Monthly Archives: February 2017

02-26-17 SEEING GOD’S GLORY

SEEING GOD’S GLORY

Exodus 24:12-18   Matthew 17: 1-9

 

“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.”

You see? You have heard of that word “transfigured,” haven’t you? Transfigured: a word found in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, ascribing great blessing on Americans. We are, in so many ways, blessed.

Transfigured: to change radically the figure or appearance of; to exalt or glorify.

That’s what we’re talking about today.

We’re talking about a day of wonder, of mystery, and even delight for Peter, James, John, and ages before: Moses.

We’re talking about a chance for personal counsel and divine insight.

We’re talking about a chance to get perspective on that which is beyond us.

We’re talking about a proverbial “mountaintop experience.”

 

Can you remember some of the people who were your heroes, or persons you idolized? My love for and intrigue with ocean liners started with a Titanic survivor coming to my elementary school in Richmond Virginia. I’ll never forget the woman’s story about how that great ship went down. My becoming a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals included a meeting with pitcher Nelson Briles who came to speak at our church. You may not know his name, but he had a name then. Meeting him intensified my love for the game.   Can you think of people who made such an impact on you that they changed your life? Those are mountaintop days, and when you have them, you hope they’ll never end. Mary Ann and I have waited in line to meet characters at Walt Disney World or at Universal Studios with one of our little grandsons who was star struck to meet a princess.

Teenagers in the late fifties loved to see Elvis, and in the 60s they loved to see the Beatles. Today as the Daytona 500 takes place, I will be reminded what a thrill it was to meet “the King:” Richard Petty.

 

All of those examples, put together, can’t measure up to going up a mountain with Jesus and seeing him “transfigured;” or going up a different mountain and being in the presence of God as Moses did. Like any special meeting you may have had, none one wants it to end.  Peter, James, and John wanted to stay on the mountain and be enraptured by the glory. But God, as always, had other plans. On the day of a baptism, God is issuing a commission, not an insurance policy. A God has special things for Moses, and Peter, and James, and John to do; and for you and me as well. Experiencing God’s glory is to get empowered, not enamored. Being enamored is for fans; being empowered is for followers. Even Moses wanted to stay on the mountain and not face the people, who had already begun to sin. Even Peter, James, and John wanted to stay close to Jesus on the mountain, not face the valley of suffering and need. It was an extraordinary day with ordinary reactions.  Some groups of climbers who have climbed to the summit of mountains have wanted to stay if their food held out. Who wants a special day to come to an end? But mountains aren’t appreciated without valleys. The days of joy are not so appreciated until one of those Murphy’s Law days, comes along, when anything that can go wrong, does go wrong! Just as this week of Mardi Gras, ending in two days on “Fat Tuesday,” is seen by some as the final fling of fantasy and fun before Lent, so the day on the mountaintop ends with the descent into the valley; where the people were; where the needs were; where the journey continued.

 

Mountaintop experiences are ones from which we might date our lives as B.E., before the event, and A.E., after the event. They are that pivotal. Some have told me about the spiritual mountaintop experience they had at Cursillo, De Colores, Via de Christo, or on an Emmaus Walk.  For many Presbyterians, a trip to Montreat, North Carolina creates such a memory. Some of our mission trip youth have been changed forever by their summer pilgrimage. Am I helping you recall any special events?

 

Now, how does one describe God’s glory?  Might we be searching for the right words to say? If you remember the brilliant Anne Bancroft depicting the teacher of the Blind, Annie Sullivan, as she tried to help Helen Keller, portrayed by the late Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker,” she celebrated the amazing time when Helen made the connection between the sign language she formed and the object she described. How do you teach someone how to connect “water” with the word when she never had the concept of words?  Similarly, in the new non-fiction book The Awakening of HK Derryberry, a boy born prematurely never gained sight and lives to this day with cerebral palsy. Only his grandmother stepped up and cared for that poor child, taking him with her to the coffee shop where she worked eight hours a day. He sat in a booth the whole time. Jim Bradford, a local businessman and Christian from Brentwood, Tennessee, chose that coffee shop over his normal one. HK changed his life; they became best buddies, and HK began to learn about a world he had never seen. At one point in the book, he innocently asks, “Mr. Bradford, what does white look like?”  What does white look like when you have never seen anything?  Grasping for descriptive words might be what it would be like if we were to ask Moses:  “Tell me about God’s glory.” Or ask Peter, James, and John, “What did Jesus look like that day on the mountain?”  Singer and songwriter Bart Millard of the Christian group “MercyMe” tried to capture that idea with these words written to his Lord:  (I Can Only Imagine)

I can only imagine what it will be like when I walk by your side;

I can only imagine what my eyes will see when your face is before me

I can only imagine.

Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel, will I dance for

You Jesus, or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall,

Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all,

I can only imagine.

 

Wow. What a good stab at describing the indescribable. All these examples are just attempts to describe the indescribable. Here’s a final one.

 

Oscar Hijuelos, in his national bestseller from 1995 called Mr. Ives’ Christmas, tells of the unusual transfiguration experience his main character has. At the corner of Madison Avenue and Forty-First Street in New York City, Ives begins to feel certain sensations: the sidewalk seems to lift under him ever so slightly; the street begins to flutter and stretch on forever; the buildings bow as if they recognize Ives, and in those moments, he could feel the very lift of the concrete below him. It was as if he could, for a few seconds, hear molecules grinding, light shifting, and the vibrancy of things everywhere. “In one slip of a second, anything seemed possible—had the moon risen and started to sing, had pyramids appeared over the Chrysler building weeping, Ives would have been no more surprised…. He began to experience a thorough love for all things. In the glow of such feelings people truly seemed blessed; truck and car horns sounded like heavenly trumpets; [and] the murmur of crowds and the other voices fell upon his ears like music…. Catching his own reflection in a window, Ives’ face [was] like a sphinx’s one minute, the next like Saint Paul’s, as it might have been when he was stricken with divine light…. To hear, to smell, to see, to feel, all were miraculous. [HarperCollins, 1995, pp.101,102] And looking back on his life-changing day, “He would have liked to tell his son how each time he walked along the street on a clear day, he vividly remembered his mystical experience. He had wanted to explain how a sensation of impending glory came over him, and how, for a few moments, he became aware of God that was like no God he had previously conceived.” [p. 111]

 

On a mountaintop; at the ocean; in a store window; in the face of a child; on a Damascus road experience; or in that time in Gloryland where we all hope to land, may you watch hopefully, and even longingly, for the glory of God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 26, 2017

02-19-17 EPIPHANY 7a

Who are your enemies? That’s always the first question that springs to mind when I come across this passage. Who is my enemy?

 

Now, very few people have real enemies: dark hatted villains with curling mustaches that cackle and unleash dastardly schemes.  Instead you have the people who disagree with you. The people who cut you off in traffic. The people who are on the other side of the political spectrum and love to argue about it. The person who just rubs you the wrong way. Or maybe it’s the person you thought you could trust and instead they betrayed you. We can all think of someone we have less than fond feelings for. The question is, how do we deal with them?

 

There are some people who relish the arguments and drama these enemies can stir up. They seem to seek out arguments. Many people just try to avoid their enemies and get on with their lives. But Jesus comes along this morning and tells us to love them. Just like that. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

 

Now, that’s not a very good way to sell the argument Jesus. If I have to love my enemies, tell me what’s in it for me, right?

 

Tell me that I need to love my enemies because hatred and negativity is bad for my mental and physical health. Or that I need to love my enemies because spending energy hating them gives them power over me. Or that it proves who is the better person. Or do what Paul did: tell me to love my enemies because, being kind to my enemies is a way to “heap burning coals on their heads.” Now that’s motivating!

 

But Jesus doesn’t offer any common sense reason to love our enemies. Instead we are told only that we should live that way because that’s the way God lives. We should be perfect as God as perfect.

 

I don’t know about you, but when I hear that I’m supposed to be perfect, my first inclination is to laugh. I know I’ll never be perfect. I know I’ll never get close. After all, only Christ was perfect.

 

But the word we translate as “perfect” is the Greek word telos and it actually implies less moral perfection and more reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Telos is reaching the best you, you can be. Fulfilling your purpose completely.

 

Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.”

 

So yeah, in that sense when we are called to love our enemies we are also doing it for ourselves. Because by doing so, we live into the best of who we are called to be.

 

Right, but what about the times when it isn’t just someone we disagree with? Is it realistic to expect the families of murder victims to forgive and love the people who took their loved ones from them? Is Jesus asking a battered wife to pray for the one who abuses her, to offer the other cheek to the husband who has struck the first one? Yes, God sends sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, but are we called to love and be merciful to people who take us for granted and use us for their own advantage? When someone hurts us or cheats us or those we love, how are we supposed to love them without suffering abuse us again?

 

Because loving them doesn’t mean that we must suffer at their hands. It doesn’t mean condoning actions that are harmful. Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote: ‘Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship … We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy.”

 

King concludes that when Jesus asks us to love our enemies he is pleading with us to offer understanding and creative goodwill to all people. This is the only way we can truly be children of a loving God.

 

To love the enemy does not mean to like the enemy. Even if you don’t like someone you can still treat them with respect. You don’t have to like someone to behave as though their life and feelings matter.  And loving our enemies also doesn’t mean that we must remain in situations that are harmful to our physical or emotional well-being. Instead to love our enemies means to understand them as human beings, troubled and sinful human beings who have hurt us because they themselves hurt inside. It means to make a decision to respond to them in ways which will benefit them and perhaps lead to healing.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets right at the heart of this text:  “By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, … [but] Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it.  And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and utterly devoid of love?” We cannot control how they may behave, but we can still treat them as though they are also children of God.

 

But just because our enemies may need our love, that doesn’t make it easier to love them, does it? I think it many ways this is the hardest thing Jesus ever tells us to do. Not just to not hate our enemies, but to love them and pray for them. Praying for our enemies is so much more difficult than not-hating them. After all, not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active. And Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies.

 

Now, I don’t believe that prayer will necessarily “change their hearts,” as people often say about the ones they are trying to not hate. But I do believe it will likely change my heart. When I pray for someone, I start to see that person as I imagine God does: as a flawed human being made in God’s image. Just like me.

 

So yes, I pray for my enemies. The prayer usually begins along the lines of “Lord, please love this person for me because I don’t know how right now. I’ll keep working on forgiving them in the meantime.” My enemy’s actions probably won’t change. They won’t suddenly see my side or become a better person or apologize for their past actions. But I will change. And I will come closer to the telos that I should be.  

 

I hear in this passage today the invitation to be those people God has created us to be. When we do we have the chance to flourish, making a difference to those around us by sharing the abundant life Jesus has given us

 

Jesus is calling us to a better way to live, to a higher path than the world sets before us. We can be more than petty arguments and deep resentments. We can be the people Christ calls us to be:  ones who love even the unlovable. We can reach our telos and that will shape the world around us.

 

So today I say to you: Love your enemies. Love the ones who annoy you, the ones who hurt you, the ones who betray you. Pray for them. And grow into the people God always knew you could be.

02-12-17 WHAT IT MEANS TO CHOOSE LIFE

WHAT IT MEANS TO CHOOSE LIFE

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

 

Years ago I was invited to be on the floor of our state legislature when they voted to create the “Choose life” license plates. In that context it was a message affirming adoption over abortion.  That’s one way a person can choose life. And I know there are anguishing decisions about which life to save when pregnant mother is in distressed labor: the mother’s or the baby’s, when saving both is not an option. In cases like that, “choosing life” is not as easy as it sounds. When we prepare for a flight on a commercial aircraft, we are always reminded that if there is the need for an oxygen mask and we’re traveling with a small child, it’s important to put your own oxygen mask on first. Otherwise, in your desire to save the life of your child, two lives might be lost. Have you wondered what conditions lead people to jump to their death from the Golden Gate bridge, or from a cruise ship, or to lie on the tracks in front of an oncoming train?  What conditions make people see life, as we know it, as painful or agonizing?  I was heartbroken last month to read the story on social media suicide of a young Miami teenaged girl who took her own life live on a Facebook feed. Her constant torment and bullying at the hands of others had driven her to find death more fulfilling than life, and as it happened, the video feed recorded texted comments of people still mocking her, calling her names, and posting laughing emojis as she hanged herself from the bathroom door of her Miami Gardens home. Sometimes people make a choice other than the anguish of living. We also know there are times when we take the lives of animals and call it humane, and we prolong the lives of suffering family members and say it is God’s will. Choosing life is not always a clear decision; it is not as easy as choosing to stay on the bank of a river or plummeting over a waterfall. What is the best way to choose life?  Clearly situational ethics are involved, and each situation merits our careful examination before acting like we have the moral high ground.

 

The text I have chosen from Deuteronomy is excised often from its context. What I mean by that is people love saying: God says “Choose life.” But there is more to the quote than that. First, these words are spoken by Moses who received them from God. They were part of Moses’ final address to the people. Second, the longer quote from Moses is the whole passage today,  and it is a dependent clause. Listen to it; and listen for the words “if” and “then.” Moses said: “I have set before you today, life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live ….” Everything described in the beginning of this proposition must be met for the listeners to have life.  There’s a lot riding on it! And there’s more: its a warning. Listen: “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, and are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him.”  Goodness. In order to have life, there is a lot of small print we have to follow! It’s not as easy as many make it out to be. There is a cost at the front end of choosing life; but on the other hand there is great cost on the back end if you choose death or curse, no matter how enticing it might initially be. All that glitters is not gold.

 

When we agree to a contract whether on paper, a phone, or a computer, there is often a requirement to check a box saying “I have read the terms of agreement and understand them.”  Countless people, maybe many of you, just check the box without reading it! The terms can be so long and complicated, filled with exceptions that will void the contract. In Moses’ day, the life choosing covenant was written out by God were on those tablets of stone that we call the Ten Commandments. But the contract was sealed only if the people agreed to the fine print! Even though we may quickly check the box without reading the agreement, the contract in the Bible is talking about how to have life on earth; and in the gospels when Jesus offered his interpretation of the commandments, he was talking about eternal lives! Now, perhaps you are ready to hear the ways that you can choose life:

 

  • Obey the commandments of your Lord God. (verse 15) If you need to re-read the commandments, they are in chapter 5. But following chapter 5 in Deuteronomy are any number of examples of how to apply those commandments. Chapter 6 includes “The Great Commandment” also known as the “Shema” by Jews. Moses said, “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you…. Hear or Israel: the Lord our God is the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Teach them to your children, and discuss them when you are at home, and when you are away, when you lie down, and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as a frontlet on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Orthodox Jews take those words and actions literally; but all faithful Jews and Christians would do well to take them In addition to the Ten Commandments, that commandment is one everyone would do well to keep and follow. If you want life, you cannot discard or ignore this fine print. Again, choosing life is front-loaded with conditions; the alternative is back-loaded with consequences. All that glitters is not gold. Moses also cautions against disobedience later in chapter 6, and he tells of the blessings one can receive for obedience in chapter 7. Moses warns not to forget God in one’s prosperity, and he tells the consequences for rebelling. I know there are people who know the stories of Jesus well; many are here today. But if you want to know the words that Jesus knew as a child and by which he lived, these words in Deuteronomy are those words. These words are the contract and the fine print: the Ten Commandments and remembering to the love God and teach your children the same thing. But the details of the agreement spell out how to obtain life; there we also find the warnings regarding how we can lose the life we desire but not keeping our part of the contract. The Bible calls it a covenant and God wants that for us.
  • Love the Lord your God. Put God first. The Christian Mystics did this in ways that straight-laced or more orthodox Christians would do well to emulate. They called God their beloved! God mostly wants to be adored and loved! And in return, you will know without a doubt that God unconditionally loves you too.
  • Walk in the ways of the Lord. Get out your owner’s manual, the one with the code words “Holy Bible” on it, and read it. Particularly read Moses’ words in Deuteronomy.  When Jesus was teaching in those three powerful years of his ministry, he certainly leaned heavily on his knowledge of Deuteronomy for guidance. If you want to see a stellar example of one who “walks in the ways of the Lord,” look at Jesus. Ask yourself often “What would Jesus do?” That will guide you well.

 

Now, you can choose life, but only when you decide to meet the prerequisites, and agree to the small print. It is hard work to choose life, but the alternative can be brutal.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      February 12, 2017

 

 

 

02-05-17 LIKE SALT

There is a story that is told in different variations around the world. It has even been immortalized by Shakespeare in the play King Lear. But in it’s simplest form, the story begins when a king asked his daughter how much she loved him. She said she loved him as much as she loved salt, whereupon in a rage the king expelled her from his palace.  But before leaving she arranged for all of the salt to be left out of the king’s food. Only then did he realise that how much being loved like salt meant.

 

Now I would immediately see that as a compliment. I love salt. Give me a choice between salty foods and sweet and I will pick salty almost every time. But even for people with less salty palates know how much of a difference salt can make in their food. Even a pinch leaves it’s mark.

In Jesus day, salt was extremely valuable.   Not only does salt add flavor to food, it also preserved certain foods such as meat or fish from spoiling, which was essential before the invention of refrigeration. Salt also helps to purify or cleanse meats and is useful in healing or cleansing certain ailments. All of these uses were commonly known in first century Palestine. Indeed, such uses were likely the cause for the symbolic use of salt in offerings and sacrifice, as well as in sealing covenants in Israel

 

Let’s say that you and I were going to make a deal with each other. Now, there was no written contract, but instead you would take some salt from your house and I would take some salt from my house. Then we would throw salt across each other’s shoulder. It was called the covenant of salt. Salt was symbolic of the preservation of a contract.

 

Because of its usefulness, salt was prized and even used as currency.  Special salt rations given to early Roman soldiers were known as “salarium argentum,” the forerunner of the English word “salary.”  It seems that one can write a whole history of the world just by tracing what has happened with salt.  In fact, Mark Kulansky did so in his book “Salt: A World History.”

 

And so it matters that Jesus says to those who were listening then and to those who listen still: “You are the salt of the earth.”  In other words, you are of great value.  

 

Jesus isn’t saying, “You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” Or, “You have to be,…” let alone “You better be,….” Rather, he is saying, you are. As in already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing it.

 

Jesus declares what  his followers are here, and it doesn’t matter whether they know it, believe it, or feel it.  They are salt whether they feel flavorful or not.  They are light regardless of whether they feel particularly shiny.    

 

I want to take a moment to talk about children here. Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary-aged children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. And it doesn’t seem like we grow out of that need.

 

Children, to put it another way, become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or anyone) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she or we will live into the name we’ve been assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well.

 

And so Jesus tells us that we are salt of the earth. And light of the world. That is who we are. It is up to us to live into those names.

 

After all, salt does a lot. And if you are salt, just think of all the varied ways the gift you are and the gifts you offer impact the world.  You can help to preserve others and the land around you. You can help to heal and to make covenants. You are what makes the best times better. Just by being you.

 

Take a minute and think about your actions over the last few weeks. Think about the variety of ways God has used you to be salt and light. Did you offer words of encouragement to someone who needed it?  Did you volunteer? Visit the sick? Feed the hungry? Did you speak out against injustice? Did you stand up for the alienated and the marginalized? You have added salt to the world. You have been a light on a hill.

 

Because, so far as I can tell, in spite of Jesus’ assertion, salt never actually loses its taste. It’s a stable element and cannot “go bad.” No, the only way salt can lose its saltiness is when it is never used at all. Think about it. It doesn’t matter how much salt you have sitting on the shelf if you forgot to add it to the soup. Salt is meant to be used, whether it is in soup or on icy roads. It does no good at all stored away.

 

In the same way, a light is only useless if you never see it. If you hide it under something. Light is not meant to be stored up, but rather, to be shared with all who need its guidance and warmth.

 

We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That means we are called  to demonstrate the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis.  Our first lesson from Isaiah 58:6-7 makes it clear how we are to use our salt. What our God desires of us is “to loose the bonds of injustice, … to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.”  When we live our lives in this way, demonstrating the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis, we are being the salt of the earth. We are shining a light on a hill.

 

Matthew even repeats what we are to do in his gospel: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” That is what we are called to do. That is who we are told to be.

 

You are salt. You are light. It is up to you to use your salt and our light “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Because salt cannot help being salty. Light cannot help but shine. They are set apart, unique, endowed with a clear and certain purpose and identity. You too have a clear purpose as a follower of Christ.

 

Jesus says these words to you today.  You are of great value.  Who and what you are and all that you give to the world makes the world a better, richer place.  All you have to do is get out of the shaker, out of the bag, off the shelf and do what you were made to do.

 

“You are the salt of the earth.”  Believe it.