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To the Glory of God
My Father called it “immature grey” in referring to the grey hair he had accumulated all throughout his life. I too have picked up this phenomenon, along with the saying as sometimes I seem to struggle with the reality of getting older and all the connotations that go along with it. You can walk down the isle in any grocery store in the shampoo and soap section and find any color hair dye you want to become the new person you never thought you could be; To bring back the color you once had or never had. Plastic surgery has become popular over the years and out of the top ten results two of the most popular plastic surgeries are forehead lifts and face lifts;
As a people we seem to live our lives around what others think of us and how we look; to fit into the status quo. We diet; we dress; we proceed through life in an ulterior motive based on what everyone else is doing and how we might fit in. An old punk rock song from the nineteen eighties, of the band the Dead Kennedys states “My ambition in life is to look good on paper.” I remember when I was younger in my teens, as I was walking around my house one morning; I was singing that verse walking down the hallway and I sang it in front of my father. Dad spun around and looked at me in amazement as he said in a bewildered state where did you hear that from? I told him who it was and who sang it as he looked at me with one of those father faces, as I walked off to the Kitchen. One of those faces that doesn’t seem to understand how someone my age knew what that meant; what that even was, but that he knew what it was and what it meant. This is all apart of becoming older as it seems; To keep up with the Jones; to fit in; to be apart of; to be human.
Iron Maiden, another band from the eighties sings of our human dilemma; a song that seems to come right out of scripture; that could compare to any of the psalms, any of our laments. As the music of Maiden rings of the melodic Metal that they were the lyrics ring out with the human reality that I had been told before by another, “As soon as your born your dying.” From the book of Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiastes 3, The Birds sing the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” as the lyrics read, “o everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose, under heaven, A time to be born, a time to die, A time to plant, a time to reap, A time to kill, a time to heal, A time to laugh, a time to weep.”; The contemplation of life and why we seem to chase this dream of self seems to run rampant and has been since the beginning of time; and as it seems forever; as we as a people, fight the reasons of why, who and how for as it seems until there is no more. Why do we fight? Why do we ask the question of when and where, why do we try to find the reasons of how much, and how much more? Are we searching for more? Are we searching for the Glory of God?
This is nothing new to our realities. I was listening to a Sermon written by Martin Luther King Jr on you tube as he was speaking of the same human condition as an action of the ego and how ego works in and out of our lives almost dictating to us what we will and won’t be; how we look; who we are; our vehicles; were we live; how we live; are we living to the Glory of God?
All this seems to be a part of the human condition as it seems to be to fight the aging process and all that aging entails; to fight mortality by having and showing who and what were all about; which in all reality is how that condition acts and interacts in our lives. From the beginning with Adam and Eve.
The scripture readings from today are built around this aloofness of life and what we seem to suffer from as humans. Paul who wrote this letter to the Corinthians, spoke of experience from this same dilemma that we as humans seem to suffer from, this suffer rage of human power and the lack of power we really have. Have you ever tried to stop a lightning bolt?
The Apostle Paul during his time of ministry was always somewhat a leader. He served as the Evangelist of close to 20 churches himself, with many more born out of those by his apprentice leaders. In Asia minor alone the NT mentions Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Colossae, and Hieropolis. Thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are traditionally attributed to Paul and Paul’s ministry. Paul was born in Tarsus, one of the largest trading communities on the Mediterranean coast. He was born of Jewish stock, a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; formerly known as Saul at one point persecuted Christians because of his beliefs and who he was; but after his conversion; after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus he found a new life; a new way to live; a free way to be; to the Glory of God. As Paul lived his life; as he lived out this Grace that he was given through Jesus The Christ. He suffered as a human. He wrote of the thorn in his side from the scripture 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, as he states “7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep[a] me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.[b] 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” As you have probably heard that said by others and might have used it yourself in a Sunday school class or two; a thorn in his side that as looked at now is thought to be a physical ailment, though the lack of details forbid a proper diagnosis. Physical infirmities that seem to fit the situation are malaria, Malta fever, epilepsy, convulsive attacks, and chronic ophthalmia. It was thought that he might have contracted this thorn as a small child in the swampy, damp areas of Tarsus but it was not really known. Paul lived human much like we do; much like Jesus did; feeling the same pains; the same melancholy days of life; the same realities of keeping up with the Jones as he fought with the other Disciples because he really didn’t fit in; because he didn’t know Jesus in the flesh; because his ministry took him to preaching and evangelizing to the Gentiles. Because a lot of the others didn’t trust him because of his past. This seemed to be of nothing he could control as he felt the Holy Spirit inside of him and the calling of Christ in front of him he did what he needed to do to be the hands and feet of Jesus; a disciple formerly known as Saul; A disciple living to the Glory of God. This seems to be him saying, I am powerless over my situation but through the grace of God I can achieve all things, and through that desire given to me I will. As he takes ideas from the Old Testament in the readings today, that he knows so well from his background as a Pharisee; as well as seeming to live it as he writes down from experience; from what he has been going through and will go through. He seems to write as a friend; as a companion; as one who suffers like the Corinthians; like we all seem to suffer through the human reality.
I was talking with a friend recently; as the names have been omitted to protect the innocent; about the different dynamics of the human condition and our perceptions of it. He told me of a time at a Church he attended; a mistake was made by one of the Pastors that was noticeable in the service. The Pastor, he said, corrected his mistake and then moved on as if nothing had happened; nothing was said after the mistake had been made calling him out on it; no one moved; no sighs; no whispering; no hymnals dropped; no judging; the pastors humanness was looked past. My friend told me of how he loved the fact that the people that attended the Church were forgiving and human themselves, to the Glory of God.
When I was seeking Gods call, when I first started attending here at Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church, I spoke a lot to Jeff, to Cara and to Richard Hills. I wanted their insight into how they were called and their experiences. I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything right. Richard Hills who I cherish and respect, along with Cara and Jeff as well as with many others, told me a story of a Pastor he knew that helped him discern his calling. Of course, this comes not from anything we do but from the discernment of the Holy Spirit and prayer. But as scripture shows us how to live, Gods creation helps us to experience life to be able to live. One day when I was talking to Richard, he told me this story.
When I was first discerning my calling, he started off, I attended a service of a minister I knew that was helping me. I showed up on time; the service started; everything seemed to be going well, the hymns were great; the scripture was read; the sermon was good. We got to the prayer concerns, and we started to pray. About half way through the prayer, Richard continued, the minister stopped. There was a silence for a period of time, that didn’t seem to fit in with the prayer, as it seemed in the silence that a couple of minutes had passed. There was some shuffling in the pews as people seemed to be getting fidgety; All of a sudden, the Pastor jumped right back in Alleluia Amen, as if he never missed, as almost as it was supposed to be there, predestined. that what had happened was meant to happen. Richard said of the experience, I learned one thing from that, if he can do it, if he can get up there and be human, to make what seemed to be a mistake by others, but what might not be by the Holy Spirit and not be looked at differently by God; not to be ridiculed for not being perfect; but to be loved for who he is as one as well as of creation; than so can I. And he did. And whether he thought he did or not, I believe Richard walked close to God. We all walk close to God. We are all God’s creations; as the universe is also. All of God’s creation is imperfect but perfect; just like the snowflakes; all different as a creation of God but all the same as God’s creation. As stated in Deuteronomy 32:4 the Lords work is perfect. Our perfection is to be whole in the Lord. A key New Testament verse for understanding perfection in the Christian life is 2 Corinthians 12:9: reads “But he said to me, my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
It’s not us!!
This is a question and answer about concrete.
Aging of concrete
As the answer to our question of our deterioration is Jesus the Christ in how we live move and breath; through the trees the Holy Spirit is a moving force in the universe in all of us; all of creation; moving flowing; right now; a living action that is God; the one in three and the three in one.
The great purpose of the Bible is fulfilled again; the living word that the Bible is glows through the love that Jesus is; that God is. This scripture Along with the scripture from Ecclesiastes makes strong points in its ideas as well as from the writer’s perception. Let us not so much look at what the writer is writing as much as what the writer is saying and how it lives in their lives and ours. This is the living word of God.
As we look at the scripture today Paul writes this letter as it seems from a reality of his own life, not so much to let the Corinthians know what could and will happen but more of the reality that “we are all in this together” going through it together; as we are all in this together; this thing called life, this great creation that God gives to us every day to live; to be; to love him and our neighbor; To the Glory of God!!
This is not to be frightened of what will come; to be scared of the future; but to realize that we are all here as a people; as God’s creation going through the same things; the same follies; the same greatness’s; the same ageing process; all of us; all of creation as one. That as that great scripture of Ecclesiastes shows us; that life is life. that life is happening all around us; that God, in us and through us; fills the void we are searching for. As Paul says the same thing in 2nd Corinthians, that life is moving; living; breathing; as the Holy Spirit does. Again, our wholeness depends on our reality in God. Its not for us to hide and to be of concern of death; not to be swept up in our own deterioration; but to live in the Christ today; right now. To be safe in Jesus the Christ is to be safe in the world; in ourselves; in the loving Grace that God is today. To look past our own human faults that we find in others and realize that we are all human; we all suffer from the same frailties; from the same insecurities; of the same stock and faults; not to judge but to love. To take a grasp of life; to live life to the Glory of God.
As the scriptures liv in our lives; it’s not so much what is apparent but what is inside. as the wind blows, let our hearts breath in the spirit; in God’s love together as one. Let us live to the fullest in all things; all things to the glory of God. Can you feel it? Amen.
THE GUIDELINES OF GOD
Today I am speaking primarily to five wonderful youth who have met with Mary Ann and me almost every week since September for 90 minutes each session. All this year I have had a chance to inform you, encourage you, and direct you. From this day forward I will still be pulling for you. As the old hymns put it: “Have Thine own way, Lord, Have Thine own way, Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after Thy will, while I am waiting yielded and still.” [Adelaide Pollard] To each of you in this year’s class: I hope that Mary Ann and I truly invited Jesus to mold you and make you after His will. In so many ways that has happened: you have been attentive, done your work, and we’ve had some fun along the way. Your Statements of Faith were thoughtful beyond your years, and you have demonstrated your readiness for today. I’ve told you that after today you will go into this world not just as the son or daughter of people who go to church. After today, you will have a new title: Christian. By your profession of faith today, you will carry that title. Many will know you have become Christians by your own choice. And they will be watching. You will also become a full member of this congregation. You will have voting privileges in meetings; you will be asked to volunteer as others volunteer, give financially as you are able, and to keep the promises you will make today. What do I think you, or any of us who claim to be Christian, can hope to gain by doing those things? It’s simple: we hope to change the world.
What a big order. Jesus did not come into this world, following the guidance of his Heavenly Father and dying on a cross just to be seen as some militant or radical Jew. He came so that our world might start to be more like Heaven; that the Kingdom of this world might become more like the Kingdom of God. How did he plan to do that?
One, he knew the Guidelines of God, but he reinterpreted them. Look, for example, at our text today from Mark. The outside world was criticizing Jesus’ followers for not keeping the Sabbath the way they interpreted the Sabbath should be kept. His disciples were plucking heads of grain. You should know that this was not stealing; this was perfectly allowed—and required by Jewish Law—part of every crop was supposed to be left for hungry people to eat. There was no welfare system or social security other than laws like these. Plucking grain was legal according to Deuteronomy 23:25, except it was on a Sabbath. The Law was interpreted to mean that absolutely no work be done on Sabbath days. The Pharisees interpreted what they were doing as reaping, something forbidden on the Sabbath according to Exodus 34: 21. Conversely, Jesus thought that persons who were hungry could pick a few heads of a crop. He saw it as vastly different than plowing a field. He reinterpreted that guideline of God with words these words that were taught for years: “the Sabbath was made for man (people), not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, the Sabbath guidelines were designed to keep us from breaking down or burning out by doing our labor, our professions, or our classwork seven days a week. The Sabbath is a gift; it is a break. But if the break is broken, people often break down! Jesus taught that Sabbath is not a rigid Law, but a gift to be received. There are some people in our world who are rule people: they carry condo guidelines, or community guidelines, or other rulebooks around like umpires or referees, always wanting to throw a flag on your activity. Don’t be like that. Jesus never instructed his followers to focus on rules; focus on people who honor the spirit of a rule.
As you five go into the world, be ready to interpret what you read in the Bible. Two biblical scholars had wise words to share about the Bible. One, Dr. Marcus Borg, said this regarding specific stories in the Bible: “I don’t know if it happened exactly this way; but I know that it’s true.” In the days of the Bible, all stories were part of an oral tradition, told and retold to children and children’s children. The words that were shared were fluid and retold by parents through the years. Told, that is, until print became available and the biblical words then became instructions “carved in stone.” To treat all the stories or commands in the Bible that way does a disservice to the way Jesus taught and shared. He taught with illustrations; he taught by example; and he said, “Follow me.” Use your head and your heart as you read your Bibles, and do not be easily swayed by the teachings found on the Internet or by the voices of friends. Another man I revered, Dr. Bruce Metzger, said, “the Bible doesn’t always mean what it says; it means what it means.” Jesus, I think, believed that; he interpreted the written words differently from others. Go into the world as thinking Christians.
Two, Jesus let love and compassion surround the guidelines of God. Look at what Jesus did in Mark chapter 3. There were other Pharisees—religious rule police of the day—who were baiting him; setting a trap to see if he would fall in. Those Pharisees had lost their focus on anything but laws. Some of those kinds of people are still around today. Some just think “Is something lawful?” But they forget to ask the nuanced question “Is it right?” I hope you will go into the world asking that second question too, not just the first question. Jesus saw the traps, and still he had compassion in his heart for a man who needed to be healed. Jesus healed the man; after he did so, and the trap-setters left with plans to destroy Jesus. But the man who was healed left rejoicing! Jesus chose to do what he believed was right. In our world, as in Jesus’ world, there are consequences for breaking laws. Laws guide society. But use your heart in starting new conversations about what may be right and what may be legal.
Finally, remember that Jesus knew the 10 Commandments and the rest of Torah like the back of his hand. But here is how he handled one final trap: In Matthew 22: 36 another Pharisee, who tried to keep the Law to the letter, asked Jesus: “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” The Pharisees expected one of the 10 Commandments to be lifted up. But listen how Jesus interpreted the guidelines of God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Go into the world like Jesus, seeing people and laws through the eyes of love. I think the world will be a better place with you five in it. I will be pulling for you and praying for you! And to others who are here: the same message applies to us today: consider how you will interpret the guidelines of God for your life, and for our world today.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 3, 2018
“WHOM SHALL I SEND?” ASKS GOD
Isaiah 6: 1-8
In our rare full family gatherings around Thanksgiving, Mary Ann might ask our children, who are quite grown mind you: “Who will help me set the table?” A chorus of voices, simultaneously, declare, “Not it!!” Asking for volunteers in a home or in a church can look like the old “duck and cover” drills from the 1960s! Everybody tries to hide! As Vacation Bible School Director Mary Ann says, “Don’t make me call you; you call me!” But sometimes that is wishful thinking. Apparently God knows that too. Fifty years ago, the government drafted young men into military service if they did not enlist on their own. In the 1970s I had to register with the Selective Service too; my number was 26, so I knew I would be called up if the draft were reinstated. But it was 1974; troops had come home from Vietnam and there was no other arena of combat for which the United States was drafting. Drafting avoided the issues of seeking volunteers. But volunteers, on the other hand, show at least a modicum of interest in or willingness to serve. We have a volunteer choir; volunteer teachers; volunteers greeters, volunteer ushers and candle lighters; volunteers folded and stapled your bulletins; volunteers will fold our newsletter on Tuesday, and volunteers help keep God’s house beautiful. The Christian church could not function without volunteers. Although many people work in paying jobs and have to do so for income, volunteers often have the higher calling.
Calling. Calling is a term that many Christians use, particularly ministers. It perhaps harkens back to God’s call to Moses from a burning bush; or God’s call to Isaiah or to Jeremiah. For decades Uncle Sam drafted young men to serve their country. But God does not draft; God muses; God considers; God wonders; and then God asks, “Whom will I send?”
Some of you know that I spent a decade working to help Presbyterian congregations support our 10 seminaries and the two seminaries related by covenants. In that time I heard a lot of call stories of people saying “Yes” to God’s invitation. Here is mine in a nutshell. God didn’t draft me. I said “Send me.”
On April 9, 1956, the day I was born, God was asking: “Whom shall I send?” I had a lifetime in front of me, and I didn’t hear the voice.
On March 31, 1957, the day my parents dedicated me to God, God was asking again, “Whom shall I send?” I didn’t hear that either, but perhaps a seed was planted.
On March 22nd, 1969, the day I was baptized and confirmed into the Christian faith, God was asking “Whom shall I send?” But I didn’t know my Christian calling yet.
One day during my employment as the Assistant Janitor of Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield, Missouri in 1973, the Head Janitor and I were taking a break, sitting on big barrels of floor wax drinking orange soda. “You oughta be a preacher!” he said to my emphatically.
A seed was planted, but I didn’t realize it. I just said, “No, I’m going into business like my Dad.” Perhaps God smiled.
One day in the fall of 1976, I told my pastor, the one who had been with me for years, that I wondered if God was calling me to be a Pastor. He said, “Jeff, if there is anything else in the world you can do, do it!” Well! He put the cotton in my ears for God’s call quickly. But he later told me, “I said that because no one should enter the ministry because they think it will be easy. Enter it because, God has you by the collar and will not let go.”
In March of 1985, Mary Ann and I flew to Daytona Beach for the first time, and a Pastor Nominating Committee met with us in the old Peninsula House. God looked at his congregation called “Westminster By-The-Sea” and asked again, “Whom shall I send to serve as the pastor of my flock there?” It was then that I heard and responded: “Here I am Lord. Send me.”
Now today, as Commissioned Ruling Elder Tobias Caskey prepares for long-distance seminary training from Dubuque Theological Seminary; and as our elected Associate Pastor Glory Cumbow has just graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary last Saturday; listen to one other story from one who is passionate about her call and thankful for her training: The Rev. Emily Zieg Lindsey is now Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Waterford, Pennsylvania: She says: “I was actually at a youth retreat when I thought, ‘Wow; I might be called to ministry!’ I shared that idea at the retreat and had great support from my Youth Director and my Pastor who were there. Now after nine years in the ministry I know that there are many people out there hungry to learn and be fed, just waiting for a leader to come alongside of them to help them with the journey. When I started in my presbytery nine years ago I was the youngest pastor in the presbytery. Now nine years later I am still the youngest pastor in the presbytery!” We need young people, and second career people, to carefully consider answer God’s question “Whom shall I send?” Did you hear that? People retire from ministry. What young people; or second career people, might hear the call and respond?
I have since learned how many people have answered God’s question by being trained musically, or trained to teach, or is a person in the world who looks for times to witness for Christ. I have learned that some have said “Yes” to God’s question by volunteering in church. Some answered Uncle Sam’s call to serve our country. Some answered God’s call to make the kingdom of the world more like the Kingdom of God. And some have served both God and Country.
Our stories do not need to be poetic or dramatic; they have to be authentic. Some listen to someone else’s story and try to fit their own story into someone else’s story. It doesn’t work. For example, the classic story that Catherine Marshall wrote about her husband’s call to the ministry is told in her lovely biography A Man Called Peter, the story of the Rev Peter Marshall, a Scotsman who moved to the United States and is credited with planting the Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans idea in people’s heads. This is how Catherine Marshall described her husband’s call from God in her book and in the movie by the same name: “Peter Marshall did not grow up wanting to be a minister. That was God’s idea—not his. In fact, it took quite a lot of persuasion to get him to accept that plan.” [Avon Books, 1971, p.15]
Today we have a call story of a prophet on earth being transported in a vision to a heavenly throne. “The Lord was sitting on his throne, high and lofty, and his robe filled the Temple.’ [Isaiah 6:1] This is not the earthly Temple. How do we know? Listen again: “Seraphs surrounded him; each had six wings.” [6:2] This is no normal earthly scene! It is a heavenly scene like the one in the book of Revelation. The seraph (an angel of the highest order) said: “Holy holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” We join with the words that Handel put to music and say to God: “Holy Art Thou.” Was the whole earth full of his glory then; or even now? No; that was a scene of hope and possibility. It was a terrifying scene even for a prophet. Feeling inadequate, he said aloud: “I am lost, I am a man of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips.” Such words were uttered by Isaiah, but they could also be said by people in our own day! Are we also people of unclean lips, living among others of unclean lips? Clean lips mean we try to lift up others in our conversations, not cut them down. Clean lips do not constantly curse. Clean lips are not spouting lies. Clean lips move toward civil discourse rather than contentious fighting. Yes, in comparison to God, we all are unclean people. But we can make changes to move us toward holiness. Isaiah experienced something we also have to experience in order to say “yes” to God: Isaiah’s guilt was taken away by the fire of a coal and his sins were blotted out. You may not have experienced that exactly, but once we have acknowledged sins and start with a clean slate, we can hear things that sins have kept us from hearing. Things like God asking: “Whom shall I send?” Some here today, have said, “Here I am. Send me.”
And some have yet to say it.
God’s plan has worked. God got me to say, “Yes” to his ask. God got Emily Lindsey to say yes; and Tobias Caskey, and Glory Cumbow, and Peter Marshall. But some of you have said “yes” to God too! Many teachers, musicians, students, professionals, laborers, parents, and grandparents have said to God: “Here am I! Send me!” Now our job is to try to make the vision real today: that the kingdom of this world may actually become more like the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. It starts when we say ”Yes,” open our hearts, and roll up our sleeves. That is what God asks of us. Who is on the Lord’s side? And who will go for him?
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 27, 2018
PENTECOST: RECEIVE THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH
Acts 2: 1-6; 14-21
A long time ago, in the Roman Empire far, far, away, a faithful Jew with a special mission to save the world was brought to a cross outside of the Jerusalem walls. He was crucified; likely on April 7, 30 A.D. Three days later by the Jewish counting system, the tomb was found to be empty because he had risen from the dead! His name was Jesus. That would have been on April 9, 30 A.D. Forty days later around May 17th, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, gave final instructions to his disciples, and ascended into heaven. Ten days after that, the disciples were back in Jerusalem, and the promised Spirit of the Living God—the Holy Spirit—appeared mightily on all who were gathered. They spoke in ways so that people understood each other; people felt empowered, and some, like Peter, even addressed all the gathered people there saying: “This is what the prophets described!” he said. “It is happening right now!” That was the beginning of the Christian church: Christ was gone and the disciples— later called “Christians” –began to tell others about him, heal people, and pray for others. Today, and every Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the Christian church, an event that actually happened in Jerusalem!
Fast-forward decades; and decades; and decades. In October 1946, a small Sunday School was started in the unincorporated area of Wilbur-By-The-Sea, Florida, about two miles south of our present location. The Spirit of the Living God was—and is—still alive and well in this congregation! This was the humble beginning of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church and it was the dream of the Rev. Paul Edris, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church
of Daytona Beach. Paul Edris, along with his Director of Christian Education, Miss Elizabeth McNeill, and with the approval of their Session, conducted the outpost for one year. Then it was decided that more people could be reached with weekly prayer meetings. Those meetings continued yearly until the next stage was reached: In February 1955, 42 people gathered for their first official Sunday worship service. Plans were made weekly until May 22, 1955—63 years ago—when 62 persons signed the charter and a committee of St. John’s Presbytery installed the Rev. Richard Sauerbrun as the first Pastor of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church. The church name was chosen this way: “Westminster” to honor the theological grounding found in the Westminster Confession of Faith; and “by-the-Sea” to honor the local roots at the Wilbur-by-the-Sea Boathouse. It is still there today and more beautiful than it ever was, thanks to the work of charter member James Hunt to get it on the National Register of Historic Places. Some Sunday slasses in those days met in the living room of Ernest and Mary Hunt two blocks from the Wilbur Clubhouse; other classes met in Gaylord’s Restaurant, a block away. I has since been been torn down. Two bricks at the beginning of the Wilbur Boathouse sidewalk say: “First meeting place of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church.” Indeed it was. The congregation met there from 1955 until 1958, when our current Fellowship Hall, that originally included the new section of our sanctuary, was the first multi-purpose building. The terrazzo floor we still have is original. And as I showed the children today, the storage closet was the original nursery! Jalousie windows allowed humid air to blow through, and tall tilted windows at the top of the hall could be opened with a hooked pole. The choir and pulpit were on this end and parking was on the south end. Today Marianne Sabatka proudly says that her children were baptized in there! And others were too! The church of Jesus Christ was on the move, giving a light to the south peninsula. Church member Fred Gard was the contractor for the Fellowship Hall and again for the Sunday School wing—which includes our existing rooms 8-12B—built in 1959. These words tell the story of the beginning of a congregation whose spiritual roots were not just in the Westminster Standards, but also in the historic and extraordinary day of Pentecost! The Christian Church has its roots in Jerusalem, a fact particularly ironic this week. Three major religions claim Jerusalem as their most significant city. Christians may love Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus; or Nazareth for the home of Jesus, but Jerusalem is where the Christian Church had her birth!
History is important; it molds our identity; it informs the present and guides our future. We must continually remember where we’ve come from to know who we are. The recent popularity of Ancestry.com and other products help us find our roots and our nationalities. Knowing who you have been helps inform who you are now.
Perhaps you’ve read the Richard Adams’ book Watership Down. Episcopal Priest John Westerhoff said this is a book that “illustrates the significance of a common memory and vision for communal life. In his insightful adventure story, the characters (rabbits in this case) become a people only as they acquire a story, a memory, and a vision. They remain a community insofar as they re-tell the story and live the vision. Adams’ depiction of various communities suggests that each is made viable by its ability to sustain a narrative.” [Living in the Faith Community] In other words, telling you what I’m telling you today helps you share in Westminster’s story, and in the story of the Christian Church! Christians are a story-formed community. “The Christian Church was founded upon a story of people’s experiences with Jesus and a vision of God’s reign in human history. Through out the church’s history, this story has formed and transformed, sustained and challenged the community’s faith and life.” [Westerhoff]
Today, on the occasion of our 63rd anniversary, I tell you how important it is for us to have a story and a vision. Children who don’t know who they are, or whose they are, have more trouble deciding who they should be. What is your story? Where have you lived? Who are your mother and your father? Where were their parents from? Where were you baptized? Christian Baptism is an act of the church and of the Christian community. The story of the Holy Spirit appearing on the day of Pentecost is our story too! Yes the Spirit came to those early men and women in Jerusalem, but we celebrate that event even today! We taught our Confirmation Class that if worship were a drama, you-the congregation-are the actors; we-the worship leaders- are the directors, and God is the audience for our worship! My preaching professor at Princeton, Dr. Donald Macleod, wrote this: “The old spiritual song goes ‘Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart.’ Note the phrase, ‘want to be.’ Too many people don’t go to church these days because they say, ‘I don’t get anything out of it.’ You do not come to get; you come in order to be. You come because you want to be somebody, above the average and the ordinary; you come because you want to be a child of God. And you know that it is only here in the fellowship and community of the people of God that you can become what Christ wants you to be.”
Westminster By-The-Sea started from scratch; with a dream, a prayer, and a purpose from our mother church. The church is lovingly referred to as the bride of Christ. Yes the congregation was colonized with a rental building and borrowed belongings. But soon gifts, lovingly given, began to equip this congregation for her lifelong work. Our first hymn today affirmed “the Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” Our cornerstone affirms that He is our chief cornerstone. Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ; the Son of the Living God!” And Jesus replied: “Blessed are you Simon! And upon this rock I will build my church.” And so Christ is; churches well grounded have in their beliefs: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Today, may your presence here today bless your life, may your praise bless your God, and may your gratitude thank your Savior.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 20, 2018
EAVESDROPPING ON JESUS
John 17: 6-19
Privacy is an important matter to most of us, isn’t it? At certain levels of our government, it is believed that no work can be carried out without the benefit of a secure and a soundproof space. Just last week I watched a news story about people flying drones with cameras attached to them, aiming the attached cameras through the windows of people’s homes. Certainly confidential conversations are important in both personnel issues and personal issues. The safety of our nation is at stake if security leaks or cyber-criminals share top-secret information. We even trust that our phone calls and our Internet connections are secure, when in fact they may not be.
With all of that in mind, I still call this message “Eavesdropping on Jesus.” In this case, however, somehow we are given the privilege of hearing encouraging things, guiding things, and uplifting things that Jesus says about his disciples in a prayer. In our house, and in the house in which I grew up, the main bedrooms were upstairs. I can remember sitting on the stairs at night, sometimes with my sister, and hearing the things Mom and Dad were saying downstairs. Sometimes they had concerns about us; other times they were proud of us! And we got to hear it … by eavesdropping. My phone has an app on it to turn my phone into a mirror. So while I’m downstairs at night talking with Mary Ann, I have held my phone up at just the right angle to see either our grandson Calvin or Shane sitting there listening! If we say guiding or encouraging things about them, they pick up on it! Today it is apparent that Jesus knew what he is praying to his Heavenly Father, and that others might hear his guidance and his affirmation!
Lets begin with the kinds of prayers one can pray. Remember it with the acronym: ACTS I: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication, and Intercession. All prayer is made up of one or more of these kinds.
Last week the Communion prayer, known as “The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving,” was not a meandering prayer but an intentional one, recalling the Judeo/Christian roots we have in the Passover Seder and the historical ways God saved people from Exodus to the Gospels.
Up until 1962 in the Roman Catholic Church, priests faced the altar in their church, repeated the Mass in Latin, prayed for the people, then ate the bread and drank the wine on behalf of their parish. So it is that Christians have called Jesus our Great High Priest and have called his prayer in today’s gospel lesson Jesus’ priestly prayer. Why? Because Jesus is taking on the role of our priest: going before the throne of grace, pleading our case before his Father in Heaven, and making a sacrifice to pay the price for our sins. The sacrifice was of the Lamb of God, who is, unusually, the same as the priest. On our behalf, Jesus is praying for us, pleading for us, and paying the price for our sins. He and the Holy Spirit are called Advocate and Counselor; these are courtroom terms; Christianity is filled with them: judge, witness, guilty, and ransom to name a few. Jesus prayed for his followers like a priest.
But Jesus did more than pray for them: Jesus visited them, cared for them, and healed them. Today I hope you can see the connection Jesus wants his followers to make between our prayers and the care we show for others. Each Sunday we pray for enough people to fill a letter sized prayer list with single spaced names. Do we pray fervently? I think many here do; in our Lent Wednesday night services we even called every name out loud in the service. We need to pray for others; but we also need to care for others. If I visit someone, it is most always appreciated. But there are just so many hours in the day to get to all who are in need. If you visit someone, people often think of it as an unearned blessing: “someone cared enough to visit me.” Many in our Disciple classes have committed to intercessory prayers and support. Sometimes a call or a card is all it takes. Others among you have offered food, or rides, or to sit with a loved one. These can be godsend ministries.
So we know the power of prayer. But what might you pray toward the end of your life, the way Jesus was doing? What might you write down so loved ones could know your feelings and receive your guidance? Here is an example: Theologian Henry Nouwen returned from visiting his father one year and stopped to have dinner with one of his friends named Nathan. “During the meal, Nathan asked [him], ‘Where and how do you want to die?’ He raised the question in a gentle way. It was a question that came from [his] awareness that [he] was soon going to die. The awareness prompted us to ask: “Are we preparing ourselves for death, or are we ignoring death by keeping busy? Will our death give new life, new hope, and new faith to our friends, or will it be no more than another cause for sadness?’ … Nathan’s question brought me face-to-face with a great challenge: (said Nouwen,) not only to live well, but also to die well.’” [OUR GREATEST GIFT, Harper, 1995] How do we come to terms with our own death? What can we do to prepare ourselves and help others with that day? 1) We turn to a sacred moment, described first in John 17: 11: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.” So at first Jesus offers a prayer for protection, knowing there are evil ones everywhere. But this request had a purpose: so that they may be one as we are one. Jesus wants his disciples to be of one mind and one purpose, not broken into religious factions that have conflicts with each other. What Jesus asked for is not a reality in our day. We can do better, not being the same—because we are all different—but honoring our unity in our differences. Then we could respond to Jesus’ prayer for us. 2) Then in verse 17 Jesus prayed this: “Sanctify them in the truth.” Sanctification is a big word; it means, “Make them holy.” An old hymn had the words “Take time to be holy, speak oft with the Lord.” I always thought of God as holy, and people as human. But I learned over the years how you can be holy, and I can be holy: it happens when we agree to take our lead from God and not from the world. It happens when we follow Jesus and not the latest star in our culture. It happens when we decide to be a light for the world rather than letting the activities of the world put out our light. So Jesus is praying for his disciples to be “sanctified,” to be set apart as a light for a darkened world; to be leaven for the world.
Hearing what Jesus hopes for us, I’d like for God to protect you and to protect me. But further, I’m willing to participate in the sanctification process; God can make us more holy only if we agree to be transformed by Jesus’ teachings and God’s Spirit. I’m willing. How about you?
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 13, 2018
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE
John 15: 9-17
Five-year-old Johnny Quinn loved his big brother Tommy. The doctor told Johnny that his brother was very sick and needed a blood transfusion. The doctor asked, “Johnny, would you be willing to give blood to your brother?” Johnny gulped hard and his eyes got big, but after a moment’s hesitation he said, “Sure doctor.” The doctor took the blood while Johnny rested quietly on an examination table. A few minutes later Johnny opened his eyes and asked, “Doctor, when do I die?” It was only then that the doctor realized the extent of this boy’s love for his brother. He adored his big brother. And he thought he was giving all of his blood to save him.
Love: a word often lightly used; sometimes loosely used. The meaning of love is all over the map. Should we limit the times and ways that we cast that word around? “Love, love, love, all you need is love,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote and shared with the world in a live broadcast on June 25, 1967. That was one of the anthems of the so-called “summer of love.” How naïve it can seem to say that. Love isn’t all we need in life, but it does make life worthwhile. Yet is the same breath we say we love a car or love a movie. And we love chocolate cake and we love money in our pocket and we love ketchup on our fries, in addition to loving a puppy, or a kitten, or a boy, a girl, or a spouse.
In spite of the wide variety of ways we treat the word love, the whole of the Christian life rests on the word. It is described in many verses of Scripture. Here are two of them: Jesus said: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, so you also must love one another.” Please note that little two-letter word: “as.” This is the hinge as well as the hitch- love as he loved us.- that is, in the same way. “As the Father has loved me,” Jesus said, “So I have loved you.” I think Johnny Quinn probably had a grasp of what love means, but how many others grasp it? Certainly some here who’ve been married for any number of years get it, but some don’t. Sometimes weddings these days focus too much on the ceremony and not enough on the commitment. Years ago a couple who got married here had five previous marriages between them. They picked as their wedding solo: When I Fall in Love, It will be forever.” What irony. Back to God’s love, the Heavenly Father’s love for Jesus did not mean he would be saved from suffering, temptation, or from human limitations. Jesus was not saved from misunderstanding, rejection, humiliation, or from any of the things the world called “failure.” He was not even saved from feeling abandoned on the cross. But he was loved; and there was a plan decided by Father and Son.
What, then, does Scripture reveal about the Father’s love for Jesus? Through it, Jesus received the presence of God, the power of God, of human life, and steadfast love. “The one who sent me is with me,” Jesus would say. He lived out that truth. The praise or blame from others did not define Jesus. The success of his work did not give his life meaning. He was defined by being beloved; he received both his guidance and his grounding in the steadfast love of God. There was nothing he could do to make that love cease.
By contrast, some of the anxieties, the neuroses, and insecurities people have are created by situations assumed to be loving ones, but they aren’t really. They are conditional: “I’ll love you if you don’t disappoint me; I’ll love you if you make good choices. I’ll love you if you make me proud. What strings are attached to that love! Conditional love doesn’t feel like love; and it can be toxic. A teenager may hear a parent say, “I love you so much dear, but you will become a doctor like your father.” You may remember the movie Dead Poet’s Society, when the student Neil discovers a love of acting, auditions for a part in a play and he lands the part. He found part of what he wanted to do with his life. But his father would have none of it. The film ends tragically. Love? Listen to what Dr. Greg Baer wrote in a book he called Real Love.
I was valedictorian of my high school class, finished college in two and a half years, and received the highest honors in medical school. After completing my internship and specialty training in eye surgery, …I performed thousands of operations and taught other physicians locally and across the country. I was a leader in church and in the local Boy Scouts organization. I had everything money could by, and I was a husband and father of five beautiful children. [But] I slowly came to the terrible realization that I had not achieved the happiness I’d been promised. …I found it difficult to sleep at night and began to talk some of the sleeping pills we kept at the office for postsurgical patients. When they were no longer effective I took tranquilizers and before long I was injecting narcotics every night…. [Real Love, Gotham Books, New York, 2003, pp. xi-xii]
Greg did all of that; and yet he was so unhappy that one evening he went to a desolate place and put a gun to his head. He wanted out. Love? Fortunately someone intervened and counseled him until he found true peace, true happiness, and work that he enjoyed-all by finding someone who loved him unconditionally-the kind of love that God offers. “There is nothing you can do,” to make me withdraw my love for you,” God says. “Sure, your actions will bring consequences, but they will not ever make me stop loving you.”
One other example of what is clearly not love. Dr. Scott Peck in his book The People of the Lie tells the story of a teenaged boy whose brother committed suicide with a 22-caliber rifle. His younger brother, named Bobby, started acting out in his anger and grief. In a counseling session a few weeks after Christmas, his therapist asked him what his parents had gotten him for Christmas. “A gun.” he said. “A gun,” the therapist responded, what kind?” A 22-caliber rifle. “Did you ask for that present Bobby?” “No” said Bobby. “I asked for a tennis racket.” His parents had given their younger son the very gun that had taken their first son’s life. [Touchstone Book, 1983, pp.47-51] Sometimes relationships can get sick … or evil. But God’s love is so very different from that.
Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” And he meant it. Dr. Scott Peck, in his more uplifting book called The Road Less Traveled, wrote: “Call it what you will. Genuine love, with the discipline it requires, is the only path to substantial joy …. The more I love, the longer I love, the larger I become. Genuine love is self-replenishing.” It is clear that Jesus had a generous heart, a heart that could hold the very love of God in it. He had a kind heart that suffered over a paralyzed man, a stooped over woman, and a blind man. His heart ached for those in moral bondage, and longing to set them free: like the woman caught in adultery; like Zacchaeus- who was rich in things and poor in spirit. Jesus’ love persisted in spite of the blunders of friends who betrayed, denied, or deserted him. His was genuine love, the kind that kept on loving even as he died on a cross. A man named Anthony Padovano once put it this way: We are saved not by the physical death of Jesus, but by the absoluteness of love which did not count death too high a price. ”
In our finest hours, we are called to love others as God loves us.
Love, love, love; all you need is love. With God’s love—real love—those
words make more sense than ever. Experience God’s love today in bread, and in the cup. It is the body that was broken and the blood that was shed. Little Johnny Quinn, who adored his brother, was willing to give all of his blood to show his love. How might you change the way you love if you have been trained in the conditional kind of love? How might you begin a life of unconditional love? Living that way, you will not only change your life, but also the lives of those around you. Love one another.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 6, 2018
CONNECTING TO YOUR POWER SOURCE
John 15: 1-8
When the Rev. Robert Schuller was broadcasting his ministry across the television airwaves, he called it “The Hour of Power.” Certainly that title took the mantle of “Positive Thinking” ministries from the late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and it has been passed today to Joel Osteen. But Robert Schuller had a ministry on two levels: there was his broadcast ministry, with the purpose of attracting and inviting people into the Christian life and into the support of his ministries; but he also had a local congregation in Garden Grove, California of members who did not need the milk that new Christians needed across the globe. His local ministry gave members the “meat and potatoes” of Jesus Christ. He was a trained minister in the Reformed Tradition. Therefore his “Hour of Power” was not just for positive thinking; it was to connect individuals to the power of Jesus Christ. Yes, the Holy Spirit has the power of God; and yes the Heavenly Father of Jesus has the power of God. But through no one is the beam of power so concentrated as through Jesus and his instructions. “Hymns like “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ name,” draw attention to that power. Healings and exorcisms have occurred, and still occur, along with the pronouncement of the name of Jesus. It is in Jesus’ name that we pray; that we ask for healing; that we ask for comfort. Jesus is the one who is the power source.
In his day, of course, there was no electricity for him to demonstrate how a light bulb could only light up when it was connected to a power source as I demonstrated to the children today. So Jesus, I suspect, looked around at what was available and used a different metaphor; one that all people would have understood: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing.” A minister was once talking to boys and girls in a children’s sermon. “Who died on the cross?” he asked. “Jesus!” they said. “And who arose from the dead?” he asked. “Jesus!” they said. “And who will come again?” and one exasperated boy said, “Jesus. The answer is ALWAYS Jesus!” Yep. The answer is always Jesus! Unless you are connected to your power source—to Jesus—you will be like a lamp that is not plugged in! When I travel and wait in airport terminals for my plane, I watch people clump around charging stations to recharge their phones. They are always looking for power! We get it with our phones-we want them regularly charged up. That’s the way to treat our souls and our lives too! When we eat, we charge up our bodies; when we do mental work like learning, testing, or puzzles we charge up our minds. Connecting to Jesus gives power to your soul. We can connect by personally reading our Bibles; but a supercharged way to connect is to be part of a well-lead Bible study. We can connect with personal prayer, but a supercharged connection happens when we gather as the church to pray. And we can connect not just praying for needs to be met, but also praying for guidance. Then, building in time for listening.
Someone once asked me, “Can we really hear from God in our prayers?” My answer is “Yes!” But too often we drop our prayers at the end of making our requests. We say “amen” and close the conversation. By contrast, look at how we communicate on our phones! A text or a conversation is a two-way street: statement or question, and response; statement or question, and response. We are so used to that! But when it comes to connecting with our power source, we think all we have to do is plug in. That is just the first part. The other part is to listen for directions from Jesus. Some hear his guidance as an actual voice; some hear his guidance in their dreams, or some have their “ahas” when they are busy doing something else! But we need to condition ourselves to expect an answer.
Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you.” Those instructions certainly need a footnote. This is a conditional statement because it starts with the word “if.” What was the condition that Jesus explained to his disciples? “If you abide in me.” In other words, if they lived as ones who watched him, ate with him, followed him around, and did what he did, then they would be perfectly in tune with his will, and he was perfectly in tune with his Father’s will. That instruction was a little easier for them to hear and carry out than it is for us. We may have more difficulty stepping into first century Galilee and imagining what it was like to “abide in Jesus.” For us it means first that we work on a constant connection with Jesus as much as we have a constant connection with our phone contact lists. It next means coming to a time of worship and instruction regularly to be in the presence of others and to receive guidance. If you cannot be at a service, then other options of connection can suffice. And finally it means praying to, and listening for, the voice of God. Have you noticed that Jesus was always praying? Jesus! He was always connecting with his power source, which was his Heavenly Father. And he was demonstrating what his followers were to do. It was only as disciples fulfilled that job description that they could expect things to be done for them. Those outside of a Jesus relationship are just wasting their breath if they point to John 15: 7, and say “Jesus says ‘ask whatever you want and it will be done for you.” “Hold on friend! I would say. “You skipped some mighty important steps just going for the bottom line.”
There is more to having a power source then just having requests granted.
I hear from many parents that they wished they heard from their children more. And I know some long-time relationships get dropped because of conflicts, misunderstandings, or distance. If you want a relationship with those people, you and they will need to connect again. If you want a relationship with Jesus, to understand his ways and receive his power, you will need to connect with him. His hand is always out for you. As the old Christian folksong from the early 1970s declared, “Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters; put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea.” That’s his invitation; the response is up to you.
Let’s now return to Jesus’ words in John 15. In 2001 Bruce Wilkerson captivated the Christian world with his little books “The Prayer of Jabez,” and his second book “Secrets of the Vine.” In the latter book he wrote these words:
Along the terraces that follow the curve of the [Kidron] valley, [Jesus and his disciples] passed through ancient vineyards. They walked in single file between rows of neatly tended grapes, plants that have been bearing fruit for generations. To the left about them tower the city walls and the ramparts of the temple. Ahead and to the right rises the Mount of Olives….Jesus reaches for a grape branch. Showing signs of new spring growth, its woody stem lies across His hand in the golden light [of a burning lamp]. He begins, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” …In the next few minutes Jesus talks quietly about branches and grapes and how a vinedresser cares for his prize vineyard. It certainly isn’t what His disciples expect to hear. But this is the moment Jesus chooses to reveal their surprising destiny.
You see, you and I are part of the prized vineyard of an Almighty vinedresser! Jesus knows that his Father counts on him to be an example, a teacher, and a Savior; Jesus in turn counts on his disciples to be the branches of the vineyard, rooted in him! And what is the purpose of a vineyard? [Yes I know to make wine!] But before that: a vineyard’s purpose is to bear fruit! And as the fruit is picked and distributed, with good care new fruit will grow in its place! But if the grapes are disconnected from the vine by an animal, a careless worker, or strong winds, they drop to the ground and die. If we are disconnected from the vine like grapes, our souls can drop to the ground and die. Don’t let that happen! Keep connected with Jesus, the vine, the root, and Jesus will keep connected with his Father’s will. This is the life of being in tune with God. This is where your will, and Jesus’ will, become one.
I will close with the words of Mother Theresa in her book, A Simple Path:
“I can tell you about my path, but I’m only a little wire—God is the power.”
Let us pray:
Many here today, O God, are so good at connecting with others; while some may feel isolated or alone. As they put their hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters, speak to them in their silence, their dreams, or their lives. Let them know that you are listening and that they are loved. Then may your words guide and inspire them. Through Jesus, our true vine. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 29, 2018
THE CARING SHEPHERD
Psalm 23; John 10: 11-18
In the sixteenth century Joseph ben Ephraim Qaro, … a persecuted Spanish Jew who migrated to Palestine, produced a monumental summary of Jewish law under the title Shulhan Aruk, which means, a “Table Prepared.” Qaro took the title from the twenty-third Psalm “thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Yes the psalms were the original hymnal of the Jerusalem temple, but they were also used for religious education and spiritual guidance over the ages. The Psalms speak clearly and vividly about religious truths. Even in our day, many small Testament Bibles, handed out to college students or to military personnel by groups like the Gideons, not only contain the New Testament, they also contain the Psalms. The Psalms have served several functions since the days of King David who wrote many of them. One, they contain pictures of life in countless stages and situations. Two, they run the gamut of human emotions from anguish to praise to comfort. And Three, we find examples of prayers people have offered to God so that we, when tongue tied, might have some templates to follow. Some Psalms resound with joy and thanksgiving; others let us listen in to a hurting soul. They are a resource for Jew and for Christians to this day. When you may be struggling or broken, you can see what people before us said as they turned to God. And when words hardly form in one’s prayer life, a Psalm can shine a light in your darkness. Of all the Psalms in the book, Psalms 51, 90, 91, 100, 121, and 150 are used often, but the most beloved Psalm is the twenty-third Psalm. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus, addressing his disciples in John 10, knew Psalm 23. His knowledge of those words molded his message that he was the “good shepherd.” Psalm 23 is often called “the Shepherd’s Psalm,” and it is the most used passage of Scripture at funerals.
Psalm 23 is an affirmation of faith; it expresses extreme trust even as it offers personal confession. David, the writer of the Psalm, shows a child-like trust in the Lord, who he likened to a shepherd. Although the shortest Christian confession in the Bible is “Jesus is Lord,” the first line of this Psalm is also a confession of faith: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” There it is. Still, few in American culture get exposed to the life of a shepherd. That’s why an author and shepherd like Phillip Keller is so helpful. In his book A Shepherd Looks a Psalm 23, he unpacks the meaning of those beloved words. He grew up in East Africa and watched native herders at work. He became a lay pastor, bringing with him his wealth of “pastoral” insights. Even the term “Pastor” refers to “one that looks out for a flock.”
“I shall not want.” In other words, “I have everything I need.” The shepherd takes care of the food, the water, the grooming, the doctoring, and the protection of the sheep. Ah, to be a sheep in the flock of a good shepherd: that’s the pinnacle of care! That’s what David noticed, what he apparently practiced and what he believed about being in God’s care. It was quite a claim.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Keller wrote:
The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met:
Owing to their timidity, they refuse to lie down unless they are free from fear.
Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.
If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax.
Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they are in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger. [Zondervan, 1970, p. 35]
Goodness! Humans … I mean sheep, are needy!
“He leadeth me beside the still waters.” Sheep, I have learned, will not drink from a running stream; they will die of thirst out of their fear of getting water in their nose (a little like humans?) But if they drink from stagnant water, bacteria can grow and infect their digestive system. So a shepherd must find water (available ideally from streams, rivers, or springs in Israel,) and either capture the water and pour it into a trough, or dam up the running water temporarily so the sheep will drink it. Just like our four little grandsons will absolutely not drink water from their brother’s or cousins assigned cups, so sheep will not drink water unless it is still. Finicky! But they need hydration for sure, and that’s the way a shepherd achieves it.
As we hear Psalm 23, it rarely occurs to us that this is shared from the point of view of sheep. These are the needs of sheep! But then we step away from the sheep metaphor and David decides to jump into his own skin, writing:
“he restoreth my soul.” A sheep might put it this way: “He gives me peace.” But David knows there’s more to God than peace; there is also justice; there is mercy; there is love; and there is righteousness. God restored David’s soul; God can restore our soul. It is a rich expression of belief.
“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” When the one who owns the sheep, and even the land, is the one taking care of them, his name is on the flock. That is, when your name is on something, and it is your responsibility to have something succeed instead of fail, great care and attention may be poured into that venture. For God’s own sake, the shepherd leads sheep in the right paths. Sheep do not just wander aimlessly. Where they go and how much they eat is carefully decided by the shepherd. If they eat grass to the ground, it will not quickly grow back. If they go in the direction of a cliff or a predator, they could be hurt or killed. God’s name is on these sheep. Or as Christians, Christ claims us at our baptism and puts his name on our foreheads and in our hearts. To the public he writes: “This one’s mine!” And to the person he whispers, “You are mine!” What comfort.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. The lands of Israel always created opportunities for danger to sheep. Valleys were important because water would collect there; but predators or bandits could get the upper hand by being at the top of a ridge, a small cliff, or hiding in a cave. The shepherd always had to watch for the human dangers of bandits that would try to steal sheep, or for predators like coyotes, wolves, cougars, stray dogs, or snakes. The rod was a stout stick used to stir brush to reveal serpents, or to smack the heads or noses of animals starting to attack. In our day, cattlemen may refer to a pistol as their “rod,” with the same purpose in mind. The rod is for protection; the staff is for gathering, collecting, and pulling sheep back from danger. The crook would go gently under the body or around a neck of the sheep.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. A good shepherd prepares the tableland. First, the shepherd searches for just the right place that is level enough and covered with enough healthy grasses. Then, he also must pluck up certain weeds and flowers that, if ingested by sheep, are poisonous. He finally decides how long to leave the sheep in one place—not too long as to remove all vegetation; because he counts on it growing back. The enemies of sheep may gather nearby while they graze: humans who want to take them, or animals that want to eat them are nearby. The shepherd knows that the rocks and the cliffs can have eyes, so he is always watching for danger while they eat.
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Especially in the summer, sheep can be tormented by biting flies. But like a flea and tick collar for dogs, shepherds concocted a natural insect repellent, made it into an ointment, and applied it to the head of the sheep and to other parts of their body. If they were tormented, as we are tormented by mosquitoes in Florida or Georgians are tormented gnats, we know what relief a good repellent is. The shepherd knows that too. It keeps sheep from getting so anxious that they will not eat or sleep. Sheep have their needs met because of their shepherd.
Finally, David the writer addressed the reader, human being to human being:
[Yes God is like a good shepherd, and because of that I declare:] Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The Bible is filled with metaphors; metaphors try to describe what is hard to describe. Calling God a good shepherd, or Jesus a good shepherd, is one such metaphor. Calling us “sheep” is another. But few other words can describe what it is like to be in such good care. Be comforted by the images; and remind yourself how good it is to be in the flock of a good shepherd.
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 22, 2018
JESUS BY THE SEA
Luke 24: 36b-48
A visiting Priest was attending a men’s breakfast in Ohio farm country. He asked one of the impressive older farmers in attendance to say grace that morning. After all were seated, the older farmer began:
“Lord, I hate buttermilk.”
The Priest opened one eye and wondered to himself where this was going.
Then the farmer loudly proclaimed, “Lord, I hate lard.”
Now the Priest was overly worried. However without missing a beat, the farmer prayed on,
“And Lord, you know I don’t care much for raw white flour.”
Just as the Priest was ready to stand and stop everything, the farmer continued,
“But Lord, when you mix ‘em all together and bake ‘em up, I do love fresh biscuits.”
“So Lord, when things come up we don’t like, when life gets hard, when we just don’t understand what you are sayin’ to us, we just need to relax and wait ‘till you are done mixin’, and probably it will be somethin’ even better than biscuits.”
I shared that story with our Men’s group several months ago! It’s a wonderful reminder that it takes all kinds of ingredients; all kinds of people; and all kinds of talents, which—on their own—may seem irritating or inadequate. But mix them with the Holy Spirit and great things can happen!
Churches operate on that recipe. Some people initially feel too young, too old, or too inadequate to be of any use. But mix them with prayer, training, and God’s Spirit, and soon we get something better than biscuits!
In John’s gospel we learned that the disciples, perhaps like many of us, felt ill equipped to handle the ministry that was asked of them. They were unsure; they did not feel up to the task. But with prayer and with practice, they carried out their tasks. I deliberately chose liturgists today from our Confirmation Class. By having them here, I am not throwing them in the deep end of the pool; they have practiced this kind of work during our Wednesday prayer services. We practiced together on Wednesday; and we have prayed. So young persons, who perhaps weren’t sure they were up to the task, show us that they are! That’s what Jesus wants from his disciples! He, in effect, says: “Trust me! You are ready for this!” And so, the beginning of Christianity after Jesus arose from the dead began to blossom. The mixer is not a Kitchen Aid or a Sunbeam; it is the Holy Spirit- taking the ingredients of ordinary men, women, and youth, filling in the gaps, mixing in the ingredients that look like talents, and something wonderful is made out of it! To this day God’s Spirit makes wonderful recipes out of ordinary ingredients- you, me, and any inadequacies we may feel.
Author John MacArthur wrote two books in particular. One was “Twelve Ordinary Men” and one was a sequel: “Twelve Extraordinary Women.”
In them he describes how God took ordinary people, and set them apart from their common tasks to carry out God’s special tasks, just as we set aside common water, common bread, and common wine from their common uses when they are used for special reasons in our sacraments. Remember: with ingredients God chooses, and that people God choose, the Spirit can mix them together and mighty things are made! Listen to how John MacArthur puts it:
If you were going to recruit a team to alter the course of history, how would you begin? Jesus began with a walk by a lake. “Follow me” the Master told them. And they did. Thus began his uncommon mission with twelve most common individuals: men who became Christ’s very first disciples. Have you ever considered who Jesus didn’t choose for his inner circle? He didn’t select a rabbi. He didn’t recruit scholars. He didn’t look within the religious establishment to build his team. Any of these would have given him an inside track with those in power. Instead he assembled a rag-tag bunch of folks with unimpressive resumes….it was part of the plan….Jesus wanted ordinary people—people with hopes and dreams of their own but who were willing to leave their lives behind to follow the Savior. [W Publishing Group, 2002, inside front cover]
Jesus was really on to something … and he still is! Do you know that studies have shown that if you invite someone to church, 90% of those invited will come or consider coming. If a minister invites someone to come, only 10% come or will consider coming! People thinking ministers are paid to do such things; but you do them because you have found a good Savior, and a good church! Look what power you have! And Jesus knew that. Pastors can teach you and help you with prayer, and guide you in mission, but you are the kingdom of God and you keep growing the Kingdom! My invitations to you and others are always offered, but yours are more effective. Young, old, abled or disabled: God uses each one of us! The Apostle Paul put it this way: “God said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ [and] the knowledge of the glory of God [has shined] in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay pots, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and does not come from us.” [2 Corinthians 4: 6-7] There is a classroom at First Presbyterian Church here in Daytona Beach called the “Cracked Pots” class! It is a constant reminder that class members are not the light; I am not the light; and you are not the light. But we are called to let the light—who is Jesus—shine through all we say and do!
By the Sea of Galilee Jesus called his disciples. Now in today’s passage they are still in the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus appeared to them again after he had arisen from the dead! Why did he ask for food? Why did he ask them to touch his hands and his feet? It was for them to believe he was not a ghost; not just an image, he was really there in bodily form.
David Heim tells the true story of a man who served in the Navy—Charles Hubbard, of Austin, Texas. The Vietnam vet received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs informing him that he was dead and that his family needed to return thousands of dollars in benefits! A victim of stolen identity, Hubbard found his checking account closed by the VA. After he made an extensive case for being alive, the VA informed him that it would take eight months for him to be officially brought back to life! That’s when they would restore his pension benefits. The resurrected Christ had his own problems convincing the disciples that he is alive and well, bodily present with them.
Having someone rise from death leaves people in wonder and in awe. Most would just think if they saw a man who died they were seeing his ghost. But this was Jesus. He knew they were frightened according to verse 37; he also knew they were falling back into their old trades and ways. But Jesus didn’t come to be a flash in a pan; he came to change the world. And this change would not happen if the 11 remaining apostles just went back to being fisherman or tax collectors. So he needed another meeting with them; a motivational meeting to redirect their work. This was it. And he said this: “the Messiah was supposed to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and [because of that] repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning Jerusalem.” They were already in Jerusalem! This was it! They were being commissioned; and the book of Acts continued to record the work of these apostles—these sent ones—who took the light of Jesus to the nations.
Those men have long died. So the message—that Jesus is the light of the world and the Savior—is now ours to share! It’s not just for preachers to do—as I said, we are less effective in reaching others than you are! So you make the most difference in sharing his light! You are the ones Jesus calls to proclaim his name to all nations. But you can start in your condo; or in your neighborhood; or in your school. You may ask: how do I do that? Here’s an actual conversation that occurred several years ago with congregation members: that couple came down a condo elevator on a Sunday morning; they were dressed for church; another couple on the elevator were dressed for tennis. “Going to play tennis?” The church-going couple asked. “Yes!” they said. “Have fun!” the church going couple said. After my class on evangelism that week, their conversation went like this two weeks later:
“Ah, playing tennis?” The church-going couple asked. “Yes!” they said. But this time the church couple said: “We’re going to our church; a wonderful church-Westminster By-the-Sea! Look!” (and they pointed to our building from their glass elevator.) “It’s right there! Come with us sometime! We’ll sit with you!” And the tennis couple said “Thanks! We might just do that!” And they did. People came to church because of that change in the conversation.
The hymn we are about to sing proclaims that “Jesus Calls Us.” Jesus does not just call the 12 apostles; he calls us too; to follow him; to let his light shine through us; and to proclaim his name wherever we can! Even in our weak times, our young age, or our old age, we are just cracked pots: vessels committed to letting Jesus be known. May you accept your commission from Jesus today, or redouble your prior efforts for the future.
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 15, 2018