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THE LANGUAGE OF LESSONS

Mark 9: 38-50

 

This week has had some extraordinary highlights for me. On a local level the Celebration Community Synagogue in Celebration, Florida sent their warmest greetings to our congregation on their holiest of weeks, observing Yom Kippur- the Day of Atonement. Dr. Christeson went to that faith community this week to offer greetings and music. Before he came back here, people of the Synagogue thanked God for our congregation and sent their warmest greetings.  How wonderful. We are glad to have offered our greetings and prayers in return. So remember the Celebration Synagogue this week. On a national level I was most moved by the extraordinary visit of the Catholic Holy Father, Pope Francis.  Taking his cues from Christ himself from all I could tell, his modes of transportation and of accommodations were humble, his words were incisive but kind, and he welcomed people of every age and income, but he had a particular affinity for children and the poor, like Jesus. He warmly greeted people of other faiths and even of no faith. I was moved by his visit, his words, and his presence. He deeply affected the crowd at his speeches, with his sermons, and all who were in his presence.

 

As we move back in time to the days of Jesus, even Jesus would not have had such security or such notice. There were fake holy men and fake healers around, but religious leaders had become jaded about anyone, or anything new religiously.  Still if we could go back in time, how do you think you would have felt if you were near Jesus? Would you have been in awe of his manner and his stories? How would you have reacted to his teachings? And would he have changed you?  This question is hypothetical of course since we cannot go back in time. But in our study of Scripture, to not take into account the culture, the practices, and the historical setting is to not get the truest reading of God’s Word. Since we can’t be in the actual crowd where Jesus once was, let’s get as close to him and his message as we can.

 

The first thing we notice is that Jesus was a master of language.  How did a poor Jewish family raise a boy who was a master of language? You say, “Well, he was the Son of God,” but for his early days he was simply Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph.  It is likely he and his father went to work in a Roman city named Sephoris as carpenters or stone masons. They were skilled, but a little backwater village like Nazareth would not have had enough work to sustain many families. Sephoris was a large Roman city north of Nazareth. It would be there where they would meet people—both skilled and unskilled, both rich and poor, both Jew and Roman—who would enhance any education Jesus would have gotten from Torah or from home. He would hear expressions (like we hear expressions), and he would listen to them; when the time was right, he began to use them.  Some of the expressions would be what are called “idioms,” that is, expressions known by people of a period of time, but sometimes not understood years later. For example in the time of Charles Dickens and earlier there were expressions like “Dead as a doornail.” In our day people wonder, “What’s a doornail?” After Charles Dickens, an expression came into use even into the 20th century: “I did something wrong, and mom gave me the Dickens!” It was an expression based on the huge number of words and books that Dickens wrote, because he was paid by the word! An idiom is someone saying “He kicked the bucket” to indicate death; or when a politician tries to reach people  “from Wall Street to Main Street.” Those are idioms. There are also figures of speech, known as hyperboles, which are exaggerated comparisons. For example: one pop song from 1989 by a group called the “B-52s” has a verse that says:

“Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as a whale, and it’s about to set sail!

I got me a car, it seats about 20 so come on and bring your jukebox money!”

 

Virtually nothing about that description means what it says literally; it means what it means through figures of speech! If we say something’s as big as a whale, it means, “really big,” not to pull out a measuring tape! If we say the car is “about to set sail” it means it’s about to drive away, not that it was seaworthy!

And to say his Chrysler seats about twenty, he’s not seriously thinking that 20 can fit in a four-door sedan! He’s just saying his car was roomy! No one needs to explain lyrics like those; we get them. But how many times do people go to the Bible and say: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” How unfortunate.  Sometimes things the Bible says don’t mean what they say, they mean what they meant to its first century listeners. If you read Revelation 7, for example, it says there’s a gathering of persons “sealed for God” in Heaven that number 144,000.” There are some religious groups who believe that is the literal number of those who can get into heaven, so there is a battle to see who will stay in heaven and who can win a place in heaven and knock someone out since the number who can go there is just 144,000. But if you read Revelation 7 and think it doesn’t mean what it says, it means what it meant; it lets our measured minds think that 1000 times 12 is 12,000, and it included masses of people from the 12 tribes of Israel, multiplied with the countless witnesses led to Christ by the 12 apostles 12 times 1000—making 144,000 not a limiting number, but a number of completeness. When Revelation was written by John around 90 A.D. it meant:  “not anyone who calls Jesus ‘Lord’ will be missing in Heaven.”  So it’s a comforting statement instead of a threatening one! So being aware of idioms and figures of speech are important. Jesus once told a man in the next chapter of Mark, chapter 10, that “it is harder of a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Can you imagine a camel ever, in your wildest dreams, going through the eye of a needle? Yet I believe there are some rich Christians, who’ve been generous with others, who are part of God’s Kingdom now. But Jesus is using a figure of speech, addressing one man, likely with rich, self-absorbed men listening! So we would be wise when we turn to the Holy Word to consider whether Jesus is speaking in parables, or in similes, or in metaphors before we decide what he means.

 

In the passage read today, Jesus uses exaggerated language again to make a point: “If anyone causes one of my followers to sin, it would be better if a millstone were wrapped around his neck and he is thrown into the sea.” Of course that would be a horrible death; but Jesus does not believe in murder. Jesus is giving examples to make a point, not saying what he would do! Do people in our day know what a millstone is? A stationary heavy stone was on the bottom with a millstone on the top that moved in a circle, grinding grain! Millstones were very heavy. With that knowledge, we come to the tough sentence in Mark 9: 43- “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better to enter the next life maimed than to go to hell with both hands.” I don’t know any priest, or the Pope, or any minister, pastor, or chaplain seeking to follow Jesus who would command or recommend for someone to do that. The words are to make a strong point, not to take what the Bible says literally.  Let me illustrate that danger of taking the Bible literally. The story is told of a man who decided that he would believe and follow every word of the Bible as if it were the actual words of God for him that day. So he started a new day with that mindset. Reaching for his Bible, he decided he would open it randomly, put his finger on a passage, and follow God’s guidance for him. So he closed his eyes, opened his Bible and let his finger drop onto the page. It said: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” Well, he decided, that time his plan didn’t work too well. So he decided to try it again. He closed his eyes, opened his Bible, and put if finger on this passage: “Go and do likewise.” It doesn’t work to take words, even holy words, literally. It works to take them in the context they were given, and to consider them carefully.

 

Next, Jesus goes on in Mark 9 with these words, and now we’re prepared to hear them with the right meaning: “It is better for you to enter the afterlife lame than with two feet and be thrown into hell.” He goes on and makes me wince if I were to take him literally: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Literalists would conclude that a lot of people who lusted after someone, or coveted the car, home, or clothes of another, should pluck out one of their eyes as self-punishment. Is that what Jesus means?

 

What is the point of Jesus’ strong message?  When we, for example, ask God to “Lead us not into temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer, it asks the Almighty not to keep testing our resistance to sin. As much as we love the ideas of grace, forgiveness, and of Jesus paying the price for our sins, the best defense against sin is to say “no” to people and situations that urge us to do something wrong. Just saying “no” is best. Jesus’ extreme descriptions of what should happen to those who tempt others to sin make me shudder. As our Jewish friends took account of their sins this week, we too do well to not tempt others, but also not to take the bait of temptations concerning sex, or money, or power. Jesus came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. As Cara demonstrated in her children’s sermon two weeks ago, when we do something wrong, it’s like a sharp pencil that pokes a whole in a paper plate. The pencil may get removed when someone forgives us, but the plate is still pierced.. Consider well Jesus’ language, and Jesus’ presence with you now. Love is powerful, and forgiveness is welcome, but staying clear of trouble is golden.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                September 27, 2015

 

Let us pray:

 

Dear Holy God: although we are not holy, you ask us to keep living to a high standard: one where we stay connected with you, reach out to others, and seek to be not just ordinary examples of persons, but extraordinary examples of Christians. Those who accept the invitation will seek to shine the light of Christ in the world; yet if or when they fail, may what they learn, and who they reach, bring messages of hope and forgiveness, for we need those too.  Thank you, Almighty Lord, now and forever. Amen.

 

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BEING CHILD-LIKE, NOT CHILDISH

Mark 9: 30-37

 

A girl named Danielle once wrote these words in her blog:

Childlike, not Childish:

One of them makes you a jerk; the other makes you awesome!

Here’s the difference between childish and childlike: Childish behavior in anyone who isn’t an actual child is obnoxious. It’s ramming your cart into random objects at Target for no reason; it’s throwing a temper tantrum when you don’t get your way; it’s refusing to apologize when you’ve made a mistake. Being childlike, on the other hand, is immersing yourself in something just because you love doing it. It’s being open to liking things that aren’t “cool,” without pretense or explanation, because they make you happy. It’s the ability to be curious and interested without worrying what anyone else might think. …

In fact, being childlike is especially important when you’re a teenager—a period when you’re changing constantly, and sometimes confusingly, and are meanwhile being barraged by messages about what is acceptable and what is cool and how you should act/look/be—because it will keep you connected to some truth about yourself. It allows you to ignore everyone else’s input so you can figure out what you want for yourself. And it’s easy enough to do: Just tap into what it felt like to be a little kid with a free afternoon. Five-year-olds don’t worry that it’s “juvenile” or “uncool” to play in the sprinklers in their underwear or stare out the window for a while making weird sounds with their mouths or spend an entire hour just coloring. This is why no five-year-old ever says they need help figuring out what they’re passionate about.

 

Why did I want a girl …  a young woman now — named Danielle to describe the difference between childlike and childish? Because in part it was beautifully expressed, and because I’m not very good at either behavior.  My grandsons can pull me into childlike behavior, but then I slip back into grownup land when responsibilities loom. Is that the way it is with you? Dr. Edwin Friedman describes the state when we move away from childlike behavior into our grim adult behavior as “slipping back into our reptilian brains.” By that he means that a part of our brain, the part that we share with lizards and dinosaurs and snakes, is the serious, humorless part. It is when you can’t force yourself to be playful. Dogs can be playful; lizards- well, no! Children can be playful; some adults be constantly playful while others watch and conclude that they are irresponsible.  But still others seriously and purposely go to work, pay bills, and wait to die. Sometimes adults slide into, and get stuck in, that reptilian brain. Sometimes it’s because responsibilities or tasks they have to do overwhelm them.  Sometimes it is caused by depression. And sometimes people just get frozen in a certain state of numbness, moving through a day with the same rituals, the same breakfast, the same practicality and financial issues, and the same chair in front of the same TV in the evening.  But when we move into different parts of our brains, the part that under brain scans actually glows when we pray to God, the part that helps us to reason, the part that can tell the difference between right and wrong,  then our lives can begin to have meaning again; our hearts can begin to have joy again; and our faces might crack a smile. It takes a child, or a dog, or an encouraging friend, or someone like Danielle to remind us what life can be like, and in some cases, what life used to be like.

 

As I have studied and learned more about the twelve disciples Jesus called, I’ve learned how ordinary they were; not all elite, not all wealthy, not all poor; a little of everything.  In Mark’s Gospel they seem as uncertain about their powers and their place as a young follower might be. In the beginning of chapter 9, Jesus lets them see himself transfigured on a mountain. Their mouths and eyes were certainly wide with amazement, perhaps even with child-like excitement! “Lord! It is good for us to be here with you, and Moses and Elijah (whom they saw in a vision on that mountain.) We’ll make three tents for all of you and we’ll stay here with you!” But Jesus had concern in his heart for others and responsibility in his mind. He led them down the mountain to keep ministering to people. In the next scene the disciples are puzzled as to why they cannot heal a boy possessed by a Spirit. Jesus teaches them why. They are like children at that point. Then Jesus tells them very grown – up things; things that some adults try to hide from children or other adults. Jesus says he’s going to die a very painful death.  What a harsh thing to say; but these disciples are grown men, even though their learning curve seems slow. They hear his harsh words “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise.”  Could they even hear  and take in the news about his rising with their minds stuck on the words of his killing?  With those words still ringing in their ears,  they walk on to home base, Capernaum, probably to Peter’s or Andrew’s house. They have been whispering among themselves as the traveled. They sit down in the house. Jesus asks them: “What were you talking about back there?” Like a good lawyer who never asks a question for which he does not know the answer, I highly suspect Jesus had heard them. He wanted to hear what they would say.  In a manner of speaking, they were doing what grown children often have done when they know a family member is dying; they wonder if there is a will; if they might be included in the will, and if so, with how much money! It can become a childish discussion that sometimes spirals into a hateful one.  Sometimes human nature is the most base when there is the possibility of money involved. As Jesus walked the earth, and as he declared that his death was imminent, the disciples fell into childish, unattractive, human behavior. They were arguing about who was the greatest! Another way of saying it is: “They were arguing about who was his favorite!”  Childlike?  No childish; selfish; and self-serving.

 

So Jesus takes a child in his arms.  We picture Jesus doing this all the time but it was actually rare for a man to do that. Children were rarely seen or heard except at home doing chores. They were never around the men as they talked religion, politics, or taxes. Children were “persona non grata.” In a brilliant illustration, our Lord told grown men who were acting self-servingly and childishly, that a child was ahead of them in his esteem right then!  A child, who in Jesus’ day was socially invisible, has a higher standing in his Father’s eyes than self-serving, bickering adults.

 

Who needs to hear that message?  Politicians need to hear that message; teenagers need to hear it; property associations need to hear it; and you and I need to hear it!  What if someone followed us around with a cellphone camera trained on us all day? Cameras are everywhere? Would we be happy with the person we see? Would we be pleased with the way we were acting? That’s how God sees us! What would God think of your selfish or hurtful behavior, or mind? Like someone with a camera and a microphone, God sees us, and God hears us! This is Jesus’ message to his disciples! And it is his message to us! Even with all our good works, and our good minds, and our good intentions, could a child go into the Kingdom of Heaven before us?

Perhaps our actions are stored in the heavenly “cloud” until our Judgment Day! Actions and attitudes speak volumes. Those who have ears, let them hear: choose the actions, and the attitudes for your Christian life.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 20, 2015

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I want to think with you today about the power of words. Our words have a tremendous influence and control over our lives. We shape our words, but our words also shape us. The tongue is small, tiny and because it’s tiny, we think it’s insignificant. Yet it has tremendous power. Words are powerful.

 

The power of words, in some sense, shows the image of God in us.  It is by the power of the Word that God created the universe.  When God said, “Let there be…” there was!  It is the Word become flesh that brought us salvation.

 

Words create. They tell stories, paint pictures, and shape the world around us. Yet few things in this world are as destructive as our words.

 

I think I was six when I came home from school and told my dad that the whole “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” saying was a load of baloney. Bruises heal swiftly, but the things kids said cut deep and stick with me still.

There isn’t a person who makes it past middle school without learning of the power of words to cut, to hurt. We all have scars by things people have said. And we’ve also left scars, whether we’ve meant to or not.

 

We’re human after all. We are bound to fail sometimes, but with our words we leave wounds we cannot completely heal. When we say something, we cannot take it back.

 

We also use words to excuse what we’ve done. Or to encourage others to see it our way.  William Barclay in his commentary on James, expands on the dangers of our words. “…(the tongue) is the organ which can make evil attractive. By the tongue men can make the worse appear the better reason; by the tongue men can excuse and justify their wicked ways; by the tongue men can persuade others into sin.” We can convince people that what we did wasn’t so bad. Or that looking the right way is really the right thing to do.

 

The prophet Isaiah puts it more simply in some ways, saying “ Woe to you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20) When we use our words to make the bad sound better and make good sound like the wrong choice, we cause damage not only to ourselves, but also to everyone who listens. We use euphemisms to make things sound better. saying we are letting someone go instead of firing someone. Or saying someone is on the streets instead of homeless.

 

But the dangers James talks about aren’t just about name calling, or maliciousness, or excusing our own failings. It is also things we say off handedly. What we say about other people.

 

There is a folk story told about a man who was known for his gossiping. One day he said something about his neighbor that was untrue. The word spread around the village as one person told another and the neighbor was disgraced. Even after the truth came out, the neighbor’s life was still ruined. The man felt terrible. He went to see the village priest and the priest gave him some strange instructions.

 

“Take a bag full of feathers and place one feather on the doorstep of each person who heard the untrue story you told. Then go back a day later, pick up the feather, and bring the bag back to me.”

 

So the man did as the priest said. But when he went back to pick up the feathers nearly all of them were gone. When he went back to the priest he said, “Father, I did as you said but when I went back the wind had blown the feathers away and I could not get them back.” And the priest replied, “So it is with careless words, my son. Once they are spoken, they cannot be taken back. You may ask forgiveness for what you said but you cannot take your words back. The damage has already been done.”

 

Today with social media, texts and twitter, this is even more true. What we say remains. Even if we attempt to go back and delete that post, we don’t know who might have sent it. We can’t unsend email or texts. We don’t know what phrase might end up going viral and spreading far further than we ever expected.

 

There is no getting around it. By what we say, we can cause much destruction in the world. The tongue can cause raging fires indeed.

 

When we hear about all of the damage it can cause, it’s small wonder why James speaks so viciously about the tongue. Why don’t we then do as some orders of monks do? Take a vow of silence. After all, if you don’t speak, you can’t hurt anyone by what you say. Maybe that’s what James is advocating here, to speak as little as possible.

 

Maybe. But I don’t think he is. A vow of silence is not only impractical, but it ignores the fact that our tongues can do as much good as harm.

 

Words can build up as much as they tear down. They can create hope and soothe hurts and offer wisdom. Words can make the biggest difference in our lives.

 

Think of a child who has been told she is smart, or fast. She will naturally try harder because she believes she can succeed at what she tries. Studies have shown time and time again that what we say to children shapes who they are and who they will become. The more a child is told she can do something, he is worthwhile, the more likely that child is to believe it and to succeed later on in life.

 

Or remember what it was like when someone first said “I love you.” Think of the impact that has on your life. Knowing that you were worthy of love, that you mattered to someone. The words “I love you” mean a great deal.

 

On a smaller scale, think about how much your day can get better when someone asks how you are doing and really listens to the answer; when someone says “hi” and smiles at you. Think about the impact of an honest compliment has on your day. Or how being told you are doing a good job makes you work harder.

 

Leo Buscaglia once said: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Small gestures, off handed compliments can have a much bigger effect on the world around us.

 

Words can even change our own minds. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman,

wrote a book called: Words Can Change Your Brain,  and in it they write: “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” To put it more simply, positive words can make you less stressed.

 

Positive words, such as “love” and “good work.” can change the way our brains work, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They actually help us think better! Positive words propel the motivational centers of the brain into action and build resiliency. Meaning you can put up with criticism better, if you are around praise. You can actually help others through stressful times by telling them how much they mean to you.

 

According to James, we speak with a fundamental contradiction. With the same mouth, we praise and curse God. With the same tongue, we slander and uplift our neighbor. With the same words, we can help others or crush their hopes. Both come from the same mouth whether we like it or not.

 

We all have our own memories of words that wound or heal, given and received. We can all think back to things said that left an impression, for good or for ill.

 

What then are we to do? We should do what we tell every child to do: to think before we speak. We must use care in choosing our words. We know that gossiping in idleness can have devastating effects. We can control our wild tongues, but it takes effort.

 

What we say shows who we are. Christ himself mentions this. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” said Jesus.  “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

(Matthew 12:34–37)

 

What do your words say about you?  What do you want them to say?

 

Think. And then speak. Amen.

 

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JESUS’ HEALING MINISTRY

Mark 7: 24-37

 

Medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic treatments; faith, hope, and love. All of these have, at one time or another, been a human choice for trying to heal.

People get a backache, for example.  Some try pain relievers, some exercise, and some hope it will just go away! People get cancer. Some try chemotherapy, or radiation, or prayer, or forms of holistic medicine while some just wait it out. When we study passages in the gospels of Jesus’ healings, some background would be helpful. In Jesus’ day most people believed they were sick because of sin: that is, what they had done wrong in their life made them sick. When it came to mental illness or medical conditions that could cause delirium or tremors, people believed the devil was at work. So if they heard that there was a man who could heal in an age of sorcery and suspicion, people lined up to check him out. If he “performed” as advertised, then word would spread like wildfire. Today’s text from Mark reminds us that Jesus did not just heal the people of Israel; today Jesus healed no one from Galilee! He healed a girl whose mother was a Gentile—Greek by origin—in  a region north of Galilee.  He then healed a man who was in the Decapolis. The Decapolis (cheap Pregabalin online: Δεκάπολις, Ten Cities) was a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, but southwest of the Sea of Galilee. Gentiles lived there.

 

Even as we have reporters and photographers today, I’d imagine there was quite a stir wherever Jesus went once he was named as a “healer.” He wanted to be a “Savior” but they named him their “healer.” So I’m wondering if the Gospel writers did not just give the “highlights” of Jesus’ encounters in one area? Do you notice as I notice that we generally hear about just one specific healing in an area?  Jesus does not set up a clinic, but he heals those who are pointed out to him or who call out to him.  Surely there are people who are not healed in those towns or villages! Is it likely that except for the few, the others went through life living with, or living through, their afflictions?  For example, we know from the Book of Acts that Paul had a visionary encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.  Yet Paul, who almost single handedly carried the message of Jesus to areas like Rome and Corinth and Ephesus, has some affliction he calls his “thorn in the flesh.” In 2 Corinthians 12:7 he says” In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh.” Could it be that our afflictions sometimes keep us coming back to Jesus, dependent on him because we are weak on our own?  Listen to this description from author Carol Hamblet Adams in her book My Beautiful Broken Shell:

It is low tide and I watch, mesmerized, as the ocean rises slowly …

curls  …and then spills its white-laced foam onto the shore.

I walk by a broken scallop shell … and leave it to search for more

perfect ones. But then I stop … go back … and pick up the broken

shell. I realize that this shell is me with my broken heart.  This shell

is people who are hurting … people who have lost loved ones …

people who are frightened or alone … people with unfulfilled dreams.

This shell has had to fight so hard to keep from being totally crushed

by the pounding surf … just as I have to. Yet this shell is still out on

the beautiful sandy shore … just as I am. “Thank you, Lord, that

I haven’t been completely crushed by the heaviness in my heart ….”

 

Carol Adams’ brokenness is her connections with others who are broken. Your brokenness, and my brokenness, not only connect us with other broken people, it causes us to realize how much we need Jesus! Could it be that our brokenness is our power to connect with others; and our reminder that we need Jesus? And could it be that many followers of Jesus, even in the Bible, lived with their illnesses rather than being healed from them?  I am a broken man: my diabetes has driven me to workout with a trainer twice a week. My energy does not return as fast as it does with some people. Yet in my illness and my training I have connected with others, and have talked about Jesus with others who I would never have met otherwise. In 1987 I experienced burn out and wrote about it for my dissertation. In preparation for the dissertation, I invited other ministers, chaplains, and laypeople to talk with me if they had ever felt burned out. Dozens responded.  Most days I am anxious about many things, even thought I know Jesus said “Do not be anxious about your life.” I am not perfect; like that shell on the beach, I am the broken one, not the perfect one. How about you?

 

Henri Nouwen, in his book The Wounded Healer, gives this account:

The Talmud [a collection of Jewish Laws and traditions has a] story

that suggests that, because he binds his own wounds one at a time,

the Messiah would not have to take time to prepare himself if asked

to help someone else. He would be ready to help. Jesus has given

this story a new fullness by making his own broken body the way

to health, to liberation, and new life. Thus like Jesus, [those] who

proclaim liberation [are] called not only to care for [their own]

wounds and the wounds of others, but also to make [their] wounds

into a major source of [their] healing power.

 

Isaiah, in describing the characteristics of s suffering servant, declared:

“By his stripes we are healed.” [Isaiah 53:6]  Christians believe that those words describe Jesus too. Perhaps it is through our own brokenness that we reaffirm our dependence on Jesus. We need one another; and we need our Savior, not just a man who healed people in front of the public’s eye.

 

Today perhaps our ministry to others has the most power, and the most authenticity, in our brokenness. Do people really feel the need to seek perfect people with whom to share their problems? Or do they want someone who says, “I’ve been where you are;“ or “Put your hand in mine;” or “I hear you;” or “I thirst.” I choose Jesus, the one who was broken on a cross of wood; he suffered far more anguish than many people have, and yet he has the power to save me, and to save you; to give me life beyond this life; and to give you life beyond this life. I choose the one the church has described as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

 

Our communion meal will remind us of his brokenness, as it offers us wholeness. Thanks be to God!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                September 6, 2015

 

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A LOVE SONG FOR GOD

Song of Songs 2: 8-13

 

In 1542, a man small of stature but strong in spiritual strength as an adult was born in a Fontiveros, a small village near Avila, Spain.  He was Juan de Yepes, the youngest of three brothers, and as he grew, his sharp intellect and his passion for causes became apparent. At age 21 the administrator at a local hospital urged him to be ordained to become a chaplain, but Juan felt more called to the contemplative life. He entered the local Carmelite monastery there. He grew in wisdom and connected with Teresa of Avila.  She was working to reform the Carmelite monasteries and Juan joined the cause. The resistance to return to stricter standards was great, but Juan, who history knows as John of the Cross, and Teresa, persevered to their own harm. The Spanish Inquisition took a dim view of such reforms and ordered them to cease and desist. When John refused to stray from their established strict reforms, he was captured by an emissary of the church leaders and imprisoned in the Carmelite priory in Toledo, Spain. That action was done under the authority of the church of the day! His prison was a privy, a toilet the walls of which were six feet wide by ten feet across. It was in that cell, in total darkness except for a very small crack of light high on one wall, that St. John of the Cross encountered God in an extraordinary way and wrote about “the dark night of the soul.” John’s familiarity with the Song of Songs in the Bible perhaps influenced his experience in the dark night, for the dark times when he felt far away from God, or when God was hidden from him, eventually evolved into a kind of “love affair” with, or a deep appreciation for God, surrounded by a sense of love and light. It is this event that came out of what John called his  “dark night of the soul.”

 

But today I want to suggest that sometimes we are poor at telling those we love that we love them!  Remember the scene in “Fiddler on the Roof?” Tevye sings to Golda, his wife of twenty-five years: “Do you love me?

It’s a new world… A new world. Love. Golde…”

 

Do you love me?

(Golde)

Do I what?

(Tevye)

Do you love me?

(Golde)

Do I love you?

With our daughters getting married

And this trouble in the town

You’re upset, you’re worn out

Go inside, go lie down!

Maybe it’s indigestion

(Tevye)

“Golde I’m asking you a question…”

Do you love me?

(Golde)

You’re a fool

(Tevye)

“I know…”

But do you love me?

(Golde)

Do I love you?

For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes

Cooked your meals, cleaned your house

Given you children, milked the cow

After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

 

Love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously wrote:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love with a passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

In 1970 teenagers flocked to see Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw in the tear jerker movie “Love Story,” where their characters, Oliver and Jenny, foolishly taught the movie audiences:  “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Was that love?

 

In 1996 people of all ages read the Nicholas Sparks book called, The Notebook or saw the movie, learning about the incredible love Noah had for Allie.  And radio stations and I-Pods are often filled with love songs. Love songs have been written since time began, and they are still being written! Songs, poems, films and bestsellers continue to use love as a subject. But sometime these portrayals stay romantic rather than realistic. More often than not, human love is offered with conditions; when that is the arrangement, it is called: “conditional love.” “I’ll love you if you do this, or if you don’t do that.”  We do it to our children, to our husbands, to our wives, and to our friends. Many counselors and therapists say that’s not “real” love.

There is another kind that is: it’s “unconditional love,” love that is offered with no conditions: that is harder to find!  It is, however, found in the wide-open arms of Jesus on the cross. It is also found on his lips when he taught: “Love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength.” That’s pure love.  There are still cases in the world where a parent loves like that, or a spouse or friend loves like that. That is grand, but rare.

 

So how can we, children of God, disciples of Jesus, or those curious about Jesus, offer love to God, or to Jesus? And what form should it take?

Today we learn from a biblical songwriter in a small book called Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon. It is included in our Old Testaments. The 12th century commentator, William of St. Thierry, said that this writer wrote words “wholly without modesty.” This book, though not pornographic, is intensely descriptive of physical love. Perhaps that will draw you to read this book! Or perhaps it will repel you not to! According to one source, the Song of Songs is one of the three most commented-upon books in the Bible. Even though it is nothing like any other Biblical book, the so-called Church Fathers decided it was worthy to keep in.  And it has become providentially important. Our daughter, Jenny, a Presbyterian minister, insisted that a passage from this book be used at her wedding. Fine singing groups with whom I have been associated have sung a selection from this book that can melt one’s soul: “Set Me as a Seal Upon Thine Heart.” And one small man, confined to biblical and spiritual readings, found these words contained in the Song of Songs so moving that he memorized them! He was not planning to marry, so it wasn’t to learn a love song for a lover. Instead, his memory banks became a wealth of information in one terrible time in his life.  During that time, at first he felt like God had disappeared; he believed that he could no longer hear God, and that he could no longer see evidence of God’s presence as he had before. Of course this was in that dank, torture chamber for eight months with almost no light.  Perhaps, almost like the gift of an angel, the words of the Song of Songs flooded his mind. Instead of thinking the beloved was another human being, he decided his beloved was God! God had not deserted him, he decided! God was with him! And he wanted to love and adore God, a natural state of praise for human beings. But in his location and with an invisible God, the setting was not conducive and there he was too constrained to do much physically. So he sang! He sang like Paul once sang in prison according to Acts 16! John sang, and perhaps spoke to God. And in so doing, he used the Song of Songs as a basis for a love poem he wrote!  It was so powerful to him, and his time so focused, that he memorized his words. When he finally escaped from prison, he wrote down his words and he commented on them all. It is contained in his classic masterpieces called The Dark Night of the Soul and The Living Flame of Love. Canadian singer and songwriter Loreena McKennitt read the works of John of the Cross and used them as a basis for her own song. A stanza of her work goes like this:

Upon a darkened night, the flame of love was burning in my breast;

          And by a lantern bright, I fled my house while all in quiet rest.

          Shrouded by the night, and by the secret stair I quickly fled,

          The veil concealed my eyes, while all within lay quiet in the dead.

          O night, thou was my guide! O night more loving than the rising sun.

          O night that joined the lover to the beloved one,

          Transforming each of them into the other.

 

So, the Bible has a love song that many interpreters say is a love song to God. A biblical man, St. John of the Cross, had his spirit and perhaps his life saved by remembering that love song and then composing his own. And others, like Loreena McKennitt, picked up on those words and turned them into an interpretation all their own.  No matter who you love, remember to say it and show it genuinely and sincerely. It’s not just a Valentine’s Day thing to do! And when it comes to your Creator, or your Savior, how might you show your love? With words; with actions; with both? Children of all ages can show kindness to others, and tell others about Jesus; they can sing a simple song of adoration like “Jesus I adore you, lay my life before you; how I love you!” Some of you grew up with an old hymn with the first line that goes like this: “My Jesus I love Thee I know Thou art mine—For Thee all the follies of sin I resign; my gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou: If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.”  How ever you do express it, let Jesus know of your love for him! Let him know it if you feel his love too, and let that love overflow to others.  Love is one emotion, like an eternal well, that will not run dry; there is plenty to share. When you share your love with others, consider also the ways you can show love and gratitude for your Savior.

Let us pray:

Ah Holy Jesus, we pause to consider how much you loved us; so much that you gave up your life for us! Such love is the ultimate love. Now we hope you will know our hearts, and even see words we write or words we say or sing: we adore you, love you, and thank you. In a world when love notes and thank you notes are mailed less and less often, we are letting you know our feelings now.  Until we tell you again, please don’t forget it Lord: we love you! Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 30, 2015

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A DAY OF HONORING GOD

1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-12; 22-26

 

Years ago, in 1956, an English minister named J. B. Phillips wrote a timeless and readable book he called Your God is Too Small.”  In it, he addressed the way people in that decade, and to a large degree people in our decade, think of God.  He has two parts to his book. Part One is called “Destructive,” said to describe our “unreal gods;” his chapter headings are intriguing: God as a “Resident  Policeman,” a “Parental Hangover,” a “Grand Old Man,” Mr. Meek and Mild,” “Absolute Perfection,” Managing Director,” and seven other chapters that he unpacks. He believes, as many in our day believe, that God’s role in our world is one or more of those titles.  And to all of those titles Phillips calls out to the readers who believe that: “YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL!”  He leads readers to new biblical insights into the nature of God, not the God people made him to be, but the one who God actually is.  It is a temptation to make God into our image, instead of acknowledging that we are made in God’s image. To correct the misconceptions of the 1950 (and I suggest today as well,) Part Two of his book is called “Constructive,” with the subtitle: “An Adequate God.” There he gives more realistic chapters: “God Unfocused,” “A Clue to Reality,” ‘Is There a Focused God?”  “Christ and the Question of Sin,” “The Abolition of Death,” and eleven other chapters! I think Phillips has a point, one enlightened by our 1 Kings text today.  We want to keep God in our Bibles, or in our pocket with a cross, or around our necks, or in our sanctuaries or chapels. But God is bigger than that!  In our Confirmation Class two years ago, Mary Ann and I would call out situations in the world that seemed impossible to solve. The kids will call out in loud voices in response to our despair: “God is bigger than that!”  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 … and still does! So let’s take the idea that God only resides in Heaven; that one can only approach God in churches or cathedrals; that we can create space for God to just live in a Bible or a locket, and learn today that “God is bigger than that!” Today we seek to honor the one true God!

 

This morning our sanctuary includes a replica of the Ark of the Covenant; it was a moveable box, built to exact specifications, according to God’s instructions, that would contain the tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai when God gave him the Ten Commandments.  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 and spiritually in their hearts. They believed if they removed their sacred pieces from their bodies, or failed to put the ark in front of their battles, they would be defeated.  In our day those who hear a message and believe it on Sunday, but live as if they have not heard it on Monday, will find God’s presence withdrawn from their lives as well.

 

The Israelites remembered, and put rituals into place, to honor God on the Sabbath: for Jews it was from sundown Friday until night on Saturday. They had a time for honoring God and places to honor God.  If ever they were delivered from a foe, they thanked God for it and erected boulders that they called “altars,” or “standing stone,” to indicate to future generations that God delivered his people in that place from some calamity. You can find those stones (if they haven’t been destroyed) across Israel and neighboring countries. How do you remember times when God has delivered or healed you or someone else?  Do you have a ritual for remembering what God has done in your life? A keepsake; a plaque; a diary or a blog?

 

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, and

1 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 what the poles indicate. The Ark of the Covenant includes angels on top to indicate the presence of God. The Ark was not intended to be mainly a shrine for people to travel miles to visit. 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 built to protect the Ark and to 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 to lift our drooping heads up! They become destinations in and of themselves, place where people still go to find a sense of the Holy. Yes, we can take God with us, in a manner of speaking, as we carry Bibles, cell phones, crosses, or computers. But worship of God has a 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 you 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 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. And it did.  But the poles on the Ark should never be forgotten: God always wants to go with us into the world, not be left behind! Like the Scripture tags children and youth got today as they prepare for school, think of God as going with you, not staying in church or in an Ark of the Covenant! Theologians say this chapter points to God’s immanence which means that God is near; and God’s transcendence, meaning God is here, there, and everywhere; that God is holy.  Professor Richard D. Nelson asks: “How can the God who remains mysterious and awesome, who refuses to be contained by creation, still be closely present to love and save us? … Solomon insists that even the whole universe cannot contain God. God is only ‘symbolically present’ in the temple through the divine name.”  [INTERPRETATION, First and Second Kings, John Knox Press, p. 59.]

 

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 is 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!

 

Let us pray:  Dear God: we are learning that prayerful reception is not really stronger in a church building than in our homes, but sometimes being in the midst of praying people helps our souls and lifts our spirits. We are glad to share this time, away from the din and demands of the world, with others. Teach us not just to talk in prayer, but also to listen; listen closely for your voice that is often best heard in silence.  As the Psalmist said: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A, Sumner                                                          August 21, 2015

 

 

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HOW SOLOMON GOT HIS WISDOM

I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

 

In the summer of 1934, a Protestant minister preached a sermon and led the prayers in a small church near his summer home in Heath, Massachusetts. His name was Reinhold Niebuhr. At the end of the service, as happens in many churches, the visiting minister stood at the door and greeted the congregants as they departed.  One man held up the line for a minute: “Dr. Niebuhr,” he said, “My name is Bill. I appreciated your sermon, but really appreciated your prayer! At your convenience, could I get a copy of it?” The minister reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out the prayer. “Here,” Dr. Niebuhr said, “You may have it.” The man walked away gratefully.  His name was Bill; his last name started with a W. If you have ever seen announcements of meetings on cruise ships or in public places with the invitation to “Join the Friends of Bill W,” you have found a Twelve Step program, usually related to Alcoholics Anonymous. And the prayer that Bill W. got from that visiting minister in 1934? It’s the prayer being studied in our summer Sunday school classes:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” The “Serenity Prayer” has been said in countless meetings and printed on millions of cards. And it was written by a visiting minister in a small New England church who asked for no credit when he gave it to a man named Bill. The key to the prayer hinges on the word “wisdom;” an insight into what things you can change, and what things that you do not have the power to change. Another way to think about “wisdom” is the way I explained to the children: learning how to make good daily choices. Our children and their spouses speak to their pre-school children with a daily sentence of instruction: “Make good choices!” they say as their son starts his day.  “Make good choices!” is wisdom for any one of us as we start each day. People who do that embody wisdom; not making impulsive decisions, or hurtful ones, or destructive ones; nor procrastinating too long before deciding to do something time-sensitive or important.  Wisdom gives the appropriate weight of time to light decisions, such as “What will I have for breakfast?” and more time to weighty decisions such as “What will I do with my life?”  But wisdom, it seems, is in short supply in our day: there are people each day trying to text and drive; people each day reaching for a gun instead of starting a discussion; people letting their life be guided by television characters rather than being mentored by real people they may admire. The Bible has taught that part of wisdom is honoring God, listening to God’s words, and following God’s commandments.  It’s usually listed in parts of the Bible known as the “Wisdom Literature,” including Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. But today, in the book of First Kings, we find some answers to where Solomon, often considered to be one of the wisest men in the Bible, found his wisdom. We can learn from what Solomon did.

 

Here is the background. One of the greatest of Israel’s kings was a man chosen through God because of his pure heart. His name was David.  He was but a boy when he was chosen. Although David was a good king of Israel, he was not a flawless king. Except for Jesus, no king has been shown to be flawless. But David learned, and led; sinned and repented; started young and grew old.  In 1 Kings chapter 2, we read “When David’s time to die drew near, he charged Solomon, his son, saying ‘I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, have courage, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do ….”  With bookshelves lined with self-help books, and blogs that describe people’s journeys or give people advice, there is still one book, the best book, from which wisdom comes: The Bible, that contains the statutes, commandments, ordinances, and testimonies of God and of people who listened to God!” Even before we had the Lord Jesus, we had the first five books of Scripture that contained the commandments and the Laws. Jesus was taught them as a boy. But as sometimes happens, laws can start to be interpreted rigidly instead of lovingly or carefully. So Jesus, grounded in those commandments, showed us how to follow them. And so did Solomon for those who read his wise words. Solomon became King of Israel after his father. And although he was a good king throughout his life, in the beginning he was a very wise king! Let’s read what he did. According to 1 Kings 3, “Solomon loved the Lord.”  Do you love your Lord?  How do you show it? It is not helpful when people say they love someone with their words, and yet they ignore them, or turn away from them, or are hateful toward them. How do you show love? Now, once you have that in mind, how do you show your love to your Lord? Part of showing love is worshipping, praying to, learning from, and listening to your Lord. How are you doing? If God were asked on a scale of 1 to 10 if you loved him, what would God say about you? I have to consider what God would say about me too! Wise people of faith love their Lord and they show it. Next, the Bible says, “Solomon walked in the statutes of his father David.” Do you have a father, mother, teacher, counselor, or grandparent you admire; someone who, in your mind, makes good choices?  Use that person as a bit of a template for your life, not doing everything they do, but being inspired by them who have walked life’s paths ahead of you. I’ve done that before; I still do. In the 21st century I can’t always decide what Jesus would do in a situation, but I can be guided by human beings around me who I respect. So I try to make good choices based on good examples around me. You can too. As part of wisdom, Solomon watched and learned from his father.  Wise people learn about making choices by others who have done it well before them. Then the Bible says that Solomon made sacrifices, many of them, to the Lord throughout his life.  In his day it was burnt offerings, financial offerings, and time offerings. In our day a sacrifice to your Lord might be honoring him by keeping a regular Sabbath, one where you pause, give thanks, and give praise. Another sacrifice is time. Giving time back to God in worship or service shows that a priority has been made beyond yourself. Wise people remember to serve God and others in addition to attending to their soul with Sabbath and rest and play. Solomon knew how to play and rest, but first he remembered how to serve God. What a good example! According to our passage today from 1 Kings 3: David was constantly praying to God and giving honor to his father David.  Listen: Solomon said this to God: “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David, my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness and righteousness and in uprightness of heart … and you gave him me as a son to sit on his throne …. Although I am but a little child (notice his humility before God), give me, your servant, an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil ….”

Wonderful: he is prayerful; he is humble; and he is open to God’s guidance. Well, there we have it, don’t we? Solomon got his wisdom in great part because he honored his father, turned to God, believed himself to be a servant of the Lord, understood that he was leading not his people, but God’s people, and asked for a mind to discern between good and evil.

 

That’s how Solomon got his wisdom. We may go and do likewise, following him, or following another wise mentor. Or, you can consider following the simple instructions given to the children today: Make good choices! May God be honored and others be blessed when you accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and find the wisdom to know the difference.

 

Let us pray:

You are immortal, and invisible and wise, O God. Send forth messages that guide us toward good choices; ones that honor others, respect self, and praise you, the source of our life and love. Through Jesus Christ we pray.

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 14, 2015

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Elijah, the famous prophet of our lesson this morning, leads a very interesting life. Before this passage begins, Elijah has already been through a lot. He raised someone from the dead. He has been fighting against the establishment of Queen Jezebel and the foreign gods she brought with her into the country when she married King Ahab. And right before this passage, he challenged the priests of Baal, Queen Jezebel’s favorite god, to a sort of god duel. “Look” he said “I know that my God is real and yours is not. And I can prove it.”

 

So the priests of Baal set up an altar and Elijah set up an altar. And the priests of Baal prayed and prayed and prayed, but nothing happened. Elijah covered his altar with water. So much water that it pooled around the logs. And then he prayed, and God sent a lightning bolt and lit his altar on fire.

 

He won the duel. And those who were there and followed God celebrated. But Queen Jezebel was not happy. She was not happy at all. She sent a message to Elijah saying she would kill him for what he had done.

 

Elijah, understandably, fled the country to save his life. He flees, but not just in any direction. He flees to a special place, a place to hear the divine voice once again. He journeys to Mount Horeb, more famously known as Mount Sinai, the mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. If there is ever a place where he can hear the voice of God, Mount Horeb is it.Which is how we come upon him hiding in a cave up a mountain in today’s passage. He is legitimately afraid of what will happen to him

 

Elijah receives Jezebel’s message and interprets it as the end of his ministry. If he can win the kind of decisive victory he won on Mount Carmel, and the battle not be over, what more can he do? Elijah dismisses his servant at Beersheba, signifying that he is abandoning his ministry altogether. He has  emotional whiplash. One moment, he was proving God’s glory and everyone was cheering and the next minute he’s being threatened with execution.

 

Elijah was in a dark place, both literally and figuratively. Yes, he was hiding in a cave in a mountain far away from his people, but he was also in a dark place in his soul.  One of those places where he wondered if any thing he ever did mattered.. He was full of despair, and when God sought him out, Elijah poured out his woes to God.

 

“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  The fear for his life is understandable, but the rest of his statement was the kind of self-pity we get when we are depressed and it feels like nothing is going our way. The thing is, Elijah was not the only one. There were followers of God at his demonstration. And upon seeing what Elijah did, all of the Israelites gathered proclaimed  “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God”

 

I mean, how excited would you be if we had a moment where we set up a test for God and God came through so spectacularly? You would be singing from the rooftops about how very awesome your God is. As a religious leader, it was the perfect time for Elijah to stay with them, fanning the fire of their faith and teaching them more about God, now that they realized who the true God is.

 

But instead, Elijah is justifiably fearful of execution, and runs away. He runs to save his life and despairs of what he could do. That is the Elijah God comes to today. And God calls Elijah out.

 

This is the part of the passage that most of us have heard before.

 

First comes all of the classic dramatic revelations of God. There is a mighty wind, but God doesn’t come in that.  There is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake.  Finally, there is a roaring fire, but unlike with Moses, God doesn’t come in the fire.

 

Instead, God comes in what is unexpected. God comes in the sound of sheer silence after the drama. God is not always in the dramatic.Sometimes God is in the quiet ordinary moments.

 

Now, there are times God is made known to us in the bells and whistles of the dramatic. At other times God is found in the sound of sheer silence. Sometimes God is made known to us is subtle, silent ways, unspectacular ways through the quiet workings of people’s lives. Sometimes God speaks through the thunder of miraculous events like walking on water and resurrection. At other times God speaks to us in the ordinary events of a child born in Bethlehem or a man, like so many Jewish men of his day, crucified on a cross.

 

God is speaking to us. God is leading us, even still today. But are we listening? Sometimes it is difficult. We get too caught up in the clutter around us. We also forget that in the midst of life’s difficulties, God is still leading and speaking and calling.

 

There is an apocryphal story of several applicants seeking a position as a ship’s Morse Code operator. While they’re waiting to be interviewed, the room is filled with the sounds of conversation, and so they’re oblivious to the sound of dots and dashes emanating from an intercom. Then another applicant comes in, sits down, quietly waiting. Suddenly, she jumps up, walks into the private office, and after a few minutes, walks out with the job.

 

The other applicants exclaim, “We were here first! How could you go ahead of us and get the job?” To which she replies, “Any of you could have gotten the job if you had just been quiet long enough to pay attention to the message on the intercom.” “What message?” “The code said, ‘A ship’s operator must always be on the alert. The first person who gets this message and comes directly into my office will get the job.'”

 

Sometimes only in the silence, can we hear.

 

When was the last time you found yourself in silence? I bet it’s been awhile. Even if you sit quietly in a room, you might hear the hum of the air conditioner, the tick of a fan. Perhaps the sounds of cars down the street.

 

It’s hard to find that silence because we don’t live in a world for silence. Noise pollution is a very real thing in this world. There are very few places left where you can go and not hear the sound of traffic, or airplanes, or other human inventions. And we like having the noise to drive away the silence, don’t we? We turn on TVs in empty houses, wear headphones whenever we go out.

 

We keep our ears and our brains so occupied that we don’t have to deal with silence. Because silence is hard. Silence is uncomfortable. We can’t control what happens in the silence. What we might think about in the silence.

 

And yet, we need to hear God and God cannot always be found in the noise. I’ve been going through an eight week series on the classical prayer discipline of Lectio Divinia. In it, you read the scriptures slowly, meditating on their meaning for you today. The last step is one of silence, where you still yourself and just listen.

 

I found it the hardest of all the steps, and yet, as I am in my sixth week, I find it grows easier. I actually begin to look forward to that silence. For that time of peace before I start my day. It helps to ground me in my faith for whatever may come. Because it doesn’t end with the silence. After the silence, we have to go and do.

 

Because God didn’t just leave Elijah in despair in the cave. God came to Elijah and after the silence, he gave him a purpose. He told him where to go, and gave him another to anoint so he would not be alone.

 

This all seems to give Elijah some hope. He leaves the cave. He goes to find Elisha, and together they continue to serve the Lord. Rather than condemning Elijah for running away, for complaining, for wanting to die, God comes and says, “Go and do my work. I’m still going to use you. I’m still with you.”

 

We all have days when we feel like Elijah. When we are depressed, or defeated, or positive that nothing we have done has mattered. On days like those, we all want to retreat to our dark caves, to find a way to hide from the world.

 

Yet God comes to us. God is present with us in comfort and then calls us forward into new life.  God can and does speak to us in the unexpected ways. Sometimes God speaks to us through a friend, or a passage of scripture, or a song. And sometimes God speaks to us in the silence.

 

To end this morning, I want to take a minute of silence. Sixty seconds to just listen for the still small voice.

 

Amen.

 

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— sermon audio not available —

BAPTISM BY GRACE

Ephesians 4: 1- 13

 

In Laura Hillenbrand’s powerful non-fiction bestseller “Unbroken,” she recounts what, in my mind, was one of the most powerful events in the life of Louis Zamperini. It was left out of the movie. Zamperini, survivor of weeks adrift at sea without food and water, was captured by the Japanese during World War II and brutally tortured in a camp by a deranged leader that he just called “The Bird.”  Many other men might have broken, or been a seething mess of bitterness after that experience.  He was that way too, that is, until he happened to visit a Billy Graham Crusade in California. Here is what happened as he heard the life-changing message:

 

“He felt words whisper from his swollen lips. It was a promise thrown at heaven, a promise he had not kept, a promise he had allowed himself to forget until that instant: If you will save me, I will serve you forever. And then, standing under a circus tent on a clear night in Los Angeles, Louis felt rain falling. [He turned toward Billy Graham who said] ‘This is it. God has spoken to you. You come on.’ [His wife Cynthia] kept her eyes on Louie all the way home. When they entered the apartment, Louie went straight for his cache of liquor. It was the time of night when the need usually took hold of him, but for the first time in years, Louie had not desire to drink. He carried the bottles to the kitchen sink, opened them, and poured the contents down the drain. Then he hurried through the apartment gathering packs of cigarettes … and heaved it all down the trash chute. In the morning he awoke feeling cleansed. For the first time in years the Bird hadn’t come into his dreams. The Bird would never come again.”  [Random House, 2010, 375,376]

 

Sometimes such powerful events are associated with “Born Again” experiences. Sometimes people have life-changing events that they attribute to meeting the risen Christ, as happened to the Apostle Paul in Acts chapter nine. But Acts is also filled with number of people who are saved and/or baptized not because of a born again experience, but because they instead want to follow Jesus and come to know the grace of God. Today we will look briefly at the subject of baptism.

 

The main place people turn to learn about baptism is in one of the Gospels, where the man called John the Baptist was baptizing his followers. But he clearly was baptizing people in a baptism of repentance. John said in Matthew chapter 3 verse 11: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit …” Isn’t it interesting that Christianity has based most of its standards for baptism on John’s baptism instead of the baptism Jesus taught his disciples to offer? In the Acts of the Apostles, one of the last things Jesus taught before his ascension was that “John baptized with water, but before long you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” [Acts1: 5] And indeed that happened at Pentecost. But what else happened in Acts? As Peter preached to those in Jerusalem, he exhorted them to “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” So one way we carry on baptism is with a declaration of repentance or a renunciation of a past life and an embracing of a new life. That is one way that the church still baptizes. Another reason to baptize is to welcome someone into the family of God. In Acts chapter 8 an Ethiopian, who was the treasurer for his queen and her government, was a non-believer. But he was curious, and then he was interested. He was reading Scripture when one of Jesus’ apostles, Philip, ran up to him. Philip helped him understand what he was reading and the Ethiopian asked “Is anything to prevent me from being baptized?” [Acts 8:37] They was some water nearby, and Philip baptized the man with the water. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit was present at that baptism; afterward the same Spirit filled Philip, and the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing!” A baptism of grace.  Another way Christian baptism was carried out was taught by Paul to the Corinthians. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” he asked them. They said they had never heard of a Holy Spirit. He then asked “Into what were you baptized?” and they admitted: “Into John’s baptism.” Notice that Paul is not willing to leave them in that kind of baptism! He instructed them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And they were.

 

So friends, we pull from every biblical source for our understanding of baptism. There are times when someone wants to be baptized to turn from a different life. We do those baptisms. And there are times when young persons, or adults, or even children, are presented, or present themselves, as ones who are entering the Christian family. We do those baptisms too. But we do all the baptisms, no matter the style, using the words Jesus himself used in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18. Jesus said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And so we do. Today we baptize as Jesus taught; and we share the Lord’s Supper to which we are invited once we are baptized into the Christian family! What a celebration! If you haven’t been baptized, consider officially entering the family of Christ! And if you already have, then prepare your heart for the upcoming joyful feast of the people of God.

 

Let us pray:

Like grace before a meal, O Lord, we ask for your blessing. Help those who have grown in their baptism claim its promises; those who are young grow into them, and those not baptized consider the step that even Jesus himself took.  Set our Communion elements apart from common use to this Holy use, that they may nourish our souls for our service to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. In His name we pray.  Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 2, 2015