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REBUKING YOUR DEMONS

Mark 1: 29-39

 

In a few minutes I have set myself up to cover what could-and has- taken hours by others: what do we make of the idea of demons as described in today’s Gospel text? Is it different from being possessed by the devil, or Satan? In a survey a number of years ago, 75% of those around the world believed that supernatural spirits could invade a body and cause it to be possessed. By the same token 25% or more did not believe that. Many Christian branches of the church spend sermon after sermon teaching people how to avoid the devil, and calling illnesses “possessions by demons.” Most Presbyterians join me in not giving anything evil or unexplained the name of the devil or a demon; our worship, prayers, and attention are on the glory of God Almighty. Even as it was once described, “if there is a watch, there must be a watch maker,” so if there is Creation, there must be a Creator.  Plenty of people want to avoid blame in all circumstances, so they say, when they do a crazy or destructive thing, that an “evil spirit” possessed them, or “the devil made them do it.” It is convenient to blame someone outside of ourselves thereby not having to account for one’s actions.

 

A mother is behind bars because of the suspicious murder of her child. Was it the devil that did that murder? Was it someone else? Was she possessed? Or did she want a life different from the responsibilities of motherhood, and just snapped? When I was in college, while we were in our fraternity house, one of the brothers, after a long day, fell to the ground, had his eyes roll back into his head, and he shook violently, almost biting off his own tongue. Would you say he got possessed by a demon? Many in the Bible, who had less access to medical knowledge, called mysterious convulsions demon possession. But in our fraternity we called paramedics to come to our fraternity house, not a priest, and they didn’t diagnose him as demon possessed. “Epileptic seizure” they said, and the brothers and I got an education about epilepsy. Our brother recovered. It is frightening to be sure, to encounter such seizures. But I know it is not the presence of evil, it is the acknowledgment and treatment of a condition. While our youth group visited a feeding ministry years ago, a man walked up to the center, walking erratically, with jerky motions, with a panicked look in his eyes, and with a dry and crusted mouth. An astute staff member there knew the man and upon seeing him, he ran in and came out with a glass of orange juice. It settled down his shakes, his eyes grew calmer, and he became limp. He had had a diabetic attack from too little sugar, a situation that I myself have felt more than once since I developed diabetes. He was not possessed by a demon any more than I was. How glad I am to not be living ages ago, but if I were, I’d be so grateful to a healer named Jesus. 

 

A dear woman who was in our church who cared deeply for our children was Trudy Jones. Trudy did not hear well because as a child, her parent’s branch of the Christian faith did not believe in medicine, just prayer. So they prayed for little Trudy when she had an ear infection, but gave her no medical treatment. The result was a dedicated Christian who was hard of hearing all her life, but she grew up believing in medicine and prayer. Dr. Larry Dossey does to, for in a blind study, he had half of his hospital receive excellent medical treatment alone, and the other half received excellent medical treatment and the fervent prayers of his staff. (He did not include a study with prayer alone since it was a hospital.) The side with prayer and medicine healed decidedly faster and more completely. Our Body, Mind, and Soul health ministries continue to convince me of the connections between the care we give our bodies, and our minds, and our souls (some say spirits). An illness in one area—like a sin-sick soul, or a burned out mind, or a body ravaged by too much or too little weight, too much smoke, too much drink, or too much drug, affects the other areas.

 

I am convinced that there are people who do evil things in the world, but it need not get blamed on the devil. John Dominic Crossen, in one of his books, noticed how many people were terrified by a vomiting adolescent in the film called THE EXORCIST. He said the scene bothered him for a different reason: it trivialized evil, for true evil is what is done to nations at the hands of brutal dictators, or to children in the hands of sexually or physically abusive parents, or to poor people by those who oppress them. The child tied up in the film was a victim; the evil in some children’s situations may have been an older male who sexually tortured them, or other children who tormented them with bullying, or authority figures who became mentally or physically abusive. There is evil in the world, but placing blame on its victims is what Jesus fought against. An uninformed or incompetent doctor or family member may not recognize schizophrenia, psychosis, or other difficult but treatable illnesses, but left untreated, victims can harm themselves and others.

 

Our text today shows Jesus healing the people who were brought to him. And although he wanted to primarily be their Savior, he first became their Healer because he was able, in his amazing ways, to make them well and to invite priests to pronounce them so. Today you may be a tormented person, by problems with your body, problems with your mind, or problems with your soul. In our day and age, in the name of Jesus, I would start a person who has physical ailments with prayer and a visit to a competent doctor. In our day and age I would start a person who has emotional turmoil with prayer and words of counseling, perhaps from me or a therapist at our Presbyterian Counseling Center. In our day and age I would start a person who exhibits a sin-sick soul with prayer, with counseling, with confession, and with repentance leading to reconciliation and peace. You can go to a faith healer if you believe in them; you can go to gatherings where crippled people cast their walkers aside when a preacher pushes them into the arms of “catchers” if you wish.  Or you could try to find priest to perform an exorcism although there a precious few of them. When it comes to rebuking your demons, you can do it! Let me reframe what that might look like: You might start by confronting tormenting people around you, or doctors who have misdiagnosed you, or even yourself for not taking medications that could have brought you healing or comfort. Those are places to start. But remember to always have Jesus, the healer, in the mix through your fervent prayers. God gave us the gifts of our bodies, minds, and souls so that, as Jesus said, “all may have life, and to have it abundantly.” Anything that holds you back from that goal, or deliberately deflects you from that goal, may be cast aside! Jesus had a big emphasis in healing others in Biblical times; he still does. Let the church’s healing ministry continue in this modern world, as prayer, medicine, and knowledge come together when needed, to heal hurting and misunderstood people. Let us remember all that Jesus did to cast out demons, and the power he gave his followers to do the same. May you never forget the power in Jesus’ name.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                               February 1, 2009

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THE MASTER’S MEN

Mark 1: 14-20

 

Beloved scholar William Barclay called his book about them THE MASTER’S MEN. Modern author John MacArthur calls his book about them TWELVE ORDINARY MEN. Any way we look at it we are talking about the group generally referred to as “The Twelve,” “The Apostles,” or “The Disciples of Jesus.” It was after Jesus’ childhood and baptism that he was ready to fulfill the will of his Father in Heaven: he was ready to call followers, apostles (from the Greek apostolos meaning “messengers,”), and disciples (which means “learners”). The Twelve were each of those: Jesus told them to follow him and they followed; Jesus told them at a different time, “take my yoke upon you and learn of me” so they were also learners; and finally he commissioned them to heal, cast out demons, and to spread the Gospel in his name and for his sake.  Today I want to suggest that Jesus is still casting a wide net.  We know that in Jesus’ day he was finding twelve men to surround him as a powerful symbol. Eleven would not do, nor thirteen, and in his day women were not recorded or counted.  Nevertheless, Jesus had disciples and friends who were women, they were just not numbered among the twelve. Jesus even held up a little child at one point and said to a crowd, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me,” and at another point he said “Let the children come to me, do not stop them, for the Kingdom of Heaven is there’s.” Jesus had many follow him.

 

There has been a fair amount of interest these past weeks, leading up to the presidential inauguration, in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln called TEAM OF RIVALS. Our new president says he has studied how President Lincoln chose his advisors and who they were. It is good to study presidents, but all will do well to also look at the team that Jesus built: blue collar, white collar, nationalists, materialists, wealthy people, poor people, antagonistic people, agreeable people. What a band of brothers in Christ! Today I am suggesting that Jesus is still building his team of followers, learners, and messengers and that he hopes to include you and me.  The Gospel writers’ aims were to describe what was necessary for people to believe that Jesus was Messiah; so much biographical and dialogical information about the Twelve is not printed in Scripture. But of the Twelve, it seems that he chose a passionately impulsive man to be one of his chief advisors: Peter. Are you like Peter? Do you see yourself- or do your peers see you- as a leader in business, a master tradesperson or home organizer, a passionate activist, or a fine provider?  Jesus still needs people like Peter to be his hands and heart in the world. The work of Peter is alive and well through leaders in the church around the world, and perhaps through you!

 

Since the Bible tells us that God loves us, and the hymn for the young told us since we were small that Jesus loves us, the question of the hour is “Do you love Him?” One time I did a children’s sermon and asked how many children had pets. For those who did, I asked if they loved their pet. Without exception they did. Then I asked how many cleaned up after their pet, and a few hands went down. I asked how many fed their pet every day and a few more went down. I asked how many held their pets each day or stayed by them when they got hurt or sick. More hands went down. So I said, “How would your pet know that you loved him or her?”  And there was no answer. If you were monitored for a month, not at Christmas or Easter, but an “off” month, could a person from another country put in their report about you that, from what he observed, you loved your Lord? Or would it be hard to say?  John the disciple was said to be the one that Jesus loved. Some have tried to make too much of this. Jesus loved all of his disciples, but one author, John MacArthur, suggests that John was not soft, but on the contrary, a strong and faithful man in whom Jesus built unshakable trust. He trusted his mother to him at the cross. Can Jesus place unshakable trust in you?  Did Jesus in prayer— at camp, in worship, on a retreat—let you know that you were loved? You may be “hopefully devoted” to Jesus because of such a realization. You too are a disciple of Jesus.

 

Who invited you to come to church? Who introduced you to Jesus? That person was an Andrew to you: someone who introduced you to Jesus and the church. You too can be an Andrew disciple if you invite others to church or to know Jesus. Jesus needs people to “know him and make him known.” You can be such a person for the Master. Another disciple was Thomas the doubter, and doubting Thomases still fill church pews. But some of them, like Thomas, have experiences that answer their prayers and cry “I believe! Help Thou, my unbelief!” There is room at the table for you. Likewise, Matthew was a tax collector, so there were many who despised him in his work. Joseph Scriven wrote soothing words for Matthew and for you, if you feel like people do not like you. He wrote: “What a friend I have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear; what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer…Do thy friends despise forsake thee, take it to the Lord in prayer. In his arms he’ll take and shield thee, thou wilt find a solace there.”

 

Jesus also saw something in James, the Son of Zebedee; he was one of the first asked to drop his fishing net and follow Jesus to catch men; as we know from our day, our invitations to men, women, youth, and children invite them to be part of the Kingdom. Are you the first one people ask to fill a position? Then Jesus needs someone with your charisma. Put it to work for him!  If on the other hand, you are like a child or an inquisitive student, then you are like Philip. Jesus needs you to also become part of his team of rivals. But be ready! When Jesus was asked questions, he sometimes answered them with other questions! He was always teaching, with his answers and with his questions.

 

Finally, are you here today and say you’re a Christian, but others don’t know you very well? You could be like Nathaniel, also called Bartholomew, and Jesus needs you too. Come and see what he is like! Thaddeus, also called Lebbaeus Thaddeus, may have been a gentle one. Jesus needs gentle ones! Simon the strong-willed one, James the one who rarely got noticed, and Judas Iscariot the one who was there to fulfill part of God’s plan for the world all had a role. What is your role in Jesus’ ministry?  He wants you, everyone one of you, to be one of those who love him, challenge him, need him, and proclaim him. Jesus did not stop at twelve (the number that he hoped would indicate to faithful Jews that what he was creating was a New Jerusalem.) He invited others to follow him too; he still does. To quote the words of Cecil Frances Alexander, no matter our lot in life, “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea, day by day his sweet voice soundeth: saying ‘Christian, follow me.’”  Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                        January 25, 2009

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CITIES OF ANGELS

John 1: 43-51

 

My text for today is from the mouth of the Lord Jesus himself: “Truly, truly I say unto you: you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” 

The Father of Presbyterianism, John Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. While at the University of Paris he began to study law, the area which his father demanded he pursue. He was a brilliant student, but upon his father’s death in 1531, Calvin felt free to pursue interests of his own, which included ancient languages and literature. By age 23 he had completed his Doctor of Laws degree and published his first book. Two years later, he helped to draft a sermon for a friend of his, who delivered the sermon at the university. It accused current theologians of heresy (wrong belief) and set off such a storm that the two had to flee the city. It was after that experience that John Calvin had a conversion experience- not just in his head, for he was already a believer- no, it was an encounter with God that changed his life. From that time forth, according to former Stetson Chaplain Clyde Fant, “he was fully committed to a ministry of proclaiming the Word of God and purifying the life of the church.” It was Calvin who turned the hearts and the government of Geneva Switzerland to Christ, making it a theocracy of church and government, not separate, but together, intertwined in word and action.  He demanded right preaching, free education, clean government, and righteous living. He wanted God to be central in the lives of the citizens. Geneva is our first city of angels today. We remember it as Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, was present in people’s actions and words, sending their prayers up to Heaven and conveying God’s guidance through the prayerful hearts of preachers. Thanks be to God for John Calvin.

 

But Geneva wasn’t the first city of angels. The Apostle Paul, as recorded in the New Testament of God’s Word, had his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus, moving from a persecutor of Christians to an evangelist for Christ after one blinding encounter with the Savior. The last half of the Bible is filled with cities he influenced or visited: Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonika, and Athens among them. It was in Athens that his sermon to the philosophers was preached; those joining me on our Holy Land travels in March will visit that site. Paul’s words of Christian influence are recorded in rock there, and in word in Acts 17.  His preaching convicted some of his listeners so that they said to him “We want to hear you speak again about the one who rose from the dead.” One man, the Apostle Paul, preaching Christ, did not turn the entire aforementioned cities into cities of angels, but conclaves of Christians became a light for their darkness in each city.  Jesus began sending their prayers up to heaven and conveying God’s guidance to the people through Paul. Thanks be to God for him.

 

A student of John Calvin took his understanding of Christ back to his homeland of bonnie Scotland. Born near his beloved Edinburgh, John Knox had his spiritual enlightenment in 1543. He and his associate George Wishart were fiery challengers of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and later of her Catholic queen. For his preaching Wishart– an ancestor of our own former church member, Ron Taylor, who now lives in Michigan- was burned at the stake. Burned at the stake as a Christian by so-called Christians; it was a crisis time for the faith. Ironically, it was with the assistance of Catholic Frenchmen that Knox was captured and imprisoned for his Christian work. He was placed on a French warship as a galley slave, chained down, and forced to pull the oars. It was grueling work. Upon his release from prison two years later, he first went to England as a successful minister. He then went to Frankfurt, Germany and ultimately to Geneva where his Christianity was reinforced by John Calvin, and a way to run a city dawned on him as a way to run a country. He brought the doctrines and polity (governmental plans) back to his homeland of Scotland. His battles with the Scottish Queen Mary became legendary.  He ultimately won, and Mary lost the throne and her life. Knox made sure Edinburgh became yet another city of angels. He called for right preaching and administering of the sacraments, and honest government. Jesus became present in people’s words and actions, as he sent their prayers up to heaven, and conveyed God’s guidance through faithful ministers. Thanks be to God for John Knox.

 

It was Frances Makemie who was called the Father of American Presbyterianism. Ironically, he was born and ordained in Ireland, a country not generally noted for its Presbyterian roots. It was while in Scotland, enrolled in the University of Glasgow in 1676, that he witnessed the extensive Presbyterian persecution that rose in Ulster and Scotland. His conversion experience convinced him to begin studying for the ministry. He was ordained in Northern Ireland by the Presbytery of Laggan so he could accept a call to become a missionary to America, establishing or preaching in congregations in Maryland, Virginia, New England, and Philadelphia. He established the Presbytery of Philadelphia and became its first Moderator, thus starting the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1706.  Many cities of angels were established by his preaching, as he lifted up the message of Christ wherever he went. Jesus became present in the people’s actions and words, at least for a time. But like those who had gone before them and those who would come after them, they would slip back into sinful actions, needing weekly reminders from pulpits, including the condemnation of vice and the encouragement of virtue. Jesus sent their prayers up to heaven and sent down guidance through American pulpits. Thanks be to God for Frances Makemie, who received a call from God and traveled far for Jesus.

 

It would be another Scotsman who would bring Christ to Washington D.C. in the middle part of this century. Peter Marshall was born in Coatbridge, Scotland in 1902. At age 14 he joined the Royal Navy, but when they discovered how young he was, they sent him home. He studied Mechanical Engineering at the local Technical School. But what brought him to Christ? According to one source, a number of events. “He had several narrow escapes from death, convincing him that the Lord had significant plans for him. His own home had been deeply religious. But it was a missionary from China who ended up bringing the word to his receptive ears. At that service he publicly announced his plans to enter the ministry.” [Fant] Though he started seminary in Glasgow, a Scotsman friend urged him to move with him to America. The First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Alabama helped support Peter as he entered Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. His first call to ministry was in Covington, Alabama and his second in Atlanta where he married Catherine, who would later write his biography, calling it “A MAN CALLED PETER.” His final two calls were the most influential: the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and finally to become Chaplain of the U.S Senate. By 1938 he had become a naturalized citizen of the U.S. Peter Marshall, made cities of angels wherever he preached. He is credited with instituting the “Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans” service. When he was at Westminster Presbyterian in Atlanta, a newspaper columnist wrote: “Peter Marshall has everything; he was called to an empty church on Ponce de Leon Avenue and shortly thereafter had it overcrowded. If you would like to see a heartening and amazing sight, go and listen to this boy preach, but go early.” (Catherine Marshall) Appropriate for today, his wife also wrote these words about her husband: “As Peter stood in the pulpit, people always seemed to be seeing him against a backdrop comprised of Edinburgh Castle, John Knox, bagpipes, and the Fifty-first Division, with a touch of heather thrown in.”  In Covington, Atlanta, and Washington D.C., Peter Marshall brought an unflinching message of Christ for the masses, leaving them with a picture of their Savior with rugged carpenter hands, fiery eyes towards sin and kind ones toward the poor, and a conviction to make a difference in the world.

Thanks be to God for Peter Marshall.

 

Today as our eyes look toward our nation’s Capitol this week, we again want Washington D.C. to become a city of angels; a city on a hill; a place where Jesus is present in people’s words and actions; a place where prayers are offered to Jesus so that they might be received favorably by his Father; a place that will be guided by the Savior’s own Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus described what a Kingdom city …indeed a Kingdom country, should be like. We pray also that from this pulpit and others in our city, and from your lives and actions, those whom we meet will be transformed … converted … unto Christ, and that this congregation, this community, and this nation will honor Him.  Today let us give all glory and praise to the Lord Jesus Christ, who shows us the way to honor God for all the ages.

Jeffrey Sumner                                      January 18, 2009

 

 

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GIFT
Well, our big gift-giving day is over for another year. What was your best gift in recent memory?  Mine was a small painting from my parents two years ago.

 

See, growing up, my parents had a series of paintings by the one artist – The wolf at the door and the wolf at the table. <describe> I loved the paintings growing up, but we got them from a three rivers arts festival, so I never expected to get one of my own.

 

But my parents ran into this artist this summer and bought one of her pieces that fit me perfectly.  It was unexpected. And not really useful. I mean, what use is another piece of art?

 

I didn’t even really have a place for it, but it was the perfect gift.

 

Ever gotten that kind of gift? That doesn’t have a real use in your life? Are you the sort of person that just sticks it on the bookshelf or in the attic? Or do you actually appreciate that type of gift?

 

Gifts like these reflect the spontaneous, unpredictable giving that makes for joyful surprises. Sometimes the most practical gifts are not always the best gifts to give.

 

What person here truly enjoys getting a brand new multi-purpose mop or one of those “Lose Weight in Twenty Days” kinds of books? Or who is really happy getting yet another pair of the same boring socks?

 

So this morning we come to the magi who show up from the East bearing gifts for the Child-King, Jesus. Because of these magi who appear in Matthew’s gospel, the whole tradition of gift-giving got its start. It goes all the way back to these magi and their gifts for baby Jesus.

 

Matthew says that, after their long journey from the East, when they at last arrived Bethlehem, led by a star, and “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him” (Matthew 2:11).

 

Did you notice the presents that these magi brought baby Jesus? Pretty strange gifts aren’t they? Especially for a baby. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are a couple of different theories as to why they did this.

 

Some think that these three gifts were the three ingredients that the magi used in their secret incantations. That’s where we get the word “magician” from-the magi. These magi dabbled in the secret arts of magic and alchemy. So what did it mean when they gave these three items to the Christ child? Maybe they were demonstrating that they were no longer pagan dabblers in black magic; maybe they were the first to make a turn around by bowing before the true God and giving him the symbols of their old life.

 

Maybe. But others have suggested that the gifts are symbols that foreshadow the kind of life that this little baby will grow up to live. In a sense, these three gifts do give us a thumbnail sketch of the life of Christ. Gold, for instance, was the symbol of royalty. Jesus would be called a king. But what about the frankincense and myrrh?

 

Frankincense was burned to honor the deity. It was part of the worship ceremonies of the priests. Christ was and would be the son of God. Myrrh is used to anoint and embalm the dead. This gift even at a young age could mark his painful death on the cross.

 

However you understand the magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, it still seems to me odd gifts to give a baby.

 

Okay, so anyone can use a little gold here and there, but otherwise we have some pretty useless gifts here. Perfume? For an infant? Come on.

 

Not the practical kind of presents that I would have given. Instead, it looks to me as if baby Jesus is receiving some of those “good intention” kind of presents. A more thoughtful, practical gift might have been food, clothing, or tickets out of town to escape Herod. Give the kid some clothes, a US savings bond, a blue blanket maybe.

 

But not a two-ounce nugget and two bottles of perfume. What silly, pointless, useless gifts the magi laid before this poor baby!

 

So what does this say about what we give God?

 

Mostly practical things, I suspect. Tithes, and offerings, carefully crafted prayers like “The apostles Creed” which we prayed this morning. We give God some of our voice during the hymns. A smile or two. Show up and give God an hour and fifteen minutes of our time on Sunday mornings.  That’s what we owe to God, right?

 

Those are all practical gifts, the expected gifts that have the right size, color, design, and fabric. Do we need to give such gifts? Absolutely. More now than ever – if you’ve taken a look at the economy. Without the usual, sensible gifts like tithes and offerings we would never pay the light bills, the staff or pastoral salaries, never launch a mission, never pull off an evangelism outreach or offer kindness to homeless folks.

 

But don’t go to the magi to find out how to offer God those kinds of gifts; instead, go to the magi to discover how to offer God seemingly useless, unpredictable, spontaneous, give-what-you-have kinds of presents.

 

Gifts that erupt from the heart. Give God something of yourself. That’s what the magi tell us. It might be a painting that you have no real place for and merely touches a childhood memory, or it might be saying,

 

“No, I’ve never been in a small group before, but I want to begin.”  “I’ve never really attended this Sunday School class, but helping our children is one thing that I can do.”  “I’m retired-have served in this church faithfully for many years; I don’t have much to give you, God, but I’ll give what I can – I’ll give myself to help this congregation grow and thrive.”

 

“I’m busy and overworked, but yes, I’m willing to drive to the other side of the country, sleep in a tent and take cold showers all so that I can help the youth grow in their faith.”

 

“The only true gift,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “is a portion of yourself.”

 

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an interesting story several seasons ago about the homeless shelters. Seems all the soup kitchens are overcrowded at Christmas, but not with the homeless and impoverished.

 

 No, they’re overcrowded and have even had to turn away, church groups who wanted to lend a helping hand during the Christmas season. The article went on to say that those same kitchens work at times with a skeleton crew much of the rest of the year for lack of just one church group coming to help them.

 

That’s what I’m saying. Offer God gifts that come from spontaneity, from gratitude, not from warm feelings and holiday seasons. To all of the wonderful gifts that we offer God each Sunday-our worship, our voice, and the words of our liturgy; to all of our prayers and the check we drop in the plate-add one more thing: yourselves.

 

God gave us what God had. In this baby in the manger, we are bold to say that we have seen the fullness of God. God has finally given himself.

 

Today I’m offering you a challenge. You will find in the narthex a basket filled with these yellow stars. Each of the stars has a word on it. It is your Epiphany star and the word on it is your gift for the year.

 

 This is a spiritual exercise that has been growing in popularity throughout the churches. I participated in it these past few years – getting the star from my mother’s church in New Jersey. My first word was Acceptance. 

 

While originally I thought this was asking me to accept others, as the year went on, I realized I was given the gift of acceptance of myself for the year. My life has changed in a lot of ways over the past six months, but I believe every change is for the better – and has strengthened my acceptance and my sense of myself.

 

This past year, my word was Participation. I thought that it meant that since I was moving to a new church, I should be trying to participate in as many activities as possible. I think that was definitely true, but the word went farther than that. Moving to a new area means that you should participate in every activity you get a chance to. Its hard fitting into a new community, but the more you participate the more chances  you have to find your niche.

 

So I challenge you now. Take a word as you leave. Don’t look for a word you like. Just pick one. Put it somewhere you will see it every day – your bathroom mirror, your dashboard, or on your computer. I keep mine on my fridge door. Think about what gift God is giving you with it. Follow your star to the epiphany of your year.

 

I was amazed in one Christmas pageant I saw part way through my seminary experience. Little three and four foot magi and princesses paraded down the aisle, bearing gifts of beads, perfume, and gold cardboard boxes. And the youth did an outstanding job of plunking, whacking, and wheezing through strange magi-type instruments. But for those who looked past the script-some real gold, frankincense, and myrrh was being offered. While all of us adults were all droning on in We Three Kings of Orient Are, with predictable, polite meter, something broke loose up before the altar. Right in the middle of the third verse, a four-year-old boy named Jordy cut loose with a dance; little Jordy whirled around laughing and full of exhilaration. That wasn’t scheduled in the bulletin-I checked. Totally spontaneous and freely offered.

 

From oldest to youngest, we are the magi invited to worship God, to give gifts that break beyond the accustomed, predictable gifts into spontaneous, wonderfully authentic and joyful worship.

Amen.

 

 

 

 



This is the joyful feast of the people of God. They will come from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, and sit at table in the Kingdom of God.

According to Luke, when our risen Lord was at table with his disciples, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them; and their eyes were opened and they recognized him.  This is the Lord’s Table. Our Savior invites those who trust him and call him Lord to share his meal which he has prepared.”

(8:45 For this service you will be invited to come forward in two lines, partake of the bread and cup, and deposit the cups in the baskets held by the children. At the end of that process if you have been unable to come forward and would like communion, it will be brought to you.)

11:00 For our service we use unfermented wine (grape juice) and common bread, and you will be invited to serve one another, demonstrating the Priesthood of All Believer and remembering that we are to serve others in the world.

 

The Lord be with you. Lift up your hearts. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

Gracious God, our hearts rejoice in your presence, as we give you our thanks and praise, for you are the fulfillment of all our searching. Since the time you created all things you have had a plan — hidden in mystery through the ages — to draw all the world into one body, and to share with all peoples your promises of glory.

And now the light has risen, the mystery is made known: your beloved child, Jesus, is revealed to the whole world as Savior and Redeemer, and as the King who reigns in justice and peace. You made him known first to the magi from the east, who came to pay him homage, though they knew of him only what the silent stars could tell.

And now, you draw us again to the feet of Jesus — the crucified and risen Christ — to offer our gifts of praise to the light of the world. Therefore, with our hearts lifted high, we offer you thanks and praise at all times through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

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IT’S A BOY!

Luke 2: 22-40

 

In spite of recalling Christmases when my sister got a plastic Wonderhorse, our children got stuffed animals, Jenny got dolls, and the boys got Buzz Lightyear and Batman, taking care of a toy is nothing like taking care of a real pet or child. Over our back fence we love patting a loveable golden retriever named Sam. We get 5 minutes or so at a time of his attention and he gets ours. Only Christmas Eve did I learn that when people come to his house, he has to be locked in a room sometimes because he is too excited to not play rough! Jenny and boyfriend Brian, inspired by Sam, got a Golden Retriever named Hemi nine months ago. He spent a week in our house over Christmas. What a difference it is to pat a dog for 5 minutes and live with a dog 24 hours a day! His feeding and boundary and bathroom habits needed attention, and in spite of his good training, he changed the way we lived for seven days. And that was just a dog!  Those who have had a child, or have lived with a newborn know the responsibilities that come with a child: constant attention to warmth, eating, changing diapers, and identifying angry crying, sick crying, or hungry crying. When Christopher was born I was in my last year at Princeton Seminary. In preparation for his birth we took classes, changed the dining room in our one bedroom apartment into a nursery, and I took movies of Mary Ann acting out her nesting instinct by even vacuuming the furniture and washing the walls! When Matthew was born, we lived in Arkansas and the hospital was 45 miles away from home. It was the 100th anniversary of the church there and I had an evening homecoming service to lead: that was the day he decided to be born! What a hectic time. In those days we didn’t find out the gender of the child until birth—at least we didn’t—so as I arrived for the service that night after his birth at lunchtime, the church elders had changed the outside church sign to read “It’s a boy!”  What a greeting to the world on a day I’ll never forget.  Jenny was born also in Arkansas in that same hospital, but it was such a joy to, instead, pass out announcements that read: “It’s a girl!” All three of them were home for 30 hours over Christmas- hours that we cherished.

 

Today’s Luke text carries us over from the Christmas Eve texts: Mary, and the man to whom she is engaged-Joseph- go to great lengths to be together at the time of Jesus’ birth: instead of leaving Mary behind in Nazareth, where her family could certainly have cared for her and may have wanted to, he took her with him in her condition as he fulfilled the census requirement put out by decree.  In fact, if I were her mother and father, I might have insisted that she stay to give birth there. We will never know if it was Mary’s understanding of the angel’s decree, or her desire to stay with Joseph since both had been visited by an angel, that made her travel in her condition. The Bible doesn’t say how they got to Bethlehem; the apocryphal Infancy Narrative of James claims that Mary started to deliver the child before they arrived in Bethlehem and that Joseph left her in a cave while he ran into Bethlehem for two midwives. But no matter the exact details, the birth of Jesus came at great personal sacrifice on both of their parts, like a child born today takes sacrifices of time, money, and attention. On the eighth day, according to the law set out in Leviticus 12, they made all the arrangements to have Jesus circumcised (Luke 2: 21). What followed after 33 days (also from Leviticus 12) was the trip Mary, Joseph, and Jesus took to Jerusalem for her purification (Luke 2:22). What ordeals children bring into our lives!  Nothing done to that point was done because Jesus was the Son of God; it was done just because Mary had a baby boy! What a difference there is between gifts such as a dolls or stuffed animals, compared with a real child!

 

Children around the world, and certainly those of us near Disney World, know one story of magic when a toy marionette is changed into a real boy!  It’s the story of a blue fairy that magically brought a toy maker’s favorite toy to life. The puppet that became a boy was Pinocchio, and he only came to life when he gained the virtues of bravery, loyalty, and honesty, that would be needed in a real life. The toy maker, Gepetto, loved Pinocchio like a son.

 

People have told stories that describe the cost of real care for a pet or, even more importantly, a child, in any number of stories. In Margery Williams’ classic tale of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the stuffed animal rabbit sat on the nursery floor one day and asked the Skin Horse, who looked old and wise, what it was to be REAL. The dialogue went like this:

“What is real?” the rabbit asked.

 “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes” replied the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are REAL you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” replied the Skin Horse. …  “It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are REAL most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joins and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL you can’t be ugly. The Boy’s Uncle made me REAL” said the Skin Horse. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are REAL you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

If we were but puppets controlled by strings that stretched into Heaven; or if we were stuffed animals that only moved when someone moved us, we would have no knowledge of life and death, or of right and wrong, or have the burdens and joys of feelings- from happiness to sadness, from hurt to healing. To some hurting people such numbness seems like bliss, but clinically such numbness is called death; inanimate, lifeless objects don’t feel; human beings feel, with all of the burdens and joys that come with it.

 

God chose humanness to know the gamut of our emotions; to know what it was like to have skin, and to know both the joy a Zacchaeus’ conversion, and the sorrow of Judas’ betrayal. God chose to become human, with all of its complications.  Babies are complicated: they have needs, and as they grow they need guidance, and when they are grown they have responsibility. Today we were reminded by a prophet named Simeon, that even the blessed event of Jesus’ birth has its dark side. We’d like to be at the part of the story that say’s we’ll live happily ever after. We’re not there yet; but as we celebrate his birth we have this assurance: Jesus was born to save real people like you and me! Thanks be to God for the greatest gift of all at Christmas.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           December 28, 2008

 

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SON AND SAVIOR

Luke 1: 26-38

 

In tonight’s concert you will hear a few phrases that are in Latin- a language easy and beautiful to pronounce and the root language of many that are used today.  When we sing “Alleluia” for example, it is the Latin way of writing the Hebrew word “Hallelujah!” which means “Praise the Lord!” Indeed if I tell you that some have referred to the birth of Christ as the “Divinum Mysterium” those with a good ear could tell that means “the Divine Mystery.” Likewise “O Magnum Mysterium” means “Oh, Magnificent Mystery” which refers to God. And the words of Mary that were just read are called the “Magnificat” in Latin, from the main word of the first sentence, “Magnifies; My soul magnifies the Lord!”  So we can approach these Christmas events with the eyes of detectives, which will unlock some of the meanings that have been before us for years, but not fully understood.

 

Let’s begin by trying to figure out why the one called Son of God and called Savior, the King of kings and Prince of peace, should come into this world in such a lowly way. Let’s try to figure why the woman God chose to bear his Son had such poor and bustling conditions for the birth of her Son. And let’s try to figure out why the one who sends an angel to tell Mary not to be afraid seems to forget her plight as she has to travel 80 miles, being great with child. And finally let’s try to figure out why Jesus was laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals, instead of in a beautiful wooden crib made from the skilled hands of Joseph, his carpenter father.

 

As we begin, some of you may hesitate to ask and probe about things concerning Jesus’ birth. The story, after all, is classic, its inspiring, and its beautiful. Christmas Eve we will honor that tradition of reading the story and singing the carols. But there are insights to be learned that will bring detectives closer to him and to the great mystery of his humble birth.

First, the announcement is startling, having a stranger—an angel no less—visit Mary and tell of God’s plans and invite her collaboration. A young woman such a she, certainly just a teenager, faced an overwhelming responsibility for one who had lived under that shelter of her family all her life. She would disappoint her father by having a child during her engagement to Joseph, the man her father certainly arranged for her to marry. She would anger her townspeople by having them think she had been unfaithful to her husband-to-be. Can you imagine trying to tell your family and friends that your pregnancy was from God’s Holy Spirit? If you thought Noah had a hard sell when he told others God said to build and ark, imagine how Mary felt about telling this news! Instead she went away, to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for months. Her cousin was having an exceptional pregnancy of her own announced by an angel to her husband of many years. He would grow to be known as John the Baptist. And what disgrace Mary’s news brought on poor Joseph too! In Matthew we read that he was ready to break off his engagement to her when an angel talked him into the idea, another scene that seems beyond belief. So the announcements are incredible. Second, in Luke’s gospel, in a passage we will read Christmas Eve, we read “you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” For three verses in the Bible, read at Christmas, we hear about a manger. Nowhere else in the Bible is one mentioned, or is this story told. Jesus was in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. You’ll recall that Luke says a census was called for by Caesar, and all had to return to their hometown to be registered. That was the reason for the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Many others were from Bethlehem as well, and the homes of relatives could conceivably have been overloaded. In addition, inns were not like inns today; animals would be tied up in cave-like stables and people stayed in large, often open-air areas with just a roof over their heads. Many people, gathered in crowded conditions, would hardly have been an ideal place for a child to be born. Perhaps God’s plan was most compassionate: having a private area with straw and an animal crib for a place to deliver a child and give him a bed for his first night on earth.  Could the crowded conditions and having no place to lay his head except a manger be foreshadowing of the life of our Lord: always roaming, never claiming a home or articles of his own besides the robe he wore? Could it foreshadow the conditions of human hearts through the ages: crowded with activities and interests that have left the Lord Jesus with no place to call a home with us? 

 

Again, the message we have to consider each Christmas is this: a young woman conceives a son, not by her husband to be, but by the Holy Spirit. An angel announces this news to her, and in a separate time, speaks to Joseph about it. The child she is carrying is already named—Jesus—and she knows his sex before our best tests today could tell it. He is said to be a holy child. In spite of the holiness, Joseph agrees to a step-father arrangement and is forced to travel 80 miles south with Mary to Bethlehem, a place where they were virtual strangers. Tired and dirty shepherds are also in Luke’s story, and no Christmas is complete without them; but what a gathering: perhaps showing how Jesus was born among the poorest, yet Matthew later points out his royalty by having magi make their way to honor him. It’s a story that has so much built around it, from children’s plays to cantatas, that the Son and Savior message gets gift-wrapped for us each year. The announcements, along with the circumstances of the birth, are almost unbelievable. Followers believe it; others wonder and doubt.

 

Finally, we recall that the “Son and Savior” message has an equally anguishing story awaiting us at Easter, when the faithful Son of God dies a criminal’s death on a Roman cross.  If it were fiction few would believe this story; because we believe it to be true, it is gospel: God came into the world like one of the poorest of the poor to relate to them; he came in as a king, to relate to those in power. His birth was announced in disgraceful ways in Nazareth so the event became uneventful: except to Mary, Joseph, and finally to us. What an astounding way for God to try to get … and keep … the attention of his children.

 

Today we thank God for Mary, who had the human choice of saying no, but said yes. We thank God for Joseph, who had the choice of saying no to the strange arrangement before him, but he said yes. We thank God that people of all walks of life—lowly and regal—were represented in the Christmas story because it includes us.  An old spiritual looked at Good Friday and asked the haunting question: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Because of Luke’s gospel, we also have descriptions about the angel and Mary, with dialogue included in such detail that we almost feel as if we were there too. We are on the verge of Christmas Eve; think of ways you can honor not only God for the gift of salvation, but also the cast of characters who said yes to God’s plans. What plans might God have for you in helping others to have a place to lay their head, and a bite of food for hungry travelers? What will be your role in God’s unfolding drama of the Divinum Mysterium?                                       Jeffrey A. Sumner                 December 21, 2008we

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Wake up!

 

What do you mean, wake up? Of course I’m awake! I have errands to run and kids to drop off and meals to cook and presents to wrap and a house to clean and parties to attend. How on earth could I have time to sleep?

 

It would make more sense for me to tell people to go to bed than to push their rushed schedule. But while the world is busy around Christmas, we are rarely paying attention to the reason for our business.

 

Like the person who moves in near the highway, the noise that originally was so clear has faded into the background. The wonder of advent has become common place over the years. We’ve become numb to this time. And we’ve forgotten how to wait.

 

We’re entertained in convenient ½ hour portions available at the click of a remote control. We’ve been fattened by fast food and by the promise of getting there faster if we drive instead of walk. We’ve been indoctrinated by an economic system based on the false promise of buy now, pay later. We’re up to our eyeballs in debt.

 

We’re programmed to expect instant gratification. We quicken our pep up in the morning with a cup of caffeine and quicken our relaxation at night with a glass (or three) or red. The questions “why wait?” is now only offered rhetorically and we are faced with the temptation of responding with the great cliché of our time: why wait? Just do it!

 

Advent, a season devoted to our watchfully waiting, is sacrificed to that mentality.

 

This world of ‘why wait’ is my world – and I, most of the time, live in it quite comfortably. So that struggle is my struggle too, and when I stand here to talk about the season of waiting, of ‘not yet’ – I am not standing here as an authority, or as one well-practiced in the art and discipline of patience. I’m actually extremely bad at patience. I’m terrible at meditating. I don’t grow my own vegetables, I sometimes drive when I could walk.

 

But the problem of right now also goes deeper than that. Many of us are struggling in a wait for things which are far more important than the superficial ones I’ve described. People who are lonely and desperately hoping to find someone to share their lives with are forced to live in a time of waiting. People who hope to have a child but are unable to conceive or have not found a partner to share this with wait – often painfully. Those who are sick wait to feel better, to move out of their depression, to be able to move without pain.

 

Those who have had relationships break down or whose relationships are marked by awful tension or violence or lack of communication are waiting for something to change; waiting for reconciliation; or waiting for the courage to leave; or simply the wisdom to know what to do. Some are plagued by the feeling they are meant for something different than the job or role they have today. Some feel they have potential they cannot find a way to fulfill. Many of us have a vision for the world – a vision of no more poverty, injustice and war and some have prayed for these things for years. And yet – here we are. Have we even made any progress? Where is God and what is God doing? When will we see the things we hope for?

 

In today’s reading from Isaiah we hear the prophet join with us in our hopeful yet painful wait: “If only, LORD; if only you would rip the sky open and come on down!” Together we wait.

 

And as much as I as an individual, and us collectively, seem to struggle with waiting for anything, deeper inside our spirits and memories I believe we know more than we realize about the goodness and necessity of the wait. It still takes 9 months to grow a baby, and the wait is not always pleasant. We know that old wine is far finer than new wine. Those of us who have made terrible, stupid mistakes in life know that wisdom is not gained quickly or easily but is discovered over time through the sometimes messy episodes of a life lived.

 

Like us, the people of the New Testament churches lived in the tension of the wait. Jesus had been and lived among them. He had authored their faith and promised to return. He had come yet there was still more to wait for. He had been with them, yet they were still waiting for him. In today’s gospel reading we find a people impatient – as we are – for God to once again “rip the sky open and come on down!” The people of Mark’s community struggle in their wait for their Saviour to come back. When will he come? What will it be like?

 

The biblical answer gives us our cue to advent waiting: people of faith are marked not by quick answers to prayer or special knowledge about future events; people of faith are marked by the way in which we wait. The message from today’s gospel passage is to not wait passively but to use this time to get ready, to live rightly, to be active in bringing about God’s vision of what the world could be like, rather than waiting for God to do it alone.

 

For us, there are times in life, in faith, in the history of the world where it feels much like the movie Groundhog Day. We make the same mistakes over and over. We live the same routine over and over. We long to have greater faith or a more experience of God. We go to church – over and over. We wait.

 

We wait, but we aren’t really paying attention to our waiting. We wait, but we blame God for the waiting. We wait, but only reluctantly. We have failed to keep watch while we wait. As I said, I’m terrible at waiting. I refuse to go anywhere I might have to stand in line without a book. Airports, bus stops, particularly busy days at the store, I can be found standing in line, reading. When I notice the line has moved I’ll shuffle forward with everyone else, but I can hardly can be said to be paying attention. I have found a way to avoid the boring part.

 

Yet what can seem like the meaningless marching on of time, what can seem like the same thing over and over, can be part of God’s work of redemption. Sometimes, the prolonging of history – the time we are given which can be seen as too much time – too much waiting – can be a gift that allows us to become aware of God’s purposes. Sometimes our advent task – our task in the season of ‘not yet’ is to become more of who we were created to be and to join with Mark’s New Testament friends and “get ready”. But in order to see that, we need to be paying attention while we wait. We must be watchful. We must keep awake.

 

For me, today’s passage from Mark is not actually offered to us as to inspire a debate about how many hurricanes constitute the end times or how many wars indicate the apocalypse is near. (Sorry to disappoint anyone who was hoping to hear that.)

 

But I hear this message as actually the antithesis of this kind of ranting. Its message is that living as people of faith is as much about how we live in between huge events and great moments as it is about the great events or celebrations of faith. Christian faith is seen as much in Advent as in Christmas because it is here that we can demonstrate to a world which struggles with the “not yet” of life that people of faith wait differently. Advent waiting is different from hopeless, passive waiting. We cry out with Isaiah, “If only, LORD; if only you would rip the sky open and come on down!” but we do so knowing that God has and will “come on down”. We wait with hope and with purpose, watchfully.

 

Advent is the season of “not yet”

 

In Advent we refuse to jump straight to Christmas and to take for granted the presence of God. We wait to discern more carefully the One for whom we wait, and the One who waits for us.

 

To me, waiting in watchfulness is embodied in my dog, Dylan.

 

I have never in his entire life fed him while I am eating. Yet when I sit down at the couch with a bowl of popcorn, Dylan stations himself at my feet and sits ramrod straight. Every piece of popcorn I lift from the bowl, he watches leaning forward slightly to track its progress to my mouth. During each bite, he tenses, ready to spring into action to snatch up the piece should I drop it or choose to toss it his way. He doesn’t leave his vigilant post until he’s sure that there isn’t a morsel left.

 

I have never fed him, yet he eternally waits in hope, tensed in eager anticipation for the feast that might come.

 

That is how the Scriptures call us to wait during Advent. Tensed in eager anticipation and hope. That is how I lived during Advent in my childhood – eagerly watching the signs of the season: the advent wreath appearing, the decorating of the church. If I was lucky, the first snowfall. A room lit with Christmas tree lights was to me a holy place – they filled the ordinary with a sense of wonder.

 

But I grew up. I went to college. I didn’t take the time to go to church. Instead of Advent, I focused on finals in the weeks before Christmas. Even when I went back to church on a regular basis, it wasn’t the same. I had become numb to the wonder of Advent. But I didn’t have to be. With some effort, I reminded myself of why this was my favorite time of the church year.

 

You don’t have to be numb either! We can still be filled with the joyful, watchfulness of the season that we are called to. If you feel yourself just being carried along by the errands of the season and the business of your lives, stop for a moment. Remember what it is we are waiting for. When I find myself growing impatient or feeling overwhelmed during this season, I picture a little dog waiting on faith alone.

 

Waiting here and now is not so different from the waiting that happened so long ago in Bethlehem, except that we have already received a part of the great gift of God-with-us. We already know something of the story of Jesus – the unique one who came to tell us that it is reasonable and worthwhile to hope and to expect God’s vision of the world to come to be. Jesus has come but we are also still waiting for his coming. We have seen God – but God is still hidden from us so much of the time.

 

We wait for Christmas – because we have a sense – even if it is only a small sense – of what it might mean for God to be here among us in the fullest, closest way. And because the Messiah who came to Bethlehem did not look anything like the world was expecting, we learn during Advent and Christmas to wait for all those things we long for with the humbling understanding that the perfect gifts of God – the things we are really longing for, sometimes without even knowing it, may not look anything like those things we think we are hoping for.

 

And so during the season of ‘not yet’ we join with Isaiah, and the New Testament church in crying out, “O Lord, rip the sky open and come on down!” if in slightly different words. So let us pray together in song: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

 

We all are waiting during this Advent season – some more anxiously than others. If you are looking for a church home to wait in, we would be happy to have you join our church family. Just speak with one of us after the service and we’ll get you started.

 

Rev. Cara Gee November 30th, 2008

 

 

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OUR RIGHT-HANDED GOD?

Matthew 25: 31-46

 

For years a beloved baritone soloist in this congregation, Reid Morrison, would sing these words: “Then, then shall the King say unto them, upon his right hand: ‘Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world: inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.’”  Taken from Matthew 25 in the King James Bible, there has been no clearer passage to show that there will be a Day of Judgment. On that day, the King of kings, the one seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, will look toward faithful ones who have sometimes been confused and afraid, but who always needed the Savior, and bless them. Likewise he will look to those who have been willful, who put their trust in others or who did whatever society told them to do, and he’ll tell them they will end up elsewhere. Those goats were, figuratively or literally speaking, on the left hand of the King.  Such imagery makes its way throughout the Bible. It was a source of great consternation to Joseph in Genesis 48 that his father, Jacob (also called Israel), when asked to bless his grandsons, took his hands and crossed them, blessing the younger grandson with his right hand, and his older grandson with his left. To a left-hander like me, I might have hoped that this was a greater blessing to the older of the two, but it was not. The right hand always wins in the Bible! David wrote in Psalm 16: “I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” And it was the words of our Lord himself who, when challenged as to whether or not he was the Christ, proclaimed with frightening authority: “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven!” Being on the right hand of someone meant something then, and in many parts of our world it means something even now. For that reason, I always counsel wedding ushers to escort with their right arm, which is the hand of honor; and I counsel those training for the ministry to offer benedictions and to baptize only with their right hand. The left hand might be welcome here, but not in other cultures. How our foreign policy could improve if we made sure to honor the blessings and curses, the holy ground and the unholy ground of other cultures, instead of ignoring theirs or imposing ours. Cultural practices matter.

 

As a left-hander, my hand smears the wet ink from fountain pens as it brushes across paper, and I go home with ballpoint pen ink on the edge of my left hand daily. When trying to use scissors in my left hand, most of the time they simply won’t cut.  In grade school I used to have to wait for the one or two pairs of scissors labeled “lefty” so I eventually learned to cut right handed. I learned I could play golf equally poorly with left-handed or right-handed clubs, so my father said since most courses are designed for right-handers, to play right handed!  The world is a right handed world now, as it was in Biblical days. There are some famous left-handers in every sport from Tim Tebow to Barry Bonds to Ty Cobb. There are former presidents like Ford, Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, and Clinton who were left-handed. There are artists like DaVinci and Michelangelo; musicians like Cole Porter and Paul McCartney; and leaders such as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Norman Schwarzkopf. America has stopped labeling left-handedness as something that needs to be corrected, but in what we call the Middle East, which includes Biblical areas, there is an understanding today that was also in place in Bible times: it is that the right hand is the hand of power and blessing and the left hand is the hand for dirty work and personal hygiene. In the Middle East even today, where water is scarce and hand sanitizer is almost not existent, to remain healthy many people use their left hand for work that is around germs, their right hand for eating and blessing. It was so ages ago as it is so in many parts of the world today.

 

As Cara’s class studies the Apostles’ Creed, they will be studying the line we will say today: Christ “ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” What did our Lord do when he left the earth? Quoting mostly from Psalm 110 verse 1, the New Testament describes Jesus the Lord as being seated at God’s right hand, the position of supreme majesty and authority. He sits there while God makes his enemies his footstool! …” We already quoted Jesus declaring he would be seated at the right hand of power. Peter also told the crowd on Pentecost that Jesus was “exalted at the right hand of God.” Just before Stephen was stoned to death in Acts 7, he said “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” And in Romans 8, Paul declares, “Is it Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God who intercedes for us?”   

 

So today, on a Sunday when we honor Christ as King and Lord, what do we make of all of this emphasis of blessed ones being on the right hand of a King? Just as Jesus, through faithful actions, is seated at the right hand of his Father, so we, through faithful actions, can be seated at the right hand of the King. Sheep are not brilliant animals, but they are ones who are wholly dependent on a Good Shepherd.  The faithful are said to be like sheep. The shepherd takes care of his flock. Goats, on the other hand, wander, stir up trouble, nibble on the bottom of the clothes of anyone near them, and can be aggressive.

 

In learning that, we have life lessons for this week: The King is looking for those who serve, as he served; those who follow him as he followed the directions from his Father; and those who know they need a Good Shepherd to keep them from straying and to rescue them from the dark and dangerous places of life. The King is also looking for people to feed, clothe and visit others as if you are feeding, clothing, and visiting Jesus. If you are willing to do that, then this proclamation is for you: “Then shall the King say unto you, upon his right hand: ‘Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.’” Kingdom, or outer darkness; where will your actions lead you at the end of your life’s journey?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                   November 23, 2008

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MANAGING MONEY

Matthew 25: 14-30

 

Our Westminster Institute classes, which have produced groups such as the Handbells Choir we heard today, a radio controlled airplane class for a parent and a child, the prayer beads seminar, and the knitting class among others, already has a man who has volunteered to share his talent and training to help couples and individuals manage their money.  Lowell Winn’s class will be held in the first semester of 2009. Our treasurer, Dave Hughes, has also offered his training to help people with their personal finances. Our Parish Associate, Richard Hills, in banking before the ministry, is also good at helping people manage money. And another in the congregation, Martin Lies, who taught the airplane class, has given me wise advice about personal finance.  Every one of those I just mentioned has helped me with either personal investment, retirement savings, or church finance.  Who do you go to when you need money guidance?  It is wise to be suspicious of those wanting to help you if they profit when you profit. On the other hand, if they profit, then they are even more motivated to help you profit: had you thought about that?  There are smart people who profited from the tech stock boom, and some who lost big; there are those who profited from the dot.com boom and some lost big; there are some who profited from the housing boom of a few years ago, and some who have lost big since.  And now there are those who think Certificates of Deposit, bonds, a safe, or an old mattress are better choices than the stock market, although history tells us that market investors will pass the slow steady income of bank investments or money in a mattress with enough of a time window.  What is your choice? Does your money work for you, or does it just sit around somewhere? Does it produce enough for a comfortable retirement or will you be left high and dry? 

 

Money, and what to do with money entrusted to us by God, has been on people’s minds since the invention of currency. We think about getting kids through college, paying for weddings, supporting organizations in which we believe, and paying our bills.  Those who don’t have it are desperate to get it, with measures from begging, to stealing to lottery tickets. Those who do have it have, in many cases, seen to have less of it this year. What a perfect time to be in the crowd, a crowd that spans the ages of time, as Jesus tells the parable of the talents. Perfect, because, you see: a talent was a measure of money, worth about 15 years of a laborer’s wages in those days. So, like many of you, we are talking about retirement investments, long term investments, planned giving, and the like in this parable. As much as we think about talents as a gift or skill, in Jesus’ description it is about what to do with your saved money.

 

In this story, if Jesus were to be the master, and we were to be his servants, in a sense we have been asked to take Jesus’ money and use it in a way that best pleases our master, Jesus. So whether we like it or not, our role in the story is to be a financial investor for Jesus: in fact, we could think about the one who made 5 more talents as being an investor in stocks in a good year, or an investor in a fledgling new company, or a person who purchased autographed items from a sports star the day before he or she died. Such investments could double in value in short order. But let’s face it: that investor might not have been exceptional; he or she might have just been fortunate! Even the best financiers don’t double their money in short order every day.

 

The servant with two talents might have been like the slightly more cautious investors among us. Those who invested in CDs in the early 1980s, for as few as 2 years, received from 16 to 21% interest in that period of time when the stock market did not keep up. But in the 1990s the cautious CD investor would have been passed 10 fold by the more aggressive stock investor as everyone who could, boarded the prosperity train.

 

The servant given one talent, it is usually assumed, was known to be cautious by his master; the master gave him less because his experience with the others taught him that he would likely make more money with them. Sure enough: this servant was paralyzed when asked to take care of his master’s money. He wanted no part in taking a chance at losing it. So he took the money and put it in a cookie jar, or in a hole, or under a mattress. He just kept it so it could be returned intact. 

 

Now if the master were just interested in protecting his investment, he would have given the last servant the highest praise. In the days before FDIC insured banks, the first two servants would certainly have been seen as risking their master’s money; and as we know, risk means, if circumstances aren’t exactly in their favor, they could lose their master’s money. The story would have had very different consequences if that had happened. But instead, the master, (who we might even think of as Jesus) perhaps gave the first one the greatest amount because of his track record of investing; likewise the second and the third. But notice, in giving more money to the first one, even the master assumed the risk of losing his money; likewise with the second one he gave him less but the master certainly could have lost it. The third one had almost no chance of losing his master’s money, yet he is not only reprimanded, the master took his original investment and gave it to the first servant. The one who carefully guarded what he was given got nothing.

 

You have probably heard of churches that, at the end of the service, gave out fifty dollar bills to those in attendance, challenging them to invest it and bring back the principle and the profits. This is not such a church!  But in a way we are one of those servants of Jesus, just as you are individually his servants. Jesus entrusts Kingdom money to us. “How will they use it?” he wonders. The church uses it to bring others in, to lift others up, and even to invest so that the Master can have more. If you are a fortunate investor of money that Jesus entrusted to you, then he hopes you will return with more than he gave you. If you are a cautious investor, then Jesus gives you permission to, with a measure of risk, try to make more for yourself, which, in the life of a faithful Christian, means more is tithed to Jesus too. See, when the client makes money, in this case the money manager makes it too. You and I are money managers for Jesus. And if we are faithful to him and plan to tithe, we will return the first 10% back to him and get to keep the rest for ourselves: it is win/win when we win; it is lose/lose when we lose. But Jesus, according to this parable, not only is willing to accept those odds, he encourages our wise risks to receive blessings and to give them. The one who only held the master’s money got no blessing, nor commendation, and built no relationship with the master.

 

So, which person are you with the master’s money? Do you risk it with daring action, knowing that losses could be big, but so could the gains? Nowhere in this parable does Jesus encourage his servants to be brash or careless, just to be bold and careful! It seems that the master blesses those who work to earn for the Master, since he lets us have a 90% commission with his money! What a deal! Do you take some risks but not big ones? Then the master will give you less of his money, as he agrees to rise or fall a little bit, with your moderate risk comfort level. And if all you do is take what your master gives you and put it under a bushel, then the master actually wants it back: you get nothing, and he gets nothing.  So where will you invest the 90% of your master’s money that you can keep? And how faithfully will you give your master his 10% due?  He is watching you, and he is watching me, to see which one of us he will trust with more of his estate than the others. Will it be you? Or your neighbor? Or a child? Or a young person? Your actions direct the choices of the master.  So let us, today and always, give of our best to the master.

 

That’s the name of a hymn, you know! I only know that since the choir at my first church chose to sing it for my ordination to ministry service. It turns out that in the book of Malachi, people were bringing substandard sacrifices to the Temple and the Lord didn’t like it. It wasn’t that people were too poor to afford healthy animals as sacrifices, they just brought the Lord their cast-offs. The Lord chastised his people with these words: “You say ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at the altar contemptuously.” The Lord thought he deserved better. The New Testament echoes that sentiment as Paul said to the slaves at Colossae that all we’ve been given should be used to bless God so that God can chose to bless us as well.

 

I’ll close with the way songwriter Howard Benjamin Gross put it in my ordination hymn:

Give of your best to the Master, give Him first place in your heart.

Give Him first place in your service, consecrate every part.

Give and to you shall be given—God His beloved Son gave;

Gratefully seeking to serve Him, give Him the best that you havei.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          November 16, 2008