06-28-20 THE TEST


Genesis 22: 1-14

When it comes to faith, our English language handicaps us. There is no verb form of the word “faith.” The Greek word “pistuo” or the Latin “credo” (from which we get the word “creed,”) guided writers to say “I trust,” or “I commit myself;” or “I rest my heart upon;” and, of course, “I pledge allegiance.” All of these paraphrases show faith as a verb. James Fowler, in his book Stages of Faith, studies the faith systematically. When we turn to Scripture, we find these classic faith references: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Proof dispels faith. If we need proof to believe that Sarah, the 90 year old wife of Abraham, could bear a son, we don’t need faith to believe it. If we need proof to believe that Jesus arose from the dead and left an empty tomb, we don’t need faith to believe it. Remember: it’s “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says: “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move!’ and it will move.” And the Apostle Paul said this to the Corinthians in his second letter: “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7) Faith is a cornerstone of most systems of belief. As it turns out, the faith of one old man named Abraham is primarily why God chose to make an everlasting covenant with the covenant people. And it was that chosen man that God put to an ultimate test; a horrible test. We’ll examine that more in a minute.
In his book Growing in Faith: A Guide for the Reluctant Christian, David Yount wrote: “The older I get, the more often I encounter men and women who practice no religion but would like to believe. ‘I envy your faith,’ they tell me. ‘I wish I had it, but I guess I’m just not religious.’” “Nonsense,” says Yount. And he continues by saying “It is high time to destroy the myths that keep good people from discovering and believing in something more than themselves.” [Regnery Books, Washington, D.C. 1984, p. 3] It is a healthy activity to put faith in someone or something outside of oneself. Only trusting oneself can easily become a stumbling block when obstacles are faced. Today as we will learn about an amazing man of faith, there are three things I want to suggest about faith. First, faith is relative. Second, faith is relational. And Third, faith is reliance. Let’s begin.
First, faith is relative: God knows it; Jesus knew it; we know it. The faith one person has may not be the same level of faith that another person has. Nevertheless, it is faith. As we live and have our faith tested, it can grow stronger. A young faith may be called an eggshell faith; it is fragile and can break. It’s akin to the faith young children may have regarding their safety, believing that they won’t fall and hurt themselves or that they won’t be burned by hot water. But, of course, both a fall or hot water can hurt them. Their faith changes as it is tested and their confidence changes. Sometimes as children grow, they gain great faith in another person. My children learned to trust me. For one children’s sermon, when Jenny was a young girl, she would fall backward with her legs locked and trust that I would catch her stiff body before she hit the floor! Another girl in our church, Lauren, was able to have that same trust as she fell backwards into her own mother’s arms! One of the biggest tests of faith was recorded in Genesis 22. If you have read it in your Bible, you’ll never forget it. Abraham had such faith in God that he followed God’s instructions to the letter. He heard God say: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” What an instruction. I can imagine there are horrible situations when a soldier carries out an order, knowing it will kill many innocent civilians. It may seem almost unbearable. Or when conjoined twins are born and the doctor instructs the parents to decide which baby to save, because she cannot save both. What agonizing actions we sometimes have to take. But to plan to sacrifice your only son? You can read Genesis 22 as carefully as you care to read it, but Abraham seems to show no hesitation, not because he doesn’t love his son—he loves him deeply—but because he has complete trust in God! Remember Isaac was the child Abraham and Sarah thought they could not have. But Abraham was nothing if not faithful in his promises to God. And God had never let him down. So he and Isaac and a donkey took a pile of sticks to make a fire on the top of Mount Moriah. Isaac questioned where the lamb was for the sacrifice and Abraham said, “God will provide the lamb.” They got to the Mount, arranged the wood, and unbelievably Abraham bound his own son to the wood. Then he pulled out his knife and prepared to sacrifice his only son. Abraham was unflinching, but God pushed the request right to the edge. Then God called Abraham’s name. Abraham stopped, perhaps with blade raised. A voice said: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear (revere) God.” (Genesis 22:12) Abraham had passed the most brutal of tests. Who knows what therapy Isaac would have needed in our day, or what social workers would report to officials about the father? This was a test not to be repeated. Because of Abraham’s total trust in God, Mount Moriah was the mount chosen by God for David to build God’s Holy Temple. To this day, the mount is in the City of Jerusalem. There are radical examples of faith, and there are radical examples of love. But even some faith is still faith. Once again listen to David Yount: “Christianity is not just a personal conviction to be cherished in private. It is a communal faith and is tested and supported by other men and women. The church provides such a community. People who believe find a congregation that supports and tests the faith that is within them.” [Yount, p.5] So first, faith is relative.
Second, faith is relational. There is always another where we place our faith, in whom we trust, or to whom we are loyal. Faith is most often placed in a person, less often placed in a system—such a capitalism or communism—and most often it is placed in God. Gradually, by God’s blessing, Abraham became a man of faith. But it didn’t happen overnight. You may recall that in Genesis 17 he was ninety-nine and his wife Sarah was ninety. They had never had a child of their own. Readers may speculate if Abraham and Sarah wondered what they had done to have the perceived curse of barrenness. Then when God told them they would have a son—at their ages—and they laughed. Abraham laughed, and Sarah laughed (even though she denied it!) But they both became grateful to God. Perhaps to commemorate their joy, they named their son “Isaac,” which means “He laughs.” Only through this renewed relationship with God would blessings be bestowed on later generations.
Finally, faith is reliance. Abraham demonstrated faith as reliance, trusting God with his most precious son. Reliance is when someone says: “Lean back; I’ve got you; I will not let you fall.” God says the same thing, even as we choose to lean into those everlasting arms. God says: “I will not let you go.” We fall backwards without putting out a hand, or a foot, or setting a net, or placing a pillow under us in case God drops us. God will not drop us; faith teaches us to still our souls and bodies, and faith tells us we won’t need nets or cushions.
In a small book I got as I began to study for the ministry called Faith is …, Pamela Reeve helps describe the way faith is reliance:
Faith is the handle by which I take God’s promises and apply them to my particular problem.
Faith is confidence in God when money is running out instead of rolling in.
Faith is remembering that in the Kingdom of God everything is based on promise, not on feeling.
Faith is recognizing that God is the Lord of Time when my idea of timing doesn’t agree with His.
Faith is the assurance that God is perfecting His design for me when my life’s course, once a swift-flowing current, now seems like a stagnant pool.

Even when we are tested, may we stand on the promises of God.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 28, 2020

06-21-20 HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW

HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW
Matthew 10: 24-31

The 1991 film “The Doctor” starred William Hurt as a self-confident, arrogant surgeon. As he’s introduced to the viewers, he’s doing surgery in a joyful mood, listing to his requested playlist of Frankie Vallie and Jimmy Buffett songs. He’s on top of the world and the most important person in that world was numero uno. As he goes home one day he notices he’s coughing more and more. His wife notices it too. When he coughs blood, he finally goes to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist. The film was based on the true story written by Dr. Edward Rosenbaum called “A Taste of My Own Medicine.” When William Hurt’s character had to undergo an exploratory procedure on his throat and was delivered the news that a tumor was found, he made a joke about it. But his doctor was not joking. She said he would need six weeks of radiation. He said back, “just cut it out.” She said, “If I do that, there’s a chance you’ll never speak again. So radiation it was. The arrogant man became insignificant and unnoticed in the medical system. He had to check into the waiting room like everyone else. He had to fill out several pages of forms even though he was on staff as a surgeon. At the radiation center attached to the hospital, he had to fill out another set of forms like he’d already done. Many of you have been down that exasperating road. The exploratory procedure to look at his throat took place in the hospital where he was a surgeon. Still, to his indignance he was led to a room shared with another patient, the kind most hospitals used in 30 years ago. He protested his lack of privacy, and it got him nowhere. He was told to take all his clothes off and put on one of those infamous gowns that tie in the back. He protested. Every step of the way he felt insignificant and unnoticed. He was somebody in his mind! But now he was being treated as a nobody. As John Lennon once wrote: He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Or as Amos felt transparent to his wife, Roxie, in the Broadway show “Chicago,” he couldn’t find a way to get his wife to notice him; she ignores all of his attempts to please her time and time again. The audience gets it; Amos gets it; but it goes right over Roxie’s self-absorbed head. So Amos went into his famous and sad number singing to the audience, “Mr. Cellophane.” He felt invisible to everyone, especially his wife. She seemed to look right through him and walk right by him as if he wasn’t there.
Have ever felt insignificant, or like people were ignoring you or looking right past you? Maybe it has happened at a wedding reception or in a waiting room. Maybe it has happened in your marriage! The comic strip “Pickles” loves to describe an older couple who hardly notice each other. In my life it most strikingly happened in January of 1967. I had grown up in Richmond, Virginia and had most of the same friends in my Elementary School and in my neighborhoods there. I was somebody; certainly not a bigshot, but I had friends. They would call to play with me, or I would call to play with them. Then my father was transferred from Richmond to St. Louis, Missouri. Once I moved there, I called the state “Misery.” I was in 5th grade and had finished school in Virginia in December. Then the day after New Years’ day, I was driven by my mother to my new school. I hadn’t a friend in sight; in 5th grade; in the middle of a school year. I was “Mr. Cellophane” during recess and at lunch. Everyone played and ate with other friends. Feeling unnoticed can be lonely.
In the Gospels, therefore, I particularly am aware that Jesus notices those who others walk by: widows; beggars; children; foreigners; a little tax collector in a tree. Jesus notices them, and in his noticing them, they feel validate by him! It’s likely that they can’t believe they got his attention! But they did. What a blessing it is to truly feel seen, and noticed, and heard. In our day there have been people of color who for ages have felt unheard. Now they cry for change. There are men and women in uniform who have, at times, felt unappreciated. Or unheard. We are hearing from many of them now. The first step toward negotiation is noticing and listening and validating one’s existence. Then people can move toward reconciliation.

In today’s text Jesus helps us focus on a creature that may be among the least of the birds of the air: a sparrow. Not an eagle, that we can seek to find and admire. Not a hawk with his powerful talons. Not the bright red male cardinal or the bright bluebird, or bunting, or jay. A small, fliting, brown sparrow. Jesus engages his disciples and he has their attention. But he’s speaking to them in cryptic phrases, ones I doubt they understood on first hearing. He then says words that Martin Luther used in his hymn that we will sing later, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The words: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Then Jesus, and later Luther, referenced the fear of hell. As the disciples perhaps started to feel anxious, Jesus told them this, and we get to listen in: “Are not two sparrows sold for but a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.” He could have just let that just sink in, but he goes on saying: “Even the hairs on your head are numbered.” Of course that claim is amazing to me! I have had a woman named Vonda cut my since the 1990s. A colleague of hers also cuts hair at a different location. His daughter went through our Confirmation Class. “Hey” he asked me one day looking at my lack of hair, “Does Vonda still charge you the same amount to cut your hair now?” I replied without missing a beat: “Yep, but now she adds a finder’s fee.” Even the hairs on my head, and on your head is numbered! That’s the kind of detail that doesn’t escape the watchful eye of the Father. “So fear not,” Jesus adds. If the Father has his eye on even sparrows, we can breathe easier, known he is watching you and me too.
Civilla Durfee Martin wrote the hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” when she traveled with her husband to Elmira, New York. He was on a preaching mission in that area. Here’s the story as she told it:
Early in the spring of 1905 … we contracted a deep friendship with a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. Mr. Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheelchair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and he asked them for the secret of it. Mrs. Doolittle’s response was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watched me.” [The hymn “The Eye is on the Sparrow” was the outcome of that experience.
The day after she wrote the words, she mailed them to a composer friend, who wrote the tune. Since that time, no other tune has been associated with that hymn. And because of evangelistic connections in Great Britain, the first performance of the hymn was in an Evangelistic Crusade held in London’s Royal Albert Hall.] [Glory to God: A Companion. Carl P. Daw, Jr. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, 2016, p. 626.

What a story, and what a first performance. And to this day, the hymn quietly reassures those who feel forgotten or unnoticed that the Father absolutely sees you and cares for you. There are days, perhaps even today, when you need to hear that; even if you believed it in your head before, it is good to have it sung as an Affirmation of Faith. Even if you doubt the presence of, or the engagement of God in the world, it is good to hear the words proclaimed by a remarkable woman of faith. Perhaps those can be your words of faith too.
Let us pray: Dear Jesus: even though we cannot see you or your Heavenly Father, we can still know of your love and care. And perhaps we will have a “God sighting”—some special place where we see God at work in the world. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 21, 2020

06-14-20 JESUS FOCUSES ON LOST SHEEP

Matthew 9: 35-38

Dr. Kenneth Bailey, a Biblical Scholar and an American who lived in the Middle East for three decades, tells us something startling about Christianity in its first three hundred years. When Constantine became emperor in 306 AD and formally converted to Christianity in 312 A.D., he finally ended the Roman Empire practice of crucifixions as a means of torturous death. Before that time, no church would have had a cross in its house churches, which to them was a repulsive symbol. So what was the central image the early Christians used? It was the Good Shepherd. If a lost sheep was not picked up in the wilderness (we might say “saved” and carried home) it would die. So the early church was busy identifying and saving ones whom they deemed as lost, lifting up Jesus’ role as the Good Shepherd. Perhaps during these days when churches are focused on saving people who are lost, usually spiritually, but also physically—giving them safety, food, or a place to rest—we might reclaim that we seek people who have gotten lost as well. The Bible has a number of passages that say human beings are like sheep. And sheep can get lost. But once more Dr. Bailey puts these helpful details in a series of teaching videos: saving a sheep takes no repentance on the sheep’s part; it is the impetus of the good shepherd alone to search for and find the lost. The rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that repentance was a work that human beings do, and if people repented with sufficient quality, God would be pleased and would reward us with forgiveness and salvation on the basis of the quality of our repentance. That work, even today, usually includes confession our sins, making compensation for them, then demonstrating sincerity about our repentance; then we’re allowed back into the fold. But Jesus taught, according to Bailey, “No, we get lost whether we keep the Law or whether we don’t, and God in Christ comes after us looking for the ones who are lost, and he carries us home. It’s a work which he does, and we accept being found. The Prodigal, in the story of the Prodigal Son, accepts being found.” [Good Shepherd, Video Series, Study 1, 2012] Images of God in the Old Testament, says Bailey, are three: a good shepherd, a good woman, and a good father, exactly the order of the parables Jesus offered in Luke 15. And in none of those stories is there repentance: by a sheep, a coin, or the son; they are just lost, and are found. Think about that for a minute. Sometimes when we do something wrong, we are taught to make it right in some way, a teaching that has been taught by parents, pastors, priests, and Pharisees for ages. But Jesus taught that there is no declared repentance by a sheep that was lost, by a coin that was lost, or even by the son who was lost if you read that passage carefully; the son was met by his Father who was rejoicing before the son got to say a word. Jesus’ wording for that story was very specific; occasionally we add meaning to that parable that is not intended in the original text. We human beings who get lost in many and sundry ways need a finder, a seeker, one who will never stop looking for us, and who, when we get found, rejoices! That is the image that Jesus wanted to give us about God.

Sometimes we project our own definition of “lost boys, lost girls, lost youth, or lost men or women,” making a decision about their moral confusion. But once the shepherd finds the one lost sheep, the others, by definition, need to be found next. Sheep don’t just stay put. Shepherds have an idea of where to look for them, but they are not found yet. So the shepherd returns, carrying one on his back, looking for the others. Do you remember Robert Fulgham’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?” In it he wrote this regarding the game of hide and seek:
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP. [Fulgham, New York: Villard Books, 1989, p. 56.]
Neither Jesus, nor God, plays the game of “hide-and-give-up.” They are always going to seek the one who is hiding or lost, until that one is found. How can Christians join them in finding lost people without putting repentance as a prerequisite? It’s a thought-provoking idea.

Jesus gave his disciples examples as he trained them. As I mentioned last week, there are some great examples of people today not just “telling the good news” but also being good news. Jesus did that. In Matthew 9:35 he started by going into cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues (telling about the good news) and then he started curing people of their diseases. From the earliest days, Christians in monasteries, convents, and churches have had people who fervently and regularly prayed for people to heal; and those same groups have also founded hospitals and clinics whose sole purpose is to save people from illness or injury. In our own community, people with lower incomes are blessed by a Christian ministry of doctors and nurses who treat them in a facility called The Jesus Clinic, helping people lost in illness and debt. Jesus healed others in Matthew chapter nine and elsewhere. In our day, medical experts at The Jesus Clinic offer to not only pray for healing, they offer their professional training to heal others who are struggling. So first, Jesus healed; we pray for, and offer healing as we are able. Even something as simple and powerful as the laying on of hands can bring healing- helping a person lost in pain or infection find peace. Next, as you might expect, crowds gathered around Jesus. In Jesus’ day they gathered, likely because the word got out that there was a man who was healing. Sometimes crowds gather because there is food. In several instances when I have been part of a feeding ministry, word got out that we had extra food on certain days, and the crowds swelled. Hungry people get motivated when they hear where they can find food. D. T. Niles even defined sharing the gospel as “One beggar telling another where to find bread.” So, crowds gather when they want to praise together, or pray together, or grieve together, or even to protest together as we have seen across our nation over the past two weeks. Here’s what Matthew said about Jesus when he saw crowds: “He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” [9:36] Harassed and helpless. That describes some people I have seen on TV and on my computer lately. And I’ve been taught that the church is the body of Christ in our day; therefore, we are his eyes and ears, his hands and feet and heart. Who have you seen who might be lost? Have you heard the cries of those who might be lost? And if you have, what has been done to save the lost? Sometimes in the name of Jesus, but other times in the name of kindness or civility, people have given help. Our first lesson today from Genesis 18: 1-8 is of Abraham welcoming strangers into his home and feeding them. A week ago, I learned of a man whose townhouse is on Logan Circle by the White House. He opened his home to protestors who were being hit with pepper spray and flash bangs a number of days ago. “Quick!” he called out. “You can come inside!” And more than seventy people poured in. They were choking from the smoke, and their ears ringing. He ordered pizzas and most found a place on the floor to close their eyes during the curfew. They left at dawn’s early light grateful for the hospitality of a stranger, now a friend. Inviting people in for safety and sustenance sounds like a Jesus thing to do. Remember Jesus in Matthew 9:26, also noticed crowds that were harassed and helpless, were like sheep without a shepherd. He turned to his disciples and said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers.” Let’s pause at that last sentence. According to one scholar, in Matthew’s gospel the harvest is a frequent symbol of the last days, including the final judgment. One commentator put it this way: “The disciples’ mission …[involves] human workers rather than the angels as God’s agents. Thus, the disciples are instructed to pray for the Lord of the harvest (God) [and] to send out laborers into the harvest. The response to this prayer is the mission of the disciples/apostles, who in this context are represented as an expression of the divine compassion for the needy people of God. [ Dr. Eugene Boring, Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. VIII, Abingdon Press, 1995. P. 252.]
Today, in Jesus’ name, Christians will continue to seek those seeming to be like sheep without a shepherd. They may be alone, or in crowds; they may have their head down or their face in their cellphone; they may be angry or they may be weeping. Remember how Jesus saw crowds: people who were hurting or angry or lost, and he invited his disciples to go and gather them in, so they could be in the flock of a good shepherd when the harvest time comes. Jesus seeks lost people and gathers them in; and out of gratitude for being found, many people repent. Sometimes it is worth taking a new look at centuries of teachings. Listen finally to this theology being offered in the hymn we are about to sing, It is not called, “God the Great Judge, have We Truly Repented?” It is called “God of Compassion, in Mercy Befriend Us.” Here are the key words:
Though we are lost, you have sought us and found us, stilled our rude hearts with your word of consoling. Wrap now your peace, like a mantle, around us, guarding our thoughts and our passions controlling.

How shall we stray with your hand to direct us, you who the stars in their courses are guiding? What shall we fear, with your power to protect us, we who walk forth in your greatness confiding?

Let us pray: O Savior, like a shepherd not only lead us, but find us too, for we certainly have gotten lost and will do so again. Help us imagine you finding us with compassion more than impatience. And we will dwell in your flock forever.
Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 14, 2020

06-07-20 JESUS’S BOTTOM LINE MESSAGE

2 Corinthians 13: 5-11; Matthew 28: 16-20

When Jesus offered his famous words that we call “The Great Commission-”
All authority in heaven and earth have been given unto me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age-
the world was not brought to a halt by a sweeping pandemic, nor was Jerusalem in any specific uproar like we have faced in our cities this past week. The Great Commission that I shared with the children today are words offered during a hopeful time, but, as we shall hear, the message also goes out in times of uncertainty. Today’s uncertainly started with a pandemic, but last week included the sight of a man’s head being forceable held against pavement with pressure on his neck for more than 8 minutes. And that was not done by one we normally name as a criminal. It was done by a man wearing a uniform usually reserved for those who “protect and serve:” men and women in blue. To see a man with that uniform, and to see three others with that uniform, stand idly by as a person’s life was snuffed out has enraged and saddened people of every color in our nation. Some have taken the destructive response too far. But others have stood in the giant footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who participated in and gave examples of how to offer passive resistance to such injustice as this. In a speech given on April 14, 1967, that still seems apropos today, he said: “I think that America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” We still need to remember the lessons of such resistance as history has shown us. Today we look at Jesus’ Great Commission with those words in the background. Usually when I offer Jesus’ great commission, it is at the end of an uplifting service of worship, or a joyful wedding. Sometimes it is offered by evangelists such as the late Billy Graham. Sometimes, as today, it is offered to boys and girls, and also to youth and adults, to always tell others about Jesus. There are, however, men and women in our world who don’t trust Jesus because of abuses done to them in the name of the church. I get that. We never know another person’s story—whether they are protesting with signs in city streets or on highways; whether they are masked and overcome with sorrow in hospital hallways; or whether they silently hide their brokenness by a reclusive lifestyle or by dulling their pain with drink or drugs. Some of them have walked away from churches because of the pain or rejection they have felt in them. So we temper our “good news” by honoring the place where others stand, or where they sit; we temper our “good news” where depression keeps others under the covers of their beds. We cannot bowl people over with gospel “Good News” when they have no food; gospel “Good News” then takes the form of bringing them food. We cannot bowl people over with gospel “Good News” when they believe they are unheard and have become a victim of injustice or racism or sexism; in those times the gospel “Good news” is walking with or sitting next to others, being willing to hear and share their pain, then working on a plan for change. Jesus at the time of his Transfiguration, did not decide to stay on the mountain, away from others, and talk with those struggling in villages and valleys from on high. He came down to be with them, and with him came his good news. Even in times of great turbulence and unrest as described in Mark 13, Jesus’s disciples were commenting about how proud they were of their buildings. Jesus warned them that buildings would be torn down, and false leaders (would we call them anarchists today?) would come, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, but the end is not yet, even as nations rise against nations. Rather haunting words, right? But verse 10 almost always goes by unnoticed. Here it is: “Jesus said: “The gospel must be preached to all nations.” In the midst of that chaos, Jesus said, in effect, people still need to hear the good news!

Many fairy tales include the ending words: “and they lived happily ever after.” People in America might see our country as a beaming city on a hill in our patriotic songs, but clearly there is another way to see our country when they watch television reports or read headlines and blogs. The same was true with Christianity. There were the stories of wonder and faith around Jesus, but after he left the earth, reality set in. Here’s an example: twenty years after Jesus ascended into heaven, his “Good News” was still being spread by evangelists like the Apostle Paul. And one place he brought the good news of Jesus was to Corinth, a very multi-cultural town where people worshipped many gods. In spite of that, Paul bravely brought the message of the Three-in-one God into that arena. He made a powerful case, and he established a church in Corinth. After departing to start new house churches in other locations, things began to unravel. So he wrote them letters of guidance that we call 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians. In Second Corinthians, the church and society really fell off the rails. As it did, I think it is helpful today to see what Paul said then, and hear a new word for what we can do as Christians with our own societies coming off the rails too with pandemic, division, and upheaval.
I know people equate Corinthians with the 1 Corinthians 13, the “love” passage, but this passage in 2nd Corinthians 13 is as far away from love as it can be. One commentator, Professor J. Paul Sampley, writes: “A ground-shift of considerable proportions must be supposed as a context for 2 Corinthians 10-13. Paul and the Corinthians have never been in more contentious relations ….
[The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume XI, 2000, p. 10.]
First, Paul says “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith.” [2 Cor. 13:5] What good advice for Christians anywhere in our country today: in cities, in offices, in homes. Paul might ask us to examine ourselves to see whether we are living in the faith. Where change is needed, ask trusted friends in Christ if you are on target, or if you are missing the mark. Listen carefully to their observations. Then decide if changes are needed. Such a message could help change the tone and the temperament of Christians around you as well. Second, Paul says “We pray to God that you may not do anything wrong.” [13:7] God, who gave human beings free will, must also hope that members of the Christian community—let alone the human race—will not do anything wrong. But of course, we do. Human and Godly insights can lead to understanding, confession, and repentance from thoughts or actions that separate us from one another. How our nation needs those insights now! Paul, if he were here, might call you and me and other Christians to seek to understand one another’s pain, to acknowledge any sin of omission or commission that has contributed to the problem, and to repent, seeking new pathways for reconciliation. That word was key in the fifth chapter of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: that Christ has put on us, the ones called Christians, the ministry of reconciliation.

Are we being called to take the lead in restoring frayed nerves and frayed relationships? Some people are answering the call. On television, I saw one man—a man of color—bring his children into downtown Atlanta in the light of morning. His children appeared to be Elementary School aged. They brought brooms, small shovels, plastic bags, and a dustpan. He told a news crew: “We didn’t do this destruction. But this is our city and I want my kids to see one thing we can do to try to right a wrong.” And together, they kept cleaning up broken glass and picking up broken objects. That. That is what telling the “Good News” might look like today.

And one more example: in Louisville, Kentucky, the Louisville Courier-Journal showed a group of white women, in a time when heated words were being shouted from protestors toward police, form a human chain, stepping between the protestors and facing the police. The newspaper captioned the photo with three words: “This is love.” Their action brought the exchange down from the boiling point. That. That is what telling the Good News might look like in our day. It doesn’t always have to be a grandiose gesture. It doesn’t have to look like it could change the world. But it could. What word or action might you offer to others? If Jesus sees it, he’ll know that you are getting, and are implementing, his bottom-line message for the world.
Here is my prayer for today: Come by here, Lord. Come by here. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 7, 2020`