01-31-21 LETTING JESUS SPEAK THROUGH YOU

“Letting Jesus Speak Through You”
Mark 1: 21-28

By and large, it seems that few of us wield great power in life. With rare exceptions, like dictators or pharaohs, or princes of their own country, there is mostly a balance of power and authority. During the Kennedy administration and beyond, The United States regularly condemned the Castro regime for its cruel and communist agenda. As I mentioned last week, the US General Douglas MacArthur had power, but it was not his own; it was granted to him by his country and the President, and ultimately that power was withdrawn. US Presidents have some unilateral powers, but most power is designed by the framers of our Constitution to be in consultation with Congress. And each of those people are granted the power of their offices by the citizens who elected them. CEOs of major corporations share power in consultation with their board and their stockholders. In the Presbyterian Church—designed by founding father, John Calvin, the General Assembly has the highest power, but it has many elected members—called commissioners—voting on motions brought to the floor, often with ratification by presbyteries. Pastors act in consultation with their Sessions. Why these checks and balances? Because John Calvin believed, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Therefore, in our American system—largely based on the Presbyterian form of government—power and authority rests on the shoulders of many. A single leader, without collaboration, can be tripped up on the road to becoming an authoritarian. Powers are checked through our judicial system by those who would bring a suit against another. Flight attendants have the authority to be on-board protectors of passengers, yet their authority is now being challenged by those who try to bring “comfort animals” aboard, and by those who resist wearing masks.

Getting back to John Calvin, he declared that no Bishop, Pope, or any other individual would have the sole authority of Christ in our churches. But any of us can call on Christ’s strength and power through our prayers. The risen Christ was bestowed with ultimate authority. In the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus proclaimed: All authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me.” Whether we are looking at this century or the first century, into a hope-dimmed world slips his gleaming power. Mark’s gospel tells us that the teachings and actions of Jesus were such that all who were around him said he taught, “As if he had authority.” Even the ones in power were amazed at his ability to exorcise unclean spirits.” (1:27) Into the world of the seemingly possessed; into the world of the seemingly incurable, came the power and authority of Jesus. But clearly in the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is in the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. Where did he get his power? We know power, by its very nature, is bestowed or conducted from a power source. What was Jesus’ power source? Tracking back the actions in Mark, there can only be only one place where power might have been connected or transferred to Jesus: at his baptism. “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased,” the voice from Heaven had just proclaimed. The same laws of power that bring it from a power station to a light switch, and from a wall socket to our lamps apply here as well. God Almighty, the creator of light, Heavenly Father of Jesus, is the source of the Son’s authority. By the power of God, Jesus was able to exorcise demons. By the power of God, Jesus was able to make people believe what he taught; that is what enabled him to do what no others could.

Do you wish you had that kind of power when facing crises or opposition? Children, often long for strength they do not possess. They love to idolize fictional superheroes like Superman or Captain America or Wonder Woman, or they long to pick up a wand for spells like characters in “Harry Potter” books and films do. Youth may feel powerful through sports, online gaming, or though acting. Sometimes, however, we can feel utterly powerless, even as adults. Just last Fall, in Dr. Dan Hale’s presentation to our Zoom group, he spoke of his powerlessness concerning his own daughter’s depression, even though he was a trained psychologist. Also as a father, author Frederick Buechner, in his book Telling Secrets, told of his feeling of powerlessness over his daughter’s anorexia. Both of those fathers are men of faith. Buechner loved his daughter so much that he wouldn’t let her go, until …, until he discovered that his kind of love would end up killing her. He had done all her worrying for her. Only when he finally gave power and control back to her did she begin to work toward her own salvation. That too was a power struggle. He wrote in his book, “Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you—your children’s lives, the life of your husband, your wife, your friend—because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business whether they use the word God or not.” [San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1991, p. 92] Sometimes we have to “let go and let God.”

Can the transcended Christ speak any word—or offer any hope—to you, or someone you know who is in some way possessed or in need of healing? Yes; today we learn the answer is “yes.” A healing took place in Capernaum one day according to Mark’s gospel. Can the first century power of Jesus speak to those who are in the grip of an addiction, or co-dependency, or illness, or in need of counseling? Again, I believe the answer is yes. Let’s see what Jesus did. First, he prayed to his Heavenly Father to ask for healing for those who were ill. Many were healed. People like Larry Dossey documented in his book Healing Words that people who received prayers and medical treatments got well faster than those just medically treated. All authority has been given to Jesus, so we pray for healing in his name. Sometimes people are healed; sometimes they are not. There are some people who believe that all it takes is more faith to persuade God to heal where there was no healing before. But could it be that, in some cases, God wants to use some illnesses or tragedies for some other teachable moment? When I first was diagnosed with diabetes, I prayed that God would take it from me. But then I found my diabetes as a starter for talking with others about Christ. I now believe that God intended for his glory to shine forth through my illness. If no healing takes place in the form you hoped it would take, then believe that God is still with you, and that God will take your sorrow and use it for good if you will let God do that. Remember, even Jesus could not pray himself out from under the anguish of the cross. That was part of God’s plan. Perhaps, even with the power of Christ, God has a different plan in store for you, as I believe he did with me.

Second, Jesus had authority over winds and waves when he was on the Sea of Galilee. We too can be bold to pray for calm amidst the storms we face. Our prayer group on Wednesdays prayed weekly for calm in our nation; and they can testify to the times that we were able to move certain people or situations from prayer concerns to prayer celebrations. It has happened! Still, there are some people who God seems to hate to disappoint! For example: years ago, a Methodist minister shared a graveside service with me. As we approached the cemetery, the rain that had come down hard ever since the funeral procession had left the funeral home came down steadily. I got out of my car at the cemetery, deciding to bring my umbrella. “Do you think we’re going to get wet out here?” I called the other minister. His wife was the one who answered him. “No!” she said with confidence. “It won’t rain during my husband’s graveside services!” As I was about to ask her how she could be so sure, he replied, “No, it won’t rain. You see, back when I had one of my first graveside service, it looked like we might get wet. So I bowed my head and said to Jesus, “Dear Lord: you did so many things, including calming the storm. I don’t think it’s too much to ask if you will hold the rain while I offer your blessing to a grieving family. Thanks for your help. Amen.” And in more than fifty years of that man’s ministry, it did not rain during his graveside services! Did his prayer to God protect his graveside services from rain?
Finally, as the serenity prayer says: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that ought to be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.” Even Jesus could not change people’s wills. Nor can we. But we can be a Christian witness to others by our actions and our words; we can pray in faith for the things we want Jesus to do through us; and we can connect with that power as we pray. More power for the living of your days can be yours for a prayer.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, of our Savior Jesus, sometimes we do what the disciples often did: they called on Jesus to do everything. Through the years, people in crisis have said, “Call a priest, call a pastor, or call a chaplain.” But to those who claim Jesus as Lord, power is offered. Send us forth to use our voices, empowered by Christ to pray, to teach, and sometimes to heal or comfort. O God, you were in Christ, reconciling the world to yourself. Now we ask that your Spirit live in us, so that in Jesus’ name, we may banish darkness, heal what is broken, and bring hope where there is despair. Give us the courage to ask for the power to change the things we can change. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 31, 2021

01-24-21 CONSIDERING YOUR CALL

Jonah 3: 1-5; 10

Do you know people who don’t like to be told what to do? Many of us don’t have to look far: we just pull out a mirror! Of course, there are some people who are so good at telling others what to do that their resistance melts. A long time ago, a church man with Irish roots gave me a plaque as I was beginning my ministry here. He knew how hard it would be for me to change the minds of some in the congregation. The plaque read: “Irish diplomacy is the art of telling people where to go so they look forward to the trip!” I took that as a compliment! He said he meant it that way. Diplomacy is a way of listening to and hoping to change some people’s minds. Our nation truly needs some diplomacy now, as leaders begin the herculean effort of creating some new attitudes about one another. Some days I “get up on the wrong side of the bed” as the saying goes, and my attitude might be bad for a morning or longer! Today we look at the story of a prophet of God who, by his call from God, shouldn’t have had a bad attitude. But he did. He is known as the reluctant prophet: Jonah. Jonah had news God wanted him to share, but he didn’t want to: he resented that God wanted to change people who he resented and even hated. God can choose to work gracious miracles with anyone- even with you and me; your husband or wife; your boss, parent, or child! And even with our nation. Today we learn how Jonah’s attitude needed some correcting by God.

Can you think about the consequences of not listening to anyone but yourself? Our world is in trouble because of such attitudes. In the 90s many day traders went broke and became bitter because they did not listen to other’s warnings. In the armed forces of America, not following orders from a superior officer can be grounds for court martial. The system breaks down when every man becomes his own captain. History records people who thought they were right no matter what: Napoleon and Hitler and Nero and Herod to name of few; in the 20th century I have read that both Patton and McArthur had that distinction. As our own children were growing up, we saw kids who thought they could avoid the guidance of teachers; listening only to the beat of their own drum, they fell into trouble or drifted into lethargy. Our son Matt was and still is a drumline instructor, so we went to see the movie “Drumline” years ago. In it a talented young drummer had to learn the hard way how much his attitude hurt his chances to shine. His demon was his attitude. Attitude is a demon many people fight.

Let’s think about how important attitude is in life. Dale Galloway, in his book called THE AWESOME POWER OF YOUR ATTITUDE wrote: “Someone once said: ‘In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.’ It’s also true that in everyday life, no one of us escapes being hurt or wounded. A practicing psychologist friend of mine estimates that for every physical illness we suffer, there are forty-five to sixty emotional hurts that wound or cause us pain. Can anything be worse than to be hurt emotionally? Yes…. Believe it, there is something worse because it is so self-destructive. I am talking about the destructive attitude of bitterness. If you cut your hand, you know that if you keep infection out of the wound, it will heal. We are the same way emotionally. God has put within us great healing powers that flow from His love. However, we will not heal emotionally if we allow the infection of bitterness to get into our emotional wounds. The thing that you must accept is that no matter what another person does to you, you still have a choice. Bitter, or better: the attitude choice is yours!” [1992, P. 121]

Jonah, one of God’s preachers, was commissioned by God to share a message of hope and salvation with Ninevites. You have to understand some things about Nineveh. One is quite striking: Nineveh was in modern day Iraq. So was Babylon. Jews and Christians alike have had a long history with that part of the world, which is in the heart of early civilization. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers were there. Now America has a newly intensified distrust, (and even dislike?) of Iranians, and long-standing issues with Iraq. In the days when Jonah was written, Ninevite leaders did not think twice about killing the pregnant women of their enemy; they killed and tortured those whom they captured, and they were known in their day as a ruthless regime. Interesting in terms of what the world faces today, isn’t it? An incensed Jonah, who would rather have his enemies burn in Sheol, decided God must be a madman or a fool. God would need to recruit someone else to ask those people to repent. Our story tells us that Jonah did a foolish thing: he tried to run from God. He refused God’s call to offer salvation to such barbaric people. He joined other Jews in wanting to hate Ninevites, not change them. In his flight, he nearly got many other men killed on a ship, and he was swallowed by a huge fish where he spent three days left for dead. But on third day the fish spewed him out on the beach, as the story goes, and God finally had Jonah’s attention. He then did what God asked: and the Ninevites, unbelievably, beginning with the King, repented. Jonah resented that they did. Jonah resented God’s display of grace. Jonah, a prophet of God, chose to be bitter. Doesn’t it seem likely that God was pleased with the formerly wicked Ninevites when they repented and disappointed in his own prophet? Wasn’t the father in the Luke 15 prodigal son parable pleased with his prodigal son returning home, and disappointed with his faithful son choosing to be bitter?

There is no perfect parallel with that story in our situation today. But there are intriguing similarities. Could it be that Jonah did not believe that the King of Nineveh truly repented? Could it be that his history with their leader, like situations we face today, told Jonah that the man and his forces just couldn’t be trusted? On the other hand, if people really do change, (and we read the leader of Nineveh indeed repented,) is it possible that God knows human hearts better than we do? After World War II, many Japanese men were demonized by Americans, and certainly many Germans were scorned by Jews. Today many people in our nation resent others in America and some nations in the world have little use for Americans. Trust is dismally low. Does that mean that such people would dislike you, or me? Or do government policies and leaders create an ideology against which others stand? Jonah, as far as the story goes, could never rejoice with people he resented repenting and turning to God.

I know some people who believe so strictly in their world view and their opinions they their attitude keeps them from experiencing the wideness in God’s mercy. These days, sadly, some people in our own nation treat people who voted differently as Ninevites: they are despised or dismissed. As Dale Galloway said, such attitudes lead to bitterness and violence. The fabrics of nations have been torn by both.

Today our nation is divided due to unbending ideologies and attitudes based on generalizations. To use crude terms from the 20th century, who wants Yankees or Germans or Japs or Iranians or to be saved? In turn, some in other countries may not want Americans saved! Who wants “the enemy” to hear the good news of God’s grace? Who wants God to show mercy to “Ninevites” whoever they are in those people’s minds? There are some in our world today who wish harm to come to their enemies; even death. Jonah wished that on the Ninevites. God’s grace saves us; and grace that powerful could save even Ninevites. A clinical counselor once told me wishing harm on others can change the wiring in their brain. What is the result of that attitude? Bitterness, as Dale Galloway reminded us. But God saw the Ninevites through the eyes of love. They all repented, and their hearts were changed. But Jonah never changed. He chose to stir the pot of bitterness, like the older son did in the parable of the prodigal. Look in your newspaper, look at your tablet or phone; look at the television; look at your neighbor. Then look in the mirror. Who has an attitude problem? Who needs to choose grace over grudge? These words are written in Hebrews 12:15- “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” The bitter roots have already grown; may the wideness in God’s mercy fill us and transform our world. How might God be calling all of us to think differently in the weeks ahead?

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 24, 2021

01-17-21 IN SUCH A TIME AS THIS


Lamentations 1: 1-7; Luke 19: 41-44
Lament is an expression of grief and anguish that had solid roots in our Old Testaments. Our Lord Jesus would have been familiar with laments growing up: learning from Torah, the writings, and the prophets. We have a lament from Jesus’ lips in today’s Gospel lesson too. But the prophet most associated with lamenting was Jeremiah. An entire book in the Bible was dedicated to such sorrows. The book is Lamentations. Dr. Kathleen O’ Connor was a post-graduate student when I was at Princeton Seminary, and a professor of Hebrew Scriptures when I was at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. She has written one of the most widely respected exploration of that biblical book. Called Lamentations and the Tears of the World, in its Preface she wrote:
I began working on Lamentations for another project the year my husband …was receiving extensive infusions in the oncology room at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City… As I worked on the biblical text in the infusion room for hours and months at a time, waiting for his long treatments to end, the worlds of the text, of the cancer center, and of my own inner being crossed over [each other.] In the midst of this intense, struggling life presided nurses and staff, efficient, tender, and wise beyond their collective years, as though somehow their encounters with the courageous and the despairing had made them altered beings, more compassionate and gentle, more fully human than most….They saw and received pain and slowly helped patients put words to it. They accepted fear and rage, along with the physical and spiritual manifestations of the disease. They spoke with patients their patients as human beings, learned about their families, their lives, and treated them as agents in their own care.
[Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2002, p. xiii.]
As she was writing the book, the events of 9/11 transpired, filling her and our nation with toxic and terrible images of what to lament. In our day, many in our nation have new reasons to lament:
In such a time as this:
-boys and girls and teachers are struggling to carry on education in person and distant at the same time with resources stretched thin to the breaking point.

In such a time as this, Covid-19 deaths have climbed to an ever-increasing rate; more than 3000 a day through most of last week, and now over 4000 a day. One mortician told reporters she had requests to receive 200 bodies in one day and prepare them for services. She regretfully had no room to handle any of those requests.

And in such a time as this: The hallowed halls of our Capitol building were breached, not by foreign adversaries, but mostly by a mob of Americans. They not only gathered outside of our Capitol building, but they also broke in violently through windows and doors. As they entered, they defaced the walls and statues, they stole official or personal items from Congress persons, they threatened security officers who swore to protect the building and the people within its halls, and they beat one officer so violently that he died. They shouted to hang the Vice President as they named him. They terrorized all who were seeking to carry out their Constitutional duty to certify the election of the next President.

Those are but a few of the countless reasons for lament in our day. Restaurants and businesses are closed or at such capacity that no money can be made. When it comes to food, as it is said, “the wolf is at the door” for many singles, couples, and families. Never have food banks had such needs in the span of less than a year. Never have bodies been stored in refrigerator trucks because morgues and mortuaries have no place to keep and prepare the bodies properly. Some hospitals have treated Covid-19 patients in their Gift Shop, and in other rooms not designated for such care. I saw the face of a 28-year-old nurse who entered nursing last February “to help people.” She looked full of hope and beautiful. In December, she took a selfie and put it beside her February picture. The comparison was printed in our Daytona Beach News-Journal. What a difference; her face had become haggard, with dark circles under her eyes, matted hair, and her smile was gone. In such a time as this, we lament. Hyman Judah Schachtel, in his book The Shadowed Valley, wrote:
I was acquainted with a young man who, with a religious upbringing and religious interests, turned to the Book of Job in a period of great troubles. But, he reported, he found no consolation there; he wasn’t immediately eased. Discussion revealed that what he meant was that the Book of Job was not pap [baby food], it did not bring the comfort of a mother’s arms to a little boy who had hurt his knee. This is undeniably true—but there are few hurts an adult suffers which can be quite so easily and simply salved. The Book of Job is a profound and poetic grappling with [mortal’s] suffering in God’s universe. Its consolations are profound, but they are nuggets which must be pried out; they do not fall into one’s lap. [Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1962 p. 186]

If we are faithful people, we might want to know where to turn in our Bibles to find hope or help for the world in which we are living. Few might turn to Lamentations, but help may indeed be planted there. What sentences might speak to our nation today? Perhaps the first sentence; “How lonely sits the city that was once full of people.” Certainly Washington D.C. is normally a crowded place, with bustling persons, some stopping to gaze at buildings, and the occasional demonstration. Then it became overrun with angry and violent people, and the aftermath was destruction of property and the pummeling of human souls. It takes a reorientation to believe we must now guard ourselves against other citizens. Still, we’ve learned this year that people of color have had to guard themselves against others for years. O Lord deliver us from fearing our neighbors. The city in Lamentations is personified, and this is the description of her: “She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks.” Later, “Jerusalem remembers, in the days of affliction and wandering, all the precious things that were hers in days of old.” [vs. 7] We look back on days that were more carefree even months ago with longing. Our knowledge now is that some groups of people in our nation have been marginalized and have feared serious injury for years. Now, words amplified near the White House emboldened violent people to shout and to act, many who usually operate under public radar in the back woods of our land. Our world had changed, and we weep over the changes and the needless destruction. Our world has people dying by the thousands daily, and the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines has not made the number of deaths drop. Some teachers who looked with idealist eyes at their classroom as they received their education degree are now dropping away from teaching rather than risk their life to Covid-19. And teachers are beat down, often by lack of support from their school boards. They too lament that the plans they hope to implement, the lives they hoped to educate, are struggling to learn in the ways currently possible. Lament brings God into our conversations as one who hears, and cares, and weeps with us. Ancient prayers to God usually embrace questions like “Why?” And those questions will continue until we look within our hearts and seek solutions based on love and on justice. Our laments do not fall on deaf ears. Laments are not about answers as much as they are about listeners. We agree to listen to one another; to sit with one another; and even to cry with one another. Lament gives space for all those to happen.
Finally, do you remember Jesus’ words as he looked at the city of Jerusalem before he overturned the tables of the money changers? There was a powder keg of situations about to occur, and before they did, he paused and he wept, wishing that people had learned the ways for peace, yet he doesn’t hold them culpable. He says instead that “the ways for peace “were hidden from your eyes.” [Luke 19: 42] But then he proclaimed what awful things would happen.
There is a place for prophets in our nation: they warn and they teach. There is a place for “the Helpers” as Mr. Rogers called them: our frontline workers, firefighters, police officers, the National Guard, and more. And, there is a place for neighbors. Right now we need neighbors; we need friends; we need those who call us or write to us, or text us when close proximity is a danger to our health. We can lament together. How can you be such a person to others? Make it so. Pray for justice; and pray for peace. People are isolated, and fearful, and lamenting. Surround them with the knowledge of your listening.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 17, 2021

01-10-21 MAKE GOD WELL PLEASED WITH YOU

                       
                   Genesis 3: 1-7; Zephaniah 3:14-17; Mark 1: 4-11

As musical countdowns, self-assessments, and poetry ended one year and started another, I became aware of how much of life is expressed through regret and how much is felt through shame. I was reminded how words matter. Regrets have been expressed in songs by the Beatles like John’s “I’m a Loser,” and Paul’s “Yesterday;” in Elton John’s classic, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word; in Brenda Lee’s “I’m sorry” where she sang: “I’m sorry, so sorry, that I was such a fool; I didn’t know love could be so cruel. You tell me mistakes are a part of being young, but that don’t make right the wrong that’s been done.” Adele, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and countless others have sung songs of regret. They’ve been recorded through the ages. Regret motivates the soul to strum the strings of one’s heart. And at a time like this, early in a new year, it causes hearts to bare the anguish of one’s pain, either by dealing with it in confession or counseling, or by trying to bury it in the year before, with a gravestone freshly placed on top that says 2020. The trouble is, those issues won’t stay buried; they rise up in addictive behaviors: in too much drink, too much food, too much work, too much screen time, too many drugs or too many violent reactions instead of measured ones. Those are manifestations of unresolved issues. Writer Brene Brown has captured the struggle of the human spirit in her works like “I Thought it was Just Me, But it isn’t-Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power;” in her 12 session curriculum on “Shame-Resilience;” and in “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think you’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You are.” I have felt shame since an early age. Perhaps that’s captured in the original stories of the human race in Genesis, chapter 3. When visiting my grandparents one summer, I hit my sister and my grandmother said to me, “Oh Jeffrey! Aren’t you ashamed for doing that?” I was ashamed that day, and I apologized, but my grandmother’s words have played in my head regularly, even though I was a boy when that happened. Do you too find yourself having words of shame or regret play in your head? Do your needs to avoid fears and failures guide many of your life choices? Not all of those voices are bad. Such persons are bestowed with moral compasses; they honor boundaries well, though they can barely tolerate boundary-breakers. Such persons can be very loyal, though they can be exceptionally unforgiving on betrayers. The world has plenty of those persons, while there are others who seem to throw caution to the wind, drinking in the marrow of life with daily abandon. All members of our human race, we believe, had their creation in a Garden: on the breath of God who spoke us into existence. In reading the Bible from beginning to end, it seems to me that God learned over the ages and adapted different holy ways to deal with the human race. For example, at the time when the first man and first woman discovered they were naked, they clothed themselves with fig leaves. That was the beginning of shame. And God scolded. Rule makers have tried to reign in human sinfulness since that time in the books of the Torah as God’s people turned to false gods. The consequence, God decided, was the exile of the Jews from their land. Ever since the serpent tempted the first humans into doing the one thing God said not to do, I imagine, as Don McLean said in his song “American Pie,” that “Satan’s laughing with delight.” We’ve lived through Puritanical struggles over decency. Is there too much shame and too many people feeling repressed? Or by contrast, is there too little shame, as we witness hedonists and anarchists and autocrats in our country embracing sins? Is shame rooted in the continued whispering of the serpent in our ears like the serpent did in Genesis 3? If so, why has the church, in the name of our Savior amplified people’s feelings of shame over the years?
Starting with the Genesis story in chapter 3, choice was freely giving to humans—that is, moral freewill—something not bestowed on other creatures in God’s creation. It was both a blessing and a curse. There was just one tree from which God asked for the humans not to eat—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was a lot of finger-pointing in that story- did they eat of that fruit because of the woman, or the serpent, or the man? The blame game of the human race began and continues even now, as grown people still refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Over the years in the Old Testament, God made covenants with the chosen people; covenants with Abraham, and Moses, and others. But covenants were made, and they were broken. That produced guilt and shame. Then covenants were revised, and words of sorrow and forgiveness were offered. God watched, and God dealt with the fickle chosen people. At one point, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had so betrayed God that, in their moral weakness, an aggressive country called Assyria was allowed to invade and take over. Later, even the Southern Kingdom of Judah became compromised, not listening to words of doom from prophets like Zephaniah. Long before Zephaniah described God’s joy, he described God’s displeasure, declaring God would “Utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth.” [1:1] “Come together and hold assembly, O shameless nation,” Zephaniah roared, “before you are driven away like the drifting chaff.” [2:1] There were few feelings of shame and guilt. But then Zephaniah described the Day of the Lord, and a day of change, declaring: “I will change the speech of the peoples to pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord.” [3:9] And finally, finally, the people were invited to sing and shout to God! It was a new day! Jerusalem was described as “God’s daughter.” An absolution was declared, as what people get from a priest in a confessional. These glorious words were declared: The Lord “will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival!” [ 3:17] What a stark contrast: do things that we know that are wrong and face psychological, theological, and physical consequences. Or, apologize for those past choices and do what is right in the eyes of the Lord; then there is forgiveness and joy! As I, and probably you, have loved to hear words of approval from parents or grandparents, we long to hear words of approval from our Creator! Judah had felt the corrections from wrong choices, and then the blessings from right choices! What a difference between the two!
Finally, in the New Testament, we find God carrying on some possible learned behavior: instead of instituting covenants that could easily be broken, ones that were hard to hold up, the Lord gave us one who would be called “Son of God,” and gave him to the world. God made a glad announcement, surrounded by those who had gathered at the Jordan River to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. It was a rite of purification; it was a sign of new beginnings. What a perfect event to remember today! So with all of those people coming to John, Jesus too asked John to baptize him. Many theologians have concluded that he did that as an example rather than a need to have sins forgiven. But it’s also true that it was finally time to start his ministry, the one his Heavenly Father had planned for him. As Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens open, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. At the same time, a voice came from heaven, presumed to be from his Heavenly Father: “You are my Son. I love you. With you, I am well pleased.” What a jubilant day for God! What an announcement! Perhaps you have not heard such words from a parent or grandparent. Today, imagine God saying those words to you, as you repent of actions done or words said in the past. As you are starting this year, turn the page in your book of life! This could be a year of new beginnings; of new devotion to God and others; of a willingness to humbly admit sins, turning away from hurtful actions or words. This is our time! I invite you to join me in tuning out the old shame voices, and tuning in to words from our God, from our Savior, and from our Bibles. They are the lamp unto our feet, and the light unto our path.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 10, 2021

01-03-21 BE CHILDREN OF LIGHT, NOT DARKNESS


John 1: 1-14

On Christmas Eve I heard the magnificent solo “O Holy Night:” “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” And as I opened the paper on Christmas Day, a lone heading wished the world a Merry Christmas, then the news stories appeared: Covid fatigued nurses, an uplifting series of stories called “Food Brings Hope” politics, weather, and then a special editorial about seeing the Christmas Star- the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn. It was too cloudy on the Winter Solstice for us to see it, but the day after, we got a wonderful picture with a camera phone. A beam of light in the darkness. A thrill of hope. Still Christmas celebrations were very different this year. Does the annual celebration of the birth of Christ still have the power to change the world? The birthday is behind us, but the celebration continues. Centuries ago, the light shone in the darkness as magi came from the east, following a star. People have borne witness to that light for ages. If we fail to do that, the power of the light will dim in the world. In the hymn “Here I am, Lord,” that we will sing today, the Lord tries to decide, “Whom shall I send?” The Lord mulled over that question when prophets were sent, when his Son was sent, and when other witnesses through the ages were sent to places in the dark. “Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?’ The congregation sings what is hoped to be a personal answer: “Here I am Lord.” We, like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among others, are called to bear witness to his light. Jesus is the light.

I’ve had pairs of Mormons and pairs of Jehovah’s Witnesses on my doorstep before, wanting to witness to their faith. I have found it fruitless to debate them; I did it once for 2 hours and neither of us would budge on our beliefs. Still, I appreciated the passion with which they witnessed to their faith.

In the last half of the first century, passionate people decided to write down the story of Jesus’ birth and the events surrounding it. One such person wrote the Gospel According to Matthew. He did quite a service to Christianity. He told the story of the birth, teachings, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of this man he called “Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. (Verse 1.) Matthew told the story of the maggoi (Greek) that came from the east to Jerusalem to inquire about the one to be born King of the Jews. They practiced the dual art of astronomy and astrology and saw in the stars that a king was to be born in Juduh. They came quite a distance to follow a light. Mark told his readers why he believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Luke told an account of Jesus events that the others did not choose to include. Finally, John taught his readers who Jesus was: he spoke in ways that were stratospherically higher than the others, having Jesus say things that the Pharisee Nicodemus even had trouble believing like, “You must be born again.” One commentator put it this way: “John takes us behind the scenes of Jesus’ earthly ministry, letting us see the eternal origins and divine nature of the Man who was more than man. He was eternally present with God, and active in creating the world, the source of the moral and spiritual nature of man.” [THE NEW OXFORD ANNOTATED BIBLE, 1973, p. 1286.] Jesus was more than a prophet, or a child born in a manger. Jesus was God in the flesh, says John. What a bold, radical, and earthshaking claim. Yet John staked his reputation on that stand. John the Baptist lost his life paving the way for the one “whose sandal he was not worthy to untie.”

Thankfully God found another faithful man, John, who told us in the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word WAS GOD. He went on, saying there was a man sent to bear witness to the light, John called “The Baptizer.” John witnessed to Christ as the light. But you can too, and so can I. God is looking for new choices of persons to tell the story of Christ and carry his light in the New Year. “Hmmmmm.” God muses, looking carefully into each of our hearts. “Whom shall I sent?” Perhaps, this year, it is you, or someone you know.

Let us pray: Dear Lord Jesus: you invite us to your table, but you also call us, don’t you? You call us to be the church; to share your light; to do what you would do Drive us to be bold in our witness, whether by our actions, our words, or a pairing of them both, in this new year. In your name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 3, 2021