04-27-14 DOUBT

Christ is Risen!

 He is risen indeed!

The Easter cry isn’t only for Easter Sunday For the next six Sundays, we are invited to continue celebrating Easter. We are invited to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord until Pentecost. Today we continue that celebration by reading about Christ appearing to all the disciples. Their risen Lord comes in to talk with them all shortly after the resurrection. Well, all of them except for Thomas.

I have to admit, I feel for Thomas. I think he gets a bad rap. We have even turned his name from the Biblical “Thomas the Twin” to the later “Doubting Thomas.” And that seems unfair to me. Peter didn’t get stuck with the nickname “Denying Peter.” So why Thomas?

After all, Mary did not believe when she saw the empty tomb. She only believed when she saw her rabbi for himself. And the other disciples didn’t believe when Mary told them of the miracle of the tomb. They remained searching and wondering until they saw their risen teacher for himself. Jesus appeared and showed them his hands and side before departing again. Thomas just had the misfortune of not being there at that time. Instead Thomas is told about it second hand again.

When he was given the news, he refused to believe it, perhaps because it seemed to be too good to be true. After all, Peter was known for believing things a little too enthusiastically. He was the disciple who tried to walk on water because he saw Jesus doing it. Peter was the one who swore that no one would betray Jesus, and that he would never deny him, only to be proven wrong twice before a full day had gone by. Thomas second guessing him is not all that surprising.  Thomas needed more, because he probably could not cope with having false hopes dashed yet again.

His Lord and friend died horribly. And he didn’t believe when he heard it second hand.

Thomas saw his Lord die. He doubted the stories he had been told. And yet he stayed with the other disciples. He was there the next week when Jesus returned. In spite all evidence pointed to the contrary, Thomas stuck around, waiting to see if Jesus would return.

I wonder what made him stay after such a dramatic refusal to believe what he had been told. Perhaps he wanted to see if Jesus was true to his word, that he would, against anything logical return to the world again. Maybe he wanted to prove his friends wrong. Or maybe Thomas had something deeper than belief in the resurrection.

Maybe he had faith in his Lord.

See, Thomas was always a faithful disciple. When Jesus said he wanted to go to Bethany, a place he had already been driven off once, the disciples protested that he would be stoned and they should not return. But Thomas said “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) There was no doubt that he loved Jesus because he was willing to go with him to Jerusalem and die, even when the other disciples expressed their reluctance.

Thomas was not lacking in courage; he probably just considered himself to be a realist, or maybe a pessimist. What happened in the crucifixion was just what he expected and he was broken-hearted. So he waited, doubting, but hoping to be proven wrong. He didn’t just surrender to his doubts, he wrestles with them.

And Jesus doesn’t fault Thomas for his disbelief. Did you notice that? Jesus simply appeared a week later when Thomas was there and showed him what he asked to see. “Here. Look. I am really here.” And Thomas responds in joy, falling to his knees and exclaiming, no poking of wounds necessary.

Yes, Jesus blesses those who do not see and yet believe. But he’s not talking about the disciples who didn’t question, because all of the disciples questioned at one point or another. All of them got to see. Christ is talking about us today. We will very likely never get to see the risen Christ on this side of the grave, and we believe anyway. Yet, we might have our own doubts.

We have it in our heads that doubt is a bad thing. That doubting somehow takes away from our beliefs, from our faith. When really, doubt can serve to make our faith stronger in the long run. In his new book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” Rob Bell talks about this connection of doubt and faith. “Take faith, for example. For many people in our world, the opposite of faith is doubt. The goal, then, within this understanding, is to eliminate doubt. But faith and doubt aren’t opposites. Doubt is often a sign that your faith has a pulse, that it’s alive and well and exploring and searching. Faith and doubt aren’t opposites, they are, it turns out, excellent dance partners.”

As humans we question, we wonder. We look for the truth. And by so doing, we grow. Thomas, did not believe the others when they first told him. He had questions. But he stayed anyway. And when Thomas saw Jesus, he cried out “My Lord and My God.” My God. Thomas, the so called doubter, was the first one to call Jesus God. Not just Lord. Not jus
t Son of God, but My God. Despite being the doubter and willing to question what he was told, Thomas ended up all the more faithful because of questions.

I think some people believe that their faith is lesser, not good enough, because they have doubts. They feel like maybe they really should just be able to believe fully without questions. That to be truly faithful is to never wonder. But we all have days when we have questions. When we too doubt as Thomas did. Some people just ignore those days, focusing on getting on to better ones. But shoving questions and doubts to one side doesn’t make them go away. We need to face them head on and try to answer them.

Doubts can strengthen our faith when we explore them. When we ask questions and try to find the answers through study and discussions.  This is one of the reasons I am a Presbyterian. We believe that God gave us our minds so that we would use them. We are called to question and then study. We encourage learning throughout our lives because there is always something more to know. Some other question we have that we need to learn more about.

Now when I talk about doubt, I’m not talking about the same thing as unbelief. Doubt is having questions, but still seeking. Unbelief is not believing and not being interested in learning more. When we let our doubts drive us away from seeking, when they make us abandon hope, then doubt is a destructive force. But when doubt drives us to learn more, to seek God in new places, doubt can do amazing things.

Before he saw, Thomas waited with the others. He waited with a group who all believed wholeheartedly while he still had questions. This can be more difficult and more courageous than the simple act of believing. That Thomas waits, while disbelieving shows great faith in his Lord, if not in miracles. I think many people in the church today find themselves seeking God in spite of their doubts. They may not believe like Peter did, but they show up to church each week, they turn Bible study again and again, because they want that belief.

We are going to have our days when we believe as wholeheartedly as Peter. And we will have times when we doubt as Thomas doubted. But our Risen Lord greeted them both the same. “Shalom.” Peace and blessings to you. Our God understands both our faith and our questions, and loves us throughout. We may have doubts, but we can let them dance with our faith rather than weighing it down, and come out all the more faithful through them.

Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith in you. Guide us in our doubts that we may continue to seek you. In your name we pray, Amen.



04-20-14 A NEW DAY; A NEW LIFE

Matthew 28: 1-8

“The Holy City!” What a song; what a
solo! How many have heard that before? Long time church member Reid Morrison
used to sing it here, and now our Music Director offered it with his wonderful
tenor voice! It tells a story that lovingly wraps the Gospel story of our Lord
in gift wrap taken from the book of Revelation! The Holy City! It has been in
the dreams and imaginations of Christians since Christ rose from the dead! And
today I’ll be telling you how you can
see the Holy City too!

There is no event in the history of
Western civilization, and even the world, that has affected the human race as
much as the resurrection of Jesus Christ! And this year with the plethora of
religious films, there is happily much to say about biblical stories. See them;
talk about them; but it is good to do it with those who know the Bible story
not laced with too much fantasy or historical speculation. You might be sitting
here today as a seeker, or even a doubter. Is this event really true? Did Jesus
really rise from the dead? And if so, what does it mean for me? Today we have
many Biblical witnesses. Here are several of them:  two women, both named Mary, saw his empty
tomb, the tomb that Matthew says was guarded by soldiers ordered by Pilate in
Matthew 27: 65. Next, all the gathered disciples saw Jesus when he met them
according to Matthew 28 verse 9. They all
saw the risen Lord! Then Jesus proved he was not a ghost, according John 20
verse 27, when Thomas was invited to touch the piercings made by the nails. And
according to John 21: 12 Jesus invited his disciples to eat breakfast with
him!  Jesus was back, and he had risen!
When we say in the Apostle’s Creed “I believe in the resurrection of the body”
the first meaning is that Jesus bodily rose from the dead. Some over the years
vainly speculated that his dead body was stolen or that he never really died. Scripture
tells a powerfully different story, doesn’t it? In addition, the Apostle Paul
wrote these words to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15: beginning in verse 3:
“I delivered to you what I myself received: that Christ died for our sins in
accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the
third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,
then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to
more than 500 hundred at one time ….”
The apostle John wanted to make sure all who read his gospel would believe what
he saw. Just to drive his point home, he says in John 20: 30 “Now Jesus did many other signs in the
presence of the disciples which are not written in this book; but these are
written hat you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that
believing, you may have life in his name.” Today is about all those
witnesses to the glorious Easter day and the days that followed!

One man who made me drink in history as
I never did as a teenager is author Thomas Cahill. He has written a series of
book with these titles: The Gifts of the
Jews; How the Irish Saved Civilization, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the
Greeks Matter; The Mysteries of the Middle Ages, and the Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World
Before and After Jesus. Do you know what Cahill calls his series? It’s The Hinges of History. As I’ve noted,
one of the most significant hinges of history has been the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus. Cahill writes: “Two thousand years ago a man was born
into a family of carpenters in occupied Palestine. He was a small-town Jew,
born in a bad time for Jews. …His name, as everyone knows, was Jesus of
Nazareth—or, as the Jews of his own day called him “Yeshua.” … He preached a
message of mercy, love, and peace and was crucified for his trouble. This
unlikely character has long been accounted the central figure of Western civilization.
Even now, as we cross to the beginning of the third millennium since his birth,
we count our days by his appearance on earth….” [Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Doubleday, 1999, p. 8]

In this day when account after account
has been published about men, women, and children dying, then having
unbelievable visions and insights into things they could not have known, and
finally coming back to life to tell about it, that is some actual evidence for
there being life after death. But the Bible has never been an evidence book; it
has been a faith book. Jesus, who
demonstrated God’s power before crowds, honored people of faith, like me and
perhaps you, when he said in John 20:29- “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” “Believe
what?” you might ask. Believe that he died and rose again from the dead, and
that that action paid the price for people’s sins from that day forward. That
is central to the good news of Easter: one of the most recognized Holy Days in
the world. You can doubt; or you can wait for proof. But 2000 years of the
human race still rallies around this life-changing event. If you call Jesus
your Lord and Savior, that’s the surest way I know to have eternal life and to
see the Holy City! I think that will be a marvelous day in my resurrected life!
Today you can plan to see it too by your decisions and your faith.

We began with the arts: music lovingly
and breathtakingly describing the Holy City. Let me end with art again: with the
story of the painting I showed the children. It was painted by “Ron DiCianni, a renowned
artist whose paintings have appeared at the Moscow Olympics and hung in
galleries, offices and museums around the world. He’s been hired by the biggest
names in publishing and advertising including best-selling authors Frank
Perretti and Max Lucado.  DiCianni was
recently commissioned to paint the largest mural ever of the resurrection; it’s
12 feet high by 40 feet wide; it took him two years to complete and soon it will
hang at the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas Texas.” Says DiCianni: “The
resurrection of Jesus Christ is the single fact in history that separates
Christianity from every other religion, every other philosophy, and every other
belief system. When I was commissioned to do that, my first thing was to
immediately go to Scripture to try to understand the deep significance of the
resurrection, and God gave me this incredible idea of having Christ emerge from
the tomb, which I’ve never seen done before. I wanted to stop a moment in time
when he grabbed the sides of the tomb and walked out! If you look at Christ, on
his belt are the keys of [the Kingdom]; Christ is the central theme of the
However, we have a cast of characters; on
either side of Christ are Moses and Elijah, the ones who were with him on the
mountain of the Transfiguration! And behind them is David, a man also after God’s
own heart. He is one of the three people in the painting who are royalty, and
they kneel before the King of kings… My hope is that as this mural is
installed, many will be confronted with the scene of ‘The Resurrection,’ and
make the decision that He is worthy to be called their Lord and Savior.”

you make your decision now, or very soon, to claim or reclaim Jesus as the King
of Kings, and the Lord of your life.
Then, the Lord can bless you and keep you, now and forever!
Dear Risen Lord: there are those here who already count themselves
as your disciples, and others who may  choose to claim that title today. Welcome
them, as you have guided us, to new understandings of your way, your truth, and
your life! Amen and Amen!

A. Sumner                                                         April
20, 2014



Psalm 118: 19-29; Matthew 21: 1-9


Whether in an anthem or
hymn, most of the time we come to Palm Sunday and hear songs in a major key:
songs of joy, songs of hope! We come to witness or be part of the processional
because in our hearts many today love Jesus and praise Jesus! Those hymns that
are sung, and even our anthem, have a triumphant sound about them; they make
Jesus sound victorious and the people delivered. Listen to these words:
“Hosanna to the Living Lord! Hosanna to the incarnate Word!” If you just heard
that, would you think that “Hosanna” was a word like “Hallelujah” which means
“Praise the Lord”? Listen to these words of our opening hymn: “Hosanna, loud
Hosanna, the little children sang; through pillared court and temple the joyful
anthem rang. To Jesus who had blessed them close folded to his breast; the
children sang their praises, the simplest and the best!” So far the music is
jubilant; and it continued with these words: “From Olivet (which is the Mount of Olives) they followed mid an exultant crowd; the
victor palm branch waving, and chanting clear and loud!”  So if you have come today to be part of a
celebration day, you have it; the hymns and anthems paint a jubilant and
joyful picture, and you are entitled to bask in that joy today, at least at the
beginning of the service. Praise Jesus; pray to Jesus; honor Jesus: all of
those are wonderful life postures. And so you may do so, now and throughout your


But there is a second,
and yet primary, source of our Palm Sunday information today: it is Psalm 118
and Matthew 21. How do they add to or change our attitude about this day? First
Psalm 118. Most commentators believe those words were uttered by a king who
came to the temple to give thanks for his victory.  It is known as a “Hallel” psalm, which means
a “praise” Psalm. It has a jubilant and victorious tone, the kind we love on
Palm Sunday. But there are some ominous hints even there:  “The stone which the builders rejected has
become the head and the corner” it says in verse 22. In the building of the
Temple, man-made stones, those carved with perfectly square corners, were
rejected for God’s house; the Temple’s stones had to be hewn from the hand of
God alone, so pain-staking selection took place to find just the right stones
on the ground that fit well. Later the same sentence was said to describe Jesus
in a foreboding tone. Christians have taken Psalm 118 and applied it to Jesus.
How does it work then, in thinking about him, to say “The stone which the builders
(human beings) rejected has become the head and the corner; this is the Lord’s
doing; it is marvelous in his eyes!” Then the glass slipper fits, doesn’t it?
Christians have seen those words, written long ago and re-stated in the New
Testament, as words that describe the Savior. And they fit even more when we
see that the next line, verse 25, has either the king from Psalm 118, or the
crowd from Matthew 21 shouting: “Save us O Lord, we beseech thee!” “We plead
with you to save us!” And how did they plead with Jesus? They did it in Psalm
118 and in Matthew 21 with the same Hebrew word: “Hosanna!” It means, “Save
us!” “Help!”  And from what did they need
to be saved? Nearly all believe that politically they needed to be saved from
the Roman oppression. They had no freedom; no self rule; they had oppressive
taxes and brutal penalties when the people could not pay. They had a puppet
king named Herod who did whatever the Romans asked. But they remembered a time,
just 200 years before that under the leadership of a Jewish warrior named Judas
Maccabaeus, they won their freedom for the first time in memory. Those years
were the “Camelot years” for Israel. And for their national symbol, what do you
think they chose? Referenced in Psalm 118 and claimed in 200 B.C., they made
the Palm Branch the national symbol of Jewish self rule. So for those
here today who want to cling to the joy of the hymns and anthems that capture a
jubilant tone: then cling.  But for
others, here is, as Paul Harvey used
to say “The Rest of the Story.” The palm branch was a symbol of a time of
freedom that was no longer. Those waving a Palm Branch back then were like
people from the South waving a Confederate flag today. It’s a powerful symbol
to many, and many from the South are serious about wishing that parts of the
old South could return. With the Jews, they were serious, not jubilant, about
wanting the old regime to rise up and take over again from the “bloody Romans.”
So there was intensity in the crowd, and the hope that Jesus would be that
revolutionary leader. Only later would they learn he was revolutionary,
but not to be king of this world; his kingdom was not of this world.
Second, Hosanna is mostly not a cry of joy (except by children who get caught
up in the parade.) It is a cry for help; it is hoping that Jesus will, in a
manner of speaking, mount his white stallion and subdue the Romans who oppress
them. But the hint was in plain sight that Jesus was not that kind of leader;
he was coming in “humble, riding on a young donkey,” perhaps even looking
ridiculous being such a big man on a small animal. The message, one would
think, should be unmistakable, but only through the lens of our hindsight can
we see the pieces of the divine puzzle coming together. The people needed to be
saved; what they needed was a savior.


Today these two
thousand years later, from what do you need a Savior? If you are honest, we all
need a savior from sin. Sin is always the thing that makes us miss the mark of
the way God would want us to live. Sin is the thing that, when we have a choice
between a healthy right and a tempting wrong, makes us choose wrong. Sin is the
thing that separates us from God. If I could tell you how to draw closer to
God, would you be interested? To grow closer to God, grow closer to the cross
of Christ. That cross builds a bridge between human sinfulness and Godly
holiness. And the cost to cross that bridge is not free; it was paid for at
huge cost by God, coming to earth and paying the price for our sins; we know
that event as Christ being on the cross. It saves you if you believe in and
follow him. I know of no other sure way for you to be saved than that.

But there are other
ways people need to be saved too, aren’t there? Some need to be saved from an
abusive home life or school life. Through the church and loving Christians, the
church has helped save people like that. And we will do it again. Some need to
be saved from the powerful pull to gamble; to take earned money and try to
double, triple it, or more on lottery tickets, cards, the dog track, or
casinos. The church is in the business of saving you. One of the first twelve
step programs we invited to use our facility was Gamblers Anonymous. And that
group for more than 15 years has saved many lives. Others need to be saved from
drink; to admit that certain people are powerless to keep from drinking, and
when they drink, they spiral into destructive behavior. So we host AA groups
for those who admit they need to be saved from its destructive power, and
Al-Anon groups for people who need to be saved from a destructive family
member. For those who are spiraling into a paralyzing grief over the death of a
loved one, Our Caring friends group has thrown a life ring to mourning persons
who might otherwise drown in their sorrow. For those with other addictions or
with toxic family relationships or depression, Jesus can save you too through
the work done by pastors who care and our Presbyterian Counseling
Center with trained therapists.  Sometimes people have come, shaken by a
difficult religious experience in another church that was harsh, punitive,
judgmental, or toxic. We welcome them and pray that Jesus helps us to offer
grace and love in with a genuine caring spirit. Because Jesus still saves.
And today, perhaps you are calling on him like the people on the Mount of Olives did ages ago. But this time, instead of
“Save us!” you are softly crying out, perhaps in only a whisper, “Save me.”
And Jesus will. Place your trust in the one who went to agony and back during
that holy week, for your sake and for mine.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                     April
13, 2014


John 11: 17-44

Science fiction has often told stories
about suspended animation and the like: slowing down the human heart to a bare
minimum for space travel. In the 1960s the TV show “Lost in Space” began a
space journey for the Robinson family using that imaginative technology. Other
science fictions shows, films, and novels have dabbled with people near death, sometimes
using as yet unheard of devices to bring them back to life. Children who watch
cartoons (and I’ve loved watching them too!) can get a subliminal message that
people, and animals don’t die; even if they go over a cliff, or drop from a
skyscraper or are hit by a car, in cartoons they seems to be able to move,
bend, and blow back up into their old shape! As we grow older, many people “Put
away childish things” as the Apostle Paul puts it. In sometimes painful ways we
learn that people do die, but we hope
with all our hearts that God will send a miracle to them: to our child, our
spouse, or our friend.  The family
members and friends of those on Malaysia flight 370, those in the earthquake in
Chili, those digging out from the mudslides in Washington State, or even those
who this week were reminded that special people
(much too young to die)  have
died, all in fleeting moments. Often it is then
that people either ask God for a miracle, or stop believing there is a God. It’s
natural in times of desperation. But there is another choice: to listen to, and
stay engaged with God. That’s the first
lesson that comes from this passage. Like Martha in our passage today, we may
go through emotions as we call for help from our Savior.  First we might get upset with our Savior like
Martha did. She said that if Jesus would have been with her and her sister, then
their brother would not have died. It’s natural to cry to God; as I told the
boys and girls today. Jews do it to this day, and it is appropriate for
Christians to do it as well. Some just say “Oh well, it was God’s will that he/she
died;” or “It was just his or her time;” or “God needed another angel in heaven.”
The Bible doesn’t support any of those stands and I don’t believe them. In our
humanness, death is the end of our mortal life; of our human existence;
sometimes it comes earlier than we expect, sometimes later than we might have
imagined. In today’s passage we see that Martha
is upset with Jesus; but as Christians have affirmed for ages, our Lord
has a plan for us, bigger than we can dream and different from what we can imagine!
Martha decides to go meet Jesus and give him a piece of her mind about the
death of her brother. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have
died.” But Jesus had a different plan: to
show the glory of God. She couldn’t see the big picture, nor, many times, can
we. Jesus not only let Lazarus stay in the tomb three days, he waited an extra
day before he came! “How audacious and uncaring!” some might think; but
they would be wrong. Jesus is neither. Long before modern technology created
machines that can show when a person actually dies, Rabbi’s in the first
century and earlier knew that some people just fainted due to medical reasons.
If they stayed in the same position for 3 days, then a rabbi would pronounce
him or her dead. Jesus, who wants to show God’s glory, waits an extra day, four days, before he travels to Bethany
to see his friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus. “Your brother will rise again”
Jesus says, but Martha thinks he means at the time of final resurrection. “No,”
Jesus says, I am the resurrection and the
life.” The sisters, still not understanding what Jesus was about to do,
both exclaimed on separate occasions to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my
brother would not have died.”

This brings us to the second thing this
lesson teaches: Jesus feels yours sorrow
as certainly as he feels your joy. In this case, he was so moved by their
sorrow that we get the shortest—and perhaps most telling—verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” I have every belief that
he does the same for you when you face something in life that breaks your heart
or disappoints you bitterly. He cries not
because he is helpless, but because he has great empathy. He cries for the
things we cannot see about the afterlife.

In our day we try very hard to hold onto
life as we know it: we have technology to keep people here in their body:
devices like automatic electronic defibrillators to use if their heart stops;
and even if such a device is not around, more and more people know CPR: Cardio
Pulmonary Resuscitation.  Further, if you
are choking on something and unable to breathe, many people now know how to do
what is called the Heimlich maneuver to save you. Back in Bethany in the first
century, Jesus brought Lazarus back to this
life; he did not raise him to newness of life. But Jesus can raise you, and me, in our time, to the resurrection and
the life! That’s the timeless and extraordinary Easter message, and is this
passage Jesus tips his plan to Mary and Martha: He says plainly: “I am the resurrection
and the life.” People like Don Piper, author of the book 90 Minutes in Heaven believes that; Captain Dale Black, author of
Flight to Heaven believes that; and even a  young man named, Colton Burpo, the subject of the book  Heaven
is for Rea believes that. And so do his parents. The film based on the book
opens on Easter. The sadness around a
death swept over Mary and Martha as it sweeps of us at times. We weep for those
on our prayer list who have died; we silently wonder if there is a God if good
people die young. And then we read John chapter 11as we did today, and our
hopes rise again. God has a plan for our
new life bigger than we can imagine! And Jesus also decided to tell people
about that plan and remind them about God’s wonder and power as he raised
Lazarus from the dead. What might Jesus have in store for all those who
love and follow him? I am convinced that it can be glorious.

Let me close with the old story of a
small ocean liner being battered by a North Atlantic storm. People were crying;
others were screaming, including grown men, grown women, and children. They
were terrified of dying; they were sure they were about to drown. But one child
was not crying or screaming. In one of the public rooms, a young girl was
sitting and working a puzzle. She noticed that the ship was in a storm, but she
just kept working on her puzzle.  One
woman said to her: ‘Young lady, aren’t you afraid?” “No, ma’am” she answered.
The woman replied “Why aren’t you afraid?” And she said calmly, “Because my
father’s the captain.”

Trust in God; God is like that captain:
the one who loves you, and, in spite of all the people or events that try to
shake your faith,  the one who created
you also loves you more than anything else; you are one of God’s supreme
creations, even above plants and animals!
You have the freedom to choose God … or not; to choose life … or not. As
you decide, remember: God sees the big picture, and for all eternity if you
choose him, he will never let you go.
A. Sumner                                                                         April 6, 2014