Monthly Archives: November 2016

11-27-16 ADVENT 1A

Well, this is not exactly the passage we expect to begin the journey to Christmas, is it?

I mean, here we are ready to start thinking about Christmas, and our lesson is about the flood and thieves and people getting left behind. Not subjects that fill us with a warm and rosy glow, are they?

And yet, to begin Advent this year, this is our Gospel lesson. As we await and prepare for the birth of Christ, we begin by talking about Christ’s coming again.

Every time we talk about Christ’s coming again, there is always someone who is sure they know when it will be. They’ve worked out the math or are positive the signs are in the daily news. So it must be so.

But Jesus is really clear. We don’t know the day. In another passage, he says that even he doesn’t know when it will be. And if Jesus himself doesn’t know, why on earth would we think we are smart enough to figure it out? Jesus stresses that though there will be many signs, many trials, no one knows precisely the day or the hour of the arrival of the Son of Man.

The Scriptures continually remind us that one day God shall, as Isaiah puts it – “. . . judge between nations and shall arbitrate for many people.” In light of which we are reminded by Paul that “. . . it is now the moment for (us) to wake from sleep” and “put on the armor of light.” Jesus reminds us that “about that day and hour no one knows,” so we must “keep awake therefore,” because, “you do not know on what day your Lord is coming, “ and “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Now, let’s be honest, odds are against it happening in our lifetimes. Given the span of history and the fact it hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t happen in the next fifty or sixty years either. But even if the hour doesn’t come for the whole world in our lifetimes, the hour will come for each of us. We are mortal and we each will have our own judgement day. And we don’t know when that day is either. Regardless of health, wealth or situation, we don’t really know when that day is coming.

And maybe, just maybe, this passage is talking about more than just the dramatic judgement day and more than just our own personal judgement days. Maybe it can also refer to our chances to meet Christ in the world today. We talk about Jesus coming to us as one of “the least.” And whatever we do for them, we do for our Lord.

So really, we could be walking past Jesus every day and we don’t recognize him any more than the world did when he was born as a baby in a stable, or lived as a roaming homeless man, or died as a convict on a cross.

Jesus is coming. The best way to be sure we will recognize him when he does is to get lots of practice in the meantime. Whatever we do for “the least of these,” we do for Jesus. If we want to see Jesus and know Jesus, if we want to experience the Good News that Jesus is coming, we need to listen to the stories, the hopes, and the concerns of “the least of these.” If we want Jesus to recognize us as a neighbor, we must become neighbors to the least of these, building real community – shared bread, shared dreams, shared vision – with them. That shared vision is Jesus’ vision. That shared hope is what makes the certain news of Jesus’ coming Good News. That shared dream is coming true among us, and Jesus invites us to make it our own.

As Christians, we should expect to find Jesus in the unexpected places, in the company of unlikely people, at any time of the night or day. We should expect the unexpected. We need to try to ready ourselves for the possibility of divine disruptions as the Spirit moves people and situations into our line of vision and into our all-too-carefully-constructed lives and overbooked schedules.

One way or another, the Son of Man is coming, whether in a big dramatic cloud, as a stranger in the street or to take us home when our day is done. And we do not and cannot know when. Because we cannot know when, we have to be ready whenever it might happen. We have to live as though we might meet Jesus again at any time.

Blogger David Ewart put it like this: “We should live as those who have applied to emigrate to a new country called The Kingdom of God. We haven’t heard yet when our visa will be approved – no one seems to know the day or the hour. But in the meantime, we want to be ready, and so we are already learning the language and practicing the habits and customs of that new land. While we are still citizens of our current country, we also live like citizens of the age to come.”

Jesus told us how to live in the Kingdom of God. He told us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and to care for the widow and the orphan, the outcast and the immigrant. He told us to put others before ourselves. Living for the Kingdom of God looks strange to outsiders. Really following those teachings sounds crazy, but that is what we are called to do.

My favorite example of living in the Kingdom of God is the bishop in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Despite his position of power and influence, the bishop lives a life of simplicity and generosity towards those in need. As a matter of course he shelters Jean Valjean, a convict newly freed after 19 years’ imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. When Valjean becomes a literal thief in the night and makes off with the bishop’s silver, he has every right to demand justice with righteous indignation after this abuse of his generosity.

Instead, confronted by the police who have collared Valjean in possession of expensive cutlery, he chides Valjean for not having taken the silver candlesticks too, as part of his gift. After they leave, the bishop explains his version of justice to his baffled housekeeper: “I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.” Now most of us would be infuriated at being taken advantage of in this way. We would want justice if not vengeance. How many of us would be able to not only forgive the thief, but also save him from the police and give him even more?

The bishop’s response may seem absurd, yet it is entirely consistent with Jesus’ warning to “be ready.” In other words, to live at all times as though Jesus was serious about the way we treat those society deems unstable, outcast, or even morally bankrupt This is how we live so that when Jesus comes we are ready.

In short, on this First Sunday in Advent, we are called upon to take our God and ourselves seriously. We are called upon to recognize that life can be snuffed out in an instant and to live accordingly. We are to stay awake, to watch out for signs of God’s activity in the world.

Advent is a good time to begin to be ready. As we wait and prepare for Christ again, it is easier to focus outside of ourselves. We talk about the spirit of Christmas – the spirit of Christ filling people with generosity and “goodwill.” Even people who only play lip service to following Christ tend towards giving in this season. It has become a secular tradition as well. As a country we make 30% of our charitable gifts in December, while other months average just over 6%; and 38% of Americans who donate to charity said that they are more likely to do so during the holiday season.

Yet, Advent is only four weeks long, roughly one twelfth of our year. So, are we only ready for Christ in December? Or can it be more? Can we begin now, and find a way to change how we live every day?

For God is always up to something good, always seeking to bless and create and restore and bring hope to the chaotic messes of our lives and the dark corners of our fears and hurts. The season of Advent bids us to stop, to breathe, to consider the marvels of creation, of each other, and of the Divine presence that infuses our lives and the world. This is not just another Sunday, another season, and another day. Are you ready to encounter Jesus? Are you ready for the unexpected to change your life, alter your plans, and disrupt your direction? Be ready.

For Jesus is coming again, and again, and again. Don’t miss a single opportunity of this present day. Beginning in this Advent season, may we live in such a way that we are never surprised by the coming of the Son of Man.

11-20-16 THE SONG OF ZECHARIAH

THE SONG OF ZECHARIAH

Luke 1: 67-79

Next week we begin our weekly journey to celebrate the birth of Christ. Over the years these weeks of waiting have been heaped with traditions, decorations, carols, hymns, and the telling of Bible stories. Many people know the story, and some can even re-tell it. But just as the Star Wars saga started with episode IV and cried out for a prequel—for the story that led up to Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and Hans Solo—our Advent and Christmas stories have a prequel too. As we make our way toward the day of Thanksgiving, you will see gratitude in the prequel too. And you also will find out how important the birth of Christ was to the world; so important that another child was born to pave the way for Jesus. So lets go back; back to a Judean town in the hill country, probably between 6 BC. and 4 BC. We’ll pick up the story there.

Two people, faithful people, lived in that town. They honored God with their lives. Zechariah had even served as a priest. On one occasion, he was chosen to enter the holy of holies in the Temple to give an incense offering. All the other priests were outside of the Temple, offering prayers for the holy event. As Zechariah was starting the ritual, all of a sudden someone, or something, appeared to him: an angel from God! Zechariah was faithful, but he was also fearful right then! The angel reassured him, just as the angel reassured Mary and others, saying, “Do not be afraid; your prayers have been answered.” “What prayers?” You might wonder. For more money? For safety? For his health? No; he was praying for a son. He had prayed for so long, but he was up in years, and his wife Elizabeth was up in years too. Still, the angel announced to him, right then and there, that he was going to have a son! But this son was not Jesus. This son was Jesus’ cousin: someone who would be older than Jesus and have a role in paving the way for Jesus. The angel told him what to name his son: John. It meant: “Gift from God.” Can you imagine the surprise of an old man getting such news? So he, naturally had a question: “How will I know this is so, for my wife is up in years?” Instead of saying “thank you Lord!” he questioned God. How good it is to be thankful! Be thankful this week! But his questioning caused him to lose his voice entirely. For nine months. Fast-forward. Elizabeth, his wife, was already counseled Mary, the young relative who would soon be the mother of Jesus. Mary was sent to Elizabeth’s home to a) get her away from her hometown of Nazareth; perhaps because the town disapproved of a girl expecting a child before marriage; and b) to be a mentor for young Mary, a woman older and wiser than Mary, to guide her through the issues of pregnancy. But Elizabeth and Mary already shared a kindred spirit: each of them had been visited by an angel, and each of them were expecting special sons, according to the words from those angels! Sons! Mary Ann and I were thrilled to have sons, but we were also thrilled to have a daughter. But in those days, sons were celebrated. Biblical scholar William Barclay wrote these unbelievable words: “The birth of a boy was an occasion of great joy. When the time of the birth was near at hand, friends and local musicians gathered near the house. When the birth was announced and it was a boy, the musicians broke into music and song, and there was universal congratulations and rejoicing. It it was a girl, the musicians went silently and regretfully away!” [The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke, Westminster Press, 1975,p. 16] Isn’t that unbelievable? It is to me and my twenty-first century American mind! But to have a child in the first century or earlier, and for that child be a son, was a double-blessing.

So John was born, everyone celebrated, and then eight days later came the circumcision and the naming of the child. Now what I described a minute ago will make more sense. The friends asked what the baby would be named, and Elizabeth told them “John” as the angel had instructed. But apparently the friends wanted to hear the answer from Zechariah, the one who couldn’t speak! Goodness. So he asked for a clay tablet, and he wrote the name: “John.” All of a sudden Zechariah could speak again! And the first thing he did was praise and thank God (which the angel reminded him was job one), and then he began to sing, for God had given him a son! It was not unusual for men to sing then, or now. It is celebratory! But while Zechariah sang, he preached. Just as in “O Little Town of Bethlehem” we sing “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” that’s a bit how this father felt. He recounts some history in his song; Jews do this all the time, remembering how good and gracious God has been. That is a great lesson for us. This week why not take time to reflect on how good and gracious God has been? That’s one thing that Zechariah did completely.

Then this man of God, this one who found his voice again, talked about his son, still an infant, and what God’s plan were for him:
“And you, child,” I imagine him saying looking into the eyes of young John, “you will be called the prophet of the Most High; you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of the salvation he brings by the forgiveness of sins.” My goodness; this man is prophetic. He listened to God so carefully that he was the first to identify the Godly role John would have, and the person he was destined be.! Yes other prophets spoke in general terms about the coming of a future messiah, but Zechariah knew he was close to the birth of the messiah from the things Mary had shared with is wife. What a glad day that was; not frightening like the first angelic encounter, but one filled with hope and promise! And here is how Zechariah ended his prophecy: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness; to those who sit in the valley of the shadow of death, to guide their feet in the way of peace.”

That light then came into the world is the person of Jesus, dwelling in the hearts of ones who invite him in. We now are on the threshold of the weeks that lead to Christmas, when light dawned on the world and the Savior was born. Thanks be to God for John—today in Luke’s Gospel a helpless infant—who grew to know God’s plan for his life, a plan embodied in his name: gift from God. Thanks be to God for Elizabeth, who heard what the angel said and reaffirmed it: “His name shall be John.” And thanks be to God for Zechariah, who showed us not only the joy of being a new father, but one who was bold enough to sing the message of good news!

Here now we too can join Zechariah in blessing God for the good tidings of great joy that have come to us as well! The words are adapted from Luke by the late Michael Perry, and the tune is by Hal Hopson.

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 20, 2016

11-13-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: SIGNS AND SAYINGS

LEARNING FROM LUKE: SIGNS AND SAYINGS

Luke 21: 5-11

As far as I know, there were no tea leaves that predicted it; no one consulted a crystal ball and saw this result. The result of Tuesday’s election made some cheer, and some despair. Sadly, only 46% of eligible voters actually voted for the president. But the election has happened; some drastically quoted the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World as We Know it!” Others cheered and said “It’s a new day; a whole new ballgame!” That it is. The new President-elect steps into the world with mostly business and celebrity experience. A tidal wave of things will change because the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives will be comprised mostly of the same party. I will be praying for our country it’s leaders like never before, hoping that they ask for God’s wisdom and guidance. We have been, and always hope to be, one nation under God.

Some things in our world we can predict; like hurricanes. With Doppler radar we can see when a catastrophic storm moves our way. But so many other things we cannot predict. Pundits learned that we can’t always predict election outcomes. And contrary to the song, we cannot really predict when the end of the world will be. We hope the end of the world is not even a dream in the mind of God, and so we do well to take care of our earth and preclude escalated warfare to the point of annihilation.

But there was a time, ages ago, when our Savior shocked the residents of Jerusalem. He predicted the destruction of the Temple. That event changed the religious world forever. Jews still visit and revere the only remaining wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. How shocking for Jesus to predict such devastation. To hear a prediction for the destruction of the Temple would be akin to a Mormon hearing a prediction that the Temple in Salt Lake would be flattened. It would be more devastating news than the destruction of just a church building; it would destroy a building they believe is consecrated by God where holy and eternal marriages take place among other ceremonies. It would be a punch in the gut to all who love that Holy place. So when Jesus predicted such a thing the people were in disbelief, not for the first time, nor for the last time. They asked him: “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” If it were the result of an election that was predicted, the sign might have been as easy as people getting fed up with Washington. But Jesus started his answer with a warning: “Beware that you are not led astray.” This is a reminder that no matter who leads our country or who leads our churches, we vote with our heads, our hearts, and souls fully engaged. We vote listening to God for what true North is. And then, we pray for our leaders. In our American form of government, as in our Presbyterian form of government, we even get to give ideas, to voice encouragement, or to express objection to our leaders. We need not sit helplessly by until the next election. We can share our wisdom and hopes with our leaders.

Jesus, in his response to the question he was asked, reminded people that false messiahs will come their way. He then cautioned his listeners saying “Many will come in my name; do not follow them.” Then he used words to try to calm their fears: “When you hear of wars and violent uprisings against authority, do not be terrified. These things will happen, but the end is not yet.” Around 33 A.D. Jesus said those words. And yes, they still are prescriptive words for today. “When you hear of wars and violent uprisings against authority, do not be terrified. These things will happen, but the end is not yet.” Our world has experienced wars and violent uprisings; a lot in the Middle East, including Israel. But even in our own country, the War Between the States (Or the Civil War) was the bloodiest war on our soil. Insurrection and violence permeated our lands and our governments. And yet we survived; those in the South and those in the North still called Jesus their Savior in the midst of it all, even though families were torn asunder. History will never forget those events. And we would be foolish not to learn from them. Fighting amongst ourselves breeds seething resentment without our Higher Power—without the God who did not judge and destroy the warring human race, but chose to redeem and save those who turned toward True North again; to our Creator God, and to his Christ, as Handel quoted in his masterpiece work, “Messiah.”

Today we do not have a physical or geographic divide in our country. But we certainly have a divide. Shall we let the campaign of the past two years, and all of the unrest in America before that, create deep-seated grudges as happened in 1865, grudges that still are manifested today, 150 years later? “God help us. God help us not to hold on to hateful dividing rhetoric or actions between north and south, or red and blue. Help us to work together to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you.”

Undisciplined human nature chooses revenge, retaliation, and violence. Disciplined human nature, guided from above, chooses the road less travelled: love, mercy, and new beginnings.

Let’s read the words of Jesus again: “Nation will rise against nation.” May God help us to avoid escalating any national conflicts. They have happened before, and it is predicted that they will happen again. May it not be on our watch. May our complicity as citizens of the Kingdom of God lead us to connect with others, not get stuck in the rut of criticism. When nations rise against nations the results can include injury, murder, retaliation, and rage. Those are human-created calamities. They can be managed at least, or avoided at best, to avoid the high cost of conflict. Then there are events from nature—earthquakes, hurricane, droughts, and plagues to name a few—they don’t usually drive wedges between nations or states, but instead bring them together. How many tree trucks have you seen from other states working to pick up the curbside piles caused by Hurricane Matthew? How may power trucks from other states did you see in the 72 hours after the fierce wind? And today, we continue to fund food for hungry people because of a vision to deal with famine that began in 1947. Originally CROP stood for the Christian Rural Overseas Program designed to help Midwest farm families share their crops with hungry people, initially in Europe and Asia. After the first crisis passed, needs were identified in our own country, so CROP Walks now raise money for national food assistance. What a difference we can make if nations help nations, and states help other states, and neighbors help other neighbors.

Today we revisit the words of our Lord Jesus. Scrutinize leaders carefully. Once in power, pray for them. Pray for those you think are your enemies. And lift a hand to help neighbors.

Since it was written in 1772, the hymn “Blest Be the Tie That Binds our Hearts in Christian Love” has been a call to work side by side and hand in hand with one another. Perhaps it is optimistic for our pessimistic world, but there are weeks, like this one, when its words call us to a higher response than hate. Search your heart, and at the end of the service, perhaps you’ll join me in the sung affirmation of the day: “Blest Be the Tie That Binds our Hearts in Christian Love.”

Let us pray:

Today O Lord, we especially pray for those elected, and those not elected, this past Tuesday. We offer compassion for those who are deeply disappointed, and we pray for wisdom for those about to lead. Help us to even pray for those who think about politics differently from the way we do, so that divides can be bridged, Help churches to take the lead in this endeavor. Help us do unto others, as we would have others do unto us.

Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 13, 2016

11-06-16 LEARNING FROM LUKE: THE TEST

LEARNING FROM LUKE: THE TEST

Luke 20: 27-38

One of the traits of human beings is being suspicious. Sometimes married men are suspicious of other men, and sometimes married women are suspicious of other women. When we walk through a dark part of town and see someone lurking, our suspicions may rise. As our election is coming to a close this week, people who support one candidate are largely suspicious of the other candidate. People of faith may have suspicions in a new church they are attending if church leaders in their last congregation betrayed the people. And religious people through the ages have been suspicious of any one who claims to be the Messiah or says he’s has heard a message directly from God.

Last week was Reformation Sunday, and I reminded the congregation how far we had come in Protestant-Roman Catholic relations. Pope Frances even attended a Reformation Service that was held on Monday, All Hallows’ Eve, 499 years after Martin Luther tacked the 95 Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Over the years Catholics and Protestants have cast suspicious glances at each other’s practices. The Rev. Bill Deprater offers an example of how suspicions arise.

In the Roman Catholic service [he wrote], the Eucharist was the central focus of worship, an elevated altar and rail separating the chancel from the nave. The Roman Catholic Church certainly honored the Scripture by carrying the Bible around the sanctuary with great ceremony. Yet the priest rarely read or preached from the Bible. Further, as the service [used to be] in Latin, the people could not understand what was being said during the worship service. The church leadership, however, did not feel that the people needed to understand Latin as long as the priest pronounced the words correctly. The result was the spread of superstition. For example, the phrase, “hocus pocus” was a corruption of the Latin phrase “Hoc est corpus meum.” “This is my body.”

Isn’t that interesting? When we feel uniformed, or suspicious, many scoff at practices we don’t understand.

In political campaigns, sometimes people ask questions not with the goal of gaining information, but to trap or test their opponent. Today’s text from Luke 20 contains one example of a question asked as a test. Verse 27 says “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him this question.” They asked him a complicated question based on Mosaic Law and their belief that only Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were Scripture. Their question was a way to test and corner Jesus, not discover information. After all, their question was based on life after death. But Sadducees did not believe in a life after death, they just asked the question as if they did. You might ask “Why didn’t they believe in a life after death?” Well the Sadducees were a group of conservative Jews who said life beyond death was not described in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) so they did not believe in it. It is like our Christian brothers and sister in the Church of Christ (not the United Church of Christ). They believe that only the New Testament is Scripture, and the New Testament does not mention musical instruments except the human voice (remember I told you last week about Paul and Silas singing in prison, mentioned in Acts 16). So those in the Church of Christ just sing acapella, that is, without accompaniment! Conversely, Presbyterians and many other Christians believe the entire Bible is Scripture, and the Psalms are filled with instruments! Unlike the Sadducees, Pharisees believed that all of what we call the Old Testament was Scripture, and in those pages stories of people going up to Heaven can be found, including their prized prophet Elijah being taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind according to Second Kings 2:11! So they believed a life after death was possible, but they were not the ones asking the question!

Again in the world of the Sadducees, before welfare, there was what was called a Levirate Law, recorded in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, that required a man, even if married, to also marry the widow of his deceased brother to offer protection and financial support. It was a slightly complicated policy to care for a woman suddenly alone. But the Sadducees, remember, didn’t really want to know how that kind of thing would happen in the afterlife. They didn’t believe in the afterlife! So Jesus told them what he tells us: what we do in this life is different from what we will do in the next life. No one gets married in the next life, because the next life is so different from this life. There will be blessings, yes; there will be joy; yes. But not the possible complications and entanglements of new marriages! Also, Jesus adds, Moses himself talked about God being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—all present tense, not past tense. Therefore if God is the God of the living and not of the dead, he is their God too, and they must be still alive in some sense! Jesus had an answer, but not to the test question that was asked of him.

Today we do not know a lot about Heaven and the resurrected life. We are told it will be a place of great beauty in Revelation 22, and that people will not cry or be sad or have pain anymore there because that is part of this life according to Revelation 21. With my father’s death this past June still affecting me and my family, I tell you that I believe I will hear from him again, and perhaps see him again. On a day like today, I picture him, and other faithful men and women I’ve loved, coming to join us for this meal called “The Communion of Saints.” God is the God of the living, and they are very much alive too!

So, let’s prepare to share this special meal with them, and with the Lord who saves us all, the Lord who passed “the test.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 6, 2016