Monthly Archives: February 2013

02-24-13 JESUS LAMENTS


JESUS LAMENTS

Luke 13: 31-35

Singer songwriter Carole King, in her autobiography, acknowledges the energy she felt with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, as they performed, and later with her friend of many years, James Taylor. The words she once wrote in one of her most famous songs are soothing. But instead of being from friend to friend, what if these words came instead from God, just for you or just for some other broken person. How would you receive it if God said to you: “When you’re down and troubled and you need some loving care, and nothing, nothing is going right. Close your eyes and think of me, and soon I will be there, to brighten up even your darkest hours. You just call out my name, and you know—wherever I am, I’ll come running.” That could be about God, couldn’t it? Except, perhaps, during laments, when people hope that the comforting God becomes a rescuing God; but instead, God hears you, but just hears you, in your agony. To paraphrase professor Walter Brueggemann, laments are cries to God when your world had come unglued; when a tragedy or unexpected calamity has hit you like a tidal wave; when a life of normal orientation is thrown into disorientation. The Rev. Arthur John Gossip’s world was turned upside down when his wife died on a Saturday and he had to preach on Sunday. Certainly his congregation would have excused him for such a loss. But instead, he preached perhaps the most compelling, guttural, lamenting sermon of his life. Here is how he began that sermon: “Here is a man who, musing upon the bewilderments of life, has burst into God’s presence, hot, angry, stunned by His ordering of things, with a loud babble of clamorous protest. “It is unfair!” he cries, “unfair!” A preacher began to lament, and drop his disordered life on the throne of God’s unfair world. He was grieving. Later in his sermon he declared: “I do not understand this life of ours. But still less can I comprehend how people in trouble and loss and bereavement can fling away peevishly from the Christian faith. In God’s name, fling to what? Have we not lost enough without losing that too? …You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else!” He preached that sermon in Scotland in 1927. Just five years later in the United States, a black gospel song writer named Thomas A. Dorsey got a message that caused him to lament. “While leading music in St. Louis, he was handed a telegram bearing the words: ‘Your wife just died.’ He rushed to a phone to call home, but all he could hear over the line was ‘Nettie is dead! Nettie is dead!’ ‘I began to feel that God had done me an unjustice,’ Thomas later said. ‘I didn’t want to serve him any more or write any more gospel songs.’ But a week later, he changed his mind, and poured his weeping into writing, creating the beloved hymn “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.” [Then Sings My Soul, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003, pp.288-289] A final example I got from my chaplain daughter, the Rev. Jenny Sumner Carswell. Here was the story she shared:

I met with a patient and his wife in the ICU.  The patient was just
diagnosed with cancer that was rapidly progressing and the doctors
told him he was not going to survive.  The patient knew his wife was
having trouble processing it all and asked that I bring her to a quiet
room and listen to her pain.  I brought her into a small consultation
– just the two of us – and acknowledged how hard this must be for her.
And then the floodgates opened: her sadness, her anger, her
frustration, her powerlessness, her confusion and her helplessness
flew from her mouth at a volume so loud that I could feel her breath
on my face.  She wept and screamed to God, to her husband, to me; I
stayed quiet and calm.  She shouted questions, why, why, why, but I
knew she didn’t want answers.  Answers seemed cheap…because sometimes
life leaves us only with questions.  In that moment, I knew I could
not calm her down.  I knew I
should not calm her down.  This was her
way to claim control in a situation where she had no control.  I
listened to her lament the way I believe God listens in our deepest
pain: with open ears ready to receive the raw feelings involved in the
depth of human suffering.  I normalized her feelings through soft
words and head nods.  Once she said what she needed to, she stood up,
left the room, and asked that I not follow.  Sometimes our laments are
so deep that we need to find moments of escape to process on our own
and I allowed her the space to do that.

Have you ever lamented about something—a situation or a circumstance—and you have cried out to God? Or perhaps you have cried out to others? It can be a wrenching time of disorientation. In the Bible the prophet Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” The book that bears his name, and the book of Lamentations, is each filled with sorrow: Jeremiah’s sorrow over the unfaithfulness of Israel. In her own book Lamentations and the Tears of the World, Professor Kathleen O’Connor writes “Lamentations is about the collapse of a physical, emotional, and spiritual universe of an entire people, not about individual sorrows except in a metaphorical and symbolic manner.” [ Orbis Books, p. xiv]. Can you imagine weeping over an entire people: a nation, or a world? Through the mouthpiece of the prophets, even God laments; God laments over the state of the world, the sorrows that can overwhelm our lives, and the choices that we make. Alas, the gift of free will transferred much of God’s power into human beings; we choose the actions, and we reap the consequences. On occasion, human weakness, or human sinfulness or carelessness or negligence can also lead to tragedy. God is only too familiar with tragedy. Even as God came in Christ, he lamented.

In spite of times when Jesus experienced joy or gratitude from others for his healings, Jesus also wept. Such is the shortest verse of the Bible from John 11:35. But he also lamented, and he did so in our text for today. Let’s picture what was facing our Lord. He had been performing miracles, telling parables, being pummeled with questions by Pharisees, and Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas, was trying to kill him. Jesus was a threat. He was not afraid of Herod; he called him metaphorically, “a fox.” Then he outlined his plans to finish his life on earth. In Luke’s account he was on the outskirts of Jerusalem when that happened and had not yet entered the city. If you ever visit the Holy Land, you may be directed, as we were, to come down the Mount of Olives toward the city. There is a place there where tradition says that Jesus lamented over Jerusalem.  In his humanness, he had great sorrow over people who foolishly had chosen ways that did not honor God. And in his Godliness he mourned the choices that people were making. Can you picture our Lord? I believe he would not have said the words fast or flippantly, but with deliberate weight on them: “O Jerusalem; Jerusalem; killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together like a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Such a powerful feminine image comes out in Jesus’ lament; if he could have, he would have protected them as if they were helpless; but they were not; they had made the choices of maturity. So Jesus lamented.

I wonder what Jesus laments about America; or about the city where you live. I wonder what specifically Jesus laments about the earth? Is it the fighting for power; the loss of natural resources; the territorial skirmishes; the arguments from religious groups as each believes they know God’s will?  There is much to lament. And with laments, we have learned that sometimes people cry on the shoulder of another; sometimes they scream in a chaplain’s face, standing so close she can feel their breath. But here is one thing to note: laments are moments in time. Laments that last months or years call into question the redemptive power of God, forgetting that God can pull light from darkness and turn our mourning into dancing.

Jesus’ lament today, I am most sure, includes a lament for the “perishing” or those who are lost. Jesus always came for life, abundant life, and for salvation. It has been offered to others over the generations, and it is offered to you today. Jesus wants you to have eternal life, not eternal death; Jesus wants you to invite others into the lifeboat of the church. But Jesus also wants to tuck you unfailingly under his protective wings. Through the storm, through the night; through the hospital, after the telegram, or in your aloneness, your Lord will be there when you call on His name. The Jesus of Galilee became Christ the King, the one who will inhabit the hearts of those who love him and invite him in. So no matter what darkness or despair might threaten to undo you, don’t leave God out. Cry out to God, question God, even get angry with God. The Scriptures are filled with prophets who do not discount or deny God in the midst of their anguish. It is good to learn. And to close, hear these words of human witness from Psalm 27: “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me. Thou hast said ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to thee, “Thy face do I seek.” [vs.7-9]

God is with us; we are not alone.

Jeffrey A. SumnerFebruary 24, 2013

02-17-13 JESUS IS TEMPTED

JESUS IS TEMPTED

Deuteronomy 26: 1-3, 10-13;  Luke 4: 1-13

 

When it comes to comic strips in the newspaper, my kids know I always read “Zits,” the ongoing agony of Jeremy, his parents, and his friend Pierce, in their teenage years. Recently Richard Hills told me to read “Pickles” about a retirement aged couple, so I read that one now. I wonder why he thought it was time for me to read that one?  But this week I went back to an old favorite called “For Better or for Worse.” The parents are watching their young children grow up. This week they are watching the children play in the back yard. They cannot hear what they are saying as they look out the closed window, but they see their activities. The mother turns to the father and says: “They live in such a fantasy world.” But what they don’t know is the conversation their children are actually having. Their older boy says to the younger boy and girl, “You guys play house over there, and I’ll be a divorced guy and I’ll live over here.” The girl says, “Aw Michael, you always get to be the divorced guy!” In a minute they were on another subject. The young boy said “Now let’s pretend that bombs are gonna come, Michael! What if bombs come?” Michael responds: “We can build a bomb shelter so we can hide- if we’ve got time!”  And Michael says to the younger ones who had climbed under a backyard blanket as their shelter: “Pretend I’m a soldier, ok? An’ I come to stay in your bomb shelter!”  And it’s then when the parents made the comment I mentioned earlier. And the dad says: “It would be fun to be a kid again, wouldn’t it, Elly? And she agrees.

 

Our world is seriously filled with fearful things: kidnappings; what temptation or desperation would cause a person to kidnap another? How about shootings; what temptation or illness causes a person to shoot so many others? And this last week there was even a story of a father shooting and killing his own son. What an atrocity. We must surely know there is evil in the world. Does it reside in a fallen angel or a tempter that the Bible calls the devil? Does evil reside in the corrupt souls of human beings? It seems too easy to blame the devil for things we have done wrong because when God created humans, we were given the choice between life and death, blessing and curse according to Deuteronomy 30:19. We either can choose to let the tempter run our life, or, if we are Christians, to let Christ run our life. Temptations surround us.  We are creatures made of flesh, and sin, and hormones, so God gave us a moral world in which to operate; one where the right things we do are reckoned as righteousness by God, and the wrong things we do are reckoned by God as sinfulness. And the truth is most people are a bundle of both. We are not all righteous, nor are we all sinful. But what do we do about the sinful part? How do we say “no” to too much food, or inordinate power, or inappropriate sex, or the parade of other temptations that entice our psyche? I’ve never been to New Orleans, but from what I’ve seen of Fat Tuesday on Bourbon Street, parades of tempters throw beads and some wrap their arms around persons whose resistance is lowered by drink, drugs, or peer pressure, and sometimes sorrowful results ensue. But we don’t live on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, do we? So what’s the problem? Just this: temptation never takes a holiday. What will people do for money, or fame?

In the pursuit of a career, it was reported last week that one Sports Illustrated model went to Antarctica to have photos taken in her bikini in sub zero temperatures. She lost part of her hearing and part of her sight as she tried to look carefree for the camera. What is the cost of stardom; of success; of getting noticed?  From what I read and see, stars are not generally more faithful to God than non stars; in fact it is often the opposite. Many are lost; and we are ones who might just have a closer walk with God than they do.

 

Today let’s consider the temptations that Jesus faced in that fateful time when he was eating and sleeping very little. In his human state, was he having a vision, a dream, or a real encounter with the devil? We cannot tell from Scripture but I know when I haven’t eaten for a period of time my body and mind don’t work like they usually do. And when I go with little or no sleep my emotions come loose and my mind goes numb. If only I had that wisdom when I joined others in college “pulling an all-nighter” before a test! What zombies we all were the next day! In a condition with little sleep and even less food, Jesus was tempted and hungry. In fact or in a vision, the devil tempted him with food. Have you seen the cartoons when a moral decision has to be made, there’s a man with an angel on one shoulder and a demon and the other? That is always a time of decision. And as the banner that hangs in our hallway during Lent reminds us, we would do well to ask ourselves “W.W.J.D.- What Would Jesus Do?” In each case Jesus clings to what he was taught in Scripture and he stands fast against temptation. In the first case when the tempter told him a way to get food, his quote was from Deuteronomy 8:3, when Moses reminded the Israelites of their own time in the wilderness: “God humbled you,” he said, “and let you hunger and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forebears know; that God might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” Jesus clings to Scripture that he was taught as a young man. He did not forsake what the Hebrew Bible taught him. It is well for us to do as Jesus did. Know Scripture; follow Scripture; know God in part by knowing God’s words. And then, when someone offers you a doughnut, or a drink, or a triple cheeseburger, or a sure bet, and you know one bite or one drink or one bet could be your downfall, you too can turn away from the tempter.

 

Next the devil enticed Jesus with power, saying all the kingdoms within eyesight would be his to rule if Jesus would fall down and worship him. Another man once took the tempter’s offer. He wanted such power
, and he gave up his soul to gain it. In the non-fiction book In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, the chilling story is told of Hitler’s rise to power. It features William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. When Dodd first met Hitler, this was his description: “Hitler did not cut a particularly striking figure. Even in his rise it was easy for those who met him for the first time to dismiss him as a nonentity. He came from plebeian roots and had failed to distinguish himself in any way, not in war, not in work, not in art …. He was said to be indolent. He rose late, worked little, and surrounded himself with the lesser lights of the party with whom he felt most comfortable …. He loved movies—King Kong was his favorite …. He dressed badly [and] apart from his moustache and eyes, the features of his face were indistinct and unimpressive.” [Crown Publishing, 2011, p. 157]. That is the man who tried to take over the world. He did it by saying

“yes” to the evil urge for absolute power and convincing others—in part by tyrannical speech, and in part by intimidation from the “dullards” who took orders from him. Later in the book author Erik Larson recounts that Hitler made a deal with military leaders to become both President and Chancellor of Germany once President Hindenberg died. Larson called it “a devil’s bargain.” [p. 252] A Christian knows that absolute power is given to God alone; to try to grasp it is to try to be god in some way, and it is both heresy and fraught with a promise that God will win in the end. It happened with emperors Nero and Domitian in the first century who persecuted and burned Christians, and it happened when Hitler in the 20th century persecuted and burned Jews. There is only room for one absolute power in the world. Even Jesus said “No” to that temptation when it was offered to him. And how did he back it up? With Scripture, as before: again from Deuteronomy 6: 13-14. “You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him and swear by his name. You shall not go after other gods.”  [little g]

 

The third temptation the devil offered Jesus was the last one for that particular meeting. He challenged Jesus to test God, to throw himself off of the temple and see if God would send angels to catch him. Jesus trusted that he would be safe, but he would not test God for anything, especially for a voice in his head or an evil vision before his eyes. He stood fast, standing on the solid ground of Scripture for his final defense. He quoted our Psalm of the day, Psalm 91 that we will sing in a moment. The part that he quoted was Psalm 91:11-12, and again he quoted Deuteronomy for his final stand: “You shall not test the Lord your God.” Jesus himself grounded his decisions in Scripture, and in so doing, the devil departed from him. Once you establish that your decision will honor God and not the devil, temptation gets less of a foothold in your life because you do not give in. As you think about our Lord Jesus during these days of Lent, don’t just admire him or feel sorry for him. Learn from him. Then you, like Christ, will make tempters take flight from your life.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 17, 2013

02-03-13 DO I KNOW YOU

— sermon audio not available —
Jesus returns to his hometown in this passage. Last week Jeff talked about the extraordinary claims he made. About how the scripture was fulfilled in the listeners hearing. And the people in his hometown reacted badly. After all, they know this kid, right? This is Joseph’s and Mary’s son. Always a bit odd. He’s back now after a few years of travel to tell them he is the messiah? Uh-huh. No way. They know him. He’s playing some sort of an elaborate joke.

We’ve been where Jesus was. At some point in our lives, someone thought they knew us. Thought they knew what we wanted and what we were capable of and got it dead wrong.

I look young. I know it. I am still frequently mistaken for a college student… or for someone in high school. I’ve performed at least four weddings where some family member of the couple has pulled me aside to ask me how old I am. For the record? I’m 31. Occasionally this question was accompanied with a question of whether or not I was still in training. Once I was asked when the “real pastor” was going to get there.

I was dismissed because I looked younger and therefore less capable than I actually was. I’m sure there have been times in your life when someone has underestimated you because they thought they knew something about you that isn’t necessarily the case.

Maybe someone passed you over for a promotion because you hadn’t been at the job for long. Perhaps no one invited you to a social event because they assumed it wouldn’t interest you. There was an opportunity you weren’t offered because people thought you were too old. Or maybe someone refused to give you their number because you didn’t look like the type.

In all these cases, people’s misconceptions lead them to believe we can’t do something we can. For Jesus, the town full of people who watched him grow up was thrilled to listen to him read the torah. But when he started saying things they weren’t comfortable with, assumed he couldn’t do, they were filled with anger and frustration. Jesus talked back to them! Told them to not to expect him to stay at home and fix all their woes. And oh they were filled with frustration and anger.

We’ve all had days when we were like jesus in this story. And… unfortunately, we’ve all had days when we were like the people of Jesus’ hometown. When someone did something we didn’t expect or think they should do and we reacted with surprise and sometimes anger. We knew this guy and yet he goes off and does this thing we weren’t expecting. Sometimes we don’t react with anger so much as doubt and skepticism. What do you mean you’re going to do that? I know you. You can’t possibly pull that off.

We turn down people who offer to help because we know how to do it right. Or because we don’t think their idea would ever work.

But, we need to remember, the woman we dismissed as irrelevant had skills we knew nothing about. The guy who turned down our offer of help has a whole life of being let down. The man begging for food on the street had a whole series of incidents that put him in that position.

We have a tendency to assume we know people, don’t we? Know what they are like… know who they are. Maybe we saw them grow up and therefore know what kind of an adult they turned into. Or maybe we don’t even go that far. Maybe we see some superficial characteristics and assume we know who that person really is.

It’s human nature. We don’t really know other people but we assign roles to them. We make assumptions to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know. But really getting to know people is hard and more than a bit scary.

Okay. So we’ve all had those occasions where people thought they knew us and they were wrong. And we’ve all had those situations where we thought we knew others and we were wrong. But how often do we get it right?

So much of human activity is done because people want someone else to really understand them. We all  long for someone to know who we really are and accept us anyway. Thousands of self help books and failed relationships stem from this desire. We know other people don’t really know us. And we want them too.

Here’s the thing, there is always more to people. Always more of who they are and what they could do. It is HARD to know someone fully. Spouses that have been married for years find themselves surprised by the other’s statements or actions.

There are a couple of reasons for this. We keep evolving. We don’t stay the same person. So knowing me when I was ten, doesn’t mean you will know me when I am twenty. Or thirty. Or who I will be at 50. We change. So in order to know me, you have to keep talking to me. You have to pay attention to the changes in others.

But the other major reason is that we assume. We assume we know who this person will be and we stop trying to learn. We stop seeking. We stop questioning. We can never really know someone if we assume we know them already. We can never open up past the surface when we are trying to make them be who we used to know.

And we even do this about ourselves. We assume who we are and what we are capable of and sometimes get it completely wrong. Sometimes we fail to really know ourselves. How many times have you looked at a task and thought it was insurmountable?

Jeremiah did exactly that. He told the Lord that there was no way he was prepared and ready to preach to others. I’m too young! he protested. No you’re not said the lord. I don’t know what to say he argued. I will put the words in your mouth said the Lord.

See, the Lord knew Jeremiah even better than Jeremiah knew himself. The Lord knew that Jeremiah could do this and should be the prophet to those people. We can handicap even ourselves because we don’t truly know what we are capable of. But God does know us. As God assures Jeremiah. I knew you in the very womb. I know who you are. And what you are capable of even when you don’t know yourself.

We are fully known! And loved anyway. That is the wonder of our relationship with God. That God really does know us, flaws and strengths all rolled in together and God still loves us. The scary part that comes after is that God then calls us to things we don’t think are possible. God calls us to do what we see as impossible. But God knows us better than we even know ourselves. All we have to do is try to follow where he calls.

Well, that and one other thing. We have to be careful not to step on the calls of other people. I think this means that we have to remind ourselves that we don’t really know people. I can’t assume I know how you will act or respond because I don’t really fully know who you are. How much does that change our relationship with other people? Would we open up more? Trust other people more? Allow others to be fully who they are?

People are complicated. We all have layers of thoughts and feelings and abilities. But God knows us and what we are capable of. When we are called to do a task we think it beyond our grasp, we have to trust how much God knows about us. And sometimes…when we see others attempting tasks we think are beyond them … we have to remind ourselves of what we don’t know. Amen.