Mark 1: 9-15


Editor James E. Adams reminds us that in the short story called “Somebody’s Son,” Richard Pindell describes the homecoming of a runaway boy named David.  He wrote to his mother, asking if she thought his father would accept him if he came back home. “If so” he said, “ask him to tie a white cloth to the apple tree in the field next to the house.” As David is on the train going home, he knows that very soon the train will round the bend and the apple tree will be visible. But he is so apprehensive that he turns to a stranger and asks him to watch for the white cloth instead. David does not look. The stranger says in surprise, “Why son, there’s a white cloth tied to practically every branch!” From that short story a Christian band decided to call themselves “100 White Flags” with both the short story and the band referencing the Luke 15 passage about the prodigal son who had hurt and disgraced his father, left for a far country, and wondered if he would be welcomed if he returned home. The story might also remind you of the 1973 song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” about a man being released from prison, wondering if his love will still welcome him home. He sees a hundred yellow ribbons and has his answer! The yellow ribbon connection, however, goes back much farther. The folk song that has been around more almost 400 years has the title “Round Her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” It is said to have even inspired the 1949 John Wayne film “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”  Today on this first Sunday in Lent, I want to suggest that our lives often follow a cycle of “blessing, testing, and repenting.”  See if times in your life follow that pattern.


Blessing. American Baptist minister Mryon Madden in his book “The Power to Bless” says that each of us yearns for and seeks a sense of blessing from someone significant. Normally we seek a sense of that pride and pleasure from a mother or a father; if it is not found there, a grandfather or grandmother may offer it; if the soul of the child still does not find a sense of blessing, he or she may look to the church for blessing, offered by a pastor, a teacher, and ultimately by God. In the worst-case scenario, a person starved for the blessing they crave may look “in all the wrong places” and connect with a manipulator or another person who takes him or her down a dark path. I can’t describe how important it is to offer encouragement and affirmation with your words and actions to your children, grandchildren, students, and others: even your spouse. Sometimes especially from your spouse! There are still grown adults in our world looking for, as Shel Silverstein once put it, their “Missing Piece.” Spouses, friends and others: you have the power to bless these hurting adults in your world. The example from Scripture today describes Jesus as a grown man getting his message from above with others around him. He gets his blessing with these words: “You are my beloved Son. I am well pleased with you!” Jesus now had his blessing for the life he would face.


Testing. That’s the next thing Jesus faced. And it is the thing that both blessed and non-blessed persons face every day. In Lent, we pull the shadow side of our lives out and expose them to the light, not to do harm, but to begin acknowledging them and start a journey toward wholeness. If a person has his or her sense of well-being from a parent, a friend, a spouse, or some other significant individual, they are better armed to say “no” to the many temptations they will face. Those who are not as sure about their firm foundation can be tested and tempted more easily by others.  In the Prodigal Son story I alluded to from Luke 15, we might imagine that the father especially praised his oldest son, the one by tradition who got his father’s business, land, and 50% of the inheritance no matter how many others sibilings he had. The younger son might never have felt as blessed, or as valued, or as loved.  You too may know people who, either in their public life or their private life, are prodigal people: ones who are lost, lashing out at others with pain, or sorrow, or anger.  If that is you, or someone you love, there is good news! By the end of the prodigal son story, the father embraced his younger son while his older son smoldered in the sins of envy and covetousness. Those who acknowledge their brokenness and seek reconciliation often find healing. The prodigal son was bitterly tested, going to a far country. We can assume this boy was from a Jewish family because those were the families Jesus knew: can you imagine a Jewish boy not only being around pigs—animals they considered unclean—but also eating pig food to survive? That boy, like many in our world, hit his “personal bottom;” that sent him back to seek blessing and reconnection through the path of repentance.


Repentance. It is the Jewish system of forgiveness and is clearly the basis for our Christian pattern too. When we sin—metaphorically going to a far country or moving down dark paths—the way back is not accomplished by cover-ups. People eventually find out and you spend an exhausting amount of time trying to keep up your secret. Repentance is the enormous act of admitting your wrong choices, putting actions into place that will keep you from old bad habits, and then asking for forgiveness.


Today’s passage from Mark highlights those three points: Blessing in verse 11; being tested, or tempted in verse 13; and then not Jesus’ repentance, but John’s call to repentance in verse 15. Those few verses contain one of life’s most important patterns for wholeness. This is the season where you can know this: First, God loves you more than anyone even in the earth. Get your blessing from God if you have missed it from others. Second, people in life will test you and tempt you. I’m sure they already have. But what happens in those encounters can be changed by the unfailing love of God, and even through the redemptive love of a man or a woman.  And finally, dump the baggage from your back that failed tests in your past have loaded on to you, repent; turn around; come back to ones whose arms are wide and whose hearts are glad! God fits that description! Some others do too! These forty days can be a day of new beginnings, for you.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 22, 2015





2 Kings 2: 1-12; Mark 9: 2-9


So many people today name themselves as “spiritual” but not religious. Such a position is understandable in so many ways.  Many churches that have been called fundamentalist, charismatic, contemporary, traditional, Protestant, or Roman Catholic have had their church names or the names of staff members in the news for things that can rock the foundation of a person’s faith. Sometimes a person will not join a church, or check the “religious” box in a poll, because of a malaise of suspicion created by religious actions you have heard about or experienced. Today I say to you: I understand! I once knew a man who took six years of my befriending and connecting with him before he finally said “yes’ to joining this church. He had preferred to just “sit in the spectator seats,” so to speak, at church, rather than being asked to “be in the game.” I got to know him so well that one day I asked him why he was reluctant to join. As Rev. Gee pointed out in her sermon last Sunday, we can’t just expect people to answer a question like “Are you saved?” without getting to know them first. I learned that his story went back to the 1930s when he was a boy and times were hard. One cold night, there was a knock on their door and his father answered it. A deacon of the church was there and asked if he could come in. His father invited him in and asked him to sit down. He told his children to leave them alone for a few minutes, and the boy went out of eyesight but not out of earshot. The deacon was telling his father that the church knew he had already given to the church, but they needed more to meet their budget. His father grew silent, and suddenly asked the deacon to please leave.  Their family was strained financially; the boy could tell by the hushed conversations his father and mother had over many days. The boy grew up and sat across from me that day, more than 60 years later, reluctant to join a church because of the perception he gained on that cold night when he was a boy. I said, “On behalf of churches everywhere I apologize to you for that time when an insensitive deacon doing what he was asked to do affected you and your father so badly. I promise you I will seek to honor your needs and desires with sensitivity, and care, and with love.”  He joined the next month; it was a big day for both of us! But we had become friends, trusting friends, before we became pastor and parishioner. He finally had a church connection, and it gave him great peace, all the way until his death. And I presided at his funeral not as a visiting clergyman, but as his pastor.  We had grown to love each other.


Other people have stories about why they haven’t joined a church, checking the box “spiritual” instead of a religious preference. With a forward by Practical Psychologist Parker Palmer, Erin Land wrote in her book titled:  Lessons in Belonging from a Church-going Commitment Phobe! “Among Millenials it’s not simply that we’ve chosen not to belong; it’s that we’ve forgotten how.” This is one of the problems in America.


Today I want you to feel safe as I hope to give you some Christian guidance on a timeless question: What happens after we die? People who are spiritual and do not go to church may explore the Internet or ask friends on Facebook faith questions like that one. But information without interpretation can sometimes be misguided or difficult to understand. For example: If you search “What happens to us after death?” on your own, you will find some who believe that there is no afterlife; others who believe in the resurrection of the body; others who believe in the immortality of the soul, others who believe in reincarnation, and still others who believe that when we die we become gods. It can be seriously confusing to search web pages or resources in journals on this matter. So it is my hope each week from this pulpit and from our Sunday School classes that we can be a guide for you who are seeking to learn more about, and grow closer to, God.


Historically biblical characters in what is called the Old, or First, Testament, died and were remembered for what they did in their lives. There was no general belief that they went on to an afterlife. Sarah died in Genesis 23 and Abraham purchased a cave at Machpelah, at great cost, to be her final resting place. In Genesis 25 Abraham breathed his last and was buried in the cave next to his wife. People mourned for them, and then the mourning stopped. But they remembered them forever. Still, there was no thought that they had gone to heaven. The same was true with most everyone else in the Old Testament; life was lived from birth to death; only after one event did the idea of the great prophets living on in Heaven ever cross their minds: it was after people heard the story of Elijah, considered one of the greatest prophets of Israel. He was great because he challenged the prophets of a false god in a place called Mount Carmel and he won; but he also was great because people were told about what happened in our text today: 2 Kings chapter 2. They did not call it resurrection, because it was not resurrection. It was the story of Elijah, the great prophet, being “taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.” He commissioned a new prophet—Elisha—to carry on his ministries, and then a most breath-taking thing happened: as he and Elisha were walking and talking, a chariot—a chariot of fire being drawn by horses, came and took Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind!  It was unheard of; it had not happened before and did not happen in the same way since. But the spiritual anthem we heard today, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, was written by ones who were longing for a better life than they had on earth. So they hoped for, and prayed for, a chariot to come and escort them to a better life! Times of strain make people think about, and long for, the afterlife.


Elijah became almost mythical because of his transport to heaven; it never says he died; it just says he went to heaven. That was talked about for ages. And when John the Baptist came with great voice and conviction, and people asked him: “Are you Elijah?” (John 1:21) You see, there were superstitious people then as now! They thought that perhaps Elijah’s soul had inhabited a new body!  But John the Baptist dispelled such nonsense: “I am not,” he said. In Matthew’s gospel we read that Jesus once asked his disciples: “Who do others say that I am?” And again the superstitious answer was given: “Some say you are John the Baptist (who had just been killed) and others said you are Elijah (who had died centuries before.) Jesus did not dignify their guesses with a response. What he did, we find, is show them who he was in relationship to the other great prophets of the faith. Two people were considered the greatest of ones of Israel: Moses and Elijah. So on that mountain, recorded in Mark chapter 9, we find the answer. Jesus was not Elijah or Moses; they were prophets in and of themselves. But he was at least as great as they were, and in a visit to a mountain when Jesus shone like the sun, a voice—not  unlike the one that came from heaven at Jesus’ baptism—called out for all to hear: “This is my beloved son: listen to him!” Now that’s an instruction! He was real; he was a prophet; and more than that he was the beloved Son of God.


With the same authority that Christians for 2000 years have given to the Bible, we find four other places—in Matthew, in Mark, in Luke, and in John, that give witness to the extraordinary event that happened to Jesus: He really died; it was not like Elijah who went up to Heaven alive. Jesus died on earth, the victim of a brutal death. His body was taken to a tomb; guards watched the tomb during the Jewish Sabbath so that no one could come in and take the body. But when the Sabbath ended, faithful followers, beginning with the women charged with lovingly anointing the dead body, came to carry out their task. For Christians, Easter is the glorious day when something happened that changed everything: it was not reincarnation nor was there a chariot waiting; it was resurrection; the risen Lord Jesus appeared to his disciples, and we learn in 1 Corinthians 15 that he also appeared to more than 500 others, lest doubters call the disciples liars. It happened! People saw and began to re-orient their lives around not just a carpenter named Jesus, but a prophet, a rabbi, and a Savior who made a new life possible for you and for me. Jesus’ apostle John said it best: “Whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3)


Finally John was blessed with a vision shared by Jesus, in the book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, which means “a revealing.” We do not get a guided tour of the afterlife, but we get an assurance of its wonder and it’s beauty! Heaven is a game changer, where there will be no more crying or pain or sadness. What a different world that is! Christians believe that we have life after death. It is a resurrected life, not a continuation of this life. And it can be yours!  This is what the church has taught, and still teaches. There are plenty of sources of information, but I choose sources that I trust. I invite you to join a journey of questioning and learning and growing and accompanying one another. Choose Jesus! And then when you leave this life, by your choice and the grace of God, you can have a glorious life in the hereafter! Choose life; both now, and then.

Let us pray: Dear Lord Jesus: we can only imagine what it was like to see you in such radiant glory on that holy mountain. But we too bow in amazement and are humbled in your presence. Now in your resurrected glory, shine, Jesus shine!



Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 15, 2015

02-08-15 FITTING IN

This morning, I’d like to turn turn our attention to Paul and what he has to say to the Corinthians in our first scripture for today. This is one of those passages of Paul’s that applies easily to the church in every day and age.  As we read it two thousand years later, we can still see how it applies to our lives today.


Paul begins talking about boasting for preaching the gospel. We all know people who are so impressed with their own righteousness that they boast of it, yes? People who do good, but then need to tell everyone that they have done something good. “Well, you might think you are holy, but let me tell you about what I did yesterday…”


The thing is, it’s not about sharing the gospel so we get something out of it, even something as intangible as rewards in heaven. No, we are called to share the gospel for its own sake and not to use it to put ourselves above others.


Then Paul says something strange to Corinth. “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.”


You see, Paul was a Roman citizen. And in that day and age that gave him more freedoms than anyone else around him. He could practically do whatever he wanted, so long as Roman law was not broken. Sound familiar? In our own culture we have similar freedoms. Provided we do not break any laws, we can do whatever we want, in theory. In reality, economics and income and culture have as much driving force on what we can do as laws do. But still, we have a privileged class with enormous amounts of freedom in their lives, just as a Roman citizen at that time would.


Yet Paul turned away from that. Instead of using his freedom and privilege for his own gains, he set all of that aside so that he might be able to lift up others. He set himself aside so that he might travel and teach the gospel to all who would hear it. In setting aside his freedom and chance for power, he managed to get himself jailed several times.


Paul went and  met people where they were. That was why he was so effective in his teaching. He met with Greeks and talked to them in the terms of their culture. He met with Jews and talked to them about their culture. Everyone he ran into, he listened to, and talked to them about the gospel from their perspective, not his.


William Barclay says “We can never attain to any kind of evangelism or friendship without speaking the same language and thinking the same thoughts as the other man. . . Paul, the master missionary, who won more men for Christ than any other man, saw how essential it was to become all things to all men. One of our greatest necessities is to learn the art of getting alongside people; and the trouble so often is that we do not even try.”


We all know people for whom this skill comes naturally. We have all met those people who have no trouble making friends no matter where they go. Who go from one group to another, fitting in easily. They are almost instantly likeable, because they show interest in people. They are the ones who ask us about our lives and interests and actually listen to the answers. That is what Paul did.


Now, this skill does not come naturally to everyone but that doesn’t mean we cannot cultivate it in our own lives. It just requires a bit of imagination. We have to take the time to imagine ourselves in another’s place. We have to ask questions about another person’s life and really listen to the answers instead of waiting for our turn to talk. We need to show an interest in another.  Once we start doing that, asking about what people really love, it is amazing how interesting other people become.


Is it always easy for us to come out of our own patterns and meet others where they are? Of course not. But the question is, are we willing to become 10% uncomfortable to try to help others find a place?


In order for Paul to “become a Jew,” with Jews of other cultures,  he had to care about a group of people who differed from him, care enough to meet them on their own terms. He had to go far outside of his own comfort zone. Whether someone is a Jew or Gentile, under the Law or outside the Law, under the gospel or outside the gospel, strong or weak, seeker of the things of Christ or seeker of the things of this world,  in order to connect with them and guide them to the fullness of life in Christ, Paul at least had to know them, seek to understand them, try to see the world through their eyes, attempt to see the ways that they see their own stories before telling them of a larger gospel story.


He’s not compromising the gospel. Instead, Paul seeks to help people recognize from their own perspective how the gospel offers hope. He’s caring about the people he is talking to first, before trying to preach to them.


Rodger Nishioka who is a professor of Christian Education and youth ministry tells a story about a time he is riding on the subway, and  is watching a young man walk up and down the car, preaching to people about how they can be born again. Most people are trying not to make eye contact. Rodger himself is studying his paper, trying not to make eye contact because he didn’t want to have the argument that being a Presbyterian makes him a Christian too. But the young man focuses on a pair of women across the aisle from Rodger. They are younger, college aged women and the young man gets up in their faces with a pamphlet “HAVE YOU BEEN SAVED?”


And one of the women looks at him and asks. “Aren’t you even going to ask us our names first?” And the subway stops, and they get off the car and the man stares after them in confusion.


You see, the young man didn’t understand what I think Paul instinctively did. Shouting the gospel at people doesn’t work. You have to care about people first, and then you can offer the gospel in a way they will understand. We have to meet people where they are, rather than expecting them to come to us.


For Paul, it is about genuine contextualisation of the message and, more importantly, radical identification with his audience. You have to get to know people in order to talk to them. This is incarnational ministry. Just as Jesus became a human being to identify with all of us to share his message, so Paul seeks to have something in common with his hearers. It means giving up  all of the privileges of his birth, nationality and his status as a Pharisee. The Good News takes him to places and people he would never have dreamed of going. More importantly, it changes him. To identify with the Gentiles, the outcasts of his Jewish world, transforms Paul. That he did this effectively and sincerely is evidenced by the Christian communities that he founds, churches where the most impossibly different people manage to live together in genuine community.


We would help ourselves and our neighbors if we were to reflect on how well or poorly we embody Paul’s approach, as individuals and as communities of faith. Paul, in fact, by his own telling, was not all things to all people. He was run out of town, beaten by mobs, thrown in jail by people with whom he did not exactly fully connect. We will not be all things to everyone either. But, one quarter of the New Testament came from the hand of someone who lived a mission that mattered, treated everyone as if they mattered to him and to God, and sought to embody a still more excellent way.


That is what we are called to do. To go out and to try to see where others are, instead of assuming they will come to us. To ask questions and listen to the answers. To see how the gospel might apply to another’s life instead of knowing how it effects us.


Indeed, even within existing church communities, we can use this approach. We can use this with people we have known for years, but have never quite gotten along with.  Paul is writing here to the church of Corinth, a church that is often in conflict with itself, and showing them a better way.


Bruce Rigdon writes, “Paul clearly does not expect everyone to agree. Instead he asks something of both groups, which he hopes will make it possible for all of them to move forward together. What he asks is that those on each side identify with those on the other side, in order to become as if  they were the ones with whom they disagreed. This will not result in a change of conviction, at least not at first, but it means that they are to recognize what it would mean to act on behalf of those whom they are opposed.”


Wouldn’t this be a more Christian way of settling our disputes? Wouldn’t this be a better way of relating to anyone we run into? Christ tells us to love one another, which is not the easiest of goals some days. Taking time to see where other people are coming from, walking a mile in their shoes as it were, makes a good first step.


So this week, try to do as Paul did. Set aside where you are and instead try to come from the perspective of another. Try meeting people where they are at instead of expecting them to come to you.


By so doing, you may end up sharing the gospel without even realizing it.


02-01-15 AUTHORITY

Authority. It can be one of those trigger words, can’t it?


Some people hear authority and think of police and safety and law and order. Some people hear it and feel repressed, as though they are having flashbacks to that really strict teacher in middle school. Others hear authority and automatically want to rebell. Still other people hear authority and like it, but only when it applies to them.


But we all know when someone has authority, right? You can tell by the way they speak and the way they carry themselves. Perhaps its in the uniform they are wearing, or the role they play. It may be from the experience they’ve accumulated or the depth of someone’s knowledge over any given subject. But the point is, we tend to know authority when we see it.


Once two men recited the twenty-third psalm. One was a well-known actor, the other an older and more earthy pastor. The actor’s rendering of the psalm was beautiful and commanding. Everyone enjoyed hearing the rich words of the beloved psalm spoken in his clear baritone. All the inflections and pauses were perfect.


Then the old pastor spoke. He stumbled a bit and the words were broken with unnatural punctuations of silence. But when he finished there were tears in the eyes of the listeners. Something had happened and it was the actor who gave the interpretation: “I know the psalm,” he said, “but this man knows the shepherd.” That is the difference authority makes.


The experience of that old pastor, the life he had lived and the scripture he had studied had given him the authority in this situation.


And in the scripture today Jesus gets in front of that congregation at Capernaum and teaches them with authority. What authority did Jesus have? He had the authority of his Father backing his words. He was the Authority.


Now, the definition of authority is the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. We expand that to cover knowledge of a subject or depth of experience.


At that time of our scripture lesson this morning, scribes in the temples relied on quoting rabbis and others of the time to back up their teaching.  Scribes are scholars who interpret and teach Torah and render binding judgments regarding its application. They showed they knew what they were teaching by quoting others who had done the same thing. Basically, if enough people all taught that the scripture meant this, then it must mean that, right?


Jesus didn’t do that. He just came in and taught. And the people were astounded. He knew all on his own. He didn’t need to rely on anyone else for the Word because he was the Word.


To look at it another way, a literature class can spend days or weeks discussing an author’s intent.  I was an English major. I have first hand experience with this. The class will develop theories and supporting arguments.  They can debate endlessly.  Or they can invite the author to visit and tell them his or her intent.  Nobody can interpret a poem as authoritatively as the one who wrote it. Which is why Jesus could interpret scripture the way that he did. And the people were amazed.


Because the people in that synagogue knew what the scribes had written. To them, no one was as important, as authoritative a prophet, as Moses. Maybe, hearing the young man from Nazareth on this day, they are remembering the words of Moses concerning true prophets that we heard from the first lesson this morning: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people: you shall heed such a prophet.”


And the people were astounded. And one of them called out.


This is the part of this passage that tends to make people today uncomfortable. “A man with an unclean spirit.” Some translations still call that a demon.


Unclean spirit. Now there are many ways people read that phrase. Some people read it as a literal unclean spirit, a demon that exists in the lives of people, tempting them to do evil. Others point out that when the texts talk about people with demons inside of them, there is a good chance they are referring to people with mental illnesses, epilepsy or depression for instance. Still other people look as unclean spirits as things like addiction or alcoholism. This demon is anything that has power over a person that is not of God. So an addiction to gambling or a love of the pursuit of money or an obsessive affair.


This is why one of the first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and many other addiction programs,  is to admit you are helpless in the face of your addiction and to surrender yourself to a higher power. Addiction is a disease. Willpower just doesn’t cut it when it comes to addition. But God can.


Regardless of your interpretation of the unclean spirit, the point of today is that Christ has the authority to order it to leave. Indeed, Jesus’ authority is so great that the spirit recognizes it just from Christ’s teaching. He cries out in temple “What would you have of us?!” probably causing quite a stir amidst the congregation.  That unclean spirit knew you Jesus was, “Holy one of God.” Jesus wore that authority like a mantle and used to to heal the man.


And the congregation was further amazed at his authority and teaching. This passage so early on in the beginning of Mark’s gospel is one of Jesus’ first acts of healing and teaching. The authority he wields here, sets the tone for the rest of his gospel


The people who were present to hear him teach that day in Capernaum were overwhelmed by the truth of what he spoke. Our passage ends with: “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” And they weren’t even talking about the casting out of the unclean spirit. “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” they said. The casting out of the spirit was just to underline the authority of Christ. The teaching is what people focused on.


So Jesus taught and healed with authority. Of course he did. But you may be asking yourself, “what does it have to do with me today?” After all, we don’t usually have a large call of exorcisms in our sanctuary on any given morning.


I think this scripture asks us a question. I think this scripture asks us where do we put Jesus’ authority over our own lives.


Do we really treat the teachings of our Lord as authoritative? Or do we see those teachings as ideals, things that it would be great if we could live up to, but not ideas that have much impact on the way the world really works today?


After all, there are many sources of authority in our lives today. Governmental authorities. Economic authorities. Legal authorities. There are even sources of authority in our social and recreational lives. Ever try to pick a fight with your child’s coach?


Among all these voices of authority, where does Jesus stand in our lives? What do we do when our Lord and our faith call us to stand in opposition to a soccer coach, or a social convention, or a religious tradition, or an economic reality, or a governmental edict? “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Are we astounded at the words of our Lord today? Are we willing to grant him authority in our lives, even over the many other sources of authority that we recognize?


So you have to ask yourselves, who is the authority in your own life? Who do you listen to? Amen.