Monthly Archives: June 2015

06-28-15 RICH, POOR, AND GENEROUS

RICH, POOR, AND GENEROUS

2 Corinthians 8: 1-15

 

Do you, like me, have a better day when someone is generous with you? We have returned to a local restaurant near Jenny and Brian because of the generosity of the management.  When we ordered a pizza a certain way, and a different one came out, they left the first one for us to eat, and brought fresh drinks for everyone as we waited for them to make the correct pizza. As Mary Ann and I went out for our anniversary last week, and we mentioned the occasion to the server, she said: “pick out a dessert.” When we declined she said, “No; it’s a special occasion! Pick a dessert.” We did; we loved it; and the price was never added to our bill! Free! We’ll go back because of that thoughtful generosity.  Eleven years ago our church buildings were damaged by three consecutive hurricanes. Many here today came over and gave their time picking up limbs, drying off hymnals, and picking up soggy ceiling tiles. They could have just stayed home, but they had generous hearts. I am grateful for them. Oh, and one more thing. Our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), continues to receive fewer and fewer funds from suspicious or unhappy congregations.  They think that if they will withhold their money, they will get a message through that they are unhappy with the votes of the last General Assembly.  What they don’t remember is that voters are not paid to vote at General Assembly; they are unpaid people from congregations all across America, who vote their conscience, then go home. The people who are paid to carry out the work the General Assembly asked of them keep trying to do more with less. They are staff people who have no vote. Some of the offices in our Headquarters are now vacant because churches have stopped giving to our denomination.  But we give as much as we can! One reason is the generosity of the Presbyterian Church (USA.) When our roofs were badly damaged by the hurricanes, our presbytery executive notified our headquarters in Louisville. Hearing that one of their congregations was damaged, they immediately sent us a $10,000 check toward getting a new roof!  And they sent books and hymnals to replace our damaged ones. Free! What generous gifts. We’ve never forgotten to give back to our denomination.

 

The Apostle Paul was a bit of a fundraiser: and for a good cause!  His mother church—the church of Jerusalem—was poor; but she was the first! Paul was in Macedonia and Corinth preaching the good news of Jesus! Lives were being changed! People began to follow Jesus! But Paul noticed something interesting that some of you may have encountered: he found that the poor churches of Macedonia gave generously, but the wealthy parishioners in the Corinthian Church did not.  He had to address both those who had means, and those that did not, asking why all people who love Jesus should give generously! He gave theological reasons. William Barclay wrote about Paul with these words: “He cites the example of Jesus Christ. For Paul, the sacrifice of Jesus did not begin on the cross. It did not even begin with his birth. It began in heaven, when he laid his glory by and consented to come to earth. Paul’s challenge to the Christian is: “With that tremendous example of generosity before you, how can you hold back?” [Daily Study Bible, Letter to the Corinthians, Westminster Press, 1975, p. 229] So we at Westminster try to model generosity, because our Lord Jesus is so generous with love, grace, salvation, and living water. This spring I watched the newspapers as church after church posted their Vacation Bible Schools. Many of them charge between $15 and $25 per child, not a bad rate for all a child gets for a week! But what about families who would not bring their children because of such a cost?  That’s who we think about at Westminster. So we pay the whole freight for Vacation Bible School; actually you and I pay for it when we give to our church.  And I’m proud that our money is used in such a way; that week imprinted some good lessons! This year a father of two of our VBS children agreed to act out being Jesus for a special day.  He robed up, with his tan legs and sandaled feet, and took the broken pieces of ice from the group and showed them how he could make them whole!  He lifted up a whole block of ice where ice chips had just been placed. A third grade girl whispered to her group leader: “Wow, Jesus came all that way just to be with us!” Your support helps us make those kinds of moments. Paul was so proud that people of little means, and people of great means, came together to give a fine offering for their mother church in Jerusalem. Generosity begats generosity! Paul was trained as a Jewish man, and he knew a practice that happened during the Jewish festival of Purim. No matter how poor a man was, during Purim he was mandated to find a man poorer than he was and give him a gift.  Jesus also was taught such a teaching. And so, we seek to give so that those with less may be grateful, and even in giving, one’s joy often increases.

 

On our behalf, and with your generous gifts, Tobias Caskey, founder of our outreach ministry called “Friends of Francis,” have placed five people into apartments who were homeless before! Tobias monitors and guides them. At least 40 bicycles have been distributed to needy and deserving people, along with bus passes, so poor people can have transportation to look for a job of keep a job. Yes, they get hot pedaling bikes, but they say it is better than walking! It is better than walking in this sweltering heat. The generosity of many is changing their lives. In addition, Friends of Francis have gotten clothes to people who need them and we minister to four halfway houses in the area that house as few as 6 and as many as 100 men. They are having Bible studies and learning about Jesus, moving from incarceration to  new life. They are grateful people and they give back! When we were looking for a man to be Jesus for one day of VBS, one of those men called Tobias back and volunteered! He would have been a good choice, but we already had a generous volunteer. Generosity lifts my spirits, both as I give, and as I receive!

 

Again Paul was a great advocate for collecting funds to help others. In addition to what we read in 2 Corinthians, check out Paul’s words in Romans 15:25: “At present I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints!” That’s what Christians do! We give generously as we are able, to help others! Or hear Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 16:1: “Now concerning the contribution for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do.” Like the story of Jesus with the woman at the well, Jesus gives living water to those who share with others. When people have been generous with me, I don’t forget it.  When we are generous with others, they too are not only grateful, they give back to us, or, even better, pay it forward in Jesus’ name.

 

Our health ministries, youth ministries, music ministries, and outreach ministries are enhanced by gifts of time, talent, and treasure. When you give back to Jesus through his church, we are empowered to reach others. Thank you for your gifts and your tithes. Thank you for your prayers. And thank you for having your hat in the ring to help others.

 

When I was a child I was told the story of stone soup. Do remember the man who had nothing, except a stone that he found? He put it in a pot of water and told people what good soup it would be, but it would be better with an onion! I have an onion!” one woman exclaimed. “Ah, that is great! It would be even better with some carrots. “I have some carrots said a man.” And he dropped them in. Pretty soon, the small gifts of many people made a great batch of soup, not costing any one person enough to make them poor. Let’s make some stone soup for the world!

 

Let us pray:  O Creator God: for the bounty we have, whether it is an onion, a carrot, a stone, or more; with sharing and giving we can have glad and generous hearts! Invite us to do just that, so we can see how our lives change because of it. In the name of Jesus who gave everything away for our sake. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 28, 2015

 

 

 

06-21-15 THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF THE GOSPEL

— sermon audio not available —

THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF THE GOSPEL

Acts 2: 38-47; Matthew 17; 1-9

One of the benefits of being part of a Vacation Bible School Week are the

really true stories from the Bible that we revisit, or hear for the first time. This week was like that! The week was not just singing, and playing; not just making new friends and children getting their very own Bible memory verse cards to carry with them forever! We learned a lot about the nature of God by hearing stories from the front of our Bibles to the back of our Bibles! I’d like to take you on that journey today.

 

In the front of our Bibles we turned to 1 Kings 19 where we heard about a prophet—that is, someone who listens to God and then tells people God’s words of guidance or warning. The prophet we learned about was Elijah, a man who honored the one true God in a world of many false gods! He even challenged the false prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel, and the one true God won! But the wicked King of the land—Ahab—and his angry wife, Queen Jezebel—decreed that Elijah should be killed for winning against their gods! Elijah was a man of God, but he felt like he was all alone, having no disciples and no friends. So he ran away from the king to a town named Beersheba in Judah. From there he traveled a day’s journey into a wilderness place, lay down under a tree, and was afraid and worn out. He fell asleep troubled, but he awoke when an angel tapped him on the shoulder! Can you imagine an angel tapping you on the shoulder? Maybe you’ve had it happen! Well, Elijah did! It says so in 1 Kings 19! The angel said to Elijah: “Get up! Get up and eat something!” Elijah got up, but in his haste he had not brought enough provisions; his bag was empty. But as he looked around, the Bible says he saw a loaf of baked bread on a warm stone, and a jar of water beside it! We learned that God has the power to provide!

 

The next day we returned to Elijah’s story because there are so many things we learn about God in that story.  So the angel that fed Elijah? After Elijah ate a little bit and fell back to sleep, that angel tapped him on the shoulder again! This time the angel said: “Get up and eat, or else the journey will be too hard for you.” Surely Elijah thought, “What journey?” He was about to find out! He believed God wanted him to go to the holiest of mountains: Mount Sinai, the place where God had originally given Moses the 10 Commandments! But Elijah was in Judah; Mount Sinai was many miles south of Judah and east of Egypt! Through a desert, it was a 40-day journey! But Elijah believed in the one true God, and so he left. When he finally got to the mountain almost a month and a half later, he stopped in a cave on the mountain. The Lord again wanted Elijah to remember why he made the journey, and so he asked him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah told him, in his tired and worn down voice. God knew that it was time to act. And so, the boys and girls learned as they huddled in our make-shift cave made out of blankets, that there was a great wind that blew; but the Lord was not in the wind. There was a great earthquake that shook the ground; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And there was a great fire that came as well; but the Lord was not in the fire. But after the fire, there was a still, small, voice. It was like a whisper. And from that still, small voice, onward came the Lord! God, with his actions, showed Elijah as we told the children huddled under the blankets: God loves you! And God loves you too! That day we learned that God has the power to comfort!

 

On day three we moved to 2 Kings 5 where we met Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. He had gotten leprosy and the children learned what a terrible disease leprosy was. We learned that he heard there was a man who healed in Israel. A letter was sent to the king of Israel asking that the healer might come to see Naaman, but it was no use. The king was incensed and would not comply with such a request! But when Elijah’s friend, Elisha, heard about Naaman, he said, “Tell Naaman to come to Israel, go to the Jordan River, and dip himself in the water seven times and he will be healed.” Naaman at first wasn’t going to do it. “We have plenty of rivers in Syria!” he cried out. “Why should I go to Israel?” But his armies persuaded him saying: “This man Elisha has a God who heals. What could it hurt if you went?” And so Naaman went, and did exactly as Elisha had directed him, and he was healed! That day we learned that God has the power to heal!

 

The fourth day was the high point of the week. We moved into the New Testament and the Gospel of Luke, and the children in Bible Expeditions met the Apostle Peter! Yes, Peter came and told us his story; how he was best friends with Jesus; and that he would follow him anywhere. But Jesus knew something was about to happen to change that. Jesus said to his friend Peter: “Before the rooster crows in the morning, this night you will deny me three times.” We learned that Peter could not believe it, and said to Jesus it would never happen like that. But Jesus then, and now, knows more than anyone on earth knows. And so it came to pass: Peter, indeed, denied Jesus, saying that he did not know Jesus … one time; two times, three times … and then, the rooster crowed. And Peter broke down and cried.  But the children were taught at the beginning of that day that God has the power to forgive! They decided that Peter needed to hear that message, so they told it to him. Peter wasn’t sure at first if he could be forgiven; but after some time and reassurance, he accepted it. Jesus forgave Peter, and Jesus can forgive you! This week in Charleston we saw that great power of forgiveness in actions. Forgiveness diffuses anger; and it can lead to reconciliation and new connections. The children went to the cross on day four and asked God to forgive something they did wrong for which they were sorry; and they felt lighter when they learned that they were forgiven! Then Jesus himself visited the children in fellowship hall, and demonstrated how he could take their brokenness and make them whole again. No one will forget that visit from Jesus.

 

Finally, came the last day. We learned that as humans on earth we have many things that cause us pain, sickness, hurt, sadness, and fear. We learned that when we feel those things, God feels them too. We learned that when we cry, there could even be tears in heaven for us. But Jesus said, according to John 14, and Revelation 21, that he was going to prepare a place  in Heaven for those who love him, and that it will be a place where there will be no more crying, or pain, or sadness! We decided that place will be wonderful some day, but for now, we have a job to do on earth: to tell people that God has the power to love us forever! Crew leaders called their crew members into a hula hoop circle, one by one, and individually told them, “Jesus loves you, and wants you to live with him forever!” Children went home this week with that assurance. And you too, can go home this week with that assurance: “Jesus loves you, and wants you to live with him forever!” Few words are more comforting than that.

 

The gospel, that Good News—apparent about the empty cross of Christ and the empty tomb of Christ—transforms lives. One of the best examples of that is what happened as God’s power came to people in the form of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says in Acts chapter 2: “People received his word and were baptized, and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. Day by day they shared food with glad and generous hearts, praising God, and meeting with the approval of all. And that day about 3000 people decided that Jesus was their Savior!” That’s the transforming power of the gospel! You too, can decide that Jesus is your Savior, and your life will be transformed! We learned how Peter was transformed by the gospel, finally believing that he could be forgiven. You too, can be forgiven! The New Testament also tells how an unexpected meeting with the risen Christ changed an angry, killing man named Saul, into a loving and driven apostle named Paul, the one most responsible for the message of Jesus in the New Testament. And finally, it was on a  special day, recorded in three of the gospels, when Jesus went up a mountain, re-creating the time when God spoke to his people on a mountain long before. On the mountain near Galilee, in the presence of his best friends Peter, and James, and John, a voice came from Heaven, giving Jesus the power, and the joyfulness, to do what he had to do! What did the voice say? According to Matthew’s gospel, the voice said to Jesus’ friends: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased! Listen to him!” Those instructions went from God to those followers of Jesus, and today they are said to us regarding Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased! Listen to him!”  No finer instructions have ever been spoken. And if followed, they will transform your life.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 21, 2015

Let us pray: Dear Lord: some here today will have their lives changed because of what they have heard and decided to do. Bless and keep them, and remind them of your love. Thank you Jesus. Amen.

06-14-15 WALKING BY FAITH AND NOT BY SIGHT

WALKING BY FAITH AND NOT BY SIGHT

2 Corinthians 5: 6-10

 

When I was about seven years old, my parents decided to give in on the requests from my siblings and me and get a puppy!  We went out to a farmhouse and picked him out: a beagle. Tippy, we named him. We took him home and began to get used to one another. He howled at night and made messes, but he was ours! In his young months, and even as he grew, Tippy seemed to take courage from his masters. If we, in seeing a stray cat, or a rabbit, or a squirrel, would get a devilish gleam in our eye and instruct our brave, protective dog to “sic em,” he would run toward the animal only as fast a we ran! If we ran fast, he’d run fast! If we stayed back and pointed, he stayed back and barked! Never would he take the lead or go along. This dog took courage from us alone!

 

Today, in 2 Corinthians 5:6, Paul says: “So we are always of good courage.”

Today I submit that even as we walk by faith, and not be sight, we draw our courage from Christ, the great pioneer. Courage—the quality of mind to allow someone to face things or make decisions with confidence and without fear—is one quality that some people lack. One of the top five books I have read in recent years is the late Edwin Friedman’s A FAILURE OF NERVE: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. In it he writes:

 

 This book is for parents and presidents. It is also for CEOs and educators, prioresses and coaches, healers and generals, managers and clergy. It is about leadership in the land of the quick fix, about leadership in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety. It is about the need for clarity and decisiveness in a civilization that inhibits the development of leaders with clarity and decisiveness.

You may also recall the words of the minister of the Riverside Church in New York City from 1926 – 1946, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who wrote the words of this hymn:

 

God of grace, and God of glory, on Thy people pour Thy power!

Crown Thine ancient church’s story, bring her bud to glorious flower!

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour!

For the facing of this hour!

 

Christians; Americans; all kinds of people have times when they plan their work, and work their plan. But at other times, they walk by faith and not by sight, but to do so takes courage.

 

Last week was the 71st anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the one event that helped defeat the Nazi regime in World War II. It is recorded in history that, as General Eisenhower took the step that could have backfired and certainly cost many lives, he chose to proceed with the invasion of Normandy that changed the course of history. But he also, in a letter, accepted full responsibility for the outcome of the invasion, especially if it failed. Doing so took great courage. He could not see the outcome; but he planned for it and then, in faith, gave the word.

 

In business some of the best success stories are those who don’t just try to survive, but take a chance on a dream. Good leaders have a vision for what they hope to accomplish. “Without vision, the people perish” [Proverbs 29: 19] But can one have vision and still walk by faith?  Yes, says the Apostle Paul. Sometimes that is the only way to proceed! He says “we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage.”  Vision, coupled with faith to see things through, is a recipe for Christian courage. As decisions are made, remember that you are yoked with Christ; he is with you, pulling in the same direction if you have prayed for and sought to receive his will! When you have a shared purpose with Christ, you also share his strength. Paul puts it like this in verse 9: “More than anything else, we want to please him, whether our home is here or there.” Our courage and our faith needn’t wait to take shape only as we draw close to heaven! Instead it can take decisive shape in this world, where our Lord Jesus is with us as well! It is when we know we are walking with the Lord that perfect love can cast out fear.

 

Faith and courage are the cornerstone’s of Paul’s message here. Our homes, too, need parents of faith with the courage. Jesus welcomed little children as we learned from Matthew 19:14.  Keep the courage to parent: wisely, lovingly, but firmly. It is easier to “go with the flow.” But if your standards drop, they drop to the lowest common denominator. Keep up the work of parenting knowing that you are not alone. Christian parents need Christ, and many have asked for his guidance. But parents also need support from others. Help them.  What a leap of faith it is for parents with particularly heavy baggage to seek the help of a counselor, a friend, or support group. It is a courageous thing to work through issues of alcohol, drugs, rape, abuse, or obsessive behavior. Like our pet dog that had no courage without us beside him, walk with your brothers and sisters in the world! Remind them that they are not alone.

 

Finally, without the courage of Christ, the kind when we “ walk by faith” as Paul described it, churches will die. Leaps of faith into significant caring,  teaching, preaching, and mission ministries move churches from life support to life supporting stances! The Rev. Robert McCracken once wrote these words:

Too much of our religion has been escapist, comforting, comfortable. Too much of our church life has been self-contained and ingrown, gregariousness mistaken for fellowship, privileges enjoyed, and obligations shunned. No church that drops its disciplines and demands can deepen its life or broaden its outreach of make redemptive impact on the world around it.

 

Like our dog who would not run ahead unless his master was with him, so our Master runs with us! Find Christ in your life and your will find your courage. He is running with you! As it has been said before:

Christ within you,

Christ above you,

Christ beside you,

Christ around you,

Christ behind you.

 

You are surrounded by Christ! Walk by faith, and not by sight.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 14, 2015

06-07-15 GROWING STRONGER ON THE INSIDE

GROWING STRONGER ON THE INSIDE

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

 

At a stoplight last week I watched a woman putting on her mascara. On the same day in “Dear Abby,” a woman wrote asking how she might get rid of, or learn to accept, the “crows feet” around her eyes and the wrinkles on her face.  Many people think about the way they look; some people think about it more than others. It is not just in New York City or Palm Beach where fashion and cosmetics matter. The cosmetic industry is a billion dollar industry as are the combined offerings of designer clothiers. While Paul talks about seeing in a “mirror dimly,” or a “glass darkly” in 1 Corinthians 13, we see our reflections in mirrors clearly. Many look in the mirror several times a day. Others just check mirrors as part of good grooming. Today we visit a Biblical city whose inhabitants were very cosmopolitan, caring a great deal about their bodies. The Greeks in Paul’s day admired the human body. Corinth, that special city, was a shopping mecca!

 

Even today you can visit ancient Corinth and see the walls still standing from boutique shops that once lined the streets. Some people in our day have a soft spot for Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, because they perhaps have used or appreciated the words from 1 Corinthians 13 for some special occasion: “Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude…. Now abides, faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” But Paul was not feeling very loving when he wrote those words.  The small Christian house church in Corinth already had divisions that he had to address, even as Christianity was in its infancy! Human emotions of envy, jealousy, and boastfulness were rearing their ugly heads. In First Corinthians, Paul was rightly upset that a church as small and new as that one could already have divisions! According to First Corinthians 1, Paul wrote: “It has been reported to me that there is quarreling among you! What I mean is that each of you says ‘I belong to Paul,” or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” Paul was truly irritated. And then he heard that they were debating about who had the best spiritual gift! Was it those who preached, or those who healed, or those who taught? No; the ones who spoke in tongues said they had the best spiritual gift! Paul said “No!” All gifts undergird and build up the body of Christ! We need one another. Then he said “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it…. [But] I will show you a more excellent way.” (I Cor 1: 27, 31) After that came 1 Corinthians 13. A popular hymn condenses that passage into these words:

“Though I may speak with bravest fire, and have the gift to all inspire,

and have not love, my words are vain, as sounding brass, and hopeless gain.”

 

What was the major industry of Corinth? It was brass, and brass had to be pounded, making a clamoring sound all day long! If Christians don’t show love, their words sound to God like sounding, or pounding, brass!

 

So it is to these Christians, whose upbringing made them focus highly on their appearance, that Paul wanted to draw their attention to the inside of their lives; the place that Christian mystics might call the “interior of their soul.” Paul had calmed down considerably in what is called his second letter, but he gives his listeners a bit of a start when he writes: “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” (2 Cor. 4:16) As you look in the mirror; as I look in the mirror, does that comfort us? “Our outer nature is wasting away?” Gosh Paul, don’t sugar coat it! Tell us what you really feel! Paul always does! Who wouldn’t mind turning back the clock a bit when they gaze at their face in a mirror? But Paul is turning the Corinthian culture, and very much our culture, on its ear with his words. As I walk through major department stores, especially in the Orlando area or other big cities, I can see all the merchandise, enticing people to look fresh, and young, and sharp.  Only with wisdom comes the realization that we might be better to focus some on the inside, the part that truly matters to God. Especially as we realize and own our mortality, it is wise to pay attention to our spiritual lives, not just our physical ones. Paul’s words astounded the Corinthian Christians, and I’d imagine they instruct us too. He says, “This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” Mostly people begin to think about death and life beyond death as they grow old; not when they are young, unless there is a tragedy. You might notice that one on our prayer list this week died at just age 35; and the news highlights the untimely deaths of children and youth almost every week. Death happens; but what preparations, if any, will we have made? Your physical body is of no use in the next life; it doesn’t go there. The only part that goes to heaven is your spiritual body. That’s the part that needs tending, not only for a relationship with God now, but for an eternal relationship as well!

 

Paul goes on: “We look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen [our physical body] is temporary, but what cannot be seen [our inside; our spirit; our soul] is eternal.” Paul insists on giving the Corinthian Christians, and us, a more internal focus. Being strong on the inside counts with God! Being strong on the inside mattered the most to Jesus, and later to Paul. And because Paul knew this guidance would be a game changer for many people—he knew there were people like the rich young ruler, who turned away from Jesus because what he asked was too much—so Paul also believed some in Corinth might turn away from such a drastic change in focus. He said this sentence was meant to reassure them: “For we know that if the earthly tent [our body] is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor. 5:1)

 

Now, when you look in the mirror to check your physical appearance, consider opening a Bible to check your spiritual appearance. Do a rugged spiritual inventory of your life. How are you doing? How do you look on the inside? After all, that’s the part that God loves and wants to be connected to forever.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 7, 2015