Monthly Archives: February 2012

02-26-12 WOULD YOU PASS THE TEST

WOULD YOU PASS THE TEST?

Mark 1: 9-15

Churches that believe in the Bible acknowledge that Jesus was tempted; today’s passage from Mark is just one of those passages. But what do churches do about it? How might Christians learn from Jesus? Some churches decide, either by tradition, the feelings of the deacons, or the decision of the pastor to hold a revival. In many revivals there are meetings nightly, generally for a week, with the goal of turning around back sliding Christians or saving the perishing. It whips up excitement and gets many back on the right course with Christ. Liturgical churches, that is, ones who follow a stated order of service, have their Roman Catholic roots to thank for the idea of Lent as a sort or “revival” for the rest of us. The Bible tells us about the passion of Christ, and especially how that week coincided with the Jewish feast of Passover. With a fairly clear idea about on what day Christ was crucified, the early Church Fathers in Western Christianity tried to set Easter on the most correct day they could find. They said that Easter was always to be celebrated on “the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal (or spring) equinox.” Our Orthodox Christian friends pick a different date. Counting back from Easter Sunday for this year, which is April 8, we count 40 days, but we do not count Sundays since the church has said forever that it is right for Christians to remember the resurrection of their Lord on the Lord’s Day. So skipping Sundays, counting back from April 8 forty days (which, as we heard in our Gospel text is the time Jesus spent being tempted in the wilderness), we land on Ash Wednesday. That day was last Wednesday and this is the first Sunday IN Lent, not of Lent, because remember, Sundays are not counted. Liturgical churches often treat Lent as a time of renewal: a renewal of the Christian disciplines. Some pray more, some fasting, some serve others in new ways, and others have renewed studies of the Scriptures. If we were perfect people we might never need the yearly disciplines that Lent suggests, but since many fall away from their well-intended patterns of life, Lent is a time to get back on track. And what do we use as our guide? For one thing, it is our Lord Jesus himself. In three gospels we learn that after Jesus began his ministry by being baptized, he was tested in a wilderness area for forty days—the length of time waters covered the earth in Genesis, and the length of time Moses was with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus. So we begin with Jesus, and we remember the other times when forty days signaled a significant event. Forty is an important number in Judaism and Christianity. Seven is another important number; Isaiah lists the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit, and 7 is the number of perfection and completeness in Revelation, just as it was in Genesis when God made the world. The text from Mark today says that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Texts in Matthew and Luke describe him specifically tempted with power, protection, and food, but this text does not list his temptations. What other temptations might he have had in the desert? Furthermore, what other temptations might our Lord have had in his daily ministry on the earth for three years? Each of us fails, at times, in our attempts to walk the way Jesus walked and do what Jesus would do, don’t we? Jesus fought against sin as we are called to fight against it; sin trips us up throughout the year, and our personal and Sunday morning prayers of confession address that. But now, for forty days plus the Sundays, we will think about living more lovingly, faithfully, and hopefully. We might even remind ourselves of the fruit of the Spirit that Paul described in Galatians 5:22-23. If you have God’s Holy Spirit in your life, you show “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Last week, right as Lent was starting, I failed to exhibit at least three of those! Do you pass the test? Are you showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in all corners of your life? During medieval times, as in Biblical times, people attributed many of their maladies to demons. Some later coined the phrase that faithful people should “name their demons.” So the church, drawing on Scriptural references, decided to name some sins. The list the church came up with is often studied and named during Lent with the idea of making corrections in one’s life. Beyond even Jesus’ forty days of temptation, he had a human lifetime of daily temptations. What are your temptations? What are the things that thwart your following of God? What are actions or attitudes that throw you off the beam of keeping God’s Commandments? The church through the ages has named seven deadly sins. Perhaps these are ones you too need to address over the coming weeks, even as I will seek to address them in my own life. You can write these down if you wish: there will be seven of them, not in any particular order. One sin is gluttony, which occurs when we consume too much either food, or drink, or both. It addresses consuming what our eyes desire beyond what our bodies need. A reaction to gluttony may be abstinence, and some people try that for forty days or longer. But another stand besides gluttony is moderation, and such a stand can keep the sin of gluttony at bay. A second sin is called sloth; even the word sounds descriptive. When we were in Central America for a church cruise last year, we saw a sloth in a tree and were told they sleep for more than 10 hours a day, and sit for the rest of it! Are you a sloth? Well here is where we part company with a sloth: they only come out of their tree once a week for a bathroom break: once a week! So sloth is about being more inactive in a day than your body will allow, and doing less in a day than you are capable of doing; it is dreadful inactivity. The animal with that name has such low metabolism he can do no other. But do you pass the test of not being inactive to the detriment of your body and to those around you? Diligence is considered one of the virtues that can be done in response to sloth. The third sin named today is lust. There is general understanding about lust and several working definitions. Lust is more than admiring another person or another person’s body; it is wishing you had that person, making plans to have the person, or even moving into sexual exploitation or sexism. Looking at a person is one thing; but as Jesus pointed out, looking at a person with lust is committing sin already. Such looks that start as a glance can move into an obsession. Again, lust will move you away from godliness as fast or faster than anything. Letting natural drives go unchecked by appropriate civility leads to a world of anarchy. The traditional correction to lust is chastity, but one can also live within an appropriate relationship that blesses the gift of sexuality, so that love can replace lust. Frederick Buechner one wrote “Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.” It is wanting what may indeed damage or destroy you. The fourth sin to name today is envy. Envy grounds itself in wanting to be someone else instead of the person you are; it is wanting the life your neighbor has instead of working on the life you have; it is narcissistic in that it will drink in the attributes or characteristics of another, denying God and your God-given self. Envy is often described as the “green-eyed monster” a truly unflattering picture of how we look to the world when we wish we were someone else. A correction for it mi
ght be kindness, but it also could be justice and the acceptance of selves and others. Again, although Jesus had the chance to be faced with these sins, so far he did not flinch. But I flinch, and you flinch, don’t you? How are you doing on the sin test? Let’s go on: the next sin is less familiar: avarice. It is the sin of wanting to possess too much; it is the sin of having many more things than you need. Jesus had few possessions of his own and was clear about what God gives: even in the Sermon on the Mount, as he told his listeners to consider the lilies of the field he reminded them that the Heavenly Father knew their needs. His teaching was about having daily bread, not a place to store and hoard it. Avarice is when our homes get too jammed with things we don’t need. It also has been equated, at times, with excessive wealth, but in my study it is about holding onto or hoarding possessions instead of sharing. Even poor people can have the sin of avarice. Sometimes it shows up as hoarding, adding up to fear of the future, which also goes against reassurances from God in the Bible. My brain looks at the things I own, or things I see in a store, and this voice goes off in my head and says “You might need that some day!” So I keep what I have and buy what I see. I too have to work on avarice! Some have called this sin “greed,” but the original meaning of avarice has a broader meaning. Generosity of spirit and action is the balancing action for avarice. There are two final sins on this Lenten list: wrath is the next one. It manifests itself as rageful anger. You might see people in traffic exhibit such anger; you might have a father or a mother who showed such damaging anger when they reached their limit; or you might have seen it in a colleague, a spouse, or a supervisor. Such anger is verbal (or physical) violence and it violates the psyche of the person to whom it is directed. It is debilitating to the recipient and it also harms the one showing such wrath, though at the time they may think they had no other choice, blaming their angry reaction on “a bad temper.” Wrathful anger can and should be controlled and redirected.  Psychologists have demonstrated that people who get that angry are clinically insane. That is a dangerous state and it has no place in the kingdom of God. Certainly some might argue that Jesus showed anger when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Perhaps so; I wasn’t there, but I’ve read about it as you have. If he did, could it have shown the true humanity of our Savior; that even he had to fight against the temptation to sin?

Finally is the sin of pride. Now having pride in your work is not what this sin means. It has been defined in this way: “Pride is the origin and destiny of sin. Pride is manifest in the areas of knowledge, virtue, and power. ‘Pride goeth before a fall’ the saying goes. Those whose opinion of themselves is so great that they look down on others around them have trouble looking up to see God.” [“The Seven Deadly Sins,” Princeton Theological Seminary Committee for the Great Lent, 1979.] However you experience it, it puts you on the throne of your own life, relegating others, along with God, to the outskirts. A healthy dose of humility is a strong corrective that we may discover as we stumble over our own sureness of ourselves.  

Sins come in many forms and are debilitating in our lives. Christ came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. These are the days that we can choose to change from habits that hurt, and devalue, and violate, to ones that lift up, empower, and encourage. Certainly there is much sin in the world, manifested by diabolical regimes and criminals that need strong and protective responses. But our guide will always be Jesus, asking him in prayer, “What would you do?” and then listening for the answer.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                               February 25, 2012

02-19-12 A CLOSE CALL WITH CHRIST

A CLOSE CALL WITH CHRIST

Exodus 33: 18-23; Mark 9: 2-9

One day years ago, well before ATMs, a man was in a strange part of town and somewhat in a rush. He needed to get some money from his bank. He asked for and got verbal directions to the closest branch- one he had never been to before. He followed the advice and, sure enough, there was a bank across the street from the big store he was told to watch for. He rushed in to make his withdrawal from the smiling teller. She took one look at his check and said “Sir, I can’t accept this check.” “Why not?’ he asked. And she said, “This check isn’t from our bank. It’s from the bank across the street!” The man went outside and, sure enough, in his haste he failed to notice he went into the wrong back! His branch was also across from the big store, but on the other side.

People through the ages, because of confusion, or distraction, or focusing on their needs, also may rush to something or someone, perhaps by accident, or even by curiosity, and it ends up being the wrong place. Sometimes the things or places in which we spend our money can actually become destructive and obsessive. When we put our money and investment into something that is destructive, it can suck the life and fortune out of us. Perhaps the tragic end to Whitney Houston’s life is just one example of turning from her Godly roots to being consumed by controlling people or substances. Sometimes such people and habits start to get a person’s undivided attention. And ones or things that get undivided attention can often become a false god. Some people start out just seeking love or comfort; or solace or salvation, only to find that it is not to the true God to whom they have turned, but instead to convenient, visible, substitute god. Like a counterfeit dollar bill, it may look like a dollar, but if it is a copy, a fake, you can be in trouble. Something may get treated like a god but if it is a counterfeit god, we are also in trouble. That which is counterfeit might work for a day or a week, but sooner or later it will sell you out. You can rectify going to the wrong bank, but it is more difficult to recover when you have banked on a fake or addictive god. The gods of our day can be drinks, or drugs; it can be persons with addictive personalities, and it can be food.

Many people today, even well-educated people, know all about the pagan gods of the Greek and Roman cultures. But say to those people that the worship of false gods is alive and well even today and many won’t believe it. Some think it happens in other countries, but it happens right in America as well! They can’t bring the picture of Exodus 32 into focus for today; Exodus 32 is the scene just before the today’s Old Testament lesson; it is the time when Moses has gone up the mountain and is talking to the Lord at great length, and God’s people are at the bottom and growing impatient. They goad Moses’ brother, Aaron, who is with them, into making a god that they can see, made out of what was most valuable to them: their gold. They build an altar and start a fire. They let it burn hot, hot enough to use their tradesmen tools to mold the gold into the shape of a calf. And to God’s great dismay, (the real God who sees everything) they bowed down and worshipped this golden idol, while their true God was making plans for their future blessing and existence with Moses.  The story transfers to this day and time easier than you might imagine. A number of years ago, psychiatrists, social workers, doctors, and clergy gathered at a local hospital for a seminar on the family—the child, the adolescent, and the adult. Through it all, they talked about things that people abuse, especially when they are confused or lonely. Among the items were drugs, alcohol, and food. The most eye-opening piece of information shared was this: the bottle, the needle, the pills, and the refrigerator, after a period of time, became a very dear friend to the abuser: they would do anything for their next drink, or their next pill, or next hit, or their next time to gorge on a favorite snack. It was easy to see how these substances became their friends: each one was there when they wanted it, and none of it rejected them or talked back! So withdrawal from the abuse of these items was like losing a trusted friend. It was a comfort when it was there, and without it, the abuser didn’t know if he or she could make it alone.

Some of these same substances can easily become our golden calf, the substitute god of our world today. People who bow down to them schedule their lives around getting them. Some live for their early morning hit, or their 5 O’clock drink, or their nighttime of incessant eating. Others make money their god. The more devoted one becomes to one of these, the more it becomes a trusted friend, and people work to keep it nearby. Some count the hours in the day until their next addictive action. Such actions become an easy substitute to god because the true God never seems to be around when you want to see him. God seems gone in times of crises; God seems to have forgotten how to perform miracles, and God seems like an unresponsive God of the past, not acting in our world today. Many people want a god they can see and touch and depend on, don’t they? They want God to act on their cue, by their watch. Maybe that describes how you feel about God as well? Even many in the days of Moses and the days of Jesus wanted the same thing! Today’s passages from Scripture point to that. The closer those people got to their Lord, the more they wanted to experience God’s glory and see God’s presence. And today, people who are devoted to God with a daily prayer life, a desire to follow Jesus, and a need to feel his presence want to treat him like a friend to depend on instead of a distant Lord. That can be good! There’s the connection between the need for a friend in Jesus and the need we have for a tangible, dependable God. We sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” but some of other BFFs ahead of Jesus. don’t they? How do we handle our need for dependence on God along with our hope for holy companionship? God promises Holy companionship through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is even in our passage from Exodus today. Moses said to God: “You said bring out my people. But you still haven’t shown me what angel is going to accompany me; to help me. You promised you would go with me, Lord, and if you back out on your promise, I’ll back out on mine! You said I have found favor in your sight. If that’s true, show me your plan, show me what you’re up to so that I can know it and know YOU better. After all we’re both trying to help YOUR people!” The Lord replies to Moses, “My presence WILL go with you; I promised it and I don’t break promises. You should know that! And further more, I’ll bring rest to your weary body and soul if you will wait for my timing.” Moses, feeling like God might have been hedging a bit, could have said to himself “I can’t see this God I am talking with and I am beat. What kind of assurance is this?” Sometimes faith
ful people talk to ourselves just the way that Moses might have talked to himself. Those verses in Exodus 33: 13-17 lead up to today’s text. There God finally says to Moses “You have found favor in my sight and I really know you.” So Moses pushes God further: “All right then, show me your glory. Show yourself to me!” And God, without a moment’s hesitation replies: “I will make all my goodness pass before you. And what’s more, I will even proclaim my name to you once again to try to convince you that what I have told you is true. But I’m sorry you cannot see my face and live, for that which is mortal cannot look directly at that which is holy. Therefore, I will cover my face, but I’ll let just enough light show through and take my hand away a split second before I move away so you will see the light of my glory.”

That’s what God did for Moses to satisfy his burning need to know his God and be close to him. God knows your needs even as the Scripture says “the hairs on your head he knows and has numbered.” “God takes care of even the sparrows” Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount. How much more does he care for you?

In today’s text from Mark’s gospel, God is able to reveal even more of himself through Jesus, fully human, and fully divine. With that vital link provided, Jesus offers his followers the opportunity to see him as close as a good friend and as holy as God himself. In Jesus Christ, we can experience God’s love and glory in ways that would be much less evident without him. God’s glory was particularly evident on that mountaintop, first with Moses, and later with Jesus. Mark 9 says that “Jesus was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” Sounds like the picture of God passing by the rocks before Moses, doesn’t it? The difference is that in Jesus’ face, in Jesus’ garments, and in his presence, the apostles were given a taste of God’s glory; something to keep them going; something for them to remember for the rest of their lives! Even when they felt alone, they would know they were not, because God Almighty had promised to Moses and his followers that he would never leave them. The disciples on that mountain tried to keep the images of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah from leaving them! Then in John’s gospel the disciples were taught that God’s Holy Spirit would stay with them. That same presence is with us today.  The Spirit will actually be with us until the day that Jesus returns IN GLORY. That means even you and I can hope to glimpse God’s glory as well, but on God’s call, not ours. Still, there is evidence of God’s splendor in the witnessing of a rainbow, a double rainbow, the soaring peak of Mount McKinley, and the wonder of the oceans. And you can even experience God in the face of a friend or in the perfectly formed features of a tiny infant.

A man named Guido Reni painted a picture entitled “The Dawn” on the dome of a palace in Rome. But it was so high it was nearly impossible to see from the floor. Finally a solution was reached on how to see the painting. An enlarging mirror was placed on the floor at the level of the people at just the right angle to see the painting, when looking up just kept the painting obscured. Jesus is something like that mirror. Before Jesus came, it was difficult to see God. But with Jesus’ coming into our world, we have been handed, in a manner of speaking, a giant mirror, placed at human level, aimed at the glory of God.

Let us pray:

Dear True and Patient God: please forgive us when we seek to find comfort in easy substitutes that, in truth, have no power to save us, but only to mask their destructive nature with brief times of comfort. Teach us to remember the friend we have in Jesus, and how you will not let us go. In His name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 19, 2012

02-05-12 BRING GOD YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR

BRING GOD YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR

Mark 1: 29-39

Emma Lazarus was a New York poet and a champion of oppressed Jews. She lived from 1849 until 1887, but she is most famous for a sonnet that she wrote called “The New Colossus.” See if you recognize any part of it:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Now you know her work, don’t you? These words are engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty. Does Ellis Island, does that beloved statue, still reflect the standards, the welcome, and the opportunity that oppressed people have sought? There are still oppressed people who find new opportunites as American citizens.  But long ago there was also a Jew who became an advocate for forgetten people who were citizens of his people, and he became an advocate for foreigners as well. This man sought those who were tired: those who were physically tired, and those tired of being a pawns of the Roman Empire. They were tired of their taxes and tired of the way they were  brutally treated. If a father did not have proper funding or product that satisfied the Roman tax collector that arrived at his doorstep, he might just as well take the man’s daughter as partial payment. Those were outrageous times. This Jewish man also sought the poor: the ones who were nearly penniless to the widows with no income. He also called to the huddled masses; in Galilee there were regions where people of certain ethnicities or heritage would huddle; there was the land of the Gadarenes, for example, and the land of the Samaritans. There was the region of Magdala, and the region of Caesarea Philippi.  This man, Yeshua, who we call Jesus, responded to all of them, not on the shores of America, but on the shores of the sea of Galilee. They came to be healed, or to ask for mercy, or to simply have hope because someone spoke to them. Some were physically sick. The sick, the foreigner, they each had their gathering sites;  their own colonies. Some were the lame and they lived on the streets; were lepers and they lived in colonies; others were the blind and they huddled together; and still others were deaf and or mute and they depended on the kindness and help of families. They were seen by Rome as a burdens on the tax roles; even today some may view them as such. They could not work at a trade or craft with the speed of others, so they were considered expendable by King Herod and all the Roman Caesars to whom the Herod answered. Only Jesus, it seemed, and a few observant women who also failed to feel like persons, noticed these fringe people: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. Jesus even saw men who were afflicted with various illnesses that manifested themselves in the first century life demons. Jesus was first a healer of those who were broken; but he also gave hope to the broken hearted, such as the comforting words he said to his dear friend Martha in John 11. Jesus stands ready to speak with you today as well. Are you part of one of those categories? Are you broken physically, broken spiritually, broken emotionally? Or does it seem like your brokenness unique? Some even are glad to have Jesus when they suffer a great loss. In a few minutes we will sing a hymn written by Thomas A. Dorsey, who is not Tommy Dorsey the bandleader, but Thomas Dorsey the African American, and “the most influential figure in the gospel song movement.” [Lindo Jo McKim, PRESBYTERIAN HYMNAL COMPANION, 1993, P.281.] He was native of Georgia, but he later moved to Chicago where he became  the choir director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church for forty years. It doesn’t really matter that the impetus for his song “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand; I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light; take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.” You don’t really need to know that he wrote those words shortly after the death of his beloved wife, do you? No; because his words become your words to your Lord when you lose a job, or hear that your sister is terminally ill or that your brother was critically wounded in battle; they are your words when you lose a job or lose a baby or a spouse; they are your words when your are mugged or robbed. Those are the words of someone temporarily off his or her game; almost bankrupt of hope, just like the forgotten and broken people of the Galilee were treated by Jewish and Roman authorities. “Jesus is the light, he’s the, light of the world, and he’s ever shinin’ in my soul” is a Christian camp song. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” is another. Do you think the sentiment in those song grew out of anything but discouragement  or darkness, or forgottenness, or lostness? Those are songs of the found; found by Jesus, who noticed their pain and darkness, just as he noticed others as he went from village to village. In one village a man was up a tree; in another by the side of the road begging; in another a man begged Jesus to come heal his daughter; and in another a woman was dragged over to him who accused of breaking up a marriage. Jesus might as well have been a flame of hope; a lighthouse of protection; a living example of love and grace. He is that still; today no matter what you baggage, disease, or place in society that comes with you, Jesus sees you; and Jesus loves you. Those who are especially troubled by psychotic, schizophrenic, or neurotic disorders are often labeled as hard to treat. But part of what Jesus offers is love and trustworthiness, two qualities that are the gold standard for kingdom care. Jesus presents those to all broken people. And today he presents them to you. He says: “Let me get to know you,” or he might say “Let me get to know you once again. Invite me to the table in your heart; if you do that, I’ll provide the bread and the cup, and we will raise the cup of love for one another; I will be in you, and you will be in me. Shall we do that?” Jesus asks. “Shall we dine together? I will be the host if you will provide the place; and together, let us enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company.”

Then Jesus took the bread, blessed it, and broke it, and shared it with you; and he took the cup, and called it a New Covenant, raised it up for blessing,  then he offered it to you. He is ready to do that again; today; with you; and with all broken people who seek his love, and his light. His table is prepared … for you.

Jeffrey A. Sumner  &
nbsp;                                                                February 5, 2012