03-31-13 JESUS IS RISEN!


John 20: 1-18

We live in a world influenced heavily by the television shows that all start with the initials CSI. Crime Scene Investigators. In the decade that that franchise has grown, law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys, and judges on benches have groaned. Police offices groaned over the apparent state-of-the- art systems on the television shows when actual law enforcement budgets rarely can afford such cutting edge equipment. And because it is television, they artificially speed up the results of lab tests. In truth, DNA results are not returned in the span of time depicted. Prosecuting attorneys groan also because the burden of proof in a trial has shifted dramatically in the last 15 years. With the advent of cell phones, YouTube, and high definition security cameras, juries have changed their definitions of “reasonable doubt” to “if there isn’t DNA or a photograph, then we really can’t prove a crime.” Especially in high profile cases, confident prosecutors are left with their jaws open as the evidence they presented to convict a person is called “insufficient” or “not enough” by juries. Experts have said things like just in the last two years: For centuries defendants have been prosecuted and convicted with less evidence than is presented now. But because everyone wants to see photos when there are none, or find DNA when there is none to find, defendants are found ‘not guilty.’ The times have really changed.” Judges have had to brace themselves for surprising verdicts and more appeals than before. It is a tough world in which to prove something. Even with film or pictures, Photo Shopping, blue screening, and green screening is done with such precision that actors on a soundstage with concrete floors can be made to look like they are flying, while another is climbing alps, and another is lassoing a cartoon calf. It is all done to fool the eye which makes people conclude that seeing is believing. Illusionists like David Copperfield and Criss Angel-MINDFREAK count on being able to fool our eyes. And yet we think what we see with our own eyes is the best evidence. Today, Jesus is hoping that we will trust other kinds even more.

John, who wrote our gospel today, is mostly concerned that readers, none of whom were eyewitnesses to the resurrection, still believe that it happened. How does he do it? And can his first century techniques still connect with 21st century skeptics? Let’s see. First he reports that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early. Clearly the Sabbath was over and the dawns early light was the first time it was appropriate to visit a grave. Many believe that Mary was one of Jesus’ most trusted followers. She is startled that the stone—a large one- is rolled away, so she runs—the text says “runs—to Peter and the disciple ‘who Jesus loved.’” Good Bible detectives will note that the other disciple is only referred to that way in John. Only here do we find one disciple referred to as “the disciple who Jesus loved.” Several scholars believe that John, out of great humility, does not want to name himself in such a fashion. John MacArthur, in his book called TWELVE ORDINARY MEN says this: “Throughout John’s Gospel, he never once mentions his own name….The apostle John refuses to speak of himself in reference to himself. Instead, he speaks of himself in reference to Jesus. He never paints himself in the foreground as a hero, but uses every reference to himself  to honor Christ. Rather than write his name, which might focus attention on himself, her instead refers to himself as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved,’ giving glory to Jesus for having loved such a man [as he, a rugged fisherman who answered his call.]” [W Publishing Group, 2002, p. 110-111]So Peter and John  were two disciples in what might be called the “inner circle.” Again, Mary says in today’s text what she assumes: “They (authorities? grave robbers?) have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we (we? Who else was with her?) do not know where they have laid him.” She is looking for a body. There is no hint she is looking for a risen Savior. The two disciples seem astounded and want to see this for themselves. So for the sake of readers like you and me we learn that the empty tomb was observed by Mary Magdalene; now we will benefit from two more eyewitnesses, one of whom is likely the author of this gospel. The one who Jesus loved got to the tomb first, looked in without entering, and saw the linen grave clothes, as we depicted at our empty tomb scene today. When Simon Peter came, he actually went into the tomb. He not only saw the crumpled grave clothes, but he saw the ritual linen napkin that was placed on the head of the corpse. It was not crumpled like a grave robber would leave it. It was “rolled up in a place by itself.” Here was another sign that robbery had not gone on. The first disciple, the one who may have been John, says he also went in and saw the same thing. But he did more than seeing; “He believed.” What could he possibly have believed? Could he have believed what the Lord had told him and the others earlier would take place? The men left, but Mary stayed, apparently not yet ready to leave the last place where she could remember her Lord. She then saw something incredible: two angels in white. I wonder how I would know if an angel was in my midst? Would the angel be small or tall; translucent or transparent; fierce looking or kind; male, female, or would it be of uncertain gender; I don’t know. But I know that Mary decided she had seen angels, one where the head of the body would have been and one at the feet. They asked her why she was crying. Did they do it together or did one ask and the other agree with the asking? We don’t know that. Professor Bill Brown of Columbia Seminary helps us recap the scene with these words: “The first cry that pierces that early Easter morning at the garden tomb was not ‘Christ is Risen!’ but “Jesus is stolen!’ Mary had every reason to believe that what she saw bore the signs of a bona fide body snatching. And what did she see? Exhibit A: a missing stone, a gaping entrance….When the winded Simon Peter gets there, he sees another detail: the head cloth neatly rolled up ….” [The Ecology of Re
surrection, Journal for Preachers, Vol. XXXVI No. 3 p. 20] Could Mary have had a vision from God? Remember John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, reminds us that he knew about the beginning; that in the beginning was the Word. We also know that in the beginning there was a garden. Our 1 Corinthians passage for today reminds also that God created a garden and placed human beings—adam in Hebrew—in the garden. Through sin, life became finite; it had a finish line. But now, through this message that is unfolding, through the risen Lord, all can be made alive! We can have new life beyond life’s finish line! Paul put it this way: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive!” [1 Cor 15:22] In Christ, Mary was shown a glimpse of God’s plan, and was given instructions about fulfilling it. She saw a gardener and he turned out to be Jesus! “Do not yet hold me” he said to her. That was his first instruction to Mary Magdalene.
He said it because he had something for her to do that had to be done first: To go and tell his other disciples that he was ascending to his Father.  So Mary went and proclaimed what centuries of seekers have needed to hear: “I have seen the Lord!”

So today we cannot count on CSI or on DNA. We cannot count on science or hold our breath to see if the Shroud of Turin is actually dated to the time of Christ’s resurrection. Instead we can hear again and again accounts of  eyewitnesses recorded in Scripture. We can hear that the first ones at the tomb thought there had been a body snatching; only later did it dawn on them that a resurrection had occurred. We can count on accounts from four gospels with slightly different details; that happens with witnesses: ask four people what they saw at an event and you’ll often get four slightly different accounts. But each Gospel records the same truth: an earth shattering thing had happened. Jesus of Nazareth had a bodily resurrection from the dead; no David Copperfield or other illusionist was involved! The one event that sets our faith apart from Jews or Muslims or atheists or other groups is the message of Easter: We serve a risen Savior! This is the life changing message of Easter. But there’s more. John also quotes Jesus as saying he came so that those who believe in him may not perish, but have everlasting life! What a gift; the gift of life eternal. It is the event that changed the world, and if you let it, that event can change……your ………. life.

Through the ages pastors and priests have proclaimed to the world “Christ is Risen!” And believers have affirmed back: “He is risen indeed!” So I proclaim to you this Easter Day: “Christ is Risen!” (Believers: “He is risen indeed!”)

Jeffrey A. SumnerMarch 31, 2013





Luke 19: 29-40


I was just a boy when the event
happened in Dealey
Plaza in Dallas Texas
in November of 1963. If you were alive then, you know the event I mean. Our
youngest president ever flew to Love Field, got into the classic Lincoln
Continental limousine, and began his fateful journey in that presidential
convertible. Those were more innocent days, days in which Pope Mobiles and
armored vehicles for presidents were thought not to be needed. And Dealey Plaza
was the place where the tragedy occurred: our president was shot. Four years
ago Richard Hills and I were in Dallas for a meeting and I asked him to join
me in a journey by walking and by train to visit Dealey Plaza.
What first struck me in seeing it is how small it looks and how many places a
gunman could hide. The plaza is surrounded by tall buildings including the now
famous Texas Book Depository which we toured. And there was the grassy knoll
where someone could escape undetected; it was next to the overpass under which
the president’s driver sped to Parkland
Hospital. Americans, even
those who did not vote for John Kennedy, were glued to television sets, stunned
over such a brutal assassination. I remember pouring over the commemorative
hardback book with pictures that our family purchased: “Four Days: The
Historical Record of the Death of President Kennedy.” And if you have followed
the conspiracy theories over the years, you might have also seen the color film
of the motorcade taken by a now famous man, Abraham Zapruder. Visiting Dealey
Plaza was a haunting
experience for Richard and me. In that crowd, 50 years ago this November,
clearly some were cheering, and some were plotting or carrying out a plot, but
the mixture of persons was not apparent until later. When Egyptian President
Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, there surely were some in that public
place who also cheered for him, while others hoped to stop him before he could
continue his plans for peace negotiations with Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem
Begin. In another assassination in 1948, the Hindu leader called Mahatma Gandhi
was killed by a fanatic. He too threatened the status quo by leading the fight
for an independent India.
He too had crowds cheer for him while others found his messages a threat.


Over the years, those leaders with
progressive, groundbreaking, or revolutionary ideas have often met with tragic
ends. When people suggest to those with power, with money, or with influence
that things should change, unrest is often the result. Today as we began the
service, we did so with the naiveté of the crowd; the crowd included children
simply caught up in the excitement, cheering because others were cheering,
waving things because others waved things. The procession is like a parade to
them. It is sweet to think that way, but like the other events I’ve just
mentioned, there was plotting going on behind each of them. Those in the know
were not just cheering, they were angry and hopeful.  Why were they angry? In Jesus’ case the Jews
had been under the tyrannical taxing and ruling thumb of the Romans for dozens
of years. They were tired of being taxed to death. Sound familiar? They wanted
to go back to a time when Jews ruled Jews. And such a time was not that many
years earlier! Here is where history informs our Palms Sunday joys. Two hundred
years earlier a Jewish family known as the Maccabees revolted again the Selucid
rulers of the day. The revolt, led by a man named Judas Maccabeus, ended in
years of freedom from 164 BCE to
63 BCE when there was a true Jewish
king and Jerusalem
was free; it was 100 years of Jewish freedom! It ended when Pompey’s eastern
campaigns captured the city for Rome
once again. During the Jew’s self rule, they created a national symbol, much as
Americans did with the flag or with the American Bald Eagle. Do you know what
the Jew’s national symbol was? A palm branch; that’s right. So on that Palm
Sunday ages ago, the palm branch was not just a convenient item to wave toward
Jesus; it was a symbol of hope for a
national revolt.
And what were those angry and hopeful people shouting? Not
“hallelujah” which means “Praise the Lord,” a cry we hear at Easter and
Christmas. No; they were shouting the Jewish word, “Hoshianna” or as we say it
now “Hosanna!” Hosanna means “Save us.” Those people cried out to Jesus things
like: “Save us from these Romans! Save us from these taxes! Return a true
Jewish King to the throne! Perhaps you will
lead our revolt and be our king!” Those are the things that certainly were on
the minds or on the lips of some of the crowd that day. So let’s recap. There
were the innocent persons in the crowd, the ones Jesus appreciated most; they
were the ones celebrating, and Jesus was drinking in their joy. When someone
asked Jesus to quiet his disciples because they were afraid too much noise
would stir up the Roman guards as they were nearing the Golden Gates of
Jerusalem, Jesus instead said, “If they are quiet even the stones will cry
out!” Fate was parading down the Mount of Olives
and about to enter city, the city that was overcrowded and tense because it was
filled with travelers there for Passover. There were Bike Week crowds in Jerusalem that week, and
some feared that one loud crowd could stir up the authorities. So this group,
the ones who asked Jesus to quiet his disciples, were Pharisees—they were like
elders—and the Scribes—they were Jewish priests. They began to grumble and
plot. They decided that Jesus and his fans had to be silenced. The didn’t have
rifles, but they had a Roman system of keeping the peace that included swift
death to those who spoke against Rome or it’s leaders. No Jew would do the
killing himself; that would break one of God’s commandments. But if they could
distort or create charges and get the ear of a Roman in charge, such as Pontius
Pilate, governor from 26 CE to 36 CE, then they could perhaps silence Jesus who
was seen by some as prophet, by others as a king, and still by others as a
possible messiah. The Jewish leaders thought all those titles were undeserved
and preposterous. So just as when other leaders had assassination plots carried
out against them, our Lord himself became a target. It was this third group in
the crowd—the religious leaders—along with the second group—the unhappy Jews
who wanted a leader to lead them in a revolt again, that make this day a
Passion Sunday. It is truly a day with more than a hint of suffering to come.
Only the first group, the young or naïve ones who cheered, created our Palm
Sunday processions. The palm branches were both handy and hopeful to wave.


So our Lord, even on this day of a
parade, was stepping into a tinderbox of activity, unrest, and
religious/political clamor. Today it would be so much more fun to just enjoy
the pomp and circumstance which by definition is “a splendid celebration with
ceremony and fuss.” But knowledgeable
readers of Scripture know that there is rain on this parade. Jesus is parading
into a powder keg;
tensions are high and irreversible actions are being
hatched against this irritating man from Galilee.
Today people who honor the Lord Jesus should not just jump right to the Easter
Jesus. We choose instead to remember what he faced that week; what he suffered;
and why it happened. Palm Sunday resulted in human and evil plans being carried
out, resulting in death. But God’s plan
will triumph.
We are not there yet. Remember your Savior this week. There
are weeks when you need him; this week he needs you. Remember
the events ahead with study, reflection, and service.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  March 24, 2013




John 12: 1-8


When I was growing up there were two
sayings that apparently sank into my psyche. One of them was “Waste not, want
not.”  I remember my grandmother rolling
up her cloth napkins after each meal so that it could be used for the next
meal. I remember her pouring crème from a pitcher back into the carton if it
wasn’t all used. And I remember her sponging off aluminum foil and placing it
in a cabinet so that it could be used again. Those practices were thrifty. I
have had to train myself to actually throw things away; my natural inclination
is to save.  Another saying I remember
was “Who belongs to the Clean Plate Club?” We were strongly urged to eat
everything on our plate. In a matter of speaking that is a good practice. In
today’s restaurants, however, the portions are so huge that you could make
yourself sick eating it all. That’s what I did over the years, trying to belong
to the clean plate club. My metabolism must be such that I don’t really gain
much weight, but there was silent damage I was doing. For example, when our
children were growing up and we would stop for fast food when we were on trips,
we would get them a kid’s meal with usually consisted of some type of burger or
chicken tenders, and always fries. If they didn’t eat all their food, if we
were on the road and couldn’t save it I would try to eat what they left. It was
a bad idea, particularly eating that many French fries. Perhaps that
kick-started my diabetes, but I was hard-wired not to waste anything. Even last
week we stopped near Plant City
and got four pounds of fresh strawberries for a dollar a pound! What a deal!
But by Wednesday I decided I’d better start eating more of them or they would
go bad. So I had a strawberry power shake that evening and the next morning my
blood sugar was up to 149! It was another bad idea of mine, like the eating
extra French fries! So Thursday night I ate portion controlled foods. Friday
morning I had a nearly normal blood sugar reading of 89! With continual
counseling from my wife, I am better at eating portions of food and not eating
more than that.


Because waste was frowned upon in our
family, I even remember watching movies in which people found a stash of gold,
or of coins, or of dollar bills, and in exuberance they would toss them in the
air! I would want to jump through the television screen to help pick it up! Who
throws money around like that? I am careful with my money, but generous when I
give it. So in our Gospel story today, I am definitely like Martha who served
the meal. We remember reading about Martha serving Jesus in Luke 10 while Mary
sat at Jesus’ feet, not helping to prepare or serve the meal. There again in my
house I would have done what Martha was doing, yet Mary was praised. Today we
are back in the same house but with other people present: Mary and Martha’s
brother, Lazarus, was there, who Jesus had just brought back to life, and, if
you can believe it, Judas Iscariot. Who would have thought that Judas would
have traveled alone with Jesus? It is a strange mix of persons but the day was
about to get stranger. Here again we have “star struck” Mary, the one who sat
and adored Jesus in the other story. This time she takes a very expensive
perfume and rubs it all over Jesus’ feet. The perfume was called “nard,” short
for spikenard according to one source, “a flowering plant of the Valerian
family; it has pink, bell-shaped flowers and is found at high altitudes. The
stems that grow underground can be crushed and distilled into an intensely
aromatic amber colored oil.” (Wikipedia) So imagine what I am saying to myself:
“This will be a waste, it might cause allergic reactions because of the pungent
aroma, it will make the floor slippery, and it might even stain the floor or
rug!” But Jesus loves it!

Jesus seems to love that Mary gets
what he is teaching: he is just a day away from his fateful Palm Sunday
entrance into Jerusalem,
and he knows he will not live long. Death was imminent to our Lord. So what did
he want? First, he wanted someone to pay attention to his final instructions.
Mary did that. Would you have done that, or like me, just kept busy seeing that
he had enough to eat? Second, Jesus wanted an insightful person; one who
understood what he perhaps had shared with them over his visits; he was about to
die. As with Hospice care, there is an extravagance of responses to food
requests, especially deserts; an extravagance of tender loving care, and an
extravagance of attention far beyond what we people might normally receive in
their lifetime. Mary was extravagant with her attention, and then extravagant
with the oil. It was extremely costly oil but to Mary, cost was not the issue.
She chose it to show love, devotion, and even praise. In those days kings were
often anointed as they gained the throne.


Could Mary have understood that Jesus
was a king? All Jews knew that oils were used to anoint a person at death; they
would be fragrant, though not usually as costly as nard. Could Mary have had an
inside understanding about Jesus’ upcoming death and lovingly offered him in
life what she might not be able to offer him in death? Some scholars have
suggested each of those scenarios. You might even know that in Mark’s gospel
chapter 14, and in Matthew’s gospel chapter 26, Jesus is also in Bethany, this time at the
house of Simon the leper, when a woman brings an alabaster flask of pure nard
and pours it on Jesus’ head. Our savior must have exuded quite an aroma that
day in Bethany!


In his gospel, John had a particular
purpose for writing: his gospel, unlike the others, was to tell accounts that
revealed who Jesus was. So while other
stories of pouring costly oil exist in the New Testament, in this one John
tells what people like Mary understood: information that people like Martha and
I missed. He points out what Mary perceived: Jesus is a king; and in him we
have one who has the power to bring people back to life; she could certainly
have wondered: can he be the messiah? Though he was destined to die, Jesus had
said he was the resurrection and life. He had said that to Mary back in John


John reminds us that with dying
people, the rules change; people need to gather around and listen, to learn,
and to appreciate. John reminds us that with royalty, the rules change too.
Extravagance is the rule of the day for a king. People like Martha and me, and
maybe you, need to hear that. Thankfully there are some Marys in this world
that, with their actions, can drive people like me crazy. But, thanks be to God
that there are Marys.


So the example is before us: what does
it teach? I take from it that Jesus deserves, and welcomes, our extravagant
praising gestures. Jesus welcomes our extravagant gifts that come at great cost.
First of all: gifts that cost us a lot imitate the gift that cost Mary a lot.
To be like Mary, we will give of the best to our Savior. That is not easy for
many, but it is that action that Jesus praised. Second, gifts of total devotion
to Jesus will curtail any number of other activities if we decide to imitate
Mary’s devotion.  Some things we normally
do will need to wait, or be set aside, or get dropped if we choose this action
of ramping up our devotion to Jesus. Contemplative prayer, weekly worship,
dedicated Bible study, and service to others are ways to set aside “the dishes”
of our lives so that we simply, and devotedly, can sit at the feet of the
master. And finally, it means harnessing our busyness that can drive us to
distraction. To give such devotion to Jesus might mean some serious time
shifting on calendars and Blackberries, and some serious discipline when we see
things that still need to be done in the room or in the kitchen or in the yard.
There are people like me who jump into clean up after the suppers of life
instead of staying for conversation. I have to learn to retrain those habits
when it comes to Jesus. Our Savior just
wants a relationship with us, devotion from us, and acts of praise offered by
. Mary got it. Some of you get it; and to the rest of us, may our
learning curve grow and our new inactivity give us permission just to listen,
and to honor, and to praise the man from Galilee who taught such profound
lessons in Bethany.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                March 17, 2013




Luke 15


Last week four of our elders and our
three ministers traveled to Melbourne
for our quarterly
presbytery meeting. When we go, most of us bring our cell phone so we can stay
in touch with others. As the meeting concluded around 2:30, we made the trip back to the church and
arrived before 4:00. We
said goodbye to each other and I drove home. No sooner did I walk in the door
but Mary Ann said to me, “Cara called from her house. She thinks she left her
cell phone in the car.” I went back outside and looked in the car; I looked
around where she sat, I looked under her seat; no cell phone. We called her
back with the news. She would be without her phone the rest of Saturday, for
her trip to preach in Longwood on Sunday, and on our day off on Monday. Tuesday
she could check the car for herself. What a long time. So I asked Mary Ann to
check the car after I did; no phone. I then took my trusty flashlight out to
the car, sure that I would find it in a crack. No phone. Cara was without her
device that could help her if she had car trouble and keep her connected with
her husband and her youth. Monday she called the Melbourne church; “Did anyone find a cell
phone?” she asked. “No, sorry” was the reply. She suspended her cell phone
service, feeling chagrined over its loss and the cost of getting another one.
On Tuesday she herself went to our car and searched. “You have a really clean
car” she said. “but no cell phone.” It wasn’t until late Tuesday morning that a
person called from the church. “We found your phone!” they woman said
excitedly. “It fell down the crack of the pew where you sat! No one noticed it
on Sunday.” Cara rejoiced! She told me; she told Mary Ann; she told our
secretary Kristin; and she told her husband Dave. That’s what people do when
something is lost, and is found.

But as important as a cell phone is
to many in our world, some items would have been even more of a loss: a
computer, for instance; or a car; or a home. To some people, losing something
alive brings even more panic. A pet for example; when I was growing up and our
little beagle dog got loose, we looked high and low; my dad drove us blocks
away with the windows down in the car so we could call out his name. He was
only was found two days later. So pets getting lost can panic a child; and
finding a pet can make for a party! So what about a person?  Losing a person—a son or daughter, a wife or
husband, or a friend can be devastating. How many people in the world know the
name of Natalie Holloway simply because she went to Aruba,
she vanished, a search went on for weeks, and to this day she was never found. Some
people run away, some just get lost, and others are abducted. You may recall an
abduction of a girl for eighteen years that had a happy ending. It is described
in Jaycee Dugard’s book, A STOLEN LIFE. She was abducted by a stranger at age 11
in 1991 she was forced to live with him, locked up in a shed in his back yard for
eighteen years; she was never even allowed to say her own name. And it was not until
a fateful day in August of 2009 when the man took her into town to meet a
parole officer that the authorities suspected who she was. She spelled her name
for the first time in eighteen years: JAYCEE LEE
DUGARD. And her nightmare was over. Then she wrote about her stolen life; it is
a memoir of pain and courage.


Let’s turn to our Bible text now. One
day Jesus had observers question and murmur over his actions. They said he was
eating with sinners. Jews would not associate with people deemed unclean or
sinner so as not to become labeled “unclean” before the next high holy day. But
our Lord made no division between any groups, seeing all as sinners; actually as
lost children of his Father. He even saw the Pharisees and scribes as sinners,
even though they thought of themselves as without sin. To those persons, and
the crowd who had gathered around him, he told his parables of the lost. He did
it in a brilliant way: first addressing the least; then addressing society’s
lesser ones; and finally addressing the elite who believed they were not lost.
Which story about the lost speaks most to you? Let those who have ears, let
them hear.


First Jesus described the least of
society: shepherds. Shepherds were always poor, always uneducated, and persons
of the lowest social class. We may treat them kindly in our nativity stories,
but they were either young boys or older men whose job it was to know their
sheep, care for them, and not lose any of them! Loss of sheep meant loss of
income. Did Jesus have shepherds in the crowd? We cannot say, but whether they
were there or not, they mattered to him. He talks about a situation that almost
defies logic but certainly captured the heart of Jesus: would a shepherd really
leave 99 sheep open to predators or thieves while he went to look for one? This
shepherd did. Do the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many? In this
case that was Jesus’ point exactly. He was not all about business, he was all
about love, and care, and grace. And his point was how a shepherd rejoices when
he finds lost sheep. The shepherd picks it up, relieved, and as he comes back,
he calls his friends and relates the harrowing tale of how he almost lost one!
Jesus pulled back the veil of heaven and told his listeners about the heart of
his Father. “Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner
who repents than over 99 self-righteous persons who think they need no
repentance.” The point could not have been clearer.


Second, Jesus addresses another of the
least of society: women. Women could earn little money, and would find
themselves destitute without a husband. They were forbidden to have any formal
education and their role was strictly defined. If a woman were to lose some
money, it meant one of two things: she either had a husband who gave her an
allowance of money to buy food, and if she lost it they would not eat and her husband
would be angry; or she was a widow and losing a coin meant she could not pay
for food. A coin meant everything to a woman. Perhaps Jesus had some women in
his audience; he knew how some of them lived in fear of something like this
happening. Luke shows a special side of Jesus: he always cared for women and
those of low estate. This is a perfect example. A woman loses a coin, she
panics, she searches everywhere, and she finally finds it. She can eat. And
Jesus focuses his story again: “I tell you there is joy before the angels of
God over one sinner who repents.” The story was not about a coin; it was about
finding what had been lost.


Finally, he came to the last story.
We know that in storytelling the rule of threes applies. Often a first example
is shared, and then a second example, but the third example is designed to
drive the point home. So it is today. He addresses his accusers; his last story
features a man of means, a landowner, someone with significant wealth. He tells
a story that at first seems harmless but it has horrendous consequences. A
Father seems totally spineless as he allows a brat of a son to wish him dead so
he can have his inheritance immediately. The father, however, was very much
alive and the request must have cut deeply. What was Jesus doing, telling this
story this way? No landowner got to his stage in life by being a pushover!
Jesus paints this son as a clear sinner; there can be no doubt in the story
that he is a sinner. But still, he is a sinner who hits his personal bottom and
decides his idea was not so good. Was he sheepish? Yes. Was he hungry? Yes. Was
he repentant? Many readers think he was, but if you read the story closely, he
is practicing his repentance speech but never says it as his father approaches.
Instead, the father sees his son, and knowing the neighbors who heard what
happened might rise up to beat him up or even kill him, this father did
something to indicate that he and his son had reconciled: he runs, something no
father would ever do except to celebrate. The father does the actions,
remember? According to Luke 15: 20 the
runs to, embraces, and kisses his son! Only then does the son go
into his speech but there is no acknowledgement of it by his father. He has
“pulled out all the stops,” just like the shepherd did and the woman did when
what was lost was found, only this celebration was magnified because this was a person! A ring was a
huge deal; killing an entire calf meant the whole town would be invited over
for a party! So all the town, and the father, and the son who had returned
home, celebrated over a sinner who came home; everyone celebrated right? No;
there was still that Pharisee in the field—er, I mean that son in the field! He
was not happy. It did not matter to him that his brother was lost and had been
found. What do you think of the way he reacted? If you had a brother acting the
way that brother had acted, you might
not be happy either! You know what might have gone through your head: “He made
his bed, let him lay in it.” You might even exaggerate your description of your
brother’s escapades like the brother in the field did. He exclaims to his
father that “this son of his” (won’t even call him his brother) was with
harlots. An attorney would say to a judge at this point: “Objection; that assumes
facts not in evidence!” Which of the sons do you suppose, did the Pharisees
identify with most? One burned through an inheritance with riotous living; the
other one was indignant, defiant, unforgiving, and angry. It was a rough day to
be a Pharisee! Do any of those qualities sound like ones God would love to see
in us? If not, then how do you imagine God saw the attitudes of the Pharisees
and scribes? If any of those attitudes are familiar to you because you have
exhibited some of them toward others, where do you imagine you will be when
your Heavenly Father calls you home? Will you be attending the homecoming
banquet; or out on the edge of darkness, and alone? 


Like the hearers of our story, some
of us might think that the father is a figure for God. But if that’s true, then
at first glance amazing grace just looks like the actions of a spineless
pushover. Was it warranted to give such a celebration over one who repents? But
the heart of God is love; it is steadfast. If God is love, then we would do well to remember what love is according
to 1 Corinthians 13: It is patient, it is kind, it is not jealousy or boastful
and it does not insist on its own way. And love believes, hopes, and endures
all things.  How is your love quotient?
If it is anything less than perfect, then even you, like me, would have to be
treated like a prodigal: welcomed home only by the amazing grace as of a
father. What joy there will be in heaven on that day! May your badges of honor,
and mine, say both “sinner” and “saved.”



Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                March 10, 2013


— sermon audio not available —


Luke 13: 1-9

My philosophy of education was reinforced years ago by an Episcopal priest and author named John Westerhoff. Arkansas Presbytery had invited him to speak at an overnight retreat. He is an expert in Christian education. On the second day of the retreat after breakfast, he greeted us with these words. “You Presbyterians are different from Episcopalians; when we are on retreat, we drink wine in the public areas and coffee in our rooms. You do the opposite! I’ll never forget two things that he taught us: one was that comment, but the second one was this: He said “How backwards are our learning venues in most churches. How many churches do you know where adults are in worship while children are in Sunday School? Worship is a very intuitive experience—a place where children learn can very quickly—and Sunday school is generally a very cognitive experiences—as teachers teach the Bible and what is printed there. That is an environment where adults would thrive. But instead some churches put adults in worship while children are in Sunday School when churches should make sure that children can also learn in worship and adults can also learn in Sunday School.”  Since then the churches where I have served have had Sunday School at its own hour. It is not always popular with either parents of young children or older adults who want to a child-free worship experience. But with good training and some tolerance, we have children learning in worship and adults in classes.  I love having children in worship and adults in classes. Educators have reminded me that we learn differently as children, youth, and adults. Therefore today’s children’s Sunday School is not like the one when we were growing up! In Westminster’ children’s Sunday School, the rotation model curriculum is created in part from Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences chart; that is some people learn best by hearing, some by seeing, some by touching, some by smelling, some by experiencing, etc. So they study one Bible story for a month and the children rotate classes weekly; classes such as cooking, storytelling, drama, art, science, movie theatre, and games. In one month a child gets to learn in the way that makes it stick best! One of our young students who attended a summer day care one year joined in a Bible quiz game. He knew more answers than any other child. “Where do you go to church?” the teacher asked him. “Westminster By-the Sea!” he told them. What a joy it was to hear that! Dozens of people, one just this past Friday, have said how attending three years of DISCIPLE classes have changed their life. And another relatively new member told me in November: “Pastor, I’ve gone to church more than 70 years, and I’ve never learned as much as I’ve learned here!”

The point of this message is that in the post-Christian age, teaching the faith is vital. Ministers, in fact, are officially called “Teaching Elders.” We are teachers in large part because our Savior taught. Jesus is our original rabbi. Long before ways and levels of learning were systematized in print, Jesus practiced them. He taught with debate, with the Socratic method of questioning, with pictures, with stories, and sometimes with silence. In our world when we are taught to think that right knowledge is needed most, Jesus was ahead of the learning scale, going beyond memorization to making people ponder, interpret, re-think, and to draw new conclusions. In our text today we find three responses of Jesus in just nine verses! Perhaps he was answering questions from two or three different people? The first thing he did was raise the dialogue above common thought. Common thought of the day said that those who suffered did so because they sinned more. Pharisees cited Deuteronomy 28:15, Job 4:7-8, and Proverbs 10 24-25 to back up that belief. But Jesus indicated instead that there was no link between sin and suffering as a cause and effect. He said that in Luke 13:3 in our text. Jesus made his reply plainly to dispel a commonly held belief. For example, how many people think the quote “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible? It’s a commonly held belief of our day and often said to be from the Bible, or from Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac, but it is actually the moral of one of Aesop’s Fables called Hercules and the Waggoneer and later in 1698 it was repeated in an article by Algernon Sydney in an article titled Discourses Concerning Government.  Jesus changed the way people thought about God by correcting their wrong assumptions: that suffering people suffered because they sinned more.

Next, Jesus took their question about the tower in Siloam falling on people and used it to teach something he also said in Matthew 24:36: repent now, for if you put off repenting there will come a day when it is too late to repent. He said that in a straightforward manner again to redirect people to think about repentance at least as much as they got obsessed about disasters.

Finally Jesus tol
d a story that had an edge to it; it was not sweet; it was not intended to be charming. It was intended for those with ears to hear. Although Jesus was a builder, he grew up in Galilee which was an agricultural region.  He told the story about a fig tree in a vineyard, but few people thought it was a lesson in farming. Listeners would have known that Israel was often referred to as a vineyard.  Fruitful fig trees represented God’s blessing in Micah 4:4 and Joel 2: 22. In her commentary on this parable, author and oblate Barbara Reid adds: “In Micah 7:1 the prophet speaks of his frustrated search for figs and grapes at summer harvest time as a way of depicting God’s disappointment over Israel’s faithfulness.” [
Parables Year C, The Liturgical Press, 2000, p. 51.] The text tells us that the tree had been barren for three years, but Middle East expert Ken Bailey, in his book Through Peasant Eyes, says it may have in fact been nine years since no fig tree produces fruit in the first 3 years; then the first fruits are dedicated back to God in the next three years, so the years a tree could produce for income started after that. This tree had failed to produce. Most farmers would replace it with a one that would produce. Two years ago Mary Ann and I took our Confirmation Class for a day of gleaning cabbage from a farmer’s field. We were exhausted at the end as the Society of St. Andrew estimated we had picked and loaded over 3000 pounds of cabbage! And we were disturbed to hear that any cabbage that we didn’t pick would be plowed under the next day. Why? To make the field ready for the next crop; vegetables are grown for a purpose. This week we asked our Confirmation Class the first question of the Westminster Catechism: “What is our chief end?” In other words, what is our ultimate purpose here on earth? They kicked around some answers and they finally heard and pondered the catechism answer: “Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Or, as the words to one of our choir anthems put it:  “To love our God is the reason we live.” Today we are reminded that we are saved for a purpose and have life for a purpose: to love and glorify God, with our life, with our witness, and with our hearts. If we were trees, the great gardner would expect us to produce good fruit. Are you producing? What form is it taking? And how foolish would it be for you to repent tomorrow, if Jesus returned today? Such is the teaching of the rabbi; his name is Jesus.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                              March 3, 2013