Monthly Archives: May 2011

05-29-01 LIFE ON THE ‘D’ LIST: DEBT

LIFE ON THE ‘D’ LIST: DEBT

Matthew 6: 25-34

 

In his book THE THEOLOGY OF THE HAMMER, Habitat for
Humanity founder Millard Fuller tells about one of his driving beliefs: that
everyone should have a decent place to live. Fuller had been a wealthy lawyer,
who had sold much of what he had to start building houses for others. One of
his stories makes me wince: “A rich man in Atlanta built for himself and his
family a huge house on a large parcel of land. The amenities included an
attached carriage house, a swimming pool, a lake, extensive flower garden, and
many other wonderful features. People compared this awesome layout to the
palace in Versailles, France. When asked why he built such an extravagant place
he exclaimed: ‘Because I am a born-again Christian and I wanted to glorify God.’”
Good grief! Here are words from the Bible that call into question the theology
of that born-again Christian: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your
God, failing to observe his commands, his laws, and his decrees that I am
giving you this day. Otherwise when you eat and are satisfied, when you build
houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your
silver and gold increase and all 
you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud, and you will
forget the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 8) And the words of Jesus have equal
power when he said in Luke 12: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds
of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his
possessions.”  Today the topic is
debt, which cannot fully be addressed without talking about money.  Back in 2004 houses in my neighborhood
were selling the same day that they went on the market. Upon further
investigation I learned that houses with a similar floor plan as ours were selling
for three times what they were selling for just five years earlier! It was a
temptation to respond to the daily realtor requests to sell our house. But for
us, conservative caution prevailed for that day: if we sold our house, wouldn’t
we have to buy someone else’s overpriced house?  And wouldn’t we be giving up some advantages in our mortgage
and taxes if we moved?  We decided
to stay. Nevertheless I know that many in our country made thousands, and even
millions of dollars, up until the bubble burst. So in spite of many people
saying they rarely gamble at all, we gamble every day. We weigh the odds of
keeping our money in a hiding place or putting it in a money market account, in
a CD, in the stock market, or in property. Many people get ahead with moderate
risk and they reap the rewards. Money is a commodity which we must use to live.
And even congregations benefit from it: we use people’s gifts to fund college
scholarships and camp scholarships; we use your tithe money and mine to fund
mission and pay for programming; and it was the generous gifts of others that
gave the property on which we are worshipping, that gave money for the steeple,
that paid for this sanctuary and the new driveway. Money also supports people
who find help and hope through our Presbyterian Counseling Center. But like a
balancing scale, the outcome can often become like a bigger child on one end of
a playground teeter totter: no fun at all. The bigger child of our day is the
crushing debt load that some families, some individuals, and some businesses
are carrying. Even churches are not immune to debt as the famous Crystal
Cathedral went into bankruptcy protection last year. And our nation is making
desperate cuts to important programs, cutting jobs to the bone because of the
crushing national debt. What happens to people in debt?

 

First, crushing debt load can lead to another “d”
word: disarray.  A normally ordered
life gets jumbled. A bathtub where more water is going down the drain than is being
poured soon ends up empty.  Just
so, unpaid credit cards and other debts can make the family money supply go
dry, leading to major changes in life style, values, and actions.  Some start playing the lottery or delve
into other forms of gambling. Some hock valuables at a pawn shop, receiving
between 20 and 30% less than what they will be sold for later. Some temporarily
manage debt by putting more charges on credit cards than ever before, or they
use the cards with the lower interest rates (which are still very high) to pay
down the cards with the higher interest rates. Staying one step ahead of
creditors starts out as a game and turns into a nightmare. The day when some
cannot pay a water bill or a power bill is the day that lands them deeper into
debt with late fees and reconnection fees. Soon living in a home with no water
or lights becomes untenable and foreclosure sets in. Or, if a person has not
been able to own a home, they cannot pay the rent for where they are, and even
after an extra month of threats or grace by a landlord, they end up out of
their apartment. Many still have some money for a cheap motel that they can
rent by the week. But sometimes money for even the weekly rent gets hard to
come by, so they have to pay the higher daily rate for a motel. Finally, they
become part of an ever growing population in America: homeless. And it is most
difficult to claw one’s way up from homelessness. When one is homeless, where
do you shower or shave? How do you get clean enough not to smell so you can go
on job interviews? Do you have enough money for a Laundromat or will your money
go for the dollar specials at fast food restaurants instead? You could buy
canned goods but there is often no means to heat them. You could buy fresh food
but only enough for a meal since you no longer have a refrigerator. At some
point dental care is an issue not to mention health care.

 

To all of these issues one finds the message Jesus
gives in the Sermon on the Mount to be in stark contrast: “Do not be anxious
about your life.” Is he kidding us? 
Or was his audience different? 
What is the counter mission that God launches in the Bible through
prophets and Jesus Christ himself? One part is the compassion ministry mandated
in the Old Testament and even from the lips of Jesus in the New Testament.” To a
crowd of 5000 hungry people Jesus told his disciples “Give them something to
eat.” (Matthew 14:16) In Deuteronomy we read: “If there is among you a poor
man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns …, you shall not harden your
heart or shut your hand.” (Deuteronomy15.) To people doing without: keeping
their faith, making connections, networking, praying, and waiting for results
can be a process that takes longer than ever imagined. And debt is the wolf at
the door. The church, through the support we can offer from your gifts and mine,
works through agencies and on a case by case basis to keep debt from throwing a
family into the poorhouse, or helping them once they are there. That is what
you and I do collectively to help others, people you might even know. Several
years ago when our Confirmation Class went to Halifax Urban Ministries to feed
hungry people on President’s Day, they were surprised to see some other their
classmates in the food line. Debt can throw families into such church safety
nets as that.

 

There is another way to look at debt: Jesus said
“forgive us our debts” in his example of prayer when we might have wished he
had said “trespasses” or “sins.” But he used debts deliberately because sin
always costs somebody something. If you break a neighbor’s fence and livestock
runs away, there is a cost; if you steal from your neighbor or from a business,
there is a cost, not only in product cost, but also in your character in the
eyes of others. And for those who break a marriage promise there is a cost. When
we are indebted to someone else, the relationship changes; it becomes out of
balance because of what is owed. Debt changes relationships, leading to another
“d” word: the “destruction” of relationships: between spouses, between parents
and a child; between friend and friend. Debt can cause insidious damage.

 

Finally, debt can also lead to yet another “d” word:
despair. In despair people may turn to pills, alcohol, suicide, or drugs,
things that bring on unraveling physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Debt
can make people physically bankrupt, but some also fall into moral bankruptcy.
Our country is in a time of extremely tight money. When we were making money hand
over fist nobody complained! Then the well dried up and people had learned few
lessons or coping mechanisms to help them through the bear markets. Perhaps one
of the devils of our day has been the temptation to use easy credit. Through
the darkness, however, there are those who try to help indebted ones own the
words that Jesus once spoke on the edge of the Sea of Galilee: “Do not be
anxious about your life.” Jesus never made poor people rich or even rich people
poor. But he did give hungry people something to eat; he gave disabled people
hope; he rich people something to think about; to those in power he gave them
ideas for using their power differently. And to those who sinned and admitted
it, he offered them forgiveness and grace. Jesus told us to pray saying:
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Treat us, O God, in the
same way we treat others.
That is
what we are praying each time we pray that prayer. Have you thought of that
before? How can fully live today and still lay up treasure in heaven? May God
guide you and show grace in your life ahead.

Jeffrey A. Sumner               May
29, 2011

05-22-11 LIFE ON THE “D” LIST: DECLARATION

LIFE ON THE “D” LIST: DECLARATION

1 Peter 2: 1-10

 

In the first century A.D. Jesus of Nazareth took a
band of chosen disciples north from their native province of Galilee (an area
controlled by Herod Antipas who wanted to stop Jesus) to an area known as Caesarea
Philippi, an area tolerant of all faiths and overseen by Herod Phillip. Our
Holy Land trips have helped me understand that geography matters. There was a
place in that region with a seemingly bottomless cave that natives believed was
the entrance to the underworld. To them it was known as the gates of Hell. As
Jesus took his followers away from the crowds that hounded them back in
Galilee, and from the ruler who pursued him, he likely stopped, according to
Matthew 16, at the place known as “The gates of Hell.” It was there that he
asked the most important declaration of faith in his ministry:  “Who do others say that I am?” he asked
them. And several of them answered: “Some say that you are John the Baptist;
others say you are Elijah; still others say you are Jeremiah or one of the
prophets.” Then I can imagine Jesus pausing and looking each of his apostles
straight in the eye: “And who do you say that I am
? It was then that Simon, whom Jesus called Peter, first
spoke and said words that would change the world.  He said: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
No greater words have ever been said for Christians.
Jesus must have beamed as he said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jona! My
Father in Heaven revealed that to you. You are Peter, and on this rock I will
build my church” and then perhaps motioning to the deep opening in the ground,
said “and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it!”  Roman Catholics believe Jesus meant his
church would be built on Peter himself because he said Jesus was the Christ, so
he is regarded as the first Pope and St Peter’s basilica is in his honor.
Protestants believe that Jesus meant he would build his church on the declaration
that Peter made that Jesus was the Christ. The
Christian Church, therefore, was built on that declaration of belief. Later in
the Bible, readers can find an ancient hymn written or quoted by the Apostle
Paul, in Philippians where he said of Jesus: “God has highly exalted him, and
bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every
tongue confess (or declare) to the Glory of God the Father, that Jesus Christ
is Lord.” (Philippians 2: 9-11) Did you hear who was to declare that: Those
in heaven above the earth, those on earth, and
those under the earth! Jesus’ words mattered to his disciples in Caesarea Philippi!
Even the gates of Hell would not prevail against the church! Jesus apparently
will not rest until those above, those on earth, and those below the earth one
day call him Lord! Paul’s words matter to us as well, and to all who followed
Jesus: Jesus Christ is Lord! The shortest … and most agreed upon creed in
Christendom is the one that appears on the crosses I gave to the children: Jesus
is Lord.
Not everyone agrees with
the Apostles’ Creed; not everyone believes in the Nicene Creed; but all
Christians believe Jesus is Lord. That is the definition of being a Christian!
A declaration started it by Peter, and a declaration continued it by Paul.  Then in about 95 AD, John wrote his
Revelation in a time of great torment for Christians. He told them to stand
firm but not to take up swords. At one point the Roman Government had been a
tolerant empire for those who honored God, and for those who didn’t. But by the
end of the first century and into the second century, new leaders put
Christians to death who did not call them—human beings—Lord and God. A
Christian named Polycarp was among many who would not renounce God. They say he
died with these words about Jesus: “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he
has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Would you
have declared your faith in Christ and stood firm as your feet were about to be
put to flame? Would you have compromised; or would you have called a dictator
your god? Such questions are not asked … or answered lightly. With your own
life or the lives of loved ones at stake, where would you take your stand?  Years later the Protestant Reformation
started when a priest and religious professor named Martin Luther put out a
document on the local college version of email called the Wittenberg Door, and
on it he tacked 95 statements he had written that challenged the church leaders
of his day. The newly invented moveable type printing press allowed his words
to be spread farther and faster then was ever possible before. According to
historian John Dillenberger, “When Luther was finally summoned before [a major
church court,] he was asked to [recant] his writings and he replied with these
words; ‘Since [you] seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner….Unless
I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures, or by clear reason, I am bound
by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of
God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right
to go against conscience …. God help me. Amen’” [MARTIN LUTHER, Anchor Books,
1961, p. xxii – xxiii.] Taking stands is one of the foundations of
Christianity. It has also been the foundation of nations.

 

In the United States, we cherish the fact that a
forefather named Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders in the Continental
Congress meeting in Philadelphia, decided they no longer wanted to be a colony
of England. They no longer wanted “taxation without representation.” And so,
with the skillful writing of Jefferson, with a few amendments from their Congress,
they took their stand too. Today it is called “The Declaration of
Independence.” Its title and the day it was going to be passed were never
certain until it was finished in those first hot days of July in 1776. But
declare they did. Those leaders knew, however, that they did not want another
monarchy as England had, and they didn’t want the state having authoritative
power over the church. As the conversation grew among them, they asked who had
an idea of a different kind of government. Presbyterians such as the Rev. John
Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, raised
their hands. “We know a government that John Calvin proposed” they said. “It is
a government by the people and for the people.” In their proposal, power would
not be given to one person, such as a king or a bishop. It would be shared
power such as Calvin promoted, with people helping to choose their leaders and
vote on their destiny. It was a representative form of government such as with
a Session, a Deaconate, and a Moderator.” The suggestion was worked on and put
in the form of motions, finally creating what we now know as the President, the
Senate, and the House of Representatives. And it was a nation with a separation
of church and state: not that people of religious fervor could not lead or
speak, because that was encouraged as it is today. It simply meant that the
state would not mandate or dictate a particular faith as the only sanctioned
belief, nor have power to control religious beliefs. Our great nation, with its
checks and balances, started from a declaration of independence. Even though
our government has since had the introduction of paid lobbyists, in its purist
form it was the work of Presbyterians. In fact, in those days the American
Revolution was often referred to as “The Presbyterian Revolt!” Taking stands
can change things: they can change governments, they can change the way human
beings are treated or animals are treated; they can save a building, or a
forest, or even a tree. Taking stands is as old as recorded history.

 

Today ten boys and girls are moving toward an age of
maturity. Their minds and bodies are developing and this is a time when they
start to say what they
believe,
not just say what mom or dad believes. It is for people like that that our text
today from 1 Peter 2 was written in part. If you have already taken a stand on
what you believe, try to think back to that time; if you have not yet done so,
hear these words and see if they inspire you to, one day, do what ten young people
have decided to do today: to take a stand. Hear this charge to you, and you,
and you from 1 Peter 2: (paraphrased) “Like very young children, long for the
milk of pure spirituality, that by it you may grow in and understand your
salvation, even as you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. Come to the one
whom others rejected; he is precious in God’s sight; build yourself into a
spiritual house and a holy group of people…. For you are chosen by God and
precious, a holy nation, God’s own people. Declare
the wonderful deeds of Jesus, the one who called you
out of darkness
into his marvelous
light.”

 

Today can be a day of new beginnings, a new lease on
life, not just for ten people, but for tens of hundreds of you! You too can
reclaim, or renew, and restate to the world that your allegiance is with God,
your salvation is from Jesus, and your stand is with your Lord and God. What a day
this could be!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner         May 22,
2011

05-15-11 LIFE ON THE “D” LIST: DEVOTION

LIFE ON THE “D” LIST: DEVOTION

John 10: 1-11

This
year at our annual Scottish service in January, I told the boys and girls the
classic story about a little Scottish Terrier named Bobby, who loved his master
name Jock in Edinburgh, Scotland until Jock died. Then the little dog lay on
the grave of his master until he
died
fourteen
years later.  I said that was an example of devotion.
Devotion can be found be between animals and people, between a person and
another person, between God and us, and between a lover of Jesus and Jesus
himself. Nicholas Sparks is a novelist who can move my heart. In his novel
called THE NOTEBOOK, his story is set in North Carolina in 1946 and Noah
Calhoun is as devoted to Allie Nelson as anyone ever could be, from young age
to old. If you read the book or saw the film perhaps you they moved you too. Sparks
says he modeled the novel on the love he saw in his wife’s parents. It is a
story of devotion. In Pat Conroy’s autobiographical book, THE WATER IS WIDE, he
tells of his being hired to teach exceedingly poor children on
Yamacraw Island off the
South Carolina coast. It was a poor and rundown place where nobody else stayed
to teach very long. His students were between ten and thirteen years old and
had developed a dialect that was almost impossible for him to understand. But
as he stays on the job for the sake of those children, they began to understand
one another, and  his devotion to
them grew and their trust in him grew too. What a story.  Other stories of devotion include Catherine
Marshall’s love for her husband the late Rev. Peter Marshall as she told about
their relationship with him and Peter’s relationship with God in her book: A
MAN CALLED PETER. C.S. Lewis loved a woman named Joy and he was devoted to her;
after her death he met a couple named Sheldon and Jean Vanauken who asked for
Lewis’s Christian guidance in handling the news that Jean, or “Davy” as she was
called,  had a mysterious illness
and was going to die. In his book A SEVERE MERCY, readers are taken on that
journey of that heart-wrenching story. In recent years we know of the human
devotion that Nancy Reagan had for husband “Ronnie.” And just this week as he
was listed in faith condition, we are reminded how the Rev. Billy Graham has
been devoted to the proclamation of the gospel, especially through his Billy
Graham Crusades.  Devotion is
the stuff from which wonder stories are written and ordinary lives are made
wonderful.
But devotion to work, or to a person,  to a calling, to a task, or to a cause can have both it’s
joys and its sorrows. Today let’s look at all that we risk—in both gain and
loss—when we devote ourselves to someone or something else.

I’ve started with love stories today because they
are the most typical when it comes to devotion. But devotion can create times
of conflict as well. Imagine, if you will, an eighteen year old young man who
is a loyal son, a good student, and who is unattached.  He meets a girl about his age; she
starts to be interested in him; he starts to be interested in her. As nature
created them, their interest in each other grows. To the outside world it seems
quite sudden. They seem inseparable; some might even say they have a passion
for each other; some would say their devotions are shifting. What about school?
What about family obligations? Will there be one more chair at a dinner table
or one less? What about plans for college that already seemed so secure? Now
devotion begins to trump plans. Devotion, you see, can bring about decisions to
choose one thing over another. Devotion can make some choose faith over family;
it can make someone chose one person over others.  It can make someone choose work over relationship, or
relationship over work. It can also be a quality that an employer might most
admire and most want to nurture.

Take, for example, the job of a shepherd. In
Biblical times shepherds were not generally an admired lot. They often had
little or no education. Sometimes they were young boys, sometimes men. Their
job was to herd their specific flock of sheep, to see that they were fed, to
keep them from harm, to find them water, and to care for them. Author Phillip
Keller, in his book A SHEPHERD LOOKS AT PSALM 23, lets readers know that sheep
are fickle animals. They have to have their food just right or they won’t eat it.
Still, they will gladly eat poisonous plants if the shepherd doesn’t pull them
out first. That’s how a shepherd prepares the pastureland. “He maketh me to lie
down in green pastures.” They won’t drink water from a running brook because
the water gets up their nose, yet stagnant water easily grows bacteria and
attracts floating bugs. So the shepherd has to dam up a flowing brook long
enough for the skiddish sheep to get a drink. Therefore “he leads them beside
still waters.” They can easily get off of the right path and take the wrong
ones that can lead to cliffs or roadblocks. Therefore the shepherd has to “lead
them in right paths because on his honor he promised the owner to watch over the
sheep and keep them safe.” Sheep in pastureland also find valleys, and they can
be among the most treacherous places since predators can lurk in the darkness.
“Yea though I walk through the valley where other animals often do not come out
alive,” bodes well for sheep if
 they
have a good shepherd. How does he do it? “The rod—a stout stick—sharply
stricking a wolf’s nose can send him running, and the staff—the long slender
stick with the crook on the end—can keep sheep from wandering off into danger.
And in the countryside, biting flies can torment sheep unless the shepherd puts
a fragrant ointment made from flowers and spices, that produce a natural insect
repellent, on the forehead of the sheep. “Thou anointest my head with oil.”

Jesus is called “the Good Shepherd” to his sheep.
I wonder what he meant by that? Of course now you know, don’t you? Just as a
shepherd might back his sheep into a nearby cave, (that the shepherd thoroughly
checks before leading them in) he then lies down at the entrance of the cave
for the night to stand guard over his precious sheep. No one could harm the
sheep, then, except over his dead body. You see, a shepherd will even lay down
his life for his sheep. Sometimes parents, or friends, or buddies in the armed
forces are like that: they will lay down their life to protect a child, a
friend, or a soldier. But in our spiritual lives, all we, like sheep, need a
good shepherd.  One you can see
might be a pastor or Sunday School teacher or parent; but the one we all most
need is Jesus, who called himself the good shepherd for his followers. In the
Old Testament human beings are sometimes described as being like sheep. Some
take offense to that: sheep are either foolish or afraid, and they get into all
sorts of trouble if left on their own. Do you know people who are foolish, or
afraid, or get into trouble? I do. A good shepherd helps sheep be healthy,
safe, and protected, just like a good parent does for a baby. Jesus says to all
of his disciples: “You know what a shepherd does; that’s what I will offer to
do for you; that’s what I am capable of doing for you. I want you to have
adequate food and drink, I want you to be safe, and I with my life I will pay
for your soul.” A shepherd’s devotion to sheep can pull that shepherd away from
his family, from his education, and from other pursuits. It’s a sacrificial
job. Yet when we think of the word “sacrifice,” few Christians begin to think
without picturing the lamb of God, who took away the sin of the world: or the
Good Shepherd who died protecting his flock; or the Savior who died on Calvary.
We know who he is; Jesus is the one with all those names, the one completely
devoted to loving you, and me. Consider today where your ulimate devotions lie.
Family is important; the guy or girl you love is important; country is
important; school is important; life is important. Where can you, or do you,
fit God into your schedule? And if God doesn’t just fit in, but if devotion to
God permeates your other relationships and decisions, you can be open to
life-altering positive changes, instead deal-breaking negative mistakes. To
whom will you ultimately, ulitmately,
 be devoted?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          
May 15, 2011  

05-08-11 LIFE ON THE “D” LIST: DISCIPLESHIP

LIFE ON THE “D” LIST: DISCIPLESHIP

John 21: 1-14

 

In the card shops that you have visited, or the pharmacies, discount houses, or grocery stores, for whom are Mother’s Day cards created? A mother is often thought of as a person who gave birth to you. But when that person lets a child go, for whatever reason, and another woman opens her arms and says “You are my child now,” she becomes a mother. A woman who gives birth to a baby for someone else is called a “Surrogate mother,” with all of blessings and cautions of that relationship. Sometimes a mother becomes incapacitated and an aunt or other special person raises the child.  As Beatle Paul McCartney wrote, “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom: let it be,” he was not talking about Mary the mother of Jesus. He was honoring his own mother Mary, who through the years guided him with words that never left him. He even named his daughter “Mary” for his mother.  His best mate as a teenager was John Lennon, who acted like and loved his dysfunctional but artsy mother, Julia, but was raised by his “auntie” since his own mother could not effectively raise him. His aunt’s name, interestingly, was also Mary, but John called her Auntie Mimi. He talked about her with fondness and gratitude in interviews over the years, but he still found delight in his mother, whom he honored with his song “Julia.” That’s part of the softer side of the famous mop-tops from Liverpool.  So many people have been a mother and wonderful, while others have been a mother and dysfunctional or destructive. Our terms and descriptions can be hard to pin down.

 

Here’s another term: Christian. Is it just something you become because of a baptism and profession of faith? Once the momentous day is over, I wonder what God sees and what God thinks. Certainly God loves you and, as Max Lucado puts it, “if God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it!” So love is never out of the question; but as God watches your life what emotions might go through the Holy Heart: encouragement, disappointment, cheering for you, or hoping you will listen to Heavenly guidance? And when God guides you, sometimes it is through the words of a caring parent, or grandparent, a caring teach or pastor or friend. But some treat a baptism or a confirmation like a commencement, something that gives them a piece of paper that confers a rite or privilege. It gets treated like a holy insurance policy! Is that all Christianity is; your sigh of relief that you are “saved?” There are others who see it as a life changing day: it becomes a time when, to quote a popular declaration of forgiveness:  “the past is finished and gone; everything becomes fresh and new!” Becoming a Christian for those people is leaving behind the old life, and starting a new one. It is a clean break. There are still others who believe that the name Christian carries with it both benefits and responsibilities. Saved? Saved for what: to do what Jesus would do: tell others about God, give to those who have less, break bread in holy fellowship, look for those who are lost. As much as being a Christian can bring joy, some people treat being a Christian like being a bystander, just a spectator near the Jesus Christ stage. It’s a rush; it’s like a Facebook connection. But to get a sense of belonging takes more; it takes study and service, in addition to sacrament. It is what being a disciple is all about. Disciple; discipleship is what churches are seeking to foster and support.  When Methodist Bishop Richard Wilke of Arkansas created his transformational Bible Study in the 1980s, he called it DISCIPLE. We believe in how “DISCIPLE” makes disciples. A disciple is a “learner or a pupil; one who accepts and follows a given doctrine or teacher.” Jesus made his followers—and not just the Twelve—into disciples. He molded them, as we—through preaching and Bible study—seek to still mold disciples. He started by “calling” disciples, and to this day we still “call” people to work and service. Jesus taught with words like this: “The disciple is not above the master,” then he girded himself with a towel and showed them. (Matt. 10:24). Jesus taught by pulling followers away from the world for training and then sending them back into the world for transformation. (Matt. 20: 17). He demonstrated how to pull away from the world with his 40 days in the desert and with his time away each morning, even away from his disciples. Jesus fed his disciples so they could feed others, and also so that he could be a part of them. (Matt 21)  Jesus taught them how to pray (Luke 11:1) and showed them that he prayed too; he taught them how to prioritize (Luke 14: 27) and showed them what he meant; and told he them they would need to sacrifice, then he sacrificed himself. (Mark 8: 34) He also showed them how to love their neighbor as their self (Luke 10: 30). Christian discipleship really is, then, a life of prayer, praise, service, and compassion that a Christian is supposed to take on when he or she says Jesus is their Savior. It’s not just about belonging, is it? It’s about changing. It’s not just about being, is it? It’s about doing. It’s not just about celebrating, is it? It’s about sacrificing. It’s not just about learning, it’s abouttransforming.

 

Bonita Joyner Shields tells this story: “Clarence first attended church on a dare. He promised his pastor friend he would give church a try if the pastor could beat him in two games of checkers. The pastor won, and Clarence found himself in church the next week.  He responded to God’s Word and the love of the congregation, and eventually was baptized, along with his wife and children A few weeks later, Clarence went to his pastor with a troubled heart. He did not know how to live the Christian life. “Before I was baptized,” he said, “If you came to me and told that you wanted to be a football player, I would not have just given you permission to do it, I would have shown you how to be one. I need someone to show me how to be a C
hristian.” Little eyes, teenage eyes, and grown up eyes are watching us. They are looking for a little fish on our bumper and seeing how we drive or gesture in traffic; they hear us say that reading the Bible is important, but do they see us do it?
 They hear that church is important, but do they see us prioritize to do other things on a Sunday? They hear news reports that fight for the visible presence of the Ten Commandments to be a visible presence in nation, and yet one commandment: “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it Holy,” regularly gets trampled in the name of convenience and capitalism. How are we doing as disciples?

 

In John 21 today I was happy to see that there had been a learning curve with the disciples of Jesus’ day. At an earlier time Peter had questioned Jesus’ suggestion about where to fish; his pride got in his way. This time, he cast his net without even a question as John relayed with excitement that the instruction to do so came from Jesus himself!  Jesus spent three years giving them an example of how to hear, and care, and work for justice, and suffer consequences for speaking the truth in love. He then fed his disciples so that they, in turn, could feed others. Jesus had taught discipleship with his life, and with his lips. And that is the best way to do it. What do you say to the man who calls you, who loves you, and who saved you? Will you, his disciple be, this day, and forever?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                    May 8, 2011

05-01-11 LIFE ON THE “D” LIST”: DOUBT

LIFE ON THE “D” LIST”: DOUBT

John 20: 19-31

 

Although we call them conspiracy theorists, or radically minded persons, there are those who do not believe we have yet been to the moon. Convinced that the technology was not developed enough to get someone there from the dream in May of 1961 to a landing in July of 1969, they think the whole moon landing video was filmed on a secret sound stage. Go to the Kennedy Space Center and find evidence and personal testimony to the contrary. There most visitors become believers as they hear the story and see the launch pad started our journey from the earth to the moon. There are also people who do not believe that the Holocaust ever happened. They think that people sympathetic to Jewish persons have made up the whole story of thousands upon thousands of persons in box cars being off loaded into Dachau and other concentration camps where they were said to have been gassed and then burned in great ovens or buried in mass graves. They say that didn’t happen. Ask the Spruce Creek High School Band Students who visited Dachau last summer and see what they believe. When I saw Dachau concentration camp last July during our Oberamergau Passion Play trip, it silenced my heart and chilled my blood. Go to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem or the one in St. Petersburg here in Florida, or the one in Washington D.C. Have such moving and wrenching memorials been continued all these years to perpetuate a hoax?And yet there are still conspiracy theorists who say “yes.” Should we call then extreme doubters? And what should we call people who believe that the moon is made of cheese? Foolish? Ridiculous? Or just extreme believers? With extreme believers we can be in the company of such gullible people that they have lost their ability for discernment. With extreme doubters we have a world filled with skeptics, ones who would even doubt evidence submitted in courts of law, or even doubt the laws of physics. Neither extreme serves the human race very well. How much doubt and how much faith is a good balance?

The very night that the tomb of Jesus was discovered to be empty, Jesus himself appeared to a gathered group of disciples, according to John (who was an eyewitness to it.) John included details to help the skeptic: the doors were all shut, which means no one could enter without them noticing. Still, Jesus appeared to those who were in that place and said to them “Shalom.” He knew first they would be amazed to see him, so he appeared to many of them. Second, he knew they would wonder if he could be real or if he was just an image, so showed them his hands and side. After he was with them awhile, he went away. Thomas was not with them. When he returned the disciples told them they had seen the risen Lord. And he wouldn’t take their word for it. Do we really blame him? Perhaps instead of putting in Thomas’s name, we should put in our own, for aren’t we among those who want to see what is unbelievable with our own eyes too? The power of YouTube attests to the fact that most people want to see something wonderful, strange, or amazing, not just hear a description from another person. We too want to see what others have described. Yet the media also can capture on tape a small gaff, a major embarrassment, or a verbal stumble and let it play over and over so no one will forget when President Ford tripped, President Clinton was impeached, or President Bush mixed up his words.  Poor Thomas has become known as “Doubting Thomas” as the name has gone viral. It now sounds pejorative and negative. Today I wonder if we can elevate doubting to a healthy state of scrutiny, rather than unhealthy conspiracy theory or naïve Pollyanna acceptance.

 

 What do you think of when you hear the word “doubt?” Is a person who doubts a questioner and someone who doubts everything a radical questioner? Or is such a person just low on faith?  Do you see doubt as a virtue or a vice? William Shakespeare saw it as a virtue as he said: “Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.” Could modest doubt be the mind’s discernment on issues as important as our faith?  Could modest doubt be seen as the sharpening tool of faith rather than the cancer that destroys faith? Certainly there are some for whom doubt has been their slippery slope, causing them to slide from the mountaintop of faith—in the Bible, or faith in God, or faith in Heaven—into  the valley of deep doubt where belief gets buried under the avalanche of doubt. Such doubt can be crippling. Perhaps you’ve had crippling doubt at some time, or perhaps you have it today? Do you doubt the resurrection of Jesus or the miracles in the Bible? Do you doubt that accounts written 2000 years ago could have been accurately kept until today? Do you doubt that God exists?  Listen to me as I assign a different word to the sentence instead of doubting:  Do youwonder how Jesus rose from the dead; wonder how the miracles were done; wonder how the Bible could still be accurate; do you wonder about God?  Teachers encourage children to wonder; even Jesus Christ thought we should enter the Kingdom of Heaven as children; was he encouraging wonder? Instead of letting doubt crush you, could let wonder lift you, and could faith carry you?

 

Let us come to the mysteries of the Lord’s Table today, praying for our doubts, thankful for our faith, and encouraging wonder. Thanks be to God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                         May 1, 2011