Monthly Archives: June 2012

06-24-12 THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION

THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION

2 Corinthians 5: 16-20

 

When I was growing up I was treated
to a generally protected and sheltered life. Our family was intact and divorces
on the family tree were either rare or not mentioned. The children I played
with were from families where parents also showed care and gave good counsel.
Our television viewing was shows that are generally aired on TV Land, Nick at
Night, or the newer Me-TV: programs that were considered safe for network
broadcasters and story lines that could be wrapped up in a half hour to an
hour. People today, many of them older, still tune in to those stations to
remember a time gone by. Of course, in the midst of those shows that I watched
in the 1960s, the reality was a broken world, a broken nation, and broken
homes. Bombs had been dropped, wars were being waged and were escalating, our
president was shot, and behind the veneer of “Father Knows Best” “Bonanza” or
“Bewitched” were broken lives. As depicted in the popular AMC show “Madmen,”
there was drinking, smoking, and infidelity. Brokenness and human frailty was all
around us, but the neuroses and idiosyncrasies of families did not dawn on me
when I was young. In 1989, Dr. Tom Long, current professor of Preaching at
Candler School of Theology, recommended to a group of preachers that among the
other writers in our land, Anne Tyler is one that has captured the gentle
brokenness and disfunctionality of families over the past 50 years. The writer
of “Breathing Lessons” “Saint Maybe” and “The Accidental Tourist” among her 18
novels, she graduated from Duke University at age 19 and, as it turns out,
started writing novels at age 22. Winning creative writing awards in 1961 and
1962, her first novel was published in 1964, and her novels have been written
until her latest in 2009. Notice that her world included broken and
idiosyncratic persons in the same time when my world looked like “Leave it to
Beaver.”  A person’s worldview shapes
them and adjusts the way they think. In “Ladder of Years” Tyler wrote about a
mother who simply walked away from her husband and three children for several
months because she felt invisible and taken for granted. In “The Tin Can Tree”
a young boy tries to come to terms with his sister’s death even while all those
around him his obsessively try to treat life as if every thing was normal when
it wasn’t. “And in “Celestial Navigation” a 38 year old man not only never left
the nest, he stayed in his parents house after they died, letting the house get
run down, renting out rooms, and not walking outside of his own block for
years. He was a man unable to break into adulthood. When I had grown up, and
changed the channels on my television, and listened to professors, and ran into
real people, I found out that the world is a broken and warring place, often
divided by gender, class, neighborhoods, income, and ethnicity. With a new
generation going into the world today, I see hope in the attitudes of many
youth who use social media to “friend” hundreds of people. But there are still
predators and dangers, and perhaps more disfunctionality than ever.

 

In the middle of the 1960s, when Anne
Tyler was showing brokenness and prime time television was not, the
Presbyterian Church did not have its head in the sand. The General Assembly
said it was time to write a new Confession of Faith, taking seriously what Karl
Barth had said: that thinking Christians should always process their theology
with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. So they commissioned
Professor Edward Dowey of Princeton Seminary, and an entire committee to draft
a new confession and bring it back to the General Assembly for approval. In the
mid 1960s, Dr. Dowey said, he looked at the issues that were tearing apart the
country: first: race relations; and second: the war in Vietnam. Although most
other of our historic confessions of faith started their Biblical basis with
Genesis or the Gospels, Dr. Dowey and the committee, Bible in one hand and
newspaper in the other, started their confession with our text today: 2 Corinthians
5:17-18. “Those who are in Christ become new creations! Everything old passes
away; everything becomes new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to
himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Today
I suggest that good theology again calls us to start any of our ministries, any
of our attempts to connect with those from whom we have cut ourselves off; and
any of our attempts to take off our rose-colored TV Land glasses and look at
the world in its brokenness, with the ministry of reconciliation. Officially
reconciliation means to “turn those who were once enemies into friends” but it
applies also in our world to brokenness that manifests itself as family fights
or feuds, neighborhood destructive actions, or enmity across party or cultural
lines. Reconciliation, suggests the Apostle Paul, suggested Dr. Edward Dowey,
and, I believe shown by our Lord Jesus Christ, is the place to start with our
broken world, and our broken selves. It was Jesus who connected with a woman who
was about to be stoned for adultery, and he saved her from death. It was Jesus
who acknowledged children in a world where adults told them what to do but did
not listen to them. It was Jesus who talked with the Samaritan woman at the
well.  And even though Paul helped to
found the church in Corinth, he continued to point out their strife and
pettiness. His letters to that congregation addressed those topics, with some
of his best thought being written in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, and in 2
Corinthians 5. We who choose to follow Christ will also seek to connect the rings
of our families, neighborhoods, nation, and world. Like I showed the children,
anyone can push two solid rings together, but it takes magic to connect them.
In human relations, it doesn’t take magic; it takes people following Christ; and
people seeking connection rather than enmity and disconnection. As Paul told
us: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and giving to us the
ministry of reconciliation.” In spite of the façade of people putting on a
happy face or “keeping up appearances,” the world is broken; it was broken in
Genesis, and God, with steadfast love, continues to work with his masterpiece,
his crowning achievement, which is the species of beings called humans. God has
given us a conscience, a soul, and freewill so that we can make choices between
blessing and curse; between life and death among other choices. Jesus Christ
showed us reconciliation in the years he was on earth; then the Holy Spirit,
and a commission from Christ, sent out the twelve, and they converted thousands
to this ministry. You too have been called; you are invited to continue with
any ministries of reconciliation that you have begun, and to look for
opportunities to start others. Jesus could have gone to the mountain with
Peter, James, and John and stayed there, living apart from trouble. You and I
could do the same thing, living our lives with days of fantasy or escape. But
if we are called to reconciliation, we will at times turn off the TV, pick up
the phone, stop to see someone who is ill, seek to do mission, or listen in our
hearts to where God might call us to go. We are the hands and heart and Christ
now. Where might you now be led to build a new relationship, or to rebuild an
old one?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner
June 24, 2012

06-10-12 MOVING FROM AFFLICTION TO AFFIRMATION

MOVING FROM AFFLICTION TO AFFIRMATION

2 Corinthians 4: 1-10

 

Portia Nelson was an American singer,
songwriter and actress. Most people will remember her as Sister Berthe, one of
the nuns in the Sound Of Music who helped sabotage the cars of the authorities
to let Captain Von Trapp and his family escape. She also played the nanny Mrs.
Gurney in “All My Children” and she had a number of solo and collaboration
albums to her credit. But in 1973 she discovered she had breast cancer,
underwent a mastectomy, and began treatments. During that time, she had time to
reflect on her life and her decisions. Four years later she published her
milestone work called THERE’S A HOLE IN MY SIDEWALK: THE ROMANCE OF
SELF-DISCOVERY. In that book is her remarkable poem called “Autobiography in
Five Short Chapters,” popular with self-help groups. Today I want to suggest
that what she describes is what the Apostle Paul may have discovered, what
Mother Teresa may have discovered, and what you may have discovered too. Here
is how this short work goes
:
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

 

In
so many ways that so called autobiography could describe many experiences? It
describes times in my life; does it describe some experiences you can remember?  Aren’t there times when things happen to you
that are not your fault? And aren’t there times, in spite of your best
intentions, that you make the same mistake twice? And aren’t there times when you
have trusted someone who let you down one time, only to be let down by that
person again? And then aren’t there times when you failed to learn from your
own mistakes and something bad things happen that are your fault? Finally then, have you come now to a point when you
see some light and some hope,  or are you
still drowning in darkness? Sometimes people begin to drown in self made, or
situational, darkness. At other times we are enveloped with light and love.
These are patterns for life. Children might just break into tears, or might
pout, or might get mad when they have a terrible, horrible, no good very bad
day! But as youth and adults, the choices we make, and the way we react to the
things that land in our laps, can have a huge impact on the direction and
length of our lives. We would do well not just to pout, but to pray; not just
to get angry, but to make a plan; not just to cry, but to act. The “Autobiography
in Five Short Chapters” holds a mirror up to many lives.

Do you recall the life of
St. Paul as depicted in the book of Acts? All he wanted to do was be the Jew he
thought he could be when his name was Saul. Instead, God threw him a jolting,
lightning bolt curve ball. Later Saul, who was renamed Paul, just wanted to be
the best apostle he could be, bringing the gospel to people who hadn’t heard it,
or to others who didn’t believe it. In his journeys he was run out of town,
forced to find his own lodging and his own food, and was taken to prison on
more than one occasion. He didn’t give up on the gospel, on his life, or on his
Lord Jesus! In particular you might recall how he changed a man’s life in Acts
16. Paul had been taken to prison, along with Silas, because in the name of
Jesus they had driven a spirit of divination out of a slave girl. The slave
girl’s owner had lost his source of income! In prison, Paul and Silas, instead
of doing the usual things that many prisoners do- such as planning an escape, growing
bitter, or growing angry- they started singing, and they started praying! How
different! The other prisoners listened to them and suddenly an earthquake
shook the prison, the doors flew open, and their shackles fell to the ground!
Their guard would have been put to certain death for letting his prisoners
escape, so, astoundingly, Paul and Silas stayed; and in their staying, they
converted the jailer and his family to Christianity! Paul had gone from
adversity to affirmation more than once in his life; and on that day, the
jailer did the same thing!

When Paul wrote to the
church in Corinth a second time, he knew of what he spoke. To them he said:
“Since it is by God’s mercy that we
are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” What if you could look at
the trials or problems you face today, whether they appear to be mountains or
molehills, and say to your soul, “No matter what, today I will not lost heart; I
will not let discouragement overwhelm or undo me.” Certainly I have times when
discouragement creeps into my life as I’d imagine it does with you; but the key
is not to give your power, or your allegiance, over to discouragement. Discouragement is not a tool of God’s. Paul
then says, (and I’m reading from a slightly different translation): “We have
renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to
tamper with God’s word.” At that point Paul had his Godly legs under him,
didn’t he? Paul found his second wind and was feeling the power of the Holy
Spirit at a time when others might have given up. But Paul is an extraordinary example of perserverence. How are you
doing in the area of perserverence? Do you give up easily or let others direct
your life in all things? Have you given in to “going with the flow” instead of
staking a Christian claim, or cutting a new path in your part of the world for
Christ? Are you fighting to keep your soul from succumbing to bitterness?

There is nothing easy about
Christianity; to be Christian does not mean troubles melt away. In my doctoral
research dealing with “The Dark Night of the Soul,” I have certainly discovered
that, if you are struggling, your are not alone. Others have struggled before
you, and even beside you, in their daily walk. If you have doubts, there again,
you are not alone. But if you doubt, remember to doubt your doubts as well!
Finally if you feel like you are in a place of darkness, there is one who is
the Light, one who loves you and has already ransomed your soul, who wants you
to have life, and have it abundantly. He is Jesus Christ. He is here to raise
up those who get crippled by some of life’s dark places; he is here to bring
light to your spiritual dark nights. And he, through good therapy and fervent
prayers, wants to vanquish your debilitating depressions forever. There is sure
and certain hope. Great Christians like Mother Teresa hid her darkness well,
but she experienced it. The great writer C.S. Lewis also went from Christian
faith, to faithlessness, and finally clawed his way back to faith. Thomas
Merton was a world famous Christian spirituality author, and yet he struggled
too. He once wrote: “Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt.
It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it.” One
time he even wrote “I am the utter poverty of God. I am [God’s] emptiness,
littleness, nothingness, lostness.” Is that how you have felt at times? Then
today is the day to follow the time honored pattern of “affliction to
affimation.” Unlike “The Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,” sometimes we don’t
go down another street; we stay on the right path when we find it, and press
on, despite the pitfalls that life—or the devil—put in our way.

Let us close with another
look at Paul’s self-revealing second letter to the Corinthians. He wrote: “It
is God who said ‘Let light shine out of the darkness’ who has shone in our
hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of
Christ….We are afflicted in every way,
but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not
forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
From affliction to affirmation.
May that be the description of the way you choose to live, now and forever.
Amen!

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                               June 10, 2012

 

 

06-03-12 THE CALL

THE CALL

Isaiah 6: 1-8

 

We have entered a sanctuary where
some just attend a service, some actually worship God, and still others listen
for the call of God.  If God were calling
you to some ministry, some new direction, some new attitude today, would you hear
it? And if you heard it, how would you hear it: just with your ears, or would
it be with your heart? How about with your eyes too?  A young man named Jacob Buchholz is
graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary this month. He grew up with
family members who were deaf and he plans to help train deaf pastors and start
churches that primarily serve deaf persons. He cites the statistic that of all
persons who are part of the deaf community internationally, only 1 percent are
Christian; and of those who are deaf in the United States, only 3 percent are
Christian. God has called him to reach more deaf people for Christ. How would
deaf persons “hear” such a call: with their heart; in their soul, or perhaps
through their eyes?  Some have been
called by God as they viewed art; a sunset or sunrise; a beautiful meadow,
towering mountains, or crashing waves. Others were called by God through the
voice of an evangelist, someone like the Rev. Billy Graham; others are called
through the voice of a pastor, a youth leader, or by the voice of the Holy
Spirit as they joined others around a campfire. God uses nature, and people, to
call men and women into ministries that are called ordained ministries, but
also God calls others in the work that is called the ministry of the laity. And
age is not an issue with God! Today let me share some examples, and you might
finish the examples by ones you yourself have seen or experienced.

 

First, we know about the way God
called Moses with a voice coming from a burning bush. It was quite unusual but
it worked! That’s in Exodus 3. We know also that God called Isaiah to be a
preacher and we heard that call from Isaiah 6 today. Isaiah felt inadequate. My
goodness, if one of the greatest prophets who ever lived did not feel up to
God’s request, no wonder others of us feel inadequate! But God answered
Isaiah’s doubts with actions of blessing. When God was done blessing him in a
moment of Holy musing, perhaps with the angels of Heaven, God pondered: “Hmm.
Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And the newly prepared Isaiah heard the
words come out of his mouth even before he could think! “Here I am! Send
me!”  Jeremiah also tried to wiggle out
of the call of God. Jeremiah was called by God when he was just a youth, the
age of some of you here today. Jeremiah protested that he was too young to
serve God. God would not take such a protest. God later showed how much young
people mean to the Kingdom; they often exhibit openness, vision, and humility,
One day long ago, the Holy One called a young woman named Mary, and asked her
consent to bear the Son of God. God called a young women like Mary into a
Heavenly collaboration! And God also calls old men like Abraham, and others of
every age in between!

 

Second, there are certainly even
people around you today, here and now, who have answered a personal call from
God. Who do you know who has been called to a special ministry? They are all
around you. I have answered a call from God as has most anyone ordained to
ministry. But some have felt called by God to serve through music, or through
teaching, or through hospitality, or through cooking, or gardening, or
repairing, or driving. The ways to answer a call from God are many and varied.
Not everyone who does those tasks, however, does them for God. Some do it for
themselves, or for the accolades of other persons. But there are those who have
answered their calls to respond to God and to give glory to their Savior Jesus
Christ.

 

Years ago in 1986, Cyndi Smith and I
arranged for an evening for Dr. David Read to preach from our pulpit. He was
then the minister of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City
and in his day he was one of the top ten preachers in America. His
autobiographies are in our church library, and in them he says that his friend
dragged him to evangelistic meetings in his native Scotland, and all he really
remembered about them were the good refreshments and the hard seats. He said
his mother taught him to be suspicious of preachers who smiled too much too! He
read widely and well from the classics, and it was to this man, this ordinary
man, that God extended a call to preach and lead churches. That’s just another
example of a call. A number of years later, it was to another person, Dr. Laura
Mendenhall, that a call from God was finally accepted. Growing up in Texas, her
pastor asked her to consider preparing for ministry even though in those days
and in “those parts’ she had never seen a woman preacher in her life! That was
in the 1950s, just around the time Presbyterians ordained their first two women
to ministry: Rachel Henderlite, and Margaret Towner. Laura met and learned from
them, grew in the grace of God, and also from the encouragement of ministers
around her. She became a Christian Education Director first, then ended up
serving four churches as their pastor! In 2010 as my daughter graduated from
Columbia Theological Seminary with the Master of Divinity Degree, Dr. Laura
Mendenhall was the seminary president who handed her her diploma: Laura had
become a wonderful preacher, witness, and passionate steward for her Lord Jesus
Christ. All of that happened because a pastor invited a youth group member to
consider the ministry.

 

Today God, through me, invites you to
listen to, and look for, and validate your own personal call from God. God had,
and still has, wonderful plans to work out in collaboration with you! Your
life, no matter your age, can still bless others and honor God! Thank you to
those who responded to the call already; and thank you to those who choose to
listen for it today and in the days ahead: with your ears, with your eyes, but
especially with your heart.

 

Please find our next hymn on the back of the prayer sheet: Jesus Calls
Us.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                             June
3, 2012