Monthly Archives: January 2011

01-30-11 WHAT GOD REQUIRES OF YOU

WHAT GOD
REQUIRES OF YOU

Micah 6: 1-8

If
you have been in a real courtroom before, you might have found it to
be less exciting and filled with surprises than in “Perry Mason,”
“Matlock,” or “Boston Legal.” I have been on a jury once,
been a witness twice, and been a spectator once. In a real courtroom
almost never does someone stand and announce his guilt as a
spectator, and almost never does an attorney accuse a person who has
come merely to observe a trial. Trials have been held in America and
in other nations since Biblical Times, albeit often without the
decorum and procedures we adhere to in the American court system.
Well today, at least at the beginning, you are a spectator at a
trial; it is a trial of sorts between the Lord God who has been
wronged, Micah who is the prosecuting attorney, and Israel who is the
defendant. You cannot have God’s role, and you cannot have Micah’s
role! But as we look over the courtroom scene, there could be times
when
we might become
the accused.

First,
in verses one and two, Micah, speaking for the LORD, introduces the
case. Witnesses in this case are all of creation (meaning the whole
world.) The court is reminded of all that the LORD has done for
Israel: he redeemed them from bondage, he sent them Moses, Aaron, and
Miriam, and later he stopped the King of Moab—Balak—from cursing
Israel even when an oracle named Balaam had failed. He even reminded
them how Balaam, a foreigner, considered the Lord to be his God.

Second,
between verses five and six, we pause; pause to get the tenor of the
proceeding. The defendant Israel is being accused of sinning against
God, forgetting God, and even being unfaithful to God by pursuing
other false gods. It is Israel, then, acting as its own defense
attorney, who retorts with courtroom hyperbole, with a flair for the
dramatic. Falling right into God’s accusatory trap, the people of
Israel ask what they could do in a worship setting to make things
right in God’s eyes! God certainly wanted to say “You are missing
the point!” but they proceeded anyway. The LORD had
always
told them what was required—and he would do that here again—but
not before the overly dramatic performance by the defense. “With
what shall (we) come before the Lord, and bow ourselves before God on
high?” Israel asked rhetorically. “That’s not what God wants!”
Micah wanted to object, but hearing the judge’s objection in his
head, he let this sob story continue. “Shall we come before the
Lord with burnt offerings?” And here spectators like us might
think: “Ah, I see what they’re trying to do! They’re giving
examples of high redemption costs that might make things right again!
But the defendant continued: “Will the LORD be pleased with a
thousand rams!!” (Micah rolled his eyes). “Or with ten thousand
rivers of oil?” (“Oh brother!” Micah could have said out loud,
but the judge would have just reprimanded him for talking out of
turn. But how could he be quiet for such exaggerations?) Then Israel
goes beyond the pail, infringing into the territory that false gods
wanted and that the real God loathed: child sacrifice. “Shall I
give my first-born to pay for my sins?” The way it was phrased it
treated Israel as a child-bearing mother, speaking the unspeakable
act.

Third,
surely between verses seven and eight Micah conferred with his
client: “Lord, how do you want me to respond to such a heinous
response! It is an outrage!” Something about the calm in the LORD’s
voice must have steadied this prosecuting attorney prophet and
redirected his anger into a steady, jaw-clenched answer: “The LORD
has shown you already
what is good! Don’t you remember? It’s not just what you
do
in worship, it is how you live outside
of worship that God sees and requires! Do justice! Love Kindness!
Walk humbly with
your God!”
And with that, the state rested, for the time being.

When
are the times you want to bargain with God? Some do it if they cheat
on a test and are caught; some do it if they don’t tell the truth
on their income taxes and are called in for an audit; some do it if
they cheat on their spouse and are caught. Notice how many people
come to God
when they are caught! “If
you will just make this one thing right and let people overlook this
one thing, I’ll give, let’s see: my whole next paycheck to the
church! Or I’ll help the next homeless man I find on a corner! Or
I’ll volunteer at a food pantry! What will make this right, Lord?”
But the LORD is no fool, hearing each offer as
bribery without correction; of gifts without admitting guilt.

This famous passage gives answers to more than what God requires in
your life;
it is what God requires when you
are trying to worm your way out of a jam.
“Do
the right thing! Show kindness! Stop thinking of yourself first!”
That’s Micah 6:8 in plain language.

Dr.
Lloyd John Ogilvie, who for years was pastor of the First
Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, went to seminary in Scotland and
studied under the great preacher James S. Stewart. After class one
day, Lloyd stayed to ask his professor some questions about preaching
and pastoring. At one point Dr. Stewart leaned across his desk and
said these startling words: “Do you know what
you
need to do Mr. Ogilvie?” You need to let
your ego die so Christ can find some room in your heart! Upon
reflection, Lloyd Ogilvie said “Something had to die in me before
God could have his way with me.” God doesn’t want our burnt
offerings or ten thousand rivers of oil, or our child or even our
promises for future generosity. They all skirt what God wants most:
us. God wants us, but
with changes: God wants our lives, our souls, our devotion, our
muscles, and our bones. God needs all of us to carry out a plan for
the world that is different from the one our meager minds can dream.

In
his book called
Worship, Leslie
B. Flynn told this story: “A man was packing a shipment of food
that was contributed by a school for the poor people of Appalachia.
He was separating beans from powdered milk, and canned vegetables
from canned meats. Reaching into a box filled with various cans, he
pulled out a little brown paper sack. At first he thought a child a
bagged just some different items from the list. But when he looked
in, he pulled out a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and a cookie.
He turned the bag around and read: ‘Christy-room 104.’She had
given her own lunch to help a hungry person.”
Justice
looks like that.

Years
ago, Dr. Karl Menninger of the Menninger Clinic was asked ‘If
someone felt a nervous breakdown coming on, what could that person
do?’ ‘If you feel a nervous breakdown coming on,’ the Dr.
replied, ‘I would urge you to find someone else with a problem—a
serious one—and get involved with that individual, helping him
solve his problem.’ That way you are no longer lingering over your
own problems; you are focusing on solving someone else’s issues.
Reid Morrison in this church used to sing a song with this line:
“Others; let that my motto be.” If we show
kindness
for others we are doing what Jesus did in his earthly life, and what
he seeks to do through us now. That is
kindness.

Finally,
“a young seminary graduate came up to the pulpit one Sunday, very
self-confident and immaculately dressed. He began to deliver his
sermon in his first church, and the words simply would not come out.
Finally tears streamed down his face and he left the platform
humbled. There were two wise women in the front row. One leaned to
the other and said: “If he’d come in like he went out, he would
have gone out like he came in.”

Walk
humbly with your God.
Do justice; love kindness; and walk humbly with your God. If you do
that; if I do that; the judge in our trial could very well dismiss
the case against us- for lack of sinful evidence. Oh what a joyful
day in heaven that will be! What will you do differently now, not
just in here, but out there, that will be the first in a series of
life-changing events for you? When you begin, the applause of heaven
can be deafening.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner January 30 2011

01-23-11 CLANS UNITED IN CHRIST

CLANS UNITED
IN CHRIST

1 Corinthians
1: 10-18

There
are so many ways that human beings compete: certainly it happens in
sports, but that is their essential purpose. In a capitalistic
society such as ours, competition is in our bloodstream: Walmart vs.
Target; Microsoft vs. Apple; in “The Miracle of 34
th
Street film it was Macys vs. Gimbels; it will be the Orlando Magic
vs. a host of teams and the Super Bowl glues people to their TV
sets. In a few weeks at the Speedway it will be Ford vs. Chevy,
Dodge, and even Toyota. Several years ago Toshiba lost countless
dollars producing the HDDVDs, only to see their format get tossed in
favor of Sony’s Blu-Ray. Now the cellphone provider battles
continue to wage; will the consumer be the winner or loser in that?
Sometimes the alignments we choose, however, foster differences to
the detriment of our society, don’t they? Are we better off because
we now have Democrats, Republicans, and the Tea Party? Has the
airline deregulation of the 1980s produced a better product for the
traveling public? Are Americans always going to qualify their
citizenship with terms like southern, Asian or African Americans?
Sometimes our competitions can hit a nerve.

In the
book of Genesis, readers are introduced to the twelve sons of Jacob
that would later lead the Twelve Tribes of Israel. If you don’t
remember another thing about those sons, remember that Jacob, a man
who schemed with his mother to win the first-born birthright from him
brother Esau, had never seeing a parenting book in his life. Can
anyone, then, be surprised to read about the unbelievable favoritism
he showed toward his son Joseph? His other sons were not blind; they
saw what dad was doing—giving him a special coat—and as they
heard their brother’s ego at work—he dreamed that
their
sheaves
would bow down to him—their anger
got the better of them and they “sold” their brother to
Ishmaelites—people who were organized into “clans” according to
Genesis 36! Competition was not too healthy for the twelve tribes!

Now we
move on to Corinth. In a city with too many people entrenched in
their own ways of thinking (like people you perhaps know!) things
were always stirred up and interesting! It was to address those
volatile conditions that the Apostle Paul wrote his letters. Although
in Ireland, Catholics and Protestants have fought bitterly over the
years, believers in Corinth were not to the level of criminality,
they just thought they were right! Family feuds often start over
someone believing he is right, don’t they? So when Paul wrote the
first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church, he named
the divisions in that church and stated his hopes for unity. Some in
that church started to show denominationalism. As we might say today:
“I belong to a Calvinist Church” or “I belong to a “Wesleyan
Church” or “I belong to a Lutheran Church,” in Corinth they
said “I belong to Paul,” which probably meant they were Jewish
and Gentile Christians who were sympathetic to Gentiles. Others said
“I belong to Apollos,” which probably meant they were very
intellectual Christians who grouped with other studious Hellenistic
Christians. Still others said “I belong to Cephas” (Peter’s
real name) probably meaning they were Christians who were most
sympathetic toward Christians who passed through the Jewish rituals
first. “I belong to Christ” was the claim by some of the
centrists in Corinth. So Paul appeals to his brothers and sisters in
Christ, and asks “be in agreement, and let there be no divisions
among you.” You see the problem, don’t you? Certainly Paul’s
world was not without divisions as just described. And our world is
just as divided, with litigation clogging our court system. Our
society is not kind to people who are different. Some suggest that
“good fences make good neighbors,” the way oil won’t mix with
water. Despite the theory that America was once a big melting pot, we
are not a society that melted together easily. In St. Louis where I
spent my teenage years, there are neighborhoods where groups are
huddled together: the Italians, the Germans, and the Polish among
others. In some cities there are neighborhoods where Chinese, or
Vietnamese persons gather; and in other cities Anglo Americans may
live in neighborhoods apart from African Americans or Native
Americans. Such heritages make for great food, great stories, and
great bonding!
But if they are people of
faith, can they unite, putting aside differences, so that Christ can
be lifted up? That is the question that brings us to this service
today.

In a
humorous but factual account of clans in Scotland, Rupert Besley
writes “The word ‘clan’ comes from the Gaelic ‘clann’
meaning offspring, tribe, or clan. The Clan System was introduced in
the 11
th century
and was essentially a bureaucratic measure, whereby the population of
Scotland was split up by surname and people with the same name were
required to live together in alphabetical order.( A little tongue in
cheek there!) Thus were forged the strong links between the clans and
their territories—Stuarts and Bute, Macdonnells and Glengarry,
Macbaynes and the Islands. All this did create some difficulties for
the postman, but did at least make family get-togethers at Christmas
rather simple to arrange! The clan system worked relatively well for
a while, but, as so often happens in families, feuds grew up over the
centuries….Intense rivalry and ill-feeling (such as between
Edinburgh and Glasgow) led to constant turbulence in the Highlands.
The merest clash of tartans was enough to cause the clan chief to …
summon clansmen into action against their neighbor. It was a grim
chapter in Scottish History.” [SCOTLAND FOR BEGINNERS, Lochar
Publishing, 1990, p.33,34.] The term “Feudal System” came from a
term categorizing families and attaching them to land. The next time
you hear about a “feud,” you can think back to Scotland among
other countries, where fighting for family and land could become a
long time obsession. For a time the wearing of Highland costumes and
tartans was banned by the government. Finally in the 19
th
century
kilts returned as a source of national
pride and even commerce, since a real kilt

took 21 yards of material per person! And today, kilts are, for the
most part, a source of pageantry, family heritage, and national
pride.

What
Joseph demonstrated in Genesis was
forgiveness.
What Paul implored in both his first and his second letter to the
Corinthians was reconciliation. And today, what a preacher like the
late Peter Marshall requested was that we human beings—not just
Scotsmen and women, but as members of the human race—lay aside our
differences.
It is to Almighty God that we
should cling, and to the Word.
In the place
of short-term arguments or long time feuds, we only ask God to bless
us, and our tartans, if we truly—brother and sister alike—band
together, sing together, march together, work together, pray
together, and evangelize together. Only one Savior could bring about
such unity amidst such strife. It is the name, which is above every
other name, Paul said. For the sake of Jesus Christ, who died for our
sins, and who shows us the way, the truth, and the life, that we come
together to build up the body of Christ. May his Church show love,
honor, and devotion to him as the Head of the Church. For the sake of
Almighty God, may our cloaks of many colors symbolize a patchwork of
Christian clans, and not a divisive coat of many colors.

Jeffrey
Sumner
January 23. 2011  

01-16-11 JOHN THE BAPTIST




Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic is though to have written the following poem:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

This is a common theme of incarnational theology – the notion that we are to be Jesus Christ to the world. The idea is that God became incarnate, became flesh, so as to embody God’s love for the world. We are then called to incarnate Christ in our own selves and to love the world as Jesus did. The Apostle Paul writes of this end in his letter to Corinth, saying we are to love even to the point of “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:10)

Many Christians strive towards this end, and indeed, I’m one of them. But this morning I’m going to show you a slightly different look at incarnational theology through John the Baptist. We are in the season of Epiphany, that time in the Church year when we celebrate the “manifestation” of Christ to the world, first as a baby and then at his baptism. Epiphany is, in three words, “all about Christ.” But as I read and re-read the passage for the morning what struck me above all else was that the really interesting person in it was John the Baptist.

I have to admit I’ve always been a bit fascinated by John the Baptist. If Jesus came across as the radical of his day, John the Baptist would have seemed like a raving nutter to the average person. He is the equivalent of someone in our day who stands on the street and points out the wrongs of our society. Loudly. Perhaps also holding a sign. The really amazing thing about John though, is that he gathered followers. At the time of the passage this morning, John had a large number of people following him around and listening to him preach.

What I noticed about the
depictions of John in classical drawings and paintings is that he points. Artists portray him in his leather belt with that long index finger extended, and his eyes are gazing from the canvas to me as if he’s saying, “Hey. Look at that.”

That is Jesus, the Lamb of God, and this passage if filled to the brim with names for that Lamb. So we have John the Baptist saying, “Behold” (Look at that), and we have John the Gospel writer as well with his plethora of names, too, saying, “Yeah. Do look. Look at him as Son of God, as Rabbi, as the Messiah, as the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Look. Look. Look.” And if the names aren’t enough to make you do it, consider the action in the story. John the Baptist points and speaks, and two of his disciples follow Jesus.

Everything John says and does in this passage is about pointing people away from himself to Jesus. John’s message is in effect, “
This isn’t about me. It’s about this guy. Yeah. There he goes. He’s the one. Him. Lamb of God.”

Fred Craddock says of John the Baptist “The fact is, there is no evidence of anything unhealthy in the life of John. No power, no influence, no capacity is abdicated or denied; all are fully and vigorously employed in the single service of witnessing to Christ. If he is speaking with one or two, he is a witness; if he is working with a crowd, he is a witness; if he is facing a forest of microphones and blinking into the flashing bulbs of Jerusalem inquirers, he is a witness, no less but no more. As such he is the perfect prototype of the Christian leader: sent of God to witness.

This is not to say there was no struggle, no temptation to use his gifts to elevate himself. On the contrary, such a battle must have raged within him at times. Since temptation is commensurate with strength, the unusually gifted face tests that the rest of us do not. But even with the wrestling, the great can and do turn all their gifts to the service of the gospel, and in so doing discover that their powers are not diminished but increased.”

I find it ironic that with so much effort that John the Baptist puts into drawing the attention away from himself to Jesus, that the lectionary has shoved him down our throats for these Sundays throughout Advent, Christmas, and now Epiphany. It reminds me of a kid who looks at your finger instead of the object you’re pointing at.

“Don’t look at me. Look there. Over there.” And finally in exasperation you rush over and manually turn the little tyke’s head. “See? The Lamb of God.” Maybe we’re guilty, too, of being too infantile to realize we’re supposed to be beholding the Lamb and what
he’s about.

One thing you have to admire about Jesus’ apostles. They get who the finger points to. They drop John like a hot potato and go to see what Jesus is about. And, these weren’t any two disciples; one of them was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. That is, John was going to lose some of his “best” disciples, who were going to go on to become the cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry.


Nevertheless, John pointed Jesus out to them. Once he has directed his disciples to Jesus and they follow him, the scene shifts, and John is only mentioned one or two more times. In fact, by pointing out Jesus to them, John was committing professional suicide. He was putting himself out of a job.



The focus wasn’t on him; he was only there to give himself so that others would follow Jesus. Now
that is something that is not simply admirable, but rather amazing. That is what makes me want to say that this passage, though directing us to Jesus, is all about John. And, by thinking of the passage in this way, we are improved and strengthened.

Humility is defined as “the virtue that expresses a spirit of deference.”  We tend to think of humility as a weak virtue in this culture. Something held by the shy and the meek. Not a characteristic of someone with “real” personality. Yet John has an excess of personality with his locusts and honey and with his taunting and coaxing people into baptism. No one could call John meek.

Yet, in the gospel, John showed humility through his witness to the Greater One. In our culture, a good witness gives first-hand information. We are consumed with the “facts.” But, in Jesus’ culture, a good witness had a good reputation. The quality of their witness depended upon the quality of their character. John placed his reputation, his character, and his very life at the service of his witness. His willingness to defer, to be humble, made John’s witness all the more powerful.

John is marked by humility, but this does not prevent him from preaching with boldness. John’s message is not watered down to please his audience. He speaks against sin, whether it be that of tax-gatherers or soldiers or even Herod himself. He clearly identifies sin, condemns it, and calls for repentance. This boldness is not a contradiction to his humility, but a manifestation of it. He is inferior and subordinate to his Lord, the Messiah. He was called of God to proclaim the message he was given. He would do no less than proclaim that message with boldness and clarity. No doubt this played a part in the powerful impact of that message on those who heard it.

The Baptist’s story winds throughout the gospels, connected to Jesus almost from conception. John precedes him, identifies him, baptizes him, defers to him, and in death is affirmed by him as “the greatest of the prophets.”  Yet John was a prophet in his own right, dying the martyr’s death because he would not be silent about the sins of the rich and famous.

That’s the thing about John, he would not, could not, keep silent!  Jesus, on the other hand, builds his ministry slowly, out by the seashore, telling those closest to him not to divulge the secret, nuancing certain aspects of the coming kingdom with parables, similes and metaphors.  John’ message has no filter whatsoever.  Even snippets of his sermons make us squirm yet. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)

At best, prophets like John help us get our bearings in the world. They throw cold water and hard sayings in our faces and force us to take stock of our lives and the culture around us.  At worst, pursuing the prophetic may mean that we find an excuse to silence the messenger, manipulating our way out of the warnings.  From the Baptist to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the prophetic landscape is strewn with the bodies of the dead, some of whom, though silenced, speak yet.

At other times, the prophetic word is a word of hope in a time of trouble, when things are so bad that the only way out is for God to do a new thing.  In today’s text from Isaiah, the prophet is God’s “servant,” called from his mother’s womb to “raise up” and “restore the survivors,” to be “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  Sometimes the pursuit of the prophetic is itself a reason for celebration.

But let’s go back to my original statement about John the Baptist and incarnational theology.  Rodger Nishioka tells this story: “While I fully understand what Teresa and the apostle Paul are saying to us, that we are to live lives that embody Christ, it is equally important that we not take on some messianic identity that says we are Christ to the world. A couple of years ago, a good friend and colleague here at the seminary who was concerned about my schedule and commitments and hectic pace and looking tired, insisted on taking me out to lunch. When we sat down at the table, I asked what was going on. She told me she had some good news for me. Perplexed, I asked her what the good news was. She smiled and said ‘I want you to know that the Messiah has come!’ Now I was thoroughly confused, so she told me she had even better news for me: ‘You are not him!’ The real danger in a distorted incarnational theology is that we come to believe that if we truly are Christ’s body in the world, then if the world is going to be saved, we have to do it.”

We get so caught up in trying to do everything and save everyone, we burn ourselves out. We cannot do everything yet we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking we have to. Maybe sometimes, instead of trying to save the world on our own, we should instead ask ourselves, what would John the Baptist do? Instead of trying to be the savior of humanity, we should try to be more like John the Baptist, calling attention to Jesus Christ and then saying to all who are within hearing distance: “Hey! Look! God is alive. God is in our midst. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and through and for us. Behold! The Lamb of God!”

Imagine living a life like that instead. A life where everything we did, pointed at the wonders of God in our midst. Where rather than taking everything upon ourselves, we lifted up everything to God instead. What would the world be like if rather than focusing on ourselves, we pointed to God? That would truly look like the kingdom of Heaven .





Rev. Cara Milne Gee


January 16th, 2011

01-09-11 GOD’S BLESSINGS AND EXPECTATIONS

GOD’S
BLESSINGS AND EXPECTATIONS

Isaiah 42:
1-9; Matthew 3: 13-17

A wonderful educator and professor at Columbia Seminary,
Rodger Nishioka, taught my first doctoral class. What wit and
insights he brings to each class. He once told the following story:

Kyle was nowhere to be found, and I missed him. In
the weeks following his baptism and confirmation on Pentecost Sunday,
he was noticeably missing. Several other members of the confirmation
class asked about him too …. Kyle and his family had come to the
congregation when he was in the fifth grade. They attended
sporadically, so I was more than a little surprised when I asked him
and his parents if he was interested in joining the confirmation
class and they responded positively! … Kyle and his parents came
for the orientation meeting and agreed to the covenant to participate
in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly
classes for study and exploration. Kyle was serious in attending and
rarely missed a class or event. He quickly became a significant part
of the group and developed some wonderful friendships with [others]
who barely had known him. Since Kyle had not yet been baptized, he
was not only confirmed but also baptized on Pentecost Sunday. It was
a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, and
their mentors. That was pretty much where it ended. That is when I
knew we had done something wrong. [He hadn’t shown up to church
since.] When I checked in with Kyle and his folks, they all seemed a
little surprised that I was calling and checking up on them. I
distinctly remember his mother saying: ‘Oh well, I guess I thought
Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and
everything. Isn’t he done?’ That’s the problem. Despite our
best intentions and despite all we say and try to communicate, too
many people seem to think that the baptism of the infant or young
adult or adult is the culminating activity of faith, and then we are
‘all done.’” [FEASTING ON THE WORD, Year A, Volume 1, WJK, p.
236-238]. One other example: As I was going around getting gifts for
people this Christmas, I was invited to save 10% by applying for a
credit card when I bought three of my gifts at different stores. The
purchase totals were each over a hundred dollars so I decided to take
a minute and fill out an application to receive the savings. During
this first week of January, I received three cards and was encouraged
to start using them. With one I intend to do so; with the other two I
do not. In fact, one said the card wasn’t valid until I made a call
to activate it and I used it to make my first purchase. There is a
part of me that believes that the parents with their newly baptized
babies, and youth with their new baptism certificates, leave church
thinking that they have been baptized. And in fact they have, their
certificate says so. But like the new credit card I got in the mail,
it seems like it should say: “not valid until activated.”
Baptisms hardly carry power and meaning until they are activated, by
parents returning their children to church or youth returning to grow
their faith.
It seems to me that people
misunderstand the blessing, assurance, or understanding of baptism if
the one baptized, or the parents, treat it like a commissioning
instead of a commencement! Commissioning means you’ve been given
instructions with a purpose; commencement (although it means the
beginning of a new life,) is treated by most Americans as the end of
student life!
With baptism, others
see it as a holy insurance policy. When people approach it as
something to be
“done” instead
of a new life “
begun,” they
try to claim God’s blessings without accepting the expectations.
Baptism is more like an ordination than a Christening: the one who is
baptized wants God’s Holy Spirit in him or her, not just to get to
Heaven, but to make a difference in the world as well. Baptized
children, youth, and adults are Christ’s body in the world. And the
best witness of the body of Christ is the church. As the great hymn
“The Church’s One Foundation” proclaims it: “And the great
church victorious shall be the church at rest.” We will never rest
until Christ proclaims his victory in the world! Christ needs our
voices, and our devotion, our quiet time, and our presence! The Holy
Spirit does not intend to send baptized children and youth into the
world without further guidance, regrouping, troubleshooting, and
prayer.
The gathering that we call church is
for that transformation!
Whether it is a
youth group or a Bible Study or an hour of worship, coming together
in Christ reminds us that we are baptized
for
something much more than to protect us
against something. If
we want God’s blessing, we can plan to accept God’s expectations
too.
Otherwise it is like carrying around one
of those new credit cards in your pocket: it looks like it will work,
but it has not yet been activated.

In our Gospel text today, many years have passed since
Jesus was an infant at Christmas and at Epiphany.

The Bible is silent about Jesus’ childhood
and young adulthood except for a few words in the second chapter of
Luke. Jesus is now about the age of thirty, the age when, generally,
people have already learned how to earn their keep in the world and
not just live off of parents. It is highly likely that Jesus had
learned Torah, and had learned the trade of being a teckton
(builder), and had earned money well before the event of his baptism.
That is an outstanding pattern of understanding baptism: a person
learns the way of faith from family or friends, then is baptized,
then begins a life of honoring God. Before baptism, generally
speaking, life is lived for self; after baptism life is aimed more at
knowing and glorifying God. It is never meant to be a one day
celebration after which people go back to living and feeling as they
did before. Baptism is a commissioning, not a commencement! It is
giving a person a task, new vision, and, as some would put it, “new
marching orders.” It involves both blessing and expectations.

With Jesus on his big day, the clock was about to start
on his ministry. Anyone baptized here today can still pick up the
mantle of purpose given you at your baptism if you have not done so
before or if you laid it down. It is not too late! Be purposeful with
other Christians; study, feed hungry people, invite lost people to
sit beside you, invite them to join you in a life of faith. Put into
action the words that you once said: something like: “Do you
participate actively in the worship and the mission of the church?”
And when you joined, you said, “I do.” It is time to “do” if
you haven’t “done” yet! What would marriage be like if you
promised to “love, honor, and cherish” and then you didn’t?
What good is repeating the Boy Scout or the Girl Scout oath when no
actions or charity follow the words?

On Jesus’ big day, he had gotten to that moment in
good order: and so as promised, God’s Holy Spirit came down and
touched him, assuring him in his heart that he was blessed. And then,
as perhaps your father or mother said to you at an important event:
God said, “I’m proud of you, son.” And in Matthew’s gospel
the announcement is made for all those in the pews or the folding
chairs by the Jordan River to hear: “This is my boy; I love him,
and he has made me proud!” What a glorious time! Can you hear the
angels cheering at your baptism? They were! And now they wait “at
the ready” to cheer you more, not just for being you, but for doing
what God wants you to do! Make a difference! Continue the
commissioning of your baptism; there are so many people with
baptismal certificates who failed to peel the sticker off the back
that said: “To activate, do what Jesus would do.”

Jeffrey
A. Sumner
January 9, 2011

01-02-11 BEARING WITNESS: NOTHING MORE, NOTHING LESS

BEARING
WITNESS: NOTHING MORE, NOTHING LESS

John 1: 1-9

Witnessing
does not come easily to most Presbyterians. Most of us do not go two
by two knocking on stranger’s doors in neighborhoods, the way some
faith groups do. Most of us are not standing on a street corner with
a sandwich board like the man did in Deland pictured on the front
page of the Friday newspaper; most of us do not stand on street
corners and confront others about repenting or burning in h-e-l-l.
The 29 year old woman in Raleigh, NC is not a Presbyterian who drives
around in her car with the words “Save the Date!” all over it,
insisting that Christ will return on May 21
st
of this year. A few Presbyterians might make the giant John 3:16
poster and take it to a football game so that a camera can be trained
your way and thus, you become an accomplice in witnessing! Around
Halloween some other churches hold awful fright night haunted houses
and keep terrified visiting youth locked in until they confess Jesus
as Lord. It is no wonder, with those choices for witnessing, that
Presbyterians want no part of them.
But we
would be foolish to want no part of witnessing.

In fact, we would stop being New Testament Christians; we would be
ignoring prophets like John; and we would be turning away from the
Great Commission of the Lord Jesus Christ that we are meant to carry
out. How can we witness in authentic ways for us?

The world needs a corrective to the ways
other zealous Christians have witnessed to their faith. We need the
zeal, we need the message, and we need the faith; we just need a
better way to share it. Today, spurred on by the wonderful words in
John chapter one, we will examine first the ways others have
witnessed to their faith. Then we will look at the text about John’s
message, and finally we will learn how to bear witness: nothing more,
and nothing less.

First,
here are some approaches I have experienced myself, and perhaps you
have too. One I call the “bulldozer approach.” This is the
person, whether a stranger on the street, in an airport, or on your
doorstep who bowls you over with a stream of arguments, backed up by
memorized Scripture passages. This approach produces a one-way
conversation since they won’t take “no” for an answer!
They
want you to commit your life to Christ right then and there, and if
you don’t, in bulldozer fashion, they scoop you up and push you
along whether you willfully agree to go or not. That approach to
witnesses never won me over; did it work for you? On the notebook in
my mind I write: “No bulldozer approach for me!” Another method
I’ve seen I’ll call the “decoy approach:” a person will use
something like the decoy of friendship when what they want most is to
convert you. I’ve had people approach me in public places, ask me
my name, and then continue using it as they walk with me in
lock-step, re-using my first name in every sentence. The trick is to
dangle the appeal of a new friend in front of you and then, in the
name of friendship, ask you to become their brand of Christianity.
This one is harder to refuse because they have already learned your
name and pulling away is difficult. The approach starts to feel
predatory, and people wish they had never engaged in the conversation
in the first place. On the notebook in my mind I write: “No decoy
approach for me!” Finally, another method I’ve seen used I’ll
call “the jealousy approach.” This method is evident when a group
of persons treat their Christian love as something so special and
selective that you are not a part of them unless you join their
church. It is a kind of snob approach. John the Baptist proclaimed
his message to
anyone who
would hear it. Jesus showed his love to any who would accept it: tax
collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and others who were shunned. The
love of Christ is something that
we too are
called to share,
but to those who only
welcome those who agree to join
their
church or youth group, I make a mental note in my mind: “No
jealousy approach for me!”

John
chapter one records that John was a prophet sent from God to give
testimony: to bear witness to the light. The old gospel song says
“Jesus is the light is the, light of the world!” It is today’s
passage where we learn John is
not
the light;
he is pointing to the light;
he is preaching about Jesus! That was
his
chosen way to witness. Witnessing in the New Testament, and for
faithful Christians today, is done so that all may receive him and
believe in his name. ( verse 12) When this gospel was written, there
were many small splinter groups that wanted to call John the Baptist
the light; to call him the anointed one. To fight that belief, this
gospel over-emphasizes the fact that John is a messenger:
he
is sent to bear witness to the light: nothing more, nothing less.
He
is not the Christ; he is, in fact, inferior to the Christ. He simply
points to him. John exhibits insistent humility, directing people who
might want to follow him, and he points to Jesus.

Second,
we can learn from John. We too are called to witness. Just like those
Jesus called by the Sea of Galilee to follow him, Jesus has called
each of us in unique ways to be witnesses. At Pentecost, he told his
disciples that
they
would be his witnesses. The most powerful way you can witnesses to
someone else is to tell them what the Lord has done in your life, or
has meant to you, or how the Lord has carried you the muck and mire
of tragedy. We call friends about great sales, or to warn them about
impending storms, or to check on their health. But we stop short of
saying to our unchurched friends and neighbors
,
I don’t know what I would do without
Jesus in my life!” We can go a step farther by saying to friend:

Hey! We’ve got a wonderful church! Why
don’t you come with me next Sunday?” If Jesus is the Good News at
Christmas, he could save or bless a friend in 2011.

Third,
let’s look at the categories. Some here today fall into the
“nothing less” category.” You are called to do nothing less
than to tell others about Jesus, though it is much easier just to do
nothing. If that is you: the Prophet John’s example is a call to
action: one that begs you to share your faith with someone else. Some
of the most memorable times in Sunday School, Elder training, and
Disciple classes have been when class members shared their faith. I
can imagine the voice in some of your heads: “I can’t share my
faith with someone else! My faith isn’t that strong and I don’t
know the Bible that well!” But if you have that voice in your head
you are perfect for the job! Others are afraid they way you are
afraid, and it is in your faith sharing that you will connect.
Witnessing, according to D.T. Niles, “Is one beggar telling another
beggar where to find bread.” It is one miner donning a lighted hard
hat and putting one on the head of a friend and say: “Let’s
explore our faith together and see what we can learn at church
today!” People are happy to hear that you don’t have it all
together; but you can join them in their journey for truth and
meaning. Most Presbyterians have already witnessed to their faith in
one way: by following their Christian values and living Christian
lives. By doing that, many believe that we are following the John 1
example and the Matthew 28 Great Commission. But
we
aren’t! We aren’t quite if we don’t put our invitation in to
words.
You may visit a shoe store having a
fabulous sale, and crowds may cause people to check out what’s
going on, but a phone call to a friend is a sure way to get the word
out! We have to open our mouths; just as when we’ve heard other
good news … or bad news … we start talking, or texting, or
calling.
We have news to tell, or text, or
call, not just act out!
And if your faith is
shaky, remember that even Peter denied knowing Jesus three times! But
it was not on just his actions; it was on his words that Jesus built
his church: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” He
is still building it, but it will only grow on testimonies just like
that.

Sadly,
we have also witnessed people who need to be reminded to bear
witness, but nothing more. Those come from super-excited Christians
or charismatic, magnetic preachers on television or in mega churches
who begin to give in to the sin of pride and
they
begin to act like
they are
the light, not just a witness to the light. Our job description is to
bear witness, and no more.

As we
begin this new year, making resolutions is fresh on people’s minds.
Can you decide to tell another person about your faith and your
doubts; can you decide to invite another friend or new neighbor to
come with you to church, or to meet you at church? I am a
Presbyterian because as the new family on the block in St. Louis in
1967, our next door neighbors invited us to their church- thus the
Methodist Sumner family became Presbyterians on an invitation! How
can you change someone else’s life by inviting them to join you in
finding and following … thy light of the world?

Jeffrey
A. Sumner
January 2, 2011