Have you ever known a big talker? You know the type: whatever accomplishment you’ve just enjoyed, theirs was better; whatever operation you just had, theirs was much worse; whatever your summer vacation was like, theirs was even better! But you will notice with big talkers that when it comes time to get something done, they are usually nowhere to be found.
Because words are easy. Simple. It is far easier to say you will do something than to go out and do it. Far easier to claim to be a Christian than to be one. Don’t get me wrong, words are still important. What you say matters. Ask anyone who has heard a kind word on a bad day. Or has gone without praise for too long.
Words do make a difference, but not enough. Words are not enough on their own. 
Soren Kierkegaard created a parable about this. It went something like this:
Suppose a King issued an order to his Kingdom to be obeyed by all. But instead of obeying it the people created Schools to teach people to teach this order to the people. And these new Teachers then went out and held weekly study groups so people could study the King’s order and then they also had weekly Celebrations to sing praises to the King for giving the order. And, in the Universities, those who wrote the most interesting interpretations of the King’s order won prizes and important titles. What if they did all this, but throughout the whole Kingdom, no one actually bothered to obey the order? “How,” Kirkegaard asks, “Do you think the King would react?”
Jesus is making it clear that simply saying that one loves God and wishes to be a part of the Kingdom is not enough. The chief priests and the elders honored the Law and taught it to others over and over again. They followed the Law to the letter. While the tax collectors and prostitutes had turned their backs on the Law and therefore, seen as outside God’s salvation. It was pretty clear cut to the people of the time.

But it was these outcasts who were the ones who saw that God was doing a new thing in Jesus and were changing their ways – repenting of the sin and setting out on a new life that was to lead them into the Kingdom. They went and repented. They went and worked in the garden.

This means that it is never to late to follow Jesus and become a worker in the vineyard. God will embrace the son who turns and chooses in the end, no matter what they have been doing, to become a member of the community. No matter how bad you have been, God’s grace is still available to you. This is a wonderful thing!

Well, for some people. But for others, for those who feel they have led lives of great goodness and uprightness following the law, the very notion is horrifying and frustrating. What do you mean that person who spent so long lying and cheating is saved before I am? It’s not fair. I’m the one who spent all that time in church and studying the law. But, as Jesus points out here, studying the law isn’t the same as following the will of the Father.

It’s about here that you might be asking, what is the will of the Father? Both the priests and Jesus are clear that it is the will of the Father we need to be following. Yet what does that mean?
We’re told as much in our passage from Philippians this morning. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

In other words, love God with your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. That is following the will of the Lord. That is working in your Fathers garden.
These days it seems world turns away from our wordy gospel. The more we talk, the less nonbelievers want to listen. But what always stops those outside of the church in their tracks are those who have learned to move beyond the words. It isn’t just the Gandhis and the Rosa Parkses and the Mother Teresas who remind us all over again what faith and commitment are all about. It’s those medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places like Niger. They’re told that the people they treat are too far gone, that they will soon die from malnutrition. This doesn’t stop them – they do what they can do. It’s the people who take their free time and volunteer it for others, giving as much as they can and then some. That is doing the will of the Father.
Here’s the thing. Neither of the sons in the parable, did everything they were supposed to. The first son was rude and disrespectful to his father. “I won’t.” No excuses. No “I’m sorry I can’t…” but simply, “I won’t.” In short, while he comes across as the typical teenager of today, no father would have stood for such rudeness back then.

The second son at least started off polite and respectful. “Yes sir.” He knew the father deserved his respect and obedience. It was the follow through that he fell apart on. While the second son knew what he should do, he didn’t do it. Perhaps something came up. Maybe there was an emergency that prevented him from getting to the fields. It could have been something as simple as forgetting the task. Who hasn’t forgotten to do something they said they would before?

But when asked, which of these two did the will of the Father, the answer is clear. “The first one.” No matter how many good intentions or good excuses the second son had, it is the first one that in the end, did as the father asked.

And yet, who among us, has not been like that second son? We all know how hard it is to keep the promises we have made. As Elisabeth Elliot has observed, “The problem with living sacrifices is that they keep creeping off the altar.” It is far easier to make the promise, to say the words than it is to follow through.
Life interferes. Things come up. We get busy. Church becomes hard to fit into our schedule, let alone anything more. We know what we should do, but sometimes it’s hard to follow through. The more I read this, the more I think Christians should be nervous about this passage. Why? Because by being a Christian, you’ve already said yes to Christ. Yes to the Father. You didn’t say “I won’t.” You said, “Yes sir. I will do that”
In the September 2008 issue of 
e=”4″>Alive Now, Andrea Woods writes about a parishioner named Mr. Pritchett. Although he doesn’t have much education himself, he is one of the best teachers the young folks have. What he says: “I don’t care where you go to church on Sunday morning or how you sing your songs. What I care about is what you do with Sunday when Monday rolls around.”
They heard him say this, and they saw him live it. He fixed broken windows. He drove sick people to the doctor. When they were unable to take care of something in their daily lives, he would step in to help. He remained even-tempered. He was able to listen to other people’s troubles. The Monday man at work was exactly the same as the Sunday man at worship.
Being a Christian inside the church during the worship service is one thing. Being a Christian in the world during the week confirms that thing.
Unfortunately many of us in the church are like the Chief Priests and Elders; we are guilty of saying yes and living no. We have already said yes to the belief that God is the creator of all things, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” and yet how do we treat that which God has made?
We said yes to the truth that all that we have and all that we are gifts to us from God, we said yes to the idea that we own nothing but simply take care of it on behalf of God and the Kingdom. We all say “Yes, our time, talent and treasure belong to God.”
We agree to all this; and then worry about whether our percentage of giving is to be calculated on our gross or net earnings. Oh did you mean me? Oh, did you mean those poor people? We say yes; but end up living no.
We all said yes, the Gospel calls us to serve the poor and needy of the world, and to the truth that “if we do it for the least of these,” we have done it for Jesus. But when we see the homeless on the street or the sick and impoverished looking for somewhere to turn it is so easy to say no.
I think there is a third option to these two sons. We can say yes, and mean it. We can say yes and then go out into the garden to work. Let our actions match our words. We’ve already spoken up in our lives. By being a Christian, you’ve already told the Father yes. Will you have the courage to follow through?



Matthew 20: 1-16

In her bestselling book THE HELP, at the back of the book, author Kathryn Stockett tells about the person on whom she based her stories: her family maid, Demetrie. “Demetrie used to say picking cotton in Mississippi in the dead of summer is about the worst pastime there is, if you don’t count picking okra, another prickly, low-growing thing. … Demetrie would … shake her finger at us, warning us against [picking cotton] as if a bunch of rich white kids might fall to the evils of cotton-picking, like cigarettes or hard liquor.” [THE HELP, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009, p. 447.] Later in the book, and also depicted in the film, we are reminded of the separate drinking fountains, wash rooms, and dressing rooms for people of color. As Jesus’ parable unfolds today, I wonder if it isn’t so much about workers in a field as it is about workers and human beings in the world. Although THE HELP is a work of fiction, there is truth in the pictures it paints.

Jesus made it clear: what would it be like for someone who expected separate, dirty and poorly maintained facilities to be granted the right to be treated equally? What rejoicing would go on in their heart! But instead of equality, the parable speaks loudly about perceived inequality. How many people get distracted as they compare the work space someone else has; or they compare incomes, or clothes, or cars? The size of an office matters to many; status matters to them as well, and fairness seems to matter to everyone. Would a man who is a law partner making a 6 figure salary be willing to trade places with a cotton picking sharecropper? Would a woman who loves purchasing designer wear be willing to trade seats with the woman who makes the dress in sweat shop conditions, with poor light, no health care, no breaks, and minimum wage pay? Certainly many poor ones would trade places with the people of status in a heartbeat, because the grass looks greener on the other side. But look wealth and status also has its heartaches, as millionaires get confronted by lawsuits, by shootings, by kidnappings, and by the coercion attempts of others in power.

Our recent history tells us that on 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, left Montgomery Fair, the department store where she worked as a seamstress in Montgomery Alabama, and got on the Cleveland Avenue bus as she did every night. As always she sat in the section in the back of the bus as 1955 designated. However, when the bus became full, the driver instructed Rosa to give up her seat to a white man. She was exhausted; she had paid the same fare that others on the bus had paid; and she stayed put. Rosa stayed seated and the police were called to arrest her for not giving up her seat to a white man. Fairness seems to matter to everyone. But justice matters to God.

There is a commercial on television currently with two boys on it and the banker is giving ice cream to the newest boy. The other boy protests that he too is new, and the banker replies, “Yes but he’s newer.” So the tag line says this bank will treat you fairly instead of treating the newest customers better. It is a common sales practice. Customers who are new to some cable or satellite television companies get channels for free that get dropped after a certain time: loyalty seems to drop them from being treated like royalty: how strange. What is wrong with that picture? And then again, by contrast, there are some people in certain country clubs that, by virtue of their tenure or investment, get the best perks, better than others who join later. Again, Jesus has so many similar stories: he watched his own disciples argue one time about who was the greatest; he chose the twelve first, but as he invited others to follow him they were told that they would be first. What did he mean? He had watched people at banquets make a beeline for the best seats in the house, only to be bumped—Rosa Parks style—when someone with more clout or pull came to the banquet as well. I don’t think Jesus’ story just takes place in a field, does it? It takes place everywhere, and it happens when we compare. Indiana poet Max Ehrman wrote the words to what became known as the Desiderata. In it he wisely says: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” It is a warning against judging whether your parents are fair, the world is fair, or if God is fair. Attempts at fairness trip us up everytime. Justice is Jesus’ issue; it is God’s issue, and and so it is one of our issues as well. A child gets toys at Christmas and by the afternoon has called his or her friends to compare gifts. Four children in a household open their stocking and one secretly watches how many pieces of candy her sister has and points out any distribution issues she observes! A teenager compares curfews with her parents, and another compares driving privileges with those his friend gets to have. Sometimes Property Owners inundate the Condo Association with claims that one unit has gotten neglected or gotten unfair treatment over another. Politicians agree to a pork-laden bill if their state too gets a slice of the pork. And even ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have their full salary packages published for all ministers and elders to see and to compare. Hasn’t the church learned how envy or jealousy can drive God’s Holy Spirit from our souls; why do they pubish such things? This parable isn’t just about paying fairly or graciously after a hard day of back-breaking work! It is about our sideward glances at what someone else has gotten; about our comparisons that let Satan himself enter our hearts: the times when the devil is on one shoulder and an angel is on the other.

So today’s parable is not just about a field and workers; it is about Israel in the first century and about people in this century who believe they are entitled to more because they have belonged the longest. What does the parable say about justice and fairness, that betrays our human and emotional underbellies, which can be green with envy or blue with sadness? If Google Earth- that eye in the sky that can zoom in even to the street where you live- if it could follow children at school, business persons in hallways, tradesmen and women on job sites, and politicians in Washington, the camera’s eye would catch some of the actions and attitudes that are like those men in this parable: our human condition entices us to look at what another has, or is wearing, or is paid. And then what happens? Do we cry out to God “No fair! Why does my child have cancer and that person’s child does not? Or “How is it that I&n
have spent years in the ministry and that new pastor has a starting salary higher than anyone in the area?” Or “Why is it that a church ministers to a person for 30 years or more and yet a Hospice organization, that gave tender loving care for two weeks, gets chosen as the place to send rememberances?” Or “It doesn’t feel right that I spent much of my life building up that fine program, and in a year that new person has torn it down!” Or “Why is it that I have given and given to my daughter all her life, and now, in my hour of need, she says she can’t be here for me?” The list can be filled in with whatever wound has left its mark in your heart.

What is the inequity in your life? Whatever it is, remember the words that have been said forever: life isn’t fair. There are few guarantees that promise what you put into something, or particulary in someone, will be returned tenfold or even one fold. The better question is “Where is there injustice?” Injustice matters to God; it mattered to Jesus; and working to right injustice is the work of Christians and other people of faith. These are our marching orders; what God does out of grace, or what you do out of grace, is a gift; you don’t owe a rationale to any prying eyes or questioning kids unless you choose to give it. The landowner said “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” What is left unknown? Did the landowner, perhaps, have a prior relationship with some of the workers in the parable? Or did he get a report that the last workers worked at double-time speed and the first ones like snails? We don’t know the circumstances; we just grouse at the results.  You decide who you will help and who you won’t; make your decision with choices that are honorable and not selfish. Then Christ himself will not write a parable about you; instead he will whisper in your ear: “Well done.” May it be so with you.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 18, 2011


Matthew 18: 21-35
Vaughn Allex remembers this day 10 years ago with a shudder. “Something was taken away from me on that day” he said recently. I’ve never since gone out on a cloudless beautiful day and not said: ‘The sky is September 11th blue.’ That was taken away from me.” Vaughn was one of the traffic controllers who thought fruitlessly about what he could do on September 11th, 2001 to save passengers and re-direct planes. On that day, 19 young followers of a cowardly leader who stayed safely out of sight, wrongly taught them by twisting the tenets of Islam that they would become martyrs instead of just murderers. We see what their leader was made of since he got gullible young men to do his suicide missions. On that fateful day they hijacked our nation just armed with box cutters. There were countless numbers of people doing their jobs arm in arm who saved others on that day, and we will never forget them: including all the firefighters in New York, Washington D.C., and in Pennsylvania; people like Port Authority officials Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz who saved dozens of people in their tower but lost their own lives; and ones like Lt. Col Tim Duffy, called to patrol New York skies in an F-15 Eagle, but only arriving after American Flight 11 had hit the north tower and United Flight 175 had hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. In just those two tower disasters, 2,976 children lost a parent; while 2,752 people perished, blue collar and white collar, people of all ethnicities, and of all faiths, including 60 Muslims. One girl whose family attended a Mosque in New York before and after the attacks said recently through tears, “Those men were not even real Muslims. They showed so much hatred, but we share a love for and a devotion to God with others. I am remembering in my prayers all those who lost loved ones that day.” On that very same 9/11 morning, 5,600 commercial aircraft were in the air. As the situation became critical, the National Operations Chief of the FAA, Ben Sliney, was on his very first day on the job. He made the call that ordered every plane to the ground. The ones that did not land became targets of great national interest. Two of the planes that did not land were American Flight 77 that was being steered toward Washington D.C. It flew into the Pentagon, killing 125 persons. The other plane had people on board who had enough time to notify loved ones, and from those conversations, they learned that their hijackers most likely had a national target in mind for their plane too. But their plane had resourceful people like Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett, Mark Bingham, Lou Nacke, and flight attendants such as Sandy Bradshaw, who filled coffee pots with boiling water to use as weapons and Cee Cee Ross-Niles, a former police officer. Their sacrificial move to subdue their hijackers kept that plane from continuing on toward Washington, instead plunging it 50 feet into the earth of a deserted field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. [Source: LET’S ROLL! Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage, Lisa Beamer, Tyndale House, 2002, pp, 213+]
Sixty years earlier, December 7th, 1941 also became a date that will live in infamy, when the Empire of Japan deliberately attacked the United States of America with a surprise air raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In that other unexpected attack on our country, 18 battleships were either sunk or severely damaged and 3,700 persons lost their lives. Both that attack and the 9/11 attack had casualties greater than 3,000 souls, with the Pearl Harbor attack drawing America into the Second World War, and the 9/11 attack drawing America into a War on Terror that spanned Iraq and Afghanistan, one that continues to this day. As America brought its forces to bear on Japan in 1941, and as our country defended itself again ten years ago, the entire nation became part of a war effort with changed civilian lives and the sacrifices of men and women in service to country. 9/11 had another army that fought until the finish: the Fire Departments and Police Departments of New York, Washington D.C., Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding communities. As fire fighters and police officers sought to do their jobs amidst incalculable destruction, people called them heroes, and they have all been immortalized. And so it should be. Now the Pentagon has been rebuilt and strengthened and a memorial site is being dedicated today in Shanksville Pennsylvania. It took our country 60 years to erect a World War II Memorial in our nation’s capital, but in New York City, jthe architects, planners, tradesmen, and city managers have worked to get 1000 feet of Tower 1 WTC ready by today, the first of 5 planned reinforced towers to be created in a spiral pattern that will surround the site with descending and ascending towers. The workers were charged with the Herculean task of getting a floor completed each week in 2011, and they banded together in an exhausting effort to see a Phoenix rise from the ashes of terror today. New York is leading the drive to take back our power from a handful of hate-filled thugs. It is a sight to behold. And when Tower One, originally to be called “Freedom Tower” is completed, it will 1776 feet tall. Tower One the tallest of the new planned towers, will significantly be 1776 feet. As the words on our bulletin cover say in a prayer to God: “Teach us to build, O Master lend us sight, to see the towers gleaming in the light.”
So structures and memorials are being erected; but what about the human soul; how are we doing in building, or rebuilding, the damage done there? Some have sought to learn about other people’s faith in an informed instead of a suspicious manner. Faith Clubs have sprung up around the nation spurred on by the honest dialogue and friendship built by a Muslim, Ranya Idliby, a Christian- Suzanne Oliver, and a Jew- Pricilla Warner: authors of the book, THE FAITH CLUB. I myself have gotten to establish a relationship with Rabbi Amy Mayer, our neighbor about 5 miles north of us at Temple Israel, who will be our speaker in our February Women’s Gathering. In addition, I have visited a Mosque, a Jewish Synagogue, A Buddhist meeting house, and a Hindu Temple. I don’t agree with all that they believe, but I was greeted warmly and welcomed; would that all of us, in the name of Jesus, do the same. But nursed by grudges, suspicions, and images in the media played over and over, consuming hatred continue to burn bridges, at times, instead of build them. What can we do to break the cycle of aggression and retaliation that has been around since time began? Surely it broke God’s heart, or gave God pause, to see Cain slay his brother Abel, recorded in Genesis 4. Verse 18 in that chapter describes 5 generations who were born from Cain and his wife. By the 5th generation according Genesis 4:19, Lamech had two wives. The locomotive of redemptive actions didn’t just run off the rails, it never got started down the right track! Look at what that demented man taught his wives: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain avenged sevenfold, truly I will avenge seventy-seven fold.” I wonder what terror Lamech caused in his day. This is a Bible character, and yet despicable, learning nothing of redemption and forgiveness to the fourth or fifth generation.
At long last God came to earth in the body, mind, and soul of Jesus Christ. He knew how the world was, and he needed to give an example of how to break the chain of generational aggression that had hit and hurt people instead of healing and bonding them. In his world there were absentee wealthy landowners, on site and modestly wealthy land managers, and slaves to work the fields. Jesus knew the tensions that arise from “haves” getting richer and “have-nots” getting poorer. We know that scenario today, don’t we? Anger grows, tensions rise, and cool heads are harder to find. In just this l
ast weekend 67 people were wounded by gunfire in 52 separate shootings in New York City in spite of the progress at Ground Zero.[ NBC Evening News, Wednesday September 6th] So we look now at the New Testament. In Galilee, Peter, a tradesman, asks this question not about terrorists, but about other Christian believers: “If another church member sins against me, how often should I forgive them: seven times?” And perhaps thinking he would be praised for forgiving so much, he must have been disheartened to hear Jesus’ reply and his parable: “seventy-times seven” Jesus said. Could he have been trying to be radical in the opposite way; to counter the terrorist platform of “an eye-for and eye” or more drastically the “I will destroy your city because you hurt my brother” kind of mentality? Was Jesus trying to superimpose a new “normal” over the dreadful teaching Lamech taught his wives in Genesis 4? Jesus tells a parable about a king. The people in that day would not have thought “King Arthur,” they would have thought “King Herod,” with the power, fear, and paranoia that his name had commanded. Kings were generally not forgiving or generous in the first century. In the parable, then, a slave was brought to the king; he owed the king/ 10 thousand talents; such a number would be greater than what most of us could make in 30 lifetimes; it is an exaggeration, a device used for dramatic comparison. The ancient Historian Josephus said the sum would be equivalent to the amount of taxes Rome would receive from Judea in a decade. [Josephus, Antiquities, 14.78] The slave could not possibly ever repay the king. He threw himself at the foot of the king and begged for mercy; in a transformation from monstrous monarch to merciful monarch, the king forgives his debt! This gift cannot be overstated: an impossibly huge debt is forgiven by a king. If the King were Jesus, can you hear him say to the servant, “Go and do likewise.” One might expect the servant to do just that, to start a new action in place of the expected and ancient actions. One would think that such a great gift might create gratitude and forgiveness in the slave toward others, thereby jamming the gears of society’s grizzly sense of retribution. But does it? We see, to our alarm, that the forgiven man has not been changed one iota from the king’s actions. He throttles the throat of the servant who owes him a fraction of what he has just been forgiven. Instead of taking his servant, forgiving him, and inviting him to a party, he chokes him. What is wrong with this picture? Haven’t the worst attacks in our cities, our world, and in our lives happened out of rageful retaliation, or cold calculating desire to take a pound of flesh out of the one who caused an ounce of pain? Jesus is a great teacher; he not only says, “Do what I say,” he also gives an example so people can “do what he does.” Still men later condemn him unjustly; they trump up charges against him; they torture him, they rip at his flesh; and they cause him humiliation and immeasurable pain. Could he have seen that instead of taking the well-worn path of retaliation, that he could purposefully choose the way of life, the way of God, and “the road less traveled”, instead of the “way of Cain”? The cross was the ultimate day in his life when his actions matched his words. He went to the cross for things he did not do. And before he breathed his last, he said words that have been quoted by generations of people: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Forgiveness; could it be the one thing that can break the barbaric and retaliatory cycle of aggression; could Jesus’ actions have been the original paradigm shift, signaling a way of life and love away from one of death and destruction? Jake DeShazer must have thought so. “After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II, Corporal Jacob DeShazer became a man bent on revenge. As a bombardier in the Army Air Corp, he volunteered for a top secret mission and flew with the legendary Doolittle Raiders in their surprise attack on Japan. After successfully bombing their targets, the Raiders were forced to bail out over occupied China. Jake and seven other airmen were captured by the Japanese and imprisoned. He survived nearly 3 ½ years as a POW, enduring torture, starvation, and solitary confinement.” He seethed with a desire for revenge; his anger drove him to desire the way of Cain rather than the way of Christ. But then, when his captors delivered some books to the prisoners one day, he found that one, perhaps mistakenly, was a Bible. Jake began a personal relationship with God, and his life was never the same.” [Day of Discovery DVD, FROM VENGEANCE TO FORGIVENESS, program 2] The man who was tortured by the Japanese came to know Jesus Christ—the man who was tortured on a cross—and the way Jesus handled his torture change this Corporal’s heart, and changed his actions. After he became a Christian, he signed up to become a missionary to not only take the Christian message just anywhere, but mainly to Japan. His personal mission was to go face his captors and say that, in the strong name of Jesus Christ, he forgave them. Jake chose to break the cycle of aggression that was started by a barbarian named Cain.
In Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable non-fiction bestseller called UNBROKEN, she describes the extraordinary true story of Lou Zamperini, an American Olympic champion who served his country in World War II as he flew in the war against Japan; a man whose plane was shot down who, together with two other men, survived more than a month on a raft at sea, and then there were but two. Thinking they were on the cusp of being rescued they, instead, had the cruel joke played on them that emaciated nearly dead men were captured and became prisoners of war. No matter what nature or the enemy threw Louie’s way, he remained “unbroken.” He would not let any of them take his spirit, or his life. The treatment he received at the hands of nature and enemies was almost too hard to read. But when he, by his indomitable spirit and the defeat of Japan, got to come home, he had to rebuild his weakened body. He had thoughts of anger and revenge. But then he went to hear a Billy Graham Crusade, and the message of Jesus Christ also gave him the direction to break the cycle of aggression. It was hard to believe he sought to return to a defeated Japan to try to find the tyrannical Japanese officer whose mission seemed to be to demean and beat him until he died, and to tell him he forgave him. Jesus’ action on the cross again broke the cycle of aggression in a man’s heart.
In the book in our church library, LET’S ROLL, the story of Todd Beamer and the hijacked United flight 93, his wife Lisa said this: “Although I’d never before heard of Todd reciting the Lord’s Prayer in pressure situations, I wasn’t surprised to hear he had quoted it…. Part of the prayer that intrigued Todd was the line in which Jesus taught us to ask God to forgive our trespasses, or sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Said co-author Ken Abraham, “When Lisa told me Todd had prayed that particular prayer, I felt certain that, in some way, Todd was forgiving the terrorists for what they were doing. Following the prayer, 911 operator Lisa Jefferson, who was on the line with Beamer, said that Todd recited the 23rd Psalm [and that] other[s] apparently joined with him….[911 operator ‘After that,’ Lisa Jefferson recalled, “He had a sigh in his voice, and he took a deep breath….’ ‘Are you ready?’ He said to the others. ‘Okay. Let’s roll!’” [p. 213-214] Had Jesus also transformed Todd Beamer, doing what he had to do to save others even as he forgave perpetrators? Here was a man with a wife and children and everything to lose, yet his prayer showed him protecting others as he followed Christ.
Jake DeShazer, Louie Zamperini, and Todd Beamer were just three people who decided to
act differently toward others because of their relationship with Christ. Now it is your turn. You can leave this place with your cherished prejudices, or ground-out grudges, and with the fire in your heart and the tension in your guts for your enemy, whoever that may be. You can pop antacids, or have chest pains fueled by your rage or desire for revenge. Or you too can be part of the legacy of the cross from 30 A.D; Jesus’ parable reminds us that a gracious king has forgiven us; will we now throttle those who have sinned against us? We have considered the way of Cain; will you, instead, consider the way of Christ? Jesus just had a handful of followers step forward to become martyrs in his lifetime; but the list grew over the ages, and the power of his message changed people in the 20th century and now even in the 21st century. Will you not only call him Lord, will you do more? Will you let him change the way you think, and also change the way you act? Today is our day, and our time, on this anniversary, to at least consider forgiveness.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 11, 2011




Matthew 18:

before some football teams had players dropping from exhaustion, and
some of them tragically dying, there were the Titans, a real team
depicted in the film “Remember the Titans.” After being an
exceedingly popular coach for fifteen winning seasons, coach Bill
Yoast (portrayed by Will Patton) was demoted and replaced by a new
coach, Herman Boone, (portrayed by Denzel Washington). The racially
tense mixture of players balked at a coach of a different color to
lead the team. His harsh and sometimes unorthodox method of building
his team created friction so tensions and tempers rose. But slowly
and deliberately he built relationships where before there had been
suspicion and innuendo. As football season started up around the
country yesterday, this film is worth watching again. In one scene,
as the players boarded the team bus for the first time, Coach Boone
noticed that they sat with the black players on one side, and the
white ones on the other. This story was occurring in 1971, mind you,
not 1871. He blew his whistle and called for everybody to get off the
bus. He then had the offense re-board and sit on one side, and the
defense re-board and sit on the other. Not only were they to get to
know their teammates, they had to report back on what they learned,
and the man they sat next to became their new roommate. After their
football practices were over the first game was held on September
th- today’s
date! With the school that became racially integrated over the
summer with forced bussing, the first day of school arrived with
shouting parents, picket signs, and students clearly disturbed. The
progress in race relations that Coach Boone had produced in football
practices seemed to slip back ten steps on that first day. But he
stayed the course, and he transformed not only a team, but also a
community. We hear some harsh stories about football, but there are
also inspiring stories, and there are transformed people and teams.
Thanks be to God for them.

can create communities that sometimes work well and sometimes they
don’t. What is most important is the combination of qualities and
lessons that a coach puts into practice. But there is another place
where mixtures of ingredients matter: in a kitchen. I remember times
when I was a young boy watching my mother or my grandmothers follow a
recipe to make a cake or to make a new meal. Sometimes they would
follow a recipe exactly; at other times they would change it just a
bit and tell me why. Recipes are tried and true ways to produce a
delectable dinner or dessert.

the recipe book, or by contrast the play book, for Christian living
is the Bible. Usually we hear about three predictable ingredients for
Christian living: a pinch of faith, a dash of hope, and a full cup of
love! Today we will deviate a bit from those regular Christian
ingredients. Today we get to hear a recipe from Jesus that is a
playbook for dealing with conflict. The ways we handle conflict
affect adults and teens, and they certainly affects children one way
or another. When faced with conflict, our choices cause ripples that
lead either to peace and harmony; or they lead to heightened tensions
and anger. Those kinds of choices occur in our churches, in our
schools, on our teams, in our clubs, and across our globe. Jesus
gives us a recipe for handling conflict from this passage and from
his ministry.

first ingredient, or point in the playbook, is conversation
Notice it is not a theological word; it is an action word that brings
communication! How easy it is to demonize someone of another race, or
creed or nationality if you have never met him or her! How easy it is
to fall into the pit of innuendo or implication without ever meeting
the other person. When I became the pastor of my first church in
Arkansas, my secretary had never been outside of the state and she
was in her 50s! After we got to know each other, she said she was
actually in her 30s before she met a Yankee, and when she learned
that I was coming from Princeton she had some terrifying pictures of
what I’d be like! Her mother had taught her that Yankees were no
good and could not be trusted! Young Marie pictured Yankees as
devil-like characters. But in our four years together Marie and I
grew to respect and deeply care about each other. She corresponded
with each me until the year she died. All it took was meeting one
another to dispel wrong information.

negative depictions of others happen in schools way too much.
Stereotypes are used, and even exploited, to create the characters on
shows like “Glee.” Sometimes there is nothing new under the sun,
because I remember those groups when I was in school too, don’t
you? There were jocks, nerds, bullies, geeks, and others in my school
experiences as well. But how many students are hurt by the words of
others? Have we made any progress over the years? Following Jesus’
playbook from today’s text is a good template for progress.
Creating the setting for a conversation instead of a confrontation is
something Christian students, administrators, and teachers can do.
Jesus says in Matthew 18: 15 to talk with those who hurt you or sin
against you. It is a necessary first ingredient.

next ingredient is to see if your issue can be reconciled.
Reconciliation is at the heart of
Christianity as Paul puts it in Second Corinthians 5. Reconciliation
is at the heart of the Presbyterian Confession of 1967, rightly
naming some issues that divided America in the 60s, namely race
issues and war. Reconciliation is helping differing parties to
understand each other, and in some cases, even to forgive the other.
We will consider forgiveness more next week, but for this week,
suffice it to say that to withhold forgiveness from someone most
often takes tremendous energy, enhances stress, and pulls your focus
away from those you love to the one you haven’t forgiven. But,
according to Jesus, there are certainly times when people still won’t
listen when you try to forgive them, and still won’t admit their
sin when you try to confront them with it. Jesus then takes the next
step to keep us from getting into “he said she said” situations:
he says to take one or two others to be witnesses or to be mediators.
Follow his playbook, some situations that seemed intractable may get
reconciled or at least make progress. That’s the goal: to
reconcile, or to reconnect, or at least to agree to disagree. Jesus’
playbook can go a long way in our world.

next ingredient, or point in the playbook, if agreement isn’t
reached, is to scrape.
In Matthew 10, Mark 6,
and even Luke 9, Jesus instructs his disciples, when they run into
people in a town who resist them or refuse to listen, to “shake the
dust off their feet” and move on. It’s good advice; but just so
you know, the word usually translated “shake” has a more powerful
interpretation: “scrape.” If you have to “scrape the dirt from
your feet” you get the picture. Sometimes we have to leave people
with closed minds or hating hearts outside our circle of influence.
Even Jesus describes it. We are to be leaven to the world, but in
some specific instances, seeds indeed fall on the rocky soil of a
person’s stubborn will.

if we were mixing ingredients for a cake, the last step is to bake.

If we are using a football playbook, the last step is to execute the
play. Leave any retaliation to the great Judge of the world who
watches it all according to Matthew 18: 18 “Whatever you bind on
earth with be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, will
be loosed in heaven.” Now it is time to let the good ingredients
that we choose to add—to our relationships, to our team, to our
church, or to our family—start to change the terms of engagement
and thus outcomes of our interaction with others. Most of the time we
think of salvation by using symbols like the cross of Christ and the
Son of God. But maybe salvation is best understood by looking at the
table; the table where ingredients are prepared to be shared; at the
table, where people come together not because they are whole, but
because they are broken; at the table where a host calls all to
gather, not to be a team as much as to be the Church: The table,
where we are invited to remember, and to look toward the future, and
even to include those classic ingredients: faith, hope, and love. If
your soul is ready, the table is here for you.

A. Sumner September 4, 2011