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THAT FATEFUL DAY

Mark 11: 1-10

Around this time of the year, some networks show the great films of the faith like the epic, “Jesus of Nazareth,” “The Robe,” or even perhaps the gut-wrenching “Passion of the Christ” which shows up on premium channels Some channels, like Discovery and the History Channel show documentaries about the life of Christ and in particular about his final week: his entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple, his teachings, his time in the Garden, his capture, his questioning before Pilate, and finally his crucifixion. That is the week we are facing. It does the salvation story of the Bible a complete disservice to jump over the gore to the glory of Easter. Few take lightly the price Christ paid for us once they encounter those passages.

For almost all of 2012 I have dealt with Mark’s gospel; Mark is generally considered to be the oldest gospel and to be extremely reliable historically; Mark never seems to add unnecessary information. If you have come to our Maundy Thursday service you’ve seen that I always choose Mark to read for that fateful night. Today for a few minutes I hope to help bridge the knowledge gap about Palm Sunday and to fill in some details. What is my source? Of course, it is the Bible itself; we will not trust another commentator when we can glean information for ourselves.

This fateful day—Palm Sunday—did not start with Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. So many people assume that Jesus got up one day, made the preparations, and entered Jerusalem one fateful morning. Let’s see if that’s the case. According to Mark 10:1 Jesus and his disciples left their adopted hometown of Capernaum in Galilee and headed toward Judea and beyond the Jordan. That means he would have encountered many Jews also going to Jerusalem for the Passover, and that there may have also been Gentile travelers as well. As they journeyed, Jesus was already known by some of them and crowd members constantly questioned him. He knew he was going to Jerusalem to die, but he still had to face Pharisees asking him questions about divorce in verses 2-12! What a topic as he faces his own death!  Feeling for our Savior’s reserve of strength, we still see that people are relentless about approaching him. Some want him to hold or touch their children in verses 13-16 while the disciples fruitlessly tried to act as Jesus’ bodyguards. Jesus overruled them and said what we know so well: “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them.” He then has a man ask him what he needs to do to inherit eternal life, in verses 17-22. Even when the man heard Jesus’ answer, he went away because he could not part with his possessions as Jesus told him to do. Jesus’ then uses the examples of the conversations of the day to teach his disciples in verses 23-31. This man Jesus, already peppered with questions, must have gotten his second wind around Mark 10:32, for Mark says: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them, and they were amazed.” He then tells them again what he himself already knew: this trip has a purpose; he himself will be killed. There was more that he said, but surely his disciples were most troubled by that part. James and John noted his impending death and then did what some children have rudely done to their parents: they start to maneuver for positions of favoritism, asking about inheritance, and wondering if they are the favorite in the sight of the dying one. It is not pretty when I’ve seen it in families. And here, not just two people but two disciples ask Jesus to grant them a special status before he is thrown to his death: they ask that one be on his right hand in glory and one on his left. According to verse 41, the other 10 disciples were indignant that those two asked such an insensitive question of their “Teacher.” From verses 42-45 Jesus says they don’t know what they are asking. As I read it, this is all one day.

Before they arrive in Jerusalem they would naturally, on the path they were taking, go through Jericho, the oldest city on the planet, and a most resort-like city. But instead of finding respite there, Jesus encounters a blind man in verse 46—a blind man mind you, who is able to see in Jesus what sighted persons cannot. Somehow he not only knows who Jesus is and what he is reported to be able to do, he also senses when Jesus gets in close proximity- it’s astounding. Jesus might have been tempted to keep going- what time is it by now? Two O’clock? Three o’clock? Later? Instead he says “Call him.” After finding out that the blind man, named Bartimaeus, wanted to see, Jesus granted his request. Then Bartimaeus also left Jericho and followed Jesus. The newly sighted man was likely in the Palm Sunday crowd! On the outskirts of Jerusalem there are two small villages where the Bible records that Jesus stopped at differenc times, but today was not going to be one of those times. Our Lord presses on. This time Jesus has a purpose to be carried out, lateness of the day or not. So the assumption that I raised a few minutes
ago—that Jesus entered the city one bright
morning, gets tested now. Read your Bible and you may conclude, as I have, that Jesus entered Jerusalem  late in the day. Likely prior arrangements allowed Jesus’ request for a colt on which to ride to be accomplished with some haste. It was not a fine white horse, a steed. Instead it was a small one, a colt; some other gospels say donkey. Nevertheless it was a small animal. The disciples and other travelers put some garments on it for his comfort and Jesus began riding into town on it. Certainly down from the Mount of Olives through the Golden Gate of the city there was an air of festivity! Passover already had made the city streets and inns jammed with people, with a celebration in one corner and an argument in another. As Jesus made us way, they strew branches along the road Mark’s gospel says in chapter 11, verse 8. John’s gospel says they are palm branches, and there is good reason to believe that. The palm was the national symbol of a free Judea, and the Jews hoped to be out from under the thumb of the powerful Romans. They were reading a human agenda of revolt into Jesus’ heavenly agenda of intended peace and salvation. They even quoted the prophet Zechariah and the Psalmist David who said when the Messiah comes it will be to the cry: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Into the city Jesus came among happy children, cautious disciples, and suspicious security officials. The security officials perhaps had Jesus entrance pegged: no sooner did he get inside the city wall through the entrance called the Golden Gate that Mark’s gospel says he went straight to the Temple, according to verse 11. He went to look everything over and perhaps offer a brief prayer. It is likely Jesus saw much that he did not like, but, the Bible says:

“And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went back to Bethany with the Twelve.” As far as I can tell, that is the end of the very long day that Jesus had; his entry into the city was they culmination of his day, not the beginning. We know from verse 15 that it was the next day when he returned and overturned the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple. Before that day he had traveled many miles, been asked many questions, had healed and blessed several people, and arrived at the place that would be his death city. What an exhausting, dreadful day, he had had, and now he starts a new day with the confrontation at the Temple. Jesus of Nazareth was not only filling his role as Rabbi, now he would claim the crown of the King, albeit a painful crown. He was not only a shepherd of people, he was the Lamb of God, and lamb selection day was facing him. The Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world, would be crucified on the day the Jews called “Lamb selection day. How perfectly terrible; and God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

As we face this week, we will be sharing one Holy Communion today; but Thursday, if you are here, you will have a reminder of the Last Supper. May your soul be girded for this week with your Lord, and may it not waver with denial, doubt, or betrayal.

Let us pray:  O God: prepare us now to realize the magnitude of our participation in this sacrament. Our choice shows Jesus whether or not we choose to be his disciples, even with the costs. Amen.

Jeffrey A. SumnerApril 1, 2012

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CONSIDERING SIN

Jeremiah 31: 31-34

 

This is the weekend when the first
film of the thrilling trilogy of stories, THE HUNGER GAMES, is hitting the
theatres, an event that has created some record-breaking box office numbers.
Set in the future of a broken North America,
it shows the horrors of where a depraved and savage society will go. In short,
the film and the book both show the outcome of a terrible war and of brutality
that brings sinfulness and survival to new heights. One movie reviewer
encapsulates the story this way: “Young people, selected by lottery, slaughter
one another with kill-or-be-killed desperation …. The savagery is a yearly
ritual mandated by the tyrannical regime of Panem, a broken nation built, after
a terrible war, on the futurist ruins of North America.
It is also broadcast live on TV, a national media event….” [Lisa Schwarzbaum,
“Entertainment Weekly, March
30, 2012, p. 56] The heroine is 16 year old Katniss Everdeen who
shows almost superhero type heroism, volunteering to fight in place of her
sister. Her weapon of choice is the bow and arrow, with her skills honed by
hunting for food to help feed her family in this Orwellian future world. Since
the books have been sold and the film has been announced, the sale of bows and
arrows has increased by 20% in America.
The practice with bows and arrows, to gain accuracy, usually involves a target;
in most cases a series of concentric circles with a red circle in the middle
called a bull’s-eye.  In the film, the
world slipped into its sinful state through the methodical taking of human
lives. Accuracy with a bow and arrow saved one life over another. And it is a
target such as that which is the original meaning of sin found in the Old
Testament.

 

 Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in his
volume called EITHER/OR, said he preferred the men and women of the Old
Testament to others because “they know how to sin!” He is not condoning sin; he
sees Old Testament person feeling the weight of sin, acknowledging sin, and
repenting of sin. The rest of us, he lamented, lack enough moral vitality to
achieve real sinfulness! What an interesting observation! In the film, Katniss
sharpens her archery skills so that she and her family can survive. Yet in
places in our world today, desperation leads some to act out of desperation or
even out of cowardice instead of heroism. The ones who do not think through the
consequences of owning a firearm and pulling the trigger may have to re-visit
the “Thou shalt not kill” commandment. The one who holds up a convenience store
for the funds in the drawer may need to revisit the “Thou shalt not steal” commandment;
and the ones who kidnap a young child in a horrible decision to extort ransom
from parents not only break civil and moral laws, they break hearts and hopes
as well. But sometimes in our world today, sin runs amok; it is accepted and
not even named.  The sharing of certain
music files in our day is accepted and costs the copyright owners millions in
lost revenue; the youths who think that a store or corporation makes enough
money that they will not miss the food, the electronics, or the clothes they shoplift-
those young people may be lifted up as heroes by peers, but they are not. They
are an example of an ethical choice where the tempter won at an age when moral
boundaries are being formed in their souls. Law abiding shoppers pay many cents
and often many dollars more for products, not because of gas prices, but
because of the cost of security and the cost of loss. The expense gets spread
to us. And there are adults with an arrogant sense of pride when they are able
to cheat on or finagle the taxes owed to the country they profess to love every
time they join in the singing or listening to “God Bless America land
that I love.” Those sins don’t often make the front pages, or the arrest record
column, unless you are caught. Sin tries to go under the radar of 21st
century America.
It always has. And that’s just the way that Satan likes it. If we have a moving
target about acceptable behaviors; if we lean on the term “relativity” too
much, then naming actions as sins gets turned over to our courts where
attorneys often parse words and issues to protect their clients, not to call a
sin a sin.

 

My text today from Jeremiah is
deliberate; in the First (or the Old) Testament, sin is named not only in the
commandments, but in the Covenant Code that went with it. Sin had gravity;
weight, and consequences which is what seems to have fallen through the cracks
of our permission-driven, enabling world. Professor and Rabbi Leonard S. Kravitz
once said: “The notion of sin contains a paradox: there can be no sin without
some sense of the Divine and there can be no sin without a denial of that
sense. We become lawbreakers if we contravene civil or criminal law, but we
become sinners only if we do that which God commands us not to do. Sin is
possible only if we sense what God demands of us.” [“The Living Pulpit, Vol. 8,
No. 1, p.28.] Is that the problem today: that right from wrong is no longer
black and white but many shades of gray? Is it that neither children, nor their
parents, can name the commandments that, if broken constitute, sin? The Rabbis remind us that the root word for
sin means “to miss the mark.” Like the best archer, God asks us to aim for the
center of the target, not to miss the target, broaden the target, or do without
a target.
It is God’s clear command; aiming for the bulls-eye is always not
only pleasing to God, it is also better for our souls now and later. Sin almost
always becomes like the children’s game “Mousetrap,” where one seemingly
innocent {but in fact sinful} action leads to a series of reactions that bring
about destructive or hurtful results. Sin must be back on the table for the
lives of Christians, instead of having the off-handed thought that since our
sins are nailed to the cross with Christ, we no longer have to worry about their
consequences. Wrong. Yes through Jesus we get forgiveness, but we also get it
through remorse expressed to the ones we have wronged. That’s why God’s words
in Jeremiah carried so much weight. The Lord said that in the New Covenant, he
would forgive the iniquity of His people, “and remember their sin no more.”
(31:34). Sin had the weight of bricks in the hearts of Moses and Jeremiah and
others, not the weight of Styrofoam as it is so often treated by sinners.  I’ve told this story to my children and have
told it to adults. If you haven’t heard this example, it’s the best one I know
about the consequences of sin:

A father had a boy with an
exceptionally bad temper. When he was angry, he did destructive things like
break windows or furniture, say hateful things to his sister or his friends, or
become disrespectful and defiant to adults who tried to guide him. The father
said to him after he had cooled down, “Son, I want you to take this hammer and
these nails and put them out in the back shed. When you do something to hurt
someone or break something, I want you to take a nail and drive it part way
into our white back fence. It will remind you of the things you did wrong. When
you truly make amends by fixing what was broken, or by truly apologizing for
your actions, you can then pull one nail out of the fence. But I want you to
see that even when you think things
are fixed, there is still a scar in the fence that will not fade. All your destructive
actions have consequences.”

 

I am glad that Jesus died for your
sins and mine. But it does not abdicate us from acknowledging the heavy weight
of our sins and their consequences. We cannot believe that our sins magically
get whisked from our souls and nailed to the cross of Christ just because we
are Christian! We still have responsibility for our sins! Today, let’s put sin
back into our modern vocabulary and our thoughts. In so doing, it says you know
God, honor God, and you honor the God-given guidance that we should always try
to hit the mark of right living. This week, it has taken a girl with a bow and
arrow to picture a horrendous future that could be possible if we do not reign
in sin and its power. But if we take sin and its consequences seriously, our
future will look less like “The Hunger Games,” and more like a man praying over
five loaves and two fish, then distributing them to feed 5000 people. The
direction we take today will change our destiny tomorrow.

  

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          March 25, 2012

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IF YOU ONLY BELIEVED ONE THING

John 3: 14-21
It was reported this week that Encyclopedia Britannica will stop publishing its volumes of encyclopedias for the first time in 244 years. Information in the 21st century changes too rapidly for print. This year I finally took Mary Ann’s advice from a couple of years ago and gave away our family set of World Book encyclopedias, we bought in 1990 for our whole family to use. What is the culprit for the enormous decline in the purchase of encyclopedia sets? Of course it’s the internet. Technology has brought us Google and Yahoo and other search engines to find most anything we want to find. And the new go-to source is Wikipedia: the free online, constantly being updated encyclopedia. The downside is that anyone can go on and update Wikipedia, sometimes with wrong information; consequently as I do my research for my doctoral degree, Wikipedia is never an acceptable reference source! In this age of technology I often send text messages back and forth to staff, elders, and family to get a message to them quickly. Many of you may do that too! Perhaps you also use abbreviations in your texts, and if you read texts enough you can read abbreviations as if they were the full word. People also abbreviate in their Tweets. A Tweet, as many of you know, is a communication invention created by Jack Dorsey who came up with the name, meaning: “a short burst of inconsequential information” and “chirps from birds.” Dorsey sent his first Twitter message on March 21, 2006, just 6 years ago this Wednesday! We love to have messages sent in brief ways in this technical age; and men’s brains, I learned two years ago, are wired for that kind of “bottom line” information. Women typically, researchers tell us, notice things more, explain things more, and can describe things better. Men’s brains go for the “gist” of information. Many men, and even woman, love to just know what “the bottom line” is. When negotiating for a car the buyer says, “So what’s the bottom line.” When getting an estimate on a repair we ask “So what’s the bottom line.” I have tiny little Bibles that were given to me to share with boys and girls years ago but most of the passages listed in those tiny Bibles seemed harsh to me and the King James wording was hard for a child to follow. If, however, any of you would like your own brief version of Bible passages in a tiny little Bible, you may take one from one of the baskets in the back as you leave. There is one verse that is included in those little Bibles that I think is wonderful. And guess what? This most important of verses in the Bible, this crux of New Testament theology, has exactly 140 characters in it, the maximum number of characters in a Tweet! The most perfect Tweet is the message that I gave the children on a card.
If you only believed one thing in the Bible it is this message that fits in that Tweet and is found on posters at ball games. The posters that you may have seen in person or on television say “John 3:16.” You heard it in the anthem today and here it is; exactly 140 characters: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That’s a Tweet for the ages; that’s the message for the ages; that’s something to memorize and to teach your children and your children’s children. That’s a passage that is learned in the King James Version most profitably. That one line has been historically called “The Gospel in Miniature.” It is at the heart of all the books and letters that we call the “New Testament.”  It is the Good News! Believing that is what makes you a Christian, and those who do not believe that are not Christians in the classical sense. It is found in the Gospel of John. After almost three months of preaching from the Gospel of Mark, we are shifting for a few weeks now to the Gospel of John.  The author of this gospel could very well be the Disciple we know as John, the one who referred to himself as “The disciple whom Jesus loved.” He is not John the Baptist. John, the writer of this Gospel, seems to have known Jesus exceedingly well, and Jesus, in turn, trusted John so well that at the cross he entrusted his mother to his care. So we are hearing from someone who not only tells what happened to Jesus, John wants his readers to know who Jesus is. It is John who calls Jesus “The Word,” and says not only that the Word was with God in the beginning, but also that the Word was God. It is John who calls Jesus the “Lamb of God,” recalling both the precious and sacrificial references Jews attributed to unblemished lambs. And it is John who is a master of words, mysteries, and double entendre. John is the one who records the conversation between Jesus and the learned man Nicodemus, who thinks like a 5th grader when he interprets Jesus’ imperative, “Ye must be born again” as an invitation to re-enter his mother’s womb. No; Jesus was talking about being born from above; having a spiritual rebirth. So John is brilliant, but sometimes cryptic, with what he has written down.  Jesus was a little like that too, wasn’t he? That’s part of the brilliance of this first century theologian: he turns the phrase of an Old Testament story or phrase that is instantly recognizable, and then he looks at the event through the lens of Christ. Soon many events in the Old Testament start to point to our Lord.
While studying in my room at Columbia Seminary for two intensive weeks twice a year, I have the luxury of digging into texts with more depth than a normal week in my life often permits. My professors encourage us to read, think about, and be still for at least 30 minutes or longer in considering a verse such as John 3:16. Certainly when asked to spend time on a passage like that, some minds begin to wander after 10 seconds! Our human programming in the 21st century is to see as many shows or films, read as many books or blogs, or do as many things in a lifetime that time permits. Many in the last five years have even created “Bucket Lists” a creation of the Jack Nicholson/ Morgan Freeman film of a few years ago. Who has time to spend 30 minutes or more on one Bible verse? In our text-driven, cell phone-filled frantic world, I tend to read a sentence and stamp “Done!” on it when I finish it, then go on to my next task. A practice called “Lectio Divina” invites Biblical readers to ruminate over a text for an hour, or a day, or more. What would it be like to spend an hour, or a day with just the 140 characters of John 3:16? In my Wednesday night Lent class, called “The Lives of Great Christians,” we are learning that some of the great Christians were those who studied, prayed over, and copied manuscripts of Scripture all their days. We would not have Bibles that are so accurate without people, as we say today, who “Spent time in The Word.” To spend days in the Word—the Bible—is not just to see how fast you can read; it is drinking it in, and pondering it at times so that in a lifetime you may read it deeply once, or twice, or perhaps more. I am being reminded of that in my studies, but like many of you, I tend to read quickly to accomplish my work. This week, perhaps you too will join me in stopping to consider the Gospel in Miniature. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Presbyterian founder John Calvin spends 10 full pages on just verses 14-21 of our lesson today. Words to ponder include these: God; God loved; God so loved the world. And so on. You may wonder what kind of love it is that God gave his only Son. Who does that? Why not give God’s own life to show love?  John says, in fact, that he did. God was in Christ; and this death was rich in power for the listeners. The first born son for Jews in the Bible had the most power, the most to inherit, and more prestige than any later born children. He was precious. Jesus died as a human it is true, but also as
the only begotten Son of God, rising as the triumphant Christ. It is not easy, nor appropriate, to think about God in human terms on this one, condemning God for not stopping the death of his own Son. This was a masterful plan of redemption! Remember, John speaks in metaphors and Jesus does too; we see through a glass darkly as we hear words like father, and son, and everlasting life. What we can count on is love that does not withhold; love that does not become conditional; and love that does not end. That is the love that God offers.
A point to ponder: “If God loved you as much as you love [God,] what would the state of your soul be today?” Sometimes people treat God with conditional love, only being delighted with God when their prayers are answered the way they ask. But God in Christ loves unconditionally. If God loved us, like some in our world choose to love God—in fickle ways—we would be in eternal peril.
Finally, a story: The land of Persia was once ruled by a wise and beloved Shah who cared greatly for his people and wanted only what was best for them. (Hard to believe these days, isn’t it?) One day he disguised himself as a poor man and went over to the public baths. They were heated by a furnace in the cellar so he went deep into the cellar and decided to visit the man with the thankless job of keeping the fire stoked. He returned on subsequent days, brightening the long hours of the lonely man with the hot and dark job. The man told others about the man who “came to visit him where he was.” He was touched that someone would come down to the level where he worked and stay with him. He never forgot it. When it was finally revealed to him that the man was actually the Shah, the man said to the Shah with great love: “You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to eat my coarse food, and to care about what happened to me. What wondrous love you show!”
God came to us from glory, to eat with us, to care about us, and to sit with us where we are. God came in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John contains the wondrous story about how God chose to be with us, and to show great love.
Thanks be to God!
Jeffrey A. SumnerMarch 18, 2012

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SHAKING THE FOUNDATIONS

Mark 2: 13-22

 

Since the beginning of time it has
been happening: new ideas, sinful actions, wonder, curiosity, and willfulness
have, in different ways, stretched, challenged, or cracked the foundations of the
earth’s norms and truths we treasure.
Today I want to consider the religious history of the shaking of the
foundations and what has come about as a result. Let’s begin in the beginning:
Creation. God created the first human beings who we know as Adam and Eve. Even
though God created, God also gave the mortals free will so that they could
choose between, life and death, blessing and curse, always hoping, of course,
that humans would choose life. The humans were given an idyllic world in which
to live; the foundation was firm; and God was pleased.  Then came the entrance of sin, in the form of
a serpent, and the foundations shook.
Original sin was born. From those two sinful people, two brothers were
born: Cain and Abel, and sin continued with fratricide: Cain slew Abel. The
world’s story had some very flawed characters. God, it is said, wanted to start
over and did. All the earth was flooded except for a faithful man and his
family; it’s the story of Noah. Talk about shaking the foundations; drowning
them was more like it! God started again ages later with a man named Abraham,
surely a descendent of faithful Noah. The Lord God established a firm
foundation with Abraham; it was firm because it was an everlasting covenant,
not one that could be broken by human sin; it was kept by holy sovereignty. On
that man’s faith a new covenant flourished. Later God tried again to offer a
covenant to his people through Moses, but his people sorely disappointed him,
breaking the commandments time and time again. God adjusted to the foundation-shaking
sins that his people were exhibiting. So God sent prophets: people who spoke
for God. Among them were young ones like Jeremiah, and older ones like
Isaiah.  Jeremiah still saw what we see
today: the shaking of the foundations. His world, and ours, had issues of
respect, corruption of political leaders, children who did not adequately learn
the faith and the importance of tradition, and families sometimes fighting
families. There were even natural disasters then as there are now. Young
Jeremiah proclaimed these words when he looked around him: “I look out on the
earth … and lo, all is chaos; I look at the heavens … its light is gone. I look
out on the mountains … they are trembling; and the hills are swaying!”
[Jeremiah 4] Could the foundations haven been shaking because the Lord himself
was shaking them, trying to get his people to turn back from sinful ways? The
prophets saw it that way. The prophet Isaiah said to the cities of Judah: “The
foundations of the earth shake: earth breaks to pieces, earth is split in
pieces, earth shakes to pieces …lift up your eyes to heaven and look upon the
earth beneath.” [Isaiah 24.] When the earth shook figuratively or actually, was
it sin that shook it? Is it sin that shakes our world over the ages?

 

In God’s own time, Jesus was born,
and lived on the earth. During his ministry, events happened that were
described in our text today, Mark 2. He was born a Jew and was taught as a Jew,
yet he did things that faithful Jews would not do: he ate with sinners. To do
that would have made a Jew ritually unclean. Jesus shook religious foundations.
Jews fasted at certain times when Jesus did not; the serious business of
keeping Torah did not seem to be the focus of Jesus’ life. It was nearly
scandalous and was a source of religious upheaval. Jesus was shaking the
foundations of his faith, and he explains why with his words about the
bridegroom. Just as some rituals are abandoned when a loved one has a terminal
illness, Jesus’ time on earth was terminal and he knew it. He had more pressing
things to teach than ritual procedures. It was upsetting to others. His new
emphasis he called “new wine.” He was so different that Jews who followed him
separated from other Jews. History would call them “Christians.” His
crucifixion shook the foundations of the world, darkened the skies, tore the
curtain of the Temple, and caused cataclysmic reactions. The foundations of the
earth have never been the same since God came to earth in human flesh. People
who followed him were not just Jews or Gentiles; they became known as
Christians and they still are. Over the ages there have been fractures even in
the human gatherings of Christians. Monks fought other monks; believers fought
those who they called “heretics” (wrong believers); and doctrines were won over
blood. If the Lord Jesus died for them, our forebears believed, then he was
worth dying for as well. And they did. Sometimes it is painful to read our
history. But thoughtful persons kept trying to move closer to the truth when
they believed others were moving farther away. It happened with early leaders
like St. Benedict who went to Rome for education and left immediately for
Sabiaco and Montecassino because he found Rome to be too corrupt. It happened
with a priest named Martin Luther who took issue with the Church of Rome. His
stand grew into a movement that became the Protestant Reformation. And the
foundations shook, and they still shake, over that.

 

We still have things that seem to
shake the foundations of Christianity. In 1837 in our part of the Christian family,
even the Presbyterians split in half into two groups called “Old School” and
“New School”: two groups who still loved Jesus, but differently. The Old School
later spit into the Northern and Southern Presbyterians in 1861, and reunion
with one another took an embarrassing 122 years later in 1983. But even then,
there was another branch, and now there is still another branch, with still
another forming now: the painful observation is that everyone thinks their
version of the church is closer to the truth. But the good news ought to be
that they all love the Jesus, but differently. It shakes the foundations of
denominations, but does it trouble our Lord? Does he just shake his head as he
did weeping over the fate of Jerusalem, or does he look at our infighting and
say “This isn’t at all what I envisioned my church to be”?  Today across the globe there are churches that
are purely Biblical and others that interpret the Bible with creeds; there are
churches that call themselves fundamentalist, and others say they are
progressive. There are those who have a free liturgy of worship and others with
a stated or strict liturgy. There are even churches today that have done away
with a cross in their facility, have no communion table and baptize more than
once. Such practices shake the foundations of Presbyterians. But does it shake
the Lord of the cross and the Lord of the dance? Some Christians see heaven and
hell differently from others, often to the point that some denominations call
the others “heretics”; but does it shake the one who stilled the waters, calmed
the sea, ate with sinners, and did not obey the orders for fasting? What does
Jesus think? How does the man who created a whole new following respond to
giant new gatherings of people who praise him, but not the way we do it? Jesus certainly
shook the foundations of his day; but it is God who “laid the foundations of
the world”, which he thundered to Job. It is Jesus we will follow, and it is
God who loves us so much that we can even do so in denominational or even
non-denominational ways. It might rattle my theology or your sense of
tradition. But thanks be to God that love is the true measure of whether or not
we have been fully transformed by Jesus Christ as Lord. How are we doing?

 

Back in 1948 Theologian Paul Tillich
preached to a different world than ours, but he too addressed what “The Shaking
of the Foundations” meant for him and for his world. He said this: “In the
language of the prophets, it is the Lord who shakes the mountains and melts the
rocks. This is a language that modern man cannot understand. And so God, who is
not bound by any special language, not even to that of the prophets, spoke to
the men of today through the mouths of our greatest scientists, and this is
what he said: ‘You yourselves can bring about the end upon yourselves. [The end
of the world, that is] I give the power to shake the foundations of your earth
into your hands. You can use this power for creation, or destruction. How will
you use it?’ [Charles Scribner and Sons, 1948, p.4] So now let us step back for
a final moment. There are three levels
of the shaking of the foundations, aren’t there?  The
first
is the level thundered by prophets at the behest of God, telling
people to turn back from their sins that were leading their souls to
destruction. A second level was
demonstrated by our Lord Jesus in moving from a focus on the minutia of rituals
to loving and caring for others. Finally,
we know the foundations of the world can shake when we, as God’s stewards (or managers),
destroy or hasten the destruction of land, seas, and nations. It happens by the
rise of avarice, greed, and the rise of evil in all areas of the world. It even
can happen in the name of progress and profit. God is watching us; God empowers
us. And God wonders: What my people do with what I have given them?  The next steps are up to us.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner
March 11, 2012

 

 

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WHY WOULD YOU FOLLOW THIS TEACHING?

Mark 8:31-38

In the story of Tom Sawyer, a bored boy uses his head to get other boys to line up and whitewash 30 yards of fence for him rather than playin’; they could have been goin’ fishin’, playing marbles, or any of a dozen other things a boy would rather do in a sleepy town near the banks of the Missouri River. How is it that Tom Sawyer talks a string of boys into doing his job and paint the fence he was responsible for painting? He not only talks them into it, they beg him to let them! Mark Twain says Tom figured it this way: “He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to  make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” [TOM SAWYER, Grosset & Dunlap, 1946, p.20] Tom learned at a young age what good motivational speakers and teachers of salesmanship have known for years: in order to make someone want something, you have to make it hard to obtain. Tom Sawyer got people to listen to him and to his story because of his coy approach to a job that was a chore. Later on we learn that his friend Huck Finn had every adult in town disapprove of his lifestyle, and partly for that reason, every boy, especially Tom, wanted to be around Huck! Why do people follow other people?  Why did some people, smart people, even religious people, follow demented and destructive leaders like Adolph Hitler, like Osama Bin Laden, or like the cult leader Jim Jones?  Was it charisma, or persuasiveness; was it because of intimidation or threats? Sometimes people follow others because they seem to have a Midas touch and they fill needs for people: the late Steve Jobs did that and Oprah Winfrey still does. Sometimes people follow others because they are employed to follow them; at other times they follow of their own free will.  Is it the teaching, or is it the teacher?  Sometimes it is helpful to check out the human race to see what motivates us and what, at times, allows us to be manipulated.

As we read the Old Testament, we are privileged to be in the armchair (so to speak), watching prophets deliver words of judgment to the people of Israel. Even before the prophets of the Bible speak to us from the pages of Scripture, they speak to those in their own time, and we get to listen in!  Why did people listen to prophets? One reason is their belief that prophets were the mouthpiece for God; that if they said it, God was the original source. Revering God is one reason that prophets of God carried a big verbal stick with their listeners. But notice also how often the prophet’s words fall on deaf ears; how the prophet’s warnings and calls for repentance brought slow responses. When do people make changes in their life? Is it when they are first told to change? In the Bible I can think of only one case when a prophet told people that God said “repent!” and they repented on the first try. Do you remember it? It was when Jonah told the Ninevites to repent and they did. They were sinners and they repented! But in most cases in the Bible, people are rather slothful about changing their ways except: 1) If they have made such a mess of their life that they’re ready to try a new way; or 2) if the new way is intelligently and persuasively presented as benefiting them (especially financially); or 3) if they respect the one asking them to change. But even a respected prophet had scant success in moving people from their ruts, their ways, or their customs, except when the people believed that they needed rescue or when they thought change would benefit them.

That brings us to a perplexing text to ponder today: “Jesus called the crowd with his disciples and said this: ‘If any want to follow me, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their own life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’”  Denying ourselves is not in our nature. From the day we enter the world, we continue to be the center of our own universe unless we decide to show devotion to God, or to a spouse, or a boss, a job, a friend, or a child. Denying ourselves is something we might choose to do, but not readily. More often we deny ourselves in times of war or national crisis, or because we are abused or confined and forced to do so. We have to have a good reason to voluntarily deny ourselves. Even in Jesus argument, both paths led to death at first glance: his listeners had seen the crosses on which people were crucified as rulers tried to force people to conform; Jesus was not the first or the last man that the Roman emperors crucified. But the other choice, besides submitting to crucifixion was also bad: “those who want to save their life will lose it.” Most believe that Jesus was talking about losing eternal life in that phrase. For years people greatly feared not having eternal life; today I wonder if you give your eternal destiny much thought, or do you just assume that God grades on a curve? Certainly Jesus saw the big picture; a resurrected life, Heavenly glory and the like; but those in his day hardly had an inkling of that life beyond life. So why did some decide to follow this teaching; to stick with the man who was taunted, and mocked, and flogged, and crucified? Why would they not fall away with self-satisfaction, thinking to themselves that they were too smart to be hoodwinked by the man from Nazareth? In all I have read, there was only one good reason why those people of Jesus’ day chose his path instead of the easy one: it was the incredible authority they gave his words after being convinced by his deeds.  This was the man who got blind people to see; he got lame men to walk; he fed four thousand people at one lunch hour and five thousand at another lunch hours from supplies that would barely have fed the Twelve; he had also walked on water. Some certainly decided that they were going to listen to him.  They followed Jesus because his actions made them believe his words. Notice, however, that those who were well off financially or well-connected politically walked away from his teaching or were threatened by it. But those who were poor, or spiritually poor, found faith, and hope, and love in the teachings and person of Jesus.

Today you will have to decide if everything is just fine in your life; if there is no good reason to shake up your world because you have enough money, enough health, and enough contentment. Do you take pleasure in your and in your family? And most importantly, if you have full confidence in your afterlife, then following Jesus may not be compelling for you, even less compelling than a boy who talks other boys into painting a fence. But if there are parts of your life that need love, forgiveness, hope, and especially correction, than you are more likely to follow his teaching, even if it means a cross. Some choose to die meaningfully rather than die miserably and emotionally. The former persons choose to follow Jesus and his challenging teaching. Whether you choose the li
fe of just being a church attender, or whether you decide to be a Christian disciple instead, is a personal choice. You may not want to paint a fence; but Jesus does not respect anyone who just sits on the fence either. Choose him; or you may be choosing doubt, or even darkness.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                            March 4, 2012

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WOULD YOU PASS THE TEST?

Mark 1: 9-15

Churches that believe in the Bible acknowledge that Jesus was tempted; today’s passage from Mark is just one of those passages. But what do churches do about it? How might Christians learn from Jesus? Some churches decide, either by tradition, the feelings of the deacons, or the decision of the pastor to hold a revival. In many revivals there are meetings nightly, generally for a week, with the goal of turning around back sliding Christians or saving the perishing. It whips up excitement and gets many back on the right course with Christ. Liturgical churches, that is, ones who follow a stated order of service, have their Roman Catholic roots to thank for the idea of Lent as a sort or “revival” for the rest of us. The Bible tells us about the passion of Christ, and especially how that week coincided with the Jewish feast of Passover. With a fairly clear idea about on what day Christ was crucified, the early Church Fathers in Western Christianity tried to set Easter on the most correct day they could find. They said that Easter was always to be celebrated on “the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal (or spring) equinox.” Our Orthodox Christian friends pick a different date. Counting back from Easter Sunday for this year, which is April 8, we count 40 days, but we do not count Sundays since the church has said forever that it is right for Christians to remember the resurrection of their Lord on the Lord’s Day. So skipping Sundays, counting back from April 8 forty days (which, as we heard in our Gospel text is the time Jesus spent being tempted in the wilderness), we land on Ash Wednesday. That day was last Wednesday and this is the first Sunday IN Lent, not of Lent, because remember, Sundays are not counted. Liturgical churches often treat Lent as a time of renewal: a renewal of the Christian disciplines. Some pray more, some fasting, some serve others in new ways, and others have renewed studies of the Scriptures. If we were perfect people we might never need the yearly disciplines that Lent suggests, but since many fall away from their well-intended patterns of life, Lent is a time to get back on track. And what do we use as our guide? For one thing, it is our Lord Jesus himself. In three gospels we learn that after Jesus began his ministry by being baptized, he was tested in a wilderness area for forty days—the length of time waters covered the earth in Genesis, and the length of time Moses was with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus. So we begin with Jesus, and we remember the other times when forty days signaled a significant event. Forty is an important number in Judaism and Christianity. Seven is another important number; Isaiah lists the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit, and 7 is the number of perfection and completeness in Revelation, just as it was in Genesis when God made the world. The text from Mark today says that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Texts in Matthew and Luke describe him specifically tempted with power, protection, and food, but this text does not list his temptations. What other temptations might he have had in the desert? Furthermore, what other temptations might our Lord have had in his daily ministry on the earth for three years? Each of us fails, at times, in our attempts to walk the way Jesus walked and do what Jesus would do, don’t we? Jesus fought against sin as we are called to fight against it; sin trips us up throughout the year, and our personal and Sunday morning prayers of confession address that. But now, for forty days plus the Sundays, we will think about living more lovingly, faithfully, and hopefully. We might even remind ourselves of the fruit of the Spirit that Paul described in Galatians 5:22-23. If you have God’s Holy Spirit in your life, you show “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Last week, right as Lent was starting, I failed to exhibit at least three of those! Do you pass the test? Are you showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in all corners of your life? During medieval times, as in Biblical times, people attributed many of their maladies to demons. Some later coined the phrase that faithful people should “name their demons.” So the church, drawing on Scriptural references, decided to name some sins. The list the church came up with is often studied and named during Lent with the idea of making corrections in one’s life. Beyond even Jesus’ forty days of temptation, he had a human lifetime of daily temptations. What are your temptations? What are the things that thwart your following of God? What are actions or attitudes that throw you off the beam of keeping God’s Commandments? The church through the ages has named seven deadly sins. Perhaps these are ones you too need to address over the coming weeks, even as I will seek to address them in my own life. You can write these down if you wish: there will be seven of them, not in any particular order. One sin is gluttony, which occurs when we consume too much either food, or drink, or both. It addresses consuming what our eyes desire beyond what our bodies need. A reaction to gluttony may be abstinence, and some people try that for forty days or longer. But another stand besides gluttony is moderation, and such a stand can keep the sin of gluttony at bay. A second sin is called sloth; even the word sounds descriptive. When we were in Central America for a church cruise last year, we saw a sloth in a tree and were told they sleep for more than 10 hours a day, and sit for the rest of it! Are you a sloth? Well here is where we part company with a sloth: they only come out of their tree once a week for a bathroom break: once a week! So sloth is about being more inactive in a day than your body will allow, and doing less in a day than you are capable of doing; it is dreadful inactivity. The animal with that name has such low metabolism he can do no other. But do you pass the test of not being inactive to the detriment of your body and to those around you? Diligence is considered one of the virtues that can be done in response to sloth. The third sin named today is lust. There is general understanding about lust and several working definitions. Lust is more than admiring another person or another person’s body; it is wishing you had that person, making plans to have the person, or even moving into sexual exploitation or sexism. Looking at a person is one thing; but as Jesus pointed out, looking at a person with lust is committing sin already. Such looks that start as a glance can move into an obsession. Again, lust will move you away from godliness as fast or faster than anything. Letting natural drives go unchecked by appropriate civility leads to a world of anarchy. The traditional correction to lust is chastity, but one can also live within an appropriate relationship that blesses the gift of sexuality, so that love can replace lust. Frederick Buechner one wrote “Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.” It is wanting what may indeed damage or destroy you. The fourth sin to name today is envy. Envy grounds itself in wanting to be someone else instead of the person you are; it is wanting the life your neighbor has instead of working on the life you have; it is narcissistic in that it will drink in the attributes or characteristics of another, denying God and your God-given self. Envy is often described as the “green-eyed monster” a truly unflattering picture of how we look to the world when we wish we were someone else. A correction for it mi
ght be kindness, but it also could be justice and the acceptance of selves and others. Again, although Jesus had the chance to be faced with these sins, so far he did not flinch. But I flinch, and you flinch, don’t you? How are you doing on the sin test? Let’s go on: the next sin is less familiar: avarice. It is the sin of wanting to possess too much; it is the sin of having many more things than you need. Jesus had few possessions of his own and was clear about what God gives: even in the Sermon on the Mount, as he told his listeners to consider the lilies of the field he reminded them that the Heavenly Father knew their needs. His teaching was about having daily bread, not a place to store and hoard it. Avarice is when our homes get too jammed with things we don’t need. It also has been equated, at times, with excessive wealth, but in my study it is about holding onto or hoarding possessions instead of sharing. Even poor people can have the sin of avarice. Sometimes it shows up as hoarding, adding up to fear of the future, which also goes against reassurances from God in the Bible. My brain looks at the things I own, or things I see in a store, and this voice goes off in my head and says “You might need that some day!” So I keep what I have and buy what I see. I too have to work on avarice! Some have called this sin “greed,” but the original meaning of avarice has a broader meaning. Generosity of spirit and action is the balancing action for avarice. There are two final sins on this Lenten list: wrath is the next one. It manifests itself as rageful anger. You might see people in traffic exhibit such anger; you might have a father or a mother who showed such damaging anger when they reached their limit; or you might have seen it in a colleague, a spouse, or a supervisor. Such anger is verbal (or physical) violence and it violates the psyche of the person to whom it is directed. It is debilitating to the recipient and it also harms the one showing such wrath, though at the time they may think they had no other choice, blaming their angry reaction on “a bad temper.” Wrathful anger can and should be controlled and redirected.  Psychologists have demonstrated that people who get that angry are clinically insane. That is a dangerous state and it has no place in the kingdom of God. Certainly some might argue that Jesus showed anger when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Perhaps so; I wasn’t there, but I’ve read about it as you have. If he did, could it have shown the true humanity of our Savior; that even he had to fight against the temptation to sin?

Finally is the sin of pride. Now having pride in your work is not what this sin means. It has been defined in this way: “Pride is the origin and destiny of sin. Pride is manifest in the areas of knowledge, virtue, and power. ‘Pride goeth before a fall’ the saying goes. Those whose opinion of themselves is so great that they look down on others around them have trouble looking up to see God.” [“The Seven Deadly Sins,” Princeton Theological Seminary Committee for the Great Lent, 1979.] However you experience it, it puts you on the throne of your own life, relegating others, along with God, to the outskirts. A healthy dose of humility is a strong corrective that we may discover as we stumble over our own sureness of ourselves.  

Sins come in many forms and are debilitating in our lives. Christ came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. These are the days that we can choose to change from habits that hurt, and devalue, and violate, to ones that lift up, empower, and encourage. Certainly there is much sin in the world, manifested by diabolical regimes and criminals that need strong and protective responses. But our guide will always be Jesus, asking him in prayer, “What would you do?” and then listening for the answer.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                               February 25, 2012

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A CLOSE CALL WITH CHRIST

Exodus 33: 18-23; Mark 9: 2-9

One day years ago, well before ATMs, a man was in a strange part of town and somewhat in a rush. He needed to get some money from his bank. He asked for and got verbal directions to the closest branch- one he had never been to before. He followed the advice and, sure enough, there was a bank across the street from the big store he was told to watch for. He rushed in to make his withdrawal from the smiling teller. She took one look at his check and said “Sir, I can’t accept this check.” “Why not?’ he asked. And she said, “This check isn’t from our bank. It’s from the bank across the street!” The man went outside and, sure enough, in his haste he failed to notice he went into the wrong back! His branch was also across from the big store, but on the other side.

People through the ages, because of confusion, or distraction, or focusing on their needs, also may rush to something or someone, perhaps by accident, or even by curiosity, and it ends up being the wrong place. Sometimes the things or places in which we spend our money can actually become destructive and obsessive. When we put our money and investment into something that is destructive, it can suck the life and fortune out of us. Perhaps the tragic end to Whitney Houston’s life is just one example of turning from her Godly roots to being consumed by controlling people or substances. Sometimes such people and habits start to get a person’s undivided attention. And ones or things that get undivided attention can often become a false god. Some people start out just seeking love or comfort; or solace or salvation, only to find that it is not to the true God to whom they have turned, but instead to convenient, visible, substitute god. Like a counterfeit dollar bill, it may look like a dollar, but if it is a copy, a fake, you can be in trouble. Something may get treated like a god but if it is a counterfeit god, we are also in trouble. That which is counterfeit might work for a day or a week, but sooner or later it will sell you out. You can rectify going to the wrong bank, but it is more difficult to recover when you have banked on a fake or addictive god. The gods of our day can be drinks, or drugs; it can be persons with addictive personalities, and it can be food.

Many people today, even well-educated people, know all about the pagan gods of the Greek and Roman cultures. But say to those people that the worship of false gods is alive and well even today and many won’t believe it. Some think it happens in other countries, but it happens right in America as well! They can’t bring the picture of Exodus 32 into focus for today; Exodus 32 is the scene just before the today’s Old Testament lesson; it is the time when Moses has gone up the mountain and is talking to the Lord at great length, and God’s people are at the bottom and growing impatient. They goad Moses’ brother, Aaron, who is with them, into making a god that they can see, made out of what was most valuable to them: their gold. They build an altar and start a fire. They let it burn hot, hot enough to use their tradesmen tools to mold the gold into the shape of a calf. And to God’s great dismay, (the real God who sees everything) they bowed down and worshipped this golden idol, while their true God was making plans for their future blessing and existence with Moses.  The story transfers to this day and time easier than you might imagine. A number of years ago, psychiatrists, social workers, doctors, and clergy gathered at a local hospital for a seminar on the family—the child, the adolescent, and the adult. Through it all, they talked about things that people abuse, especially when they are confused or lonely. Among the items were drugs, alcohol, and food. The most eye-opening piece of information shared was this: the bottle, the needle, the pills, and the refrigerator, after a period of time, became a very dear friend to the abuser: they would do anything for their next drink, or their next pill, or next hit, or their next time to gorge on a favorite snack. It was easy to see how these substances became their friends: each one was there when they wanted it, and none of it rejected them or talked back! So withdrawal from the abuse of these items was like losing a trusted friend. It was a comfort when it was there, and without it, the abuser didn’t know if he or she could make it alone.

Some of these same substances can easily become our golden calf, the substitute god of our world today. People who bow down to them schedule their lives around getting them. Some live for their early morning hit, or their 5 O’clock drink, or their nighttime of incessant eating. Others make money their god. The more devoted one becomes to one of these, the more it becomes a trusted friend, and people work to keep it nearby. Some count the hours in the day until their next addictive action. Such actions become an easy substitute to god because the true God never seems to be around when you want to see him. God seems gone in times of crises; God seems to have forgotten how to perform miracles, and God seems like an unresponsive God of the past, not acting in our world today. Many people want a god they can see and touch and depend on, don’t they? They want God to act on their cue, by their watch. Maybe that describes how you feel about God as well? Even many in the days of Moses and the days of Jesus wanted the same thing! Today’s passages from Scripture point to that. The closer those people got to their Lord, the more they wanted to experience God’s glory and see God’s presence. And today, people who are devoted to God with a daily prayer life, a desire to follow Jesus, and a need to feel his presence want to treat him like a friend to depend on instead of a distant Lord. That can be good! There’s the connection between the need for a friend in Jesus and the need we have for a tangible, dependable God. We sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” but some of other BFFs ahead of Jesus. don’t they? How do we handle our need for dependence on God along with our hope for holy companionship? God promises Holy companionship through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is even in our passage from Exodus today. Moses said to God: “You said bring out my people. But you still haven’t shown me what angel is going to accompany me; to help me. You promised you would go with me, Lord, and if you back out on your promise, I’ll back out on mine! You said I have found favor in your sight. If that’s true, show me your plan, show me what you’re up to so that I can know it and know YOU better. After all we’re both trying to help YOUR people!” The Lord replies to Moses, “My presence WILL go with you; I promised it and I don’t break promises. You should know that! And further more, I’ll bring rest to your weary body and soul if you will wait for my timing.” Moses, feeling like God might have been hedging a bit, could have said to himself “I can’t see this God I am talking with and I am beat. What kind of assurance is this?” Sometimes faith
ful people talk to ourselves just the way that Moses might have talked to himself. Those verses in Exodus 33: 13-17 lead up to today’s text. There God finally says to Moses “You have found favor in my sight and I really know you.” So Moses pushes God further: “All right then, show me your glory. Show yourself to me!” And God, without a moment’s hesitation replies: “I will make all my goodness pass before you. And what’s more, I will even proclaim my name to you once again to try to convince you that what I have told you is true. But I’m sorry you cannot see my face and live, for that which is mortal cannot look directly at that which is holy. Therefore, I will cover my face, but I’ll let just enough light show through and take my hand away a split second before I move away so you will see the light of my glory.”

That’s what God did for Moses to satisfy his burning need to know his God and be close to him. God knows your needs even as the Scripture says “the hairs on your head he knows and has numbered.” “God takes care of even the sparrows” Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount. How much more does he care for you?

In today’s text from Mark’s gospel, God is able to reveal even more of himself through Jesus, fully human, and fully divine. With that vital link provided, Jesus offers his followers the opportunity to see him as close as a good friend and as holy as God himself. In Jesus Christ, we can experience God’s love and glory in ways that would be much less evident without him. God’s glory was particularly evident on that mountaintop, first with Moses, and later with Jesus. Mark 9 says that “Jesus was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” Sounds like the picture of God passing by the rocks before Moses, doesn’t it? The difference is that in Jesus’ face, in Jesus’ garments, and in his presence, the apostles were given a taste of God’s glory; something to keep them going; something for them to remember for the rest of their lives! Even when they felt alone, they would know they were not, because God Almighty had promised to Moses and his followers that he would never leave them. The disciples on that mountain tried to keep the images of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah from leaving them! Then in John’s gospel the disciples were taught that God’s Holy Spirit would stay with them. That same presence is with us today.  The Spirit will actually be with us until the day that Jesus returns IN GLORY. That means even you and I can hope to glimpse God’s glory as well, but on God’s call, not ours. Still, there is evidence of God’s splendor in the witnessing of a rainbow, a double rainbow, the soaring peak of Mount McKinley, and the wonder of the oceans. And you can even experience God in the face of a friend or in the perfectly formed features of a tiny infant.

A man named Guido Reni painted a picture entitled “The Dawn” on the dome of a palace in Rome. But it was so high it was nearly impossible to see from the floor. Finally a solution was reached on how to see the painting. An enlarging mirror was placed on the floor at the level of the people at just the right angle to see the painting, when looking up just kept the painting obscured. Jesus is something like that mirror. Before Jesus came, it was difficult to see God. But with Jesus’ coming into our world, we have been handed, in a manner of speaking, a giant mirror, placed at human level, aimed at the glory of God.

Let us pray:

Dear True and Patient God: please forgive us when we seek to find comfort in easy substitutes that, in truth, have no power to save us, but only to mask their destructive nature with brief times of comfort. Teach us to remember the friend we have in Jesus, and how you will not let us go. In His name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 19, 2012

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BRING GOD YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR

Mark 1: 29-39

Emma Lazarus was a New York poet and a champion of oppressed Jews. She lived from 1849 until 1887, but she is most famous for a sonnet that she wrote called “The New Colossus.” See if you recognize any part of it:

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With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Now you know her work, don’t you? These words are engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty. Does Ellis Island, does that beloved statue, still reflect the standards, the welcome, and the opportunity that oppressed people have sought? There are still oppressed people who find new opportunites as American citizens.  But long ago there was also a Jew who became an advocate for forgetten people who were citizens of his people, and he became an advocate for foreigners as well. This man sought those who were tired: those who were physically tired, and those tired of being a pawns of the Roman Empire. They were tired of their taxes and tired of the way they were  brutally treated. If a father did not have proper funding or product that satisfied the Roman tax collector that arrived at his doorstep, he might just as well take the man’s daughter as partial payment. Those were outrageous times. This Jewish man also sought the poor: the ones who were nearly penniless to the widows with no income. He also called to the huddled masses; in Galilee there were regions where people of certain ethnicities or heritage would huddle; there was the land of the Gadarenes, for example, and the land of the Samaritans. There was the region of Magdala, and the region of Caesarea Philippi.  This man, Yeshua, who we call Jesus, responded to all of them, not on the shores of America, but on the shores of the sea of Galilee. They came to be healed, or to ask for mercy, or to simply have hope because someone spoke to them. Some were physically sick. The sick, the foreigner, they each had their gathering sites;  their own colonies. Some were the lame and they lived on the streets; were lepers and they lived in colonies; others were the blind and they huddled together; and still others were deaf and or mute and they depended on the kindness and help of families. They were seen by Rome as a burdens on the tax roles; even today some may view them as such. They could not work at a trade or craft with the speed of others, so they were considered expendable by King Herod and all the Roman Caesars to whom the Herod answered. Only Jesus, it seemed, and a few observant women who also failed to feel like persons, noticed these fringe people: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. Jesus even saw men who were afflicted with various illnesses that manifested themselves in the first century life demons. Jesus was first a healer of those who were broken; but he also gave hope to the broken hearted, such as the comforting words he said to his dear friend Martha in John 11. Jesus stands ready to speak with you today as well. Are you part of one of those categories? Are you broken physically, broken spiritually, broken emotionally? Or does it seem like your brokenness unique? Some even are glad to have Jesus when they suffer a great loss. In a few minutes we will sing a hymn written by Thomas A. Dorsey, who is not Tommy Dorsey the bandleader, but Thomas Dorsey the African American, and “the most influential figure in the gospel song movement.” [Lindo Jo McKim, PRESBYTERIAN HYMNAL COMPANION, 1993, P.281.] He was native of Georgia, but he later moved to Chicago where he became  the choir director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church for forty years. It doesn’t really matter that the impetus for his song “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand; I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light; take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.” You don’t really need to know that he wrote those words shortly after the death of his beloved wife, do you? No; because his words become your words to your Lord when you lose a job, or hear that your sister is terminally ill or that your brother was critically wounded in battle; they are your words when you lose a job or lose a baby or a spouse; they are your words when your are mugged or robbed. Those are the words of someone temporarily off his or her game; almost bankrupt of hope, just like the forgotten and broken people of the Galilee were treated by Jewish and Roman authorities. “Jesus is the light, he’s the, light of the world, and he’s ever shinin’ in my soul” is a Christian camp song. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” is another. Do you think the sentiment in those song grew out of anything but discouragement  or darkness, or forgottenness, or lostness? Those are songs of the found; found by Jesus, who noticed their pain and darkness, just as he noticed others as he went from village to village. In one village a man was up a tree; in another by the side of the road begging; in another a man begged Jesus to come heal his daughter; and in another a woman was dragged over to him who accused of breaking up a marriage. Jesus might as well have been a flame of hope; a lighthouse of protection; a living example of love and grace. He is that still; today no matter what you baggage, disease, or place in society that comes with you, Jesus sees you; and Jesus loves you. Those who are especially troubled by psychotic, schizophrenic, or neurotic disorders are often labeled as hard to treat. But part of what Jesus offers is love and trustworthiness, two qualities that are the gold standard for kingdom care. Jesus presents those to all broken people. And today he presents them to you. He says: “Let me get to know you,” or he might say “Let me get to know you once again. Invite me to the table in your heart; if you do that, I’ll provide the bread and the cup, and we will raise the cup of love for one another; I will be in you, and you will be in me. Shall we do that?” Jesus asks. “Shall we dine together? I will be the host if you will provide the place; and together, let us enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company.”

Then Jesus took the bread, blessed it, and broke it, and shared it with you; and he took the cup, and called it a New Covenant, raised it up for blessing,  then he offered it to you. He is ready to do that again; today; with you; and with all broken people who seek his love, and his light. His table is prepared … for you.

Jeffrey A. Sumner  &
nbsp;                                                                February 5, 2012