Monthly Archives: March 2014

03-30-14 OPHTHALMALOGIST JESUS

OPHTHALMALOGIST JESUS
John 9: 1-11

One day in March of 1820, John and Mercy Crosby’s first child was born—a daughter.
Soon the baby girl, Frances Jane Crosby, was baptized at the Presbyterian
Church of  Doansburg, New York. It was a strict, Old-School church
that taught the Puritan-Calvinist doctrines including “Total Depravity,
Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the
Perseverance of the Saints;” also referred to by the acronym T.U.L.I.P.  On a Sunday morning, people could be seen converging on Doansburg from all directions, many walking barefoot and carrying their shoes, so as not to spoil them with dust. As they climbed the steps of
the church, they put on their shoes, the opposite of what we often teach our
youth: to take off their shoes for certainly prayerful actions, like God told
Moses to do, because he was standing on Holy ground. This was an ultra-orthodox
Presbyterian Church! One month after the birth of Frances, the Crosby’s
were alarmed. Something was wrong with her eyes. She had what appeared to be an
infection, but the community doctor was away at the time. A man who claimed to
have medical training (but didn’t) was the only one available to examine the
infant’s eyes. His action would have brought a lawsuit in our day, but in 1820
he blinded tiny Frances.
He ordered that nearly scalding hot water compresses be pressed into the baby’s
eyes to “draw out the infection.” The infant screamed from the treatments and
her eyes were damaged permanently. Scar tissue formed over them allowing her to
only make out light and dark. From that fateful night until the day she died, Frances
(known as “Fanny”) Crosby was totally blind.
Beyond that tragic event, Jesus Christ still filled and guided her life; she
wrote the text to all the hymns we are singing today and dozens more. Can you
imagine a question like the one Jesus’ disciples asked him when they came upon
a blind man: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he is
blind?”  “Pastor, who sinned, that this
little girl became blind?” Certainly we have an answer: dangerous and
pretentious actions by an unqualified man blinded her. But was it sin?  In Jesus’ day people believed that all
things—blessings and brokenness—were sent from God; not just allowed by God but
sent by God. If certain people were “healthy, wealthy, or wise,” it was
because God was pleased with their lives. If others had disabilities, then
either they or their parents sinned to cause the brokenness. There was no
awareness of genetics or conditions that were hereditary. What they believed,
as recorded in Exodus 20: 5, is that sins of forbearers could be passed on “to
the third and fourth generations.” It is an Old Testament way of explaining
times when a grandparent’s genetic condition is passed on.

Last
week Jesus visited the woman at the well and he focused healing her inward pain
which she finally felt, accepted, and confessed. Only then did she begin to
feel whole in the eyes Jesus, who she called a “prophet.” There are several
stories of people with disabilities in our Bibles besides the one today.
Another example comes to mind: In Acts 3:2 a lame man is carried each day to an
entrance gate into Jerusalem
called “the Beautiful Gate” so he could beg for alms, that is, “ask for help.”
There was no form of welfare or government assistance, so they put him down on
the road to beg. People would walk right by them for various reasons, but the
two biggest reasons were these: they believed lame people could have a disease
or a curse so they were considered untouchable; to touch such a person would
have made the other ritually unclean, unable to approach God at the Temple
without going through weeks of an extended cleansing process. The second reason
why many would not help beggars is what I just described: they believed the
lame person was a sinner, and righteous persons did not associate with known
“sinners.” In our text today, only Jesus demonstrated his willingness to both
touch the man’s eyes, and invite him to wash. The wash was for his eyes, but
perhaps for those watching, it was also to symbolically wash his sins
away.

 

There
are some famous people who have been blind over the years. It was Louis Braille
that took his blindness and created an alternate way to read. And today no
child could read a word of the Braille book I gave them to read … nor could I!
Perhaps some would say we are the handicapped ones! When church member
Brownie Hunt was alive, we ordered her Women’s Circle books in Braille and ordered
her commentaries on tape, otherwise known as “Talking Books.” She taught Circle
meetings and read the lessons with her fingers! Amazing. The largest
Talking Books library in the country is here in Daytona Beach. Both librarian Harriet Nace
and my wife Mary Ann have worked there. Most everyone also knows about Helen
Keller who was both blind and deaf. The film “The Miracle Worker” is about her
teacher. What is the better question: “Who sinned?” or “How can we help, and
learn from, those who cannot see?” What I learned from Brownie Hunt and other
people who were blind is their other senses were sharper than mine, and they
had terrific memories; they had to lean more by memory than many of us do by
sight. Yet Stevie Wonder still sings and plays an amazing piano as did Ray
Charles. Erik Weihenmayer was the first blind person to scale Mount
Everest! John Bramblitt is the name of a blind American painter.
And several accounts report that Homer, who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey,
was blind either by birth or by disease. Great things have been brought forth
by those with sight limitations.

 

I
still believe in the power of laying on of hands, and of prayer, for healing.
My perspective and my frame of reference have room for theological, natural, and
medical treatments. But I will say this: my life has changed for the good
because I have diabetes. The people I have met; the opportunities I have been
offered; and the way I have chosen to eat differently and exercise differently
are in large part driven by what others would call a disability. But as with
many things in the Bible, God can take something that might be considered to be
caused by sin ages ago, and use it for good. Do you recall the speech that
Joseph (of  dreamcoat fame!) made to his
brothers; the ones who sold him to a band of Ishmaelites as a slave? Years later
God blessed Joseph and he became one of the most trusted men in Egypt. His
hungry brothers came, hat in hand, to ask for Joseph’s forgiveness. Joseph
described their sin this way: “You meant harm against me, but God turned it
into good, so that many people are alive and well today.” Perhaps Joseph … and
Jesus … are our best teachers on this issue today. From Jesus we learn that
where we can heal, we will ask for
and pray for healing. But from Joseph we learn that sometimes God’s will
for us may be different than our will for ourselves. Sometimes God will
make us perfect in our brokenness, by using our brokenness, not healing it.
He did so with the Apostle Paul; and
he did so with Fanny Crosby. Do you have a weakness a disability, or grief?
Instead of crying to God “Why?” perhaps it is time to pray; “Lord, teach me how
to reach others, even through, and especially through, my weakness, my
disability, and my grief.” Then you will get to know the power that God can
pass through you, to transform the lives of others.

Let us pray: O
Dear Jesus: our first thought is for you to touch us and heal us, and our
prayer lists indicate that. But could it be that you call and want disciples
who are willing to be made perfect in their weakness? If so Lord, then “Here I
am. Send me.” Amen.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner                                                          March 30, 2014

03-23-14 JESUS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS

JESUS ON THE OTHER SIDE
OF THE TRACKS

John 4: 3-15a

 

Growing up I spent a couple of weeks
many summers at my grandparent’s house in Ellwood
City, Pennsylvania.
It was always a joy for me to be there: I would join my grandfather at work at
his men’s clothing store on some days; I would help my grandmother with the
wash and vacuuming on other days. We would also visit with aunts and uncles. At
night we played games or went out for frozen custards! It sounds boring but I
loved it! While I was there I heard many of their conversations with other
adults who stopped over. One time I remember one of their friends describing a
family in hushed tones: “They’re from the other side of the tracks” she
said.
Being a railroad fan, I replied, “What tracks?”  Of course children take things literally. My
grandmother explained, “Oh Jeffrey, it’s just an expression.” “An expression?”
I asked, puzzled. She paused, “Yes it means some who lives in a different part
of town.” With that explanation I went back to what I was doing. But I never
forgot that expression: “The other side of the tracks.” I later learned it
meant something different from just geography; those on the other side of the
tracks might look different, or think differently; and they might have more or
less money than we had, but I learned that is was usually less.

 

There have been what I call “tracks”
throughout history; divides like “The Iron Curtain;” like the tracks that
divide Israel and Palestine; and like the ones one hundred and fifty years ago
that used to divide the North and the South in our country called the
Mason/Dixon Line, Jesus was a product of his times, his history, and his
customs as well. Today I hope we’ll take a fresh look at “the tracks of our
lives” and see which ones might be worth crossing in the name of Jesus.

 

First, Jesus was a product of his times.
He was raised in a faithful Jewish home; he was certainly taught Torah and the
whole of what we call The Old Testament. Indeed, the only thing that was
Scripture until about 55 A.D. were those first books of our Bible; only around
that date did our New Testament get written. As a boy, Jesus went to Jerusalem, and as a man he did as
well. Jerusalem was the
center of Judaism, and during holy festivals families were expected to make
trips to be there, particularly for Passover. No one then had Google Earth or
good maps as they do now, but if they did, people could have seen how
strikingly out of the way all Jewish pilgrims went from Jerusalem over to
Jericho, along the Jordan River, and finally to Galilee. Sometimes roads are
not cut straight for good reasons. In Georgia
and Florida I’ve notice in
some country areas a road makes a giant square around a piece of property
instead of cutting straight through it. Message to me: that property owner
wouldn’t sell! In Pennsylvania,
in Colorado, and in other
states where I’ve traveled, there are lots of curving roads: the reason?
Mountains to go around! You see there is always a reason! In Jesus’ day the
closest way to go from Jerusalem back to Galilee would have been straight up:
like going from the bottom left corner of a brick to the top left corner, like
this: [demonstrate] But no Jews went that way to Jerusalem; was it because of
mountains? No; was it because of the property owners: yes. The part directly
south of Galilee and north
of Jerusalem was owned by Samaritans.
Because we have heard the Good Samaritan story, we think nothing of
Samaritans. Perhaps we think it would be nice to know one just because Jesus
told that story. But Jews avoided them like we avoid people with a high fever
or communicable diseases. Certainly Jesus knew the reasons, but on the day in
our text today, he had a new insight; a new paradigm. On that day, Jesus chose
to walk straight up from Jerusalem
to Galilee, breaking all
kinds of taboos. Why? His own people—Jews—the ones to whom his Heavenly Father
originally sent him, not only did not accept him as Messiah or the Son of God,
they didn’t listen to him and they actively persecuted him. So just as God sent
a message to Peter at Joppa in Acts 10, a message came down from heaven to
Jesus. In so many words, God said: “My message was first for the Jews; they
have heard, and not accepted. Shake the dust off your feet and take the gospel
to others who might be more receptive.” That startling decision, to have Jesus
enter Samaritan territory, would have shaken the foundations of his people.

 

Dr.
Gail O’Day, expert on John’s gospel, describes it this way:

 

Jesus leaves the
confines of traditional Judaism and turns to those whom his Jewish
contemporaries reckoned as outsiders and enemies: the Samaritans. The breach
between Jews and Samaritans can be traced to the Assyrian occupation of
northern Palestine [721
B.C. in 2 Kings 17] but the most intense rivalry began about 200 B.C. The
source of the enmity between Jews and Samaritans was a dispute about the
correct location of the [worship] center.[It is referenced in John 4:20] The
Samaritans built a shrine on Mt. Gerizim during the Persian period and claimed
that this shrine, not the Jerusalem Temple, was the proper place [to worship
God.]

 

That one event caused Jews to not only
call Samaritans wrong, but also “unclean.” It is amazing what gossip, innuendo,
and assumptions can be created out of a location dispute! You’d think that they
would celebrate that they both worshiped the same God! But change comes very
slowly when it comes to feelings and stubbornness. Just look at the years,
tensions, and bloodshed between the old Soviet Union and the United States (a
tension that is back in the news lately between Russia and the world); or you
might have learned about the bloodshed between the two side of the War Between
the States; the so called “Civil War,” in history classes; and look how
tensions continue in Syria even today. The story of the proverbial  Hatfields and McCoys, is true: they were real
families who feuded and lived along the West Virginia/Kentucky border. Pride,
honor, and stubbornness created an almost mythical dispute.

 

Jesus, a product also of his own
people’s history, was about to begin breaking myths, changing traditions, and
mending feuds, or die trying. So he went across the tracks. Who were the people
on the other side of the tracks in your past? Were they blue or white collar
workers; people of a different color; people of a different religion; Catholic
or Protestant; people with different standards? Are you still holding on to
your long-term stands that might be called prejudices; or, over time, have they
changed or mellowed? Let’s see what Jesus does.

 

Jesus, also a product of the customs of
his day, decides to break some customs. First, he enters Samaria, an absolute
breach of Jewish customs. Second, it was forbidden for a Jewish man to initiate
a conversation with an unknown woman, yet Jesus did so. Third, it was forbidden
for a Jewish teacher, or rabbi, to engage in public conversations with a woman.
(This was the first century, remember!) Women and men of our day owe a debt of
gratitude to Jesus, whose insights, compassion, and lessons from a conversation
with a Samaritan woman changed her and us. We know that her own people shunned
her; the text implies that it is because of her past. So she was trying to
avoid the other women. Some people can be so cruel with their gossip,
criticism, and accusations! The custom in the first century was for women to
draw water, and for them to do it in the cool of the day—the morning—because
carrying water was hard work, the weather grew hotter toward noon, and water
was generally needed at dawn’s early light. So when is this woman drawing
water? It is the sixth hour, which is noon!
She is avoiding the other women of her village. Why? Jesus invites some
startling answers that give us a clue. She has had five husbands, and
the one with whom she is living now is not really her husband! Jesus became a
barrier and custom breaker, reaching out to those who were shunned, or broken,
or cast aside. And in so doing, he found not only a woman evangelist,
not only a Samaritan evangelist, but one clearly from the other side
of the tracks. He doesn’t avoid that neighborhood;; he intentionally headed for
it, and got so close to that woman that he asked her for a drink water and he
drank from a Samaritan ladle.
This is Mother Teresa work; going into India
to those the rest of the world called the “Untouchables.” And there, she
touched, and she loved and mended. That too, is what Christians in our day are
called to do.

 

Today this lesson is still huge: like it
or not, our world is a Global Village; no matter how much we want to separate
“us from them” whoever the “us” is to you, and whoever the “them” is to us. We
are part of a melting pot. Our cars, our homes, our computers, and more have
parts built here and parts built elsewhere. Some of the most beautiful people
in the world have family trees with people of different races and nations in
them. And our brightest people are ones from a deeply differentiated gene pool.
Even our Lord had non-Jews in his family tree according to Matthew’s gospel,
and some of them were, as we say, from the other side of the tracks!
Twenty centuries ago Jesus the Savior began breaking down walls, crossing
tracks, and conversing with people deemed “unclean.” What new inroads would
Jesus create in our day? What new roads can you open for his sake? When new
attitudes can you take on, in Jesus’ name? And who might you meet, one day, who
comes from what used to be, “the other side of the tracks?” Perhaps what Jesus
did with a Samaritan woman will invite you to make different choices with
neighbors in our world today.

Let
us pray:

Dear
Lord Jesus: we are amazed at your example today, You loved those who others
called unlovable; you touched people others called “unclean.” What an amazing
ministry. Give us the courage to be your eyes and hands and feet today, loving
our neighbor, whoever that is, as ourself.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          March
23, 2014

03-16-14 O WHAT A NIGHT!

O WHAT A NIGHT!

John 3: 1-17

 

In
December of 1975 I was heading home for a Christmas break from college.
Listening to my AM radio in my 1957 Chevy, I heard a song that sounded like it
was several years old; a song that perhaps had been written when my car was
much younger. “Was this an old song by Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons” I
wondered? No, I learned it was new! In 1975, Four Seasons’ member and keyboard
player Bob Gaudio and his future wife Judy Parker wrote this song and it was
released in December. They called it ‘Oh What a Night!” The words were
catchy:  “Oh what a night, late December
1963, what a very special time for me, as I remember what a night.” It was a
love song, and the words stuck with me. Today I have a number of memories that
have made me look back and say:  “Oh what
a night.” One example is the night I took Mary Ann out to dinner to a
restaurant in a nice West St. Louis County development with a beautiful
fountain. It was there that I pulled a diamond engagement ring and asked her to
marry me! That was on 7/7/77. Oh what a night! And there have been others; two
recent examples are the nights that our grandsons Calvin and Shane were born!  I wonder what event would come to your mind
when you think back and say: “Oh What a Night!” Perhaps it’s a good thing to
consider.

 

Sometimes
in my growing up people would play the game of:  “if there were a time machine and you could go
back and witness some event in history, what would it be?”  And then people would begin to name big
events in the annuals of history: on reflection there might be hundreds of
personal or historical events you’d like to witness; it’s hard to choose just
one. But one worth considering is the night that a man named Nicodemus never
forgot. It was an extraordinary night. It’s described in John chapter 3.  Let me paint the picture for you with the help
of beloved New Testament expert William Barclay. He writes this: “For the most
part we see Jesus surrounded by the ordinary people, but here we see him in
contact with one of the aristocracy of Jerusalem. [He was wealthy, for when
Jesus died, it was Nicodemus—out of devotion for the man he grew to know that
amazing night—who bought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes with which to have
Jesus’ body anointed like a king according to John 19:39. Nicodemus was a
Pharisee. He had promised to spend his life observing every detail of Scribal
Law. To break the Law would have been a sacred violation. And Pharisees, like
other Jews, were always looking for the Messiah.] [The Gospel of John, Volume
1, Westminster Press, 1975, p. 120.] So this man, a public figure, had a
gnawing curiosity about Jesus, perhaps like you have today, and certainly like
I did before I accepted Jesus as my Savior. So what did Nicodemus—this public
figure—do? He went to visit Jesus in the dark of night; moving among the shadows.
When he addressed Jesus in the words recorded in John 3:2, I imagine him asking
them in hushed tones: “Rabbi, we know
that you are a teacher come from God
.” The only thing about that sentence
that I wonder about is “we.” Did he mean “we” like some people refer to
themselves? Or did more people believe as he did? One thing’s for certain: Nicodemus
put legs on his faith as he bravely asked questions in the presence of Jesus. And, as happens throughout John’s gospel,
Jesus answers him on a heavenly level, while Nicodemus thinks on a human level.

What I imagine Jesus saying is: “Truly, truly I say to you: unless people are
born from above, they cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What I imagine Nicodemus hearing is: “Unless
people are born again, they cannot enter the kingdom of God.” So Nicodemus
protests on a human level, asking: “How can a grown man go back into his
mother’s womb and get born again?”  What
Jesus meant, instead, was this: let your old self die, and a newly baptized
self—filled with the Holy Spirit—will give you eyes to see the kingdom even
here on earth.”  There are certainly
people here today who don’t get what Jesus means, and they’ve had years to read
and hear that passage. But there are others here who have not only read it,
they’ve lived it; they are testaments to how Jesus Christ and God’s Holy Spirit
can change lives. Oh what a night that was for Nicodemus!  Let’s hear some stories of changed lives.

 

One
man was a Presbyterian Elder. He felt called to ministry from his work in the
oil business. He worked hard at seminary, and he was not able to give much
financial or emotional help to his wife and small children in the process like
he was able to do in his other job. He wrapped himself entirely in his training
process, believing God was calling him to be a minister. He wrote many papers
and did his work. Finally, feeling unfulfilled and like a failure because he
was approaching his call from an earthly model instead of a Godly model, he
felt unfulfilled and left seminary before graduating. His oil company took him
back. ‘”What went wrong?” he wondered. He wrote these words: “I remember
sitting there in complete despair. I had always been an optimistic person, and
always had the feeling that there was ‘more bounce in the ball.’ After a good
night’s sleep, or perhaps a couple of martinis and a good night’s sleep, I
could always start again the next day. But now there was no tomorrow in my
situation. I was like a man on a great gray treadmill going no place, in a
world that was made up of black, black clouds all around me…. I looked toward
the sky…. And I said: ‘God, if there’s anything you want in this stinkin’ soul,
take it.’ That was almost ten years ago [the man writes.]  Something came into my life that day which
has never left. There wasn’t any ringing of bells or flashing of lights or
visions, but it was a deep intuitive realization of what God wanted from me,
which I had never known before. And the peace that came with that understanding
was not an experience in and of itself, but was rather a cessation of the
conflicts of a lifetime. I realized that [more than anything else] God wants
our will; and if you give God your will, he’ll show you life as you’ve never
seen it before. It IS like being born again.”

[A Taste of New Wine, Keith Miller, pp. 38-39

 

Christian
baptism, the awakening of God’s Holy Spirit in your life, a contrite heart, and
a desire for God to open your eyes and lead you all need to be in place if you
want to be, as it has come to be known, “born again.”  That’s why prison ministries can be so
effective: when people are contrite, when they acknowledge that their choices
have not worked, it sometimes drives them to their knees, perhaps in prison, in
a halfway house, or on probation. That’s when an elder, a deacon, a chaplain, a
minister, or an ordinary Christian with a Bible can sit down across from others
and ask:  “If you could go back and make
difference choices in your life, would you do it? Even though you can’t
actually go back, you can make a new
start beginning today; you can make different choices and have a different
life. People have said that to famous people and unknown people and invited
them to be “born again.”  For example, Jeb
Magruder of Watergate fame sat next to me in classes at Princeton Seminary, not
behind prison walls. He had changed his life and he became a Presbyterian
minister. Charles Colson, also of Watergate fame, did not serve many years behind
prison bars; but served in front of them. He changed his life, running one of
the largest prison ministries in our nation. And as I said recently, the writer
of Amazing Grace, John Newton, was a heartless slave trader before reading a
John Wesley sermon and being born again.

 

Oh
what a night! What would you give to go back to that time when Jesus taught the
open-hearted man Nicodemus? That talk changed a seeker into a follower! What
would you give to go back to that night when Jesus also proclaimed the famous
words that appear on street corners and at football games: John 3:16. I
memorized it in the King James. “For God so loved the world that he gave his
only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have
everlasting life.” That’s the way it lives in my heart. It only occurred to me
today that on 3/16 we have John 3:16 as a text!

 

I
want to close with one more quote. The beloved evangelist Billy Graham is still
with us, though frail. In his young and viral days, he wrote these words, to
reach young seekers who wanted answers, in his book called Peace with God:

If I could have
a heart to heart chat with you in your living room, you would probably turn to
me and confess, ‘I am confused and mixed up….I thought I could get along
without God’s help. I have tried to make up my own rules and failed…. What wouldn’t
I give to be able to go back and start over—what a different road I’d travel if
I could! If those words strike a familiar chord in your heart … I want to tell
you some glorious news! Jesus said you can be born anew! You can have the fresh
and better start for which you’ve prayed….You can go on being miserably
discontented, frightened, unhappy, and disgusted with yourself; or you can
decide to make a new start; a right start. [pp. 133,134]

 

So
today you’ve had a financial invitation; now you also have had a spiritual
invitation; and before the service ends you’ll have a discipleship invitation.
How many times will Jesus knock on the door of your heart, trying to get your
attention? Answer Jesus today; tell Jesus
that you know you cannot pay for the redeemed life he gave you because you have
learned that it was a gift, and the price of redemption was paid on the cross.
But
what you can do is give thank
offerings and let your life be a thank you note; to let Jesus know that, like
Nicodemus, you finally get who Jesus is, and what Jesus wants. And perhaps you
have decided to recommit to serve him as Savior. Oh what a day this can be for
you, and for Jesus.

 

Jeffrey
A. Sumner                                                                   March
16, 2014

 

03-09-14 40 DAYS

I have a secret to share with you this morning, Lent isn’t a biblical invention. Nowhere in the Bible will you find the word Lent, or people practicing it. The regular practice of Lent as we know it, came about years later, when Christianity was a well established religion.

Lent came about in a time when the dominate culture accepted Christians, when they began to get comfortable with who they were and what they did.  The trouble is, they grew used to their comfortable lives. They grew complacent. And so the church decided to shake themselves out of their complacency every year in preparation for Easter. To remind themselves that who they were, depended entirely on God. These Christians used the old English word “Lenten,” which means springtime,  to name this season.

As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, this is not only referring to the time before Easter “But also an invitation to a springtime for the soul. Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone, and not what we can supply for ourselves.”

Forty is a big number in the Bible. Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, just as Noah was in his boat for forty days.  The list goes on.  In the bible the number forty is symbolic of a time of transition. It took forty days to receive the commandments. Forty days for Elijah to walk to Horeb so he could hear God’s voice.

And Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness fasting before being tempted.

What I find interesting is, immediately before the passage I read this morning, was this verse “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Jesus had just been baptized and told to go forward in ministry. He had just had this wonderful affirmation. And what happens next? The Spirit leads him into the wilderness to spend forty days praying and fasting. Before our Lord begins his ministry, he takes time to pray and reflect. When we take our Lenten journeys, we are following in his footsteps.

Of course, very few of us can take forty days out of our lives and go camping in the middle of nowhere. Even if we can, the middle of nowhere is increasingly hard to find. The world keeps popping up. So, forty days out from Easter, we begin our Lenten practice instead. Of course, Sundays are our foretaste of the resurrection. When counting the forty days before Easter, the church decided not to count Sundays. Therefore we end up with forty-seven days before Easter, or Ash Wednesday, to begin our time of contemplation, sacrifice and re-committal to our Lord.

There are a number of different ways to connect to Lent. The traditional Catholic practice involves giving something up. We sacrifice something we enjoy during Lent, give it up as the Lord gave up creature comforts when he went to fast in the desert for forty days. The idea behind this is that by removing something from our lives, we give God a chance to move into that empty space. We remind ourselves of how all things ultimately come from God. Of course, if we spend the entire time we’ve given up something, complaining about how much we’d like to have it again, we are largely missing the point.

But the very act of denying ourselves can serve as a reminder. Sometimes, even the complaints can act to cue our thinking. A Jewish woman who keeps Kosher says the main benefit to the practice is that it throws a wrench into the gears of her life and makes her stop and think.  With every decision she makes regarding the food she eats or doesn’t eat, she is reminded that the food restrictions come from God.  That tiny moment of decision brings her back to her relationship with God.  Every bite is a quiet little celebration of a relationship.

When we turn our minds to that which we’ve given up, we can think instead about WHY we’ve given it up, think about our Lord instead, it becomes a constant reminder to turn to prayer. Even if we’re thinking about how much we’d like that piece of chocolate, or to turn the TV back on, we can use that to point ourselves back to God. Now though traditionally giving up something for Lent has been a Catholic practice, it has blended into other denominations as well. I’ve already talked to a number of you who are giving up something for Lent.

Presbyterians are not required to give up something for Lent. Instead, they often add a spiritual practice to their lives. At our church, we have another service on Wednesday evenings during Lent. In the middle of the week, we offer a chance to gather and worship together, disrupting our normal schedules with worship. We follow that service with a potluck fellowship dinner, where we can gather and laugh and eat together as a Christian family. For the forty days of Lent, we remind ourselves that worship isn’t just for Sunday mornings, but our whole lives.

People have individual practices as well. A pastor an
d blogger named Rachel G. Hackenberg offers up daily scriptures and prayer prompts during Lent, encouraging people to join in writing their own daily prayers. Another common practice is called praying the hours. Every day, you pray in the morning, at midday, in the evening, and at nighttime. I know one woman who sets the alarm on her phone to make sure she doesn’t miss one of the hours of prayer. Wherever she is at when that alarm goes off, she takes a minute and turns to prayer.

More and more often, people are combing the various traditional practices. They add in something that has an impact on the rest of the world, in conjunction with their personal fasting. I know a guy who would drink Starbucks every single day. When he gave it up for Lent, instead of just giving up the coffee, he donated what he would have spent on the coffee to an organization called Charity: Water, where every penny that is donated goes to build clean drinking wells all over the world. He fasted, but he also made a difference in the world with his fasting.

Someone who watches a lot of TV could it give up and then take the time she would normally spend watching TV to volunteer with an organization that could really use her time. A pastor named Aric Clark tells about his Lenten practice like this: “Last year I tried to give away forty things I don’t need for Lent. Each day I went through my closet, through my book & DVD collections etc and picked something I don’t need and found someone to give it to.” Imagine what it would look like if everyone in a church tried that practice, every day giving away one thing they didn’t need to someone they did. How much of an impact would that have on the world around them? On the people themselves?

These are just a few examples of ways people find to follow their own Lenten journeys. The thing is, many of the practices last far longer than Lent. If you give up something like say, complaining or gossiping for forty days, after Lent has ended, not doing it has become a habit and it is easier to continue than you had before. This does not work if you give up say, chocolate, and then spend easter morning eating all the chocolate bunnies you can find.

But it does work if you began a new spiritual discipline, such as a prayer journal. You will want to follow through with this practice throughout easter and beyond. Experts say it takes twenty -one days to develop a new habit or break an old one. Lent gives us a chance to build something that strengthens our relationship with God. Why not take the opportunity?

As we turn towards spring, towards the cross, we have the chance to take our own spiritual journeys. While rarely in our lives can we afford to take forty days to go off and camp in the wilderness somewhere, Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect upon our lives. To cut away things that are unhealthy or disruptive to our relationship with God. To add in a practice that has been lacking in our lives. To look over our attitudes and reorient them to our Lord.  This Lenten season, why not try a “spring cleaning” of your own faith? See if there is something that needs to be added, or something else that needs to be cut away. Lent is a time for self examination and reflection, and I invite you to begin your own journey as we together turn towards the cross.

Let us pray: Lord, you know our souls better than we know ourselves. Guide us in the steps you would have us to take. Lead us through this Lenten journey that as we grow closer to the cross, we may also grow closer to you. For it is in your almighty name we pray, Amen.

03-02-14 WHAT IS YOUR MOUNTAINTOP MOMENT?

WHAT IS YOUR MOUNTAINTOP MOMENT?

Exodus 24: 12-18; Matthew 17, 1-9

 

Sometimes they are called “aha” moments;
sometimes they are called “mountaintop” moments; sometimes they are moments of
unusual clarity. They are the times when your life is moving in one direction
and then something happens to change that direction, or your focus, or your
life. It might be meeting the right girl or the right guy; it might be having a
heart attack from which you recover. It might be coming out unscathed from an
auto or plane accident. In those times many of us think something like: “Lord,
are you getting my attention? Is there something you want me to do differently
with my life?” Sometimes men or women go to their knees when they hit rock
bottom, after messing up their life with some sort of addiction, and they are
tired of trying to fool others about it. Then they call out to God! It is good
when something happens in our week to invite us to clean up our act or to live
life differently. This past week the author of our Revelation class study, Dr.
Craig Koester, told this story. He said there was a man who lived from
1833-1896 named Alfred Nobel. He became extremely powerful and wealthy as the
man who invented, and ultimately marketed, dynamite. He initially sold it to miners
and construction workers who were glad to have a product with such a blast that
it could make their lives easier. Nobel began to get rich. But as you might
imagine, unscrupulous persons—terrorists of that era—started finding ways to
also buy it to create lethal blasts that would take out more people than was
possible before. Nobel became famous, or more correctly, infamous. One day
Nobel’s brother died but several of the newspapers thought he himself had died.
Nobel had the chance to read his own obituary as a headline in his newspaper.
It horrified him. It read: “The merchant of death is dead. Dr. Alfred Nobel,
who became rich by finding more ways to kill more people faster than ever
before, died yesterday.”
Something came over Nobel as he read what was to
be his legacy. It revolted him and he changed, like the Dickens’ character
“Ebenezer Scrooge” changed in “A Christmas Carol.” Nobel decided to take his
vast wealth and establish what became known as the Nobel Prizes in the areas of
science, medicine, literature, and peace. And to this day, that man changed the
way he is remembered.
 Sometimes the “aha” time in our lives isn’t
quite as calamitous as that, but many of us still pause, and think.  The hymn writer John Newton saw himself as
despicable when he wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” and proclaimed that he
had been a “wretch.” He had been a slave trader: beating, starving, and
otherwise torturing human beings. Then he had a mountaintop moment and he
changed.  Today I invite you to think any
time when your life was going one way, and something happened to cause you to
move in a different, especially a better direction.  Perhaps your life is on the track it’s on today
in large part due to another person, or a circumstance. Today we will visit a
special event designed for the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples.

 

Peter, James, and John’s lives changed
when Jesus of Nazareth called them from the work they were doing to the work he
had planned for them.  They enrolled in his
class of disciples, watched him, and learned from him. But they would be tested
one day, and that day was nearly upon them. Peter had just declared Jesus to be
“The Christ, the Son of the Living God” in Matthew 16: 16; and then Jesus said  words that sank their hearts in Matthew 16:21:
The Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed.”
Peter protested and Jesus stopped him, saying those who would follow him must
take up their cross and follow him. With that valley of death backdrop, three
short verses later Jesus took his top three aids on a mountaintop retreat.  Have you gone on retreats with a youth group
or an adult group? Often God-things happen on retreats, and a God-thing
happened on the mountain that day. On that day, in that place, the one who the
disciples loved—Jesus—was transfigured. That means they saw him appear in his
glory while still in his earthly life! On this day in 2014, we honor that
event: we have changed all colors we could change in the church to dazzling
white, and we’ve lighted as many candles as we could to remember the holy event
that happened on that mountain! Jesus gave disciples a glimpse of his eternal
glory, almost like God gave Moses a glimpse of his eternal glory on Mount Sinai! Those are big events; one never leaves
situations like those the same as before. Jesus’ inner circle of disciples was
not sure what they had just witnessed. Humanly, they wanted to just stay there
with their Lord and not leave the joy of retreat. I’ve been on retreats when I
wished we didn’t have to depart too. It’s so good to get away, to grow, to
learn about oneself, to speak to God, and to be in communion with others. But
Christian retreats are often intended to empower us, to focus our thoughts, and
to connect us or reconnect us with Jesus’ power. Then, armed with new vision
and focus, we return to the world as missionaries:  to spread the Good News; to feed the hungry,
clothe the naked; and to bring light to the darkness.  Jesus showed his top three what he—and
they—had to do: go back to the villages, energized for and focused on areas of
need or hopelessness. What comes after retreat is return; we return to
our world changed because of our encounter with our Lord. In the hymn we will sing
in a moment, lyricist Thomas Troeger includes these words based on this event
that happened on that mountain. “Peter, James, and John fall silent, turning
from the summit’s rise downward toward the shadowed valley where their Lord had
fixed his eyes.” They could not stay; they had work to do in the villages they
had just left.

 

Today I invite you to return in your
mind to a time of retreat, or “aha,” or insight that either changed you or had
the potential to change you. If it changed you, helping your life, your giving,
or your discipleship to become more Christ-like, then give thanks in prayer for
that special time that led you to this day! What was your born-again
experience; or the time when you hit rock bottom and recovered; or the time
when you were overwhelmed with upside down debt or great sorrow? Was it the
Lord Jesus who walked with you and talked with you and told you you were his
own? Was it Jesus who brought you from your darkness to new light? Thank Jesus
today. Or if your life has not had such an event, keep your eyes open
for opportunities. Lent starts with Ash Wednesday; it starts in three days. I
invite you to be here, if you are able: to pray, break bread, learn, and to
walk from the mountains to the valleys, where people in great need or sorrow,
are still searching for the light of Christ.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          March 2,
2014