Monthly Archives: June 2016

06-26-16 HEARING FROM GOD

HEARING FROM GOD

Isaiah 6; 1-8; Matthew 3:13-17

Often times children hear with what is called “the third ear.” It means that while they are fidgeting, or squirming, or looking bored, they still hear what is being said. Try telling a secret around them! That’s one of the reasons Mary Ann and I so strongly believe in having children in church. They can color on paper we provide, or they can squirm, but they will learn intuitively. Conversely, many adults learn cognitively better. That means that adults are best at reading books and learning from them, and children are best at being in a sensory setting and learning from it. Yet we so often put children in front of books and adults in sensory settings where they might even dose off for lack of focus! So it is actually very efficient to have children in worship instead of off in some enrichment setting. They learn what it’s like to be in “big church.” When they get to confirmation age, as each of our VBS youth leaders already achieved, they’ll be familiar with the songs, the order of service, and the affirmations. It is so much better than dropping a middle schooler in the deep end of the liturgical pool without getting them used to the water. Having children in worship gets them used to the worship waters.

Conversely, although we have taught your children and grandchildren this week with crafts, science experiments, games, and Bible stories, they are not the only ones who can benefit from them. You adults can benefit from them too! This week on Facebook I posted a picture of a clergymen in a robe giving announcements to his congregation. He said this: “Recently I’ve had complaints that my sermons were too intellectual. The following adults are invited to come up for the children’s sermon!” Ask any of the adults who were here all this week and they’ll tell you how enjoyable it can be to learn about the Bible in concrete ways rather than abstract ways! It was like a week-long children’s sermon! We were all reminded of Bible stories in fresh ways and were told some of the great actions God does on our behalf. So welcome to this special message! Our theme verse was from Nehemiah 4:14 “Remember, that the Lord is Great and Awesome!”

Let’s begin. On day one we naturally took students to not only the beginning of the Bible, but also the beginning of the world. We learned that “God creates.” We saw the creation story of Genesis 1 acted out and learned that God not only created, but is still creating! There are new things in our world as the Creator keeps sharing the splendor of created things!  And we anchored our beliefs with the words from Psalm 8: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” We learned that the Lord not only loves our praise, but that the Lord God is also worthy of praise! The children told us that the reason they most often prayed to God was to ask for something. Our lessons invited them to also praise and to thank God! Parents often hear a string of questions and requests from their children. How happy and uplifted parents become when their children thank them or show them their love, not just ask for things! God wants that too! Our Creator longs to hear from us, not just at a nightly grace, but also in prayers through the day.

On day two we taught students a story from the second book of the Bible. We told them the first book of the Bible is Genesis, which means “beginning.” The second book of the Bible is Exodus which means “exit,” reminding readers of how God delivered his people through the parted waters of the Red Sea. But our story centered on the Nile River, the great river of Egypt, where God acted to allow his special child, Moses, to not only be safe, but also to be raised by his very own mother, a Hebrew woman! It was, as we learned, “amazing!”  God does so many amazing things! And that day we learned that “God helps.” Our verse was a Psalm of David, when God helped him get away from an enemy. When that happened, David said to God in Psalm 18: “Your help has made me great!” Of course we learned that we are never as great as God is, but God helps us when we are in need.

Day three was Wednesday and picture Day! The children were reminded, as I remind you, “God loves.” In our drama we took the children to the Jordan River and let them watch John the Baptist baptize Jesus. They also saw how a dove, representing God’s Holy Spirit, came and landed on Jesus just after he was baptized! Then a voice from Heaven said: “This is my son, who I dearly loved; I am well pleased with him.”  That was from Matthew chapter 3. The children thought Jesus must have been so comforted to hear those words from his Heavenly Father. They also decided it’s wonderful when they hear words like that from their parents and grandparents! Finally that day, they learned that love is more than a word, it is an action! So together they offered ways they could show more love: by helping to clear their place after meals, by helping to make their beds, or by sharing their toys or other items with their brother or sister.

Day 4 took us to the Sea of Galilee. They learned that Jesus spent a lot of time in and around that Sea. Sometimes the water there is peaceful, but other times it is stormy! On the day that Jesus and his disciples were on the water, the wind grew strong and rain poured down. They learned that Jesus has the power to calm storms! And they came to understand that God calms too. They learned Bible words shared by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “The God of peace will be with you.” I told them the story of how my grandmother had an unusual fear of storms. When I was at her house and it began to thunder and lightning one time, she went and sat on the steps that led to their cellar, and she laid her head on her folder arms and she shook and cried.  I was no bigger than some of the boys or girls at Bible School this week; I was about 8 years old. I wasn’t afraid of storms, so I went and sat on the step next to her, put my hand on her back and my head near her shoulder and said gently, “Don’t be afraid; it’s okay; don’t be afraid. And then I just stayed next to her until the storm passed.  I told the children they too, had the power to calm.

Finally day five arrived! We were on the home stretch but we all agreed we had perhaps the most joyful and trouble-free week any of us could remember! We were glad parents and grandparents trusted us with their loved ones. In fact, we had leaders who came from as far away as Virginia, and children from as far away as South Carolina and Georgia to be with us! Praise God! On day five we learned that “God sends,” and Jesus does too! We gathered on the banks of the Sea of Galilee again, but this time there was no storm. This time Jesus’ disciples, thinking that Jesus had died, were gloomy and lost, not sure what to do or where to go. Finally Simon Peter decided to go fishing and other disciples went with him.  But they caught no fish. They didn’t realize it as they were fishing, but Jesus himself walked up on the shore and started a small fire! He told them how to catch many fish and they caught a bunch! They then came ashore and were thrilled that it really was Jesus!  He gave them bread, cooked the fish, and shared it. But he wasn’t there just to feed them; he was there to send them too! And today, Jesus sends us!  Jesus needs boys and girls, and men and women to tell others about God’s love, to tell them about the Savior, and to invite others to follow him!  It is so important, that we ended the week inviting kids to tell people about Jesus, and about what they learned; but more importantly, to show them they are following Jesus by being kind toward others, by standing with people who are afraid or sad; by talking to God in prayer, and by making good choices.  We think these children are making God smile, and making Jesus proud. I hope God will smile because of our worship today too, and that we are making Jesus proud in a good way, by making sure that what we say is what we do; and that our actions back up our words.

I have one final thought for today: in a world that often keeps children with children, youth with youth, adults with adults, and sometimes senior adults with senior adults, there is power in having the generations learn from and be with one another. In a minute we’ll sing a song we learned when we did our intergenerational dinner and program that we called “The Epic Story.” The song is called “One Generation Calls to the Next.” Indeed we are richer when we teach and temper each other. Having people in every age engaging with the very young, or the teenagers, helps set aside fears or suspicions, and lets encouragement and gladness take their place! If you say to yourself, “I would never work at Bible School,” we have converts in our midst! We have leaders who came with uncertainty and left saying “I will not say “no” to Bible School next year!” For thirty years I have been a character and leader in Westminster’s Vacation Bible School. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To God be the glory.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           June 26, 2016

06-19-16 DEALING WITH MADNESS AND SADNESS

— the video linked below of Christina Grimmie singing “In Christ Alone” is recommended to be watched either before or after you have read this sermon —

— sorry, but there is no audio for this week’s sermon —

DEALING WITH MADNESS AND SADNESS

Ephesians 6

 

Friday a week ago, news crews began making their way to the city where many of us travel regularly- Orlando Florida. Millions of people come there for theme parks, sporting events, and concerts. But on that Friday, a young singer, a Christian—who has one of the loveliest renditions of the song “In Christ Alone” that I’ve ever heard, (check it out on YouTube and on Godtube) –and was also a competitor on the NBC competition called “The Voice,” had just finished her Orlando concert. She was speaking with fans when she was shot three times by a so-called “fan,” and she died. Her name was Christina Grimmie. Then on Sunday, Orlando experienced the worst massacre by one person with an assault rifle in the history of our country. It was at the Pulse Nightclub. The world was stunned. Then again on Tuesday in France, a Police Commander was shot by a terrorist sympathizer. To add insult to injury, on Wednesday a two-year-old boy was pulled into the Seven Seas Lagoon on Disney property by an alligator. He did not survive, but in all those killings, only the alligator gets a pass as a perpetrator. Certainly there are those here today who have lost loved ones in military service, or to disease, or in auto accidents. But this list of newsworthy events, with the focus on the horrendous “Pulse” nightclub shooting, has caused people to ask: When will the madness stop?  When will the sadness end?  People duped by twisted ideologies and murdering in the name of “Allah” remind me of the words Robert Louis Stevenson once said. The author of, ironically, the novel “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” wrote: “One cold, east windy morning I went, and I met Satan there.”  People who wonder what Satan looks like need only look into the face of those parading as God-fearers; like those who think killing rights a wrong. Mahatma Ghandi, not a Christian but a reader of the Bible and a lover of Jesus, once said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

 

Today is the day when we need to put on our gospel armor again. People through the ages have followed Paul’s instructions for battle. But this uniform does not include guns or knives; and the sword is very different. So today, let’s listen to Paul’s instructions for our daily ritual of putting on our spiritual clothes, not the clothing of Satan that retaliates, kills, or tortures. Paul calls the Ephesians to put on their Gospel Armor, a specific kind of spiritual clothing. By extension he calls us too. The calling is to anyone, male or female, who has decided to do something about evil and not just to feel something because of it. This is a call to action. Here’s what he says:

 

First, “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his strength.” Jesus was strong, but not as the world thought of strong.  Pharisaic peer pressure did not sway him; broken women, children, and men did. He was so strong that he healed; and he eventually took the nails for the sins of others. But he also loved those who others were banned from loving; and he absorbed the pain of others.  Christians are called to that kind of strength in the midst of this pain. Some are giving blood, some are revisiting their old beliefs about people once shunned like those in the LGBT community; and some for the first time are writing to their Congressperson to ask for action.  What form of strength can you exhibit that lets people see Christ in you, no matter how “outside the box” it is for you?

 

Second, Paul says: “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”  This is not following the beat of the popular drum, nor is it falling prey to silver tongued human beings who are enticing. With the armor of God, we listen to the Christ who has made a home in our hearts. We tune out the televisions and put blinders on the editorial pages of our newspapers we read until, and only until, we listen internally, as the Christian Mystics did, to the “Spirit of the Living God,” and ask ourselves: “What would Jesus do?”  Although many of us have not seen a warrior in complete armor, you’ve perhaps seen one in films or photographs. Romans wore such outfits in Paul’s day. Paul wants us to take a physical action: putting on armor as if we’re going into battle, but taking it as a spiritual action, battling against the forces of evil and those who embody evil. In Revelation the beast is said to have a human number: 666. Look around; Satan is dwelling in human beings who seek to destroy others. God’s name, by contrast, embodies creation and redemption, not killing and destruction. Paul also says we will have to wrestle with powers and authorities. In his day many people were superstitious and believed that some powers were stronger or more influential than God. Sadly, when people in our day are lost, or angry, or vulnerable, they often get sold a bill of goods from twisted minds that lead gullible followers not to Godly, but to Satanic actions. We have seen this darkness that Paul calls “malicious spiritual forces.”  These are days when we can fight by: A) reporting when we see something suspicious, B) strengthening collaborative government data bases so that suspicious information or persons do not fall through cracks, and C) circling the wagons around wounded people.

 

Third, we need to “Stand with truth as a belt.” Make no mistake about it. Standing for truth is not easy. In Paul’s day it was speaking up against Roman oppression. During the rise of the Third Reich in the 20th century, it was being the brave, and sometimes martyred, Christians who did not fearfully or blindly follow a diabolical fuhror in Germany, but instead acted against him. Some of those people put on the belt of truth that called out the Nazi Satanic killing machine. And today, people can put on the belt of truth and call out our own government leaders who say words, impersonating people of sorrow and sympathy, but take no corrective actions. Putting on this belt as a Christian can change the world.

 

Fourth, putting on the breastplate of righteousness is your promise to give your conscience a rugged self-examination, asking Jesus to look at the decisions you make each day and to guide you to do what is right. In other words, you and I must decide to do what we think Jesus would do.  Such a stand lifts up the commandments, but it also puts a light on Jesus’ short interpretation of the commandments: to Love God; but also, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When a Pharisee once asked Jesus who his neighbor was, Jesus told the Good Samaritan story. But in those days, Jews believed that there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan. Jews could not converse with, relate to, or touch a Samaritan. They saw them as “the others.” Yet Jesus told his audience that their neighbors, among others, were Samaritans, and that they were to love them as they loved themselves. How radical that was. But nobody would treat Samaritans like neighbors but Jesus. These days, Jesus would likely say that, among others, our neighbors are LGBT people, straight people, Muslim people, and persons of any color. Yes that is radical for some to consider, but that’s how radical the message to love a Samaritan was to Jews. We still have neighbors; and we are called by the man we call “Savior” to love them and others. Do the right thing.

 

Fifth: “Have your feet shod with readiness to preach the gospel of peace.”  Shushing or silencing people does not achieve peace. Peace is achieved by listening, responding, and loving. Peace is achieved by negotiation, working for justice, and sometimes verifying that actions of people who have not proved trustworthy. In Genesis 31, you may recall that Laban was an uncle of Jacob, but he even he could not be completely trusted by Jacob; he had lied to him several times. So they made a covenant, a pact of distrust saying: “May the Lord watch between me and thee, while we are absent one from the other.”  Sometimes peace is achieved with verification.

 

Sixth, we are to take up the “shield of faith.” As we were driving home from my father’s funeral last week, my mother and I were alone in her car. “What do people do on a day like this without faith?” she commented. What indeed. Paul says we need to put on “faith as a shield.” Faith was my mother’s shield, and my shield, when we did not let death get the last word. Because of our faith in Jesus, death never gets the last word, even in a week like this. I have thought way too much about death in the last three weeks; but in each case faith, hope, and love trumped death and destruction, and they are winning in Orlando every day.

 

Finally, we get to put on the “helmet of salvation.” And we learn how to unsheathe “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” If you don’t know the Word of God as a Christian, get reading, get studying, and keep praying. People may try to talk you out of your faith if you do not remain strong in your faith. It is not a Pollyanna way of living; it is the Way, The Truth, and the Life for our souls.

 

Let me close with two examples. Cassie Bernall, at the Columbine Massacre, faced a man with a gun. He asked her if she believed in God. Instead of lying, she told her truth and was gunned down. Contemporary Christian Singer Michael W. Smith was invited to sing at her memorial service. Here’s that story:

 

Michael W. Smith was in the midst of recording his 13th album when the Columbine High School shootings unfolded. Asked to participate in the national memorial service a few days after the shocking April 20, 1999 event, Smith says he felt inadequate, yet was compelled to go.

At the service in in Littleton, Colo., Smith found himself being comforted by Brad and Misty Bernall, the parents of victim Cassie Bernall. “I was blown away by their demeanor,” Smith says. “They were so strong.”

In the weeks that followed, Smith was drawn to the story of Cassie’s confession of faith in God moments before her death. “I literally could not sleep,” he says. “Night after night I laid awake, just thinking about Cassie.” So Smith, seeking emotional healing, entered the studio and wrote a melody, but “…I had to find someone to help me articulate what I was feeling. …. I called Wes King.”

 

Wes wrote these famous words:

It was a test we could all hope to pass

But none of us would want to take

Faced with the choice to deny God and live

For her there was one choice to make

 

This was her time

This was her dance

She lived every moment

Left nothing to chance

She swam in the sea

Drank of the deep

Embraced the mystery

Of all she could be

This was her time

 

Though you are mourning, and grieving your loss,

Death died a long time ago

Swallowed in life, so her life carries on still, it’s so hard to let go ….

 

And then, less than two weeks ago, Christina Grimmie was shot and killed. Back at Easter in 2012, this bright singing star recorded the song that our choir has sung, written by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. I played her YouTube video before our service today.

Christina sang this:

In Christ alone my hope is found,

He is my light, my strength, my song;

this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,

firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,

when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My Comforter, my All in All,

here in the love of Christ I stand.

Put on your Gospel armor. There are people to love; and there is evil to resist. Count on Christ.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 19, 2016

06-12-16 PROPER 6C

— sorry, but there is no audio for this week’s sermon —

In many ways, today’s passage is about how we deal with forgiveness. Not how we forgive others, but how we handle being forgiven. Being forgiven can be a really big deal, especially when it is about something that you’ve done that you haven’t forgiven yourself for yet.  Because, at its heart, forgiveness is a gift that gives us back ourselves.

 

Forgiveness cancels perceived debts in any relationship and opens up new possibilities for what might happen in the future. Forgiveness allows for hope where there was none, which is why it’s so important, so valuable. But it’s also something more. Forgiveness frees us to be ourselves again.

 

After a while, our actions weigh us down, like a millstone around our necks. We feel in debt, as if we owe the person we have sinned against or the world in general. We come to know ourselves first and foremost as sinners. Our sins can begin to define us and shape how we relate to the world. We become no more and no less than what we’ve done, the mistakes we’ve made, the debt you owe. When we are forgiven, all of that changes. We are set free to become not just someone who has sinned, but who God has called us to be. We are set free.  

 

Forgiveness is that powerful. And it provokes a powerful response in the woman who receives it.

 

Now Luke tells us that she was a sinner by using the standard Greek word, hamartolos. He uses the word 18 times in his Gospel, beginning with Peter’s confession, “I am a sinful man,” in Luke 5.8. It is used to describe the various crowds with which Jesus hung out, healed, and even dined. It is the word that the Tax Collector uses as he prays as foil to the Pharisee  in Luke 18. She was a sinner like any other. I think it’s important that Luke used this generic term sinner. He could have named her sin, calling her a “tax collector,” or an “adulteress,” or even as if often suggested a “prostitute.” But, instead, she’s “a sinner.”

 

I think that part of the reason Luke used such a generic term sinner is so we could all put ourselves in her shoes. She doesn’t have a name or a specific thing she has done wrong. No, she is just  a “sinner.” Just like me. And just like you.

 

Because that’s the point of this passage. We have all fallen short in our lives. We have all done wrong and sinned, whether it was against God or against one another. None of us is blameless. We are all sinners.

 

And Jesus does something amazing. He forgives this woman from the very beginning. She never asks for forgiveness. She never even says a word. No, all of her extravagant actions are in response to having been forgiven.

 

Theologian Paul Nuechterlein points out that the “key point of Jesus’ message was to reverse the usual order of penance and forgiveness. With Jesus, forgiveness comes first and is what enables us to begin living lives of penance. It’s not about “if-then” logic — ‘if you repent, then you will be forgiven.’ The focus is on a “because-therefore” logic — ‘because you have already been forgiven, therefore you are freed to respond with a changed life, a heart that turns to God.’”

 

Because she has been forgiven, she can respond in such a grateful way. : “… her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” She has come to the table as a forgiven woman, and Simon still holds her sin against her

 

Think about that. This woman had found peace in Jesus and came to thank him. And Simon couldn’t see her past the sin.

 

Now, a little background so you understand what was going on here.  In Jesus’ day, meals were usually served onto low tables, and the guests would lie on sofas, propped on their left side, taking and eating food from serving dishes with their right hands. Only men would eat together. Women would enter the room only to serve food. They would not talk with the men. And a woman would always have her hair covered, and would never directly speak to or touch a man in public.

 

So, not only is this woman a sinner, but she is acting in a completely outlandish manner. She is in a place she should not be and behaving in a way that is disgraceful. Simon sees this and wonders what kind of prophet Jesus is that he would allow it. But he’s so busy focusing on her that he is missing much of his own actions.

 

At this time there were no paved roads, no socks, and no running water. So it was an expectation that a host would provide guests with a servant to wash the guests’ feet on their arrival, and provide some scented ointment for their hair. It is the very minimum of politeness, similar to saying thank you to a gift or excuse me when you bump into someone.

 

And yet, Simon neglects it. “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”

 

It’s not that Simon would have been expected to wash Jesus feet with his tears. It’s that her extravagance only magnifies Simon’s utter lack of hospitality, not providing even the minimum of what a good host would normally offer a guest.

 

Simon, preoccupied with the turmoil of restless judgmentalism that was his inner life, neglected the duties of a host to a respected guest. The woman behaved the way she did out of gratitude and love.  

 

Because Simon focuses this woman’s lack of social graces and status as a sinner, he completely misses what Jesus is offering right in front of him.  I wonder if he assumed he didn’t need it. After all, forgiveness is for other people, bad people. People who are so clearly beneath Pharisees and upstanding citizens like Simon!

 

The forgiveness and grace that Christ offers here has the greatest appeal to and the mightiest impact on those who know they need grace and mercy the most, and those who assume that their life is complete and under their control are usually the last to feel that way. Surely Simon felt no need to anything in the way of forgiveness. He’d made his own way his whole life, thank you very much, on the Pharisee Plan and was, therefore, gratefully beholden to no one

 

That of course, is the other way we can respond to the forgiveness and grace that Jesus offers here: by assuming that we don’t need it and focusing on how much others need it instead. And that way has some appeal, doesn’t it? In our culture of self-sufficiency we don’t like depending on others. We want to be enough on our own. We don’t want to need what Jesus is offering.

 

But we are lying to ourselves if we think we have nothing in our lives we need forgiveness for. And more than that, by denying that he needed forgiveness, Simon missed out on the love and the joy that the woman experienced.

 

And we don’t just hurt ourselves with Simon’s attitude. We can drive away others who need what Christ is offering too.

 

In his book  Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters,  David Kinnaman says  “Arrogance is perhaps the most socially acceptable form of sin in the church today. In this culture of abundance, one of the only ways Satan can keep Christians neutralized is to wrap us up in pride. Conceit slips in like drafts of cold air in the winter. We don’t see it, but outsiders can sense it.”  How arrogant must Simon be to assume that he has done nothing in his life that he is in need of forgiveness for? How brave was that woman to dare to come to Jesus despite know how unwelcome she was? How many people can we drive away by acting like we don’t need what Christ is offering every bit as much as they do?

 

Luke offers us a choice this morning: are we the woman who is a sinner or Simon?

 

Do we acknowledge how much Christ has done for us in offering forgiveness? Do we come together into Jesus’ presence with such love and gratitude that we overflow with tears of joy?

 

Or do we assume that we have it all together on our own? Do we focus on how much worse others are and dismiss our sins as unimportant? And do we miss out on that joy because we are so focused on how much we do not need it?

 

Today, you are forgiven. How will you respond?

 

160605 – A MOTHER CALLS ON JESUS

A MOTHER CALLS ON JESUS

Luke 7: 11-17

In her sprawling 1937 Pulitzer Prize—winning novel, Margaret Mitchell shows           the private grief that must look deranged to any but the bereaved parent. Rhett           Butler has given his five-year-old daughter Bonnie a pony and allowed her to           jump over a low bar. Every bit as high-spirited as her mother, Scarlett O’ Hara,           Bonnie begs him for a higher bar, a foot and a half from the ground, and Rhett           relents. Bonnie falls and dies. Days later, Rhett still refuses to let Bonnie be buried           and tells Scarlett he’ll kill her if she interferes.

[That’s a work of fiction, but Margaret Mitchell got the sentiments of a grieving parent correct. Here’s an actual account of a loss.]

Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas was a privileged Southern woman who wrote           about the toppling of her world in the Civil War and its aftermath. [She wrote this           after the death of her boy:]  “Clanton is dead! Oh my God how strange it sounds.           Clanton, my bright, beautiful boy! Where O where is he? I saw him die. I saw him           after he was dead, but oh darling I want to see you now, now….

In her book where these vignettes are found, Mary Semel also writes this about the death of her son:

When Alexander was killed, my feeling that there was any sense of order in the           universe was destroyed. Not only did I have searing agonizing pain inside of me,           but the plug was pulled on the force of gravity.  I was free-falling into chaos. I had           no faith in divine benevolence to begin with: there is just too much wanton           suffering for me to believe that everything works out for the good. But I trusted in            laws of nature or chance to keep my children safe: healthy children grow up, good           parents are rewarded, and normal people have normal lives. Children bury           parents, not the reverse.  You don’t question whether you believe in gravity; you           just assume that your feet will hit the floor when you get up in the morning and           your coffee cup will stay on the table. And you assume that if you follow the           rules, your healthy, exuberant sixteen-year-old son will be home for dinner. I           ranted and raved at a God I didn’t believe in….

[From A Broken Heart Still Beats After Your Child Dies, Anne McCracken

and Mary Semel, Hazelden, 1998, pp. 24, 27,29]

These examples connect those here who have not lost a child with those who have.  Those without such loss have no idea what kind of anguish such a loss creates. It is withering; it is out of natural order; and it shakes people to their core.

I know this is a troubling and tender trail to go down today. What I hope we can feel is a bit of the loss that the mothers felt in our stories from  First Kings and from Luke today. I haven’t even tried to describe what it feels like to be a widow, or a widower. There again people tell me that it feels like a part of them has died along with their spouse. So here, in the gospel of Luke, we have woman feeling like she’s has a double-curse. First she had no husband. In those days there was no social security. A widow, even in her grief, would be expected to seek to marry another man in her family who could support her, or she would simply have to  “make it” somehow in dire poverty and grief.  That woman was on her own, except for the second thing to point out: she had a son. He was not a boy or likely even a teenager. In the passage in Luke 7, he is called “a man.” So her son, in all likelihood, not only shared her grief over the death of her husband and his father, but he also likely was a good support to his widowed mother. Certainly they bonded over that death and as her son had grown up, and she had grown to depend on him. She perhaps hoped that she had had her fair share of grief. But no. It was not to be. Her son had also died. And there in town, along with a large crowd, she was following her son’s casket. Of course she was weeping; sobbing. And I’d like the story for us to stop there. I’d like for it not to continue to the part where Jesus walked up, told a dead child to arise, and gifted this woman with her son again. Why do I wish those last lines were not in the Bible?  Because we all want what this mother got: a child returned to life. The Bible has such stories. There’s also the story in 1 Kings 17 that describes the prophet Elijah going through a ritual of prayers and pleas who then brings the son of another widow back to life. If it happened for those parents, why doesn’t it happen to parents through the ages?  Yes, there have been some accounts when children, thought to be dead, come back to life. And we praise God to the highest heavens when that happens. But what about the other times? What are we to think? Did someone not pray enough? Were they not good enough? Did God hear their cries but not act?  Where was Jesus then?  It is hard to swallow the Bible accounts and preach any comfort for those who’ve had loss.  Do I believe God is love? Yes. Do I believe Jesus saves and has the power to raise others from the dead? Yes. But at times, it has not happened to you, or to those who you know. You go into a winter of discontent and withering sorrow at the loss of a child. And I join you in feeling great sorrow over those events.

Today we recall the day that Jesus helped a grieving mother.  But today we also hold in our hearts those who have cried about or prayed for an outcome until they could cry no more, and the loved one still died. As much as we’d like everyone to live, like Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha; like the child in the First Kings passage and the child in the Luke passage, they do not. Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman, the clergymen who wrote the book I shared with the children, counsel children with these words: “You can’t go though your life and loose nothing. The longer you live, the more you’re going to lose. You may lose little things like toys or games, or you may lose people you love who move far away, or who don’t want to be your friend any more, or maybe you will lose people because they die….But when you think about it, we learn more about life from what we lose than from what we get. In fact, finding something after you lose something you love is the biggest gift of all. We think God gives us that gift—but then, we always think God gives us good things.”   [Lost and Found: a Kid’s Book for Living Through Loss, Morrow Junior Books, 1999, pp. 14-15]

Today, as we are invited by Jesus to the meal that we call The Lord’s Supper, we come as the old hymn describes it: “Just as I am though tossed about, with many a conflict many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come. I come.”  [Text by Charlotte Ellicott]

Today, as we come to the Father who also watched his son die a painful death on a cross, come with your anguish, your heartache, and your sorrow. God knows those feelings; God has experienced loss. But on the other side of loss is eternal life, when we have a reunion with the children of God who have died. Until that time, we join in the “mystic sweet communion” of thinking about them, and imagining their presence with us at a grand table prepared for us.  We know a room has been prepared for us on the other side. Now we prepare ourselves to eat at the table that crosses from earth into heaven: the holy meal of the people of God. You are invited, along with those who have died: your spouse, your parents, and your child or grandchild. It’s dinner time.

Let us pray:  Holy God: some here are extra broken by the grief they have had over the loss of a loved one. Hold them; comfort them; and feed them. And as we stand in support of such brothers and sisters in the faith, give us all the strength to do what needs to be done, and to be who we need to be, moving one another from loss to life.  In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                                      June 5, 2016