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LIFE ON THE “D” LIST: DEVOTION

John 10: 1-11

This
year at our annual Scottish service in January, I told the boys and girls the
classic story about a little Scottish Terrier named Bobby, who loved his master
name Jock in Edinburgh, Scotland until Jock died. Then the little dog lay on
the grave of his master until he
died
fourteen
years later.  I said that was an example of devotion.
Devotion can be found be between animals and people, between a person and
another person, between God and us, and between a lover of Jesus and Jesus
himself. Nicholas Sparks is a novelist who can move my heart. In his novel
called THE NOTEBOOK, his story is set in North Carolina in 1946 and Noah
Calhoun is as devoted to Allie Nelson as anyone ever could be, from young age
to old. If you read the book or saw the film perhaps you they moved you too. Sparks
says he modeled the novel on the love he saw in his wife’s parents. It is a
story of devotion. In Pat Conroy’s autobiographical book, THE WATER IS WIDE, he
tells of his being hired to teach exceedingly poor children on
Yamacraw Island off the
South Carolina coast. It was a poor and rundown place where nobody else stayed
to teach very long. His students were between ten and thirteen years old and
had developed a dialect that was almost impossible for him to understand. But
as he stays on the job for the sake of those children, they began to understand
one another, and  his devotion to
them grew and their trust in him grew too. What a story.  Other stories of devotion include Catherine
Marshall’s love for her husband the late Rev. Peter Marshall as she told about
their relationship with him and Peter’s relationship with God in her book: A
MAN CALLED PETER. C.S. Lewis loved a woman named Joy and he was devoted to her;
after her death he met a couple named Sheldon and Jean Vanauken who asked for
Lewis’s Christian guidance in handling the news that Jean, or “Davy” as she was
called,  had a mysterious illness
and was going to die. In his book A SEVERE MERCY, readers are taken on that
journey of that heart-wrenching story. In recent years we know of the human
devotion that Nancy Reagan had for husband “Ronnie.” And just this week as he
was listed in faith condition, we are reminded how the Rev. Billy Graham has
been devoted to the proclamation of the gospel, especially through his Billy
Graham Crusades.  Devotion is
the stuff from which wonder stories are written and ordinary lives are made
wonderful.
But devotion to work, or to a person,  to a calling, to a task, or to a cause can have both it’s
joys and its sorrows. Today let’s look at all that we risk—in both gain and
loss—when we devote ourselves to someone or something else.

I’ve started with love stories today because they
are the most typical when it comes to devotion. But devotion can create times
of conflict as well. Imagine, if you will, an eighteen year old young man who
is a loyal son, a good student, and who is unattached.  He meets a girl about his age; she
starts to be interested in him; he starts to be interested in her. As nature
created them, their interest in each other grows. To the outside world it seems
quite sudden. They seem inseparable; some might even say they have a passion
for each other; some would say their devotions are shifting. What about school?
What about family obligations? Will there be one more chair at a dinner table
or one less? What about plans for college that already seemed so secure? Now
devotion begins to trump plans. Devotion, you see, can bring about decisions to
choose one thing over another. Devotion can make some choose faith over family;
it can make someone chose one person over others.  It can make someone choose work over relationship, or
relationship over work. It can also be a quality that an employer might most
admire and most want to nurture.

Take, for example, the job of a shepherd. In
Biblical times shepherds were not generally an admired lot. They often had
little or no education. Sometimes they were young boys, sometimes men. Their
job was to herd their specific flock of sheep, to see that they were fed, to
keep them from harm, to find them water, and to care for them. Author Phillip
Keller, in his book A SHEPHERD LOOKS AT PSALM 23, lets readers know that sheep
are fickle animals. They have to have their food just right or they won’t eat it.
Still, they will gladly eat poisonous plants if the shepherd doesn’t pull them
out first. That’s how a shepherd prepares the pastureland. “He maketh me to lie
down in green pastures.” They won’t drink water from a running brook because
the water gets up their nose, yet stagnant water easily grows bacteria and
attracts floating bugs. So the shepherd has to dam up a flowing brook long
enough for the skiddish sheep to get a drink. Therefore “he leads them beside
still waters.” They can easily get off of the right path and take the wrong
ones that can lead to cliffs or roadblocks. Therefore the shepherd has to “lead
them in right paths because on his honor he promised the owner to watch over the
sheep and keep them safe.” Sheep in pastureland also find valleys, and they can
be among the most treacherous places since predators can lurk in the darkness.
“Yea though I walk through the valley where other animals often do not come out
alive,” bodes well for sheep if
 they
have a good shepherd. How does he do it? “The rod—a stout stick—sharply
stricking a wolf’s nose can send him running, and the staff—the long slender
stick with the crook on the end—can keep sheep from wandering off into danger.
And in the countryside, biting flies can torment sheep unless the shepherd puts
a fragrant ointment made from flowers and spices, that produce a natural insect
repellent, on the forehead of the sheep. “Thou anointest my head with oil.”

Jesus is called “the Good Shepherd” to his sheep.
I wonder what he meant by that? Of course now you know, don’t you? Just as a
shepherd might back his sheep into a nearby cave, (that the shepherd thoroughly
checks before leading them in) he then lies down at the entrance of the cave
for the night to stand guard over his precious sheep. No one could harm the
sheep, then, except over his dead body. You see, a shepherd will even lay down
his life for his sheep. Sometimes parents, or friends, or buddies in the armed
forces are like that: they will lay down their life to protect a child, a
friend, or a soldier. But in our spiritual lives, all we, like sheep, need a
good shepherd.  One you can see
might be a pastor or Sunday School teacher or parent; but the one we all most
need is Jesus, who called himself the good shepherd for his followers. In the
Old Testament human beings are sometimes described as being like sheep. Some
take offense to that: sheep are either foolish or afraid, and they get into all
sorts of trouble if left on their own. Do you know people who are foolish, or
afraid, or get into trouble? I do. A good shepherd helps sheep be healthy,
safe, and protected, just like a good parent does for a baby. Jesus says to all
of his disciples: “You know what a shepherd does; that’s what I will offer to
do for you; that’s what I am capable of doing for you. I want you to have
adequate food and drink, I want you to be safe, and I with my life I will pay
for your soul.” A shepherd’s devotion to sheep can pull that shepherd away from
his family, from his education, and from other pursuits. It’s a sacrificial
job. Yet when we think of the word “sacrifice,” few Christians begin to think
without picturing the lamb of God, who took away the sin of the world: or the
Good Shepherd who died protecting his flock; or the Savior who died on Calvary.
We know who he is; Jesus is the one with all those names, the one completely
devoted to loving you, and me. Consider today where your ulimate devotions lie.
Family is important; the guy or girl you love is important; country is
important; school is important; life is important. Where can you, or do you,
fit God into your schedule? And if God doesn’t just fit in, but if devotion to
God permeates your other relationships and decisions, you can be open to
life-altering positive changes, instead deal-breaking negative mistakes. To
whom will you ultimately, ulitmately,
 be devoted?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          
May 15, 2011  

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LIFE ON THE “D” LIST: DISCIPLESHIP

John 21: 1-14

 

In the card shops that you have visited, or the pharmacies, discount houses, or grocery stores, for whom are Mother’s Day cards created? A mother is often thought of as a person who gave birth to you. But when that person lets a child go, for whatever reason, and another woman opens her arms and says “You are my child now,” she becomes a mother. A woman who gives birth to a baby for someone else is called a “Surrogate mother,” with all of blessings and cautions of that relationship. Sometimes a mother becomes incapacitated and an aunt or other special person raises the child.  As Beatle Paul McCartney wrote, “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom: let it be,” he was not talking about Mary the mother of Jesus. He was honoring his own mother Mary, who through the years guided him with words that never left him. He even named his daughter “Mary” for his mother.  His best mate as a teenager was John Lennon, who acted like and loved his dysfunctional but artsy mother, Julia, but was raised by his “auntie” since his own mother could not effectively raise him. His aunt’s name, interestingly, was also Mary, but John called her Auntie Mimi. He talked about her with fondness and gratitude in interviews over the years, but he still found delight in his mother, whom he honored with his song “Julia.” That’s part of the softer side of the famous mop-tops from Liverpool.  So many people have been a mother and wonderful, while others have been a mother and dysfunctional or destructive. Our terms and descriptions can be hard to pin down.

 

Here’s another term: Christian. Is it just something you become because of a baptism and profession of faith? Once the momentous day is over, I wonder what God sees and what God thinks. Certainly God loves you and, as Max Lucado puts it, “if God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it!” So love is never out of the question; but as God watches your life what emotions might go through the Holy Heart: encouragement, disappointment, cheering for you, or hoping you will listen to Heavenly guidance? And when God guides you, sometimes it is through the words of a caring parent, or grandparent, a caring teach or pastor or friend. But some treat a baptism or a confirmation like a commencement, something that gives them a piece of paper that confers a rite or privilege. It gets treated like a holy insurance policy! Is that all Christianity is; your sigh of relief that you are “saved?” There are others who see it as a life changing day: it becomes a time when, to quote a popular declaration of forgiveness:  “the past is finished and gone; everything becomes fresh and new!” Becoming a Christian for those people is leaving behind the old life, and starting a new one. It is a clean break. There are still others who believe that the name Christian carries with it both benefits and responsibilities. Saved? Saved for what: to do what Jesus would do: tell others about God, give to those who have less, break bread in holy fellowship, look for those who are lost. As much as being a Christian can bring joy, some people treat being a Christian like being a bystander, just a spectator near the Jesus Christ stage. It’s a rush; it’s like a Facebook connection. But to get a sense of belonging takes more; it takes study and service, in addition to sacrament. It is what being a disciple is all about. Disciple; discipleship is what churches are seeking to foster and support.  When Methodist Bishop Richard Wilke of Arkansas created his transformational Bible Study in the 1980s, he called it DISCIPLE. We believe in how “DISCIPLE” makes disciples. A disciple is a “learner or a pupil; one who accepts and follows a given doctrine or teacher.” Jesus made his followers—and not just the Twelve—into disciples. He molded them, as we—through preaching and Bible study—seek to still mold disciples. He started by “calling” disciples, and to this day we still “call” people to work and service. Jesus taught with words like this: “The disciple is not above the master,” then he girded himself with a towel and showed them. (Matt. 10:24). Jesus taught by pulling followers away from the world for training and then sending them back into the world for transformation. (Matt. 20: 17). He demonstrated how to pull away from the world with his 40 days in the desert and with his time away each morning, even away from his disciples. Jesus fed his disciples so they could feed others, and also so that he could be a part of them. (Matt 21)  Jesus taught them how to pray (Luke 11:1) and showed them that he prayed too; he taught them how to prioritize (Luke 14: 27) and showed them what he meant; and told he them they would need to sacrifice, then he sacrificed himself. (Mark 8: 34) He also showed them how to love their neighbor as their self (Luke 10: 30). Christian discipleship really is, then, a life of prayer, praise, service, and compassion that a Christian is supposed to take on when he or she says Jesus is their Savior. It’s not just about belonging, is it? It’s about changing. It’s not just about being, is it? It’s about doing. It’s not just about celebrating, is it? It’s about sacrificing. It’s not just about learning, it’s abouttransforming.

 

Bonita Joyner Shields tells this story: “Clarence first attended church on a dare. He promised his pastor friend he would give church a try if the pastor could beat him in two games of checkers. The pastor won, and Clarence found himself in church the next week.  He responded to God’s Word and the love of the congregation, and eventually was baptized, along with his wife and children A few weeks later, Clarence went to his pastor with a troubled heart. He did not know how to live the Christian life. “Before I was baptized,” he said, “If you came to me and told that you wanted to be a football player, I would not have just given you permission to do it, I would have shown you how to be one. I need someone to show me how to be a C
hristian.” Little eyes, teenage eyes, and grown up eyes are watching us. They are looking for a little fish on our bumper and seeing how we drive or gesture in traffic; they hear us say that reading the Bible is important, but do they see us do it?
 They hear that church is important, but do they see us prioritize to do other things on a Sunday? They hear news reports that fight for the visible presence of the Ten Commandments to be a visible presence in nation, and yet one commandment: “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it Holy,” regularly gets trampled in the name of convenience and capitalism. How are we doing as disciples?

 

In John 21 today I was happy to see that there had been a learning curve with the disciples of Jesus’ day. At an earlier time Peter had questioned Jesus’ suggestion about where to fish; his pride got in his way. This time, he cast his net without even a question as John relayed with excitement that the instruction to do so came from Jesus himself!  Jesus spent three years giving them an example of how to hear, and care, and work for justice, and suffer consequences for speaking the truth in love. He then fed his disciples so that they, in turn, could feed others. Jesus had taught discipleship with his life, and with his lips. And that is the best way to do it. What do you say to the man who calls you, who loves you, and who saved you? Will you, his disciple be, this day, and forever?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                    May 8, 2011

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LIFE ON THE “D” LIST”: DOUBT

John 20: 19-31

 

Although we call them conspiracy theorists, or radically minded persons, there are those who do not believe we have yet been to the moon. Convinced that the technology was not developed enough to get someone there from the dream in May of 1961 to a landing in July of 1969, they think the whole moon landing video was filmed on a secret sound stage. Go to the Kennedy Space Center and find evidence and personal testimony to the contrary. There most visitors become believers as they hear the story and see the launch pad started our journey from the earth to the moon. There are also people who do not believe that the Holocaust ever happened. They think that people sympathetic to Jewish persons have made up the whole story of thousands upon thousands of persons in box cars being off loaded into Dachau and other concentration camps where they were said to have been gassed and then burned in great ovens or buried in mass graves. They say that didn’t happen. Ask the Spruce Creek High School Band Students who visited Dachau last summer and see what they believe. When I saw Dachau concentration camp last July during our Oberamergau Passion Play trip, it silenced my heart and chilled my blood. Go to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem or the one in St. Petersburg here in Florida, or the one in Washington D.C. Have such moving and wrenching memorials been continued all these years to perpetuate a hoax?And yet there are still conspiracy theorists who say “yes.” Should we call then extreme doubters? And what should we call people who believe that the moon is made of cheese? Foolish? Ridiculous? Or just extreme believers? With extreme believers we can be in the company of such gullible people that they have lost their ability for discernment. With extreme doubters we have a world filled with skeptics, ones who would even doubt evidence submitted in courts of law, or even doubt the laws of physics. Neither extreme serves the human race very well. How much doubt and how much faith is a good balance?

The very night that the tomb of Jesus was discovered to be empty, Jesus himself appeared to a gathered group of disciples, according to John (who was an eyewitness to it.) John included details to help the skeptic: the doors were all shut, which means no one could enter without them noticing. Still, Jesus appeared to those who were in that place and said to them “Shalom.” He knew first they would be amazed to see him, so he appeared to many of them. Second, he knew they would wonder if he could be real or if he was just an image, so showed them his hands and side. After he was with them awhile, he went away. Thomas was not with them. When he returned the disciples told them they had seen the risen Lord. And he wouldn’t take their word for it. Do we really blame him? Perhaps instead of putting in Thomas’s name, we should put in our own, for aren’t we among those who want to see what is unbelievable with our own eyes too? The power of YouTube attests to the fact that most people want to see something wonderful, strange, or amazing, not just hear a description from another person. We too want to see what others have described. Yet the media also can capture on tape a small gaff, a major embarrassment, or a verbal stumble and let it play over and over so no one will forget when President Ford tripped, President Clinton was impeached, or President Bush mixed up his words.  Poor Thomas has become known as “Doubting Thomas” as the name has gone viral. It now sounds pejorative and negative. Today I wonder if we can elevate doubting to a healthy state of scrutiny, rather than unhealthy conspiracy theory or naïve Pollyanna acceptance.

 

 What do you think of when you hear the word “doubt?” Is a person who doubts a questioner and someone who doubts everything a radical questioner? Or is such a person just low on faith?  Do you see doubt as a virtue or a vice? William Shakespeare saw it as a virtue as he said: “Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.” Could modest doubt be the mind’s discernment on issues as important as our faith?  Could modest doubt be seen as the sharpening tool of faith rather than the cancer that destroys faith? Certainly there are some for whom doubt has been their slippery slope, causing them to slide from the mountaintop of faith—in the Bible, or faith in God, or faith in Heaven—into  the valley of deep doubt where belief gets buried under the avalanche of doubt. Such doubt can be crippling. Perhaps you’ve had crippling doubt at some time, or perhaps you have it today? Do you doubt the resurrection of Jesus or the miracles in the Bible? Do you doubt that accounts written 2000 years ago could have been accurately kept until today? Do you doubt that God exists?  Listen to me as I assign a different word to the sentence instead of doubting:  Do youwonder how Jesus rose from the dead; wonder how the miracles were done; wonder how the Bible could still be accurate; do you wonder about God?  Teachers encourage children to wonder; even Jesus Christ thought we should enter the Kingdom of Heaven as children; was he encouraging wonder? Instead of letting doubt crush you, could let wonder lift you, and could faith carry you?

 

Let us come to the mysteries of the Lord’s Table today, praying for our doubts, thankful for our faith, and encouraging wonder. Thanks be to God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                         May 1, 2011

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LIFE ON THE
“D” LIST: DISASTER

1 Kings 19:
8-13a

Whether
an event happened before your time, or in a time you can remember,
there are times that we classify as disasters. Most recently the
Japan earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear crises have all been part of
a giant disaster. It is likely that someone you know may also have
endured a personal disaster: like a house burning down, or a child
dying, or a friend not coming home from war, or a storm hitting your
house. Before Japan, you’ll recall some other disasters: Hurricane
Katrina in Louisiana, Hurricane Andrew in Miami, and the four
hurricanes of Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne that hit our area in
2004. There were, of course, other tragedies that had some human
causes such as the BP oil spill, the 9/11 disaster, the Challenger
disaster, the Titanic disaster, and the Hindenburg Disaster. Again,
most people know what a disaster is: by and large it involves loss of
life, sometimes catastrophically but always tragically; often loss of
property; and always a loss of security. When security gets
jeopardized and people feel less safe, most often the question of the
ages comes to the lips of men and women. Even people of faith dare to
murmur this question: “
Where was God?”
Today I hope to address that whispered
question, particularly regarding natural disasters.

We
have heard two extraordinary passages today: Psalm 121, and 1 Kings
19. Both of them were magnificently brought together by composer
Felix Mendelssohn in his oratorio called “Elijah.” The first line
of Psalm 121 is almost certainly a question, though some have
rendered it a statement: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills;
from whence cometh my help?” Verse two answers the question asked
in verse one: “My help cometh from the Lord, who made Heaven and
Earth.” It is the kind of message that bounces around in one’s
head, especially in a time of crisis. When I was cooped up in our
house when four hurricanes pummeled our area in 2004, questions like
that formed in my mind as well: lifting my eyes to the hills was not
really a geographical description in flat Florida; it was a
theological one. When the minister says in the Great Prayer of
Thanksgiving “Lift up your hearts,” it is not a statement of
anatomical surgery; it is one of theological posture! So, when the
Psalmist implies, “to the hills we will lift our eyes; from where
does our help come? It is not a description that God always comes
from the hills. It is the thought of a desperate person, scanning the
horizon, as his or her mind struggles with the catastrophe. “Where
will I go? What will I do?” These are questions that fill our minds
when disasters hit. Even the post Hurricane Andrew construction of my
home gave me little solace as winds howled around our house in 2004,
as debris flew through the air, shingles flew off, and as our screen
enclosure threatened to crumple. My mind would race: what supplies
will I need if the roof gets breached as it did here at church? What
will I do if water starts pouring in?” Disasters can fray your
nerves. In some cases people binge on food that is thawing from their
warm refrigerators; in other cases people have no clean water or
working plumbing. Disasters—especially natural ones like
hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and lightening strikes—make those
three words form on our lips: “
Where was
God?”
We know with the Hindenburg or the
Titanic or the Challenger that the question “What went wrong?”
could mostly be attributed to faulty construction, ignorance, or
miscalculations. But with nature, people look to the Bible and can
often get mixed signals. The people of Israel, for example, believed
that
everything was
from the hand of God. If a child was stillborn they would ask God
what sin they committed to have such a curse. If a storm destroyed
their village they would ask God why so much wrath was sent their
way. If disease filled their lives or locusts ate their crops, they
believed they were sent from God. Thus we have the stories of Job and
the great Exodus plagues interpreted as anguish sent from the
Almighty. But in Jesus’ day, he thought differently. He told
questioners that “the rain falls on the fields of the just
and
the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45.) His
perspective on where trouble comes from is different from someone
like Job.
That’s why the Elijah passage is
so unique in the Old Testament stories; in it we find that God is not
in the storms; but God Is in the aftermath
.
It helps us to appropriately frame the “
Where
was God
?” question. In this story, we have
a fragile, seemingly terrified, perhaps exhausted and maybe burned
out prophet of Israel. Elijah was clearly one of the greatest
Biblical prophets. When people were wondering who Jesus was, they
often surmised that he might be Elijah. One place that is said is in
John 1:21. Elijah took on unbelievers in God, like King Ahab and
Queen Jezebel, challenging the prophets of Baal to a most daring
contest. On the top of Mount Carmel, he would place a bull on one
pile of wood for a sacrifice and they would do the same on another
pile of wood. Whichever deity lit the wood with fire from heaven
would win. Well, Elijah won that contest! But then he had the king
and the queen after him when he slew the prophets of Baal! The
monarchs didn’t like being humiliated! So Elijah heads off into the
desert, not thinking clearly, and is ready to just throw in the
towel. I’d imagine you’ve gotten to your wit’s end at times,
haven’t you? I have. Elijah pathetically curled up under a broom
tree for some shade. God spotted him, and sent an angel to him with
food and drink. Haven’t you had someone bring you food or drink
during a disaster? I have. They look like people, but they
act
like angels! And after the food that Elijah ate, he traveled a great
distance, returning to what was known as the mountain of God, perhaps
seeking shelter. He hid in a cave. God saw him. As when a person gets
shell-shocked from a disaster, God was at first gentle with him:
God’s voice came to Elijah with these words: “What are you doing
here Elijah?” And Elijah explained. God sized up the situation.
This great prophet needed a protégé to continue the work. So God
tells Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord.
Elijah thought he knew what was about to happen: he
thought
he was about to have a “theophany,” an
appearance by the Lord. But the form of God’s revelation was unlike
anything Elijah had ever expected! It was just perfect for the shaken
prophet. The difference was this: when God appeared to Moses on that
same mountain, it was with smoke and fire and earthquake that God
“passed by.” But the narrator of our Elijah story pulls the rug
out from under the hearer’s expectations. The narrator says “Now
there was a great wind! It was so strong it was breaking rocks and
splitting the mountain!” And then the narrator leans in and says to
the listeners: “
But, the Lord was not in the
wind!” (
Remember that part!) “And then
after the wind there was … an earthquake!
But
the Lord was not in the earthquake!
And right
after the earthquake there was a fire!” “
But
the Lord was not in the fire!”
Where
was God?
As
Mendelssohn puts it so magnificently, “
after
the fire there was a still, small voice …
and
in that still voice: onward came the Lord;
onward
came the Lord; onward came the Lord.”
God
did not create or send our disasters; even Jesus suggested that.
Instead, to the answer “
Where was God?”
which is past tense, we answer “
Where was
God in Japan, or when wind whipped Daytona, or when waters flooded
New Orleans? God was under hundreds of hard hats, cutting trees or
shoring up collapsed roofs. God was setting up portable pumps and
generators. God was running into rooms with terrified children and
carrying them to safety. And through other neighbors in our global
village, God was sending food and finding shelter for people
frightened by the storm. For a few days or weeks after these
disasters, the world seems to forget how big it is geographically,
and how many differences there are in neighborhoods, ideologies,
creeds, skin colors, and income brackets. For a few days or weeks,
the Kingdoms of the world after a disaster become the Kingdom of our
God and of his Christ. God is
there.
God is helping hard hearts melt and
helping neighbor help neighbor—even those who were at odds or
didn’t know each other before the disaster. God is in the grace, in
the caring, and the sharing.

Disasters will still come our way. When some people face
them, they may look to the hills for God. Still others think God is
in the wind and the earthquakes, and the floods. But now you know the
lesson from Elijah: after the terror and the anguish that the
disaster brings, and
after
the winds finally die down,
onward comes the
Lord
. Thanks be to God.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner April 10, 2011

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LIFE ON THE
“D” LIST: DISABILITY

John 9: 1-11

A
woman was on a plane flying from Melbourne Australia to Brisbane.
Unexpectedly the plane was diverted to Sydney instead. The flight
attendant explained that there would be a delay and that if
passengers wished to get off to stretch their legs, boarding would
again commence in approximately 50 minutes. Nearly everybody got off
of the plane except one lady who was blind. A man had noticed her
with her dark glasses on as we walked by her, and with her guide dog
lying quietly under her seat. He was on duty with his guide dog
handle attached. The woman had flown this flight many times and was
well known to the crew and the captain. The captain approached her
and called her by name: “Ms. Watson” the pilot said, “Would you
like help getting off to stretch your legs?” To which she replied,
“No thank you captain, but maybe Buddy ( she said motioning to her
guide dog) would like to stretch
his legs.”
At that airport there was no jet way; passengers disembarked outside
on to the tarmac. Imagine the looks of the other passengers as the
captain came down the steps of the plane with his sunglasses and
uniform on, giving Buddy time to stretch his legs! It is a true
story! The picture I gave the children is a picture of the captain
walking Buddy. It was especially astounding as those at that gate,
who saw the captain and Buddy, started asking to change their flight!

A
blind pilot; it’s hard to imagine. Yet a deaf composer conducted
his own work in his Ninth Symphony that became known as “The Ode to
Joy.” Ludwig von Beethoven; the story goes that someone actually
had to turn him to the audience so he could at least
see
the thunderous applause. We know that those who lose their larynx can
still speak with the use of mechanical devices, even if the voice
sounds electronic. We know that with the help of walkers, canes, and
wheelchairs paraplegic people can be mobile, and with the help of
hand devices for gas and brakes, they can even drive a car, truck, or
van. Did you know that Dr. Stephen Hawking who wrote the stunning
book that combined astronomy and theoretical physics called A BRIEF
HISTORY OF TIME, has debilitating ALS? He was the Lucasian
Professor of Mathematics from 1979 until 2009 at Cambridge University
in England, a chair once held by Sir Isaac Newton. He is currently
the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology in
Cambridge. And oh by the way: with his ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s
disease) he has not been able to feed himself or get himself out of
bed in 1974! His wife Kate took care of him and their three small
children, in the 1970s, and with slurred speech he could communicate.
But by 1985 he caught pneumonia and had to have a tracheotomy so his
ability to speak was gone. He could then only communicate by barely
raising an eyebrow when someone pointed to the right letter. At one
point he got up to the speed of 15 words per
hour!
Finally a computer expert created a program
called
Equalizer which
could be run on his desktop computer controlled by a hand switch or
by eye or head motions. Painstakingly he sent letter by letter
messages into a storage device. Later someone created a synthetic
voice that could read what he wrote, so one of the greatest minds in
the world today, trapped in a body that can barely communicate, found
a way to communicate. He is still alive and changing the way we see
the universe today, working through his disability.

Too
often we fall into a very logical dilemma of faith: if God rescued
the Israelites years ago, why doesn’t God save us? The message
about disasters will be addressed next week. But today some will
ask: “If Jesus made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the
lame to walk, then why am I not healed?” Like looking through a
telescope from the wrong end, we get focused on the dozen or so
healings Jesus performed and we stop seeing the ways that God uses
people in every stage of weakness, to inspire the world and give
glory to Heaven. In John 9, for example, healing made just one man
happy while the gathered crowd reacted with jealousy and suspicion.
Later when Jesus healed people, he had others lined up around the
block to saying “me too; me too!” And of course it is
understandable. For those who have lost good eyesight, how much they
long to see again. For those who have lost the hearing they once had,
how much they wish they could hear well again. Who wants to go
through life saying “What?” or “Could you speak louder?”
When my grandfather was losing his hearing and before he got his
hearing aids, we could not stay in the same room with him when he was
watching TV; it was so loud. And if we turned it down to levels
appropriate for the rest of us, he could not hear a thing. Losing our
senses of any kind can be isolating. But there are the Stephen
Hawkings, and Beethoven’s who in some way were formed by their
disability. I have a hidden disability called diabetes; that means
it is likely that I will die at a much younger age than someone
without it; it is likely that I will face amputations, and I have to
watch how long I go between eating. I only got it in 1999. But my
message to others and my passion for nutrition would never have
developed without the knowledge of my own disease to drive it. My
health message is my second gospel after the Bible. And it would
never have happened if my pancreas had not stopped functioning as it
once did. God spurs people into new areas that encompass their
disability; even every one of you, if I asked enough, would find
areas that show your brokenness. When you have realized that you were
broken, who did you connect with best: someone who seemed to have
everything all together, or someone who was broken like you? I
connect with other broken people best. Instead of saying “I wish, I
wish, I wish,” about my broken part getting fixed, I say “With
faith and fight, I will survive and seek to thrive.” The one time
Jesus healed the man born blind, it did not build community, or
collegiality, or compassion. It bred jealousy, suspicion, and
charges. For two thirds of a chapter he dealt with the result of the
physical healing he produced. But it is in the last third of the
chapter when he says he has come really for
making
the wounded spirit whole and for healing the sin sick soul
to
quote two spiritual hymns. In verse 38 he says “I came into the
world for judgment so that those who
do not
see may see, and those
who
do see may become
blind.” Even Jesus was backpedaling after the physical healing
brought the unexpected poor results that it did.

Today
we know there are Christians who have experienced healing in
charismatic services. We also know there are also those who have
prayed as hard and have
not been
healed. So do we expect healings and then get disappointed if they
don’t occur, or do we celebrate if they do? Should we, instead,
embrace our disability and ask for eyes to see the ways we can
glorify God through our disabilities? You
could
pray for healing; our prayer list has such prayers every week. But
what would it be like if you instead prayed to reach others, and to
be empowered, in your disability?

Today
we seek to welcome every broken person. We welcome them not just with
wheelchair ramps, large print bulletins, assistive listening devices,
mailings to those at home and sermons on pod-casts around the world.
But we also have empowered people broken by grief to begin a
compassion ministry. And as I said in the announcements, on Saturday
we many again will join in a walk in the name of a young man who died
with Melanoma, but with determination, prayers, and the support of
friends, they are determined to help save others in the name of the
son who could not save himself. Church is a great place to think
about the accusation people hurled at Jesus: “He saved others; but
he can’t save himself.” I give thank for those who have let God
work through their weakness! I don’t know about you, but I am
inspired by the Christian songs “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine!”
“Rescue the Perishing!” and “To God be the Glory.” They were
written by a woman who was blind since her first month of life.
Little Frances Jane Crosby was born on March 24, 1824 but by late
April the parents realized that their daughter had developed an
infection in her eyes. The town doctor was away at the time but a
man, claiming to know medicine but who was clearly a charlatan, put
scalding hot compresses on the infant’s eyes to draw out the
infection. All the man did was to blind her instead. And out of the
heart of the infant, who grew to be a girl, and then a great
Christian woman, blind Fanny Crosby wrote some of the most beloved
hymns in Christian hymnals. Who knows what her life would have been
like if she had her eyesight? What we
do know
is that God turned a human disability into a divine blessing. May
God bless your broken places with a holy touch of the divine as well.
And may the gifts of the Spirit be yours: seeing, hearing, and
speaking through a Spirit-filled heart.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner
April 3, 2011 

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LIFE ON THE
‘D’ LIST: DIVORCE

Psalm 51; John 4: 5-19

Sometimes
men can be thoughtless and self-centered, while sometimes women can
be shrewd and calculating. A story I told this month goes like this:
A married man, on his fortieth wedding anniversary, had a few drinks
and let his mouth run a bit too much. “Honey,” he said to his
wife, “when I married you, you were a young and lean 25 year old
beauty, and all I had was a one bedroom apartment, a sofa to sleep
on, and a ten inch black and white TV set. Now look what I have
provided for you! Now we have a $500,000 house, a $45,000 car, and a
60” high definition TV. But I’m now married to a gray haired 65
year old woman. I don’t think you’re holding up your part of the
bargain.” To which his wife said unflinchingly, “Dear, I tell
you what.” You go out and find yourself a young, lean, 25 year old
beauty, and I’ll make sure you get back into a one bedroom
apartment, with a sofa bed, and a 10 inch black and white TV.”

The
stereotypes abound in our society of many divorced women who throw
mud at their ex, and of divorced men who throw mud at
their
ex. In our country when 45 – 50 % of first
marriages end in divorce, the divorce wars fray the nerves of all
involved. Even children are known to get ulcers before the age of ten
which doctors attribute to divorce related stress or to marital
fighting. Children begin acting out as they start living by two sets
of parental rules; often a parent who tries to win a child over to
his or her side may lavish gifts and trips on their child without the
usual steps of earning them. Youth can also feel rejected and afraid
during turmoil, sending them at an early age into the arms of a boy
or girl friend for comfort. To some people divorce is never right;
for others, divorce was a Godsend; and still others let circumstances
dictate the guidelines. Many Christians go to the Bible for answers
about divorce. But going to a book written in a culture when a father
chose who his son would marry, when a wife was literally bought and
became the property of her husband, and in a culture that let men
make the laws meant most laws favored men. In those days there was
almost no circumstance, even with extra marital affairs, when a woman
could have grounds for divorcing a man. On the other hand, if a
married man seduced an unmarried woman, not only would the man
not
be charged with an infraction, but the woman might be stoned to death
just for being complicit. So even though we have a God who is love
and a God who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”
according to the book of Hebrews; we have a culture today that views
God differently than the way B.C culture viewed God. Over the
centuries, particularly recently, we have seen what some call “a
progressive revelation” in the way we view God. We even see changes
as we move from the Exodus Commandments, through the works of Jewish
Kings and prophets, to the example of Jesus himself. Today let’s
discover which part of the Bible speaks most clearly to you today.

First, let’s look at the words of the Ten
Commandments; in particular, Exodus 20 verse 3. God says, “You
shall have no other gods before me. Then in verse 14 God says, ‘You
shall not commit adultery.” The doctoral paper I wrote in January
was called: “Broken Trust: Using the Marriage Metaphor to Examine
the First Commandment.” In it I argue, along with other
researchers, that when the Lord God was giving the commandments to
Israel, the Lord was treating Israel as his wife, and he was
accepting the responsibilities of a husband of three millennia ago:
that is, the Lord as husband in that day would promise Israel to
never forsake her or choose another nation instead of her; to love
her always, and to be her protector and provider. In return, Israel
as the wife would agree to love the Lord and the Lord only, forsaking
all others, and would follow the word of the Lord. Of course we know
what happened. The Lord God kept his promises to Israel; he reminded
her of that each time she forgot him—like when she worshipped other
gods and when her love grew cold, he still stayed faithful. There are
still people in our world today who have the Godly picture of
fidelity as the picture for their marriage vows. They even do
exclusivity much, much better than Israel did, cleaving only to one
another and forsaking all others. There are wives here today who have
been completely faithful and loving to their husbands; and there are
husbands here today who have been the same way toward their wives. If
there is joy and sharing instead of coercion and fear, how wonderful
marriage can be. May God bless and keep you.

Second, as we move through the Biblical accounts we find
some strange and sordid stories; some daughters had inappropriate
relations with their father, townsmen molested one of their
townswomen; a man of faith offered his own daughter to riotous men
instead of giving them the male houseguest they wanted. The Biblical
list can curl your hair with distaste. When people say “We need to
get back to the Biblical principles of marriage” I wonder which
ones they mean! Oh I really know they are probably thinking about
Ephesians, and Colossians, and Genesis, but there is so much else
there! For example, it was so important that the Messiah rise from
the family line of David. Yes David was a chosen shepherd boy; and
yes, David was a warrior King; but it was also David who used his
influence to demand the illicit attention of a beautiful married
woman named Bathsheba, to have inappropriate relations with her, and
when he discovered that she was going to have a baby, he had her
husband, Uriah, killed to cover it up. This man David, with all of
his power, committed perhaps some of the most heinous sins in the
Bible. There are people you know—perhaps some are here today—who
have committed adultery either by enticement, or complicity, or ego,
or out of control urges. As we say in our day, they had an affair.
Many times the results are painful as a trusted relationship is
breached. Those people may even have justified their actions in their
minds. But if they are ever truly sorry, they may want to do what
David did in such a way that he still got to be King. He still had
consequences from God—he saw to it that David’s untainted son
Solomon got to build and dedicate God’s temple instead of David. In
addition, David lost a great deal of respect from those around him.
But David also did what others have done too: he repented and asked
for forgiveness. Psalm 51 that we sang responsively today was David’s
guttural, anguishing act of repentance to God for his dreadful sins.
It doesn’t include him asking Bathsheba for forgiveness, but
certainly Jesus later included such actions in Matthew 5:23 when he
said: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there
remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
24
leave your gift at the altar. Go and be reconciled to them; then come
and offer your gift.” So David finally came to God, not, because
guilt overwhelmed him, but because a prophet named Nathan exposed
him. He named his sins. After encountering Nathan, David chose to ask
for forgiveness to try to make his soul right with God. It is
recorded in Psalm 51. So there are some here today who have broken
their marriage vows; and there are those who have had them broken.
May God guide and sustain you as you decide your future paths.

Finally, we get to a story in which Jesus is involved.
If Jesus is really the Lord and Head of the Church, and the Church is
his bride, we would do well to see and to assimilate this divine
leadership. First, Jesus breaks the cultural barrier of his day by
going into a forbidden neighborhood called Samaria. He knew there
would be consequences but he went there anyway. How does the church
break through cultural barriers, or are we too busy defending them?
Who might we reach if we went where few had gone before, to
neighborhoods or people who to this day we have left to fend for
themselves? Second, Jesus acknowledges the Samaritan woman, two big
leaps (acknowledging a Samaritan and a woman) that few if any other
Jewish men would have done. He goes to that so called “unclean
land” around noon. Most women came to community wells in the
morning to draw water for the day, and to speak with one another
briefly. Yet here he was there midday with one lone woman. (Some
surmise she came then to avoid the ridicule of the other women.)In
asking her for some water to drink, he knew it was a Samaritan well
that had once been Jacob’s well. He asked her for water not to
degrade her, but to ask her permission. And then Jesus does what
Jesus always does in John: he talks about kingdom things—like
living water—and this hearer, as usual, thinks he’s talking about
earthly things—like having enough water for that moment. Having
Jesus go through this little social dance at the well and breaking
several rules to do it, the woman’s guard begins to lower. With
Jesus’ suggestion that she go and get her husband and bring him, he
gets the information out of her that he already knew: she has had
five husbands and now
she was living with another man. Today, what does the church do with
people when we learn news like that? Do we offer any kind of support
and care, or do we just give deflating gestures and comments of
disapproval? Do Christians start judging divorced people in their
minds, forgetting their shared state of brokenness? Do Christians
shun one or both partners in a divorce as if, as Nathaniel Hawthorne
suggested, they are wearing ‘a scarlet letter?” What does the
church do about divorce? Too often we just let divorced people go
into the world to figure out their brokenness on their own. And it is
a shame. We are all so broken, and yet when people are most hurt,
they get treated as if they are, well,
Samaritans.
Jesus treated Samaritans differently than others did! I think Jesus
would ask the church to treat divorced people with more grace and
support than perhaps has been in her nature over the centuries. Is it
too much to offer support for people going through one of the most
trying and hurtful times in their lives? Are the actions of that one
man, or that one woman, so misguided that we as sinners have no words
of hope or counsel for them as sinners too? Look what Jesus talked
about with the woman at the well with all her baggage: he talked in
hopeful terms about the Kingdom of God; about a day when Jews and
Samaritans would be together. That was totally unheard of in his day.
He asked questions for understanding but offered no judgment about
the information he gained.
And for those here
today who have divorced and gone through the agonizing judgment, or
the drying up of invitations by Christian brothers or sisters, or
telephones that used to ring that now ring rarely, I say to you that
I am sorry on behalf of the church and Lord I serve.

I charge myself, and I charge each person here today, to look at
others through the eyes of Jesus. Some are now afraid of marriage
because of divorce; some have found that being single is now better
for them; and some are just lonely. We, the bride of Christ, have
the teaching of Christ to offer the world, and not the tainted
teaching of judgmentalism. There is a world of broken people—those
who break the Sabbath commandment, the coveting commandment, or the
idolatry commandment—who hardly get a second glance from us.
Together, we can give a better witness to broken people in our broken
world. The church is not meant to be a hall for saints, as much as a
hospital for sinners.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 27, 2011

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LIFE ON THE
‘D’ LIST- DARKNESS

Lamentations
3: 1-20

On the day when we remember Jesus’
Last Supper, and then again on the day we remember his crucifixion,
we will often sing the old hymn “Go to Dark Gethsamane.” To most
everyone Gethsamane is a dark place, dark because it is the garden
where the Lord Jesus went to pray for his life, to ask his Father to
consider a different way, and finally to know that the course into
the darkness of anguising death was set. For Jesus, darkness occurred
most powerfully on that terrible rugged cross when, in pain and
suffering he cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
But when the term darkness is mentioned, it may mean something
different to you. I have known darkness, but I have not know
crucifixion. I know
some
with depression know darkness, and some who have tragically lost a
child; I know that women can face darkness with fertility issues and
others can face in post-partem stages. Men can face darkness when
they have lost their job, or when they are threatened by others in
power. Terrified people can also face darkness. And bullied children
or youth in trouble after trying to fit in can face darkness.Today
let’s look at the idea of darkness, that even Jesus faced, and then
suggest how others have moved beyond it.

Unlike children who often hide under
beds, in rooms, outside, or in small places, adults also have their
own ways of hiding. Some will hide their true feelings from others;
some will hide their fear from their children, or they will hide
their anxiety from a spouse or from friends. Others try to hide the
fact that they are stuggling, as they go through their day on
autopilot.
Some eat very
little, while others over eat. Some try to do their work and hope
that they are hiding their emotional pain or spiritual anguish from
others. Yet astute persons will look into eyes that look lifeless and
sunken, and look at a face that seems sullen or forced, and they will
have a glimpse into the other person’s struggle. There are people
all around us that are working to hide their darkness … and there
are others around you who have faced darkness but coped with it; and
there are still others who have gone through making lemonade when
life has handed them lemons. Many of one’s coping devices are
formed at an early age, but traumatic events can through monkey
wrenches into the cogs of coping.
When we
consider physical darkness, we know that there are physiological
changes when we face it. Our eyes begin to dilate to let in more
light and all our senses of hearing, taste, touch and smell join
sight on full alert. It is dark, and in the dark the unknown
surrounds us. Perhaps you known a blind person and have asked what
it’s like no being able to see. When I move through our house at
night if a storm has knocked out power, all is pitch black. I put out
our hands, hunt for the walls, I remember to shuffle my feet on the
floor so as not to trip. When I have to climb stairs, in the dark I
reach for and hold the handrail which I rarely do when it’s light.
When you are in the dark, especially a black out, many tense up and
try to think what to do next. We try to think where our flashlight
is, or where we can find a match. Light brings reassurance as it
dissipates darkness.

Emotionally
some people, perhaps not you, have found themselves in darkness. In
the Bible you will note the despair of Elijah, the great prophet of
the Old Testament. Fortunately the Bible does not sugarcoat the lives
of anyone. You may recall when the prophet Elijah, who had, with
great bravado, called for a contest on Mount Carmel between the gods
of Baal, and God the Lord; Ahab was after him, but it was Queen
Jezebel who pushed him over the edge. If you stop reading with 1
Kings 18 which is the great showdown, or if you skip over to 2 Kings
2 which is Elijah taken up in a whirlwind to heaven, you will miss
the darkness of Elijah. In First Kings 19, Elijah ran from Ahab and
Jezebel; he ran into a desert perhaps not thinking clearly, or
perhaps hoping he could crawl into a cave and hide. But before he got
there, he stopped in the burning sun and took shelter under a
pathetic broom tree for shade. And there, the great prophet, thinking
there is no one around to see him, shows his state of darkness.
Calling out to God in desperation, he asked God if he would just take
his life. Do you know people who just want God to take them? I do.
What can we do to comfort people who want to say “Now!” to God
about the end of their life, while God says to them “Not yet!”
Sometimes it surprises us who has words or thoughts like Elijah’s.
“It is enough” Elijah said with fatigue, “O Lord, take away my
life.” It was in Felix Mendelssohn’s great oratorio called
“Elijah” that he pictures the angel who woke him and pointed to
bread and water as being a comforting heavenly host of angels as he
transports listeners to the scene with the hauntingly beautiful
chorus from Psalm 121 “Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes to the
mountains, whence cometh, whence cometh, whence cometh help.” How
would God best approach you with such comfort if your soul was so
fragile that it was leaking tears out of your eyes? Some people might
just say, “Shake it off!” or “Stop with all that silly crying.”
But there are others, God included, who knows how to turn off the
fearful, confrontational, or threatening human voices and let you
hear the holy voices of angels. Some have suggested that Elijah was
having burnout or an emotional breakdown in that chapter. The same
darkness has come over ministers and other lay persons, often while
feeling overwhelmed, or powerless, or hopeless. After all, conflicts
with people can create tension, conflict, or criticism. God knows it;
and Jesus felt it. You are
not alone.
How did God help Elijah? He arranged for a successor to take the
burden of responsibility from Elijah. God has done that countless
times for others as well. We don’t stop praying, we don’t stop
hoping, and we don’t stop living. God knows what is in your
prayers, and when the time is right, you will find light again. I was
once in darkness, even more than once, and found light again. I
imagine you, or others around you, have too. Take heart if you are in
darkness today. In Elijah’s case, like a worn down relay swimmer or
runner who gets to tag a new person with new energy to run the race,
God provided a tag team. It is a good idea in human life to have
someone in waiting, learning under you, who can run that stage of the
race when you can’t move; you have laid down in your desert of
torment under the shade of a broom tree. Yes, the Bible tells us that
“the people who walked in darkness” get to see a great light in
Christ. But sometimes a fractured soul, a battered heart, or
rattled mind cannot see the light, not yet anyway. If you live in the
light daily and encroaching darkness has not overwhelmed you, then
you are fortunate. But I know that this has been, or will be, the
experience of someone you know.

In
the days when barrenness was seen as a curse from God, Sarai and
Rachel wept in anguishing because they could not have children. How
many others have gone through that anguish? Or other women have had
their darkness when they had their child, and a state of depression
set in. And what man has not had something dark nights of his soul
when he loses his job; or what soldiers who have seen the combat of
war have not gone into the darkness and terror of PTSD? There is
darkness all around, even in the places you might look for light.
For those who face spiritual darkness, there are also physiological
changes. The body, mind, and soul are all connected. Spiritual
darkness may make mobility quite difficult as the inertia to stay at
rest is stronger than our ability to move. Depression may set in, or
perhaps despair, doubts, or a sense of hopelessness. These are
crippling conditions. The way to see the light of God’s love again
may be tricky. You might think caring Christians could help a person
in darkness, but sometimes caring Christians
contribute
to a person’s darkness. You might think the
love of family might help people out of their darkness, but sometimes
the well-intentioned-or the malevolent- family members are a root
cause of the darkness. You might say those people just need to pray
more, but those people find that they cannot pray or hear God. You
might say they just need more faith, but asking faith of one who is
broken down is a Herculean request.
Sometimes
all one can do is stumble in the dark; and at times it is all one can
do to just be; even life is painful.
It is
during those times when some of the best help that can be offered is:
a) to be with them in their despair and, b) to be a great listener.
There are specialists around who can gently guide people back toward
light and functionality: pastoral counselors, doctors, social
workers, ministers, and chaplains are a few of those specialists. And
we know that darkness sometimes breeds other “D” words like
despair, desperation, depression, and debilitating weakness. In
addition, when the mind gets corrupted, distortions of the soul can
make sin seem extra overwhelming.

Now
we will consider the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Here is what
theologian Georgia Harkness has said about him: “There is nowhere
in the Old Testament a more tragic, triumphant figure than Jeremiah.
He knew well enough in his own experience what the dark night of the
soul means. Betrayed by his own townsmen, thrown into a miry cistern,
repeatedly subjected to indignity and danger by the very people for
whom he sought to intercede, and apparently [feeling] abandoned at
times even by God ….” [DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, Abingdon Press,
1945, p. 32-33.] Jeremiah, man of God and proclaimer of God’s
word, also said “Woe is me, mother, that you have born me, a man of
strife and contention to the whole world.” (Jeremiah 15: 10) and
“Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable that refuses to
heal?” (15: 18) And then in his Lamentations we have today’s
passage which, in part, reads: “I am the one who has seen the
affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought
me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his
hand, again and again, all the day long. He has made my flesh and
skin waste away and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation; he had made me sit in darkness like
the dead of long ago.” Such words are so haunting that they disgust
some with their sniveling while they make others want to come
alongside of Jeremiah and just be with him. There are times to just
be with someone in their darkness, and there are times to guide them
out of it. One of my mentors in the Doctor of Ministry program is Dr.
Kathleen O’Connor who has written an entire book on Lamentations.
To move the shaking of a personal foundation into a more global
picture that reminds us of the recent horrendous earthquake, tsunami,
and ruptured nuclear cores in Japan, these words of hers offer
current counsel: “For survivors of civil wars, destroyed cities,
and genocides, for refugees, and for those who subsist in famine and
destitute poverty, the poetry [in Lamentations] mirrors reality with
frightening exactitude. When, like me, readers live in relative
safety and prosperity, Lamentations calls forth loss and pain more
narrowly, personally, and indirectly. Yet even in the prosperous
United States there are normal human losses to lament, deaths,
disappointments, and hidden depression with which to contend. There
are broken marriages, catastrophic illnesses, and violence among our
children, hatred between groups, and debilitating poverty exacerbated
by wealth all around.” [LAMENTATIONS AND THE TEARS OF THE WORLD,
Westminster/John Knox Press, p. 5.] When people are so fragile, we
cannot rush the light; but we can point to it, offer hope, and embody
the one who is the Light. May you see light at the end of your
tunnels of darkness.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner March
20, 2011

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LIFE ON THE
‘D’ LIST: DEVIL

Matthew 4:
1-11

Do
you remember hearing the story of the Minneapolis couple that decided
to visit Florida to thaw out during a particularly cold northern
winter? They planned to stay in the same hotel where they had spent
their honeymoon twenty years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it
was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules. The husband,
therefore, left Minneapolis and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his
wife planned to fly down the following day. The husband checked into
the Florida hotel. There was a computer in his room and free wi-fi,
so he decided to send an e-mail to his wife. The trouble was that
when he was typing in his wife’s e-mail address, he accidentally
left out one letter. He pushed “send” and away it went. Meanwhile
somewhere in Houston, a widow just returned from her husband’s
funeral. He had been a minister and passed away due to a heart
attack. The widow decided to check her e-mail that night since she
was expecting to hear from relatives and friends. But after she read
her first message, she screamed and fainted. Her son ran in and found
his mother on the floor. After helping her regain her composure, he
looked at her computer screen. This is what it said:

To:
My loving wife

Subject:
I’ve arrived

Date:
February 24

I
know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here
now, and you’re allowed to send e-mails to your loved ones! I’ve
just arrived and have been checking in. I see that everything has
been prepared for
your arrival
here tomorrow! Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey
is as uneventful as mine, but boy,
it sure is
hot down here
!”

When
we hear the word “Devil” these days some people are terrified and
others amused. To some the devil is the terrifying power of evil, the
one opposed to God with powers to tempt, persuade, and corrupt. For
others the idea of the devil is quaint and they believe that it
belongs in literature rather than in the conversations of intelligent
people. Yet people flocked to and were terrified by Hollywood’s
depictions of the devil in films like “The Exorcist” and “The
Omen.” And in 1995 author Anne Rice surprised the publishing world
by changing the course of her regular novels and writing “Memnoch
the Devil.” Ten years ago, the “Left Behind” series brought the
idea of a devil, or an antichrist, (though they are not always the
same thing) back into public conversations. In our day and age there
are a variety of views concerning the devil. Some people to this day
try to stay away from the number 666 because Revelation 13 says it is
the number of the beast that some name as the antichrist. At the
nearest Chinese restaurant to my home, the order I regularly place
adds up to a bill of $6.66. “6-6-6!” the cashier calls out each
time for all to hear! The first time I heard it I was tempted to
order an extra egg roll just to change the total. But I decided I was
not going to let a number, even that number, change my eating habits!
I am not afraid of three sixes; I have had three sixes in my social
security number since the day I was born. These days I am also not
afraid of the devil, although I do believe in evil. When I was a
teenager I let Hollywood scare the wits out of me with devil movies.
But as I have grown I have read about sociopathic people who
certainly seem as if they could be possessed by a demon or that a
devil inhabits their body. You may even have read, as I have, of
accounts when an exorcism has drastically changed a person. And I
understand that the Vatican still employs an exorcist. As much as I
have not only read about, but seen people who seemed possessed, I
have also watched people change rapidly or over time with the proper
treatment. Once about seven years ago I was bringing some food items
to Halifax Urban Ministries. It was nearly time for the group meal
and I heard a stir. I looked around and a man was staggering toward
us, motioning wildly. His eyes were wide open, making him look
fearsome. His lips were cracked and he seemed out of control. As he
neared us in the crowd, a man from the dining area came out quickly
with a cup of orange juice in his hand. He managed to gently but
firmly hold the cup to the man’s mouth until he drank. He held him
close until his spasms stopped, and his eyes focused once again. The
man went limp, exhausted. Seeing me and other visitors who looked
very unnerved, he explained. “Diabetic; the man is diabetic but
when you live on the streets and food is so infrequent, it brings on
diabetic shock. He’ll now be sweaty and weak, but he’ll recover …
until the next time he has to go too long without food.” Some who
act like they are demon possessed are just in need of good therapy,
or good medication, or even a glass of juice. As our counselors today
will attest, others who are troubled can change with good therapy and
good prayer.

What
do you think about the devil? Is the devil a powerful tempter? Is the
devil male, female, or non-gendered? Others recall that the devil has
been thought of as the king of the underworld in some literature, and
as a fallen angel as well. Some enlightened people consider the devil
as an antiquated scapegoat as in “the devil made me do it”
comment. Some think there is no such thing as the devil at all. And
yet there have been, and still our, powerful examples of evil in the
world; evil in nations could be seen during world wars, during the
reign of ruthless dictators, and even in the demented lives of
certain families. It is hard to forget that after Dr. Scott Peck
enchanted the reading public with his best-selling book THE ROAD LESS
TRAVELED, he followed it with the deeply disturbing case studies of
what he called “human evil” in PEOPLE OF THE LIE.” In his
subchapter called “Does the Devil Exist,” he wrote: “Having
come over the years to believe in a benign spirit, or God, and a
belief in the reality of human evil, I was left facing an obvious
intellectual question: Is there such a thing as evil spirit? Namely,
the devil; I thought not.” [Touchstone Books, 1983, p. 182.] He
then goes on to say that he had never really seen any cases that
could be called demon or devil possession, so as a psychiatrist, he
decided to look for a case. After letting the word out that he was
looking, he got two referrals of cases that simply were psychiatric
disorders in his judgment. But then, he said, in his estimation the
third case he got was the real thing. He chose not to describe it in
detail, nor will I. But he concluded that, though rare, therapists,
clergy, and others have recounted cases that he decided were actual
demon possession. Today, however, hear this:
some
in the world have an unnatural fear of the devil that changes the
direction of their travel, the price of an order of Chinese food, or
the quantity of light they leave on at night, and it makes them
constantly look over their shoulder for the tempter; the evil one. If
you do that, you are making that force—whoever or whatever you may
call it—into a power so strong that, like a god, it has the power
to alter the course of your life in often destructive and
debilitating means. But there is good news to preach from Christian
pulpits on the subjects of devil and demon
:
God is infinitely stronger! Therapy is wonderfully effective! And
prayer connects you to the power source of the Savior!

The Savior who said “Get thee behind me, Satan!” also casts out
demons and takes away their ability to speak. (Mark 1: 34) He also
gave his disciples the power to cast out demons (Mark 16: 17).

The Bible says that there are demons; and Jesus identified them only
to subdue them. Genesis names a serpent with an understandable voice
that knocked human beings out of heaven-sent bliss: the same tempter
is still embodied even today. Human beings could not out-fox the
tempter, nor turn a deaf ear to the temptations in Genesis 3. But
where is there a record of one who thwarted Satan the tempter at
every turn? One place is in Matthew, chapter four. In order to
prepare himself for the ministry before him, and knowing it would
lead him through valleys of the shadow of death even unto a cross,
Jesus—perhaps in a dream, or maybe in a vision, or some would say
in a physical way—tangles with the tempter. He is denying himself
in preparation for his work; his ancestors including prophets, had
done this before, but he did it to extreme perfection: forty days …
and forty nights. During some period of that agonizing desert time of
pure focus, a voice—or a being—began to taunt and tempt him. Like
predator animals that wait for their prey to grow weak or tired
before devouring them, Satan chose what he though was a worn-down
Jesus. He first tempted him to use his power to make himself food,
something that was well within his power to do; Jesus turned away
from door number one. He then took him to the top of the temple in
the Holy City; there he tested the promises of God telling Jesus to
jump, Satan wanted him to test God’s eternally protecting powers.
But Jesus would not choose door number two. Finally Satan took him to
a high mountain, showing him all the countries in sight, and said if
Jesus would worship
him, Satan
would give him all the lands. But Jesus stood firm.
Friends
Jesus is stronger than any tempter if you let him live in you. Jesus
is brighter than any power of darkness that seeks to get a hold of
you if you will claim him. This is the right one, not only to have on
your side, but to have in your life.

Look
at the top of your bulletin today. Part of Martin Luther’s most
famous hymn includes these words:

And
though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us;
we
will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”
That is the good news for today! It is the
good news from Christian pulpits! Let the publishing world and the
movie industry make their money peddling demons.
But
never let them unseat your trust in the unwavering power of God in
Christ.
Read the Biblical accounts; there is
no place where evil wins; the love of God, the redemption of God, and
the grace of God are part of your spiritual tool belt for the living
of these days. You are equipped! You are loved! And you are claimed
by the one and only God who will not let you go.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner March 13, 2011

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It’s
transfiguration Sunday. The Sunday of change. Jesus is changed into a
being of light and purpose and our church calendar changes from
Epiphany to Lent.

Transfigurations are big business today. I
don’t know anybody who doesn’t want one, including me. And many of us
work hard and spend a lot of money to get one — a new face, a new
look, a changed appearance. Transfigurations are not the exception.
They are the rule. We are all being altered in the appearance of our
face, our countenance. We are all changing. To live is to be
continually transfigured. So who are we becoming?

I have to
tell you, I am not a fan of change. This started at an early age for
me. When I was two, I refused to turn three. I just wasn’t going to
do it. I thought that two was good enough and I had no need to
change. Nope. Not me. Not going to do it.

Well, as you can
see, I obviously turned three any way. And then four and five and so
on. Change will happen. You will change, like it or not. The only
choice you have is how you will change. What will influence your
change?

In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay says “It
is one of the supreme differences between Jesus and us, that Jesus
always asked: ‘What does God wish me to do?’; we nearly always
ask: ‘What do I wish to do?’ We often say that the unique
characteristic of Jesus was that he was sinless. What do we mean by
that? We mean precisely this, that Jesus had no will but the will of
God . . . When Jesus had a problem, he did not seek to solve it only
by the power of his own thought; he did not take it to others for
human advice; he took it to the lonely place and to God.”

How often to you
take your changes to God?


The change is
hard. Painful at times. It’s not something we
want
to do. Sometimes its easier to change the way society calls then to
follow God’s way. But only God’s transformation leads us towards
being light.

When God does the changing, we should take on
the qualities of Jesus. We should live life with grace and
tranquility. We should radiate love and kindness. We should be
overflowing with exuberance and excitement. Because those are the
very things that Jesus displayed.

This is a good thing! It is
a joyous thing! So often, we focus our lives on those things we want
to deny ourselves, to resist, to exclude. We live life as if it’s a
funeral wake rather than a celebration. We are God’s creation. He
has made us. He has made us to enjoy the good things of life. So we
mustn’t abuse God’s gift. We mustn’t hide God’s gift. We
mustn’t ignore God’s gift.

We are being
transformed. Just by living our lives in this chaotic world, we are
constantly changing who we are. But who is influencing who we are
becoming?

We must be transformed. We must be changed. And we
cannot look at the loving face of God and not take on his appearance,
his countenance, his grace.

We must get alongside those who
walk the journey with us, to share their pain, their sorrow, their
frustrations, their joys, their happiness, their lives. To share
something of our understanding of God’s love, and to learn lessons
ourselves. Transfiguration might be about learning to see ordinary
things in extraordinary ways

As we move between the
extraordinary accounts of Transfiguration in today’s readings and
the ordinary events of seeing in our own lives, we do not need to
separate the two. But we can remember, with Peter, that the light of
God is not so hidden that we cannot seek it in ordinary life. The
Logos lives, enlivens, infuses, illuminates even the ordinary.

I
wonder if Peter’s real sense of call didn’t happened here, when the
voice interrupts all his plots and plans and announces that this
Jesus is none other than God’s beloved Son and so the most important
thing Peter can do is simply listen to him. In that moment everything
for Peter, I suspect, was still…and clear…and made sense.

But
of course it didn’t last. Peter needs to be pulled up off the ground,
perhaps wondering if anything had actually happened or whether he had
imagined it all. And then on the way down the mountain Jesus will
again intimate of his impending death and destiny. Peter will
struggle to listen, to follow, to be faithful. Actually, he will more
than struggle, he will fail. And Jesus will reach out, raise him up
again, and send him forth. I have a hunch that each time Peter fell
down and got up again, he would look back on this day and recall
those words, “Just listen to him!”

That’s what I
mean by saying that this is the moment when Peter’s transfiguration
begins – when he fails, falls, and is lifted up again and realizes
that above and beyond everything else, he is called to listen to
Jesus. This pattern, I think, shapes the life of every Christian. We,
too, of course, try our best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes
coming up short. We, too, have moments of insight and moments of
denial. We, too, fall down in fear and are raised up again to go
forth in confidence. We, too, that is, are called to listen, called
to discern God’s way in the world, called to partner with God and in
this way be transformed.

On any given Sunday, many of us are
surrounded by visions of God’s glory.  We worship in
resplendent sanctuaries adorned with breathtaking stained glass
windows and shining brass candlesticks.  We glorify God in the
highest, singing hymns of resounding triumph and praise.  These
are important moments. We need to have the times on the mountaintop.
The trouble comes when we separate between the visually pleasing
world of glory and the extremely challenging and chaotic world of
service.  The danger is that we might get lost on the
mountaintop, and forget our way down.

Fred Craddock states,
“There is value in referring to this story as one about Jesus’
mountaintop experience, which is followed by his return to the valley
where he ministered to human need. To such a presentation we can add
recitations of mountaintop experiences we have known, followed by
exhortations to return to the valley ready to serve. The connections
can not only be clear but also encouraging and challenging” (The
Christian Century, February 21, 1990).

We do tend to get lost
up there, I think.  There are times when the distance between
Sunday and Monday seems to be about a million miles, and the path
from the mountaintop to the dark valley is very difficult to find.
 Yet, we follow a Savior who leads us down and out: down from
the mountaintop, out of the clouds, and into the valley to meet those
who are in need. We have to go and do.

Yet, Lent, which
begins this coming Wednesday, calls us to rediscover our
spirituality, to be, to quit our frantic babbling, and to pay
attention, to consider who we are as
dust
apart from
whose
we are in our baptism, God’s precious children, forgiven, loved,
held, and only from that identity, gifted and called and sent to do
God’s work in the world. If we don’t get the “being” part,
then the doing will only be chaotic, frustrated attempts at
self-justification or else grounded in fear and devoid of any joy. If
all your doing seems madness and pointless, learn again to behold the
mystery, to enter a quiet place of awe. There will be more than ample
opportunity and compulsion for living out our call to discipleship,
to taking up the cross.

The trick, as in most things, is
balance.
Knowing when to “do” and when and how to just “be.”
Learning to take our calling and our work seriously, but not too
seriously! To let go of our needs to control, to listen for the voice
of God so that our actions aren’t merely the proverbial running
around like a chicken with its head cut off but, instead, are true
acts of discipleship that flow from a
being
that is formed in the awe and wonder of God’s gracious love for us.
We need the mountaintop and the valley. Both alongside each other.


That, I
think, is the real moment of transfiguration.  It’s the moment
in which all those people around us, wherever we may be, become
beautiful, and precious, and lovely in our sight.  If we follow
Jesus long enough through the valleys of this world, those around us
will become transfigured.  Peter, James, and John, though they
just wanted to stay at the top of the mountain, would one day be the
ones touching the demon-possessed child and welcoming the outcasts
and forgiving the sinners.

The real
transfiguration happens not on the top of a mountain, but down in the
valleys, out in the painful places of the world.  Let us pray
this morning that as Jesus goes on ahead of us, we would have the
vision, the courage, and the faith to follow him wherever he leads
us.  Then we might see the glory – and the greatness – of
God.

No matter how much we may want to stay the same, just by
living our lives will be transformed, changed, and altered. And not
just in some minimalist ways. We will be transfigured in our lives
and some of us will be changed many times. But the question is, will
you let God do the changing?

Rev. Cara Gee

March 6th
2011