11-17-19 THE END OF THE AGE FORETOLD


Luke 21: 5-28

This past Wednesday I commended those who attended my Bible Study, saying how helpful it was for their Christian learning to attend a class with a study guide written by a highly qualified author—Dr. Eugene March—and a teacher who has studied the passages for 38 years. Today I am commending you for coming to church to learn and worship on a Sunday, rather than Googling answers to Bible questions you may have, or sitting with others who are guessing at meanings alongside of you. Take, for example, the text from Luke today. If all one does is clip out verses 25-28—as I have seen done—and read it as if Jesus were speaking to them here and now, in the 21st century, they would hear:
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations, confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Once again, we do well to remember that we are not the original audience: people in the first century were the original audience. And this passage actually starts much earlier than verse 25. Look at verse 6 for example. In describing the beautiful Temple in Jerusalem, where some were admiring its beauty, Jesus said, “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” History records that the Temple was destroyed by marauding Romans in 70 AD, led by a man named Titus, under instruction from his father, Emperor Vespasian. So Jesus, for that original audience, is describing a time roughly 50 years in the future, not 1,986 years in the future! But there a people—and there are plenty of them—who read their Bibles in an uninformed or flat-footed manner, that go and tell others: “Look what the Bible says! It says how the world will end soon! The final judgment must be upon us!” And then religious panic ensues, conspiracy theories arise, and people start gathering supplies for the end of days. Let’s instead read our Bibles with good guides!

This week, with an impeachment investigation causing an uproar in our otherwise chaotic news cycles, another high school shooting, as nuclear bombs are likely being made in places like North Korea and Iran, with catastrophic heat for months now followed by record cold weather, uninformed people may raise the anxiety levels that are already present in the human race. They say things like “The end of the world is near!” Or, “The day of Judgment must be upon us!” The entire November/December issue of our denominational journal, Presbyterians Today, has as its theme: “Ways to Ease Anxious Times.” We do live in anxious times. If there are people reading this week’s Gospel lesson without guidance, their anxiety may indeed climb into the stratosphere. Instead, let’s look back into the past to help us be informed about the present.

First, listeners to Jesus’ prediction about the destruction of the Temple had two questions:
“When will it happen?” and “What will be the signs of its beginning?”
Jesus responded pointing to three signs. The first was the arrival of people making false claims that they knew the answers. (21:8) The other two signs were warfare and political chaos on the one hand, (21:9-10) and natural disasters on the other. (21:11) [Sharon H. Ringe, LUKE, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995, p.251, paraphrased]

Second, people have talked about nations rising against nations, earthquakes, famines, predictions of stars falling, and people fainting with for centuries. But in Luke, Jesus was addressing people around 32 AD. The fearful “day of the Lord” had been addressed before, and would be addressed many times after Jesus words that day. Here are a few examples:

In 70 AD, Jewish Essenes believed the final battle was at hand, and that Israel was about to be redeemed.
In 365, Hilary of Poitiers a French Bishop, announced that the world would end that year. When that didn’t happen, French Bishop Martin of Tours said the world would end before the year 400. He then stated: “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born.”
In 500, Hippolytus of Rome and two others said Jesus would return that year, and they based their prediction in part on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark! Go figure.

Centuries later, Pope Innocent III predicted the world would end in 1260. When it didn’t end then, others predicted that it would end in 1290; when it didn’t end, other predicted the world would end in 1335. Did it end then? NO! You see the pattern.

Up until present day, there have been more than 150 well publicized predictions about the world ending in each of our previous centuries. In the 21st century alone, there have been over 18 such predictions. Shall we walk outside to see if the world is ending? Or shall we do what Jesus keeps telling us to do: to “watch?” The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians, wrote these words that Eugene Peterson translated in The Message:
I don’t think, friends, that I need to deal with the question of when all this is going to happen. You know as well as I that the day of the Master’s coming can’t be posted on our calendars. He won’t call ahead and make an appointment any more than a burglar would! About the time everybody’s walking around complacently, congratulating each other—“We’ve sure got it made! Now we can take it easy!”—suddenly everything will fall apart. It’s going to come as suddenly and inescapably as birth pangs to a woman expecting a child. 4-8 But friends, you’re not in the dark, so how could you be taken off guard by any of this? You’re sons of Light, daughters of Day. We live under wide open skies and know where we stand. So, let’s not sleepwalk through life like those others. Let’s keep our eyes open and be smart!
There’s the advice we need, and others needed it too! By 50 AD, Paul was preaching this because Jesus had ascended into heaven 17 years earlier, and in each age there is the need to calm down panicked people and focus the faithful. Thanks be to God for such people!
Finally, even John Calvin, in studying these texts, wrote:
[Christ] calls [his followers] back from a curious and unprofitable inquiry as to times, but in the meantime admonishes them to be constantly in a state of preparation for receiving Him…Now Christ designed that the day of his coming should be hid from us, that, being in suspense, we might be, as it were, upon watch. [Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 21, Baker Books, 2005 reprint, p. 285]
The end of the age will come when the end of the age comes. They question is not: “When will it come?” The question is: “Will we be ready?”
Let us pray: Holy Jesus, as you knock on the door of people’s hearts; or as you make yourself known in the hearts of people who have already invited you in: guide our lives, reassure our souls, and remind the world that, when the time is right, you will return, and take the faithful to eternal life, to be with you forever. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 17, 2019

11-10-19 JESUS’ S.A.T. QUESTION


Luke 20: 27-38

A little boy was sitting in his Sunday School class, carrying out the teacher’s assignment: “Draw a picture of something or someone from the Bible.” As the teacher was looking at the various crayon drawings, she asked, “Tell me about your picture, Billy.” ‘It’s a picture of God,” Billy said. “But Billy,” his teacher replied, “No one knows what God looks like.” To which Billy replied without lifting his head, “They will now.” Maybe we need to embrace the innocence of children to understand what Jesus says to the Sadducees today! Jesus was pummeled with a complicated riddle as you just heard. Riddles have amused children and challenged adults for generations. For example:
“It is greater than God, it is more evil than the devil; the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it, you’ll die.” What is it? The answer: nothing. Plug in the word and the question becomes a statement: “Nothing is greater than God, nothing is more evil than the devil; the poor have nothing, the rich need nothing, and if you eat nothing, you’ll die!” Or how about this one: “Bob’s height is 6 feet; he works at a butcher shop; he wears size 9 shoes. What does he weigh?” The answer is “meat.” He is Bob the butcher! Or finally, there is the children’s question in this tongue twister: If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick? (It’s a peck; but how much is a peck? Four pecks make a bushel, so it’s a quarter of a bushel! The number of peppers would vary according to their size!) Puzzles like those have been around a long time. They are meant to frustrate and trick the listener. Jesus had grown up with his builder-father working with wood and stone. Many people believe that since Nazareth was so very small, (and there was no tourist trade as there is now,) Joseph and his teenaged son might have found work in the much larger city north of Nazareth called “Sephoris.” There the boy would have been exposed to riddles, jokes, and stories told by tradesmen and the Romans who employed them. So by the time he had grown, Jesus had heard lots of riddles. But Jesus, we believe, also had insights into heaven once he had grown and begun his ministry. One day he was challenged by some Sadducees- Jews in a very high position- who seemed threatened by Jesus’ teachings. One thing we know that Luke tells us: Sadducees believed there was no resurrection; no life after death. And yet in Luke 20, we find Sadducees asking a question about the resurrection! Jesus must have known something was up immediately. He did not take this question flat-footed. And it was a brain puzzler:
28 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man[a] shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
Jesus spotted the trick question; but so many people looking at the Bible on their own read and re-read the question, trying to figure it out. Yes it was true that a man’s unmarried brother would, by custom, marry the widow of his brother since there was no social security or welfare in those days. A widow would customarily marry her dead husband’s brother. That was to provide security for her. Now you know that too, and Jesus knew it, and the Sadducees knew it. But now, the linear explanations need to be left behind; there are no linear explanations about the next life. Just like John Calvin intended for predestination to be a doctrine of destination, not of explanation. Just like people would have had to use their imaginations, not raw information, to figure out what it would be like to walk on the moon before July 20, 1969. After that date, that had first had information. As a fan of ocean liners, before 1985 I remember reading book after book about where the Titanic might have been on the bottom of the ocean; writers believed it would be intact and preserved since it was in one of the deepest parts of the Atlantic Ocean. There was even a fictional book, made into a movie called “Raise the Titanic,” suggesting that the ship could be raised and floated again, and they depicted the ship completing her maiden voyage into New York Harbor. But then in 1985 ,Robert Ballard actually found the Titanic, broken apart and more deteriorated than any writer had guessed before. Why am I telling you these stories, these stories that compare explanation, and destination, and imagination? Because that’s the way you need to think to understand Jesus’ answer. He has left behind the answer key to the puzzles. He says in essence, life in heaven “isn’t like that.” When my daughter was trying to talk me into pursuing the Doctor of Ministry degree while I was a full-time pastor here back in 2008, I spoke to one of the Columbia Seminary professors. “Why would I want to return to seminary” I asked him, “with all the testing, and paper writing, and intense discussions?” And Dr. Roger Nishioka replied to me, “It isn’t like that.” He meant, my old linear view of going back to seminary was nothing like what it would actually be like, returning to work on a Doctor’s degree. And so I went; and he was right; but I had to learn it for myself.

There was no way for Jesus to answer non-believers in a linear way. They didn’t believe in that life anyway! But Jesus knew others were listening in! So he said this:
“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in [the next] age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

You might want to ask Jesus some convoluted question about which relatives you could see in heaven; or ask if there are really pearly gates, or if there are actual streets of gold. You might also want to ask if your ex-wife will be there, or your former husband will be there? Or will they be in the other place?” And Jesus might say something like my professor said to me: “It isn’t like that.” Jesus might explain more, with words like: “When you are in this world, those are things you think about, perhaps a lot. But Heaven is nothing like what you are thinking about! I won’t explain it to you now! You’ll have to experience it for yourself!” We may hope we’ll have wings in the next life; we may hope that “when the roll is called up yonder [we’ll] be there!” Perhaps Jesus is saying to us: “Don’t worry about what you think it will be like! You can only imagine!” Maybe the answer is at the beginning of my message, in the small hands of a little boy, or a little girl, drawing God.

Let me close by reminding you of the Christian group MercyMe’s song, “I Can Only Imagine.” Maybe that is the best answer to what life in the resurrection might be like:

I can only imagine, what it will be like when I walk by your side,

I can only imagine what my eyes will see when your face is before me.
Surrounded by your glory what will my heart feel will I dance for your Jesus
Or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall,
Will I sing “hallelujah,” will I be able to speak at all, I can only imagine.

Few poets, songwriters, or authors have captured the wonder, the mystery, and the other-dimension nature of being with Jesus in the resurrection like that song does. If you set aside the flat-footed questions, and the linear riddles, and let your right brain engage, your creative imagination might imagine what it’s like to see, and even to draw, God.
Let us pray:

We can only imagine what it will be like to be in your glory, of God. Help us to look for the kingdom with fresh eyes, remember Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like a little child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 10, 2019

11-03-19 LEARNING FROM A TAX COLLECTOR

LEARNING FROM A TAX COLLECTOR
Luke 19, 1-10

Several years ago as a summer Sunday School series during Fellowship Hour, I created lessons based on episodes of the “Andy Griffith Show.” I called them, “Messages from Mayberry!” One episode I could have used, but didn’t, is the one called “Citizen’s Arrest.” I still laugh when I watch it. Gomer Pyle reports deputy Barney Fife for making a U-Turn in the middle of the street when he wasn’t’ on official business. The Christian message, when I write the lesson for it, is U-Turn. U-Turns in life look like repentance; some people have turned away from Jesus, and then turned back to Jesus. Others never found Jesus until later. There are famous people who have turned their life around when they found Christ. Actor Kirk Cameron was in the television show “Growing Pains” that aired from 1985-1992. He was an atheist. But he converted to Christianity as an older teenager and now has written Christian books and starred in Christian films. Did you know that although baptized as a child, author C. S. Lewis abandoned Christ and the faith as a teenager? He continued to be an agnostic until age thirty when he began to write his influential books like Mere Christianity, the Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. Novelist Anne Rice, author of Memnoch the Devil among other books, started her life in Catholicism and left it, describing herself to others as an atheist. Then in 1998 she returned to the Church and to Christ, writing her most strikingly different series of books, called “Christ the Lord.” Her journey, however, was circuitous. Citing differences with the Catholic Church on social issues, she now believes in God but calls herself as a “secular humanist.” That a hard comparison to square! Maybe her journey is actually not a U-Turn, but a lot of curves and bends in the road! Finally, there is another example of a U-Turned life: John Newton, the writer of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” As a grown man he was a sailor and slave trader. At one point in his life, he had a conversion experience, actually becoming a priest and an abolitionist. Talk about a turnaround! He wrote “Amazing Grace” for use in a New Year’s Day sermon based on 1Chronicles 17: 16-17 and preached on January 1, 1773. New Year’s Day! No football bowl games on TV then! And people came to hear him! What a great day for U-Turns! Newton wrote: “When Jesus knocks on the door of our hearts, we endeavored to shut him out, till he overcomes us by the power of his grace.” [Glory to God: A Companion. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016, p. 616.] What great examples of U-Turns those are.

But the Bible has U-Turn stories too. God must relish those who are lost and then found. In Luke 15 as I mentioned last week, Jesus told the story of the prodigal son, a young man who insulted his father, asking for his inheritance before his father has died, and then he waste it, coming back to grovel in a classic U-Turn. And today, the story of the tax collector is another U-Turn story. Listen to what Christian Educator Donald Griggs and Professor Paul Walaskay, both of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, wrote about this wee little man named Zacchaeus:
Traders moving goods in and out of Judea were required to stop at the border to pay a customs tax. This made Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, a relatively wealthy man. …To the average peasant, he was rich. And was also short! [Luke’s Gospel from Scratch, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011, p. 41.]

Jesus asked to go to his house that day. Did he have a plan when he said those words? We don’t know what Jesus thought, but we know what Jesus did: he transformed Zacchaeus. The Bible is sparse on details, but we know that in his home, breaking the bread for a meal while townspeople looked in, something powerful happened. When Jesus sits at table with others, extraordinary things often happen. In Luke chapter 24, for example, when the risen Lord Jesus was on the road to Emmaus, Jesus was invited to stay with two men since the sun was going down. As Jesus sat with two men for a meal, Jesus lifted the bread, and blessed and broke it. Then the eyes of the other two were opened, and they recognized him! Wonderful things happen when Jesus is at table with others, as he is with us today. What happened at the table of the wee little man in Jericho? Zacchaeus changed into a generous and—dare we say—grace-filled man! What a difference from who he was!

Today, wonderful things can happen to us too.
First, we are connected by mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won. You can remember them, let their names roll through your mind, and feel as if you are among them.
Second, there might be some here today who are ready for a U-Turned life: all you may have needed is a description of what that can be like—you know, the before and after—and to know that you are in good company if you choose to make the change.
And third, in today’s prayer, Radford will be praying for you; at the end of the service, you can speak with one of us about any decision you make. Jesus is with us today. How do I know that? Jesus said in Matthew 18: 20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” If you renew your desire to, as pop singer Anne Murray once wrote, “put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters,” doubts can be replaced by faith; discouragement can be replaced by hope; and anger can be replaced by love, all because of God’s amazing grace. God is with you; the Lord is on your side. May that knowledge still any troubled souls today.

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 3, 2019

10-27-19 KNOWING YOU NEED A PRAYER OF CONFESSION


Luke 18: 9-14

One thing that can trip up a person in life is having little or no self-awareness. What are your strengths; what are your weaknesses? Good leaders may surround themselves with people who have strengths they don’t have. If you are not a good organizer, have an organizer at your side. If you don’t have a strong voice, have someone with a strong voice, or a microphone near you. If you don’t seem to be able to stop yourself from overspending, have a financially minded person monitor you. If you can’t stop drinking, find a sponsor to hold yourself accountable. If you can’t stop getting angry, a counselor can train you to make better choices than acting out in anger. Self -awareness is a plus in life. Do we acknowledge there are things that we have said or done to hurt others, things that rise to the level of sin? Years ago, Carl Jung described some of our sinful actions as our “shadow side.” Jung said we could integrate our shadow side by exposing our darkness to light…. We all have shadow sides. When we recognize that, we can acknowledge sins and lead our sin-sick souls to wholeness.

Today a parable Jesus tells invites us to give ourselves a “rugged self-examination,” which is generally understood to be a spiritual examination. Do you acknowledge that you are a sinner, as I do? How do we agree that we are both children of light and children of darkness? Have you told Jesus that you need him as your Savior, or are you just intrigued enough about the Bible to come and learn about it? And are you open to making changes in your life to truly lean on and count on Jesus?

Before we go through that list, let’s get familiar with the situation in Jesus’ parable. Remember that a parable is often an exaggeration or amplification of reality. Jesus taught with parables so those listening to him would remember “their need to pray and to not lose heart.” [Luke 18:1] That’s why he shared the story of the unjust judge that we studied last week, and why he continued with this story about two men who went up to the temple to pray. He has caricatures here, one is the Pharisee—who in Jesus’ stories always seems to be the bad guy: self-assured, confident, judgmental; and the other a tax collector—one loathed by the community because he took their money, and lots of it. The tax collector was even allowed to keep a hefty portion for himself. The Pharisee said things that were over the top; today we might call them sensationalized statements. The Pharisee said, with a loud voice, “O God, I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers—and then he stops and points to the other man—or even this tax collector.” He is clearly grandstanding, and he’s decided his own position before God, not because God declared it, but because he declared it! He became his own judge and jury. He believed that he had earned God’s favor by what he had done. He even listed what he had done: I “fast twice a week and gives a tenth of all my income.” He has decided that God approves of him.

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating today. I once visited with a couple who were in our congregation. They have since moved away. At one point the husband said to me: “Why do we have a prayer of confession every week? It’s seems like such a negative and unnecessary prayer.” I replied, “It’s a reminder that we all sin and are always in need of the forgiveness of God.” He then said, “I don’t sin.” “And I said, “Of course you do!” He paused for a moment as if surveying the last months or years of his life. “No” he said slowly, “No I don’t think I do.” “I said “you can go down all of the commandments and answer that you have always honored the sabbath, honored your parents, never stolen anything, never told a lie? You are one remarkable man! I as your pastor know that I have done things wrong. That’s why I need a Savior! And that’s why I regularly pray a prayer of confession.” “Well I don’t think I need one,” the man replied. “I can see why,” I said. Except for that one man who thought he was without sin, and perhaps the Pharisee in Jesus’s story, and Jesus himself, we all have our relationship with God restored when we sincerely offer our prayer of confession. To do so, starts the process of reconnecting with God, something that your sins and my sins have broken. Then the process continues when we also decide to confess wrongs we have done to our family members, or friends, or strangers. Jesus, and later the Apostle Paul, said that we are saved by grace through faith, not by one’s own attempts at righteous living. In Matthew chapter 23, for example, he said:
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,[a] so that the outside also may become clean.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Jesus never held back his loathing for those who believed they were self-made non-sinners! And he gave this guidance for the rest of us, in Matthew 5: 23:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[a] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[b] and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser.

Our task is to avoid the delusion that we are sinlessness. Jesus’ most powerful stories of salvation were about those who were lost, knew it, and were saved. People like Zacchaeus in Luke chapter 18> Jesus came to his house after entering Jericho. As Zacchaeus has a change of heart about the money he took as a tax collector, he squared accounts with the people in his village, and gave them extra. Then Jesus declared, “Salvation has come to this house today!” Also in the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, it’s not the loyal, pharisaical son who gets found, it’s the son who hated his choice and returned to the love and grace of his father.

. Today:
1) Have you established your need for the Savior? I have. I don’t know where I’d be without my Savior. I don’t know how much my soul would be riddled with guilt without the blessing of confession, both to God and even to another human like a priest, a pastor, a chaplain, a counselor, and to the person I have wronged. Confession is good for the soul.
2) Do you join me in acknowledging that we are sinners? Our weekly prayer on Sundays does not seek to cover all the sins you or I might have committed. That’s the job for your own personal prayers. Sundays are reserved for a “General Confession of Sin” that reminds us that we are, as the old song puts it, “Standing in the need of prayer.” We need forgiveness from others and from God. In the words, “not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,” We are not pointing fingers to those around us, “throwing them under the bus.” Instead we are taking responsibility for our actions and throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court. And who shows up as our defense attorney before the court of judgement? Its Jesus! He defends us if we are sorry; he pays the price if we are repent; and he has the role of both Counselor and Savior for those who say, “I need thee every hour, most precious Lord!”
And finally: 3) Are you open to making changes in your lives to truly lean on and count on Jesus? (if you are already leaning on and counting on God, you can ignore this one! :☺) Remember, the tax collector said as he approached God in prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Those prayers have saved people in AA meetings; they have saved men or women who have admitted adultery; but they also can save those who acknowledge the need for a Savior, instead of others who look at Jesus’s outstretched hand and say, “Naw; I’m good.” Today the prayer of confession reminded me of how much I’ve needed Jesus. I hope it reminded you too. Please join me in prayer:
Jesus, many here have decided that they need you; sometimes people don’t act like it, but if they make a rugged self-examination, they may decide that they need you. Enter, or remain in our souls, making it your home so together, you can help us make right choices in our lives. Thank you always. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 27, 2019

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10-20-19 A MESSAGE FROM THE WAILING WALL


Luke 18: 1-8

At the end of the southbound I-95 exit ramp in Port Orange, there is a man holding a cardboard sign, asking for help. He stands under a city-posted sign that says: “Please do not help panhandlers.” Yet since July, in most daylight hours, he is there. I have to hand it to him: he is persistent. But what motivates his persistence? Is it hope, hope that one day soon someone will help him? Or is it results—that—in spite of the sign, people are still helping him enough to make it worth his time to beg, out in the sun, or out in the rain?

Over in Jerusalem, one of the most visited places is often called the “Wailing Wall.” It is, in fact, the remaining part of the Western Wall of the Temple of God. I don’t know if the same people who were there in July praying were also there when we visited a few years earlier. Their backs are always toward people who are watching; and it seems rude to get close to the wall and try to see their faces. But I suspect some have been coming to the wall to pray to God for a very long time; perhaps years. I have to hand it to them: they are persistent. But what motivates their persistence? Is it hope, hope that one day God will help them? Or is it results, that is, that God has already answered earlier prayers and they have come back to ask for more?

In Luke 18, we just read about Jesus telling a parable describing why people “need to pray, and to not lose heart.” He said that “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.” Why did he say that? Because he’s reminding us that this is a parable: an exaggerated story that is not perfectly grounded in reality. And because he wants no one to think this judge is God; he is not! This was a judge who made arbitrary decisions, not often based on justice or love, or a sense of write or wrong. He was the kind of judge we hope not to face in court. Knowing that, Jesus said a widow kept coming to the judge with a request. A widow; by saying that, he was not pulling on our compassion. He was telling us this woman had absolutely no leverage over this judge: she had no money of her own, no husband who could make trouble for the judge, and nowhere else to turn. She had nothing to lose. But, she was persistent. What motivated her persistence? Was it hope, hope that one day the judge would give in and give her a favorable decision? Or was it results, that perhaps the judge had given a favorable ruling before, and after wearing the judge down, was she asking for another good ruling? We don’t know. But in Jesus’ story, limited as it is, the judge says to himself, “I have no fear of God, and no respect for anyone else. But because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so she will not wear me out with her continual requests.” Jesus then explains, and I’m paraphrasing: If an unjust judge—one who does not fear God or others—grants the request of a powerless widow, how much more will your loving Father want to grant the requests of his loving children?

That’s the point of Jesus’ story. We are to be persistent in prayer, because others get requests granted when they have much less going for them than we do. We are loved children of a loving God. We are reminded of how persistently Jesus prayed. A number of times, the disciples looked for Jesus when he had slipped away to pray. Then as Jesus approached Jerusalem, he wept and prayed again. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed again; he prayed with profound passion: that the plan his Father had for him might be set aside. Did you hear that? Jesus prayed to his Father that the plan that had already been revealed to Jesus might be changed and set aside. But even in that situation:
Jesus believed in and prayed to God his Father; he didn’t say: “I don’t believe in you!”
Jesus never gave an indication that his Father was heartless or uncaring.
Jesus never said, “Since you aren’t answering my prayers, I will stop praying to you!”

In spite of the fact that Jesus, the Father’s beloved Son, was about to die under the watchful eye of his Father, he went along with the plan. Even on the cross, he constantly prayed to his Father, rather than going it alone.

Today we are not in our parable world. We are in the 21st century in the real world. In this real world, where some say they are spiritual and not religious; where some are atheists, or Jews, or Muslims, or Buddhists or other groups, we have a choice to make as Christians:
Do we pray to God, and keep praying to God, even when we don’t hear an answer? Or
Do we stop praying to God after a time or two, or a month, or a year, deciding that God is nowhere near, or deaf, or heartless or dead?
This parable urges us to keep praying. When Jesus did not give up, God engaged his plan to save the world! What a blessing, when the Father communicating with the Son, said in essence, “trust me.”
There are many examples of so-called “unanswered prayer,” and also of “answered prayer.” In his book, Daring Prayer, author and professor David Willis gave two examples he had heard from others. Here’s one:
I was driving down the freeway with my daughter in the front seat with me, when I saw a car suddenly swerve over the divider and head straight for us. Instinctively I prayed that we be spared. Though we were hit on the side and overturned, neither of us was even seriously injured. You can say what you want, but I know prayer works.

Here’s another, nor connected with the first story. This was spoken to a pastor:
I want to thank you for your visits while [my daughter] was in the hospital. Your prayers especially meant a lot to both of us, but, frankly, more to her than me. I guess at the time I sort of resented [the prayers]: dishonest, raised false hopes. And I was mad as h* when she died after all we’d been through and tried. I still can’t believe how a “loving God” can tolerate such pain, such d*** stupid suffering. Well, let’s not go into that again. The funny thing is that I’m now able to articulate my anger with God. Not really praying, I suppose, but more like arguing. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is.
[John Knox Press, 1977, p. 24]

It is said that even those long prayers at the Wailing Wall are from people who don’t just gently pray to God. They rail; they cry out; they curse; and they move the tops of their bodies, back and forth, in anguish or rage. Jesus wept too and cried out to his Father, but never said, “I don’t believe in you!” “Or I’m done!” All of those things God can take and can understand. But to cut out prayer because you conclude there is no God, well, then you’ll feel adrift on the sea of chaos. Here’s a final story from a chaplain. Hold on; this is a tough one.
Lindsay (name changed) was a patient in a hospital expecting her fifth child. She was Roman Catholic. Her four other children ranged from age 3-12. She developed an internal tear, and her life was at risk. Physicians encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy. Her priest strongly declined that as an option. Lindsay was stuck with how to proceed and argued with God about it. A week went by and the family decided to concur with the priest to not terminate her pregnancy. She asked the chaplain to plan to baptize her baby in her womb so the child would go to heaven if the baby died. Another week went by. Lindsey was feeling her own mortality. She was anxious and said so in prayers to God. She requested that the chaplain pray with her, with her rosary, and to bring her communion. In so doing, she believed she was taking Christ into her to strengthen her body and heart. After another week, the baby was in serious trouble. Doctors believes the baby would not live another week. Lindsey was then in a spiritual crisis with God. Her doubt was escalating, fearing now for both her baby’s life and her own. She prayed and read Scripture with the chaplain. By the next week, she had been away from her family several weeks and it was getting close to Christmas. Her own parents didn’t support her decision to try to keep her pregnancy at that point. Lindsay was moved to a new room where, providentially, the earlier patient left a small Christmas tree in the window. There was an ornament on the tree that said “hope.” Lindsay takes this as a sign from God. She had learned the child she was carrying was a girl, so she decided to name the baby “Hope.” Conversations with Lindsay and prayers with God became all about what it meant to hold onto hope and hold onto Hope. Then Lindsay started having so much pain that she could barely move. With every movement from baby Hope, Lindsay felt grief instead of joy. Lindsay continued to be in spiritual crisis – why would God give her this baby that could potentially cause her to die? Finally, the baby was delivered by C-section; both Mom and daughter needed blood transfusions. Soon the chaplain witnessed Lindsay’s theology (God will be faithful) and experience (Will God be faithful?) bumping up against each other. Lindsay had to walk the entirety of her journey largely independent of her family. Much like a soldier out at war, Lindsay’s story was known and experienced by the chaplain and a few others. Sadly, the story ended in the death of Hope, that is, the child. Her brain developed a bleed, a very common side effect of babies born so early. Lindsay, in her sadness, was discharged back home to her husband and four young children, who had been apart from their mama for a month. She had even been apart from them over Christmas-the time the world celebrates the birth of the Christ child, who brought hope (small h) into a suffering world. The chaplain’s concluding observation was this: I can say for sure that Hope (the daughter) died, but I’m not sure that hope had died.
When people come to the end of their rope; or wear out their prayer book or their rosary beads; when men or women visit the Wailing Wall for the hundredth time, do they, in their pain, cut their losses and turn away from God? Or are they persistent? Are you persistent? Only you can finish the story of your prayer life with God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 20, 2019
(Hear now this Jewish confessional prayer to God- Avinu Malkenu)

THE OTHER SAMARITAN


Luke 17: 11-19

When I was young and lived in Richmond, Virginia, there was a time when my grandparents took me back with them to their home in Pennsylvania for a visit, not on a plane, for my grandmother was afraid to fly; not in a car for that particular trip, but on a train! I was perhaps 2 or 3 years old, and they said that while we were on the train, I saw a little African American girl, and headed up the aisle to her seat, and started hugging her! I must have thought she was delightful. “No prejudice there!” people on the train exclaimed. Innocence is a wonderful characteristic that can sometimes be worn away by our changing society. Two years ago, one of my grandsons hugged a girl in his school who he considered to be a friend, but her parents to offense to his hug and asked him to be charged with sexual harassment. He and the girl were both five. Later the school talked the parents to agree to a charge of “adoration” instead of harassment. Sometimes adults get alarmed by childhood delight and innocence. Two years ago in a different grandson’s neighborhood, there was a group of 3 and 4 year olds who loved to play with each other every day after pre-school. Almost every day, the parents sat on the front lawn of a home on a dead-end street, watching their children delight in each other’s company, playing together, and riding each other’s tricycles and battery powered cars. They might still be playing with each other except some of the adults had some issues with some of the other adults that tore apart the adult friendships. “You cannot play with those children anymore,” some parents told their children. The children, with great puzzlement, still see their friends at preschool, but only half of them gather now on the dead-end street. The others are told to stay indoors. Sometimes adult issues can change innocence to suspicion and confusion very quickly. Are there ones from whom you keep a distance for some reason or another? Have you created some distance been created between you and a co-worker, or you and a relative, because you learned they are gay? Or because have you created distance with someone who has what might be called a “mixed marriage?” I know students in some high schools who have very accepting connections with Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Jewish students, but those friendships make some of their parents uncomfortable. I know many college students have both straight friends and gay friends, but they don’t label them anything but “friends.” I know some birds of a feather that flock together because of their political party, particularly in this day and age. We end up with imaginary or real walls dividing human beings in the same school, on the same continent, or in the same community. Jesus would ask us to look to the children, and what how they treat others as friends. I was proud when another of my grandsons—Calvin—introduced himself to every other person at the All Children’s Park in Port Orange, when he visited with us this summer. He asked, no matter the color of their skin, boy or girl, “Hey, I’m Calvin! You want to play with me?” It was heartwarming as we departed that he sincerely said goodbye to each one of them.

Today in Israel there is open suspicion and hostility between Israeli and Palestinian adults. But here is one true testimony I share with you today: in 1998 on my first trip to the Holy Land, we watched some boys playing some kind of kickball on a vacant lot. “Look” our guide said. “Those are Palestinian and Israeli boys, all playing together.” Just then, a camera crew from a United States network pulled up to the field. They pulled out their big camera and a microphone, and one man said “Hey boys! This is going back to the States! DO something!” And they began picking up rocks and pelting each other with them. When the cameras stopped, they went back to playing kickball. Even having the media–or being surrounded by cellphone cameras—can change the way people act, often not for the better. There is more than one reason for Jesus to say, “And a little child shall lead them.”

In Jesus’ day, Jews shunned Samaritans, yet in the story Jesus tells today, one man was a Samaritan, the others were likely Jews. Here was a group of people who all had one thing in common—leprosy—that kept them from letting any usual issues get in the way of that bond. Today we too can have a tie that binds us together, like “We’re Christians!” or “We’re band members” or more specifically “We’re the drumline.” Or “we’re Gators,” or “we’re Noles!” Those who have a tie that binds them pull for each other and for their common cause! Sadly, sometimes people are bonded together by disease or illness, like “We are cancer survivors!” That’s the bond, even if group members are very different. In our lesson today, it seems important to Jesus that he share a story about 10 people with leprosy who approached him asking for mercy. There was very little hope of being healed from leprosy. Those who had the dreaded skin disease were shunned by everyone else, so much so that they often supported one another in what were called leper colonies- they had each other, but they had no one else. So we might rightly assume that they identified with one another as men in the same boat-all with almost no hope for healing. They heard about the man named Jesus. The men seemed to be both Jew and Samaritan, living somewhere near the border of the two territories. As Jesus heading toward Jerusalem, this time he deliberately passed through Samaria, something few other Jews would do.

In the typical colony of lepers, no one was put off by the differences between those in the colony. In their request for healing, Jesus replies “Go and show yourself to the priests.” Plural. Perhaps he meant a Samaritan priest and a Jewish priest, for the Jewish priest would never declare a Samaritan man clean. Again the world divides, but some illnesses or groups can set differences aside to be bound together for each other. At least one, but perhaps only one with leprosy, was a Samaritan. But Jesus (a Jew, remember!) honored him because he gave thanks for being healed! He praised God.

Today there are some lessons from Jesus’s story. Their identity as lepers was the tie that bound them, making other differences between them less important. But, only one praised God for the healing. One of the lost arts of our day is how to offer a proper thank you, not to just to another person, but also to God. We pray and pray to God, but some—not everybody—but some, when I asked ,“Did you thank God for your healing?” they hang their head and say, “No.” Others—who got Christmas or birthday gifts, or had a nice thing done for them, or had been invited over for dinner—also have sometimes failed to really thank the giver. Now that may not be you, but it is an issue with many! A shouted “Thanks!” as you are getting into your car does not cut it. A written note of gratitude makes a difference. I am proud that when Mary Ann and I send gifts to my nieces and nephews, we have always get handwritten thank you notes back. I hold them and look at them for several days, or even longer. It gives me a greater connection with each one of them. Gratitude matters to the giver. “Never forget that” Jesus seems to say.

One-time years ago, I spent several weeks meeting with a boy in our church who was working on a God and Me badge for Cub Scouts. He mother brought him faithfully each week, and we enjoyed each other’s company. I got to show him my badges and my work in Scouting, and he got to show me his. At the end of our time together, he told me “thanks.” But it didn’t stop there. He and his mother (I think) framed his thank you note he handwrote to me, and added a photograph of the two of us, then framed it. That was really big thank you! It hangs on my wall and I never forget it, even as one of my own grandsons has started down the Scouting trail. Giving thanks to others or giving praise to God was so important that Jesus highlighted it. One final note: our communion liturgy every month has the minister saying: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!” And the people are invited to reply: “It is right to give our thanks and praise!” And so it is. Give thanks.

Let us pray: God of outstretched arms and abundant mercy: thank you for creating us, for redeeming us, and for sustaining us. Thank you for being just a prayer away. And let this prayer just prime the pump of those who are listening so that they too may give you thanks and praise! We lift up our hearts to you. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 13, 2019

10-06-19 MUSTARD SEED FAITH

MUSTARD SEED FAITH
Luke 17: 5-10

Back in 1986, our church offered a production of a children’s musical called,
“The Greatest Gift of All.” Our daughter Jenny was 3 and she was placed on a stage, in a row with other boys and girls, wearing a Christmas package as a costume! In their neat line they attempted to sing the song “Good Things Come in Little Packages.” Charming! We have it on videotape. Sometimes that saying is true: good things can come in little packages. A woman might be dreaming of getting a new car from her boyfriend, but if the small box she receives has an engagement ring in it, could it be “the greatest gift of all” for her? Conversely, when our son Chris was hoping for a car at Christmas, I had arranged to get him a sporty older car. He looked outside Christmas day. No car. I gave him a small box. In it was a key; one that opened the door of a car we had parked down the street! I also know men whose lives were changed by Jesus, who were so thrilled to receive a little pocket cross when they claimed Christ as Savior. They carry it wherever they go. Today we are asked to consider if having a little bit of faith—the size of a mustard seed—is enough to start a fire of faith. On one of my first cold campouts in Missouri when I was a Tenderfoot Boy Scout, other boys and I were challenged to start a fire with flint, steel, and bits of dried brush called tinder. The goal was to get a substantial, hot fire on which to cook, starting with just a spark. With hungry Patrol members standing around, we began to take flint to steel. Three Tenderfoot Scouts were given the task. I can’t say which of us actually produced the spark, but I saw it land on the dried brush; we gently blew on it, and a small flame appeared. Later we cooked on that fire, started by a tiny spark.

I once heard a woman say to another as her husband faced a cancer diagnosis: “I’m not worried. I have faith that God will heal him.” To that, her friend replied: “I wish I had faith like yours!” This week, the Apostles (the 12) hear Jesus give a lesson on when and how to forgive another person. And then he says, in essence, “When you have even the faith of a mustard seed, you can forgive.” Jesus just told them that if a person who had wronged them over and over, turned back and said “I’m sorry and I’ll not do it again,” then they must forgive them each time. It’s a tough action to take without faith. If you have ever been betrayed by or hurt by another person, you may know how difficult it is for you to come to a point when you can say, “I forgive you.” Perhaps you never have been able to forgive another who has hurt you badly. The Apostles must have sighed and said, “Lord, increase my faith” meaning, “I need lots more trust to give my desire for revenge over to God, and then be able to forgive the one who hurt me.” And Jesus says, in so many words: “You don’t need mountain-sized faith to believe God will give you a bridge over troubled waters, you just need a drop of faith (or as a cook might say, a ‘pinch’ of faith to make it happen.” Do you know how much is in a “pinch?” I don’t either, but I’m told it’s a very small amount!

Now, let’s remind ourselves that Bible stories and parables are best taken seriously but not literally. For example, only in Matthew’s gospel does Jesus say the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds; in our gospel of Luke today, there is no mention of size. But don’t we read that when we hear this story? I know I do, so I created a children’s sermon about small things. In fact, botanists tell us that orchid seeds and cypress seeds were actually smaller than mustard seeds in Jesus’ day. So we say to ourselves, “Don’t argue the facts with Jesus! Just listen.” For example, if you read a recipe that says add, “a pinch of salt,” do you know how much to add? How much is in a pinch? That much I’m told (showing pointer and thumb pushed together. How much faith do we need to forgive another? Just (picks up mustard seed) that much.

Did you hear the result of the trial this week when the white female police officer opened an unlocked apartment door that she thought was her own and shot twice, straight into the chest of a black male who was standing in the apartment, only to discover it was actually his apartment and she had shot the man dead? After the jury reached a verdict of 10 years for Amber Guyger, some felt outrage and expressed it. Others were stunned by what happened next. The brother of the man who was killed asked to be heard. The judge permitted it. He took the stand. The man said to the woman who killed his brother, “I forgive you,” and “Your honor, may I have permission to give her a hug?” The judge paused, then permitted it. They embraced with heavy tears as the brother of the slain man said softly to one who had shot his brother, ‘I forgive you.” “Lord, increase our faith!” And Jesus looks into your soul, and he looks into mine, and says to us: “Hmmm. There’s enough faith in you already! Use it!” And then do we step out in the faith we are told we have, or do we pull back? We are reminded of the faith the Amish community in Pennsylvania had when they immediately forgave the man who walked into one of their schools and shot 10 girls. “Oh Lord, increase our faith!” we cry. “Do we have enough faith to forgive like that?” Sikhs in Wisconsin also forgave a white supremacist who entered their temple, killing six and wounding four. Oh Lord, would we have the faith to do that? And when young white man appeared at predominately African American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he pulled out a gun and shot 9 people who welcomed him to their Bible Study. Later they announced that they forgave the man. “Oh Lord, do we have that much faith to forgive like that? Do we have the faith of a mustard seed?”

Let me close with a prayer from Francis of Assisi. Let us pray:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sew love.
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master:
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 6, 2019

At the end of this service, ushers or the pastors will hold a bowl containing mustard seeds at each of the Narthex doors, and at the double doors of fellowship hall. You are welcome to look at them, touch them, or take one with you as a reminder of today’s lesson about faith.

09-29-19 THE CASE OF POOR MAN LAZARUS


Luke 16:19-31

Writers, playwrights, and filmmakers have, over the years, described and offered social commentary on those who have means, or money; and those who have little, or are poor. For example, Alan Jay Lerner in the musical “Camelot” couched the differences subtly in the whimsical song “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” Listen to the lyrics between King Arthur and Guenevere:
GUENEVERE
What do the simple folk do
To help them escape when they\’re blue?
The shepherd who is ailing, the milkmaid who is glum
The cobbler who is wailing from nailing his thumb
When they\’re beset and besieged
The folk not noblessly obliged
However do they manage to shed their weary lot?
Oh, what do simple folk do we do not?
ARTHUR
I have been informed by those who know them well
They find relief in quite a clever way
When they\’re sorely pressed, they whistle for a spell
And whistling seems to brighten up their day
And that\’s what simple folk do
So they say
GUENEVERE
They whistle?
ARTHUR
So they say
Then they conclude that they sing.
Then they conclude that they dance.
Finally, Guenevere asks:
GUENEVERE
What else do the simple folk do
To help them escape when they\’re blue?
And ARTHUR replies:
They sit around and wonder what royal folk would do
And that\’s what simple folk do

That’s an entertaining look at the poor by the rich. That was in 1960.
In 1983, I first enjoyed a Dan Ackroyd/Eddie Murphy comedy called “Trading Places.” It featured classic actors Ralph Belamy and Don Ameche as two brothers; one thinks rich people have superior intellect and skills and poor people don’t. The other brother bets him that he can turn a poor petty thief into a stock trader and a stock trader into a poor petty thief. Watch the film to see what happens!

When we come to the story Jesus uses, some have suggested that he did not make the story up of poor man Lazarus but had heard it over his life and used it to illustrate his point. In the story only the poor man is given a name—Lazarus—while the rich man has no name. Tradition has called him “Dives” (DI-vees) but that is actual the word for rich man in the old Latin Bible. One thing’s for sure: That story has been sited time and time again in literature. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Summoner says that “Dives and Lazarus lived differently, and their rewards were different.” In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, John Falstaff alludes to the story when he says to Bardolph, “I never see thy face, but I think upon hell-fire and Dives that lived in purple, for there he is in his robes, burning, burning.” In the Victorian Era, Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Barton said “Workers and masters are separate as Dives and Lazarus.” And even though his Christmas Book with Ebenezer Scrooge called A Christmas Carol does not specifically allude to Dives and Lazarus, the introduction to the Oxford edition does. Two other examples of the influence of this New Testament story: Herman Melville, in his novel Moby Dick, has Ishmael describe a freezing and windy night saying “Poor Lazarus, chattering his teeth against the curbstone,” and Dives “the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.” One could afford to build a fire, the other could not. And American poet T. S. Eliot, in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock says: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” referencing Lazarus returning from the dead to tell the brothers of the rich man their fate.

This is not a heaven and hell story primarily, although it has been used that way. This is a story about those who have and those who don’t. Jesus has just finished saying “You can’t love God and money in chapter 16:13. Then we read in verse 14: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at [Jesus.]” But Jesus knows how to tell a story, and how to make it effective. He includes details. See, the rich man “feasted sumptuously” every day, while the poor man lay at his place of homelessness, a gate of the city, and he did not have the strength to stop the dogs coming to lick his sores. That is excruciating detail. This coming year, 2020 ,our government once again will be taking a census. Censuses matter regarding the population of a community and the money our government allows for each of them. Yes, the census takers can count how many people have a house, a condo, or an apartment, but smart community leaders also lead them into the woods at night to count the heads of those who are called homeless. They are called that because they have no address, but try to move them from their spot, or at a gate, or a bridge, or a bench and they will resist. A census taker in 2010, said he was not surprised to find many homeless people in the woods in the exact same spot where he found them the last time! Everyone wants a home, even if society calls them “homeless.” If Jesus returned today, I think he would want to take me, and you, and many others to Halifax Urban Ministries to show how many ordinary people, who’ve gotten behind on rent, or had an accident or an illness that kept them from returning to work, come by each day for a hot meal. Jesus would want us to see, and hear, and smell what hunger is like. He would also want us to show hospitality and kindness to one Lazarus, and to another Lazarus. From Confirmation Classes to youth groups to adults groups, congregation members have gone with Jesus (metaphorically speaking) and have seen Lazarus. You can see Lazarus 7 days a week at the hot meal program. You can also see Lazarus under those bridges and in the woods. Jesus wants us to see them, and know they too are human beings. Jesus would want us to see the 150 men at our ministry for those recently addicted or incarcerated at “Solutions By-The-Sea” too. Jesus would want us to know we too might be one pill, or one injection, one drink, or one snort away from addiction, which leads to a pit of poverty, a hell on earth. If you would like to join Tobias Caskey for one of his Sunday afternoon services as I have, you’ll find Lazarus there recovering. You’ll find kind, welcoming, and hopeful people. It is a deep chasm from poverty to sustainability, or from addiction to sobriety. But people are crossing the chasm with the help of congregations like ours. It takes a lot of time from an ordinary person, to make a connection that matters. Time matters to build trust with those like Lazarus.

But also money matters to people like Lazarus. What is a gift, and what is a sacrifice to a poor man or a rich man? It’s like the story of the chicken and the pig. A pig and a chicken were walking down a road. As they passed a church, they noticed a charity potluck brunch being held. The chicken suggested to the pig that they each make a contribution to the cause. “Let’s offer them ham and eggs!” the chicken suggested. “Not so fast,” the pig replied. “What you’d give would be a contribution, but what I’d have to give is a total commitment!” For a pauper, giving 10% of one’s income could be a genuine sacrifice. But for a prince, giving 10% would be a contribution. Our world is helped by generous gifts. Daytona Beach, for example, has had some significant gifts given for the good of the community. Some people of means have caused the levels of income to rise, because they have invested greatly in this area. Good for them! We are helped by such philanthropy.

There is, of course, the story of Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. This is not that story. This is a story about a nameless rich man (Dives, Latin for “rich man”) and about a poor man with a name. This is a story about not living or dying with regrets. This is a story reminding us: “you can’t take it with you.” And it’s a story that suggests that honoring God, by finding people who can use a leg up, is more honorable than loving your money as you love yourself. People and organizations I’ve learned about have been so pleased to provide a school lunch for those who can’t afford them, or buy new shoes for those sticking cardboard in the soles of their existing shoes. One online sock company says that for every pair of socks you buy from them, they will give another pair to a homeless shelter. They learned that new socks are one of the most requested commodities in homeless shelters.

Can you imagine such poverty where a man sits in a spot next to a gate, and dogs lick his wounds? We need not look overseas for that. We can see it even in this county. Jesus message to the Pharisees is “open your eyes and your hearts to your neighbors!” And he invites us to do the same.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 29, 2019

09-22-19 THE CASE OF THE DISHONEST STEWARD

THE CASE OF THE DISHONEST STEWARD
Luke 16: 1-9

One time growing up I visited a tilt house at a carnival. In it, I found a mirror that distorted my image, walls that were not straight, floors that were not level, and ceilings that were not parallel to the floor. As I went around a corner, I knew I was in a strange place as water appeared to be flowing uphill! So many things played tricks on my mind. When I left the tilt house, I was glad to be able to again tell up from down, and see that water flowed downhill.

As we head into the end of September, Halloween themed nights at theme parks and Halloween types of television shows are starting to appear; they again mess with my mind and my sense of right and wrong. Clowns that used to delight children at circuses or a rodeos are destructive and horrifying this time of the year. Thanks to the macabre mind of Stephen King and his book It, that film about a demented clown had the top grossing box office last week.
Next week a new television show called “Preacher” will air on AMC network. At first I thought a show about a preacher might be interesting for me to see. Then in our tilt house world I read the synopsis: “Jesse Custer is a hard-drinking, chain smoking preacher who becomes infused with an extraordinary power. He embarks on a quest to literally find God alongside his trigger-happy ex-girlfriend, Tulip, and new vampire friend, Cassidy.” (Promotional material) The title to a 1963 film came to my mind: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” And so it is.

Sometimes, I wonder if I am still in a tilt house.
Lies are called truth, and true statements are called lies.
Is there global warming or not?

Are the leaders of Russia and North Korea our friends or our enemies?
Should children be vaccinated or not?
What I used to think was north, south, east or west has been brought into question. So I have tried grounding myself in someone to trust, and something I can trust. I turn to God, and to my Bible. But sometimes, like today, when I open my Bible, I get a story like the one we find in Luke 16: a head scrambler. Then I feel like I’m still in a tilt-house. Who is the good guy in this parable? Who is the bad guy? What is the moral of the story? Is it really that the listeners should make friends with unrighteous mammon, or in common language, with dirty money? Is the moral really that we have to watch our own back because no one else will do it for us? Am I still reading from “The Good Book?” Help me decide.

A rich man had a manager, and someone told the rich man that the manager was wasting his money. There was no inquiry; there was just a rhetorical question to the manager: “What is this that I hear about you?” By definition, that’s hearsay. But on that basis, and that basis alone according the premise, the manager is fired. So that makes the rich man the bad guy, right? Since he fires a man with a snap judgment and no evidence, is he the bad guy? Then I think, “perhaps the manager is the good guy!” So I latch on to him and listen in to him talk to himself saying: “I am not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.” I too know some who would not be strong enough to dig if they were fired without notice. Do you know someone who would be too ashamed to beg? I understand this man’s reflection. But then, his thinking takes a worldly turn instead of a Godly turn. He does something that, to me, seems unethical. But what do I know? I still wonder if I’m in a tilt house! He calls the buyers of his boss’s goods and makes a deal that completely lines his own pockets with money rightfully intended for his boss. Now he’s become a thief!

To the man who owed his boss 100 measures of oil, he says make it fifty; and to the one who owes 100 hundred measures of wheat, he says to make it eighty. We are left to our own assumptions about whether the man took the adjusted amount for himself or gave the lower amount to his boss. I’m inclined to think he kept it, (which is wrong in my world,) but if the boss commends him for what he did, I’m wondering: did he give the lowered amounts to his boss? But then, almost like a conversation between two mobsters, the boss commends the manager for his quick thinking. It is an odd story that fails to give a plumb line to my tilt house. “Jesus, why did you share this story?” I ask.

In his book Parables as Subversive Speech, William R. Herzog, II who was Professor of New Testament at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, wrote this: “The parable of the unjust steward has long been considered one of the most puzzling parables of Jesus. Yet interpreters have not been at a loss to propose possible meanings.” [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, p. 233. Herzog then goes into more than two and a half pages of theories which is why this parable feels tilted to me. Not one theory was completely helpful. So I have drawn my own conclusion: this particular parable was especially aimed at the disenfranchised workers listening to Jesus, especially the ones who felt cheated by management. Was the story told from their perspective? Jesus said the owner of the business was rich, (the perception of the workers?). Then, perhaps, the manager of the business was crooked too, so the story is told as if he stole or worked deals for his own gain.

Finally, we come to what Jesus says about the parable: “Make friends with unrighteous mammon” (or money). What? What does that mean? Listen to expert Herbert Lockyer: “Christ did not commend the cunning deceit, but the astuteness of this steward, (or manager). [All the Parables of the Bible Zondervan, 1963, p.290. Even that doesn’t lead me to a good reason for this story being in the Bible.

In many corners of our world today, we look in vain for paragons of virtue. This story certainly had no one above the fray of deceit. But what did Jesus expect his hearers to glean from it? I’ve heard someone say about a mastermind criminal: “If only he used his vast talents for good!” That means they admired his skill, or thinking, or shrewdness. Jesus does not need Christian nitwits.
What can we learn from felons who continue to escape from maximum security prisons? They seem to have some amazing influence, or intelligence, or both that is misguided. Jesus, it seems, needs people working for the Kingdom of God who are as smart as they are are about making money, or moving money. We need to learn from the best. We can learn from people who lie, or cheat, or steal—not copying their deceit, or their dishonesty, but learning from their shrewdness. How many non-Christians in our world make more money or are more productive than some Christians are? That’s the major lesson, the food for thought, of this strange story. We should learn from the best.

After unpacking the likely meaning of this parable, it feels just a little less disorienting when I read it. But when I look at our world today?
Sometimes it still… seems … tilted.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 22, 2019

09-15-19 Rejoice in God’s Presence

“Rejoice in God’s Presence”
Gospel Luke 15:1-10
God hears us when we speak; God hears us when we think; God hears us when we pray. There is nothing that God doesn’t know about us; there is nothing that God isn’t a part of. God is the constant that is the world. Sometimes that is a cloudy reality as we go through the days trying to figure out maybe why things happen; or the greatest question at any Sunday school class, why bad things happen to good people or vice versa. We try to grasp things that may be out of our control like a family member that is suffering with an addiction or a friend that won’t go the doctors or someone that just won’t do it our way. LOL A friend who I attended Discipleship classes with here by the name of Lou Jacobs; who recently passed away; once told me a story about a hat. She said, I was looking for this hat one day to cover my head to go outside and I couldn’t find it in my house. She continued, I looked all over for it; In every room I looked for this hat everywhere, but to no avail I couldn’t find it. I looked again; I got frustrated; I looked in the closets where I thought it was; and then in the closets where I didn’t think it was; I looked all over for this hat and it was nowhere to be found. She said you know, I finally stopped looking for the hat as I just decided to chalk it up to a loss. As I was walking through the house a little later, I walked into the bedroom and there it was; on the edge of the bed; there was the hat; sitting there waiting to be found. Do we get in our own way sometimes? Do we get in our way thinking too much into something rather than letting God help us and guide us; trying to do things our way; not God’s, as God is the reason, we are alive; as God is the reason we are; The last time I checked I am not the one that makes my heart beat. Thomas Merton, the great theologian and writer wrote “A Sacrifice is an action which is objectively sacred and primarily of a social character, and what is important is not so much the pain or difficulty attached to it as the meaning, the sacred significance which not only conveys an idea but effects a divine and religious transformation in the worshipper, thus consecrating and uniting them more closely to God.” The action of the Holy Spirit.
I fight this a lot; me getting in my own way. I am always trying to think of new ways to write, or not write a sermon; I over think the sermon whether to write part of it down or all of it down; I hear all the clichés of sermon writing; better to have a script in front of you; The worst thing to happen to someone is for them to go blank and then silence; not to know what to say in a situation; not to know how to live out their lives; not to know were to turn who to turn to. Silence. By the time I get done thinking this all out, I’m either writing the sermon the night before, or I am telling it cold with no script so to speak. Of course, times have and will come when I speak a sermon without a script; that is not written down; not knowing what to say; not knowing the answer. Much like life; living on faith; Predestined maybe; as I steal a quote from Francis of Assisi, using words when necessary; that our decisions in life are just simple sermons to live out. That as much as we think we are alone we are not; that everything is and was written down for us to live out easily; for us just to walk through life living out our sermons preaching the Gospel in all our actions. The living action in the life of the Christ. The reality of the Holy Spirit.

Recently I visited the beautiful town of Dubuque Iowa. I have the honor of going there once a year for Seminary as I am an online student at the university of Dubuque, a Presbyterian Seminary, in their Master of Divinity program. Classes start there for the two weeks at eight o’clock in the morning and end at five; hence the word intensive; there is usually a retreat of sorts depending on the class your enrolled in and the year you are attending. For me the class I was enrolled in this year was “The Gospel in Context,” where we studied a community; their likes, dislikes; their practices; what they ate how they ate; what they did for fun; their culture and how scripture lives out in that culture. As Jesus did when he preached and taught, he used the cultural practices of the people for the people to better relate to what he was trying to say to them; much like the scripture today or As when Jesus used the Samaritan as “the Good Samaritan when the Samaritans were actually a hated people. When he preached of the Sheep and the Good shepherd; when he used Manna and other realities of the Jewish faith as these were all well-known parts of these people’s cultures. He used who they were and what they were all about; to show them who they truly were; men and women of God. So, on a Thursday morning at about seven thirty the Gospel in Context class took off on what the Professors called an immersion trip. This was to immerse the students in the cultures of a small town and a growing suburban area which if you read the structure of a suburban area; growth is a subjective word as growth is actually based on movement which has to do with declining numbers in the community as well as increasing; as this was what was happening in the city we visited. We went to Wisconsin and what a beautiful place it was. As it seemed such a faraway place much like in the Bible; it really was much the same life as ours here, much the same people; going through the same problems; fighting the same life changes. As was in our first reading.
What was used as a congregational reading of God’s wrath shifts to a prayer of God’s grace. The purported author of the Psalm 51, David; actually wrote the psalm to repent of sins he had committed at one time in his life; much like the people of Wisconsin; maybe much like us. As the prayer is not repeated for the same reasons as David used it; as we all say the same prayers to be of different meanings in our lives when we pray; to repent or intercede; to ask for or to give away different things; things of the heart; either what we need or don’t need, this prayer; this reading; this reality of life becomes a universal call for all of us to say to God together in one voice as it was meant to be. To be used in our daily lives as Martin Luther calls us to do as his voice wrings out from the depths of the protestant reformation; “We cannot attain to the understanding of Scripture either by study or by the intellect. Your first duty is to begin by prayer. Entreat the Lord to grant you, of His great mercy, the true understanding of His Word. There is no other interpreter of the Word of God than the Author of this Word, as He Himself has said, “They shall be all taught of God” (John 6:45). Hope for nothing from your own labors, from your own understanding: trust solely in God, and in the influence of His Spirit. Believe this on the word of a man who has experience.” (Martin Luther) As much as the Bible is a living word; the living word of God this prayer; this first reading is spoken to us and for us as much as it is spoken by us and through us that we may pray along with all the rest of history; all the rest of time in a prayer that means what it means in our lives; in the lives of the people of Wisconsin; in the lives of the people everywhere. The living word of God; the; living word of prayer; that as we pray with those in the Bahamas; as we pray with those across the sea as we pray with the Church; that we say this scripture together; not at the same time but with the same meaning; with the same reverence to God; for each other; for God; of God.

One of my other Seminary classes this semester is Early and Medieval Church History. As we walk through the thoughts and minds of theologians from Tertullian to Irenaeus to Clement, we walk through the history of the Church and all that it was at the time. This of course is based on the reality of The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and how the one and three and the three in one works and lives and how our lives play apart in the Church of God. I read a great quote that brings to light a reality of history, “That history is crucial for understanding not only the life of Jesus, but also the entire Biblical message.” (Gonzales) In the same manner the Church thrives through the Church knowing and living what the Church was and is now. Learning the past that we may see the present that we may thrive in the future. That we may live the Christian life in a wholeness that is of God. Divine love. As I love to quote Martin Luther; he states “ God is not a God of sadness, death, etc.,Christ is a God of joy, and so the Scriptures often say that we should rejoice … A Christian should and must be a cheerful person. (Martin Luther) To learn to live to love as Jesus shows us as the Christ lives through us; we are called to live; to rejoice; to smile; to love; to be Christian. To know our pasts that we can change our futures. This is for everyone as we all live a theology; as we are all called to bask in the loving grace that is God.
Jesus lives this for us as we walk through the scripture reading of the Gospel of Luke; called by some as “the heart of the Gospel,” As William Barclay portrays it as being called the Gospel in the Gospel, as if it contains the very distilled essence of the Good news which Jesus came to tell.” (William Barclay) When the lost are recovered from Jesus’s call for repentance and conversion a strong note of joy is struck; As this Gospel shows God’s love and mercy for the sinful person. Let us look a little deeper into the scripture. First is the Shephard, someone, weathered, tired leaning on a staff looking out to a flock across a barren landscape of treacherous pitfalls and small fields of joy. Looking out to the flock; all of them the shepherd knows; every hair on their head; Every one of the flock on his heart; concerned for all of them. He knows them all. He lives for them; he goes over hill over valley to save just one of them; just one of the flock, to save them; to bring them home. To save them all. As the women that is looking through her house to find the lost coins; to find the lost that cannot be found; to seek what might not ever come back; looking for the lost that they may be found again.
But as the Shephard sees one of his flock going a stray as he counts and there is one gone from view lost from his heart he strives to save them; he seeks to find the lost one; he lives to bring back the one that has gone astray. In the same manner the women in her house searches with the consistency of a loving God to find the lost coins that have left that have gone away. As the Pharisees attacked Jesus for everything he is, trying to discredit him for the love that he is; as they were standing there watching this man Jesus they said to each other,” This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” Why do people resist God’s searching love? The Pharisees and scribes despised the tax collectors and sinners that came to Jesus. Tax collectors worked for the roman government and were considered traitors who sold themselves to the Romans. The sinners might have committed a serious crime, but the term was also applied to those who had broken ritual purity laws and to women who husbands divorced them. Tax collectors and sinners were considered part of the unacceptable because they did not believe and behave properly or look like them or act like them or dress like them. The scribes and Pharisees were quick to condemn but slow to recognize the hollowness of their own righteous behavior; the log in their own eye.

Jesus comes again from the upside-down reality that is God. That we are to seek the lost; that we are to leave no one behind; that the love of God is endless, and we are to live that love in all that we are.
But how do we do it when we don’t have a script; how do we know the answer in the silence of our everyday; well the script is there as it has been all along; The Bible. It’s written out tested by so many; to show us as it has shown the history of the Church in the same way; the way to live; the way to live out our scripts in our predestined paths in the living Christ. To live out that sermon we have been given; not to over think it or maybe even write it down but to live it faithfully predestined in God; That we see not so much the indifference of others but the sameness in all of us. That in looking at our own gospels in context that we are all fighting the same fight; that we all come from the same place; from the same history; from the same day to day silence. And as Jesus springs to action in this silence to bring us all in from the fields; to bring the lost lambs back to the fold he calls the church to rejoice. As God is the active participant in seeking to save the lost; this gives the parables their urgency and power as expressions of the nature of God enacted in the midst of everyday human life. he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
This is our calling not to be the one to whom repentance is made but to be the ones who rejoice in the vastness of his glory. That when one of the lost comes home that we rejoice as with the angels in heaven; that we rejoice with God as he says rejoice with me for, I have found my sheep that was lost. That we live happy lives as Martin Luther spoke of; That as our scripts play out; as we live out our sermons for God and others; that our faith grows; that our simplicity of action becomes the simplicity of a Child; that we let go of over thinking; doing it our way and that we seek the companionship of the living God to show us how to live; that as we pray those prayers of history; of our history; those prayers of many that they are answered as they always have been. That we celebrate life with God; as God celebrates life through us. that we don’t try to figure out why; that we don’t try figure out who; but just celebrate with God; life as it is right here right now. Our lives in God’s living loving world.
As John puts it, “He will show the world how wrong it was about sin, about who was really in the right, and about true judgment” (16:8). This is what Jesus exposed and defeated on the cross. He did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie. God’s way of work is to seek and save through merciful love. John Knox wrote: I sought neither preeminence, glory, nor riches; my honor was that Jesus Christ should reign; let us join together in that reign; let us celebrate in the history of the Church; that we may live out today; that we may rely on God with the faith and simplicity of Children; Let us bask in that glory and beauty; in the celebration of life our lives in God’s. God’s life in ours.

sought neither preeminence, glory, nor riches; my honor was that Jesus Christ should reign.”
— John Knox
“I sought neither preeminence, glory, nor riches; my Gospel Luke 15:1-10
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 4″Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8″Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”