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At first glance persistence seemsto be the key to this passage. After all, persistence may be the best way for aperson to get what they really want. Harpo Marx once experienced this truth,and ended up feeling about as much sympathy as the judge in Jesus’ famousparable. Marx was spending time in a New York hotel when a woman, who wantedhim to appear at a charity event, found out where he was. She phoned him twelveseparate times in the space of 48 hours, always with the same request.


 


 Eventually, Harpo relented and agreed to appear. To assure hewouldn’t duck out at the last minute, she showed up to personally escort him tothe benefit. On their way out of his room, the phone rang. He ignored it. Shequeried, “Aren’t you going to answer your phone?” Quipped Harpo,”Why bother? It’s undoubtedly you again.”

Now the widow knew how to be persistent. She houndedthe judge day and night to try to get her justice. Where it says “that shemay not wear me out” the Greek is almost closer to “that she will notstrike me” The judge was worried he’d get a black eye she was sopersistent with her pleas. I’d say that was persistent!

Yet, this passage is very much a Yes, but no passagefor me. It’s a passage where it is easy to grasp part of the meaning but if wedon’t keep working with it, we’ll miss some of the more important parts. Yes itis about being persistent in your praying. That is important. Over and overagain we are told to pray unceasingly. To knock and the door will be opened. ToAsk and you will receive. But no, that is not all of what the passage is about.

The problem with that way of reading it is that wecan fall into the trap of thinking of God as a vending machine. If you insertthe right amount of faith and pull the lever of prayer the right number oftimes, you will get what you want. Simple is that. Haven’t gotten what you wantyet? Keep pulling the lever.

Yes, but what about all those people who didn’t getwhat they prayed for? The ones who still lost their jobs. The ones whose lovedones stilled died. The ones who are still estranged from their families. Whatabout them? Did they just not pray hard enough or often enough? Did they nothave enough faith to insert? Why weren’t their prayers answered?

The vending machine god isn’t a source of divine loveand grace so much as a grownup version of Santa Claus. That idea of God is onethat makes God our wishing machine. Now, I believe that God is alwayslistening. And that God does always answer our prayers. It’s just the answerGod gives is sometimes “No.” or “Not yet” or “I have abetter plan”

Rob Bell tells a story of going to the mall with hisyoung son. As they pass one of those kiosks in the walk way his son sees a toythat is a ball attached to a piece of elastic that you tie around his wrist. Hisson decides that he must have this toy and begs his father, PLEASE give it tome. I want it! And Rob tells his son “No, that’s not a good toy, it willbounce back and hit you in the face and everything will get tangled up, comeon. Let’s go.” And his son cries. “But I want it!” And Rob andhis wife are starting to walk away and the child calls “But I thought yousaid you loved me!” Rob has to go back down the mall and pick up hiscrying son and carry him out to the car.

And you might think, it’s just a silly toy, whydidn’t he just get it for his son? Well, because Rob knew something his son didnot. From the mall they were headed to the sports store across the street toget his son a kickball. You see, they had started playing kickball in the parktogether the week before and his son loved it. He had something better in mindfor his son than a crappy toy that would bounce into his face and hurt him.

We are like his son. We constantly ask God for thingsthat aren’t good for us. That aren’t right for us. And God says no. And we cryout to God, But I thought you said you loved me!! And God does love us. But Godhas something better in mind for us sometimes.

But still. We are called to pray without ceasing. Weare called to be as persistent as that widow, bothering the judge day andnight. Have you ever watched a child who is very determined to receivesomething? That is the sort of praying we are called to do, even if God mightsay no. It looks exhausting! We are called to pray even in the face of silence.

And if the parable addresses itself to prayer, thisis where it does so. The parable teaches us that prayer is work, because ourprayers for the things we most deeply need are often met with long periods ofsilence from God. Fred Craddock writes that prayer is hard work because thehuman experience is often an experience of waiting in the face of delay. Hetells of a gathering of a group of people concerned with injustice andoppression in our society. An elderly black minister at that gathering read thisparable, and in one sentence summarized the whole thing. “Until you havestood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do notreally know what prayer is.”

To listen to some in the world today, prayer is easy.To listen to some, prayer is the way we get our spiritual goodies. Or to listento others, prayer is the way we get our material goodies. Or for others, prayeris the answer place, where God clearly addresses all of our questions andplaces our souls forever at ease. This goes back to the whole idea of a vendingmachine God.

Maybe I’ve missed something, but I’ve neverexperienced prayer in that way. Prayer has always cost me more than it’s given.And, to my knowledge, prayer has never yielded me a car or a wad of bills or aparking place at the mall. And call me crazy, but prayer has always generatedfor me more questions than answers. I’ve never quite grasped the notion ofprayer as the divine vending machine.


 


 Prayer for me has always felt more like wrestling. In prayer,I have often felt like Jacob, who wrestled with God, struggled with God,through the long night until the break of day. That’s why the people in my lifewho have taught me most about prayer aren’t the ones who have all the answers.The people in my life who have taught me the most about prayer are the ones whohave practiced hopeful and confident prayer in the face of God’s silence.

And in the face of that silence, there is stillinjustice in the world. People still suffer.

The dilemma for me in this passage is that nearly twomillennia after its telling the poor and oppressed are still calling out forrelief. Yet they don’t seem to be appreciably closer to a world of justice andcompassion than they were when Jesus told the parable. If one reads this parableas it has always been read, as a counsel to relentless prayer, there willalways seem to be some lack of evidence that such prayer really makes adifference. Always those people whose prayers go unanswered no matter how hardthey’ve prayed. Unless Jesus is talking about deferred compensation – the kindof “pie in the sky by and by” thought – then, frankly, the claim forpersistence isn’t very convincing…or at least not always


Don’t get me wrong. I believepersistent prayer is very important, even when such prayers are not answered inthe ways we think best. Even when God has a kickball in mind for us instead, itis important to be unrelenting in our prayers. Not only because of the changesour prayers may elicit in God’s mind, but for the changes such prayers can workin our own hearts and minds. As Frederick Buechner said years ago, persistenceis a key, “not because you have to beat a path to God’s door before Godwill open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there’s no way ofgetting to your door.”

Buechner’s comment set me to thinking that maybethere’s more to this parable than we have sometimes seen. What if Jesus offeredthis parable not only as a call to prayerful persistence but also as a reminderto the church of the importance of securing justice for the poor and theoppressed in their midst? Alan Culpepper says, “To those who have it intheir power to relieve the distress of the widow, the orphan and the strangerbut do not do so, the call to pray day and night is a command to let thepriorities of God’s compassion reorder the priorities of their lives.”

What if we stand this parable on its head and hear itas a testimony to the persistence of God, who wants us to grant justice toGod’s chosen ones who cry out day and night? Might this parable speak to theresolute, persistent, unrelenting, determined One who keeps knocking on ourdoor, challenging us to respond, pressing us to accept God’s claims, urging usto work for the good of neighbors in need?

So, I wonder: if this parable offers a mirror for ourlives, then maybe the face many of us will see when we peer into that mirror isthe face of the judge who, as Jesus said, “neither feared God nor hadrespect for people.” Is that not who we are in this story? We are not toidentify with the widow, pressing our claims and pleas upon God. We are thejudge, ignoring the persistent cries of the widow in our midst.

Oh, it’s not very flattering to read the parable thatway, to be sure. Who wants to be characterized as the hard hearted one? But,then, in the parable the judge does eventually reach the tipping point, andeven if not for the best of motives and more from self-interest, does grant thewidow what she wants. What she wants, of course, is justice and a fair shake.It’s what the outcasts of the world most often want and we know – because wehave heard it over and over again from the Torah and the prophets and Jesus -it is what God wants for them as well.

Maybe the good news in this story for thenon-outcasts – for the rest of us – is that God is like the widow -unrelenting, persistent, and assertive. God hasn’t given up on us, even when wehave acted as though we “neither feared God nor had respect forpeople.” So maybe there’s hope, not only for the widows and orphans andsojourners of this world, but for us. Maybe there is hope that we will tend tothe shame we feel and allow it to break through our resistance and press us toopen doors to those who knock persistently.


 


Maybe there is hope that we willhear their pleas at last and use our voices and our power to help shape reliefand reconciliation and fairness in this world. Maybe there is hope for us. Ibelieve there is. More importantly, I believe God believes there is.

“Behold,” says Christ, “I stand at thedoor and knock.” Maybe today we’ll open the door. And what a good day thatwould be…for everyone!

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LEARNING FROM LUKE: GRATITUDE


Luke 17: 11-19


 


A woman named Marion Doolan once wrote about twochildren who, in the cold of winter, opened the storm door of her house andknocked rather incessantly on the wood one. Marion opened the door to see twochildren in ragged and outgrown coats. “Any old papers, lady?” they asked. Theylived in an area where a small amount of money was paid for recyclednewspapers. Marion says, “I was busy and wanted to say no [as they were lettingall the cold into my warm house. Then] I looked down at their feet. Thin littlesandals, sopped with sleet. ‘Come in’ she relented. ‘I’ll make you some cocoa.’There was no conversation. In they came, leaving wet tracks on the floor. Shegave them the cocoa and a piece of toast and jelly each. As they ate, the boysaid, “Lady, are you rich?”  “Am Irich?” she replied. “Mercy no!” as she looked at the shabby slip covers on hersofa. The girl responded quietly, “We just thought … well, your cups match yourplates.”  Your cups match yourplates. The children left.  “‘Theyhadn’t said thank you,’ she thought. ‘They didn’t need to’ she said to herself.They had done more than that with something they said. Plain blue pottery cupsand plates; but they matched.” … She said “I moved the chairs back from thefire and tidied the living room. The muddy prints of small sandals were stillwet upon my hearth. I let them be. I want them there in case I ever forgetagain how very rich I am.”  [A 3RDSERVING OF CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL, JackCanfield and Mark Victor Hansen, Health Communications, 1996, pp. 205-206.]


 


Not only is it a touching story, it is a story aboutboundaries and opening them: few people open their door to strangers and invitethem in. It is a story of someone who has something, and someone who has less. Andit is a story about gratitude even without a “thank you.” Likewise we arelooking at a Biblical story today that also has those points. Let’s rememberthat story: The Bible says that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem through theregion between Samaria and Galilee. Those regions abut each other. The firstboundary that is broken is that Jews and Samaritans were crying out togetherabout their state of uncleanness. Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do witheach other in normal circumstances because the Samaritans were rituallyunclean, even before they had leprosy. Isn’t it ironic that having a diseasemakes people forget about other boundaries and they begin to stand by neighborswho also are suffering from their illnesses? In the 1980s those who were HIVpositive were often quarantined both by doctors and the public, off in theirown separate area. Years ago those with tuberculosis were quarantined. Contagiouspeople are often quarantined. And sometimes in our day we emotionally quarantinepeople who are different from ourselves.Even without illness, during free time at schools, students oftencongregate with groups of like-minded students. They are sometimes known bynames, names like jocks, or geeks, or gleeks.  Some families put up boundaries too, don’t they? Some don’twant children playing with others from that school or from that family. And as adults we don’t always grow out ofthat. But medical reasons – like running a fever – still exist for ill peopleto stay away from others. In Jesus’ day those with the skin disease calledleprosy were considered unclean by priests. Priests were kind of the “custom’sagents” that let men or woman approach the temple or not. The Levitical prieststook their jobs very seriously! Women couldn’t approach the temple at certaintimes in their lives; men other than Jews could only come to the Court of theGentiles. And Samaritans could never go to the temple according to them. Hmm,so if everyone in our story was well, a Samaritan would never been seen with 9Jews. But because all ten of those who approached Jesus were consideredcontagious, one Samaritan and nine Jews approached Jesus without apparently anyreaction to one another! Notice that the text says they kept their distancefrom Jesus, not wanting to offend (read infect) him. Although this text doesnot record them letting Jesus know they were lepers, by Levitical law they hadto cry out “Unclean, unclean!” to any approaching people. So it was after identifying themselves that they used a most subservientterm. Instead of calling Jesus by a title, like Rabbi, they called him“Master.” Master! And they said“Have mercy on us!”  In this group of lepers, they realize that there is noI in TEAM! One or more are calling out for the sake of the others! Like thechildren who were just knocking on doors asking for newspapers, the lepers intheir shabbiness were trying to find a hint of hope in the eyes of passer-bys.The children found it in Marion Doolan; those with leprosy found it in the eyesof Jesus. He had healed others; wrapped in both pathetic appearance and inwardfaith, they asked for help!  Thosewho had less in that society were knocking on the door of the one man who mighthave more. Their choice, coupled with their faith, changed their outcome.Marion Doolan opened the door for two cold children; Jesus opened the door for10 miserable men with leprosy.


 


Most of the time we lift up the one leper who cameback to thank Jesus while the others kept going.  Yes, it is right to lift up a person who is grateful!Expressed gratitude does not always happen, does it? How many times has Godblessed you with the answer to your prayers? And did you return thanks? How manytimes did you forget? “Thank you” is one of the most overused and underusedsentiments in English. I hear people say, “Thanks so much” because an employeehanded them their fast food order through a drive-through window! By contrast,I remember in my grandfather’s men’s clothing store, when a sale was made the employeewould say “Thank you for yourbusiness!” These days I even find myself thanking a cashier when she hands memy receipt! Shouldn’t she be thanking me? But thanks, appropriately offered, iswritten or at least thoughtfully expressed, less often than appropriate.


 


The Samaritan came back and 1) praised God, 2) fell atJesus’ feat as if in worship, and 3) verbally thanked him. It was good. Buthere is the part we forget: the other nine were not only following Jesus’direction to the letter, they had the right to approach a priest outside of thetemple, and, if declared clean, could enter the temple to thank God! Fewrealize the Samaritan had no such right. The collegiality that he shared as adiseased patient went away when he returned to society. He was once again aSamaritan, one who could never be declared clean enough to enter the temple.The other nine were just doing as directed; and as faithful Jews they wouldhave longed to be in good stead with God again. They would absolutely have beenglad to say, after being declared clean by the priest, “Let us go into thehouse of the Lord!” But the Samaritan had no temple to go to. Or did he? Didthe Samaritan return to treat Jesus as a human temple, a vessel of God? Jesushad shown him compassion, grace, and mercy; if he were to follow protocol, hisclean pronouncement could not come from Jewish priests; he had to assume he wasclean only by the words of the one he called Master. To show his worshipfulapproach, he put his head to the ground. No one would do that except to honorGod. And then, through Jesus, he gave thanks to God.


 


The outsider behaved more gratefully than the insiders! It’s not so unusual. When our children were growing upthey would rarely clear their plate or help with dishes at their own house unlessasked. They were insiders in our family. It was only as an “outsider” that is,a guest in the home of a friend, that they found their manners! The parentswould call us and say “What well-mannered children you have! They joined us inprayers, were so polite, thanked us for the meal, cleared their plate, andhelped with the dishes!”


 


 Nineinsiders forgot to say thank you, or show gratitude. And Jesus noticed. Yourown children may fail to thank you or show you gratitude. And parents notice.Workers notice any lack of gratitude from bosses; bosses notice it fromworkers; friends notice it from friends. Gratitude is a huge step away from anattitude of entitlement; but a bigger step is turning gratitude into anattitude that leads to actions ofthankfulness. Many people are willing to offer gifts, or blessings, or go theextra mile once, but few will do it again for an ungrateful person.


 


The temple in Jerusalem no longer stands. But we areChristians, and Jesus let us know that his new temple is his resurrected self,and he lives in the hearts of believers. It is through him that we praise, andthrough him that we show our thankfulness. Have you remembered to demonstrate your thankfulness to Jesus? to family members? togift givers? Gratitude so pleases gift-givers. Today it took the actions of agrateful outsider to remind us of how grateful even insiders can be.


 


Jeffrey A. SumnerOctober 10, 2010

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LEARNING FROM LUKE: FAITH


Luke 17: 1-10


 


After several weeks of three act plays that we callparables, today we find Jesus’ brief advice in four areas in just 10 verses (ifwe start with verse 1) These short, staccato sayings remind me of “The CountryCommandments” that I received in an e-mail from Cecil Rice who was proud tohave shared them! Instead of the usual sentences that make up the more wordyregular version of the Ten Commandments, the Country Commandments are these:


One God; No hankerin’ for other’s stuff; no cussin’,Sunday go to meetin’, no killin’; mind your ma and pa; no cheatin’; nostealin’, no gossipin’; no idols. It’s plain and simple, ain’t it? J Today we get four short sentences of wisdom fromJesus; they are not apparently connected to each other, yet each claim buildson the last one.  Let’s begin.


“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come but woe toanyone by whom they come.” Translation: Do not cause someone else to sin. Howmight someone cause another to sin?Out of love, friendship or even coercion, a girl might turn her testpaper in such a way that her neighbor can copy off of it. That’s an example.Another example: a boy who normally is kind and caring is part of a group thatconvinces him to become a bully toward a new boy in order to fit in. That’s anexample. Adults do it as well. A male boss who tries to create a personalrelationship with one of his married female co-workers is trying to causesomeone else to sin. That warning of Jesus fits many life experiences. He thenwarns:


“It would be better for you if a millstone was hungaround your neck and you were thrown into the sea, than for you to cause one ofthese little ones to stumble.” Translation: the causer is in more trouble withGod than the sinner!” Little ones are not just children, they are all peoplewho are new to the faith. The breaking of commandments is the definition ofhuman sinfulness from the time of the Exodus on. It happens; but for those who causeor coax others to sin, theconsequences are most severe. Coax someone else into sinfulness at your owneternal peril.


Jesus intensifies the consequences: “If anotherdisciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, youmust forgive.” This is the “we’re all in this together” teaching. “If we knowof a sin, it is our heavenly responsibility to address it.  I really don’t like this proclamationof Jesus! It’s hard enough keeping my own life in order rather than beingresponsible if someone else sins!Because of this statement, gangs can be a cesspool of sins since oneperson will not “rat out” or tell on another. If friendships go that far anddon’t confront dark actions a friend is doing, the one who says nothing is anaccomplice in a cover-up. But God sees it! How many sins do you see a day? Doyou watch people take things that are not theirs? That’s stealing. Do you watchthem break things that are not theirs to break, and they tell you not to tell? Inall cases, being a witness gives us a burden that trumps our hope that we canjust forget what we saw.  To makeit doubly hard, in the climate of our workplaces and classrooms, no one likes asnitch. But this verse is not about telling an authority (although some caseswarrant that it’s about addressing the offender. This is extremely hard, isn’tit? And Jesus makes it even harder, even for the disciples: “If the same personsins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says,‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” You are in good company if you think thisrequest goes too far or asks too much. Although Jesus addresses his discipleswho are present, and us who are listening in, according to Luke it is his Ateam that says no matter how much faith they have, if they have to do that, then they need more of it! Verse 5: “The Apostles said to the Lord, ‘Give us more faith!’ And Jesus says, you don’t need more faith! You already have plenty of faith for whatI’ve just asked you to do! You just aren’t using the faith you have! That’sreally what verse six says with its words about the faith of a mustard seed anda mulberry tree. Even if you have the tiniest amount of faith, when it is addedto life, (like when concentrated cleaner is added to water) it goes a long way!Scientists tell us that we use a fraction of our available brainpower. Ourbrain can do so much more than we ask of it! Now let’s plug in the word faithinstead of brain. “Jesus reminds us that we use a fraction of our availablefaith. We do not need more faith; we need to draw on the faith we have; faith,like a mustard seed, is potent. A little can go a long way if we will engageit.


Then another saying of Jesus’ sayings follows: “Whoamong you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tendingsheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table!’ Wouldyou not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serveme while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink.” Country commandmenttranslation: No matter how hard you work in someone’s house, you are still a servantin the house and not the owner. Therefore no matter what good things you do inGod’s kingdom, you are still a childof God and not God. Today we do not have a concept of first century slavery. First,it was generally not harsh; second, you did not have to be wealthy to have one;and third it was accepted in the culture. Several people who have lived inLatin America in our day have told me that everyone has a maid or a housekeeperor yardman. When I told them that in our household we generally do that workourselves, they said it would be considered an insult to move to that cultureand not hire workers for tending children or the home or the yard. But Jesus’point is clear, no matter how well a slave works, he will not become themaster; he will just be a slave doing a great job doing what he was hired todo. Even with our best work, we are still sinners who stand in the need offorgiveness. There is no ability to be promoted into an “immunity” status whenit comes to sin. Jesus final words: “Do you thank the slave for doing what wascommanded? No; when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say I wasonly a servant doing my duty!”This one needs cultural translation. I am most grateful for workers whodo their job well because it is expected, not because it is consideredextraordinary. But sadly, in some cases fine work is in short supply. In Jesus’day, there is an expectation for disciples to pray, to be an example, and toshare the word about Jesus with others. Those are not extra credit assignments!They are part of what we take on when we commit to Jesus Christ.


 


Today you will be offered the blessing of the Master –Jesus hosts our communion meal; but because he always models what he wantsfollowers to do, he is also a servant, sharing with those around him. We willnever be the master, but in the company of the Lord, it is our task to serveone another. It is expected, and because he cares for others, it is the rightthing to do. Today, as we are fed in Jesus name, Jesus expects us to, in turn, serve others.


Blessing, and responsibility: they are both part ofthe Lord’s Supper.


 


Jeffrey A. SumnerOctober 3, 2010 

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TORMENTED IN THE FLAMES


Luke 16: 19-31


 


Ah, the story of the rich man and Lazarus: not theLazarus who Jesus raised from the dead, this is a different man in the story.In fact, this man did not exist except in folklore.  This memorable and even troubling story was a folktale fromEgypt that had been told and retold by different teachers and parents and severalcultures. According to Biblical scholar Eduard Schweizer, “the story is basedon an Egyptian tale of a god who becomes the child of earthly parents, to whomhe shows Hades and paradise, where, after the magnificent funeral of the richman, the rich furnishings of his tomb are given to the poor man. [Remember inEgypt the wealth of leaders was put in pyramids with them to be used in theafterlife.] … Influenced by this story, Judaism told of the honorable burial ofa rich tax collector, which rewarded him for his one good deed, while a devout man received a wretchedburial which atoned for his one sin!”(THE GOOD NEWS ACCORDING TO MARK, JohnKnox Press, 1984, p. 260.) Jesus retells this story that he likely heard inboth childhood and adulthood and makes it fit his sermon. Remember the themesregarding Jesus that Luke shares throughout his gospel: 1) Wealth is not theenemy, but greedy and selfish rich people he challenges often. You mightremember the words of a young Mary when she is sharing the news that she’sgoing to give birth to Jesus: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spiritrejoices with God my savior! … He has brought down the powerful from theirthrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things andsent the rich empty away.” (Luke 1: 46, 52, 53)  Again it’s not wealth per se that is on trial, nor people ofwealth. Even Abraham was wealthy. It addresses those who do nothing for thepoor in their life. 2) There will be justice for the poor in their next life ifthey do not get it in this life. And finally, 3) there is a time, usually atdeath, when one’s eternal fate is cast. Therefore Luke’s Jesus and the othercharacters in Luke constantly remind people to change their ways before it istoo late. All of that advice comes to a head when Jesus pulls this story out ofhis memory banks and makes it his own. Remember he has just talked about theparable of the Lost and the parable of the dishonest manager- both three actplays. Here is his next three act play.


 


Though this is a different rich man than was referredto as the master in the last parable, this rich man had status because he wasdressed in purple, the costliest color to produce and therefore the color ofthe rich. He feasted each day, certainly using servants to be at his everybeckoned call.  But as happens whenthere is great wealth and great poverty, there are either security gates orsecurity walls present, both to keep the poor from looking in, but also to keepthe wealthy from having to view the have-nots around them. The rich man hadsuch an arrangement. The word “gate” used here is “pylona,” referring to an imposing grand entrance of a largemansion or estate. That’s as close as the rich man would let the poor man getto him. This is also the only parable of Jesus in which a character is named.In the original Hebrew the poor man’s name is Eliezer which means “God is myhelp.” When the Bible was translated into Latin in the 4th centuryA.D., the name was changed into the Latin term “Lazarus.” To show his greatpoverty, he was covered with sores, which meant he likely was not healed by arabbi nor did he have money for treatments, let alone for food. Like the storyof a Canaanite woman who once told Jesus, “Even dogs eat crumbs that fall fromtheir master’s table” (Matthew 15:27), this man would have sat under the richman’s table and eaten morsels of food that dropped to the floor: he was thathungry. Sometimes we turn away from hungry people, don’t we? When I have seenpeople rummaging through dumpsters at the back of fast food restaurants to gethalf eaten burgers and fries, I have turned away. When I have seen poor menreach down onto a sidewalk, pick up a half smoked cigarette that wasn’t’theirs, and light it and smoke it, I turn away. The rich man also turned awayfrom the sore-covered, destitute man at his gate. Since dogs were consideredunclean and they were licking his sores, this man was unclean: the bottom ofsociety’s human food chain. And the rich man, like many of us, turned away, notwanting to see the man outside of his gate who would gladly have dug through adumpster if he could have. We then learn that the poor man died; there is nomention of a burial, he goes straight to be with Abraham by special angeldelivery. It is an interesting thing about Abraham. He was certainly viewed asa wealthy man by devout Jews, but he was also seen as righteous. To go to thebosom of Abraham was code for paradise. That’s where the poor man went. Therich man, by contrast, died after thepoor man, giving Luke the chance to assert his favorite implication of Jesus:the rich man could have repented andstarted acting with justice and mercy while he was still alive. Instead we haveno record of any change by this man of means. But like rich people in medievaltimes who died of gout, of STDs, or of heart attack or diabetes, he did die; hetoo was mortal. But in his account he died and received a rich man’s burial.  Nowcomes the rest of the story. With no further explanation, the listener iswhisked to the underworld, to Hades, which was the place of the dead. Someaccounts say Hades is just a place of separation from God; but other cultureslike the Jews, call it Gehenna, where fires burn constantly; the Greeks calledit Hell, where consequences of one’smortal actions are meted out. But today what ever one calls it, we’rereferring to the pale of the dead. In the rich man’s place of torment, for thefirst time in his life, he looked up atLazarus instead of down! He looked upto paradise and saw the poor man next to Abraham, and he appealed to Abrahamperhaps not even as a man of faith, but as a fellow man of wealth: He uses atitle of honor to appeal to him: he cried out “Father Abraham (perhaps allying himself as one of God’schosen people) have mercy on me.” But then, the rich man, sometimes calledDives, (again only because dives isthe Latin word for rich, assigned to the text in the 4th century)gave his true self away again: he asks Abraham to again treat Lazarus as theservant he always saw him to be: low class, almost non-human:  send “Lazarus” he says, “to dip hisfinger in the cool waters of paradise and bring them down to my torment and letthe water drops sizzle as they drop onto my burning tongue and body! I’mtormented in the flames!” Even inHades the rich man is treating Lazarus as merely an errand boy! But, Abraham’svoice, like a premonition, reminds him that he had his good things on earth,and now the consequences are agony; Lazarus had agony on earth and now hisblessing is comfort. There are no strings the rich man can pull or demands hecan make that can make the one in charge—Abraham—change the consequences of hislife-long actions.


 


We now reach the third and final point of the story:At death, one’s eternal fate is cast.Even as the rich man tries to work the angles that worked for him andprotected his wealth on earth, it works no more after death. Abraham, by meansof explanation says “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed (a hugedivide), so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so,and no one can cross from there to us.” What irony. The man, who lived witha huge gate and walled off estate in his lifetime, now would give anything toget out of the huge gate and walled off torment that now imprisons him. This is an ultimate morality play, for although bothof the main characters in the play have died and their fate is cast in stone, thereare some whose fate has not yet been decided. Can you tell whose fate is notyet decided? Why, it’s the listener’s isn’t it; it’s the living listeners inhis day and through the ages, and now we are the listeners! We are the onestaking in this three act play and finding that it is not too late for you, orfor me, to make changes in our lives!It is not too late for us to change our destiny because of our choices. Ourfree will choices matter, and they either please or displease God who has aheart for all.


 


Our world today has an alarming trend toward the richgetting richer and the poor getting poorer with a shrinking middle class. Ournational leaders would do well to enable our middle class to become bigger andmore stable. We will need God’s help and Biblical wisdom. But if you wonder howyou can help the Lazaruses of our day: know that the children in our SundaySchool last week made snack bags for hungry children who come to school with nobreakfast. We have members, who, once a month, feed more than 200 people atHalifax Urban Ministries feeding programs, serving food to hundreds ofLazaruses. We also have members who help staff the HUM food pantry in PortOrange. And we support missionaries feeding desperate people in foreign lands.Now we are already beginning to prepare youth for a mission trip of help nextsummer. So your financial or physical support of your church helps you feedhungry people. But you may see another opportunity, a personal opportunity,this week or the next when you can help someone else in need. If that happens,the halls of heaven will ring with joy.     Jeffrey A. SumnerSeptember 26, 2010

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AN ECONOMIC LESSON FOR TODAY


Luke 16: 1-13


 


There are many old sayings that are not necessarilygood.  For example, when someonesays “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” does it mean his arm istrapped and he’s about to cut it off with a pocketknife, or does it mean that aman with no money decides to rob a convenience store and in his escape, runsover an innocent bystander? What is good about desperate times? And how manydesperate measures pan out to be more foolish than brilliant? In our day, thedreadful economy has made people do, or consider doing, foolish things.  People who’ve had a mortgage they couldno longer pay simply walked away from it and the bank foreclosed on them.Foolish or brilliant? The bank could have tried to negotiate for differentterms, but in most cases no negotiation occurs. Foolish or brilliant? If therewere negotiation, the bank would have gotten less money instead of no money, and the homeowners would havepaid less money now but stretching out the terms of the mortgage, still had ahome in which to live. In my neighborhood, and the house next door to our sonChris, and perhaps in your neighborhood, there are foreclosed properties withchoking weeds, high grass, cracked cement, and mildewed eaves: just anotherhouse in foreclosure.  Some peopledeclare bankruptcy as a last resort option. Foolish or brilliant?  I know people who did that; for some itwas exactly the right move for a desperate time, for other, not so much. This yearI think more copper tubing has been stolen and sold than any other time inrecent history! Crimes could continue to rise as people choose desperatemeasures. But there are other choices that are not criminal:  some families move in together,choosing shared meals and living space over law-breaking.  Some families have an unemployed dad goto stand in a labor pool line at 3:00 am each day when the office not even openuntil 5:00 am. All because there will not be a job for every man in line thatday. They do it have a chance at a $7.70 an hour job. Dad then comes homeexhausted and will do it again tomorrow, but his moral fiber is intact and hishard work has earned a meager wage.I have seen those who have lost their job hold those signs on streetcorners, start working at a fast food restaurant, or find extra seasonal workaround the holiday. Others have found out hotels continue to have employment turnoversand in the housekeeping department. What are the measures you or your familymembers are taking to deal with your desperate times?


 


In today’s story, like last week’s about the parablesof the lost, the context tells us much about the meaning. In one breath, Jesus hasfinished his last story. Quoting the father’s speech to his older son about thejoy he has in having his younger son return home. Jesus then continues with ourstory today. Our passage starts with: “Then Jesus said,” and we get today’sstory.  At a seminar on end of lifeissues at Stetson University on Friday, I was reminded of a lesson I learned onhospital visitation from a chaplain: he said, “Never take the emotions orinformation, good or bad, out of one room when you leave and carry it in to thenext room.” He was so right. Many of us, when we leave one hospital room,either walk around the floor to clear our heads, or wash our hands and at thesame time, to purge our recent experience so we are ready for the new one. As wemove to this new parable from chapter 15 to chapter 16, we cannot carry thecharacters from the last one into this one. Whereas the Father in the last storyhas been equated convincingly with God over the years and listeners oftenidentify with one of the sons or the father, this story has an entirelydifferent cast; it is not a second act of the same play. Here we have a richman who is described as an owner of property who, like many people, got amanager to take care of the property and collect the rent.  You perhaps have run into this. I knowsmall business owners in shopping centers and strip malls that, when they havea complaint, do not talk with the owner, who may be across town, across thecountry, or across the globe reaping income, they talk with the man hired to bethe go-between: the manager. In this case we should think twice beforeassigning any roll of crookedness to the rich man; he was doing business andhad a report, false or not, about his manager skimming money from him. So hecalls him in to the office: “What’s this I hear? Turn in your books, you cannotwork here any more.” The action of the rich man is not the point of the story. Butwe are now invited into the thought process of the employee. Some of you havebeen laid off or terminated in these tough times. But desperate times are lessdesperate with carefully considered measures to deal with income loss. Themanager says to himself: “What am I going to do?” We would do well not to takethe next lines as truth, but more as truth as the caught man sees things. Hesays, “I am not strong enough to dig!” Isn’t he? If he were forced to dig,could he? Or would he just rather not dig? Has his pride gotten in the way as the color of his color whenfrom white to blue; from management to laborer? Is that too much for his ego?Is the idea of pushing dirt instead of paper unseemly? Or could he apply for anew job under his pay grade to put food on his table? He’s not ready to dothat; so he slips into “desperate measures” mode. He also cuts out thepossibility of begging as well, even though, from what I have seen at the endof exit ramps and intersections, it must pay something or they wouldn’t standout there day after day. When visiting Jenny and Brian three weeks ago, I wasshocked to see beggars on street corners wearing reflective vests! When I askedabout it, I was told that beggars actually register with the city and are assignedreflective vests to wear and street corners on which to stand! Begging is controlledby registering them and giving them a place to stand! Who would do it day afterday if it didn’t pay something? But this manager cannot see hanging up hiswhite shirt and tie. So he does something dishonest, believing that his bosscan’t hurt him more than he already has (wrong), and that he can make newfriends who might employ him later. He lets those who owe his boss money givehim less money and puts “paid in full” on the bill. It’s a desperate measure.But people are opportunists. Yes, he got people to take his deal for now. Butwould any one of them really want to hire him knowing that he would just aslikely be unethical if he worked for them as well?  The manager used his position to enhance his presentcondition, but he was dooming his future even more. Martin Luther took thetitle in verse 8 (kyrios) which literally means lord, to mean the Lord Jesus,thereby making it sound as if Jesus blessed the dishonest manager. But there isanother interpretation. The word (kyrios) is not capitalized in verse 9 andthus the NIV and NRSV among other translations decide the word should be masterto keep from thinking the reference is to the Lord Jesus. In that case thetitle would refer back to the manager’s boss: the rich man. You might imagehim, who no longer employees this man, finding out from his new accountant whathis fired manager did. Imagine him pulling the manager aside saying “Off therecord, what you did was quick thinking. I might have done that if I were inyour shoes.” So the parable in that case would not have a hero in the cast ofcharacters at all; it just has a man trying to win points with customersthrough money, that wasn’t his with which to negotiate in the first place! Weshould not be sucked into the idea that such a lying man is commended by Jesus.But Jesus always wanted to make his audience think, and his stories masterfullyleave the audience to put their own epilogue on his three act plays. The masterfinishes his speech in verse 9; only in verse 10 do we certainly get thecomments of Jesus again. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful inmuch.” Could that not mean that if you are even honest and humble enough to getin a labor pool line in pitch darkness for $7.70 an hour, then you will begiven more by the one above you, and those around you, who are watching? “Andwhoever is dishonest in small areas also will have no qualms about beingdishonest in big areas.” If you will lower the bill another man owes yourformer boss after you are already fired, how much more will you do dishonestlyif given the opportunity? As Jesus says, “If you have not been faithful withdishonest wealth, who will entrust true riches to you?” “True riches?” Thatsounds like Heaven talk. Jesus message from this parable might sound somethinglike this: “Do you want to risk sacrificing your soul for just a few dollars?”Do you want to see the look of disappointment in the eyes of your God when youmanipulate for money?” And then Jesus goes on in hyperbolic fashion: “If youwant to sell your soul for money, then money you will serve and worship. Youwill be lost like that manager. But, ifyou want to serve God, then work hard, work smart, but choose the high road.”


 


How important is it to read Jesus’ parables carefullyand not fall into well-worn interpretations of what they say? What would it sayto unemployed people if Jesus blessed dishonesty? There has to be a differentway to look at these amazing parables of Jesus. There is. We will continue tounpack them in weeks ahead. May desperate times not always call for desperatemeasures for you, especially when it comes to money.


Jeffrey SumnerSeptember 19, 2010

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THE PANIC OVER LOSING SOMETHING


Luke 15: (1-10)


 


As a student in high school science class, in biologywe dissected a frog; in chemistry class, we mixed chemicals in the lab, beingsupervised so we would not mix two chemicals that would create some toxic gas! Alsoin Junior High my father and I had our 18 year old lawn mower engine fail.Instead of getting a new one, he used that event for a bonding time: we went tothe lawn supply store and bought new rings and a piston and spark plug. We wentto the library and borrowed a Briggs and Stratton engine repair book. We tookseveral weeks one winter rebuilding the engine of the mower. Surgeons alsobenefit from studying cadavers to learn how we are put together, just asmechanics and scientists benefit from repair or experiences. But what about atheologian; what about a student of the Bible? Today I invite you to join me inthe Biblical laboratory. It is good to read our Bibles; but for life lessonsthat impact us best, it is better to learn the back stories of passages likeLuke 15 by dissecting or dismantling them.


 


First, these three stories about lost-ness mostcertainly should be read as a group.In most church services like today, an entire chapter is not read, but we mustinclude each story.


Second, each story not only says something aboutwhat or who is lost, it also says something about the finder (searcher).


And third, more than a story about a sheep or acoin can describe, the last story talks about the loss of what is mostprecious: in Jesus’ day it was a father and a son and the panic that could setin when either one lost the other.Let’s begin.


 


First, these three stories about lost-ness mostcertainly should be read as a group. In the first story read today, the one wholost something was a shepherd; in the second story it was a woman; in the laststory it is a father. In the first story that which was lost was a sheep; inthe second story it was a coin; in the third story it was a son. Like any goodstoryteller, Jesus builds the tension in the stories. Stories, like some jokes,build descriptive tension by telling examples in threes. For example, I haveheard countless jokes featuring a minister, a priest, and a rabbi. Mostchildren have grown up with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, includingmama bear, papa bear and baby bear. In the folk story the bears have a cottagethat the young Goldilocks enters. She tries their porridge, sits in theirchairs, and lies down in their beds.In the story of the Three Little Pigs, each pig finds a man from whom tobuy building equipment to make a small home in which they each could live. Asyou probably recall, one built his house out of straw, one out of wood, and oneout of bricks. A big bad wolf happened to come to each of their houses, (remember,it’s a story!)  asking foradmission to eat each one! One by one he visits their houses, blowing down thefirst two and eating the pigs! Only the third one was safe.  The first two examples in each story arecomparisons; the last example is the one where the story is leading. So today, aswith the pattern of stories told before and after Jesus’ parables of the lost,we have a story with three sections to bring tension and resolution to theplot.


 


Second, each story not only says something about whator who is lost, it also says something about the finder. In 1stcentury Galilee, the first story is that shows value. In those days a shepherd was one of the poorest paidand least educated of workers, but a shepherd would be still counted as aperson and not property, therefore making him a person of value.  In the next story it is a coin that islost. This is a least value storybecause a coin is worth less than a sheep or a son. The searcher in this storyis a woman, a person who was of least value in that day. In those days womenwere property who brought a price for their work, and brought a price when theymarried. In the last case, the father was a person of great value in that day. He provided for his family, contributedwisdom and work for the betterment of his community, and he taught the faithand his trade to his oldest son- the next most important person in the familyof that day.  Jesus has three partsto his story about lost-ness: valuable, less valuable, most valuable.


 


Third, more than a story about a sheep or a coin candescribe, the last story talks about the loss of what is most precious: a humanbeing, yes, but in Jesus’ day that loss of a son was tragic, and the panic thatlikely filled the heart of both the father (the searcher) and the son (thelost) was the point.  The lastsegment of Jesus’ parable is surely where he was leading his listeners in Luke15. But Jesus has to get his listeners there first, so he tells his earlierstories. He starts with a story of a valuable person—a shepherd—and avaluable animal—a sheep. In the firstsegment, a shepherd—charged with guarding and feeding sheep—panicked over hispossible loss of job, reputation, and income when he lost a sheep. Even onelost sheep is not an acceptable loss to whoever the owner is, so the shepherdsets out to look for the lost animal. When he finds the panicked sheep, theanimal is exhausted, but the shepherd’s mind goes back to the flock he leftbehind. So having compassion, he picks up the lost sheep and in a shepherd’scarry, brings the lost sheep back to the fold. We know a sheep, unlike a coin,is a living and breathing animal that can feel panic and loss. But sheep areincapable of making choices that are morally right or wrong. Sheep are some ofthe least bright of creatures that God created! They always need a shepherd orthey can’t survive. That’s why the Bible often describes us as sheep andJesus as shepherd: hoping to instill in us that we simply can’t survive withouta savior! But that is still not thecrux of Jesus’ story. Before the last segment is told, Jesus inserts the storyof less value- the woman and the coin. How many of us know the panic that canset in when you have lost your wallet while shopping, lost a paycheck in yourhouse when bills are due, or lost your car keys when you are far away from home?  Doesn’t your heart start to race, yourhead start to pound, and your thoughts start to get muddled!  You might feel embarrassed and not callanyone until you have retraced your steps in the shopping center, your home, orthe parking lot. But when you find what you lost, don’t you feel relieved andoverjoyed? Have you once called someone to share your joy at finding what youlost? That’s what Jesus imagines as a shrewd observer of human nature. Butnotice the coin in his story cannot feel lost, or afraid, or alone. Coins arenot living objects! They are notbreathing! A sheep and a shepherd are closer to be main point but there isstill not an analogous connecting with a person and with God … yet.


 


  The cruxof the story is the parent and child segment; and, as I said, in the firstcentury the most valuable family members were the father and his sons accordingto birth order. The story shows a father, who is patient and loving, while hisyoungest son is having a time of youthful indiscretion. Although not spoken, welearn that the father has been concerned, even panicked, about his missingyounger son.  When the sonappears, the father, in a swift and certain move to protect him from hisneighbors who would have stoned the boy for treating his father with suchdisrespect, ran … ran inhis robes to embrace the boy, implying to the town that reconciliation hadtaken place when, in fact, it hadn’t. The father was dreadfully upsetover his child being lost, with his whereabouts and condition unknown.  The son was not concerned about hisfather at all, until the big bad world emptied his pockets and made himdesperate enough to eat pig food.Only when he hit his personal bottom did he return to his father, noteven expecting to be treated as family, but to be treated as property. (“Treatme as one of your servants”). And so by the end of the story, the father’s grace more than the son’s remorse reconciled the youngestson to him and saved the son from the harsh treatment the village would haveshown him. But the father’s work wasn’t done yet. He now had the work ofbegging his older son to come into the house to celebrate with him. He wantedto share joy with special people, telling them that his son who was lost wasnow found! But in the end the father is left begging for his oldest son to comein the house too! The twist at the end of the story is ironic: the lost son inthe father’s celebration is no longer the younger one, but the older one.


 


Now we move to 21st century reflection. Inour day our work is important and what we have been entrusted to care for isalso important. In addition money is important, and women are vital parts ofstrong families, churches, professions, and communities. The one who is valuedthe most in our day is not just fathers, but also mothers, and grandfathers,and grandmothers. The children who are valued most in our day are not alwayssons, but also daughters and grandsons and granddaughters. But the analogy isthe same:  God, the Heavenly Parent,gets an unsettled heart when beloved children get lost physically, or emotionally,or spiritually. When a sheep, or a coin, or a child is lost, it is the searcherwho gets the most panicked until the lost is found! God, the Heavenly Parent,didn’t just hope we would one day want to make our home in heaven. In ourlost-ness, God came running down over pastureland in the little town ofBethlehem a long, long time ago, to enter our world; to dwell with us where weare. All we’ve had to do all along is just turn back; and there on life’s road,the Heavenly Father will meet us. God offers that to any of you, or those whoyou know, who are today lost in some way. Remember, when you drift away fromGod, you may not start to panicuntil you get in trouble. But in God’s eyes, the minute the back of your precious head disappears over thehorizon, God feels your loss. It could be that your far country is doing otherthings on Sunday, or deciding to be spiritual instead of religious, or playinginstead of praising, or other far country activities. When that happens, God’s eyeslong to see you again, and God’s heart beats faster until you come back intothose everlasting arms. As panicked as you might get over getting lost, theheart of the Holy One is both broken and frantically worried about children, who like sheep, wander into many dangers, toils,and snares. God, like a father whowaits for the return of his son, God watches the horizon for lost ones toreappear, making their way back from their far country chaos. God chose to meetus in our chaos. And God longs to be reconnected with wandering children of thekingdom, including you, and others who, in God’s eyes, are lost. There are eventhose who, like the older brother, may think they are close to God, but whosehearts betray them. They too are lost.  And oh, what a reunion it is when the ones who were once lostare found, falling back into the embracing and loving arms of God, arms thatseemingly do not want to ever let them go again. Amen.


 


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                             September12, 2010

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PAUL’S SHORTEST BIBLICAL LETTER


Philemon 1-21


 


In reading the Biblical stories, especially about theApostle Paul, we are reminded of the ways that people treated prisoners: ironbars, limited food, harsh conditions. In our day, due to jail overcrowding, sentencesget woefully reduced to the detriment of society. Yet conditions behind barsare much more humane than they were 100 years ago in America or 400 years agoin Europe. Visits to sites like the Tower of London remind us of a time ofbeheadings or worse.  But therehave been places for prisoners in every society of every age. Today we arehearing not just about Paul being a prisoner (as he was an awful lot!) but alsoabout one of his cellmates, a slave.Unless we are reading Huckleberry Finn or Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or unlesswe have tuned to the History Channel, we don’t think much about slaverytoday.  At the end of the service,however, we will sing a beloved song, Amazing Grace, written by a man who transportedand disciplined slaves who were aboard his ship- John Newton. In a wave of hugeremorse and confession, he asked God to forgive him, and when he believed thatGod did, Newton wrote the words to his most famous hymn.  So yes, there have been people inbondage over the ages, and there arestill those in bondage around the world.Some are in iron shackles; some have a tracking device on their person;some are in abusive relationships; some did not get to file proper restrainingorders. And some are in the horrendous slavery of prostitution or childpornography. Prisoners of war often are, and have been, treated like slaves, orworse.  Do you know some people whofeel shackled in some way? Do you, in some way, feel shackled?  Some who can no longer see well, feelconstrained when they wish they could drive. Some who have lost their hearing,feel constrained when their hearing cuts them out of conversations.  Those experiences are confining; butthere are places in our world where people are captured and brutalized; andduring Biblical times we know that people bought and sold slaves and property,denying them their human dignity. And let’s just name it: the United States isnot a stranger to slavery. So as we hear this story about a slave, perhaps wehear it with the humanizing literary license that Mark Twain used with Jim, arunaway slave, but that would be a mistake. In this short letter from prison,Paul is a prisoner, but his status as a Roman citizen gives him authority, histraining by the great Rabbi Gamaliel gives him wisdom, and his Christianitygives him the courage to make a bold request. Paul is selflessly thinking aboutOnesimus, who he says has become like a son to him. He has already planted theidea of God as Father in verse 3 to open the suggestion of familyrelationships. He refers to Onesimus as “his child” in verse 10 which opens thedoor to an otherwise unexpected request to Philemon in verse 16: to welcome hisslave back as a brother.  He feelsprotective about his life, and proud that he has been transformed by thegospel. Paul is testing the waters; if Onesimus is released into the hands of aharsh slave owner, he is seeing if he might instead convince Philemon to make ahuge leap: that welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ instead of property. Ifnot, Onesimus could do better work for Christ along side of Paul. Paul isclever with his wording, and shows a mastery of the ways of winning people. Weare most fortunate to have this personal letter of his.


 


From these 25 verses, what is Paul doing? Isn’t he, insome ways, doing what you and I have done before? Isn’t he going to bat forsomeone who cannot bat for himself because he has no standing or status? Isn’the willing to pay the price for any wrong that transpired that got him intothis situation? What a Christ-like thing Paul says: “Welcome him as you wouldwelcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge thatto my account.” Can you think of times when you have paid the price for thewrong someone else has done? I can think of those times; as a parent, as afriend, as a worker, as a student, sometimes we are presented with a bind thatwe think we can fix. We say, “I did it” when someone else did wrong; or we say“I’ll pay for it” when someone else should pay. At other times, we let anotherperson take the consequences. Sometimes haven’t you also made emotionalsacrifices for someone else? Paul not only pulls out his wallet, he pulls outhis heart with it. Then, to show he means it, he says “I, Paul, am writing thiswith my own hand; I will repay it.” Why, that’s as good as a signature with anotary!  And then he shares thenews of his impending freedom with instructions that some people would dread:“Prepare your guest room for me! I am hoping you and we’ll continue ourfriendship!”


 


 Jesussays something similar to each one of us. First of all, knocks on the door ofeach of our hearts. Some have already invited him in to stay there; others haveyet to do so; others may never do it. But today, Jesus invites us those whohave opened that door to share the meal that he has prepared! It is a HolyCommunion meal; and like the meal that Paul hopes will one day soon includePhilemon, and Onesimus, and Paul, all are invited by the grace of the Lord JesusChrist.


 


Today I conclude with this; there are people, eventoday, who have paid financially and emotionally for someone else whose lifehas gotten broken or out of control. There is a Lord who ransomed the souls ofdead slaves and the repentant heart of slave-ship captain named John Newtonages ago and he put his gratitude down on paper with a song called “AmazingGrace.”  There is also a Lord whotook the nails for us! And we are blessed to have the God of great love whohears people like you, and me, and the Apostle Paul, pleading the case of yetanother lost soul: of one who is a slave to materialism, or a slave to atyrant, or a slave to a foreign regime, or a slave to a drug, or a slave to arelationship, who out of amazing grace puts people in our path to show us theway to wholeness.  To all of thosepeople, who turn to Christ, both the lost and the found, the Lord says “Come.The room has been prepared; the table has been set. Let this be a day of newbeginnings for you!”



Jeffrey A. SumnerSeptember 5, 2010  

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STORM WARNING


Luke 12: 49-56


 


The comic strip of the cavemen pals “Frank and Ernest”is one I have enjoyed over the years. One time Frank was coming out of theircave with a club and Ernest was with him. Their faces were grim. Ernest said:“I am worried about the future all the time.” Frank says in reply, “Yeah, I’mworried all the time too. I wish we’d never invented the future tense!”  Like it or not, every one of us has afuture. There are some people who think everything in the future is in God’shands- that by God’s providence there is little we can do to change things.There are others who believe that their destiny is in their own hands and it isup to them to either sink or swim in the future. And still others believe inGod’s steady hand in bringing the future upon us, and that God wants us toprepare to face what comes our way. Today Jesus teaches his listeners to casttheir assumptions aside, and to prepare for what they see coming, not for whatthey think is coming. What was onthe first century minds when Jesus was with them?  It will sound familiar: taxes, concerns about governmentleaders, fear of changing weather conditions, anxiety about children being ableto earn a living or be matched with a good spouse when they were ready, andfearing that they didn’t have enough money for food and clothing. It is prudentfor us to listen in to their lessons from Jesus, some of which are our lessonsfor today as well.


 


“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish itwere already kindled!” What can our Savior mean with those words? Some havesuggested that the metaphor refers to the gospel message. What if the gospelmessage had been already kindled, that is, already lighted? As we saw in thefires of 1998 in Florida, great fires can be frightening and destructive. Somefires begin with carelessness like with a tossed match or a stove left onunattended. But other fires, like controlled burns, are started deliberately.Gasoline engine cars will not fire without a spark. Outdoor grills, whetherwood or charcoal or gas, need a spark to start. Our world, like the world ofancient Jerusalem, is filled with chaff, that is, dry leftover grain ordestructive weeds- people who are useless, destructive, or even evil. Haven’tyou known some Christian families who so damp with their zeal for Christ, solethargic, anemic, and lukewarm about their church that even a spark could notignite their passion for Jesus? Jesus, it seems to me, sees not onlycorruption, but also complacency; he sees apathy and fear. Certainly as inJudah, he could point out some stellar examples in zeal in his day as he couldin ours! But I think Jesus also sees the poor examples of discipleship in ourworld today because I see them too! You can’t get a commitment out of somepeople when it comes to Jesus no matter how hard one tries; but when it comesto other areas of interest. Commitment abounds. Jesus is ready for a fire! Heis ready for a Holy Ghost fire!One day, tragically, a long time ago, a declining church building in themiddle of a town burned to the ground.A sarcastic man in the community looked on from a distance asfirefighters battled the flames. He said to his neighbor: “Wow! I’ve never seenthat church on fire about anything!”I have pictured Christ looking on at some church services in our day fromacross the street, because he wants no part of compromised, damp, or lethargicChristianity. “What would he say if we made our commitments to him clear, andunequivocal, and fervent: “Would he say “I’ve never seen you on fire about Godbefore!” Jesus is looking for a fire, a fire in us, and he wishes it werealready started. Perhaps it is inyou.


Next he says “I have a baptism with which to bebaptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” How does one whowas baptized for us as an example have a baptism still before him?  As those who fight for their country,or give an organ to a loved one or stranger, or give their savings to pullsomeone else out of the jaws of bankruptcy, many people “sacrifice” themselvesfor someone else. Jesus still had a sacrifice before him, an immersion intogiving life for someone else. There is another route besides sacrifice: it iscontribution. Some contribute to helping others with words like “I’ll pray foryou,” or “Give me a call if I can help.” But others say “Move over on thatcouch; I will care for and feed you and stay with you.” It is sacrificial, andsometimes it can pull a caregiver under the overwhelming flood. There is an oldstewardship message of a pig and a chicken walking down a road. They come upona family that is without food and starving. “What do you think we should doabout this?” the pig asked the chicken. “I think we should help them out,” thechicken said. “ I have eggs and you have pork! What do you say?”  To which the pig replied, I’m not sosure: if you offer eggs it’s a contribution. But if I offer pork, it’s quite asacrifice!”  Plenty are willing tooffer a contribution. But how many will sacrifice for their faith? Jesus’baptism that he faced was a metaphor for the cross. In effect he said, “I havea sacrificial death to face, and I feel its weight until it is accomplished.”This is the example of Christ. There are times we will sacrifice for our faith,and other days we just make a contribution.  “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?”Jesus then asked his disciples, and we listen in. “I am just sure that many ofus, and perhaps three-fourths of his disciples, would answer “Yes! I do think you have come to bring peace! We call youPrince of Peace! If you are the true Messiah shouldn’t you be bringing peace?” Perhapsreading that the Messiah brings peace, as the prophets believed, was a naïveview of God breaking in to this world. If you shift your loyalty from earthlykings to the King of Kings, do you think peace will ensue instead of financialor personal consequences?  If youshift your money from giving to Caesar (like withholding taxes) to giving toGod instead, do you think it will bring peace when you are arrested for taxevasion? Jesus gives a reality check to followers: down the line, when weare safely in God’s Kingdom, there will be safety and peace and joy. Butgetting there has its price. Evenprophets of old saw the conflicts. Micah once proclaimed: “For the son treatsthe father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, and thedaughter in law against her mother in law; your enemies are members of your ownhousehold. But as for me, I will look toward the Lord, I will wait for the Godof my salvation” (7: 6-7) And Malachi, in speaking about the coming of thegreat day of the Lord says “The prophet will turn the hearts of parents totheir children and hearts of children to their parents, so that the land willnot be cursed instead.” (4:6)


Before we come out on the other side, we will gounder the deep waters; before we come out on the open meadowland, we will gothrough forests that are ablaze. Thereis a cost, a sacrifice, and a commitment to live the Christian life.


 


We in our day and age are blessed with Doplar radarand other modern devices that let us see clouds, tornadoes, and hurricanes asthey form. Even with modern devices and years of experience, my weathercastershave told me to take an umbrella when I didn’t need it, and they’ve told me tolook to the skies with the promise of a sunny day and I got raindrops on myface! Weather is not a perfect science, but even in Jesus day, they knew somegeneral signs that warned them to get ready. When they saw clouds forming inthe west, they could almost be assured that rain was on the way. When they felthot wind from the south, they knew that strong sirocco-like winds were on theirway. We don’t need a degree in meteorology to know the basics: if we seelightning, wise people move indoors; if our weather radios sound an alarm, wisepeople stop and listen. If we read that a hurricane is approaching, we rush outfor supplies. We can do those things. Jesus wonders if people notice and respondto weather so well, why can’t we respond to the times? I am noticing moreextreme weather, whether from God or from global warming. That means I readyfor the strange weather patterns I have seen this summer, where the Midwest wassteadily hotter than Florida for a time, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Arkansas have beenflooded, and a glacier three times the size of Manhattan has broken loose and isdrifting. Jesus says if we can see those weather signs and prepare, we shouldlearn how to read the times: is there fighting in families: check; is their waramong nations: check; is there economic meltdown: check. Isn’t it possible thatpeople should be turning to God more instead of putting God in second place? Dothe things going on in your life make you want to lean on those everlastingarms even more, or to pull away? With all that is in the headlines in our day,does it, or does it not occur to you to prepare for the time when you will meetthe Lord?  There are signseverywhere; but some people don’t even have enough sense to come out of therain.


 


Jeffrey A. Sumner                     August15, 2010

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“Searched and Known”


 


You might have noticed I havestrayed off lectionary for this morning. Well at the end of July I attended aconference with a number of our youth that was called Into the Wild. Theconference was about the wilderness that each of us face in our lives everyday. During the conference we talked about the two texts I have chosen fortoday along with a number of others. I thought the lessons we learned wereimportant enough to share with all of you, hence my detour off of lectionaryfor today.

The first passage from Isaiah, was one that we talkedabout during our evening worship. I have heard this passage from Isaiah manytimes, as I’m sure have all of you. But I heard it in an entirely new wayduring the conference. I’ve always heard the voice crying in the wilderness.Haven’t you?

Well, actually, it can be read as A voice crying out.And what the voice cries out is “In the wilderness, prepare a way for theLord.” The voice isn’t in the wilderness, the one who is preparing the wayis.

Isn’t that an odd way to look at it? When we go outon a trip, we tend to prepare BEFORE we get to the wilderness. When I went onthe trip with the youth, I didn’t think about packing after we had left. No, Ipacked ahead of time (admittedly it was the night before, but it still wasahead of time.) We try to prepare before we get to the wilderness.

Yet this voice tells us to prepare in the wilderness.Why? Because we are already in that wilderness. Look around at the world. Welive in a deep wilderness. Wilderness is a word used many times in the Bible.It is meant to be a place without rules, a place away from others. Peoplefrequently are traveling there to flee God. Or to speak to God. But it is aprevalent place.

The wilderness is full of the dark places in ourlives. The untamed. The place where unexpected things happen. We all have ourown wilderness that we have dealt with. Or maybe you’re dealing with yours now.A fight with a trusted family member that has gotten out of hand. A strugglewith an addiction. A loss of employment. The breaking down of an importantrelationship in your life. These are our wildernesses. It isn’t all jungle andwild animals.

That’s why the voice tells us that we have to preparein the wilderness. We are all in the wilderness! If we waited until we wereback to a place of safety to prepare away for the Lord, nothing would get done.No one would be able to prepare. Instead we are called to prepare a way for theLord in the mess of our lives. Not when things get calmer. Not when jobs areworked out. Now. In the mess of our lives today, we are called to prepare.

And what are we preparing? We are preparing a way forthe Lord. The Lord will come in glory and rule in our lives.

Not an easy thing to think about. After all, when we aredeep in the wilderness, we don’t necessarily want to share those experienceswith anyone, do we? When we are feeling shamed by what has happened, orembarrassed by our actions to try to solve it. We are a people ofself-reliance. We want to deal with the wilderness by ourselves and not showthe flaws to others.

There’s one small problem with that, which we see inPsalm 139. God already knows. God is with us in that wilderness and God knowsour pain. God knew us before we were born and knows the layout of our days. Godknows the deep secrets we try to hide in our wildernesses. Isaiah is talkingabout listening to God in turn in his passage. Paying attention to God in God’sglory instead of turning away and trying to ignore God’s presence. We can’tkeep God out, the Psalmist talks about that. But we can and do pretend that Godis not present.

I ran across a delightful video on youtube this pastweek by Wendy Francisco. The lyrics begin: “I look up and I see GoD, Ilook down and see my dog. They would stay with me all day. I’m the one whowalks away. But both of them just wait for me and dance at my return with glee.Both love me no matter what, divine God and canine mutt.” The song goesone from there, and I really recommend watching it. But for a God whoseknowledge is too wonderful for me” looking at a beloved dog helps our minds tounderstand God’s enduring love. God is always with us, but we sometimes pushGod away. Forget that God is there.

Why do we do this? Well, it’s not an entirelycomforting thought is it? I mean, there is the joy and delight in knowing thatno matter what happens, we are never ever alone. And there is the shame and theworry that no matter what happens, we are never ever alone. Everyone hassecrets they don’t want to share with anyone. Ones that we just want to beburied. But God already knows those. God knows our inmost thoughts so God knowswhat spurred us into doing them.

By pretending that they are hidden from God, allwe’re doing is holding onto that shame and fears by ourselves. When God iswaiting to help us in the wild, we try to forge ahead, all on our own. Turningback to God, eases the journey. Allows us to be loved and known, even in thedark places.

God knows us. What an awesome thought! One of thebiggest causes of loneliness is the fear that no one really knows you. But Goddoes. You can be completely yourself with God.

That doesn’t mean that its okay to continue with thesins you’ve been hiding because God already knows. By turning back to God, weare loved and embraced, but we also have to acknowledge the wrongs we havedone. God knows you and loves you, but like anyone in love, God wants what’sbest for you. God wants you to grow beyond the limited space you have allowedyourself. God wants you be the best you, you can be. And God knows who that is.

One of my favorite lines in the whole Bible comes inthis Psalm “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” What a richthought.

We are fearfully made because God has created us andnot we ourselves. We are finite, limited; that knowledge stirs up fear. We havethe capacity for making choices, but we cannot choose what the outcomes willbe; and that stirs up fear. We can imagine a life with no sin, but we discoverwe are powerless to achieve that life. The gap between what we imagine forourselves and our reality stirs up fear.

We are wonderfully made because we have a uniquecapacity for wonder, prayer, song, friendship, love and redemption. We areremarkable creations who in turn can create. That balances out the fear of oursinful selves.

Yes, God is all knowing. Yes, God is all powerful.And on top of that, God is creative. You are a marvelous expression of God’spower and knowledge. We learn this from the creation account in Genesis, whereafter forming humankind, God said it was very good. You are an expression asHis masterpiece – a living expression of the creativity of God.

For Middle Schoolers I think this Psalm is valuableto hear. God knows and loves your strange and awkward self. Every middleschooler feels they don’t fit in at some point. But they always have a placewith God. As I listened to this Psalm again with fresh ears, I realized that itisn’t just middle schoolers who can benefit from looking more closely at thesewords.

We all feel like we don’t fit. We all forget that weare fearfully and wonderfully made and instead feel strange and awkward. We allhave deep secrets that we think no one else can know. We don’t remember thatGod knows all of us. We all need to hear the comforting words of the Psalmisthere.

For all of us do have our own wilderness to getthrough. Our own dark times. Yet we can take comfort in the fact that no matterhow dark the times are, God is wit
h us. Nowhere we can go and nothing we can docan separate us from the love of God. God has searched us and knows us. Godmade us just as we are and God loves us! Even in the depths of the wilderness,God is with us. Amen.


Rev. Cara Gee


August 1st, 2010