All posts by Westminster by the Sea

Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church, Daytona Beach, FL 32118

12-02-18 WATCHING

WATCHING

 Luke 21: 25-36

On most normal paper calendars, we have just started the last month of the year, and after December 31 the calendar ends. It has no more months on it. Actual calendar stores pop up seasonally just to sell us new calendars.  The signs are around us that a year is coming to an end. For example: last Thursday was the final Counseling Center Board meeting of the year; a new slate of officers and a smaller Board starts in January.  By contrast, last Sunday was the end of the Christian year; Christ the King Sunday reminded us of the power and the glory of Jesus Christ: the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. Today starts a new Christian year. Once again we go back into the “Once upon a time” sections of the Old Testament. As “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go,” once again we hear the words of prophets from Christian pulpits: sometimes they are mystical or mysterious; sometimes they are thunderous, reminding people to “prepare the way of the Lord!” We start to hear from the main New Testament prophet known as John The Baptist and his demanding message: “Repent!” We also hear from Major Prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah— called “major” because we have more of their words in our Bibles; and we hear just as powerfully from Minor Prophets like Micah and Malachi—only  called minor because we have fewer of their words in our Bibles. If we listen to their words through our 21st century ears, we might, just might, get good guidance for our own lives and get good direction for our own world, not just for the pre-Christian world to which it was first addressed. I invite you to listen and learn during the coming Sundays known as Advent. Synonyms for advent are these: arrival; appearance, or emergence. Christians have been around this block before; we know the words of the prophets; we know what a rude and bare manger scene is at the end of our December journey. Do you look at this time of the year with anticipation; or with dread; with joy or with hope? Some children weave together their love of Santa and a love for Jesus. I think that’s fine. Some youth are very active in this season, hardly getting  to think about Jesus in their lives. They are busy with parades (like today) or final class projects, and some are just excited about their upcoming holidays with no school! Young adults and young families may be heavily engaged in community projects, in preparing for concerts, or in getting their home ready for guests. Other adults may have a hole in their soul because of a loss, so they may have, as it has been called, a “Blue Christmas.” Some may enjoy caroling while others enjoy watching Christmas specials on television. Still others attend local concerts and services (especially ours!)  These Advent days have many emotions rolled into them.

Theologian Karl Rahner once said this prayer: “Every year we celebrate the Holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and those lovely songs of hope and promise.  Every year we roll up all our needs and yearnings and faithful expectation into one word: ‘Come.’ And yet, what a strange prayer that is! After all, you have already come and pitched your tent among us.” [Watch For the Light, Plough Publishing, 2001, p. 68.] Each year we continue traditions that hold our knowledge in suspension, so that we can pretend that Christ has not yet come to the earth, so that we can re-member the old, old story. One blessing of being a pastor of a congregation as long as I have is that I remember; I remember the people; the events; the special days, including the joys and the sorrows of the seasons. On our church anniversary in May we pull out the films and photo albums, we eat cake, and tell stories again. It’s what we do to pass on the traditions and customs! Some among us wisely remind us to write these things down. So for our 60th anniversary three years ago, I bought our church history booklet up to date. Every December my activities fill me with memories too:  with each ornament I pull out, my mind fills with who gave it to us or where we bought it. With stockings that are pulled from storage I think about each family member. And in holiday gatherings I get more connected with family and friends than even Facebook allows.  But today, let me suggest something specific Jesus told us to do.

First, this lead in: American poet Robert Frost said, in his poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:” “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  He did not write these words that I recently saw on a T-shirt: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one on the left because the one on the right was muddy and I had nice shoes on.” Those were not Robert Frost’s words! But today, I think the road more often taken in Advent is the first road; the road  of  “Waiting.” After all when someone is expecting a baby, (like Mary was,) for the most part all she and other family members can do is wait. Yes she can prepare a nursery, or get good pre-natal care in our day, but others must wait.  When Mary Ann and I were expecting our first son, she and I were not only waiting nine months, but Christopher was not ready to be born until over 3 weeks later! That was a lot of waiting! Waiting is often passive; people wait to see a doctor; people wait for their flight to be called; people wait for a baby to be born. They look for ways to pass the time like playing on their phone or listening to music. They are just waiting!

The road taken less often—we’ll call it the second road—is “Watching.” It is active. After Jesus gave a list of things to notice in the world—changes in the sun, moon, stars, and the sea—Jesus said this in our text today, Luke 21:36: “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” Watching is active. A man recently told me what a gift his grandfather gave him: he taught him to watch, to notice things and people around him wherever he was.  And so he does; this gown man notices birds in the trees, or animals that trudge a lawn or a path. He notices the sky and the expressions of people around him. He is always “watching.” Our translation of the passage today says to “be alert.” J.B. Phillips, the famous translator of the New Testament into modern day English, wrote this: “The [man] who works on scaffolds hundreds of feet above the ground has to be on his guard against over-familiarity. The [one] who works with high-voltage electricity must also beware of … danger. And anyone who knows the sea will say to you in effect, ‘By all means love the sea, but never lose your respect for it.’” [Watch For the Light, Plough Publishing, 2001, p. 20, 21.]  Watching is being alert; seeing what is around you; being prepared for both the challenges and blessings that will come your way. 

This year, Jesus invites us not just to wait for a baby to be born, but to watch, to be alert, and notice the signs that are around us. Who knows when we might see Jesus in another person? Who knows when we might see an opportunity to bring peace from conflict? And who knows what we might see that could totally change our Christmas? Keep watching. 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          December 2, 2018

11-25-18 CHILDREN’S SERMON (CHILDREN OF GOD, THAT IS!)

The Sunday after Thanksgiving had children for the first service, but, none for the second … Instead of just moving on, our wonderful Pastor Jeff was able to change his Children’s message on the fly to be able to share information about our Sanctuary!

11-25-18 THE ONE WHO WAS, AND IS, AND IS TO COME

THE ONE WHO WAS, AND IS, AND IS TO COME

2 Samuel 23: 1-4; Revelation 1: 4-8

 

A week ago the comic book world lost the creative genius of Stan Lee.  He was 95, so you, and your father, and perhaps you grandfather read his comic books, and those of all ages flocked to his films. He helped grow “Marvel Comics” into the giant corporation it became. In 2009 the Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment for 4 billion dollars! And it all started with comic books on newsprint, selling for a dime a copy. He created flawed characters like Spiderman, the X-Men, The Mighty Thor, The Fantastic Four, and the Incredible Hulk.  His comics appealed to boys, (and some girls) who felt bullied at school, but enjoyed fantasy in their personal lives. A super hero had already been created back in 1933 by two friends: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Their famous First Edition of Action Comics included a character they called the “Superman;” it was published in 1938. A pristine copy of that 10-cent comic sold at auction on August 24th, 2014 for $3,207,852! Unbelievable.  And it’s parent company DC Comics, started with that superhero that came to earth and had the duel identity of Clark Kent and Superman. The creators Siegel and Shuster were both from Jewish families; they were singled out as high school boys and dreamed of heroes who were strong and fearless. From their Jewish roots, some believe that they deliberately named the original Superman family with the –el suffix —from a Hebrew abbreviation for the name of God: El-Shaddai, and Elohim are two examples. So Superman’s original Father from the planet Krypton, was Jor-el, and his son that came to earth with superpowers was Kal-el. Were the two Jewish young men who dreamed up a super hero showing their Hebrew preference for names?

 

I wonder if children long before Jesus told stories about the Greek gods? It would have made sense if amazing beings with mysterious powers inspired young men or women! In fact, the influence of the Greek gods continues to this day: Nike sneakers are the namesake of the goddess of victory; Amazon is named after a race of mythical female warriors; and many high school, college, and professional teams are called the Titans, the Spartans, or the Trojans. What I know is that by the late first century, the man that people started talking about was Jesus Christ. They really needed a Savior and they heard he both saved and healed! They were not as interested in the peasant Jesus, but in the powerful heavenly Christ. He was the one they thought would soon return in power! Christ meant “the anointed one,” or “Messiah.” People had looked for such a person for centuries, and now they believed Jesus was the one: the one who arose from the dead was called “Christ” by Christians. What were his powers?  He healed people from dreaded illnesses; he raised a man from the dead; he walked on water; and he himself died and arose from the dead three days later. As early Christians started calling Jesus “Christ” and “Lord,” other human leaders were filled with envy and jealousy. Indeed, the “human number” in Revelation 13—famously  said to be  666, or 616—was a paranoid Roman Emperor named Neron (or Nero)  Caesar. He had died after accusing Christians of setting fire to Rome, a deed his own carelessness had caused. But in those days, people in the Roman Empire believed that an evil soul could inhabit a body again in a new life! After Nero died, another Emperor named Domitian came into power. He, like Nero before him, was evil and self-aggrandizing. He, like Nero, demanded that people in the Roman Empire address him as “Lord and God.” The Emperor had no room for a man named Jesus to claim a title higher than his. Jesus was the Christ to his followers. He was the King. In fact, if he was the “King of kings” and Lord of lords” as Scripture says in 1 Timothy, and in Revelation 1, 17, and 19, and as Handel reminded the world in his “Hallelujah Chorus,” then Jesus Christ was an absolute threat to an insecure ruler.. The book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus to John. On behalf of Christ, John wrote in Revelation 1, verse 4 and beyond: “Grace to you and peace from him who is, and who was, and who is to come …the ruler of the kings of the earth.” John further writes: “Lo! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will behold him; even those who pierced him.” Today we remember that no one; no one, is like Christ the King. Through the years, no one has been able to top his wisdom, his influence, or the belief (by his followers) that he had gone to Heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. All power has been bestowed on him! If a normal human rating of insight and consciousness is, say, 200, he is 1000. He is insightful; he is attuned to being in every area of the universal that we call Heaven and Earth, and he freely moves from one realm to another. He is here, and he is there, and especially he is in the soul of those who welcome him. He has the listening power of a thousand ears, the seeing power of a thousand eyes, a heart that loves and a mind that learns and teaches. All Earthly power and all Heavenly power- it’s all his. It has been given to him in the symbolic language of having him sit on the throne and being at the right hand of the Father. He has had that place of honor through the ages. Back in 1969, Andrew Lloyd Webber gave Jesus a new title in his rock opera centered around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He gave Jesus the 20th century title of  “Superstar.” And so he is.

 

After teaching the book of Revelation for a dozen times or more, I am aware of how many people want to avoid what seem like the entanglements of the book: the beasts; the blood; the dragon, and the like. But once you wade through those, Revelation contains this bottom line: Christ wins; Satan loses! Others have put it “God wins; Rome loses!” Certainly Handel found amazing passages in  Revelation 11:15; 19:6; and 19:16; he included them in his most famous work called “Messiah.” Here are the words he chose to use: “Hallelujah! For the Lord omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever. He is King of kings and Lord of Lords!”  It almost seems futile for people to improve on those words from Revelation.  But through the ages, people have tried to intensify the glory and praise that the risen Christ deserves. Earlier today we sang a Spiritual that tried to capture the essence of Christ: “He is King of kings; he is Lord of lords: Jesus Christ, the first and last, no man works like him.” Right out of Revelation; two versions of the same sentiment. Then there is the more recent piece that our choir has sung before, “In Christ Alone,” by written by Stuart Townsend. Here’s part of it: “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. The cornerstone, the solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. What heights of love, what depths of peace when fears are stilled, when strivings cease.

My Comforter, my all in all, here in the love of Christ I stand.”

 

What way best speaks to you about this superstar; this King of kings; this Savior of your soul; this Christ who, from weakness became strength; who from anger became love; and from flesh escaped the bonds of humanness?  This is not a comic book superhero; this is the Savior. This week, on this day called “Christ the King,” think about his power; ponder some of his comforting words like the ones recorded in John 14: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you unto myself, that where I am, you may be also.” Who else can do that for you and me? We not only are in the flock of the good shepherd, but he has gone before us to Heaven to prepare the table and a place for us!

 

Next week, we start the old, old story again; hearing the words of the prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah. It is a great story; but this today is the climax to that story. If this part of the Bible were set to music, the director might exclaim: “Let every instrument be tuned for praise!” That would include herald trumpets, pounding timpani, and clashing cymbals! Lift up your hearts; raise your voices; and let your eyes look with hope toward Christ as you prepare him room; not in Heaven, but in your very soul. That’s where your Lord is most pleased to dwell.

Hallelujah- Praise the Lord!”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 November 25, 2018

11-18-18 PERSIST ADVOCATE BE THANKFUL

Persist, Advocate, Be Thankful

1 Samuel 1:4-20

On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters;  but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.  So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her.  In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

 

 

 

As we prepare our homes, our food, and our travel plans for Thanksgiving, we think about all the things we are thankful for in our lives. While Thanksgiving can be a joyful holiday, it has become increasingly clear that not everyone has cause for joy: some people are mourning lost loved ones, some are estranged from their family, and some people don’t have the food and shelter to celebrate with. For those who are struggling this year, your pain and your story matters too. I see you. You are loved by this church and by our God. As we prepare for the holiday I invite us, as the Body of Christ, to take a look at this scripture passage that navigates the complicated path to thankfulness. I believe that this story of Hannah shows us how to respond faithfully to people in all walks of life, while also providing space for joy and celebration. For those who are struggling, this story teaches how to persist in our needs and desires. It teaches us that it’s okay not to be okay all the time, and that we have a right to ask for help from others. For those who have an abundance of blessings, this scripture passage teaches us to advocate with others and to be helpers to those in need. Finally, it teaches all of us to give thanks for what we have, because God is good.

I love this story of Hannah praying for a child. Hannah is not afraid to go after what she wants and bravely kneels before God in the temple to plead her case and implore God for her deepest desire. Hannah is a persistent woman. Instead of giving into her rival who provoked her, she continued to pursue her desire to become a mother. She persists further when Eli, the priest in the temple, tells her to stop making a drunken spectacle of herself. She stands up for herself, saying that she is not drunk at all and that she shouldn’t be counted as a “worthless woman.” Instead she insists that her voice matters, she is pouring out her soul and speaking her anxiety and vexation. Hannah is speaking her truth, and she refuses to be silent. I love Hannah, a strong woman who knows what she wants, who is willing to go after it, and refuses to let anyone silence her, including Eli the priest.

The best examples of persistence I have ever seen was when I spent time as a chaplain at the Outreach and Advocacy Center, or the OAC, at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta. At the OAC my job was to do intake with people who needed to get their Georgia identity cards and their birth certificates. We also provided vouchers for food, clothing, and medical services. Most of our guests who received services at the OAC were experiencing homelessness in some shape or form. One job in particular that I loved to do was mentoring our guests who were in our program that helped people get ready for jobs. One of the OAC employees would hold free classes to help any guest who wanted to strengthen their resume, learn basic computer skills, and help them improve their interview skills. My job was to sit with these guests and ask how they were doing, what was going on in their lives, and see if there was any other way our organization could be a support. This time was very special because I could connect with guests on a one-on-one basis, hear their stories, and offer a prayer for them.

A gentleman I mentored was very serious about his success. He was coming to the program every day, walking an hour and a half from the park he was sleeping in to get to class on time. When we found this out, we gave him bus fair so that he didn’t have to walk so far. When he was down to the last week of the program, he had an interview for a full-time job. He promised to come back and tell me how things went. About a week later he asked for a moment of my time and if I could step away from my desk. We sat down together, and he was trying to seem very serious, but I could tell he was holding back a smile. After beating around the bush a little, he finally told me that he landed the job. I jumped up, we hugged, and I congratulated him. It was his persistence and hard work that got him to a new stage in his life, and his willingness to seek the help offered to him. This man had the persistence of Hannah, refusing to let the obstacles in his life stop him from succeeding. For anyone who has a need or a struggle, know that you are a beloved child of God, and you are valuable and worth the persistence. For those in the church who are doing well and have enough to share, let us respond as Christ would to persistent people and share our blessings honoring their value. We can become advocates. Eli shows us how not to be one through his mistake of judging Hannah.

Once Hannah defends herself, Eli realizes his error; he had been quick to judge her and make assumptions about her intentions and her character. He then shifts his focus to advocating with her, telling her to go in peace and that the God of Israel will grant her the petition she has made. When I was in college I was exposed to outreach, missions, social justice, and evangelism through our chapel program. Speakers from the United States and from all over the world would come and tell us about their ministries. These included helping persecuted Christians, nonprofit organizations that sold fair trade gifts, and orphanages that helped connect families. As a girl who had grown up fairly sheltered from the world, I felt like my eyes had been opened to injustice and how Christians should be bringing messages of hope. My heart was stirred, and I wanted to take action and become an advocate. I was very passionate and fervent in my new understanding of the world, and I remember that I adopted the phrase, “being a voice for the voiceless.” While this came from a good place with good intentions, I had my over-zealous bubble popped rather abruptly. One of my professors kindly, but firmly said that we don’t advocate for people but with people. The professor also told me that there is no such thing as a voiceless person; instead, those of us who have a voice in society could choose to step back so that other voices can be heard. I learned that what I had was known as a “savior complex”; I thought that my actions would help me swoop in and save the day. I would gain satisfaction and gratification from helping and doing good in the world. But this wasn’t the right way to advocate, because I was really making advocacy about myself: my desires to help and to be a helpful person would easily get in the way of the desires and needs of those who I intended to help. The priest Eli learned this lesson too. He misjudged the situation and spoke on Hannah’s behalf. She corrected him with her needs and desires, and he changed his behavior. Eli then blesses Hannah with her needs as the priority, using his platform as a priest to step back and let her voice be heard.

I saw the best way to advocate also at the OAC. One gentleman I worked with had just gotten into some housing and was preparing for job interviews. He was very positive and upbeat about his future, and he was grateful for my help in getting his birth certificate. It was required for our paperwork that we ask why he was requesting a birth certificate. He told me he needed his documentation to access his veteran benefits. He was both amazed and frustrated with the veteran benefits available to him; he was amazed at how much his life was improving because he had access to benefits, but he was frustrated that there were so many veterans sleeping on the streets who didn’t know what programs and opportunities were available to them. He told me that he was going to be just fine and now he is going to use his voice and his platform to tell his fellow veterans about the resources they could apply for. There wasn’t enough education in the community for the local veterans to know how or where they could get help, so he decided to help their voices would find a place to be heard. This was an important lesson for me about advocacy, and I believe this man reflects the voice of Eli who advocated with Hannah. For those of us that have a voice in society, a platform from which we are heard, or any type of influence, large or small, let us use those opportunities to uplift the voices of others and listen closely to the desires and needs of the people who are persisting against obstacles in society.

After this encounter in the temple, Hannah soon conceives a son. Hannah is so thankful to God for the answer to her prayer that she names him Samuel because she had asked for him from the Lord. Hannah not only dedicates Samuel’s namesake to God, but she dedicates him to the temple. When Samuel is old enough to be weaned, Hannah brings him to the temple to be committed to the Lord. She leaves him there to learn and live under Eli the priest. The is the ultimate act of gratitude: to give away the child that she so desperately desired to the service of the Lord. Hannah responded with gratitude by emptying herself, and God’s blessings were multiplied through Samuel’s life of being a prophet and judge. Author Ann Voskamp explains in her book 1000 Gifts  that living a life of gratitude means trusting that “there is always enough God.” God has no end, and if we are blessed in our gratitude we bless others without fear that we will run out of God’s blessings. Just like Hannah, Ann Voskamp says that we empty ourselves to fill others and be filled by the goodness of God. That is the cycle of gratitude, we receive, we give thanks, and we give back. This is the cycle we see in Hannah’s story: persistence, advocacy, and giving thanks.

Beloved, let us know our worth and persist in our desires and needs. God wants to fulfill our needs. We can be brave and tell our truth like Hannah. Let us be a part of fulfilling those needs by being advocates. When we are a blessed people, we need not fear scarcity but live in abundance. There is enough God for all, and we can participate in God’s goodness. We can learn, like Eli, to advocate with people and amplify their voices. Then together let us give thanks and praise to God by engaging in joy and continuing to share and love one another. Samuel was a gift given to Hannah, but was shared that gift with all of Israel. In our posture of gratitude, let us respond as faithful people, as the Body of Christ, to love and serve all. Praise be to God. Amen.

11/11/18 STORIES OF TWO WIDOWS

STORIES OF TWO WIDOWS

Ruth 3; Mark 12

 

This week I’m thinking about widows.  Not only do many women live longer than men, creating a disproportional number of women in retirement homes, but many widows over the years have had very minimal support to help them continue in their lives.  In the United States there are safety nets like Social Security, or a spouse’s pension, or Medicare, or even Medicaid if necessary. For those in younger generations who lose their husband, the popular way to offer support to them is with a GoFundMe page on social media. Back in the 90s, our congregation was heartbroken to have two women have their husbands die at age 34 to melanoma. They were filled with sorrow. My own mother is a widow, but my father’s pension and careful saving has allowed her to live comfortably, although she very much misses my father. In her world, he was the ying to her yang; she kept the home and did much of the raising of her four children. He worked full time, invested their money, and did the projects around the house that needed attention. She does not have his skill sets. So being a widow makes her, and others like her, feel a loss for a very long time; even the rest of their lives.

 

This week my heart has broken for two widows who were in the news: First, the widow of Sergeant Ron Helus, a 29 year veteran of the Ventura County Sheriff’s office in California. He was on the phone with his wife when he got the call that there was a shooter at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. He said to his wife, “Hey, I’ve got to respond to a call. I gotta go. I love you.” Those were the last words she ever heard from her husband. He was gunned down by a suspect who had first killed the security guard. What pain; what sorrow; what loss she is feeling. A special man is gone, and his beloved widow grieves. Second, I’m thinking about the widow of Army National Guard Member Major Brent Taylor, who also served as Mayor in North Ogden, Utah. He had taken a leave of absence from his mayoral post to go serve another tour in Afghanistan. He too was killed in the line of duty, and it devastated his widow, Jennie Taylor. Now she is a widow too, and the remaining parent to their seven children Megan (13), Lincoln (11), Alex (9), Jacob (7), Ellie (5), Jonathan (2), and Caroline (11 months). What pain; what sorrow; what a loss. Another special man is gone and his wife grieves.

 

In the Bible we have two other sets of widows I want to lift up today. One was Naomi. We heard about her situation last week. Because of a famine in Judah, she traveled with her husband Elimilech to the foreign land of Moab to find food and rear their sons. I have trouble imaging the heartbreak she had: her husband died, so she had to care for, and then lean on, her two sons for comfort and support. As her sons turned their eyes toward marriage, their attention shifted in part from her to their new wives. They married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Oprah Winfrey has said her mother named her for Orpah, but it was misspelled on her birth certificate! After Elimilech died and her sons died, Naomi had little choice but to leave Moab and return to Judah. There was no social security in Moab, nor any pensions. In fact, there was no pension or social security in Judah either, but there was an arrangement. If Naomi came back as a widow, by custom the male relative of her late husband who could best afford to take her into his household was obliged to welcome her and comfort her. In return, she would pull her weight on the farm and in the household. If the male relative she went to stay with—in this case, Boaz—was not married, or was a widower, Naomi and he might have married. But there was a situation; have you ever heard people say “We have us a situation!” Well, they had one; it was Naomi’s Moabite daughter in law who insisted on coming back to Judah with her! Ruth was young, hard working, and presumably caught the eye of Boaz. So not only did Naomi lose her husband and two sons to death, she parted ways with daughter in law Orpah, but tag-along Ruth was with her to marry the man who might have been Naomi’s husband instead! Unselfish Naomi actually instructed Ruth how she could win the approval of Boaz so Ruth could stay in Judah! What an amazing widow. There are plenty of amazing widows in our world, but she is one of them.

 

On the other hand, we have a widow who Jesus saw, according to Mark chapter 12. Jesus taught using whatever or whoever was around him. After skewering the scribes with verbal barbs, he sat down opposite the treasury. The treasury, as you’d imagine, was the place where faithful Jews would bring their shekels for God. It was by the Temple; rich people put in large contributions; people of modest incomes put in modest amounts, and poorer people put in less. The poorest persons in the area were either men who could not work because of disability or disease, or women whose husbands had died. The widows had nothing. By law they were not allowed to work for money; their tasks were to keep the households. And so when their husband died, the bottom fell out of their meager finances. A widow had nothing; nothing except this one widow had faith in God and a hope for her future.  A tithe to God—then and now—is considered to be 10% of one’s gross income, and giving in the days of Jesus was a matter of scrutiny between a local rabbi and a family. A widow, in giving two copper coins, certainly gave more than a tithe to her God. The coin commonly known as a widow’s “mite,” was also known as a “lepton.” It was like our penny. It is even hard to find penny candy for my grandsons these days. Cash only breakfast restaurants leave pennies openly on their counters to make change. And a penny on the ground will often get trampled instead of get picked up. So when this widow gave of her all, Jesus used her as an example.  A widow, in addition to having no income, probably joined the army of widows across the ages with broken hearts. Their husbands were dead. Yet this poor, poor, brokenhearted widow  “put everything she had,” into the treasury according to Jesus. He used her, in her brokenness and poverty, as an example of faith, hope, and love.

 

Today I don’t know the situations everyone here faces. If you are broken, you are not alone. Brokenness is all around the world.  If you are able to work and earn money, or if you have a pension or social security, you have ways to share with others and also honor God with a tithe. Because of your generosity to date, we’ve been able to help change the lives of hungry people in our community through Halifax Urban Ministries and our Good Samaritan program. When you’ve been generous, we have been able to help change the lives of 160 men in Solutions By-The-Sea. Because of your help, supplies given and people volunteering at local elementary schools help children and teachers in their classroom. Because of your generosity, Westminster has been a steady and major contributor to the Presbyterian Counseling Center for 32 years. Because of your generosity, we are able to offer this inspiring space and these wonderful instruments to support congregational and choral singing! Your tithes and offerings truly matter, and are wisely used. Please consider your prayerful support not only for today, but for 2019. And I invite you to join me to have a special place in your heart for the widows … and widowers …and those whose children have died among us.

 

Let us pray: God of the widow; God of the widower; God of the child; God of the

Wounded soul:

How do your children say thanks? How do your children show love?

May our gifts and our prayers reflect our thank you notes to you.

Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          November 11, 2018

11-04-18 LOVE GOD; LOVE NEIGHBORS

LOVE GOD; LOVE NEIGHBORS

Ruth 1: 1-18; Mark 12; 28-34

 

Sometimes the Bible offers a laser-beam commentary on situations we face in life. This week is such a time.  First, Fred McFeely Rogers was born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the hometown of Arnold Palmer. He grew up with a love for others, and a love for God.  One passage that he certainly embodied was Jesus’ commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Fred Rogers moved from Pennsylvania to Winter Park, Florida to Major in Music Composition at Rollins College. Afterward he attended and graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. He was, in fact, The Rev. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, but he was known throughout the world as Mr. Rogers. He created a neighborhood in the studio of the Public Broadcasting Station in Pittsburgh. Throughout the life of the show he created, he decided on the themes, wrote the music, and voiced the puppets as he spoke directly into the camera to children and the parents or grandparents who may have watched too.  Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was his ministry from 1968 until 2001; and to this day his family and his Foundation have carried on his themes with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

But away from TV, Mr. Rogers’ actual neighborhood was the area around Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh where, on October 27th, Satan entered a man, urged on by his henchmen on a website of hate, and he killed 11 neighbors who were worshipping God. The henchmen across the globe cheered. But Mr. Rogers had heard the teachings of Jesus and had exemplified them to others in his own unique way. Mr. Rogers modeled what it meant to be a neighbor- welcoming people of color, people with disabilities, people of different faiths, and people from different walks of life: and he called everyone of them “neighbor.” He planted good seeds in his neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. How do I know? Jesus said you can always tell that a good seed has been planted by the fruit that is produces.  When The Tree of Life Synagogue went through unspeakable tragedy last week, the Presbyterians did not say, Oh, you are Jews; Jews should help you.” They said, “You are our neighbors. You may use our building; our people are at your service; we will pray for you and be with you; and we are broken with you.” Jesus would have been pleased. The Muslim congregation in Squirrel Hill did not say, “You are Jews; Jews should help you.” The Imam said: “We are your neighbors and we mourn for you and with you. Do you need money? We will raise it. Do you need comfort? We will offer it. Whatever you need, just ask.” Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood knew how to be neighbors so well in the midst of evil. Even now, they are doing Kingdom work, and Jesus would be pleased.  How do I know? In the gospels, Jesus showed who his neighbors were with his encounters and some of his parables. When he told the story of the good Samaritan, recorded in Luke chapter 10, the Jews must have flinched. (Remember, there were no Christians until after Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the Gospels.) So Jews flinched because there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. They believed they were bad; ungodly, and should be shunned.  Jesus told the story in their face to change the narrative. Jesus was demonstrating who our neighbors are. Another time Jesus crossed into Samaria deliberately (a line as uncrossable as the one between Palestinians and Israelis today) Yet he went there and spoke to a woman at a well; she was convinced Jesus was a prophet and became one of his first evangelists in her land. Jesus was being a neighbor. He was a neighbor even to a Syrophoenican woman who was said to worship different gods.  Other Jews would have shunned her. But she engaged Jesus in a conversation and begged him to heal her daughter from a demon. Jesus heard her out, and inspired by her faith, healed her daughter. Jesus was being a neighbor. Fred Rogers learned how to be a neighbor from his Savior Jesus.  Go and do likewise, as those in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood are doing.

 

Second, our country is in a heated debate regarding immigration, and issues regarding purity of race. Oh if people really read and understood their Bibles. Take, for example, the book of Ruth which I will mention briefly today and say more about next week. Because of a famine in Judah, a Jewish couple—Elimilech and Naomi, and their young sons Mahlon and Chilion—crossed the border into the country of Moab, which today is in Jordan. In our day, crossing a border like that takes a passport and several hours of inspections. But it was not impossible to cross a border during a famine in the days of Ruth. Thank God. The family took up residence in Moab, even though Moabites didn’t worship our God; desperate times call for desperate measures, then and now. Elimilech was the husband, and Naomi was his wife. They were from Bethlehem. Their sons from Judah were Mahlon and Chilion. The sons ending up finding and marrying Moabite women named Orpah, and Ruth. The Judeans grew up in Moab away from their native country because of a famine. In due time Elimilech—the he father—died, leaving Naomi as a widowed Judean in a foreign land. Within 10 years Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi, a Judean, in a foreign land with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi decided to return to Judah where family members would take her in. Orpah agreed to stay behind in the country of her origin and where her people were, but Ruth wanted to go with Naomi, as she said in the famous line in the King James Bible: “Entreat me not to leave me or to keep me from following after thee. For whither thou goest, I will go; where though lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part me from thee.”

 

There was a Jewish law that required a blood relative man to take a Jewish woman relative who was widowed into his household. So Naomi had a place on the farm of her kinsman Boaz.  But with Naomi’s request, and Ruth’s unexpected presence as a respectful, hard-working woman, who was a foreigner—a Moabite woman—she was welcomed into the house of Boaz in the little town of Bethlehem.  Spoiler alert: in the last chapter Boaz and Ruth end up married-a Judean man and a Moabite woman. And from that mixed marriage, Boaz and Ruth had a son. According to Ruth 4:17, and it says it exactly this way in the Bible: “The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, who is the father of David.  And who was born from the house and the lineage of David, in that little town of Bethlehem? (O Little Town of Bethlehem) Yes. The Christ of Christmas. Jesus was born from a mixed marriage lineage. Who better to be show the world what it means to be a good neighbor? Today I ask you what a special minister asked boys and girls every day:

“Won’t you be my neighbor?”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          November 4, 2018

10-28-18 GETTING CONSECRATED

GETTING CONSECRATED

Joshua 3: 3-5;  Hebrews 7: 23-28

 

Ever since the year the words were written—1874—Christians of every denomination have joined writer Frances Ridley Havergal in singing the words: “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee.”  It’s a prayer; it’s a plea. But I suspect most of the time we sing it with minds that are wandering through a myriad of thoughts, like noticing what someone else is wearing, or thinking about lunch. Today I will be inviting you to join me in singing that from your soul, with the plea that Havergal first intended. In a biographical description, Carl P. Davis Jr. writes this: “Her own account is preserved in a conversation with her sister: ‘[On that day I first saw clearly the blessedness of true consecration. I saw it as a flash of electric light, and what you see you can never unsee. There must be full surrender before there can be full blessedness.” [Glory to God: A Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016, p. 664.]  There must be full surrender before there can be full blessedness.”  I’ve heard people in AA programs voice the same thing- “There must be full surrender before there can be full blessedness. I’ve heard people say the same thing the day after giving themself to Christ in a Billy Graham Crusade. What I’m not sure I’ve heard is regular church going Christians saying it. Sometimes I think we go through the church motions and depart. But if you truly invite God to take your life and let it be consecrated—that is, dedicated or rededicated for a Divine purpose—the lights may flash, the sparks may fly, or the memory of baptismal waters may flood your thoughts. Your life could be changed; your life could be more blessed from this day forward.

 

In Joshua chapter 3, listen to what is said there: Joshua told the people: “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”  Do have a time in your life when you consecrated yourself before God? Today you’ll have a chance. I remember sitting in my Youth Group at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church, in Chesterfield Missouri with a youth leader and his guitar. He began playing, and we began singing: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going; and soon all those around can warm up to it’s glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it. You spread his love, to everyone, you want to pass it on.” That night the lives of several people were changed in the singing of the song, the praying of the friends, and the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  When else might people become consecrated? At Solutions By-The-Sea, Tobias Caskey has seen several men move from incarceration to consecration. They took a deep spiritual inventory of their life, they confessed their sins, and repented. Then he asked our Session for permission to baptize them. A new life began.

 

Jesus, as a great high priest, is described in Hebrews chapter 7. Through the commission and blessing he received from his Heavenly Father, and his baptism by John, Jesus lived a consecrated life, doing everything for the Kingdom. The writer of Hebrews has this mighty description of Christ:

It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; he did once and for all when he offered himself.

Jesus was consecrated once; for some people, a life-changing decision for Him is the fulcrum of their life. For others, sometimes God has to get their attention a few times in their life. Take for example the story of a man who was in the oil business. His name is Keith Miller.  His pride took him out on a limb that was being sawed off. This is part of his story of consecration:

Because of my tremendous self-centeredness and pride, I have always tried desperately to be understood. [I had left the oil company thinking I had a better job, but not so.] The oil company took me back and sent [me] to an office [I’d] been in before. I would rather have gone to most any other place, because this “going back” represented my first great human failure. There was no way I could explain to the people around me what had gone on and was going on inside my soul, behind the confident mask I was showing the world. I began to work because I had a wife whom I loved very much, and two babies I loved deeply. But there seemed to be no hope, no ultimate purpose anymore. If there was a God, the people at the seminary had subtly suggested that I must have turned away from Him…. I suddenly [broke] out into a cold sweat. I thought I might be losing my mind. One day it was so bad that I got in my company car and took off on a field trip alone. As I was driving through the tall pine woods country of West Texas, I suddenly pulled up beside the road and stopped. I remember sitting there in complete despair. … As I sat there I began to weep like a little boy…. I looked up toward the sky. There was nothing I wanted to do with my life. And I said, “God if there’s anything you want in this stinking, soul, take it.” Something came into my life that day which has never left; it was a deep intuitive realization of what God wants from a [person]…. [God] wants your will, and if you give [God] your will, [you’ll be shown] life as you’ve never seen it before.  (A Taste of New Wine, Word Books, Waco, 1965, p. 38-39)

 

Surrendering is not something many people do easily. But the day Keith Miller surrendered to God; and the day some men in our community who were recently incarcerated surrendered to God; and the day a youth leader with a guitar led some youth group members to surrender to God, they became consecrated. They had become kingdom people; not kingdom of this world people, but kingdom of God people. They began to live life differently.

 

  1. Raymond Edmond has compiled a treasure trove of consecration stories in the book They Found the Secret. It is in our church library and includes stories about such people as John Bunyan, Oswald Chambers, Richard C. Halverson, and also Frances Ridley Havergal whose hymn we will sing today. In the book, Edmond traces a pattern in the lives of the people he describes. He says:

Out of discouragement and defeat they have come into victory. Out of weakness and weariness they have been made strong. Out of ineffectiveness and apparent uselessness they have become efficient and enthusiastic. The pattern seems to be self-centeredness, self-effort, and increasing inner dissatisfaction and outer discouragement, a temptation to give up because there is no better way, and then finding the Spirit of God to be their strength, their guide, their confidence, and their companion—in a word, their life. The crisis of the deeper life is the key that unlocks the secret of their transformation. It is the beginning of the exchanged life. [And] what is the exchanged life? Really, it is not some thing; it is some one. It is the indwelling of the Lord Jesus Christ made real and rewarding by the Holy Spirit.  [Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1984, p.12]

 

Today I invite you again to seriously consider getting consecrated to God; to rededicate yourself to glorifying God—not just as you sit in church praying or singing or listening—but as you go forth: sharing, caring, and loving.  What a difference there could be in our world if we decided to leave behind the strife, the toxic language, and any self-centered goals, and instead to think about others more, and to show kindness more. Give your will to God, and in so doing, accept the cleansing flood of consecration. With that, the Spirit of the Living God can energize your work, and Christ, the Great High Priest, can a seat in your heart.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                        October 28, 2018

 

 

10-21-18 IN THE STEPS OF A PRIEST

IN THE STEPS OF A PRIEST

Hebrews 5: 1-10

 

Ok, in a sermon with this title, I have to begin with one of my favorite jokes that feature a priest:

A minister, a priest, and a rabbi are talking about their own deaths. One of them asks, “When you are in your casket, and friends, family, and congregants are walking by your casket, what would you like to hear them say?”

The minister said, “I’d like to hear them say that I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader, and a great family man.” The others nodded. The priest said, “ As they are gazing at my body, I would like to hear them say that I was a wonderful teacher and a servant of the Lord who made a big difference in people’s lives.” They nodded. It was the rabbi’s turn. He smiled and said, “When they are looking down at my body, I’d like to hear them say, ‘Look! He’s moving!’”

 

It was really just since 1517 and the reforms made famous by Martin Luther that Christian theologians who thought like Luther did were disparagingly called the “PROTESTants.” The Protestants started the strange idea that we still embrace called, “The Priesthood of All Believers.”  Before that, Roman Catholics and Jews believed in the power—and the necessity—of priests. Yes, Jews had high priests in the first century, and early Christians found the idea of a priest most palatable. A priest, you see, offers sacrifices to God on behalf of others; and a priest also pleads one’s case before the Almighty. A priest literally stands between human beings in the need of forgiveness and the holy God.  They are a necessary part of the relationship between Roman Catholics and God, and certainly between first century Jews and God.  But do the Protestants—the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the non-denominational churches—need a priest too? Yes. They find their reason in the book of Hebrews; there they find the Risen Christ, sitting first on the right hand of power, is also the Great High Priest. How high? Why, he is a priest after the order of Melchizadek. Whenever people spoke the name of that legendary and mystical priest, they must have said it in an earnest whisper, as if a hush would fall over the room. In the 14th Chapter of Genesis verse 18, Melchizadek was not only the King of Salem, (What was Salem? Why, JeruSALEM of course,) but he was also called the Priest of the Most High God. He brought out bread and wine as a blessing to both Abram and God. He was a true priest: an intermediary between God and people; and between people and God. He attained legendary status over the years. I can imagine, when early Christians were reading this letter aloud to a small house church, that all the ears would perk up as the reader shared verses 5 and 6: “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you; as it says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’”

 

We need such a priest. Certainly the role of priests has been tarnished in recent years over sexual abuse scandals. But sometimes a person needs a priest; or we might call such a person a “confessor.”  In the early 90s in this congregation I went to the home of a wonderful couple in our church. She was dying of cancer. As I arrived at the home, I knew death would not be far away for her. I intended to give her final prayers, something that her early Catholic upbringing called “Last Rites” or “Extreme Unction.” The husband said, “She wants to see you privately.” I went into her bedroom and there she was, lying on a hospital bed. She looked exhausted from the ravages of cancer. She motioned for me to come close to her, which I did. With a barely audible voice she said: “I need to confess something to you. I was unfaithful to my husband one time in our marriage.” Tears began to run down her cheeks. Crying, she continued, “I am so, so sorry, but I don’t want to hurt him now. So I needed to tell this to you; I need God to hear what I have said.” “God has heard what you said,” I replied in her ear. “When you are ready, go in peace.” She slipped away later that night. Sometimes we need a priest. For many Protestants, it can be a pastor as I mentioned. It can also be a counselor, or a chaplain: not just chaplains in hospitals or Hospices, but also in the Armed Forces. Oh the stories chaplains could tell without using names about the people who found peace through confession.  This is one of the most powerful roles of a priest. But sometimes our priest is another trusted person, as occurred in the cloistered life of a monastery or a convent. Julie Kerr, in her book called Life in the Medieval Cloister, described the power of confession before turning in for the night. She writes, “If monks were going to sleep peacefully and enjoy the restorative night’s sleep [they needed,] it was important that they first confessed their sins and freed their minds of guilt. By doing so, the monks also armed themselves against the devil, who, it was believed, would seek to ensnare them at night when they were at their most vulnerable.” [Continuum, UK, 2009, p. 104.] Is sin a passé term, in our day, one that seems to out of place in our live and let live society? Hardly, as people around the world speculated this week about whether a man was restrained and horribly dismembered while hoping to get papers necessary to marry the woman he loved. Sin and evil are still alive a in our world.

 

Listen to what layperson Kathleen Norris shared in her book called The Cloister Walk:

My husband and I, raised in the pietistic churches of the 1950s, received an education in sin that was not only inadequate, but harmful. From the Protestants I got a list of rules that were not to be broken and [I] naively thought that as long as I wasn’t breaking the rules, sin was not much of a problem for me. As a young adult, I believed I had no conscience, a state I was fortunate to survive. From the Catholics my husband got less of a sense of sin than a terrific ability to feel guilty about everything under the sun …. [Riverhead Books, NY 1996, pp. 125-126]

 

Kathleen goes on to say how much she learned from the monks about forgiveness and grace as she participated in the cloistered life for a time.

 

Here is another role of priests: according to Hebrews 5:7, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The part of that declaration that stands out to me is the last phrase: “He was heard because of his reverent submission.” The way we approach God matters. Prayers cannot effectively be offered in a “matter of fact” way, or in a glib way while we are checking our cell phone. “Reverent submission” apparently matters. Some of you ask me to pray for you, and of course I do. But some believe God hears my prayers better than theirs! Hmmm. When you pray, do you set a time aside from any distraction, go into a quiet place, even a place that feels holy, and then reverently pray? That’s what Jesus did. Some of my most ardent and pleading prayers in my life have happened when I’ve gone into our small chapel—away from foot traffic and phone calls, facing the cross and the table that says, “In remembrance of me;” the chapel that has earth-toned light refracting through stained glass—and then prayed. That’s where I pray best.  I use Jesus as my guide for prayer.

 

We need Jesus; he has many roles in the lives of his followers: Savior; friend; teacher. But today we are remembering an often over-looked role: priest.  Like my young grandson Shane would whisper to one of his parents when he broke something or spilled something in our house so they could break the news to Mary Ann or me and perhaps cushion our reaction to the deed, Jesus performs something of the same role for us when we want to approach God with something we have broken or someone we have hurt.

 

Finally, in the Jerusalem temple of Jesus’ day, a priest was selected to literally “go behind the curtain” of the holy of holies once a year on Yom Kippur, to burn incense and offer a sacrifice to God on behalf of the whole nation. They called the curtain “the veil” of the Temple. Listen how this imagery is transferred to a verse of our next hymn, written by William Chatterton Dix in 1866. “Alleluia! Born of Mary, earth your footstool, heaven your throne. As within the veil you entered, robed in flesh, our great high priest; here on earth both priest and victim, in the Eucharistic feast.” [Alleluia! Sing to Jesus] Those words bring us full circle, assuring us that just as the great priest Melchizadek brought bread and wine as a blessing between God and a faithful man, so Jesus offers the same between God and faithful people today. May Jesus, the great high priest, offer you blessing today, in your own faithfulness, with confessions named and sins forgiven.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          October 21, 2018

10-14-18 JOB

Rev. Cumbow Preaching

When I read this Hebrews passage of God’s word being a two-edged sword that cuts, slices, lays bare, so that someone can be examined, I could only think of the trials of Job. In the second part of the scripture, that talks about approaching the throne of grace with boldness, I could only think of Job who spoke boldly and honestly with a rawness that is shocking. Job is cut down by God’s word, and his faith is examined. Job says harsh things to God and about God, and yet God shows up and shows Job grace. Not so coincidentally, Job was also one of the assigned Old Testament passages for this morning that was assigned by the lectionary. So this morning, I will provide a narrative retelling of Job, weaving in the book of Hebrews into the story. May you hear a new word, gain fresh insight, and hear the good news of the Gospel from this well-known Bible story:

There once was a man from the land of Uz whose name was Job.  He was blameless, upright, turned away from evil, and feared God. He had a wife, three daughters, seven sons, hundreds of sheep, oxen, and donkeys, thousands of camels, and many servants. Job was a faithful man who was very blessed, who rose early in the morning to give burnt offerings for all of his family…just in case they had sinned. While Job was relishing his rich life on earth, the heavenly beings gathered and presented themselves to the Lord. Questions arose about Job’s character among the heavenly beings. Was Job really faithful? Or did he just appear faithful because he had been so blessed? Would he be so pious if he wasn’t so blessed? Satan, the Accuser approached and asked God, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” God caught onto the rising suspicion and agreed to let Satan the Accuser to have power over Job’s family and belongings, with one condition. God said, “Only do not stretch out your hand against him.” The word of God was alive and active, spoken to judge the thoughts and intentions of Job’s heart.

It happened in an instant. All in one day Job lost everything. He was blindsided when a few surviving servants came breathlessly running to tell him that Sabeans and Chaldeans came to raid his livestock and killed his servants, that a fire from heaven fell down to kill the rest of his livestock and servants, and that a great wind knocked down the house of the eldest son killing all of Job’s children. In just a blink, everything and everyone that Job had or cared for was gone. In a rush of grief, Job stood and tore his clothes, then shaved his head stripped bare, saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” The living word of God laid Job naked and bare so that he might render an account of his actions; and that he did. Job did not curse God; but the Accuser wasn’t yet convinced. So Satan went before God again, and again God consented to let the Accuser take control so long as Job’s life was spared. Just when Job thought he had nothing left to lose, Satan inflicted loathsome sores on his entire body, from the sole of his feet to the crown of his head. Job, now a broken man, sat on the ground, slowly scraping his skin with a potsherd. The two-edge sword that is the word of God pierced Job, divided his soul from his spirit. He was mourning, miserable, and distressed.

Job’s friends found him sitting on the ground in an unrecognizable state. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite came to sit with him on the ground with him for seven days. They sat together, in the pain and in the silence, for a week. Sitting in the pain with a friend is the most powerful thing a person can do. However, these three friends made the mistake that every person makes: they got uncomfortable with the pain and began saying unhelpful things to try to “fix” it for Job. When people get uncomfortable with sitting in the pain they try to make sense of it, saying there must be a reason behind it, that maybe the person who is experiencing pain somehow brought upon themselves. Or even worse, there are the platitudes like, God will never give you more than you can handle, which anyone who has experienced loss or tragedy will say is untrue. This is the mistake we all make when our friends and family suffer, and this is what Job’s friends did.

Eliphaz said, “Those who plow iniquity sow trouble and reap the same.” Bildad told Job to make a “supplication to the Almighty.” Zophar warned Job that, “God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” Together they said that Job had created trouble, so he was reaping trouble; he must repent because he has gotten the punishment that his sins deserved. These words were spoken to try to fix what was happening, but they only served to kick Job while he was down. This cycle repeated itself 3 times where Eliphaz condemns Job, Job defends himself, Bildad condemns, Jobs defends, Zophar condemns, Job defends, and it starts all over again with Eliphaz. Over and over again these friends slammed Job with accusations and with shallow comfort. Surely Job must have done something to deserve all this right? These friends could only come to this conclusion. Any other conclusion might have threatened their understanding of God; it was easier for them to beat up on Job than it was for them to assess whether or not their beliefs and their theology might need to be challenged, questioned, and stretched. They chose to guard their beliefs instead of showing compassion to Job.

Job stood firm and bold. Each time one of his friends came after him, Job defended himself. Job called out to God, demanded answers and sought out help. Truly, this is what it means to approach the throne of grace with boldness when he said, “I loathe my life! I curse the day I was born. Oh that it would please God to crush me. My complaint is bitter! God has made my heart faint; The Almighty has terrified me.” Such strong and powerful words that Job dared to speak aloud to his friends and to God can be a shock to hear; and yet scripture said he never cursed or sinned when he spoke. Job said, “God has crushed me with a tempest; if it is a contest of strength, God is the strong one! How will you, my friends, comfort me? Your answers are nothing but falsehoods.” These are the words of a man who had nothing and no one, and was only left to defend himself with boldness. If his friends could not answer him, who was left?

There was one more friend who has been silent this entire time, a young man named Elihu. One would think a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective would be a breath of fresh air for this toxic cycle of despair, but Elihu rebuked Job as well, and said, “You said I am clean without transgression, but you are not right. Why do you contend against God?” It would be easy to dismiss Elihu, but he provided a segue into what was to be the living, active, and physically present word of God. Elihu told Job about the elusive wisdom and action of God, and said, “God is greater than any mortal. For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it.  See, God is exalted in power. Who is a teacher like God?” Elihu explained that Job and all people do not see what God is at work doing in all of God’s wisdom. There had to be something happening behind the scenes that no one was aware of.

This is when the word of God became living and active in a completely new way when God directly answered Job. God made a theatrical entrance by way of whirlwind. God from this whirlwind declared, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you; it eats grass like an ox. Its bones are tubes of bronze, its limbs like bars of iron. Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord? Its breath kindles coals, and a flame comes out of its mouth.” God tells of the wonders of creation with incredible and mighty animals like behemoth and leviathan. God speaks of the wisdom of the cosmos, that no one else has but God. How can someone like Job judge God when Job doesn’t have the wisdom of all creation? Job repents in dust an ashes.

Here comes the twist, and the surprise of this distressing story: God said that the friends have not spoken what is right about God, but Job had. The friends had defended God, or at least their beliefs about God; Job was the one who defended himself and said shocking, audacious things about God. Job had dared to approach the throne of grace with boldness, and God approved of the rawness and honesty that Job brought before the throne. God’s wrath was kindled against the friends who had to go and sacrifice burnt offerings. God’s compassion is shown when Job’s possessions and family are restored. There is no pretty bow to tie up this story neatly with a satisfying resolution, because Job still suffered and his previous family is gone forever. Maybe that is the point: life is messy, God’s word is often unclear, but God always shows up in the mess. So let us learn from Job that when we cannot grasp divine wisdom when God’s word cuts us like a two-edged sword, we are allowed to approach the throne of grace boldly, honestly, daringly, baring our souls and seeking compassion. Praise be to God. Amen.

10-07-18 Jesus’ Place in the Cosmos

Jesus’ Place in the Cosmos

Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 5-12

 

Last week if you were here, you’ll remember that Jesus’ had his disciples telling Jesus that they had witnessed person who were not following Jesus casting out Jesus in his name. Jesus told them, in so many words, ‘So what? Those who are not against us are for us!” This week we get to go from the bottom of the ladder of life—demons and the devil—to the top of the ladder of life. My absolute favorite source of such heavenly information is from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. But it is a deep dive to discover the gold in this letter! Dr. Tom Long, who taught Homeletics at both Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia Theological Seminary said this in his commentary on the book:

Among the books of the New Testament, the epistle to the Hebrews stands out as both strange and fascination. Unique in style and content, as a piece of literature it is simply unlike an other of the epistles. Though some of its phrases are among the best known and often quoted passages in the New Testament, some contemporary Christians are largely unacquainted with the book as a whole, finding themselves lost in serpentine passageways and elaborate theological arguments.  For those who take the ropes and spikes and torches and descend into the murky cave of Hebrews, there is much we wish we could discover, but our historical lanterns are too dim. [Intrepretation, Hebrews, Louisville, John Knox Press, 1997, p. 1]

 

Today we will and the rest of this month we will sermonically plumb some of the depths of the Hebrews cave. I once spoke with a woman who claimed that the Bible told her that her husband was the designated coffee maker of the family. “Where did you find that?” her husband asked. “Right here, see?” she said. “He brews!” Today we will  go deeper than that!

 

As we are whisked into Heaven we find a description of Jesus’ place in the world, we read: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being …. He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” [Hebrews 1:3-4] In the early 1990s there was a flurry of interest in “angels.” Dozens of books hit the market including  “On the Wings of Angels,” “Know Your Angels,”  “Angels Ever Near,” and “Angels: The Mysterious Messengers.” We collected those and 10 more in our church library at that time. Angels, it seemed, were easier to imagine, to appreciate, and to communicate with than God or the Holy Spirit. People began to pray to angels (not something I recommend) and study angels.  The Bible does acknowledge angels, not only in today’s passage from Hebrews, but also in  Gabriel’s appearance before Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, in his annunciation to Mary about Jesus, in the comforting visit to Joseph, and the annunciation to the shepherds in Luke. The shepherds received a heavenly host, or “army” of angels in Bethlehem. Gabriel also appears in Daniel 8 and Daniel 9.

And an Archangel, or “chief angel” named Michael, is in Jude verse 9, in Revelation 12, and in Daniel 10 and 12. John Calvin, in his masterful Institutes of the Christian Religion, says: “The angels are the dispensers and administrators of the divine beneficence [kindness and mercy] toward us …”  [Book I]

 

In the last 10 years interest in Saints and Mystics has grown. People yearn to know what ancient followers of Christ taught and how they lived. Many books on those topics hit the shelves again, describing Saints, mystics, and Early Church Fathers. . Some of what the mystics wrote was distinctly unorthodox. In the past few years many people say they are “spiritual” instead of “religious.”  But self-taught spirituality  can become a vegetable soup of every kind of faith. Does your spiritual soup need a touch of Judaism, a pinch of Buddhism, and a smidge of Eastern Religion in a Christian broth, of Christianity, its hard to know how it will taste! Spirituality on the internet is not always grounded in one faith; it explores what seems holy, or mystical, or wondrous.

 

The Christian pulpits  must keep pointing to the Christian true north to be a compass for the faithful and for the seeker. Today’s passage from Hebrews is the right kind of text that grounds us in the powers of God, the messengers of God, and the people of God.  Hebrews is a wonderful book that puts Christ in his rightful place at the right hand of “The Majesty on High” according to Hebrews 1:3. According to verse 1, God is the Creator of the world. This is what we have studied the entire month of September in my Wednesday Bible Study. According to Genesis 1:26, human beings were given the unique ability to choose right from wrong. They were given “dominion” over God’s Earth and God’s creatures, but the better translation is we were given “responsibility” for God’s earth and God’s creatures. Creatures and plants and mountains honor God by being; people honor God by their choices. So at the top of the order is God; there is not a bunch of gods, there is one. But in this time in which we are living, which the writer of Hebrews called “the last days,” “God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed to be the heir [the inheritor] of all things, and through whom [meaning the Son] God created the world! Here it is! The other confirmation that Christ, the Son was fully present with the Majestic Creator in the beginning! John says it; this writer says it too! So the Son is not just a Johnny-come-lately Jesus born to Mary. Before he became human, he was fully Divine and at the Creation! What a claim! The writer continues to describe the Son in verse 3: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” Wow! This is where the early creedal writers grounded some of their beliefs. John Calvin again says: “To sit at the right hand of the Father is no other thing than to govern in the place of the Father, as deputies of princes are wont to do to whom a full power over all things is granted. And the word majesty is added, and also on high, and for this purpose, to intimate that Christ is seated on the supreme throne whence the majesty of God shines forth.” [Calvin’s Commentary, Vol. 22, Baker Books; reprinted in 2005, p. 39.] So friends, the one who is glad to receive our adoration; the one to whom all glory and praise is due, is God, the Majestic! Along side is the Son called Christ, given all the fullness of the Divine. But the blessing we receive through Christ is when he came to earth he experienced our humanness as well, with all our temptations and pains and joys. If anyone can plead our case to the Majestic Judge and Maker of all the earth, it is our Lord Jesus! So we pray in his name, almost like a cc. in an email or a carbon copy in earlier days. We want Jesus to hear our prayers too! After our praise, God can hear our requests, our pains, and our hopes.

 

The writer of Hebrews continues” “When he [meaning the Son] had made purification for our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

Like a priest in the Jewish Temple practices, Jesus has to purify [or completely wash clean] the sins of believers before they are presented on the Throne of Grace. It is called “justification,” which simply stated means, “Through Christ, we are presented before God just as if we had not sinned.” That’s what Jesus Christ does for us; no angel, no mystic, no saint has been given that power. Only the Son has it.

 

Today as we prepare to share this joyful meal with other Christians, we also share their beliefs: The one called “Majesty is supreme; equal power and status has been given to the Son; under the Son, but still Heavenly, are the Arch-angels, and the angels. They praise God and do the work of God, but they are not God. Ad on the earth, humans are God’s crown jewel according to the Bible. Sometimes we don’t act that way, but that’s what God has always thought of us in a “glass half full” kind of way. God thinks no less of his creatures and creation, but they, by their nature, glorify God, not by their choices. God wants people who can choose; to choose life and to choose the one called Majesty, and the one he metaphorically calls “the Son.”  So appreciate angels; study mystics, or revere saints. But glorify God through Jesus Christ, and come to prepare for this meal as an invited guest of God! Let us pray: Almighty God: we are preparing our hearts to come humbly into the presence of your holiness one day. Until then, we are honored to break this bread and drink from the cup to connect us with Christ and with Christians around the world. Bless, us we, pray, and the food we will share, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 7, 2018