05-31-20 THE GIFT OF PROPHESY


Isaiah 11: 1-5; Acts 2: 1-21

The term “prophesy” often gets misunderstood. Prophesy is not the ability to see the future in the way that God can. But prophets listen to God and share God’s guidance with others. And sometimes God shares the likely changes in human lives that poor choices can bring. Perhaps you remember when Jesus was being tormented before the Sanhedrin. The guards bound his eyes with a cloth and (from Mark 14:65) “Some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” Since he claimed to be the Christ, they believed he, like God, could describe future events. Of course he was in anguish instead. Some through the ages have turned to apocalyptic literature as if it were prophesy: words from Daniel, or Ezekiel, or Revelation. But prophesy genuinely comes from the prophets. Here’s what they did: they listened intently to God, and they listen intently to the world, and they wrote about the intersection and likely outcome of staying on wrong courses. Old Testament prophets are great examples, people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and Malachi. And others through the ages have taken that role in the past and into the 20th century. It is hard to name prophets in our own day, but 21st century prophets will be identified when people pause years from now and look back. One of the greatest prophets is Isaiah. He is the one who is quoted as prophesying about “Immanuel, God with us,” about “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;” ; and he also declared God’s words to “Comfort” his people after they had endured so much. But Isaiah chapter 11 is perhaps his masterpiece, his words that most clearly show God’s hope for what the world could be like; words that Jesus certainly knew when he wrote, and we pray: “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Last week I described how heaven is nothing like earth. But God’s hope—God’s dream—God’s prophetic push is for people on the earth to not accept the status quo, but to push for actions and differences that revolve around peace, justice, feeding hungry people, and the like. Listen to what the great prophet Isaiah said about that.
First a Pentecost tie-in. Pentecost is always depicted with flames, with red colors, and with candles. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, described the fruit of the Spirit: qualities any Christian would want to possess in his or her character. They are, in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. During my life I have continually worked on gaining and keeping those qualities; I think doing that can bring any one of us closer to what Thomas a’ Kempis called The Imitation of Christ. We are trying to not just bring Jesus to others with our Bibles or our memorized words, but by our actions too, so others “know we are Christians” by what we do. Some may want to put that in their life resume—that they are Christian, but as James wrote in his New Testament letter, “faith without works is dead.” That is our reminder that being a Christian is not just because of what we say, but mostly by what we do.

Now to the idea of the Gifts of the Spirit. The church since the 9th century and earlier sang about and wrote about the “Seven-fold gifts of the Spirit.” The opening music today was from the 9th century: “Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost Thy seven-fold gifts impart.” Where do we find those sevenfold gifts? In the great insights of Isaiah, we find them; but they are hidden to modern eyes. Let me help your eyes see them. Isaiah is describing what the world will be like when Messiah comes, what qualities Messiah will have. It is a striking contrast to what we see now, and what Isaiah saw then. Isaiah prophesied: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” I’ve had certain trees removed from my yards over the years, with the proper permits. A tree cutter takes down a tree, and in some cases the stump remains. To this day I can take you to three of those stumps and show you shoots growing out of them; the tree is still alive and it “bursts forth” from the tops and sides of the stump. There may have been regimes in Isaiah’s past that tried to stop God’s purpose from being carried out in Israel, but God continued to find a way, just as shoots of new growth grow from a stump. The same happens today. If you were to return to the areas where the great Florida fires from 1998 burned trees into cinder sticks, you would see now that new shoots of growth have now become saplings and even modest sized trees. Nature is always about renewal amidst change. In Isaiah’s case, the stump describes Jesse, one of the great, great, great grandfathers of Jesus! You’ll remember that Boaz the Jew, took Ruth a Moabite, as his wife. They had a son named Obed. And according to Ruth 4:17, “Obed was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David.” And according to Matthew chapter 1, he was descended of Joseph who was married to Mary, mother of Jesus. About Jesse, Isaiah wrote: “A branch shall grow out of his roots.” That’s a prophesy. It could have fit another person, but Jews believe it describes “messiah,” and Christians believe messiah is Jesus. That’s how the progression goes. Then Isaiah wrote that “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” We might wonder what it is like to have the Spirit of the Lord resting on a person. Isaiah says such a person will have these qualities:

  1. The spirit of wisdom
  2. The spirit of understanding
  3. The spirit of counsel
  4. The spirit of might
  5. The spirit of knowledge
  6. The spirit of the fear of the Lord.
    Six gifts. But we know that Jews believed that seven was a Godly number, and Christians picked up on it too! There were seven days of the week, and the beast had the number 666 (incompleteness). So why six gifts of the spirit? There was an implied seventh gift; one the Jews understood and Christian even earlier than the 9th century saw in their early Greek Scripture called the Septuagint. The seventh gift was piety. That meant a person who diligently read God’s word, who prayed to God, and who exhibited a life that tried to conform to what they had read. Those are the sevenfold gifts of the spirit. Let me briefly unpack them:
    Wisdom includes an ability to think above the fray of the crowd; to consider all sides of an issue; to encourage collaboration and an ability to come to a conclusion that time will test and bless.

Understanding is an ability to empathize, something not everyone can do. An empathetic person can image what it’s like to walk in other person’s shoes, or feel the way another person reacts to hard news, or conflicts, or change.

Counsel includes the ability to listen to and respond to another in ways that, like a fiduciary in the financial world, has the other person’s best interests at heart.

Might can include physical strength, but mostly it is intestinal fortitude and an ability to stand firm when a decision is made that may be unpopular with a crowd.

Knowledge includes what we might learn academically, but also what we may learn from life. Jesus was certainly trained in rabbinic schools, but he likely learned about life working alongside of his tradesman father. When I was deciding about what major I should choose in college, a wise professor said ministers need knowledge in all areas of life, from business, mathematics, the arts, literature, history, and society. He said, “Don’t major in religion; you’ll get all of that you need in seminary. Get a liberal arts degree.” So I majored in English Literature with a minor in Business Administration. Knowledge takes many forms.

Fear of the Lord. Notice it is not just fear, it is fear of the Lord, which means a healthy respect for the Lord. To honor the authority of another. This too is a gift of the spirit—people who treat God as the power and wonder that God is.

That brings us back to piety. Karl Barth, a great 20th century theologian, used to say a good preacher needs to have “the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” That makes for good prophets too. How can God’s Word inform the way we respond to the world as it is? That is the well to which we all need to continually return. Otherwise the world will suck us into the great morass of society, leaning on the lowest common denominator instead of the highest ideal.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 31, 2020

05-24-20 WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR LOVED ONE IS GONE?

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR LOVED ONE IS GONE?
Deuteronomy 34: 1-8; Acts 1: 6-14

It seems like the human race needs regular reminders for certain events that are special. We need a day like Christmas to remember the birth of Jesus, and a day like Easter to remember his rising from the dead. We need a day like Valentine’s Day to focus on romantic love, Mother’s Day to focus on our mothers, and Father’s Day to focus on our fathers. You get the idea. Few people, except those most affected, remember the day when another person died. But the ones closest to them remember it. Indeed. Years ago, a day was set aside to remember soldiers who were killed in that war, known by some as the Civil War; by others as the War Between the States; and by others as the War of Northern Aggression! Good grief. But, that was the origin of the day known as Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day. Later it was designated to remember any people who were killed in one of our wars. It is the day when loved ones or other thoughtful Americans go to the graves of those who served in the United States Armed Forces and decorate them with flags or flowers. It is a way to honor the dead. Such a practice may seem honorable to you, or perhaps it seems morbid. I find it comforting. Whenever I visited my grandparents—the ones who lived in Pennsylvania, or the one who lived in Georgia—we would go to visit the graves of family members. We would water flowers, but more importantly, we would talk about the person who was buried under a headstone. It was comforting and we were taught about those earlier relatives. Like looking through photo albums (or your photos on your phone these days!) we should all share our photos and pictures with our children or nieces or nephews. Memorial Day is a reminder day. So let’s take the opportunity to remember some other people today.

Let’s start with the Bible leader who God chose to lead his people out of captivity in Egypt, wander for many years, and eventually get to the precipice of the Promised Land: Moses. To get to the land God was gifting them, they needed to cross over the Jordan River from Mount Nebo (in the country of Jordan,) to the land known as Caanan. Such a journey became the talk of legends for many oppressed people, especially for Jewish people, and later, for slaves in America in the 19th century. They wrote great spirituals like “Go Down, Moses.” And they sang about Moses’ shouting God’s words: “Let my people go!” Spirituals also lift up the Jordan River as the water that needs to be crossed to get to the Promised Land, except when the slaves sang it, and when others sing them to this day, they are describing the crossing from this land of hardship and sorrow to the land of promise called heaven. It is where Christians go after we die. It was a different story for Moses. As the book of Deuteronomy tells us in chapter 34, Moses led his people to Mount Nebo, just across the river from the Promised Land. But there is where he died. He never crossed over. He was buried there, and the Bible says: “To this day no one knows where he was buried.” Normally that would be unusual for an Israelite. But in this case, if Joshua led everyone across the Jordan to the promised land, who would care for Moses’ grave on Mount Nebo? I’ve been to Mount Nebo. The plaques there say Moses was buried there, but to this day, no one knows where. Jews officially don’t believe in a resurrection like Jesus experienced. The Jewish legacy is the swath of teachings and deeds from a person’s lifetime; they are remembered by family and friends who love them at the time of death and beyond. If you go to any Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem, you will see the above ground burial boxes called ossuaries everywhere. A Jewish custom is that if you visit the ossuary of a prominent Jewish person, you are to leave a stone on the top of the burial place, saying, in effect, that you are pleased to remember them. Then when others come to visit the grave behind you, it is instantly clear who was especially loved by others, and by extension, was loved by God. On one of our Holy Land trips, I asked our bus driver as we toured Mount Zion to stop by the grave of Oscar Schindler—the man who saved so many Jews during the Nazi regime. It was his wish to be buried in Jerusalem in the Mount Zion Catholic Cemetery, but so many Jews are grateful to him that there are a lot of stones on his grave. Jews place a stone on top of the grave of Jews and others they admire and respect. That is the way one group of people remember and honor their dead.

The group of people with which we are most familiar are the Christians. Last Thursday was one of those reminder holidays—it’s called “Ascension Day,” hardly observed by Protestants, but it should be. It is the 40th day after Easter, the day traditionally when witnesses saw Jesus ascend into heaven. It is recorded in Luke chapter 24 and Acts chapter 1. In that scene, the newly alive Jesus, who had arisen from the dead, gathered with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, sometimes called Olivet. That is the place where Jews believed, and still do believe, that the Messiah will appear. That’s why its hillside is covered with a Jewish cemetery, with the bodies of Jews waiting for their Messiah to appear. But it was on that hill that Jesus took his disciples to show them something very special: to show them a new way of thinking: instead of death being the end of life, there would be death, but then, resurrected life! Jesus told his disciples they should keep telling people about him, which is wonderful advice for those thinking about a loved one who died even today; keep telling others about them! Our passage then tells us: Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” [Acts 1:9] Two angelic messengers were left to interpret what had just happened. They said, according Acts 1:11: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Well, that’s helpful, isn’t it? Instead of thinking our life ends when we breathe our last, disciples had a message, not just for the present, but for the future too: Jesus will come back for them! John, in his gospel, was especially good at saying that his book was written “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” [John 20:30-31]

So has someone you loved died? Do you have a special place, or a special way, to remember them? Like our Jewish friends, it is so helpful to remember what they had done for you and for their neighbors. Doing that is what most faithful people want: to create good memories, and to do good works. But beyond that, the New Testament just lets us see through the floorboards of heaven. As we read these words, we might imagine looking up, and seeing a few things through the cracks of the floorboards of heaven, metaphorically speaking. Perhaps we can see Jesus, who still plans to meet his faithful followers in the air when it is time, according to 1 Thessalonians 4:17. We might also see parts of the Holy City, that John calls New Jerusalem. I once had some egg on my face in my first pastorate when I was reading the local Methodist Church newsletter in town. There I read: “Myrtle Jones, on May 7th, 1982, transferred her membership to the Church of New Jerusalem.” I scratched my head and said I had never heard of that congregation before! Then it dawned on me: It was Heaven! Yes, that’s where Myrtle had transferred her membership! What is heaven like? According to the vision Jesus gave John: It is a place where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” [Revelation 21:4] Then we read that an angel came and said “’Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And in the Spirit, [John says] he carried me away to a great high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.” [Revelation 21: 9-11] In that vision, Jesus was bringing heaven down to show it to John! Looking more carefully, John saw that indeed it had 12 gates that were each 12 pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl! And the streets were pure gold, but transparent as glass.” {Revelation 21:21] Here we must use a disciplined imagination to envision the holy city, because we are just getting glimpses of it in our mortal form. One day, an angel might come to you, one that perhaps has already come to your loved one who died, and one day he might come to me, to prepare us for our journey. “Look” the angel might say. “You are about to move to a new life! Do not be afraid! It is not like your old life; it is new in so many ways! Here’s a peek!” And then we might be given a glimpse of glory, where the Lamb of God-our Savior-now reigns: strong, loving, never to be hurt or sick again. That is the life beyond this life in which I choose to believe! And I invite you to see all the signs of that life in the New Testament too, and be comforted by them.

This Memorial Day weekend, in the midst of any activities you may plan, please take some time to remember those who died for our freedom; those family members or friends who died before you have; and finally to consider what people might remember about you after you die, and what God might say to you, when you meet- on that beautiful shore.

Let us pray:
Thank you, O God: for teaching people to honor those who have died in the faith, and for giving us traditions and rituals to cling to when our breath turns to crying or our legs go weak. This weekend, may we remember the rituals of honoring those who have died before us. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 24, 2020

05-17-20 THE CHURCH: BUILT ON THE ROCK

Matthew 16: 13-18

There is an anthem our choir has sung before with this first line: “Built on the rock the church doth stand.” Today as we celebrate the anniversary of this congregation, we first think back to the earliest reference found in the New Testament. It’s in Matthew 16. Jesus deliberately took his disciples away from the Galilee where he was always pummeled with requests or threats. He took them north and east to an area that is still there today: our 2021 Holy Land trip will include a visit here for the first time! It is called “Caesarea Philippi. Herod the Great had divided his kingdom into three parts, to be given to his three sons when he died. He died around 4 B.C. To one son, Herod Archelaus, he gave the region that included Jerusalem; to his son Herod Antipas he gave the region that included the Galilee. And to Herod Philip he gave the northeastern region that now bears his name. In that region, there was a unique natural wonder. It was a cave, and it is there today. It goes so deep into the ground that it constantly spews sulfur gasses. People who lived in that region, who believed in beings that lived in the underworld, called it the “Gates of Hell;” or “the Gates of Hades.” Biblical teacher Ray Vanderlaan believes that Jesus deliberately took his disciples to that spot for another one of his teachable moments. He asked them: “Who do people say that I am?” And they gave some fumbling answers. Then, I imagine Jesus pointed a finger at them and asked: “But who do YOU say that I am? And Simon, who Jesus called Peter from that day forward, said, “You are the Christ [or the Messiah,] the Son of the living God!” Jesus must have lowered his pointed finger and smiled, saying his famous words: “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven. And I tell you now, Peter (in Greek Petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church.” And then Ray Vanderlaan believes Jesus pointed to that cave-like opening with sulphur gases spewing out, saying, “And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” What a teachable moment, to be standing there and pointing to the cave spewing noxious gases! Jesus, I think, had made his point. Over the years, our Roman Catholic friends have decided that when Jesus said, “Upon this rock (petra) I will build my church,” that Jesus meant the man, Peter. Therefore the center of the Roman Catholic faith architecturally is the structure in Rome called St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course it is called “St. Peter’s!” The church is built on that “rock,” they say. But Protestants from the beginning have declared that the “rock” is what Peter said, not the person of Peter. So what is the “rock to Protestants? It’s the declaration Peter gave, that each of us say at some time or another when we become Christians: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” So Protestants have some differences when compared to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We have some differences compared to our Jewish friends, or from Muslims, neither of which believe that Jesus is the Messiah nor the “Son of God.” So we are “set apart” in a unique way. And that uniqueness has passed through the centuries. Later in the first century, the word about Jesus had traveled by evangelist who told other people about him; evangelists like Paul, Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, and Peter. According to Acts 11:26, it was in a town called Antioch that the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians!” And through the years, the mantel has been passed to those who call him Lord: to house churches, to small churches, medium churches, large churches, and mega churches. The proclamation “You are the Messiah” continues, and the ministry Jesus first carried out is still being done in his name: praying, blessing, feeding, praising! The church of Jesus Christ has continued, “built on the rock!” And now, even God is turning evil to good, as churches have burst out of the walls of their buildings to be the church in the world, through technology and with neighbors helping neighbors! Built on the rock, “the gates of hell will not prevail against it!” We will continue to be “the church” wherever we carry his name and share his message.

Through the ages there have been churches started all over the world. Literally all over the world. Presbyterians and others told people in Korea that “Jesus is the Messiah,” and many there agreed and decided to take that message across the nation. Now the largest Presbyterian church in the world in in Korea! But there are many more stories than that one. Here’s a local one:
In October 1946, a small Sunday School was started in the unincorporated area of Wilbur By-The-Sea, south of Daytona Beach. This was the humble beginning of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church and was the dream of The Rev. Paul M. Edris, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Daytona Beach. Rev. Edris, with Miss Elizabeth McNeil, Director of Christian Education at First Church, conducted this outpost Sunday School for one year; then it was decided that more people could be reached though weekly prayer meetings. [The number of interested persons grew and the gathering continued weekly.]

In February, 1955, forty-two people gathered for the first Sunday service in what was called the “Wilbur by-the-sea Clubhouse.” In May of that year, with sixty-two charter members present, a committee from the Presbytery of St. Johns installed The Rev. Richard W. Sauerbrun as the first Pastor of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church. [An elder suggested the name “Westminster” since the Westminster Confession of Faith upheld the high standards of the Presbyterian Church; it was also decided to keep “by-the-sea” in the name to honor the local roots in Wilbur by-the-sea.] Soon the congregation outgrew its temporary quarters in the Wilbur Clubhouse. Plans were made for a move. Mrs. Laura Fair Ferran donated land at the corner of South Peninsula Drive and El Portal Avenue (which is now called Westminster Drive) and construction began on the first building of the church complex. On Christmas Eve, 1956, the first Candlelight Service was held in the recently completed Fellowship Hall, which was to serve as the temporary sanctuary. An education wing was added in 1958. [and after an extensive fund-raising effort,] the beautiful colonial sanctuary was a reality in September, 1964.

Over these sixty-five years, Westminster has had just four installed pastors, and four secretaries! We also have been blessed with Associate Pastors and Parish Associates, with gifted Choir Directors, Organists, teachers, and Christian Education Directors. We have had welcoming greeters, congenial fellowship leaders filled with hospitality, plus talented tradesmen and professionals. Our first Pastor’s wife, Suanne, was scheduled to join us for this celebration until social distancing clipped the wings of those plans. But she, and others still in the area and around the world, rejoice with what God has done in this corner of Christianity! And it all started with a declaration: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” It continued when people saw the gatherings and called them “Christians.” It was blessed by a visionary Pastor who saw a need to expand the Christian witness to the unincorporated are of the south peninsula; it grew with a generous gift of land to locate our facilities in such a prominent place. And we pray that God continues to bless us with the means and the people who join arms in carrying out Christ’s work in the twenty-first century with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” Happy Anniversary to all who are a part of Westminster By-The-Sea!
May they know we are Christians by our love.

Let us pray: O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come; we will need to count on you in the future as we have counted on you in the past. What will the future hold in this new era of social distancing? Even now, we are sure you are working your purposes out, and we want to be a part of them! Bless us with wisdom, patience, and direction. We pray for it in the name of Jesus, who is the Christ, the Son of the living God; the rock upon which the church is built. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 17, 2020

05-10-20 YOU ARE GOD’S OWN!

1 Peter 2: 2-10

Special; chosen, beloved. These are just some of the words that fill the hearts of many new mothers as they take their newborn in their arms for the first time. Beautiful, perfect, an angel. These are other words I have heard. And at some point, most mothers start by nursing their baby, giving them the colostrum to clear out the baby’s little digestive system, followed by the nourishing milk. Doctors and nurses have told me how perfectly formulated mother’s milk is for the baby. Nature wants our children to grow well, and nurture happens when early parents do their best to protect and comfort their child. Babies are helpless and need a good mother or father to attend to their needs. In time, they start to grow, and learn, and stand. But for now, they need everything a mother can give.

As I said to those who heard my devotional or my sermon last week, the Middle Eastern culture taught mainly with theological metaphors- God comparisons. Here in 1Peter, he starts with this instruction: “Like newborn infants.” There it is: a simile, comparing grown persons to babies because they have not fully learned what apostles like Peter needed them to know! “Long for the pure spiritual milk” he says. In other words, get your guidance from the source, not polluted by culture. Peter was writing to instruct them. Christians in Peter’s day had their own enemy: the Emperor Neron Caesar. Today we face our own enemies: sometimes they are natural or political, but these days our enemy is biological: the Coronavirus. It has killed more people than several wars have. It is tenacious and covert. Here’s one example: a fully functional and physically fit 36-year-old was living his life when, out of the blue, like an alien invader, his body was attacked by the Big C, but this time it was not Cancer, it was Covid-19, the Coronavirus. Air sacs in his lungs got glued together and breathing became labored as the spongy virus clogged his air passages. That Big C won. It overcame him, even at that age. Leaving behind a family, the enemy took him down. And yet, like young children who want their freedom while wise parents insist on some limits, human beings are turning away from wise counsel, stepping into the firing squad of Covid viruses as they go to shopping malls, hold close gatherings on beaches, or engage in other activities without social distancing. Children want to be free like that! The disease just looks for an opening, and then it floats, floats on a spray of air to an opening in our skin. Then its destructive work can begin. At the time this First Letter of Peter was written, there was that different enemy: the description that people love to talk about even today: “The Beast.” Listen to this description from Dr. E.M. Blaiklock, who was Chair of Classics at the University of Aukland, New Zealand. He was an expert on the history of the first century:
The first letter of Peter, written in the early sixties of the first century to a great circle of churches in the rugged peninsula which we call Asia Minor, is a document of immense historical and contemporary significance….In a little over a generation after the death of Christ, communities of Christians were everywhere…. They had broken with the Roman Empire and the empire was about to react to their challenge It was a moment of crisis, for Rome and for the world. [First Peter, Waco: Word Books, 1977, p. 9,10]

Even though we hear about the Beast today, and the number 666 is pinned on political or military entities, the Beast was always only one person, Neron Caesar, the unstable Roman Emperor who was in power when 1 Peter was written. When the city of Rome began burning, he blamed the Christians and, as a public example, started tying them to poles at the Circus Maximus and setting them on fire to illuminate their events. He was brutal and deranged. There have been other brutal or deranged leaders in history and even now, but the beast is not them; the beast was Neron Caesar, whose name in Hebrew spelled out 666, or the alternate version of Nero Caesar, 616, described in Revelation 13. John, when he was imprisoned on the isle of Patmos, used a code to comfort Christians in the late 90s of the first century, when Christians thought that the Roman emperor of their time, Domitian, was Nero incarnate. But, John reminded them: Nero’s own destructive behavior became self-destructive, so he was driven by a military rebellion to commit suicide in 68 A.D. God prevailed over that evil. In the midst of Nero’s persecution, Peter gave comforting and uplifting words to Christians in the Roman Empire! Yes, Christians were one of Nero’s primary deflections and scapegoats. That kind of practice still goes on, but the BEAST is not in the future, the BEAST was in the past! Peter’s comforting words sound like he was treating grown persons like shell-shocked children, telling them to long for the pure spiritual milk. Perhaps he was. Just this past week I’ve seen images of grown adults—like nurses and chaplains—sitting in hospital hallways crying. I’ve also seen the images of a family who lost their daughter, a skilled ER doctor, as the Covid enemy and its advancement into human bodies drove her to take her own life. People are fragile; people need to be spiritually nursed. And yet there are militant demonstrators demanding their “rights,” and people who are starting to pour into businesses and onto beaches. May the enemy not bring them to the ground in a puddle of tears like it has done to some on our medical front lines.

We live in a time when the Covid virus pulls people to their knees. We listen to scientists, and hope for a vaccine, but people are worn down. Peter, if he were here, might call us back to Jesus Christ who he calls the “living stone.” Jesus cared about human beings: body, mind, and soul. Although cornerstones today might be mostly symbolic, structurally a true cornerstone needs to be carefully laid, setting the direction and the angle of a building. A keystone, likewise, is the final piece and locks other stones in place. One stone starts the building process, the other ends it. Peter calls on the Christians in the First Century, who were facing the enemy of the Roman Empire, to anchor their spiritual angles and their foundation in Jesus Christ, not on personal whims or wishes or political leaders. That is good advice today as well, amidst the powerful influence of people who share information on wide-ranging media platforms. Ground yourself in the chief cornerstone, the one who the gospels say was rejected by men, but Peter says” was chosen and precious in God’s sight.” That’s who Jesus is! He is “chosen and precious in God’s sight!” Just as there are evil people today who can seem to own the title of the BEAST, John comforted Christians to move through that age, today I imagine Jesus calling us “chosen and precious in God’s sight” as we seek to comfort others. I was so moved by an illustration I saw on Facebook this week. It was an artist’s rendering of Jesus in his Galilean white tunic, kneeling down in the hallway of a hospital. Behind him was a gurney and beside him a drawer of medical supplies. He is next to a hospital worker, fully gowned with a face mask and a surgical cap who has knelt on the ground, head in hands. Jesus put one hand on the back of the worker for comfort, and the other hand on the head for a blessing. Goodness. What can we do as the Body of Christ today?

Here’s one final thing Peter does that we can do: he becomes an encourager, almost a one person cheering section! I can hear Peter saying words like these to us:
You! You are chosen! You are in the royal court of God! You are set apart for your special work! You are God’s own people! And God is offering mercy to you! Please receive it, as you comfort one another!

Instead of the angry protestors that are in some pockets of our country, there are many more teachers driving by neighborhoods cheering on students! There are ordinary people lining roads outside of hospitals cheering on first responders! And there were the magnificent jets of our Navy Blue Angels and our Air Force Thunderbirds coming together last week in fly-overs to honor our heath care workers! So beloved in Christ: if you feel shell-shocked and frightened, draw close to a comforter as a baby does with his or her mother. As the enemy keeps marching forward, know that the march will one day end. And finally, lift up one another with words, with prayers and with deeds! That was the work of Apostles. And now it is the work for us.

Let us pray: Empower and anoint us, Dear Jesus, to do the work you need us to do,
say the words we need to say, and to show the love you showed others. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 10, 2020

05-03-20 JESUS’ EXTRAORDINARY CARE


John 10: 1-10

It hardly seems necessary to go into great detail about Jesus’ extraordinary care in these pandemic times. So many, in this extraordinary time, are already exhibiting extraordinary care. In spite of critical shortages of protective care, nurses, doctors, and chaplains are diving into the deep end of the virus pool every day. They do so skillfully, caringly, and often sacrificially. They often actually, “lay down their life” for their patients. There is perhaps no better time to help Jesus’ description of himself come to life than in these extraordinary days. In ordinary time, people may pour out their life to protect our country, to serve in a mission field, or as a teacher charged with keeping children safe in a pre-school or day care center. These people, by their choices, are called on to put others first. And they do. Now there are new armies of people who are on the front lines with those who are medically ill, those emotionally in need, and those financially struggling. So factories that made cars are ramping up to make masks; distilleries of fine spirits have started making hand sanitizer, and individuals are pulling out their “Hear I Am Lord, Send Me!” responses to help their neighbors in need. All of us, in so many ways, are becoming shepherds to sheep. Of course, that is a metaphor. My English classes taught me that a simile was a comparison between things using like or as, such as “She is like a shepherd.” But Jesus uses full metaphors, taking out the word “like.” In John’s gospel, he’s well knows for these sayings, known as the “I am” sayings. He declares, in metaphorical fashion, “I am the bread;” “I am the door;” and “I am the good shepherd,” just to name a few. If he were saying that to children, they might argue with him saying, “You don’t look like bread!” or “You don’t look like a door!” And unlike King David, who was clearly a shepherd before he was a king, we don’t have any record of Jesus ever being a shepherd! Yet he claims he is one! What’s going on here? This is the way people made comparisons in Jesus’ day, and when you think about it, we still do! We say things like “I’m cold as ice!” or I’m hungry as a wolf!” We are always making comparisons. It’s not hard to see that our childcare workers, our hospital staff members, and many family members are now like shepherds. Let’s dig deeper into that image.

One thing is for certain: Jesus would have grown up knowing the Twenty-third Psalm. David wrote it as a statement of his faith. So even those who have never been a shepherd have gotten an idea of what shepherds had to do to protect sheep! Philip Keller wrote a book that I own and that is in our church library called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm Twenty-three. I have read it many times. As a shepherd, what insights Keller brings to help us understand David’s words! Sheep are some of the most helpless creatures on earth. Other animals can make it on their own but not sheep! They can only thrive with a good shepherd. So David refers to himself as a sheep, and God into a shepherd, says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!” A shepherd can only make sheep lay down in green pastures 1) if he finds a spot of grass in arid Israel; and 2) if he can make them feel secure. When they need water, it can’t be stagnant water that might contain bacteria; but neither can it be running water because it gets up their nose! So, a shepherd has to dam up running water long enough for them to drink. The shepherd has to guide them in right paths, that is, not ones filled with predators, but ones that lead to more food. Sometimes he had to lead sheep through valleys where predators could hide. When he did that, he carried a rod to whack the bodies of predators that get to close, and he knew how to use a slingshot. Good shepherds also carried a staff with the curved end used to gently pull sheep back from any cliffs where they might wander. Shepherds do not actually prepare tables; they prepare table lands; if the shepherd does not first pull out the poisonous weeds, the sheep will simple eat them along with the grass, getting sick or dying. What a job a shepherd has! And as the sheep eat and are distracted, the shepherd watches for their enemies. To help protect them from biting flies, the shepherd anoints their head with a salve, or ointment, with spices that repel the insects. And the sheep feel great relief being in the flock of a good shepherd, described as “their cup overflowing.” So Jesus can easily claim to be a good shepherd; David taught him and countless other readers, what that meant. And now, there are countless good shepherds working sacrificially with those who are young and helpless, those who are old and helpless, or those who are ill and helpless. The prophet Isaiah also used the sheep metaphor for people when he declared “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each to our own way.” [53:6]

These days, many human beings are even more helpless than usual. These days, many of around us are fatigued, weak as a kitten, or fraught with fear. We are in need of some good shepherds; not just Jesus, but others of us who have the ability to do something! Think about it: you may not be able to get out, but you can telephone others and lift them up or you can pray with them. You can catch up on notes or emails you have been intending to send. These are things I am doing too!
We can journal what it’s like to live through this time, so people in the future will know! On a Zoom chat with other Presbyterians this week, one person asked how people during the 1918 handled the Sacraments of Baptism, and of Holy Communion! We are researching church records to see if a Clerk wrote down what they did! There are many things we can do, as we are busy just being away from others. But one thing to never forget is that we are like sheep, in the flock of a good shepherd.
Let us pray: Dear Jesus, like sheep, we need you. Like a good shepherd, you are there for us. How comforting that is to know! Thank you. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 3, 2020