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MARY: THE MARRIAGE OF INNOCENCE AND REVERENCE

Luke 1: 39-56

A national drugstore chain has started a new ad campaign in the past year saying they are on the corner of “happy and healthy.” Often people like to pair words like that which are descriptive. You’ve heard them before; we often pair “deep and wide;” “young and sweet;” “tall and lanky.”  There are also some teenagers in our world today who parents might describe as being at the corner of “attitude and anger.” That is, their attitude is bad, and their anger is almost constant. Attitude and anger can create explosive or destructive situations. There are, then, others teenagers who do not exhibit those kind destructive of qualities that, when acted on, can lead to tragic news headlines. Good kids often fly under our radar, doing much of what they are told to do, doing the schoolwork that is required, and starting to understand responsibility. Then there is the nearly perfect example. We call her Mary. She is often called the Virgin Mary, or the Blessed Mother. But I will call her, with the deepest respect, “Mary, the one filled with both innocence and reverence.”

First of all, I think God made a magnificent choice. To be able to find a young woman who would not only consent to his request, but one who was brought up in a home that embodied the qualities God hoped for in a mother; well, God found a gem. Although little if anything is known of Mary, I can imagine that God was looking for someone who was loved as close to unconditionally as possible. God’s love, especially shown through the everlasting covenants, is unconditional; Dr. Greg Baer calls it “real love.” Dr. Baer, (no relation to our Counseling Center Director) was a medical doctor who had been raised with conditional love; with parents who said, at least in his mind, “We’ll love you best when you become a doctor. We want you to become what we want you to become.” So he believed there was no other choice. He became a doctor; and he disliked it; he grew rich; he and his family had everything monetarily, but there was tension among them all in part because the family only learned and demonstrated conditional love: loving only when other persons did what they asked. Such limited love is coercive. It says: “I’ll love you if you buy me everything on my Christmas list”; “I will love you, but you have to always be home for Christmas.”  Coercion; messages that leave no room for free will; God does not love that way. God gives every one of us free will; for we can only love God back freely if we have freedom, understand? In order to get love freely given and unconditionally offered, God offers love freely given and unconditionally offered. What we do with that love either pleases God, hurts God, or saddens God. This last week events took place in Connecticut that broke the heart of God. When God gave us free will, I can imagine our Creator hoping; hoping and watching the choices we make. Sometimes our choices hurt God; sometimes our choices hurt others. But at other times, we join people like Mary by pleasing and honoring God.

So ages ago, first God must have found a family that loved unconditionally. That’s what God wanted the Son to learn. Second, in spite of the socially unpleasant situation around Nazareth when word got out that Mary was expecting a child before she and Joseph, her fiancé, were married; Mary’s family must have shown unconditional love along with an abiding faith in God. If God was going to carry out the magnificent plan, there would need to be prior work done in the heart of this young woman. As Jesus described in the parable of the sower (which is really about preparing people’s hearts, not about agriculture) some hearts can be like stone; some can be filled with weeds; and some can be receptive. If a heart has turned to stone then it is only with the right circumstances, with prayer, and God’s gentle but persuasive Holy Spirit, that sometimes “hearts of stone begin to beat.” Charles Dickens described such an event when he created a man named “Scrooge” in “A Christmas Carol.” There also are people whose hearts filled with weeds. Today the weeds can be terrorist manifestoes gleaned from the internet, or the enticing but misguided advice from school friends, or people trying to imitate a hero or villain from the fantasy world of films or video games. The weeds can keep good seeds, dare we say the seeds of the Gospel, from taking root. But for some, some who have had good parenting, a good peer group, a life of faith, and a prayer life, even one seed planted by God can grow ten fold, twenty fold, or a hundred fold. Mary was a least a one hundred fold case. She must have had love; she must have had good guidance; she must have had faith in God instilled in her in a way that made her receptive to an angel instead of a tempter.  What an incredible story; what a magnificent choice. Of course the first thing that had to happen with this girl, who scholars are sure was just around the age of 14, was her consent to have a child. When I hear about a 14 year old who is with child, I generally shudder. “Too young” I think to myself. But the first century was a different time. Young men who would marry were always older than 14, but it was customary to marry a younger teenager if her parents and his parents thought it was a good match. It was never just a choice between two young people as it is today. The groom was generally older to reassure the father of the bride that he could provide for and protect his daughter. Young women were chosen so they would hopefully have many years to bear and rear children. Mary was a pure young woman, ready to be married when she and her parents were ready. An arrangement had already been made to marry Joseph, a man of more years than Mary. But this young woman, like some young women of today, had a mixture of reverence and innocence in her. In her reverence for God, she also had passion for justice; and like a young heroine, she used her voice to speak out against injustice. She had a conversation with an angel who told who her son of this unusual collaboration, would become. Did she know he would fight for justice and try to bring down the proud? Could a young girl have come up with her great declaration that we call “The Magnificat,” or did she get a holy message from God about who the Son would be and what he would do? Even in her innocence, she could discern a voice to be followed, apart from one to be rejected. And even her reverence for God did not mean she would be silent i
n the world. As Mary said “yes” to perhaps the most extraordinary request in history, she was also empowered, filled by the same Holy Spirit that created life in her womb. Hers was not just a new life that was begun; hers was a child who would bring new life! But such an event would not be received well in her day any more than in our day. Her parents, trying to create a supportive nest away from Nazareth, sent her to be counseled by a relative: a woman of later age who also was well grounded in prayer and in God’s Word. Her name was Elizabeth, and together with her husband Zechariah, she would soon give birth to a boy we would call John the Baptist. What a perfect mentor and supportive environment for the Son of God.

With Mary, it seems that God found innocence and reverence, unconditional love, someone who had been taught about God, and someone who found her voice when the Holy Spirit empowered her.  Such an event, such a collaboration, changed the world. Oh, and about Dr. Baer: he got some good counseling and learned how to break the habits of conditional love. Going to the brink of suicide, he came back from it and began to practice and teach-not medicine- but unconditional love. He calls it “Real Love.” And that has made all the difference.

Long ago, a union between a God of love and a young woman who said yes created the one we call “Savior; Christ the Lord.” God is still raising up preachers and chaplains; teachers and nurses and even doctors; construction works, fast food servers, and administrators who march to the beat of a different drum.  Like the gift the little drummer boy gave to God, they gave God their heart. Give God your heart this year if you haven’t done so already. Can you imagine what tidings of great joy Heaven will have if people really do that? May the extraordinary mother who said yes; a step father who did the same; and the Holy child who came into the world long ago, inspire you this Christmas to say “yes” to God.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 23, 2012

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LISTENING TO THE PROPHETS OF TODAY

Luke 3: 1-6

At the beginning of the fall, I set a deadline for myself to write my final doctoral paper in September, October, and November so that the first draft would get to my first reader, my second reader, and my third reader in good order by December 1. The whole process, from writing it to paying the fees and turning in a copy for binding, needs to be finished by March 1. But December is, of course, a busy season for Christians, and the seminary staff has a short month. In January some professors take a January term away from campus. That leaves February for any last minute correspondence. February 25 will be here in no time, the last day I can safely mail papers to arrive by March 1. There are no exceptions to that deadline if I hope to graduate in May. So in the last week of November, I sent the first draft of my final paper. When it is finalized, my doctoral work will be done!

Why do I tell you that? In part to keep you informed, but there’s another reason: Thanksgiving week, with all my doctoral reading done, I had the first chance to read something for fun in three years! During those years my reading has been for sermons, Bible studies, or my class work! So I thought I’d read something light. I chose John Grisham’s new novel CALICO JOE. I have enjoyed Grisham’s other works, usually about lawyers as in The Firm or The Pelican Brief.  But his stories have also delved into a bit of psychology like in Skipping Christmas, and into a lighthearted story like Playing for Pizza. So I didn’t expect a short novel about a baseball player to deal with a topic about which the prophets preached. The book led to a choice for a man, one of the hardest—yet the most rewarding—one can take. It was the decision to repent from sins in general, but one sin in particular, a wrong done to a young ball player that changed his life forever. And it had been a wrong that, in the press and to his family, had been denied. Ace pitcher Paul Tracey had deliberately hit a rookie in the first game that he faced him, and the damage was so severe he never played ball again. The young player had been clearly hurt by the wrong another person caused, one who went on his hate-filled way, trying to bury the bone of admission deep in the corner of his soul. Many people bury their wrongdoings done to someone else along with their justifications; with words like “Well, he had it coming” or “She deserved what she got” or “He just made me so mad,” or “I had a choice to make and I made it” or “I would apologize but ….” Dr. Phil McGraw correctly states that any words that follow the word “But” in an apology negate the apology. In our world today, a world that is polarized by stands, beliefs, parties, and posturing, repentance is an old idea that can be tried in our new age. There are some people, many of them famous, who have been given the advice to “never apologize.” Even so, pastoral counselors, priests, and chaplains all know that even an apology, without sincere repentance, is hollow indeed. Although a prophet is another word for a preacher, I think the prophets of today that can most influence our world are not the ones in the most famous pulpits around the world. They are counselors, ministers, and chaplains, but they are also those on the front lines of our world.  They can  be you; you to a Facebook friend; or to a classmate; or to a member of a 12 step group; or to another person at the right place at the right time.  The words that John the Baptist have brought us from ages ago are these: repentance and forgiveness. Those are his words from our text today. John framed his message with baptism. Baptism is an event that says to the world and to ourselves, “Behold, God is doing a new thing in me, starting today! Before I was lost, or I was loved but did not realize it. But now that I am washed by the cleansing flood, I am found; I am new, and I am saved for a purpose. And I begin to accept and to claim that I am loved.” In baptism, the adults themselves, or the parents of children, are asked to “renounce evil.” That is, they are promising to repent of their past sins, to show true remorse for them, and to make a new start. There are preachers who have been on talk shows this year sharing stories about their diets; there have been others who have shared messages that amounted to positive thinking, and still others who have warned that the world will end on December 21st. But I think the prophets of today who are most in touch with God’s Word and God’s heart are the ones who are either confronting other sinners when they are near their personal bottom; or when they are broken and realize it, confronting them to come clean, to admit their sins, and to start anew. Or the prophets of today are the ones who are comforting those who have been wronged and walking with them until they are ready to consider forgiveness. You can be the one who walks on that holy ground and hears the confession of sin by another. It may come all tumbling out one night, or it may come out little by little. You can then excuse the sin done to someone else with reassuring words like “Don’t worry, we all make mistakes,” and let the one who has been hurt continue to suffer. Or you can make a different choice:  you can take a moment, when someone confesses his or her sin, and ask that person: “What do you think you should do about this? What will give you peace? Can you offer the gift of repentance to the one you have hurt this Christmas?” That’s the kind of thing you may ask. And ultimately, a trained person might press just one more time to ask: “Do you want to restore the relationship you had with God that you broke when you sinned and kept silent about it? God saw it all, and God knows the right path. Which path will you take?” When poet Robert Frost wrote “Two roads diverged into a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” could he have had in mind that the less tra
veled road included having remorse for a wrong, and actions that could bring about reconciliation?  Christmas reminds us that God sent his Son into the world to acknowledge sins first; to point them out.  But then, for those who desire it, Jesus shows people the path out of the pit, one that can lead to forgiveness and reconciliation.

To take the step that Jesus, John the Baptist, and other prophets have proclaimed takes either internal determination, or an external pressure to cause you to do so. In other words, like the prodigal son in Luke 15, some people “Come to themselves,” which means they have a moment of awakening, self-revelation, or awareness, and they decide to do something about the hurt they have caused. The prodigal son wanted to come home, but was willing to be accepted as a servant believing he had relinquished his sonship.  John the Baptist, and others who are prophets, sometimes seem to cry into the wilderness; they know exactly what needs to be done to fix people, and heal relationships, and to change the world, but the great commandments are received as good suggestions and they fall on deaf ears. But this year, this year, if we can hear John’s words in new ways, then whether we are the perpetrator of a sin, or the victim of a sin, we can begin to live differently.

John preached a “baptism of repentance.” If you have wronged someone else and you think nobody noticed, God noticed. If you think no one is still hurt by it, ask. And if you think that what you did to hurt someone else has been forgotten, think again. The idea of forgiving and forgetting is an often repeated saying, but few forget unless there is an acknowledgement of sin. The other side of the coin is this: John says “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That’s the last part; for the forgiveness of sins. God chose to forgive, when people deserved condemnation. God chose to continue divine steadfast love, and God shows it through the incarnation. The incarnation is that God chose to enter our messy and polarized world long ago at Christmas, and God still chooses to dwell with us, working through Christ-like people to give examples of how to make our way out of the darkness. Some people move toward repentance haltingly, spitefully, or never. Some are able to forgive only after years or resentment that has eaten at their soul. But for those who get to that point, who repent, or who forgive, they have started down the road less traveled by, the road that makes all the difference.

O about Calico Joe.” The writer in the story Paul Tracey, grew up as a huge fan of an up and coming major league baseball player who was hitting home run after home run. Paul was just a boy when he watched Joe—the bright young star—step up to the plate in a Chicago Cubs uniform, and face a pitcher who was mean, spiteful, and a heavy drinker. The pitcher he faced was Paul Tracey’s father, Warren Tracey, an ace pitcher with the New York Mets. One beanball later and the bright future of a young player ended. But would Paul’s father ever acknowledge his sin? Would Paul ever be able to forgive his father, or would Joe be able to forgive the pitcher? Finally, would Paul’s father ever admit that he did it deliberately, rather than hide behind the line he fed to the press for years- that it was just a ball that got away from him? Here I was, thinking I would read a nice baseball story, and instead I came away with a reminder of the Christmas message: that peace can fill the hearts of people who repent and people who forgive. May you fill your role this year, giving voice to either prophetic repentance or gracious forgiveness, so that the dear Christ can rekindle love in your heart and in the hearts of others.  That, I believe, is the message of the prophets for today.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 9, 2012

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THE WORK OF WATCHING

Luke 21: 25-36

 

Most people in our world do not like to wait. Two weeks ago a woman was arrested in Central Florida for driving around a school bus on the sidewalk. How did they catch her? The bus driver had watched her do this for the past several days and brought a video camera to catch her actions and her license plate! Busted. Disregarding children and the law, she found it too frustrating to wait. And yet waiting and watching are two of the most important things we can do in life.  Waiting and watching is what a detective does when he is observing something or someone.  Some time ago a suspicious car was sitting in our church parking lot for more than a day. And a person was always inside it. I went up and asked him what he might need, and he showed me his credentials: he was a detective watching activity in a nearby house. What a lot of watching and waiting he had. Real watching takes work. If we fall asleep on the watch—whether we are a detective, or a soldier, an officer of the bridge, a Hospice nurse, or a babysitter—our sleep might change the course of history, putting someone in danger. Or if we are a sound sleeper, we might miss a morning or night with good or amazing news: like the announcement of a birth, or that miners have been saved from a cave in, or that an unexpected meteor shower made it look like the stars had begun to fall. Waiting is something we generally don’t enjoy doing but it must be done at times. We must wait for a cake to bake properly in an oven if we want to enjoy it later. After wet cement is poured for a driveway, I once watched a man stationed near it sit for a couple of hours to make sure no one walked on, drove on, or drew on it. Years ago the world got access to something called the internet through a process that was called dial up. Not only did it take at least 20 seconds to connect, but any images we hoped to download took one, two, or even five minutes. Goodness; much too long for our busy world, so high speed internet is now the lightning-fast connector. After all, as many times as we connect or get information, we are saving lots of time, aren’t we?  But there are few things less personal than an email and few things more treasured than a handwritten note or thank you note. Sometimes things that take time, and thought, and are greatly treasured.

Still sometimes in our rush we could miss something that time demands. In the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, special forces took months and months of observing before they decided to act. All they did was watch, and observe. By contrast, in the Bible we are told that Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake and watch during the most agonizing night of his life. And yet, his handpicked twelve, without exception fell asleep on their Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. Did he just want them to stay awake to keep him company, or was there something they could have seen, or heard, or learned if they had stayed awake? We’ll never know now. In Jerusalem even the Pharisees were sleeping in a manner of speaking when they asked Jesus questions and he answered; they were awake, but not alert; they were hearing but not listening. Does that happen to you? When something is on my mind, frighteningly I can drive from home to church without remembering the details of how I got here. I go on some kind of autopilot! And in counseling it takes a lot of energy to listen to and process what another person is saying. You know how that goes: how many times has your wife, or your husband, or your mother, or your father asked you to do something and later after there is no response, they ask “Did you hear me?” And you sheepishly think “no.” Like the talking teacher in the Peanut’s cartoons, Charles Schulz depicts the students as just hearing “wah, wah, wah, wah” whenever their teacher is talking. Maybe we have too much information to try to process.

As we head toward Christmas day again this year, there is a lesson to be learned on the front end rather than regret learning on the back end: waiting is important for many events in life. It is just December 2nd and we will be waiting until December 25th– a very long time in the mind of a child. But by comparison, it is no time at all.  When Isaiah proclaimed “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light … for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” it was said 600 years before Jesus was born! Our country is just over 200 years old and that prophesy was 600 years before the birth of Jesus! For 600 years people watched, and waited. Generations came and went; but then, the wonder was worth the wait: a Savior was born who would be called Christ the Lord! Now, just over 2000 years later, who knows when God will make the move to send Christ again? Who knows when the last days of the world will be upon us? Who knows what signs are already apparent, but only obvious if we watch and wait? If ever there was a time to watch alertly and wait patiently, it is now. A storm of catastrophic proportions, the likes of which have never been seen before, devastated the northeastern part of our country. There is no peace in Jerusalem, or Gaza, or Egypt. Our world seems to be pulled apart by radical secularism or radical religion. And there is untold hunger and injustice in pockets of our world. Perhaps the return of our Lord is around the corner. May he not find us—his disciples, sleeping or indifferent, but keeping watch with faith, hope, or love.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 2, 2012