Monthly Archives: January 2014

01-26-14 FOLLOW ME

When Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew, when he called James and John, I wonder if they knew what they were getting into. They were just going about a normal day, heading out onto their boats. Perhaps the fishing was slow that day. Maybe they were thinking about what they would have for dinner that night. I am not sure any of them expected what happened. A young rabbi walks past on the shoreline and they look up from their work. “Follow me” calls Jesus to their distant boats and immediately they left their nets and followed him.

That’s one of the things that amazes me in this passage. The disciples all just left their nets behind and followed this man. They might have heard of Jesus previously, after all, they live in a small community and Jesus had began to preach in that area. They would know about this wandering rabbi who was seemingly following in the footsteps of John the baptist. But would that have been enough to leave everything behind and follow? Would it be enough for you?

I’d like to tell myself that it would. That sure, I would recognize what was happening and jump at the chance to join in. To be with Jesus from the very beginning. That I would be astute enough to recognize that call for what it is. But really, would I?

You see, Jesus still calls us today. In the midst of our ordinary lives Jesus is still calling. The question is, do we hear? And when we do manage to hear, do we respond?

The Presbyterian church likes to use the word call a lot. Our pastors are called to their positions. Elders are called to serve on session. You are responding to God’s call when you accept these positions. But that makes it seem like only some people are called. Only a few are given the responsibilities and everyone else is free to simply show up for worship on Sunday mornings. But calls are more than that.

We are called in the middle of our ordinary lives to follow Christ. It does not matter what your vocation is, you can still respond to Christ’s call, still serve as a disciple. The men Jesus first called were fishermen. They were working class people at best, getting by with what they could and finding ways to work with what they had. The disciples were not the most educated guys. They weren’t the most faithful Jews. All of the best torah scholars were apprenticed to rabbis somewhere. These guys didn’t make it that far. They had the basic education in the Torah and that’s it.

But Christ calls them. And Christ calls us.

It’s easier for me to see where God calls me to serve in my vocation, it’s kind of built into the job. But that doesn’t mean that God only calls those who work in churches or as missionaries to serve. We all serve doing whatever vocation God has called us to do. As a grocery store clerk, we can serve faithfully, offering smiles and friendly words to those who go by. As a doctor, we serve by healing and caring about the person we are healing, seeing them as more than just a statistic. There are always ways we can serve in the place we find ourselves.

In the eleventh century, King Henry III of Bavaria grew tired of court life and the pressures of being a monarch. He made application to Prior Richard at a local monastery, asking to be accepted as a contemplative and spend the rest of his life in the monastery. “Your Majesty,” said Prior Richard, “do you understand that the pledge here is one of obedience? That will be hard because you have been a king.”

“I understand,” said Henry. “The rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you.”

“Then I will tell you what to do,” said Prior Richard. “Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has put you.” When King Henry died, a statement was written: “The King learned to rule by being obedient.”

King Henry was a different king because he followed Christ. He didn’t have to leave everything behind and become a monk to be a follower. He had to follow Christ where he already was.

Now, while follow me doesn’t mean that everyone who wants to be a disciple needs to quit their jobs and  apply to be missionaries, at the same time, it doesn’t mean that our daily life doesn’t change. Our life does change when we follow Christ. King Henry did not go anywhere, but his outlook and behavior changed. When we hear Jesus’ call and accept what it means, our lives should change.

There are many different kinds of calls that change our lives. There are calls to a particular place, to a spec
ific faith community. There are calls to a task, and there are calls to stop what you are doing and find refreshment for your tired spirit. There are calls into and out of relationships. There are calls to regret what you have done, to repent and make amends for your wrongdoing. And there are calls to stop regretting, to accept the fact that you are forgiven and get on with your life.

The words “Come, follow me” invite us to take a journey. When we follow someone, we go from where we are to a place that is completely different, sometimes without going anywhere at all. When Jesus invites us to follow him, it is precisely that – an invitation. We can choose to accept or decline, but if we accept then we must be prepared for challenges to come our way, challenges to how we think, how we live, what we do, even where we are. Following is not always an easy thing, at times we will be following uphill, not understanding why we have taken the route that we are on – but following has its advantages too. Following Jesus brings us to a place where we can see firsthand the power of God at work, and that is worth all the challenges that being a follower can bring.

But we have to focus on our call.

That was one of the problems in the church in Corinth. They became so obsessed with who they belonged to, which teacher they called “theirs”, they forgot who called them in the first place, who they were supposed to follow. When we focus on our differences, our divisions, we lose sight of where Jesus calls us. We get so preoccupied with bickering, we miss Jesus walking past on the shore.

And look, some days we will be like Zebedee, the father of John and James. He was still in the boat when his sons left. He too heard the call, but he stayed. Maybe he thought that someone needed to bring the boat in. Maybe he thought he was too old to follow this call to leave his life behind. Perhaps he realized someone needed to tell their mother what happened to them. There are a myriad of very good reasons why he might have continued on fishing that day, but the point is, he missed the call.

And some days, we too miss the call. We didn’t sleep well the night before or we are having a bad day thanks to an argument at home. We snap at people we shouldn’t. We respond with selfishness instead of generosity. We yell as opposed to ask why. There are days when we are going to fail to follow Christ’s call.

So did the disciples. Peter betrayed Jesus, despite swearing left and right the night before that he would do no such thing. James and John got into an argument about who would sit at the right hand of Jesus when they got into heaven. There were days when they all mentally stayed in the boat, ignoring Jesus’ call to something better. Something greater.

But Jesus keeps calling. He asked Peter, despite the betrayal, to watch his sheep. To care for those he was leaving behind. He asks John to watch his mother after he dies.  Missing the call once never means that Jesus stops calling.

Jesus calls to us, “Follow Me” and keeps calling for our entire lives. We can ignore the call, or get so wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t hear it at all. We can follow the call one day and slip the next, but the call is always there. Follow me. Change the way you approach the world. Live your life using the example Christ sets for you. Forgive those who have wronged you. Devote your time to others, offering comfort and teaching where you can. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Offer hope to the oppressed. That is what following the call means, that you do these things, no matter where you are at in life. No matter what your job.

Jesus calls “Follow me.” How will you respond?

 

01-19-14 THE WITNESS OF ST ANDREW

THE WITNESS OF ST ANDREW

John 1: 29-42

 

When
it comes to Scotland, visitors discover that they are very serious about their Scottish
dress, and very humorous about their language. In his book Scotland for Beginners, Rupert  Besley has these descriptions for the modern
Scotsman in full regalia: The “plaid,” is says, is for picnics; the Sporran is
for holding golf tees; the claymore is for cutting shortbread, the bandage
leggings are to protect oneself against nasty accidents during sword dances;
the skeen dhu (or knife) if for emergency release in case of over-tight
garters, and the jabot is for wiping porridge off a chin. And check out this
geographic tongue twister from the book Heritage
of Scotland
by Nathaniel Harris: “Perth, Scotland’s capital until the late
Middle Ages, grew up at the point where the River Tay opens out to become a
firth. Between them, the Tay and the Forth create the peninsula of Fife, a
large plain whose individuality earned it the nickname ‘the wee kingdom’; it’s
most famous city, St. Andrews, lacks any geographical advantages, but
nevertheless played a crucial role in Scottish history as an ecclesiastical
centre and has the curious twin distinction of being home to the nation’s
oldest university, and it’s favorite game, golf.” [Checkmark Books, 2000, p.
12]. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. I was surprised that John Knox
allowed for patron saints until I learned he was given that title long before
John Knox was born! The flag of Scotland, with the blue diagonal cross, is the
St. Andrew Cross. The apostle Andrew who had a mere 13 references in Scripture,
did quite well for himself long after his death. According to official records,
St. Andrew is the patron saint (deep breath): of Scotland, of fishermen, of
Romania, of the Ukraine, of Greece, of the Army Rangers, of Russia, and of
golf! The story of St. Andrew, of course, begins with the Galilean fisherman
who followed Jesus. It is said that he was crucified by the Romans on a “Chi”
shaped cross (just check out the “Chi” on the front of our lectern; it’s the
first letter in the Greek word “Christos”) Andrew’s crucifixion was at Patras
in Greece. Legend has it that a Greek monk known as St. Regulus was ordered in
a vision to take a few relics of Andrew to the ‘ends of the earth’ for
safekeeping. He set off on his journey and eventually came ashore on the coast
of Fife in Scotland, at a settlement which is now the modern town of St.
Andrews.  Perhaps the original way of
spelling the city was St.Andrew’s with the apostrophe, indicating this land
belonged to Andrew, disciple of Jesus Christ. Over the years the apostrophe
would have disappeared. In 832 A.D. after a battle against the Northumbrians,
the Saltire, or Saint Andrew’s cross was adopted as the national emblem and
flag of the Scots. And Andrew was first recognized as the patron saint of
Scotland in 1320, far earlier than the Protestant Reformation! So Andrew is the
exception of why the Presbyterian Church, known as the Church of Scotland,
still gives high honor to a man elevated to sainthood.

 

What
is it after all, that makes Andrew such an honored man to so many groups of
people?  First, along with the other 11
Apostles, he was called to come as he was by Jesus, to be his disciple. There
isn’t a person alive who cannot be a disciple of Jesus. Andrew was an ordinary
person who followed an extraordinary Savior. That could describe you; it
described John Knox and John Witherspoon, and Francis Makemie among others. They
were people who made a government of “one nation, under God,” in Scotland and
America, people who took the stand that government should be “by the people and
for the people.”  Ordinary people, like
Andrew, took extraordinary stands. And that has forged some great nations.

 

Second,
Andrew in his neophyte faith turned to his brother, Simon, and said this: “We
have found the Messiah.” And he did this:
“He brought his brother to Jesus.” Two great actions for a man who was still
wet behind the discipleship ears. He was an evangelist: he brought someone else
to Christ. John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, wrote this
about Andrew in Calvin’s commentary: 

Andrew has
scarcely a spark [of faith], yet, by means of it, he enlightens his brother.
Woe to our indolence, therefore, if we do not, after having been fully
enlightened, endeavor to make others partakers of the same grace. We may
observe in Andrew two things which Isaiah requires from the children of God:
namely, that each should take his neighbor by the hand, and next, that he
should say, Come, let us go up into the
mountain of the Lord, and he will teach us.” (Isa. ii. 3.)

 

These
were the two simple, yet profound, things that Andrew did. You can do what
Andrew did. If it is your belief, you can say to others, “I have found the
Messiah.” You may say it with other words than those, like proclaiming “Jesus
is Lord,” the shortest of Biblical creeds. Or you might say: “Come try my
church,” and here they might indeed meet Christ. If someone admires or
appreciates you, who’s to say that they might give this Jesus, our Christ, a
second glance and, like a seeker, come and learn about him, and then learn from
him? That can happen from a simple, but well-considered declaration: “We’ve
found the Messiah.” This congregation joins many others in proclaiming that.
And this congregation is growing—in 26 of the last 28 years. How do
congregations grow? In part by doing what Andrew did: “He brought someone to
Christ.”  Have you ever brought someone
to your church? Raise your hand? Now let me ask this: have you come to church
today, or ever, because someone invited you to come?  Raise your hands! Of course! This is Christian evangelism at its
simplest: it’s inviting a neighbor to come and see who you have seen; to come
and find who you have found!
I am a Presbyterian because when we moved to a
new city we could not find a nearby Methodist Church and our next door neighbor
invited our family to come to his Presbyterian Church! And it was there that I
found Jesus Christ, was baptized, and claimed him as my Lord and Savior.

 

The
world is hungry for answers; the world looks for light in its darkness; and the
world is looking for the way, the truth, and the life. You have it! I have it!
We have that to share with the world. It was that first move by Andrew that
connected Jesus  with Simon; it was Jesus
who nick-named Simon “Peter.” And with Peter’s leadership, even amidst his
failings, the followers of Christ were born. It’s up to the Andrews of the
world to see that his message continues. As the old hymn by Colin Sterne and
Ernest Nichol put it: “We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn
their heart to the right, a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and
light. For the darkness shall turn to the dawning, and the dawning to noonday
bright, and Christ’s great Kingdom shall come on earth, the Kingdom of love and
light!”

 

So
may it be. Let us honor God by inviting others to meet Jesus, the Savior.

 

Jeffrey
A. Sumner                                                                 January 19, 2014

01-12-14 UNDERSTANDING BAPTISM

UNDERSTANDING BAPTISM

Matthew 3: 13-17

 

At Christmas, perhaps like many of you I
was offered a credit card if I was buying a gift and did not own one of their
store’s cards. Sometimes I got those credit cards if I believed I’d buy there
again, or if the purchase and discount was big enough to justify owning another
card. But some people shun credit cards because of their high interest rates
for missed payments, so today I want to use a debit card as an analogy for baptism. I know with baptism we want
to focus on the water, and the event. But today I think there are two things
that are more important about baptism and get overlooked. When I first got a
debit card, it was just a piece of plastic; it had no power. No matter how many
times I might have tried to use it, it would not work without activation,
either by phone or on line. Once I activated my card, it gave me powers and
abilities I never had before! I no longer needed to carry a good deal of cash,
a pocket full of change, and a checkbook; I could do what I needed to do with
the swipe of my card. My kids, even at their grown ages, often only carry a
debit card.  I know this because there
are times when we are together when we might stop at a food stand to get snacks
and the sign says: “cash only.” They look at me, “Mr. Wallet,” with hopeful
eyes!  I have cash because my debit card
even allows me to get that if I use it in a drug store or grocery store line.
What power! It has no power if I just put it in a drawer; it has great power if
I use it.

 

“How does that relate to baptism?” you
may ask.  Let’s look at the Matthew text
today. Time has sped by since last week. Last week baby Jesus was in a house in
Bethlehem where the Wisemen came to honor him. From that time in Jesus’ life
until now the Bible is almost silent. We understand that Joseph took Mary and
Jesus to Egypt for a time, perhaps two years, to escape Herod’s maniacal grasp.
We understand that they came back to their homeland, avoiding Judah, and
settling in Nazareth. We understand that once when Jesus was a baby his parents
brought him to Jerusalem at the time of Mary’s purification, and that when he
was a 12 they also came to Jerusalem for Passover as was the custom for Jews. Aside
from those two brief events, Scripture is silent about Jesus’ years of growing
up. But the silence is telling. Since gospels by design mainly include information
that points to Jesus as Messiah, we believe that Jesus did not begin any
ministry until his baptism. On that day his ministry was “activated;” on that
day his Heavenly Father, in effect, commissioned him for the tasks that lay
before him. And the presence of God’s Spirit in him empowered him. So it is a
fateful moment that is recorded in Matthew 3:13. Jesus walks toward the Jordan
River, the most significant river in the life of his people. People crossed the
river, they got clean in the river, and they traveled by the river since its
waters provided fresh vegetation. But today in our lesson Jesus and the others gathered at the river for another
reason; a man was baptizing; taking water and either submersing them or pouring
it over their heads to symbolize what needed to take place in them. We in our
day get too caught up with the water: how much is required? Is it holy water? Was
it an immersion or sprinkling? Is it Jordan River water? Do we do it once or do
we do it often?  But what I get out of
the text is the activation that
baptism is intended to provide. Like a debit card before it is activated, it is
something, but without power. Oh if we lived up north we could use our card as
a windshield scraper on a chilly morning but otherwise it is really quit
powerless. But once the card has been activated, it has purpose and power.
Just so, let me suggest that if you have not yet been baptized, you have
purpose and power waiting to be activated in you if you do decide for baptism!
And if you have been baptized, are
you using your baptism for what it was intended? Have you called on God’s Spirit
to wake up, to be active in your life? Jesus hardly needed a baptism for
repentance; we don’t know of any sins he committed. Jesus hardly needed baptism
for purity either because, to our knowledge, sin did not taint his soul. Some
say he was baptized to set an example, and I think that may be true. But more
than that, I think Jesus was baptized to
activate his new life; to commission him for his earthly ministry; and to fill
him with the power to comfort when appropriate to confront as needed, and to
counsel. Jesus needed his baptism like you need yours; not just to have it
done, but to tap into the power that was activated when it was done.

Look what happens at Jesus’ baptism; in
all four gospels it is written that when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit—that
looked like a dove—descended on Jesus and a voice from Heaven said according to
one source: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” It is an
example of appropriate parental pleasure and approval on the occasion of a
son’s or daughter’s baptism. That still is important. But in another place the
voice says to the others in and around the river: “This is my beloved Son with
whom I am well pleased; and in still another place the voice had a command:
“listen to him!” So baptism, it seems, is much less about the water, and a good
deal about hearing the pleasure in God’s voice and hopefully in the voice of
parents who witness the event. But the best is yet to come.

 

What happens next in Jesus’ life is he
is sent into the world to begin his ministry, but he is not sent powerless; he
is sent “full of the Spirit.” I think this is the part of baptism we overlook.
We might get the water right, but we soon find that the type or quantity of
water matters little; we might get the pleasure of parent’s approval right, and
that certainly makes for a day of joy and celebration. But even an activated
debit card that I set in my drawer can do no good. It has no power or  purpose when it is set aside. It is all
charged up with nothing to do. If I take my activated card and use if for the
intended purpose—for purchasing power up to the limit of my means—then it is a
powerful tool. Today I think lots of people here and in our world have been
baptized, and if so, they have been commissioned by that action, and the power
of the Spirit fills them. With the Spirit they can live differently and use
their power to bring God’s love and justice to a world that needs more of it.
Some have treated their baptism like an insurance policy; they got the
certificate and carefully tucked away in a drawer for life. But the debit card,
and our Matthew text, reminds us of the better way to treat Baptism: as an
activation of God’s Spirit in your soul. For the baptism of children, the same
Spirit enters their life but needs to be watered by the nurture, guidance, and
example of parents who show their children what the Christian life entails;
worship, study, prayer, mission, and love. To the young adult, baptism is more
than a Jewish Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah; it says I myself have announced that Jesus is my Savior. Now I will start
to blaze a Christian trail being guided by Scripture, pastors, youth leaders,
and parents. Baptism for them too, is not just a day; it’s a beginning. As I
said, it is “an activation” of God’s Spirit in you. If you have not tapped into
the power God bestowed on you at your baptism, perhaps today is the time to do
so. And if you are an adult and are baptized, you have the power to have a
significantly different life now than you did before. Your old self gets washed
away and a new self can take its place. It is a powerful reminder not to set
the power of your baptism in a drawer. The Spirit is present and waiting in
baptized persons, waiting for you to make the call of activation, and to begin a
new life. How many in our world are baptized but not living out their baptism? We can’t control them, but we can control
ourselves.
Perhaps this is the day to keep your baptism power at the ready:
as close as your wallet; to use in your daily life. Don’t live an un-activated
baptized life! Activate your baptism, and let God offer light to this world
through you, and you, and me.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner                                                                  January
12, 2014

01-05-14 EPIPHANY DEFINED

EPIPHANY DEFINED

Matthew 2: 1-12

 

Yes, we have the Christmas decorations
up. While retailers have Christmas supplies out as early as September or
October, and the Christmas music has now stopped playing, Christmas, according
to Christian tradition, includes twelve days. Tomorrow concludes the Christmas
season; our decorations will come down Wednesday. Tomorrow is January 6th,
throughout the world called Epiphany. Since this Sunday is so close, it is
called “Epiphany Sunday. “ So what is Epiphany? As much a we’d like to place
the Wisemen, or Kings as they’re sometimes called, at the stable in Bethlehem,
the Bible is clear that they came to see the baby Jesus in a house, certainly
while Mary and Joseph were still in Bethlehem. It was there that they presented
their gifts to him. We call their “appearance” “Epiphany.” But in his book
called Were they Wisemen or Kings?”
author Joseph J. Walsh says puts a different twist on Epiphany. He writes: “

The
Epiphany is the celebration on January 6th of the manifestation of
Jesus’ divinity. It is also the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas and, so,
the official end of the Christmas season.
Most Christians these days simply accept Christ’s divinity as a fact. In
the early church, though, it was difficult for everyone to agree. Some thought
it was inconceivable that God would allow himself or his divine son to become
genuinely human…. And so they argued that Christ only “appeared” to be human,
never actually was. They are called: Docetists” ….At the other end of the
spectrum, some argued that Jesus was not fully divine. They are often called
“Arians” from Arius, [who originated the idea.] [Westminster John Knox Press,
2001, p.71]

 

Epiphany means “manifestation” or
“appearance.” On that day so long ago the baby, born to a human mother, Mary,
was also lifted up as divine when Wisemen came from the East to seek a King after
reading, understanding, and following stars. This child, they believed was the
appearance of light in darkness; of joy out of sorrow; of hope out of
hopelessness. Jesus’ birth brings those things. And our white robes and
paraments, and the presence of many candles here today remind us, and show the
world, what John said so beautifully:  The
true light that enlightens the world has come into the world. The eternal Word,
the one who was in the beginning when the world was made, is now made into
flesh to live among us. Early Christians who sought to define orthodox Christianity
studied that passage among others and came up with a statement of faith that
has stood the test of time. Called the Nicene Creed: Christians affirm that
Jesus is: “God from God; Light from Light; true God from true God; begotten,
not made; being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and was incarnate by
the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary; and was made man” or “became truly human.”
This good news is the Christian Epiphany.

 

But there is another definition of epiphany
as well: “a moment of sudden and great revelation or understanding.” That may
be the most important definition for a new year. The Apostle Paul had such an
epiphany, that we call a conversion, recorded in the book of Acts. Perhaps this
is your year for that kind of epiphany. Will you, this year, warm your heart to
Christ, more than being a Christian bystander? This could be your epiphany
year. Others here today have survived surgery, an accident, or a near death
experience. And you opened your eyes in this world instead of the next world
and asked your Maker: “Why did you spare me?
What am I to do on this earth now that will serve others and honor you?” Some
of those people begin to make a difference in their church or community. That
could be your epiphany. Others of you
perhaps have held grudges against a family member or friend, refusing to
forgive something that you deemed too hurtful. I did that one time. I decided I
wasn’t going to forgive someone for something he did. I was going to show him
how hurt I was by withholding forgiveness. Boy was that a lesson. My lack of
forgiveness ate at me, took my energy, and blocked any healthy conversations
with God.  I was determined and
miserable; the other person was oblivious. So one day I had an epiphany: “a
moment of sudden revelation or understanding.” I decided to forgive; and
although I didn’t forget what happened, it had no power over me anymore. I took
back my power; I restored my healthy conversations with God, and my
relationships with others got better. Unforgiveness is toxic. So this year,
perhaps your epiphany, like mine many years ago, is to forgive and move on. It
is a new year, and a new day. Let old days be old; let new days be new. Then
you might truly have a happy new year.

 

Let us pray:

O God, there might be some here today
whose prayerful communications have been few and far between. Thank you for
keeping the door of your heart open and your ears ready to hear us. There might
be some here who are ready to truly change their lives: devoting more focus to
their Savior Jesus, or to their family or community. Empower and encourage
them. And to those who are stepping forward this morning to be ordained or
installed as elders, guide and sustain them.

We now prepare ourselves to commune with
you, in a most Holy way. We have a moment in time to join with you at table;
you have a moment in your timelessness to join us in the meal. And we are
honored.

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 5,
2014.