10-25-20 THE NURSE’S METAPHOR


1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8

My specific text for today is 1 Thessalonians 2: 7 – “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Can you imagine Paul, with all his strength and tenacity, feeling like a caring mother or a gentle nurse he “gives birth” to many churches along his journey? Is that too much of a stretch? There are a number of images of God caring for creation and creatures and people in such a fashion. But Paul? Yes. Addressing that text in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury wrote:
O St. Paul, where is he who was called the nurse of the faithful, caressing his sons? Who is that affectionate mother who declares everywhere that she is in labour for her sons? Sweet nurse, sweet mother, who are the sons you are in labour with, and nurse, but that whom by teach the faith of Christ you bear and instruct? [Quoted by Beverly Roberts Gaventa]

As we have been supporting Commissioned Pastor Tobias Caskey to be come an ordained minister, for years he has had the permission of our Session to run a ministry he called “Solutions By-The-Sea.” Included in that ministry have been church services and ministries to 170 men and family members. This year Tobias and I talked about the possibility of that group to apply to become what is called a “1001 Worshipping Community.” The group gained that status, and just in the last couple of months our Presbytery named it as a New Church Development; it will be called the New Corinthians Worshipping Community. I told Tobias I felt like a midwife, as the church Westminster By-The-Sea was, in a matter of speaking, giving birth to a new infant church.

Professor Beverly Roberts Gaventa served at Princeton Theological Seminary and now is Distinguished Professor of New Testament interpretation at Baylor University. In response to the words of Anselm that I just shared, she wrote:
“For over half my life, I have been engaged in studying and teaching the many letters of Paul. In that time I have heard of Paul called many things—many, many things. I have never heard anyone speak of Paul as ‘Mother.’” But she started digging, especially in this text, and she wrote an entire book called Our Mother St. Paul, describing the many ways he gently taught, or nursed along, young Christians and young congregations. [Beverly, Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother St. Paul: excerpted in the “Princeton Seminary Bulletin (Vol XVII, 1, 1996, 29-44.
Today, I brought a receiving blanket to show to the children, telling them about the welcome nurses or midwives give to newborns for their comfort and warmth, as they wrap them lovingly into soft warmth. The babies are usually nursed, by breast or by bottle, by the mother as part of the bond she will build with her child. But for a while, most rooms for babies have subdued lighting, soft music or white noise, pastel colors, and comforting characters. That kind of care is an attempt to give babies a sense of security. We have four grandsons between the ages of 8 and 5, and they are active boys all day long. But at bedtime, they love to cuddle with mom, or with dad, as a story is read to them; and in the morning they love to curl up under a blanket as they wake up. In other words, they still yearn for the gentleness that was introduced to them when they were babies, even without an actual memory of their early days. At the other end of life, people may get the comfort of gentle Hospice nurses. Each time I have visited a congregation member in a Hospice room in Port Orange, or Edgewater, I have noticed several things: aromatherapy; soft music; pictures of loved ones; herbal teas (if they enjoy that,) or ice cream if they prefer that. In between the beginning of life and the end of life, there are loud noises, news stories, sometimes conflict, often worries about money, maybe safety issues, and relationships with family members and friends. It is a harsh world between the beginning and the end. Even hospitals can be harsh with monitors and buzzers that flash and sound. But nurses- female and male; doctors: female and male; and chaplains: female and male, attempt to attend to and sooth patients in distress. When we are in the world, we may have to fend for ourselves as adults. Some have a partner; some don’t. For those who have a partner, is that person caring and attentive, or not? Some children have two parents present; some don’t. But even if they do, are they caring; are the attentive? Seeking shelter from life’s storms is a natural thing to do.
Paul the apostle is forced to defend himself from accusations of being too autocratic, so he gives some self-disclosure statements to let them in on his life. He reminds them that he had “been shamefully treated in Philippi.” [verse 2] He says, “we had courage in our God in spite of great opposition.” Sometimes just hearing what a parent, a spouse, or a boss has gone through the days before our encounter with them helps us appreciate all they are doing on our behalf. Paul chooses to tell the Thessalonians about his toils and strife so they can understand, as the saying goes “where he’s coming from.” Paul was accused of creating his message to please people. There are many preachers around today who do the same, seeing a congregation as an audience to please for the sake of attendance, numbers, and offerings. But Paul speaks up against that charge. “We speak the message of the gospel “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” [verse 4]. How do you make important decisions? To always include a desire to please God, rather than exclude God from the equation, will bode well for you in life. Again, Paul believes he must defend himself from murmurings or charges, saying “As you know, and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery; [which sometimes happens in some churches, businesses, or homes] or with pretext for greed [which also leads to roads that seem to glitter like gold but turn into a mirage as one gets closer.] nor did we seek praise from mortals. [verse 5] Although it is quite natural to seek praise or approval, Paul is claiming his motivation was not because of that, but to preach the gospel. Motives matter. In a town in which Mary Ann and I once lived, we had recently moved into our home. We didn’t yet know many neighbors, but a young couple with a child stopped by, welcomed us, and invited us to dinner that weekend. “How nice!” we thought. It was going very well until they took us into a room after the meal and began telling us about their business, which was a multi-level marketing scheme. “As a young pastor,” they said to me, “you can’t make much money. Wouldn’t you like to get rich?” they asked with eagerness. Well that was the last time we had dinner with them. See, we thought their motive was friendship, but instead we were potentially part of their financial plan. Paul had to make clear that his motives were pure; to teach the gospel, start churches, and welcome young believers in Christ and to share the gospel with them.

Think back, if you can, to times that you read Bible stories to your children or your grandchildren. That was a time that you brought God’s message to them! Mary Ann and I offer lessons to boys and girls in our Sunday morning Sunday School Zoom class. One family sent a picture of their boys, sitting at their TV screen listening us teach and telling us stories back! That picture is on our church Facebook page this week. Sometimes the way to spread the gospel safely is to use the technology at hand. If you have led a youth group over the years, you may not know the people you influenced in their life. My father was a busy businessman, but he still made time to teach young adults in Sunday School classes. I just watched him come home from a week in the office, and on Saturdays he would pull out his Bible and his Sunday School material to prepare. He didn’t have to say “yes,” to the request to teach. But his doing so affected many, and it caused me to testify to his wonderful devotion in those years. What examples come to your mind? As our children were growing, they were part of a church Children’s Choir that taught them not only the songs like “Jesus Loves Me,” not only the hymns, but also stories in musicals based on the life of Jonah, the life of Zerubbabel, and the lives of Timothy, Silas, and Paul to name a few. Some of my worship friends have joined me in making Bible Stories come to life by volunteering in our Vacation Bible School during summers. They too have made an impact in the lives of young Christians. Well done.

So this week, think about opportunities to gently offer the Bible to others, with a devotional or with words. Think back on the times that might have slipped from your mind, and recall those who you too have mentored, people of any age. The church needs her volunteers who step up to feed, or sing, or teach, or serve. You join a great crowd of witnesses who have done the same before you.
Listen to how God speaks to us through the Bible in the book of Hosea:
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” [11:3-4]

Have you ever thought of God like that? What a comfort; go and do likewise.
Let us pray:
O God: although you are strong, you are also tender. Sometimes we need your strength, and other times we need your tenderness. Offer us what we need in these times of noise and chaos, in the name of Jesus who we know had times of joy and times of weeping. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 25, 2020

10-18-20 LET THE WORD OF THE LORD SOUND FORTH


Exodus 33: 12-23; 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10

You may or may not have noticed that this month I have taken you on a bit of a journey, something of a distraction from the world as it is now. We visited Philippi, though we didn’t learn too much about it since Paul was in prison there! But before being in prison, he went to a synagogue, where he brought the Word of the Lord to them, but later the location for the writing of his letter to the Philippians was a prison. In prison he wrote a powerful poem about Christ that to this day is a model of Christianity: service; thinking of others; and grounding oneself in the Lordship of Christ. It is magnificent, and it was written in confinement. During times of trial, or persecution, or tribulation, pressures like the ones the earth put on coal over time can create a magnificent diamond. And after his magnificent poem, Paul’s final message was one of joy! Amazing! What a man Paul was! What travels he took; what hardships he endured. This month we will go with him along the Via Egnatia—a road Mary Ann and I have been on as we too traveled from Philippi to Thessalonica—a road that Paul himself traveled. Paul always addressed the issues of the cities where his readers were living. What do you know about Thessalonica? Professor Abraham Smith of Andover Newton Theological School tells us this:
In Paul’s time Thessalonica was part of the vast Roman Empire. When the city, named for Alexander’s half-sister Thessaloniki, was founded in 316 BCE, one of Alexander’s generals (Cassander) was its first benefactor….The city was a commercial and cultic center…With the construction of the Via Egnatia (Rome’s gateway to its eastern colonies) in 130 BCE, Thessalonica benefited from the traffic of travelers and became a key trading center in the region. … The inhabitants of Thessalonica actively cultivate the beneficence of the Romans….By the time Paul visited [there,] [in 41-54 CE,] the Thessalonians had already erected a statue of Augustus as one of several honors to the Romans. [The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000, p. 675,677]

So not unlike cities in America, there were statues of governmental figures, but also of great classical figures. The people’s income was enhanced as people traveled through the city, some staying several days, some deciding to make it their home. We will spend four weeks on this short but meaningful letter that Paul wrote. Let’s see what we can learn that will help us in 2020.

The first thing to note is that contrary to some characterizations, Paul was not traveling alone. Travel can be so enhanced if it can be done with someone else, not only for companionship but also for safety. Paul said he was with Silas and Timothy as he wrote to the Thessalonians. Paul had actually sent Timothy ahead of his arrival, to encourage the young congregation, and Timothy returned to Corinth, where Paul was, to report on their faith and loyalty. It was then, from Corinth, that Paul wrote this letter. Even though the church was just being established, Paul addresses his letter “To the church of the Thessalonians in God, the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace.” Like a diplomat who learns the ways of the territory to which he is assigned, Paul knew the congregation included both Gentiles and Jews. The greeting for Gentiles was “Grace;” the greeting from Jews was “Peace” (Shalom). Therefore, his greeting included both! Also, a common saying in the political realm of the day was that Rome offered “Peace and security” often called the “Pax Romana.” It meant “if you pay your taxes and don’t cause trouble, there will be peace.” Even that makes sense in our day! Paul then offered words of gratitude similar to ones Mary Ann and I have said to our Zoom Prayer group: “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.” [vs.2] I think across our troubled nation now, and realize there are countless prayer groups with team leaders who offer words like that; word that uplift those who feel downtrodden. This encouragement is one of the underpinnings of the church through the ages, even as they, and we, are meeting in homes. Across the miles, Paul’s encouragement could be felt as the words were read. In his letter to the Thessalonians, we get a clue about things Paul was considering. Listen to what he writes: I am “constantly remembering before God your work of faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” [1:3] did you hear it? Paul’s famous First Corinthians 13 words of “faith, hope, and love” were still being offered! Today we would do well not to forget that trinity of human qualities. Paul later referred to those words as “the community’s weaponry for the eschatological battle [which is the battle in the last days]: the false peace of the Roman Empire will be shattered by the coming of the Day of the Lord” that is when faith, hope, and love truly prevail. [Professor Annette Weissenrieder, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011 p.185.] All this month we will revisit Paul’s grappling with the idea of the “Day of the Lord,” usually equated with the return of Christ. This letter encourages readers to live an “apocalyptic way of life,” meaning that we should always live as if the Lord is returning soon; get our spiritual houses in order; and make sure our hearts are right with God. That is the way for Christians to live. Even as I am aware of the terrible devastation in Louisiana a week ago, I recall the message traditionally spread throughout New Orleans around Mardi Gras time, when people are encouraged to get all their sinning done by midnight, the day before Ash Wednesday, the day when sinning was supposed to cease. I doubt that is the way God wants us to live: to carry out debauchery for weeks leading up to a Carnivale-like blow out, then make the 10 Commandments law again? And yet every year that still happens. Such a dichotomy is almost like getting ready for the day of the Lord except we don’t know the day or the hour when it will come. It is not a day on the calendar. In verse six, note the hint of Paul’s warning: “In spite of persecution you received the word with joy.” He hits the joy note he shared in Philippians 4, but more importantly, the word translated in our Bibles as “persecution” is also translated “tribulation.” Tribulation, to many believers, is a sign that God is present and has not shut the holy eyes to sin or evil. God is still with the Thessalonians and with us, even though the human proclivity is to “laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints” as Billy Joel put it, continuing to test our choices. Let those who have ears, here.

The second thing to note is the response of the Thessalonians in the midst of the same temptations that we might have. According to verse 9, Paul wrote, “They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” What gladness fills the heart of Paul after hearing that! The comparisons between statues made of stone depicting false gods, and the difference between counting on the living and true God is apparent. We think such times are gone but think again. People in our world still have superstitions that they practice, non-living idols that sit on bedside tables or kitchen counters from which people ask for favors. Some pray that way for rain; others for fortune; others for a child. They decide that God is too slow with a response or too invisible so they pray to gods they can see. The warning of such folly goes back not only to Mardi Gras activities, they go back to a scene at the foot of the holy mountain of Sinai. Our first lesson was about God blessing Moses by giving him a glimpse of God’s glory, and a promise to go with him. But one chapter earlier, while Moses was on the mountain with God, Moses’ brother Aaron had a restless and impatient crowd to contend with at the foot of the mountain. This is the old, old story of some honoring the one true God, and others turning to false gods and idols. Here’s what happened in Exodus 32: “When the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us.” It was likely a scene like that which brought Paul to say: “You turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God.” What pulls you away from the true God? Is it allegiance to sporting events, or national patriotism, or to popular figures? God knows what following any of those paths look like instead of putting the one true God first. You may think that comparison is overstated. But listen to Paul’s final words for today. Verse 10 [You turned to the “true God and to … his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus who rescues us from the wrath that is to come.” Rescues us. I wonder if hymnwriter Fanny Crosby might have had this passage in mind when she implored other Christians to “Rescue the Perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave? Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen, tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save!” That is the Word of the Lord sounding forth! It is calling people back from the brink of darkness, back from the glitter of temptations; back from the love of money, following gods and idols that will fail them! This is the call of Paul; the commendation of Paul; and it is a call for us too! The Word of the Lord is true and pure and should be shared with all who are lost or in darkness. Certainly, there are groups in our world that distribute Bibles: the Gideons, Campus Crusade for Christ, and others. But Paul brings the Word out of the Bibles and into actions. Let’s conclude with his commendation in verse 8 to the Thessalonians; “The Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, …in every place your faith in God has become known.” Bloodhounds have an amazing ability to get the scent of a person from his or her clothing, and then follow the trail where those persons have traveled. Think about what trail you have left in the world, not of a scent, but of evidence that you have witnessed to your Lord there. If some angel were sent from heaven to earth, not yet knowing of your Christian actions, could that angel find the trail of your Christian activity? Try to leave evidence, and a witness, that you have passed by, and that by doing so, others will know where you stand, and on what you stand: Christ, the solid rock.
Let me close with the last stanza of our next hymn:
When he shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in him be found
dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.

Please join in singing this affirmation of Christian Faith.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 18, 2020

10-11-20 PAUL’S WORDS OF GOLD


Philippians 4: 1-9

I plan my sermons three times a year. In August I planned my September through December sermons, and I decided to include this passage … on joy … in the midst of a pandemic. My own emotions have been wrung out since March; I am still riding the “roller coaster of bad news and worse news;” I am still on the “tunnel of darkness” ride; and I have ridden the “tilt-a-whirl of the political Mixmaster” that still turns my stomach. As I go on the carousel of health announcements and political announcements, I feel like I see the same tired scenes around and around, over and over. 2020 is the amusement park of darkness. There has been nothing like it. Some have likened wearing a mask to being in prison. That, it seems, overstates the confinements of a mask. But I do know a man who was put in actual prison, and his response was uplifting that I believe it could help us today. His name was Paul. Like with any passage, we do well to read what is around a passage too. We can’t tell just from verses 1-9 that Paul was writing them in prison while awaiting trial, but he was. Can we tell just from this passage that there were conflicts in the Philippian congregation? There were. But, on the other hand, you can perhaps tell the fondness Paul had for them. And what an example he set! He tells them he is under military guard. He tells them, in magnificent poetic form, about the humility of Christ, describing him with these words: “Who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited so he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being truly human.” [Philippians 2: 6,7] I have seen pictures of the inside of some monasteries, and also pictures of caves where some early Church Fathers’ dwelled. They almost always have a crucifix inside them: an image of our bleeding Savior in anguish from pain. The oblates or Church Fathers or Mothers would see or visit that scene daily, sometimes more than once. Remembering the humble actions of their Lord—taking the nails for their sake and going through austere anguish—was a reminder to live in humbleness. Some religious leaders, over the years and even today, live in multimillion-dollar mansions! Some live in veritable castles, gilded with gold! What a far cry from a stable, or Nazareth, or Paul in prison! In chapter 3, Paul invites others to imitate him; he is the closest thing they have to Christ. They, and we, are surrounded by god-like athletes, leaders who want to be treated as infallible, and prosperity gospel messages that have driven the celestial railway off its rails. We, like the Philippians, are asked to act like Paul instead: humbled; lowly. Great Christians were imprisoned for their Christian stands too, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Corrie Ten Boom and Betsy Ten Boom. This letter to Philippian Christians captures so many qualities that we should embrace, while we cast off the qualities that embrace the seven deadly sins of extreme pride, greed lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, or sloth. Here Christian are reminded to embrace a wonderful quality: rejoicing! Can you believe it? Rejoicing! You may say “In the midst of Covid; in this darn election year; as I am so limited in my activity, am supposed to rejoice?” But, I have known people—Christians—who rejoiced every day. Rejoicing changes one’s mood, releasing endorphins as we smile or laugh. Right now days are long; nights are longer. I don’t know the faith of the late folk singer Pete Seeger, but I enjoyed, and was sometimes challenged, by his messages in songs. But one I remember always puts a smile on my face. The words were these: “I get up each morning, dust off my wits, open the paper, read the obits; if I’m not there, I know I’m not dead, so I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed! How do I know my youth is all spent? My get up and go, has got up and went, but in spite of it all I’m able to grin, and think of the places my get up has been!” That song always brings me joy. Banjo music almost always makes me smile! Pictures of my grandsons bring me joy, and when I get to be with them again, that will bring me joy too! What brings you joy? If this were December, I would name all the carols that have the word, “joy” in them! I would remind you of those holy word the angel said to shepherds, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born, this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you!” That child was born to save you, and to save others who put their hand in his! Joy!

So Paul wrote these famous words: “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’ Writing things twice is done for emphasis. And he says something amazing, written in a prison cell: “Have no anxiety about anything.” If he can say that and practice it, can’t we? He continues “but by prayer and supplication [remember supplication is that kind of prayer asking God to supply your needs.] with thanksgiving! [Never forget to give thanks.] let your requests be made known to God. [What if we do that?] Then the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” What a win for us when we do that! What joy God feels when we have joy! I once found a perfect Christian wedding day card that included Philippians 4:4 on it. But inside the card, here was the wish: “May you always rejoice in life, rejoice in love, and rejoice in the Lord.” I love it! I bought all the cards they had and gave them out to my wedding couples until they were gone. This passage—Philippians 4—I actually use in many weddings, offering them to the couple who look like royalty before me: “Whatever is true whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned, and received, and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.”

It is hard to improve on Paul’s brilliantly thought-out words in Philippians. After exhorting his readers to “Rejoice in the Lord,” he reassures them; “the God of peace will go with you.” In a time like this, we need our God of peace to be with us. But a heart filled with overpowering anxiety can hardly “prepare him room.”
In his book for lovers of god everywhere [sic,] roger housden includes poems by Christian Mystics. About Mechtild of Magdeburg he describes: her “spiraling way of ascent to the Beloved and beyond….By His will, she is filled with love, from which grows knowledge.” [California: Hay House Inc. 2009, p. 165.]
Listen to her joy in this poetic prayer to her Lord:
I cannot dance, O Lord,
Unless you lead me.
If You wish me to leap joyfully,
Let me see You dance and sing—

 Then I will leap into Love—
And from Love into Knowledge,
And from Knowledge into the Harvest,
      That sweetest Fruit beyond human sense.

There I will stay with You, whirling.

Let us pray:
Lord of the Dance; Lord of Love; Lord of Joy: help us find those words, those events, and those memories that bring us joy, helping us to truly rejoice in life, rejoice in love, and rejoice in you, our Lord. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 11, 2020

10-04-20 PURSUING THE PRIZE


Philippians 3: 4b-14

In 2008, the Chaplain of St. Peter’s House Church in Manchester, England wrote:
People come to faith in Jesus Christ in many ways. For Bill W., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and for many others, faith came through shame, intense struggle, and depression. In Philippians 3 the story of conversion that Paul tells is different. He is no individual wracked by guilt and sin who finds redemption and release in Jesus Christ. Paul was a proud Pharisee, blameless under the law (not convicted by the law.) His past was and still could be an asset to him, not an embarrassment or an exercise in frustration or despair. It was God acting in Jesus Christ, not his experience as a Pharisee, that changed the way Paul regarded his life and all creation…. Paul has “come to regard” his previous religious life as loss (verse 7);…. Jesus “did not regard” equality with God as something to exploit. (2:6) The Philippians are to regard others as better than themselves … because of Christ.
[Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Ed. 2011, Westminster/John Knox Press. Year A, Volume 4, p. 137.]

There are some people in our world who, because of psychological proclivity, absolutely cannot not think of others better than themselves. Can you? I try to do that. I try to surround myself, professionally and personally, with persons who have skill sets I don’t have. I compliment them; I rely on them; I appreciate them. Thinking about people in that matter reminds us that we are all in this thing called “life” together. As the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, “You are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it. ”The church—which is known as the Body of Christ—needs to remember that. “The body does not consist of one member, but many” Paul wrote. In our divided nation now, it may be hard to imagine how Christians can come together in Communion. But Holy Communion has no regard for political party, or race, or gender, or income. And the communion of saints includes those who are on earth and those who have gone before us! Holy Communion calls us to remember the words of Philippians 3, echoed in the hymn we will sing in a few minutes: “My richest gain I count but loss; and pour contempt on all my pride.” That is a Christian stance. If only more people in our world would pour contempt on all their pride; pride, one of the seven deadly sins. Pride-thinking of oneself as clearly better than others; that kind of pride; not the “I’m proud of my grandson” kind of pride. That’s different.

Have you ever been asked to write the highlights of your life? Not a resume per se. Facebook likes people to add in where they are from, what schools they attended, and what degrees they achieved. But I’ve also learned even more about a person by reading their obituary! I have also seen people write the details of their life so their children would know things they otherwise might not know. My cousin had completed a 400 page genealogy on just my maternal grandmother’s side of the family! I’ve learned so much about people I have seen over the years but didn’t know many details of their life. Why? Because most people find it boastful to only speak of their accomplishments. There are exceptions. It’s almost a shame that the time we learn most about our parents or friends, or other relatives, is when we read an obituary. The Christian way, according to Paul, and of course Jesus, is quite different from boasting. “Jesus said, “I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” As Paul would say, paraphrased in the hymn we will sing today: “my richest gain I count but loss; and pour contempt on all my pride.” In Paul’s day there were plenty of games going on, Olympic type games, so being a man of his times, Paul uses athletic images. He is “straining forward to what lies ahead.” He says: “I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ.” The upward call is not trampling others to get to the top of the holy hill; the upward call is reaching others, assisting them, giving them a safe place to land, mentoring; cheering them on.

One other note: Paul was a master communicator. He used rhetoric, a Greco-Roman communication for argument and discourse. Many places in the world still communicate through rhetoric. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is written in rhetorical style. But many in our day communicate through social media. Take Twitter, for instance. Jill Crainshaw, Associate Professor and Academic Dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, wrote:
After appearing on the technological scene in 2006 as a computer designer’s side project, Twitter has transformed the landscape of Internet communication. What makes Twitter unique is that chatters, or “tweeters” are allowed only 140 characters to speak their minds, share a joke, comment on the news, or report their morning breakfast choices (all of which happen simultaneously on Twitter). People who “tweet” have to make every word count. [Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 138.]

Preachers and politicians; teachers and tech workers communicate best in the methods of their day. Charles Dickens was paid by the word to write his books, and so he wrote long books to make his living! Jesus communicated with parables, a natural teaching method in his day. Paul was in Rome and Asia Minor, communicating in the ways that his listeners expected! Clever Paul, being a bit of a name dropper, reminds his listeners of his credentials: he was circumcised on the eighth day (which is the correct day for in in the Jewish tradition); he was of the people of Israel and on the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews. He includes all that before he says we should count all our accomplishments as loss because of Christ as Lord! That is saying something. None of our diplomas, or civil organizations, or ratings on social media will give us eternal life; only through believing in Jesus as Lord is that assured. And for those who believe in him, he prepared a table once in an Upper Room, and he has prepared a table again. Imagine people coming to the table in Florida, and Michigan, and New Jersey; in Canada, England, and South Korea; in Ghana, and South Africa, and Australia. All across the world we have people gathering at their tables. With all of our different languages, our different skin colors, our different cultures, we still are made one in our belief that Jesus is Lord! He wants to feed us; he wants to bless us; and he wants to send us forth to change places from darkness to light.

In the final scene of the film “Places in the Heart,” the people of the community are all in church; some who had cheated others; some had taken from others; some who had lost others to death. One couple, where there had been infidelity, served each other communion; a mothers served her child; the gossips in town received communion; the banker served himself and drank before sharing the tray with his neighbor. “Peace of God” others said as they passed the tray to their neighbor. And then the tray is passed to the man of color, played by Danny Glover, who helped bring in the first load of cotton for the widow, Mrs. Spaulding. What is he doing in a Texas church in the 1950s? The viewer is surprised. He said he was leaving town, and the Klan had done their worst to make him leave. But there he was, receiving the peace of God. The blind man received communion, one who became a great help to the Spaulding family after beginning as a hindrance. Finally, the elements were passed to the Spaulding children; the young son passed it to his mother, who to the surprise of the viewer, passed it to her husband, the one who was shot by a drunk teenage boy of color. It was an accident; but it happened. Yet he was receiving communion! And then, then he passes the body and blood of Christ to the young black man who had shot him, but now he was in a suit, and cleaned up. “Peace of God” he says to the young man. “Peace of God” the young man says back to the sheriff he had shot. And the scene fades. Who might be receiving communion with you this day?
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 4, 2020