The Good Shepherd. That’s such a classic image, isn’t it? We have the Good shepherd in our lives. And because Jesus is the good shepherd we know that he would lay down his life for us. That he HAS laid down his life for us. Jesus will care for all of our hurts, all of our troubles, because he is a good shepherd, not just a hired hand.

After all, the sheep are not simply the Shepherd’s livelihood or responsibility. They are “his own”—like his own flesh and blood. “I know my own and my own know me.” Unlike the corporate CEO, who sees the flock in terms of profits and expenses, the Shepherd cares deeply for the sheep. They are worth his life to him. We are not just a responsibility to Christ. We are his. While this is not the promise of a pain-free life, it is a powerful assurance that we count. We are not alone. Amid so much that is impersonal and profit-driven in the world, we have a God who sees, notices, and cares. God is with us. God will not turn from us.

We know that God loved us because of what Christ has done for us. God’s love came to us before we had done anything to deserve it. This is joyous, wonderful news. Knowing that no matter how far we stray, Christ will come looking for us. No matter what trouble we get into, Jesus will be there for us through it. We should rejoice and find comfort in it. We don’t need to do anything to gain God’s love, because God already loves us!

Now, by calling ourselves Christians we agree to follow Christ. Do do as he did. How can we claim genuine faith without authenticating action, asks John in the first lesson? Words lead to deeds: “This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” We cannot believe in Jesus without believing in love, and we cannot have love without action. Because God loved us, we are supposed to help those in need. Because God loved us. Not in order to get God to love us. That’s already happened, remember.

So we too are called to live lives of love and caring that stand in contradiction to all that debases and diminishes human life. We are, after all, not “our own” we are Christ’s.We are called to live as Christ in the world. We are not only sheep; we are also called to act as the risen Shepherd in the world. Jesus makes it clear as he draws near the cross that his motivation is love. He is choosing to make this sacrifice. He is choosing to be faithful to what God has put before him.

In the first letter of John we are challenged to love in that same manner. If he loved us enough to lay down his life for us, we should be willing to lay down our life for each other. But that sounds crazy in actual practice… doesn’t it? There is a tale that in the first century a man came to Tertullian, a father in the early church. And in trying to justify some compromises the man had felt he had to make, commented, “I have to live, don’t I?” to which Tertullian is reported to have said, “Do you?” The challenge is to focus away from self and to others, to ask where our real values are: Is what matters only survival? Or does the way we live matter more? Are there some things worth giving up our lives for? Can we love one another that much?

Jesus says yes. And turns, giving up his life for all of us. The shepherd laying down his life for the sheep, proving that we are truly his own. Alright, so we know that we have love by laying down our lives for another. But honestly… how often do we come across the situation where we lay down our lives for one another these days? Sure, we hear stories in the news of people who run into burning buildings or jump after drowning victims or foil robberies, but those aren’t the norm.  Most of the time, that just isn’t what we are asked to do. Most of us will never be in a position to do such things.

However, the call to risk, to sacrifice, is more than with just our deaths. We can sacrifice not only with our life but with the years and days that make up our lives. Have you ever seen the famous drawing called The Praying Hands by German artist Albrecht Durer? There is a legend behind the painting that tells of two struggling artists. One is a musician whose goal in life was to play and compose music to the glory of God. Durer, the other of the two, was a painter and engraver. They had flipped a coin to decide who would go on to become an artist and who would work in the goldmines to support them financially. Albrecht won the coin toss, and so he went on to Italy to work on his art, while his anonymous friend or brother worked in the mines. One day when Albrecht came back to his hometown he saw the gnarled, work-ruined hands of the man, too hardened to return to his career in music. The legend is that those hands have become the model for the famous praying hands. Whether or not the story is true, it is an example of the love John talks about here. The actions of a good shepherd. Laying down one’s life is not always a matter of life or death, but at a time of postponing or canceling dreams and plans so that another might fulfill their dreams or plans.

We are called to such stories. And perhaps a bit intimidated by them. We aren’t sure if we are capable of such dramatic sacrifices.  But these sacrifices exist on the small scale too. Every day there are small quiet sacrifices of love.  A teacher takes money out of his or her own pocket to buy teaching resources that enhance her students’ learning.  A neighbor delivers a casserole to a sick friend.  A politician takes an unpopular and principled stand to see that benefits to the poor are not cut, even if it costs him or her votes.  Maybe it’s as simple as taking time from a busy schedule to listen, maybe even give a hug, to someone who is feeling down and unlovely or unlovable.

Dave Simmons tells a story about his eight year old daughter making such a sacrifice. He came upon a petting zoo while out with her and her younger brother. Thinking to give them a chance to play while he shopped, he gave them each a quarter and headed off. He relates what happens next. “A few minutes later, I turned around and saw Helen walking along behind me. I was shocked to see she preferred the hardware department to the petting zoo. Recognizing my error, I bent down and asked her what was wrong.

She looked up at me with those giant limpid brown eyes and said sadly, ‘Well, Daddy, it cost fifty cents. So, I gave Brandon my quarter.’ Then she said the most beautiful thing I ever heard. She repeated the family motto. The family motto is  ‘Love is Action!’

She had given Brandon her quarter, and no one loves cuddly furry creatures more than Helen. She had watched Sandy take my steak and say, ‘Love is Action!’ She had watched both of us do and say ‘Love is Action!’ for years around the house and Kings Arrow Ranch. She had heard and seen ‘Love is Action,’ and now she had incorporated it into her little lifestyle. It had become part of her.”

Even small sacrifices reveal immense love and caring. While they do not cost us our lives, they reveal the true depths of the love Jesus calls us towards.

Yes, but.. what about people we don’t like? What about those we don’t want to love? Surely Jesus didn’t want us to love them too..  Well, Frederick Buechner once said that  “[Jesus] is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus’ terms we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them . . . This does not mean that liking may not be a part of loving, only that it does not have to be. Sometimes liking follows on the heels of loving. It is hard to work for people’s well-being very long without coming in the end to rather like them too.” We still make the sacrifices even when there isn’t like, because Jesus
calls us to love.

That’s the kind of love to which we are called. Love that isn’t just for the good or the kind, but love for the saint and sinner alike. The mean and the caring. Jesus life, death, and resurrection have had many levels of theological interpretation wrapped around them over the years. All deep, logically developed, formulations aside, the simplest interpretation is that he came to show us what love is, and the power of love, seen in acts of self-giving, sometimes heroic and extreme, sometimes quiet and every day. And all of them for those who don’t deserve the immensity of such love. Jesus, the Logos, the Word of God, translated God’s speeches of love and grace into incarnate action, and he calls us now to do the same. It is never easy, but it always brings life. He is the Good shepherd and we are to follow him.

How will you show your love in truth and action?



Acts 3:1-10

Perhaps you heard about the passengers on the cruise ship the Star Princess who spotted a small fishing boat waving to their ship for help. The cruise passengers were using binoculars and spotted them and they did the right thing: they quickly reported their find to a crew member, expecting the ship to respond. But the ship sailed on out of sight of the boat. One of the woman who spotted the boat even sent an email to the Coast Guard, or at least she thought she did, but apparently they did not get contacted either. Later the three survivors in the small boat, trying to cling to life, became just two, and finally just one who was finally rescued by the Ecuadorian Navy two weeks later. Two people died because a chain of command or communications failed to get the news to either the captain or the officer of the watch. At sea for centuries, the law, written or unwritten, has always been to help others in distress. On land it can be a different story.  Circumstances often dictate which actions are appropriate. For example: some people who are alone may stop to help an apparently wounded man and get carjacked or kidnapped. Some willing swimmer might try to help a drowning man or woman and find himself dragged under the water by the desperate swimmer. There are even neighborhoods in America when neighbors might even witness a shooting and not come forward for fear of being the next victim.  In fact good counseling has taught me how to appropriately care, with something called “self-differentiation,” that is caring, but knowing how to care appropriately instead of exhaustively. Let me describe it: when my children were young and we lived in Arkansas, I was the President of our local Ministerial Association. In that capacity I met strangers at truck stops to give them aid, or drove them to get food, or had them in my office with a stream of sad stories.  I was a new young pastor trying to do what I thought Jesus would do: help everybody.  Well two things happened: first, Mary Ann put her foot down about me going and meeting strangers late at night saying she did not want to end up being a widow; and second, I learned that word gets around like a burning wildfire once you try to help everybody. Soon every person who feels needy shows up.  Still the opposite of caring too much, that is, not helping at all, has made our society much colder. Some may chat on Facebook or on cellphones, but our car windows are often rolled up at stoplights so we can’t speak to others. On buses or on sidewalks, and in airports or on airplanes, people of all ages have earphones in so that communication is difficult. Many people just try to keep to themselves, sometimes out of fear. Today we are going to look at the customs and responses of two Christian followers in the first century to learn how they helped others.

First some background: in John chapter 5 there is a record of a man who wanted to get into the pool of Bethesda but couldn’t; he would have needed help to get into the naturally bubbling pool that was not unlike a spa. Going into such a pool might have aided the invalid’s pain or mobility. But no one lifted him into the pool. Some believed in that day that healing would only happen for the first person in the pool, so once the first man entered the pool, other crestfallen invalids just gave up. It would have created some tension, it seems to me, and some quarreling each day among those who lay beside the pool day and night. Who might be the first to go in? Was their maneuvering to be first or some fake false moves? Like a crowd of three hundred persons trying to get one of twenty specially priced High Definition TVs at Christmas, there is often pushing, attempts at line breaking, and shouting. In the first century by the pool, however, it is unlikely that anyone would have been afraid of being liable if they had dropped a man trying to lift him as people would fear today; it is more likely that they would have realized what an imposition as it might have brought on: People might have thought: “If I put the man in the pool, I’ll probably have to stay around to lift him out of the pool later in the day. I don’t have time for that.” So invalids lay near the pools. One wonders how they even got that close. Jesus tells the man to simply take up his mat and walk, and a healing takes place. But today we are looking more at the caring hospitality of these stories more than the miraculous healing. Let’s fast-forward to a time after Jesus’ resurrection, when we encountered Peter and John in Acts 3 today. Even in Acts both Peter and John were still Jews who also believed in Jesus as Lord. In Acts 3:1 they were entering the Temple to pray at the 9th hour. What hour is that? It is 3:00. Like with Muslims today, prayer was specified to happen at particular hours of the day. The Bible says that the man they encountered was “lame from birth.”  It matters to know that. In that day it was believed that lame, blind, deaf, or diseased people were that way because of their own sins or the sins of their parents or grandparents. We are even aware of the disciples in John 9:2 asking Jesus about which of the blind man’s parents had sinned to cause him to be blind. Even in the first century the blame game was alive and well. “Whose fault is it?” they were asking! The religious men of the day were busy pointing fingers and assessing blame. Blaming, however, delays the start of fixing a problem, doesn’t it?  Does it really matter how some became blind? In our day people would want to know that to know who to sue. It happens today in the insurance world as blame, or “cause” is assigned; and it happens in high profile murder cases when media grandstanders choose to assign blame for pain and suffering in front of cameras and mics. To their credit, medical doctors are almost never wrapped up in assigning blame, or making judgments against others, just in administering treatment. But in the first century their belief that the man’s own sins caused his blindness shades the reason why people did not help that man: in a matter of speaking they thought this: “he made his bed; now he’ll lie in it.” Or to put it another way, they’d think he caused his own problem and if he had put thing right with God and God had forgiven him, he would have been healed. Therefore, since God had not forgiven him, so they also had no need to help an unrepentant sinner. But fortunately Christians Peter and John were following the teachings of Jesus; they showed the man compassion and did not cast stones.  There he was at the Beautiful Gate and they stopped to listen to and acknowledge him! That was the beginning of his healing. What was the other name of the Beautiful Gate; do you know? Why, it’s the Golden Gate, the one that faces the Mount of Olives, the one that opened almost into the Temple courtyard; and the one through which Jesus entered on a donkey surrounded by palms on that fateful Sunday. It was at the Beautiful Gate that Jesus once entered the city, and it was at the Beautiful Gate that the ministry of the risen Christ began to grow. Perfect! The man asked for alms, which were just monetary handouts as beggars often ask for even today.  But Peter and John did not pass him by; they did not give him money, but they did stop and address him: Peter said clearly: “Look at u
s.” The lame man must have had his heart begin to sink as he heard the familiar words: “I don’t have any silver or gold.” But then the sentence continued and the man perhaps had his heart lifted up, and then his whole body! Peter said: “I give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Peter then took the man by his right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong!

The usual focus in this passage is that at the Beautiful Gate a healing took place. And then we either praise Jesus because we too know people who have been miraculously healed, or we are crestfallen because we know people who have not. But today I want you to see what this passage teaches us that you and I can do to carry out ministry to others; Peter and John did it at the Beautiful Gate, and Jesus did it all over Galilee, Judea, and in other territories: they noticed those who others failed to acknowledge. In my life one place I can clearly do this is nursing homes. Sometimes the residents are lined up in wheel chairs up or down hallways; it becomes a gauntlet I have to traverse in order to see my intended parishioner. My temptation, and perhaps that of others, is to walk quickly past them. But their gaze is penetrating, like they are so desperately hoping that I will notice and acknowledge them.  So I greet them, and smile at them. If they ask for help, I’ll see if there is something I can do.  If they say “Get me out of here!” I’ll remember my self-differentiation guidance from counselors and just walk on! But even in this Facebook world, we have people, sometimes children, sometimes older people, and sometimes those with disabilities, who desperately want to be noticed. As I showed the children today, sometimes grown ups can look right past them! Jesus noticed and acknowledged others as persons.  I know there are times when people talk with me and I look right past them to someone waving hello over their shoulder. Everyone wants to be greeted, yet giving full attention to one person is what they deserve, and I am always working to do better to pay attention to everyone. Peter and John acknowledged a man who other clearly had passed by countless times. On our Holy Land trips I’ll confess that I found myself giving to no beggars that I encountered, but I noticed another man in our group who gave to almost every one of them. We all have room to grow, don’t we?

What is your growing edge? Where are the areas in your hospitality life that need attention? People look right past strangers in churches, schools, or in neighborhoods, as we overlook the new person among us to connect with those we already know. This week, think about Peter; and John; and Jesus. This week, think about noticing, and acknowledging those you might have looked past yesterday, or last week. This week, think about any time when you felt left out, and try to minister to someone else so they will feel connected.  It is a Christ-like thing to do.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 22, 2012



Acts 4: 32-35

On April 1st, an Oscar Nominated Short Film, 37 minutes long, was released for purchase. It details a remarkable story. The storyteller is Dolores Hart, a gorgeous movie star of the fifties and sixties. She had roles in “Where the Boys Are,” “King Creole,” “Lonely Hearts,” “Loving You,” “Wild is the Wind” and “Francis of Assisi” among other films while she was in Hollywood. Her leading men included George Hamilton, Robert Wagner, Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando. When she was on Broadway she starred in The Pleasure of His Company, with George Peppard. But her most memorable leading man was the young, slim, and wildly popular Elvis Presley. Her journey is quite unique because she stepped away from all of those roles, those leading men, and a contract offer of over one million dollars (which was staggering in the 1960s) because of a different kind of love: she felt a love for God, and a love for those that God loved. While she was on Broadway, she was starting to feel worn down, a little disillusioned with stardom, and perhaps a little burned out. She asked a wise friend if she knew any place where she could get away and have some peace for awhile. Her friend steered her to Bethlehem; no, not “the” Bethlehem, but Bethlehem Connecticut, where the Abbey of Regina Laudis, an enclosed Benedictine Monastery, is the only one if its kind in the United States. Dolores Hart had a life-altering visit to the Abbey. But unlike sister Maria in “The Sound of Music” who left an Abbey for love, Dolores Hart turned down a marriage proposal from a wonderful man in the early 1960s to enter the Abbey and offer her time and love the God. The amazingly understanding man, although disappointed, gave her the space she wanted, but he has stayed in touch with her to this day, for 45 years. Dolores is now the Reverend Mother Dolores Hart, and she tells her amazing story in the short film she cleverly calls “God is the Bigger Elvis.” Ironically, when she was a movie star she starred as St. Francis’s friend St. Clare, who also started a women’s cloister movement. When she met Pope John XXIII for the first time, she introduced herself not as a Reverend Mother, but as Dolores Hart who played St. Clare in the movie called “Francis of Assisi.” The Pope, who already knew of her work on screen and in the abbey, paid her a high compliment when he said to her, “No child, you are St. Clare.”

Dolores Hart is not the first or the last to turn from much means to modest means in their lives for the purpose of sharing with others. Another of them was St. Francis of Assisi, who we studied in our “Lives of Great Christians” series during Lent, and another was actually the woman who admired Francis and started his work among women: St. Clare. St. Francis was the eldest son of one of the richest men in Assisi: a cloth merchant. He gave Francis everything he needed in life, but Francis did not embrace the upper class life when people of other classes were in need. Francis was carefree, much too care free in his father’s eyes. He sang much of his day, and he adored nature. He also read and learned about the Lord Jesus Christ. He learned, as perhaps you have learned, that Jesus had “no place to lay his head,” that it is never recorded that he had a place of his own once he was grown, or that he had money. But what he had, Jesus gave to anyone who asked: he gave prayers, he gave blessings, and he gave healing. He gave everything that he had to show love for others. Francis read these words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “Whenever you give to the least of these my brothers or sisters, you have given unto me.” Like Dolores Hart and Clare after him, and many more, Francis stepped away from the lights that could dazzle and the fame that could come and go in a flash; like Jesus, he took the road less traveled: being with the poor, the needy, the hungry, and the ones society painted into the “sinners” corner. Jesus went there; so that’s where St. Francis went. He went to highways and byways, giving people the shirt off of his back, the coat off of his back, or the shoes off of his feet. At one point he was walking naked through town because he had radically given everything away as Jesus his Lord commanded him to do. Some thought he was mentally unbalanced at that point; but Francis found discipleship to be a radical life change.

Clare could not safely go through the highways and byways as a woman, but she could help and cloister women, giving to them until she too was poor. And she did. The communal life of sharing with one another was not something new with any of these people. The first Christians started such a radically different way of life. Things forced to be shared equitably with others often gets called “socialism.” But things willingly shared with others who have less gets another radical term: it’s called “Christianity.” Luke, in his writing that we call “The Acts of the Apostles,” captures one part of the radical nature of Christianity: it is caring for the poor in ways that society does not. After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we know that the disciples first got their number back up to 12 with the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas. They then experienced the Holy Spirit while in Jerusalem and soon after began to heal and baptize others while they “devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.” (Acts 2:43) Peter then spoke about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico after which Peter and John were brought to the Jewish Council to answer charges that they were evangelizing for Jesus on the Temple grounds. Undaunted, Peter, John and the other disciples prayed for boldness, and among the actions they chose to follow were these: Our text from Acts 4 puts it this way: “They were of one heart and soul.” In other words, they were spiritually in tune with one another and with God. That’s the first manifestation of the Spirit we witness from these first responders in the faith. The second thing we witness is that “No one claimed private owners
hip of any possessions, but everything they owned they held in common.” Again these people were learning how to get beyond human wants and address human needs, a very Christ-like thing to do. By so doing, the Bible says “Great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them.” Can we say that in our own country? Even in areas of the heaviest Christian populations, is there no one in need? In any of the seats of Christianity around the world: Rome, Jerusalem, Latin America, can we truly say that need has been eradicated? What happened in those days after Christ rose from the dead was extraordinary. Do you remember what else our Bible text said? “Those who owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid them at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Is that Camelot? Is it Heaven? Or is it just part of Christian living that witnesses to the poverty and the power of those around us? In the first century, like in our world today, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. There are ways to address this disparity, one of which is Christian charity, charity from the Latin word “Caritas” which means selfless love. Jesus died for more than our Heavenly lives; he died so that we might have abundant life here too. Delores, Francis, and Clare found happiness in such a life. Could we find such happiness as well?

Jeffrey A. SumnerApril 15, 2012

04-08-12 PTSD: Post Traumatic Sabbath Disorder

PTSD: Post Traumatic Sabbath Disorder

Mark 16: 1-8

Monday morning quarterbacking is nothing like having to think and act in a matter of seconds in the midst of a game; viewing a surgery through a glass is nothing like having instruments in your hand having to decide what and how much to cut. One hundred years ago next Sunday the Titanic sank in frigid waters, far from land; even those aboard the Costa Concordia were traumatized three months ago and they were just a few yards from land. Ten and a half years ago we may have watched the Trade Center Towers fall on a television, but that certainly had a fraction of the impact as seeing jumpers, experiencing the pungent smells, and the acrid dust of an eyewitness. And nothing in civilian life equals the sounds, feelings, smells, and anxiety of a man or woman in a war zone. Such events that I’ve described, when things go wrong or happen unexpectedly, can cause traumatic stress. The Mayo Clinic staff says that PTSD, that is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is triggered by a terrible event; its effect can last for hours, weeks, months, or a lifetime. Symptoms may include upsetting dreams or flashbacks; feeling emotionally numb, memory problems, irritability or anger, overwhelming guilt or shame, and seeing or hearing things. For the first responders, and the eyewitnesses of traumatic times, such symptoms are a menu of possibilities. For those of us who were not on the Titanic, or in the World Trade Centers, or in an operating room during a trauma, we have a buffer, some distance between us and the traumatic events. That is something like the experience we all have today with our faces pressed against the glass of a Biblical crisis 2000 years ago. We are not sinking, we are not hearing the sound of a surgical saw, and we’re not hearing the terrifying screams of trapped victims in a skyscraper. We are, however, looking on at a situation that was, in ways, every bit as traumatic. Let’s consider what led to Easter.

If you read your Bible carefully, as I said last week, you find out what hugely grueling days Jesus and his disciples faced. These were mostly men from Galilee, a rural area of tradesmen. Once a year those Jews who were able would have made the trip to Jerusalem for Passover. It was not an easy trip, likely one they did not relish. This journey was more about religious responsibility. Those who took the trip knew they were heading into Bike Week like crowds, where lodging prices were raised, places to get food were crowded, and more people packed the city than could comfortably be handled. In addition there were scam artists, pick pockets, and thieves looking for unsuspecting targets. The city was intimidating, and as massive as the Temple was, it’s controllers, the Sadducees, could be just as difficult to deal with. And then there were the Romans; their security team was on high alert, always trying to keep the peace. In one gathering of travelers there might be laughter and reunions; in another gathering there might be arguments and conflicts: all par for the Passover course. That was the destination for Jesus and his followers. Their days were long, going often beyond sundown. Have you noted, for example, how many of the last scenes in Jesus’ life happened at night? Most work happened in the day; there were no lights burning in the city and torches were costly to burn all the time. No; something was up; Jewish leaders were trying to take down one who challenged and angered them; and they knew the right persons to contact to make it happen. It was their city and they knew whose cage to rattle, whose peace needed to be disturbed from late at night to early in the morning. The Roman guards that go to find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane were doing so late into the night, perhaps 10, 11 O’clock or later. The guards were on overtime because of Jesus; they were not happy about it and Jesus had kicked a hornet’s nest. It’s in the middle of the night that Jesus is led to the house of the high priest; the middle of the night when the rushed trial took place; it was under the cover of darkness when the light of the world did not seem to be able to shine any light into the darkness. Even followers may have started to doubt, and in their state of tension and little sleep, desperate people began to act out. One betrays when he might not have done so had he the chance to do it over; another perhaps began to doubt that Jesus was Messiah, for Messiah, according to the First Testament prophets, would come and liberate the people from their captors, in this case the Romans. It seemed like Jesus was doing none of that. All of the interrogation of Jesus happened in the middle of the night. And Peter, the so called rock, stood by, paralyzed by fear, anxiety, or exhaustion. He had lost his nerve; the entire night he not only did not defend Jesus, he denied knowing him. How do we know it went all night? Because on his last denial, a rooster crowed, and roosters don’t crow at night; they crow at daybreak. A new day was dawning and Peter was an exhausted and humiliated man. Chapter 15 says “as soon as it was morning” which means it was a sunrise meeting when Jesus was brought to a just awakening Pilate. It was the dawn of the Friday only in hindsight we call “good.” Friday was the fateful day when exhausted followers got further traumatized: their leader was accused of treason; his stand as a teacher and even messiah has now been turned into a capital offense against the Romans. Did all the other followers sign up for such agony? Would they be next? Some went into hiding while others crumbled when accusations were leveled at them. They watched, even from a distance, as Jesus is tried, tortured, and crucified. Certainly watching a crucifixion, any crucifixion, could have brought on PTSD. But to watch the one who you thought was messiah be crucified would shake witnesses for the rest of their lives. Could it have seemed like a terrible dream that it happened or a terrible mistake that they followed him? It wasn’t even disciples who asked for Jesus’ body from the cross to give him a decent burial it was Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Jewish council, who gave up his family tomb for Jesus. It was an enormous gift. Mary the mother of Jesus, and another Mary accompanied him to the tomb so they would know how to find it at dawn on Sunday. They could not do such work on their Sabbath.

At this point, to these distressed, afraid, and sleep-deprived band of followers, Jesus was dead. No one could remember, or believe, what he had said about rising on the third day. They were under extreme stress. So as numb and saddened women, going to do their religious and loving act, they were going to anoint the
body of their dead friend. They absolutely did not expect what we are all here to celebrate. They were certainly dumbfounded women, who returned and told dumbfounded men, all of whom wanted to see for themselves. Many people think the writer of Mark’s gospel originally ended it with verse 8: “And the women went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Doesn’t trauma cause us to act differently, see differently, and think differently? Even Luke tells a story of Jesus himself later joining disciples on the road to Emmaus and they don’t recognize him!

Today let us honor the early followers of Jesus who perhaps had a form of PTSD, who from Friday night until sunup on Sunday had perhaps the most traumatic Sabbath of their lives: on this first day of the week, a man had died and rose from the dead; not a ghost, not a vision, but a bodily resurrection! It was extraordinary to them; it is life-saving to us! He appeared in one place and certainly almost made them faint when he showed them the nail holes in his hands. He appeared in another place to eat something in their presence to prove he was not ghost. He was dealing with people in a state of shock who looked on in disbelief. Over time we have come to not be shocked that Jesus arose from the dead. But it is huge news; it is good news! And it changes our destiny forever. Their trauma tells us that they were eyewitnesses; they saw what we have come to believe by faith and by reading about it. It is extraordinary news! A man rose from the dead! His name is Jesus; and he is the Savior of the world! Hallelujah! Amen!

Jeffrey Sumner April 8, 2012



Mark 11: 1-10

Around this time of the year, some networks show the great films of the faith like the epic, “Jesus of Nazareth,” “The Robe,” or even perhaps the gut-wrenching “Passion of the Christ” which shows up on premium channels Some channels, like Discovery and the History Channel show documentaries about the life of Christ and in particular about his final week: his entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple, his teachings, his time in the Garden, his capture, his questioning before Pilate, and finally his crucifixion. That is the week we are facing. It does the salvation story of the Bible a complete disservice to jump over the gore to the glory of Easter. Few take lightly the price Christ paid for us once they encounter those passages.

For almost all of 2012 I have dealt with Mark’s gospel; Mark is generally considered to be the oldest gospel and to be extremely reliable historically; Mark never seems to add unnecessary information. If you have come to our Maundy Thursday service you’ve seen that I always choose Mark to read for that fateful night. Today for a few minutes I hope to help bridge the knowledge gap about Palm Sunday and to fill in some details. What is my source? Of course, it is the Bible itself; we will not trust another commentator when we can glean information for ourselves.

This fateful day—Palm Sunday—did not start with Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. So many people assume that Jesus got up one day, made the preparations, and entered Jerusalem one fateful morning. Let’s see if that’s the case. According to Mark 10:1 Jesus and his disciples left their adopted hometown of Capernaum in Galilee and headed toward Judea and beyond the Jordan. That means he would have encountered many Jews also going to Jerusalem for the Passover, and that there may have also been Gentile travelers as well. As they journeyed, Jesus was already known by some of them and crowd members constantly questioned him. He knew he was going to Jerusalem to die, but he still had to face Pharisees asking him questions about divorce in verses 2-12! What a topic as he faces his own death!  Feeling for our Savior’s reserve of strength, we still see that people are relentless about approaching him. Some want him to hold or touch their children in verses 13-16 while the disciples fruitlessly tried to act as Jesus’ bodyguards. Jesus overruled them and said what we know so well: “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them.” He then has a man ask him what he needs to do to inherit eternal life, in verses 17-22. Even when the man heard Jesus’ answer, he went away because he could not part with his possessions as Jesus told him to do. Jesus’ then uses the examples of the conversations of the day to teach his disciples in verses 23-31. This man Jesus, already peppered with questions, must have gotten his second wind around Mark 10:32, for Mark says: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them, and they were amazed.” He then tells them again what he himself already knew: this trip has a purpose; he himself will be killed. There was more that he said, but surely his disciples were most troubled by that part. James and John noted his impending death and then did what some children have rudely done to their parents: they start to maneuver for positions of favoritism, asking about inheritance, and wondering if they are the favorite in the sight of the dying one. It is not pretty when I’ve seen it in families. And here, not just two people but two disciples ask Jesus to grant them a special status before he is thrown to his death: they ask that one be on his right hand in glory and one on his left. According to verse 41, the other 10 disciples were indignant that those two asked such an insensitive question of their “Teacher.” From verses 42-45 Jesus says they don’t know what they are asking. As I read it, this is all one day.

Before they arrive in Jerusalem they would naturally, on the path they were taking, go through Jericho, the oldest city on the planet, and a most resort-like city. But instead of finding respite there, Jesus encounters a blind man in verse 46—a blind man mind you, who is able to see in Jesus what sighted persons cannot. Somehow he not only knows who Jesus is and what he is reported to be able to do, he also senses when Jesus gets in close proximity- it’s astounding. Jesus might have been tempted to keep going- what time is it by now? Two O’clock? Three o’clock? Later? Instead he says “Call him.” After finding out that the blind man, named Bartimaeus, wanted to see, Jesus granted his request. Then Bartimaeus also left Jericho and followed Jesus. The newly sighted man was likely in the Palm Sunday crowd! On the outskirts of Jerusalem there are two small villages where the Bible records that Jesus stopped at differenc times, but today was not going to be one of those times. Our Lord presses on. This time Jesus has a purpose to be carried out, lateness of the day or not. So the assumption that I raised a few minutes
ago—that Jesus entered the city one bright
morning, gets tested now. Read your Bible and you may conclude, as I have, that Jesus entered Jerusalem  late in the day. Likely prior arrangements allowed Jesus’ request for a colt on which to ride to be accomplished with some haste. It was not a fine white horse, a steed. Instead it was a small one, a colt; some other gospels say donkey. Nevertheless it was a small animal. The disciples and other travelers put some garments on it for his comfort and Jesus began riding into town on it. Certainly down from the Mount of Olives through the Golden Gate of the city there was an air of festivity! Passover already had made the city streets and inns jammed with people, with a celebration in one corner and an argument in another. As Jesus made us way, they strew branches along the road Mark’s gospel says in chapter 11, verse 8. John’s gospel says they are palm branches, and there is good reason to believe that. The palm was the national symbol of a free Judea, and the Jews hoped to be out from under the thumb of the powerful Romans. They were reading a human agenda of revolt into Jesus’ heavenly agenda of intended peace and salvation. They even quoted the prophet Zechariah and the Psalmist David who said when the Messiah comes it will be to the cry: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Into the city Jesus came among happy children, cautious disciples, and suspicious security officials. The security officials perhaps had Jesus entrance pegged: no sooner did he get inside the city wall through the entrance called the Golden Gate that Mark’s gospel says he went straight to the Temple, according to verse 11. He went to look everything over and perhaps offer a brief prayer. It is likely Jesus saw much that he did not like, but, the Bible says:

“And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went back to Bethany with the Twelve.” As far as I can tell, that is the end of the very long day that Jesus had; his entry into the city was they culmination of his day, not the beginning. We know from verse 15 that it was the next day when he returned and overturned the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple. Before that day he had traveled many miles, been asked many questions, had healed and blessed several people, and arrived at the place that would be his death city. What an exhausting, dreadful day, he had had, and now he starts a new day with the confrontation at the Temple. Jesus of Nazareth was not only filling his role as Rabbi, now he would claim the crown of the King, albeit a painful crown. He was not only a shepherd of people, he was the Lamb of God, and lamb selection day was facing him. The Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world, would be crucified on the day the Jews called “Lamb selection day. How perfectly terrible; and God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

As we face this week, we will be sharing one Holy Communion today; but Thursday, if you are here, you will have a reminder of the Last Supper. May your soul be girded for this week with your Lord, and may it not waver with denial, doubt, or betrayal.

Let us pray:  O God: prepare us now to realize the magnitude of our participation in this sacrament. Our choice shows Jesus whether or not we choose to be his disciples, even with the costs. Amen.

Jeffrey A. SumnerApril 1, 2012