of an animal is better than an offering of crops; indeed, some would rather have crops. So why did God regard one offering and have no regard for the other?  Plenty of people have pondered that question: looking at the whole of Scripture, some have said the attitude of the giver makes all the difference. Perhaps you’ve watched the commercial on television about the mom and the two boys and the last slice of bread dilemma regarding a peanut butter sandwich. “Mom,” Cody says, “There’s only one slice.” “Okay then, let’s share.” “His half can’t be bigger than mine,” Cody protests, pointing to his brother. “Alright,” the wise mom says, “Tell you what: Jake gets to cut,” “Nice!” says Jake. “But,” continues mom, “Cody gets to choose!” “NICE!” says Cody.  That could have ended differently if the negotiator had not been wise! You’ve seen children (or adults) when things don’t go there way: the Bible says about Cain: “His countenance fell” which very much disappointed God. Does your countenance ever fall? It means that your face falls, your expression changes to one of disbelief or anger, and your attitude sours. There seems to be something about Cain’s attitude. Even before the rejection of the offering, did the Lord know that it was given out of resentment?  Offerings given out of resentment do not bring joy to anyone. Ten chapters later than the Cain and Abel story, we already get a recording of Abram giving a tithe (which the Good News Bible rightly translates as ten percent) to the great high priest of Jerusalem, Melchizedek. Already, the faithful one, Abram, shows what is to be given back to God- in this case through a Jerusalem priest, in gratitude. Later we come to a book that many skip: Leviticus. Leviticus is mostly the codes of Godly living prescribed by God through the priests; in this case, you may recall, that all the sons of Jacob were given land as part of their inheritance, all except Levi, who was given the job of building and maintaining the priesthood that would direct how people honored God. Leviticus is part of their handbook on how to live rightly. In Leviticus 27 we read: “All the tithes (first tenth) are the Lord’s; … they are holy to the Lord.” This is the way to please and honor God. It was Bruce Wilkerson’s popular book THE PRAYER OF JABEZ that brought to the masses the idea that God, like a joy-filled parent, has many blessings in heaven waiting to be bestowed on loyal children who ask for them. Although that premise has been extrapolated more than the two verses in 1 Chronicles 4 ever intended, the idea is a worthy one: for those who honor God with their words and actions (like children who honor parents with words and actions) the gratitude and generosity of God is waiting to bless them.  One doesn’t give just to get goods or blessings: God can see right through that. But if one gives generously and gratefully, there are Biblical accounts, and accounts throughout the ages, of people getting great blessings from God. So Leviticus is yet another guide for our giving.

 

What should I give?  Here is another place for us to look for the answer: Deuteronomy 26. “When you receive what the Lord your God has given you, you shall take the first fruit which you harvest, put it in a basket, go to your holy place, and offer it to the priest (paraphrased.) First fruits are also a gratitude gift of the first of what God has given us.  In Joshua we see how the people of Israel kept the first fruits principle and were blessed for it.  As they came from Mount Nebo across the Jordan River, the first city they defeated and claimed was Jericho. But by Joshua’s instruction from the Lord, they were to leave Jericho to God as a first fruits offering, and God would bless the rest of the land they were given. Joshua 6 includes a warning not to build there; one who did later, according to First Kings 16, did so at the terrible price of the life of his first born and his last born sons. Faithful people please God, and faithful people cause God’s heart to overflow with a desire to bless them. God could have blessings right now for you and me.

 

In our Old Testament text today from 2 Chronicles, we heard that the tithe and first fruits requests were prescribed and followed: Hezekiah, a King who the Bible says “Did what was good in the sight of the Lord,” put reforms into place in the city that had been corrupted before. He re-established the old customs, including the call for tithes and first fruits. And God’s kingdom, under Hezekiah’s reign, was richly blessed. Here is the passage again: “As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundance the tithe of everything. The people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of dedicated things that had been consecrated to the Lord their God, and laid them in heaps.” If we were all farmers, we might bring an offering to God today that would begin to look like the contents of Noah’s Ark! Since most of us do not trade with agricultural commodities but with our means, we do not bring cattle or corn for God as often as we bring time, talents, and treasure. Traditionally, offerings helped the orphans, the widows, the travelers, the missionaries, and portions needed for worship. Now tithes, offerings, and alms continue to lift up and support those in need.

 

Finally the scene shifts to a time twelve hundred years later. The same principles were in place. Jesus was at the Temple in Jerusalem with his disciples. There was a place where people could drop in Temple coins—Shekels—as a tithe. In an era without Medicare or Medicaid or pensions, a widow was among the poorest adults in a community. She would often have no money with which to buy food if the husband who used to till the soil, craft the products, or raise the livestock had died. She could perhaps sew or clean, but no income of substance came to her. So it is in this context that Jesus draws attention to her offering in Mark 12. She not only put in one “mite” which was the least of the coins, she also put in another: “two cents”
we might say today. But if you had nothing but two cents, it is a fortune.  A woman I know who lives in this area once pushed her broken mini-van onto the north parking lot of our property. It was a hot day and she had two children in the van. When I spotted her, she was crying and digging in the seat cushions, under the seats, and on the stained carpet for change. You see, she was looking for pennies; and nickels, and dimes. When I walked out to her she was overwhelmed with frustration. “Please,” she cried, “I just spent my money on buying this used van and its junk! It has stalled many times, the last time out in front of your church; I pushed it around here.” She then poured coins into my hand; “Please,” she said, “can I buy a soda or get some water from you? We are so thirsty.” I brought her and her children into our kitchen, and gave them what snacks and beverages we had. She insisted that her children share one instead of each having one. Unlike the boys in the peanut butter commercial, they agreed gladly.  Since then I and others in the church have helped this young mother get back on her feet with occasional help and some gifts at Christmas. She is among the many we have helped.

 

That is the story of our work as Christians. That is some of the best use of our funds. But we would not have funds if people, through either the principle of a tithe or their own calculation, did not give back as a thank offering to God. We can do so much with tithes brought and blessed!

 

In a moment as we sing “Bringing in the Sheaves,” I want you to imagine the offerings brought forward in Deuteronomy 26. They might have held corn or fruit or other gifts. Today we will bring our own first fruits offerings forward of our talent sheet commitments and our estimate of giving cards, at the end of the service.

Prayerfully consider what you might want to do to help missionaries, children, widows, and those who are hungry.  And God sees the “countenance” with which we give. “When the Apostle Paul said “God loves a cheerful giver,” perhaps he was working to make our attitude toward the Lord be less like Cain’s and more like Abels.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  November 8, 2009  

11-01-09 WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT LAZARUS?

WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT LAZARUS?

John 11: 32-44

 

What do we do about Lazarus? What do we do with a story of a man in the Bible who is declared dead, is covered with cloth in a tomb, who Jesus goes in to see, and the dead man comes out alive? What do we do about Lazarus when YOU wish that had happened to your brother or sister; your husband or wife; your son or daughter? What do we do with the general perception that miracles happened in Biblical times, but now they don’t as often as when Jesus walked the earth? “Does God still care?” people ask.  Where do we find miracles today? The media has gone to Catholic Churches where people have claimed to see a bleeding crucifix, a weeping statue of Mary, or an image of Mary on the glass of a bank building. But, of course, the church is in the miracle business, isn’t it? Can we find any skeptical source of data that would support the idea of miracles happening in our day? Scientists are good choices, generally working with data. Doctors and nurses may have faith, but they are also trained in medicine and reality.

There was a man-Lazarus- who rose from the dead in the first century. Do we have such hope in the twenty-first century?  On December 27, 2008, doctors delivered devastating news to the Kirby family: Officer Ken Kirby of Seneca, South Carolina had died of a massive heart attack. The officer, taking down Christmas decorations, had flat lined at home. Paramedics resuscitated him, but at the hospital, his heart stopped again. They felt no pulse; they covered his body and dejectedly walked to the waiting room to say they had done all they could. His wife walked in to say goodbye to her husband. It was after her goodbyes that an alert nurse picked up a faint pulse, and then a heartbeat. On Tuesday January 27th, one month after being declared dead, he and his family appeared with Matt Lauer on the “Today” show. His community had dubbed him “Officer Lazarus.” What do we do about “Officer Lazarus,” if and when our own loved ones don’t survive? What does it say about Jesus? What does it say about us? Twenty-one years ago Janek Grzebska was living in Communist Poland where the streets were gray, food was rationed, and he was a railway worker who got a serious head injury on the job. He went into a coma, becoming totally unresponsive. He stayed unresponsive for days; then days led to weeks; and weeks led to years. There is no report on why this man did not have a plug pulled, but it was certain that those around him saw he had slipped into a deep sleep. Jesus said that Lazarus was just “sleeping” but all who heard him knew that being “put to sleep” or “sleeping” was a euphemism for death. Janek was in a state of “sleep” for—you won’t believe this—nineteen years! On June 5, 2007, Janek was actually interviewed by Polish Television reporter. Communism was no more and many foods were available that weren’t before. Besides that, people of all ages were talking as they walked around; he wondered if the world had become delirious. “No” his family explained to him. “Those are new inventions called cell phones and Blue tooth ear devices! Nineteen years; thirty days; the list could certainly go on. What do we do about Lazarus?

Lazarus, from Biblical accounts in John, was a friend of Jesus, as were his sisters, Mary and Martha. It seems that Jesus would stop by Bethany first when he came to Jerusalem and later when he needed time away from Jerusalem. And, of course, in those days, ways to determine death were more difficult; there was no glass to hold under a man’s nose to look for steam caused by breathing; there were no sensitive monitors to check for a pulse. What they had, instead, was a law put forth by Rabbis: if a man does not move for three days, he is to be declared dead. Jesus saw an opportunity to illustrate what would soon happen to him. He could have come to Lazarus when he first heard, but it had not been three days, the death declaration day. And so he waited, saddening Mary, Lazarus’ sister. Her sadness caused him also to weep from the deep feelings of betrayal she seemed to be having toward him. Jesus arrived four days after Lazarus had been placed in the tomb (the normal procedure for the dead in the first century.) We know the rest of the story: Lazarus comes out of the tomb like some kind of Halloween trick, pulls off the bandages with which he had been wrapped, and he walks into the arms of disbelieving but rejoicing sisters and friends. What do we do about Lazarus? That question may haunt you. If Lazarus was raised, then why not your loved one, and my loved one? Circumstances and reasons differ for each illness, accident or death. What we don’t read, for example, is about all the other people who died in and around Jerusalem that week that did not come back from the dead. Lazarus was an example of Jesus’ own resurrection, when he brought him back to life after the third day. Jesus also healed a girl who was mistaken for dead but was only sick; other than that, Lazarus is the sole recorded one that Jesus raised one from death.

 

So our issue today is not why didn’t this happen to my loved one too, for Lazarus was not one of many raised, but the one and only. This are the story; the one and only. We might wonder if a miracle might ever happen to someone we know. After church several years ago, Woody Starrett had a massive stroke: he could not speak and he could not move. With quick action by his wife Annette and neighbor Jodi Pond, paramedics arrived and took him to the emergency room. The doctor on staff said it was a major stroke and attended to him well. I arrived and Woody, Annette, Jodi, and I prayed to God for healing.  Today Woody is well, traveling, and going about his life. When the doctor was asked if the medicine he gave Woody was that good, the doctor replied. “No, it is not that good. It had to be your prayers too that brought him back to being well.” That example some call “miracle.” There are others too; they are not the matter of course, they are the exception. Even our Heavenly Father lost a Son; God knows loss, and you know loss. But God, and people who believe in God, turn tragedies into opportunities for triumph: ships are safer because so many lost their lives in a liner called Titanic; there is determination to find a cure for melanoma because the deaths of young men like Billy Walter and David Corcoran were made meaningful. And stronger construction codes are in place in Florida since Hurricane Andrew caused such loss in 1992. From death comes life; from darkness comes light, and from our dark night of the soul comes the dawn of new days. Know that God weeps when you weep; know that God knows loss as you know loss; but know also that God loves you with an everlasting love and, if you will let God do it, will put unfailing arms around you.  And God is not only the author of life, God also sent Jesus to tell you that a place has been prepared for your loved one, and for you, if you want it. The one who was in the beginning, will also be with us in the end; and there will be a grand reunion. One day you’ll have that.

Let us close with a prayer to God written by Thomas Dorsey, not the bandleader, but the Black writer of gospel songs, who experienced great loss. But instead of letting God go, or saying there is no God, he asked God to take his hand through the storm and through the night, and to one day, lead him home. Let us pray with him, as we sing this hymn, and close it with a prayerful “amen.” [ Sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.]

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      November 1, 2009