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Hebrews 5: 1-10


A Priest and a Rabbi were eating together when the priest started to tease the Rabbi. ”Wow, this ham is really good,” he said licking his lips. “I know it’s against your religion, but when are you going to break down and finally try some pork?” The rabbi smiled and said to the priest: “At your wedding!”

Priest, rabbi, and minister jokes have gone around the world for ages. They sometimes are hilarious, sometimes crude, and often reinforce stereotypes.  Today let’s look at the purpose of priests and why Jesus is, for us, the Great High Priest.


First, two groups that have historically had priests are first century Jews for one, and Roman Catholics through the ages for the other. One group of Jews in the first century, the time when Jesus lived, were called Sadducees; they were the priests of the Temple. They would decide what sacrifices were appropriate for Passover and Yom Kippur. They would guide traveling Jews who came to the Jerusalem Temple about entering the mikvah pools (precursors for Christian baptism) for cleansing before they approached God’s house. It was claimed that God dwelled there in the most sacred room of the Temple, the Holy of Holies.  Priests would offer incense, or frankincense on the altar of God, allow the fragrance to fill the small room, pleasing God. The sacrifice would symbolize a cost to the families that paid for it; priests were also responsible for naming how much sacrifice was sufficient to pay the price for the family’s, or the individual’s sins. This was the Temple system and priests were vital.  They were the ones who would hear confessions, decide appropriate responses, and name the appropriate price to right a group of wrongs. You’ll recall that, in Luke chapter 5, Jesus came into a city and found a man filled with leprosy, a dreadful skin disease. The leper fell on his face before Jesus and said, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” The leprosy left him. Then Jesus told him to do this: “Don’t tell anyone what just happened, but go show yourself to a priest and make an offering for your cleansing, as proof to the people.” Or in Luke 17 Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, passed between Samaria and Galilee and he came upon ten other lepers who called out to Jesus: “Master, have mercy on us.” “When Jesus saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.”  In both cases these were not Christian priests or Catholic priests; they were Jewish priests. A priest is very important in first century Judaism.


The second group of people who still have priest are the Roman Catholics. These Christians for centuries have supported a system of sacrifice and forgiveness like the first century Jewish priests did. A priest today will oversee confession of sins and decide what action should be taken to make reparations for the sin. A priest today oversees the altar of a church or a cathedral, re-offering the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood on it regularly. A priest today has the power to administer the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, deciding when and who may receive them. Priests, you see, are granted great powers- powers that include enforce moral fences and offer gracious direction for life.


So if priests are so wonderful, why don’t Protestants have one?  We do. Our priest is the Christian Priest; the great High Priest of the New Testament described in today’s passage from Hebrews. He is Jesus. He is great; he is powerful; and he is both sacrificial lamb and Good Shepherd; he is both victor and victim.  Jesus is our “all in all.” We count on him; and only through him do we get his counsel, his advocacy, and his offered salvation before we approach the Throne of Judgment. Jesus meets us there, pleading our case before the Almighty One. It is he that is our go-between; the one who makes the sacrifice for us; the one who announces that we are clean. When he was on the earth, he had to send people to priests who had the power to pronounce them clean. After he left the earth and went to be seated at the Right Hand of Power, he himself  received that power; he does not need to send you, or me, to anyone else to pronounce us clean or forgiven. All he needs to look at our hearts; even after looking at our record of life. For our Great High Priest, our choices later in life count more than our choices early in life. They exhibit understanding; remorse; and a desire to turn toward the path of life.  And most importantly and simply, he calls your name; and he calls my name: and he asks: “Do you love me?” And if our answer is “Yes!” he tells us to take care of his flock. And so we do. We care about the world, but we care for his flock. And we keep inviting people into the flock, which is the Church. We want them to have this priest; we want them to have this love; we want to have this eternal life. There are so many confusing stories that go around about what we need to do to right the wrongs of our lives. Some say you take “an eye for an eye;” some say “you killed my child, for that you must die.” Some dole out prescribed things to say or do. And then there is what Jesus, the Great High Priest, did. He believed in the system he learned as a young Jew, but with a twist. Forgiveness best received comes after remorse, repentance, restitution, and re-connection. At the Temple in Jesus’ day, on the Passover day the traditional unblemished lamb was slaughtered by priests in the Temple at the prescribed time of 3:00 p.m.; it powerfully paid the price for the sins of the Jews. At that exact time, however, outside the city walls, our Savior Jesus became a different sacrificial lamb. His death would pay the price for the sins of the whole world. At exactly 3:00 p.m. on that day, when the lamb was slain in the Temple, the Lamb of God was slain on the cross. Jesus, by being faithful, ascended into Heaven and took his place in victory. That’s what’s been described in Hebrews chapter 5. As High Priest, Jesus acts on behalf of human beings in relation to God. In his earthly life he offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to the one who could have saved him from death. And yet he suffered, and died, and arose from the dead to take a place in Heaven not only as friend, not only as Savior, but as our Great High Priest. If you didn’t think so before, perhaps today you will think this: We need such a priest; we need Jesus to do priestly things for us. It saves us and pays for our sins.


This picture of Jesus can get confusing. Back in the 19th century, William Chatterton Dix tried to explain this confusion with the hymn we will sing in a minute: Alleluia! Sing to Jesus. “Alleluia” means, “Praise the Lord!” Alleluia sing to Jesus, his the scepter (the princely staff) his the throne; Alleluia his the triumph, his the victory alone (No other victory has granted us forgiveness; only his victory.) Jesus out of every nation has redeemed us by his blood (like the one lamb did for the Jews, the Lamb of God has done  for the world.) Other words in that hymn include “intercessor” that is, someone who hears your cries to God and amplifies them. “Earth’s redeemer,” that’s who Jesus is. And the last verse says of Jesus “born of Mary, earth your footstool, heaven your throne,” a brilliant description of God in Christ. Then comes very priestly language, pulled from the Temple imagery: “As within the veil you entered, robed in flesh, our great high priest;” and then this final line: “here on earth, both priest and victim, in the Eucharistic feast.” Eucharist is Communion but it means “meal of thanksgiving.” As Priest, Jesus hosts our communion meals; as victim, it is  his body that was broken and his blood that was shed. What a wonderful book Hebrews is. What tremendous understanding can come to us if we read it with new eyes. Jews from ages past counted on priests; Roman Catholic brothers and sisters count on priests even today. And now we too are reminded that we have a priest, and we need a priest. We count on him; we need him. His name is Jesus.


Let us pray:

Holy Jesus: you fulfill so many needs in our souls. And if we are honest with ourselves, we need you. We come to you today not just needing a friend, or a Savior, but a great High Priest. Carry out your role for us as we live as your disciples, trying day by day to follow your light and to share it with others.  Thank you, loving Jesus. Amen.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 18, 2015




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This past weekend I voluntarily went without food for thirty hours. I did not do this on my own however. Oh no, I convinced six of our youth to join me in this endeavor. We slept over at the church, played games, drank lots of  juice and talked about all of the food we would rather be eating.


This 30 hour famine that we participated in is a fund-raising program for World Vision, an organization dedicated to help with children’s’ hunger throughout the world. Right now, 18,000 children die every day from hunger related causes and diseases we know how to prevent and treat. That’s a child every 10 seconds. Hunger is the world’s number 1 health risk; it kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.


World Vision feeds children on $1.25 a day. The money we raise through sponsorship for this event goes to feed those kids. I have participated in this event almost every year for 20 years, starting when I was in youth group. For me the event has grown from a fun overnight with friends to a very meaningful tradition. I know how much I have when I spend some time going without it.


We fasted for 30 hours this weekend. We could have probably fasted for longer if we needed to, despite what the youth may have thought. We  probably could have just convinced people to donate money to World Vision’s cause without the whole going without food part. So why did we choose to fast?


We fasted because it is important to know what it’s like to be hungry in a world filled with food. Walking around and seeing people eating casually, wastefully when you are truly hungry is a powerful experience. It’s important to know what others are suffering when we are trying to help them out. By understanding where they are coming from we have a much better chance of helping them in the long run.


In our first lesson, Isaiah’s problem with the people is how they are fasting. To obtain favor from God, the people are fasting, even while they deny food to their sisters and brothers who are actually starving! In other words, they are simulating hunger for the sake of religious piety while ignoring the real hunger around them. Rather than being drawn into solidarity with the hungry, the oppressed, and the marginalized, the people are merely serving “their own interests” by their fasting.


Fasting isn’t just about starving yourself to see if you can. And it isn’t just about trying to come closer to God. When you fast, you should do it for other people.


Isaiah talks about what sort of fast is acceptable to God. God doesn’t want us to go around looking as though we are suffering, weeping and bemoaning our fate. God doesn’t care if we get out the really scratchy sackcloth and smear the ashes all over us. That isn’t fasting for God, that’s fasting for ourselves. God wants a different kind of fast.


Isaiah doesn’t call for fasting from food. Isaiah says: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;” Acceptable fasting, acceptable worship to God is in helping others. If we take time away from what we love, if we fast from it, and instead help each other, we are truly fasting for God. We are worshipping.


Denying yourself for denial’s sake doesn’t do much, if you don’t instead take the time you would have used or the money you saved, and use it in turn to help others. For instance, if I decide to give up buying coffee for Lent, I should then take the money I would have spent and give it to an organization like Charity:Water that provides clean drinking water for people all over the world. Fasting is an important spiritual discipline, but it is important to use in turn for others.


The problem with hunger isn’t that we don’t have enough food to feed everyone. The world currently produces three times enough food for everyone to eat their fill. The problem is getting food to people when they need it.


It only costs $35 to feed a child for a month. If we spent U.S. $11.8 billion a year, we could reach 90 percent of stunted children in the 36 highest-burden countries. This would cost less than the $13.6 billion U.S. consumers spend per year on potato and tortilla chips.


Children who suffer from malnutrition before the age of two have lifelong problems. Their bones don’t grow as long or as strong as their counterparts. Their brains don’t finish developing. They are more prone to disease and illness for the rest of their lives. Hungry children fall behind in school because they can’t concentrate and often times drop out altogether because they can’t afford to keep going.


Child hunger is about more than just food. It’s also about getting clean drinking water. One in seven people in the world doesn’t have access to clean water. Instead they walk for miles to get water from a source that is often filled with disease. Breaking the chain of hunger is about getting the education needed to break the cycles of hunger and poverty that otherwise last for generations.


One of the things we do during the famine is play games that simulate what children around the world are really going through. From getting enough food, to finding water, to getting an education, we play through these games but then talk about what it might really be like to have to work so hard just to survive from day to day.


While we only fasted for 30 hours, we could feel ourselves getting more tired as the day when on. We have trouble focusing and just wanted to sleep towards the end. And that was less than two days on an empty stomach. I can’t imagine what it would be like if we spent a week.


Sometimes hunger seems like a bigger problem than we can possibly deal with. 18,000 children a day. A day. It seems too much. Too big.  There is good news though. This year over ten thousand youth participated in the Famine nationwide. They raised over a million dollars already, just this year. And in the long term, things are getting better.


In 1990 when the famine started, over 42,000 children died a day. Today that number is less than half that. We still have a long way to go, but we are making an impact.


There are many ways in which we already make an impact here at Westminster. Every week we collect food for HUM’s pantry right here in Port Orange. Once a month we have volunteers that go and help feed people directly at HUM’s hot lunch program in Daytona.


You might have noticed these cans on the tables of Fellowship Hall. The money you put in them goes to our Presbytery’s two cents a meal program. That program works with two local and two international organizations to help feed people.


Locally, it works with Society of St. Andrew which helps to cut down on food waste, by going and gleaning farmer’s fields and giving fresh fruit and vegetables to the local food pantries. And two cents a meal gives to Second Harvest, which helps to distribute food from major corporations to local food banks.


Internationally two cents a meal gives to Alliance for International Reforestation and a missionary couple in Madagascar, both of which help people learn how to farm their land sustainably, allowing the quality of life for whole villages improve.


All of that for just donating two cents from every meal you eat to help others eat. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but, to use World Vision’s numbers,  if every member of the congregation participated in this program, in less than a month we could feed a child for two years.


There are many ways in which we can help make a difference; ways that we can help offer better lives for our fellow human beings. And in so doing, we help ourselves. And more than that, we help our Lord. For he said to us: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”


Let us pray: Living God, our strength and help, we turn to you in our distress. May the spirit of compassion comfort and protect your people. In the parched lands and failed harvests we see your hungry. Show us how to reach out caring hands to help them in their need.  May the shadow of that hunger be broken by the light of your hope. In our hearts we hold a vision of a better world. May we, by our actions, bear witness to your love. Amen.


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Hebrews 1: 1-5 ; 2: 5-12


In the early 1990s there was a flurry of interest in “angels.” Dozens of books hit the market including  “On the Wings of Angels,” “Know Your Angels,”  “Angels Ever Near,” and “Angels: The Mysterious Messengers.” We collected those and 10 more in our church library at that time. Angels, it seemed, were easier to imagine, to appreciate, and to communicate with than God or the Holy Spirit. People began to pray to angels (not something I recommend) and study angels.  The Bible does acknowledge angels, not only in today’s passage from Hebrews, but also in  Gabriel’s appearance before Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, in his annunciation to Mary about Jesus, in the comforting visit to Joseph, and the annunciation to the shepherds in Luke. The shepherds received a heavenly host, or “army” of angels in Bethlehem. Gabriel also appears in Daniel 8 and Daniel 9.

And an Archangel, or “chief angel” named Michael, is in Jude verse 9, in Revelation 12, and in Daniel 10 and 12. John Calvin, in his masterful Institutes of the Christian Religion, says: “The angels are the dispensers and administrators of the divine beneficence [kindness and mercy] toward us …”  [Book I]


As the new millennium dawned in what is known as the 21st century, the interest in angels waned and an interest in Saints and Mystics grew. People yearned to know what ancient followers of Christ taught and how they lived. Many books on those topics hit the shelves again, describing Saints, mystics, and Early Church Fathers.  The world was hungry fifteen years ago to know those centralized and marginalized Christians so the books flew off the shelves. Some of what the mystics wrote was distinctly unorthodox, that is, not in line with traditional church teachings. But many people love both scandals and rebels so the reading ensued. Then in the last decade the interest has shifted; many people say they are “spiritual” instead of “religious,” so they read spiritual things. My warning regarding self-taught spirituality is that it can become a vegetable soup of every kind of faith. If that’s what you are looking for: a little Judaism, and a little Wiccan, a little Buddhism, a little Eastern Religion, and a drop of Christianity, then explore away! Spirituality as described on the internet and on blogs is not always grounded in one faith; it explores what seems holy, or mystical, or wondrous.


The church of 2015 and 2016, and the Christian pulpit in our day, must keep pointing to the Christian true north; to be a compass for the faithful and for the seeker. Today’s passage from Hebrews is the right kind of text that grounds us in the powers of God, the messengers of God, and the people of God. My job is to help you understand the Bible and to invite you to decide and re-decide to follow Jesus. Today we look at “The Holy Order.”


Hebrews is a wonderful book that puts Christ in his rightful place at the right hand of “The Majesty on High” according to Hebrews 1:3. According to verse 1, God is the Creator of the world. According to Genesis 1:26, human beings were given the unique ability to do choose right from wrong. They were given “dominion” over God’s Earth and God’s creatures, but the better translation is we were given “responsibility” over God’s earth and God’s creatures. Creatures and plants and mountains honor God just by being; people honor God by their choices. So at the top of the order is God; there is not a bunch of gods, there is one. But in this time in which we are living, which the writer of Hebrews called “the last days,” “God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed to be the heir [the inheritor] of all things, and through whom [meaning the Son] God created the world! Here it is! The other confirmation that Christ, the Son was fully present with the Majestic Creator in the beginning! John says it; this writer says it too! So the Son is not just a Johnny-come-lately Jesus born to Mary. Long before he became human, he was fully Divine and at the Creation! What a claim! The writer continues to describe the Son in verse 3: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” Wow! This is where the early creedal writers grounded some of their beliefs. John Calvin again says: “To sit at the right hand of the Father is no other thing than to govern in the place of the Father, as deputies of princes are wont to do to whom a full power over all things is granted. And the word majesty is added, and also on high, and for this purpose, to intimate that Christ is seated on the supreme throne whence the majesty of God shines forth.” [Calvin’s Commentary, Vol. 22, Baker Books; reprinted in 2005, p. 39.] So friends, the one who is glad to receive our adoration; the one to whom all glory and praise is due, is God, the Majestic! Along side is the Son called Christ, given all the fullness of the Divine. But the blessing  we receive through Christ is when he came to earth he experienced our humanness as well, with all our temptations and pains and joys. If anyone can plead our case to the Majestic Judge and Maker of all the earth, it is our Lord Jesus! So we pray in his name, almost like a cc. in an email or a carbon copy in earlier days. We want Jesus to hear our prayers too! After our praise, God can hear our requests, our pains, and our hopes.


The writer of Hebrews continues” “When he [meaning the Son] had made purification for our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

Like a priest in the Jewish Temple practices, Jesus has to purify [or completely wash clean] the sins of believers before they are presented on the Throne of Grace. It is called “justification,” which simply stated means, “Through Christ, we are presented before God just as if we had not sinned.” That’s what Jesus Christ does for us; no angel, no mystic, no saint has been given that power. Only the Son; our Hebrews writer continues by describing the Son as “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs. For to what angel did God ever say: ‘Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee’? Or again ‘I will be to him as a father, and he shall be to me as a son’?” (verse 5)


The Holy order culminates in Hebrews chapter two beginning with verse 5: “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified: “What are human beings, that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them [people] with glory and honor [that is, God is pleased with his creation of humans, according to this account] and has subjected all things—[meaning creatures and creation] under their feet [under our control.]”


So there is it: the Holy order. The one called “Majesty is supreme; equal power and status has been given to the Son; under the Son, but still Heavenly, are the Arch-angels, and the angels. They praise God and do the work of God, but they are not God. On the earth, humans are God’s crown jewel according to the Bible. Sometimes we don’t act that way, but that’s what God has always thought of us in a “glass half full” kind of way. God thinks no less of his creatures and creation, but they, by their nature, glorify God, not by their choices. God wants people who can choose; to choose life and to choose the one called Majesty, and the one he metaphorically calls “the Son.”  So appreciate angels; study mystics, or revere saints. But glorify God through Jesus Christ, and the Holy order can be understood and honored. Let us pray: O Holy God: to you we give our glory and praise; to Jesus we give our allegiance and our gratitude for presenting us pure before you. And we thank you for angels that serve you and surround us; and for saints that sought to live lives pleasing to you. Amen.


Jeffrey A. Sumner October 4, 2015