Author Archives: Westminster by the Sea

About Westminster by the Sea

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

07-16-17 PLANTING GOSPEL SEEDS

PLANTING GOSPEL SEEDS
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

My premise today is that most of us, at one time or another, have had gospel seeds planted in our souls. I know of several people who still come up to me quoting a sermon I offered years ago, and that changed their life. Gospel seeds were planted. In my case, the pastor who baptized me also presided at my Ordination and at our wedding. He planted Gospel seeds with his good counsel. Can you think of a preacher who planted Gospel seeds in you, whether a TV preacher or one in your church pulpit week after week? Others like youth pastors and leaders plant gospels seeds too. If you heard the testimonies of our missionaries who came back from Ashville, North Carolina in June, you heard Gospel testimonies being preached. Our daughter Jenny heard Gospel seeds all her life, but she said youth retreats and summer camps gave her some of the most transformational times that she both received and shared with youth. Can you think back to a summer camp where leaders, or singers with a guitar, or other campers not only changed your life for the better, but changed the trajectory of your life? We have camp scholarships to help young people take advantage of such summer experiences. Starting in a week, we will hold Vacation Bible School again. We put money, sweat, and time, into one week a year because we hope to plant some Gospel seeds in the souls of our children and the children who come from all over. Next week we’ll have children from as far away as Deland, and even Douglasville Georgia who will be hearing the gospel stories, seeing them acted out, and learning faith songs. Who knows where those seeds will spread if participants go home and tell others what they have learned? And you might have noticed I sing in our choir. I joined my church choir when I was in second grade. Gospel seeds from the hearts of hymn and anthem writers largely have shaped my theology. Choir has given me a sense of belonging through all my years, and a sense of contributing my gifts.
If you are not a Christian, you may not have had Gospel seeds planted in you yet; or perhaps they are there and just need to be watered! Today we hope to tend the soil of your soul with the message, music, hospitality, and good examples of disciples. If you are a Christian, I hope you are thinking back to the time, or times, when something, or someone, introduced you to Jesus; or people who encouraged you to take the next steps, like taking Disciple classes of helping in missions. Some have big changes in their lives when they learn about Jesus, like those who’ve attended a Billy Graham Crusade. But others, like Cara, grew up knowing Jesus since both of her parents are pastors. She went to seminary thinking that she would go on to get a PhD for teaching and studying comparative religions. But on her way to her goal, her presbytery required her to have field education experiences in churches. It was in her field ed. experiences, that she thought were just requirement hoops to jump through, that she was led to see pastoral ministry as her calling. Likewise with our daughter Jenny who planned to be a youth leader, she was required by our presbytery to do one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. She chose a hospital setting. And her Gospel seeds grew so that she is now Chaplain and Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor at Tampa General Hospital. God is always planting seeds. We are asked to be the sower of seeds. Why don’t they all grow?

That’s where Jesus’ story comes into play. It is not just a story about farming. Jesus, as a storyteller, used what was around him. I imagine that before he started giving this visual lesson, he saw a farmer planting seeds, and he used that illustration to teach his lesson. Unless farmers plant seeds one by one, they cast their seeds called sowing. It is too time consuming to get on one’s knees to plant every seed in the perfect soil. So some seeds fall on the path, the place where the farmer or others walk. It is packed-down earth, and seeds can’t take root there. But birds find them and have a feast. Those seeds produce no good fruit. Other seeds actually fall on rocky places. Again, they cannot take root. Can you imagine the sun baking seeds that have fallen on a driveway or a parking lot, in Florida, or on a stone a stone path in Israel? Israel is about on the same latitude as Florida and it gets hot! Seeds would not stand a chance of surviving. And yes, some flowers I’ve planted around my house have had weeds grow around them. Have you experienced that? Weeds just keep coming back! The man who maintains our church lawn says the unwanted things that grow are often called invasive; they just keep growing back and choking the plants we want to grow! They are persistent and he says some are nearly impossible to kill. Kind of like the devil. The devil wants to get around the tender Gospel seeds God plants in your soul and he wants to choke them; or he wants to take over your soul and make those seeds die. Don’t let that happen! Water any Gospel seeds, whether they were planted by sermons, or music, or mission trips or youth groups, or Sunday School teachers or by unexpected tasks you are asked to do. Being here today will strengthen and nurture the Gospel seeds in you. Helping feed hungry people at Halifax Urban Ministries can do it. Planting new seeds in children at VBS can do it. Or going into the world always thinking “What would Jesus Do?” and then trying to model good behavior can do it. The devil can kill Gospel seeds by making you apathetic, or complacent, or by neglectful. Gardens can die from the same lack of care. Tend your Gospel gardens! Marriages die with being tended; bodies deteriorate without proper exercise and diet. Minds turn to mush without stimulation. Be sure you are not turning your soul over to the devil to tend your Gospel garden, or that garden will surely wither and die. Evil, like a cancer, thrives on death. Cancer cries “victory” when life is extinguished! Do not let your soul get into that precarious position! Pray! Live with purpose! And join me in always spreading Gospel seeds.

So we get to the crux of Jesus’ message: “Some seeds fell on good soil, and brought forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, and some thirty.” That’s why we do what we do! That why we can never stop being those good farmers for Christ who are sowing seeds with actions and words! Who knows who sowed the seed of the gospel that grew in the souls of Mother Theresa, or Martin Luther, or Teresa of Avila, or Francis of Assisi? What we do know is that Jesus has left this work up to his disciples: I am one of them; are you? If we don’t keep spreading the gospel seeds, who will carry the torch into the future? On the walls of our fellowship hall are the faces of 129 young people who, over the years, accepted Jesus as their Savior in one of our Confirmation Classes. With many of them, the seeds of the Gospel are growing wherever their high school, college, single, or married life has taken them. Imagine where the Gospel is going! How important this work is!

One final note: as we traveled through Ireland last month, and as I’ve traveled through Europe, I was dismayed to see many beautiful church buildings turned into tourist attractions rather than housing large, active congregations training new disciples! We let secularism, apathy, or complacency kill the Gospel seeds in our souls to our own peril! Jesus taught it! It is still being taught! And Christian farmers—called disciples—are still needed in the fields of the world. Keep spreading the Gospel. And remember: many people have preached the gospel better with their life than with their lips! Both are effective. Let us go into the fields, plant seeds, and bring in the sheaves.

Jeffrey A. Sumner July 16, 2017

07-09-17 AN EASY YOKE

Let’s talk about yokes. Now, if we know this word, we tend to associate it with the more modern usage of the device or collar that oxen or horses or other beasts of burden use to help pull heavy loads. And I know I have heard several sermons that use it in just this way.

 

But there is a usage that would have been more common for Jesus’ first listers.

 

One of the main jobs of a rabbi was interpretation of the scriptures. They would help people to understand what God was saying to them in a particular scripture. For example, the command “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” How do we remember the Sabbath? By resting like God did. But who defines rest?

 

One rabbi would say you can walk no farther than this many steps or you would violate the Sabbath. Another rabbi might say you could walk farther, but you could not pick up something over a certain weight.  Different rabbis had different sets of rules, different things that they forbade or permitted based on how they interpreted scripture.

 

As Rob Bell puts it: “A rabbi’s set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi’s interpretation of how to live the Torah, was called that rabbi’s yoke. When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed that rabbi’s set of interpretations were the closest to what God intended through the Scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi’s yoke.”

 

So when our scriptures say “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” what Jesus is offering is to allow everyone who hears him to follow and study his teachings. Normally, rabbi’s only take the very best of the best scholars to be their students. But here comes Jesus, offering his teachings to everyone. Anyone who is weary or burdened can come and be one of his disciples. And who hasn’t had days of weariness?

 

Jesus’ teaching, his way of discipleship, is not burdensome but life-giving. He teaches us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbors as ourselves. He shows us how to be merciful, loving and kind. He invites the weary to learn from him, for he is not a tyrant who lords it over his disciples, but is “gentle and humble in heart.” His yoke is easy, which can be better translated as “good” or “useful.” To take his yoke upon oneself is to follow the teachings of  the one in whom God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and compassion is breaking into this world, and to find the rest for which the soul longs.

 

He promises that once we follow his teachings, once we begin to live the life he demonstrates, we will find true rest for our souls. That vague, unsettled feeling that so many of us go from day to day trying to ignore will go away. We won’t wonder what we are doing with our lives, or worry what sort of impact we will have in the world. Our souls will find peace, because they will be doing what we have always been called to do.  

 

Now, when rabbis taught their students, they often would question them, trying to find out how well they understood the yoke of their rabbi. If a student didn’t quite understand what a rabbi meant the rabbi would say, “You’ve abolished the Torah.” The rabbi meant that they were nowhere near what God had intended the scripture to mean. On the other hand, if the student got what the rabbi was trying to say, the rabbi’s response would be “You’ve fulfilled the Torah.” You get what God is trying to say with this text.

 

So when Jesus first preached that He was there to “fulfill the law, not to abolish it,” the Jewish listeners heard a whole different thing than we do. He was basically saying: I understand all this better than anyone. Most rabbis were teaching the yoke of some other well-respected rabbi, but Jesus wasn’t. He was teaching a whole new yoke. It was rare that anyone would have the guts to say, “My interpretation is new and it’s better than anybody else who came before me.” And yet, here comes Jesus, giving a new way of reading everything.

 

Jesus was not so much criticizing the law itself, but the scribes who load people down with burdens hard to bear. You see, at that time, many of the yokes involved very closely following many series of rules and laws exactly. It was only by getting every tiny thing right, that one would be right with God. Many times the number or rules were downright impractical for the average person trying to make a living. So “You who labor and are carrying heavy burdens” can refer to those who have lost the spirit of the law in the letter. Jesus was speaking to everyone who believed that adherence to a multitude of precepts and commandments constitutes righteousness.

 

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, words the end of this passage like this: “ Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

 

Examining ourselves in light of the spirit of the law, rather than the letter, points us to our desperate need for grace. Jesus exhorted his listeners to examine their hearts, their attitudes, as well as their actions. He challenged his listeners to bring outward practice and inner reality into alignment. Doing all of the rituals doesn’t mean anything if you don’t mean it in your heart. This again directed his most attentive listeners toward grace, not more careful legalism.

 

The intent of a rabbi having a yoke wasn’t just to interpret the words of scripture correctly; it was to live them out. In the Jewish context, belief and action go hand in hand. Belief without action doesn’t help anyone.

 

When Jesus says, “learn from me,” he is calling us not just to read further in the Gospel or to mull over theological ideas but to incarnate for ourselves the virtues demanded by his speech and exhibited in his actions. One learns of Jesus by doing, by adopting his spirit and living his imperatives. The truth of our Christian faith is in the living.

 

No matter how much time we spend interpreting the yoke of Jesus’, we then have to go out and live it. To be his disciples, to take his yoke, to find our rest, we have to follow those teachings in our lives. Learning about how we should feed the hungry, welcome the outcast, visit the sick and the prisoner and shelter those who need it, is only the beginning. We then have to go and actually do it.

 

It is only through truly loving God and loving our neighbors that we will find that rest that our Lord offers us here. It is only after caring for those who need it that we really lay our burdens down. When we truly following Jesus’ teachings, when we truly care for others as ourselves, we find that our souls find the rest that they so desperately need.

 

So take your Lord’s yoke upon you. Learn his teachings and live the life he demonstrated. And you will find rest for your souls. Amen.

 

 

07-02-17 SACRIFICE

I want to turn our attention to the Old Testament passage this morning. It’s hard to read this text without flinching if you are paying attention. I mean, God is asking Abraham to kill his only son. And Abraham goes right along with it, taking his son up to the high place to offer him as a sacrifice. We can only guess as to what Isaac’s response was to being tied on the bier and his father brandishing a knife over his head.

 

This is one of those passages we would rather forget about. Theologian Phyllis Tribble has referred to biblical passages such as this as “texts of terror.” The texts that we absolutely do not use to try to bring people to God. Indeed, texts such as the “binding of Isaac” as this is known are often used by atheists to prove why this is a God we should not worship. It is a difficult text on every level, and yet, it’s there. And we cannot ignore it.

 

Because, the point of this story is not to make people want to believe in God, but instead, this harrowing story exists to help people who already believe make sense of their most difficult experience, when God seems to take back everything they have ever received at God’s hand. The point of this difficult text is not to draw people into faith but rather to help people who are already in to stay in relationship with God, even when their world turns upside down.

 

And the fact that this story appears front and center in Genesis, where no reader of the Bible can miss it, is because the hard truth is that the world turns upside down for the faithful more often than we like to admit. The test results come back positive. There is a round of layoffs. A hurricane hits. There was a fire. The lie is uncovered.

 

This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or to deny that God cares at all, or to deny that God has any power at all. Sometimes things seem so bad that it seems like the only logical response. Except.

 

Except you can’t. Because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind.

 

To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith. During the really dark and awful moments, deep faith gets deeper. We grow closer to God as we cling to God, knowing that God will see us through.

 

That is what Abraham does. Without comprehension, nearly blinded by the horror of what he was told to do, Abraham follows God’s lead, for the simple and sufficient reason that it is God who is leading. To what end, Abraham has no idea.

 

Now, it is quite common for theologians and pastors to hold up Abraham as a model of unquestioning obedience to God, but I think this is misleading, and even damaging to Abraham’s character. After all, obedience is a virtue only if it serves a just cause. Obedience in service of an unjust cause is dangerous, cowardly, even criminal. That we learned definitively from Nuremberg and other atrocities that have been done by good people following bad orders. If it is purely out of obedience that Abraham submits to God’s command, then his willingness to submit is monstrous.

 

But there is another option.

 

What if Abraham follows God’s command, not out of obedience, but out of faith — which is to say, what if Abraham trusts God, even now, when what God asks of him seems to run counter to everything God has promised?

After all this is Abraham here! Abraham whose greatest hits include arguing God down on the number of righteous people that had to be found in order to save a city. Abraham who not once, but twice pretended Sarah was his sister so rulers could take her as a concubine and not kill him to get her. Abraham who thought God was taking too long and set about being the father of nations with his wife’s handmaid instead. He argues and begs and sidesteps everything, but the order to sacrifice his son? How on earth could his character have changed so drastically?

 

It didn’t, because it isn’t obedience that moves Abraham forward to that mountain.  Abraham trusts God.  He tells Isaac God will provide when questioned about the lack of everything. Despite everything, despite reason or evidence, Abraham trusts God when God asks him to sacrifice his son.

 

Abraham is confronted with a real dilemma of trust. Like the long-suffering Job, here we see a righteous, faithful person who now is threatened with losing all and is still called to believe that God is the one who provides. It makes little sense. And yet three times in this story, twice in response to God and once in response to Isaac, when called, Abraham immediately responds, “Here I am!”

 

I think for Abraham, the story comes down to the question “Will God keep his promise?” Because God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations through Isaac, which can’t happen if Abraham kills him here. And so Abraham trusts that God will provide.

 

The scriptures are full of people in the exact same struggle with God. Job complained, Abraham negotiated, Jacob wrestled, Jesus pleaded. But in the end each one dared to trust, dared to believe that God could indeed be counted on to provide, especially when all seemed most hopeless.

 

That’s  a  question  with  which  we still  struggle.  We may  not  go through something  exactly like Abraham did, but we know what it’s like to ask the question. We’ve all had those times when we’ve wondered why something happened and how or where God was  present  in  the  circumstances  before  us.  Someone  we  love  dies  terribly  or unexpectedly or too young. We find ourselves facing a difficult situation or decision. We lose a job and can’t find another. Our health fails and our spirit goes with it. A relationship breaks beyond repair. Daily tasks threaten to overwhelm us. The future before us is uncertain  and  not  what  we  planned.  Bombings,  war,  poverty,  acts  of  terror and violence cause us to wonder how evil can be so strong if God is so good.

 

But the promise God offers us has never been a lack of struggle. Ours may be a resurrection hope, but this doesn’t mean that we won’t first face Gethsemane and the cross. The promise instead is that we will not be alone as we go forward into that darkness.

 

“God will provide.” So let us be prepared to sacrifice our cleverness, our ability to get out of things, and most of all our naïve wishful thinking that somehow we are immune to the struggles and pain that faced the countless faithful who came before us. Let us instead dare to trust that God will indeed provide – not necessarily a way out, but always a way through.

06-25-17 THE CARE OF THE SOUL

THE CARE OF THE SOUL

Matthew 10: 24-39

 

The text I am using today includes the revelatory words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body.” Jesus acknowledges the soul. It is also perhaps this verse and others which the reformer Martin Luther referenced in the hymn at the end of our service today “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” with the line: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still; his Kingdom is forever.” It is true that the Apostle Paul had to take up the battle for the resurrection of the body as he preached in Asia Minor. That contradicted the Greek’s understanding of the immortality of the soul. The Greeks said that the body, like a cocoon, would drop away and the eternal soul would go and be with the gods forever.  What happened with Jesus at the empty tomb, Paul argued, was that he really died, and that he was raised from the dead in a bodily resurrection. But “soul” is very much a concept in the Bible co-opted

from Greeks and used in a different way. Soul appears 755 times on the Old Testament, but never does it refer to one’s “immortal soul,” but instead to one’s “life principle” or to a “living being.” In the New Testament the soul refers to a person’s “life as a whole.”

 

Back in 1996 when I was deciding what to name our health ministry, it was never a question but to call it “Body, Mind, and Soul” instead of “Body, Mind, and Spirit.” Christian ministers historically have had in their job descriptions in part as “the care of souls.” Even though “the soul” sounds like a fragmented part of a person, today we will explore what your soul is and how to care for it.

Have you noticed in stories about the preciousness of life people are referred to as souls? In the movie “Sully,” Captain Sullenberger refers to the number of passengers on board as “souls” in his official report of the plane strike by birds. He landed safely in the Hudson River. In the sinking of the Titanic or in the lives lost in 9/11, most official reports list the number of “souls” lost. A soul must be more than a part of our body. It is, in fact, the essence of who we are. When I as a little boy as I told the children, I prayed “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Something else happens to our physical bodies when we die, but the parts that make us us, our appearance, our personalities, our memories, I believe will go to heaven. That’s been my prayer since my parents taught it to me. Hymnology has picked up on the message of the soul as well. The hymn “In Christ There is No East or West” includes the line “All Christly souls are one in Him throughout the whole wide earth.”  And in the Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the great preacher and writer of this hymn, Phillips Brooks, includes the line: “No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.” The human soul, in large measure, is the concern of Christ and of his church.

 

Jesus, in our Matthean text today, mentions “Beelzebub” who was known as the “Prince of Demons.”  Human beings, according to Genesis were given freewill as a precious gift from God; we were not created as godly marionettes with a Heavenly Father pulling our strings. We were created, according to the book of Deuteronomy, to choose between life and death, blessing and curse, with God’s fervent hope that we would choose life.

Part of choosing life is saying no to temptations or to tempters; turning away from darkness toward the light; and resisting living in the valleys every day of your life. Part of having a healthy soul is tending to it. Some in the secular world call it “tending to your spirit.” It includes doing things regularly in your life that bring you happiness, not just grinding through each day. I once asked a man “How do you like your work?” He replied, “I hate every (blank) minute of it. I’m counting the days until I can retire.” He had a full 20 years until he could retire. He is still alive, and I presume and hope he is happier in the 20 years he’s spent in retirement. I knew another man who worked night and day to build his business. When I asked him why he never took a vacation he said, “I’m building toward a great retirement when my wife and I can travel.” A couple of years before his retirement, a stroke took his ability to work, and he died an early death. Tend to your soul—now—instead of just slogging your way through life.  Part of what I committed to being in my life is to be the best husband, the best father, and the best pastor I can be. I work hard at them all. I know how to work hard. But what I have finally learned is how to lighten up and play too! It has brought me new-found joy; and a new goal to be the best grandfather I can be is easy around  our four little grandsons! It is well with my soul.

 

Jesus encouraged his listeners not to fear those who cannot kill the soul. But  some of the best soul killers can be our selves. Those who are particularly hard on them selves never pass their own tests. They always expect more from themselves and so they push more. Like driving a racecar on the Daytona Speedway, if you push your tires too much, they’ll blow, and if you push your engine past redline, it’ll blow. You will blow too, with rage, or suicide, or in a breakdown, if you do not care for your soul. Ironically, churches, that are supposed to care for people’s souls, sometimes are the hardest on their workers, with critical comments or unreasonably high expectations. On our trip to Ireland I talked with a mother who’s 42 year old son is the pastor of a large church.  He was proud to have the appointment at such a young age. Last year, likely in part from the high demands his church leaders placed on him, and the high demands he placed on himself, he was found on the ground and had to have a five-way bypass surgery. Forty-two years old. He survived, but needs to care for his body—and his soul—differently as he moves forward. I learned that lesson when I was quickly burning out in 1987. I wouldn’t be in a pulpit today if I hadn’t figured out ways to care for my soul. Now I include daily morning prayer (funny that a pastor in 1987 felt too much pressure to pray), breaks for things that make me laugh and bring me joy, and finding people who are my advocates. I recommend the same prescription for you. No one needs to get so broken down that they can’t function, or as Jesus pointed out, they might give in to Beelzebub, or to Joe, or Tammy, or anyone else who tempts them with one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The healthy soul should proclaim: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” in situations like those.

 

Back in 1961, Union Seminary professor and former pastor Daniel Day Williams wrote his book The Minister and the Care of Souls. In it he says: “Love is the center of Christ’s disclosure of our humanity….Paul enjoins the Christian community, [saying] “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … who took upon him the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:5 ff) And this surely is the foundation of Luther’s daring statement that we are to become Christ for one another. So far then we have the basis for all care of souls. It is an action in love which makes concrete the spirit of ministry we know in Christ.” [Harper and Row, 1961, p. 17] Or as Jesus has said in John 13: 34, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” That includes—and you should highlight—loving yourself, not to the point of narcissism, but if you cannot love yourself—that is with self-esteem, a sense of well-being, and a sense that you are loved unconditionally—then you cannot offer those gifts to others. You cannot give to others what you do not have yourself. Jesus knew that. Sometimes we must read between the lines of Bible verses. And other times the Bible speaks so our soul can hear it like:  “We love, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

 

In the 1990s the soul began to be addressed again in popular writings, first by author Thomas Moore in his book Care of the Soul, and in his follow-up book Soulmates. Another landmark work was by James Hillman in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. It wasn’t until our trip to Ireland that the idea of the soul was brought to my attention again. Also when I was there, I learned two things about the Celts: they had a great reverence for the earth and they connected our world to the divine. Later Christianity was introduced to Ireland and the cross of Christ got superimposed on the Celtic orb, or circle. Thus, the Celtic cross, which adorns our communion table, was born. And it is everywhere in Ireland! The second thing I learned about the Celts is that “The soul needs love as urgently as the body needs air. In the warmth of love, the soul can be itself.”

[Anam Cara, Bantam Books, 1997, p. 30.] We visited the town where the author of those words, John O’Donohue, lived. We saw his house. He goes on to say:

There is a beautiful complexity of growth within the human soul. In order to glimpse this, it is helpful to visualize the mind as a tower of windows. Sadly, many people remain trapped at the one window, looking out every day at the same scene in the same way. Real growth is experienced when you draw back from that one window, turn and walk around the inner tower of the soul, and see all the different windows that await your gaze. Through these different windows, you can see new vistas of possibility, presence, and creativity. Complacency, habit, and blindness often prevent you from feeling your life. So much depends of on the frame of vision—the window through which we look.

 

Tend to your soul; tend to your spirit. Like a garden, weeds can grow or crops can wither without attention. Today, you can say to your soul words of comfort like these based on Psalm 46:10. It’s the first line of our next hymn:

Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side, bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; Leave to Thy God to order and provide; who through all changes faithful will remain. Be still my soul, thy best, thy heavenly Friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

 

You are loved. Drink that in. And may your soul be filled with peace.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 25, 2017

 

06-18-17 The Reform of the Spirit in the Spirit of Reform

On this Father’s Day, the second Sunday after Pentecost, let us also remember the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and all that the Holy Spirit does and has done for the Church to Form and reform it again and again; to grow it to the greatness it is. The Lord’s beauty is endless. Its’ in all of us; it’s all around us; its apart of us as we are a part of it. It flows like a current of energy; in us and through us; can you feel it now as it flows through the Church moving and shaping us, changing and molding us from what we were, to what we are now, to what we are to become, to what we will become again after that. A change that is day by day, minute by minute if necessary, but constant. This change is sometimes defined as perception; or in a country song I heard once; a change in attitude; but it does happen and as we seek out the will of the father, the sustainer, the truth, the way and the life, and walk in the footsteps of our savior, we only have to give ourselves to this grace that is freely given to us in this endless beauty that is ours to be had; to be shown and to be announced as it shows us in Psalm 95 0 come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

But do we have the faith; as I said in the children’s message do we sit in the chair with faith knowing it will hold us; or do we at first grab the chair and check it for stability; move the chair around to see if it is sturdy; and then sit down or do we put ourselves in the hands of the Christ with the same trust that Jesus has for us. Maybe we have more of a reforming trust; a trust that changes with our experiences and our growth in God; as God shows us more love, we give that love to God and to others; we give more as we are shown more; as it says in Luke 17: 3-6 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of alb] mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. But as perfection defined in the Bible is to be the best you can be by the end of your life, we are not asked for a perfect faith.

Abraham and Sarah and really all the people of the Bible were normal people, well as normal as people get, what I mean by that is they were just like us. They had no powers; they were men and women of Faith, Men and Women of God. The Disciples fought the same problems we did in life; the same disabilities; same learning curves; so, when we think of Sarah and Abraham, we might get a better reality of it if we think about how it would affect us, or, how we would act in the situation. As I am not as old as Abraham was, seven months ago at the age of 48, I became the proud Father of a beautiful daughter. I did not laugh! And neither did my wife Valeri!

But as Sarah did laugh in amazement that it would happen, God, who turns Hebrew storytelling on its ear by showing himself to Abraham so concretely, says one of the many great statements ofthe Bible; a statement that we as Faithful believers can bury ourselves in like a blanket; a safety net that shows the love of God and how big God really IS “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord.” This is a statement that Faith is built on;

Abraham in the scripture follows the old practices of Eastern Hospitality, the practice being to take strangers into your home, which in a nomadic society like theirs was a highly esteemed virtue. This seems to show that they really had no idea who the men were as this was a normal act of the time; and up until God basically brought up Sarah laughing they had no thought of them as angels and God. But of course, this was Abrahams path; a path that was not shown to him; a path that formed and reformed; a path that led him in service to the Lord; to fulfill his destiny as Abraham the father of Judaism.

As we walk our paths in life are we called to such service of the Lord? Are we forming and reforming in the Spirit as our fellow reformers did?

Two of the many men and women that were responsible for the Protestant reformation were also much like us trying to get by; to survive; Martin Luther was a monk that gave himself to the Lord after being almost struck by lightning. As he was sent on his vocation to be a teacher and a Pastor, he found that what he read of the word did not seem to fit with the way the Church of the day was reforming; he believed that God is and has to be Love. Acting on this belief of Faith and Love, he wrote the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” also known as “The 95 Theses,” this was a list of questions and propositions he had written for debate. On October 3 1, 1517 Luther nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.

John Knox the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, along with Scottish nobility, led in the Protestant Reformation of Scotland. Before that as a Chaplain serving King Edward the sixth in

England he exerted a reforming influence of the Book of Common

Prayer. He was influenced by John Calvin as he learned from him about Presbyterian Polity and Reformed Theology. He stood in his faith and of course as he formed and reformed in the Holy Spirit, he served our Lord and Savior as he was called to. Many people lost their lives for their love of God during this time of reformation and people today are losing their lives for that same love in a much the same reformation.

This walk is not easy; to stand up and be counted; to be seen as the Love of God; to walk in the footsteps of Christ and Hold Fast against sin; to love unconditionally all of creation. But we only have to try.

Romans 5 the second reading this morning is summed up beautifully by Theologian William Barclay as he says “Here is one of Paul’s great lyrical passages in which he almost sings the intimate joy of his confidence in God. Trusting faith has done what the labor to produce the works of the law could never do. It has given a man peace with God. Before Jesus came no man could ever be close with God.’ Jesus shows us the way, he clears the path for us on a daily basis. He shows us the path in the scriptures as he lives and breathes through us that we might be that love to others in this calling of reformation.

This beautiful message of experience and assuredness from Paul is written to us as this message was also written to the Christians of Rome; The word Paul used to explain our dilemma was thlipis; this word translates to Pressure; the pressures of life as they come and go. As we face life; whatever the binds may be that hold us. Sorrow, unpopularity and loneliness produces endurance and fortitude to strive forward in the loving grace of God. Since we are justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is a great fact for us.

Our Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA, Reverend J. Herbert Nelson the second recently stated that as membership of the church had thought to have been declining since the 1970s; it is now slowing down. Congregations like ours are refocusing on their mission; Celebrating both anniversaries and new beginnings; Despite what was thought to be the death of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we remain a viable reality of Christ throughout the world; along within our local communities. Besides our ecumenical ties in mission; we hold fast as a Prophetic voice in Christendom. He goes on to state that our challenge is to see the powerful opportunities that are before us while declaring with Holy Spirit boldness that God is doing amazing work within us right now. This is reform; we are not dying; we are reforming. As we are growing as individuals in faith we are also growing as the Kirk. We are growing in the Spirit of the reform. As we join in mission here in the Love of God, we also join the rest of the PC USA across the globe in being this Love and the action of Jesus the Christ to the world. As we join in this mission with other Presbyterian churches across the globe, we also join together with all our ecumenical brothers and sisters around the globe in this loving action of reform that the Holy Spirit is doing in all of us. This is the grace of God shining through us that we strive for as Paul said, that this hope that we strive for through our pressures of life does not disappoint, Because Gods love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to you. This is a celebration; a celebration to be had every day as we form and reform as the Church, from the beginning of time till the end of time; as we form as the world Church as the faithful of God; as lovers of Jesus Christ.

Even though this might sound simple and maybe even rudimentary, the simplicity that God is calling us to is as easy as a humble action ofprayer, as our Savior prayed for us in John 1 7, that we may grow our relationship with God; that we’ve been given the chance to as the Christ reforms in us and shows us; that we may further reform as the Church; as Jesus told us the two most important commandments are to Love God and Love our neighbor. That as Jesus shows us how to live, and breathes in us and through us that we, as our Brothers and Sisters of the past reformations of the Church did, grow in this same gift of grace; a grace that is freely given to us; given to us that we will form and reform to further be the Love of God; endless and uncontrollable. This is not a practice, but more a seeking of the divine nature of God; the radical love that God is and gives to us every day. With that Faith of a mustard seed we can live for God in closeness and in relationship. An unceasing, Endless peace.

this is a calling; a calling for everyone; no matter how young or old you are; no matter who you are; for all of creation; a reformed calling of the heart; a calling of Love, to be God’s love, radical Love “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord.’

Amen

06-04-17 PENTECOST: THAT WATERSHED DAY

PENTECOST: THAT WATERSHED DAY

Acts 2: 1-21

 

For the huge day on the Christian calendar that Pentecost is, it gets very little notice by the world. But to Christians, it is the day the Spirit took hold of frightened followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, empowering them to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ beginning in that city, and continuing to go with them into the world! And this was the day when the power of God was no longer connected with a place!  Let me explain: In Exodus 25, Yahweh God instructed Moses and his people how to construct an Ark of the Covenant: a specifically sized and decorated container to hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments. On top was the Mercy Seat, on which the Lord God would dwell. So wherever the Ark was carried: into new lands, into battle, or placed under a tent, God was there. In the wilderness,  the Israelites built a Tabernacle which was a portable earthly meeting place for the people to be in the presence of  God. It was made possible because the Ark was stationed under the tent. The people in those days were wandering and journeying; deciding where God was leading them. Eventually God was leading them to Canaan, but not yet. Once they arrived at Mt Nebo in Jordan, Moses died there. Then Deuteronomy 34: 9 states that “Joshua, the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Spirit of God filled Joshua, but the presence of God was still with the Ark. Joshua led the  people into the promised land, then called Canaan.

 

Once the people began to settle Canaan, (that would become known as Israel,) they decided that a more permanent home for their God would bring him glory. One would have thought that David would have had the glory of the build and the dedication, but the Lord said “No.” It would be known by the name of his son, “Solomon’s Temple.” That First Temple was completed in the middle of the 10th Century and it permanently housed the Ark of the Covenant: the presence of God. The ark continued to be in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, as a reminder that God chose to live there in his city called Jerusalem, among his people. But people had to come to into his presence by coming into the Temple. Even when the Temple was greatly expanded during the time of Herod, it still was the place where Jews and curious gentiles came to be in God’s presence. Today, the Western Wall of the Temple attracts faithful Jews as the place where they can still feel the closest to God.

 

Then Jesus was born on earth by the power of the Holy Spirit according to Luke chapter 1. Christians believe that the fullness of God chose to come to earth in Jesus according to the first chapter of John. According to Matthew chapter 1, Jesus was referred to as Emmanuel, which meant “God with us.”  Coming close to and following Jesus brought people into the presence of the man who stilled the waters and who embodied a holy life.  Jesus even said to his disciples in John 10:30 “I and the Father are one.” But last week we acknowledged one big event: it was called the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Before Jesus left, he gave his followers the Holy Spirit, one who would teach, counsel, and comfort.

 

Shortly after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the disciples, and many other people were in Jerusalem at the Temple.  Soon there was the sound of rushing wind, and the sight of tongues as of fire, and it began to rest on each of them. This was a big deal, and a giant change! Coming to fruition was what Jesus promised: that the Spirit of the living God would dwell within their hearts, no matter their nationality, no matter their background. The Holy Spirit would connect nations, and cultures, and peoples. But not only that: people would not have to travel somewhere to be close to God; they now had the power and the presence of God living within them! They could go into all the world feeling empowered, not afraid.  They could find the power of the Living God, in their hearts, where they made room for Jesus as well. God’s presence was now in the temple of human hearts, not in a building made by human hands, or just in heaven! Pentecost is that day of big changes!

 

So what do we make of this?  The English preacher Charles Spurgeon once said:

“Without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing. We are ships without the wind, branches without sap, and like coals without fire. We are useless.”

 

Sometimes God tries to get a message through to us, like a parent, a spouse, or a teacher might try. It can be like talking to a wall if we are exclusively focused on our cell phone, our job, or our latest obsession. That knock on the door of your heart, or that gentle nudge on your mind is important; it might be God trying to get your attention, and to gently guide or reassure you. But if the knock goes unanswered or the nudge goes ignored, the Great Spirit of God can go back into dormancy in our soul, until we are ready for the life changing and life-challenging messages brought to us by God. Be open to the Spirit that, like a breeze, we cannot see. Spirit can still move us like a fan can move wind chimes.

 

A boy was once flying a kite on a moderately windy day. His kite was doing so well that it continued to climb higher and higher. At one point a low cloud obscured his kite.  A friend walked by and asked ‘Hey where’s your kite?” “Up there,” the boy replied.” I don’t see it” the friend said. “How do you know it’s still there?” “I can feel it,” said the boy holding the string.

 

Like a breeze on our face, we can feel the air without seeing it .The old gospel song declared: “Every time I feel the Spirit movin’ in my heart, I will pray.”

It’s actually better to pray first; then you can feel that spirit movin’ in your heart.

 

Be aware of the Spirit that came into you at your birth or certainly at your baptism. God dwells within you! Not in Palestine; not in an old Temple. God is within you! And Jesus said his Heavenly Father gifted us with His presence. May Pentecost be a reminder of the power and the guidance that is even within you.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 4, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

05-28-17 HEARING JESUS’ PRAYER

HEARING JESUS’ PRAYER

John 17: 1-11

 

A pastor from San Antonio Texas wrote about the time he came to his office only to be greeted by a handful of phone messages he needed to return. He began at the top of the stack and started working his way through them. After returning several of the calls, he came to one that just had a telephone number on it. He dialed the number, and the voice at the other end of the line answered: “Holy Ghost.” Immediately he thought “This is just what I’ve always wanted: a hotline to the Holy Ghost!” Then her realized he had reached the Holy Ghost Fathers, a Roman Catholic order in San Antonio.

 

There are plenty of times I’d like a hotline to God, to get instant answers! Sure I have a direct line; I can go to God in prayer but the answers come more slowly. I remember a time when a TV preacher told the viewers across the airwaves that God told him personally that he would call him home if his supporters did not send donations totaling 8 million dollars! That was Oral Roberts in 1987. A Time magazine article asked the question “Was Roberts extorting his viewers and using [God] as his accomplice?” You may not believe what happened unless you remember it. Oral Roberts’ received 9 million dollars!! Whew! The Lord did not call him home. But by 2007 the school announced that they were an astonishing 52.5 million dollars in debt.

 

I don’t know anyone who has a “hotline” to God. We have a God who listens in to our prayers. Some wish that prayer, like a vending machine, could put a way to their money in the plate and get to ask God anything, such as: “What is Heaven like?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Instead God has determined that we can best  find his will by searching for it and praying for it like Jesus did when he prayed: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, just as it is in Heaven.”

 

So how do we connect with God when we don’t have a hotline of some kind? Christian singer and songwriter Cynthia Clausen has an idea:

A rocky road, a heavy load, got you wonderin’ if you’ll ever get over.

Your journey’s slow, your faith is low, and you’re wonderin’

who will take the time to get you back on your feet, turn your bitter to sweet. Jesus knows all the burdens that you bear. He will take the tim to care.

Anybody got a heart that will not mend?

Are you trying to live a life you just can’t defend?

Are you in a battle you just can’t win?

Anybody got a problem they can’t solve?

Anybody got a hole in their resolve?

Remember in His hands the world revolves.

Bring it to Jesus.

 

So again this week we look at Jesus through the heart of John, the writer of our gospel today. He is loving, caring, and compassionate. And today we find out something astounding: Jesus prays for his disciples. We find his prayer in John 17.  There is something very sacred—something holy—about not just hearing Jesus teach about prayer, but hearing our Savior pray. Listen to this: Jesus says to his Father “You have given [me] authority over people to give eternal life to all you have given to me.”  So this, I believe, is not only a prayer for the Twelve, but a prayer for all the faithful. Listen to what Jesus prays, on behalf of his followers. First, he prays, “Holy Father, protect them (in the name you have given me) so that they may be one, as we are one.” [Verse 11] Oneness is a theme repeated several times in John’s Gospel. Jesus tries to get across that he and the Father are one, and that he wants his followers to be “one” too. In other words, when one rejoices, all rejoice! When one hurts, all hurt. When one dies, all grieve and support one another. It also means that, together, we seek to have the mind of Christ, asking in our daily lives, “What would Jesus do?”

 

Second, Jesus prays that his Father, “Protect them from evil” or “from the evil one.” That seems to be important to Jesus: he knows how powerful temptation can be, and knows how far people can fall if they listen to a voice other than his. In other words, he is praying that Satan does not dominate our thinking, call our focus away from God, or win our allegiance from God. I know of people who are so afraid of being tricked by Satan or being approached by Satan that all they do is think about Satan and how to avoid him. But if all their energy is poured into avoidance, how is there any energy let for praise, and love, and adoration? Don’t spend your life looking over your shoulder for Satan. Instead, look inward, or outward, or upward seeking the face of your Lord! God can get no glory when your time is eaten up with fear or panic. Jesus has already prayed that you be kept safe from the evil one. Give thanks for Jesus’ prayer, affirm it in your heart, and then spend your life glorifying God, not falling into Satanic traps. Jesus tells us why: “So that we might have his joy in all its fullness.”  Not running in terror, but living with joy.  Yes in our world that features terrorists, we need to be wary; but not obsessed. That is Jesus’ prayer for his followers; to be kept safe from evil. We know that because we got to read it thanks to John.

 

An outstanding young law student who was interviewing for a summer clerking position with a law firm had just completed the last of several interviews. He decided to accept one position in particular even though he had several attractive offers from other large and prestigious firms. When asked why he picked the one he did, this was his answer: “This was the only firm where the partners talked to me about how much they enjoyed the practice of law and their firm. Most of the others just focused on their benefits and their retirement packages.” Could people make choices about joining a church the same way? Could they join our church because they feel the Spirit moving here and sense our enthusiasm? Wouldn’t that be a better criterion than: “This looks like a good place to have a funeral?” Do people join churches just for the benefits (salvation) and the generous retirement policy (eternal life?)

 

Finally, Jesus asks his Father to “Sanctify them in the truth.” A strange phrase, right? The original Greek word means, “to set us apart for a task; to consecrate or make holy.”  We are set apart to be change agents of the world, not to let the world change us. We live IN the world but not OF the world. We are the ones whose prayer lives should not only be about asking for needs to be met, but asking God what we can do to help make this world into the Kingdom of God.  We are given a task, equipped to do it, and asked to carry it out.  There is a plan for your life and my life if you hear it and seek it! Seek it in prayer. And remember, even as you are praying, Jesus is praying with you and for you. You are not alone. Thanks be to God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 28, 2017

05-21-17 THE ROLES OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

THE ROLES OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

John 14: 15-27

 

We are in the season of transitions, and sometimes of saying goodbye. Some have children graduating from high school or college. Some older adults have to move to a new location to be near a grown child who can care for him or her. Some, like Andrea and Steven yesterday whose wedding was here yesterday, are transitioning to married life. Sometimes there are tearful goodbyes. In the First and Second World Wars, wives said goodbye to their husbands as parents said goodbye to their son, hoping that he would return. Later in the Gulf War and today with both men and women deciding to enlist, or do more than one tour of duty, or to go through an Officer Candidate’s School, we still say our goodbyes, and we pray. In hospital rooms people say goodbye as their loved one goes back for surgery. Goodbyes are part of life. And Jesus in John’s gospel brings a plethora of helps for his disciples, and also for us as we read his words.

 

Today’s text from John is a concentrated portion from about 9 chapters of Jesus giving final instructions to his friends. And today’s text holds the key verse of Jesus’ reassuring words: “I will not leave you orphaned.” The original Greek: “Orphanos.” I will not leave you as orphans. As I told the boys and girls today, for those in our world who do not have a mother or father to care for them, we are glad to support the Thornwell Home for Children in Clinton, South Carolina. They used to be called an orphanage but that term has fallen out of use. What they do is make a home for children that has a house parent who love them. That way they are no longer feeling abandoned. And Jesus was also saying the same thing. No gospel makes a better case for Jesus’ care and comfort for his followers, and part of that gift is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s roles are: 1) to fill the void with Jesus’ eminent departure. 2) To counsel and be a counselor; and 3) To teach what they and we will want to know.  John, the author, highlights the extraordinary declaration we heard last week: In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Then, three chapters letter: John records Jesus saying:  “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Late John recorded the story of the raising of Lazarus, and of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and early on, the wedding at Cana. What a gift John’s vantage point and witness have been to the church! And as we hear last week, Jesus loved his disciples and when he was leaving, he said in John 14: “Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms” as we heard last week. This man filled a void in the lives of the Twelve and others. And Jesus can do that for you too.  Jesus, in John’s gospel, takes not one, but nine chapters to tell his disciples goodbye. For nine chapters: 1) He tells them that after awhile he will leave them, but that he will return; 2)He tells them where he’s going; and 3) He says they can’t go with him now; and 4) he tells them he’s leaving them the Holy Spirit so they will not feel abandoned.  The Spirit has an important role when Jesus departs.

 

One commentator rightly suggests that we picture the disciples almost as children. Picture, for example, children or grandchildren sitting on the floor of your house. When they notice you picking up your car keys, getting a purse or briefcase, and reaching for the door, they might ask questions like the disciples did:

 

  1. “Where are you going?”

Jesus answered that question “I’m going to my Father.” (John 14: 12)

  1. “Can we come too?”

Jesus’ reply: “Where I’m going you can’t go now; but you can come later.”

(John 13:36)

  1. Here’s the key question: “Then who’s going to stay with us?”

Jesus’ reply: “The Father will send you another Counselor who will be with you forever. You will not be left as orphans.” (John 14: 16-18)

 

This chapter of John is one of the most beautiful accounts of God’s care for his people. No wonder that in times of our final goodbyes to loved ones, John 14 brings such comfort. Jesus begins to prepare his disciples in chapter 12. From that time until chapter 21, he is preparing his disciples to carry on without him. “Feed my sheep” was among the last of his instructions.

 

Could this model be a good one for our goodbyes too? Before you are caught off guard by your death, have you made yourself indispensible? Jesus didn’t. He taught others how to carry on without him. Have you avoided the subject of your own death? Jesus didn’t.  Nine chapters out of twenty-one dealt with what to do when he was gone. Do you have a will, and is it up to date? We’ll have a speaker from our planned gifts committee address that next week. Have you told your spouse who to go to for car repairs, or how to handle your finances? Have you told your spouse how to do things around the house, including the kitchen and the laundry room?  It’s time to break our silences, because our silences leave a spouse or child with a greater burden when we are gone. Jesus prepared those around him for his death. If we seek to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” in every other area of life, death should be included too. Consider how he has left the Holy Spirit to comfort, to counsel, and to teach us.  Do what he would do.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 21, 2017

 

 

Dear Lord of Life: how often we avoid talking about our deaths. It is more reassuring to say “see you later” than “goodbye.” But dear Jesus: teach us the value of preparing for our death with as much care as we prepare for a new life entering our world. Grant us wisdom and courage for the living of our days. And remind us that you never, no never will forsake us and leave us as orphans. Through the power and gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

05-14-17 JESUS PREPARES A PLACE FOR YOU

JESUS PREPARES A PLACE FOR YOU

John 14: 1-11

 

All through the month of May we are blessed to hear words of Jesus as recounted by his disciple John. John loved Jesus almost like a child would love his mother or his father; perhaps even a little more than that. John referred to himself as “The disciple who Jesus loved,” and I am certain he did so out of a feeling of unworthiness and gratitude. So when he reports about Jesus, he does it through a lens of adoration and appreciation. We recounted last week that Jesus was “The Good Shepherd.” And Jesus explained what that meant. Jesus said he was also “The gate” for the sheep, and that any predator or bandit would get to the sheep only over his dead body. Jesus, in John’s gospel, talks to the disciples as if they are frightened of being abandoned. We’ll address their specific fears of abandonment next week. But today we need this context to understand the tone of Jesus’ words. Sometimes people use fearful terminology to described Jesus’ second coming to earth. Some warn that “we must be ready, or we’ll be left behind.” Others say we have to read the signs of the times to see when Jesus will come again, to be “ready” for him. Generally those fearful images are taken from the prophet Joel, from 1 Thessalonians, from one of the other gospels, and sometimes from Revelation.  But Jesus in John’s gospel would never put fear in the hearts of the sheep; remember: last week we read in John 10 that Jesus is not just the good shepherd to his sheep but to the sheep: to all the sheep. So Jesus is for the world. And Jesus in John’s gospel tries to be as comforting as a good mother is with her infant, or a good father or good teacher is with their instruction. Jesus tries to be a calming influence, not a fearful one. Let’s turn to these famous words.

 

“Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me.”

We get to listen in to this gentle lesson. It’s the kind of message someone about to die wants to say to children or other loved ones. Do you believe in God? If you do, then you can easily listen in to Jesus’ comforting words. If you don’t, you aren’t condemned harshly; you just may not be ready to buy into the promises to follow. But for those grown men—those disciples—who were not ready to move from their “follower” designation to leader, Jesus understood. Have you ever run a committee, or an Association, or a Club and you became ready to step down?  You asked which of your wonderful workers would step up and assume the leadership role? And the room grows silent?  Not everyone is made to lead.  On the other hand, many who decided to step into a leadership position grew into it and became a good leader. Jesus was about to drop his disciples in the deep end of the pool; he was trying to prepare them. He would not be there to lead them or save them much longer. If you have ever seen geese overhead, for example, they fly in a V shaped pattern as they make their way during migration times. Scientists have studied them and believe the geese honk their encouragement to the leader in front. That one has the hardest job to do: choosing the direction to go and facing all the headwinds. But once the one in front begins to tire, that goose is allowed to fall back and another takes the lead. It is a wonderful way to not wear down or burn out a leader. So Jesus is easing his followers into leadership. Like children who have had both parents die, they have to figure out paperwork, and make decisions, and put their untested skills to use. Jesus knew that the Twelve had been followers; soon they would go into the world as leaders, because their leader would be gone. He was comforting them and preparing them.

 

Next, Jesus says “In my Father’s house are many” —what? Mansions? Rooms? Dwelling places? That’s the question. The King James translators wrote “Mansions” which led to a lot of hopes for getting a “Mansion in the sky.” Is it gated? Is it lovely? Is it exclusive? The truth is more realistic. This story is based on the marriage arrangement for Jews that Jesus had been exposed to all his life. When it was time for a Jewish father to choose a bride for his son, he looked over the brides in the area and chose one for his son. He then went to the bride’s father to see if he would agree to the arrangement. The bride’s father might have agreed, but he would ask a considerable price for his daughter’s hand in marriage. If an arrangement was reached, the father of the bride would tell his daughter that her marriage had been arranged; then the father of the groom would depart with his son to return to the father’s house to build a room on the father’s house. It would be where the new couple would live: a place prepared for them. The father then would begin to make sure than his son not only learned the construction trade, but he also worked to prepare his son to be a husband and later a father. No one knew when the father decided his son was ready; not the son, not the father of the bride, not the bride. The bride and her bridesmaids just had to be ready. There would be no signs along the way. Only the father knew and sent a messenger just before his son returned. Then and only then would he return to get his bride-to-be (who had to be ready) and take her to the place he had prepared for her. It was a room on the father’s house.  So the best word in verse 2 is “room,” not “mansion” or “dwelling place.” This is the tone of this passage: it is comforting and using the familiar situation (familiar to then at least) of Jesus, sometimes called “the groom,” returning to get his bride, who are the members of his Church-his followers. Jesus says to his disciples and to us, in so many words, “I love you that much.” Bible teacher Ray Vanderlaan says Jesus asks you, and asks me, “Will you be my spiritual bride?” How lovely. It’s not weird; it’s gentle, and it soothing. It is not threatening or harsh.

Third, Jesus even lets an objection rise when he says to them “You know the way.” Thomas was troubled and Jesus lets him ask a question, even as he lets him doubt later that Jesus had risen from the dead. “Lord, we do not know where you’re going; how can we?”  Jesus, perhaps with a sigh because he thought these men had understood him, still said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” I sometimes cringe at the way that’s interpreted. It is used as an exclusive warning to those who don’t believe in Jesus as Savior; a way that excludes others. But remember; this is the Gospel of John. This is the Gospel that says in chapter one “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus was even in the beginning; with God, and equal to God. That means that for anyone who has died, according to John’s Jesus, he did not just get born by Mary; he existed since the beginning of time. Could it be that, from the beginning of time, no one came to the Father but by Him because he was equal to and with the Creator?  If so, it is meant to comfort; not to scare, or to exclude. He is saying, ‘Hey, I was there when you were created; I will see you again as you depart.” It is very, very comforting. The hymn “I was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” can be attributed to Jesus. The first line proclaims to the recently baptized person: “I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.”  John’s Jesus even gives some evidence toward that stance of Jesus and the Father being one in knowledge and presence.  Phillip, like a child, says “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Our ever patient Jesus (except with moneychangers in the Temple) said “I am in the Father and the Father in me; anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” They were together in the beginning; they will be together in the end. And in between, like a loving mother, or a caring father, or a loving groom, we are reassured that there will be a room prepared for us too. It’s attached to the Father’s house for connection, but it’s separated enough to be your place. A place for you. How many children who shared a room with a brother or sister were excited when they finally got their own room? Or maybe that day hasn’t happened yet for you!  Or perhaps sharing conversations and space are fine with you! Whatever works for you here will be prepared for you there. That’s the kind of Jesus we find in John.

 

When Jesus comes to get us: whether it is at our death or at his second coming, we have a loving groom coming to welcome his bride- that is, members of his church or the sheep from the flock.  Though the good shepherd is the shepherd to all sheep, he is messiah to those who call him Lord. And there is a place prepared for you; and for me. Invite others to know him, not with the threat that they’ll be left behind, because they will feel so cared for and welcome. Like Isaiah once quote God, Jesus certainly knew these words: “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to them and call out to them.” It seems like Jesus is using the best pastoral care and loving care he knows how to offer. Receive it in that way. Whether you are rattled or confused; whether you are sick or well; whether you are a disciple or a seeker or a bystander, consider the man who stilled the waters; he can also still your heart on issues like this.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           May 14, 2017