Monthly Archives: June 2017

06-25-17 THE CARE OF THE SOUL

THE CARE OF THE SOUL

Matthew 10: 24-39

 

The text I am using today includes the revelatory words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body.” Jesus acknowledges the soul. It is also perhaps this verse and others which the reformer Martin Luther referenced in the hymn at the end of our service today “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” with the line: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still; his Kingdom is forever.” It is true that the Apostle Paul had to take up the battle for the resurrection of the body as he preached in Asia Minor. That contradicted the Greek’s understanding of the immortality of the soul. The Greeks said that the body, like a cocoon, would drop away and the eternal soul would go and be with the gods forever.  What happened with Jesus at the empty tomb, Paul argued, was that he really died, and that he was raised from the dead in a bodily resurrection. But “soul” is very much a concept in the Bible co-opted

from Greeks and used in a different way. Soul appears 755 times on the Old Testament, but never does it refer to one’s “immortal soul,” but instead to one’s “life principle” or to a “living being.” In the New Testament the soul refers to a person’s “life as a whole.”

 

Back in 1996 when I was deciding what to name our health ministry, it was never a question but to call it “Body, Mind, and Soul” instead of “Body, Mind, and Spirit.” Christian ministers historically have had in their job descriptions in part as “the care of souls.” Even though “the soul” sounds like a fragmented part of a person, today we will explore what your soul is and how to care for it.

Have you noticed in stories about the preciousness of life people are referred to as souls? In the movie “Sully,” Captain Sullenberger refers to the number of passengers on board as “souls” in his official report of the plane strike by birds. He landed safely in the Hudson River. In the sinking of the Titanic or in the lives lost in 9/11, most official reports list the number of “souls” lost. A soul must be more than a part of our body. It is, in fact, the essence of who we are. When I as a little boy as I told the children, I prayed “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Something else happens to our physical bodies when we die, but the parts that make us us, our appearance, our personalities, our memories, I believe will go to heaven. That’s been my prayer since my parents taught it to me. Hymnology has picked up on the message of the soul as well. The hymn “In Christ There is No East or West” includes the line “All Christly souls are one in Him throughout the whole wide earth.”  And in the Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the great preacher and writer of this hymn, Phillips Brooks, includes the line: “No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.” The human soul, in large measure, is the concern of Christ and of his church.

 

Jesus, in our Matthean text today, mentions “Beelzebub” who was known as the “Prince of Demons.”  Human beings, according to Genesis were given freewill as a precious gift from God; we were not created as godly marionettes with a Heavenly Father pulling our strings. We were created, according to the book of Deuteronomy, to choose between life and death, blessing and curse, with God’s fervent hope that we would choose life.

Part of choosing life is saying no to temptations or to tempters; turning away from darkness toward the light; and resisting living in the valleys every day of your life. Part of having a healthy soul is tending to it. Some in the secular world call it “tending to your spirit.” It includes doing things regularly in your life that bring you happiness, not just grinding through each day. I once asked a man “How do you like your work?” He replied, “I hate every (blank) minute of it. I’m counting the days until I can retire.” He had a full 20 years until he could retire. He is still alive, and I presume and hope he is happier in the 20 years he’s spent in retirement. I knew another man who worked night and day to build his business. When I asked him why he never took a vacation he said, “I’m building toward a great retirement when my wife and I can travel.” A couple of years before his retirement, a stroke took his ability to work, and he died an early death. Tend to your soul—now—instead of just slogging your way through life.  Part of what I committed to being in my life is to be the best husband, the best father, and the best pastor I can be. I work hard at them all. I know how to work hard. But what I have finally learned is how to lighten up and play too! It has brought me new-found joy; and a new goal to be the best grandfather I can be is easy around  our four little grandsons! It is well with my soul.

 

Jesus encouraged his listeners not to fear those who cannot kill the soul. But  some of the best soul killers can be our selves. Those who are particularly hard on them selves never pass their own tests. They always expect more from themselves and so they push more. Like driving a racecar on the Daytona Speedway, if you push your tires too much, they’ll blow, and if you push your engine past redline, it’ll blow. You will blow too, with rage, or suicide, or in a breakdown, if you do not care for your soul. Ironically, churches, that are supposed to care for people’s souls, sometimes are the hardest on their workers, with critical comments or unreasonably high expectations. On our trip to Ireland I talked with a mother who’s 42 year old son is the pastor of a large church.  He was proud to have the appointment at such a young age. Last year, likely in part from the high demands his church leaders placed on him, and the high demands he placed on himself, he was found on the ground and had to have a five-way bypass surgery. Forty-two years old. He survived, but needs to care for his body—and his soul—differently as he moves forward. I learned that lesson when I was quickly burning out in 1987. I wouldn’t be in a pulpit today if I hadn’t figured out ways to care for my soul. Now I include daily morning prayer (funny that a pastor in 1987 felt too much pressure to pray), breaks for things that make me laugh and bring me joy, and finding people who are my advocates. I recommend the same prescription for you. No one needs to get so broken down that they can’t function, or as Jesus pointed out, they might give in to Beelzebub, or to Joe, or Tammy, or anyone else who tempts them with one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The healthy soul should proclaim: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” in situations like those.

 

Back in 1961, Union Seminary professor and former pastor Daniel Day Williams wrote his book The Minister and the Care of Souls. In it he says: “Love is the center of Christ’s disclosure of our humanity….Paul enjoins the Christian community, [saying] “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … who took upon him the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:5 ff) And this surely is the foundation of Luther’s daring statement that we are to become Christ for one another. So far then we have the basis for all care of souls. It is an action in love which makes concrete the spirit of ministry we know in Christ.” [Harper and Row, 1961, p. 17] Or as Jesus has said in John 13: 34, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” That includes—and you should highlight—loving yourself, not to the point of narcissism, but if you cannot love yourself—that is with self-esteem, a sense of well-being, and a sense that you are loved unconditionally—then you cannot offer those gifts to others. You cannot give to others what you do not have yourself. Jesus knew that. Sometimes we must read between the lines of Bible verses. And other times the Bible speaks so our soul can hear it like:  “We love, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

 

In the 1990s the soul began to be addressed again in popular writings, first by author Thomas Moore in his book Care of the Soul, and in his follow-up book Soulmates. Another landmark work was by James Hillman in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. It wasn’t until our trip to Ireland that the idea of the soul was brought to my attention again. Also when I was there, I learned two things about the Celts: they had a great reverence for the earth and they connected our world to the divine. Later Christianity was introduced to Ireland and the cross of Christ got superimposed on the Celtic orb, or circle. Thus, the Celtic cross, which adorns our communion table, was born. And it is everywhere in Ireland! The second thing I learned about the Celts is that “The soul needs love as urgently as the body needs air. In the warmth of love, the soul can be itself.”

[Anam Cara, Bantam Books, 1997, p. 30.] We visited the town where the author of those words, John O’Donohue, lived. We saw his house. He goes on to say:

There is a beautiful complexity of growth within the human soul. In order to glimpse this, it is helpful to visualize the mind as a tower of windows. Sadly, many people remain trapped at the one window, looking out every day at the same scene in the same way. Real growth is experienced when you draw back from that one window, turn and walk around the inner tower of the soul, and see all the different windows that await your gaze. Through these different windows, you can see new vistas of possibility, presence, and creativity. Complacency, habit, and blindness often prevent you from feeling your life. So much depends of on the frame of vision—the window through which we look.

 

Tend to your soul; tend to your spirit. Like a garden, weeds can grow or crops can wither without attention. Today, you can say to your soul words of comfort like these based on Psalm 46:10. It’s the first line of our next hymn:

Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side, bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; Leave to Thy God to order and provide; who through all changes faithful will remain. Be still my soul, thy best, thy heavenly Friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

 

You are loved. Drink that in. And may your soul be filled with peace.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 25, 2017

 

06-18-17 The Reform of the Spirit in the Spirit of Reform

On this Father’s Day, the second Sunday after Pentecost, let us also remember the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and all that the Holy Spirit does and has done for the Church to Form and reform it again and again; to grow it to the greatness it is. The Lord’s beauty is endless. Its’ in all of us; it’s all around us; its apart of us as we are a part of it. It flows like a current of energy; in us and through us; can you feel it now as it flows through the Church moving and shaping us, changing and molding us from what we were, to what we are now, to what we are to become, to what we will become again after that. A change that is day by day, minute by minute if necessary, but constant. This change is sometimes defined as perception; or in a country song I heard once; a change in attitude; but it does happen and as we seek out the will of the father, the sustainer, the truth, the way and the life, and walk in the footsteps of our savior, we only have to give ourselves to this grace that is freely given to us in this endless beauty that is ours to be had; to be shown and to be announced as it shows us in Psalm 95 0 come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

But do we have the faith; as I said in the children’s message do we sit in the chair with faith knowing it will hold us; or do we at first grab the chair and check it for stability; move the chair around to see if it is sturdy; and then sit down or do we put ourselves in the hands of the Christ with the same trust that Jesus has for us. Maybe we have more of a reforming trust; a trust that changes with our experiences and our growth in God; as God shows us more love, we give that love to God and to others; we give more as we are shown more; as it says in Luke 17: 3-6 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of alb] mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. But as perfection defined in the Bible is to be the best you can be by the end of your life, we are not asked for a perfect faith.

Abraham and Sarah and really all the people of the Bible were normal people, well as normal as people get, what I mean by that is they were just like us. They had no powers; they were men and women of Faith, Men and Women of God. The Disciples fought the same problems we did in life; the same disabilities; same learning curves; so, when we think of Sarah and Abraham, we might get a better reality of it if we think about how it would affect us, or, how we would act in the situation. As I am not as old as Abraham was, seven months ago at the age of 48, I became the proud Father of a beautiful daughter. I did not laugh! And neither did my wife Valeri!

But as Sarah did laugh in amazement that it would happen, God, who turns Hebrew storytelling on its ear by showing himself to Abraham so concretely, says one of the many great statements ofthe Bible; a statement that we as Faithful believers can bury ourselves in like a blanket; a safety net that shows the love of God and how big God really IS “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord.” This is a statement that Faith is built on;

Abraham in the scripture follows the old practices of Eastern Hospitality, the practice being to take strangers into your home, which in a nomadic society like theirs was a highly esteemed virtue. This seems to show that they really had no idea who the men were as this was a normal act of the time; and up until God basically brought up Sarah laughing they had no thought of them as angels and God. But of course, this was Abrahams path; a path that was not shown to him; a path that formed and reformed; a path that led him in service to the Lord; to fulfill his destiny as Abraham the father of Judaism.

As we walk our paths in life are we called to such service of the Lord? Are we forming and reforming in the Spirit as our fellow reformers did?

Two of the many men and women that were responsible for the Protestant reformation were also much like us trying to get by; to survive; Martin Luther was a monk that gave himself to the Lord after being almost struck by lightning. As he was sent on his vocation to be a teacher and a Pastor, he found that what he read of the word did not seem to fit with the way the Church of the day was reforming; he believed that God is and has to be Love. Acting on this belief of Faith and Love, he wrote the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” also known as “The 95 Theses,” this was a list of questions and propositions he had written for debate. On October 3 1, 1517 Luther nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.

John Knox the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, along with Scottish nobility, led in the Protestant Reformation of Scotland. Before that as a Chaplain serving King Edward the sixth in

England he exerted a reforming influence of the Book of Common

Prayer. He was influenced by John Calvin as he learned from him about Presbyterian Polity and Reformed Theology. He stood in his faith and of course as he formed and reformed in the Holy Spirit, he served our Lord and Savior as he was called to. Many people lost their lives for their love of God during this time of reformation and people today are losing their lives for that same love in a much the same reformation.

This walk is not easy; to stand up and be counted; to be seen as the Love of God; to walk in the footsteps of Christ and Hold Fast against sin; to love unconditionally all of creation. But we only have to try.

Romans 5 the second reading this morning is summed up beautifully by Theologian William Barclay as he says “Here is one of Paul’s great lyrical passages in which he almost sings the intimate joy of his confidence in God. Trusting faith has done what the labor to produce the works of the law could never do. It has given a man peace with God. Before Jesus came no man could ever be close with God.’ Jesus shows us the way, he clears the path for us on a daily basis. He shows us the path in the scriptures as he lives and breathes through us that we might be that love to others in this calling of reformation.

This beautiful message of experience and assuredness from Paul is written to us as this message was also written to the Christians of Rome; The word Paul used to explain our dilemma was thlipis; this word translates to Pressure; the pressures of life as they come and go. As we face life; whatever the binds may be that hold us. Sorrow, unpopularity and loneliness produces endurance and fortitude to strive forward in the loving grace of God. Since we are justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is a great fact for us.

Our Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA, Reverend J. Herbert Nelson the second recently stated that as membership of the church had thought to have been declining since the 1970s; it is now slowing down. Congregations like ours are refocusing on their mission; Celebrating both anniversaries and new beginnings; Despite what was thought to be the death of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we remain a viable reality of Christ throughout the world; along within our local communities. Besides our ecumenical ties in mission; we hold fast as a Prophetic voice in Christendom. He goes on to state that our challenge is to see the powerful opportunities that are before us while declaring with Holy Spirit boldness that God is doing amazing work within us right now. This is reform; we are not dying; we are reforming. As we are growing as individuals in faith we are also growing as the Kirk. We are growing in the Spirit of the reform. As we join in mission here in the Love of God, we also join the rest of the PC USA across the globe in being this Love and the action of Jesus the Christ to the world. As we join in this mission with other Presbyterian churches across the globe, we also join together with all our ecumenical brothers and sisters around the globe in this loving action of reform that the Holy Spirit is doing in all of us. This is the grace of God shining through us that we strive for as Paul said, that this hope that we strive for through our pressures of life does not disappoint, Because Gods love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to you. This is a celebration; a celebration to be had every day as we form and reform as the Church, from the beginning of time till the end of time; as we form as the world Church as the faithful of God; as lovers of Jesus Christ.

Even though this might sound simple and maybe even rudimentary, the simplicity that God is calling us to is as easy as a humble action ofprayer, as our Savior prayed for us in John 1 7, that we may grow our relationship with God; that we’ve been given the chance to as the Christ reforms in us and shows us; that we may further reform as the Church; as Jesus told us the two most important commandments are to Love God and Love our neighbor. That as Jesus shows us how to live, and breathes in us and through us that we, as our Brothers and Sisters of the past reformations of the Church did, grow in this same gift of grace; a grace that is freely given to us; given to us that we will form and reform to further be the Love of God; endless and uncontrollable. This is not a practice, but more a seeking of the divine nature of God; the radical love that God is and gives to us every day. With that Faith of a mustard seed we can live for God in closeness and in relationship. An unceasing, Endless peace.

this is a calling; a calling for everyone; no matter how young or old you are; no matter who you are; for all of creation; a reformed calling of the heart; a calling of Love, to be God’s love, radical Love “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord.’

Amen

06-04-17 PENTECOST: THAT WATERSHED DAY

PENTECOST: THAT WATERSHED DAY

Acts 2: 1-21

 

For the huge day on the Christian calendar that Pentecost is, it gets very little notice by the world. But to Christians, it is the day the Spirit took hold of frightened followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, empowering them to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ beginning in that city, and continuing to go with them into the world! And this was the day when the power of God was no longer connected with a place!  Let me explain: In Exodus 25, Yahweh God instructed Moses and his people how to construct an Ark of the Covenant: a specifically sized and decorated container to hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments. On top was the Mercy Seat, on which the Lord God would dwell. So wherever the Ark was carried: into new lands, into battle, or placed under a tent, God was there. In the wilderness,  the Israelites built a Tabernacle which was a portable earthly meeting place for the people to be in the presence of  God. It was made possible because the Ark was stationed under the tent. The people in those days were wandering and journeying; deciding where God was leading them. Eventually God was leading them to Canaan, but not yet. Once they arrived at Mt Nebo in Jordan, Moses died there. Then Deuteronomy 34: 9 states that “Joshua, the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Spirit of God filled Joshua, but the presence of God was still with the Ark. Joshua led the  people into the promised land, then called Canaan.

 

Once the people began to settle Canaan, (that would become known as Israel,) they decided that a more permanent home for their God would bring him glory. One would have thought that David would have had the glory of the build and the dedication, but the Lord said “No.” It would be known by the name of his son, “Solomon’s Temple.” That First Temple was completed in the middle of the 10th Century and it permanently housed the Ark of the Covenant: the presence of God. The ark continued to be in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, as a reminder that God chose to live there in his city called Jerusalem, among his people. But people had to come to into his presence by coming into the Temple. Even when the Temple was greatly expanded during the time of Herod, it still was the place where Jews and curious gentiles came to be in God’s presence. Today, the Western Wall of the Temple attracts faithful Jews as the place where they can still feel the closest to God.

 

Then Jesus was born on earth by the power of the Holy Spirit according to Luke chapter 1. Christians believe that the fullness of God chose to come to earth in Jesus according to the first chapter of John. According to Matthew chapter 1, Jesus was referred to as Emmanuel, which meant “God with us.”  Coming close to and following Jesus brought people into the presence of the man who stilled the waters and who embodied a holy life.  Jesus even said to his disciples in John 10:30 “I and the Father are one.” But last week we acknowledged one big event: it was called the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Before Jesus left, he gave his followers the Holy Spirit, one who would teach, counsel, and comfort.

 

Shortly after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the disciples, and many other people were in Jerusalem at the Temple.  Soon there was the sound of rushing wind, and the sight of tongues as of fire, and it began to rest on each of them. This was a big deal, and a giant change! Coming to fruition was what Jesus promised: that the Spirit of the living God would dwell within their hearts, no matter their nationality, no matter their background. The Holy Spirit would connect nations, and cultures, and peoples. But not only that: people would not have to travel somewhere to be close to God; they now had the power and the presence of God living within them! They could go into all the world feeling empowered, not afraid.  They could find the power of the Living God, in their hearts, where they made room for Jesus as well. God’s presence was now in the temple of human hearts, not in a building made by human hands, or just in heaven! Pentecost is that day of big changes!

 

So what do we make of this?  The English preacher Charles Spurgeon once said:

“Without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing. We are ships without the wind, branches without sap, and like coals without fire. We are useless.”

 

Sometimes God tries to get a message through to us, like a parent, a spouse, or a teacher might try. It can be like talking to a wall if we are exclusively focused on our cell phone, our job, or our latest obsession. That knock on the door of your heart, or that gentle nudge on your mind is important; it might be God trying to get your attention, and to gently guide or reassure you. But if the knock goes unanswered or the nudge goes ignored, the Great Spirit of God can go back into dormancy in our soul, until we are ready for the life changing and life-challenging messages brought to us by God. Be open to the Spirit that, like a breeze, we cannot see. Spirit can still move us like a fan can move wind chimes.

 

A boy was once flying a kite on a moderately windy day. His kite was doing so well that it continued to climb higher and higher. At one point a low cloud obscured his kite.  A friend walked by and asked ‘Hey where’s your kite?” “Up there,” the boy replied.” I don’t see it” the friend said. “How do you know it’s still there?” “I can feel it,” said the boy holding the string.

 

Like a breeze on our face, we can feel the air without seeing it .The old gospel song declared: “Every time I feel the Spirit movin’ in my heart, I will pray.”

It’s actually better to pray first; then you can feel that spirit movin’ in your heart.

 

Be aware of the Spirit that came into you at your birth or certainly at your baptism. God dwells within you! Not in Palestine; not in an old Temple. God is within you! And Jesus said his Heavenly Father gifted us with His presence. May Pentecost be a reminder of the power and the guidance that is even within you.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 4, 2017