Monthly Archives: March 2011

03-27-11 LIFE ON THE ‘D’ LIST: DIVORCE

LIFE ON THE
‘D’ LIST: DIVORCE

Psalm 51; John 4: 5-19

Sometimes
men can be thoughtless and self-centered, while sometimes women can
be shrewd and calculating. A story I told this month goes like this:
A married man, on his fortieth wedding anniversary, had a few drinks
and let his mouth run a bit too much. “Honey,” he said to his
wife, “when I married you, you were a young and lean 25 year old
beauty, and all I had was a one bedroom apartment, a sofa to sleep
on, and a ten inch black and white TV set. Now look what I have
provided for you! Now we have a $500,000 house, a $45,000 car, and a
60” high definition TV. But I’m now married to a gray haired 65
year old woman. I don’t think you’re holding up your part of the
bargain.” To which his wife said unflinchingly, “Dear, I tell
you what.” You go out and find yourself a young, lean, 25 year old
beauty, and I’ll make sure you get back into a one bedroom
apartment, with a sofa bed, and a 10 inch black and white TV.”

The
stereotypes abound in our society of many divorced women who throw
mud at their ex, and of divorced men who throw mud at
their
ex. In our country when 45 – 50 % of first
marriages end in divorce, the divorce wars fray the nerves of all
involved. Even children are known to get ulcers before the age of ten
which doctors attribute to divorce related stress or to marital
fighting. Children begin acting out as they start living by two sets
of parental rules; often a parent who tries to win a child over to
his or her side may lavish gifts and trips on their child without the
usual steps of earning them. Youth can also feel rejected and afraid
during turmoil, sending them at an early age into the arms of a boy
or girl friend for comfort. To some people divorce is never right;
for others, divorce was a Godsend; and still others let circumstances
dictate the guidelines. Many Christians go to the Bible for answers
about divorce. But going to a book written in a culture when a father
chose who his son would marry, when a wife was literally bought and
became the property of her husband, and in a culture that let men
make the laws meant most laws favored men. In those days there was
almost no circumstance, even with extra marital affairs, when a woman
could have grounds for divorcing a man. On the other hand, if a
married man seduced an unmarried woman, not only would the man
not
be charged with an infraction, but the woman might be stoned to death
just for being complicit. So even though we have a God who is love
and a God who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”
according to the book of Hebrews; we have a culture today that views
God differently than the way B.C culture viewed God. Over the
centuries, particularly recently, we have seen what some call “a
progressive revelation” in the way we view God. We even see changes
as we move from the Exodus Commandments, through the works of Jewish
Kings and prophets, to the example of Jesus himself. Today let’s
discover which part of the Bible speaks most clearly to you today.

First, let’s look at the words of the Ten
Commandments; in particular, Exodus 20 verse 3. God says, “You
shall have no other gods before me. Then in verse 14 God says, ‘You
shall not commit adultery.” The doctoral paper I wrote in January
was called: “Broken Trust: Using the Marriage Metaphor to Examine
the First Commandment.” In it I argue, along with other
researchers, that when the Lord God was giving the commandments to
Israel, the Lord was treating Israel as his wife, and he was
accepting the responsibilities of a husband of three millennia ago:
that is, the Lord as husband in that day would promise Israel to
never forsake her or choose another nation instead of her; to love
her always, and to be her protector and provider. In return, Israel
as the wife would agree to love the Lord and the Lord only, forsaking
all others, and would follow the word of the Lord. Of course we know
what happened. The Lord God kept his promises to Israel; he reminded
her of that each time she forgot him—like when she worshipped other
gods and when her love grew cold, he still stayed faithful. There are
still people in our world today who have the Godly picture of
fidelity as the picture for their marriage vows. They even do
exclusivity much, much better than Israel did, cleaving only to one
another and forsaking all others. There are wives here today who have
been completely faithful and loving to their husbands; and there are
husbands here today who have been the same way toward their wives. If
there is joy and sharing instead of coercion and fear, how wonderful
marriage can be. May God bless and keep you.

Second, as we move through the Biblical accounts we find
some strange and sordid stories; some daughters had inappropriate
relations with their father, townsmen molested one of their
townswomen; a man of faith offered his own daughter to riotous men
instead of giving them the male houseguest they wanted. The Biblical
list can curl your hair with distaste. When people say “We need to
get back to the Biblical principles of marriage” I wonder which
ones they mean! Oh I really know they are probably thinking about
Ephesians, and Colossians, and Genesis, but there is so much else
there! For example, it was so important that the Messiah rise from
the family line of David. Yes David was a chosen shepherd boy; and
yes, David was a warrior King; but it was also David who used his
influence to demand the illicit attention of a beautiful married
woman named Bathsheba, to have inappropriate relations with her, and
when he discovered that she was going to have a baby, he had her
husband, Uriah, killed to cover it up. This man David, with all of
his power, committed perhaps some of the most heinous sins in the
Bible. There are people you know—perhaps some are here today—who
have committed adultery either by enticement, or complicity, or ego,
or out of control urges. As we say in our day, they had an affair.
Many times the results are painful as a trusted relationship is
breached. Those people may even have justified their actions in their
minds. But if they are ever truly sorry, they may want to do what
David did in such a way that he still got to be King. He still had
consequences from God—he saw to it that David’s untainted son
Solomon got to build and dedicate God’s temple instead of David. In
addition, David lost a great deal of respect from those around him.
But David also did what others have done too: he repented and asked
for forgiveness. Psalm 51 that we sang responsively today was David’s
guttural, anguishing act of repentance to God for his dreadful sins.
It doesn’t include him asking Bathsheba for forgiveness, but
certainly Jesus later included such actions in Matthew 5:23 when he
said: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there
remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
24
leave your gift at the altar. Go and be reconciled to them; then come
and offer your gift.” So David finally came to God, not, because
guilt overwhelmed him, but because a prophet named Nathan exposed
him. He named his sins. After encountering Nathan, David chose to ask
for forgiveness to try to make his soul right with God. It is
recorded in Psalm 51. So there are some here today who have broken
their marriage vows; and there are those who have had them broken.
May God guide and sustain you as you decide your future paths.

Finally, we get to a story in which Jesus is involved.
If Jesus is really the Lord and Head of the Church, and the Church is
his bride, we would do well to see and to assimilate this divine
leadership. First, Jesus breaks the cultural barrier of his day by
going into a forbidden neighborhood called Samaria. He knew there
would be consequences but he went there anyway. How does the church
break through cultural barriers, or are we too busy defending them?
Who might we reach if we went where few had gone before, to
neighborhoods or people who to this day we have left to fend for
themselves? Second, Jesus acknowledges the Samaritan woman, two big
leaps (acknowledging a Samaritan and a woman) that few if any other
Jewish men would have done. He goes to that so called “unclean
land” around noon. Most women came to community wells in the
morning to draw water for the day, and to speak with one another
briefly. Yet here he was there midday with one lone woman. (Some
surmise she came then to avoid the ridicule of the other women.)In
asking her for some water to drink, he knew it was a Samaritan well
that had once been Jacob’s well. He asked her for water not to
degrade her, but to ask her permission. And then Jesus does what
Jesus always does in John: he talks about kingdom things—like
living water—and this hearer, as usual, thinks he’s talking about
earthly things—like having enough water for that moment. Having
Jesus go through this little social dance at the well and breaking
several rules to do it, the woman’s guard begins to lower. With
Jesus’ suggestion that she go and get her husband and bring him, he
gets the information out of her that he already knew: she has had
five husbands and now
she was living with another man. Today, what does the church do with
people when we learn news like that? Do we offer any kind of support
and care, or do we just give deflating gestures and comments of
disapproval? Do Christians start judging divorced people in their
minds, forgetting their shared state of brokenness? Do Christians
shun one or both partners in a divorce as if, as Nathaniel Hawthorne
suggested, they are wearing ‘a scarlet letter?” What does the
church do about divorce? Too often we just let divorced people go
into the world to figure out their brokenness on their own. And it is
a shame. We are all so broken, and yet when people are most hurt,
they get treated as if they are, well,
Samaritans.
Jesus treated Samaritans differently than others did! I think Jesus
would ask the church to treat divorced people with more grace and
support than perhaps has been in her nature over the centuries. Is it
too much to offer support for people going through one of the most
trying and hurtful times in their lives? Are the actions of that one
man, or that one woman, so misguided that we as sinners have no words
of hope or counsel for them as sinners too? Look what Jesus talked
about with the woman at the well with all her baggage: he talked in
hopeful terms about the Kingdom of God; about a day when Jews and
Samaritans would be together. That was totally unheard of in his day.
He asked questions for understanding but offered no judgment about
the information he gained.
And for those here
today who have divorced and gone through the agonizing judgment, or
the drying up of invitations by Christian brothers or sisters, or
telephones that used to ring that now ring rarely, I say to you that
I am sorry on behalf of the church and Lord I serve.

I charge myself, and I charge each person here today, to look at
others through the eyes of Jesus. Some are now afraid of marriage
because of divorce; some have found that being single is now better
for them; and some are just lonely. We, the bride of Christ, have
the teaching of Christ to offer the world, and not the tainted
teaching of judgmentalism. There is a world of broken people—those
who break the Sabbath commandment, the coveting commandment, or the
idolatry commandment—who hardly get a second glance from us.
Together, we can give a better witness to broken people in our broken
world. The church is not meant to be a hall for saints, as much as a
hospital for sinners.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 27, 2011

03-20-11 LIFE ON THE ‘D’ LIST- DARKNESS

LIFE ON THE
‘D’ LIST- DARKNESS

Lamentations
3: 1-20

On the day when we remember Jesus’
Last Supper, and then again on the day we remember his crucifixion,
we will often sing the old hymn “Go to Dark Gethsamane.” To most
everyone Gethsamane is a dark place, dark because it is the garden
where the Lord Jesus went to pray for his life, to ask his Father to
consider a different way, and finally to know that the course into
the darkness of anguising death was set. For Jesus, darkness occurred
most powerfully on that terrible rugged cross when, in pain and
suffering he cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
But when the term darkness is mentioned, it may mean something
different to you. I have known darkness, but I have not know
crucifixion. I know
some
with depression know darkness, and some who have tragically lost a
child; I know that women can face darkness with fertility issues and
others can face in post-partem stages. Men can face darkness when
they have lost their job, or when they are threatened by others in
power. Terrified people can also face darkness. And bullied children
or youth in trouble after trying to fit in can face darkness.Today
let’s look at the idea of darkness, that even Jesus faced, and then
suggest how others have moved beyond it.

Unlike children who often hide under
beds, in rooms, outside, or in small places, adults also have their
own ways of hiding. Some will hide their true feelings from others;
some will hide their fear from their children, or they will hide
their anxiety from a spouse or from friends. Others try to hide the
fact that they are stuggling, as they go through their day on
autopilot.
Some eat very
little, while others over eat. Some try to do their work and hope
that they are hiding their emotional pain or spiritual anguish from
others. Yet astute persons will look into eyes that look lifeless and
sunken, and look at a face that seems sullen or forced, and they will
have a glimpse into the other person’s struggle. There are people
all around us that are working to hide their darkness … and there
are others around you who have faced darkness but coped with it; and
there are still others who have gone through making lemonade when
life has handed them lemons. Many of one’s coping devices are
formed at an early age, but traumatic events can through monkey
wrenches into the cogs of coping.
When we
consider physical darkness, we know that there are physiological
changes when we face it. Our eyes begin to dilate to let in more
light and all our senses of hearing, taste, touch and smell join
sight on full alert. It is dark, and in the dark the unknown
surrounds us. Perhaps you known a blind person and have asked what
it’s like no being able to see. When I move through our house at
night if a storm has knocked out power, all is pitch black. I put out
our hands, hunt for the walls, I remember to shuffle my feet on the
floor so as not to trip. When I have to climb stairs, in the dark I
reach for and hold the handrail which I rarely do when it’s light.
When you are in the dark, especially a black out, many tense up and
try to think what to do next. We try to think where our flashlight
is, or where we can find a match. Light brings reassurance as it
dissipates darkness.

Emotionally
some people, perhaps not you, have found themselves in darkness. In
the Bible you will note the despair of Elijah, the great prophet of
the Old Testament. Fortunately the Bible does not sugarcoat the lives
of anyone. You may recall when the prophet Elijah, who had, with
great bravado, called for a contest on Mount Carmel between the gods
of Baal, and God the Lord; Ahab was after him, but it was Queen
Jezebel who pushed him over the edge. If you stop reading with 1
Kings 18 which is the great showdown, or if you skip over to 2 Kings
2 which is Elijah taken up in a whirlwind to heaven, you will miss
the darkness of Elijah. In First Kings 19, Elijah ran from Ahab and
Jezebel; he ran into a desert perhaps not thinking clearly, or
perhaps hoping he could crawl into a cave and hide. But before he got
there, he stopped in the burning sun and took shelter under a
pathetic broom tree for shade. And there, the great prophet, thinking
there is no one around to see him, shows his state of darkness.
Calling out to God in desperation, he asked God if he would just take
his life. Do you know people who just want God to take them? I do.
What can we do to comfort people who want to say “Now!” to God
about the end of their life, while God says to them “Not yet!”
Sometimes it surprises us who has words or thoughts like Elijah’s.
“It is enough” Elijah said with fatigue, “O Lord, take away my
life.” It was in Felix Mendelssohn’s great oratorio called
“Elijah” that he pictures the angel who woke him and pointed to
bread and water as being a comforting heavenly host of angels as he
transports listeners to the scene with the hauntingly beautiful
chorus from Psalm 121 “Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes to the
mountains, whence cometh, whence cometh, whence cometh help.” How
would God best approach you with such comfort if your soul was so
fragile that it was leaking tears out of your eyes? Some people might
just say, “Shake it off!” or “Stop with all that silly crying.”
But there are others, God included, who knows how to turn off the
fearful, confrontational, or threatening human voices and let you
hear the holy voices of angels. Some have suggested that Elijah was
having burnout or an emotional breakdown in that chapter. The same
darkness has come over ministers and other lay persons, often while
feeling overwhelmed, or powerless, or hopeless. After all, conflicts
with people can create tension, conflict, or criticism. God knows it;
and Jesus felt it. You are
not alone.
How did God help Elijah? He arranged for a successor to take the
burden of responsibility from Elijah. God has done that countless
times for others as well. We don’t stop praying, we don’t stop
hoping, and we don’t stop living. God knows what is in your
prayers, and when the time is right, you will find light again. I was
once in darkness, even more than once, and found light again. I
imagine you, or others around you, have too. Take heart if you are in
darkness today. In Elijah’s case, like a worn down relay swimmer or
runner who gets to tag a new person with new energy to run the race,
God provided a tag team. It is a good idea in human life to have
someone in waiting, learning under you, who can run that stage of the
race when you can’t move; you have laid down in your desert of
torment under the shade of a broom tree. Yes, the Bible tells us that
“the people who walked in darkness” get to see a great light in
Christ. But sometimes a fractured soul, a battered heart, or
rattled mind cannot see the light, not yet anyway. If you live in the
light daily and encroaching darkness has not overwhelmed you, then
you are fortunate. But I know that this has been, or will be, the
experience of someone you know.

In
the days when barrenness was seen as a curse from God, Sarai and
Rachel wept in anguishing because they could not have children. How
many others have gone through that anguish? Or other women have had
their darkness when they had their child, and a state of depression
set in. And what man has not had something dark nights of his soul
when he loses his job; or what soldiers who have seen the combat of
war have not gone into the darkness and terror of PTSD? There is
darkness all around, even in the places you might look for light.
For those who face spiritual darkness, there are also physiological
changes. The body, mind, and soul are all connected. Spiritual
darkness may make mobility quite difficult as the inertia to stay at
rest is stronger than our ability to move. Depression may set in, or
perhaps despair, doubts, or a sense of hopelessness. These are
crippling conditions. The way to see the light of God’s love again
may be tricky. You might think caring Christians could help a person
in darkness, but sometimes caring Christians
contribute
to a person’s darkness. You might think the
love of family might help people out of their darkness, but sometimes
the well-intentioned-or the malevolent- family members are a root
cause of the darkness. You might say those people just need to pray
more, but those people find that they cannot pray or hear God. You
might say they just need more faith, but asking faith of one who is
broken down is a Herculean request.
Sometimes
all one can do is stumble in the dark; and at times it is all one can
do to just be; even life is painful.
It is
during those times when some of the best help that can be offered is:
a) to be with them in their despair and, b) to be a great listener.
There are specialists around who can gently guide people back toward
light and functionality: pastoral counselors, doctors, social
workers, ministers, and chaplains are a few of those specialists. And
we know that darkness sometimes breeds other “D” words like
despair, desperation, depression, and debilitating weakness. In
addition, when the mind gets corrupted, distortions of the soul can
make sin seem extra overwhelming.

Now
we will consider the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Here is what
theologian Georgia Harkness has said about him: “There is nowhere
in the Old Testament a more tragic, triumphant figure than Jeremiah.
He knew well enough in his own experience what the dark night of the
soul means. Betrayed by his own townsmen, thrown into a miry cistern,
repeatedly subjected to indignity and danger by the very people for
whom he sought to intercede, and apparently [feeling] abandoned at
times even by God ….” [DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, Abingdon Press,
1945, p. 32-33.] Jeremiah, man of God and proclaimer of God’s
word, also said “Woe is me, mother, that you have born me, a man of
strife and contention to the whole world.” (Jeremiah 15: 10) and
“Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable that refuses to
heal?” (15: 18) And then in his Lamentations we have today’s
passage which, in part, reads: “I am the one who has seen the
affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought
me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his
hand, again and again, all the day long. He has made my flesh and
skin waste away and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation; he had made me sit in darkness like
the dead of long ago.” Such words are so haunting that they disgust
some with their sniveling while they make others want to come
alongside of Jeremiah and just be with him. There are times to just
be with someone in their darkness, and there are times to guide them
out of it. One of my mentors in the Doctor of Ministry program is Dr.
Kathleen O’Connor who has written an entire book on Lamentations.
To move the shaking of a personal foundation into a more global
picture that reminds us of the recent horrendous earthquake, tsunami,
and ruptured nuclear cores in Japan, these words of hers offer
current counsel: “For survivors of civil wars, destroyed cities,
and genocides, for refugees, and for those who subsist in famine and
destitute poverty, the poetry [in Lamentations] mirrors reality with
frightening exactitude. When, like me, readers live in relative
safety and prosperity, Lamentations calls forth loss and pain more
narrowly, personally, and indirectly. Yet even in the prosperous
United States there are normal human losses to lament, deaths,
disappointments, and hidden depression with which to contend. There
are broken marriages, catastrophic illnesses, and violence among our
children, hatred between groups, and debilitating poverty exacerbated
by wealth all around.” [LAMENTATIONS AND THE TEARS OF THE WORLD,
Westminster/John Knox Press, p. 5.] When people are so fragile, we
cannot rush the light; but we can point to it, offer hope, and embody
the one who is the Light. May you see light at the end of your
tunnels of darkness.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner March
20, 2011

03-13-11 LIFE ON THE ‘D’ LIST: DEVIL

LIFE ON THE
‘D’ LIST: DEVIL

Matthew 4:
1-11

Do
you remember hearing the story of the Minneapolis couple that decided
to visit Florida to thaw out during a particularly cold northern
winter? They planned to stay in the same hotel where they had spent
their honeymoon twenty years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it
was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules. The husband,
therefore, left Minneapolis and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his
wife planned to fly down the following day. The husband checked into
the Florida hotel. There was a computer in his room and free wi-fi,
so he decided to send an e-mail to his wife. The trouble was that
when he was typing in his wife’s e-mail address, he accidentally
left out one letter. He pushed “send” and away it went. Meanwhile
somewhere in Houston, a widow just returned from her husband’s
funeral. He had been a minister and passed away due to a heart
attack. The widow decided to check her e-mail that night since she
was expecting to hear from relatives and friends. But after she read
her first message, she screamed and fainted. Her son ran in and found
his mother on the floor. After helping her regain her composure, he
looked at her computer screen. This is what it said:

To:
My loving wife

Subject:
I’ve arrived

Date:
February 24

I
know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here
now, and you’re allowed to send e-mails to your loved ones! I’ve
just arrived and have been checking in. I see that everything has
been prepared for
your arrival
here tomorrow! Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey
is as uneventful as mine, but boy,
it sure is
hot down here
!”

When
we hear the word “Devil” these days some people are terrified and
others amused. To some the devil is the terrifying power of evil, the
one opposed to God with powers to tempt, persuade, and corrupt. For
others the idea of the devil is quaint and they believe that it
belongs in literature rather than in the conversations of intelligent
people. Yet people flocked to and were terrified by Hollywood’s
depictions of the devil in films like “The Exorcist” and “The
Omen.” And in 1995 author Anne Rice surprised the publishing world
by changing the course of her regular novels and writing “Memnoch
the Devil.” Ten years ago, the “Left Behind” series brought the
idea of a devil, or an antichrist, (though they are not always the
same thing) back into public conversations. In our day and age there
are a variety of views concerning the devil. Some people to this day
try to stay away from the number 666 because Revelation 13 says it is
the number of the beast that some name as the antichrist. At the
nearest Chinese restaurant to my home, the order I regularly place
adds up to a bill of $6.66. “6-6-6!” the cashier calls out each
time for all to hear! The first time I heard it I was tempted to
order an extra egg roll just to change the total. But I decided I was
not going to let a number, even that number, change my eating habits!
I am not afraid of three sixes; I have had three sixes in my social
security number since the day I was born. These days I am also not
afraid of the devil, although I do believe in evil. When I was a
teenager I let Hollywood scare the wits out of me with devil movies.
But as I have grown I have read about sociopathic people who
certainly seem as if they could be possessed by a demon or that a
devil inhabits their body. You may even have read, as I have, of
accounts when an exorcism has drastically changed a person. And I
understand that the Vatican still employs an exorcist. As much as I
have not only read about, but seen people who seemed possessed, I
have also watched people change rapidly or over time with the proper
treatment. Once about seven years ago I was bringing some food items
to Halifax Urban Ministries. It was nearly time for the group meal
and I heard a stir. I looked around and a man was staggering toward
us, motioning wildly. His eyes were wide open, making him look
fearsome. His lips were cracked and he seemed out of control. As he
neared us in the crowd, a man from the dining area came out quickly
with a cup of orange juice in his hand. He managed to gently but
firmly hold the cup to the man’s mouth until he drank. He held him
close until his spasms stopped, and his eyes focused once again. The
man went limp, exhausted. Seeing me and other visitors who looked
very unnerved, he explained. “Diabetic; the man is diabetic but
when you live on the streets and food is so infrequent, it brings on
diabetic shock. He’ll now be sweaty and weak, but he’ll recover …
until the next time he has to go too long without food.” Some who
act like they are demon possessed are just in need of good therapy,
or good medication, or even a glass of juice. As our counselors today
will attest, others who are troubled can change with good therapy and
good prayer.

What
do you think about the devil? Is the devil a powerful tempter? Is the
devil male, female, or non-gendered? Others recall that the devil has
been thought of as the king of the underworld in some literature, and
as a fallen angel as well. Some enlightened people consider the devil
as an antiquated scapegoat as in “the devil made me do it”
comment. Some think there is no such thing as the devil at all. And
yet there have been, and still our, powerful examples of evil in the
world; evil in nations could be seen during world wars, during the
reign of ruthless dictators, and even in the demented lives of
certain families. It is hard to forget that after Dr. Scott Peck
enchanted the reading public with his best-selling book THE ROAD LESS
TRAVELED, he followed it with the deeply disturbing case studies of
what he called “human evil” in PEOPLE OF THE LIE.” In his
subchapter called “Does the Devil Exist,” he wrote: “Having
come over the years to believe in a benign spirit, or God, and a
belief in the reality of human evil, I was left facing an obvious
intellectual question: Is there such a thing as evil spirit? Namely,
the devil; I thought not.” [Touchstone Books, 1983, p. 182.] He
then goes on to say that he had never really seen any cases that
could be called demon or devil possession, so as a psychiatrist, he
decided to look for a case. After letting the word out that he was
looking, he got two referrals of cases that simply were psychiatric
disorders in his judgment. But then, he said, in his estimation the
third case he got was the real thing. He chose not to describe it in
detail, nor will I. But he concluded that, though rare, therapists,
clergy, and others have recounted cases that he decided were actual
demon possession. Today, however, hear this:
some
in the world have an unnatural fear of the devil that changes the
direction of their travel, the price of an order of Chinese food, or
the quantity of light they leave on at night, and it makes them
constantly look over their shoulder for the tempter; the evil one. If
you do that, you are making that force—whoever or whatever you may
call it—into a power so strong that, like a god, it has the power
to alter the course of your life in often destructive and
debilitating means. But there is good news to preach from Christian
pulpits on the subjects of devil and demon
:
God is infinitely stronger! Therapy is wonderfully effective! And
prayer connects you to the power source of the Savior!

The Savior who said “Get thee behind me, Satan!” also casts out
demons and takes away their ability to speak. (Mark 1: 34) He also
gave his disciples the power to cast out demons (Mark 16: 17).

The Bible says that there are demons; and Jesus identified them only
to subdue them. Genesis names a serpent with an understandable voice
that knocked human beings out of heaven-sent bliss: the same tempter
is still embodied even today. Human beings could not out-fox the
tempter, nor turn a deaf ear to the temptations in Genesis 3. But
where is there a record of one who thwarted Satan the tempter at
every turn? One place is in Matthew, chapter four. In order to
prepare himself for the ministry before him, and knowing it would
lead him through valleys of the shadow of death even unto a cross,
Jesus—perhaps in a dream, or maybe in a vision, or some would say
in a physical way—tangles with the tempter. He is denying himself
in preparation for his work; his ancestors including prophets, had
done this before, but he did it to extreme perfection: forty days …
and forty nights. During some period of that agonizing desert time of
pure focus, a voice—or a being—began to taunt and tempt him. Like
predator animals that wait for their prey to grow weak or tired
before devouring them, Satan chose what he though was a worn-down
Jesus. He first tempted him to use his power to make himself food,
something that was well within his power to do; Jesus turned away
from door number one. He then took him to the top of the temple in
the Holy City; there he tested the promises of God telling Jesus to
jump, Satan wanted him to test God’s eternally protecting powers.
But Jesus would not choose door number two. Finally Satan took him to
a high mountain, showing him all the countries in sight, and said if
Jesus would worship
him, Satan
would give him all the lands. But Jesus stood firm.
Friends
Jesus is stronger than any tempter if you let him live in you. Jesus
is brighter than any power of darkness that seeks to get a hold of
you if you will claim him. This is the right one, not only to have on
your side, but to have in your life.

Look
at the top of your bulletin today. Part of Martin Luther’s most
famous hymn includes these words:

And
though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us;
we
will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”
That is the good news for today! It is the
good news from Christian pulpits! Let the publishing world and the
movie industry make their money peddling demons.
But
never let them unseat your trust in the unwavering power of God in
Christ.
Read the Biblical accounts; there is
no place where evil wins; the love of God, the redemption of God, and
the grace of God are part of your spiritual tool belt for the living
of these days. You are equipped! You are loved! And you are claimed
by the one and only God who will not let you go.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner March 13, 2011

03-06-11 BEING LIGHT

It’s
transfiguration Sunday. The Sunday of change. Jesus is changed into a
being of light and purpose and our church calendar changes from
Epiphany to Lent.

Transfigurations are big business today. I
don’t know anybody who doesn’t want one, including me. And many of us
work hard and spend a lot of money to get one — a new face, a new
look, a changed appearance. Transfigurations are not the exception.
They are the rule. We are all being altered in the appearance of our
face, our countenance. We are all changing. To live is to be
continually transfigured. So who are we becoming?

I have to
tell you, I am not a fan of change. This started at an early age for
me. When I was two, I refused to turn three. I just wasn’t going to
do it. I thought that two was good enough and I had no need to
change. Nope. Not me. Not going to do it.

Well, as you can
see, I obviously turned three any way. And then four and five and so
on. Change will happen. You will change, like it or not. The only
choice you have is how you will change. What will influence your
change?

In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay says “It
is one of the supreme differences between Jesus and us, that Jesus
always asked: ‘What does God wish me to do?’; we nearly always
ask: ‘What do I wish to do?’ We often say that the unique
characteristic of Jesus was that he was sinless. What do we mean by
that? We mean precisely this, that Jesus had no will but the will of
God . . . When Jesus had a problem, he did not seek to solve it only
by the power of his own thought; he did not take it to others for
human advice; he took it to the lonely place and to God.”

How often to you
take your changes to God?


The change is
hard. Painful at times. It’s not something we
want
to do. Sometimes its easier to change the way society calls then to
follow God’s way. But only God’s transformation leads us towards
being light.

When God does the changing, we should take on
the qualities of Jesus. We should live life with grace and
tranquility. We should radiate love and kindness. We should be
overflowing with exuberance and excitement. Because those are the
very things that Jesus displayed.

This is a good thing! It is
a joyous thing! So often, we focus our lives on those things we want
to deny ourselves, to resist, to exclude. We live life as if it’s a
funeral wake rather than a celebration. We are God’s creation. He
has made us. He has made us to enjoy the good things of life. So we
mustn’t abuse God’s gift. We mustn’t hide God’s gift. We
mustn’t ignore God’s gift.

We are being
transformed. Just by living our lives in this chaotic world, we are
constantly changing who we are. But who is influencing who we are
becoming?

We must be transformed. We must be changed. And we
cannot look at the loving face of God and not take on his appearance,
his countenance, his grace.

We must get alongside those who
walk the journey with us, to share their pain, their sorrow, their
frustrations, their joys, their happiness, their lives. To share
something of our understanding of God’s love, and to learn lessons
ourselves. Transfiguration might be about learning to see ordinary
things in extraordinary ways

As we move between the
extraordinary accounts of Transfiguration in today’s readings and
the ordinary events of seeing in our own lives, we do not need to
separate the two. But we can remember, with Peter, that the light of
God is not so hidden that we cannot seek it in ordinary life. The
Logos lives, enlivens, infuses, illuminates even the ordinary.

I
wonder if Peter’s real sense of call didn’t happened here, when the
voice interrupts all his plots and plans and announces that this
Jesus is none other than God’s beloved Son and so the most important
thing Peter can do is simply listen to him. In that moment everything
for Peter, I suspect, was still…and clear…and made sense.

But
of course it didn’t last. Peter needs to be pulled up off the ground,
perhaps wondering if anything had actually happened or whether he had
imagined it all. And then on the way down the mountain Jesus will
again intimate of his impending death and destiny. Peter will
struggle to listen, to follow, to be faithful. Actually, he will more
than struggle, he will fail. And Jesus will reach out, raise him up
again, and send him forth. I have a hunch that each time Peter fell
down and got up again, he would look back on this day and recall
those words, “Just listen to him!”

That’s what I
mean by saying that this is the moment when Peter’s transfiguration
begins – when he fails, falls, and is lifted up again and realizes
that above and beyond everything else, he is called to listen to
Jesus. This pattern, I think, shapes the life of every Christian. We,
too, of course, try our best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes
coming up short. We, too, have moments of insight and moments of
denial. We, too, fall down in fear and are raised up again to go
forth in confidence. We, too, that is, are called to listen, called
to discern God’s way in the world, called to partner with God and in
this way be transformed.

On any given Sunday, many of us are
surrounded by visions of God’s glory.  We worship in
resplendent sanctuaries adorned with breathtaking stained glass
windows and shining brass candlesticks.  We glorify God in the
highest, singing hymns of resounding triumph and praise.  These
are important moments. We need to have the times on the mountaintop.
The trouble comes when we separate between the visually pleasing
world of glory and the extremely challenging and chaotic world of
service.  The danger is that we might get lost on the
mountaintop, and forget our way down.

Fred Craddock states,
“There is value in referring to this story as one about Jesus’
mountaintop experience, which is followed by his return to the valley
where he ministered to human need. To such a presentation we can add
recitations of mountaintop experiences we have known, followed by
exhortations to return to the valley ready to serve. The connections
can not only be clear but also encouraging and challenging” (The
Christian Century, February 21, 1990).

We do tend to get lost
up there, I think.  There are times when the distance between
Sunday and Monday seems to be about a million miles, and the path
from the mountaintop to the dark valley is very difficult to find.
 Yet, we follow a Savior who leads us down and out: down from
the mountaintop, out of the clouds, and into the valley to meet those
who are in need. We have to go and do.

Yet, Lent, which
begins this coming Wednesday, calls us to rediscover our
spirituality, to be, to quit our frantic babbling, and to pay
attention, to consider who we are as
dust
apart from
whose
we are in our baptism, God’s precious children, forgiven, loved,
held, and only from that identity, gifted and called and sent to do
God’s work in the world. If we don’t get the “being” part,
then the doing will only be chaotic, frustrated attempts at
self-justification or else grounded in fear and devoid of any joy. If
all your doing seems madness and pointless, learn again to behold the
mystery, to enter a quiet place of awe. There will be more than ample
opportunity and compulsion for living out our call to discipleship,
to taking up the cross.

The trick, as in most things, is
balance.
Knowing when to “do” and when and how to just “be.”
Learning to take our calling and our work seriously, but not too
seriously! To let go of our needs to control, to listen for the voice
of God so that our actions aren’t merely the proverbial running
around like a chicken with its head cut off but, instead, are true
acts of discipleship that flow from a
being
that is formed in the awe and wonder of God’s gracious love for us.
We need the mountaintop and the valley. Both alongside each other.


That, I
think, is the real moment of transfiguration.  It’s the moment
in which all those people around us, wherever we may be, become
beautiful, and precious, and lovely in our sight.  If we follow
Jesus long enough through the valleys of this world, those around us
will become transfigured.  Peter, James, and John, though they
just wanted to stay at the top of the mountain, would one day be the
ones touching the demon-possessed child and welcoming the outcasts
and forgiving the sinners.

The real
transfiguration happens not on the top of a mountain, but down in the
valleys, out in the painful places of the world.  Let us pray
this morning that as Jesus goes on ahead of us, we would have the
vision, the courage, and the faith to follow him wherever he leads
us.  Then we might see the glory – and the greatness – of
God.

No matter how much we may want to stay the same, just by
living our lives will be transformed, changed, and altered. And not
just in some minimalist ways. We will be transfigured in our lives
and some of us will be changed many times. But the question is, will
you let God do the changing?

Rev. Cara Gee

March 6th
2011