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John 14: 1-14



When we lived in Arkansas, we had just one main local team to cheer for: The Arkansas Razorbacks. The jokes flew regularly regarding the Razorbacks and the Texas Aggies, and they were legendary and predictable; I’ve noticed people all over the country apply the same jokes to the teams in their own state. For example, one of the first football events I attended when I moved to Daytona Beach was the Gator/Noles game at the Swamp. I knew nothing about the teams and, in fact, learned a lot about Florida lore on that trip! These days the Noles are football champs and the Gators are rebuilding. But back in the 90s, this joke circulated:


  Imagine the days after Bobby Bowden dies and enters the Pearly Gates and God takes him on a tour. He shows Bobby a little two-bedroom house with a faded FSU banner hanging from the front porch. “This is your house, coach. Most people don’t get their own houses up here,” God says. Bobby looks at the house, then turns around and looks at the one sitting on top of the hill. It’s a huge two-story mansion with white marble columns and little patios under all the windows. Gator flags line both sides of the sidewalk and a huge Gator banner hangs between the marble columns. “Thanks for the house, God. But let me ask you a question. I get this little two-bedroom house with a faded banner and Spurrier gets a mansion with new Gator banners and flags flying all over the place. Why is that?” God looks at him seriously for a moment and says:  “That’s not Spurrier’s house, That’s mine.”


Mansions in heaven; all based on the King James Translation of John 14: 2.


In Heaven” was a song written by rock singer John Mellencamp. These are some of his lyrics:


The old paper mill stinks up the beaches
As I walk along the ocean shore
I’m just a plain man, thoughts full of creases
Haven’t accomplished much, but I dream of more


Mansions in heaven
I see myself walking with the king
The angels are descending
To wrap me up in red velveteen



Years ago Helen Reddy recorded a song that was also covered by Bette Midler with this refrain:


Oh, and Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
And did I hear you say he was meeting you here today,
To take you to his mansion in the sky?


And many old hymnals contain the hymn “Beulah Land” with this refrain:


            O Beulah land, sweet Beulah land, as on thy highest mount I stand;


I look away across the sea, where mansions are prepared for me,


And view the shining glory shore, my heaven, my home forevermore.



I hesitate to tell you how misleading the King James Translation is in that passage, because that translation is so beloved; but here is the back story to John 14.



The New Testament uses deliberate imagery, calling Jesus the Bridegroom and the Church as his bride. In Jewish custom a father, in consultation with his son, would watch girls grow up in his community and finally select a young woman to hopefully become the bride for his son. The Father would go to the father of the young woman he hoped his son would marry. The men would talk about the merits of each and then the father of the son would propose the bride price to the father of the bride. Suffice it the say the price would be substantial; very substantial. If the price was agreed to, the marriage agreement would be made and the father of the son would return to him home, tell his son the news, and have his son begin to assist him in building a room on the father’s house where the new couple would live. During the building stage, the father would not only teach his son about building, but about being a good husband and father. No one knew when the room would be completed except the father of the son; the son didn’t know; the bride didn’t know; the father of the bride didn’t know. Only the father decided when the room—and his son—were ready. Then, with very little warning, the father would send messengers ahead to tell the bride (who together with her bridesmaids were waiting in anticipation for weeks or even months) that all was ready and that the groom was coming to claim his bride and take her back to his father’s house where a room had been prepared for them! That’s the backstory for Jesus talking to his disciples before he died and before he went to his Father’s house.



Jesus says: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms (or dwelling places). Does it really make sense to say “In my Father’s house are many mansions?”



Monai –is the Greek word used here; it means rooms or dwelling places; it is the plural of the Greek word moneh- which means room. Jesus said, in his most reassuring voice to his disciples who were not ready for him to depart: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” I imagine he said that rather gently as a parent might say to a child. Then Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Now you understand how comforting that would have been: his disciples would have  pictured a big house with enough space to build on room after room. Jesus would come back for them … and us … his bride … and take them to his Father’s house. Then he said:  “I go to prepare a place (room) for you. Now it makes sense, doesn’t it? He was leaving his disciples to make a room for them, and returning to get them when it was time! He said it this way: And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again (read here “I will return,” just like the groom returned to claim his bride.” Then Thomas, the only one bold enough to say what perhaps others were thinking said: “Lord, (even he called Jesus Lord, not just “teacher”) we do not know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” Of course! No one fully understood resurrection, then or now! Few people have gone to heaven and returned to tell about it.  In our day if you believe the popular books written on the subject, some have done so. But how could Jesus expect these disciples to buy into what he knew so well? So Jesus answer Thomas, not knowing that John was going to record his every word (as if Jesus were talking to a film crew) and millions afterward would read and believe it. This is what Jesus said, according to John; “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14: 6) Is it possible to take a fresh look at that verse? So much in the Christian world hinges on the meaning that is preached from that one line John reported. Most of the time, unfortunately, I hear it preached as a proclamation Jesus made to the world instead of an answer to one inquisitive disciple’s question. Generally it is proclaimed to say that no one, besides Christians, have a place prepared in Heaven for them; that Heaven is reserved only for Christians. Could it mean, by contrast, that all who die who have sought God and to live a Godly life will be greeted by Christ when they arrive? Then with the love and grace that Jesus uniquely showed during his lifetime, he would judge all people regarding heaven?



As a Christian pastor I will always preach Christ; Christ is the one I found on the Way, and to be the Truth, and the one who is the proponent of abundant life. But I also do not let one verse that John reported trump the will of God. God can choose to save and bless whomever God chooses to save and bless; because God is God! God’s job description is to be able to do whatever God chooses, and can welcome whomever God chooses to welcome. I think that is the nature of God. But over the years, people have used this passage in a threatening, gate-closing way, when it was only a single response to a man’s question. Let’s keep the sound bite in context instead of making it seem like Jesus was reaching out of the pages of Scripture in a thunderous or finger-wagging fashion, the way I have sometimes heard it preached.



Philip, perhaps emboldened by Thomas’ willingness to ask questions, says something else. “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” The Bible doesn’t say if Jesus puts his hand to his head, or looks at the ground or at the ceiling. All we know is what he said. “How can you say ‘Show us the Father? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” As Jesus responds, is he thinking that no mortal to date had looked upon the face of God and lived? I think his answer does not tie God to a gender, but says “In my love, you have seen the love of my Heavenly Father.” Jesus used this relational metaphor for first century clarity. Perhaps his words today might say: “If you have noticed what I am like, you’ll have an idea of what God is like.”



On a cruise last year a fantastic illusionist convinced me that seeing is not believing. I was sure of what I saw with my eyes, and yet, with illusions and slight of hand, my seeing had fooled my brain. What I saw was not truth; nor what was actually in front of me. Perhaps trying to use a new explanation, Jesus went further and said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Like a founder of a company who passed all authority and decision-making on to his son but keeps in daily conversations with his son, the son finally knows his father so well and the father trusts the son so implicitly that the son begins to take actions that his father would take. They are one.



Finally Jesus’ offers what sounds like the ultimate of power and reassurance: “Whatever you ask in my name I will do it.” Again I remind you who the “you” is here: his listeners are his disciples; he is addressing them. We are listening in. If we read about the apostles in the book of Acts, we see that Jesus kept his promise: Whatever they asked for in Jesus’ name was granted: healings, conversions, and more. Jesus did not break his promise. We are listening in as Jesus  empowered his apostles to complete the work of spreading his gospel. Do I still ask for things in Jesus’ name? Yes. Do I believe with all my heart that if it is not some self-serving item I’m asking for—but instead a healing, or intervention, or a blessing— that my prayer request may be granted? Yes. Do I think 100% of my requests and your requests are heard by God?  and do I hope with all my heart that I get a positive response to my prayers? Yes. But do I also believe that God—who is not bound by time or space—may see something I don’t or know something I don’t about that situation, or have a different plan than my mortal mind has? Yes. And do I think that God’s answer to us is sometimes “no,” sometimes “later,’ and sometimes “yes?” Absolutely. So those who look at this verse and say, “ I asked for something in Jesus’ name, and it didn’t happen, therefore I don’t believe in Jesus” those people have been—perhaps—taking Jesus’ words out of context. They’ve been reading the Bible as if Jesus were speaking to them instead of to the disciples who were getting ready to go into the world on their own. This passage is a final way that Jesus empowered the work of his apostles before he left. He had some very specific  assurances and instructions for them.



It is wonderful and powerful to listen in to the teachings of our Lord. But I have learned to always let God be God; to always ask when I believe it is warranted, and to trust the outcome. Everything I know from Jesus tells me we have a loving, grace-filled, and forgiving God. May this God comfort and guide you too, in your witnessing, and even in you mourning.



Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                                           May 18, 2014



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John 10: 1-11

At Christmas we do it; at Valentine’s Day we do it; and on Mother’s Day we do it; we idealize the characters in the stories of life.  Countless stories children’s are told about “a beautiful princess” or “a handsome prince.” Many Christmas stories depict shepherds as cherub-like little boys and angels like priceless little girls; and we sing “the cattle are lowing the baby awakes; but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”  On Valentine’s Day the greeting card writers often have a section for persons who want to choose a card for his or her true love; the kind described by Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote it: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of Being and ideal Grace. I love thee to the level of every day’s most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.” And on Mother’s Day children buy or make cards that often touch the heart of their mother. Certainly on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and other such “Hallmark” days, people may also choose the route of humor in their message instead of  other sentiments. But when we walk out of the gift card section of our lives, we know that shepherds, and lovers, mothers, and fathers are actually a mixture of human qualities that fall lower than perfection or fairy tale. Even now there are people on a day like this who are estranged from their mother while others admire their mother.  Some mothers show unconditional love while others show conditional love. Some here have had their mother die with unresolved issues and others have admired their mother and tried to exhibit their good qualities. And so today we remember mothers with flowers or candy, phone calls and cards, or dinner at a restaurant. But we will also include, but not be limited to, the Christmas card shepherds and the Mother’s Day idealisms. It is ironic that our Lord and Savior seemed to gladly take on the role and title of being “The Good Shepherd” as he says in John 10: 11. Not just any shepherd; not a run-of-the mill shepherd, but the Good Shepherd; the kind written about in a card store if there were a section for shepherds! Shepherds in Jesus’ day were not held in high esteem, even though they had important jobs.  Thanks be to God that Luke and the Christmas industry have given us such a rosy picture of shepherds! But today we’ll not focus on their poverty, their lack of education, or other qualities that living with animals include! Instead we will look at the good things they did, and imagine that our Lord, in John’s gospel, is trying to use metaphors to try to help disciples see what Jesus, and ultimately what God, is like.


One thing we learn from John 10 and from the beloved Psalm 23 is that shepherds protect. Too many people hastily attribute protection to be the role of the father. Not always. People trying to enter the Port Orange library last month found out the protective nature of a mother hawk who attacked others that she perceived could be a threat to her baby. It is the female lion that fights off predators who try to reach her cubs and often she joins in the search for food. Other species of animals have the females circling the wagons of protection or taking a major protection role while the male is elsewhere. In the human species, the mothers are intensely instinctive and profoundly protective, whether it is for their baby, or for their toddler, or their child in elementary school or beyond. Mothers protect their children in competitions and, for better or worse, in custody battles. Mothers, like shepherds, are fierce protectors. The shepherd will “lay down his life for his sheep.” So will she. The shepherd is the door, as is the mother. I’ve known more mothers who are the door, “the protector,” instead of the doormat. The world, for both the lamb and the child, can look wonderful, but mothers and shepherds know the world can be both frightful and dangerous. Babies need a protector.


Second, a shepherd feeds. Phillip Keller’s book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 will be taught by Tobias Caskey this summer. It is a wonderful book. In it Keller describes what a shepherd has to do to feed sheep, to “make them like down in green pastures.”

The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very makeup it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free from fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction too, with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down…. Lastly sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of food. They much be free from hunger.


Mothers are, by nature, the first feeders of their baby. Many mothers struggle to and succeed in nursing their children from the first day of their birth; or for a number of reasons they may nurse them with a bottle. They take their baby in their arms, pull her or him close to the warmth of her body, and look into the eyes of her child. A mother both feeds and bonds with her child. Few things can substitute for that. With sheep, from the first days they know their shepherd like a baby knows its mother. And Keller goes on to say that the table (or table land) must be free from any poisonous plants or the sheep will eat those instead of the nutritious grass. A good mother makes the same careful preparation: reading labels, washing hands and sanitizing the high chair tray. A child’s health depends heavily on a good parent. The shepherd has to prepare the table for his flock. How many mothers vigilantly protect their children from poisons by providing tamper-resistant locks or placing them up high? How many of them read labels to see that her child does not get peanuts or wheat or other ingredients to which her child has allergies? Instead, mothers feed, either by self-prepared food or foods purchased and carefully researched. Without such careful scrutiny, a child, (as innocent as a lamb) would eat the wrong things.


Third, a shepherd cares for his sheep as a good mother cares for her child. If a child is thirsty: water, milk, or other liquids can be provided. In the case of sheep, we learn that although sheep demand “clean water” it cannot be “stagnant water.” So a shepherd has to dam up a creek or a wadi, pooling the clean water long enough for the sheep to drink. It is not easy. Likewise whether a mother nurses or prepares formula, it is exhausting work to keep her baby nourished. And then as solid foods are introduced, finding a balance between what children like and what they will eat and not reject is the next challenge of life. Shepherds—and mothers—need patience, and to have the goal, like a shepherd keeping sheep, of keeping her children safe and growing.


Finally, sheep know the voice of their shepherd like children know the voice and face of their mother. In John 10:3 we learn that sheep may hear other people’s voices, but they follow and listen to the shepherd’s voice. Likewise in most cases there are few things that comfort a child as much as his or her mother’s voice. Even if a mother/child relationship becomes dysfunctional, a child first learns to trust someone: often a parent or grandparent. Even though our two grandchildren know us well, when given a choice, the voice and arms of their moms get top billing! It is the way we were created!

The Bible describes such qualities not only about a shepherd, but about the Good Shepherd, and ultimately about God.  God is a protector; a provider; a comfort, and God is love. Images in the Bible lift up such mothering qualities of God who—like a mother, gave us life; like a mother, provided food from the ground and water from springs and strong adults to guide and protect. As Jesus peered down on Jerusalem, he lamented saying: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophet and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!” [Matthew 23: 37] In Deuteronomy, in a song describing God, Moses sang: “[God] found Israel in a desert land, and in the howling waste of a wilderness… God encircled Israel and cared for Israel … like an eagle that stirs up her nest and flutters over her young.” [Adapted from Deuteronomy 32: 10-11] And we know that a prophet … is one who delivers the Word of God to others, often to warn the people. They can be men or women. In Proverbs 1:20 we are reminded that that Biblically the wisdom of God is always feminine as in this sentence: “Wisdom cries aloud in the streets; in the market she raises her voice; she cries out, proclaiming: ‘O foolish ones, how long will you love being foolish?’ And God, through the prophet Isaiah in chapter 66, verse 13 says to Jerusalem: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; and you shall be comforted.”


Thanks be to God for our Creator God; and to the mothers who carried us and gave us birth; and to all those who continue to care for, nurture, and guide us and our future generations.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  May 11, 2014


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Luke 24: 13-35


Over in Jerusalem, the city wakes to the smell of fresh baked
breads. They are in bakeries, in little shops, and on street corners like the
ones I saw last fall in New York City. There is no outlet for day old bread
like we have in the U. S. People are going into town to get “daily bread.” Give
us “this day our daily bread.” Being in a western culture, we live differently,
sometimes to our detriment. Most don’t drive out to get fresh produce, or fresh
meats, or fresh breads to be consumed that day. We buy things on sale, and then
seek to store them, freeze them, or consume them before the expiration date. I
am guilty of that too. But there is little better, in my mind, than fresh
bread; it awakens the senses and gets many stomachs to growl! Bread in
Jerusalem hangs from clips on carts or is stacked one on top of the other.
Their breads look like baked pizza crusts to us; they are round, and they are
flat; and did I mention that they are delicious?


Bread is an actual staple that many consume, but I think it’s
also a metaphor for our spiritual lives. Some people try to put all of their
spiritual consumption into a visit to church on Easter and a visit to church on
Christmas. To do that is to consume food for which we are unprepared. For
example, this weekend Cara and our youth spent 30 hours without eating
anything. It is a 30 Hour Famine to raise awareness of the many people in the
world who go that long or longer without food, and to raise money to help
hungry people through World Vision International. During the famine they can
consume water or juice, but not food. At the end of the famine they have food
again. Cara says: “You are tempted to quickly eat everything in sight but
resist that temptation! Your system is not yet up to eating, and you will get
sick.” Some youth in the past did not heed her warning and suffered the
consequences. I think about what people might consume spiritually coming on
just Christmas and Easter. How does one take in the rich foods of wonder,
glory, joy, and new birth when such ideas have not been consumed for weeks or
months? And how do people consume the rich food of that same Christ child, born
at Christmas, being tortured, crucified, dead, buried, and raised from the
dead, not just for his sake, but for ours? How does the casual Christian
consume such rich foods? And so when I hear: “Give us this day our daily
bread,” I certainly believe that for starving people that is a fervent prayer,
physically. But it is good advice for people who might be spiritually underfed
too. People like my liturgist Lloyd and me, both with diabetes, are even
encouraged to eat six small meals or snacks a day instead of three. I once knew
a woman from another church who struggles with her weight. Her daily plan: skip
breakfast, skip lunch, and just have dinner. Well by dinner her body was
deprived and she went to bed with an engorged stomach. Eating food regularly
and responsibly is healthy. Going to God for worship, study, or prayer once a
week is great; more often is even healthier.


My friend Chuck Murphy loaned me a book on leadership
principles given to him by Pat Williams, original Head Coach and current Senior
Vice President of the Orlando Magic basketball team. He quotes a lot of
Scripture in his thoughtful book. And with just five minutes a day in your
Bible, or with a devotional booklet of your choice, you can keep your soul from
growling or starving.


Actions and words became ritualized at my grandparent’s
dinner table. We each knew where we were to sit; the dining room had the aroma
of succulent foods that wafted in from the kitchen; serving plates were brought
in steaming with food; and hot rolls were placed in a basked and covered with a
linen cloth. All was set. My grandfather always said the blessing when I was
young. I knew it by heart, and it comforted me to hear these words: “Most
gracious and kind Father, we return thanks to Thee for this food. Bless it to
our use and us to Thy service; in Christ’s name we ask it. Amen.” (And then he
would say, “So mote it be,” since he was also a 33rd degree Mason.)
With the request for blessing offered, we would begin passing the food, usually
to the right. Rituals. They are all around us and they generally guide or
comfort us.


Scripture alludes to Jesus gathering to eat food with others:
sometimes with friends, sometimes with strangers (even as many as 5000!) and
sometimes just with disciples. In that region even to this day, warm pizza-like
bread is still offered and passed. I imagine that all those around him would not
only watch him in child-like wonder, but they would let him take the lead in
all things. So he would pray, perhaps in the classic Hebrew prayer: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who gives us the bread of life, and the fruit of the vine, and all
of life’s blessings. Amen.” And as he would pray, whether on a hillside with 5000 or in
an Upper Room with a dozen or so, he would cover his head, take the bread, lift
it up to heaven, and say the prayer; then lift up the cup to heaven, and say
the prayer. It was standard fare in a Passover Seder, but I suspect he did it
the same way every time.


Today I will say words, lift up bread,
and lift up the cup as I have done on a monthly basis for 34 years. I have been
trained in what to say, how to do it, and to continue the message and tradition
shared by actions and words. That, I suspect, is what disciples saw after the
road to Emmaus, when the risen Jesus broke bread in front of them. They
recognized him in his actions, before they recognized his words and his face. Today, may Jesus be known to you, in the
breaking of the bread; in the lifting of the cup, and in the sharing of this
spiritual meal that now celebrates our risen Lord!

May you know him, and
make him known to others.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                    May
4, 2014