Monthly Archives: November 2014

11-30-14 -WHEN THE STARS BEGIN TO FALL

WHEN THE STARS BEGIN TO FALL

Mark 13: 24-37

 

American writer William Sydney Porter is best known by his pen name “O. Henry.” From his pen the world received many works, perhaps most famously “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Gift of the Magi.” He is most famously known for his short stories. The one I’m citing today is “The Last Leaf.” Sue and Joanna, known as “Johnsy” in that short story, had an art studio. One woman was from Maine the other from California. They had met in New York where they were both currently living. One day Johnsy comes down with pneumonia—then as today, a frightening condition. She lays in her bed, stymied in her artwork and begins to develop a gloomly outlook on her life. Outside of her window is a vine that climbs up the side of a building. It is the time of year when the vine leaves are turning color and dropping. She begins to count them, reporting when there are only 12 left, then 11, then 10 and so on. Her friend Sue didn’t know what Johnsy was counting as she looked out the window. “Leaves,” says Johnsy. “On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go too….” “I never heard such nonsense!” Sue exclaims to Johnsy. What have old ivy leaves to do with you getting well?”

“In the same apartment building, an elderly, frustrated artist named Behrman lives below Johnsy and Sue. Behrman has been claiming that he will paint a masterpiece, even though he has never even attempted to start. Sue visits Behrman, telling him that Johnsy, who is dying of pneumonia, is losing her will to live. Sue tells Behrman that Johnsy claims she will die when the last leaf falls off of the vine outside her window. Behrman scoffs at this as foolishness, but—as he is protective of the two young artists—he decides to visit Johnsy and see the vine from her window.

In the night, a very bad storm comes and wind is howling and rain is splattering against the window. Sue closes the curtains and tells Johnsy to go to sleep, even though there is still one leaf left on the vine. Johnsy protests against having the curtains closed, but Sue insists on doing so because she doesn’t want Johnsy to see the last leaf fall. In the morning, Johnsy wants to see the vine to be sure that all the leaves are gone, but to their surprise, there is still one leaf left.” [Wikopedia]

The leaf does not fall. Johnsy looks at it differently; perhaps it is there to teach her that wanting to die is no way to go. So she changes her attitude and rallies, in part because the last leaf never fell. Her recovery is continuous from that point on, all because the last leaf didn’t fall. What she did not know until she was better is that, because Berhman had heard the story of Johnsy’s illness, when her curtains were drawn he had carefully painted a leaf on the wall where the ivy was, and in doing so, got badly chilled, got sick with pneumonia, and it was he who died from it. Johnsy lived on, deciding not to let a last leaf dictate her time of death.

 

Today we hear words from the lips of Jesus in Mark 13. In those words many perceived that our Lord was telling people to actually pay attention to what was around them. That’s the first message. “Pay attention to what’s around you.” Farmers years ago learned to watch the skies, and their animals, and to notice the direction of the wind to make good predictions about rainfall and sunlight for their crops and livestock. Before the dawn of Doppler radar and other meteorological instruments, farmers often relied on “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” still in print and consulted by many. And last week, with all the instruments they had at  hand, weathercasters helped us prepare for drastic drops and rises in temperature, and for the huge amount of rainfall we received. Weathercasting is not perfect, but its instruments can help us prepare for the weather ahead. If only there were such gauges for the Stock Market! Those who spend their life following the market can only say what is historically true: that is, they can only use the past as a future predictor! And they usually speak in generalities. Scientists also watch our polar ice caps with concern as warmer climates continue to fill the earth with more water and less ice.  In Florida, climate change is much harder to notice than in other states. When I visited my parents in Missouri in October, the maple tree in the back yard was filled with color when I arrived. That night there were high winds and some rain. By the time I left three days later, the tree was almost bare. To look out the window of that house, two days made all the difference in the world.

 

In Biblical times even as today, wise persons watched the stars. The practices of astronomy and astrology were not different as today; they were the same science. So long before Jesus was born, Magi in the East watched the stars. Falling stars had meaning; and stars that seemed to move because of the rotation of the earth had meaning. Some of the larger lights, or course, were planets. In Boy Scouts I earned an Astronomy merit badge by looking at and learning how to identify stars in the night sky. It is best done far away from city lights! And though they are beautiful, I do not use stars to decide the direction of my life. Nor do I use horoscopes to do that. But in those days, wise persons learned many things from the stars. Some of them, in the East long before Jesus was born, could tell that something was going to happen in the Kingdom of Judah; a new king was to born!

 

Fairly recently, there was a new theory by a lawyer from Texas. We showed the film about the Star of Bethlehem two years ago. His name is Rick Larson, who found that “there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and the star Regulus (which is in the constellation of Leo the Lion), followed by a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in Leo ninth months later. And then six months after that Jupiter ‘stops’ (goes into retrograde) in Virgo.

The country/nation of Israel is often referred to as the ‘Lion of Judah’ so this meeting would have been important. Then nine months (the time of a pregnancy) later in June … Jupiter and Venus (the planet of mothers) meet in Leo (in the West over Israel) and would have been a very bright ‘star’ indeed! Then if you were in Jerusalem looking south, towards Bethlehem, Jupiter would be ‘standing’ in Virgo, the constellation of the Virgin! [The Star of Bethlehem DVD, MPower Pictures, 2009.]

 

Jesus words in Mark 13. Should they make us watch the stars; or watch the leaves; or watch the weather? Is he not describing his coming in powerful metaphors? And is he not, right after that, saying “but of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed and watch, for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13: 32-33)

 

So the second message might be “Notice what is around you, but do not let what you see decide major events in your life for you.” Yes, the fig tree gives a lesson for farmers; but metaphorically it says something to us too: time is marching on. What do you need to do to prepare for the birth, or even the second coming of Christ? The stars, or leaves, or the wind will not tell you when he will come. Christians conveniently made December 25th Jesus’ birthday, but in actually we don’t know the day of his birth. So even though you know when you’ll celebrate his birth, we don’t know the time of his return. We are told to “watch,” but more than that, I believe, Jesus would have us tend to our affairs, doing what is most important in life, particularly regarding others. Not just at Christmas, but always, have your eyes open to the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised. That’s what Jesus would do. Also, do not let outside events convince you about the time of your death, for you may find you are hanging that hat on the wrong peg. Live your life fully, lovingly, and forgivingly, connecting with others. In so doing your soul will be still and at peace, even when the stars begin to fall.

 

Let us pray:

O Creator of the stars of night: teach us to appreciate creation, to love one another, and to not give up on this life before we move to the next. May this Advent season include watching, celebrating, and contemplating the life you have given to us and to others. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                November 30, 2014

 

 

11-23-14 – WHO IS MY KING

When we come to today’s passage, we tend to think of it in terms of who we are. Where do we fit in. Who am I? A sheep or a goat? It seems like an important question. Where do I fall on this spectrum? How am I going to end up on the last days?

 

And it’s not a terribly comfortable question is it? Because its not a comfortable passage. Because if we think about it, we all have days when we’re a goat.

 

There are some days we don’t even notice when someone around us is in need. There are some days when we notice, but we’re too busy with our own lives to stop and help. And there are even days when we question the motives of the person in need. We all have days when we’re goats. Which is really upsetting, because it sounds as though these goat days mean we’ll be plunged into the outer darkness.

 

And yet, I think everyone has days when they are a sheep. Admittedly, some people are more sheep-like than others. But we all have chances to see the people around us who are in need. Who are cold or lonely or hungry or abandoned. And we all have chances to make a difference there. Times when we can offer up a word of carrying. Share what food we had. Stop by and visit someone or even simply pick up the phone. We can all be more sheep like in our days, but we do have days when we get it right. When we help the least.

 

And there is a third category in this story. We focus so much on whether we are a sheep or a goat that we miss out on the fact that there are also “the least.” The least are those who are poor, hungry, cold, thirsty, sick, a stranger or imprisoned. Now, you may not have know what it is like to have real hunger. And in this country, clean water is easy enough to get that I doubt you have known thirst. But perhaps you have had lean times? Or maybe you have been sick. Really truly laid out sick and needed someone else to care for you. And who hasn’t at one point of their life been a stranger where they were at? Who hasn’t needed the kindness of others to help fit in to a place?

 

Just as we all have been sheep on some days and goats on others, we also all have been the least at some point in our lives. We all have depended on someone else to help, to care. Now, I think in some ways, this category makes some people more uncomfortable than the goats. Okay, banish me to the outer darkness, but don’t make me admit that I need help. We can have trouble accepting help and we can have more trouble asking for help. But some days we are the least. And it’s okay to for others to help.

 

Because we all fit in different roles in this story at different times.  I think focusing on the answer “Where do I fit in” leaves us missing a lot of the point.

 

Say we decide to focus on being more sheep like. It does seem to be the point of this story, doesn’t it? We go out and concentrate on treating every person as if they were Christ, because eternal damnation certainly sounds like something we should avoid. But if we do that, we aren’t acting like sheep at all.

 

The sheep are confused when Jesus says that they welcomed him. They weren’t treating people well because they might be Jesus in disguise. They were treating people well because you treat people well. It’s not about rewards in the afterlife and its not about treating our King any special way. It’s about how you treat other people because they are fellow human beings who matter. Christ’s love compelled them to compassionate action. It was the natural, instinctive, uncalculated reaction of a loving heart. It was honest generosity. Francis Clark said, “To feel sorry for the needy is not the mark of a Christian—to help them is.”

 

Even the goats understood that if those least were Jesus they would be happy to treat them better. Treating someone a certain way because they might be Jesus isn’t the point of this passage. All of the people understand that that’s how they should act, if Jesus is around. This passage is about loving one another for their own sake. About helping others for no other reason than they need help.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor masterfully evokes the everydayness of being disciples of a Jesus who has promised always to be with us: “Sheep and goats alike, they thought that he occupied one space at a time just as they did, and that the way they behaved in his presence was all that really counted. Meanwhile, that left them lots of free time for being with the other people in their lives, including the ones who did not count–the little ones, the least ones–the waitresses, the door-to-door magazine salesmen, the nursing home residents, the panhandlers, the inmates, the strangers at the grocery store.” Of course, these people matter to God, and Jesus makes this clear in his story. What also matters, she says and God will say, is “how we behaved when we thought God was not around.” Not just in church, but in everyday encounters with others, all children of God. (The Preaching Life). It is as simple, and as hard, as that.

 

Today is Christ the King Sunday. We end one church year and begin another. As we do that we turn to this passage of Matthew of Christ ruling in the end times. And we see how Christ wants us to live our lives. We are called to care about people because they are people. And we are called to help people who need help, regardless of any other factors. And in turn, when we are in need, it’s okay to allow others to help us. It’s okay to ask.

 

Now, this isn’t just a call for individuals. As we read the passage, we see that whole nations are called before the throne. We as a church are called in this passage as well. We are called and empowered to do these things for others because we are the church, and Ephesians reminds us that as the Church, we are the body of Christ. We are the active agency and activity of God in the world, we are the ones who are fulfilling the role of “shepherd,” tending to God’s beloved children, who are, strangely enough, also the Christ.  The hungry, the thirsty, the homeless stranger, the naked ones, the sick and suffering, those in prison, all of them are Christ, and our call is to respond to their need with active love and simple compassion.

 

You heard earlier this morning about our work with Halifax Urban Ministries and their hot meal program.  That is almost exactly what Christ is describing in this passage. In the Fellowship Hall today you will see cans for our two cents a meal program that goes to things like Second Harvest Food Bank and the Society of St. Andrew, our gleaning program. We also collect weekly for the food pantry at Grace Episcopal church. And these are just some of the ways our church serves.

 

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was preaching in front of the Ebenezer Baptist congregation,  told them–just two months before his untimely funeral–how he would like to be remembered. If Christ is ruler over our lives, Dr. King told them, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine’s “Man of the Year” is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being. (I Have a Dream, 191)

 

If Christ rules our lives, we will be sheep without even realizing it. When we are truly secure in our own places with God, we don’t worry about helping because we think we’re  picking up recognition or eternal merit; we help because we can’t stop ourselves, because its the natural, instinctive, response of a loving heart touched by the love of Christ.  And yes, we will have days when we are goats. And yes, we will have days when we are the least. But by following Christ, we will see the people around us and help them.  As you go out into the world you will run across strangers, the sick and the cold. As you go, remember who is your Lord and King.  And respond accordingly.

 

11-16-14 A MONEY LESSON

 

A MONEY LESSON

Matthew 25: 14-29

 

Through the ages our world has included powerful people: kings, queens, emperors, dictators, moguls, and others. And there has also been, in most of eras, an underworld: mobsters, bosses, kingpins and others. Those people are powerful; they have money; and they are used to requiring tasks to be completed by their followers, or stooges, or slaves, or employees.  The bosses have plenty, but they can be ruthless and unforgiving if an employee loses their money or is a drag on their payroll. For those who lose any of their boss’s money, in the underworld they might have body parts cut off, or might be tortured, or their family members might be harmed. If that happens with money moguls who live generally on this side of the law, there is still a cost to pay; there may be intimidation, or termination; they may add your name to an unofficial blacklist that could keep you from seeking other employment; or the work environment might become intolerable. Do you have the picture? Now think about this story that Jesus tells his listeners in Matthew 25:14. That is the kind of man he is describing; not just any old man; a very wealthy and ruthless mogul or mobster. Picture that. “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves.” That’s the first phrase. But it is not just any man; and it certainly is not God! Some want to make this person God, and it is not! This man is harsh and ruthless, but we’ll get to that in a minute. He’s going away, and no person of wealth leaves his money to be stolen or squandered. So he summons those who work for him: the Bible calls them slaves or servants, but whatever we call them, they clearly work for him. He does not want his money to be stolen, nor does he want it to just sit there; he expects people he pays to make him money; he is paying them (even a minimal amount) to make him money. So before he goes away, he calls three of his employees, or servants. We know what makes this man tick: money and profit! He’s also smart enough to diversify his assets through three temporary money managers. So for the largest chunk of his portfolio, who do you think he will trust with it? Clearly he will go for one of his best employees, not necessarily his best by character, but by results! He picks the person who he thinks will make his money earn the most while he is away! And so he does! He gives that person five talents. In the Bible a talent is not like juggling or being able to do back flips; it’s an amount of money. There are two things people generally don’t understand about this passage: that the mogul is clearly not God; and how much money a talent was worth. In the Bible a talent was worth 15 – 20 years of wages. Extrapolated to 2014, one New Testament professor estimates a talent would have “a value of at least a half a million dollars.” [Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, Stanley P. Saunders, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010, p. 255.]  No one leaves that kind of money to sit around and not make money! So he puts his best money manager, also called a steward, on the job. He is putting a lot of trust in him, but by the same token, he is expecting a lot from him. This man has high expectations of each employee; if they don’t come through the consequences will be severe. To his next best money manager he gives two talents, because he certainly doesn’t want to lose that money either. Still he’s enough of a speculative buyer that he knows that great risks can bring great rewards, and he has his sights on the rewards! To a third money manager, perhaps newer or less confident than the other two, he gives just a fifth of the money he gives the first manager; he gives but one talent to him, but he still expects results. I would hate to be in the shoes of those people! So the mogul goes on his trip; perhaps it is a business trip since making money seems to be his obsession. Or could it be an exotic vacation? The story does not say. Almost before he is out of sight, the first manager gets to work. Does he invest it or gamble with the talents? We are not told; our translation says he “traded with them.” The NIV says “he put his money to work.”  Suffice it to say that he must have been aggressive, or fortunate or both. He doubled his boss’s money! Few in our world of stocks or investments double their money in as short a time as a business trip. One wonders if he simply gambled with it and got lucky. But however he did it, the manager was sure to be happy!

 

The second money manager had two talents entrusted to him: still a whopping amount of money. He too thought of how to use it; he didn’t sit on his hands, nor wring them or fret. He made his calculated risks and invested the money somewhere or with someone. Again with his boss just on a trip of some kind, one wonders how he also was able to double his master’s money! Gambling; something else high risk? Few investments double in the length of a trip.

 

Finally we find out what the third money manager does. The story is told so that at least some of Jesus’ listeners will identify with this third manager. Who among us would want to loose a huge sum of money that belongs to someone else, especially someone with a reputation for being ruthless? So this servant does what perhaps many people would do who don’t trust banks, or stocks, or people: he put the master’s money somewhere safe: in a mattress, or a drawer, or in the ground, or somewhere like that. It was safe! But it will never make money in a hiding place! Still, that third manager has the relief in knowing he can return every last penny to his master when he returns: nothing will be lost! That should count for something, right?

 

We then learn that “after a long time” the master of those servants returns. Nowhere are we told a definition of a long time, but we can imagine he is salivating about how much money his money had earned him! He is prepared to pay appropriate wages for those who have made him wealthier. The one he trusts most has not disappointed him! “Look sir, I doubled your money!” He is very pleased; and because of that he will put him in charge of making more money in the future! (Oh boy!) His next most trusted servant also doubled his money; so far he is batting a thousand because doubling his money is what he likely hoped would happen. He now had much more money than when he left! He was deliciously happy! Then he went to his third money manager. Could he be so fortunate to have that smaller amount double too? Could it at least be half as again as big? He would settle for that. He called that manager over. “Well?” “His third manager seemed to be shaking and sweating; in fact he seemed a bit terrified: “Sir, I know you are a harsh man, harvesting even where you have never planted. I was afraid I might lose your money; and so, sir, in order to protect it, I put all your money in a safe place and I stood guard over it; and today I pulled it out and here it is!” he said hopefully. “Every penny you gave me is there!” Silence. Was the boss’s face turning red? Was there steam coming from his ears? Were his fists starting to clench? I imagine that he hissed his answer through clenched teeth: “You wicked and lazy servant!!” Of course his servant was neither wicked or lazy; he was careful and afraid, but that did not square with his master’s goals. The master gives his money manager a tongue lashing, and he clearly has worse plans for him than that. He tells him the way the world works: if you earn me money, you get more money too! But if you fail to earn me money, you pay!!” So his final comment regarding the careful and fearful man is this: he calls him “worthless;” in his “money is everything” world the servant is deemed “worthless.” That shaking man was taken away. In our day he might have been pushed off a high bridge; or taken to a river and dropped in with weighted blocks; but he would be dealt with because he had failed. He did not please his master.

 

Why does Jesus tell this story?  We must get out of our minds that this is how God acts because it is not. I wonder if Jesus is not giving his listeners a choice, and a powerful one? He knows that out in the world there are ways to make some quick bucks: prostitution, selling drugs, and gambling to name a few. But they are not the ways of a redeemed person. A worldly, greedy, dangerous man might praise you for your financial gain, but what will he do when you fail? No one gets money hand over fist every time! So you’ll wait for the other shoe to drop when you are asked to take someone else’s money and expected to double it; and for doing that you’ll get a modest wage. What is wrong with that picture?

 

Our Lord, today, starts with a dark, underworld picture of the world. It’s almost like the successful prequel to the Dark Knight films, that is, the “Gotham” series on television. The scene is always dark, most characters are demented, and there is coercion, torture, and extortion. This hyperbole of a story gives us one view of the world in which we live: it is corrupt, manipulative, dark. By contrast the Kingdom of God does not offer monetary wealth; but neither is it coercive or manipulative, or fearful. It is a kingdom that is so different! Due to generosity in the kingdom, a person can be fed a healthy meal for under fifty cents. In the kingdom, the lost or lonely are welcomed into our chapel or sanctuary or classes or choirs. In the kingdom, we pool our resources, share what we have with generosity, and make money go miraculously further than others can imagine. In the kingdom, loaves and fish can feed thousands; 2 cents meal—joined with others—can feed a family! And a group of walkers on the beach for a five-mile stroll can earn hundreds of dollars to feed others! It is the true church, blessed by Jesus Christ and the powerful Holy Spirit, that does even better than a rich mogul or mob boss! The church enhances life, encourages joy, and lets fear abate! The church that is grounded in Christ welcomes without intimidation, and encourages even those who have been wounded or made fearful by the world. Jesus gave his listeners a choice: either the sometimes brutal realm of world; or the Kingdom of God: whose chief teacher, example, and Savior is the Lord himself! What a choice, from the God who’s giving knows no ending!  “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” You have to serve somebody. Who will you serve?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                November 16, 2014

 

11-09-14 WHEN CHRIST SHALL COME

WHEN CHRIST SHALL COME …

Matthew 24: 1-13

 

If the Lord returned today, what would happen?  One person, when asked that question, said: “He’d take one look, shake his head, and go back to heaven!” Notice the question was not “If the Lord returned next year, or if the Lord returned next week; it was ‘If the Lord returned today!’” Virtually every Christian believes that Christ will return. Some try to look for signs of the time, either in world events, or from preachers who suggest they know when he’ll return, or from their own diligent reading of the Scriptures. Cottage industries have made certain men quite wealthy by their published predictions about when Jesus would return and the world would end. Of course they got all their royalties before it was proven that they were wrong! Many of their titles line shelves in Christian bookstores. I never buy them. In some Christian bookstores to this day, shelf upon shelf contain titles describing “The End Times,” or “the Last Days,” or “Sure Signs from the Middle East that the Rapture is Upon Us.” The people who write them, who say they base their writings on the Bible, are not reading their Bible the way that I read it! They think they know when “Judgment Day” will come. “My text for my November 30th sermon includes these words from Jesus: “About that day or hour, no ones knows, not even the angels in heaven or the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13: 32). And in Matthew 24:6 Jesus says “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” Jesus gives a hint about when the end will arrive: he talks of tribulation and death and betrayal and hate and false prophets and wickedness. Then he says: “Those who endure to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:13-14) So we will not know, and we cannot predict, when Christ will come again. We will not know, and we cannot predict, when the world will end. But we know that time is hugely significant! How many times after an accident have you heard someone say: “Oh well, it’s not the end of the world!” Amid stock market roller coasters, lava flows in Hawaii, snow in South Carolina in October, and ISIS running amok in Syria, it is still not the end of the world. Nor is it the return of Christ; at least not through yesterday.

 

Before Jan and Tom Corlett joined our church, they were members of the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Alfred, Florida. Their pastor was a Scotsman, Dr. Iain Iglis. In his book Major Events in the Life of Jesus, he says this about Matthew 24:

Jesus talked about what would happen in 70 AD in Matthew 24 …In the opening three verses, here is what happens. Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple and his disciples call his attention to the buildings. Jesus responds with a dramatic announcement. He tells them the day is coming when the temple will be … destroyed. [p.119]

 

That was around 33 A.D. By 70 A.D. the temple indeed was destroyed.

 

Back to Matthew 24, the disciples wait until they reach the Mount of Olives and ask Jesus about two things: about his return and about the end of the age. We have heard that lesson today. Iain affirms what the Bible says and what I believe: no one knows the day or the hour when the Son of God will return except the Father! Popular writer and pastor Max Lucado affirms the very same thing: no one knows the day or the hour except the Father! And in his book When Christ Comes, Lucado points us to John 14; not to 1 Thessalonians 4, but to John 14 with his paraphrase “’I will come back and take you to be with me.’ It’s a simple scenario.” [p. xviii] And I affirm the very same thing! You see, Jesus leans on the marriage metaphor of his Jewish people to explain his return. Jesus counted on his followers to know marriage customs of the first century. But plenty don’t know those customs now and so they buy books that predict when Christ will return. Here’s why you’ll want to set those books aside.

 

In a Jewish wedding, the father of a son, when he believes the time is right, goes to visit the father of a young woman who he believes will be the right bride for his son. The father of the would-be bride may seem taken aback, or perhaps he’s secretly delighted at the request. But this man’s daughter is his prize and he will ask a royal price for her; it’s called “the bride price,” and the father of the son pays it if he wants his son to marry this young woman. It’s a huge price to pay!  The two fathers come to an agreement, then the father takes his son back to his house—the family house—and together, they begin to build a room on the father’s house where the new couple will live. During the build, the father teaches his son how to be a good husband and how to be a good father. The young woman and her family simply wait during that time; they wait weeks and weeks, not knowing when the son will come for his bride. They just have to see that the bride and her bridesmaids are ready at all times! Finally, and only when the father thinks his son is ready, and the room on the father’s house is ready, the son returns and takes his bride. He brings her back to their home—the room on the father’s house—and along the way there is love and partying and singing and joy—all part of the wedding traditions!

 

That’s what I believe the Bible has taught us about when Christ shall come. It will be a joyful reunion of Christ with those who love him and those whom he loves. Jesus will extend strong hands to those who love him, and he will take us to the room on his Father’s house, metaphorically speaking. But there are several great lessons concerning when Christ shall come: First, it is not about getting ready, it’s about being ready. It’s about living every day as if Christ is coming now. We cannot hold up our trip to our ultimate home in heaven by asking Jesus to wait while we take care of things we have left undone. There is no time for such things; and there is no reason for such things when the most important day of our lives—the day we are joined with the bridegroom Jesus—is upon us. Nothing else will be more important than that!

A second lesson is this: we, just like the son, have no clear picture of when the Father will send his Son back for his bride. But we’ll need to have our lamps burning. In our household we have a hurricane kit in case we have a hurricane. But, I admit, I haven’t refreshed it in more than three years! My reasoning: we have warnings before hurricanes come so I can go out and buy fresh supplies then-a poor excuse! But we will have no warning when Christ will come again; we just need to live lives at the ready! There is nothing more important for the big day than that. Our lamps, so to speak, need to always be ready! It takes work and it takes planning, but we cannot slip into the comfort zone of being just a carnal Christian, or a Sunday Christian, or a back sliding Christian! To be ready for Christ we have to be a spiritual Christian, a constant Christian, and a Christ-centered Christian every day! We cannot dabble with other so-called gods or other belief systems if we want to live ready for Christ! We cannot afford to have our belief in Christ as Lord be weakened by doubts or spiritual wandering! This is a call for readiness; and the Bible even calls us to alert: Jesus asks us to live each day as if it were our last. Those with terminal illnesses—that is, those who can see the finish line of their lives—have taught me how to live life best: To prioritize; to know what is most important and who is most important, and act both! I try to live that way every day; I see many of you live that way every day too! I invite everyone one of you not to do with Christ what I did with our hurricane kit; we read in the Bible that there is no time delay between the announcement of his coming and his return! You’ll want to be ready now, even right now, ready for a joyful reunion! If not, do you risk being left in darkness or in death?

 

Let me close with these convicting words by the hymn writer Stewart Kine. In his beloved hymn “How Great Thou Art” his last verse proclaims this message: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and take me home what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God How Great Thou Art!”

 

I want to be ready for that! For that moment in time; for that red-letter day in history; for the day when the skies will be brighter than the sun with the glory of God! Be ready! Love God! Love others! And when you least expect it, the bridegroom—Christ—will extend his hand … to you.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                   `                                     November 9, 2014

 

 

11-02-14 A CALL TO HUMBLENESS

A CALL TO HUMBLENESS

Matthew 23: 1-12

 

Those who observe Christians most carefully are the un-churched people of the world. In certain religiously grounded schools, all the students wear uniforms so an outsider can tell who goes to that Christian school. We don’t wear Christian uniforms. And unlike the 1950s when most everyone in America had “church clothes,” today some people go to church in coats and ties or dresses, while others go in golf shirts and slacks, and others in casual tops and pants. Today if you observe people in their cars, it will be hard to tell who is and who is not a Christian. Fewer and fewer people meet in facilities that look like churches. I know I may be in the minority these days, but I like to go to church wearing what I call “church clothes;” that’s being “authentic for me!” And I like to go to church in a building that looks like a church, but not everyone does. Religious specialists say people are looking for “authenticity” in  a church, that is, people who seem “real” and whose services seem “relevant.” Yet some find those qualities in a church that meets in a school cafeteria or gymnasium; some find those qualities in churches that meet in coffee houses; I have even heard of churches that meet in bars. Again, the common denominator is “authenticity.” Dress-up clothes for church are authentic for me. This style of church is authentic for me. And as I see others after church or during the week, I am keenly aware of making sure that what is preached on Sunday is reflected in my life on Monday! That’s what I suggest for you too! We cannot claim we are Christians and then act in unkind, impatient, unjust, or bullying ways the rest of the week if we hope to show we are Christians by our love. It won’t work. If we receive the light of Christ in worship as we praise God, we’ll want to shine that light in the world and not be fake on Sundays or vastly different on Mondays. Such activity is called “hypocrisy” from the Greek word meaning “actor,” or “one who wears a mask.” The world is highly tuned-in to any of us proclaiming one thing and doing another. It doesn’t take long for them to smell a rat. To be a pretend Christian is the worst kind of witness to Christ; it is a destructive witness. And it doesn’t really have anything to do with what we wear on the outside; it is about how our souls are dressed and how our countenance is displayed.

 

In Matthew 21 Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem. It must have been a bit overwhelming, especially near Passover! There is a distinctly different feeling between Jerusalem and Galilee. Galilee is rural; it has farmland, fishing, and villages. Jerusalem has all the awe of a religious center and all the heightened tensions that come with security in a big city. So in Matthew 23, today’s passage, Jesus shows both respect for his tradition and disdain for those who were supposed to be examples. Remember: in Galilee there were no chief priests or Sadducees, so their religious apparel would look different. Let me say this about religious apparel: I have found that Jews, and Roman Catholics, and Lutherans, and Presbyterians, and Baptists can wear pulpit robes like we wear, or special robes called albs; others will wear a nice suit or pantsuit, or open-collared shirts; any people in any dress can be authentic people; and people in any kind of clothing can be inauthentic as well. We need not get distracted by the clothing one wears. We get distracted in this passage thinking that Jesus is condemning long robes and fringe. No; it is a condemnation of those who are supposed to be the highest examples of Godly living that are not living that way. It used to be that every Presbyterian Church had clergy who wore robes. That is changing in some congregations across our country, but here it is done. John Calvin, who started our tradition, made it clear that ministers are never set above a congregation, they are set apart by their calling. Ministers, priests, or rabbis stain the office of clergy if they exhibit acts of coercive power, conceit, or unkindness. In recent years the Vatican has had some tremendous and Godly popes wearing the papal garments. But even religious historians have written about the corruption of the papacy at certain times in the church’s past. And Protestants have had some tainted leaders in the past as well. There have  also been some suit-wearing or dress wearing ministry leaders who have, in some instances, fallen victim to their own corruption or opulence. One congregation member told me how he stopped to visit Heritage USA, the vast home and empire of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker years ago, just after their empire started to crumble. For years people adored them and hung on every word; and then corruption and human sin made the house of cards tumble.

 

Jesus, it seems to me, is holding up a mirror not  just to chief priests, but to all religious leaders. He holds the mirror up to his listeners in Jerusalem, today our Bible holds a mirror up to us. Jesus says: “whoever exalts themselves will be humbled (or brought down); and whoever humbles themselves, will be exalted, (or lifted up.) That is the message from Jerusalem today. That is the message from Jesus to his listeners, and from Jesus to the readers of God’s word. It is not about clothing. It is about being real, and true, and faithful to the end in the presence of God and others.

 

Today we think about those who have gone before us. In Presbyterian churches we call them saints not because their likeness has been painted on a wall or cast in plaster or bronze. The saints were saints because they were real, and true, and faithful to God and to others. They were the ones who, when they crossed over to the other side, heard Jesus himself say: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!” So we honor and remember those who walked the walk and talked the talk; those who were not hypocrites; those who were not frauds. Living such a life is not the unreachable star; it is the expected life of a Christian! We affirm what our opening hymn said about saints:

They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still;

The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, on in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in

trains or in shops or at tea; [Sounds very British to me!]

for the saints of god are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too!

 

Seek to be a saint of God; it is not arrogant to do so; it is humbling. And it is what Jesus, in this passage, calls us to do, and to be.

 

Let us pray:

God of our forebears and God of our neighbors: teach us how to live as the saint lived who went before us: honestly, truthfully, and caringly.  Teach us to study your Word and to learn from your statutes; to seek to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you. Then we will be in that number when the saints go marching in. Through Jesus Christ I pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey  A. Sumner                                                         November 2, 2014