Monthly Archives: January 2016

01-31-16 Epiphany

It can be easy to look at Jeremiah and seen nothing of ourselves in this passage.

I mean, Jeremiah is one of the great prophets of the Bible, so of course God comes to him and tells him of his call directly. Now, if you would continue reading this book, you would quickly realize that Jeremiah has a lot of qualities we can relate to. After all, he does complain a lot. Jeremiah complains to God, to the people he is preaching to, and basically to anyone who will listen to him. Jeremiah has complaining down to an art form, and I think we can like that in Jeremiah, because some days all of us want to complain.

Yet, when we come back to this dramatic calling of Jeremiah, we have trouble relating. How does the story of this great prophet thousands of years apply to our lives today? God tells Jeremiah, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant,” which is a lot for him to handle, but not something that we really run across in our lives.

And yet, God really does call us all. We aren’t called to the same things, and very few of us are called to overthrow nations, thank goodness, but we are all called.  We hear from God’s word in Acts 2:21 where God says, “All of my people are prophets.” Young and old, male and female, strong and weak, rich and poor,  all of us are God’s prophets. We are called to different works, different goals, but we all do have a calling.

Now, God called me to the ministry. I’ve been called to teach, and preach and to be present for others when they need me. And as a pastor, it is commonly accepted that it is a called position; that God must have had something to do with the decision. But the reality is that ministry is far from the only call from God. Some of you are called to teach Sunday School or volunteer to help with fellowship hour. Some of you are called to help lead worship through music.  

Some of you have been called to fix and paint and care for this beautiful building we are lucky to have. Some of you are called to work in missions outside the church, at Halifax Urban Ministry’s lunch program, or Grace Episcopal’s food pantry. Others of your are called to share your faith with those around you, inviting them to join you at church. And others are called to support our church financially so it can offer the classes and ministries that make up our mission. Still more of you have been called to raise children in the faith. All of these are callings by God and they are just as worthy as any other calling. That doesn’t mean that we hear or accept God’s call right away, of course.

After all, Jeremiah didn’t. Instead he immediately responds to God’s call with an excuse. “Oh, no God. You can’t possibly mean me. I’m much too young.” And we all have our own versions of that excuse when we hear God’s call.  “Oh, I never went to seminary.” “I don’t have much to give.” “I wouldn’t know how to work with kids.” “Oh, I am far too busy to ever be able to help out.” We know lots of reasons why we shouldn’t agree to whatever God is asking us to do this time, and it is sometimes easier to ignore the call, or to make the excuses. But God keeps calling. God never lets up on this invitation.

There is not one person in here who has not been called by God, and all of us have been called by God to specific tasks.

Alright, but how do we know where we are called? I mean, there are lots of things in the world that need doing and so few of us have something as concrete as the voice of the Lord coming to us and telling us what to do. How do we know where we are called?

I think Frederick Buechner says it best when he says “By and large a good rule for finding out is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”

If you hate every second of public speaking, you probably aren’t called to be a preacher. If you loathe cooking, than helping out in the kitchen is not for you. If you think flying across the world to go help people in undeveloped countries sounds like torture, then I’m guessing God isn’t calling you to be a missionary.

And on the other side, just because you love curling up on the couch and reading all day long, doesn’t mean that is your calling. It might be nice and certainly should be pursued during free time, but it doesn’t meet a need in the world. It isn’t helping anyone but yourself.

We know when we are following God’s calling, because it fits us and it fills a need in the world.  After all, we are all known by God. God knew us before our birth. God shaped each one of us and created us into beloved children. God can call us, because God knows us. God knows who we are. Where we are called is to the right place for us, because God knows how we think. God knows our longings and our strengths and our gifts and calls us to the right place for us.

Now, this doesn’t mean your calling will always be comfortable for you. Because, more than knowing who we are, God knows all we could be. Part of God’s call to us is for us to seek out the fullness of our being. To not just settle on who we are right now, but to grow into all that God knows we could be. God  does not call us to be “merely” who God knows us to be, but instead,  built into our call, there is a sense of “be what I know you could be if you really put your mind to it.” Growth isn’t always comfortable, but it is important.

There is a woman named Mary Temple Grandin was born in the United States in 1947. When she was two she was diagnosed with autism, and declared to be ‘brain damaged’. She didn’t start speaking until she was four. When she got to high school she was teased constantly by the other children because of her habit of repeating what she had heard. But in spite of this she went on to a school for gifted children – and gained a whole line of university degrees.

She became famous for her insights into how to look after animals, introducing lots of new ideas. She realised that curved enclosures were much less stressful for animals, and that they could be calmed down by being held very tight – because she knew that that worked for her. She became a great advocate for animal rights, and for the rights of people with autism.

Now, the people around her might not have expected much from Temple. But she truly lived out the fullness of who she could be. Because she followed God’s call for her, Temple made a difference in the lives of many.  

When we follow the fullness of God’s calling for us, not only can we help the lives of those around us, but we can also enrich our own lives in the process.

Still, I do know what it is to feel Jeremiah’s hesitation when he voiced his reluctance, “Ah Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Sometimes God calls us to places and tasks that seems daunting. Yet, God will be there, offering us what we need to follow our calls. “I have put my words in your mouth,” God said to Jeremiah. Do not be afraid, for I will be with you.

God formed us and created us and then calls us to go and serve. And part of the calling includes what we need to follow. Yes, it may stretch us and grow us and be uncomfortable on the way, but God calls us to a life that is richer and fuller and greater than we could ever have on our own.

God calls us as we are. We are only us, and God calls us anyway.

God calls. How will you answer?

01-24-16 Epiphany

The human body is a remarkable creation, with 60 million cells. Our heart beats 36 million times every year. We produce 300 billion red cells every day. A multitude of complex processes are carried out by our bodies every minute without our even having to think about it. We don’t have to tell our heart to beat, or our eyes to blink, or our lungs to fill with air. We are truly an amazing creation.

Just as the human mind cannot really to fathom the complexity of its own body, so it is with us, with the body of Christ. Our minds cannot comprehend the entire complexity of the body of Christ.

For, as we learn from Paul today, Christ is a living body, composed of billions of parts, miraculously complex, with billions of members, located in millions of different settings, with thousands of different languages, with thousands of unique cultures and billions of expressions of the true faith, throughout centuries of recorded time.

We constitute the means by which Christ functions within the world, and it is very important that you hold that concept clearly in your mind if you want to understand how the church works. It is a body with many members, and yet it is only one body. It is not many bodies, many denominations. They are all tied together by sharing the same life, and they are tied together in Christ so that they function as his means of expressing his life in this world.

And yet, we are a flawed illustration, because we are not always as well functioning or in unison as we could be. Paul writes this letter to a church that is going through troubles. Some of its members feel that they aren’t as important as others. And other members think that their gifts are way better than other people’s gifts. We haven’t changed much in the two thousand years since this letter was written, have we?

Some of us end up wanting another role in the Body, thinking that the place we have isn’t as exciting or important. We are longing to be a foot when we are a knee. Or we think that our role as the elbow isn’t as important as being a hand. We see people going out to be missionaries in far flung corners of the world and think “Now, they are really making a difference.” Or we hear people speaking passionately about Christ to huge groups of people and think that they are the ones really doing God’s work.

But just as we need hands and feet for Christ, going out and doing, we also need the elbows and knees that allow the hands and feet to do their work. We need the spine that connects everyone together. We need the lungs that bring in fresh air to the body. We need the ears that hear concerns and the big toes that stabilize everything else.

One of my old yoga instructors used to begin class by telling us to “Let go of all judgment, competition, and expectation.” In the context of yoga practice, this is a call just to be: to be who you are in the moment, to be who you are called to be, and never to compare yourself to anyone but yourself. The reality is such that this is something that humans need to practice. We tend to measure our worth up against what others think or say about us. And it is in those moments that we need to hear God’s gospel word in these words from Paul. God has called us to be who we are, not someone else. We have our own gifts that matter.

On the other side of the passage is the danger of thinking that the work that we do is somehow more important than the work anyone else does. No part of the body can function on it’s own, so we are all dependent on each other. And in those moments of pride, we also need to hear these words from Paul. We cannot function on our own, but only as part of the whole.

Each and every one of us has a role in the body of Christ, and none of them are greater or somehow more worthy than another.

In this congregation alone, we have people of different ages and different backgrounds. We have people from the opposite sides of the political spectrum and people that fall somewhere in the middle. We have people of all levels of income and stability. We have people who are married, single, divorced and widowed. We have different interests outside of the church, from golf to bridge, from volunteering to competing, from socializing to reading. We are all very different people.

And yet we all come together for one reason. For Christ. Under Christ we are united as one. And yes, we have different strengths and different callings, but because we are united as one those strengths and callings work towards the same purpose.

If we all were hands, there would be a lot of cooking and cleaning that would get done in a church, but no one would be able to teach others about Christ. If we were all mouths, we would spend hours talking theology and praising God, but the building would fall down around our ears. If we all were feet we would head out in the world share the gospel, but no one would stay at home to make sure the gospel was lived out in our own backyards.

We need to be different! We actually can do more if all of us are different than if we were all the same. When we fight because not everyone agrees with us, we take away the rich diversity of this body God created. We diminish our strengths and scopes when we all try to look the same. We don’t have to all think the same, because what unites us is Christ.

In the classic movie Muppets Take Manhattan, Kermit and his friends try to start a show on Broadway. There is of course, a series of misadventures and in the course of them, the muppets meet several new friends. At the end of the movie when they are finally about to put on their big show,  Fozzie Bear asks “Hey, Kermit. Can our friends watch the show from backstage?”

And Kermit replies,  “What? No! No, they cannot watch the show from backstage. That’s it! That’s what’s been missing from the show! That’s what we need! More frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and… and whatever! You’re not gonna watch the show, you’re gonna be in the show! Come on, everyone!”

We are all part of the body of Christ! Without all of us in all of our differences, something is missing. The body is only complete in our glorious diversity.

As part of one body, that means that the health and well-being of the other members of the body matter to our own well being. When we sprain an ankle, it isn’t only the ankle that suffers. It is our whole self. And our whole self works together to help out that ankle. We use crutches, allowing our arms to take some of the weight off the injured part. We elevate the foot, helping it to heal.

And we should do the same with the members of our Christian body. When one of our members is hurting, it affects us all. We all must reach out to help  the ones who are suffering. Sometimes that means going and sitting with a member who is grieving, or visiting someone in the hospital. Sometimes it is offering a ride for someone who can’t get around by themselves. Other times it is offering a helping hand to someone who is having trouble staying on their feet, or a gift to help cover a disaster.

When one suffers, we all suffer, and when we heal, we all heal together. Paul is saying that we need one another. He is not saying merely that the poor need the rich, the sick need the healthy, and the weak need the strong to protect or rescue them; he’s saying that we all need one another. There is no one to whom the Spirit has not given gifts that needed by all of us.

Yes, you might be thinking, but it is hard to work with people we disagree with. It is hard to get along with people who are so different from us, yet we have to work together in unity.

Easier said than done.

Which is why we are not a perfect body yet. We still have a long way to go before we are the body Christ envisioned, but we will get there. And in the meantime, Christ uses us. The theologian Frederick Buechner once said, “God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.”  We are not perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do what Christ is calling us to do.

Are we always going to work together perfectly? No, but we can work towards that. We can get better at accepting differences. We can become a more united body for Christ.

I saw a shirt at a conference once. One of the younger people there was wearing it and causing a stir in the people who saw him. The front of the T-shirt, the side people read as they approach, said, “I don’t go to church.” On the back, the side you read when you turn around after passing that provocative message, it said, “I am the church.” Church is not a place to go. It is the people united together.. Church is what we are. I am part of the Body of Christ.

And so are you.

01-17-16 PREDESTINED FOR LIFE

PREDESTINED FOR LIFE

Romans 8: 28-30

When the Rev. Cara Gee and her group visit Geneva Switzerland this May, it is likely that they will see the stone monument to some of the Reformers of the Protestant Reformation.  They will see the statues of William Farel, of John Calvin, of Theodore Beza, and John Knox. Those men are some of the greats in the Reformed Hall of Fame. For what are they famous? First and foremost, they are famous for insisting on our lives being guided by the Word of God. In their day, to be fair, Bibles were rare and the ability to read Bibles in Latin were only for trained eyes. But these men insisted that the church, and the lives of Christians, be guided by Almighty God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In backing up their claim, they put their money where their mouth was. They read Scripture; poured over Scripture; and preached Scriptural Sermons. Calvin, in fact, wrote a 22 volume set on the books of the Bible. Although not complete because of his death, what he wrote was a line-by-line exposition and explanation of each passage: how invaluable! Thanks be to God for the Reformers.

Of all the books that have been studied over the years, Paul’s letter to the Romans is a masterpiece of Christian theology. Not only John Calvin and John Knox, but also Martin Luther in Germany and others found great insights in those words. Luther is best known of his declaration that “the just shall live by faith” as found in Romans chapter 1. In other words, the righteous are saved through faith, not through good works or deeds: a groundbreaking rediscovery in its day. And John Calvin also found great hope and comfort in today’s first lesson: Romans 8: 28-30. That is one of his main sources for the doctrine of Predestination. He didn’t make it up the idea; he found it in the Bible! Today, let’s consider what predestination is, and what it is not.

William Stacy Johnson Association Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary, has written a book entitled JOHN CALVIN: REFORMER FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. In it he has these two insightful definitions:  Predestination, he says is:

The belief that God has given humanity a heavenly destiny; a future that God alone secures. Predestination teaches that God does not create us and then abandon us to our own devices. Instead, God guides the elect in ways that allow the exercise of human free will, while also enabling the faithful to move reliably toward a heavenly destiny.

Dr. Johnson goes on with another definition, often confused with predestination.  This is what predeterminism is:

The idea, often mistaken for predestination, that God has already orchestrated every event in our future, eliminating our ability to choose our own actions.

That is what predestination is not, but how many people are under the assumption that it is? Because of Presbyterians’ emphasis on the greatness of God (often called the Sovereignty of God), some people have assumed that we don’t believe that human beings have free will. Wrong. Nothing about what Paul wrote in the Bible, or Calvin wrote in his commentaries, says that.  As a child at a party or a youth at a camp, did you ever play “Telephone?” It was when participants would form a line or a circle, and the first person would whisper a message to the second person. That person would whisper what he or she heard to the next person, and so on. By the end of the chain, the person would report the message, one that was almost never what the first person said! It got misinterpreted, or added to, or changed in some ways. I think people, over the years, have either never heard a correct definition of predestination before, or they have added to it or changed it! But let’s be clear: in his book MEET THE PRESBYTERIANS, Pat McGeahy says: “Presbyterians are not fatalists. We believe that God is in charge of the world, and that our destiny is safe in his hands, but we also believe that all persons are free and responsible, and ought to be obedient to him.” Presbyterian historian and author Walter Lingle has said “Presbyterians believe that God has an eternal plan which is so comprehensive that it embraces the whole universe, including earth, heaven, and hell.”  And the Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us: the decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Even with all those words, human beings still make choices. As God said, recorded in Deuteronomy 30: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God….” Thus it has always been with God, and it still is.

When John Calvin interpreted and emphasized these magnificent words of the Apostle Paul, he did so for one main reason:

He said, Predestination was meant to be a doctrine of comfort, not of fear. It was meant to take away the fear embodied in the voice in some people’s heads: “Am I saved, or not?” Some fret about that; some do good works in the hopes of earning salvation. But clearly in the Bible, salvation is a gift; a gift that we carry with us not just until death, but also into life beyond death. In his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 1, Paul also wrote this about God: “He chose us in [Christ] before the foundations of the world; …he destined us in love to be his children through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” It is a great comfort to know that God loves us with an everlasting love. God loves us so much that he gave salvation and eternal life through those who believe in and follow Jesus.  Predestination was meant to be a doctrine of comfort, not of fear.

You might have heard the story of an ocean liner that was tossing and turning during very high seas in the North Atlantic. People were holding on to hand rails as dishes shattered on the ground. Some were afraid they would perish and were drinking heavily. Others were thinking about heading to life boats. In the chaos, a woman passed by the children’s playroom where a young girl was sitting and playing with some toys. The woman stopped and said to her, “Young lady, aren’t you frightened?” “No” the girl replied. “For Heaven’s sake, the woman asked, “Why aren’t you afraid?” And the girl paused and looked at the woman and said: “Because my father’s the captain.” That is one way to be at peace in this world. As the second line of the hymn “For All the Saints” says about Jesus: “Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might; thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight; thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light: Alleluia! Alleluia!

In the last book of the Bible, Jesus is called “the Lamb” because of the high price placed on his sacrifice for us on the cross. So we are saved by grace through our Lord Jesus Christ. But how are we judged?  Judgment is still left to God, but Jesus is given great power in that decision. Mainline Christians are not Universalists who believe that everyone ends up in Heaven and no other place. Can you imagine those who maim or murder or rape or steal or abuse—who never repent or turn to the Lord Jesus—being  forever together with the saints of heaven? No. There is a judgment; Jesus described it in places such as Matthew chapter 25. How will it happen? How will our lives be graded? If we get Fs in school, it is a failing grade and one cannot graduate. That is the judgment of the system. But sometimes people are given a chance to retake a test or redo a paper. And sometimes everyone does so poorly on a final exam that the normal 70 out of 100 that would constitute a failing grade would mean the entire class has failed. Occasionally, then, grading adjustments are made. That’s when grace, or mercy, can save a class, or a student. So a grading curve might be put in place that changes what it takes to fail, … or pass.  By such gracious actions some graduate, while others are left behind.

Most of the time we define predestination as the act of God appointing some people to Heaven and appointing some people to Darkness. But if God is not locked by time as we are, what might God see about our final destiny? Jesus explained it so we could understand it; he revealed it to John in Revelation 20:12, and 21: 27. Listen especially to 20:12: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life.” God, who is eternal and without beginning or end, (picture a circle and not a line), is not locked by time as we are. Does it follow in your mind that God could have the chance to look in the pages of our Book of Life the way some habitually read the last chapter of a book first?  Could it be that our Lord does not control us like puppets on strings, nor abandons us when we make poor choices, but is able to see the choices we make in life; then, with great gladness, says to those who are saved by grace; who have demonstrated great gratitude: “I have seen the choices you are making; they are good choices! You will be with me in Paradise.” And God, in finding those who honor Christ with their choices, will also find those whose choices do not honor Christ, and others who aggressively fight against him or seek to constantly deny him.  Who among those persons should be in Paradise in the next life, when they have had no use for Christ in this life or have actively fought against him? So with great sadness, God sees the choices some make in their life, including the choices made by those to whom he gave second chances. But to those who do not change or repent, life as they know it ceases upon death. God grants the requests of those who have had no use for a Creator or Redeemer. With a holy tear, God with a heavy heart, dismisses those to darkness, the place of the dead, who even grace and love could not change.

Jesus never breaks down the door of a human heart. But the offer of a relationship with him is always extended. Like a farmer, preachers plant seeds of the Good News of Jesus Christ, hoping they will take root in the soil of human hearts, watered generously by the Holy Spirit.

Predestination does not take away your free will; it says that the God, who is omnipotent, longs for you to choose life, and to choose Heaven. But most importantly, God wants you to be so comforted by the knowledge that we are saved, that we can spend our lives writing good chapters in the Book of Life, chapters with Christ-like actions and days working for peace and justice and showing love. Jesus is still calling his disciples to come and follow him. Will you follow him in this life, or continue to follow him, so you can join him in the next life as well?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                        January 17, 2016

01-10-16 HEARING ENCOURAGING WORDS

“HEARING ENCOURAGING WORDS”

Luke 3: 15-17; 21-22

Very few things are as powerful to the human spirit as encouragement. Encouragement: “the action of giving someone support, confidence, or hope.”  Encouragement is the opposite of discouragement, which is having one’s spirit, or enthusiasm, pulled away. That’s when the rug gets pulled out from under your self-worth. Encouragement, on the other hand, can lead to inspiration—that is, getting Heaven-sent new ideas; and motivation—that is, being driven to move forward on a task, instead of staying stuck. Encouragement can be a physical action—like a pat on the back or thumbs up; or it can be an attitude of belief in someone else. Many people can sense encouragement—or the lack of it—by one’s expression, posture, or demeanor. It is what’s called “metatalk,” communicating through actions instead of words.  But words are by far the most powerful means of encouragement. Take, for example, the words of many popular songs.  Pop singer Mariah Carey years ago, was beaten down and emotionally broken. Then she decided to express her renewed confidence with words like her song “Hero:” Words like these:

There’s a hero, if you look inside your heart, you don’t have to be afraid of what you are; there’s an answer, if you reach into your soul, and the sorrow that you know will melt away. And then a hero comes along, with the strength to carry on, and you cast your fears aside, and you know you can survive. So when you feel like hope is gone, look inside you and be strong, and you’ll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you.

Or Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings:”

Did you ever know that you’re my hero

And everything I would like to be?

I can fly higher than an eagle

For you are the wind beneath my wings.

It was C.S. Lewis who said: “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

And philosopher Eckhart Tolle has said:

Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.

Sentiments of encouragement come from many sources. There is even a cowboy song that many grew up hearing:

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam,

Where the deer and the antelope play,

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,

And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Haven’t most of us hoped for encouraging words and tried to avoid discouraging words much of our lives? People who haven’t found their sense of blessing in life may search the Scriptures for comfort, especially when they feel hopeless or discouraged. There they might find these passages:

“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to bless you and not to harm you; to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11. Or “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31. Or “We know that all things work together for good with those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.

There is a child in each of us—not just if we are 2 or 3, but also if we are 22 or 23, or 72 or 73. That child longs especially to hear encouraging words from their parent: a father or a mother. That is the gold standard of encouragement. But—for reasons of personality conflicts or disfunctionality or absence—if one does not hear those words they long to hear; words like “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased,” then one searches to hear those words from someone else. Such a person might be a grandparent, mentor, teacher, coach, music director, pastor, a spouses, or others. Author Shel Silverstein has written a visual book about a circle. It was a Flintstone like stone circle that rolled down the road, bumping every time the circle rolled over the “slice of pie” shaped piece that was removed from the circle. And as the circle rolled, it sang: “Oh I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece, I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece.” I think our search for a source of encouragement is a search for our missing piece, and p-e-a-c-e. Sometimes we have to find those words of encouragement somewhere other than from a parent. But it is important to hear them from someone!

Our Lord did not start his ministry with a missing piece. A voice from Heaven called out to him when he was baptized, in the midst of a crowd of persons gathered in the waters along the banks of the Jordan River. Most people believe the voice that came from Heaven was from his Heavenly Father. If so, what a perfect blessing; what wonderful encouragement for the start of Jesus’ life of service: His Father said, in the presence of others, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased!” No words could have been more encouraging to our Lord than those, from a perfect source. And in giving that blessing, his Father gave him the strength to persevere, and a buffer against the discouragement that the devil would soon spew at him.  His Heavenly Father undergirded his Son, making him strong; strong enough to make his journey in the world.

Have you heard encouraging words from a parent; something one of them said clearly, stating that they loved you, appreciated you, or were proud of you? I hope so. But if not, find it from someone! The peace that will grow in your heart from that find will change your life. And it is not a stretch, as children of God, to imagine the encouraging words the Father offered to a special child being addressed to you! Imagine! God saying to you: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased!”  Hear them; let them soak in; and see where they can take you!  Sarcasm abounds in our world; competition can make you feel less than you are intended to be; and cutting comments can bring on discouraging feelings. Find your firm footing on Christ, the Solid Rock! He was strengthened by words of love, and he passed on encouragement to others. Words like:  “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” [John 20:21] Let the words soak in. Let the encouragement grow inside you! Keep listening to that voice, tuning out the others. As you do, you will be able to follow the path of wholeness and blessing more closely than ever before.  Between your focus on the encouraging words from the voice that is precious to you, and giving less value to the discouraging words from others,  may you find your way.

In so doing, you will find … your missing peace.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                January 10, 2016

01-03-16 A NEW YEAR, AN OLD REMINDER

A NEW YEAR, AN OLD REMINDER

John 1:1; 1016

Here we are again, just over the threshold of a new year. When you crossed over into other new years, into 2015, or 14, or 13 or much earlier, did you make New Year’s resolutions? How did those work out for you? Each year at this time is a moment, an evening, or a time when you are alone when you could say to yourself, and possibly to your Lord: “This year I will be different! This year I will be better! This year I will think about others more!” And so you do; or don’t. Which has it been? Or perhaps, sometime in your life, at the end of a church service, or at a summer camp, or at a Billy Graham Crusade, you became “saved,” or “born again.” After all this time, are you still living your life as a “saved” Christian;” or as a “born again” Christian?

Back in the 19th century—in 1843 to be exact—Charles Dickens looked at the deplorable conditions of the poor in England, and he saw what he called the miserly ways of the rich as well, and decided to write about both. Several of his novels, and novelettes, deal with the issue of poverty. He wrote Christmas stories and Christmas books, both. But only one has become famous regarding a changed life when one looks back over his years: “A Christmas Carol.” Ebenezer Scrooge, caricatured as a miserly businessman, famously scolds his employee, Bob Cratchit, for trying to put an extra lump of coal on the fire in Scrooge’s counting house and business office declaring coal to be “momentary,” while a coat may be worn for ever. As he could see his breath, and as the ink threatened to freeze in his inkwell, Bob Cratchit worked on. He hoped he might get some hours off for Christmas, which did not sit well with his employer. “Christmas is an excuse to pick a man’s pocket every year, and I resent it!” said Mr. Scrooge. Well, the story goes that ghosts—ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come—visited Scrooge in his dream one night, and what he saw changed him. If a ghost visited you, with a You-Tube video about how you were years ago, how you are now, and how you will be in the future if you stay on the same trajectory, would you change? Will you change this year? Do you have a reason to be better, be more thoughtful, be more kind? Or are such transformations just in the minds of story writers? Do we wonder how Ebenezer Scrooge, and how Bob Cratchit turned out years later? A new novelette, published by Viking Press this year, is called The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, by a Dickens’ specialist, Charlie Lovett. What an interesting short read. Scrooge continues giving to others joyfully until his money is nearly depleted, never failing to keep Christmas even in May or July of any year! Cratchit, on the other hand, fearing that the business is giving away more money than it is taking in, becomes like Dickens’ Scrooge, holding on to every penny he can, and working long hours, not because Scrooge makes him, but because he becomes obsessed with the money that he think he needs. He’s then visited by three Spirits, and, Oh well, the story is short and worth your read!

But today, reflect on your life. See if you can see what others see in you! Is it possible to make God, and “mankind” as Scrooge sang, your business even more in 2016?

We are blessed today to read the Christmas story from the philosopher of the Gospel writers; the literature expert; the one who loved to speak in metaphors. I ‘m talking about John. It has been said that John is the one gospel writer who “sets light against darkness, life against death, the kingdom of God against the kingdom of the devil, the children of God against the children of Satan, … [ Twelve Ordinary Men, John MacArthur, W Publishing Group, 2002, p. 97-98] He describes Jesus in ways that the other gospel writers don’t. Today we hear from John who tells us how Christmas not only changed people, Christmas changed God! Yes, I know that the book of Hebrews says that “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” but God, if you read closely, changes over the history of the Bible; or at least the way people report on God changes! At Christmas after years of watching the beloved people try to keep the covenants God offered—and fail to keep the covenants God offered—God decided to take on human flesh, to see what it was like to be tempted, what it felt like to be embraced, to experience growing up with guiding parents. And so God changed; God did not just stay in Heaven, or stay in, or on top of, the Ark of the Covenant. God changed. And because God came to earth as Jesus, the world has never been the same. John, the philosopher, the describer of who Jesus is, says: “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God. And the Word was God!… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; full of grace and truth.” Even God changed for the better! The infant son born to Mary was the extraordinary child who was God in the flesh! Christmas time is a wonder time to decide to change.

The Apostle Paul wrote like this in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Those who are in Christ become new creations! The past is finished and gone! Everything becomes fresh and new!” What can you do to put old wounds behind you? Who can you talk to to ask for forgiveness? What parts of your life need to change for the better? This is the time. You are about to take your first Holy Communion of the New Year! Let’s make it a good year; one that honors Jesus with new decisions to forgive, or to ask for forgiveness; and one that starts with a clean slate. May the world be truly better, because you are in it, in 2016.

Let us pray:

Dear Holy One: we greet the swiftly changing year with new crossroads and new choices: which will we take; which will we choose? Help us to choose life, and leave behind any ways that pull us away from your light. His name is Jesus.

In his name we can reach others in darkness, in 2016. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 3, 2016