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At the opening of
her book To Dance with God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson tells the story of
an afternoon she spent absorbed in a project at her sewing machine.
Her daughter Annika, three years old at the time, dug into the basket
of scraps that sat at her mother’s feet. Annika pulled out several
long, bright strips of discarded fabric, gathered them up, and
slipped away. Gertrud writes than when she went to find Annika, “I
tracked her whereabouts to the back garden where I found her sitting
in the grass with a long pole. She was affixing the scraps to the top
of the pole with great sticky wads of tape. ‘I’m making a banner
for a procession,’ she said. ‘I need a procession so that God
will come down and dance with us.’ With that she solemnly lifted
her banner to flutter in the wind and slowly she began to

How often do we celebrate our Lord? How often do we
ask God to dance with us, acknowledging his amazing presence in our
lives? I think we need to start out this Sunday by remembering that
dance. This week we celebrate Palm Sunday, remembering the day when
the crowds of Jerusalem offered a procession to celebrate the one who
came to live, and walk, and work, and dance among us. This week we
begin our service with glad songs and waving palm branches. We seek
the joy and the attention of our beloved God. Hosanna!

We all
cry out Hosanna, just as those crowds did long ago. We cry it
triumphantly, gladly, rejoicing in the glory of our king. We smile as
children call out, waving their palm branches aloft. We mimic the
actions of the crowds around Christ. The crowds that lined the street
and cheered for Jesus as he entered the city in his humble way. Some
of the people there had already heard of Jesus and were followers,
thrilled to have him come. But not all of them.

Knowing what
i do about people and the way they act together, I imagine many of
those gathered there that morning had been drawn in by the noise of
shouting. And like any good crowd at a parade, they joined in, crying
Hosanna! and waving branches with the others, enjoying a moment of
spectacle in their day.

People are drawn to what is popular,
to who is popular. It is the definition of popular after all. We cry
out for the one everyone else cries out for. Be they politician or
actor or reality TV show star. We cheer with everyone else.

crowds that morning cheered together for Jesus. They were excited to
see him, joyful even. Everyone who heard became caught up in the
excitement and joined in the cheering. But facing this week, we have
to ask, how did they go from cheering his entry on Sunday, to calling
for his painful, bloody death on Friday?

I think it is because
Jesus didn’t behave they way they wanted him too. They were crying
out Hosanna, which means, Save us. Please, Save us. The crowds cried
to Jesus for salvation, but they didn’t like how he went about it.
Jesus didn’t come with armies to save them from the Roman government,
which is what many of the people thought the messiah would do.

Instead Jesus disrupts the status quo. He over turns the
stalls of the money changers and drives them out of the temple. He
preaches peace and forgiveness instead of war and freedom.  He
doesn’t do what they thought he would. And that scares them. So yes,
they want him crucified. They want to forget about him. Better that
than to change the way we look at the world.

Like so many
popular people, Jesus did not act the way the crowds want him to act.
It is like following a sports team; it is far easier to cheer when
they are winning. Fair weather fans jump from team to team, based on
whoever is winning that week. But not everyone who watches sports is
like that. There are those true fans. The ones who stick with their
teams no matter what. True fans always make me think of my father.

My father has always been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. When he
was a kid that was something to be proud of. They won the World
Series a few times and always did well in the playoffs. In the last
couple of decades, they haven’t done so well. They barely make it to
the playoffs and never last there very long. Yet he still spends his
summer evenings on the back porch with his radio, listening to all
their games. He isn’t a fan just when they are doing well, but all
the time.

This week is like that. Too many of Jesus’
followers become fair weather followers. Even the ones who don’t
actually turn on him, pretend not to know him when things get tough.
When he doesn’t act the way people want him to. Yet there are those
who stick with Jesus through the good and the bad. Even when his
actions make no one happy.

We are like that even today. We
forget the good that Jesus has done in the face of our current
frustrations and heartache. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of
thinking that Jesus isn’t helping because our lives aren’t going
the way we want them to.

Palm Sunday begins an intrusive time
for Jesus. He has quit preaching and gone to meddling. I think we
sometimes like to tell ourselves that whatever the gospel means, it
must mean that God wants to help us with our agenda. It must mean
that God deals with us like an over indulgent and too permissive
parent who wants his child to get ahead and be happy. It must mean
that God is at my service and Jesus has come to help me be more
successful, more fulfilled, more whatever it is that I want.

Palm Sunday began to go bad when it became clear that
Jesus was a threat to the way things were organized in the city of
Jerusalem. Jesus was most welcome when it was believed that he would
help you with illness, raise brother from the dead, cure cousin’s
blindness, make the demons go away; but he does not stop there. He
wants to redirect life.

On Palm Sunday it becomes clear that
when God enters our lives he not only blesses, heals, teaches and
leads, he also confronts and disturbs. Palm Sunday is the moment when
it becomes clear that God is concerned with more than our spiritual
and physical health. He is concerned with our moral health and has
claims on the power centers of our lives. You see we have little
trouble with Jesus in the suburbs or even with Jesus in the hospital.

But Palm Sunday reminds us that God is not satisfied with
being Lord of our spiritual lives or our inner lives, that is easy
enough, but on Palm Sunday Jesus goes down town and enters the law
offices, the financial districts, the brokerage houses and the halls
of government and that is where the trouble really got started. Jesus
isn’t just Lord of the spiritual edges of our lives, but our whole
lives. Jesus calls us to be followers every where we go and in all
that we do. Following Jesus in the day to day is a lot harder than
following him on Sunday mornings.

While I want to see myself
with the disciples during this last week, as wrong as they get it at
times, I know that there are days when I stand with those crowds.
Those are days when I feel like a fair weather fan. When I call out
to Jesus to save me, and then get mad that he doesn’t save me the way
I wanted him to.  When Jesus doesn’t just save me, but changes
my life. Crying Hosanna to the Savior can mean that the Savior
changes everything you thought you knew.

If you cry out to
Jesus to Save you, you have to be ready for the changes that he will
make of your life. Calling out Hosanna with the crowds, is inviting
the Lord to come dance with you and your life will never be the same.

Despite our resistance. Even though we kick and scream and do
not want to change, Jesus dies for us anyway. Even though we cry for
his crucifixion, Jesus saves us anyway. He responds to our cries of
Hosanna with such love and joy that our lives will never be the same
again. Jesus saves us, even as we condemn him. Christ stays with us
even when we are at our worst. We know what is coming this week, but
we aren’t quite there yet. We who stand among the Palm Sunday crowds
know that the Word will soon be beaten, mocked, and killed. We know,
too, that that is not the end of the tale.

But we have not yet
moved on to that part of the tale. This week’s Gospel lectionary
beckons us to linger alongside the road, to lift our voices in
celebration, and to ask ourselves a few questions. I find myself
wondering, what is the way that I am preparing for Christ? Do I dare
to shout Hosanna, and accept what that means? Am I willing to be a
true follower of Christ and not just a fair weather one?

we are called to take a cue from little Annika, and lift up our best
that God might come down and dance with us. Amen.

Rev. Cara Gee

April 17th, 2011

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1 Kings 19:

an event happened before your time, or in a time you can remember,
there are times that we classify as disasters. Most recently the
Japan earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear crises have all been part of
a giant disaster. It is likely that someone you know may also have
endured a personal disaster: like a house burning down, or a child
dying, or a friend not coming home from war, or a storm hitting your
house. Before Japan, you’ll recall some other disasters: Hurricane
Katrina in Louisiana, Hurricane Andrew in Miami, and the four
hurricanes of Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne that hit our area in
2004. There were, of course, other tragedies that had some human
causes such as the BP oil spill, the 9/11 disaster, the Challenger
disaster, the Titanic disaster, and the Hindenburg Disaster. Again,
most people know what a disaster is: by and large it involves loss of
life, sometimes catastrophically but always tragically; often loss of
property; and always a loss of security. When security gets
jeopardized and people feel less safe, most often the question of the
ages comes to the lips of men and women. Even people of faith dare to
murmur this question: “
Where was God?”
Today I hope to address that whispered
question, particularly regarding natural disasters.

have heard two extraordinary passages today: Psalm 121, and 1 Kings
19. Both of them were magnificently brought together by composer
Felix Mendelssohn in his oratorio called “Elijah.” The first line
of Psalm 121 is almost certainly a question, though some have
rendered it a statement: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills;
from whence cometh my help?” Verse two answers the question asked
in verse one: “My help cometh from the Lord, who made Heaven and
Earth.” It is the kind of message that bounces around in one’s
head, especially in a time of crisis. When I was cooped up in our
house when four hurricanes pummeled our area in 2004, questions like
that formed in my mind as well: lifting my eyes to the hills was not
really a geographical description in flat Florida; it was a
theological one. When the minister says in the Great Prayer of
Thanksgiving “Lift up your hearts,” it is not a statement of
anatomical surgery; it is one of theological posture! So, when the
Psalmist implies, “to the hills we will lift our eyes; from where
does our help come? It is not a description that God always comes
from the hills. It is the thought of a desperate person, scanning the
horizon, as his or her mind struggles with the catastrophe. “Where
will I go? What will I do?” These are questions that fill our minds
when disasters hit. Even the post Hurricane Andrew construction of my
home gave me little solace as winds howled around our house in 2004,
as debris flew through the air, shingles flew off, and as our screen
enclosure threatened to crumple. My mind would race: what supplies
will I need if the roof gets breached as it did here at church? What
will I do if water starts pouring in?” Disasters can fray your
nerves. In some cases people binge on food that is thawing from their
warm refrigerators; in other cases people have no clean water or
working plumbing. Disasters—especially natural ones like
hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and lightening strikes—make those
three words form on our lips: “
Where was
We know with the Hindenburg or the
Titanic or the Challenger that the question “What went wrong?”
could mostly be attributed to faulty construction, ignorance, or
miscalculations. But with nature, people look to the Bible and can
often get mixed signals. The people of Israel, for example, believed
everything was
from the hand of God. If a child was stillborn they would ask God
what sin they committed to have such a curse. If a storm destroyed
their village they would ask God why so much wrath was sent their
way. If disease filled their lives or locusts ate their crops, they
believed they were sent from God. Thus we have the stories of Job and
the great Exodus plagues interpreted as anguish sent from the
Almighty. But in Jesus’ day, he thought differently. He told
questioners that “the rain falls on the fields of the just
the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45.) His
perspective on where trouble comes from is different from someone
like Job.
That’s why the Elijah passage is
so unique in the Old Testament stories; in it we find that God is not
in the storms; but God Is in the aftermath
It helps us to appropriately frame the “
was God
?” question. In this story, we have
a fragile, seemingly terrified, perhaps exhausted and maybe burned
out prophet of Israel. Elijah was clearly one of the greatest
Biblical prophets. When people were wondering who Jesus was, they
often surmised that he might be Elijah. One place that is said is in
John 1:21. Elijah took on unbelievers in God, like King Ahab and
Queen Jezebel, challenging the prophets of Baal to a most daring
contest. On the top of Mount Carmel, he would place a bull on one
pile of wood for a sacrifice and they would do the same on another
pile of wood. Whichever deity lit the wood with fire from heaven
would win. Well, Elijah won that contest! But then he had the king
and the queen after him when he slew the prophets of Baal! The
monarchs didn’t like being humiliated! So Elijah heads off into the
desert, not thinking clearly, and is ready to just throw in the
towel. I’d imagine you’ve gotten to your wit’s end at times,
haven’t you? I have. Elijah pathetically curled up under a broom
tree for some shade. God spotted him, and sent an angel to him with
food and drink. Haven’t you had someone bring you food or drink
during a disaster? I have. They look like people, but they
like angels! And after the food that Elijah ate, he traveled a great
distance, returning to what was known as the mountain of God, perhaps
seeking shelter. He hid in a cave. God saw him. As when a person gets
shell-shocked from a disaster, God was at first gentle with him:
God’s voice came to Elijah with these words: “What are you doing
here Elijah?” And Elijah explained. God sized up the situation.
This great prophet needed a protégé to continue the work. So God
tells Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord.
Elijah thought he knew what was about to happen: he
he was about to have a “theophany,” an
appearance by the Lord. But the form of God’s revelation was unlike
anything Elijah had ever expected! It was just perfect for the shaken
prophet. The difference was this: when God appeared to Moses on that
same mountain, it was with smoke and fire and earthquake that God
“passed by.” But the narrator of our Elijah story pulls the rug
out from under the hearer’s expectations. The narrator says “Now
there was a great wind! It was so strong it was breaking rocks and
splitting the mountain!” And then the narrator leans in and says to
the listeners: “
But, the Lord was not in the
wind!” (
Remember that part!) “And then
after the wind there was … an earthquake!
the Lord was not in the earthquake!
And right
after the earthquake there was a fire!” “
the Lord was not in the fire!”
was God?
Mendelssohn puts it so magnificently, “
the fire there was a still, small voice …
in that still voice: onward came the Lord;
came the Lord; onward came the Lord.”
did not create or send our disasters; even Jesus suggested that.
Instead, to the answer “
Where was God?”
which is past tense, we answer “
Where was
God in Japan, or when wind whipped Daytona, or when waters flooded
New Orleans? God was under hundreds of hard hats, cutting trees or
shoring up collapsed roofs. God was setting up portable pumps and
generators. God was running into rooms with terrified children and
carrying them to safety. And through other neighbors in our global
village, God was sending food and finding shelter for people
frightened by the storm. For a few days or weeks after these
disasters, the world seems to forget how big it is geographically,
and how many differences there are in neighborhoods, ideologies,
creeds, skin colors, and income brackets. For a few days or weeks,
the Kingdoms of the world after a disaster become the Kingdom of our
God and of his Christ. God is
God is helping hard hearts melt and
helping neighbor help neighbor—even those who were at odds or
didn’t know each other before the disaster. God is in the grace, in
the caring, and the sharing.

Disasters will still come our way. When some people face
them, they may look to the hills for God. Still others think God is
in the wind and the earthquakes, and the floods. But now you know the
lesson from Elijah: after the terror and the anguish that the
disaster brings, and
the winds finally die down,
onward comes the
. Thanks be to God.

A. Sumner April 10, 2011

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John 9: 1-11

woman was on a plane flying from Melbourne Australia to Brisbane.
Unexpectedly the plane was diverted to Sydney instead. The flight
attendant explained that there would be a delay and that if
passengers wished to get off to stretch their legs, boarding would
again commence in approximately 50 minutes. Nearly everybody got off
of the plane except one lady who was blind. A man had noticed her
with her dark glasses on as we walked by her, and with her guide dog
lying quietly under her seat. He was on duty with his guide dog
handle attached. The woman had flown this flight many times and was
well known to the crew and the captain. The captain approached her
and called her by name: “Ms. Watson” the pilot said, “Would you
like help getting off to stretch your legs?” To which she replied,
“No thank you captain, but maybe Buddy ( she said motioning to her
guide dog) would like to stretch
his legs.”
At that airport there was no jet way; passengers disembarked outside
on to the tarmac. Imagine the looks of the other passengers as the
captain came down the steps of the plane with his sunglasses and
uniform on, giving Buddy time to stretch his legs! It is a true
story! The picture I gave the children is a picture of the captain
walking Buddy. It was especially astounding as those at that gate,
who saw the captain and Buddy, started asking to change their flight!

blind pilot; it’s hard to imagine. Yet a deaf composer conducted
his own work in his Ninth Symphony that became known as “The Ode to
Joy.” Ludwig von Beethoven; the story goes that someone actually
had to turn him to the audience so he could at least
the thunderous applause. We know that those who lose their larynx can
still speak with the use of mechanical devices, even if the voice
sounds electronic. We know that with the help of walkers, canes, and
wheelchairs paraplegic people can be mobile, and with the help of
hand devices for gas and brakes, they can even drive a car, truck, or
van. Did you know that Dr. Stephen Hawking who wrote the stunning
book that combined astronomy and theoretical physics called A BRIEF
HISTORY OF TIME, has debilitating ALS? He was the Lucasian
Professor of Mathematics from 1979 until 2009 at Cambridge University
in England, a chair once held by Sir Isaac Newton. He is currently
the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology in
Cambridge. And oh by the way: with his ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s
disease) he has not been able to feed himself or get himself out of
bed in 1974! His wife Kate took care of him and their three small
children, in the 1970s, and with slurred speech he could communicate.
But by 1985 he caught pneumonia and had to have a tracheotomy so his
ability to speak was gone. He could then only communicate by barely
raising an eyebrow when someone pointed to the right letter. At one
point he got up to the speed of 15 words per
Finally a computer expert created a program
Equalizer which
could be run on his desktop computer controlled by a hand switch or
by eye or head motions. Painstakingly he sent letter by letter
messages into a storage device. Later someone created a synthetic
voice that could read what he wrote, so one of the greatest minds in
the world today, trapped in a body that can barely communicate, found
a way to communicate. He is still alive and changing the way we see
the universe today, working through his disability.

often we fall into a very logical dilemma of faith: if God rescued
the Israelites years ago, why doesn’t God save us? The message
about disasters will be addressed next week. But today some will
ask: “If Jesus made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the
lame to walk, then why am I not healed?” Like looking through a
telescope from the wrong end, we get focused on the dozen or so
healings Jesus performed and we stop seeing the ways that God uses
people in every stage of weakness, to inspire the world and give
glory to Heaven. In John 9, for example, healing made just one man
happy while the gathered crowd reacted with jealousy and suspicion.
Later when Jesus healed people, he had others lined up around the
block to saying “me too; me too!” And of course it is
understandable. For those who have lost good eyesight, how much they
long to see again. For those who have lost the hearing they once had,
how much they wish they could hear well again. Who wants to go
through life saying “What?” or “Could you speak louder?”
When my grandfather was losing his hearing and before he got his
hearing aids, we could not stay in the same room with him when he was
watching TV; it was so loud. And if we turned it down to levels
appropriate for the rest of us, he could not hear a thing. Losing our
senses of any kind can be isolating. But there are the Stephen
Hawkings, and Beethoven’s who in some way were formed by their
disability. I have a hidden disability called diabetes; that means
it is likely that I will die at a much younger age than someone
without it; it is likely that I will face amputations, and I have to
watch how long I go between eating. I only got it in 1999. But my
message to others and my passion for nutrition would never have
developed without the knowledge of my own disease to drive it. My
health message is my second gospel after the Bible. And it would
never have happened if my pancreas had not stopped functioning as it
once did. God spurs people into new areas that encompass their
disability; even every one of you, if I asked enough, would find
areas that show your brokenness. When you have realized that you were
broken, who did you connect with best: someone who seemed to have
everything all together, or someone who was broken like you? I
connect with other broken people best. Instead of saying “I wish, I
wish, I wish,” about my broken part getting fixed, I say “With
faith and fight, I will survive and seek to thrive.” The one time
Jesus healed the man born blind, it did not build community, or
collegiality, or compassion. It bred jealousy, suspicion, and
charges. For two thirds of a chapter he dealt with the result of the
physical healing he produced. But it is in the last third of the
chapter when he says he has come really for
the wounded spirit whole and for healing the sin sick soul
quote two spiritual hymns. In verse 38 he says “I came into the
world for judgment so that those who
do not
see may see, and those
do see may become
blind.” Even Jesus was backpedaling after the physical healing
brought the unexpected poor results that it did.

we know there are Christians who have experienced healing in
charismatic services. We also know there are also those who have
prayed as hard and have
not been
healed. So do we expect healings and then get disappointed if they
don’t occur, or do we celebrate if they do? Should we, instead,
embrace our disability and ask for eyes to see the ways we can
glorify God through our disabilities? You
pray for healing; our prayer list has such prayers every week. But
what would it be like if you instead prayed to reach others, and to
be empowered, in your disability?

we seek to welcome every broken person. We welcome them not just with
wheelchair ramps, large print bulletins, assistive listening devices,
mailings to those at home and sermons on pod-casts around the world.
But we also have empowered people broken by grief to begin a
compassion ministry. And as I said in the announcements, on Saturday
we many again will join in a walk in the name of a young man who died
with Melanoma, but with determination, prayers, and the support of
friends, they are determined to help save others in the name of the
son who could not save himself. Church is a great place to think
about the accusation people hurled at Jesus: “He saved others; but
he can’t save himself.” I give thank for those who have let God
work through their weakness! I don’t know about you, but I am
inspired by the Christian songs “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine!”
“Rescue the Perishing!” and “To God be the Glory.” They were
written by a woman who was blind since her first month of life.
Little Frances Jane Crosby was born on March 24, 1824 but by late
April the parents realized that their daughter had developed an
infection in her eyes. The town doctor was away at the time but a
man, claiming to know medicine but who was clearly a charlatan, put
scalding hot compresses on the infant’s eyes to draw out the
infection. All the man did was to blind her instead. And out of the
heart of the infant, who grew to be a girl, and then a great
Christian woman, blind Fanny Crosby wrote some of the most beloved
hymns in Christian hymnals. Who knows what her life would have been
like if she had her eyesight? What we
do know
is that God turned a human disability into a divine blessing. May
God bless your broken places with a holy touch of the divine as well.
And may the gifts of the Spirit be yours: seeing, hearing, and
speaking through a Spirit-filled heart.

A. Sumner
April 3, 2011