Monthly Archives: January 2017

01-29-17 WORDS OF COMFORT AND CARE

WORDS OF COMFORT AND CARE

Matthew 5: 1-12

 

Monty Python is the name of the British team of friends who have made fun of dozens of events. In their irreverent and bawdy film called “Life of Brian,” they have a scene that depicts the way the Sermon on the Mount might have gone. The camera zooms in on Jesus while he starts with the text that we just heard from Matthew chapter 5. “Blessed are those of gentle spirit, for they shall have the earth for their possession! How blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail, for they shall be satisfied!” As he continues, the camera pans back to where the people are standing; the voice of Jesus gets fainter and fainter. The people in the back are having trouble hearing his sermon. “Speak up!” one shouts. “What did he say?” asks another. “I think he said “Blessed are the cheese makers!” one farther up replied. “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” the woman in the back then asks. And all the people become agitated because they can’t hear!  Being in an outdoor area, or indoor room where you can’t hear the speaker can be maddening.  A cartoon shared on Facebook last week depicted a minister who was speaking to his congregation, but they were having audio problems. The minister, speaking into a dead microphone, said ‘There’s something wrong with this microphone.” And the crowd, not able to hear him clearly, automatically intoned, “And also with you!”

 

We don’t know how everyone heard what Jesus said in that sermon; we aren’t even sure if Matthew wrote it down initially or if someone else did. But there, on the north end of the Sea of Galilee today, are eight windows in an octagon shaped building that remind us that the Sermon on the Mount—Matthew 5, 6, and 7—happened there.  The beginning of that sermon was thsse few sentences we heard, not a joke nor a quote —both tools that preachers have used over the years. Matthew wrote in chapter 4 verse 25 that “Great crowds followed Jesus from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Jordan, and from beyond the Jordan.” Then in today’s Matthew says: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” As was parodied in  “The Life of Brian,” there was a big crowd present; many more than his 12 apostles. When Matthew said Jesus went up a mountain, we can infer two things: one, going up higher allowed him to be seen and heard a little better. And two, that was not just a geographical description, but also a theological one. The place where Jesus gave this sermon was not mountain; it was just higher ground. So why did Matthew record “Jesus went up the mountain” when Luke, describing the same scene, says “Jesus stood on a level place with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people?” [Luke 6: 17] If you were here last week you remember me saying the Matthew was a faithful Jew when Jesus called him, and Jews did not call the name of God out of respect, so they would say “The Kingdom of Heaven” instead of the “Kingdom of God.” There’s something else that Matthew remembered: when God spoke to Moses about the Ten Commandments, it was on a mountain. When God spoke to his prophet Elijah, it was on a mountain. Matthew believed God-things happened on mountains, and that something holy was happening with Jesus. Therefore he called a hill a “mountain” to shine a light on the importance of these words.

 

One thing that goes through preachers’ minds as they prepare a sermon each week is who the congregation will be: will there be someone who just lost a spouse; someone applying to college; someone starting the raise a baby; or someone feeling the aches and pains of age? Preachers want to “know their audience” and to reach them. It does no good to preach to a hypothetical crowd of people or to guess their issue through statistics. When you do that,  you simply preach a hypothetical sermon to people you don’t know well. I think that when Jesus gave the Beatitudes, it was his initial attempt to connect with the people who had followed him. He had learned who many of them were and what their fears were. So he begins with these words, in effect, saying, “I know you.”  He had met many of them, healed some, and knew their hurts. So our “masterpiece,” the Beatitudes, that some want to turn into an eight-point sermon, is mostly an effective introduction; a way for people to say to one another: “He really sees me; he really knows me; and he really cares about me.”

 

And so, he begins. As all orators learn, timing and pauses create an eagerness to hear. We read in verse two: “He began speak.” Could he have looked out at the large group of people who had gathered and notice the ones he knew and noted others who came? Was he thinking about the issues they likely faced every day, and the ways that some were feeling defeated or exhausted? Well-employed, satisfied persons might not have taken time out of their day to come hear this new preacher. There is no record that this was a Sabbath, so many were at work or doing chores. Who would have come? Perhaps some who were feeling broken were there, or those seeking spiritual help.  Jesus addresses them, first saying: “Blessed are.” Some translations say “How happy are.” But “happy” points toward a joy that people might not yet have felt. “Blessed” means “God loves you and has plans to show you that, even in your trials.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit (verse 3) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What carefully chosen words. “He uses “theirs” instead of “yours” because “yours” would seem too personal; too intrusive; as if this carpenter from Nazareth was speaking directly to you. So he says “theirs” to create some emotional space. There are certainly people here today who feel like they are poor in spirit. But who wants spotlights to be turned on you to reveal who you are? No; a little anonymity is powerful, as the people in 12 Step Programs such as Alcoholic Anonymous know.

 

There were other groups also gathered to hear Jesus. Some likely were lamenting the death of a loved one; it happened often in the first century, and if it has happened to you, loss becomes very real. To them, and perhaps to you, he says, (likely after a pause to let his first blessing sink in) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Again, carefully chosen words. They give the mourners hope that, even though they have yet to find comfort, they will. Maybe soon, maybe in a little while, but that rawness, the unexpected tears at night or even in the day, will subside. And remember: your Heavenly Father knows what it is like to mourn, having his son die brutally. God sees you and knows you. And God even knows the future. Those who finally let faith, hope, and love back into their life will be comforted.

 

I imagine these lines were not offered in a rapid, staccato fashion, but slowly, letting the power of moments, and of time, to sink in. Also, in their world as in our world, there were those who were powerful, surrounded by  laws that favored them and allowed them to keep their money and their status. That is even true today. Those people hardly need to go to a rural region to hear a new preacher; life is treating them well as it is. But what about the others; others who might be sitting around you today? Jesus sees them too, when he says: “Blessed are the meek.” “Oh sure” they think,  “We really feel blessed.” But Jesus surprises them saying, “They will inherit the earth.” Getting an inheritance is a big deal, especially for those with modest income. But to inherit the earth? What could that mean? Then Jesus also offered hopeful words for those who hungered and thirsted “after righteousness.” In their day and our day, it seems that justice systems are broken. Parliamentarian Edmund Burke once famously said: “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Jesus lifted up those who are swimming upstream but still seek to do the right things in life instead of the wrong things, or the expedient things or the things advantageous to themselves.  Every week I hear about people who witness crimes who will not cooperate with officers or detectives trying to get to the truth. They “do not want to get involved” they say. But if your daughter or son or spouse is held at gunpoint, or robbed, or shot, don’t you hope a witness will identify the perpetrator? Doing the right thing is not only right; Jesus says it will be blessed. Then  there is a move toward justice. The world of the first century believed justice was “an eye for an eye,” far better than  “your life for an eye” as some even in our day carry out. But Jesus was a man who believed the human heart could change, and that second chances made the world a better place. One who read Jesus thoroughly was Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” So Jesus holds out hope for people to repent and to consider accepting God’s amazing grace. Solutions By-The-Sea, for example, where our own Tobias Caskey is the chaplain, holds out a hand of mercy to men recently released from incarceration. They believe with the right support, and the guidance to stay free of drugs and drink, that men can become contributors to society and be re-united with families. “Blessed are the merciful” is music to the ears of those men, and to those who unfailingly try to guide them.

 

Those who are pure in heart get to see God. That seems clear to me. They are among the saints who have received the gift of salvation and eternal life with God in Heaven. What a reminder. And those who make peace—not just those who shush children, or suppress protests, or force silence through brutal regimes—but those who work for peace- you are blessed too. Peace happens when people feel heard, they believe justice has been done, and when they conclude that those around them might be more like neighbors more than enemies. Those who work for peace are doing what God wants them to do, so God’s Kingdom can come on Earth, as it is in Heaven.

 

Finally, if you are trying to do the right things in this world, and you are persecuted for it, history and God will rise up and call you blessed.  Many recent people in that category can be a lightning rod of controversy. But history paints people like Abraham Lincoln in a wonderful light. Historians have pointed out the intense persecution he felt, and the threats he received by people in both the Union and the Confederacy. He was a great man, yet was persecuted intensely and assassinated. What reward is that? But Jesus points to a greater notion: “Your reward is great in heaven.” He wants those people to know from his lips, that God is most pleased with them—and with others—who take that the road less traveled.

 

What a way to start a sermon! With those few words, people felt heard and understood. The rest of the message was just a cherry on top of that sundae.  Thanks be to God, that Matthew has shared it with us.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 January 29, 2017

01-22-17 LEAVING HOME LOVING GOD

LEAVING HOME; LOVING GOD

Matthew 4: 12-22

 

In the John Calvin commentaries—the commentaries on God’s Word written by the Father of Presbyterianism—Calvin wrote the way he preached: he preached and wrote in an expository fashion. Expository preaching is when the preacher goes line by line, explaining what is happening in Scripture and what the meaning and message of each line is. Calvin, you may be aware, preached to crowds that did not each have a personal Bible. Most Cathedrals had a large Bible in Latin, but a few other Bibles were available. Most people had to just trust their priests for the sermons they preached, and they had no easy way to check if what was being preached was being properly offered. Calvin decided to include not only interpretation in his sermons, but also the Bible sentences from which he was preaching. It has gone in and out of style over the decades, but I plan to use it today to model the style Calvin often used. Today I am not convinced that people in our age are much more Biblically well read than our forebears were. We have Bibles, but sometimes they go unread! So today I will give a Biblical sermon with Biblical examples. By contrast, the famous Baptist preacher from Atlanta, Charles Stanley, has a son named Andy Stanley who is the pastor of the giant North Point Church in the Atlanta area.

He was once asked this question:

What do you think about preaching verse-by-verse messages through books of the Bible?

Stanley’s answer…

Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible– that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that.

So be it. But today we will join Calvin in his method of preaching!

 

Today hear the Word of God from Matthew chapter 4 beginning with verse 12. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested he withdrew to Galilee.”  What did that mean? John, in this case, was John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus. John was the forerunner, the one who announced, and prepared the way, for the one who was coming after him. John knew he himself was not the light as I told you last week; he bore witness to the light, who was Jesus himself. John had a ministry of baptism and of repentance. It was important. Jesus believed Baptism was so important that he himself got baptized as an example. Have you considered baptism? Or have you ever found your baptism certificate, looked at it, and thanked God for those who led you to that special day? Remember: your certificate is not an insurance policy: it’s a commission! You are the eyes and hands and heart of Jesus because you have been baptized in his name! Jesus also proclaimed John’s message of repentance. He said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” At least that’s the way Matthew recorded it. Matthew, you see, was one of the 12 followers of Jesus, but he was also a Jewish man by birth. Jews never used the name of God in prayers or in conversation out of respect for God. Luke and Mark and John did not have that concern. So wherever Matthew says, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” the other Gospel writers would say “the Kingdom of God.” It was not a message about “going to heaven” at all. It was a message that in Jesus, God was breaking into the world in a distinctive and unmistakable way. So Jesus said, in so many words, “It is time,” and left his dusty hometown of Nazareth and went to a town that became his second home: Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Do you understand the meaning of that line? He was leaving home; and he was loving God by starting a ministry that would make him be tested and derided, thanked, and appreciated. Next is verse 13: “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” What does that mean? Do you recall what Cara read in the first lesson? It was Isaiah chapter nine! When do we generally hear Isaiah chapter 9 each year? Astute ears will remember it is read on Christmas Eve, picked up and made famous by Handel in his magnificent “Messiah.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! Those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, upon them has the light shined! For unto us a child is born! Unto us a son is given!” Is it coming back to you? Hold on to your seats and hear this: Isaiah said those words 700 years before Christ! So are we sure Isaiah was talking about Christ? Here is where knowing your Bible matters. The verses before those famous lines in Isaiah are almost never read. They are: “But there will be no gloom for those who are in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time, he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”  Did you hear it? These places—Zebulun, Naphtali and the region of Galilee—are being changed by God from being places of gloom and nothingness, to become the new hometown of the child who has grown into a man, beginning his ministry where Isaiah said it would begin! You may know that Zebulun and Naphtali were regions to the west and north of the Sea of Galilee divided into twelve territories named after 11 of the sons of Jacob. The other son, Levi, did not get territory; he was in charge of the priesthood. So Jesus is setting the stage for the next events that God has planned for that land, that he claimed for himself, when he sent Abraham there from his own hometown of Ur.

 

Next Matthew quotes Isaiah, the passage that Cara read. Jesus left his home and settled in a new place, just as Abraham had done; just as John Calvin had done when he left France for Geneva, Switzerland; as John Knox had done for a time when he left Scotland and went to study with Calvin in Geneva. And Martin Luther, born in Eisleben Germany, also left his home to go to school in Magdeburg and Eisenach, Germany, and later to become a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg. Leaving home opened their hearts to the message and ministry God had in store for them.

 

What did Jesus do after he relocated to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee? You know because you have Bibles! He began calling men to follow him. He saw them fishing according to verse 19, and he, with a turn of a phrase, said: “Follow me; I will make you fishers of men (or of people we might say today.) Would you imagine these rough fisherman might have said to one another, “How do you fish for people? What a strange idea!” But Jesus meant what he said! He called Simon, who he nicknamed “Peter” (which meant “the rock.”) He also called Simon’s brother Andrew, who to this day is the patron saint of Scotland and is associated with the sea. Of all the things that might have been going through your mind, or my mind, it is humbling to read how these rough fishermen responded. Verse 20 tells us: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Wow. Let’s pause in honor for a moment. Even the Virgin Mary had a question for the angel before agreeing to bear the Son of God. Even Zechariah questioned the angel telling him about the birth of his son John the Baptist, and he was mute until the naming of John. Many ages before, God had approached Abram and they talked. After a brief time, God took Abram outside and said  “Look toward the heaven, and count the stars if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord.” “Immediately” is not the response we usually give when we are asked to move, or drop our employment for something untried and untested to follow someone like the man who stilled the waters and calmed the sea.  But to the credit of Simon Peter and Andrew, they did. And because they did, the discipleship ball started rolling: James and a different man named John (who were brothers) signed on. And they too, verse 22 tells us, “Immediately left their boat and their father and followed him.”

 

One more time, let’s take that in. First fishermen left their nets. Nets don’t grow on trees, they cost money! Yet Simon and Andrew left their nets. And we know how much money a boat costs, and yet James and John left their boat, but at least their father was there. Wait! They left their father with no plan to do so? Like rural farmers in our day, losing two strong sons would leave their father in a bad situation; it would be received as disrespectful and unthinkable. It was expected to happen when was getting married, but not when another man asked them to literally “jump ship!” What higher purpose was being worked out in those amazing first days of Jesus’ ministry! What amazing higher power was reaching into the soul of at least four men and changing their lives forever! That is the power of God! That is the power of the call of Christ. People in our day, and in ages past, have often left their parents to be trained, not only in colleges, but in seminaries, or monasteries, or in convents, or in Divinity schools They sought to know Jesus and to make him known. But today, you have been in a kind of Christian school for these few minutes too! You, with your heart, your experiences, and with your life, can do many of the things that others spent years learning to do! You can commit yourself to learn about Jesus and to know him, if you don’t already. John Calvin’s Christian schools started empowering people to learn about the Bible and Jesus. You can do it through Christian Education classes we offer, or by listening to preachers you trust, or by your own study. There is a great tradition of learning for Presbyterians! Be informed! Come to know Jesus as you Savior! And once you do, make him known! Witness to others with your life, as well as with your lips. Listen for things that Jesus might be calling you to do! And then instead of saying “No! Not me!” You might come to a point of saying:

“Here I am Lord. Send me.”

As we move to our hymn, let me tell you about it.

The text comes from the life of the Iona Community which had a practice of sending youth volunteers to live for a year or two in impoverished parts of Scotland, supported only by welfare payments and working out their discipleship in hard places. At the end of their agreed periods of ministry, there would be a farewell ceremony, always held in the house where they had been living and from which these authors would create an appropriate song. This was such a song… In stanzas 1-4, the voice of Christ calls a person to a life of service and witness; in stanza 5 the person answers affirmatively. [Glory to God: A Companion, by Carl P. Daw Jr., JKP, 2016.]

 

Let us now sing this song of the Iona Community, a community formed in Glasgow and Iona in 1938 by the Rev. George MacLeod.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 22, 2017

 

01-15-17 BEING A WITNESS FOR CHRIST

BEING A WITNESS FOR CHRIST

John 1: 29-42

 

Asking questions of boys and girls in a children’s sermon can be perilous. As one minister dealt with the passage from John that was just read, he thought he could get children to think about some of the names for or titles for Jesus: ones like Lamb of God, Son of God, Messiah, and others. So he asked the children what names or titles they could think of for Jesus. “Teacher” said one boy; “Savior” said another. An older girl, remembering Christmas, said “Emmanuel.” The minister was pleased. And then one final boy said “Andy.” “Andy!” the minister said. Where do you get that? And the boy said, “You know, from the song my grandma sings: “Andy (And he) walks with me and he talks with me!” At least he was a boy who listened! Today we join the disciples who pointed to Jesus and told others who he was. That is essentially what being a Christian witness is: it is pointing to, or telling others about Jesus, and how he has changed your life. It is that kind of testimony that best leads people to know Christ, not a polished script Have you invited Jesus into your heart? Has he changed your life? Did you find him gradually or all of a sudden?

 

Few people want to be a witness. In a trial, being a witness means giving up your time to be interrogated about what you saw. It might mean being in a courtroom. But what about being a Christian witness?  Have you been accosted or confronted by persons who wanted to “witness for Christ” to you over the years? Today we will name the witnessing methods that have been overbearing, or disingenuous, and then we’ll move to authentic witnessing.

 

Here is how John bore witness: “I saw the spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on Jesus.”  …. Then “I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.” Do you understand? He just told what he saw and what he believed. Then he said to two of his own disciples as Jesus walked by, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Now John’s words are not our words. Have you, perhaps, experienced a high-pressure situation where a person or two tried to talk you into believing something that you were not yet ready to believe? That makes people want to steer clear of witnessing. But the church is always just one generation away from extinction.  We must share our faith, to our children, and our children’s children, and even with neighbors. But we do not need to do it with panic or coercion. Let’s look at some of the tactics that have not worked in the history of the church.

 

First, there is the” bulldozer approach.” These are the persons, whether strangers on your doorstep or neighbors when you first moved to town, who bowl you over with questions and a stream of arguments backed up with memorized Scripture, asking you if you know for sure you are going to heaven. This approach generally produces a one-way conservation since you can’t win against their arguments and you often feel too anxious to give a well-thought answer. These people want you to commit to Christ then and there, and if you don’t, they will—in bulldozer fashion—push you along the path until you do. That approach to witnessing never won me over.

 

Second, there is the decoy approach. It occurs when a person draws attention to something—like a friendship—in order to talk people into something else. It can happen when marketing products; it can also happen when you least expect it. An example is the decoy of friendship. When I was in college I had someone approach in an airport while waiting for a flight, strike up a conversation, and try to establish that all of a sudden we were friends. He then tried to give me religious books saying they were “a gift.” I figured out he was member of the Hare Krishnas and broke off that deal. Goodness! No wonder people run from witnessing! This tactic is harder to get out of since you’ve given your name and you have unwanted books in your hand. Such deceptive tactics have no place in my life.

 

The third method is what I’ll call “the jealousy approach.” It is used when someone treats their faith as so special that they include select people in their circle of friends only if they are Christians. It says “I will relate to people who believe the way I do,  but not to others. If you want to be my friend, you need to be part of my church.” It is kind of a snob approach, one that Jesus would detest. John the Baptist proclaimed his words to anyone who would hear them. Jesus invited people in the first chapter of John to “Follow me.” It was not exclusive; it was invitational. Jesus cared about tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and people despised by others. The love of Christ is something we are called to share, not a circle of exclusivity. D.T. Niles said Evangelism, or witnessing, is “One beggar showing another where to find bread.” “Come and see.” Jesus invited interested and curious persons to come and see who he was and where he could be found.  John was a prophet sent from God to bear witness to the Light; not more, not less.

 

So if we don’t want to use the tactics I’ve already described, then we don’t have to witness at all, right? Wrong! We have a call to action, to share what we have found with others. “What’s that you say? You say you don’t think your faith is that strong, or your beliefs aren’t too firm yet? Then you’re perfect for the job! Nothing is more engaging than a person who has found a church they love but still has questions and doubts! That invites a new person to share a the faith journey!” Even more, it gives the new persons someone to sit with when they come to church to try out what you have already found!  That can be very comforting to the seeker who is timid about what and who they may encounter! Some churches deliberately use tactics like the ones I’ve described. At a mega church I know, greeters are trained to meet every car in the very large parking. That person is assigned to get your name, your contact information, and if you are new in town before he hands you over to an inside greeter! Then two church members calls on you that afternoon! This is true! But here, we genuinely greet you and warmly invite you to be part of the congregation that means so much to us.  You are welcomed, not pumped for information.

 

Finally, there are some people who lived through the 1950s—the baby boom era—who remember when all you had to do was open the church doors and people would come. Those days are over. Nor are you witnessing to others if you just say: “I drive to church on Sunday! If a new neighbor sees that, he can ask me questions if he wants to!” That’s not witnessing! I’m a Presbyterian because when we moved to St Louis our next-door neighbor, a few weeks after we moved in, said to my Dad, “Next Sunday would you like to come and try my church? Bonhomme Presbyterian! There are Sunday School classes for your children and I’ll introduce you to others!”  And the rest is history. I’m a Presbyterian because a neighbor invited us to his church! That’s witnessing! I love to tell my story! What’s yours?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 January 15, 2017

01-08-17 A TIDING OF GREAT JOY

A TIDING OF GREAT JOY

Matthew 3: 13-17

 

Next June a group of us will travel to Ireland to see the Celtic Christianity that is there. As part of my preparation for the trip, I have tried to familiarize myself with Irish customs and news from Ireland. On April 9th, 2016 in their newspaper called “The Guardian” Patrick Deeley wrote these words:

Very

The phone line crackled. My sense of someone there faded, returned. I still had to get used to the delay. I knew it was my mother. Seventy seven years old at this time – mid-July 2003 – she had recently had a stroke. But because today was my 50th birthday, she would be less inclined than ever to let the stroke or her other health problems prevent her from making the call.

A clunking noise. She was stooping to place the phone on the table between the two kitchen windows before leaning her hands on the table. A flurry of creaks, scrapes and rustles. She was edging into her chair, making herself comfortable as best she could before speaking. Quietly then, out of the welling silence, she said, “I love you.”

Just those words. The first time she had ever said them to me. The gift I had yearned to receive as a child, the prize I had stopped hoping for – at last it was mine, on the morning of my 50th birthday. Her words delighted me. Yet, for a few moments, I couldn’t rightly take them in. They sounded strange – as if I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two other people.

Why, I have often asked myself, was there this inability on my family’s part to show affection and to express it in words? We “agreed well together”. We were gregarious and close, could say what we thought about anything except the relationships between us.

The conventions of that place and time, the deeply conservative Ireland of the mid-20th century, became a restriction we learned and which seemed to permeate how people around us believed they had to conduct themselves. This reticence applied not only in the rural west of Ireland, where we lived, but also in town and city far and near. In my family’s case, I still regret we couldn’t be more open with our feelings.

But, for whatever reason, the consoling hug or pat of affection was absent…. Now my mother had said the words – to me. I could feel them sinking in. And as the whitebeam tree beyond the window danced in my sunlit back garden, showing its silver under-leaves to the breeze, I could hear her laboured breathing.

 

What power there is in words. We find in Genesis that with words and breath, God created everything that is. Wow! Not with construction vehicles, or blueprints, or with bricks and mortar, but with words. “Let there be light!” And there was light. That is how awesome our God is.  Worship, it turns out, means “giving attention to one who is worthy of praise!”  Not everyone understands the rationale for worship. Why do we worship? Some say worship intensity depends on if they how they feel; what mood they are in, or if they like the sermon or the music. And many come to worship as if they are an audience for a sacred production, with the choir and minister acting on the stage, and God as a cosmic director. But Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says “no.” The reason we worship is the nature and character of God, and in thankfulness for the saving gift of Jesus Christ.” So in the great drama of worship, the actors are you—the congregation—offering the finest praise that you can muster! The script is your bulletin, while the directors are the ministers, the choirmaster, and the choir. Now if that’s the case, who is the audience in worship? Of course, the audience is God. God is waiting with anticipation each Sunday to receive our praise and our thanksgivings! God anticipates our praise!  But what does God see on Sundays?: sometimes apathy; sometimes boredom; sometimes lethargy. If that’s what we’re giving God, it gives the Almighty little motivation for emptying his storehouse of blessings! Why give to ungrateful or fully self-centered children? Unless maybe, maybe, you didn’t understand that you are the main act in worship, and not the audience. Now you know! The Psalms are great examples of worship in the Bible. As the Rev. Mark Yurs, the writer or the study book I  use on Wednesdays and Jan Toles uses on Sundays puts it, “Psalm 33 and the heart of Christian theology place the reason for worship in the nature and character of God.” “Rejoice in the Lord all you who try to make right choices in life” says the Psalmist. “Praise is the right attitude for those who seek to honor and please God.”

 

Certainly there are those who are hearing this for the first time. And there are those who mutter: “Why should I praise God? I lost money last year, there are shootings every day, loved ones have died, and I don’t see God fixing any of the things that are going wrong. Until I do, I’ll not praise God.” Boy have your dug yourself into a hole of isolation if you don’t have faith—the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen—and instead you decide to wait for proof that God cares.  Here is one example of why that’s not a good thing to do.

 

In the 1971 true story of The Hiding Place was published. The ten Booms are a family of Jews in Holland in 1937. Over time Hitler’s brutal and unflinching plan to exterminate the Jews in the world reached their area. The Germans invaded Holland in May of 1940. Corrie ten Boom learns about the underground movement in 1942 and so she tries to keep her family safe and allude the Nazi powers. Finally in 1944 Corrie and her sister Betsie were locked away in a concentration camp. Boredom set in along with extreme discomfort. The only thing she found to read were the Four Gospels of the New Testament. She read them, believed them, and began teaching them to others. She grew weaker and more bitter in her harsh conditions, even as her sister Betsie grew  kinder and more loving. The turning point for both of them was an experience with fleas. Their barrack was infested with fleas and in spite of their torment, Corrie’s sister Betsie was still praising God daily, even thanking God for the fleas! “Sister,” Corrie said, “I will NOT thank God for the source of my anguish! How can you do such a thing?” And Betsie says, “Scriptures teach me to praise God all times and for all things!”  Little did they know that the fleas saved their lives. Because all the guards knew their barrack was flea-infested, they avoided it, taking others to the gas chamber instead.  With faith in a God who loves us very much, we can genuinely offer our thanks and praise, and trust that God loving plan will be revealed at the right time.

 

Today every commentator believes the voice coming from heaven in Matthew chapter 3 is the voice of God, announcing to all who were there, and all who would later read those words; “This is my Son! I love him! And I am so pleased with him!”  God hopes we will share his good news about creation, new births, and other parts of life. But this day, the announcement at Jesus’ baptism was the most important! This was his Son, with whom he was pleased, but also the one who would begin to reveal God’s own nature to the world! Because of this beginning of Jesus’ ministry— we begin to know this: that God wants us to love more than God wants us to fear; and to know that God is with us, not way, way far away. It was a glorious announcement.

 

What is our takeaway from these lessons? First, we learned the power of words. With words, God created the heavens and the earth. God chose to speak at Jesus’ baptism because his joy could not be contained! But words can also be punitive instead of encouraging; withheld instead of spoken. Why should a man have to wait until he is 50 to hear his mother say that she loves him? Think of words you can use to lift others up. The Heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus made his pleasure about his son a public declaration! Even the Almighty could not contain his joy, so it became a tiding of great joy! Second, we learned the motivation to worship God. It is not driven by how good we feel or how lousy we feel, it is driven by how much we are aware of what God has done for us and how much God loves us! Praise, like life, should be one big thank you note to God! How many thank you notes have you gotten from your gifts given this Christmas? I gave a number of gifts, but have received just one thank you note. Imagine how God feels, pouring the holy essence into Christ and into creation: like rainbows, and soaring mountains thunderstorms and powerful seas—and God hears no words of thanks or praise from the ones one whom he is showering with blessings?  Today you are reminded about the one from whom all blessings flow; we sing those words every week in our doxology; we’ll sing them today; but God is waiting for the time when we mean what we sing. Finally, we witnessed God’s exceeding joy! God invited us to the party; to celebrate the joy he has over Jesus! We can continue to celebrate that can’t we? I know I can, and I do. I invite you to look at both the words you use and the worship you offer, with new insights, and intentionality.

 

God is great, and God is good! Now our hymn imagines some of the things God might say to you, and to me, and to your neighbors in the pews, today.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                               January 8, 2017

 

 

01-01-17 NEW YEARS DAY

What is your favorite image of Jesus?

For some it’s the Good Shepherd, like the one we have here at the front of the church. For others it’s the opposite image and they are drawn to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Or maybe it’s one of the images of the Christmas season: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, or Prince of Peace?

For me it has always been Jesus as the Word. Maybe it comes from my roots as an English major, but to me Jesus as the Word has always made the most sense. Words are powerful. Words have the ability to change everything. Words are how we shape our world. All we know of Jesus comes from the words that make up his stories. Words matter.

Think about it. Think about the times when just a few simple words changed your life. “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or even simply “Pregnant.” Those words change everything. Just as Jesus changed everything.

 

Frederick Buechner talks about the power of words in one of his essays, saying,  “In Hebrew the term dabar means both “word” and “deed.” Thus to say something is to do something. “I love you.” “I hate you.” “I forgive you.” “I am afraid of you.” Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it can never be undone. Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly.

 

“Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I both discover and create who I am. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our converse we create each other.

When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light where before there was only darkness. When I say I love you, there is love where before there was only ambiguous silence. In a sense I do not love you first and then speak it, but only by speaking it give it reality.”

 

So Jesus becoming flesh is the Word becoming reality. And why does he do this? Because God wants to change the story of the world. The story of this scripture is the story of creation. That’s why I think John decides to start his story of Jesus by quoting the beginning of Genesis or, really, the whole Bible. It would be kind of like if I wanted to write a novel and decided to begin, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In general, not a particularly good idea to compare myself to Charles Dickens. Same thing with John. Except John does in fact think he’s writing a new Genesis.

 

Why is John so audacious? Because he believes that he is, indeed, writing a new beginning. Actually, the new beginning. Of history. Of humanity. Of God’s involvement in the creation.

 

And God’s “in the beginning” is not simply a reset or change so as to disregard the present or the past. “In the beginning” is the assurance that our hopes for re-creation are not dependent solely on us. They are made possible because that’s what believing in God means. Our recreation is not limited to our own merits because God went first.

 

And today, a day when people think about new beginnings, about resolutions and starting again, I find this promise to be a comfort. It is possible to have a new beginning, to be made new, because God already did it.

 

“In the beginning” is the promise of re-creation, a promise we know to be true because God recreated God’s very self. This is the very nature of God, and since we are God’s witnesses, God’s followers, God’s preachers, we proclaim that God’s re-creation abounds, even in the face of people, situations, and the world’s circumstances that would seek to prove otherwise.

 

And why did God seek out this re-creation? Well, John goes on to tell us: “For God so loved the world…” Because God loves us so much, God changed the very nature of humanity’s relationship with God.

 

Which is why Jesus – the One who was already with God – comes as God’s Word made flesh. To reveal to us God’s parental love. And not just to reveal, but to speak through word and deed as eloquently as possible that there is nothing God wouldn’t do, no where God won’t go, nothing God won’t endure – even the loss of God’s beloved Son – that we might know we are God’s beloved children, worthy of dignity, honor, and love.

 

And to become flesh is no small thing! The Word goes from being formless and containing the power of creation into the form of a crying infant, helpless and at the mercy of the world. Becoming flesh means daily aches and pains that come with age along with sharp bright hurts of accident and injury. Becoming flesh means getting hurt and crying and suffering. For Jesus it meant being tortured and eventually brutally killed.

 

In a similar way, words are safe until they are spoken. If I never say what I am thinking, it cannot be misunderstood, or dismissed, or used against me. By speaking the words, they become vulnerable, just as Jesus does when he becomes flesh. And yet, if I never speak the words, they can never change anything.  

 

And at the same time, never becoming flesh means missing out on a lot. Flesh means the feel of the sun on your skin or a cool breeze through your hair. Flesh means the smell of bread baking or flowers blooming. Flesh means tasting food and running fingers through sand. Flesh means laughter and hugs. Being made flesh gave Jesus our joys as much as our sorrows.

In many ways it is like the very first time you say “I love you” to someone who means the world to you. You don’t know what will happen. You could be rejected, or worse, ridiculed. You could be dismissed or strung along to be dropped later. Or, you could hear the words in return and your world could change. But unless you say the words, you will never know.  

 

This is the heart of John’s audacious Gospel – that in Jesus we receive a love letter written in human flesh and blood from the God who created the vast cosmos in the beginning, continues to sustain the universe even now, and values each and every one of us more than we can possible imagine. And that Word creates all things new, taking our resolutions and hopes as well as our fears and disappointments and binding them together in the promises of God.

 

We can reject or ignore or even ridicule the Word. But God keeps on speaking that Word of love to us. I want to turn again to Buechner who says: “God never seems to weary of trying to get across to us. Word after word God tries in search of the right word. When the creation itself doesn’t seem to say it right—sun, moon, stars, all of it—God tries flesh and blood.

 

‘The word became flesh,’ John said, of all flesh this flesh. Jesus as the Word made flesh means take it or leave it: in this life, death, life, God finally manages to say what God is and what human is. It means: just as your words have you in them—your breath, spirit, power, hiddenness—so Jesus has God in him.”

 

As we begin a new year, the scriptures tell us of this story of God loving us so much, that God became flesh and lived among us. That the Word of God came down to change everything and loves us still.

 

In this time of new beginnings, we can chose again how we will respond to that Word that God is speaking to us. Will we reject it? Will we ignore it? Or will we embrace the Word that God still speaks to us today?

 

Amen.