Monthly Archives: March 2015

03-29-15 JESUS: A MOST SURPRISING MAN

JESUS:  A MOST SURPRISING MAN

Psalm 118: 19-28; JOHN 12: 12-15

 

At times, each of us has struggled to decide between two ethics: between right and wrong; between being children of light or children of darkness. The tragedy comes when children of darkness believe that they are children of light.  Wars are fought, people are hurt, and ethics get breached when children of darkness think they are right. People struggle with questions like:  how should I act in life? Do I tell someone in authority what I know about dishonest actions? In what do I participate, to what activities should I say “no?” The ultimate question becomes: where do my loyalties lie?  Ball teams of all ages ask for loyalty to the team; “You don’t sell out the team,” they say. In industry through the years, labor has stuck together and management has stuck together, each trying to protect their jobs—but at what cost?  How far does one go to protect a co-worker in the workplace and when is it right to come to the aid of another? Or do you just shrink away quietly, time and time again, until the ethical backbone God intended for you to have crumbles with moral osteoporosis? In school even if you don’t lie or cheat, should you cover for or keep your mouth shut for a friend who hurts someone else or copies off someone’s paper, or steals money from another person’s backpack?  Where does friendship end and responsibility respond? Compromise may be a useful negotiating tool, but in many dilemmas it is a useless if not destructive weapon in the cause for right. Sometimes those who try to please everyone end up helping no one. The malaise of our culture is moral relativism. It states that what is right for me may not be right for you. Still, there are some moral certainties in life that, if not followed, lead to anarchy, chaos, and the breakdown of civilized culture. We have been horrified this week to learn that a vetted co-pilot, one entrusted with plane safety by the company for whom he worked, likely brought his plane down deliberately; perhaps with a warped sense of personal glory. What goes through the mind of a man like that? The lessons of the palms and the passion of Jesus show us how tempting it can be to try to please others, and how difficult but necessary it is to say “no” to the whims of others and “yes” to doing the right things.

 

Jesus gives us the best example of having a moral backbone: an ear turned heavenward, and a heart focused on others. Some of you will remember when we started the journey in Lent on Ash Wednesday.  Satan gave Jesus a series of temptations.   In Matthew chapter 4 Satan tempts Jesus to perform a miracle. “You have the power,” said Satan. “Turn stones into bread so you can eat!” Our world, which is used to instant gratification, has watched our televisions as super heroes used super powers and genies blinked and got their wish.  Jesus was tempted to do all that and more. He had the power to do so. But he did not.  Satan also gave him another wonderful offer: “Treat me as the world’s newest star with great power, and I will get you unimaginable pampering: a palace, servants, the best clothes, and the spotlight.” Still Jesus did not give into temptation. He knew, when it came to his last day, he would rather keep the will of his Father …than give in to the jeering voice of friends or fallen angels.

 

On Palm Sunday, however, there they were. The tempters were all around him.  The gathered ones were like those who live in brutal dictatorships in our day that beg America and our allies to meet their needs. But on that Palm Sunday, people lined the pathway on the Mount of Olives begging for Jesus to save them. That’s what “Hosanna” means: “Save us!” They saw Jesus as their liberator from the Romans! They hoped they were cheering on a kind of gladiator; a hero. The one and only time when the Jews were actually free as a nation was during the rule of the Maccabees. The symbol of their nation in those glorious days was … a palm branch.  Some Southerners continue to fly the Confederate flag, once the national symbol for Dixie, and some wistfully think:  “Ah, if we could only go back to when the South was really the South!” Waving a Palm Branch at Jesus was like waving the Stars and Bars in front of a southern politician running for office. “Help us reclaim our heritage, our statehood, our pride!” the Jews were thinking as palm branches were brought for Jesus’ entry. Palm trees didn’t line all the hillside of Jesus’ path down the Mount of Olives to the Jerusalem Golden Gates of the city. You can’t just yank palm branches of any size off a tree. Someone who knew the history of the Jews had gathered and prepared those palms as one of our congregation members did today for our palm processional. They had the palms ready, trying to incite Jesus’ Jewish blood, appealing to his heritage, and calling on him as a national patriot.  Who wouldn’t rise to the occasion for his country; or his race; or his religion?  But the man with a backbone as strong as the cross on which he hung said “no” to all those emotional appeals.  He chose to be faithful to his Heavenly Father; he trusted that his Father’s plan would ultimately be better than his friends’ plans.  I suspect that even Judas didn’t have it in for Jesus; he just hoped to force him into using the cosmic powers of heaven and ride a white horse for national revolt. When he didn’t, Judas got confused; even angry. Jesus chose a humble ride into town; some would call it a humiliating ride: on a donkey- perhaps the very kind of animal that his mother rode to Bethlehem more than thirty years earlier.

 

  1. Richard Niebuhr, in his classic book CHRIST AND CULTURE, puts it this way: “Efforts to synthesize Christ and culture have been subject to sharp attacks throughout Christian history. Radicals have protested that these attempts are disguised versions of cultural accommodations of the rigorous gospel, and that they broaden the narrow way of life into an easy highway.”[Harper Torchbooks, 1951, p.149] The “Both-And” group, as he calls them, seek to be both loyal to Christ AND show responsibility to the culture. “But,” Niebuhr mused, “Can such a stand be authentic if standing for Christ is sometimes paradoxically opposed to the culture in which we live?” An earlier book by Richard Niebuhr’s brother, Reinhold, was titled CHILDEN OF LIGHT AND CHILDREN OF DARKNESS. In it he comes to a similar conclusion saying: “Children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self.” (We’ve seen examples of that recently, haven’t we? Going on, he says:) “They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will… [But] they underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and international community.” [Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944, p.10] We have witnessed underestimated destructive mobs and vigilante groups in cities across America over the past six months. It was a mob that convinced Pilate to crucify Jesus; and it was a group of zealous nationalists who tried to move Jesus into power the day we remember as Palm Sunday. Those people made the same mistake that people in our day sometimes make who claim the cross for national causes: they end up with a mortal king, instead on an eternal one.

 

Jesus, instead, saw the light; the bigger picture. He made a faithful choice; he did not give in to temptation that would dazzle like a sparkler, then fizzle like a damp one.  The man who chose to go to the cross could not have accepted the challenge of the palms too. Here no compromise would work.  Even in the midst of patriotic fervor, not unlike the kind that has risen and fallen in our country, Jesus chose God … over glory.  Sometimes even a nation can be wrong, and Christian prophets point it out. Sometimes corporate managers can be wrong, as corporate scandals have pointed out. Many times we learn that those in the spotlight have made bad choices; often the glittering star falls hard. We all have feet of clay. But true disciples take their stand with Jesus; even, even if it means the cross. The Apostles followed their Lord’s example instead.

 

This week you also may face choices that cannot be resolved by compromise.  As you arrived today, each of you received a little palm cross like the one I showed the children today.  You have a decision:  will you allow yourself to be bathed in adoration beyond all sensibility; will you do what brings glory to yourself, or what makes you more popular; will you back up the dishonest actions of friends when others are hurt by them? Or instead, are you loyal to Jesus Christ; as a Christian, as a disciple of Jesus Christ? Will you be one who does what is right and so receive an eternal crown of life? Jesus could have accepted the cheers; instead he paid the ransom to set your soul and my soul free from sin and death.  Jesus is a king; but not a worldly one. Let us pray:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Lord Jesus: we are amazed and humbled at all the glitter and gold you were offered and yet you said “no.” Saying “no” to your tempters said “yes” to us: you stayed true to Heaven’s plan for earthly reasons. So today we praise you, not for your procession, but for your determination to surprise us with the method of our salvation. Thank you, O Jesus, as we think about you this day, and this entire dreadful week ahead.  We love you.

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          March 29, 2015

03-22-15 SHOW US JESUS

SHOW US JESUS

John 12: 20-33

 

Having spent many years growing up in Missouri, I had to learn that Missouri is “The Show-me-state.” That means people from that state, supposedly, don’t always take someone’s word for a claim.  They say “You have to show me.”  They say: “Seeing is believing.” And I used to believe that until I saw illusionists in person do things before my eyes that tricked my eyes. I’ve learned that even my eyes can be tricked, and so can yours. Seeing is not always believing.

 

You might know that after Jesus rose from the dead, (oops; Easter spoiler alert!) Jesus then appeared to his disciple Thomas who said unless he saw Jesus with the nail holes in Jesus’ hands, he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.  At first glance from this Missourian, that seemed reasonable to me. I can understand why someone wants to see before believing. But then, where does that leave us? Where does that leave those of us who are alive long after Jesus walked the earth? So today, you and I will need to re-evaluate our need to “see” Jesus. Jesus himself said: “Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe.” (John 20:29) And then John, the writer of the Gospel, speaks to the readers directly. He says in John 20:30 “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” No one knew Jesus like John knew Jesus. He was known as “the beloved disciple.”  John’s gospel lifts back the curtain on who Jesus is in multifaceted ways. He is the Way; the Door, the Lamb of God; the Good Shepherd to name a few. John knows he is writing to people who have not seen Jesus; but it’s his mission to convince them that they, and we, are at no disadvantage.

 

Back in John chapter 12, some Greeks, that is, non-Jews, came up to Philip, one of the disciples, and said: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” In his day that was not a hard request to satisfy; they just led him to Jesus. But today, 2000 years later, my job, and your job as a Christian, is to show people Jesus, not in the flesh, but in power, and presence and influence.  That is something I can do; that is something you can do.

 

In the Laura Hillenbrand’s tremendous book “Unbroken,” Louis Zamperini came to know Jesus at a Billy Graham Crusade. You might say Billy Graham “introduced” Zamperini to Jesus. Did he shake his hand in the flesh? No. But did he come to know him personally in ways that could be considered even greater than meeting him in Galilee?  Yes.  After meeting Jesus, Zamperini’s seething anger from his torture at the hands of a prison camp officer dissipated; it was transformed into a love for Jesus and a love for others, and a desire to forgive and to witness.  That’s what he did.  He traveled back to Japan to not only spread the love of Jesus, he also sought out the officer who tortured him to say he forgave him. In those years from his conversion on, people saw Jesus through the life and actions of  Louis Zamperini.

 

In Russia in the 1870s, most people were familiar with one of their most famous writers through his epic works War and Peace, and Anna Karenina. Leo Tolstoy is the author. But at the age of 51, Tolstoy met Jesus, not in a fleshly way, but he met him nonetheless. That meeting changed his life. It was after that meeting that he wrote the short story that I mentioned a few weeks ago, “Where Love is, There is God Also.” It’s the story of Martin the Cobbler, a man who spent his life wanting to see and serve Jesus. As he grew older, Martin thought he would die without having his hopes fulfilled.  Then one day he gave a cold man some cups of hot tea and his company; he later gave some clothing to a very cold mother and her child; and then he rescued and mentored a boy who had tried to steal an apple from a food cart because he and his family were so hungry. It was a big day in Martin’s life, but he still didn’t believe he had seen Jesus. At the end of the day he was discouraged as he prayed. Then, in a vision, Jesus appears to him. A voice whispered, “Martin, didn’t you recognize me?” And then Martin saw a vision of the hungry man, the cold mother and child, and the boy. Suddenly Martin knew; he had seen Jesus, just not in the way he expected. He remembered his Scripture when Jesus said: “I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Martin had found Jesus, even in the 19th century.

 

We learned about hymn writer Fanny Crosby in our Wednesday night study two weeks ago. She wrote hymns under more then 200 pen names in addition to her own. Every one of them pointed to Christ, witnessed to his power to save us, or glorified him. She wrote hymns like “Blessed Assurance Jesus is Mine,” “Rescue the Perishing,” “To God be the Glory,” and today’s anthem “Draw Me Near.” She wrote like she had seen Jesus. But she hadn’t; not with her eyes. Blinded by an improperly trained doctor as a child, she went through life blind.  Although she wrote about her Savior and praised her Savior, she never saw her Savior any more than you or I have seen him with our eyes. But she said that her greatest joy and anticipation would be seeing him on the other side, in Heaven, when her earthly blindness would become sight.

 

Can we join Fanny Crosby in yearning to see Jesus one day, when we cross over to the other side?  Colton Burpo from “Heaven is for Real” said he saw him there. In our Friday Food and Film night we once again saw the story based on actual events when a four year old boy learned things that it was not possible to know. He said he had been to heaven, and he had seen Jesus. His father, a minister, showed him classic picture after classic picture of Jesus, but his young son said Jesus didn’t look like any of them in Heaven. Then a news report showed a drawing made by a young girl. Her name was Akiane Kramarik, born in Illinois to a Lithuanian mother and American father. Her parents were atheists when she was born. After their daughter’s extraordinary paintings, teaching them about a Savior in whom they did not believe, the scales dropped away from their eyes and they become Christians. All from a girl who started painted what she saw at age 4. When Colton Burpo saw her picture of Jesus on the television, he said, “There! That’s him!” That is Jesus, said a 4-year-old boy.

 

Can we, like Martin the Cobbler, serve others food, or water, or give shelter, or company or support? In so doing we might hear the voice of Jesus: “It was I! It was I who you helped!” Or perhaps like Louis Zamperini you’ll need to be introduced to Jesus by a preacher, or an evangelist, or a hymnwriter, or another ordinary human being who knows him.  Let me tell you today: I know Jesus. I have seen people healed in his name; I have baptized in his name; and I have grown to know him by prayer and the study of the New Testament. I have heard some the testimonies about how some of you know Jesus too; I’m telling you, all around us on a day like this, people have met and gotten to know Jesus.  Their stories are not all alike; they are all different. A few have seen him, but many know him. Very few have had the experience like the Apostle Paul who met Jesus after Jesus’ physical death in a flash of light on the road to Damascus. And don’t feel ashamed if you haven’t had that experience. If you want to know and meet Jesus one day, pray; pray for it. And then expect it.  And read the New Testament. As I said to the children today, I often see Jesus in their faces; I see Jesus in the faces or youth and adults too.  I have seen the evidence of people who have put him on the throne of their heart, like many of you have already done! Invite him into your life; or if you have done that already, revisit him with renewed love. Then may your eyes be opened; your ears be opened; and your hearts be opened. Jesus is with us; we are not alone. Thanks be to God.

 

Let us pray: Dear Lord Jesus: some here long to see you, yet we know you especially bless those who have not seen you, and yet believe. Bless those who seek your face until the day that they do. Until then, work through those who have invited you into their lives as they serve, and feed, and clothe others. As we do so, speak to people in whispered tones saying, “It was I. It was I that you served!”

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          March 22, 2015

 

 

03-15-15 EXAMINING THE POSTER PASSAGE

EXAMINING THE POSTER PASSAGE

John 3: 16-17

 

It is the passage that some have called “The Gospel in Miniature.” Indeed, if we wanted to boil down the message of the church, the reason we reach out to others, it could neatly be done with John 3:16.  It is so good that people who have had a born-again experience believe it; long-time Christians believe it too.  From the most fundamentalist Christians to the most moderate ones, this passage of the Bible has stood the examination of millions over the ages.  Many times you might see it on a necklace; or on a tattoo. I have certainly seen it at football games and other sporting events, held up on posters. And I’ve seen it on the bumpers of cars and on the windows of vans.  It seems very important to many!  It is a declaration of forgiveness, a statement of belief, and an assurance of God’s love, all in one sentence.  It was Socrates who said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Many people believe that. But today I want to suggest that life can be enriched by examining a previously unexamined Scripture text. Leaders in our Christian Education classes seek to unpack a text or a belief every time they meet. Today let me help you look at this most famous of passages.

 

“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son; that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”  That’s a modification of the classical King James text. That is our text today. So let’s begin.

“God” It is no longer safe to assume that everyone is in agreement on this term.  Even when John recorded Jesus’ words, those not part of Christianity or Judaism had completely different notions of god; they still do. Some in our world are not describing the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, and Mary. They are describing what the Bible may call a “foreign god:” someone honored, idolized, or prayed to who is different from the Creator revealed in the pages of the Bible. Do not be deceived about this; even different religions have different ideas about God. Our friends in Twelve Step Programs give honor to their Higher Power, but even then one wonders if all of their concepts are the same? When you as a Christian declare what Jesus said in John’s gospel—that God so loved the world—you are describing God, the one and only; the one who created us, redeems us, and sustains us; the God who will not let us go in spite of the gift of free will that allows us to make both good choices and poor ones. That is God.

 

God so loved. The word “so” classically comes before the word loved in this passage instead of after it. “So” might be considered shorthand for “so much.” As the Sunday school teacher once had a child ask how much Jesus loved her, the teacher decided to not just say it but give a visual aid: “This much!” the teacher said, stretching out his hands as Jesus did on the cross. That’s a lot! Even in the midst of poor choices, God still loves us. Jesus taught that. The Apostle Paul said it best in Romans chapter 8: “Neither death nor life; nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers nor height not depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God loves us; in John the word is not “Eros” which is romantic love; it is not “philios” which is “brotherly love,” it is “agape” which is all-encompassing unconditional love. It is what Dr. Greg Baer once called “Real Love.” Real love is not “I’ll love you if” and then you give the conditions in which you will love someone; it is just love. Like someone saying “I will always love you” and then showing it. God so loved. The next phrase in the passage is “The World.” This is the unconditional part of love. God loves people who don’t know him; God loves people who don’t like him; God even loves those who don’t believe in him or who believe in someone else. God loves the world, including the animals and insects and trees and everything else because, with a Word, God created us and everything in the world! God loves the world so much! Even when people in our world make very poor and even brutal choices, God does not stop loving; actions do cause consequences of either joy or sorrow, but love is still there.

 

“God so loved the world (and still does, present tense!) that God gave his only begotten Son.” Only. It means one; not two or more. The single one. Yes we are children of God because God is our creator, but only Jesus was uniquely born as the Son. He was not one of a group of children created by the extraordinary arrangement with a loving God and a willing mother, it was the only such arrangement into which God entered. This Son was, and is, God’s plan for salvation. There is no other in which we can place our trust. And who is this Son? Is he as strong as the Father? Similar to the Father? Is he only like the Father?  In the 325 AD in the midst of a world with many gods, many understandings of God the Lord, and misunderstandings of who Jesus was, Christian scholars convened in Nicaea, an ancient city within the boundaries of modern day Iznik in Turkey. Christian Emperor Constantine asked them to study the Holy Scriptures to discern the nature and power of Jesus Christ, and to create a statement of belief that we now know to be the Nicene Creed, similar to the Apostle’s Creed. It is found in our hymnals on page 34. The sticking point of the council was saying that Jesus was of “one substance with the Father;” some were only confortable with “like substance with the Father,” or “similar substance with the Father.” After much study and prayer, they decided what they believed the truth of Scripture to be. So the sentence reads, “Begotten (which mean born) not made; being of one substance with the Father, through him all things were made.”

 

“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” Now here comes the first and only conditional part of Jesus’ gospel message. God’s love is for everybody. God’s salvation, however, may be possible through other means, but it is only assured through this means: “That whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” So let’s break that down: Whoever. If a person believes in Jesus as being the one the Council of Nicaea just described, then that person shall not perish. “Perish does not preclude dying. We will all die. But after we die we will not “cease to exist;” we instead will be raised to a new life that will rightfully be called “everlasting” or “eternal” because from that time forward, life will no longer end at a roadblock called death. It will go on “forever and ever.”

 

As a point of clarification, Jesus, talked about himself in verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  God loved the world, and still does, more than we can imagine. But for those who want to move from this life to the next, there is a way: there are many theories, but there is just one Way: believe in Jesus as Lord, and you will be saved.  My church Confirmation class taught me that, my youth ministers reinforced it; a Campus Crusade for Christ school friend shared it with me, and today I am unpacking it for you. You can gamble on some other plan; or you can be certain this way.  Few things in life are as certain as this. Choose Christ; it can not only change this life for you; it can absolutely give you life once you breathe your last here.  John 3:16. Such few words that say so much.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          March 15, 2015

 

 

03-08-15 THE FENCE

THE FENCE

Exodus 20: 1-17

 

How do you treat rules, or laws in your world?  Some people look for loopholes in the laws, or ways to get around them; others keep the letter of the law; some, as we heard this week in news reports, keep the “spirit” of the law.  Try the “spirit” of the law defense when you get a ticket for rolling through a right hand turn at a stop sign. “But there was no traffic coming!” you say to a judge. “The sign said, ‘Stop,’ you didn’t stop” the judge says. Pay the fine and court costs. Next case!” The cities that added traffic cameras to intersections have both a new income stream and new headaches from people fighting the tickets. On highways, do you go just under the speed limit, at the speed limit, or over the speed limit?  What does the word “limit” mean, after all?  Some are thinking in their head, “guideline; it’s just a guideline.” But law enforcement may not see it that way.  When a group from our church was in Egypt several years ago, we saw cars and buses on the streets of Cairo that made us look twice. Vehicles the size of an old Volkswagen bus, meant to seat seven, was driving with over twenty inside, and on, the vehicle! People were on the roof, out the windows, and packed inside! “Public transportation!” our guide said with a smirk. And we noticed five vehicles on a road with lines for three lanes, like Nascar racers going four wide where only three will fit.  “See the lines on the road?” the tour host said. “Guidelines; people don’t follow them; they just do what they please.”  People don’t follow them; they just do what they please.

 

Long before our world came into being, God loved; and God especially wanted to love those made in the Holy likeness. God loved plants and trees and animals, but God especially wanted to love humans, because God gave humans something that nothing else on earth has: the human will, where people got to choose, not from instincts, but by something called a moral compass; not planted by birth, but taught by parents, teachers, chaplains, and pastors; teaching children the blessed but potentially dangerous gift of choosing between right and wrong. It is a huge responsibility. But God especially wanted people to choose to love God back and to love others! God longed for human beings to send love heavenward, perhaps out of gratitude for the Garden and for the gifts that God gave, but mostly because God is love. It would be like any one of us who go through life looking for that perfect person to love. God did that. God looked, and chose people. And still, humans then, and humans now, showed their proclivity to get into trouble with too much freedom. Freedom has it’s up and down sides.  We want freedom of religion, but then we have to deal with Satanists. We want freedom of the press but then we get camera crews hounding us at airports or in our own front yard if a situation in which we’ve been involved sounds tantalizing. A newspaper man I know once said, “People in our trade can take some innocent bit of information, stir it until it stinks, and then print it to sell papers. It’s one of the things I’m least proud of about the press.” His words. We want freedom of speech but then public streets and parks can be taken over with demonstrations against war or government or a myriad of other things. So God, after Creation, saw that fences made the best neighbors.  God saw the need for life-long guidelines, but more than guidelines: laws called Commandments. But hear this: the Commandments were not created by a government or a law enforcement officer, they were created by the Loving Creator of all who wants the best for us! I know people who, when they see a sign like “No Trespassing” or “No Fishing” or No Skateboarding,” get angry or defiant. “I hate it when someone tries to tell me what to do and what not to do!” they think as they turn away, or decide to do it anyway. No; God, who is love, and the source of all love, gives us these fences; (bombastically called “commandments”) out of love. They are not given out of a harsh attitude or a hard heart; they are given by our loving God. “If you do these” God might say to us, “life will go so much better for you!”  Let’s look at some examples.

 

Thou shall not kill. Killing someone else not only creates incredible grief for that person’s family, it may lead you into a prison life because you have been deemed dangerous. Life, as you know it, changes for ever. Even officers or soldiers who shoot to defend our freedoms never really get over having killed a person, or many persons. Life changes forever. And God does not leave you, but God also knows the anguish you will face if you kill someone else. Don’t kill.

 

Thou shall not steal. Yes people do it; they steal from the IRS with manipulations of their income or not reporting income; some steal from stores, which make prices go up for others, and if you are caught, life will change forever for you. God wants you to have life abundant, not a life filled with regrets. We know from psychologists and scientist’s studies of the human brain that children and youth do not have the part of their brain yet developed that can see the consequences of their behavior. Not until people grow into their twenties or beyond does that part of their brain activate.   That’s why, as much as parents, teachers, and officers seem to clip the wings of children and teenagers, they serve a purpose: trying to save young people from things that might be forever harmful. It is our job from God! But it too is administered in love.

 

You shall not bear false witness. This is lying: saying something is so when it isn’t so. How sad it is in our society that we have to place cameras everywhere because people do not blink an eye while lying. There are plenty of people in the world, even church going people, who skip this commandment and lie to someone’s face to get out of trouble. It creates either a tortured soul, or one that loses its connection with the moral compass God intends for us to have. A tortured soul or a life with no moral compass: both have life-long consequences, and the God who loves you more than anything wants to spare you from that!

 

Not committing adultery is to save us from hurt, litigation, and turmoil for us and any possible children.  Not coveting is to encourage us to see that all good gifts come from God and that wishing for what another has, including schemes and deceptions, lowers your own integrity and ruins friendships. And not taking the name of the Lord in vain teaches us to use God’s name for prayer, not to swear.

As people have nervous breakdowns, burnout, turn to drinking or to other coping mechanisms as they try to juggle more hours, or get kids to soccer, or baseball practices, or football practices or band practices or dance lessons, God looks at us and says “Why? I’ve built in a day when you can build up your soul, which is the only thing, out of all the things you do, that you’ll need in the next life. And I’ve called a time out; one day out of seven. Take it! It’s a gift from me to you.” But by then we don’t even know how to accept that gift from God. If that’s true, we may have trouble accepting the ultimate gift: Jesus Christ; who came to save you and me; and to pay the price for our sins. No matter how much extra work you do, or how much money you earn, you can never earn Jesus or heaven. They are gifts; gifts to grateful people with grateful hearts who have learned how to prioritize: not frantic people with corrupt, frenetic, or misguided lives.

 

When we get to the top of the 10 Commandments we get this:  Love God supremely, and in tandem with that, no idols or graven images. Plenty of people wear the colors of their school or their team; plenty pour endless hours into their band or color guard or an extra activity.  But if your money and all your time goes to those; if you follow each game or team or group or activity “religiously,” you might have knocked God off of the top pedestal of your life!  Jeff Foxworthy was famous for his sayings that started with a phrase like: “If your wife has ever said to you “Come move this transmission out of the tub so I can take a bath!”  you might be a redneck!” Put in the front of that sentence whatever takes your time, devotion, and money and then end the phrase “then you might not be honoring God!”  Try it.  That happens when you put something or someone else on the top podium of your allegiance.  Remember who loves you; remember that God hopes to give you a good moral compass, not just for this life, but as a pathway to the next life! Think about whoever on this earth loves you more than anyone else; then magnify it infinitely, and you’ll come close to the love God has for you. But if the minute you hear rules, or commandments, or “Thou Shalt Nots” you raise your shields and don’t let Jesus in, he’ll never break down the door of your heart. He will knock; he will knock incessantly, but if you are too distracted, you will not hear him. Listen for the knock on the door of your heart. If you hear it, decide if you will open the door and let Jesus in to eat with you and live with you. He can tell you loving ways to live out the Ten Commandments. The Commandments are a spiritual fence, intended to protect us, given by a loving Creator. Then let Jesus remind you how to say “no,” when you are tempted to climb “the fence.”

 

Let us pray:  O God of love: in spite of the ways we have disappointed you at times, we can change. Today, some might change the direction of their life; and they might tell you so in prayer. Hear them; love them, and celebrate with their decision to choose you and the path that brings life instead of anguish, anxiety, and heartache.  But with your heart so big, love us still, even in our brokenness, as we put one foot in front of the other, and follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                March 8, 2015

03-01-15 LOSING LIFE

Poor Peter.

 

He really goes from high to low very quickly in today’s passage. I mean, he begins by knowing the answer when Jesus asks “Who am I?” “You’re the Messiah!”  You can just imagine how proud he was for knowing the answer.

 

But then Jesus begins talking about his horrible death, and when Peter tries to stop him, his beloved rabbi calls him Satan! How absolutely devastating.

 

You see, Peter had a very clear notion of who the Messiah was and how he was supposed to react. To the Jewish people the Messiah was the one who would come  and rescue them. He would restore Israel to its glory and chase out the Roman Empire. The Messiah was a conqueror. A victor. So of course the messiah would not die a horrible death.

 

Think of it from the disciples perspective. Everything they had seen Jesus do and heard him say until this time had been impressive and had no doubt spurred within them big hopes for the future.

 

But now this. Jesus astonished and dismayed them with the news that, contrary to all their hopes and expectations, he would undergo suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders and killed. For the disciples this was the worst possible thing Jesus could have said.

 

Now, we don’t know exactly what Peter said in response to this news, but I’ll bet it was along the lines of , “We know what kind of power you have! We know you can free us from the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel to its previous glory.” Because that is what the messiah is supposed to do. From a human perspective, that’s what winning looks like.

 

But Jesus isn’t coming at this from a human perspective. Jesus is looking at the divine picture and he knows that there is a better way. That victory over death will not look the same as victory over Rome.

 

Still, isn’t calling Peter Satan a bit harsh?

 

Well, not exactly. Our passage this morning comes after Jesus had just been tempted in the desert by Satan. Satan offered him power and glory and all of the exact same things the disciples likely expect from him. He had been tempted because that is what human victory would look like. And Jesus knows that he must turn it aside, so he rebukes Peter like he had rebuked Satan in the desert. .

 

Then Jesus gives us the line that much of our faith is based on, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, will save it” He says that not just to the disciples, but also to the crowds who had gathered.

 

First, Jesus tells us to deny ourselves. Now there are the only two uses of the word “deny” in the entire New Testament: Jesus saying we must deny ourselves and Peter denying Jesus after his arrest. Peter denies Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. And now, wee must deny ourselves in the same sense that Peter denied Jesus

 

It is clear that this is not like the self-denial of giving up something for Lent, or any other form of abstaining. In fact, what Jesus’ is asking is much harder than that.

 

To deny yourself like Peter denied Jesus is to set aside your own interests in order to take on what God wants. It is to state that, basically, you do not know You, and since you don’t know You, you also have no idea what that You person would want. Thus, you are ready to do what God wants.

 

Basically, to deny yourself is to put God and others before yourself. Which is never easy to do, but Jesus doesn’t stop there.

 

“Take up your cross.”  Now this phrase can set my teeth on edge, because I know it’s history. Too often “Your cross to bear” is a phrase used to justify abuses of all sorts, from corrupt power systems to abusive spouses. That is not what it means. An abusive relationship is never a cross to bear. It is a dangerous situation that you should get out of as soon as possible.  We need to be careful when we talk about taking up our cross not to abuse the language, but that doesn’t mean we should abandoned the image.

 

The difference between taking up your cross, and your cross to bear, is that you chose to pick up the cross. This isn’t passively surrendering to the circumstances of life that are hard. When Jesus took up his cross, he chose to carry out the ministry that God wanted him to do. THAT is what “take up your cross” means — you make an active choice to live into the ministry that God has called you to do, every day.

 

Of course, for Mark’s audience, the phrase “take up your cross” had one image – the vehicle used for state-sanctioned death. The cross was the tool of execution. It was a statement of power, used by the Roman empire to proclaim one message to those it had conquered and who chose to rebel: we are more powerful than you.

 

Jesus pulls no punches. To follow him could very well result in the death of those listening to him speak. Now, today, when we talk about following Jesus, we have to ask ourselves “What am I willing to risk?” Or to put it a more accurate way in today’s culture: “Am I willing to die to my own ego, my own pride, my own security, for the sake of following Jesus? For the sake of others?”

 

That’s the question – and the risk – of following Jesus.

 

For many of us, this ‘dying’ may be experienced much more in the mundane day to day as we heed that call and choose to be and do for others.  As much as anything else, it may be in the listening rather than speaking first. Or it may be in the meal prepared and shared or the cookies baked and delivered to someone whose day it will brighten. That dying to self may be in the hospital call made, the funeral visitation line endured, or the repetitive conversation shared with someone suffering from dementia when you can think of a thousand seemingly more rewarding other obligations calling your name.

 

For us living in this country, in this time, the dying to self, the denying of self when following Christ is not likely to be in the dramatic sacrificing of our life for another. Instead it will be in the daily choices we make. It will be in what we choose to give our time to. And it will be when we put divine things first, beyond our human ideals.

 

Lent is often a time of contemplation, of renewed commitment to faith. We have the call before us. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

 

Jesus is headed for Jerusalem. Will you follow? Amen.