Luke 3: 7-18

When it comes to epitaphs—you know, the sayings some people add to their tombstone—some of them are downright startling. I remember going through the cemetery in Princeton New Jersey while I attended Princeton Seminary. One of the headstones had this startling sentence: “I told you I was sick.” Ouch. Talk about reaching out from the dead! Tim Hawk of the New Jersey Advanced Media wrote this about that cemetery and others:
We live to leave a legacy. In this short life, we hope to have an impact on the lives of those close to us and those we encounter for a fleeting moment. Whether it’s with our family, friends or in the community, our personality will follow us to our grave.
When it’s time to cash in one’s chips, how do you want to be remembered? What would be your epitaph?
“Devoted husband.”
“Gone but not forgotten.”
“Forever in our hearts.”
“Beloved wife.”
What phrase would be your lasting memory?
Gravestones tell a story. More than the deceased’s name, age and date of death, the engravings often give us insight about how they lived or how they died. Some even reveal funny sayings or phrases leaving us wondering what they were like when they walked with the living.
Established in 1757, the Princeton Cemetery is the final resting place of Revolutionary War soldiers, scientists, musicians, writers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grover Cleveland, the 24th president of the United States, and Aaron Burr, the third vice president are also buried there. But among the breath-taking monuments and picturesque views lies, [are words] etched forever in stone. Here are three:
“I told you I was sick.” “Life is short, eat dessert first.”
“She was not afraid of bears.
That cemetery is worth a visit!

In truth, many people in our day do not choose big headstones with memorable epitaphs. So for us, we may not want to consider what is etched in stone on our behalf, but what is indelibly placed in people’s minds. How might you like to be remembered? What good deeds for your community, your church, your family or your nation might be remembered about you with gratitude? The fiery prophet John the Baptist proclaimed to those who came to be baptized by him: “Bear fruit.” “Bear fruit worthy of your repentance.” In other words, do the works to show others the change that is in your heart. Or, “Let there be evidence that you are wanting to make a difference in this world.” Words are cheap; actions matter. As I learned from a man with citrus trees in his yard, the purpose of the trees was to bear fruit. Fruit trees are not grown to be shade trees or just for beauty; they are grown to bear fruit. That is their purpose.

Pastor Rick Warren created a publishing bonanza with his 2002 book The Purpose Driven Life. Its subtitle: “What on Earth am I Hear for?” The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives as some good guidance with its words “Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” I once had an elder ask me, “What are your goals in life?” And I said, “To be the best husband, the best father, and the best pastor I can be.” He said, “You’re already doing those, you need some new goals!” What are your goals in life? One of them, says John, is to “bear fruit.” In God’s eyes, you are a blessing not just by being; but once we know that, a major purpose in life becomes “bearing fruit.” Even a blessed person can wear on one’s nerves if they never get out of bed or off the couch! Will you be able to say, at the end of your life, that you made your community, or family, or church, or friends a little better because of who you were and what you did? As Mary Ann and I guided our children to this stage in their lives, we fulfilled some of our hopes: 1) That they would find good employment; 2) find a wonderful person with whom to share their life; and 3) and that they would contribute to society in ways that are meaningful to them. Instead of just coasting through life at whatever age, think about your legacy; think about “Bearing fruit.”

As one starts to read the Gospel of Luke, they can get lulled into “sleeping in heavenly peace” angels appear; babies are born, weary parents make their journey to Bethlehem; and shepherd go to see the Christ Child. Then in comes “Wreck it Ralph,” only this time it’s “Wreck it John.” John the Baptist, who seems like a prophetic bull in a china shop, thunders a warning from God: “God” he says in so many words,” is not pleased with the levels of sin without acknowledgment or repentance, so there could be estrangement ahead! Those who keep on their path will be cut off from blessings; cut off from encouragement; cut off from the one who gave them life. They cannot claim to be ‘chosen people’ as if their genealogy earns them favor. Instead of having the habits of highly successful people, they have developed the habits of highly sinful people, and it has doomed their relationship with God.” John tells them what they—and we—need to do. If he were to boil down his response: , it would be “Live Differently! Share instead of hold; earn instead of cheat; repent instead of deny!” Today, John steps out of the pages of Luke and preaches to us and to others: That message could be delivered to our national leaders who may badly need to change: to local leaders who have recently shown unyielding stances against others; and to state leaders. Maybe you need to hear John too, or a family member needs to hear John. I know there are days when I need to repent. Making a rugged self-examination is not just a Twelve-step activity; it is an activity of Godly people. When I am on certain roads, warning strips strategically placed at the sides of the pavement rumble through my car, telling me I’m going off the road. John the Baptist is our rumble strip, warning us that we might be off the road. Some arrogantly answer John, “Leave me alone! I’m saved!” Or “I’ve already been baptized!” To that John says, “Act like it! Live Differently! Bear good fruit!”

So today: what might you need to change in your life? What relationship needs attention? Are you emulating good role models in your life, or poor ones? The political climate is so toxic in our nation and in other nations as we move toward Christmas. Who gets your respect for truth, for integrity, and for Christian actions? Which ones do you follow; which ones do you reject? In addition to Jesus, pick high quality people and see how they deal with issues and conflicts. Notice their work or their generosity. Choose the qualities that you want to exemplify, and take any bushel off the light you can begin to shine in the darkness. God is watching. God’s eyes flash at the sound of lies. May each of us work on our relationship with God Almighty, rather than facing the ax. Let us pray:

Almighty God: as troubled as we are with our nation and the world, we know that you judge us one by one. Help us to be a prophetic mouthpiece in written and spoken ways when needed, and a bridge over troubled waters where we can. Remind us that the reasons for our names to be included in the book of life are still unfolding. We will seek to bear good fruit in the garden of your world. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 16, 2018

12-09-18 PREPARING

Luke 3: 1-6

Matt Raule, the author of our “Gift of the Nutcracker” series we offer on Wednesday nights, noted the human tendency to put off until tomorrow what doesn’t need to be done today. He says tongue in cheek, “If we knew that Christ was returning on Tuesday, our sanctuaries wouldn’t be full until Monday.” He then goes on to say: “It’s like the afternoon that someone came into my office asking me if I thought the recent solar eclipse was a sign of Christ’s return. I asked him what he might do if it was a sign. He said that he would return to church to ‘get right’ with the Lord. I asked him what he might do if the eclipse wasn’t a sign of Christ’s return. He replied with ‘I guess I’d keep looking.’ I invited him to start looking with us in church.[Abingdon Press, 2018, p. 50.] Lots of people talk about what they call “the hereafter.” One woman quipped, “I talk about hereafter all the time! I walk into a room and say to myself, ‘Now what am I here after?’” We in Christianity are always looking for the return of Christ; not as an obsession, but as I said last week, “by watching, and not just waiting. This week we add “preparing” to the plan of “watching.” It is a fool who comes to God to get right just as the celestial railroad is pulling in to your station, or just as you see him descending from the clouds. People time die in their sleep. But are they prepared for that to happen? Just this week I learned of another person who died in her sleep.

Instead, many good teachers know the five “P’s- Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” What a providential blessing it was to have President George Herbert Walker Bush’s funeral on television for all to see this past week. What planning it took to arrange for the speakers, the spaces, and the transportation! But that President planned beautifully well in advance of his last breath. Presidential biographer Jon Meacham was asked to speak when the time came, and he actually shared his words with the aging president ahead of time to get his approval. After hearing him read it, President Bush turned to Meachem and said in a self-deprecating fashion, “That’s a lot about me, Jon.” But it was part of the preparation for the day. Arranging for Air Force One to become Special Air Mission 41 to honor the late President. And to get the train delivering the body to its final resting place to his library in College Station to be painted in Air Force One in light blue colors with the side reading “George Bush” along with the number 4141 took time to prepare. He even selected the menu of foods that would be served to his family and friends on that train! This week was a textbook case of how things can go if one prepares well.

As we head to the Christmas holiday some here will have guests coming into your home, and some may be the guest in someone else’s home. When that happens, the host begins to get ready: to dust, to straighten, to see that sheets are clean and food is in. Some bake cookies or pies so ingredients are bought ahead of time. I remember one time Mary Ann was missing an ingredient for Christmas dinner, and the only place I could find open on Christmas Day was 7-11! We’ve now pulled our Christmas books and decorations out because we will see four grandsons and their parents Christmas week. Meanwhile we are buying gifts, not just the many adult gifts we gladly bought at our Christmas Market last week, but gifts for the little ones too. The stories of life include times of preparing: preparing for a baby, preparing for death, preparing to welcome Jesus, preparing to take tests. The Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” is good advice in any situation. An old axiom puts it this way: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

The Advent season is the time to prepare for the coming of Christ into our world. I told our Wednesday class that we push a reset button each year in Advent, almost like other churches have yearly revivals. It is our time to reset; to consider our life; to consider our Lord, and to consider the connections we have with others. Like in the children’s plays when the innkeeper cries: “No room!” to kids dressed like Mary and Joseph, the world seems to have a “No Vacancy” sign for Jesus too. Only in the hearts of Christians does he find a place to, as the carol tells us, “to lay “down his sweet head.” His first bed was a manger perhaps filled with hay with swaddling clothes added. His next bed is in our hearts. John the Baptist drew his message from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord!! Make straight his paths!” It has been the prophet’s warning for generations. Prophets have neither a crystal ball nor a Ouija Board to predict the future. They listen to God—as we could do—and they watch the world and stars and the sun—as we could do—and they connect dots—as we could do. It is not easy. The paths cows and other animals make are crooked. To get ready for a King, the paths need to be straightened! Good preparations make for a wonderful welcome for a King! In addition, road crews make interstates roads through very hilly or rocky places by leveling off the hills with machines that my Construction son-law-Brian teaches to his 3 year old son Marshall: they are road graders and excavators. They smooth out the hills. We need that preparation to welcome our King; how good it is if he arrives after the work is done instead of before we gat around to the work. The work includes praying, but John the Baptist also insisted on repenting—which is making amends with God and others you might have ignored or hurt—and opening our eyes to see places where we can make a difference, and then engaging our bodies, minds, and souls to do so.

In the 1930s, at the depth of the depression, a play called “Green Pastures” by Marc Connelly was setting a new record on Broadway. It ran for 1,653 performances and continued until it leading actor, seventy-year-old Richard Berry Henderson, collapsed and died. The play depicted God and the angel Gabriel in heaven, peering down at the earth. It was an enlightening interpretation of God’s care and concern for a world in which he allows the freedom of choice, yet he is despairing over the terrible consequences of the people’s choices. God watched over his world and tried to prepare his children to meet the demands of life on earth. After God sent Moses and prophets to the world, he then sent his Son, who shared the sufferings and heartaches of being mortal. Over and over, Gabriel wanted to blow his trumpet and bring an end to all the bad choices and evil deeds going on in the world. “Now Lawd?” he asked, “Now can I blow the trumpet?” The trumpet would mean the end of the world as we know it. But God held out in patience, hoping that people would finally learn the consequences of their choices. “Everything nailed down is comin’ a-loose!” Gabriel told God as he watched chaos and confusions amongst the peoples of the world. Still, as the play goes, God wouldn’t give up, but kept preparing his people for a day when they would welcome him. The time to get ready for God is now; not tomorrow! Even though he comes as a helpless infant at Christmas, he can come with either warning or welcome as he appears in the clouds!
“Get ready!” the prophets said. “The Lord is coming soon.”
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 9, 2018

12-02-18 WATCHING

Luke 21: 25-36

On most normal paper calendars, we have just started the last month of the year, and after December 31 the calendar ends. It has no more months on it. Actual calendar stores pop up seasonally just to sell us new calendars. The signs are around us that a year is coming to an end. For example: last Thursday was the final Counseling Center Board meeting of the year; a new slate of officers and a smaller Board starts in January. By contrast, last Sunday was the end of the Christian year; Christ the King Sunday reminded us of the power and the glory of Jesus Christ: the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. Today starts a new Christian year. Once again we go back into the “Once upon a time” sections of the Old Testament. As “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go,” once again we hear the words of prophets from Christian pulpits: sometimes they are mystical or mysterious; sometimes they are thunderous, reminding people to “prepare the way of the Lord!” We start to hear from the main New Testament prophet known as John The Baptist and his demanding message: “Repent!” We also hear from Major Prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah— called “major” because we have more of their words in our Bibles; and we hear just as powerfully from Minor Prophets like Micah and Malachi—only called minor because we have fewer of their words in our Bibles. If we listen to their words through our 21st century ears, we might, just might, get good guidance for our own lives and get good direction for our own world, not just for the pre-Christian world to which it was first addressed. I invite you to listen and learn during the coming Sundays known as Advent. Synonyms for advent are these: arrival; appearance, or emergence. Christians have been around this block before; we know the words of the prophets; we know what a rude and bare manger scene is at the end of our December journey. Do you look at this time of the year with anticipation; or with dread; with joy or with hope? Some children weave together their love of Santa and a love for Jesus. I think that’s fine. Some youth are very active in this season, hardly getting to think about Jesus in their lives. They are busy with parades (like today) or final class projects, and some are just excited about their upcoming holidays with no school! Young adults and young families may be heavily engaged in community projects, in preparing for concerts, or in getting their home ready for guests. Other adults may have a hole in their soul because of a loss, so they may have, as it has been called, a “Blue Christmas.” Some may enjoy caroling while others enjoy watching Christmas specials on television. Still others attend local concerts and services (especially ours!) These Advent days have many emotions rolled into them.

Theologian Karl Rahner once said this prayer: “Every year we celebrate the Holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and those lovely songs of hope and promise. Every year we roll up all our needs and yearnings and faithful expectation into one word: ‘Come.’ And yet, what a strange prayer that is! After all, you have already come and pitched your tent among us.” [Watch For the Light, Plough Publishing, 2001, p. 68.] Each year we continue traditions that hold our knowledge in suspension, so that we can pretend that Christ has not yet come to the earth, so that we can re-member the old, old story. One blessing of being a pastor of a congregation as long as I have is that I remember; I remember the people; the events; the special days, including the joys and the sorrows of the seasons. On our church anniversary in May we pull out the films and photo albums, we eat cake, and tell stories again. It’s what we do to pass on the traditions and customs! Some among us wisely remind us to write these things down. So for our 60th anniversary three years ago, I bought our church history booklet up to date. Every December my activities fill me with memories too: with each ornament I pull out, my mind fills with who gave it to us or where we bought it. With stockings that are pulled from storage I think about each family member. And in holiday gatherings I get more connected with family and friends than even Facebook allows. But today, let me suggest something specific Jesus told us to do.

First, this lead in: American poet Robert Frost said, in his poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:” “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” He did not write these words that I recently saw on a T-shirt: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one on the left because the one on the right was muddy and I had nice shoes on.” Those were not Robert Frost’s words! But today, I think the road more often taken in Advent is the first road; the road of “Waiting.” After all when someone is expecting a baby, (like Mary was,) for the most part all she and other family members can do is wait. Yes she can prepare a nursery, or get good pre-natal care in our day, but others must wait. When Mary Ann and I were expecting our first son, she and I were not only waiting nine months, but Christopher was not ready to be born until over 3 weeks later! That was a lot of waiting! Waiting is often passive; people wait to see a doctor; people wait for their flight to be called; people wait for a baby to be born. They look for ways to pass the time like playing on their phone or listening to music. They are just waiting!

The road taken less often—we’ll call it the second road—is “Watching.” It is active. After Jesus gave a list of things to notice in the world—changes in the sun, moon, stars, and the sea—Jesus said this in our text today, Luke 21:36: “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” Watching is active. A man recently told me what a gift his grandfather gave him: he taught him to watch, to notice things and people around him wherever he was. And so he does; this gown man notices birds in the trees, or animals that trudge a lawn or a path. He notices the sky and the expressions of people around him. He is always “watching.” Our translation of the passage today says to “be alert.” J.B. Phillips, the famous translator of the New Testament into modern day English, wrote this: “The [man] who works on scaffolds hundreds of feet above the ground has to be on his guard against over-familiarity. The [one] who works with high-voltage electricity must also beware of … danger. And anyone who knows the sea will say to you in effect, ‘By all means love the sea, but never lose your respect for it.’” [Watch For the Light, Plough Publishing, 2001, p. 20, 21.] Watching is being alert; seeing what is around you; being prepared for both the challenges and blessings that will come your way.

This year, Jesus invites us not just to wait for a baby to be born, but to watch, to be alert, and notice the signs that are around us. Who knows when we might see Jesus in another person? Who knows when we might see an opportunity to bring peace from conflict? And who knows what we might see that could totally change our Christmas? Keep watching.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 2, 2018


2 Samuel 23: 1-4; Revelation 1: 4-8

A week ago the comic book world lost the creative genius of Stan Lee. He was 95, so you, and your father, and perhaps you grandfather read his comic books, and those of all ages flocked to his films. He helped grow “Marvel Comics” into the giant corporation it became. In 2009 the Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment for 4 billion dollars! And it all started with comic books on newsprint, selling for a dime a copy. He created flawed characters like Spiderman, the X-Men, The Mighty Thor, The Fantastic Four, and the Incredible Hulk. His comics appealed to boys, (and some girls) who felt bullied at school, but enjoyed fantasy in their personal lives. A super hero had already been created back in 1933 by two friends: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Their famous First Edition of Action Comics included a character they called the “Superman;” it was published in 1938. A pristine copy of that 10-cent comic sold at auction on August 24th, 2014 for $3,207,852! Unbelievable. And it’s parent company DC Comics, started with that superhero that came to earth and had the duel identity of Clark Kent and Superman. The creators Siegel and Shuster were both from Jewish families; they were singled out as high school boys and dreamed of heroes who were strong and fearless. From their Jewish roots, some believe that they deliberately named the original Superman family with the –el suffix —from a Hebrew abbreviation for the name of God: El-Shaddai, and Elohim are two examples. So Superman’s original Father from the planet Krypton, was Jor-el, and his son that came to earth with superpowers was Kal-el. Were the two Jewish young men who dreamed up a super hero showing their Hebrew preference for names?

I wonder if children long before Jesus told stories about the Greek gods? It would have made sense if amazing beings with mysterious powers inspired young men or women! In fact, the influence of the Greek gods continues to this day: Nike sneakers are the namesake of the goddess of victory; Amazon is named after a race of mythical female warriors; and many high school, college, and professional teams are called the Titans, the Spartans, or the Trojans. What I know is that by the late first century, the man that people started talking about was Jesus Christ. They really needed a Savior and they heard he both saved and healed! They were not as interested in the peasant Jesus, but in the powerful heavenly Christ. He was the one they thought would soon return in power! Christ meant “the anointed one,” or “Messiah.” People had looked for such a person for centuries, and now they believed Jesus was the one: the one who arose from the dead was called “Christ” by Christians. What were his powers? He healed people from dreaded illnesses; he raised a man from the dead; he walked on water; and he himself died and arose from the dead three days later. As early Christians started calling Jesus “Christ” and “Lord,” other human leaders were filled with envy and jealousy. Indeed, the “human number” in Revelation 13—famously said to be 666, or 616—was a paranoid Roman Emperor named Neron (or Nero) Caesar. He had died after accusing Christians of setting fire to Rome, a deed his own carelessness had caused. But in those days, people in the Roman Empire believed that an evil soul could inhabit a body again in a new life! After Nero died, another Emperor named Domitian came into power. He, like Nero before him, was evil and self-aggrandizing. He, like Nero, demanded that people in the Roman Empire address him as “Lord and God.” The Emperor had no room for a man named Jesus to claim a title higher than his. Jesus was the Christ to his followers. He was the King. In fact, if he was the “King of kings” and Lord of lords” as Scripture says in 1 Timothy, and in Revelation 1, 17, and 19, and as Handel reminded the world in his “Hallelujah Chorus,” then Jesus Christ was an absolute threat to an insecure ruler.. The book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus to John. On behalf of Christ, John wrote in Revelation 1, verse 4 and beyond: “Grace to you and peace from him who is, and who was, and who is to come …the ruler of the kings of the earth.” John further writes: “Lo! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will behold him; even those who pierced him.” Today we remember that no one; no one, is like Christ the King. Through the years, no one has been able to top his wisdom, his influence, or the belief (by his followers) that he had gone to Heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. All power has been bestowed on him! If a normal human rating of insight and consciousness is, say, 200, he is 1000. He is insightful; he is attuned to being in every area of the universal that we call Heaven and Earth, and he freely moves from one realm to another. He is here, and he is there, and especially he is in the soul of those who welcome him. He has the listening power of a thousand ears, the seeing power of a thousand eyes, a heart that loves and a mind that learns and teaches. All Earthly power and all Heavenly power- it’s all his. It has been given to him in the symbolic language of having him sit on the throne and being at the right hand of the Father. He has had that place of honor through the ages. Back in 1969, Andrew Lloyd Webber gave Jesus a new title in his rock opera centered around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He gave Jesus the 20th century title of “Superstar.” And so he is.

After teaching the book of Revelation for a dozen times or more, I am aware of how many people want to avoid what seem like the entanglements of the book: the beasts; the blood; the dragon, and the like. But once you wade through those, Revelation contains this bottom line: Christ wins; Satan loses! Others have put it “God wins; Rome loses!” Certainly Handel found amazing passages in Revelation 11:15; 19:6; and 19:16; he included them in his most famous work called “Messiah.” Here are the words he chose to use: “Hallelujah! For the Lord omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever. He is King of kings and Lord of Lords!” It almost seems futile for people to improve on those words from Revelation. But through the ages, people have tried to intensify the glory and praise that the risen Christ deserves. Earlier today we sang a Spiritual that tried to capture the essence of Christ: “He is King of kings; he is Lord of lords: Jesus Christ, the first and last, no man works like him.” Right out of Revelation; two versions of the same sentiment. Then there is the more recent piece that our choir has sung before, “In Christ Alone,” by written by Stuart Townsend. Here’s part of it: “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. The cornerstone, the solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. What heights of love, what depths of peace when fears are stilled, when strivings cease.
My Comforter, my all in all, here in the love of Christ I stand.”

What way best speaks to you about this superstar; this King of kings; this Savior of your soul; this Christ who, from weakness became strength; who from anger became love; and from flesh escaped the bonds of humanness? This is not a comic book superhero; this is the Savior. This week, on this day called “Christ the King,” think about his power; ponder some of his comforting words like the ones recorded in John 14: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you unto myself, that where I am, you may be also.” Who else can do that for you and me? We not only are in the flock of the good shepherd, but he has gone before us to Heaven to prepare the table and a place for us!

Next week, we start the old, old story again; hearing the words of the prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah. It is a great story; but this today is the climax to that story. If this part of the Bible were set to music, the director might exclaim: “Let every instrument be tuned for praise!” That would include herald trumpets, pounding timpani, and clashing cymbals! Lift up your hearts; raise your voices; and let your eyes look with hope toward Christ as you prepare him room; not in Heaven, but in your very soul. That’s where your Lord is most pleased to dwell.
Hallelujah- Praise the Lord!”

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 25, 2018


Ruth 3; Mark 12

This week I’m thinking about widows. Not only do many women live longer than men, creating a disproportional number of women in retirement homes, but many widows over the years have had very minimal support to help them continue in their lives. In the United States there are safety nets like Social Security, or a spouse’s pension, or Medicare, or even Medicaid if necessary. For those in younger generations who lose their husband, the popular way to offer support to them is with a GoFundMe page on social media. Back in the 90s, our congregation was heartbroken to have two women have their husbands die at age 34 to melanoma. They were filled with sorrow. My own mother is a widow, but my father’s pension and careful saving has allowed her to live comfortably, although she very much misses my father. In her world, he was the ying to her yang; she kept the home and did much of the raising of her four children. He worked full time, invested their money, and did the projects around the house that needed attention. She does not have his skill sets. So being a widow makes her, and others like her, feel a loss for a very long time; even the rest of their lives.

This week my heart has broken for two widows who were in the news: First, the widow of Sergeant Ron Helus, a 29 year veteran of the Ventura County Sheriff’s office in California. He was on the phone with his wife when he got the call that there was a shooter at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. He said to his wife, “Hey, I’ve got to respond to a call. I gotta go. I love you.” Those were the last words she ever heard from her husband. He was gunned down by a suspect who had first killed the security guard. What pain; what sorrow; what loss she is feeling. A special man is gone, and his beloved widow grieves. Second, I’m thinking about the widow of Army National Guard Member Major Brent Taylor, who also served as Mayor in North Ogden, Utah. He had taken a leave of absence from his mayoral post to go serve another tour in Afghanistan. He too was killed in the line of duty, and it devastated his widow, Jennie Taylor. Now she is a widow too, and the remaining parent to their seven children Megan (13), Lincoln (11), Alex (9), Jacob (7), Ellie (5), Jonathan (2), and Caroline (11 months). What pain; what sorrow; what a loss. Another special man is gone and his wife grieves.

In the Bible we have two other sets of widows I want to lift up today. One was Naomi. We heard about her situation last week. Because of a famine in Judah, she traveled with her husband Elimilech to the foreign land of Moab to find food and rear their sons. I have trouble imaging the heartbreak she had: her husband died, so she had to care for, and then lean on, her two sons for comfort and support. As her sons turned their eyes toward marriage, their attention shifted in part from her to their new wives. They married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Oprah Winfrey has said her mother named her for Orpah, but it was misspelled on her birth certificate! After Elimilech died and her sons died, Naomi had little choice but to leave Moab and return to Judah. There was no social security in Moab, nor any pensions. In fact, there was no pension or social security in Judah either, but there was an arrangement. If Naomi came back as a widow, by custom the male relative of her late husband who could best afford to take her into his household was obliged to welcome her and comfort her. In return, she would pull her weight on the farm and in the household. If the male relative she went to stay with—in this case, Boaz—was not married, or was a widower, Naomi and he might have married. But there was a situation; have you ever heard people say “We have us a situation!” Well, they had one; it was Naomi’s Moabite daughter in law who insisted on coming back to Judah with her! Ruth was young, hard working, and presumably caught the eye of Boaz. So not only did Naomi lose her husband and two sons to death, she parted ways with daughter in law Orpah, but tag-along Ruth was with her to marry the man who might have been Naomi’s husband instead! Unselfish Naomi actually instructed Ruth how she could win the approval of Boaz so Ruth could stay in Judah! What an amazing widow. There are plenty of amazing widows in our world, but she is one of them.

On the other hand, we have a widow who Jesus saw, according to Mark chapter 12. Jesus taught using whatever or whoever was around him. After skewering the scribes with verbal barbs, he sat down opposite the treasury. The treasury, as you’d imagine, was the place where faithful Jews would bring their shekels for God. It was by the Temple; rich people put in large contributions; people of modest incomes put in modest amounts, and poorer people put in less. The poorest persons in the area were either men who could not work because of disability or disease, or women whose husbands had died. The widows had nothing. By law they were not allowed to work for money; their tasks were to keep the households. And so when their husband died, the bottom fell out of their meager finances. A widow had nothing; nothing except this one widow had faith in God and a hope for her future. A tithe to God—then and now—is considered to be 10% of one’s gross income, and giving in the days of Jesus was a matter of scrutiny between a local rabbi and a family. A widow, in giving two copper coins, certainly gave more than a tithe to her God. The coin commonly known as a widow’s “mite,” was also known as a “lepton.” It was like our penny. It is even hard to find penny candy for my grandsons these days. Cash only breakfast restaurants leave pennies openly on their counters to make change. And a penny on the ground will often get trampled instead of get picked up. So when this widow gave of her all, Jesus used her as an example. A widow, in addition to having no income, probably joined the army of widows across the ages with broken hearts. Their husbands were dead. Yet this poor, poor, brokenhearted widow “put everything she had,” into the treasury according to Jesus. He used her, in her brokenness and poverty, as an example of faith, hope, and love.

Today I don’t know the situations everyone here faces. If you are broken, you are not alone. Brokenness is all around the world. If you are able to work and earn money, or if you have a pension or social security, you have ways to share with others and also honor God with a tithe. Because of your generosity to date, we’ve been able to help change the lives of hungry people in our community through Halifax Urban Ministries and our Good Samaritan program. When you’ve been generous, we have been able to help change the lives of 160 men in Solutions By-The-Sea. Because of your help, supplies given and people volunteering at local elementary schools help children and teachers in their classroom. Because of your generosity, Westminster has been a steady and major contributor to the Presbyterian Counseling Center for 32 years. Because of your generosity, we are able to offer this inspiring space and these wonderful instruments to support congregational and choral singing! Your tithes and offerings truly matter, and are wisely used. Please consider your prayerful support not only for today, but for 2019. And I invite you to join me to have a special place in your heart for the widows … and widowers …and those whose children have died among us.

Let us pray: God of the widow; God of the widower; God of the child; God of the
Wounded soul:
How do your children say thanks? How do your children show love?
May our gifts and our prayers reflect our thank you notes to you.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 11, 2018


Ruth 1: 1-18; Mark 12; 28-34

Sometimes the Bible offers a laser-beam commentary on situations we face in life. This week is such a time. First, Fred McFeely Rogers was born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the hometown of Arnold Palmer. He grew up with a love for others, and a love for God. One passage that he certainly embodied was Jesus’ commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Fred Rogers moved from Pennsylvania to Winter Park, Florida to Major in Music Composition at Rollins College. Afterward he attended and graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. He was, in fact, The Rev. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, but he was known throughout the world as Mr. Rogers. He created a neighborhood in the studio of the Public Broadcasting Station in Pittsburgh. Throughout the life of the show he created, he decided on the themes, wrote the music, and voiced the puppets as he spoke directly into the camera to children and the parents or grandparents who may have watched too. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was his ministry from 1968 until 2001; and to this day his family and his Foundation have carried on his themes with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
But away from TV, Mr. Rogers’ actual neighborhood was the area around Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh where, on October 27th, Satan entered a man, urged on by his henchmen on a website of hate, and he killed 11 neighbors who were worshipping God. The henchmen across the globe cheered. But Mr. Rogers had heard the teachings of Jesus and had exemplified them to others in his own unique way. Mr. Rogers modeled what it meant to be a neighbor- welcoming people of color, people with disabilities, people of different faiths, and people from different walks of life: and he called everyone of them “neighbor.” He planted good seeds in his neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. How do I know? Jesus said you can always tell that a good seed has been planted by the fruit that is produces. When The Tree of Life Synagogue went through unspeakable tragedy last week, the Presbyterians did not say, Oh, you are Jews; Jews should help you.” They said, “You are our neighbors. You may use our building; our people are at your service; we will pray for you and be with you; and we are broken with you.” Jesus would have been pleased. The Muslim congregation in Squirrel Hill did not say, “You are Jews; Jews should help you.” The Imam said: “We are your neighbors and we mourn for you and with you. Do you need money? We will raise it. Do you need comfort? We will offer it. Whatever you need, just ask.” Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood knew how to be neighbors so well in the midst of evil. Even now, they are doing Kingdom work, and Jesus would be pleased. How do I know? In the gospels, Jesus showed who his neighbors were with his encounters and some of his parables. When he told the story of the good Samaritan, recorded in Luke chapter 10, the Jews must have flinched. (Remember, there were no Christians until after Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the Gospels.) So Jews flinched because there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. They believed they were bad; ungodly, and should be shunned. Jesus told the story in their face to change the narrative. Jesus was demonstrating who our neighbors are. Another time Jesus crossed into Samaria deliberately (a line as uncrossable as the one between Palestinians and Israelis today) Yet he went there and spoke to a woman at a well; she was convinced Jesus was a prophet and became one of his first evangelists in her land. Jesus was being a neighbor. He was a neighbor even to a Syrophoenican woman who was said to worship different gods. Other Jews would have shunned her. But she engaged Jesus in a conversation and begged him to heal her daughter from a demon. Jesus heard her out, and inspired by her faith, healed her daughter. Jesus was being a neighbor. Fred Rogers learned how to be a neighbor from his Savior Jesus. Go and do likewise, as those in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood are doing.

Second, our country is in a heated debate regarding immigration, and issues regarding purity of race. Oh if people really read and understood their Bibles. Take, for example, the book of Ruth which I will mention briefly today and say more about next week. Because of a famine in Judah, a Jewish couple—Elimilech and Naomi, and their young sons Mahlon and Chilion—crossed the border into the country of Moab, which today is in Jordan. In our day, crossing a border like that takes a passport and several hours of inspections. But it was not impossible to cross a border during a famine in the days of Ruth. Thank God. The family took up residence in Moab, even though Moabites didn’t worship our God; desperate times call for desperate measures, then and now. Elimilech was the husband, and Naomi was his wife. They were from Bethlehem. Their sons from Judah were Mahlon and Chilion. The sons ending up finding and marrying Moabite women named Orpah, and Ruth. The Judeans grew up in Moab away from their native country because of a famine. In due time Elimilech—the he father—died, leaving Naomi as a widowed Judean in a foreign land. Within 10 years Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi, a Judean, in a foreign land with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi decided to return to Judah where family members would take her in. Orpah agreed to stay behind in the country of her origin and where her people were, but Ruth wanted to go with Naomi, as she said in the famous line in the King James Bible: “Entreat me not to leave me or to keep me from following after thee. For whither thou goest, I will go; where though lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part me from thee.”

There was a Jewish law that required a blood relative man to take a Jewish woman relative who was widowed into his household. So Naomi had a place on the farm of her kinsman Boaz. But with Naomi’s request, and Ruth’s unexpected presence as a respectful, hard-working woman, who was a foreigner—a Moabite woman—she was welcomed into the house of Boaz in the little town of Bethlehem. Spoiler alert: in the last chapter Boaz and Ruth end up married-a Judean man and a Moabite woman. And from that mixed marriage, Boaz and Ruth had a son. According to Ruth 4:17, and it says it exactly this way in the Bible: “The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. And who was born from the house and the lineage of David, in that little town of Bethlehem? (O Little Town of Bethlehem) Yes. The Christ of Christmas. Jesus was born from a mixed marriage lineage. Who better to be show the world what it means to be a good neighbor? Today I ask you what a special minister asked boys and girls every day:
“Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 4, 2018


Joshua 3: 3-5; Hebrews 7: 23-28

Ever since the year the words were written—1874—Christians of every denomination have joined writer Frances Ridley Havergal in singing the words: “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee.” It’s a prayer; it’s a plea. But I suspect most of the time we sing it with minds that are wandering through a myriad of thoughts, like noticing what someone else is wearing, or thinking about lunch. Today I will be inviting you to join me in singing that from your soul, with the plea that Havergal first intended. In a biographical description, Carl P. Davis Jr. writes this: “Her own account is preserved in a conversation with her sister: ‘[On that day I first saw clearly the blessedness of true consecration. I saw it as a flash of electric light, and what you see you can never unsee. There must be full surrender before there can be full blessedness.” [Glory to God: A Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016, p. 664.] There must be full surrender before there can be full blessedness.” I’ve heard people in AA programs voice the same thing- “There must be full surrender before there can be full blessedness. I’ve heard people say the same thing the day after giving themself to Christ in a Billy Graham Crusade. What I’m not sure I’ve heard is regular church going Christians saying it. Sometimes I think we go through the church motions and depart. But if you truly invite God to take your life and let it be consecrated—that is, dedicated or rededicated for a Divine purpose—the lights may flash, the sparks may fly, or the memory of baptismal waters may flood your thoughts. Your life could be changed; your life could be more blessed from this day forward.

In Joshua chapter 3, listen to what is said there: Joshua told the people: “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.” Do have a time in your life when you consecrated yourself before God? Today you’ll have a chance. I remember sitting in my Youth Group at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church, in Chesterfield Missouri with a youth leader and his guitar. He began playing, and we began singing: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going; and soon all those around can warm up to it’s glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it. You spread his love, to everyone, you want to pass it on.” That night the lives of several people were changed in the singing of the song, the praying of the friends, and the power of God’s Holy Spirit. When else might people become consecrated? At Solutions By-The-Sea, Tobias Caskey has seen several men move from incarceration to consecration. They took a deep spiritual inventory of their life, they confessed their sins, and repented. Then he asked our Session for permission to baptize them. A new life began.

Jesus, as a great high priest, is described in Hebrews chapter 7. Through the commission and blessing he received from his Heavenly Father, and his baptism by John, Jesus lived a consecrated life, doing everything for the Kingdom. The writer of Hebrews has this mighty description of Christ:

It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; he did once and for all when he offered himself.
Jesus was consecrated once; for some people, a life-changing decision for Him is the fulcrum of their life. For others, sometimes God has to get their attention a few times in their life. Take for example the story of a man who was in the oil business. His name is Keith Miller. His pride took him out on a limb that was being sawed off. This is part of his story of consecration:
Because of my tremendous self-centeredness and pride, I have always tried desperately to be understood. [I had left the oil company thinking I had a better job, but not so.] The oil company took me back and sent [me] to an office [I’d] been in before. I would rather have gone to most any other place, because this “going back” represented my first great human failure. There was no way I could explain to the people around me what had gone on and was going on inside my soul, behind the confident mask I was showing the world. I began to work because I had a wife whom I loved very much, and two babies I loved deeply. But there seemed to be no hope, no ultimate purpose anymore. If there was a God, the people at the seminary had subtly suggested that I must have turned away from Him…. I suddenly [broke] out into a cold sweat. I thought I might be losing my mind. One day it was so bad that I got in my company car and took off on a field trip alone. As I was driving through the tall pine woods country of West Texas, I suddenly pulled up beside the road and stopped. I remember sitting there in complete despair. … As I sat there I began to weep like a little boy…. I looked up toward the sky. There was nothing I wanted to do with my life. And I said, “God if there’s anything you want in this stinking, soul, take it.” Something came into my life that day which has never left; it was a deep intuitive realization of what God wants from a [person]…. [God] wants your will, and if you give [God] your will, [you’ll be shown] life as you’ve never seen it before. (A Taste of New Wine, Word Books, Waco, 1965, p. 38-39)

Surrendering is not something many people do easily. But the day Keith Miller surrendered to God; and the day some men in our community who were recently incarcerated surrendered to God; and the day a youth leader with a guitar led some youth group members to surrender to God, they became consecrated. They had become kingdom people; not kingdom of this world people, but kingdom of God people. They began to live life differently.

V. Raymond Edmond has compiled a treasure trove of consecration stories in the book They Found the Secret. It is in our church library and includes stories about such people as John Bunyan, Oswald Chambers, Richard C. Halverson, and also Frances Ridley Havergal whose hymn we will sing today. In the book, Edmond traces a pattern in the lives of the people he describes. He says:

Out of discouragement and defeat they have come into victory. Out of weakness and weariness they have been made strong. Out of ineffectiveness and apparent uselessness they have become efficient and enthusiastic. The pattern seems to be self-centeredness, self-effort, and increasing inner dissatisfaction and outer discouragement, a temptation to give up because there is no better way, and then finding the Spirit of God to be their strength, their guide, their confidence, and their companion—in a word, their life. The crisis of the deeper life is the key that unlocks the secret of their transformation. It is the beginning of the exchanged life. [And] what is the exchanged life? Really, it is not some thing; it is some one. It is the indwelling of the Lord Jesus Christ made real and rewarding by the Holy Spirit. [Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1984, p.12]

Today I invite you again to seriously consider getting consecrated to God; to rededicate yourself to glorifying God—not just as you sit in church praying or singing or listening—but as you go forth: sharing, caring, and loving. What a difference there could be in our world if we decided to leave behind the strife, the toxic language, and any self-centered goals, and instead to think about others more, and to show kindness more. Give your will to God, and in so doing, accept the cleansing flood of consecration. With that, the Spirit of the Living God can energize your work, and Christ, the Great High Priest, can a seat in your heart.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 28, 2018


Hebrews 5: 1-10

Ok, in a sermon with this title, I have to begin with one of my favorite jokes that feature a priest:
A minister, a priest, and a rabbi are talking about their own deaths. One of them asks, “When you are in your casket, and friends, family, and congregants are walking by your casket, what would you like to hear them say?”
The minister said, “I’d like to hear them say that I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader, and a great family man.” The others nodded. The priest said, “ As they are gazing at my body, I would like to hear them say that I was a wonderful teacher and a servant of the Lord who made a big difference in people’s lives.” They nodded. It was the rabbi’s turn. He smiled and said, “When they are looking down at my body, I’d like to hear them say, ‘Look! He’s moving!’”

It was really just since 1517 and the reforms made famous by Martin Luther that Christian theologians who thought like Luther did were disparagingly called the “PROTESTants.” The Protestants started the strange idea that we still embrace called, “The Priesthood of All Believers.” Before that, Roman Catholics and Jews believed in the power—and the necessity—of priests. Yes, Jews had high priests in the first century, and early Christians found the idea of a priest most palatable. A priest, you see, offers sacrifices to God on behalf of others; and a priest also pleads one’s case before the Almighty. A priest literally stands between human beings in the need of forgiveness and the holy God. They are a necessary part of the relationship between Roman Catholics and God, and certainly between first century Jews and God. But do the Protestants—the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the non-denominational churches—need a priest too? Yes. They find their reason in the book of Hebrews; there they find the Risen Christ, sitting first on the right hand of power, is also the Great High Priest. How high? Why, he is a priest after the order of Melchizadek. Whenever people spoke the name of that legendary and mystical priest, they must have said it in an earnest whisper, as if a hush would fall over the room. In the 14th Chapter of Genesis verse 18, Melchizadek was not only the King of Salem, (What was Salem? Why, JeruSALEM of course,) but he was also called the Priest of the Most High God. He brought out bread and wine as a blessing to both Abram and God. He was a true priest: an intermediary between God and people; and between people and God. He attained legendary status over the years. I can imagine, when early Christians were reading this letter aloud to a small house church, that all the ears would perk up as the reader shared verses 5 and 6: “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you; as it says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’”

We need such a priest. Certainly the role of priests has been tarnished in recent years over sexual abuse scandals. But sometimes a person needs a priest; or we might call such a person a “confessor.” In the early 90s in this congregation I went to the home of a wonderful couple in our church. She was dying of cancer. As I arrived at the home, I knew death would not be far away for her. I intended to give her final prayers, something that her early Catholic upbringing called “Last Rites” or “Extreme Unction.” The husband said, “She wants to see you privately.” I went into her bedroom and there she was, lying on a hospital bed. She looked exhausted from the ravages of cancer. She motioned for me to come close to her, which I did. With a barely audible voice she said: “I need to confess something to you. I was unfaithful to my husband one time in our marriage.” Tears began to run down her cheeks. Crying, she continued, “I am so, so sorry, but I don’t want to hurt him now. So I needed to tell this to you; I need God to hear what I have said.” “God has heard what you said,” I replied in her ear. “When you are ready, go in peace.” She slipped away later that night. Sometimes we need a priest. For many Protestants, it can be a pastor as I mentioned. It can also be a counselor, or a chaplain: not just chaplains in hospitals or Hospices, but also in the Armed Forces. Oh the stories chaplains could tell without using names about the people who found peace through confession. This is one of the most powerful roles of a priest. But sometimes our priest is another trusted person, as occurred in the cloistered life of a monastery or a convent. Julie Kerr, in her book called Life in the Medieval Cloister, described the power of confession before turning in for the night. She writes, “If monks were going to sleep peacefully and enjoy the restorative night’s sleep [they needed,] it was important that they first confessed their sins and freed their minds of guilt. By doing so, the monks also armed themselves against the devil, who, it was believed, would seek to ensnare them at night when they were at their most vulnerable.” [Continuum, UK, 2009, p. 104.] Is sin a passé term, in our day, one that seems to out of place in our live and let live society? Hardly, as people around the world speculated this week about whether a man was restrained and horribly dismembered while hoping to get papers necessary to marry the woman he loved. Sin and evil are still alive a in our world.

Listen to what layperson Kathleen Norris shared in her book called The Cloister Walk:
My husband and I, raised in the pietistic churches of the 1950s, received an education in sin that was not only inadequate, but harmful. From the Protestants I got a list of rules that were not to be broken and [I] naively thought that as long as I wasn’t breaking the rules, sin was not much of a problem for me. As a young adult, I believed I had no conscience, a state I was fortunate to survive. From the Catholics my husband got less of a sense of sin than a terrific ability to feel guilty about everything under the sun …. [Riverhead Books, NY 1996, pp. 125-126]

Kathleen goes on to say how much she learned from the monks about forgiveness and grace as she participated in the cloistered life for a time.

Here is another role of priests: according to Hebrews 5:7, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The part of that declaration that stands out to me is the last phrase: “He was heard because of his reverent submission.” The way we approach God matters. Prayers cannot effectively be offered in a “matter of fact” way, or in a glib way while we are checking our cell phone. “Reverent submission” apparently matters. Some of you ask me to pray for you, and of course I do. But some believe God hears my prayers better than theirs! Hmmm. When you pray, do you set a time aside from any distraction, go into a quiet place, even a place that feels holy, and then reverently pray? That’s what Jesus did. Some of my most ardent and pleading prayers in my life have happened when I’ve gone into our small chapel—away from foot traffic and phone calls, facing the cross and the table that says, “In remembrance of me;” the chapel that has earth-toned light refracting through stained glass—and then prayed. That’s where I pray best. I use Jesus as my guide for prayer.

We need Jesus; he has many roles in the lives of his followers: Savior; friend; teacher. But today we are remembering an often over-looked role: priest. Like my young grandson Shane would whisper to one of his parents when he broke something or spilled something in our house so they could break the news to Mary Ann or me and perhaps cushion our reaction to the deed, Jesus performs something of the same role for us when we want to approach God with something we have broken or someone we have hurt.

Finally, in the Jerusalem temple of Jesus’ day, a priest was selected to literally “go behind the curtain” of the holy of holies once a year on Yom Kippur, to burn incense and offer a sacrifice to God on behalf of the whole nation. They called the curtain “the veil” of the Temple. Listen how this imagery is transferred to a verse of our next hymn, written by William Chatterton Dix in 1866. “Alleluia! Born of Mary, earth your footstool, heaven your throne. As within the veil you entered, robed in flesh, our great high priest; here on earth both priest and victim, in the Eucharistic feast.” [Alleluia! Sing to Jesus] Those words bring us full circle, assuring us that just as the great priest Melchizadek brought bread and wine as a blessing between God and a faithful man, so Jesus offers the same between God and faithful people today. May Jesus, the great high priest, offer you blessing today, in your own faithfulness, with confessions named and sins forgiven.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 21, 2018