Luke 13: 6-9

There is common wisdom associated with nature that sometimes gets shared as facts. For example, when we were going on vacations when I was growing up, my mother would look out the window and say, “Look! The cows are lying down. That means it’s about to rain.” I have since been told there’s really no connection between cows lying down and rain. But I still look to the sky when cows are lying down! There is an old saying “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” I am told there is some truth to that one. We can read what Jesus said about it in Matthew 16: 2-3. He says to the Pharisees, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’And in the morning, ’It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’” Jesus had numerous sayings and many parables. Many of them had to do with agriculture or the sky or the stars. But today’s text, and the one just read about the sky, both concern a theme that Jesus was always proclaiming: “Be ready; for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”  We in Florida, for example, can have a hard time discerning what season it is just by looking around. In the winter our days might be in the80s only dropping to the 50s at night. Up north when the leaves start to turn, people comment that fall is upon them; when the corn is ripe in the Midwest, it is summer; and when the cherry blossoms are in bloom in Washington D.C.,  it is spring. In Florida, how can we tell? Halloween items are on store shelves in August and Christmas items by the end of September! No wonder we’re all confused! But when it comes to our connection with God and our end of life issues, there should be clarity. Yes, gray hair or no hair might seem to indicate that life’s finish line is upon us, but plenty of persons, especially in our congregation, live well into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s. By contrast, we learned this month that a baby just minutes old, and young people their 20s, and some only in their fifties have died. Commercials on television tell young people what AARP aged people have already been learning: start saving early for retirement! But even though many young people do not do that, most young people are not thinking that one day sooner rather than later might be their last. Why am I talking like this? It is to be a voice in the wilderness saying, “It is never too early to put your spiritual house in order. No one on earth knows the day that will be their last.”  This parable today is about observing fig trees and, like a farmer or a good garden center person might advise, deciding when to cut it down.  I once told a church member that I thought we needed to cut down a tree on the church property because I thought it looked dead. He went out to look at it with me and showed me new life: little leaves, starting to grow. “This tree’s not done for,” he said. Give it a little time and it should come back.” And it did. We have to learn how to carefully read the signs about the Kingdom of God in our lives.

Israel, as we are learning in Disciple 1 class, was an unfaithful nation to God. Israel put other gods first and often; they forgot about the social care for others that the statutes commanded them to observe; and they often thought of themselves as blessed instead of in need. Jesus joins his Heavenly Father in his concern for Israel’s faithfulness; might our Lord have concerns about our nation as well? Jesus often taught in parables: an effective tool that invited people to come to their own good conclusions rather than have Jesus just say them plainly. Today it is about a fig tree, but it is really about the people of God: then and now.  If you have been to Israel, you know that figs are everywhere. When we were in Jericho I was given a free sample of a fig. I didn’t think I would like it. Having been proved wrong, I bought a bag of them! Figs in Israel are generally grown in vineyards along with grapes. The vineyard is tended by a farmer or vinedresser. Often Israel is compared to a vineyard: if plants are healthy, they get watered, tended, and cared for so they can produce more. If the vineyard has plants that start dying, for whatever reason, the vinedresser or farmer, perhaps with careful observance and abundant grace, might give them a season to rest and then see if they produce fruit. According our text, the man looks for fruit on his fig tree for three years. He had then concludes that it should be cut it down. But upon advice from his vinedresser, he offers abundant grace and patience instead. “Let it alone sir for one more year; let me give it extra water and care, then let’s see if it bears fruit. If not, then you can cut it down.” Can you hear that message? It’s really not a garden center message. It’s a God message. Looking at Israel, or perhaps looking at our nation, or at you, or at me, some spouses, some parents, some voters, or some employers say to themselves: “Why should I continue in this relationship! I am so exasperated! I am just going to end it.” But before you do, perhaps you’ll go home, kneel by your bed, and consult the vinedresser. Later that night perhaps you’ll hear this answer: “Let it alone my child, for a period of time. Let my Spirit tend to the person or the issue that troubles you. Let me water the dry places. Then let’s see if there is change. Give it some time. If there is no change, and you and I have tried everything, then, sadly, we can let the relationship lapse.”

Israel was trying the last nerve of their prophets, but also the last nerve of their God and our God! But because God is omnipotent and God is eternal, God has a reserve of amazing grace that is beyond human reserves. So God, although not infinitely patient, is a God of second chances. When one hears God and has a change of heart, the vinedresser looks at our heart, like a man looks at the branches of a tree and sees new life there, and like the man I described who saw new leaves on a dead looking tree. So the wise vinedresser does what anyone might do trying to cultivate a sick plant: he gives it a little extra attention. And then he’ll see if it comes back.

Don’t be lulled into complacency by God’s apparent grace. God also believes in, and has demonstrated resurrection. That is, when necessary, God will allow something or someone to die, knowing that something or someone new and vibrant can come along. It is not heartless; it is purposeful. God will work his purpose out through us, or—if we are lazy or disengaged—in spite of us. God’s business is to redeem the world, and it sadly needs redeeming! God want us, in the name of Jesus, to help transform the kingdoms of this world to become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, who will eventually reign forever and ever! But for now, the great gardener, is giving us the parable of the fig tree for today. There are some people and some places in our world that look dead for Christ. No one can tell by their actions whether or not they are followers of Jesus or not. As one person once asked pointedly: “If you were ever put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Our gardener has a hoe, a trowel, and a rake. Our gardener has a barn where the crop may be safely stored or cured. But out gardener also has fire that will burn up the chaff: that which is no longer productive or worthwhile. Listen to the teachings of Jesus. Learn from the lesson of the fig tree. It is so much more than a lesson about figs.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 28, 2016



Luke 13: 31-35

My friend and professor Dr. Kathleen O’ Connor wrote these words, born out of her personal experience with her husband’s illness. In her book Lamentations and the Tears of the World, she writes:

I began working on [this book] the year my husband Jim was receiving extensive infusions in the oncology room of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. He has a neuropathy, not cancer, but at the time the outcome of his treatments seemed as uncertain as if it were cancer. …In the infusion center, a United Nations of the ill surrounded us. Old and young people from many racial and ethnic backgrounds were fighting for their lives.  Grief and fear, resignation and hope resided in the room together, overlapping, interlacing, and struggling with each other. On various days, among other patients one emotion might prevail over the other, but not for long. Soon the uneasy alliances between hope and dread, anger and impatience reasserted themselves, as if the room required these pendulum swings to remain upright. [Orbis Books, 2002, p. xiii]

It was in that crucible of pain her husband was experiencing, and the helplessness Kathleen was experiencing, that she opened her Bible and began her intensive study of the book of Lamentations. It is sometimes called the Lamentations of Jeremiah, but it is a book where those in sorrow, despair, or anger might turn. The other biblical book where many turn is the Psalms, where we find dozens of Psalms of Lament. Ann Weems, for example, found guidance in the Psalms as she lost her son a day after his 21st birthday. Ann is a Presbyterian elder and author. The book she wrote in response to her grief is fifty poems modeled after the Psalms in the Bible. But hers are personal. And they were therapeutic to her. She called her book simply Psalms of Lament. What exactly is a lament? Kathleen taught me that “Laments are prayers that erupt from wounds, burst out of unbearable pain, and bring it to language. Laments complain, shout, and protest. They take anger and despair before God and the community. They grieve. They argue. They find fault. Without complaint there is no lament form. Although laments appear disruptive of God’s world, they are acts of fidelity. In vulnerability and honesty, they cling obstinately to God and demand for God to see, to hear, and to act.” [O’ Connor, p. 9]  The picture I showed the children today, of Jewish people gathered at the Western Wall of the ancient Temple of God, was of people pleading with, complaining to, and crying out to God, unafraid for the world to hear their pain. They were lamenting. And they have come to that wall to pray and to lament since before the birth of Christ. It is a powerful witness to the Christian, and to the secular person.

Why? Because what our Jewish friends do, and what the Psalms insist that we do, is to never cut God out of our lives when bad things happened to good people. Rabbi Harold Kushner taught that, even with the untimely death of his young son to progeria. In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner, even in his pain, refused to deny the existence of God, or even the goodness of God. He found another way of solace. That is so Jewish, and it is so therapeutic for Christians and secular people. Too many others, in their grief, decide that there is no god, or that God is not good, or that God does not care, or that they will never come to church again or never pray to God again. And so they stay stuck in their grief, self-mutilating the lifeline that they could have had with their Lord. But Jews don’t do that. Instead, they lament. They argue with God, the shout at God, and weep in the presence of God. But they do not dismiss God from their lives. That is the power, and the therapeutic nature, of laments. They keep people engaged with God, even in their sorrow.

Listen to this translation of Psalm 13, the first lesson for today, as translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell:

How long will this pain go on, Lord, this grief I can hardly bear?

How long will anguish grip me and agony wring my mind?

Light up my eyes with your presence; let me feel your love in my bones.

Keep me from losing myself in ignorance and despair.

Teach me to be patient, Lord; teach me to be endlessly patient.

Let me trust that your love enfolds me when my heart feels desolate and dry.

(And then his last line the Psalmist turns into a witness to others.)

I will sing to the Lord at all times, even from the depths of pain.

We have a most unusual lament from the lips of Jesus today. He is complaining, yes; he is, in a manner, chastising. But he does not dismiss the people of Jerusalem from his care. He stays engaged with them, trying to save them. This lament, said aloud within earshot of Pharisees and others, sounded like this: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings ….” [Luke 13:34]

Jesus, I believe deliberately, depicts God as a mother hen protecting her brood, while Jesus rebukes Herod, who he calls “that fox.” The chickens are protected from the fox.

Like the line in our opening hymn said with such conviction, “The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, that all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”  That’s what God said to Jerusalem in that feminine image Jesus used: “Would a hen not gather her brood under her wings for protection against the predator? That’s what I do with you!” In laments, even in the Bible, we focus on the voices of those in anguish without hearing responses from God. Hear that! Even in the Bible, in Lamentations and in the Psalms, we have no record of God’s response to their lament. But they never stop returning to God. And God never, no never, no never forsakes them even when their world has gone dark. That’s the power of knowing Scripture and believing in the character and the steadfastness of God. It keeps us from turning away from our help, from the Lord, who made Heaven and Earth. It would be like a person in the middle of the ocean falling overboard from a great ship and turning away from the tethered life ring that is thrown to him. It would be like an astronaut, working outside of a space station, his only source of life in cold space, and cutting his tether and drifting off into darkness. Those who cut ties with God, in part because they don’t see how a good God could allow their bad thing to happen, cut themselves off from their source of life, of learning and of redemption. They are left with a bitter mix of feelings in their head that further isolate themselves from others and from their Maker.

But alas, even the Psalms speak to those who might be having those feelings.

Listen to this translation of part of Psalm 87. Addressing God, it says,

“You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit, into the dark abyss.

Upon me, your wrath lies heavy, and with all your billows, you overwhelm me…. Companion and neighbor you have taken away from me: my only friend, is darkness.” [Confraternity Version]

Beloved: I am so sorry for the loss you have experienced , or the one you are experiencing now. I cannot imagine what you have gone through or are still going through. What I can do is throw you the lifeline to which all of my education and my experience has taught me to cling: the message that God loves you; even weeps with you, and will never, never, forsake you. It is my offer to you of hope; it is Scripture’s offer that I take in faith; and it is God’s offer of love to you, even in times of lament.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  February 21, 2016


Luke 4: 1-13

In his review of a film, a man named Scott Higgins gives an encapsulation of the plot with an evil main character:

In the mid 1990’s the movie Devil’s Advocate was released starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. Keanu plays Kevin Lomax, a happily married and very successful lawyer in America’s South. Down in the South he’s a man of integrity who’s focused on what’s important in life. Then he’s offered a job in the Big Apple, New York, with a worldwide law firm. Kevin and his wife move to New York only to find Kevin being seduced by the atmosphere of greed, sex and power that surrounds the firm, and more particularly it’s owner, John Milton, played by Al Pacino.

But we soon discover that there is more to this movie than the age old theme of greed versus goodness. The plot is much more sinister. It turns out that John Milton is in fact the Devil, a devil who has learned to despise God and embrace self-satisfaction.

During the movie the Devil lets us in on his plan to seduce humanity. “You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire; you build egos the size of cathedrals; fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse; grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold-plated fantasies, until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own god… And as we’re straddling from one deal to the next, who’s got his eye on the planet, as the air thickens, the water sours, and even the bees’ honey takes on the metallic taste of radioactivity? And it just keeps coming, faster and faster. There’s no chance to think, to prepare; its buy futures, sell futures, when there is no future!

“Look at me” cries the Devil, “underestimated from Day One! You’d never think I was a master of the universe, now, would you? I’m a surprise, Kevin. They don’t see me coming: that’s what you’re missing.”

Whether you believe in an actual devil or not, the Bible describes the devil encountering Jesus. In today’s passage, Jesus tangles with the devil. Was the devil in a vision, or a dream, or as clear as you and me? Who knows for sure? What we do know is how Jesus reacted to his three offers. Today, let’s consider how we would react to enticements from the devil.

First, Jesus is tempted with food. I can’t imagine how hungry Jesus was after being in a wilderness for forty days. Luke reports that “he had nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry.” [Luke 4:2] Mary Ann and I started a 21 day cleanse 12 days ago. She is doing it for weight loss; I’m doing it to try to bring my diabetes blood sugar numbers down. So since day one, in addition to organic shakes with a bad taste, we have lived off of raw vegetables, fruit, and water. Our one and only indulgence? Two cups of coffee a day with almond milk! And we added meat yesterday! Happily, Mary Ann has lost 10 pounds in the process! Sadly, in the eyes of my trainer, I have lost 9 that I can ill afford to lose! But my point is: both of us have to snack on vegetables and drink water all day to survive! Temptation is powerful! The temptation to eat is especially difficult for some. There are people with conditions like Anorexia or Bulimia who can be chronically tempted by food. It will often take determination, and a plan, and prayers to avoid foods that will set off or irritate organs in their body. But what about those who have no food to eat; who are starving? What is their temptation? Nathan Philbrick’s book In the Heart of the Sea has recently been made into a film. Prepare yourself if you read it or see it. It is the tragedy of the whaleship Essex. The true story was the basis for Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick. But Melville ended his book with the sinking of the Pequod; Philbrick’s tale begins with the sinking of the Essex. What does it lead to? Among other stomach-churning choices was cannibalism: the decision of whether or not to devour another human being to survive.  What do men do in times of desperation, such as in Philbrick’s story, or Laura Hillenbrand’s story Unbroken, when men were starving on a raft, when desperate times called for desperate measures? Only when we imagine such events can we get a picture of the hunger our Lord Jesus might have had. The devil offered him bread; not insects; not berries; but bread! How tempting a piece of bread must have seemed. And yet our Lord said no. It was not just about eating. It was about giving in to an extortionist called the devil.  Giving in to extortion or blackmail virtually never frees a person from being leveraged again. What would you do if offered food by the greatest extortionist in the world, one who would demand your very soul for a piece of bread? Jesus said “no.”

Second, Jesus is tempted by power. “The devil took him up, and showed him the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you will worship me, it shall all be yours.’”

It seems like some people in our world—often people in film, or fashion, or finance—might be talked into doing things they’d rather not do for a paycheck. They weigh the choice in their mind, deciding if they should take the bait. Few would admit, or even consider, that one of the voices of temptation in their head is the devil. After all, the extortionist says to them, “Don’t worry! Its just business;” or It’s the price of doing business.” What is the price? Is it financial extortion? Is it sexual favors? Is it nudity? Is it bowing down to a handler or a manager? I’m afraid that the event in Luke chapter 4 did not just happen in a wilderness to Jesus long ago. Through the ages, the devil has still appeared to countless numbers of people trying to by their soul and their allegiance.  It happened to people then, and it still happens now!  We call it crime or we call it corruption, and some people just call it “business.” But it is evil; it is the devil, extorting or threatening someone else for fame. With fame comes power. And power comes with a price. Jesus said “no.”

Finally, the devil asked Jesus to test God. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge over you, to guard you.’” Goodness! The devil can even quote Scripture! Yes; even those who quote Scripture can become filled with an evil spirit. Yes, Scripture is a tool not just used by Jesus, it was also used by others against him: and sometimes it is used against his followers. What is your best defense against the devils of the world that quote Scripture? Your best defense is to know Scripture. When I was younger in the 1970s, a film came out that terrified me: The Exorcist. Even as a church-going teenager, I didn’t have a command of Scripture like I do now, so I let a movie make me think the devil was stronger than God. It was terrifying to think that I had no defense against such a dark force. And several years later a movie called The Omen told a fictional account based of the Anti-Christ being born on earth and living among us; a person who had a 6-6-6 sign of the devil tattooed under his hairline. Again, I let a movie make me believe that someone called the Anti-Christ was stronger than God. So I studied, I prayed, and finally I became a minister and have found, to the relief of my younger sleepless nights, that such Hollywood stories no longer have power over me! And as a man of God I’m telling you—inviting you—to not let them have power over you! Hold fast to God Almighty! The devil and his henchmen and devilish women may get the front lines of the press, and make fodder for Hollywood, and be hot on the news feeds, and go around the world on the internet, but God is stronger than any force of evil! Any light dispels darkness! Every bit of dark in our world fades in the Light of Christ! Don’t let darkness corner you; don’t let darkness take over. Darkness is not satisfied until your submission fills the needs of selfish people. Darkness will not let go until it drags you into your grave. Do not let darkness win! Do not let the evil one win! There are many tricks in the tempter’s trade. But Jesus said “no.” You say no too! And if you need the strength to say no, get help to do so.  First and foremost, make sure you know your Bible; don’t let others quote lines from it for reasons of twisted coercion. And second, Godly people and others on the side of right stand at the ready to extricate you from situations where you feel trapped.

The devil threw everything he could think of at Jesus to tempt him, and Jesus said, “No.” Go and do likewise.

Let us pray:

Almighty God of Power and Might: sometimes the world, and the media, undersells you. Dirt and darkness sells, after all. Remind us that in the backdrop of our heinous world, you are waiting; you are watching; and for those who call on you, you will act, most evidently with the light of Christ.

Save those who call on you now and take away the fears of repercussions from the dark side. In Jesus’ name, the Light of the World. Amen.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           February 14, 2016



Exodus 34: 29-35; Luke 9: 28-36

Each of you here today has, at one time of another, perhaps thought about the day you meet your Maker. Some think they will only see God after death, because in the book of Exodus we read that “Mortal man cannot gaze upon me and live.” Others believe they will meet their Maker, or their Lord Jesus, at the precise time of their death. But maybe, just maybe, we can encounter the presence of God even while we are in this lifetime. Could it be that the Kingdom of God breaks into our world and is evident if we have the eyes to see?  Jesus’ whole message, especially as recorded in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels, demonstrated that. There is evidence of it even in our world. The Kingdom of God is not just evident in Heaven. Jesus ushered in the Kingdom of God and did not take it with him when he died and arose from the dead. He left it. God remained with his people in part through his powerful Holy Spirit. That Spirit may appear, with a metaphorical glow, in unexpected places. Some of you, I’m sure, have had times when you mightily felt the presence of God; or the brush of angel’s wings; or you glimpsed God’s glory. It is surely an awesome thing; one that can send a chill through your skin. It may be after a disaster, or in a hospital room, in a worship service, or with others in local mission work when you say to yourself: “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” Holy Communion is but one time set up to bring the mortal—you and me—into the presence of the Holy—God in three persons: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; or traditionally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Listen to these words by the great preacher Phillips Brooks:

The life which we are living now is more aware than we know of the life which is to come.  Death, which separates the two, is not, as it is often pictured, like a great thick wall. It is rather like a soft and yielding curtain, through which we cannot see, but which is always waving and trembling with the impulses that come out of the life which lies upon the other side of it. We are never wholly unaware that the curtain is not the end of everything. Sounds come to us muffled and dull, but still indubitably real, through its thin folds.  Every time that a new soul passes through that veil from mortality to immortality, it seems as if we heard its light footfalls for a moment, after the jealous curtain has concealed it from our sight. As each soul passes, it almost seems as if the opening of the curtain to let it through were going to give us a sight of the unseen things beyond; and though we are forever disappointed, the shadowy expectation always comes back to us again, when we see the curtain stirred by another friend’s departure.  After our friend has passed, we can almost see the curtain, which he stirred, moving, tremulously for awhile, before it settles once more into stillness.

Perhaps at the service for a loved one, or after a service, you have felt God’s presence, or sought the face of your Lord Jesus. Holy Communion, the Supper of our Lord, is by its very nature the time for the unholy to meet the Holy; the mortal to meet the Divine; and for those on the other side of death to be brought mysteriously but certainly into the realm of friends and family left behind. It is, as we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed, “The Communion of Saints.” This is one of the special times on earth for the curtain that separates us to flutter aside, allowing the loved ones of heaven, the angels of heaven, and the light of Heaven to peek into our realm, and for the Lord Jesus to be our Host. Light, on a day like this, might be flooding through the cracks in the floorboards of Heaven for us to see, or at least notice.

In today’s Scripture readings, we heard examples of the veil of separation between Heaven and earth being pulled aside to let some see God’s glory. In the Exodus story it was Moses who encountered God; his encounter was so profound, and so close, that the Bible says that the “skin of Moses’s face shone” after he came down the mountain. People saw it, and were amazed. In Luke’s Gospel, it is Jesus who shines with a bright whiteness known as the transfiguration: a time when God’s glory is revealed, and God’s voice is heard. And there, an even more amazing thing happened: two of God’s greatest prophets, Moses and Elijah, who had died long before, also appeared as Scripture says “in glory.” Then the voice of God came out of a cloud saying: This is my Son, my chosen. Listen to him!” In both Exodus and Luke, God spoke. Some of his chosen ones were his audience, and the effects of that encounter lasted well past the moment.

Today in this Sacrament of Holy Communion, what would happened if those words that were spoken were super-imposed on our gathering? The Holy words would not just be addressed to Peter, James and John, but to you, and to me. With Jesus as our focus, the instruction would come to us: “This is my Son; my chosen. Listen to him!”  Each time that we are a part of Holy Communion, we have historically believed that Jesus is not just being talked about; he is present with us. It is an encounter with holiness. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” And so he is.

On so many dimensions, we may encounter God today; not on a mountain, but in a space set aside to welcome both you and God’s holiness. At a table; not a kitchen table, but a dining table that we call the Lord’s Table. Today it is the risen Christ that invites you to this meal, who will teach you if you are willing, and who will feed you.

Some day, those who love Jesus will see him with their own eyes. Often it is known as Judgment Day, a day that comforts some and confronts others. Make the changes in your life so that that day, whenever it comes, will be a day of great joy for you, and for Jesus.

Let us pray:

Holy God: it is too much for us to witness your brightness and radiance; yet we still seek your face. When we seek first your Kingdom and righteousness, the rest will fall in line. We prepare our hearts now for the mystic sweet communion that is before us. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 7, 2016