04-28-19 Believing After Easter

Believing After Easter John 20:19-29 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019
Radford Rader Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian

Thomas missed Easter. He wasn’t there with everyone else. He wasn’t there when the Risen Lord stood among them and said, “Peace to you”. He missed Jesus first showing of his hands and side, the signs of his suffering and the proof of his bodily resurrection. He missed the commissioning of the infant church and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thomas wasn’t there for Easter.
We don’t know why…he was a twin so maybe went to visit his sibling

…maybe he had gone fishing that Sunday…maybe he decided to be alone to pray or was one of those people who preferred to grieve in private…maybe he just didn’t get the word that circulated among Jesus’ friends after Mary found the tomb empty. Everybody else was now sure of the resurrect
tion, everybody but Thomas.
The other disciples tried to tell him about it like those who have gone on a retreat together, come back all aglow and try to share with you their common experience. They were abuzz like those who were here last Sunday, overjoyed by the crowd, moved by the marvelous music, touched by the sermon and are still excited about the Easter you missed. Easter second hand was for Thomas like seeing 200 pictures of another cruise to Alaska.
Thomas needed more. The Sunday after Easter, the disciples were together again. This time, Thomas showed up. They were back in the same sanctuary. The door was again closed. Again, Jesus stands among them. He makes himself known. He extends his hand and says, to Thomas, put your finger here, examine my hands.” He pulls up his shirt and invites Thomas to put his hand and in his side. Thomas doesn’t move forward but instead drips to his knees, confessing “My Lord and My God”. It is the Sunday after when Easter comes to Thomas.
Every one of us is Thomas, because we all missed Easter. We couldn’t help it; it happened long before we were born. We didn’t have a chance to go and discover the empty tomb. We couldn’t enter with Peter and see the discarded grave cloths. We all missed the first Sunday night worship in the Upper Room. It all happened millennia ago. For that matter we missed Thomas’ Easter too. We’re not in the Easter picture; we’re the ones for whom the story is told. We’re the people about whom Jesus’ says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
So how do post-Easter people come to believe in the Risen Christ.
Many like the biblical Timothy learned from their mother or grandmother. Some from Sunday school teachers. They came as trusting children, not concerned about doctrines or the impossible nature of the resurrection. They learned of Jesus and believed what they were told and have never wavered from that faith. They may have had trials along the way, but nothing has ever overcome the faith so early at work in them. Fred Craddock once wrote: “For some faith is born and grows as quietly as a child sleeping on a grandmother’s lap.” If you are one of these, Blessed are YOU!
But Craddock continues, “For others faith is a lifetime of wrestling with angels.” Maybe this image describes you. Some of us are from Missouri; you must show us. It is Good News that Jesus did not write Thomas out of the list of disciples. Instead, The Risen Christ comes to him. We are not told whether Thomas actually touched Jesus. If anything, the scripture seems to say that he didn’t need that much after all. Jesus came to him in a way that was convincing. He gave Thomas what he needed to believe.
Do you need to see? Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given unto you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be open unto you.” Our Lord has ways to show himself and make himself known: in events that makes us marvel, in the majesty of creation but also in what we call answered prayers or miracles…in people, so changed, so holy, so obviously filled with the Spirit that we cannot deny the Risen Christ living in them. We see his glory in their faces and his touch in their actions.
I came to Christ from infancy, as one who was told the stories and loved them. While in college the preacher’s son and I taught a class for our peers in my home church. We started at the beginning. The first Sunday was the Creation. That very day, Walter declared there were two stories of creation in Genesis. I denied it but he insisted and said his dad would come to our class the next week and show me. He did and it punctured my Sunday school faith balloon. I went to seminary to see if I could hold a biblically based faith after all. It worked though it was a radical re-orientation. While there I was helped by the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich who wrote, “Faith and doubt are not opposites. Apathy is faith’s opposite. True faith encompasses doubt.” Doubt is only a dead end if it expects a negative answer and thus becomes antagonistic and walks away with hands thrown up. But doubt has potential; it has a least the seed of faith in it. There was an NFL draft commercial that circulated last week. Dak Prescott, the Cowboys quarterback seems to be speaking to Kyler Murray, the #1 pick this year. Dak a 135th pick whom people said was to small, to slow, not gifted enough. In the commercial he says “Doubt is a gift. It pushes you to a higher level.” Thomas wills to believe. He is a doubter but still a seeker. He seeks conviction and Jesus removes his doubt. He knows the prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
How can we see the Risen Christ? I can only speak out of my experience.
I saw him in the joy of faith in my dying aunt’s young face and I have seen faith in the faces of many believers, who face illness and death.
I met Rudy Timm, who turned to Christ as an adult, whose story I heard, whose strength of faith I felt and whose saintly ways were visible to all. When I asked one year’s confirmation class to write down the name of the person in the congregation that most displayed Christian faith, everyone one of the twelve wrote Rudy. There are many “Rudys” out there. They are the saints of the church, aglow with Christ.
When I was anxious and frightened, a confused and fearfully alone young man, I prayed out of desperation into the darkness of the night and felt the calm of Christ come over me.
At the point of my life when I was most guilty of sin and thought had no hope of a future, I was in a retreat and during a directed prayer, I experienced Christ coming to me and giving me again his love and then had words of forgiveness spoken to me by one who didn’t even know my sin.
I have been in worship when Christ was present, his Spirit filled the space and all present knew the Lord was there.
If seeing is believing, when we believe we also see. A mother was fixing dinner and observed her husband chasing their young daughter around the table, to her squeals of delight and joy. They mother confessed, “Truly the Lord is in this place.”
If you have some of Thomas in you, “DON’T DESPAIR”. Christ has ways to make himself known that will convince. If may not ever come on Easter, it may be on a later Sunday, It may come when you come to the table, when you are given something physical and tangible, material and corporeal, bread and juice and you hold them in your hands and put them in your mouth and the presence of Christ fills you. It might be in your most despairing moment when suddenly you know you are not alone or at the moment of your first child’s birth and, in that joy, you can believe again in miracles. Maybe Christ will come to you in a human form, a believer in whose face and life you see the reality of the resurrection life.
It is hard to believe after Easter, but not impossible. It takes faith—walking, living, worshipping, trusting faithfully, practicing faith until your eyes are opened and you recognize the Risen Lord who has been walking, talking and being faithful to you all along. Don’t quit. Declare your faith and ask help for your doubts. Keep knocking until the door is opened.

04-21-19 (Easter) – JESUS IS ALIVE AGAIN


Luke 24: 1-12

Amid times of intense sorrow due to tragic deaths, terrible destructions, or fierce storms, people continue to look for signs that tell them they can hope again. Some of the stories have made the news, some haven’t. This week, nearly everyone around the world stopped what they were doing to listen to the descriptions or watch the pictures of the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burning out of control. It seemed unbelievable. The scenes pulled at the souls of many to see the mighty spire become a torch, and then become a tumbling pile of embers. It broke people’s hearts to see the ceiling burning like a bonfire. Yet readers of Ken Follett’s magnificent novel The Pillars of the Earth would have learned why is character Tom Builder crafted a mighty cathedral to the glory of God, also using wood timbers in the towering ceiling to pull one’s eyes upward as the person entered. Other would-be builders tried to make a cathedral roof of stone with devasting collapses. The wood ceiling would hold, but the size was limited to the number of trees that were tall enough- generally 32 feet. Ken Follett wrote: “The nave [of the cathedral] was high, impossibly high. But a cathedral had to be a dramatic building, awe inspiring in its size, pulling the eye heavenward with its loftiness.” [Signet Books: New York 1989, p. 292] There is an Achilles heel to wood structures, and that is fire. Notre Dame, a classic cathedral, a seat of a bishop, crafted with flying buttresses for support, inspired people to think of God, but its structure was vulnerable to age, nature, sabotage, or accident. A fire ruined the cathedral in Ken Follett’s story, and the builder’s son set the fire. Fires burned down three predominately African American churches in Louisiana last month, and it is alleged that a deputy’s son set all three fires. Horrible. What is the link between a mighty cathedral and three smaller congregations with tragedies? What is the link between a city in Antioch, listed in the book of Acts, where followers of Jesus were first called “Christians?” The linchpin of all these stories, and churches and Christians, is the empty tomb of Easter! And the key word is hope. Hope appears through words, prayers, and sometimes signs. As evening turned to darkness in Paris as the fire continued to smolder, people wondered if the building was a total loss. Then as if by answer from heaven, the light from embers shone on the golden cathedral cross, still standing in place. People saw it, and it gave them hope. Do you remember a tornado that ripped through southern Mississippi on January 25th, 2017? Part of what the tornado hit was William Carey University. As staffers combed through the wreckage, they came upon a stunning scene: the college chapel was badly damaged, but in its center was a pulpit with an open Bible, apparently not disturbed. The Bible was open to a page where this could be read: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.” [Psalm 46] Not every story of hope has a cross still standing or a Bible untouched. Some of you were here when this church structure was pounded by three hurricanes in 2004. The roofs leaked badly; ceiling tiles fell on pews near parishioners; Bibles and hymnals got ruined; repairs were made. But we had hope in part because of our Presbyterian connections: Disaster Assistance immediately sent us $10,000 toward repairs, and the Presbyterian Publishing House replaced our hymnals and our Bibles. And guess what we made our new ceiling out of? Yep not ceiling tiles; but wood! Wood like many other houses of worship great and small. Yes it calls for caution, but it also makes eyes rise upward to the glory of God: One organist who got two degrees from Notre Dame used to be the Associate Organist at First Presbyterian Church of Gainesville, Florida. He posted this on Tuesday, words from a Concordia Seminary professor:
Build beautiful churches, attend them, cherish them.
Build beautiful churches not because God needs such a house,
But because their beauty reminds us of God’s presence, and of his love.
Build beautiful churches, not boxes … not auditoriums with stages and
Coffee houses. Build beautiful churches to express the beauty of our Lord.
And if they should burn down, rebuild them, and fill them with your presence, With your prayers and songs, with God’s Word, with baptismal waters, …for these are the things that make a church truly beautiful. (Prof. Peter J. Scaer)

Today there is one event that ties this congregation, and a congregation in Paris, and congregations in Mississippi, and Louisiana, and Antioch and many other places together: it is the celebration of this day: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead! This was earth shattering news! People had not risen from the dead before. That news changed everything! People today all over the world are celebrating this one event that started Churches and Christianity; started Campus Crusade for Christ and Young Life; started Christian camps and conferences and mission trips. That resurrection was the catalyst for those! That event changed darkness into light; and hopeless into hope. The tomb, depicted here in our sanctuary, was near the cross of Golgotha where the body of Jesus was hurriedly placed since it was nearly the sabbath day when no burials could be conducted. His body was laid on a stone slab and women returned to anoint his body after the sabbath was over. A large stone had been moved over the entrance of the tomb after his body was placed there. One gospel even says that guards were posted outside for fear that disciples would steal his body. But his body was not stolen; it was raised bodily from the dead! The women found the stone rolled away and Luke says they saw two men there, and one of them asked them “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Indeed. That day changed the course of history. Our whole dating system is based on the birth, life, and death of Jesus. If you allow yourself in the midst of sorrow, to look for signs of hope, you may indeed begin to be filled with hope again.

Don’t be ashamed if you doubt this story! Plenty of people have over the years! But a torrent of people has also tested the evidence, and have come to believe. Famously Lee Strobel, an atheist and an attorney educated at Yale Law School, set out to determine if there was enough evidence to believe the truth of Easter. He assembled scholars schooled at the major universities. They reached their conclusions and Strobel put them in his book, The Case for Christ, where he ended up making the case for Christ instead of against him! His conclusion: “The atheism I had embraced for so long buckled under the weight of historical truth. It was a stunning and radical outcome….” [Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1998, p. 266]

Today I invite you to consider the findings of Lee Strobel and many others, and to acknowledge the uplifting power of hope and the withering weakness of hopelessness. Hope lifts our heads! Hope lifts our hearts! Hope says, “We can rebuild!” or “I can find a new job!” or “I can get through this.” In 2018 alone in Volusia and Flagler Counties, there were 112 fatal shooting. Of those 112 shootings, 89 were suicides! 89! People who saw no way out, who were despondent or hopeless. The gift of Easter was given so that we might have life, and have it abundantly! Let’s turn around the numbers of deaths, rebuild structures, and rebuild lives. We now serve a risen Savior! He lives! It is right to give our thanks and our praise.
Happy Easter! Now join me as we are transported to “the Holy City!”

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 21, 2019

04-14-19 JESUS IS GREETED WITH JOY!


Luke 19: 28-40

There are some condominiums I have been in along Atlantic Avenue that have windows that face east, and other windows that face west. Imagine having a camera set up in one of those condos, set with time lapse photography. Instead of a day taking 24 hours, now we will set it to just last an hour. At the beginning of this service, the sun will be coming up on a Jesus who is headed to Jerusalem, and the crowds around him sense excitement! “This is the one! This is the one who is coming in the name of the Lord! Save us!” they exclaim with their word “Hosanna.” So the sun rises on a group, growing in number, that begin making plans. Actually, it seems, plans have been made ahead of time according to what we read in Luke. One man put it this way:
Our Gospel reading for Palm Sunday begins like an espionage novel. Jesus draws two of his followers aside. He gives them this mission: “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it.” The two disciples go and find the colt. The question is asked, and the password is given. The Lord needs it. It’s an odd beginning to an odd story. [Ron Adams, in the Christian Century, March 27, 2019, p. 18]

This plan must have some symbolic meanings. What grown man really chooses to ride a colt that has never been ridden before down a hill, riding not on a saddle, but on slippery garments? And the crowds are throwing cloaks on the ground in front of the colt? It seems like a recipe for disaster. But from what we know about Jesus, anything is possible, and this ride comes off without a hitch. (Returning to the time-lapse camera illustration: now the sun is up; birds are singing, a new day has begun, and all is right with the world. How do we know that?) In Psalm 19, David declares:
The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours fourth speech, and night to night declares knowledge….Their voice goes out to through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

Did you hear it? Just as God created the world in Genesis, not with a magic wand; nor with bare hands, but with speech; and breath, and Spirit, God said: “Let there be light, and there was light.” Creation was made by a holy invitation, and it was so! David has been taught, and passes on to his worship leaders, those words to be declared in their holy services; not just to be read with one’s eyes, but to be declared with one’s mouth: All nature speaks in praise of God! The rustling trees speak in praise of God! The babbling brook speaks in praise of God! God endowed nature, it seems, with the ability to offer praise by simply being, and exuding sound. David knew that as he said (beautifully captured in Haydn’s masterpiece of music, called ‘The Creation”) “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” And so they are. Jesus’ words no longer seem as strange, about stones talking, even though the Pharisees scolded Jesus about it. As the noise from the crowd grew louder and louder, they said: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” And Jesus, in his joy, said something that now makes perfect sense. At the beginning of that new day, with all its possibilities, Jesus said (and I’m reading it from the Phillips Modern Translation): “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very stones in the road would burst out cheering!” [Luke 19:40] Stones talking! Who besides God has ever suggested such a notion? I’ll tell you one person who mused about it: author Annie Dillard, who, when she wrote her book Teaching a Stone to Talk in 1992, R. Buckminster Fuller, wrote that she transcended “all other writers of our day.” Her descriptive powers ooze from the writings in her books. In the one I just mentioned, she wrote:
The island where I live is peopled with cranks like myself. In a cedar-shake shack on a cliff … is a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk. Wisecracks on this topic abound, as you might expect, but they are made as it were perfunctorily, and mostly by the young. For in fact, almost everyone here respects what Larry is doing, as do I …..It is, in fact, I assure you, a stone. It is—for I have seen it—a palm sized oval beach cobble whose gray is cut by a band of white….He keeps it on a shelf.
[HarperPerinnial, 1992, p.

I read this book years ago, but this week I was reminded of it again. Would we wisecrack about God teaching all nature to sing? Today, can we believe, perhaps in a new way and with a higher consciousness, that “Jesus is right! The stones could cry out!” All nature is ready to praise in this orchestrated, almost espionage story in Luke’s Gospel; a grown man actually sits on and rides a colt never ridden on by anyone else and urges the animal to precariously walk down a hillside. Disciples and curious onlookers join the cries. Perhaps they had hope in Jesus, or perhaps they just loved upsetting the Pharisees. On that Palm Sunday long ago, a man rode toward Jerusalem on a colt instead of a steed, and stones were ready to talk! Or perhaps on this day, our ears and hearts are uniquely open to hearing them! Would they say a word? Would they sing? Would the wind rustle by them causing people to hear something like “Blessed! Blessed! Blessed?”

This is a day of real possibilities as the sun starts to head toward noon. For after all of this unbridled celebration, Jesus comes near Jerusalem, and he stops, and he weeps, not for joy, but for sorrow. There is an historic marker on that hill even to this day. Jesus wished that the city, the name of which means “City of Peace,” would know the things that make for peace. I wonder if Jesus looks at Jerusalem today, or even at our nation today, and still weeps, saying, “If only today you knew the things that make for peace.”

The joy of that first Palm Sunday morning got blanketed with human darkness; of suspicion; of name calling. Jesus sealed his own fate when he then turned over the tables of the moneychangers just before the biggest annual weekend for the city. The handwriting was on the wall; and darkness began to fill the hearts of men who started plotting against Jesus. Today, I wonder if a Jesus who still wants peace for Israel, America, and other nations is still weeping, in part because he can no longer hear stones cry out, or nature singing. The still small voice of God, described in 1 Kings 19 is being drowned out by the cacophony of crowd noises, and mobs, and neighbors shouting at neighbors. God is still speaking, as is the creation. But some aren’t listening for God’s words. And some just can’t hear nature singing or speaking anymore. They have given up hope of hearing from God in our world of pain. But God and nature were there on Palm Sunday two thousand years ago; and God speaks still. The great mysteries of God are ours to consider, but to never fully explain or understand. Listen to what Billy Collins—the United States poet laureate from 2001 -2003—said about one of the classic mysteries of the divine:
Of all the questions you might want to ask about angels, the only one you ever hear is how many can dance on the head of a pin. No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time besides circling the Throne, chanting in Latin or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth, …. Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing? …What are their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, their diet of unfiltered divine light? What goes on inside those luminous heads? [Sailing Around the Room, Random House, New York, 2001, p.

This week, this morning, there is joy! Even creation feels it! But like other situations in life, things are changing. The sun is setting on Jesus’ joy. What a drama! This week, as this day grows darker, will you join Jesus on his journey?

Let us pray: We move into this week Lord, from a procession to a cross. In a sense, we will go with you. A visit to the upper room, and to Calvary, has changed people’s lives for generations. Perhaps it will change people again this week. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 14, 2019

04-07-19 JESUS HAS HIS FEET ANOINTED


John 12: 1-8

It’s no secret that with my hobby of collecting ocean liner and cruise ship memorabilia, Mary Ann and I like to take cruises. I like to get away from the phone and stretch out on a deck chair and watch the sea. Perhaps you like that too. In terms of extravagance, we’ve been pretty ordinary. Our first cruise was in an ocean view cabin for our 10th wedding anniversary. We kept getting ocean view rooms until our 25th anniversary when I treated Mary Ann to a cruise from San Diego (Oceanside, CA is her home town) through the Panama Canal (the canal zone was her Junior High home) all the way to Florida. For that cruise, going through the canal, I paid for a balcony cabin. Of course after that, we never went back to an ocean view cabin again! We got used to the open air of a balcony. One time we asked our travel agent to book a cruise on the Carnival Dream for a summer vacation. The surprise for us was we were given an aqua spa cabin for the price of a regular one! The room had special shampoos and lotions and robes to walk out our door directly into the spa, where there were aromatherapy rooms, whirlpools, warm ceramic lounge chairs, spring waters flavored with either oranges or cucumbers, saunas, steam rooms, and more: all included! We even had a special dining room where we could eat our meals. Plus free room service for breakfast. We hardly saw the rest of the ship!

My point is that when I’ve been given the gift of some pampering—without high cost— I’ve have enjoyed it. Today in our passage I’ve tried to imagine what Jesus faced over the early weeks of his ministry. Listen to this: according to John, Jesus recruited and called his disciples, attended a wedding at Cana where he changed water into wine, cleansed the Temple where he met great resistance, talked to religious leader Nicodemus about being “born again,” traveled through the “no man’s land” of Samaria where he met a woman at a well and turned her into one of his many evangelists, healed an official’s son, healed an invalid at the pool of Bethsesda, fed 5000 people, walked on water, was regularly interrogated by scribes and Pharisees, decided what to do with a woman accused of adultery, foretold his own death, explained to people how he was the good shepherd, razed his friend Lazarus from the dead, and wept with Mary, Lazarus’ sister. Finally, Jesus also learned of a plot to kill him. I’m thinking Jesus could have used an aqua spa cabin about then, or at least a touch of pampering for his wounded psyche, tired feet, or aching body! “Six days before the Passover” John 12 tells us “Jesus returned to the home of his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.” I’m imagining he needed some down time before the demands of Passover. So many times we hear about a person called “a sinful woman” coming into the home of a Pharisee and wiping Jesus feet with costly oil and with her hair. This is not that event. Today Jesus is in the home of friends, with his disciples. Although he would not have asked for it, to have a kind—and even extravagant—gesture done for him must have been welcomed. He clearly cared for this Mary and her siblings very much. It is not his mother, Mary nor Mary Magdalene- there are so many Marys in the New Testament! This one—his friend—compassionately and generously took a pound of very costly oil, a kind of perfume like spikenard or myrrh, and washed Jesus’ feet over and over with it, likely in a messaging, caring way. The fragrance filled the room. I can imagine our tired Lord perhaps sighing with joy and closing his eyes to such loving care. In this story, Mary’s kind pampering is only interrupted by the man who continually interrupted Jesus’ hopes for living out his last days. He was Judas Iscariot: a disciple who was thinking with his head and not his heart. John points out the Judas “was the one who was about to betray him.” Judas starts yammering about how much money Mary is wasting, even as Jesus was likely grateful for the lavish and extravagant gift of a special friend messaging his tired feet. Finally Jesus speaks, and I imagine he’d rather have just sat there for his foot message, but Judas cuts the loving atmosphere with accusations. Jesus musters up new energy and says: “Leave her alone.” That’s all I think he wanted to say. But to guide his listeners he added, “She bought that jar for my burial.” In a way, instead of using the myrrh—or nard—on his dead body, she chose to use it on his living body. What a wonderful idea. I think Jesus was most grateful for it. And perhaps we too might think about gifts we can give while friends or family members are alive, rather than spending money on flowers and memorials when they are dead. I know some of you have done that. Good job! Spend your money on special people in special ways; if you do it while you are alive, you can hopefully see the smiles it brings and the good it does. My parents gave yearly gifts to my brother and sisters once we were grown, and they got to hear how we enjoyed the money for some needed repairs or relaxation. They also gave money to help our children get through college. Wow. Extravagant gifts are remembered.

When my friend Radford met with me this last Wednesday, he said “one of my main purposes here is to see that you get a total day off on Mondays.” I teared up ia little nside. He gets it; he knows how pastors burn the candle at both ends. What a generous and extravagant gift I’m getting from one who knows how important one day off a week is. Give thanks for those who give to you in extravagant ways. I do.
Let us pray:
Extravagant God, who gave us your whole world as a gift, with running waters, tall mountains, and lush pastures: remind us how to cherish nature and those who appreciate us. Teach us the joy of giving to others generously. In Jesus’ name, who one day, in a friend’s house, had the extravagance of fragrant oil massaged into his tired feet. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 7, 2019