Monthly Archives: April 2015

04-26-15 IN THE FLOCK OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD

IN THE FLOCK OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD

John 10: 11-16

 

Last week as part of my Continuing Education, Mary Ann and I visited countries in the Balkan region of the world. The countries included Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria.  Each country is almost entirely Christian, including Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians. We heard about their culture; their politics; their religion; their geography, and their cuisine. Each day as we sailed the Danube, the crew loaded fresh vegetables and meats from the country we were visiting, and the food was prepared for our dinner. We tried wines from the regions, watched children, youth, and adults perform dances from the region, and we even were invited into a woman’s home to watch her prepare some authentic food; then we were invited into her kitchen to cook too!  Our tour guides were from each region; they gave their perceptions about their country and spoke wonderful English as a second language.  We saw plight, buildings that were bombed 20 years ago still untouched, extravagant cathedrals, magnificent farms and vegetables, and cities whose shopping areas would rival Paris or New York City. We toured the Parliament building of Bucharest, the second largest in the world with the Pentagon being the largest. It was opulent and extravagant.  Each time we departed from a country we knew we had created a brief bond with the people we met. Today I want to think about those people, and people in our country, and people of other countries in the context of “the flock of the good shepherd.”

 

Often people think of pastoral music or pasture scenes as calm or serene pictures. We hear Jesus say, “I am the Good Shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Even the picture of a shepherd in a field with sheep sounds peaceful. But being a good shepherd is hard work; being willing to lay down one’s life for his sheep. If we see ourselves as sheep—the  way David saw himself in Psalm 23, or the way Isaiah saw the people of Israel in Isaiah 53—then  we have nothing to worry about. A good shepherd brings down the anxieties of his sheep by attending to their health, their safety, and food, and finding fresh water. To be in the flock of a good shepherd keeps sheep healthy and happy; if they become afraid or skittish, they grow thin and their hair can fall out. So a good shepherd is vital. That’s what we have; and if we just stay with the metaphor that we are like sheep, there would be very little we would have to do in the world as Christians; we just have to bask in the love and care of Jesus, eat, drink, and sleep. Wow. Are we really just like sheep?  Or can a different metaphor be more helpful on this side of the cross? When Jesus said these words it was in John 10; it wasn’t until John 14 that he said he would be departing; not until John 17 that Jesus prayed for his disciples; not until John 20 that Jesus arose from the dead; and finally in John 21 Jesus told his followers—and I believe he is tell us too—“feed my sheep, tend my lambs, feed my sheep.” That is part of our call today. In our Disciple classes, we learned that before Jesus departed from the earth, he empowered his disciples with the Holy Spirit—the power of God—given to them to proclaim, to heal, and to invite. Those early disciples no longer were sheep; at least not in their job description. They were Christ-bearers; those who brought the light, love, and message of Christ to the world. The world cannot change if we simply see ourselves as sheep in the flock of the good shepherd. We are that; but we are more; we are the Body of Christ! If Jesus is going to work for justice and for change in today’s world, not just the first century world, he is going to do it through the church; through Christians like you and like me! No longer can we think of ourselves as sheep; when Jesus said those words he was still a living breathing man in Jerusalem. At later times, after his resurrection, he counted on, and empowered, his followers. We, reading our Bibles, are the ones Jesus counts on today!  We cannot say: “Let Jesus do it” when we see human brokenness and human need. Jesus counts on you, and on me to decide where the intersection of our gifts and our passion is.

 

As we visited the Balkan countries, we experienced hospitality from other Christians; but more than that, we could see those who were working to be not sheep in the flock of a good shepherd; some were being Christ-bearers for justice and reconciliation.  As we visited a holocaust museum and a cemetery in Croatia—holding the memories and the bodies of thousands who were annihilated in the 1991 and 1992 war with the Serbs, we met some who were stuck in the past; angry, wounded, and weeping. But there were others whose eyes had hope and whose voices were strong, saying: “We have not forgotten, but we have forgiven.” Many Serbs and Croatians were doing what Jesus would do: moving groups of people to build bridges where they had been burned. Our charge is to do the same. The group FAITH in Daytona Beach, Fighting Against Injustice Through Harmony, works with the city government on behalf of the haves and the have nots. They are working to be the voice of Jesus for justice. Tobias Caskey and our Friends of Francis ministry helps families of incarcerated persons and helps those who need connection back into society, even connection with a church. Well done. Halifax Urban Ministries functions in large part through its hot meal program and the donations of food and funds. We are a part of those ministries. Just this week our Women’s Gathering heard from fellow Christians Don and Mary Teasley, who, in their retirement, joined a Christian group that went to the Philippines for one year, working to break up the human traffic rings and the sexual slavery pimps that entrap young girls for a lifetime.  Their Christian mission was to rescue the enslaved, restore them to their families, prosecute the perpetrators, and strengthen the justice system.  That is where Jesus would be working; there and all the other places I have named.  Our own Presbytery has people from churches, just like you and me, working tirelessly on the huge human trafficking issue in the state of Florida as well. No longer can we just rest in the flock of a good shepherd; the Savior has need of us, not to rest in Christ, but to be the arms, and heart, and hands of Christ. And his task, which becomes ours, is to have eyes to see the lost sheep, and to bring them back into the fold.

 

The New York Times this week had a startling editorial called “Serving All Your Heroin Needs.”  Sam Quinones, the author, described a frightening darkness that even wealthy youth and young adults can fall prey to; it is not sexual slavery, or stealing, or assault, but it can lead to that when money runs out. It is heroin addiction. A doctor from Columbus, Ohio said young people are dying every day, not from wars, but from addictions. Quoting him now, “Just the past Friday I saw 23 patients, all heroin addicts recently diagnosed….”  “The victims-mostly white, well-off, and young—are mourned in silence, because their parents are loathe to talk publicly about how a cheerleader daughter was hooking for dope, or their once star-athlete son overdosed in a fast-food restaurant bathroom.”  Friends, we cannot just save the lovely people; Jesus was always looking into the eyes of broken, and hurting, and even combative people. There is a world that needs the Savior, and he is counting on you, and on me, to continue the ministry he started in Galilee.  Where is your passion? Where are your skills?  From teaching a young person to read, to sitting with a tired caregiver, to feeding hungry people, or loving children, there is a way for you to serve. Jesus needs us; and Jesus calls us.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                             April 26, 2015

04-19-15 PEACE BE WITH YOU

Today’s passage begins where last week’s left off. The two disciples from Emmaus have returned to Jerusalem and are telling the other disciples about what they saw.

 

Suddenly, Jesus appears among them in a locked room. Now in normal circumstances this would be strange enough, but when you’ve watched the one who appears among you die, is it any wonder that their first instinct is to think there is a ghost in the room?

 

But Jesus calms them. He says “Shalom.” Peace be with you.  He proves that he is not a ghost by offering out his hands for them to touch. As a form of reassurance. And beyond the reassurance of being touched, Jesus asks for something to eat. What could be more physical or more comforting than a meal shared?

 

There is a part of me that wonders if that is why we seem to specialize in plentiful potluck dinners. I can’t remember ever going to a church potluck and not finding an array of taste sensations and calorie-laden goodness spread out like a banquet of acceptance and comfort. All are welcome to the table and there is always more than enough food.. When we lack words, we often bring food instead. When we wish to offer comfort and care, it often comes in the form of casseroles and hot dishes, bread or brownies, all seasoned with the spirit of love and compassion..

 

It is precisely the sense of food as comfort that makes the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus so appealing to me. Wherever there is food, you’ll find God. Jesus breaks the bread after walking the Emmaus Road, and Jesus shares a shore-side fish broil with his still dazed and confused disciples.  Here, he proves his reality by sharing fish with them. Jesus shares fuel for the body with the disciples and gives them fuel for the faith. Both hunger of body and soul are satisfied in the presence of the risen One. Jesus provides both comfort food and true soul food—a plate of plenty for the hungry heart.

 

There are those that argue that the physical is just temporary. That this body is just for the time being, and what we really need to focus on is the spiritual life that is beyond this life. The argument goes something like: since the world and human flesh are inferior and filled with evil, the goal of life is to rise above the world and eventually to escape from this world into the realm of the spirit where we really belong. If that’s true, it means that we can ignore the physical aspects of life in the world and focus all of our attention on spiritual matters, for that was where ultimate value was found. Therefore, physical hurts and suffering and pain of human beings–such as hunger, disease, slavery–can be ignored as long as we save their souls.

 

Luke is dead set against this argument and makes it clear that Jesus is bodily resurrected for a reason. Fred Craddock says “And Luke is saying no to those notions of spirituality that view the body and all things physical as inherently inferior or evil. Those who view themselves as just passing through this evil world tend to neglect the physical, economic, and political needs of other human beings. Luke reminds us that the risen Christ said, “Look at my wounds,” and, “Do you have anything to eat?”

 

No one can follow this Christ and say that discipleship means only concerned with “souls.” For Christ, what happens in the here and now matters just as much as what happens afterwards. Why else would Christ have spent so much time healing and feeding others? Why else would have he come back in his body?

 

Between these very physical offering of hands and the eating of fish, the disciples are convinced, it’s really Jesus who rose from the dead. It’s not a spirit. Not a vision. Not a hallucination.

 

You can’t reach out and touch a hallucination. Visions don’t eat broiled fish.  Jesus has been made new, somehow, but Jesus has a body. His body may be mistaken for someone else at first, but he is corporeal. The disciples can touch him. They can eat with him.

 

Then the text says “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” I just love this idea of being full of joy even in the midst of disbelieving and wondering. I mean, come on, Jesus was dead and now he is appearing to his friends in all kinds of places. Who wouldn’t still be filled with wonder and some feelings of disbelief that it is all just too good to be true?

 

There is a story, about a man who not seen his family in over 20 years. There had been conflict. He had been hurt and decided to leave home and never return. More than 20 years later he had a change of heart knowing that he needed reconciliation with his family. He gathered up all his emotional strength and returned home. His mother and sisters who had not had any word from him during the long period of separation and had on occasion even wondered whether he was dead, responded like the early followers of Jesus who first saw his resurrected.

 

When the man arrived at his home the family was startled and fearful. They had not expected to ever see him again and they remembered the conflict that had separated them. Was it really him? Was he back for revenge? They wondered. But finally, their pain became joy, the joy of disbelief this son and brother lived and had returned to them. Throughout their visit the mother and sisters would say to him, “We can’t believe its you,” and would touch him and hug him for a sense of verification that it was him.

 

For the disciples, even though he died, their Lord is back again. And he appears over and over to the disciples, eating their food, allowing them to touch his wounds, to help them believe. That alone would be incredible enough, but Jesus offers even more.

 

Not only has Jesus been resurrected, now he is saying that the disciples can be forgiven for all that they have done wrong.  That with repentance, they can truly be forgiven for all of the dark parts, all of the mistakes. All of the hurts done to others. And so can everyone else.

 

This is a radical concept at the time. Forgiveness came only through a number of deeds and sacrifices that varied dependant on the sin. Instead, all they need to do is repent. And the awful things will be forgiven. Wiped away so that they can begin anew in Christ.

 

No wonder they had trouble believing in everything through their joy. I think there are days when we still have trouble believing. There are days when the story seems so incredible we can’t help but be doubtful, even as we are filled with joy.

 

We are experiencing the resurrected Christ, but it feels too good to be true. No one then and no one now really knows how to explain the Resurrection, so, like the disciples long ago, we can only try to describe our experience of it. When we read the story of the two disciples whose eyes kept them from recognizing him on the road to Emmaus (even though their hearts were mysteriously burning as he spoke), followed by this picture of a growing little community of questioning, wondering believers, we’re reading about ourselves, too.

 

This week’s passage speaks of an offer of peace, a request for food, a blessing and a commissioning. In both stories, Charles Cousar writes, the disciples experienced Jesus’ presence as “mysterious but real. It eludes human perception, and yet is no human fabrication.” Both of these stories describe the very earliest Christians hearing and doing the very same things that 21st-century Christians do: journeying, questioning, fearing, but also feeding and being fed, listening for and receiving God’s call, and, of course, like many church communities, doing Bible study.

 

We are reminded through this passage and our first lesson from  1 John that forgiveness and life that is really life can be ours, but we sometimes hold our breath waiting for something to go wrong. Like the disciples who were able to be filled with joy while struggling through their disbelief and wonder, we journey with Jesus as we struggle through our own disbelief.

 

Jesus comes to us after the resurrection still today. “Peace” he says. Let us respond in joy, even on days we struggle with our disbelief. Amen.

 

04-12-15 OPEN EYES

There was a video making the rounds on the internet a while back. It was called the awareness test. The idea was that you’d watch this scene of these kids playing basketball and you’d count the number of times the team in the white tshirts passed the ball. So you’d watch the video and concentrate on the balls  and the white tshirts, counting away, convinced that you were going to catch all the passes and prove how aware you were or something. Then after the short scene, the video would say how many passes there were but it would also ask, “Did you catch the moonwalking bear?” What?

 

So the video would replay and this time, because you were watching the whole scene instead of just concentrating on ball passing you’d realize a large man in a bear costume came out and moonwalked backwards through the game. Most people who watched the video completely missed him the first time because they were so busy focusing on the passing basketball.

 

I bring up this video as a reminder that we are all a little blind to things sometimes, even things that seem as obvious as a moonwalking bear. So perhaps we should cut the two disciples here a little slack today. Because my first reaction to reading this passage is usually something along the lines of “How can you not recognize this man that you devoted your life to? How do you not recognize your teacher when he walks up and says hello?” I assume that I would recognize immediately someone who was that important in my life.

 

But the disciples weren’t looking for their teacher. Their teacher was dead. How can we expect them to notice what is impossible in their minds? They are returning back to “real” life after all of their hopes had been killed along with their savior.  As they say to the stranger “but we had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel.” In some ways, nothing is more disheartening then failed hope. It’s not just the tragedy of what happened that hurts, but the gaping hole of all that could have happened but won’t.

 

Jesus could have lead the revolution against Rome that all the disciples were hoping for. He could have saved them all. Instead he was put to death and placed in a tomb. The disciples are preoccupied with heavy hearts and crushed dreams as they head down the road. When a stranger asks them what they are talking about, it seems incredible that he could not know. How could anyone not know what misery they just went through?

 

 

What I find interesting here is that Jesus meets them on the way. He doesn’t come to them in Jerusalem. He doesn’t wait for them at home. He doesn’t bid them make some holy pilgrimage or undertake some pious feat. Rather, he meets them where they are – on the road, amid their journey, right smack in the middle of all the pain, frustration, and despondency that threatens to overwhelm them. Even though they don’t recognize him, Jesus comes to offer them comfort in their grief.

 

Notice, now, what takes place. First, he opens up the Scriptures, helping them not simply make sense of recent events in light of the Scripture, but also to make sense of all of Scripture in light of God’s redemptive work in and through the cross. Then when it is late, Jesus makes as if to continue on. It is the disciples who urge him to stay with them for a meal, reaching out in generosity even in their grief to someone who is still a stranger to them.

 

Because they did so, Jesus shares a meal with them, lifting and blessing bread, breaking it and giving it to them. And amid these simple and symbolic actions they recognize him. Through the interpretation of Scripture and the sharing of the meal, that is, the eyes of these disciples are opened and they recognize not just the person of Jesus but the presence of the Lord, the God whose powerful word called light from darkness and gives life to the dead.

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By seeing Jesus finally do what they knew him to do, seeing him act as teacher and friend, they could recognize this man who meant everything to them. And once they did, their whole experience changed.

 

These disciples were able to look back on their experience and see Christ in it. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” While we don’t always recognize Christ in the moment, when we look back over our lives, it is often so clear how Christ was at work, even in the dark times.

 

Word and sacrament, scripture and experience, work together to bring them and us, into the presence of the Christ, and one is not complete without the other.  They weave in and out; word explaining experience, worship and ritual both underscoring and heightening the meaning of the word. And with them, we have community. Neither scripture nor sacrament will work if we do not exist within community. We don’t just read scripture and we don’t just take meals. We do both together. We break bread together and hear scripture together.  Other people can help to open our eyes to the world.

 

The experience of a meal or a conversation can open our eyes to Jesus in the world still today. There is a story about a little boy who decided he wanted to find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip, so he decided to pack a lunch – a bag of chips and two boxes of juice.

 

He set out on his journey and walked a few streets until he came to a park.  On one of the park benches sat an old woman looking at the pigeons.

 

The little boy sat down beside her and watched the pigeons too. When he grew hungry, he pulled out some chips.  As he ate, he noticed the woman watching him, so he offered her one.  She accepted it gratefully and smiled at him.  He thought she had the most beautiful smile in the world.  Wanting to see it again, he opened a juice box and offered her the other.  Once again she smiled that beautiful smile.

 

For a long time the two sat on that park bench eating chips, drinking juice, smiling at each other, and watching the pigeons. Neither said a word.  Finally the little boy realized that it was getting late and he needed to go home.  He started to leave, took a few steps, turned back and gave the woman a big hug.  Her smile was brighter than ever before.

 

When he arrived home, his mother noticed that he was happy, but strangely quiet. ‘What did you do today?’ she asked. ‘Oh, I had lunch in the park with God,’ he said.  Before his mother could reply he added, ‘You know, she has the most beautiful smile in the world.’

 

Meanwhile, the woman left the park and returned home.  Back at her house, her son noticed something different about her.  He was often worried about her for she often seemed vague and not quite with it.  ‘What did you do today, Mom?’ he asked.  ‘Oh, I ate chips and drank juice in the park with God.’  And before her son could say anything at all, she added, ‘You know, God’s a lot younger than I had imagined.’”

 

The Risen Lord comes to us wherever we are and travels with us on the journey. We don’t always recognize him when we encounter him, but that doesn’t mean Christ is any less present in our lives. The trick is to keep open minds as we journey. To be generous with our time. And to look back with new eyes over the live we’ve had.

 

But the story doesn’t end there. These two disciples are so moved by this experience, by seeing their beloved teacher again, that that same hour, they leave and return to Jerusalem! It is roughly seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus and they just spent the afternoon walking that distance. Now, they turn around and run back through the night, just because they are bursting to share the news with the other disciples.

 

When our lives have been powerfully changed, we are moved to respond, and more, we are moved to share. When you receive news so good, so amazing, you want to share that news with everyone you meet, shouting in joy. “Christ is not dead! He has risen! He is alive!” What news could be better for the disciples?

 

The promise to us today is that the Risen Christ does come to us in the midst of our dashed hopes and shattered dreams.  The risen Christ comes to us in the Written Word, the Risen Christ comes to us in the Proclaimed Word, the Risen Christ comes to us in the Lived Word of worship and sacrament, the Risen Christ comes to in in our moments of hospitality and generosity with others, both friends and strangers.  The Risen Christ comes to us, and never leaves us alone.

 

We just have to open our eyes to the whole of life around us, and see how much our Risen Lord is still at work today.

 

04-05-15 MAY THIS BREAD BE LIFE TO YOU

MAY THIS BREAD BE LIFE TO YOU

MARK 16: 1-11

 

 

This is the day that changes everything for Christian: Easter; the day when Jesus, who had been brutally killed, arose from the dead! Never before had such a thing happened! It was the zenith; the high point in the story of God’s relationship with the world. The Apostle Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” That’s what God was doing on that hill far away. Amazing. Paul also said, “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation; the old has passed away; everything becomes fresh and new.” Today we have the chance to be forgiven of our sins. How does that work? Well, suppose a child does something wrong: does he: A) go to the parent who never thinks he does anything right; B) go to the parent who is both encouraging and understanding; C) only tell a friend; D) tell no one!  It is not easy to admit you have done something wrong; people hate to face their parent, or their spouse or their friend with the disappointing news that they messed up badly. So there are times when people just decide to say nothing. Carrying guilt around is bad on a person physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Some people start to get callouses on their soul; layers of spiritual skin build up so that the morality part of their personality no longer feels bad about lying, cheating, or stealing. It just becomes part of their make up. But living life that way for months or years can lead to a-social and even sociopathic behavior. Sooner if you are smart, or later if you have a slow learning curve or are suffering in silence, you’ll want to admit to your wrongdoing. Sometimes you can muster the courage to tell the person you hurt: that’s the best way. Confessing it to a priest or a minister may seem to help your soul, but it doesn’t square the account of a wrong done against another person. And a deathbed confession means you’ve have spent a lifetime living with a wrong that could have been forgiven years or decades before.

 

Seeking forgiveness and offering it is the activity around this man who we call “Savior” today.  Jesus did not condone sinning; he heard what people did wrong and decided that condemning them would do nothing to move them toward redemption. Redemption is also part of Jesus’ Easter job description. Redeeming means paying the price for something. That’s what the cross did for believers; it paid the price for the sins of others. But what Jesus did does not absolve us of any sins we haven’t named and acknowledged, not just to God, but especially to the ones who have been hurt. What Jesus did in dying on the cross for the sins of the world only pays for admitted sins; not hidden sins. Only when a person had approached Jesus with a wrongdoing did he often say: “Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.” In other words: make sure you don’t repeat what you just did. Easter is the day when forgiveness began to be officially offered more than once a year, the way Jewish people receive forgiveness on Yom Kippur. With Jesus, we learn we can show remorse for our sins, repent of our sins, offer some form of restitution for our sins, and have them forgiven then and there. Forgiveness happens because the cross of Calvary did not get the final word in the life of Jesus. His body was taken down, placed in a tomb over the Sabbath, and when women had time to return to properly anoint his body, they found him gone! His grave clothes were there, but his body was gone! And then, amazingly, he appeared to those special women, to the apostles, and to more than 500 others as recorded in Acts! He had risen from the dead, the first one to ever do so; but not the last! Because he lives, we can also live! Because he had life after death, those who believe in him can also have life after death!  That might be a gift you think you’ll want to consider later, but I hope you’ll think about it today. You read the papers, or scroll through news items on your phone or computer, don’t you?  How many times do you read about someone dying in a plane crash, or a fire, or a car crash, or from an unexpected illness? It is to prepare for the unexpected that we say “yes” to Jesus now, not just to say it without thought; not to say it just as a heavenly insurance policy; but as a heartfelt choice: that you want Jesus to live in you now, so that you can live with him eternally.

 

Both before and after Jesus’ death, he regularly shared meals with his disciples. Sometimes they were Passover meals as was commemorated Thursday night. Other times they were just meals, where there was a prayer, and conversation, and sharing. Sometimes our tables these days may be the seat of a car; or a TV tray; or a picnic table, or our lap. Whatever your “table,” is, it’s best use is not just for food; it’s for communication and connection. When our family jams around a table at a restaurant, even before the food comes, we start to share. Yes sometimes half of those at the table are scrolling down their smartphones, but we are together and listening to one another! Today the amount of food you will get at this Lord’s Table is not significant. And some of you may look around the room feeling bored or frustrated to just focus on communion. But this meal, once a month, or once a week, or once a day, is the time to listen to and talk to God; the time to think about those who have gone before you, and those sitting around you. Holy Communion makes you aware and connected. We hold the bread and cup until all are served; some feel like it is mannerly to do, but it is also Biblical: In First Corinthians 11 the Apostle Paul says “When you come together to eat, wait for one another,” and so we do. May your Easter at this table in a symbolic way, be the good news that this is the joyful feast of the people of God! Christ rose from the dead and ate with his disciples. Today he chooses to eat with you, and with me.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 5, 2015