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John 2: 1-11

Dr. David H.C. Read was a minister in Scotland first, before he became the Pastor (now Emeritus) of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He preached from this very pulpit on October 9, 1986.  In his book This Grace Given, he told this story:

One wintry day in the late nineteen-forties I was driving in my ramshackle open car from Edinburgh to St. Andrews, where I had an engagement at the university. After crossing the Firth of Forth I was soon in the vicinity of Cupar, the capital of the county of Fife, which happens to be my birthplace. (Happens to be? The cliché slipped out. Does anything just happen to be? Since the point of these reflections is the search for the directing presence of God, I should avoid this expression, which really conceals a popular pagan philosophy of sheer chance, the goddess of Fortune.)…To add to my confusion it was growing dark and so great clouds of mist came rolling in from the North Sea.  By the time I was a mile or two beyond Cupar I was totally lost. Peering through and over the windshield, I caught sight of an ancient signpost and pulled over to the side of the road. As I stood for a moment looking around, a curious feeling swept over me. As I far as I could see through the mist, I was stranded on a bleak stretch of moorland, and there was not a sound, not a trace of a human being, not even an animal. Yet I sensed what I could only call a Presence, not exactly spooky but vaguely disturbing. There are quite a few places in Scotland where this seems to happen. In fact someone recently remarked to me that the island of Iona is a “thin” place—where the barrier between the seen and the unseen worlds are stretched thin.

[Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1984, pp. 1,2]

Others have told me that thin places are where heaven seems to connect with earth, or where God’s presence on earth is felt more earnestly. It is a wonderful yet mysterious concept. Some have found such places in their travels and they’ve retraced their steps to feel that divine presence, the wind of the Spirit, or even to hear divine words.

Being in touch with, or in the presence of the divine, is classically what we call “Holy Ground.”  When you find it, you’ll want to return.

The start of such an event in Jesus’ life was at the wedding in Cana.

If you have been in a church the last three weeks, you know that Christians first remembered the birth of Jesus, then Jesus going to the Temple as a boy, and last week Jesus being baptized as a man. Perhaps he gradually understood his divine role after living a mortal life for 30 years. Theologians such as Eric Butterworth suggest—I think credibly—that Jesus had a progressive revelation of his divine work in the world. Listen to this description from his book, Discover the Power Within You.

About a hundred generations ago in far-off Palestine, something happened that may well be the greatest event in human history…It happened to a young lad, the son of a simple carpenter. His name was Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph. This was no ordinary boy ….I can imagine the young boy, Jesus, spending many hours in the hills of Galilee, like any normal youth pondering the wonders of the heavens—the sun and drifting clouds by day, the moon and stars by night. I can visualize Him asking the question posed by the shepherd Psalmist a thousand years before: “What is man?” And then, one day it happened. Into the consciousness of this thoughtful lad came an idea so great that he probably didn’t catch its full implications at first. It was the concept leading to the full realization of His unity with God….We don’t know how this great breakthrough was actually accomplished in Jesus, how long the process took, or when he achieved self-mastery. But we know he made his appearance at the Jordan River to be baptized by John. He was a committed and polished teacher with the amazing message that “the Kingdom of God is within you. [HarperOne, 1992, p. 6-7]

That brings us to this time a few days later, when Jesus and his new disciples were invited to a wedding.  Jesus was certainly aware of his divine gifts and was preparing for his ministry. It was a “soon but not yet” time in his life. The clock was about to start ticking for the three years he would have until his death. Calendar time is commonly called chronos; God’s time is known as kairos-officially defined as “a propitious moment for time or action.” It was almost God’s time for Jesus to begin his work according to John 1 and 2.  “Some scholars … believe the Fourth Gospel wishe[d] to portray a week of seven days to open his ministry.” [Raymond Brown, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN Doubleday & Company, New York, 1966, p. 105-106] God, in effect, was “ramping up” the revelation of Jesus’ role in the world from John 1: 19 through John 2: 11. First, John the Baptist gave testimony to his own role on Jesus’ behalf; then Jesus was baptized, then he called his disciples, and then they went to the wedding at Cana. It was at the wedding when what might be called a holy hand-off occurred: it was from Jesus’ earthly mother to his Heavenly Father from whom he was about to take instructions. Here’s what John records about that first miracle: It started in John chapter 2: “On the third day.” Sunday is the first day, Monday the second day, and Tuesday is the third—not an unusual wedding day in first century Galilee. There was a situation—either from too many guests or too little wine— in a region where hospitality was famous, and no one wanted to put the host to shame. We hear about a rare time when the older Mary—mother of Jesus—is with her grown Son. He is about to take his ministry reigns: does he know how? Or when? Do any of us know how, or when, a divine awareness may come to us, instructing us to carry out a task or a ministry, or to change a ministry? That day Jesus relented and began to claim his new power. As his mother informed Jesus of the social dilemma (she didn’t ask him to do anything, just informed him of the situation,) Jesus said to her these key words: “My hour has not yet come.” Dr. Gail R. O’Day of the Candler School of Theology observed: “The reference to Jesus’ hour in verse 4 explains why Jesus adopts a posture of disengagement toward his mother. While “hour” is used in the Fourth Gospel to indicate the passing of time, it also is used metaphorically to refer to the time of eschatological fulfillment …. [THE NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press. Nashville, 1995, p. 537.] In other words: the time for which Jesus was born was about to begin. As his mother makes the request, he, for the first time, performs a glorious miracle: not just changing water into wine, but also drawing his followers into the metaphor of a wedding feast.  Heaven is like a wedding feast; the Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, and later on, the imagery of Jesus as the groom and the church as his bride will fill many commentaries!

Perhaps your awareness of God’s presence started with a baptism, or your Confirmation; a retreat; an Ordination; or an urging. Some people follow Jesus because they were urged by family members or friends to do so. Others follow Jesus while family members or friends discourage them from doing so. But as many will tell you: when God calls you, you go. Or “when the Master calls,” (as Scottish American preacher Peter Marshall said in his book Mr. Jones, Meet the Master), you go.Last week we sang “Here I am Lord,” and some, I’m sure, sang it as an answer to God’s call. Maybe this too is such a day; a day when you’ll remember the “thin spaces” you visited where you felt the brush of angel’s wings. Maybe this too is a day to join Jesus on his journey, and ultimately for the wedding feast. The journey will include tensions and rejections along the way as you let Divine light shine through your words and your actions.  Instead of wondering “What Would Jesus Do?” in the weeks ahead, try asking this instead: “How can I let the light of God shine through my words and my actions?” It we can do that, perhaps we can create even more thin places on the earth, and become aware of our wonderful God who lives in the temple of human hearts.

Hear now this prayer from the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland: “O God, whose blessed Son came into the world to do Thy will: grant that we may ever have the pattern of his holy life before our eyes and so it will be our delight to do thy will and finish thy work; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 January 20, 2019

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Luke 3: 15-17; 21-22

A wonderful long time congregation member gave me a special book a few years ago. Written by Carol Hamblet Adams, My Beautiful Broken Shell tells about the author’s quest to be up early in the mornings at her beachfront home to go searching for perfect shells. She loved the quest. One day, in the midst of things falling apart in her life, she had an awakening: instead of searching for perfect shells, she had a desire to pick up broken ones; the ones left behind; the ones nobody wanted. In some ways, that’s the way she was feeling.  So her beautiful broken shells—as she called them— were a reflection of her own life. Broken.  The Gospels tell us that “Jesus came to save the lost.” But by his words and actions, we also know he came to love and encourage those who were broken.  Author Shel Silverstein also touched many lives with his book The Missing Piece.  It’s the story of what looks like a stone disc, personified, rolling down the highways and byways of life “looking for the missing piece.” You see, the stone disc has a slice taken out of it, like someone who took the first piece out of a pie. So as the disc goes down the road, it bumps; life is not smooth; it is bumpy and that slice of emptiness hits the road with each revolution. 
“Looking for my missing piece” went the song.  I think there are plenty of people today who are looking for their missing p-i-e-c-e; and at the same time, seeking their missing p-e-a-c-e.  I believe that in part because people of many ages—from 18 or 80; boys or girls, men or women—have told me: they have longed to hear wonderful words of life from a parent.  A woman I know never heard the words: “I love you” from her mother. I’ve known men who look secure and successful, but were aching in their heart—because Dad never said, “I’m proud of you.”  Sure, there was a roof over their head and food on their tables, but it is not true that “sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us.” Words can hurt. And a lack of the right words, from the right person, can leave a hole in one’s soul.  I think God absolutely knew that. At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he took the time—with people gathered for the adult baptism—to say wonderful words of life to the Son, with other people looking on:  “You are my son; I love you; I am so pleased with you!” Do you know what gold that had to be for Jesus? Sure you do! Maybe you wish you heard it from someone, or hopefully you have! But as our Presbyterian Counseling Center now sees over 400 clients a month, I know there are more in the world who have not heard those words.  In the biography Henry Bushkin wrote about Tonight Show host Johnny Carson (Johnny called him “Bombastic Bushkin,”) the author said that Johnny told him that his mother was one of the coldest women he knew; she never praised him; and she never thought his work—until her life’s end—amounted to anything. All his life he sought her approval, but no wonderful words ever came from her mouth. Johnny, as his biography points out, believed that it caused him relationship problems. Away from the camera he was caustic, broken and insecure.  Who else among us is going through life that way? Jesus came to save the lost; to love those who were broken; and to say words to people in all stages of brokenness: “Take up your pallet and walk.”

At a child’s baptism, there certainly can be a grand celebration with pictures, a party, or a meal.  It may make parents proud, but the helpless child will have no recollection of the event.  In part that’s why we make a big deal of affirming young people at ages 12-17 who have decided to go through the months of Confirmation; so they will hear words of affirmation from their teachers, their parents, their pastors, and their congregation.   Certainly when Jesus was born there were shepherds who gathered at the stable to adore the Christ child. But the baby was oblivious. Instead, as Jesus began his ministry at age 30, the voice from heaven rang out, just as others have hoped to hear it on the big days in their lives: graduation; a first job; a wedding.  Sometimes the words are just offered because the time feels right. Figure out sometime for the time to be right.  Even older children who have received AARP invitations may still have a missing piece.

Dr. Myron Madden, who was once the Director of Pastoral Care at Southern Baptist Hospital in New Orleans, came to Daytona Beach for one of Halifax Hospital’s early Pastoral Care Institutes coordinated by Chaplain Jim Smith. In his book The Power to Bless, he writes these thought-provoking words:

Whoever brings acceptance in a total way brings healing. Whoever cannot accept affirmation from another cannot be healed. Those who shut themselves off from sharing their deeper selves impose on themselves a kind of isolation or banishment from healing. In seeking to work things out “by themselves” one can only revolve from self-hate to self pit and back again….A genuine self-acceptance must be started at some point outside of self; it must come from someone else who has, in turn, been able to accept healing for their own brokenness. That person cannot intrude or force themself into the picture. They must be authorized or given power by the broken one to accept and heal….Just as one life comes from another life, so blessing comes from another.”

[Broadman Press, 1970, p 141-142.]

Did you understand that the wonderful words of life are infused with unconditional love? If you haven’t heard words your heart longs to hear, it may be because a parent has, or had, a missing piece.  This is not about blame; it’s about helping us embrace our brokenness. Sometimes rolling down the road bumping is what some people do best. Even those on the cusp of being ordained as Ruling Elders today may be looking for their missing piece. Many in our world are.  But what they have learned in their training, is what I am reminding you of today: Jesus had unconditional love from God: what God offered him, and us, is the voice of affirmation that might be missing in your life: “You are my beloved; I am well pleased with you.” Never assume that the professionally put together girl or boy, woman or man is not, inside, a beautiful broken shell; or a person bumping through life. Jesus sought such people and still does.

Conversely, the dark side of words is criticism, even when it is gift wrapped as “constructive criticism.” There is a barb inside of that gift.  Beloved wife of the late Rev. Peter Marshall, Catherine Marshall, heard words of criticism flowing from her own mouth. She was determined to change it. Her energy was low, and she seemed to be living with some unresolved bitterness. She found herself being critical of others.  This was Catherine Marshall! So she dealt with it head-on. Remembering that her Savior was critical of religious people, she hoped she wasn’t become Pharisaical. She decided she was going to have a fast from criticalness.  She wrote:

“The Lord continues to deal with me about my critical spirit, convicting me that I have been wrong to judge another person or situation.  [Jesus said, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7: 1-2)]  “One morning [the Lord] gave [her] an assignment: for one day I was to go on a “fast” from criticism. I was not to criticize anybody or anything. Into my mind crowded all the usual objections. “But then what happens to value judgments?” she asked Jesus “You Yourself, Lord, spoke of ‘righteous judgment.’ How could society operate without standards and limits?”

She wrote how difficult the fast was, but it pointed out a more critical nature than she initially believed she had. It was a learning and growing experience.  At the end of the fast she wrote: “Convicted of the true destructiveness of a critical mind-set, on my knees I [repeated] this prayer: “Lord, I repent of this sin of judgment. I am deeply sorry for having committed so gross an offense…. I claim your promise of forgiveness, and seek a new beginning.” [SPIRITUAL CLASSICS, Richard J. Foster and Emilie Griffin, ed. HarperSanFransisco, 2000, pp. 57-59.}

Perhaps today can also be for us, a day of new beginnings.

Let us pray:

Loving God: you know those here who are broken; those who need to hear wonderful words from you and from others. You also know that at our baptism you filled our soul with rejuvenating waters of love, a gift that can overflow into the lives of others.  Help us change our lives one relationship at a time. And thank you for showing us how life can be changed through the words you shared with Jesus as he and others gathered at the river. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 13, 2019 ��

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Matthew 2: 1-12

Gold; frankincense; and, myrrh; three gifts are ones that so called “wisemen” brought for a newborn baby. On the Internet I saw a cartoon with three women in different colored clothing looking at Mary, Joseph, and the baby. The caption read: “After the three wise men left, the three wiser women arrived bringing diapers, casseroles, and wine.” You decide what were the best gifts!  Yes, of course, the wise women’s gifts were much more practical; but history his shown that the wise men’s gifts were more meaningful. Let’s see why. Today I want to connect some dots that occurred to me on Wednesday, and then in yesterday’s News Journal, Pastor Shane Looper confirmed them too. I’ll get to those dots in a minute.

Some have said that it’s not the gift that is most important, but what is behind the giving of a gift.  If a father gives keys to a car to his oldest teenage son, it is not just a new car, it is a symbol of trust in the son.  If a woman gives a family Bible to her daughter who is expecting a child—a Bible that was had belonged to her parents before her—she is not just giving a Bible, she is passing on a tradition and her faith.  And if a woman gives hand made and cross stitched dinner napkins and a table cloth to a friend, it is not just a nice gift, it’s a sign that she’s giving some thing special to some one special!  Think about why you give gifts, and what others may have been thinking when they gave you a gift. Today I have some gifts that I appreciate more with each passing year. My grandparents gave me my first Timex watch; I have it with me today. It was a loving gift, to help me learn how to tell time when I was six years old. I wonder how many children today can tell time from a clock with hands; an analogue clock?  My grandmother also gave me an heirloom wooden box with a musical movement inside. She knew I had admired it; it has belonged to her son who died at age 14. I think she wanted her first born grandson to have it. It’s here today too. The best gifts are not just the first thing picked up dashing through an airport or going in a discount store. Sometimes the gift is emotionally costly or chosen carefully.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we find a sketchy report about men coming quite a distance to see baby Jesus.  We don’t even know if there were three men; we only assume that because there were three gifts. And where was the “East” from whence they came? The late Biblical scholar Raymond Brown wrote a 600 page commentary called The Birth of the Messiah on just Luke chapters 1& 2; and Matthew chapters 1 & 2. Yikes! In that commentary he reminds us that the ones we call “wisemen” or “kings” were called magoi in Matthew and we have Anglicized it into the word “magi.”  Says Brown, “The magi were Zoroastrian priests….In the Greek form of the Book of Daniel (second century B.C.) the author describes magoi as flourishing in every corner of the Babylonian kingdom  of Nebuchanezzar.  Along with the enchanters and the astronomers, they were thought to have the power of interpreting dreams and visionary messages.” (Daniel chapters 1, 2, 4, & 5) [Image Books, 1979, p. 167]  I hope you heard those words! Did they ring a bell? When Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem in those days and took precious vessels from the house of God back to his land of Babylon, he also took four men with him. That was in the second century B.C. And among those Jews he took back to his kingdom were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, but he changed their names as they became his prisoners in Babylon to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! According to a Bible Study website, King Nebuchadnezzar promoted them to the rank of magi. The ruthless King from the land dreamers, visionaries, and astrologers eventually died, but the tradition continued in Babylon. And where is Babylon compared to Jerusalem and Bethlehem? Due east, 300 miles! So the mag—if they came from there—had a long history of reading stars and interpreting dreams. Could the idea of a king to be born in Judah have been planted in the minds of the Babylonian magi by none other than Daniel years before! Magi saw in the stars that a king was to be born when there was a confluence of light appearing in the constellation of Leo—symbolized symbolized by a lion—when a scepter was prophesied to appear at the feet of Judah. Could it be that these people of both faith and science believed that a king, a special king, was to be born in Judah? And if so, maybe even the treasures taken from the temple centuries before that were never returned, were used to honor God in the Temple? Gold was there—the most precious of metals and most beautiful. Frankincense was there—burned regularly in the Temple. As people smelled the aroma and watched the smoke rise, they believed it was pleasing to God. And Myrrh was there; a fragrant oil used in Jewish practice to anoint the bodies of the dead.  The Temple would have had all of those.  The magi would have traveled for many, many weeks or months, not knowing exactly when the newborn king was to be born, but having historical traditions that told his identity! In the giving of those particular gifts-instead of more practical ones—they might have been the actual items stolen from the Jerusalem Temple centuries before by Nebuchadnezzar, or similar gifts given to pay homage to a newborn King.

Gifts matter. It is one thing to get something that pleases the recipient; that’s what we usually do.  But sometimes, the gift pleases the giver more, like giving the gifts of historical family stories, or items that have been in a family for generations.  This summer, as my mother moved from our house to an independent living facility, we began to consider what to do with all the things my parents had collected. The piano that was bought by her parents for her to play—a piano that was in the house where she grew up—had gotten transported to our house in a moving van in 1966.  It had it’s home in our living room all that time. I took piano lessons on it; and my mother played it for special occasions. But there was no space for that piano in my mother’s independent living facility. What would we do with it? She asked her children who would like it. None wanted to move a piano across many states. We thought about selling it, but wondered how much to ask. Then my sister came up with a brilliant idea: my mother’s next door neighbor—the one who had driven my mother to see my dad the day he died—had a daughter who was interested in playing the piano! Well it took no time at all for my brothers and sisters and my mother and I to agree to give the piano to the neighbor! It was so natural! We don’t know if they will love it forever, but my mother could not be happier with the new home of her childhood piano. What we know is that the giver—my mother—is delighted, and perhaps her parents before her would have been delighted with helpful neighbor getting the piano for her daughter to practice playing.  Sometimes a gift carries more meaning to the giver than to the oblivious recipient. Could it be these gifts of the magi pointed to Jesus as the greatest gift of all; the gift that God loved to give? Sometimes a gift lovingly given only gets appreciated in hindsight.  Who knew that a newborn King would change the world? I know who knew: the magi. And now, you do too.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           January 6, 2019