12-29-19 THE JOURNEY TO EGYPT

Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23

As we end a year of political turmoil and head into an election year, the topic of securing our borders continues to be in the news. This week the Pope noted that migrants have been forced by injustice “to emigrate in the hope of a secure life.” As they have done that, they have run into system abuses, roadblocks, and even torture all over the world. Last week, a bill that passed congress two weeks ago to avoid a government shutdown included money for part of a wall on our southern border. Of course, we know that has to do with keeping out those who come to our country without legal papers or legitimate asylum request. We also know there is a cost to our government for those who are in this country yet are not citizens and who, therefore, are not paying income taxes, though they do pay taxes on goods and gasoline like the rest of us. But why do people come to our country and to other countries? Sometimes it is out of fear; to get away from something or someone. People look for a safe place to raise a family. Ironic, isn’t it, that if Egypt had prohibited Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus from entering their country as described in Matthew chapter 2, the Holy Family would have had difficulty protecting their child from Herod! Gladly, we recall protection stories that have made it into our history books, like the Diary of Anne Frank, when a family in Amsterdam protected Jewish refugees, including her, at great personal cost. Gladly we remember Oscar Schindler, made famous in SCHINDLER’S LIST, protecting Jews from annihilation. Today we look at this Christmas through new eyes, as a Jewish family left Bethlehem and departed Herod’s jurisdiction for their protection.

The text in verse 13 starts out “After they had left,” and of course, this means when the Magi, or Wiseman, left. We recall that God wisely chose a human father for his son who listened to his dreams. That quality would come in handy again today as God’s angel—Gabriel— gave an imperative command, “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” What would it be like, parents, to believe your child, in this case your baby, was in danger of being kidnapped and killed? Would every instinct in your body be called to attention to protect your child? In this case, the killing machine was not one of today’s terrorists or a man named Hitler, but he was just as bad: a maniacal, powerful, Middle Eastern Dictator self named “Herod The Great,” who had proven his threats in the past by killing some of his sons, his wives, and his armies to keep them from seizing control of his empire. He ruled all of Israel in his day, and no part of Israel would have been outside of his domain. But Egypt was; it had been under Roman control since 30 B.C. Scholars like Raymond Brown and William Barclay told us that Egypt was already a place that had welcomed so many refugee Jews to the outskirts of its cities that there were already a number of Jewish communities there. Mary and Joseph would not have been the first to seek their safety in the land of the pyramids. There is no record of a border patrol or checkpoint: they just migrated and found a place to live for probably two years. Jews in Egypt, like Jews who left Germany for Austria, or for the United States, or other countries, came with their God and their hard work ethic. We do not know if they were liked or despised; but we know that they got to be there, probably as part of a close-knit community, for quite a length of time. What would make a Jew leave his homeland to find safe rest in a foreign land? In this case, it was an angel, a warning, and a belief that the threats that would come to pass would have been deadly if they’d stayed.

Then we come to verses 16-18. Often dramatized as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it is depicted as the killing of many children two years old and under. Even today, I flinch when I hear that a child has died from a bomb, or being stuck at a checkpoint, or from disease or lack of proper nutrition. C
Children dying grieves not just their mothers and fathers, but me as well, and probably you. So for Mary and Joseph, there was no time to extend their stay in Bethlehem because their newborn was in danger. Going home to Nazareth was no answer since Herod ruled that territory as well and the family might have been discovered. So under cover of darkness, Joseph—again the right man chosen to protect and raise the Son of God—got his family ready and headed out, not to a promised land, but to the land known to Jews from the Exodus story; a place where Moses had been born, a place of civilization and pluralism and safety. This was not the first time a Jew had traveled to Egypt for safety. Raymond Brown reminds us that “It was the classic land of refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon sought to put Jeroboam to death in 1 Kings 11:40, he ‘arose and fled to Egypt.’ When King Jehoiakim sought to kill the prophet Uriah, son of Shemaiah in Jeremiah 26:21, he fled and escaped to Egypt; and about 172 B.C. the high priest Onias IV fled to Egypt to escape from King Antiochus Epiphanes, [the horrible ruler in the Daniel story.] [BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, Doubleday, 1979, p. 203] Whether Mary and Joseph and Jesus just went over the border or deep into Egypt is a matter of speculation and legend; but that Christmas journey saved the life of their child, the one born to save the world.

Historians tell us that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. in all likelihood. (Yes, B.C. (before Christ) because Dionysius Exiguus in 525 A.D. and Pope Gregory XIII with his Gregorian Calendar, miscalculated the date for Jesus’ birth, which was most likely around 6 B.C (since it is recorded that Herod died around 4 B.C.) Before he died, however, Herod the Great divided up Israel and bequeathed a portion to each of his three sons: to Herod Archelaus, who was almost as ruthless as his father, he gave Judea which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem; to his son Herod Antipas, who was also a strong and feared ruler, he gave Galilee, which included Nazareth and Capernaum; and to his son Herod Philip, he gave the northeastern section of Israel including the region that was later named Caesarea Philippi. Joseph decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth and go around the territory of Judea to avoid Archelaus. The family finally put down roots in Nazareth according to verse 23. Matthew says this was done to fulfill a prophesy saying, “He will be called a Nazarene.” Interesting, because there is no recorded prophet who said that in the Old Testament, about the Messiah or anyone else! But what we do learn is that Nazareth was the perfect setting for Joseph to raise his stepson. Both Mary and Joseph had family members there for support; construction of Roman structures in nearby Sephoris gave stone masons and carpenters like Joseph, and later Jesus, the opportunity for steady employment. With a short climb up the back hill from Nazareth, the boy Jesus could have seen the mount where the great Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal years before; and he could see the valley of Megiddo, where two great pathways crossed: the way of the sea and the north-south way, and where more battles had been fought then any place in the world-the place often called Armageddon or (Har-Meggido). So the boy Jesus had the perfect perch from which to see the world and to grow into its Savior. But it never would have happened had there not been a country, like Egypt, that welcomed refuges into their land. Today we are thankful for God’s angels, for Joseph’s open heart, and for the country that gave safe haven to the Holy Family.

Let us pray: O God of Wonder and God of Might: we have had a glimpse of your divine plan to bring Jesus into the world and protect him from harm until his time had come. Your steadfast love makes us feel humble and grateful. On the cusp of a new year, some here are ready to live differently. Fill them and let changes in their lives let Christ’s light shine through them to others. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 29, 2019

12-22-19 JOSEPH’S DREAM

Matthew 1: 18-25

My text today is this: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” [Matthew 1:20] There have been times when people have come to my office and asked, “May I speak with you a minute?” We go in, sit down, and they proceed to ask me, in a hushed tone, “Do people ever come here and tell you their dreams?” I’ve whispered back, “Yes!” Then they feel comfortable enough to share a recent dream, and together we think about what it might have meant. Sometimes they believe the dream is just them trying to work out a conflict they had the day before or the week before. Sometimes they have a kind of a nightmare, perhaps caused by a frightening or disturbing event. But other times it seems like the dream is a message from God, or from an angel; words of guidance that sink into their psyche. For example, do you remember hearing this?
One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”
He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
I was taught that Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote it. Perhaps that is one of the most famous of dreams. Through the years, others have been noted for their meaningful dreams too. James W. Goll, on his blog called “God Encounters Ministries,” offers this research:
Justin Martyr, the first Christian philosopher, believed that dreams were sent by spirits.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, thought dreams revealed the spiritual world.
Clement of Alexandria believe that true dreams arise from the “depth of the soul,” and that they reveal spiritual reality, [a connection with] the soul of God.
A dream changed John Newton from a slave trader to become a churchman in England, the one who wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” We have that hymn because of a dream.
In addition, biblical figures had dreams. Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob, had a dream that he foolishly shared with his older brothers. In Genesis 37, it says:
5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11 So his brothers were jealous of him.
That dream led to his brothers selling him to a band of Ishmaelites and it completely changed Joseph’s life. There are 33 times dreams are mentioned in Genesis alone and 27 times in Daniel. The Bible only records Joseph as an interpreter of dreams in Genesis, and Daniel in the book by the same name. But there is one other Joseph in the Bible who had a dream of instruction from God: This Joseph was engaged to Mary, who had an angel visit her with a most extraordinary proposition: that she would bear the son of God. She was engaged to Joseph when that happened. This kind of news would cause quite a controversy in a dusty village like Nazareth. Before Mary could tell Joseph what the angel Gabriel had told her, Gabriel appeared to Joseph, in a dream and spoke to him. In the dream, Joseph got such clear instructions from the angel that he changed his mind about breaking off his engagement to her. Remember? The angel said in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary had a visit from an angel; but Joseph also had a visit from the angel Gabriel in a dream. Joseph must have been more spiritually insightful than we typically realize. He listened to his dream: the dream that brought Mary and Joseph together as the Holy Family. He also had another dream that I’ll address next week.

We are told that everyone dreams. Do you remember your dreams? Do you listen to your dreams? I have been told by several of our Presbyterian Counseling Center therapists that we should try to recall our dreams, to even awaken and write them down immediately and examine them later. Sometimes people can discern the voice of God in their dreams. Sometimes they can figure out a plan to resolve a conflict.
Where would we be if Joseph just rolled over and ignored God’s revelation?

I recently learned of the writings of a woman named River Jordan. Yep, just like the water in Israel! In her 2019 book Confessions of a Christian Mystic, she wrote:
I once had a message that I would have a visitation from God. This came to me in the innermost place of me, that same tone announcing holy visitation in the way that a thought about an item you must pick up from the store comes to remind you: don’t forget the milk. The same way that Anne Lamotte describes Jesus following her around like an invisible stray cat in [her book] Traveling Mercies. So I had received this word, visitation, along with a sense that indeed I had something coming….The promise of a visitation weighed on me more like a threat of a haunting. I slept with the light on, which means I slept very little. I kept telling God not to just show up and shock me. Not to suddenly appear at the foot of the bed. Not to walk out of the closet. The list of not-tos went on and on as I dozed fitfully until after dawn, when I felt this sneaky-in-the-night-visitation thing had been laid to rest. Thinking that surely God, like a vampire, would dare not show up after sunrise. [Faithwords, Kindle book 28%, 2019]

Here was a woman, like many men in the Bible, who tried to avoid having a God encounter! But, we learn in her book, God did show up. In the glow of a candle, before River’s eyes there was an image of gold; the same Triangle of the Trinity that she had doodled for years as a faithful Episcopalian girl. And from that event, she came away with a deep abiding peace, saying it was “a peace so deep there is no space, no inch, no molecule of room for the tiniest of worry, the fretful thought.” [28%] That’s what a visit from Go—in in a dream or in a vision—can be like. Just ask mother Mary; or father Joseph; or a woman named River Jordan.

Maybe there can still be peace on earth, or at least in our hearts, if we are receptive to a visitation from God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 22, 2019

12-15-19 REPENT


Matthew 3: 1-12

Repent. It’s the word most associated with a two-dimensional Biblical figure named John the Baptist, or the Baptizer. One might paint him with a brush on a canvas. standing near the Jordan River, crying out to people like a street evangelist, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Then those who decide to listen to him gather–as the hymn says, at the River—repent of their sins, go under the water, and come out a new creation. At least that is the hope. Last summer I donned a robe, stepped into the Jordan River, and welcomed people who journeyed with me to Israel to be baptized, or to remember their baptism. I can say with certainty that some were changed dramatically after that experience. Repenting is the truly different thing that John called people to do; baptism seals the deal and allows God’s Holy Spirit to begin to guide them. John the Baptist is powerful, but as the Lorenz/Hart show tune from the musical “Babes in Arms” puts it, he’s “Johnny One Note.” All he talks about is repentance, repentance, repentance! Still, people in the world, those of us here today, probably need to repent from some habit, some action, or some addiction. Let’s start by exploring this enigmatic man.
Franciscan Richard Rohr says this about John:
John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare, and yet crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of persons of groups. That is why we focus on John The Baptist every Advent, and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature ritual, while also going far beyond him. Water is the only the container; fire and Spirit are the contents …. John is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege, who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything . … He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him “There is no man greater than John … but he is also the least.” [Preparing for Christmas, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008, p.24-25.
Thanks Father Rohr, for reminding us of John’s 3-dimensional nature! We’ve established who the messenger is, now we focus on the message- Repent.
As I simply showed the boys and girls, it’s like a U-Turn. If you realize you are going down a path that is toxic to yourself or others, or destructive or dark, you can, and you have the power to, turn around and travel back from the wrong direction to the right direction; back toward redemption; or back toward love. Here we rely on John because Jesus has not yet spoken a word in the gospel, not until this chapter, verse 13. Beloved Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner define repentance this way: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do, as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” [Wishful Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 79.]
Another author, Kathleen Norris, wrote a more intriguing description of repentance:
Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes:
“Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’” My Messy House” says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy makes a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out…If that boy had been a novice in the fourth century monastic desert, his elder might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell? [Amazing Grace, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 69,70]
You might know that people in our AA programs have repented from drinking and are busy every day trying to keep moving toward a life of love and wholeness. From the first day, people in our Gambler’s Anonymous program repented of their gambling and spending addictions and have been moving toward a life of financial security and relationship rescue. But what about those of us who are not in those programs? What about the mother who is hateful to her son-in-law or daughter-in-law? Does she see the need to repent? What about the man who once abused his wife or the man who abused his dog? Have they seen the light? How about the celebrities who tried to buy a spot for their daughters in colleges? Have they felt the need to repent? Repentance is not just a John the Baptist cry, it is a human reality that can change one’s life, one’s marriage, and one’s spirituality. Repentance is a connective tissue for our Spiritual bodies. Without it, we may feel disjointed, disconnected, or broken. And indeed, we are. Yet even in our day, there are situations that keep people from moving from repentance to wholeness. One is a lack of forgiveness. For example, a woman spends and spends and spends and builds up enormous credit card debt. Her husband sees their income diminishing to the point that the nest egg they were building is now gone. Debts ensue, and the man moves toward divorce to stop the financial hemorrhaging of his assets. The wife, with the help of a 12-step group, repents of her spending habits and is showing the changes in her life to her husband. Will he welcome her again? Will he forgive her and remain in their marriage? A lack of forgiveness keeps repentance from moving toward wholeness.\

Here’s an example of our prison system becoming an impasse to wholeness. In the December 4th issue of the Christian Century [p.26,] Caitlin Kandil, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, tells the story of a woman who rolled through a stop sign in San Francisco. Police pulled her over and gave her a $238 ticket. Although she could pay the ticket, she started thinking about others who could not. She called it “the spiral of despair.” She researched and shared these results:
A person gets a traffic ticket for a few hundred dollars. Unable to pay the fine, she misses the deadline for payment, and the ticket starts accruing late fees and creates a debt that hangs over her head. The city sends the ticket to the collections department, and now her credit is damaged, so the next time she tries to rent an apartment, her application is rejected. Eventually her driver’s license is suspended for failure to pay. Without a driver’s license, she can’t perform the tasks of everyday life—commuting to work, grocery shopping, taking children to school, going to doctor’s appointments—and also become ineligible to apply for and work at many jobs. Without secure employment and housing, she is a risk for homelessness. It all started with a traffic ticket.

To combat incarcerations due to mounting fines from an inability to pay them, the Stated Clerk of our Presbyterian Church (USA), at our 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis, marched down the streets of the city, with hundreds behind him, to the St. Louis Justice Center with more than $47,000 raised from GA committees and commissioners. They paid the bail for many people who were incarcerated for misdemeanors. With them released, they could be employed again, be united with families, and begin a new life. Sometimes, the system can stall repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes a generous and timely gift can bring a second chance to a woman who could not pay a minor traffic ticket.
A long time ago, a man invited people to gather at the river, to change their hearts, repent of their sins, and get a new start. John still invites that, as he calls out to each of us from the pages of Scripture: “Repent!” Would you like a new start in your life? Or perhaps someone you know needs a new start in theirs? They can repent—that is, make a U-Turn from the direction they are going—and they can ask for forgiveness for their actions. But before any of that happens, they, and perhaps we, need to ask God to “Change our Heart.” Songwriter Eddie Espinosa wrote this song with this prayerful message:
Change my heart, O God; make it ever true. Change my heart, O God; may I be like you. You are the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me; this is what I pray: Change my heart, O God.”
I invite you to offer that prayer today, to God, in song.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 8, 2019

12-08-19 REPENT


Matthew 3: 1-12

Repent. It’s the word most associated with a two-dimensional Biblical figure named John the Baptist, or the Baptizer. One might paint him with a brush on a canvas. standing near the Jordan River, crying out to people like a street evangelist, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Then those who decide to listen to him gather–as the hymn says, at the River—repent of their sins, go under the water, and come out a new creation. At least that is the hope. Last summer I donned a robe, stepped into the Jordan River, and welcomed people who journeyed with me to Israel to be baptized, or to remember their baptism. I can say with certainty that some were changed dramatically after that experience. Repenting is the truly different thing that John called people to do; baptism seals the deal and allows God’s Holy Spirit to begin to guide them. John the Baptist is powerful, but as the Lorenz/Hart show tune from the musical “Babes in Arms” puts it, he’s “Johnny One Note.” All he talks about is repentance, repentance, repentance! Still, people in the world, those of us here today, probably need to repent from some habit, some action, or some addiction. Let’s start by exploring this enigmatic man.
Franciscan Richard Rohr says this about John:
John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare, and yet crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of persons of groups. That is why we focus on John The Baptist every Advent, and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature ritual, while also going far beyond him. Water is the only the container; fire and Spirit are the contents …. John is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege, who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything . … He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him “There is no man greater than John … but he is also the least.” [Preparing for Christmas, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008, p.24-25.
Thanks Father Rohr, for reminding us of John’s 3-dimensional nature! We’ve established who the messenger is, now we focus on the message- Repent.
As I simply showed the boys and girls, it’s like a U-Turn. If you realize you are going down a path that is toxic to yourself or others, or destructive or dark, you can, and you have the power to, turn around and travel back from the wrong direction to the right direction; back toward redemption; or back toward love. Here we rely on John because Jesus has not yet spoken a word in the gospel, not until this chapter, verse 13. Beloved Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner define repentance this way: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do, as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” [Wishful Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 79.]
Another author, Kathleen Norris, wrote a more intriguing description of repentance:
Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes:
“Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’” My Messy House” says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy makes a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out…If that boy had been a novice in the fourth century monastic desert, his elder might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell? [Amazing Grace, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 69,70]
You might know that people in our AA programs have repented from drinking and are busy every day trying to keep moving toward a life of love and wholeness. From the first day, people in our Gambler’s Anonymous program repented of their gambling and spending addictions and have been moving toward a life of financial security and relationship rescue. But what about those of us who are not in those programs? What about the mother who is hateful to her son-in-law or daughter-in-law? Does she see the need to repent? What about the man who once abused his wife or the man who abused his dog? Have they seen the light? How about the celebrities who tried to buy a spot for their daughters in colleges? Have they felt the need to repent? Repentance is not just a John the Baptist cry, it is a human reality that can change one’s life, one’s marriage, and one’s spirituality. Repentance is a connective tissue for our Spiritual bodies. Without it, we may feel disjointed, disconnected, or broken. And indeed, we are. Yet even in our day, there are situations that keep people from moving from repentance to wholeness. One is a lack of forgiveness. For example, a woman spends and spends and spends and builds up enormous credit card debt. Her husband sees their income diminishing to the point that the nest egg they were building is now gone. Debts ensue, and the man moves toward divorce to stop the financial hemorrhaging of his assets. The wife, with the help of a 12-step group, repents of her spending habits and is showing the changes in her life to her husband. Will he welcome her again? Will he forgive her and remain in their marriage? A lack of forgiveness keeps repentance from moving toward wholeness.\

Here’s an example of our prison system becoming an impasse to wholeness. In the December 4th issue of the Christian Century [p.26,] Caitlin Kandil, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, tells the story of a woman who rolled through a stop sign in San Francisco. Police pulled her over and gave her a $238 ticket. Although she could pay the ticket, she started thinking about others who could not. She called it “the spiral of despair.” She researched and shared these results:
A person gets a traffic ticket for a few hundred dollars. Unable to pay the fine, she misses the deadline for payment, and the ticket starts accruing late fees and creates a debt that hangs over her head. The city sends the ticket to the collections department, and now her credit is damaged, so the next time she tries to rent an apartment, her application is rejected. Eventually her driver’s license is suspended for failure to pay. Without a driver’s license, she can’t perform the tasks of everyday life—commuting to work, grocery shopping, taking children to school, going to doctor’s appointments—and also become ineligible to apply for and work at many jobs. Without secure employment and housing, she is a risk for homelessness. It all started with a traffic ticket.

To combat incarcerations due to mounting fines from an inability to pay them, the Stated Clerk of our Presbyterian Church (USA), at our 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis, marched down the streets of the city, with hundreds behind him, to the St. Louis Justice Center with more than $47,000 raised from GA committees and commissioners. They paid the bail for many people who were incarcerated for misdemeanors. With them released, they could be employed again, be united with families, and begin a new life. Sometimes, the system can stall repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes a generous and timely gift can bring a second chance to a woman who could not pay a minor traffic ticket.
A long time ago, a man invited people to gather at the river, to change their hearts, repent of their sins, and get a new start. John still invites that, as he calls out to each of us from the pages of Scripture: “Repent!” Would you like a new start in your life? Or perhaps someone you know needs a new start in theirs? They can repent—that is, make a U-Turn from the direction they are going—and they can ask for forgiveness for their actions. But before any of that happens, they, and perhaps we, need to ask God to “Change our Heart.” Songwriter Eddie Espinosa wrote this song with this prayerful message:
Change my heart, O God; make it ever true. Change my heart, O God; may I be like you. You are the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me; this is what I pray: Change my heart, O God.”
I invite you to offer that prayer today, to God, in song.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 8, 2019

12-01-19 WATCH: “Eyes Open, Hearts Ready, Hands Busy”

Matthew 24:32-44
Westminster by the Sea (PCUSA)

Radford Rader, D.Min.

December 1, 2019

Our 5-year-old granddaughter had a sleep over with us on Wednesday night. She was really excited as she anticipated the arrival of her elf on the shelf. For those who haven’t had a little one around the last decade, the elf of the shelf appears at the beginning of advent somewhere in the house. It observes and reports back to Santa every evening and the next morning is in a totally different location. The next morning, Thanksgiving Day, Hannah went looking for the elf on the shelf in our house. I explained that we didn’t have one because we didn’t have any children at home now. She wanted to know if it had come to her house and I said, “I don’t know”. I guess you’ll find out when you get home. If it didn’t come today, I am sure it will tomorrow.” First thing on Friday, she facetimed me to say the elf had indeed appeared and to show me where it was. If this year is like last year, every morning she will jump up and eagerly look for where the elf might be. It is such excitement, anticipation, and looking for Jesus that is to be in us during the advent days. It should be that way all our days. We are to be people watching so that we can see Jesus wherever he is revealed.
There was a man who understood watching. His name was Simeon. According to Luke he was righteous and devout, looking for the coming of the promised Messiah. Everyday he would journey to the temple, anticipating and hoping that this would be the day that the Messiah would appear. The scriptures said that the Lord would come to his temple unexpectedly. Simeon spent each day, watching people, scanning faces, hoping this would be the day. Every day he went home disappointed but still he kept up his watch even as he grew old. Then it happened, not as he or anyone expected. Mary and Joseph brought their newborn son Jesus to be dedicated. And Simeon knew the Christ had come and the God’s promise was fulfilled. He is the model for all who wait for the Lord.
In advent we look back, remembering Israel’s long wait for the Messiah. Many were longing for his coming; but many had given up the watch and devoted themselves to daily life, like the people of Noah’s day, who were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the flood came. We remember Jesus’ unexpected birth and those who had eyes open and hearts ready to receive him. Some were awake and looking just like Simeon. There were shepherds in their fields and magi scanning the heavens for a sign. There were common folk who heard him speak and recognized the new teaching and authority in him. There were disciples who, though slow to come to complete faith, met Jesus, left all behind and followed him. Not all were still watching; not all were ready; not all welcomed him. Blessed were those who had ears to hear and eyes to see and were ready to receive and believe.
In advent, we look forward. Jesus has promised to come again, to claim his kingdom and gather up all believers to enjoy forever the glory of God’s presence. The world may come to an end but at that end stands the one who was and is and is to come. We just don’t know when, even Jesus couldn’t reveal the day or the hour. But he told us to “Watch therefore for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” In verses 12 and 13 of this chapter in Matthew, Jesus warns that “the love of many will grow cold; but, the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Those who are wise refuse to lose hope or fall asleep spiritually. There is an old story about three apprentice devils who are taking their final exam before Satan. They are to declare their deceitful message that will destroy people. The first says, “I will tell them there is no heaven, and the second said “I will tell them there is no hell.” Both were rebuked. The third said, “I will tell them they have plenty of time.” Satan congratulated him and sent him on his way, knowing he would destroy many.

Those who celebrate advent are always awake and anticipating the coming of the Lord. Advent is not a season that ends at the birthday of Jesus. It is all the days until he comes again. Faithful disciples do not worry about when, rather they live in each day expectantly. Their eyes are opened. They are always looking. They are ready to see and believe. If we will live this way, we will find evidence of the Spirit and the work of Christ all around us. We will be continually be reminded that the Lord is near We will be comforted because the Spirit will show us that we are not abandoned until the day of his coming. We will see God’s kingdom continually encroaching into our world and lives. Last Sunday I met a man, who was in town for his daughter’s wedding; but he felt he had to get up and come to this church for worship on Sunday morning. He told me his story, of divorce and lost hope, of failed faith and how this church “saved him.” In that moment, I was rewarded with a glimpse of The Spirit’s work and his kingdom growing.
Every time someone is healed, our faith should be encouraged and our hope soar. When people run to help a person escape a burning car—when ordinary people risk their lives to stop a terrorist from killing others—when a teacher welcomes one of her special needs students into her family after his mother dies—when a teacher saves the day by hugging a confused and hurting student who has threatened to shoot his classmates–when people do kindness and show mercy, if we have eyes to see and hearts ready to believe we know that the Lord is near and the kingdom of Christ is present among us. We are then able to wait patiently and keep watching.
There is one other component of watching for the Lord. It is busy hands. We are not to stand after the Lord’s ascension, gazing forever into the heavens, waiting for his return. Rather we are commissioned to go into all nations making disciples, teaching what Jesus has taught us, and continuing his ministry. We are not to be busy calculating the when of his coming but busy in doing all that the Lord has commanded us to do in his absence. Jesus follows his commandment to be watchful with three parables.
A master goes on a journey and leaves one servant in charge of the others. If the master returns unexpectedly and finds the servant doing what he charged him to do, he rewards him.
He tells of ten maiden, five of them were wise and carried extra oil for their lamps as they waited to welcome the bridegroom home. When he came late only these five who were ready were invited to enter with him.
There were three servants each given part of the master’s money. They were to care for it while he was gone. When he returned unexpectedly, he asked for an accounting. Blessed were those who did well and the one who had no faith was banished. When the Lord comes, how will he find us? If he came today, would he say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master!” Oh, I pray that that is true for all of us!