All posts by Westminster by the Sea

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

08-12-18 LIVING AS CHILDREN OF LIGHT

LIVING AS CHILDREN OF LIGHT

Psalm 27: 1-4; Ephesians 4:25- 5:2

 

In a sort of testimonial, David in Psalm 27 gives us a masterpiece of faith: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Notice that it’s not addressed to God; it’s addressed to whoever reads it or hears it. It’s a person taking a stand of courage against the tumultuous tides of the world. Artur Weiser, in his commentary of the Psalms, suggests that David “expresses fearless trust in God which enables him to face the future calmly and undauntedly in spite of many perils.”  [PSALMS, Westminster Press, 1962, pp. 245-246.] And James Luther Mays, Professor Emeritus of Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, says:

[It] begins with alternating interdependent declarations about God and self: God is light, salvation, [and] refuge to the psalmist—the psalmist fears no human being (vs.1) The declaration would hold even for situations like the slander of evildoers, (vs.2) and the attack of a hostile army (vs.3).  He so trusts the Lord. [PSALMS John Knox Press, 1994, p. 130].

 

Can you think of a time when you hit rock bottom? Perhaps you had a personal crisis; a financial problem; a problem with an addiction; or a problem with your job?  Who could you trust? Could you lean on the everlasting arms of God to carry you over the troubled waters of that time? Perhaps you found others on whom you could depend.  Sometimes the light of God can be reflected from the heart of a person we learn to trust. Some people live as children of light; they are trustworthy, confidential, and wise. If you have found such persons, you know who they are. As we learned over the past several weeks, God’s people always wanted a God they could see, and touch, and face. But God refuses to become what we want; God is who God is. What, however, if God’s plan was for certain human beings to carry around some pure light with them? One person who did it perfectly was Jesus Christ.  He was so sure that he said to others “I am the Light of the World.” When he said, “I and the Father are one” in John 10:30, he claimed the light of God for his life. So that’s one person who carried the light perfectly.  Light is so important; to go into a dark cellar one needs light; to drive through the dark of night one needs headlights; to walk through a dark path one needs a lantern, a lamp, or a flashlight. Light is vital in darkness.  No one can make a room so dark that a single match cannot illuminate it: that’s the power of light, and the weakness of darkness!

 

When the Apostle Paul was writing to the Christians in Ephesus, he knew what spiritual darkness looked like! The Ephesians were surrounded by spiritual darkness: people worshiped at the Temple of Artemis; people bought idols in the markets, and their Emperor demanded to be addressed as “lord and god.”  I shared that with you last week. That was the first century. Now we fast forward to the 20th Century and the time when the world was facing the crisis of World War II. When writing about the strength and value of a democracy, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote these words:

…We may well designate the moral cynics, who know no law beyond their will and self-interest, with the scriptural designation “children of the world;” or “children of darkness.”  Those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law could be termed “the children of light.”… [He went on to say] The [western] world came so close to disaster not merely because it never believed that Nazism possessed the demonic fury which it avowed. Civilization refused to recognize the power of class interest in its own communities. It also spoke glibly of an international conscience; but the children of darkness skillfully set nation against nation …. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free of their malice. [THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT AND THE CHILDREN OF DARKNESS, Charles Scribner’s and Sons, New York, 1944; pp. 10-41]

 

Niebuhr’s conclusions seem alarmingly timely although written over 70 years ago. Notice how the children of light must know about the children of darkness; they should learn their ways without falling into moral decadence, blindness, or relativism. Some of the most vital information available for winning a war comes from your enemy, Espionage, as we know, becomes a vital resource for collecting information on an enemy.

 

The Apostle Paul in both his second letter to the Corinthians, and again in his letter to the Ephesians, equates followers of Jesus as children of light, and those who don’t know or deny Jesus as children of darkness. Can’t you hear the tempting words of the children of darkness: “Come on, everybody’s doing it.” We now hear of people hiding their taxable income from the IRS and of people hiding their large amounts in off shore accounts. We know that parents and their children work outside of the rules to obtain high SAT schools for college scholarships. Some will do anything for coveted scholarships. We need to know the ways the children of darkness operate, but not follow their paths.

 

Several years ago, a girl in one of our Confirmation Classes had a classmate say to her: “Christians have no idea what the Real World is like.” That’s another phrase the children of darkness say. Real world. It as if to say in the real world people have to lie, or cheat or steal to get ahead; they have to bend a few rules, do a few drugs, or sleep with others to get ahead. But the children of light should not be naïve; need to know what goes on in the ranks of the darkness. Ig’s good to know what quicksand is out there and the consequences those choices bring.  There are examples of children of light and children of darkness all around us. Daily decisions and temptations can have lasting effects. Let me leave you with the words of Ephesians from The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, by Eugene Peterson. In this section that has the title: “The Old Way Has to Go,” he records these great words starting with verse 17. Paul says:

 

And so I insist—and God backs me up on this—that there is no going along with the crowd, the empty-headed, mindless crowd. They’ve refused for so long to deal with God that they’ve lost touch not only with God, but with reality itself.  They can’t think straight anymore. Feeling no pain, they let themselves go in sexual obsession, addicted to every sort of perversion.  But that’s no life for you! You learned Christ! My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to him, and been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus. Since then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything—and I do mean everything—connected with that old way of life has to go. It’s rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you.
Today, make any changes necessary in your life to become a better child of the light.

Let us pray: Dear God of Light, you have already placed your light in us; you gave us your essence as we were being created. But sometimes darkness and bad habits shroud the light in our souls. Help us to remove any shrouds within, to let your light shine before others: in what we say and what we do. We pray through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           August 12, 2018

 

08-05-18 THE PURPOSE OF CHRIST’S GIFTS

THE PURPOSE OF CHRIST’S GIFTS

Ephesians 4: 1-16

 

Long before God formed me in the womb of my mother over 62 years ago, I wonder how the Holy One did it?  Did God, like a child, cut up my features like paper dolls?  Did God, like a teen in chemistry class, mix my ingredients together, and make me?  Or did God, just know how to put the right chromosomes together and then endow me with spiritual gifts- like wisdom, understanding, and respect for the Lord?  Who knows how God made me and gave me the gifts I have? Who knows how God made you? But it is clear that there is not a set recipe for any of us. Like snowflakes, we are all different. But like Christmas cookies, we are sprinkled with characteristics that make us unique.  Some in our midst serve God directly as a minister, a chaplain, a choir director, an organist, a Sunday School teacher, an usher, an elder, a or a person showing great hospitality.  Others have similar ingredients but their work took their gifts in other directions.  Some are excellent at medicine, some excellent with their hands, or with their hearts, or with their minds. There are so many professions, jobs, and important tasks that need to be done in our world.  And yes we can take a raw talent and hone it. With practice, someone can be good at sports, or at music, or at mathematics, or in construction.  As the late Mr. Rogers used to say to his television neighbors: “Each of you is unique. There is no one else quite like you!”  And so it goes.

 

When Paul was writing to new Christians in Ephesus, it was a very cosmopolitan town- and very pagan. In the city was a giant temple to Artemis- the goddess of the hunt and of fertility. People would come and pray to her. And in the harbor was a giant statue of the emperor Domitian—whose ego was as giant as the harbor creation- believed to be 27 feet high on top of a massive base; and the Emperor demanded that people address him as “lord and god.” That was the climate of Ephesus when the apostle Paul started writing to a group of Christians there, trying to talk them into believing in the one true God, and in Jesus the Christ-the anointed one-the one who came to save people from the darkness and guilt of sin.  It was not a fertile land for planting gospel seeds in Ephesus; it was rocky to say the least! But Paul used God-given gifts for the same reason they’ve been given to us: for the building up of the body of Christ, which is the church. They are not given to stoke our own ego; they are given so the Body of Christ can be equipped to face the wiles of the evil one, and the distractions of the world.  Even in our day, finding fertile soil for planting gospel seeds can be difficult. Some people let words from a horoscope guide their important decisions.  Some people leave choices up to chance.  Others find their answers—and sometimes their gods—online or in peer groups.  Some fall into the world of gaming and bit coins that can move from fun to the darkness of obsession or gambling.

 

Into the first century world and—by extension—the twenty-first century word, Paul writes that he is “a prisoner of the Lord.” That is not just a metaphor; Paul was an actual prisoner, imprisoned for his testimonies about Christ! Some of the most powerful letters historically are from those imprisoned for Christ; the German Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a 20th century example that wrote letters from prison.  But in the first century world, when people could often been seen in shackles (or fetters) against their will, Paul’s claim that he is indebted to Christ and no other. He is willfully shackled to Christ. The response to the Prayer of Confession that Glory chose last week declared “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to me; let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.”  We, like Paul, may choose to be a prisoner for the Lord. But here was the radical proclamation for the culturally diverse people of Ephesus: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the hope of your calling, on Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.” Goodness. That would really turn people on their heads when they first heard it! “One Lord!” (not Domitian)! “One faith!” (in a community of many faiths?) What a ridiculous idea people must have thought.  Paul had brought a giant culture-shift to them, and today he keeps grounding even us in Christ during the shifting tides of our fast-moving world.

 

Next Paul talks about gifts; and not just ordinary gifts but ones from Christ. He says “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive and he gave gifts to his people.” Then, like a commentator, Paul explains what he meant: “When it says ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had descended into the lower parts of the earth.” Maybe you wondered where the phrase “He descended into Hell” originated in the Apostle’s Creed; this is one place it is found in the Bible. Then Paul listed gifts; gifts different from the Gifts of the Spirit listed in Isaiah chapter 11. Referring to Christ, He says, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles (that means the sent ones), prophets (another word for preachers) some evangelists (that is, people who share the gospel with others), some pastors (generally persons who oversee flocks called congregations) and teachers (the a high calling of helping others learn about Jesus and the Bible). All of that is to equip us for the work of ministry.  When I was ordained as a minister back on July 24th 1981, I chose those words from Ephesians to be on the cover of my ordination bulletin. Those words grounded me then, and now, to Jesus Christ.

 

Finally, Paul says why it is important to be grounded, and to use the gifts God has provided. “We must no longer be …tossed to and fro and blown by every wind of doctrine; by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  That described Paul’s world but it describes ours too, doesn’t it?  There are people all over our land who want you money, want your allegiance, and want your vote; many of them will say anything to get them! They can try to influence you over the phone, through the mail, by hacking your information, or in person.  This passage implores us to stay grounded, using the gifts God has given us to ward off those who would trick us, entice us, or try to win us away from the one true God.  We may not have a shrine to a goddess at the edge of town, or a huge statue of an emperor off of our beaches, but believe me, there are those with a desire for power and influence who want to turn your eyes from Jesus. Don’t let them! Keep Jesus in your sights.  We who love Jesus are part of God’s plan to change the world!  Together let’s serve our Savior, and no other. Together, let’s give glory to God, and no other. And we can, together, be grounded by the grace and the words of God in the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me”—spoken in love, from the source of love. An anemic body of Christ may fall; but a strong body will stand. Do your part to keep the body of Christ strong.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           August 5, 2018

 

07-29-18 GLORY’S MISSION BEGINS

Ephesians 3:14-21
3:14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,

3:15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.

3:16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,

3:17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

3:18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,

3:19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

3:20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,

3:21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

As I begin my ministry here at Westminster-by-the-Sea, I have spent time wondering what word God might give me to speak as my first sermon. First impressions are hard to nail down, and it’s easy to mess them up! What can I say that might be impressive? How can I convince you that you’ve made the right choice in who is your new associate pastor? I, like some of you may be, am an overthinker. I think about every possible outcome of my decisions. What if everyone falls asleep during my first sermon? What if they have the rotten tomatoes ready to chuck at me the minute I let my guard down? And then I realized the error in my thinking: I am really focused on myself! And if there is anything I have learned from the lengthy ordination process, my years in seminary, and in all of my ministry experience, it is never about me. I have been called to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and that is what I am here to do today. The Holy Spirit reminded me that every step of this process of ministry has been covered in prayer; and prayer is what is going to sustain me and the church for the years to come. So what better way to begin my ministry here with you all than by a prayer? In this letter addressed to the saints in Ephesus noted as a writing from Paul, we see that there is emphasis on unity, living a new life, and putting on the armor of God. This letter is believed to have the most comprehensive and cohesive portrait of God’s plan, using words to paint a picture of a God who is the ruler of the whole universe with a deep love and wide sovereignty for all of creation. This prayer that we just read truly grasps the expansiveness of the God of the cosmos. So now I use this prayer as my own. This is my prayer for this church and for our life together as a family of faith.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your heart by faith as you are being rooted and grounded in love. There is a deep richness in this portion of the prayer. This is a powerful blessing to enrich the soul. It is a call for strengthening of the inner being with power through the Spirit. Strengthening our outer being involves good nutrition, exercise, hygiene practices, healthcare, and rest; but strengthening our inner being often involves prayer, care from others, and fellowship. When one being suffers, the other tends to suffer as well. We must take care of ourselves inside and out so that we may be strong individuals and a strong team united in the Holy Spirit. Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, founder of the church House for All Sinners and Saints, discusses having an experience of strengthening her inner and outer being. She was preparing for a church event while struggling with a back spasm. Nadia had to load and unload her car full of food, spent hours setting everything up, and had lead worship all while in pain. When much fewer people showed up for the event than she expected, she found herself in a bitter mood, which was only made worse when she found herself cleaning up all alone while others sat around talking and laughing together. One of the congregation members approached her, knowing she was having a rough day, and asked to pray with her. A small group gathered and prayed. Nadia’s back spasm released, and the group helped her finished cleaning. This blessing strengthened her outer being by relieving her pain, but also strengthened her inner being by having compassion shown toward her, being prayed over, and having help to clean up. The Holy Spirit is at work among us, and that is so evident when we show up for one another and strengthen each others’ inner being. According to the prayer, we do this by being rooted and grounded in love. Author Dianna Butler Bass describes being rooted and grounded by looking for God around us. She explains how churches have tall ceilings and architecture that points up to heaven, but she reminds us not to be so distracted with looking up and having a vertical faith practice, that we forget that God is with us, in each of us, and among us as we walk the earth. Our faith must be horizontal as well. This is how we stay rooted and grounded in love and this is what I pray for us, as we strengthen one another.

I pray that you have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and the length, and the height, and the depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. What a thing to pray for: to comprehend each direction, every corner of the love of Jesus. What a blessing to wish upon someone, to be filled with the fullness of God. Even as I pray this for each of you, I myself don’t have a complete understanding of this expansive love and brimming fullness. The closest I have come to having this prayed over me and understanding what it even means was during my time in South Korea with a group from my seminary. After flying to the other side of the world and passing into a time zone that is 14 hours ahead of us, I was met with kindness, warmth, love, and hospitality by each person I met while in South Korea. Travelling this far away over a 14 hour period and being met with welcome truly affirmed a comprehension of breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love. Our seminary group attended a weekly prayer service held at one of the Korean churches. This prayer service used a type of practice called “tong sung kido.” This is a spontaneous prayer spoken out loud; it is not a prayer spoken in tongues, but instead each person prayers out loud their own prayer to God in Korean. The pastor would stand before the congregation and discuss an important topic, such as sharing about some of the sick congregation members. Then the entire congregation would cry out to God in unison together, which roughly translates as, “Please God!” and then they would each pray their own prayer out loud on behalf of the sick congregation members. After a period of time, the pastor would talk about another topic, maybe about their missionaries, then they would go on in prayer again out loud for the missionaries, and it would continue in this cycle. While we couldn’t understand the words that were being spoken, we could feel the passion and intensity behind these prayers. We were surprised when the pastor asked our group to stand up. We were traveling strangers, a group of foreigners, in this church, but he told the congregation that we were seminary students from the United States and that they should pray for us. So this congregation cried out, “Please God!” And then prayed out loud for us. They cried out with the same passion and intensity as before, on our behalf. To hear voices being uplifted in another language by people who didn’t even know us was an experience so profoundly moving, that I will never forget it. This is the closest to the fullness of God I have ever felt, to be overwhelmed by hospitality, love, and prayer by complete strangers to us foreigners, and this is what I pray for each of you.

Our scripture passage ends with a charge and a blessing to the saints of Ephesus, which I also offer as a charge to you, to us as a team: Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever. Whatever you or I can imagine us accomplishing through love in the name of Jesus is nothing compared to what God can do within us. The potential of this world-changing power is unfathomable, and is the blessing I hope for us. Doing the unimaginable will look different from person to person, depending upon our gifts and passion given to us by the Spirit. For example, this might look like a 102 year-old-man who has logged over a thousand hours of service and traveled thousands of miles to volunteer his time to Meals on Wheels. Edward Kydd, who is not too far from us in Rockledge, FL, is not letting his age slow him down. He wants to spend his time giving to others who might need a hot meal brought to their home. Another example of doing the unimaginable might look like English teacher Bijoun Eric Jordan raising over $50,000 to take his students overseas to Japan. Mr. Jordan teaches at a school in Brooklyn where many of his students,who are mostly people of color, come from economically disadvantaged families and neighborhoods. Mr. Jordan knows his students struggle with poverty and are exposed to crime, and he wants them to see the world so that they know there is more out there than what they may be struggling with now. He believes offering them the opportunity to travel to Japan and other countries can be life-changing for these students who may not otherwise be able to afford to see much of the world outside of their neighborhoods. Like Bijoun Eric Jordan and Edward Kydd, if we use our love for others God can accomplish so much more than we could imagine in the world.

We are standing here in this space together, at the very beginning of our ministry. We’re still getting to know each other, and there is so much for us to learn and do side by side. I have already seen God at work here through VBS and our various outreach ministries, and I am very excited about living the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our community together.  I believe that if we strengthen one another, remain rooted and grounded, and be open to the fullness of God then the work will be good and beyond all that we can imagine. While I pray this for you and for us, I hope you’ll join me in this prayer for our church and for our community, too. If we are sharing this prayer as our mission together, raising our voices as one body with this prayer as our vision  then the power of the Holy Spirit will be a palpable presence. Let us pray and enact this together so that God will be glorified in the church for all generations. Praise be to God. Amen.

07-22-18 THE FIRST EVANGELIST

THE FIRST EVANGELIST

Mark 6: 53-56 (with references to Mark 5:1-20)

 

Were any of you fans of the TV series called “Lost?” I wasn’t, but Mary Ann was, so we watched it! I always said, “They call it ‘Lost’ because the writers said to themselves each week, ‘What direction will we take the story today?’ The plot seemed to jump from one strange event to another. And then there were the flashbacks. So many films and television shows now revert to flashbacks to explain connections with characters, or to explain current plot twists.

 

Well today I am going to use that popular device! Today’s “episode” comes from Mark chapter six that you heard me read. But if you listened carefully, you don’t hear a mention of any particular person who might be identified as “the first evangelist,” that is, the first person to tell others about Jesus. That event could only by flashing back to Mark 4:35—a chapter earlier—when Jesus told his disciples: “Let’s go across to the other side.” You see, if we turned this sanctuary space up front into a clock face, (that’s an analogue clock to millennials and children) imagine that the sea of Galilee is right in the middle of our center aisle and that Jesus is true north! From that point, 8:00 o’clock would be Tiberias, a city with a Roman graveyard and where Roman soldiers gathered—Jesus NEVER went there. Then at about 9:00 o’clock and a few miles away from the sea was Nazareth, Jesus’ boyhood home. Many believe that Jesus and his father Joseph would have walked to the nearby metropolitan city (by comparison with Nazareth) of Sepphoris to find work as carpenters and stonemasons. Then at about 10 ‘clock was Cana also several miles from the sea, the place where Jesus performed his first miracle of changing water into wine according to John chapter 2.  Up at 11:00 o’clock was Magdala—the home of Mary Magdalene. Although not one of the 12, she was still a disciple of Jesus. At 11 o’clock was the place on the shore where Jesus preached the so-called “Sermon on the Mount,” including the Beatitudes, like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” At 12:00 was the adopted hometown of Jesus as a man: Capernaum. He preached in it’s synagogue according to Mark 1: 29-32, and he healed the mother of Simon who lived there. At 1:00 the River Jordan traveled from the snow covered tops of Mount Hermon on its way to the Dead Sea. At 2:00 o’clock was Bethsaida, currently in the Golan Heights. It was the hometown of Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, and Philip. At 3:00 there was a distinctly different population. 3:00 o’clock was the land of the Gerasenes according to Mark 5. These were Gentiles and not Jews. They raised pigs, ate pork, and did not worship the God of the Hebrews. So when Jesus said, that they “came to the other side,” it was radical. Any Jew would have been made ritually unclean by visiting there. Yet Jesus, a Jew, defied custom and went. What did he find? A read challenge for one thing: a man isolated from his hometown and banished to live in a graveyard, a truly homeless man who was believed to be possessed by demons.  There was quite a drama in that “last episode” in Mark chapter 5 as Jesus commanded the unclean spirits to come out of the man, and he sent the unclean spirits into a herd of swine nearby! About 2000 of those pigs, filled with the unclean spirits, ran into the Sea of Galilee and drowned! We’ll get to the man who was healed in a minute, but think about the owners of the swine! They would have lost their entire income because of what Jesus did. If Jesus came farther into that country on that day, he might have been detained or killed. But he sailed off. What was the other consequence of Jesus’ action? The Sea of Galilee is really just a lake. Can you imagine what 2000 dead swine would do to the fish in the sea? The Bible speaks nothing of that. What it does say is that the healed man naturally wanted to follow Jesus. But Jesus knew that no Jew would listen to the testimony of a Gentile. So he wisely said in Mark 5:19- “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you.” Jesus made a leap of faith with his guidance: the leap was for that recently possessed man to now call Jesus Lord! Then he told that total stranger instead of following him, to go and tell his friends about Jesus and what he had done for him! That makes him the first evangelist! Let’s see his results.

 

Fast forward to sometime in the future in Mark chapter 6. Jesus and his friends were near Bethsaida (about 2 on the clock) and there he fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish according to Mark 6:38. Then they returned to the land of the Gerasenes also called Gennesaret. Remember, according to the Bible, no one would have thought of Jesus as Lord over there except possibly the man he healed from demons. Now Jesus is returning. What will he find? Quote: “When he got out of the boat immediately people recognized who he was, and ran about the whole neighborhood and began to bring sick people on their pallets to any place where he heard he was.” Jesus wanted to be Lord, but he responded to requests for healing too! The point is, one man who was sick, gave his testimony to others about what Jesus had done, and they were amazed.

 

Nobody else can be the first evangelist; that position is already taken. But what about the position of the next evangelist? That could be any one of you! Which child here today might take the envelope handed to them and share it with a friend, telling them about the place they learn about Jesus? Which of you might speak to someone else about what you’ve learned at Westminster By-The-Sea? I know some families who joined us for Vacation Bible School and they also came last Sunday; perhaps even this Sunday they’re here because they have felt welcomed and they’ve heard the Good News! Which person among you has learned about someone’s illness from our prayer list, gone to see them and prayed for them, keeping them in your heart? Who among you knows a new neighbor, or people you’ve met at a gathering, and invited them to join you here on a Sunday?  There are people here right now who were invited to try come learn about Jesus here, and you liked it and stayed! We can all be the next evangelist, the next one to tell others about Jesus by not hiding his light under the bushel of our shyness or reluctance! If you have found Jesus, or have found a wonderful way to learn about him here, why not tell others about it? I often have people call me, or text me, or post on Facebook where they’ve found a great deal on a product or a service! I’m not offended by that. Sometimes I need the same products or service!  I believe there are plenty of spiritually hungry or spiritually searching people trying to wade through the wasteland of the internet for answers. Here Jesus is shared weekly: lovingly, honestly, and with a desire for you to know about him, grow with his teachings, and perhaps even accept him as Lord, just like Jesus hoped the first evangelist would do. But it won’t happen if you don’t do what that first evangelist did: go back to your friends and tell them about Jesus! Then God’s Holy Spirit can go to work on their heart. And maybe, they’ll say, “I too want to know about Jesus!” When we realize all the people Jesus encountered and changed, we soon find out that “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          July 22, 2018

07-15-18 THE ARK OF THE COVENANT

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT

2 Samuel 6: 1-5

 

Like many of our Vacation Bible School children this week, years ago there was a little boy who attended another VBS where he was taught that God, who was invisible, was always with him.  They boy thought about it as he was being tucked into bed. The night was dark and thunder was clapping outside and lightning flashing. He asked him mother if she would stay with him. “No honey,” I have to get your younger brother ready for bed. But remember: God is with you.” “ Yeah,” the boy said, but I rather have someone with some skin.”

 

All this week the lessons we taught were to secure the belief that no matter what times of trial we face, God will be with us, even if God is invisible. Mary Ann and I were just in Copenhagen as part of our 40th anniversary, and I made a point of going to Soren Kierkegaard plaza, a rather underwhelming place. On the plane over I was reading some of the writings of that famous Danish philosopher.  One poem, likely penned by Kierkegaard, is called “Footprints in the Sand.” A man had a dream and his life flashed across the sky. He noticed two sets of footprints in the sand during most of his life, and believed they were those of the Lord and himself. But he was troubled when during the times in his life that were most difficult, there appeared to be only one set of footprints. So he questioned the Lord about it. The Lord said, “My precious, precious child, I have taught you that I will never abandon your or forsake you. When you saw the one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you.” A line in many hymnals imagines God saying to the singers: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.” That image, and the themes in our VBS stories this week, imagined a person rolling down the rivers of life, facing rapid places, calm places, cold place, and warm places. But many people—including the people of God—did not just float down a river; they crossed a river or other bodies of water.  The salvation event for the Hebrew people was crossing the Red Sea at a place that God made dry, so they could escape slavery.  Moses was God’s chosen leader. Later as Moses grew old during a terribly trying time wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, God created a tag team to cross a different body of water into his promised land. That body of water was the Jordan River. Moses was aloud to see the Promised Land but not cross over into it. That task was handed off to Joshua. Moses blessed him and God commissioned him. So Joshua led others from Mount Nebo across the Jordan River into Caanan to claim God’s promised land.

 

Those people, a bit like the young boy who wanted a God with skin, decided that they wanted to take God with them. But how? They couldn’t look at him; they couldn’t make any graven images of him or carry them in their robes. They decided the one thing they had from God was the Ten Commandments, words that they believed were cut by the finger of God. So the tablets on which the commandments were written became sacred; special; almost like a child’s security blanket for grown ups. They decided that they would feel safer if God traveled with them. And for good measure, they would feel best if God went first! Thus we come to the story of the Ark of the Covenant the details of which are in Second Samuel Chapter 6. Don’t we know what it’s like to want God close to us; God with us? Some believe God is in their Bible, or on a cross in their pocket, or around their neck, or in their sanctuaries or chapels. Today we learn that even in the days of the people of Israel, God was not just in heaven. God was with the chosen people. And later we learn how God dwelled on the earth in Jesus Christ, … and still is with us through the Holy Spirit! So let’s take the idea that God only resides in Heaven and set it aside! Let’s set aside the belief that people can only approach God in churches or cathedrals. Let’s not believe that we can put a memento of God on a knick knack shelf and think it means God is there! We say to our forbears: “We understand why you wanted to try to carry God with you!  But through Jesus God is in the Temple of our hearts!”

 

This morning our sanctuary includes a replica of the Ark of the Covenant; The ark was a moveable box, built to exact specifications according to God’s instructions, that would contain the Commandment tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai from God.  Israelites, and later the Jews, called those Commandments “God’s Law.” God’s people believed that God’s presence was with them when the Ark was in front of their journeys.   This was not a box God lived in; it was an Ark that carried the reminder of God’s presence and protection.  The Bible records that when the chosen people had battles with others, they honored God by keeping God present, not just with the Ark, but also in leather pouches lashed to their foreheads. They believed if they removed their sacred pieces from their bodies, or failed to put the ark in front of their battles, they could be defeated.  In our day those who hear a message and believe it on a Sunday, but live as if they have not heard it on Monday, may struggle to find God’s presence on Tuesday.

 

The Israelites remembered, and put rituals into place, to honor God on the Sabbath: for Jews that’s from sundown Friday until Saturday night. They had times and places for honoring God. If ever they were delivered from a foe, they thanked God for it and erected boulders they called “altars,” or “standing stones,” saying to future generations,  “God delivered us in this place.” How do you remember times when God has delivered or healed you?  Do you have a ritual for remembering and thanking God?

 

The late German Theologian Gerhard von Rad describes “The Tent, the Ark, and the Glory of God” this way:

The tabernacle is not a tent in the full sense of the term….It consisted of a massive frame of boards overlaid with gold ….Here stood the Ark, a rectangular wooden casket, 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ broad, and1 ½ high, which could be carried by means of long poles. [OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY, Harper & Row, 1962, vol. 1, pp. 234-235]

The poles were a very important part of the set up. God had not just picked a place, called it holy, and said, “I will live here; you come to see me here!” No; God said, in effect, “Take me with you; I want to be where you are, and you will certainly want me to be where you are!” That’s why the poles are there. The Ark of the Covenant includes angels on top to indicate the presence of God.  It’s called “the Mercy Seat.” The Ark was not intended to be mainly a shrine for people to travel to visit. It was so God could go with the people. Those who were thinking that God would just live in a tabernacle or a temple were limiting our limitless God! But, as the Jews settled around Jerusalem, they lost their need to travel and escape. So a Temple was eventually built to protect the Ark and invite the faithful to, symbolically, come closer to God. Likewise, even though our world has wonderful sanctuaries, cathedrals, and chapels where people can come for reflection or prayer, they are intended to point to God, be a catalyst for our spiritual lives and lift our drooping heads up! They become destinations in and of themselves. Yes, we can take God with us, in a manner of speaking, as we carry our Bibles, cell phones, crosses, or computers. But the worship of God has always involved a community! Some people say they can worship God on golf courses, in theme parks, or other places. They can; that is, if they set their clubs down, or their fast passes down, move to a corner of the property, gather at least three other people, set up a focal point of an altar, a cross, a bowl of water, or a table, and worship the God who is with them even there!  It takes focus to honor God, not just a glib mention. Or you can go to a house of worship, where others come seeking God and community, and use that time for focused worship. Houses of worship are usually built carefully and prayerfully. In 1 Kings we read about Solomon constructing the Temple of God, a task David was not allowed to do. Solomon believed that it honored God to create a house for God.  But the poles on the Ark should never be forgotten: God always wants to go with us into the world, not be left behind! Scripture tags we hand out to children and youth on our back to school Sunday remind them that God is going with them! An old hymn suggests: “Take the Name of Jesus With You.” But today’s text reminds us also that, through the ages, people have created inspiring places to honor God. That’s good too.  Find the place, find the time, and find the words to honor God. It can happen at church, at home, at work, at play … or at school.  Call on, and praise the Living God! We not only have streams to forge, we also have waters cross. In both activities of life, God will be with us. What joyous and comforting news! Thanks be to our very present God!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           July 15, 2018

 

07-08-18 JESUS ADVISES HIS DISCIPLES

JESUS ADVISES HIS DISCIPLES

Mark 6: 1-13

 

Generally speaking, advice is best sought when needed. Advice is not usually welcomed unsolicited.  “Can I give you some parenting advice?” a mother in law asks her daughter in law.  “Can I give you some financial advice?” a successful investor asks a struggling one.  How many times do we want to answer, “No!” When are people receptive to advice? 1) When they admire the work of another; 2) when they already have established a good relationship; or 3) when they have hit rock bottom or are in a corner, ready to try something new.

 

What we know from today’s text is that the disciples had built at least a fledgling trust in Jesus as one with authority. Some had grown up with him; some had met him and decided to follow him. But they had seen him do wonders, like calming a sea, bringing a girl back to life, and healing a man possessed by demons. He had established some credibility with them. But Jesus was entering a place where everyone had known him “back when.” Back when he was just Mary And Joseph’s son. Back when he and his brothers James, Joses, Judas, and Simon likely did brotherly teasing, and playing, Jesus was known to others. Now grown, he was coming back home.

 

When I was graduating from seminary, people at my home church said, “Why don’t you consider coming back home to be Pastor at the church where you grew up?” The response in my head was “NO!” But what I said was, “People who knew me when, as the church Assistant Janitor, used to clean church bathrooms, polish church pews, and shovel snow from walks, would not see me as their Pastor; nor would the ones who remembered when my friend and I were sent out of my own father’s Sunday School class for misbehaving! We must earn credibility if we are going to give advice. Starting with my childhood burned into people’s minds would have put me twelve steps back. When Jesus went home, Mark recorded in verse 4: “He could do no mighty works there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.”  Like kryptonite was to Superman, his hometown was to Jesus.  He could not do anything like he could do elsewhere. Jesus had a hard row to hoe as he came back into the Galilee, especially around Nazareth.

 

Remember: advice is best sought when needed, but its often not welcomed when offered up by others.  Yes we can get advice in the third person by reading an advice column like Dear Abby or watching a show like Doctor Phil. But when someone wants to give you yourself advice, do you find your shields going up, yourself getting defensive, and wanting to get away? So what do we learn from Jesus today as he comes back to his home?

 

First, the right to advise someone has to be earned. Billy Graham won many more people to Christ once he had some revivals under his belt and some testimonies from people to share.  An unknown Billy Graham had much less power to advise people in their lives than the man he became.  Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart stores, was the quarterback of his high school football team and he was an Eagle Scout. When it was time to consider a career, he took a job with J.C. Penny in Des Moines Iowa and learned all that he could. Several years later he borrowed $25,000—a large sum of money in 1945—to buy his first store: a Ben Franklin 5&10 Store in Newport, Arkansas. Sam thought the chain should have moved more into rural areas the way Family Dollar has done in the last 20 years. But the Ben Franklin management said “no,” so he struck out on his own. Nobody cared about his past credentials when he was growing up. They just wanted a profitable business that met people’s purchasing needs. Sam opened one store in Rogers, Arkansas marketing the store in his own way: meeting customers personally, meeting with workers personally, and meeting with American manufacturers personally. The idea caught fire and one Walmart became the giant business it is today.  He did not instantly have credibility as he went against the advice to stay with Ben Franklin stores. By the way, Ben Franklin went bankrupt in 1997. Sam had to show that his new idea could make money; he had to show manufacturers that they could start production again and make a profit; he had to build the trust of employees, and he did, visiting each one in his famous old red pick-up truck.

 

There are a few stories of people who refused early advice who gained enough credibility to offer advice to others by writing books, run seminars, or post blogs. But if people are going to seek advice from you, you’ll first need to earn the right to offer it; same with me. Basically preachers have, as one of our purposes, teaching the Bible—yes—but also offering advice for life, especially spiritual advice.  When I started here at age 29, I had little “cred” with people seeking guidance—a new guy from the Midwest, with a wife and three little children. The ability for people to seek, and listen to, advice often arrives over time.

 

Second, the right to advise others comes best through establishing relationships.  Jesus fished with his disciples, listened to them, prayed with them, and shared food or lodging they received. He was one of them, but clearly their leader. They were not yet ready to hear him say that one day he would ask them to be willing to lose their lives; but they were connected enough to keep learning and listening. Interestingly, however, Jesus believed they were ready to hear his instructions about exorcisms of all things: casting out demons! Boy, talk about dropping your disciples in the deep end of the pool!  He “gave them authority over unclean spirits.” “But we don’t want authority to do that,” I’d imagine the disciples saying in their heads! Still, he continued to pump them with instructions: “Take only a staff for your journey.” It was a symbol of a shepherd, someone who was not learned, but also not threatening. He went further: he told them what not to bring.  They were just to arrive unannounced on people’s doorsteps! Yes, there are those who witness in our day like that two by two, but rarely do they expect to stay.  Years ago in my first church we did have a touring gospel group stay in our home and the home of other congregation members while they brought their message to us and other congregations. It turned out that they took today’s passage literally and came in a van with almost no fuel, with virtually no money, and no food until they got their next contract!  What a mess that was when they incurred medical bills! So looking back at our text, Jesus did give them authority, but how quickly might they have “worn out their welcome?”  My father would never stay with relatives longer than three days, because he said “visitors, like fish, start to smell after three days!” How long might the disciples have stayed to earn the right to heal someone or advise them? The Bible does not say. But Jesus did give them instructions on how to leave. “If people refuse to hear you, when you leave shake the dust off of your feet as a testimony against them. Hmm. That was not just an act of cleanliness. I once thought it simply meant, “We’ll move on to the next home.” But maybe it means more. My visit with our Holy Land guide Mike four years ago as we traveled around the Holy Land on a bus gave me another thought.  As I was sitting on a seat across from him, I had my legs crossed with the sole of one shoe facing him. “Here’s a useful bit of information in the Middle East,” he said. “Someone who shows the bottom of their shoes to another in conversation is offering a gesture of insult and derision.” My sitting position was saying:  “I do not respect you.” I just thought I was crossing my legs! So perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus words about shaking the dust off of their feet as a testimony against them is more like “we are through with you” then “goodbye.”  What people can learn when they actually visit a different culture! So I made sure to keep the sole of my foot on the floor so I could establish a good relationship with our guide!  Sometimes our motions or gestures carry great power with others.

 

Finally, the only fast-forward way to be able to advise others—besides earning the right to advise, or establishing a relationship to advise, is through a skill set. What that means is I might trust the advice from a mechanic I don’t know if he has the proper training. I might trust the advice of a doctor I don’t know because he has the approval of the medical board.  I might trust the advice of someone to repair my house because they are licensed and insured. Some people these days even check with “Home Advisor” or “Angie’s List” for recommendations! So with a skill set, my willingness to hear and receive advice goes way up. When people need serious counseling, my own belief in the therapists at our Presbyterian Counseling Center has given others the courage to make the call to a counselor they don’t know. And the process of healing can go faster because your relationship with me lets you trust a counselor faster.

Jesus had his obstacles to getting people to listen to him. So do we. For advice, seek those who have earned your trust or with whom you have established a relationship.  Alternatively, you might choose by credentials. Advice is a delicate thing to offer, and to receive. Jesus gave us advice to move forward in life.  I trust Jesus. I invite you to do so as well.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                     July 8, 2018

07-01-18 JESUS HEALS

JESUS HEALS

Mark 5: 21-43

After a stressful trip to cold-war Russia in 1964, Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins developed a debilitating illness which confined him to bed. He was admitted to a hospital for tests and treatments, and diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, (a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine; the joints become inflamed … causing severe, chronic pain and discomfort. In some cases it leads to a permanent stooped posture.) Norman Cousins’ condition deteriorated and he was given a prognosis that was not optimistic at all… He noticed while hospitalized that the depressing routine of hospital life tended to produce side effects that aggravated his condition.

With the blessing of one of his doctors, he checked out of the hospital and into a comfortable (and less expensive) hotel where the food was better. He found a TV channel that ran Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello films daily and he
“religiously” watched them! He added extra Vitamin C to his diet and looked forward to the shows that made him laugh every day! Perhaps by the endorphins released by his laughter, and by feeling less stressed than in a clinical setting, he started to relax. And as he relaxed his condition started to improve, and eventually to subside! He was convince that laughter was a powerful “medicine,” and he wrote about it in his groundbreaking book, Anatomy of an Illness. His findings were also included in the New England Journal of Medicine in the December 23, 1976 issue.

That story is not to say that hospitals aren’t important or that doctors aren’t important: they are important in my view and my experience. But a team of people hold us physical or emotionally; and surroundings that are uplifting can certainly affect our bodies, our minds, coupled with medications as needed can bring us to wholeness.  One more example: during the days in 1987 when I was facing serious burnout, stress, and a dark night of the soul, I put three things in place to move beyond the darkness. The whole remedy was included in my doctoral dissertation, a copy of which is in our church library. But one of the remedies was taking my lunch hours, going home, and watching “The Andy Griffith Show!” Abbott and Costello don’t make me laugh, but Barney and Andy did!  I hadn’t laughed in weeks; and they brought escape and lightness to my burdened soul.  Intensive morning prayer was also part of my remedy. It did not take a hospital, but I was certainly ill in my soul.

My point is that some people who read this passage—of Jesus healing a young girl, and then a woman—will decide this: “Jesus healed then; why doesn’t he heal now? I’ll just ask Jesus to heal me!”  Jesus does heal. But God’s will and the circumstances of life can make some people so broken that recovery is difficult.  On the other hand, some people only call on Jesus for healing, not following medical advice. Homeless advocates will tell us that just prayer and food will not heal those who are mentally ill; they will also need medication and therapy. Another example:  we had the most wonderful woman who worked with children in our church for years—Trudy Jones—and she could not hear out of one ear. She managed, but still had difficulty hearing. When asked why she could not hear, she recounted the story of her mother—a devout Christian Scientist—would only pray for Jesus to heal her daughter, not get medical treatments. So her daughter Trudy suffered a terrible earaches and she lost her hearing in the process.

There are people of some Christian denominations that simply say “pray harder” or “have more faith” when people are found to be sick.  Some do heal; but some don’t.  Perhaps the number of people healed is a similar percentage as those who use a medical doctor,  or even a hospital, and the prayers of a congregation. Sometimes pastors in other churches have told me, “When we pray for a healing, we expect healing from God!  Do you?”  When I was a new pastor I stopped to visit a parishioner in the hospital. At the end of our visit I asked him, “Would you like me to pray with you?” And he said, “If it will make you feel better!”  Goodness!  We need to add in prayers to God, not just for good measure; or because it couldn’t hurt, but because you believe it will change the outcome!

Jesus, in the first century, absolutely healed people. He was so connected to his Heavenly Father, and so devoted in him daily prayers, that he could heal with a word or a touch.  Some people in our day may have great powers to speed healing. But for most of us, a combination of prayer, medicine when appropriate, and common sense will bring about the best result.  I have Type 2 Diabetes. I absolutely believe in prayer, but for my illness I think medication, proper diet, and exercise are needed to control my symptom.  I think praying alone for someone who has diabetes could lead to disastrous results like Trudy Jones losing her hearing.

One final comment: Dr. Larry Dossey, in his book “Healing Words” tells about an experience he allowed when he was managing a hospital. He carried out 10 years of research between prayer and healing. His conclusion: “prayer compliments, but does not take the place of good medicine. In one part of his experience, had had half of the patients on a hospital floor be given the best medical care; the other half got the same excellent medical care, but he had a congregation praying for them every day. The ones bathed in prayer healed faster and more completely.

Yes, Jesus healed in the first century. And yes, there are cases when Jesus heals now. But many cases have shown that prayer plus good physical, or emotional therapy, brings the best results. And yet, there are times when, because of issues that we cannot fully understand, some become too sick or too broken to return to health.  Then we lean on the everlasting love of God—a love that will not let us go—and we begin to move through that loss with the love of others.  On those days of brokenness or sorrow, may that love be sufficient for your needs, as you put one foot in front of the other.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          July 1, 2018

06-24-18 JESUS CALMS

JESUS CALMS
Mark 4: 35-41

Sometimes our culture hears sayings so often that people treat them as gospel. One is “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Tell that to the people who once were filled with faith and lost it over the death of a child. Tell that to people who prayed for protection from storms and received disasters instead. Tell that to the grieving friends of the physical therapist who jumped from the St. Pete/Tampa Skyway bridge to his death this week. “God never gives us more than we can handle.” No; that saying is not helpful. The helpful saying, that is biblical and that will be our theme verse for Vacation Bible School in two weeks is from Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” God and the people of God are with you in times that start to overwhelm you: that matters. It makes a difference. And it rings true. The Bible is filled with metaphors: that is, comparing current reality with what the Kingdom of God is like. As we examine Mark chapter 4 and a situation that happened ages ago on a small body of water called the Sea of Galilee-the time Jesus took disciples in a small boat and began crossing over to the other side—we can learn from it on a number of levels. This event can teach us even today.

There is a popular Christian book written by Evangelical Pastor John Ortberg. It has one of those catchy titles that is making its way into the American lexicon. It is: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. Some of you have read it; some perhaps have that saying on their nightstand or on a bookmark. All of that is fine. But that book has a completely different message from what our text today proposes. Today, the message is: “If You Want the Comfort of Jesus, Stay in the Boat.” Again: “If You Want the Comfort of Jesus, Stay in the Boat.” Outside of the boat, there are storms; and crises; and waves. Even when they are hitting us, smart people huddle close to Jesus. Let’s unpack this idea.

What is a storm you are facing? One that I have faced since the death of my father is not catastrophic, but it has shaken the world of mother and my siblings. I now join my two sisters and brother in monthly rotation regularly going to St. Louis to comfort and be with my mother. She is doing much better now; but a new storm has been brewing: arranging for an estate sale long distance for the belongings in the 4-bedroom house where we lived for fifty years. See? It isn’t Hurricane Matthew stormy, or people without food stormy, or border issues stormy, but storms take many forms. We are now preparing to sell the house we called home for half a century. The storm is sorrow, and uncertainty; it is distance, and throwing away belongings that hold memories. In this analogy that I’m building, the boat is a good congregation like ours. A good boat has a good person in charge. That person is Jesus. In the story, you might have dismissed Jesus because he was in the stern: the back of the boat. But if you know anything about small craft, you know it is from the stern that one steers, or directs the boat! That is the position that a pilot or captain takes in order to steer a small boat! So Jesus was not checked out. He was in the key place to know the boat, steer it, and feel whether or not it was about to swamp. My son-in-law Brian, Jenny’s husband, is a boat captain. I love ships, but I don’t know much about small boats. On Brian’s boat, he is the captain. And no matter how rough the waves are in the channels where he sails, or even as we sail into parts of the Gulf of Mexico, when he takes us there in his small boat, he is the captain, and I trust that we will all be safe, through wind or waves. The waves are outside of the boat! The boat is our life raft. The captain has his reputation on the line and his skills at the ready. With loved ones all in the boat, including his son and his wife, I put my trust in him.

Another storm: when family members on land, sea, or air are in harm’s way. When that happens mothers pray; fathers pray; families hope. Some among us are in that situation; and they by their choice are in this boat; this boat called Westminster, calls on the captain Jesus to protect those in peril and to comfort them. We receive shelter from life’s storms by staying in our boat—connected with Christ—who is the firm foundation. I have presided over hundreds of funerals; I have noticed something significant: people of faith are sad when they say goodbye to a loved one, but they often stay grounded and find new connections if they have stayed anchored to Jesus and his church family. Those who don’t have a boat—a good church home—almost drown in the storms of sorrow at funerals. They lift up and hug the lifeless body; they wail; and they refuse the leave the funeral home chapel. They seem to be without hope, because hope or faith has not been part of their spiritual diet; they get swamped by the storms of life. But you; you and I can know that fellow travelers, sitting in the seats we call pews in our boat, also have had storms of life to weather: medical storms; divorce storms; death storms. Those near you today might have prayed for you, as you might have prayed for others. We’ve learned how to lean on each other, and on the everlasting arms of Jesus, as he pilots us through the storms.

Some winds start to create other storms: issues with a child in school; severe illnesses, failing health, or addictions. The opioid addiction is a storm of catastrophic proportions. Westminster By-The-Sea has sent out life boats and life rafts to the outreach ministry called Solutions By-The-Sea. Our own Tobias Caskey, with Jesus at the wheel, navigates that troubled waters of addictions and incarcerations. Just this week he presided over another funeral. The storms are all around us.

Did you notice in today’s Mark 4 passage that Jesus said: “Let us go across to the other side.” In some communities even today, that would be like saying “Let’s drive over to the other side of the tracks,” an action that would indicate differences in incomes, or religions, or cultures. It would not be something many people would do lightly. But Jesus deliberately decided to leave a town he knew to go visit one he did not. What kind of storm might have awaited him there? He sets the example: those in the boat with Jesus, (like us today) witness the Savior who is not rattled by a storm; a man who saw a new town as an experience to be welcomed, not avoided. He is the picture of an “un-anxious presence.”

Outside of the boat, I’ve witnessed apathy, bitterness, anger, and hurt. The church, which is the boat, seeks to equip you with instinctive reactions to cope with unexpected sorrows. Singers and trainers talk about “muscle memory.” A trainer might automatically teach you to tighten your core and straighten your back and lift with you legs to pick up a heavy object. Those without good muscle memory might try the same task and hurt themselves. With singers, muscle memory tells them to open their mouths to sing with a relaxed face, and an open sound that is projected out through the mask of the face with a strong diaphragm. With people of faith, instinctive responses include knowing the Lord’s Prayer by heart, having your pastors or church friends just a phone call away, having a diet of faith, hope, and love, and praying regularly so that when there is a crisis, you do not have to come to Jesus feeling like a stranger. These things help you face tomorrow.

I’ve told this story before but it fits perfectly to be told again. Years ago on ocean liners they had a dedicated playroom for children that was much less elaborate than they are on today’s cruise ships. As a liner was on a crossing, the waves of the North Atlantic became more menacing, and they tossed the bow of the ship under and back on top of the waves. In the dining room, service carts rolled and crashed; and plates fell to the floors. Passengers were holding onto handrails—that is, those who were trying to move about the ship. Others perhaps retired to their cabins. One man was making his way back to his cabin when he encountered a young girl playing with toys and looking at books in the children’s playroom. She seemed unfazed by all the turbulence. “Young lady,” the man said to her, “There’s quite a storm outside! Aren’t you frightened?” he asked her. “No.” she said matter-of-factly. The man was quite taken aback and asked, “How can you not be frightened in a storm like this?” And she looked up at him and said, “Because my father’s the captain.”

Learn to stay in the boat—in a good congregation—rather than just using a church for a wedding, a funeral or a baptism. Stay in the boat nurturing your faith, encouraging hope, leaning on the everlasting arms, and trusting Jesus as the captain who can “give you shelter from the storm.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 24, 2018