Monthly Archives: September 2013

09-29-13 SPYING ON HADES

SPYING ON HADES
Luke 16: 19-31

Some of you might have heard this story that circulated in 2006 but it bears
repeating today.
A Minnesota
couple decided to come to Florida and to stay at the same hotel where they had
spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of their hectic schedules it
was difficult for them catch the same flight, so the husband left Minnesota for
Florida on Thursday, and his wife was going to fly down the following day. The
husband checked into the hotel, the one where they had honeymooned 20 years
earlier. In the lobby was a bank of computers, so he decided to send a quick
email to his wife. In sending his message, however, he accidently left one
letter out of his wife’s address. Without realizing that, away it went.
Meanwhile
somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned from her husband’s funeral. He
had been a minister who gone to glory after suffering a heart attack. Her heart
was heavy. She decided to check her email to see if any family members or
friends who couldn’t attend the service had contacted her. After reading her
first message, she screamed and fainted. Her son ran into her room and found
his mother on the floor. After getting her conscious, he asked what was wrong.
She pointed to her computer. This message was on her screen:
To:
My Loving Wife
Subject: I’ve Arrived!
Date: October 16, 2005
I know you’re
surprised to hear from me.
They have
computers here now, and you’re allowed up to 10 minutes to send and check
emails!
I’ve just arrived
and have finished checking in.
Everything is
ready for your arrival tomorrow!
Looking forward
to seeing you then.
Hope your
journey here is a good one.

P.S. It sure is
hot down here!!!

Stories
about the afterlife have been around a long time. You might have heard the
poignant story of a man who asked God what heaven and hell were like and, in
the story, God showed him. The questioner looked first at Hades (or Hell) and
was surprised to see a large banquet table and food on it that was fit for a
king! But those who were there were strapped to immoveable chairs positioned about
two feet away from the table. In order to reach the food they had long handled utensils
attached to their hands. But they were outraged and starving. No one could get
the long utensils into their mouths and their arms alone couldn’t reach the
table. They were screaming with hunger, and anger, and outrage. The questioner
said: “I have seen enough! Let me see Heaven! “Very well” was the reply. The
vision changed. The picture cleared and, to the questioner’s astonishment there
appeared a banquet table, just like the last vision. There appeared people
strapped to immoveable chairs positioned two feet away from the table. In order
to reach their food they had long handled utensils attached to their hands. But
they were eating and were satisfied; they were joyful and filled with love. The
questioner looked closer and noticed why: in Heaven people thought of their
neighbor first, and, with a little maneuvering, each could feed his or her
table mate. All could feed one another. In Hades, all thoughts were on self; in
Heaven, all thoughts were on others.

Our
world has had some amazing stories shared about heaven in books like Heaven is for Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, and
Flight to Heaven. They each include
first-hand accounts of what real people saw. By contrast, we have had fanciful
and even terrifying images of the underworld in some of the horror films of
cinema, and years ago in 1667 John Milton’s Paradise
Lost was published from which many
of our modern ideas of Satan are gleaned. Ages earlier in 1310, Dante’s
Masterpiece of literature was published: The
Divine Comedy. Interwoven with his Roman Catholic theology, his most famous
part of his right was the section was called The Inferno, Dante’s “unforgettable visionary journey through the
infinite torment of Hell.” [Book
jacket description from The Inferno, Dante
Alighieri, A Signet Classic, 2001.]
Even popular author Dan Brown, in his latest novel called Inferno, draws heavily on Dante’s vision. The Bible, interestingly,
has few images of what we know as “Hell” in English, “Hades” in Greek, or
“Sheol” in Hebrew. Sheol is found 65 times in the Old Testament; Hades is used
just 10 times in the New Testament. Both Sheol and Hades referred to “the
general place of souls after death….Since this sphere was mainly supposed to be
found in the underworld, it was also called ‘the pit’ or ‘the bottomless
place.’” [Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, Oxford University Press, 1993, p.
277] But the Biblical place of punishment, not just of the dead, was known as
“Gehenna.” It described a valley just south of Jerusalem and named in Joshua
15:8. Those in Jerusalem who wanted go toward the Hinnom Valley might have gone
through the Dung Gate, downwind of the city, to the site of the city dump,
where refuse was placed to decay, and where smoldering fires burned
continually. The image we have in our passage today, translated as “Hades,” is
actually this Gehenna image of smoldering fires. This is one of the few stories
of fiery torment in the afterlife that appear in the Bible. But this one didn’t
originate here. As with stories that we tell in our day, it appears that Jesus
co-opted and retold an Egyptian folktale for his own purposes. If you have been
here for the last two weeks of sermons, you will remember how Luke focuses on
the idea of money in chapters 15 and 16, especially on who has it and who
doesn’t. But let’s be clear about what Jesus says about money in those
chapters: First, wealth is not the enemy; instead he challenges greed and
selfishness. Could Jesus have gotten such a world view from his mother Mary?
You may remember her words when she learns she will become his mother: “My soul
magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices with God my savior! … He has
brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has
filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” [Luke 1]
Again it’s not wealth per se that is on trial. Even Abraham was wealthy. It
addressed those who did nothing for the poor in life. Second, Jesus taught that
there will be justice for the poor in the next life if they do not get it in
this life. That theme runs through this chapter. And third, there is a time,
usually at death, when one’s eternal fate is cast. Therefore Jesus and others
through the years remind people to change their ways before it is too late.

So
it is an old story, re-clothed by Christ as yet another lesson for his
disciples. He used dramatic language: the rich man wore purple; only the rich
or royal could afford the dyes to make purple cloth. He feasted sumptuously.
The rich man is in one scene symbolically towering above the poor man called
Lazarus (not the one who Jesus raised from the dead). The poor man is on the
ground while the rich man is either on his feet or on a steed. Lazarus is one
of the poor beggars like those who can still be found on city streets today. They
are even around Jerusalem, and they lie there pitiful, despised, or simply
ignored. People who passed by would either have pangs of guilt, disgust, or
pity. Lazarus was covered with sores which made him medically and ritually
unclean. Only dogs came to attend to him in their instinctively unselfish ways;
no humans did anything. To the relief of some, the poor man died and precious
few mourned his death. We are also told that the rich man also died. How many
mourned his death? We are left to wonder.
The poor man went to the bosom of Abraham which was another way of saying
“Paradise.” The rich man could have repented and gone there, but he never did.
Instead he went to Hades and was tormented in the flames. It was an awful scene.
He starts to repent, because he sees what eternal death he has earned. But it
is too late. He will reap what he has sown. He tries to warn others to change
before it is too late. It is the oldest of morality tales, told from the lips
of our Lord.

Sharing
what we have with those who have less is a cornerstone of Christian ministry.
If you have little or nothing, we try to pick you up and offer you food and
love. If you have means, the Christian message from this passage and others
encourages you to give so others may have something. When you give through this
congregation, you can be sure that we are working to feed the hungry, giving
clothing for those who don’t have the right clothing for school or work, and at
Christmas and through our Friends of Francis programs, we are even helping
prisoners, recently released prisoners, and their children. We will continue to
do so. We are seeking to do what Jesus did and would do. Today his message is
for us as it was for his disciples. Today, you may see other places where you
can help a neighbor, a worker, a student by meeting human needs and making
connections. You have today; but who knows about tomorrow? As Michael W. Smith
wrote in his popular song :
This is your
time
This is your dance
Live every moment
Leave nothing to chance
Swim in the sea
Drink of the deep
Embrace the mystery of all you can be.”

Embrace life;
share life; make a decent life possible for others. Amen.

Jeffrey A.
Sumner
September 29, 2013

09-22-13 WORLDLY WAYS THAT BRING NO GODLY GAIN

— Sermon Audio Not Available —

WORLDLY WAYS THAT BRING NO GODLY GAIN
Luke 16: 1-13

Over the years of enjoying different
films and not enjoying others, I’ve decided that I usually know what the
difference is for me: the films I enjoy have either a hero or someone with
redemptive qualities. To watch a gangster movie where no one learns a good
lesson, or to watch movies that revolve around deceit, corruption, and lies
just seems like a study of the underworld. I know that such deals happen and
they include blackmail and threats with words or threats with guns. Corrupt
people do corrupt things with and to others. This week the video game “Grand
Theft Auto 5” was released to higher grossing financial numbers than the
highest grossing weekend of a Harry Potter film. I don’t think I’d like it. The
game is all lying, cheating, and stealing; corrupt people doing corrupt things
to others. Today’s lesson deals with people from that kind of world.

But before hearing the parable, let’s
remember Jesus’ background. In his days growing up, Jesus was a teckton like his father. Teckton is the Jewish word for
carpenter, yes. But one visit to Nazareth makes it very apparent that there is
little wood around; houses are not frame houses; they are stone houses; and
wooden nick-knacks would not support a family. So what are we to do with the
clear idea that Joseph and his teenage son would have done teckton work? There
are two answers to that: 1) Teckton also means “stone mason,” and for that job
there was work. And 2) geographically such laborers would have gone where there
was work, just as they do today; where homes and other structures being built. Nazareth was no such community, but there was
one nearby, the modern Roman city named Sepphoris, where stone masons,
carpenters, day laborers would have found lots of work. It’s thought that
working in that city not only acquainted Jesus with the Romans, it acquainted
him with workers that were blue collar, managers that were white collar, and
the owners of the properties. In other words, Jesus did not live a sheltered
life in a backwater town; he worked in a real world place; in all likelihood he
saw what was what when it came to business. There’s a reason I am telling you
all of this. If you were here last week you remember I said Jesus’ parables
were not morality plays or allegories; they were often told to reveal something
about the heart of God. In the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the
lost coin, they did. But today we look at a parable that’s been puzzling and
even misunderstood for years. This is one of those stories that I detest; that
has no real honorable characters, and unlike last week’s parable, none of these
characters stands for God. I wish we would just skip this one for that reason.
But we are called to preach the whole Bible and not just our favorite parts, so
here is the unpacking of this parable with characters that show examples of “a
day in the life” of a worker, a manager, and an owner.

In last week’s parable from Luke 15,notice
that Jesus addressed Pharisees and
Scribes—educated people who were supposed to know God’s heart but actually
were just experts in God’s law. This week in verse one, Luke tells us that
Jesus addresses his disciples this
time. That was his inner circle, but in some cases disciples of Jesus were not
exposed to the sometimes deceptive practices of the world. For example, in our
day movie directors are not likely to cast real monks to play thieves and when
if they did, we would think the roles were miscast. How would cloistered people
do at depicting worldly people? Do you remember the last scene in the Sound of
Music when the Von Trapps are hiding in the Abbey? An actress, portraying a
nun, interferes with a government vehicle by pulling off the distributor cap
and wires, allowing the Von Trapps to escape over the mountains to safety. Audiences
are supposed to be surprised that a nun knows how to disable a car! She calls
it her “sin” when she admits what she did to her Reverend Mother. Often
disciples are not that knowledgeable about or resourceful with the ways of the
world. But I think that Jesus would have chuckled at “The Sound of Music” nun!

Let’s continue: There was a rich man;
this meant in all likelihood that he was the owner of a business. He was a step
removed from day to day operations. The one who ran his business was called a
“steward” which is a biblical way of saying a “manager.” “Charges were brought to the owner that his
manager was wasting his capital. The next line is crucial: “What’s this I hear
about you?” Do you get it? Do you get that the owner was about to act based on
hearsay? “What’s this I hear?” Not, “I have gone over the books and have
discovered they’ve been cooked;” not “I have proof of what I am charging.” This
owner, who does not sound like the most reputable or careful at first glance,
is accusing his manager of something that he decides means dismissal. The
manager is fired. But the boss knows worldly ways, and so does the manager;
neither one is a shining example of business leadership or humanity, much to my
dismay. We then get to listen in on the thoughts of the manager, thanks to
Jesus, who likely saw things like this happen when we was a skilled laborer.
Remember: Jesus never owned anything; some might say he was a blue collar man
working in a white collar Roman world. The manager in the parable has no say in
his firing and he clearly has no experience as a laborer. “I am not strong
enough to dig and I am too proud to beg.” This is a soft man with a desk job.
But he knows on what side his bread is buttered. So he starts thinking. He realizes
that he’s made some good working relationships over the years. Shrewdly, before
the owner has gotten the word out that his manager no longer works for him, the
manager acts like he actually still works for that “so-and so boss.” As if he were still in his management position,
he cuts deals with men who bought his boss’s products. Jesus knew why he would
do that; other managers or blue collar listeners would have known too. But it
might have flown over the heads of others. Part of the mindset of the manager
was “You can’t trust anyone.” So he decides to make friends by robbing his
former employer. As the saying goes “there is no honor among thieves.” He
starts offering rebates with money that is no longer his to offer; the manager
goes about greasing the palms of at least three potential employers who he
hopes will look past his dishonesty in this story, and look past his lack of
loyalty too; he believes that in that world another employer will find him
desirable because he’s writing off some of their debts. They may not have known
it was outside of his power to do so, but sooner or later the word will get
out. Nevertheless, according to the story, the slimly owner (called his
“master,”) commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness!! Oh
my; do you want to invest in that company? Do you want to work for that man?
This is a thief of an owner saying to a lower level thief: “Perhaps I
underestimated you! It seems like you have some good tricks up your sleeve!”
And then Jesus, as the narrator, says to his disciples starting in verse 8b: “For
the children of this world are more
shrewd in dealing with their business than the children of light are.” Here
both Jesus, and 20th century professor of ethics Reinhold Niebuhr,
calls “children of light;” those enlightened by the ways of God; those who seek
to honor God and to follow Jesus, yet in trusting, innocent, and neophyte ways.

Verses 9 -13 are, by most commentators,
seen as some separate saying of Jesus, not clearly connect to the story he just
told, and something of a bridge to the parable we will study next week about
the Rich Man and Lazarus. Jesus’ most cohesive advice is in verse 9: to make
friends of unrighteous mammon (as the
King James puts it) or, a clearer translation, by means of unrighteous money as the New Revised Standard puts it.
Commentator Alan Culpepper of Mercer University in Atlanta says “The admonition
to make friends for yourself is reminiscent of the warning Jesus gave earlier
to be reconciled with your accuser, even on the way to court.”[Luke 12: 58.]

So this parable is not about God, it is
about the ways of the world. Jesus listeners and hearers can choose the world
of back stabbing and deceit; of under the table dealings and of decisions by
dictator. Or, they can learn from that world but choose the ways of God
instead. God’s way has the qualities of justice, faithfulness, trustworthiness,
loyalty, and promise. The worlds are so different, yet how many choose the
former? I can hardly watch it in movies; I abhor it in real life: especially
because of what it does to human beings and how it puts them in binds. How
about you? What do you think? Have you ever been forced into these kinds of
binds? Are you in one now?

So what will you choose? Can you get out
of your binds or leave them behind? Today, consider staying clear of, or
getting out of, any tangled webs of today or tomorrow.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 20, 2013

09-15-13 GOD’S GREAT FINDS

GOD’S GREAT FINDS

Luke 15: 1-10

 

Two of the greatest stories Jesus told are before us today. If they are understood,
they could save souls. If they are proclaimed and rightly interpreted, they can
send an affirming message to women and men who feel invisible, or bullied, or
who feel like giving up on life. But the world has so much noise in it: the
noise of social media: texts, Twitter, Facebook, and emails; the noise of
school hallways, the noise of battlefields, the noise in Washington, and the
news from television or radio programs. Any of those can cause us to not only
be unsure about the world in which we live, but cause us to doubt that we are
people of worth. It can even make people doubt that God cares, that God redeems,
and that God is love. There have been some extreme examples in the news
recently. Back in August Gia Allamand, a beautiful 29 year old model who
appeared on the television show “The Bachelor” and later “The Bachelor Pad,”
was one example. She committed suicide. In spite of her beauty, her internal
voice said “not good enough” and the voices that streamed across her television
and Blackberry screens were too loud and too critical. Sometimes we depict the
devil as whispering doubts in people’s ears. But I believe it is often the opposite;
there are plenty of thoughtless people in the world with harsh voices and fast
fingers whose shouts or texts fill others with doubt. But it is God, your
loving Creator, the one who cherishes you like a good father and loves you like
a good mother, who offers you this still small voice: whispering encouragement
to people like Gia.”You are my precious daughter. You are my child. I love you
and will never forsake you. And I will never stop trying to make you hear me.”
Then last week in Lakeland, in our own state, a 12 year old girl took her own
life to get away from those in her town who, in the style of a mob, ganged up
on her with words that took away her self esteem and her ability to hear the
good voices of others. “Take away her cell phone” some might say so they can’t
get at her, but the tormenters found her at school as well. Finally Rebecca
went into an old cement plant, climbed to the top of a tower there, and jumped
to her death. All the while, God was trying to get holy words to be heard over
hateful ones; all the while, God was saying “You are my precious daughter. You
are my child. I love you and will love you forever. I will always be hoping you
will hear my voice.” Jesus heard words of love like that from his Heavenly
Father. He felt loved; he had God’s love to share with others. So he tried to
tell others about the nature of God and God’s passion for loving us. His
parables were to teach us about the nature of God’s heart. Most of the time we
move over these two passages in Luke 15 to get to the one that is the most
famous: the prodigal son. But that would be a mistake. Let’s interpret these
two passages with new ears to hear their message.

 

A parable is not a fairy tale or an allegory or a morality tale. It interprets
God for listeners in fresh ways. The first one today is known as the parable of
the lost sheep. Jesus says to a groups of Pharisees, who were all men and all
educated: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,
does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is
lost until he finds it?”

The Pharisees were surely saying to themselves, “Not me!”  We think of shepherds in charming and rosy
ways, especially around Christmas. But first century Pharisees thought of
shepherds as dirty and uneducated men or boys who would do hard work for little
pay. Pharisees would have been incensed by
Jesus implication that they would know what it’s like to be a shepherd! But
Jesus’ knew what he was doing. This parable isn’t a story about a Pharisee. No
Pharisee could relate to the story. It wasn’t even a story about real shepherds
of the day.  New Testament Professor
Barbara E. Reid explains:  “Real
shepherds were disdained. They were thought to be dishonest and thieving….It’s
a shock for respected leaders to be asked to think of themselves as lowly
shepherds….Most probably a herd [ that big] belonged to several [people, a
consortium of owners.” [Parables for Preachers, The Gospel of Luke 2000, p.
184.] And it would not have been humanly possible for one man to keep track of
100 sheep; in reality there would be several. Why? Because the sheep were
income, and lost sheep were lost income. So in this unrealistic story, no shepherd by himself would leave
ninety-nine to find one. It would be too risky. So this story is not humanly likely, but it is heavenly likely.
What do I mean?  Remember: parables are
told to interpret God for us. Jesus spoke so those who had ears could hear. Jesus makes God into the shepherd; not the dirty dishonest kind, but as a good
shepherd; one whose motives are pure and whose means are boundless.
Jesus’
parables in Luke usually include people who were marginalized. This passage
featured two marginalized group person in the first century: shepherds and
women. In this case God is the shepherd who is capable of watching 100 sheep.
But does God mainly watch sheep? Or do you remember that Scriptures like Psalm
79, 95, 100, and Isaiah 53 tell us who God’s sheep are? Yes! People are God’s
precious children; they are you, and me, and those across the ages. Only God,
as the good shepherd, would go and look for one lost sheep out of a hundred.
Every one is precious.  In the parable he
searches—not an easy thing in the Holy Land where there are caves and
predators, and mountains—but he searches for
the one that was lost. If sheep were lost, it would only because it wandered
into danger, not because the shepherd stopped looking. Likewise God thought Gia
and Rebecca were so precious that he never stopped trying to find them and
bring us back into his arms. Never; he does the same for you and for me.

 

 Here’s another comparison. Have you ever seen
blood hounds be given a scent from the clothes of a person who is missing? The
blood hounds head forth with barking and energy, searching for the scent that
they committed to memory. Owners say they have to rest their hounds now and
then, or they will push themselves to exhaustion. Poet Frances Thompson called
God “The Hound of Heaven.” It fits. God never gives up on you if you give God a
chance to redeem you and, as strange as it may sound, to adore you. We adore
God, but like parents who can’t get enough of the face of their child, God
adores you, and loves you, and wants you to know it. As valuable as 100 sheep
are, the Good Shepherd searches for even you, if you are lost.

 

Finally today, we have another story. It’s about a woman and a coin. But remember,
these are parables and each is related to the other. If Jesus personified God
as a shepherd and found the Pharisees outraged, image the outrage he faced as
he personified God as a woman to those first century men! Does it outrage you
too? As you may recall, there was a great stir in the religious and publishing
world in 2007 when William P. Young’s book The
Shack
became a bestseller. In it Young portrayed God in Mack’s
transformational visit to the shack as “a large, beaming, African American
woman …who engulfed Mack in her arms, lifting him clear off his feet and
spinning him around like a little child.” [2007, p. 82] Young wasn’t the first
to stretch our pictures of God; Jesus did it in parables all the time. Not
every parable has God as the main character, but these do. So what was the woman like in this story of the lost coin? She
was a manager of a household, seeing that mouths were fed and  that people were loved. She was conscientious;
never wanting to lose something of value. So that coin—that “pearl of great
price” to quote Jesus in Matthew 13—needed to be found. The floors of homes in
that day were dirt and stones, and floorboards. The mud-like walls of homes had
high small windows, usually just one on each wall. At any time of day, this
woman would have had to light a lamp to search for a coin, using precious oil
to do so. She would have to get down on the floor with her lamp, and with
gnarled and rough hands, sift through the dust and risk splinters from the
wood, looking for the coin. Tradition says it was not a widow’s mite but a
drachma—a day’s wage. Whatever you make in a day, if you lost that money,
wouldn’t you look for it? She did. She did with a broom, and hands and lamp,
and precious time. She literally would have left “no stone unturned.” And then
when she found the coin, she would call her friends (whom she had certainly
told about her dilemma like people do by phone or social media today). Her
friends would celebrated with her, that what was lost, that had great value,
was found. God is like that woman. To God, you are a precious, precious
treasure and like a woman in charge of her home, God wants you found. God will
search for you, and when she finds you, God will celebrate over you, and tears
of joy will run down her face.

 

It kind of stretches you, doesn’t it? But this is not 21st century
feminist theology or 20th century liberation theology. It is first
century Christian theology. Remember, though, only those who had ears to hear
could hear it!  Do you have those ears?
No matter if God is like a loving father to you, or a good shepherd, or a
searching woman, these stories tell a profound truth. We usually think of repentance
as having a lot to do with our turning
around; our regret, and our remorse. But in these stories “the lost ones do not
do the turning or initiate the change. It is the shepherd who does all the work
of finding, lifting, and carrying home the lost.” [Reid, p. 186.] And it is the
woman who does the searching and celebrating when she finds the coin that is
incapable of repentance. To quote Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey in his book Finding the Lost, “Repentance takes on a
new definition. It begins with God offering to [us all] the free gift of
forgiveness and restoration to the community. For [us] it means being able to
accept this kind of God, to enter into the joy of being found, and to then live
from that grace.” [Concordia Scholarship Today, pp. 144-156]  

 

You, dear friend, even when you are lost, or dirty, or confused, are one of God’s
great finds. When you look toward the light, may you picture the lamp of God, being
held by a frantic woman, looking not for someone else, but looking for you.

 

Jeffrey
A. Sumner                                                          September
15, 2013

 

09-08-13 CONSIDERING DISCIPLESHIP


CONSIDERING DISCIPLESHIP

Luke 14: 25-33

 

Last week and this week 15 people
joined me and another 15 joined Cara in classes that are called DISCIPLE.
Dreamed up and written by United Methodist Bishop Richard Wilke and his wife
Julia, DISCIPLE is about more than just knowing the Bible; it is about growing
closer to God and closer to others in your group; it is about starting to see
the world through the eyes or Christ; it is about a commitment of 34 weeks of
daily homework and faithful attendance in the 2 ½ hour classes. It is about a
willingness to change one’s life and priorities to move from being just a
seeker, or just a church member, or even an elder, to becoming a disciple. It
means doing without some things to take this journey. At least two in my class
shared that they made significant changes in their year in order to attend
class. That’s part of the “discipline” or being a disciple. And today’s passage
intentionally takes Jesus’ listeners on a journey of “what ifs.” Salespeople,
when a price is being negotiated, sometimes ask: “What would it take for you to
decide to buy today?” And you might say “There is no way that I will buy today!
Even so, some have left the dealer with a new car! There are new cars in our
parking lot today bought with the plan to just look! People say everyone has
his or her price. Jesus too knew that every decision we decide costs us. People
who choose to be part of a group may have start up costs for materials, but
they may also have the cost of not being part of a different group or not
having as much free time. A week from Wednesday we start our 2013-2014
Confirmation Class with youth whose parents have agreed to have their child
here every week for a whole school year. Do you know how hard that is in the
midst of a middle schooler’s or high schooler’s activities? I respect and honor
that they are making that choice. And as I say to DISCPLE classes and to
Confirmation classes, “I am sure that your choice pleases God.” God loves to
watch the choices we make through the divine gift of free will. God hopes we
choose life, and heaven, and salvation. And some, by their discipleship, do so.
Let’s consider discipleship today.

 

Luke14: 26. “Whoever comes to me and
does not hate his father and mother, his wife and his children, his brothers
and sisters—yes, even his own life—cannot be my disciple.” “Wow! Did Jesus really
mean that?” Well, yes and no. The “yes” part is this: even if you love your
wife, husband, children, parents, or best friends, Jesus’ challenge is to love him more. Do remember the hymn we
sang recently with words by Cecil Frances Alexander? “Jesus calls us o’er the
tumult of our life’s wild restless sea; day by day his sweet voice soundeth,
saying ‘Christian, follow me.’ Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s
golden store, from each idol that would keep us, saying ‘Christian, love me
more.’” And  “In our joys and in our
sorrows, days of toil and hours of ease; still He calls, in cares and
pleasures, ‘Christian love me more than these.’” That’s what it means. There
are so many idols in this world; they can be possessions or obsessions and can
eat into our time or attention. Love Jesus more than those! There are some who
love their spouse, their best friend, their child, their grandchild, their
parent or their grandparent so much that being away from them is painful. In
spite of such great human love, love
Jesus more. “Jesus loves you, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!”
Discipleship offers reciprocal love. God loved the world first and Jesus was
filled up with that love. Then Jesus loved us so much. “How much?” a child once
asked his Sunday School teacher. Her answer was “This much,” and she opened her
arms wide.

So what about the “no” to the answer?
Well Jesus’ use of the word “hate” is what’s called a “Semitic hyperbole,”
which means it is a cultural statement of exaggeration to emphasize a point. Children
and teenagers do it all the time. “Taylor Swift’s song “We’ll never, ever,
ever, get back together!” is one example. One “never” would do; the two “evers”
are for emphasis! It becomes  “never,
ever, ever.” In times of teen embarrassment a girl says “I was so embarrassed I
could have died.” That’s embarrassment to the point of humiliation, but it
isn’t death, nor, in most cases, does she act to take her own life. It is meant
for emphasis. Jesus’ saying “hate” from the preacher of love is a Middle
Eastern exaggeration. It means, like the hymn says: look at every thing and
every one you love, ones for whom you change your schedule, ones for whom you
make time, ones that monopolize your thoughts, and Jesus says: “Love me more than those.”

 

The apostle Paul says in 1
Corinthians 15: 50 that “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.”
In the Kingdom of
God, physical things that
seem so important now pass away. We do not take these bodies, or our favorite
furniture, or our sports car or our gold, or even our keepsake boxes when we go
to the spiritual realm we call Heaven. We leave them behind. Discipleship is
our preparation time for seeing, and claiming, the Kingdom of God
even in our midst. It is about proclaiming to God in the words of hymnwriter
Clara H. Scott: “Open my eyes that I may see glimpses of truth Thou hast for
me!” The discipleship path teaches us to see things differently.

 

Jesus’ next line seems fine until we
think about it. “Those who do not carry their own cross and follow me cannot be
my disciple.” Luke 14:27. We are so used to connecting Jesus with a cross that
it might not occur to us that Jesus said those words weeks before he faced the
cross! The cross was a Roman tool of agonizing death meant to correct
disruptive or subversive behavior. And yet Jesus brings up the Roman cross well
before anyone witnesses his death. It is not likely that anyone at that time
had seen another person carry his own cross except in one place: the center of Jerusalem. There Roman
centurions would force men condemned to crucifixion to carry their own cross
bar through the narrow streets of Jerusalem on the way to the quarry-like
killing field known as Calvary in Latin, or Golgotha in Hebrew. Was Jesus
forcing people who had never equated a cross with Christianity to make that
giant leap? Or was he just planting a seed of what was to come, something
revealed to him from his Father about the role the cross would play in his
death? Jesus was not much of a salesman for discipleship here, was he? It was a
rather ominous statement. Are we sure that Peter James and John and the others
expected such deaths when they first followed Jesus? We have no record of
contract or conclave where Jesus said, “Follow me! But first men, remember, I’m
going to a Roman cross of death and some of you might too if you follow me!”
No. This was, and is, a high bar, for those in that day, and those in our day.
Professing Christianity in Egypt
right now can cost you your life. Being a disciple is not the path of least
resistance. But Christians that hear words about the cross also remember that
the cross stood empty after Jesus’ death as
did his grave! No matter how it comes, death is a path toward the spiritual
world as we depart the physical world. Ready or not, here it comes on the day
or hour that is a mystery. Will you be ready to discard your treasures; will
you be ready to stop human conversations with those you love again? In spite of
people on television who hoard mountains of possessions, we all are moving
toward one day having spiritual gifts only; we leave worldly possessions behind.

Being a disciple is not a stage of
perfection, but a time when we intentionally cast our eyes on the prize:
deciding to do more Christ-like thinking, more Christ-like seeing, and more
Christ-like actions.

 

Finally, Jesus gets pragmatic.
“Suppose a king is about to go to war with another king. Will he not first sit
down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one
coming to him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a
delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of
peace.” (NIV, Luke 14: 31-32.) That illustration seems especially timely as our
country considers what actions, if any, it will take against Syrian leaders.
This is Jesus’ lesson about anticipating
and then counting the cost.  Before
people agree to join DISCIPLE class or Confirmation Class, we always have an
overview session for them to consider if they can make the commitment. It is
often most wise to walk away from the cars salesperson, even for a few hours or
a day; to hang up the phone on the telemarketer, or to give your decision
careful thought before you enlist in military service. Those are all big
commitments and they cost you something. There is good news and bad news about
being a disciple. First the good news: the first Twelve that Jesus recruited
were not sterling prizes of polished discipleship! Even though they are
revered, the Twelve had a doubter, a betrayer, ones with second thoughts, ones
who almost never spoke, and ones who were reactive and ones who were hot-headed!
The bar for discipleship is not set that high.
But then the bad news: the bar of discipleship is set that high! How can we mean both? As with Jesus’
explanations, the plan takes high commitment, changes in priorities, and a
willingness to embrace the spiritual and eventually discard the physical. But
because of our humanness, some are at different places on the path. As human we
know we are weak and we fail. In a way it is good that we see both the
strengths and weaknesses of Jesus’ Twelve; it makes it seem less impossible to
be a disciple.

 

You can be a disciple. It starts with a choice between life and death;
blessing and curse. Choose life. It
continues with a decision to stay with the choice, and not try to jump ship or
backslide to your old life. It takes mentors and partners in the process. The
church is, in part, charged with disciple making and keeping. We try, and
sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail. We also work to see the world through
Jesus’ eyes, his mind, and with his actions. The church seeks to be the body of
Christ in the world. Discipleship is not perfection; it is a process of
sanctification; preparing us to the see “the kingdoms of this world becoming
the Kingdom of our Lord.” It is happening, even now. Disciples change the world.
Will you choose Christ, not only ask a seeker, or not only as a church member,
but as a disciple?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          September 8, 2013

 

 

09-01-13 CONSIDERING CHRISTIAN HUMILITY


CONSIDERING CHRISTIAN HUMILITY
Luke 14: 1, 7-24

Countless numbers of people in our
community have given, and would still give, testimony to the work of a humble
hospital chaplain who did his work unassumingly, unpretentiously, and
beautifully. Halifax Hospital has been fortunate to have Chaplain Jim Smith
advocate for patients, advocate for pastors, and advocate for the power of spiritual
care in the healing of a person. As one who practiced humility, at no time
would Jim have said to another person “I know exactly how you feel.” No; it is presumptuous
and ludicrous for a person to say that; no matter how much alike your situation
has been compared to another person, there is still no way that you know
“exactly” how another person feels. Nor does it help the other person to hear
that. You have not walked in their shoes; you have not lived their life. The
humble person does what Jim has done as he retires weekend: he listened; even
though he had heard countlessly similar stories of grief, he treated every
situation as brand new. He was invited by patients and family members to share
in their grief, and he treated that as holy ground. Similarly, a person is no
help to someone in pain when they say: “You think you’ve got it bad, let me
tell you what I went through one time!” The grieving or agonizing persons are
not helped by your story. Right then
they are not in a position to sympathize with you; they are the ones who need the steadfast presence of a
non-judging, non-comparing person. Chaplain Jim Smith was that person. Jim was
the embodiment of humility in his work. Well done, good and faithful servant.
Now Jim can focus on some of his most rabid hobbies, like rooting for his
Florida Gators!

This week too, at St. George’s Coptic
Orthodox Church, I was so proud of the humble but clear response Egyptian
Christians and other interested Americans had to the Zealot actions of the
Muslim Brotherhood carried out in Egypt. They destroyed church buildings, and
harmed or killing Christians. This group does not represent mainline Muslims.
These are radicals, and their radical nature has turned them into haters and
destroyers. Yet the Christians in Egypt have not declared retaliatory strikes
on Muslim homes, no matter how hurt they are. They have been praying, informing
others, and seeking solutions other than violence. “Well done.” I can hear our
Lord Jesus saying that to them. Do not do as the world does: an eye for an eye,
or worse. Instead, a humble response is the way Jesus responded in so many
cases. The key verse on which we focus today is Luke 14:11, “Those who exalt
themselves will be humbled; and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Although we grieve what is happening in Egypt, we acknowledge with anguish the
stain of Christian Triumphalism that marched through cities and villages in a
march to Jerusalem in the 11th century, forcing Muslims to
relinquish their homes and their mosques. That period, called the Christian
Crusades, was an arrogant and ruthless time for zealots of our own faith. That
was when, in the name of the church, “Christian soldiers went marching as to
war.” So that same kind of awfulness has now reared its ugly head in the Muslim
leadership iof Egypt, trying to take control from and to marginalize
Christians, and it is taking its toll. Pray for the Christians; pray for
everyone in Egypt. Pray that justice will roll down like waters.

It is clear that some people in the
world who do their work see humility as a vice. Someone like Donald Trump, for
instance: successful, self-made, but not humble. His name is emblazoned on
virtually everything he’s touched. And there were popular and polished Christian
television preachers 30 years ago, namely Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, and Jimmy
Swaggart, who had humility forced on them as their empires crumbled from sins
that they only acknowledged when they were caught. Humility because you have
been caught is not the kind Jesus is lifting up. Political men in the news last
month come to my mind but I will not name them. There are some poor human
examples of humility in our world.

But there are also some fine examples. I
mentioned Chaplain Jim Smith; another example is the late Henri Nouwen. I heard
him personally speak at my graduation from Princeton Seminary in 1981. What an
unassuming Christian giant. He was a Dutch born Catholic priest. He became a
Fellow at the prestigious Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas before moving
on to become a professor at the University of Notre Dame. He then became
professor of pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School for ten years, followed
by two years teaching at Harvard Divinity School. Then one day, after a visit
to South America and then to “L’Arche Community in France, he resigned his
prestigious position and went to become the chaplain of L’Arch Community in
Richmond Hill, Ontario. L’Arche
is an International Federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes,
programs, and support networks with people who have intellectual disabilities
(or learning disabilities as they are known in the UK). Not unlike our own
Duvall Home, Presbyterian home in Glenwood, Florida.  Nouwen went to live among the least of his
brothers and sisters, ministering to them as Jesus would have done, and, he was
quick to point out that they ministered to him as Jesus would have done as
well. Not everyone would drop worldly success and move to such a community. The
world has more of the arrogant and the bombastic; the terrorist and the
narcissist. But Jesus asks us to take the road less traveled. Some, who I have
named, have taken it. Well done to them. There are others, like Mother Teresa
of Calcutta, and St. Francis of Assisi, who cared for the least of Jesus’
brothers and sisters. A new group at our church, “Friends of Francis,” seeks to
help those who cannot help themselves in our congregation and community.
Dreamed up by Tobias Caskey, just two weeks ago they ministered to a church
member by going to her home and pumping up bicycle tires. Just a little
kindness and helpfulness made a difference. And they are collecting clothes and
computers and other things to give someone else a lift. Others in our church
and community work tirelessly with our own Halifax Urban Ministries food banks
and the Star Center for those who need housing. Humble helpers are around; but
most of the times others make the headlines. Jesus would not have made first
century headlines, even in his biggest dust-ups, or moments of humble care.
Even his crucifixion flew under the radar of most everyone until months or
years later. But what Jesus said, through his parables and other examples, is
that he wants us to live differently; not naturally (looking out for number
one), or reactively (you hit me and I flatten you), but differently. Live the
way of those who show Christian humility. They are around; some are even here
today.

Thanks be to God for those who may not
be in the news, but they are “near to the heart of God.” On most days that is
the road less travelled. And to use words from the American Poet Laureate
Robert Frost, choosing that path makes all the difference.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          September
1, 2013