07-15-18 THE ARK OF THE COVENANT

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT

2 Samuel 6: 1-5

 

Like many of our Vacation Bible School children this week, years ago there was a little boy who attended another VBS where he was taught that God, who was invisible, was always with him.  They boy thought about it as he was being tucked into bed. The night was dark and thunder was clapping outside and lightning flashing. He asked him mother if she would stay with him. “No honey,” I have to get your younger brother ready for bed. But remember: God is with you.” “ Yeah,” the boy said, but I rather have someone with some skin.”

 

All this week the lessons we taught were to secure the belief that no matter what times of trial we face, God will be with us, even if God is invisible. Mary Ann and I were just in Copenhagen as part of our 40th anniversary, and I made a point of going to Soren Kierkegaard plaza, a rather underwhelming place. On the plane over I was reading some of the writings of that famous Danish philosopher.  One poem, likely penned by Kierkegaard, is called “Footprints in the Sand.” A man had a dream and his life flashed across the sky. He noticed two sets of footprints in the sand during most of his life, and believed they were those of the Lord and himself. But he was troubled when during the times in his life that were most difficult, there appeared to be only one set of footprints. So he questioned the Lord about it. The Lord said, “My precious, precious child, I have taught you that I will never abandon your or forsake you. When you saw the one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you.” A line in many hymnals imagines God saying to the singers: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.” That image, and the themes in our VBS stories this week, imagined a person rolling down the rivers of life, facing rapid places, calm places, cold place, and warm places. But many people—including the people of God—did not just float down a river; they crossed a river or other bodies of water.  The salvation event for the Hebrew people was crossing the Red Sea at a place that God made dry, so they could escape slavery.  Moses was God’s chosen leader. Later as Moses grew old during a terribly trying time wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, God created a tag team to cross a different body of water into his promised land. That body of water was the Jordan River. Moses was aloud to see the Promised Land but not cross over into it. That task was handed off to Joshua. Moses blessed him and God commissioned him. So Joshua led others from Mount Nebo across the Jordan River into Caanan to claim God’s promised land.

 

Those people, a bit like the young boy who wanted a God with skin, decided that they wanted to take God with them. But how? They couldn’t look at him; they couldn’t make any graven images of him or carry them in their robes. They decided the one thing they had from God was the Ten Commandments, words that they believed were cut by the finger of God. So the tablets on which the commandments were written became sacred; special; almost like a child’s security blanket for grown ups. They decided that they would feel safer if God traveled with them. And for good measure, they would feel best if God went first! Thus we come to the story of the Ark of the Covenant the details of which are in Second Samuel Chapter 6. Don’t we know what it’s like to want God close to us; God with us? Some believe God is in their Bible, or on a cross in their pocket, or around their neck, or in their sanctuaries or chapels. Today we learn that even in the days of the people of Israel, God was not just in heaven. God was with the chosen people. And later we learn how God dwelled on the earth in Jesus Christ, … and still is with us through the Holy Spirit! So let’s take the idea that God only resides in Heaven and set it aside! Let’s set aside the belief that people can only approach God in churches or cathedrals. Let’s not believe that we can put a memento of God on a knick knack shelf and think it means God is there! We say to our forbears: “We understand why you wanted to try to carry God with you!  But through Jesus God is in the Temple of our hearts!”

 

This morning our sanctuary includes a replica of the Ark of the Covenant; The ark was a moveable box, built to exact specifications according to God’s instructions, that would contain the Commandment tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai from God.  Israelites, and later the Jews, called those Commandments “God’s Law.” God’s people believed that God’s presence was with them when the Ark was in front of their journeys.   This was not a box God lived in; it was an Ark that carried the reminder of God’s presence and protection.  The Bible records that when the chosen people had battles with others, they honored God by keeping God present, not just with the Ark, but also in leather pouches lashed to their foreheads. They believed if they removed their sacred pieces from their bodies, or failed to put the ark in front of their battles, they could be defeated.  In our day those who hear a message and believe it on a Sunday, but live as if they have not heard it on Monday, may struggle to find God’s presence on Tuesday.

 

The Israelites remembered, and put rituals into place, to honor God on the Sabbath: for Jews that’s from sundown Friday until Saturday night. They had times and places for honoring God. If ever they were delivered from a foe, they thanked God for it and erected boulders they called “altars,” or “standing stones,” saying to future generations,  “God delivered us in this place.” How do you remember times when God has delivered or healed you?  Do you have a ritual for remembering and thanking God?

 

The late German Theologian Gerhard von Rad describes “The Tent, the Ark, and the Glory of God” this way:

The tabernacle is not a tent in the full sense of the term….It consisted of a massive frame of boards overlaid with gold ….Here stood the Ark, a rectangular wooden casket, 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ broad, and1 ½ high, which could be carried by means of long poles. [OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY, Harper & Row, 1962, vol. 1, pp. 234-235]

The poles were a very important part of the set up. God had not just picked a place, called it holy, and said, “I will live here; you come to see me here!” No; God said, in effect, “Take me with you; I want to be where you are, and you will certainly want me to be where you are!” That’s why the poles are there. The Ark of the Covenant includes angels on top to indicate the presence of God.  It’s called “the Mercy Seat.” The Ark was not intended to be mainly a shrine for people to travel to visit. It was so God could go with the people. Those who were thinking that God would just live in a tabernacle or a temple were limiting our limitless God! But, as the Jews settled around Jerusalem, they lost their need to travel and escape. So a Temple was eventually built to protect the Ark and invite the faithful to, symbolically, come closer to God. Likewise, even though our world has wonderful sanctuaries, cathedrals, and chapels where people can come for reflection or prayer, they are intended to point to God, be a catalyst for our spiritual lives and lift our drooping heads up! They become destinations in and of themselves. Yes, we can take God with us, in a manner of speaking, as we carry our Bibles, cell phones, crosses, or computers. But the worship of God has always involved a community! Some people say they can worship God on golf courses, in theme parks, or other places. They can; that is, if they set their clubs down, or their fast passes down, move to a corner of the property, gather at least three other people, set up a focal point of an altar, a cross, a bowl of water, or a table, and worship the God who is with them even there!  It takes focus to honor God, not just a glib mention. Or you can go to a house of worship, where others come seeking God and community, and use that time for focused worship. Houses of worship are usually built carefully and prayerfully. In 1 Kings we read about Solomon constructing the Temple of God, a task David was not allowed to do. Solomon believed that it honored God to create a house for God.  But the poles on the Ark should never be forgotten: God always wants to go with us into the world, not be left behind! Scripture tags we hand out to children and youth on our back to school Sunday remind them that God is going with them! An old hymn suggests: “Take the Name of Jesus With You.” But today’s text reminds us also that, through the ages, people have created inspiring places to honor God. That’s good too.  Find the place, find the time, and find the words to honor God. It can happen at church, at home, at work, at play … or at school.  Call on, and praise the Living God! We not only have streams to forge, we also have waters cross. In both activities of life, God will be with us. What joyous and comforting news! Thanks be to our very present God!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           July 15, 2018

 

07-08-18 JESUS ADVISES HIS DISCIPLES

JESUS ADVISES HIS DISCIPLES

Mark 6: 1-13

 

Generally speaking, advice is best sought when needed. Advice is not usually welcomed unsolicited.  “Can I give you some parenting advice?” a mother in law asks her daughter in law.  “Can I give you some financial advice?” a successful investor asks a struggling one.  How many times do we want to answer, “No!” When are people receptive to advice? 1) When they admire the work of another; 2) when they already have established a good relationship; or 3) when they have hit rock bottom or are in a corner, ready to try something new.

 

What we know from today’s text is that the disciples had built at least a fledgling trust in Jesus as one with authority. Some had grown up with him; some had met him and decided to follow him. But they had seen him do wonders, like calming a sea, bringing a girl back to life, and healing a man possessed by demons. He had established some credibility with them. But Jesus was entering a place where everyone had known him “back when.” Back when he was just Mary And Joseph’s son. Back when he and his brothers James, Joses, Judas, and Simon likely did brotherly teasing, and playing, Jesus was known to others. Now grown, he was coming back home.

 

When I was graduating from seminary, people at my home church said, “Why don’t you consider coming back home to be Pastor at the church where you grew up?” The response in my head was “NO!” But what I said was, “People who knew me when, as the church Assistant Janitor, used to clean church bathrooms, polish church pews, and shovel snow from walks, would not see me as their Pastor; nor would the ones who remembered when my friend and I were sent out of my own father’s Sunday School class for misbehaving! We must earn credibility if we are going to give advice. Starting with my childhood burned into people’s minds would have put me twelve steps back. When Jesus went home, Mark recorded in verse 4: “He could do no mighty works there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.”  Like kryptonite was to Superman, his hometown was to Jesus.  He could not do anything like he could do elsewhere. Jesus had a hard row to hoe as he came back into the Galilee, especially around Nazareth.

 

Remember: advice is best sought when needed, but its often not welcomed when offered up by others.  Yes we can get advice in the third person by reading an advice column like Dear Abby or watching a show like Doctor Phil. But when someone wants to give you yourself advice, do you find your shields going up, yourself getting defensive, and wanting to get away? So what do we learn from Jesus today as he comes back to his home?

 

First, the right to advise someone has to be earned. Billy Graham won many more people to Christ once he had some revivals under his belt and some testimonies from people to share.  An unknown Billy Graham had much less power to advise people in their lives than the man he became.  Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart stores, was the quarterback of his high school football team and he was an Eagle Scout. When it was time to consider a career, he took a job with J.C. Penny in Des Moines Iowa and learned all that he could. Several years later he borrowed $25,000—a large sum of money in 1945—to buy his first store: a Ben Franklin 5&10 Store in Newport, Arkansas. Sam thought the chain should have moved more into rural areas the way Family Dollar has done in the last 20 years. But the Ben Franklin management said “no,” so he struck out on his own. Nobody cared about his past credentials when he was growing up. They just wanted a profitable business that met people’s purchasing needs. Sam opened one store in Rogers, Arkansas marketing the store in his own way: meeting customers personally, meeting with workers personally, and meeting with American manufacturers personally. The idea caught fire and one Walmart became the giant business it is today.  He did not instantly have credibility as he went against the advice to stay with Ben Franklin stores. By the way, Ben Franklin went bankrupt in 1997. Sam had to show that his new idea could make money; he had to show manufacturers that they could start production again and make a profit; he had to build the trust of employees, and he did, visiting each one in his famous old red pick-up truck.

 

There are a few stories of people who refused early advice who gained enough credibility to offer advice to others by writing books, run seminars, or post blogs. But if people are going to seek advice from you, you’ll first need to earn the right to offer it; same with me. Basically preachers have, as one of our purposes, teaching the Bible—yes—but also offering advice for life, especially spiritual advice.  When I started here at age 29, I had little “cred” with people seeking guidance—a new guy from the Midwest, with a wife and three little children. The ability for people to seek, and listen to, advice often arrives over time.

 

Second, the right to advise others comes best through establishing relationships.  Jesus fished with his disciples, listened to them, prayed with them, and shared food or lodging they received. He was one of them, but clearly their leader. They were not yet ready to hear him say that one day he would ask them to be willing to lose their lives; but they were connected enough to keep learning and listening. Interestingly, however, Jesus believed they were ready to hear his instructions about exorcisms of all things: casting out demons! Boy, talk about dropping your disciples in the deep end of the pool!  He “gave them authority over unclean spirits.” “But we don’t want authority to do that,” I’d imagine the disciples saying in their heads! Still, he continued to pump them with instructions: “Take only a staff for your journey.” It was a symbol of a shepherd, someone who was not learned, but also not threatening. He went further: he told them what not to bring.  They were just to arrive unannounced on people’s doorsteps! Yes, there are those who witness in our day like that two by two, but rarely do they expect to stay.  Years ago in my first church we did have a touring gospel group stay in our home and the home of other congregation members while they brought their message to us and other congregations. It turned out that they took today’s passage literally and came in a van with almost no fuel, with virtually no money, and no food until they got their next contract!  What a mess that was when they incurred medical bills! So looking back at our text, Jesus did give them authority, but how quickly might they have “worn out their welcome?”  My father would never stay with relatives longer than three days, because he said “visitors, like fish, start to smell after three days!” How long might the disciples have stayed to earn the right to heal someone or advise them? The Bible does not say. But Jesus did give them instructions on how to leave. “If people refuse to hear you, when you leave shake the dust off of your feet as a testimony against them. Hmm. That was not just an act of cleanliness. I once thought it simply meant, “We’ll move on to the next home.” But maybe it means more. My visit with our Holy Land guide Mike four years ago as we traveled around the Holy Land on a bus gave me another thought.  As I was sitting on a seat across from him, I had my legs crossed with the sole of one shoe facing him. “Here’s a useful bit of information in the Middle East,” he said. “Someone who shows the bottom of their shoes to another in conversation is offering a gesture of insult and derision.” My sitting position was saying:  “I do not respect you.” I just thought I was crossing my legs! So perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus words about shaking the dust off of their feet as a testimony against them is more like “we are through with you” then “goodbye.”  What people can learn when they actually visit a different culture! So I made sure to keep the sole of my foot on the floor so I could establish a good relationship with our guide!  Sometimes our motions or gestures carry great power with others.

 

Finally, the only fast-forward way to be able to advise others—besides earning the right to advise, or establishing a relationship to advise, is through a skill set. What that means is I might trust the advice from a mechanic I don’t know if he has the proper training. I might trust the advice of a doctor I don’t know because he has the approval of the medical board.  I might trust the advice of someone to repair my house because they are licensed and insured. Some people these days even check with “Home Advisor” or “Angie’s List” for recommendations! So with a skill set, my willingness to hear and receive advice goes way up. When people need serious counseling, my own belief in the therapists at our Presbyterian Counseling Center has given others the courage to make the call to a counselor they don’t know. And the process of healing can go faster because your relationship with me lets you trust a counselor faster.

Jesus had his obstacles to getting people to listen to him. So do we. For advice, seek those who have earned your trust or with whom you have established a relationship.  Alternatively, you might choose by credentials. Advice is a delicate thing to offer, and to receive. Jesus gave us advice to move forward in life.  I trust Jesus. I invite you to do so as well.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                     July 8, 2018

07-01-18 JESUS HEALS

JESUS HEALS

Mark 5: 21-43

After a stressful trip to cold-war Russia in 1964, Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins developed a debilitating illness which confined him to bed. He was admitted to a hospital for tests and treatments, and diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, (a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine; the joints become inflamed … causing severe, chronic pain and discomfort. In some cases it leads to a permanent stooped posture.) Norman Cousins’ condition deteriorated and he was given a prognosis that was not optimistic at all… He noticed while hospitalized that the depressing routine of hospital life tended to produce side effects that aggravated his condition.

With the blessing of one of his doctors, he checked out of the hospital and into a comfortable (and less expensive) hotel where the food was better. He found a TV channel that ran Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello films daily and he
“religiously” watched them! He added extra Vitamin C to his diet and looked forward to the shows that made him laugh every day! Perhaps by the endorphins released by his laughter, and by feeling less stressed than in a clinical setting, he started to relax. And as he relaxed his condition started to improve, and eventually to subside! He was convince that laughter was a powerful “medicine,” and he wrote about it in his groundbreaking book, Anatomy of an Illness. His findings were also included in the New England Journal of Medicine in the December 23, 1976 issue.

That story is not to say that hospitals aren’t important or that doctors aren’t important: they are important in my view and my experience. But a team of people hold us physical or emotionally; and surroundings that are uplifting can certainly affect our bodies, our minds, coupled with medications as needed can bring us to wholeness.  One more example: during the days in 1987 when I was facing serious burnout, stress, and a dark night of the soul, I put three things in place to move beyond the darkness. The whole remedy was included in my doctoral dissertation, a copy of which is in our church library. But one of the remedies was taking my lunch hours, going home, and watching “The Andy Griffith Show!” Abbott and Costello don’t make me laugh, but Barney and Andy did!  I hadn’t laughed in weeks; and they brought escape and lightness to my burdened soul.  Intensive morning prayer was also part of my remedy. It did not take a hospital, but I was certainly ill in my soul.

My point is that some people who read this passage—of Jesus healing a young girl, and then a woman—will decide this: “Jesus healed then; why doesn’t he heal now? I’ll just ask Jesus to heal me!”  Jesus does heal. But God’s will and the circumstances of life can make some people so broken that recovery is difficult.  On the other hand, some people only call on Jesus for healing, not following medical advice. Homeless advocates will tell us that just prayer and food will not heal those who are mentally ill; they will also need medication and therapy. Another example:  we had the most wonderful woman who worked with children in our church for years—Trudy Jones—and she could not hear out of one ear. She managed, but still had difficulty hearing. When asked why she could not hear, she recounted the story of her mother—a devout Christian Scientist—would only pray for Jesus to heal her daughter, not get medical treatments. So her daughter Trudy suffered a terrible earaches and she lost her hearing in the process.

There are people of some Christian denominations that simply say “pray harder” or “have more faith” when people are found to be sick.  Some do heal; but some don’t.  Perhaps the number of people healed is a similar percentage as those who use a medical doctor,  or even a hospital, and the prayers of a congregation. Sometimes pastors in other churches have told me, “When we pray for a healing, we expect healing from God!  Do you?”  When I was a new pastor I stopped to visit a parishioner in the hospital. At the end of our visit I asked him, “Would you like me to pray with you?” And he said, “If it will make you feel better!”  Goodness!  We need to add in prayers to God, not just for good measure; or because it couldn’t hurt, but because you believe it will change the outcome!

Jesus, in the first century, absolutely healed people. He was so connected to his Heavenly Father, and so devoted in him daily prayers, that he could heal with a word or a touch.  Some people in our day may have great powers to speed healing. But for most of us, a combination of prayer, medicine when appropriate, and common sense will bring about the best result.  I have Type 2 Diabetes. I absolutely believe in prayer, but for my illness I think medication, proper diet, and exercise are needed to control my symptom.  I think praying alone for someone who has diabetes could lead to disastrous results like Trudy Jones losing her hearing.

One final comment: Dr. Larry Dossey, in his book “Healing Words” tells about an experience he allowed when he was managing a hospital. He carried out 10 years of research between prayer and healing. His conclusion: “prayer compliments, but does not take the place of good medicine. In one part of his experience, had had half of the patients on a hospital floor be given the best medical care; the other half got the same excellent medical care, but he had a congregation praying for them every day. The ones bathed in prayer healed faster and more completely.

Yes, Jesus healed in the first century. And yes, there are cases when Jesus heals now. But many cases have shown that prayer plus good physical, or emotional therapy, brings the best results. And yet, there are times when, because of issues that we cannot fully understand, some become too sick or too broken to return to health.  Then we lean on the everlasting love of God—a love that will not let us go—and we begin to move through that loss with the love of others.  On those days of brokenness or sorrow, may that love be sufficient for your needs, as you put one foot in front of the other.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          July 1, 2018