Luke 1-3a; 11b-32

For many years now I have urged people to have a will; a simple will is inexpensive and can save a family from many heartaches. If you die with no will—even if you think you are healthy and too young to die—the state has a set formula that describes how your assets will be used. If you go to a lawyer and say, “But she told me all the time who she wanted to have that money” you are wasting your breath. The state still decides. I posted the state rules on our Congregational Life Bulletin board; with one glance I hope you will run to your attorney to create a will, or we have an attorney in the church that can help you with that! Have a will! Back in the day when Jesus told his parable of the lost son, did you know that there was a system set by Jewish custom that prescribed which child got what part of the father’s estate? If the oldest son was an angel or a hooligan, he still got a double portion of his father’s estate when the father died; in the case of the Luke 15 story, the older son would have gotten 2/3 of the father’s possessions. The younger son got the other 1/3. That was how it was done, no matter if they were wonderful or horrid to their father.  And we know one other thing: in the Old Testament—particularly in the book of Genesis—there were some examples of terrible parenting. The father always seemed to love one son more—and the Bible even said so—and in some cases the mother loved a different son more! Check out the story in Genesis 25: Isaac loved Esau who was legitimately his first-born son; the twin son born right after him was Jacob.  By law, Esau received the birthright. It was irrefutable, except it could be sold or traded by that son. Everyone knew that: even his wife Rebekah. The birthright son got a double-portion of the estate, remember?  But younger brother Jacob caught his older brother in a moment of weakness and Esau agreed to see him birthright for a bowl of lentil stew!  What a foolish agreement.  And there was no buyer’s remorse rule; it was done! Jacob got 2/3s of his father’s estate by buying the birthright from his brother who was older by a minute.  Then Rebekah schemed with her son Jacob to trick her nearly blind husband into blessing Jacob instead and giving him Esau’s blessing. Such is one of the most sordid family stories in Genesis!

One more piece of background before addressing Jesus’ parable: the late Dr. Edwin Friedman was the master of what psychologists call “Family Systems.” He was in Daytona Beach in February of 1994 and I attended his lectures. He said clearly that if one child in a family develops certain traits and skills, a second child—even a twin—develops complimentary traits and skills, not identical ones. He also said if parents clearly made it apparent that one son, or one daughter was the apple of their eyes, the other children in the family would immediately sense it and react to it. One of the typical reactions would be rebellion; a tendency to do things to get into trouble; or they could latch onto peers instead of parents; or experiment with drinking and drugs.  Dr. Friedman was unequivocal in his assessment. You can ponder your own experiences with your children or grandchildren as I go on.

In the background of Jesus’ parable would have been two very safe assumptions: 1) The older son is very loved and appreciated. Even in our brief story we find the son declaring to his father: “These many years I have served you and never disobeyed you.”  He is the apple of his father’s eye. And our second assumption is: 2) That he will receive the birthright- the double-portion of his father’s estate; and it’s safe to assume he has already received his father’s blessing. So perhaps this son has not gone through many situations that drew his father’s attention away from him. Could he be spoiled? Does he act sanctimonious around his younger brother? Out in the field he’s filled with anger.  I hope this Jesus story gives food for thought about your own family of origin—to consider where you were in the birth order, and what might or might not have been expected of you. The story also may inform the way you—and your children if you have any—interact.

We don’t know the backstory of your family, any more than we know the backstory of Luke 15. All we know is what happens: 1) We know in verse 11 that this father had two sons, not three, not just one. 2) We know that in verse 12 the younger son said something considered utterly disrespectful to his father; we don’t know what provoked it, whether it was his brother, or his friends, or his attitude, but in Luke 15:12 the Younger son SAID, did not ask: “Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me.” Middle Eastern expert Kenneth Bailey said this about that confrontation: “The younger son requests his inheritance while his father is still alive and in good health! In traditional Middle Eastern culture, this means the prodigal cannot wait for his father to die….If the father is a traditional Middle Eastern parent, he will strike the boy across the face and drive him out of the house. [Jacob and the Prodigal, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003, p.99.]  The father could have reacted with a huge ranting outburst: how many fathers today do that to outrageous requests from their children?  The father could have walked a way. The father could have said “Let me think about it; I’ll give you my answer in the morning.” But no; this father went through his financial reserves, and perhaps estimated how much that son would get as a third of his ranch and his home, and he gave it to him, in gold or shekels, as if the father were dead. It was an audacious request. I don’t know all the fathers here today, but this one in Luke 15 bends over backwards for his family. Is he a pushover or just generous, or just gracious?  Could he have thought that the son will learn a valuable life lesson about getting lots of money in a short time?  I have known a young man who had the finest computers, the finest Lexus, and the finest clothes that his mother gave him after his father died when he was a teenager. I knew him when he was in his 20s. He lived like a prince. Several years later I saw him again. He was driving a used Toyota and living in a modest apartment. “What happened to what you had?” I asked him. “I lost it all,” he admitted. “I didn’t make enough money to afford them.”  His gift from his dad had dried up. In our story, the father’s gift seems to dry up even quicker, like the way some people who have received lottery winnings. He not only ended up with no money, his dream of living the good life went up in smoke.  To rub salt in his wounds Jesus, says he was so hungry he took a job feeding swine; pigs; an animal considered unclean by Jews. This was rock bottom, right? No.  Rock bottom was when he considered eating pig food! I have known people who are so, so poor, but they refuse to give up their pets, even though they themselves need to eat. Some of them, in their desperation, actually eat the dog food or cat food they have bought for their pets. It is a foolish and sickening decision.  That’s where this young man was: desperate.

You should know that by Jewish rights, the father did not have to take a son that treated him like that back into the family.  Do you also know that the townspeople where that ranch or farm was located would back up the father when they learned of the son’s act of insolence? Most farms were part of a village of about 6 acres, and such an act would “spread all over town.” The boy seemed oblivious to what he had asked, but he left town in a hurry before townspeople could get to him. “What would they do?” you might ask. 

Dr. Bailey tells us:

In the Jerusalem Talmud and elsewhere in the writings of the sages, we are told that at the time of Jesus, the Jews had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost his family inheritance to Gentiles. Such a loss was considered particularly shameful….To discourage any thought of committing the heinous offense, the community developed what was called the kezazah ceremony….Fellow villagers would fill a large earthenware pot with burned nuts and burned corn and break it in front of the guilty individual.  While doing this, they would shout “So-and-so is cut off from his people!” From that point on, the village would have nothing to do with that hapless lad.  [p. 102]

Before the young man got a word out of his mouth as he is returning to his father, the father ran to his son—something no Middle Eastern man would ever do in robes. He did it to deflect attention from his ragged son coming home over the horizon. Then he kisses his son before the son has a chance to share his practiced speech about making him a hired servant. By doing that, the father indicated to the community that the two of them had reconciled, even though no such action had yet taken place. The father threw his reputation, his dignity, and his honor to the wind for his son. I know many parents who would do anything for their son or daughter. We have too. And yet, sometimes our child gets on our last nerve. Today I want you to imagine that you are the prodigal—or can you? Can you only imagine being the older son? I almost always identify with the older son: my place in the family line up. So the lesson I have always had to learn comes from the words of the father, offered to his fuming son: “Son,” he said, “you are always with me, and everything I have us yours! But it was fitting that we celebrated; for I thought your brother was dead, but he’s alive! He was lost, but now he’s found.” That’s always the message of grace and mercy I need. Who knows when I, and maybe you, need someone to welcome us home?

Let us pray:

Like a Father who welcomes a prodigal child home, remind us, O God, about the power of reconciliation and reunion, safe in your arms. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 31, 2019


Luke 13: 1-9

We seem to be in an era when people decide they will not back down, no matter what; they will not turn back, even if they think they are headed in a wrong direction, and they won’t apologize. At least in the public arena such stands are rampant. Then rhetoric becomes defiant. Rarely is there progress in the arenas of justice or peace with those self-serving attitudes. But there are some wonderful examples of remorse, of compassion, or of just good business in our world too. For example, in spite of having no responsibility for the massacre that happened in New Zealand, their Prime Minister still announced that “Families of the fallen won’t have to worry about the full cost of funeral expenses while mourning their loved ones, regardless of their immigration status….As I’ve said before, immigration status is not a factor. It is based on the event happening here in New Zealand.” So funeral costs, up to $10,000 per person, are being covered, largely for the peace-loving members of a small mosque who were gunned down. What a stand: not of stubborn defiance, but of caring for your neighbor. In Flint Michigan in 2014, the water source was shifted from a safe one to the Flint River to save money. The governor directed the change. To this day, Flint water still has toxic levels of lead in the drinking water, yet there has been no repentance, and no apology by the governor. There has been silence. Slowly old pipes are being replaced, which is very costly and tedious process. Then last April, the state stopped providing bottled water. Can you imagine asking your children to drink cloudy water with varying levels of lead? After hard work from Mayor Karen Weaver, Nestle Corporation stepped up to provide bottled water again-a wonderful move, perhaps for company business, but also for the health of the residents. In our own state last fall, perhaps because of budget shifts in the last administration, many say that red tide developed on Florida’s west coast, ruining beaches, killing fish, and stopping tourism. But now under the new administration, without apology but with action, state money has been shifted to help keep the same conditions from reoccurring. Thousands of Floridians hope red tide will remain a 2018 nightmare, but not one for 2019. As Presbyterian Minister Mr. Rogers put it: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Two things that mend fences and move groups from conflict to cooperation are remorse and repentance. Jesus spoke specifically about repentance. John the Baptist did too. Few words are paired together better than remorse and repentance. A simple illustration might make that clear. Some boys are on an empty lot playing baseball. It’s just a group from a neighborhood. One boy at the plate really hits a pitch on the sweet part of the bat and sends the ball through the window of a neighbor’s house. The boys could have faced the owner by being defiant, not giving him any names for restitution—that is, money to get the window fixed. Or they could have faced the owner, denying that any of them broke the window, even as a baseball was on the floor of his house. Instead they chose the Jesus way, instituted back in the days of the Old Testament, even before Jesus was born. They went to the man and the boy who hit the ball said, “I really caught the pitch perfectly and I heard it break your window. I am sorry about that.” (That’s remorse. Not that hard, is it?) Then he said, “I think the guys and I can adjust the bases so we can aim the field in a different direction so that this will not happen again. (That’s repentance; making a change so the same thing will not happen again.) “And sir, the boy said, “I’ll pay to get your window fixed.” (That’s restitution- the restoring of something that has been broken.) Look at those powerful words; Remorse; repentance; restitution; restoring of a relationship. In fact in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus actually said, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” because in spite of the price he would pay on the cross, he knew that the debt between two people was only squared when there was some payment for a wrong, whether it was a payment of money or payment of time served in some fashion. When the account is squared as much as possible, debts get forgiven. This is what is missing in today’s world; in national standoffs; in condo fights; in classroom fights: it is this formula of building bridges, not creating deeper and deeper rifts. Listen to Jesus’ terse comment when people in his day were worked up into real indignation about what some others had done: “I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” [Luke 13:3] People who do nothing or say nothing, in the midst of a conflict, a defiant act, or a damaging event become complicit in the consequences. In those circumstances, how many people say to themselves or others, “Not me! I’m staying out of this!” And Jesus turns to them, to you, and to me, in our deafening silence or defiant inactivity and says: “Unless you repent, you will perish as they will perish.” There is no Monday morning quarterbacking. There is no claiming of ignorance. There is no washing our hands of guilt. How many neighborhoods—where there has been a shooting—have police ask a crowd, “Who saw what happened? Who can help us bring the shooter to justice?” Then, in spite of each person holding a cellphone that might have recorded some useful footage, they look at the ground and shuffle their feet. Jesus has little compassion for those who don’t work to raise the level of discourse, responsibility, and conscience in their neighborhood or world.
Apathy is the devil’s work. Jesus was about making a difference during the short time he walked this earth. After his death, he counted on his disciples then and now to spread the gospel and do his work. A fanciful story is told of Jesus ascending into Heaven and meeting up with an angel. The angel said: “You really were changing a lot of people’s lives while you were on the earth! What’s going to happen now?” And Jesus replied: “I’m counting on my disciples to carry out my work.” The angel then said: “What is your plan if they don’t do it?” To which Jesus clearly said: “I have no other plan.” Jesus has no other plan to save souls and change lives other than through the spread of his message by disciples then and now; and by human beings doing the right thing to help neighbors. If we, like some elected officials, are silent about wrongdoings, Jesus says: “Unless you repent, you too will perish.” We have to have our sleeves rolled up; our hearts and minds engaged, and mouths willing speak when needed. We need to call out wrong and commend righteousness.

As a teacher, I think Jesus pulled on the examples that were around him. Today as he was likely near a fig tree; he decided to make his point—as usual—with a parable. Listen to author and teacher Barbara E. Reid’s insights into this passage:
The parable in 13: 6-9 conjures up familiar biblical images. In several texts in the First Testament the combination of fruitful figs and productive vineyards symbolizes prosperity that comes from God’s blessing. Fig trees were frequently planted in vineyards. In Micah 7:1 the prophet speaks of his frustrated search for figs and grapes at summer harvest time as a way of depicting God’s disappointment over Israel’s faithfulness.” [Parables for Preachers, Year C, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000, p. 51]

The Bible is rich in imagery. The prophet Isaish, told Israel, and by extrapolation, us: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, everyone to his own way” [Isaiah 53:6.] Today it is Jesus’ turn, comparing Israel, and by extrapolation, us, to fig trees. The world, the story goes, is the garden, and the trees (human beings) in God’s garden produce figs: that is their purpose. If they are not producing figs for up to three years, (which is a biblical number of completeness) the trees are given one more year to bear fruit, as a gift of grace and patience. Using the tree analogy, how do we know if we are bearing fruit or not? In part it is stepping up to the responsibility plate and doing the right thing. God needs evidence that we are bearing fruit. A card always sits on my desk and today I’m going to tell you what it says: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” God, the gardener, is giving some of us one more year; just one more year to carry out Jesus’ ministry and show evidence of being his disciple. The Gardener is also the grader. God grades on grace, but not forever. When, do you think, that our “one more year” begins? Perhaps, it has already begun.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 24, 2019


Luke 13: 31-35

This is where we will focus most of our attention today: on this commentary by Jesus: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How would I have gathered your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” [Luke 13: 34-35] Jesus foresaw the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem—including the desecration of the Holy Temple; the ruin, the bloodshed, and the destruction. When Jesus started teaching that beloved Jerusalem would be ripped apart, those who heard him could not believe it. Jerusalem destroyed? It cannot be! Some of the most poignant commentaries and reflections over time have come after a human calamity, particularly one not manifested by a natural disaster. This week we grieve over the massacre in ChristChurch, New Zealand. Who knows what will be written about that?

So much gets forgotten and our laments can grow faint. My friend David Hughes was a Civil War buff. His books and photographs reminded me to look past the tales of bravery in the War Between the States to remember that it was America’s bloodiest war. The literature he had that he related to me filled me with horror, even though it happened before any one of us was alive. In the classic film “Gone With the Wind,” a fictitious story set during the Civil War, director Victor Fleming starts a scene having Scarlett make her way into the center of Atlanta. There she is met by medic after medic carrying wounded soldiers past her, and as she looks around—the camera pans out in stunning Technicolor, using no special effects—to reveal one of the most labor intensive scenes in movie history, as hundreds of dead or badly injured soldiers fill the screen with unbelievable carnage. That war should have brought on much more soul-searching and much less chest beating or flag waving.

Fast forward into the 20th century: the Holocaust. The commentaries I’ve read and the photos I’ve seen in the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem took my breath away. Jewish author Elie Wiesel, for example, wrote The Night Trilogy centered on Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. In his forward, he writes: “I speak of society’s attraction to violence on the one hand, and the temptation to suicide on the other. How can we explain the hate that burns in so many homes? How can we understand the despair that pushes so many?” [Hill and Wang, New York: 1985, p. 3] The photos I’ve seen and the stories I’ve read have been heart breaking. Surely God’s heart was breaking too as free will was used to commit heinous murder.

A third example is in the 21st century: 9/11, when planes intent on destroying buildings of capitalism crashed into New York’s Twin Towers of the Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C, and into the ground outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The heroic story regarding that last flight is memorialized in a book by Lisa Beemer about her husband Todd ,and the passengers who kept the plane from reaching its target. Let’s Roll, is in our church library. The aftermath of that 9/11 day, unlike the earlier ones, was largely caught on full color film. One book that haunts me the most, and gives me pause, contains no words. Called Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs, it includes candid photos of the smoke, blood, the ash, and horror of that day and afterward. I pull it out annually, usually in September, to never forget. Never forget what? I want to never forget how to lament calamities, like the bloodiest American War; like Nazi Concentration Camps, and like solid steel building parts cascading toward the ground while flames made the occupants panic and jump to their death from skyscraper windows. And now I want to never forget how misguided men, with twisted Nazi ideologies, still murder others. Jesus laments that; and God weeps over such destruction.

I don’t have any memories of Jerusalem being destroyed; it did not even happen in Jesus’ lifetime. Perhaps you, at times, wish you could see into the future? Would that be tempting, or would it be dreadful? What if you could discover which one in your family dies early? Or you could learn if your home burns down, or your business fails? Jesus was certainly haunted by what he learned from his Heavenly Father: that destruction was coming to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace.” Jerusalem was on a downhill slide toward destruction at a time when the Pax Romana—the peace of the Roman nation—was brutally enforced. As author Adam Hamilton taught our Wednesday night class in his DVD, “Remember” did not just mean, “never forget.” It meant, “Help me and deliver me.” In the midst of that knowledge, Jesus goes into a powerful lament over a city that was the center of the Jewish world. Jerusalem was to be the final stop on in his earthly life.

As people go through the valley of the shadow of death, they learn some things that didn’t occur to them before; things like how fragile life is; how precious memories are; and how much we can miss the touch of a loved one. Our Caring Friends group, that meets with bereaved people, just had its eighth anniversary on March 6th. Between eight and 16 people meet to support, to learn how to move on, and also lament. Lamenting is not just crying, although it can include crying. Lamenting is not just mourning, although it is mourning too. Lamenting expresses one’s deep grief about something or someone. One of the greatest lamenters in the Old Testament was prophet; a great prophet, often called, “the weeping prophet.” His name was Jeremiah, and for being as young he was, he sure cried a lot! In fact, an entire book was written with his laments: you know it as “Lamentations.” Columbia Seminary Professor Emeritus Kathleeen O’ Connor wrote a book about Jeremiah’s lamentations. Listen to some of her chapter titles: “ Poetry of loss,” “There is No One to Comfort You,” and “Your Suffering is Vast as the Sea.” [Lamentations & the Tears of the World. New York: Orbis Books, 2002.p. vii] Jesus was very familiar with the writings of that great prophet. It was a way of honor a nation of people by weeping for them and for the destruction that was coming to them. Doing that is not a faithlessness act; it is an honoring action. The Rev Keith Nickle, former President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote: “As Jesus anticipates the events that await in the city toward which he traveled, he laments in anguish over Jerusalem. Although Jesus wills salvation for Jerusalem, Jerusalem wills destruction for Jesus ….” [Preaching the Gospel of Luke, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000, p. 151-152.] So, “The pathos of the lament is caught up in God’s passion to save, which is pitted against human determination to resist, even when the results will be tragically destructive.” [David L Tiede, Luke, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988, p. 256.]

As people go through such tragedies, they learn how to sift through the “wheat and chaff” of life, as the Bible puts it. In common language, they learn what is important and what is less important. “Jesus says, in that hour of lament: “Your house is forsaken. You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.!’” Really Lord? ‘Jesus knew that was what we call “Palm Sunday.” Others surely thought it was a cryptic message.

Even as there is increased tension in Israel, and there are increased armaments in the stockpiles of other nations like North Korea, and our own arsenals are poised, which conflicts could lead to our future destruction? Over the last hundred years of more, important chaplains and pastors of national stature have sought to have the ear of our presidents, to remind them of both God’s justice and God’s mercy; to warn them of the terrible consequences of mass bloodshed; and to ask them to remember: To remember the Civil War; to remember the Holocaust; to remember 9/11.
Deadly acts continue to be perpetrated. May our national leaders use their powers carefully; make their choices wisely; and turn their ear toward God. Jesus’ teachings can have an even greater impact today to guide the decisions for today. Will it take yet another calamity to drive Christians back to their knees and leaders to awaken? Let’s take the steps necessary so one day there might be real peace in the City of Peace called Jerusalem, and God’s grace and corrections might be lavished on all who are bloodied and broken by hate.
Let us pray:
Merciful God: help us tune our ears to what Jesus taught, regarding changes we can make to help avoid future destruction or calamity. Call us to use our resources today to try to avoid crises tomorrow for your beautiful world and your wonderful creatures. We lament terrible losses today. Remind us to learn or re-learn the teachings of Jesus, the teacher of our most powerful life lessons. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 17, 2019


Luke 4: 1-14

For many people the devil is the doorkeeper of Hell, the picture of evil, and the darkest of beings. In the book of Job in the Old Testament, the one called Satan is invited by The Lord to try to break down a faithful man. In religious folklore, Satan would often lead fallen angels to do malevolent things to people on the earth.  And we know there was a serpent in Genesis that was the epitome of a tempter. Sometimes these titles and tasks of the Evil One get muddled in our minds, with roots coming from different traditions. Today Luke describes the devil talking to Jesus. Was this devil an actual being, as some have believed since they were young? Or was this devil a voice in the head of an emaciated Jesus coupled with a mirage in the desert? People may love to say “The devil made me do it,” but it could also be, as I pointed out in my children’s sermon, that a voice seems to speak to us in one ear to commend us for a decision with words like: “That’s the right thing to do; good choice!” while another voice entices us to make bad choices with words like:  “Go ahead! Have a little fun! No one will know! You deserve it!” Today’s lesson is almost like a play, a morality play about making choices, and having to bear the consequences of each choice. The devil challenged Jesus to do three different acts as tests. At the end of the day, you too may decide the devil is less of a living being and more of a weakness of conscience in one’s own mind. Let’s see.  God gave us free will to choose and said: “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” [Joshua 24: 15]

That struggle has been depicted in this story:

An old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, doubt, sorrow, regret, greed arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

And his grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

That was Jesus’ choice in the desert, and our choice every day.

Years ago I read this story in the first issue of Events Magazine:

A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem Bureau had an apartment overlooking the Western Wall. Every day when she looked out, she saw an old bearded Jewish man praying vigorously.  Certain he would be a good subject to interview, the journalist went down to the Wall and introduced herself to the old man. She asked, “You come every day to the Wall? How long have you being doing that? What are you praying for?” The old man replied, “I have come here to pray from twenty-five years. In the morning, I pray for world peace and the brotherhood of man. I go home and have a cup of tea, then I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth. And very, very important, I pray for peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.” The journalist was impressed and asked this follow-up question: “How does it make you feel to come here every day for twenty-five years and pray for all these wonderful things?” And the man lowered his head and said: “Like I am talking to a wall.”

Our goal as Christians, I believe, is to always, in every situation, make the devil feel like he is talking to a wall. Jesus gave just a passing reply to each of the temptations he heard. But often we can be more like Adam and Eve. They gave in to the temptation to eat from the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. It’s as if Eve decided to make an apple pie from the fruit for dessert and Adam decided he couldn’t pass it up! But it was bitter fruit. It made their heads spin. As they ate that fruit, what came to my mind was the Disney scene when a wicked witch gave a poison apple to Snow White! “No! Don’t eat it!” The world spun and those first humans tripped into the irreversible world of sin. In their perfect world, the glass that was more than half full became half empty. Poor choices brought on consequences. For example: the tempter was now a slithering serpent; disagreements grew in the Garden like dandelions; and childbirth became so difficult it would be called  “labor.” History would call it the fall from grace; Christian doctrines often refer to it as the original sin; the event from which Jesus was born to save us. Jesus was both human and divine, which is important. He had to be connected with God so his actions could save our souls, not just lose his own life. Also his humanness really mattered, because he was tempted as you and I are tempted. A person in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, “It takes a drunk to connect with another drunk.” In a similar fashion, prisoners often listen better to former prisoners, and people who want to get clean from drugs may listen best to someone who used before. Today we’ve been reminded: “Jesus was tempted as we are, yet he did not sin.” So what is the secret for doing that? Here are two thoughts:

Sister Molly Monahan, herself an alcoholic, said this in her book Seeds of Grace- A Nun’s Reflection on the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous:

“I know from the sad stories I have heard from or about others who have had relapses even after years of sobriety, that I am always in recovery, never cured; that if I denied my alcoholism and began drinking, I would lose all the good things in my life. By analogy then with my disease, that is what I think sinfulness looks like, what we all look like in our sinful state; these are the lineaments of the visage we bear as children of Adam and Eve; the marks of what we call original sin. 1) Our sinfulness is always destructive … in some way to ourselves and others ….And 2) We cannot save ourselves. We are utterly dependent on the love, and power, and goodness of God who is willing to help us, and we need others to bring us to this knowledge and power.” [pp. 150-151] 

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, described our situation writing: “As in Adam, all die; but in Christ, shall all be made alive!” [1 Corinthians 15:22]  Without Jesus, we have no sure hope of being saved from the consequences of choosing our way instead of God’s way.

A second thought comes from the Scottish preacher, James S. Stewart in his book The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ. In it he says:

“The Master’s fight with Satan happened out in a desert, far from the beaten track and the eyes of men  ….Yet the evangelists are able to give a vivid and detailed account. How has that come about? Clearly there is only one explanation: the story came from the lips of Christ himself. Why did Jesus tell it—why did he go back and bring it to light? For curiosity? For biography? No. To first help his disciples through their own temptation hours; and second, because the titanic struggle of the desert days and nights had marked his soul forever and he could not forget.” [Abingdon Press, 1978]

Don’t we at times, like Jesus, have great struggles against sin regarding, drink, or drugs, or sex, or stealing or suicidal thoughts that put us in the wilderness with the devil? Can you remember times when your thoughts were unholy or your actions were destructive; when you thought your salvation might be in jeopardy? Jesus’ preparation for ministry was marked by vivid, rigorous soul testing. In honor of the price he paid not just on the cross, but in his time of trial, we too know we can enter our own deserts, prepared for the tempters we will face. Today, remember the verse of the hymn “This is My Father’s World” that said: “Oh let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.”  Stand firm with Jesus, so the devil, when trying to tempt you, will feel like he (or she!) is talking to a wall.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 10, 2019

03-03-19 THE FACE OF GOD

EXODUS 34: 29-35; LUKE 9: 28-36
The wonderful mystic Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century in a Carmelite Order, wrote: “The best place to find God is within yourself.” She went on to say: “When we are seeking God within ourselves … it is a great help if God grants us this favour… This is a good habit and an excellent kind of meditation, for it is founded upon a truth—namely, that God is within us.” [Interior Castle, Dover, Mineola, 1946, p. 57.] On one mountain east of Egypt, Moses almost saw the face of God, but resisted, since “mortals cannot look upon the face of God and live.” [Exodus 33:20] And yet, Moses was allowed to grow close to God, and talk with God on that mountain called Sinai. Afterward, Moses came down the mountain but didn’t know the skin of his face shone because he’d been talking with God.” [Exodus 34:29] Moses, the leader who faced Pharaoh saying, “God says, ‘Let my people go!’” carried the renewed the covenant for the people of Israel. In the New Testament, another chosen leader—a Son—revealed his power and his relationship to trusted disciples, also on a mountain. Could it be that our Savior, on the day that he was on that mountain apart, was revealing the divinity that lived within him; that the light of God lived within him? Our opening song invited Jesus to “Shine, Jesus, shine.” If God’s Spirit lives in us at our own invitation, then imagine what it would be like if the divine presence were within us too rather that “up there.” Today we go to the mountain with Jesus.

Historian and author Thomas Cahill, in his book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, wrote: “[The] Christian life [is] an alternation of two activities, prayer and kindness, each feeding the other. The plight of those in need sends me to prayer; prayer strengthens me to help those in need.” (1999. P. 190) Today I want to suggest that in this transfiguration and daily life of Jesus, he modeled these things for us: both prayer to be in touch with God, and mission to carry out the work of God. Christians are called to be both prayerfully mystic, and then mission-minded. The dichotomy between mystic and mission may alternately be described as reaching the Holy One in prayer, and reaching the human ones in need. The dichotomy includes going to the mountaintop in order to be strong enough for the valley. How does Jesus model that we need to recover “mystic sweet communion” with God and others? Mysticism is defined as “a spiritual discipline aiming at union with the divine through deep meditation or contemplation.” When Jesus went up on the mount of transfiguration, Luke wrote: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” To Jews who knew Torah, some might have said to themselves “He is the new Moses!” But on that mount of Transfiguration, a voice from the cloud declared: “This is my Son; listen to him!” [Luke 9:35] Jesus was ready to share the power that was within him; he showed the balanced life of mystical prayer and missionary zeal.

Another mystic in the 16th century was a friend of Teresa of Avila named John of the Cross. He was tortured for more than eight months and went into hiding for two years after that. In addition to being a mystic, he was a Carmelite Monk whose involvement with the Carmelites led to his arrest and eventual banishment. In a monastery in Toledo, Spain, he was kept in a dark cell without any human contact and fed just bread and water for months. During his captivity, he had frequent visions of God and composed many mystical poems, committing them to memory. Two of his greatest were called, “The Dark Night of the Soul” and “The Living Flame of Love.” In “The Living Flame of Love,” St. John of the Cross describes the happiness and peace experienced by the soul devoted to God. In his commentary, he wrote these words. Picture Jesus on top of that mountain as you hear them:
If the soul shall have attained the highest degree of love, the love of God will then be wound into its inmost depth or center, and the soul will be transformed and enlightened in the highest degree in its substance, faculties, and strength, until it shall become most like unto God. The soul in this state may be compared to a crystal, lucid and pure; the greater the light thrown upon it, the more luminous it becomes by the concentration thereof, until at last it seems to be all light and indistinguishable from it; it being then so illumined, and to the utmost extent, that it seems to be one with the light itself.

Jesus does not bring Peter, James, John, or us to the mountain to be dazzling. Among other things, he brings us there to teach us. “This is your strength,” he seems to be saying. “Stay connected with the Father in prayer.” Peter, James, and John seem to miss the point. They just want to stay on the mountain. But Jesus had a journey ahead. As we begin the season of Lent on Wednesday, we are called back to the one who had union with God and reminded us how to be connected with God. We cannot expect to make it through the valley if we have not been to the mountaintop, asking for the light to brighten our darkness. If you are continually tired, or discouraged, or have a life that is out of focus, go to the mountain of prayer to get in touch with the Holy One. Jesus showed us how.

Jesus prepared for his 40 days by connecting with his Heavenly Father. He then went into the valley as we are about to do. It’s the forty days of Lent. Dr. Donald Macleod, in his book PRESBYTERIAN WORSHIP: ITS MEANING AND METHOD says: “Lent consists of doing something, not just doing without something.” Therefore today we are invited to look inward for our power and look outward for our purpose. We are the arms, legs, hands, voice… we are the body of Christ in the world. After the transfiguration, what did Jesus do? He went and reached others; healed others taught others; confronted some, and comforted others. Let this season be a time of new beginnings for you. Connect with God for strength, encouragement, and light. Then, decide ways you can bring light to darkness. Jesus cast his eyes on the valley as he left the mountaintop. Ready yourself, through prayer, study, and his Great Commission, to join Jesus in the wilderness ahead. Let us pray:

Oh God, as you prepared Jesus for the wilderness with powerful words of encouragement on that holy mountain, prepare us for the days ahead too, letting your light be shared with others. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 3, 2019