John 13: 31-35

A father tried to teach his seven year old daughter the meaning of sacrifice. He explained that the finest gift a person can give is some cherished possession, one that the person values very much. On his birthday the father found pinned to his coat a large sheet of paper on which his daughter had laboriously printed with red crayon: “You are my faverit Daddy and I luv you heeps. My present to you is what I likes best. It is in your poket.” In his pocket he found a strawberry lollipop [the kind she liked the best.] He had given [it to] her the week before. It hadn’t even been opened.

If part of love is sacrifice, we have examples of it all around. The man who unselfishly tends to his failing wife; the mother who gives a kidney to her diabetic daughter; the girl who saves all of her allowance to help give God’s house a new roof; or the 18 year boy who lets a special girl drive his new car. When it comes to devotion, we find dogs that are devoted to their masters and masters devoted to their dogs, or a grown man who can hardly get through a eulogy because he was so devoted to his grandfather. We find it also in the promises people agree to keep for people they love.

Love; that’s the key word for today. If we want to find love in Christian history we might find it in some of historic people of our faith. There are examples of people who loved God and loved others. Among them: Julian of Norwich, Henri Nouwen, Clare of Assisi, and Francis of Assisi. One would think we could go back to the Apostles and find examples of love. But time pouring over the Gospels reveals little to commend the Twelve in the area of love. They learned, they did, they debated, and they questioned, but in the area of love, even Simon Peter had to profess his love three times for Jesus after he betrayed him the same number of times. Who loves someone who betrays him, or her, time after time? Jesus raised that bar. He knew that his disciples knew the 10 Commandments, but those commandments did not produce love. Even his reinterpretation of the commandments—you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself—even that commanded love. While someone in the armed forces acts on command, commanding someone else to love does not guarantee it will happen. And if it does, is it just offered under duress? No; love is something intended to be given and shown freely, and our Lord knew that. So he said to his disciples: “A new commandment I give unto you: that you; that you love one another as I have loved you. By this shall people know that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another” (John 13: 34-35) Now it is true that Jesus said “commandment” and not suggestion! But I hear that sentence as sounding much more inviting than “You shall love.”

Where do we learn how to love?  Doesn’t it come from examples around us, either those we have seen or have known or have read about? And in each case, has the person who has shown you how to love shown unconditional love, or has it been conditional love?  I will love you “if do as you’re told,” or “if you don’t run away,” or “if you don’t betray me.” Those are conditional loves and many of us love in that fashion. Even in marriage, for many couples infidelity is a deal breaker and the well of conditional love quickly runs dry. There are examples of great parents in our world and of horrible parents; in many cases love dries up along with patience or love dries up when rules are broken. But what if we tap into a spring of water that will not run dry?  When we lived in near Hot Springs Arkansas several times we stopped by one of the actual hot springs that made the town so famous. It poured continuously from a pipe and people could fill jugs from it. Out of the ground came health giving, life giving, warm water; people could actually drink it, or bathe in it, and some believed it actually healed them. In our own state Zephyrhills Water Corporation counts on and nurtures its natural springs to keep producing healthy water. You might remember another time when Jesus was teaching. He was at a well in Samaria. A woman came there to draw water, and he had a conversation with her. Eventually he said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give them will never thirst; that water that I shall give them will be a spring of water, welling up to eternal life.” [John 4: 13-14] The only way a Christian can continue to love like Jesus loved is to stay connected with Jesus. And the only way he had that living water was because, as John describes it, he had the fullness of God abiding in him. We cannot give others what we ourselves do not have.  If your example of love is conditional and human, than it could also dry up and you could become a person who can no longer loves others. Such people become reclusive, or bitter, or both. But if you stay connected to Christ, not just through prayer, not just through Scripture, not just through a fellowship of Christians but all three, then you can carry out Jesus commandment; you can do what he has
told you, and me, and other followers to do: we can love one another like Jesus loves us—unconditionally. Remember the way the Apostle Paul put it in Romans 8:“I am sure that neither death, nor, life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And the simple children’s hymn says it perfectly: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Jesus loves you; if you stay connected with him your cup of love will run over; you won’t just have enough love to bring joy and peace to yourself; you’ll have so much love that it will overflow, so that you’ll want to share it with others! Many in the world may have gotten burned by different forms of conditional love, or conditional covenants or contracts. Those people can be most suspicious and even unlovable. But Jesus loved unconditionally; and Jesus loved even the unlovable: tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, hard-headed disciples, and even though he tangled with them, he even loved the Scribes and Pharisees. What would it take for you to change the way you love; love with conditions; love that no longer says “I’m done” when lines are crossed? And if you were asked to love across party lines, color lines, or religious lines, could you do it?  Jesus showed that kind of love; it’s the way that Jesus told his disciples to love too. Can you hear Jesus saying this to you as well: “love one another, as I have loved you.” Conditional love has produced broken marriages, broken families, and broken hearts. Can we try, instead, to love like Jesus loved? In some cases that will be so hard to do. But our Savior tells us to do it. What will you do?

I’ll close with this story. One night a woman suffered a heart attack. After she was admitted to the hospital, she asked the nurse to call her daughter. She explained, “You see, I live alone and she’s the only family I have.” One nurse went and called the daughter, while another nurse stayed with the woman. When the daughter was contacted and got the news, she exclaimed quite loudly to the nurse over the phone, “You can’t let her die! Mom and I had a terrible argument a week ago. I haven’t spoken to her since. Each day I wanted to tell her I was sorry but I just didn’t. And the last thing I screamed at her was ‘I hate you!’ It’ll take me two hours to get there but I’m coming.” Well, the mother hung on for an hour but then she took a turn for the worse and she slipped away. The second nurse was there and prayed that she would hang on but she could not. She died before her daughter arrived. The nurse who had called the daughter met her in the waiting room, sadly shaking her head. The daughter wept. The nurse said “I’m sorry for your loss.” And the daughter said through tears, “You know, I never hated her. I was just mad and then I kept putting off calling her. I really loved her, and tonight it’s too late to tell her.” She paused. “Can I see her?” The nurse nodded and led her to the room. The daughter went in and buried her face in the sheets and said goodbye to her lifeless mother. The other nurse that had stayed in the room gently came close to the daughter and said, “Before your mother passed away, she asked me to write something for her and set it on her table.  I think you’ll want to read it.” Through tears, the grown daughter became a young daughter again as she read the last words of her mother: “My dearest Barbara, I forgive you and I pray that you will forgive me. I know that you love me. I love you too. Mom.”

Let us pray:

Like a love not from a parent, O God, speak to us of your love for us; not because we deserve it because sometimes we speak before we think; but because you want to love us, do love us, and always will. May your love overflow into the lives of others we encounter, the way Jesus loved others.

In His name we pray. Amen

Jeffrey A. SumnerApril 28, 2013




Psalm 23; John 10: 22-30


Two young men, or perhaps more,
carried out actions this week that had no connection with God, whether God is
called “Lord” or Allah. God is love and promotes life, joy, and connections.
Instead, hellish and heinous acts were carried out that were pure evil: they
were premeditated, destructive, and hate-filled, causing sorrow and
destruction. This was not the first time horribly destructive actions have
caused such bloodshed and sorrow. We are often shielded from war, but war can
be hell on earth. We know, sadly, that one of the bloodiest war in history
caused many deaths between people in our own country: the Civil War—the War
Between the States.  Some people who
watched the mini-series “The Bible” commented to me that it was “too Hollywood”
because there was so much stabbing and maiming and pillaging. But it is not
Hollywood; it is the Bible; it is the history of Israel and Judah having to
deal with Canaanites, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Romans. Both Testaments
attest to some horrible times when neighbor goes against neighbor. And yet what
do we do? Where do we turn?


One of the oldest and continuously
used places to turn in the last 3000 years has been the Psalms. The Psalms, in
fact, were the hymnbook for the Jerusalem
temple; they contain people crying to, shouting at, calling to, lamenting to,
and praising God.  The Psalms, in fact,
speak so clearly and vividly about religious truths that many pocket Bibles
don’t include all of Scripture; they contain the New Testament and Psalms. Some
Psalms resound with joy and thanksgiving. Some echo the agony, persecution, and
loneliness of life’s hardest times. Others give us the chance to listen in to
the most intimate conversations between a hurting soul and God. Thus, the
Psalms can also become a guide to prayer. In addition, there are a few Psalms,
the one from today included, which are statements of the Psalmist’s faith. As
we will do today, we can join people for more than 2000 years in affirming our
faith with Psalm 23.  Jesus was raised in
a strong family of faith and was clearly familiar with the Psalms. The 23rd
Psalm in particular, has brought comfort to people over the ages. Often called
“The Shepherd’s Psalm,” it is without a doubt the most requested passage to
hear at funerals and memorial services.  Jesus
knew Psalm 23.  He, like others, would
have revered David, the shepherd boy who became king. The words show a
childlike trust in the Lord. He knew that a good shepherd was necessary for
safe and healthy sheep. And he called himself the good shepherd; that makes
those who follow him his sheep. It sounds like a comforting image until you see
sheep through the eyes of a shepherd. Let’s look at this beloved passage. I
will be quoting it in the King James Version, the one I recommend that everyone


“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not
want.” The great Biblical scholar Samuel Terrien has said “The whole of faith
is contained in this first line.” Nothing in the Bible equals this Psalm as a personal
confession of faith. Sadly though, Psalm 23, even as it speaks to us today, has
lost much of its richness since all the careful work of shepherding is not
common knowledge to Western Christians. The Bible often treats us—you and me—as
sheep. “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, everyone to their own way” Isaiah
proclaimed in the 53rd chapter. So today let’s think about sheep and
shepherds. A man named Phillip Keller grew up in East
Africa surrounded “by simple native herders whose customs closely
resembled those of their counterparts in the Middle East.”
He also had been a sheep owner and rancher. In his book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, which is in our library, he highlights the life of a shepherd. If
sheep are to proclaim that they “shall not want,” it takes a lot of time for a
shepherd to settle them enough to “make them lie down in green pastures.” First
you should know that there are almost no green pastures in Israel; the
only place a shepherd would find such verdant land would be around rivers or
“wadis” which are watering holes. And they are so few that every other animal
in the area, including the predators, would come for water there too. It was no
small feat to put the sheep into a place where they could, eat, have water, and
feel safe. It was a huge job for the shepherd. When the Bible says “he leadeth
me beside the still waters” it is deceiving. If a shepherd found still waters,
we would call them “stagnant.” They would contain bugs or bacteria that could
kill sheep. But sheep will not drink from running water. So what’s a shepherd
to do? He has to temporarily dam up running water to make it still water. It is
not easy, but once it’s done, the nervous animals will drink. When David then
says “He restoreth my soul” he takes that action about a good shepherd and
makes us imagine what our spiritual good shepherd does for us. Such care for us
“restores our souls.”  It makes us (and
sheep!) glad to be in the flock of the good shepherd. Then David says “he leads
me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Although I love the lilt of
the King James, the best way to translate this line is “he leads me in the
right way because his name is on the line.” If the owner of the sheep has any
sheep harmed, he will know who he will hold responsible. The shepherd is
responsible for these sheep and he wants his good name to remain unstained.


Next, David speaks in the voice of
the sheep saying: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and they staff, they comfort
me.” If there is enough of a hill to create a river or watering hole, then
there will also be cliffs and valleys. If the shepherd has to lead sheep
through a valley, its dark crevices could certainly contain animal or human
predators. The shepherd has to be ready. He has to keep the sheep together with
his staff, the stick with the curve at the end of it. And if sheep stepped into
a crack or got too close to a cliff, the staff would pull them back. The rod
that he carried was a stout stick that he would use to hit animals or thieves
who would try to harm or steal any of his flock. The shepherd had to be
prepared, and present.


After that the sheep said about their
shepherd: “Though preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Though anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.” Preparing a table was
not like our tables; it was preparing the tableland.
If poisonous plants were not first pulled from among the grass that was
growing, the sheep would eat them and get sick or die. So plants are an enemy.
Another enemy would have been the predators we mentioned earlier: if they were
around the watering hole, animals or thieves would have great chances to attack
while sheep were grazing. A shepherd could never rest. And sheep had another
enemy: biting flies. Biting flies could torment them so much that they would
refuse to eat or drink, get thin, and die. So the good shepherd would create an
ointment made with ingredients that were natural insect repellents. He would
rub the ointment on their head, and with sheep always close together, the scent
would keep the biting flies away. Likewise David, being a good Jew, knew that
blessings were placed on a person’s forehead by a father or other protector, so
he saw double meaning in the “anointeth my head with oil.”


Finally, David stepped back into
human images after showing how fortunate a sheep would be to be in the flock of
a good shepherd. He says: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the
days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” What a
strong statement; he had no assurance of such things, but he believed them. He
believed goodness and mercy would follow him because the Lord God, he had
decided, would never let him go. He thought he’d have that all his life. But
then came the great surprise from a Jew who had little concept of an afterlife.
He said: “And I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.” Wow; if we think
about Jesus and his resurrection and his ascension into heaven, such a
statement makes sense. But scholars generally date the Psalms to have been
written at least 2000 years before the birth of Christ! Imagine: “I will dwell
in the House of the Lord forever.” What a statement; what faith, and hope this
Psalmist had. It’s that kind of faith and hope we need in the light of our
tragedies, bombings, shootings, traffic accidents, or illnesses. It is that
kind of faith that keeps us forward-facing instead of looking backwards and
bemoaning. As we sing this passage and recite it today, think about what a
privilege it is to be in the flock of the good shepherd. I encourage you to
commit this to memory, as many others have, so it will comfort you in times of


Let us pray: Almighty God, you watch over our lives in ways we may never
know. Give us the wisdom to know that without having a shepherd, we are just
lost sheep in a perilous world. Sustain and satisfy those who claim Jesus as
Lord, so they may know they have a good shepherd. Amen.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                              April 21, 2013


04-07-13 JESUS’ GIFTS


John 20: 19-31

I consider my children to be gifts from God; likewise I think about my grandsons as gifts as well; precious gifts. I know some children are born who are not wanted, and I know some adults who want to have children and have trouble doing so. When I held Shane for the first time in the hospital just 8 weeks ago, he felt light, he felt fragile, and yet I felt confident holding him. But he was a special gift; Calvin, our first grandson, is much bigger now even though at birth they were the same weight. He too felt light, and fragile to hold.  I have pictures of me holding each of my two sons and my daughter after they were born as well. They were so new to me and new to the world. They were precious; and they were gifts.

Today I want to suggest that first: Jesus gave his disciples precious gifts the night he appeared to them after his resurrection, and second: perhaps all of the gifts Jesus gave to his disciples can be  just as precious to us. Let’s go to John 20:19. There Jesus gives himself; his very presence. Remember a few verses earlier that he gently told Mary “Do not hold on to me.” His explanation is he had not yet ascended to the Father. But what did that mean? What would have happened if Mary had tried to hold him? I wonder, in his scourged and pierced condition, if he might have been in some pain still since he had not yet ascended; perhaps he would have needed to be treated even more gently than an embrace. Remember the eggs I showed the children? We cannot be rough with an egg and expect it to not to broken. Likewise, I wonder if our Lord was giving himself to Mary, and Simon, and John, and today even to Thomas, but the gift could not easily receive high fives or bear hugs.  This gift, almost like a new born, needed to be appreciated, and observed, but handled gently.  As my children grew up I learned that I could roughhouse with them and give them slapping high fives. But not when they were new. Still, I always remember that beneath the mature exterior of each of my children there is still a tender child underneath.  Perhaps Jesus, who is such as gift, should be treated the same way: valued but without callous demands; loved, with the understanding that Jesus’ first gift to us is himself.

Now let’s move to John 20: 21. Jesus gives another gift that is much too elusive: Peace. “Peace be with you” he said this first time when Thomas was not there, and he said it again when Thomas was.  You know how he would say it: “Shalom,” the Hebrew word for well-being. These days sometimes people ask “How are you?” not as a question, but as a greeting. Many people who say it aren’t really asking how you are, they’re just saying hi! In Jesus’ day there would have been people greeting each other with “Peace be with you.” Some of them wouldn’t have meant it; it would have been a greeting. But I believe completely that Jesus was offering peace as a gift when he said it. What would having the gift of peace be like? It’s not  just the absence of conflict. Some people can tell if they are facing conflict by taking their blood pressure: when it is higher than usual they are not in a peaceful place. For me it is blood sugar. This week Easter was over, I mailed two perfect copies of my thesis to be bound, my children and grandchildren and wife were well and we had seen each other on Sunday, and so my blood sugar was 88, two days in a row! That’s what peace is like to me. It’s when I can sleep, and drink in joys, and not have to face unresolved issues, and be fully me.  That’s the gift, I think, that Jesus wants me to have; and it’s the gift Jesus wants you to have too. How can you accept and embrace his gift of peace? And how would your life reflect it? More joy, better sleep, greater laughter, better medical numbers. I always say I believe that the body, mind, and soul are all connected. Peace is one gift our Lord wants to give us. How can we embrace it? And remember, the first gift Jesus gave us is the greatest one: the gift of himself.

Finally in John 20:22 our Lord Jesus had his nail-scarred hands filled with gifts for his disciples: himself; peace; and his third gift was in these words: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit. Do you think of God’s Spirit as a gift? Jesus did; he treasured that Spirit as it descended from heaven onto him at his baptism. The very life-breathing pulse that empowered Jesus is a gift to empower and protect us as well. The Holy Spirit remained here on the earth even when Jesus ascended into heaven; according to the New Testament, we are never abandoned. There is no time of crisis when God is fully attending to someone else and cannot attend to you. By the gift of God’s Spirit, God can attend to you, magnifying your joys, comforting you in your sorrows, and being present with you forever. And yet, just as it is hard to catch the wind, perhaps we are wise to treat the Spirit gently and lovingly like we do all the other gifts Jesus gives. With the Holy Spirit, we are wise not to ignore, but to listen, to ponder, and to appreciate.

Three gifts; no, not gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Peace, Spirit, and Christ. Every gift is precious; each one, when welcomed, can give you life. And they can be yours—if you want them—as a gift from the risen Savior. So imagine now that this Communion meal will not be like the Last Supper: no dread, no darkness, no foreboding, and no suspicion. Instead this, as you will hear, will be considered to be “the joyful feast of the people of God! Let this meal be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. In this preparation time, let Jesus offer you his gift
s, as he prepares to be our host.

Jeffrey A. SumnerApril 7, 2013