Monthly Archives: January 2015

01-25-15 WHEN YOU WANT TO SAY “NO” TO GOD

WHEN YOU WANT TO SAY “NO” TO GOD

Jonah 3: 1-6; 10

 

Can you think about the consequences of not listening to anyone but yourself? Our world is in trouble because of such attitudes. There are some major retailers and corporations that went into bankruptcy because their leaders said “no” to technology and they were left in the dust. In the armed forces of America, not following orders of a superior officer can be grounds for court martial. History records people who thought they were right no matter what:  Napoleon and Hitler and Nero and Herod; Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and now Kim Jong Il.  We see kids who think they have a better idea than getting a good job, and often they fall into trouble or drift into lethargy.  Attitude is a demon many people fight.

 

Let’s think about how important attitude is in life.  Dale Galloway, in his book called THE AWESOME POWER OF YOUR ATTITUDE says “Someone once said:

‘In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.’ It’s also true that in every      day life, no one escapes being hurt or wounded. A practicing     psychologist friend of mine estimates that for every physical illness     we suffer, there are forty-five to sixty emotional hurts that wound us         or cause us pain.  Can anything be worse than to be hurt emotionally? Yes…. Believe it, there is something worse because it is so self-   destructive. I am talking about the destructive attitude of bitterness.  If    you cut your hand, you know that if you keep infection out of the         wound, it will heal. We are the same way emotionally. God has put   great healing powers within that flow from His love. However, we        will not heal emotionally if we allow the infection of bitterness to get    into our emotional wounds.  The thing that sometimes people never          learn is that no matter what another person does to you, you still have a choice. Bitter, or better: the attitude choice is yours!” [1992, P. 121]

 

 

 

 

Think of the times someone has made a request of you, and you “get your back up” and say “no.” Sometimes refusing to do something can keep you from harm, or from facing things you don’t want to face. But often that one word “no” can be the end of home privileges, the end of your school day, the end of your job, or the end of a relationship.  “No” is a word that is wisely used sparingly. But to say “No” to God, or to try to run from God, wel,l we have a first class example of what happens then. Here’s Jonah!

 

Jonah, one of God’s preachers, was commissioned by God to share a message of hope and salvation with Ninevites.  Now you have to understand some things about Nineveh. Nineveh is in modern day Iraq about 100 miles north of modern day Baghdad. Jews and Christians alike have had a long history with that part of the world, which is in the heart of early civilization: The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are there. In the days when Jonah was written, leaders from that region did not think twice about slicing open their enemies: men, women, or children. They killed and tortured those whom they captured; they were known in their day as a ruthless regime. Interesting in terms of what America and the world face today, isn’t it?  An incensed Jonah would rather have such people burn in Sheol. He could not believe that God called on him to go instruct Ninevites to repent. He decides God must be a madman or a fool. God would need to recruit someone other than him for the job. Our story tells us that Jonah did a foolish thing: (all who have ears, let them hear) Jonah refused to offer salvation to such barbaric people. He ran from God. He joined other Jews in wanting to hate Ninevites, not change them. In his flight, he nearly got many other men killed on a ship; he was thrown overboard and was swallowed by a huge fish where he spent three days! Gross. But on the third day the fish (or whale) spewed him out on the beach, as the story goes, and only then did God have Jonah’s attention! What does God have to do to get your attention? What does God need to do to have you say “Here I am Lord, send me?”  In this case after his harrowing journey into the belly of a “whale” and back, Jonah finally did what God asked of him. He went to Nineveh and the Ninevites, beginning with the King, indeed repented, to Jonah’s great dismay. But Jonah wasn’t finished making a fool of himself yet! To add insult to injury, he chose to resent the love and grace of God for the rest of the story. Jonah, a prophet of God, chose to be bitter. Saying “no” is a choice! Bitterness is also a choice! Doesn’t it seem likely that God was pleased with the formerly wicked Ninevites and disappointed in his own prophet?  Isn’t the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 likewise pleased with his wild son who chooses to return home, and disappointed with his normally faithful older son who chooses not to enter the house for the party?

 

There is no perfect parallel with that story and our situation today. But there are intriguing similarities.  Could it be that Jonah did not believe that the King of Nineveh, (now Iraq) truly repented? Could it be that his history with their leader, like the situations we’ve face in that region over the last thirty years, told Jonah that the man and his forces just couldn’t be trusted? On the other hand, if people really are born again, and the leader of Nineveh repented, is it possible that God knows human hearts better than we do?  After World War II, many Japanese were demonized by Americans, and certainly many Jews had been demonized by Germans. Today many extremists in the news say they “hate” America.  Does that mean they would hate you, or me? Or is their vitriol directed toward our leaders and our policies?  It was a sad example when Jonah, God’s chosen prophet, could not share God’s gladness over people who repented of their sins.

 

I know some people who believe so strictly in their world view and opinions they their attitude keeps them from God’s grace.   Today our world is divided and bleeding due to unbending ideologies and attitudes based on generalizations and people who grandstand and inflame the dialogue. Police are demonized in one corner, and recently, people of color have been too. To use crude terms, who would want one’s enemy to be saved by God?  Who wants “the enemy” to hear the good news of God’s grace?  Who wants God to show mercy to Ninevites, or others? There are some today, who wish death on their enemies. But we recall the words of the wise leader, Mohandes Gandhi, who exclaimed “An eye for and eye makes the whole world blind.”

 

Jonah despised the Ninevites. Some in our world despise others just as strongly. But God’s grace and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ saves those who say “yes” to God! Even before Jesus, God’s grace saved repentant Ninevites. Remember? They all repented. But Jonah never changed. He chose to stir the pot of bitterness, like the older brother did toward his prodigal brother in Luke 15.  Now: look in the paper, look at the television; look at your neighbor, then look in the mirror.  Who has an attitude? Who needs to choose grace over grudge? As it is written in Hebrews 12:15- “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” So may it be.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 25, 2015

01-18-15 THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO “JOHN”

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO “JOHN”

John 1: 35-49

 

Evidence of the providence of God is all around us. It is God who has sustained us; God who loves us; and God who will not let us go. Our world seems to be coming apart at the seams with senseless and brutal acts. We are reminded that such events have happened even over the ages, and that sadly, some in our world have not evolved beyond acts of retribution rather than toward steps toward forgiveness and love. Even this week the author of my Wednesday Bible Study, Presbyterian minister LindaJo McKim, wrote: “

One day while reading [the Gospel of John], the great Scottish Reformer John Knox proclaimed that it is by faith alone that we are anchored. Because of this pronouncement Knox was in grave danger and remained in obscurity for three years. Later Knox became the personal bodyguard of George Wishart, another Reformer [Wishart was actually a relative of Ron Taylor’s, one of the men who used to be in the pipe band and one who helped me begin this service!] Wishart saw that he was becoming troublesome to the Roman Catholic Church [of his day] and told Knox to leave because of the danger, pointing out that one martyr was enough. That night Wishart was captured and burned at the stake.

 

So people have clashed over religious differences for centuries. Scotland is not the only country where people clashed over religious differences and freedoms. John Calvin also clashed with religious and political leaders when he took control of Geneva Switzerland not once, but twice! Meanwhile John Knox had the chance to visit Geneva from his native Scotland and said Calvin’s Geneva was “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the apostles.” And even in America, a land filled with freedom-loving rebels from England and other European countries, it was John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and the sixth president of Princeton University, who became the only college president and the only Christian minister to sign our own Declaration of Independence. Biblically we are greeted in each of the gospels with other men named John: John the Baptizer-who, with fire in every breath-condemned sin and pointed to Christ. And it was John the apostle who gave us our most unique and theological book about the man he followed as Lord.  Today on this occasion, let’s ground ourselves in Scripture—as Reformers always insisted on doing—and find out what parts of Scripture we can call the “gospel according to men whose names were John.”

 

According to John chapter 1, John the Baptist knew his role, as we need to know our own roles: John1:8 “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” This is the first lesson from that most faithful man: “Bear witness to Christ as Savior: nothing more; nothing less.” You are not the savior of the world; I am not the savior of the world; but we know who is! Tell it! Show it! Live it! To do so is to do what John the Baptist did: he bore witness to the light. And, according to John chapter 1, he also gave Jesus a new title; a name that has stuck to the present day: John 1: 29 “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” That was a multi-layered comment. To an outsider, why would Jesus be called a lamb? To speak to a farmer is to find out that sheep are fearful, anxious, skittish, and dull of mind. Certainly John, who honored Jesus with his very life, did not mean that. No, the discerning reader, and the church over the years, knew how a lamb was used during Passover and Yom Kippur sacrifices. An unblemished lamb was considered to be rather rare and quite pure; it’s sacrifice paid the price for the sins of the Jews who came to the temple of God to confess their sins. So this, this is the meaning that John had: Jesus, like the lamb of the temple, was sacrificed to pay for the sins of the world. And, as God’s providence would have it, at the very hour on that dark Friday when Jesus breathed his last—3:00 p.m.—the lamb was sacrificed in the Temple on the other side of Jerusalem for the sins of faithful Jews. It was no coincidence. God continues to drop breadcrumbs of clues through the ages to say that the Almighty is not an absentee landlord; God is with us watching, working, and loving.

 

Second, we have John the Apostle. John the apostle seemed to be part of the inside circle of Jesus’ disciples, but he also is rarely named alone; he’s usually named along with others, not like Peter, who is often set apart. John told his gospel for a very different from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. He was obsessed with telling the world who Jesus was. His gospel includes more descriptions for Jesus than any other gospel. He is the “Bread of Life” in John 6:35; the “Gate” in John 10:9; the “Good Shepherd” in John 10:14; the “Light of the World” in John 8:12; the true “Vine” in John 15:1; and he’s “the way, the truth, and the life” in John 14:6. Just to name a few. John the apostle, without realizing it, was a brilliant teacher. When words seem inadequate to describe an event, a scene, or an experience, we often use figures of speech like metaphors, similes, and idioms. John fills his gospel with descriptive language for the Savior. All his titles and descriptions have stood the test of time.

 

Third, if you are Presbyterian and/or Reformed, you will always start with Jesus, who is head of the Church, or Kirk. You will then move to people like the prophetic John the Baptist an the theological and beloved John the Apostle. But many then will move to the great teacher about Christ, John Calvin. A Frenchman by birth, he is most known for taking a cesspool of corruption called Geneva Switzerland and turning it into the most Christian, the most progressive, and the most embracing city of it’s kind in his day. He instituted free education; he cleaned up the city with proper disposal of sewage and with health clinics. He gave God get all the honor and glory; he wanted no glory for himself. Trained in law but with a devotion to Christ, he wrote one of the clearest descriptions of the Protestant Christian way of living ever written called “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Everything in it was grounded in Scripture. In addition, his 22-volume commentary on the Bible, reviewing line by line, includes every book of the New Testament except Second John, Third, John, and Revelation; and most books in the Old Testament. People in our day, and people in his day, often employ the discipline called “Lectio Divina,” letting God speak through the slow, repeated, devotional reading of the Bible. John Calvin sometimes preached an entire sermon based on just one Scriptural sentence. In our day while some pride themselves with reading the Bible every year, how difficult would it be to spend your life savoring, considering, listening to, and praying over small portions of Scripture? It is but another way to listen for the Word of God.

 

Finally, we consider the preacher of Scotland, John Knox. He was not a shrinking violet; he did he turn from trouble. I have stood in the pulpit of St. Giles Church in Edinburgh Scotland from whence John Knox gave most of his sermons. Surprisingly few of his sermons have survived until today but we know of his work on prayer, on the Scots Confession, and his work to get Scotland free for Christ. You may not know that it was Knox who spoke out against kneeling for the Lord’s Supper, and so those of you who are used to such an act in other denominations are spared it in a Presbyterian Church as the Sacrament is administered, largely because of John Knox! In his comments on the subject in 1552, he wrote:

As kneeling is no gesture meet at the Table, so doth it obscure the joyful significations of that holy mystery. Kneeling is the gesture most commonly of suppliants, of beggars, or such men as, greatly troubled by the knowledge of misery or offence committed, seeking help or remission, doubting whether they shall obtain the same or not. But in the Lord’s Supper, chiefly in the action of eating and drinking, neither should appear in us [sorrow], poverty, nor sign of any misery.

 

So John Knox, not known for his light-heartedness, sustained a sense of the “Joyful feast of the People of God.” A holy meal for those invited. People seated by their Lord’s invitation. What a grand legacy.

 

And the footnote is about John Witherspoon who, in the beginning of our fledgling nation, brought high standards, good education, and was a well-informed man of college and the cloth, a man who influenced our forbearers and was glad to sign his name even to a document of revolt. It had been done before; it will surely be done again. He always fought for religious freedoms and was an influential educator. Presbyterians have always gleaned words from Scripture such as “For Freedom, Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

And our drive for good and free education continues in our churches and in the halls of Congress.

 

So today let us learn from John: From the Baptizer, to bear witness to the Lord Jesus: nothing more, but nothing less either. From John the Apostle: to honor Jesus and his many titles, all for our benefit. From John Calvin: to be resilient about social reform, free education for children, and to remember we are saved by faith as our lives are grounded in the Word of God. From John Knox we remember that the holy meal is one to which we have been invited, not one that we have to grovel to attend. And finally we remember that John Witherspoon was involved; involved in his country, involved in education, and involved in connecting our nation, and connecting an early college of higher education, with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Go and do likewise. Learn from these disciples named John.

 

Let us pray:

O God of our forebears: we acknowledge that there were times when those who have gone before us got it wrong; but they also had determination, and a drive to bring the story of salvation to the nations. Today we lift up Jesus Christ as Lord, and we gather together as his disciples or his seekers to say thank you to you: God of our past: God of our present: and God of our future.

Holy is your name, O God. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                January 18, 2015

 

was onearth since the days of the Apostles.” – See more at: http://www.reformationsa.org/index.php/reformation/92-john-knox-and-the-reformation-in-scotland#sthash.2QZ4ehJv.dpuf

01-11-15 HAVE YOU CALLED ON THE HOLY SPIRIT?

HAVE YOU CALLED ON THE HOLY SPIRIT?

Mark 1: 4-11

 

What I want to ask you to do today will go against the grain of some; for some an emotional wall may go up; for others it is a risky endeavor. In this age when on a day like this we have our own Webmaster, an expert from AT&T, talk with us in a special seminar called “Keeping your Personal Information Safe;” during a week when terrorists have raised the threat levels not only in France, but here and in other countries across the globe; when some people in the news and even amongst us today may have been inappropriately touched or hurt in a time of innocence; when some people in our world and even in our midst have more faith in their pets than in any human beings; when we are taught to lock our doors; hold our wallets or purses close to us with our keys out as possible weapons; when security systems are being sold daily to homeowners, and new cars invariably come with some kind of security alarm; when school leaders are taking extra steps to keep weapons or dangerous people or chemicals off of their campuses; and when Homeland Security—in  response to terrorist attacks more than twelve years ago—necessarily makes air travel a burden rather than a delight; with so many people and so many places on guard, I am going to ask you to consider doing something that might be anxiety-producing. I am going to ask you to consider opening yourself up to God’s Holy Spirit; to make a home in your heart for him; to call on that Spirit and to invite or re-invite your God to dwell in your heart for 2015 and beyond.  In our world with locks, and security cameras, and frightful faces on television, I am asking you to do this not to get you hurt; not to make you troubled; but that you may have life—even more life than you have—even new life instead of your present old one. This is not a new invitation: that of calling on the Holy Spirit. It has been done through the ages, often with great benefit. For example, the great hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote: “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove, with all thy quickening powers (quickening power is the power to give life; when Jesus comes to judge both the quick and the dead,” it is to judge the living and the dead!) kindle a flame of sacred love in these cold hearts of ours.” I don’t know if Isaac Watts had Mark 1 verses 4-11 open at the time, but he could have. If the descending of the Holy Spirit like a dove could change you like it changed Jesus; if the descending of that Spirit would make our Heavenly Father say “I am so pleased with you,” then would you want that to happen? I would! I would cry out:  “Come down O Holy Spirit! Fill my soul! O Jesus, live in my heart and rule my life!” That is the cry of a changed person.

 

In 1 Corinthians 16:22 we find a translation of the Aramaic term “Maranatha” “O Lord, Come!” or “Come, O Lord!” Some even translate it “the Lord has come!” Eugene Peterson in The Message makes it come alive with his own translation: “ Make room for the Master!” These are the cries of the faithful. Carl P. Daw Jr. joined a host of other writers when he wrote these words and they became a hymn: “Like the murmur of the dove’s song, like the challenge of her flight, like the vigor of the wind’s rush, like the new flame’s eager might: Come, Holy Spirit, Come!” The Taize community, as one of their hauntingly repeated meditative songs, simply sings: “Holy Spirit, come to us,” over, and over, and over. Almost a hundred years ago Daniel Iverson wrote “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me! Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me; mold me; fill me; use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.” And it was Bianco de Siena over 600 years ago that wrote “Come down O Love Divine; seek out this soul of mine and visit it with thine own ardor glowing. O Comforter, draw near; within my heart appear, and kindle it, your holy flame bestowing.” These writers capture the themes around this mysterious, powerful, and comforting person of God: like a dove, with a flame, like a wind, and so on. This Spirit that transformed Jesus from a young man from Nazareth into the Son of God with a mission is the same Spirit that entered your life if you have been baptized. Just as surely as you breathe, God’s Spirit is part of your being. When we say we feel “inspired,” it’s another way to say that God’s Spirit is working in us. But also when you proclaimed that Jesus was your Lord and Savior and you invited him—the one who had been knocking on the door of your heart for who knows how long—to come in and live within you and direct your life, God’s Holy Spirit was put on notice: that action said you needed God; and Jesus; and the one sometimes called the Holy Ghost.” And if you have not yet made that request of God, then this can be your day to do so: to call on the Holy Spirit of the living God to come and fill you; and to call on the Son of God to come and make a home in your heart. You need the mysterious presence of the Holy Spirit to move within you, to change you, to make you new, and certainly to bless you as Jesus was blessed on that red-letter day when the Spirit descended upon him like a dove.

 

The Rev. Billy Graham knows that such an entrance of the Holy Spirit accompanies the invitation for Jesus to enter one’s heart.  In his sermon called “Saved or Lost?” he proclaimed: “One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy. You might not be able to work up joy yourself, but God the Holy Spirit living inside of you can produce this joy ….”  And the Rev. Peter, Marshall, a master of prayer and the turn of a phrase once prayed: “Lord Jesus, we come to Thee now as little children. Dress us again in clean pinafores; make us tidy once more with the tidiness of true remorse and confession. O wash our hearts, that they may be clean again. Make us know the strengthening joys of the Spirit, and the newness of life, which only Thou can give. Amen.”

 

In this battened-down world, where we double check our doors; when we make our car horns honk at least once, but sometimes two or three times when we walk away from our vehicles to reassure us that they have been locked, there is one door that will never be broken into by God. You can be absolutely sure of this. It is the door of your heart; when God needed collaboration with a pure female human being, he got consent from Mary. When Jesus stands at the door and knocks, he must hope that—but may not have the foreknowledge to know when or if—we will answer the knock at the door. But if we do, and invite him in, the Spirit of the living God will bring gifts of life, and joy, and inspiration! There is no coercion in this matter: just invitation. In a world for fear, consider opening the door to your Maker’s breath and strength; the Spirit of the Living God. When that happens, the results can breath-giving.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 11, 2015

 

01-04-15 A DAY OF WORD AND SACRAMENT

A DAY OF WORD AND SACRAMENT

John 1: 1; 10-16

 

It was a hot July day in Arkansas when my family and my home pastor traveled from St. Louis to celebrate with the new congregation that had called a 25 year old fresh from Princeton Seminary to be their pastor. It was the day of my ordination. Ordination is not a statement of higher status at all, but a statement of different status. Ordination will happen to two of our congregation members next Sunday when they are ordained as Ruling Elders. Ordination means “to be set apart;” and I was being set apart: one called to listen to God’s will for a congregation; to have a vision for the future of the congregation; and to minister to the congregation. My “call” to use a Presbyterian term, or my “job” to use a secular term, was to provide both priestly and prophetic functions. Priestly functions were carried out when I baptized, when I heard painful stories or confessions and sought to move people toward wholeness; when I presided at funerals or at weddings or Holy Communions.  Many people know the church offers those ministries. Sometimes people only ask their church for those services, but to do that limits the relationships and teachings that church offers. One of my titles is Teaching Elder. I think one of my most important purposes in ministry is teaching the Bible and the ways to have life, and to have it abundantly. Those who are here not just on the big days, but also on the ordinary days, get the best the church has to offer.

 

When I was ordained on that hot July day in 1981, the certificate I received said I was ordained to “the Ministry of the Word and Sacrament.”  First, let’s talk about “the Word.” We are indebted to John, the apostle of Jesus, for writing the most unique, the most theological, and the most symbolic gospel in the Bible:  “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  John 1:1 John whisks our minds back to Genesis chapter one when God created the world with a word: “Every time “God said “ something, a new part of our world was created. With a word, God created each part of the universe. And John tells us clearly in John 1:14 that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word in that declaration is clearly the second person of the Trinity; his name is Jesus. Yes he was born in human form in Bethlehem, but he was also the Alpha and Omega; the beginning and the end; the one who was fully God in the beginning, and is fully God when we meet him at the end of our lives.  In teaching the concept of the “Word” to Confirmation Classes and Elder Training classes, I teach them what Dr. Macleod taught me in my Presbyterian worship class: The written Word is the Bible; the spoken Word is the sermon; the living Word is Jesus; and the visible Word is the sacrament of both baptism and holy communion. The Word—that is, the Word described in John 1:1—is in all of them. That divine presence is in all of those acts and actions. It is my privilege to be a Minister of the Word.

 

The Wise men coming from the East were seeking Jesus; Greeks of other beliefs came to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover according to John 12:21. They asked of Philip the disciple: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Or “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Perhaps that sentiment is on the heart of all seekers. Most preachers hope to lead people to Jesus. People want to know this Word made flesh.  And Ministers of the Word and Sacrament hope to let others to know him and learn from him.

 

Finally, the Word is in the sacraments. When I was declared to be a Minister of the Word and Sacraments it was because for years we were called “Minister of the Word” and some thoughtful people said sacraments are very important too. They are.  They are more than a ceremony for beginning a Christian journey or feeding us on our Christian journey. They are a conscious welcoming of Christ into our souls, letting every heart to prepare him room.  Sometimes we can use the Bethlehem story as a metaphor for the world: In the world, many people have no room in their heart or soul for Christ; They are saying to the struggling mother Mary who came to the edge of Bethlehem in labor, and to the exhausted and frantic father Joseph, that they have no room for their son. And Mary cries out: “Please! My son needs a place to be born!” And some still say: “No room.” And Joseph then goes and knocks on the door of another person’s heart. But to those who say “Yes” and “welcome” to Jesus, he changes and saves lives. That is the power of the Living Word; the Word made flesh. His name is Jesus; and he still wants places to be born anew, and to live in human hearts. May one of them be yours.

 

Let us pray:  O God of the ages and God of the new day: today is the perfect time to make sure a place has been made in our hearts for Jesus. It is our choice whether or not to do so, but if we decide to do it, fill us with your renewing Holy Spirit to begin this new year, and even this new day, with renewed faith, hope, and love. To you who is able to keep us from falling be blessing and honor and glory and power, now and forever. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 4, 2015