Category Archives: Christianity

04-22-18 THE CARING SHEPHERD

THE CARING SHEPHERD

Psalm 23; John 10: 11-18

 

In the sixteenth century Joseph ben Ephraim Qaro, … a persecuted Spanish Jew who migrated to Palestine, produced a monumental summary of Jewish law under the title Shulhan Aruk, which means, a “Table Prepared.”  Qaro took the title from the twenty-third Psalm “thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Yes the psalms were the original hymnal of the Jerusalem temple, but they were also used for religious education and spiritual guidance over the ages. The Psalms speak clearly and vividly about religious truths. Even in our day, many small Testament Bibles, handed out to college students or to military personnel by groups like the Gideons, not only contain the New Testament, they also contain the Psalms. The Psalms have served several functions since the days of King David who wrote many of them.  One, they contain pictures of life in countless stages and situations. Two, they run the gamut of human emotions from anguish to praise to comfort. And Three, we find examples of prayers people have offered to God so that we, when tongue tied, might have some templates to follow. Some Psalms resound with joy and thanksgiving; others let us listen in to a hurting soul. They are a resource for Jew and for Christians to this day. When you may be struggling or broken, you can see what people before us said as they turned to God.  And when words hardly form in one’s prayer life, a Psalm can shine a light in your darkness.  Of all the Psalms in the book, Psalms 51, 90, 91, 100, 121, and 150 are used often, but the most beloved Psalm is the twenty-third Psalm.  There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus, addressing his disciples in John 10, knew Psalm 23.  His knowledge of those words molded his message that he was the “good shepherd.” Psalm 23 is often called “the Shepherd’s Psalm,” and it is the most used passage of Scripture at funerals.

 

Psalm 23 is an affirmation of faith; it expresses extreme trust even as it offers personal confession.  David, the writer of the Psalm, shows a child-like trust in the Lord, who he likened to a shepherd. Although the shortest Christian confession in the Bible is “Jesus is Lord,” the first line of this Psalm is also a confession of faith: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” There it is. Still, few in American culture get exposed to the life of a shepherd. That’s why an author and shepherd like Phillip Keller is so helpful. In his book A Shepherd Looks a Psalm 23, he unpacks the meaning of those beloved words. He grew up in East Africa and watched native herders at work. He became a lay pastor, bringing with him his wealth of “pastoral” insights. Even the term “Pastor” refers to “one that looks out for a flock.”

“I shall not want.”  In other words, “I have everything I need.”  The shepherd takes care of the food, the water, the grooming, the doctoring, and the protection of the sheep.  Ah, to be a sheep in the flock of a good shepherd: that’s the pinnacle of care! That’s what David noticed, what he apparently practiced and what he believed about being in God’s care. It was quite a claim.

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Keller wrote:

The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met:

Owing to their timidity, they refuse to lie down unless they are free from fear.

Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.

If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax.

Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they are in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger. [Zondervan, 1970, p. 35]

 

Goodness! Humans … I mean sheep, are needy!

 

“He leadeth me beside the still waters.”  Sheep, I have learned, will not drink from a running stream; they will die of thirst out of their fear of getting water in their nose (a little like humans?) But if they drink from stagnant water, bacteria can grow and infect their digestive system. So a shepherd must find water (available ideally from streams, rivers, or springs in Israel,) and either capture the water and pour it into a trough, or dam up the running water temporarily so the sheep will drink it.  Just like our four little grandsons will absolutely not drink water from their brother’s or cousins assigned cups, so sheep will not drink water unless it is still. Finicky! But they need hydration for sure, and that’s the way a shepherd achieves it.

 

As we hear Psalm 23, it rarely occurs to us that this is shared from the point of view of sheep. These are the needs of sheep! But then we step away from the sheep metaphor and David decides to jump into his own skin, writing:

he restoreth my soul.”  A sheep might put it this way: “He gives me peace.” But David knows there’s more to God than peace; there is also justice; there is mercy; there is love; and there is righteousness. God restored David’s soul; God can restore our soul. It is a rich expression of belief.

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” When the one who owns the sheep, and even the land, is the one taking care of them, his name is on the flock. That is, when your name is on something, and it is your responsibility to have something succeed instead of fail, great care and attention may be poured into that venture. For God’s own sake, the shepherd leads sheep in the right paths.  Sheep do not just wander aimlessly. Where they go and how much they eat is carefully decided by the shepherd. If they eat grass to the ground, it will not quickly grow back. If they go in the direction of a cliff or a predator, they could be hurt or killed. God’s name is on these sheep.  Or as Christians, Christ claims us at our baptism and puts his name on our foreheads and in our hearts. To the public he writes: “This one’s mine!” And to the person he whispers, “You are mine!” What comfort.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. The lands of Israel always created opportunities for danger to sheep.  Valleys were important because water would collect there; but predators or bandits could get the upper hand by being at the top of a ridge, a small cliff, or hiding in a cave. The shepherd always had to watch for the human dangers of bandits that would try to steal sheep, or for predators like coyotes, wolves, cougars, stray dogs, or snakes.  The rod was a stout stick used to stir brush to reveal serpents, or to smack the heads or noses of animals starting to attack.  In our day, cattlemen may refer to a pistol as their “rod,” with the same purpose in mind.  The rod is for protection; the staff is for gathering, collecting, and pulling sheep back from danger. The crook would go gently under the body or around a neck of the sheep.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. A good shepherd prepares the tableland. First, the shepherd searches for just the right place that is level enough and covered with enough healthy grasses.  Then, he also must pluck up certain weeds and flowers that, if ingested by sheep, are poisonous. He finally decides how long to leave the sheep in one place—not too long as to remove all vegetation; because he counts on it growing back. The enemies of sheep may gather nearby while they graze: humans who want to take them, or animals that want to eat them are nearby. The shepherd knows that the rocks and the cliffs can have eyes, so he is always watching for danger while they eat.

Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.  Especially in the summer, sheep can be tormented by biting flies. But like a flea and tick collar for dogs, shepherds concocted a natural insect repellent, made it into an ointment, and applied it to the head of the sheep and to other parts of their body.  If they were tormented, as we are tormented by mosquitoes in Florida or Georgians are tormented gnats, we know what relief a good repellent is. The shepherd knows that too.  It keeps sheep from getting so anxious that they will not eat or sleep. Sheep have their needs met because of their shepherd.

 

Finally, David the writer addressed the reader, human being to human being:
[Yes God is like a good shepherd, and because of that I declare:] Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  The Bible is filled with metaphors; metaphors try to describe what is hard to describe. Calling God a good shepherd, or Jesus a good shepherd, is one such metaphor. Calling us “sheep” is another. But few other words can describe what it is like to be in such good care.  Be comforted by the images; and remind yourself how good it is to be in the flock of a good shepherd.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 April 22, 2018

 

04-15-18 JESUS BY THE SEA

JESUS BY THE SEA

Luke 24: 36b-48

 

A visiting Priest was attending a men’s breakfast in Ohio farm country. He asked one of the impressive older farmers in attendance to say grace that morning. After all were seated, the older farmer began:

“Lord, I hate buttermilk.”

The Priest opened one eye and wondered to himself where this was going.

Then the farmer loudly proclaimed, “Lord, I hate lard.”

Now the Priest was overly worried. However without missing a beat, the farmer prayed on,

“And Lord, you know I don’t care much for raw white flour.”

Just as the Priest was ready to stand and stop everything, the farmer continued,

“But Lord, when you mix ‘em all together and bake ‘em up, I do love fresh biscuits.”

“So Lord, when things come up we don’t like, when life gets hard, when we just don’t understand what you are sayin’ to us, we just need to relax and wait ‘till you are done mixin’, and probably it will be somethin’ even better than biscuits.”

 

I shared that story with our Men’s group several months ago! It’s a wonderful reminder that it takes all kinds of ingredients; all kinds of people; and all kinds of talents, which—on their own—may seem irritating or inadequate. But mix them with the Holy Spirit and great things can happen!

Churches operate on that recipe. Some people initially feel too young, too old, or too inadequate to be of any use. But mix them with prayer, training, and God’s Spirit, and soon we get something better than biscuits!

 

In John’s gospel we learned that the disciples, perhaps like many of us, felt ill equipped to handle the ministry that was asked of them. They were unsure; they did not feel up to the task.  But with prayer and with practice, they carried out their tasks. I deliberately chose liturgists today from our Confirmation Class. By having them here, I am not throwing them in the deep end of the pool; they have practiced this kind of work during our Wednesday prayer services. We practiced together on Wednesday; and we have prayed. So young persons, who perhaps weren’t sure they were up to the task, show us that they are! That’s what Jesus wants from his disciples! He, in effect, says: “Trust me! You are ready for this!” And so, the beginning of Christianity after Jesus arose from the dead began to blossom. The mixer is not a Kitchen Aid or a Sunbeam; it is the Holy Spirit- taking the ingredients of ordinary men, women, and youth, filling in the gaps, mixing in the ingredients that look like talents, and something wonderful is made out of it! To this day God’s Spirit makes wonderful recipes out of ordinary ingredients- you, me, and any inadequacies we may feel.

 

Author John MacArthur wrote two books in particular. One was “Twelve Ordinary Men” and one was a sequel: “Twelve Extraordinary Women.”

In them he describes how God took ordinary people, and set them apart from their common tasks to carry out God’s special tasks, just as we set aside common water, common bread, and common wine from their common uses when they are used for special reasons in our sacraments.  Remember: with ingredients God chooses, and that people God choose, the Spirit can mix them together and mighty things are made!  Listen to how John MacArthur puts it:

If you were going to recruit a team to alter the course of history, how would you begin? Jesus began with a walk by a lake. “Follow me” the Master told them. And they did. Thus began his uncommon mission with twelve most common individuals: men who became Christ’s very first disciples. Have you ever considered who Jesus didn’t choose for his inner circle? He didn’t select a rabbi. He didn’t recruit scholars. He didn’t look within the religious establishment to build his team. Any of these would have given him an inside track with those in power. Instead he assembled a rag-tag bunch of folks with unimpressive resumes….it was part of the plan….Jesus wanted ordinary people—people with hopes and dreams of their own but who were willing to leave their lives behind to follow the Savior. [W Publishing Group, 2002, inside front cover]

 

Jesus was really on to something … and he still is!  Do you know that studies have shown that if you invite someone to church, 90% of those invited will come or consider coming. If a minister invites someone to come, only 10% come or will consider coming! People thinking ministers are paid to do such things; but you do them because you have found a good Savior, and a good church! Look what power you have! And Jesus knew that.  Pastors can teach you and help you with prayer, and guide you in mission, but you are the kingdom of God and you keep growing the Kingdom! My invitations to you and others are always offered, but yours are more effective. Young, old, abled or disabled: God uses each one of us! The Apostle Paul put it this way: “God said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ [and] the knowledge of the glory of God [has shined] in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay pots, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and does not come from us.” [2 Corinthians 4: 6-7] There is a classroom at First Presbyterian Church here in Daytona Beach called the “Cracked Pots” class! It is a constant reminder that class members are not the light; I am not the light; and you are not the light. But we are called to let the light—who is Jesus—shine through all we say and do!

 

By the Sea of Galilee Jesus called his disciples. Now in today’s passage they are still in the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus appeared to them again after he had arisen from the dead! Why did he ask for food? Why did he ask them to touch his hands and his feet? It was for them to believe he was not a ghost; not just an image, he was really there in bodily form.

David Heim tells the true story of a man who served in the Navy—Charles Hubbard, of Austin, Texas. The Vietnam vet received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs informing him that he was dead and that his family needed to return thousands of dollars in benefits! A victim of stolen identity, Hubbard found his checking account closed by the VA. After he made an extensive case for being alive, the VA informed him that it would take eight months for him to be officially brought back to life! That’s when they would restore his pension benefits. The resurrected Christ had his own problems convincing the disciples that he is alive and well, bodily present with them.

 

Having someone rise from death leaves people in wonder and in awe. Most would just think if they saw a man who died they were seeing his ghost. But this was Jesus. He knew they were frightened according to verse 37; he also knew they were falling back into their old trades and ways. But Jesus didn’t come to be a flash in a pan; he came to change the world. And this change would not happen if the 11 remaining apostles just went back to being fisherman or tax collectors. So he needed another meeting with them; a motivational meeting to redirect their work. This was it. And he said this: “the Messiah was supposed to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and [because of that] repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning Jerusalem.” They were already in Jerusalem! This was it! They were being commissioned; and the book of Acts continued to record the work of these apostles—these sent ones—who took the light of Jesus to the nations.

 

Those men have long died. So the message—that Jesus is the light of the world and the Savior—is now ours to share! It’s not just for preachers to do—as I said, we are less effective in reaching others than you are! So you make the most difference in sharing his light! You are the ones Jesus calls to proclaim his name to all nations. But you can start in your condo; or in your neighborhood; or in your school. You may ask: how do I do that? Here’s an actual conversation that occurred several years ago with congregation members: that couple came down a condo elevator on a Sunday morning; they were dressed for church; another couple on the elevator were dressed for tennis. “Going to play tennis?” The church-going couple asked. “Yes!” they said. “Have fun!” the church going couple said. After my class on evangelism that week, their conversation went like this two weeks later:

“Ah, playing tennis?” The church-going couple asked. “Yes!” they said. But this time the church couple said: “We’re going to our church; a wonderful church-Westminster By-the-Sea! Look!” (and they pointed to our building from their glass elevator.) “It’s right there! Come with us sometime! We’ll sit with you!” And the tennis couple said “Thanks! We might just do that!” And they did. People came to church because of that change in the conversation.

 

The hymn we are about to sing proclaims that “Jesus Calls Us.” Jesus does not just call the 12 apostles; he calls us too; to follow him; to let his light shine through us; and to proclaim his name wherever we can! Even in our weak times, our young age, or our old age, we are just cracked pots: vessels committed to letting Jesus be known. May you accept your commission from Jesus today, or redouble your prior efforts for the future.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 15, 2018

 

04-08-18 CAMELOT CHRISTIANITY

CAMELOT CHRISTIANITY

Acts 4: 32-35

Do you recognize these words from a musical?

A law was made a distant moon ago here:

July and August cannot be too hot.

And there’s a legal limit to the snow here

In Camelot.

The winter is forbidden till December

And exits March the second on the dot.

By order, summer lingers through September

In Camelot.

Camelot! Camelot!

I know it sounds a bit bizarre,

But in Camelot, Camelot

That’s how conditions are.

The rain may never fall till after sundown.

By eight, the morning fog must disappear.

In short, there’s simply not

A more congenial spot

For happily-ever-aftering than here

In Camelot.

 

“Camelot is a musical by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe ( music). It is based on the King Arthur legend as adapted from the T. H. White novel The Once and Future King.” [Wikopedia] As much as it describes the way we might like things to be, it is a fairytale; a legend. It is dreamy but not real. Or is it?  Camelot sells.  People describe the years when Kennedy was President as “Camelot.” But they were not. Wedding photographers try to make the wedding day look carefree and joyful! But hundreds of weddings I have witnessed were filled with anxiety and often tears instead. Our daughter posted a picture of our grandson in a text to us. He looked like angel! One time Jenny posted how many pictures she had to take to get a good one: it was 23! 23 pictures to get one that looked like Camelot! I remember old ads for cars in the 60s where a man floated down from the sky and landed in the driver’s seat of a brand new Chevy convertible! Camelot! Camelot sells.  Who has bought a timeshare thinking that it would make for Camelot vacations? That’s sometimes not the case. Camelot is what we hope; what we dream; they way people think things should be. Thomas Kinkade was a Camelot painter of idyllic scenes.

 

Even the Bible has some idyllic, Camelot scenes. Genesis chapter 1 is an example. God was creating and naming everything good! All was well! But perhaps the best Thomas Kinkade-like painter in the Bible was Luke. Luke “painted” the endearing picture of Mary and Joseph and shepherds and animals in a Bethlehem stable when Jesus was born. Luke “painted” the compassionate picture of a Good Samaritan helping a man who was beaten. It was just a story, but one found only in Luke.  And almost all scholars agree that Luke wrote the book of Acts too. So we come to on another picture with a Thomas Kinkade touch: a picture of Camelot Christianity.  Acts 4:32-35:

32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

 

Wonderful pastor, teacher, Bishop, and preacher William Willimon says this about those words:

We are not surprised to hear Luke claim that “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32) because we are accustomed to hearing such pious, often unrealistic claims made by Christian congregations, even within our own day. Preachers sometimes tend toward rosey [sic] exaggerations. But when Luke claims that “no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but that they had everything in common” (4:32), our ears perk up. [Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Study for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta:  John Knox Press, p.

52.]

 

So should this description that Luke writes in Acts chapter 4 be accompanied by lilting “Camelot” music; or be seen with the light paintbrush of Kinkade; or is it possible that it’s really happened in those early years of Christianity?

 

I went through the websites of 7 current major congregations this week. Reading their costly and visually stunning websites made me think I was about to enter the Land of Oz! Everything was puffed up and enhanced! When it comes to advertising and promotion and sales, I think we are all guilty, to some degree, of painting the pictures of our products in generously optimistic ways.  On occasion I have read the ad for a car that included a picture. Then I’ve gone to see the car in person. Sometimes there’s quite a difference! Churches all compete on social media and in newsprint as well. Our well-placed ads for Easter cost money; churches spent so much promoting Easter services in hopes that a portion of the people might come on Easter or consider joining. But we put try to put our best foot forward every week, not just on Easter. Still, last Sunday almost 600 worshippers heard our Easter message and music and had an invitation to follow Jesus.

 

Could it be that Luke, who tends to wrap his message in light and in love, described the early church in an accurate but also in a generous way?  Can you imagine in our day of capitalism and real estate, no one holding any property of their own? That’s what’s described in Acts chapter 4. In a way we have it; just this week we caught the first of at least three distributions of an estate while loving people are sharing the proceeds of possessions, a cabin, and a house with the church.   But Acts is not in 21st Century America. It was a different place when people were filled with the highest hopes for being a Christian community. Do you recall how radical Jesus was?  There is no record of Jesus owning anything except the tunic on his body. No record of him owning an animal, or a piece of land, or a home. He leaned on others and welcomed their hospitality. Indeed it could be that at the beginning of Christianity, and at the beginning of the world in Genesis, there was a kind of Camelot; a kind of innocence and wonder and gladness? Perhaps all new groups of Christians, fresh out of the waters of their baptisms, view their new life through Camelot eyes. The question is, can we keep our hopeful attitudes from souring over a short period of time? Things soured in Genesis 3 when the serpent was introduced. Things soured in Luke chapter 2, just after baby Jesus was dedicated at the temple:  a man douses that lovely day with these dark words: “this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … [and then he turns to the proud mother Mary and says to her] and a sword will pierce your own heart too.” [34,35.]  Come on, man! Couldn’t you wait a day or two before sharing such darkness?

 

Today I confess there’s a little bit of Camelot hope with everything I do at Westminster. When you come to a service, I always hope it is the best we can offer. When people as far away as Virginia and Georgia choose join this congregation, I think they find a little bit of Camelot Christianity here; that they have found nothing in all the miles between their house and their church that is better! We work to offer the best music, best teaching, and the best attention to details. So, do I hope to hold onto a little Camelot in my life? Yes! And I’d imagine you love those times too! What a Camelot time the apostles had in Acts chapter 4! A little Camelot Christianity can be an oasis for visitors at Westminster (and churches like ours,) and it can lift up the hearts of church members! I know people who have told me they had to take antacid tablets before they went to their own church services because of tension and dysfunction. Acts says it need not be like that! To paraphrase the Broadway show, “in short there’s simply not a more congenial spot for living like a Christian, than here, and in other congregations, in Camelot Christianity! We still strive for a church that is like the one described in Acts chapter 2; and Acts chapter 4! Welcome to a little slice of Camelot.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 8, 2018

 

04-01-18 AN ASTOUNDING APPEARANCE

AN ASTOUNDING APPEARANCE

John 20: 1-18

 

A woman whose husband had recently passed away asked me to stop by her home to talk.  In times of grief sometimes people really want to talk, and at other times it’s hard to find anything to say. As we sat down, she said, “I want to tell you something, but I hope you won’t think I’m crazy.” “Go ahead,” I said. “Tell me.”  So she said, “This week I saw Gary (not his real name. She was talking about her recently deceased husband.) She continued: “He was in our bedroom at the foot of the bed. Then he came around the bed and sat on his side of the bed. I could see an indentation on the bed covers. Do you think I’m crazy?” “ I do not think you’re crazy,” I told her so. I had heard such stories before, and since then I have heard them from others: they’ve seen a face, or heard a voice, or felt the presence of a loved one who passed from this world. These are astounding appearances, but I don’t think most, if any, of them are made up. If God is a God of amazing grace, (which I believe,) one who offers steadfast love, and mercy, maybe we get permission in our next life to, if the time is right, reassure our loved one that all will be well. I don’t think everyone is able to experience such events, but some can. Just like Paul said in First Corinthians 12 and 13, some can speak in tongues, and some never will speak in tongues, but that is not an indication of inferior or undeveloped spiritual gifts.  Likewise some may see these loved ones, and some may not. But if you have been equipped to see or feel the presence of someone who has gone before you, share it! I think such witnessing invites others to claim, or at least consider, the mysteries of God.

 

Today, for any of you who have lost a loved one (and who hasn’t, from a pet to a parent to a friend?), I want you to think back to the time when you knew that your loved one had died.  What did you feel? Disbelief? How did you feel? Numb? What did you do? Endlessly call family, or sit in one place on stun or in tears?  Such events are life-jarring. No matter how much we prepare, we are not really prepared for them. Our daughter Jenny is an ordained Presbyterian minister and one of the chaplains at Tampa General Hospital. One of the chaplain’s jobs is to meet with the family when there has been a death. They are a Trauma 1 center so often the deaths are truly traumatic. Their job is to call in next of kin, to listen to them, and to console them.  What a job, but she feels called to do it. Still it can take a toll.

 

Keep that thought as we move back in time 2000 years. Not only had a friend died; not only had a son died, but it was a brutal death. Many of the women, including the man’s own mother, watched him be tortured. And then they saw him breathe his last. They saw his limp, dead, body be taken down from the cross. They likely overheard, perhaps with some comfort, that a man named Joseph of Arimethea gave his family tomb away to this man. The man who had just died? Jesus.  In those days, a tomb was a cave—man-made or natural—and a family had exclusive ownership of it in which they would place the dead bodies of loved ones, anoint them ritually with spices, roll the stone over the tomb, and wait several weeks or months for the body to decompose. Then the bones were collected and placed in an above-ground container called an ossuary. If they were Jews they would ask to be buried as close to the Mount of Olives as possible, where they believed the Messiah would return. On this particular day, outside of the Jerusalem walls, the women and men were at the cross. They likely went away dejected, because the one in whom they had hope for salvation had died; they had seen it with their own eyes. They were like those family members in an emergency room; or those gathered at a funeral home, ones perhaps making plans to embalm or not embalm a body and thinking about a funeral. So the men in John’s gospel were milling around the room set apart for them by Jesus, and the women—also special disciples and friends of Jesus—were there too.  In those days women customarily did the not too pleasant job of preparing the dead body to be left in the tomb. They usually used oils and spices—sometimes even frankincense and myrrh—which wise men foreshadowed.   So those women who had hope that Jesus would be different  now had all their spirits dashed. He was dead; they would do their duty; they would mourn for a period of time, then they’d pick up their lives. They would not have the luxury of going into a deep depression for months- they had families for whom they were responsible.  Those women going to the tomb were like those in a hospital trauma room; or  those in a funeral parlor. They were mourning and just doing what needed to be done.

 

To their great surprise—and I can’t emphasize that enough—they found the stone rolled away!! That was shocking for at least two reasons. No Romans would come and touch, or try to move, the body of a Jew! Romans cared only about taxes in Judea. By contrast, no faithful Jews would come to the tomb before morning because the God sanctioned Sabbath was just ending as the women arrived! No one did work on the Sabbath! Besides, the stone was exceedingly large and would have been very heavy to move. Nevertheless, the stone was rolled away! In John’s passage we read that the women were so stunned they ran back to get help. They asked Simon Peter to come and see it. He and another disciple (likely it was John) ran back to see the unbelievable event. Was it grave robbery? I doubt anyone was thinking “miracle” at that time. This time they went in and found the grave clothes lying on the ground, (like they are at our tomb in this sanctuary) and they were no longer wrapped around a body! Finally, like the apparitions that others have described to me, a person appeared to Mary.  Being in such a state of shock, she did not even entertain the notion that it might have been a ghost of Jesus; she was still going on the assumption that the body had been taken. But after hearing the voice of the one she loved so much, her eyes and ears were opened and her heart filled with hope that she dared not consider earlier. Could it be?  She went to embrace him, only to be warned that she could not do that, because he was in some state between earth and heaven. He said, “Do not hold me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” What a confusing day! The unbelievable had not only become possible, but actual! Jesus had risen from the dead!

 

Now we know: the grave was not the end for Jesus; a rolling stone could not hold his body in; and a cross was not the final chapter! God is with us now, watching us and writing the last chapters of our lives! How will they end? That is largely up to you and me and the situations we face each day. What we do know is that God hopes that all people in the world find their final home in heaven! You can plan on it if you follow Jesus, not only in this life, but into the next life too! Choose Jesus: the risen Son of God! And join him today in the joyful feast of the people of God! Today’s story did not end at a grave; it continued with new life. It continues now at a table. Jesus invited disciples to join him in a meal in John 21: the next chapter. Now he invites you; won’t you join him and share this meal with Jesus?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 1, 2018

03-25-18 (Palm Sunday) – KING FOR A DAY

KING FOR A DAY

John 12: 12-16

 

Have you ever been at an event that was supposed to be a happy one, and feigned joy so you didn’t rain on the parade of someone else?  Perhaps you went to your son or daughter’s wedding after just receiving a diagnosis of cancer.  Or perhaps a best friend of your just lost a baby, but you hoped your face wouldn’t show your sorrow while attending a special event.  One of my favorite singers performed through her illness, seeking to hide her pain: Eva Cassidy. I first heard her sing Sting’s song “Fields of Gold” to accompany an Olympic skater. Her version and her voice were so haunting. On our church cruise, a woman offering the evening’s entertainment sang that, and I was mesmerized hearing it live. Eva, like two young men in our church, died at just 34 years of age. Like them, she had melanoma. Here’s the story of what she did to try to put on a game face in the midst of her illness:

In 1993, Cassidy had a malignant removed from her back. Three years later, during a promotional event she noticed an ache in her hips, which she attributed to stiffness from painting murals while perched on a stepladder. The pain persisted and x-rays revealed a fracture. Further tests found that cancer had spread to her bones as well as to her lungs. Her doctors estimated she had three to five months to live. Eva opted for aggressive treatment, but her health deteriorated rapidly. On September 17 at a benefit concert she made her final public appearance, closing the set with “What a Wonderful World” in front of an audience of family, friends, and fans. She died on November 2, 1996 at her family’s home. [Wikopedia]

 

How many other inspirational stories might come to your mind? So many people push down their pain so as not to disturb other’s joy. Some of them have just months to live; some have just weeks to live. Jesus, I believe, knew he had just days to live. And what did he do? In spite of that knowledge, he joined in the celebration; they wanted a king! He was not the next Caesar, but he was a different kind of king. He may not have had full energy that day, but he knew what he had to do and what prophesies he came to fulfill. Jesus grew up reading from prophets like Zechariah, who predicted: “Your king is coming to you; a righteous king and a saving one; humble and riding on a donkey; on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” [Zechariah 9:9]  Jesus knew the messiah would save the people; but he also knew the cost. That had to be in the back of his mind, even as children cheered and adults shouted “Hosanna!” “Hosanna” doesn’t mean “praise,” it means “save us!”  Yes he had come to save them, but not in the way they hoped. They wanted him to fight, but he came as the prince of peace. They wanted him to save them from burdensome Roman taxes, but he was coming to save them from their sins. They wanted revolt; instead they got a king whose kingdom wasn’t of this world.  God knows how to, as the late Robert Schuller put it, “turn our scars into stars,” but the transformation comes with cost. God sees the big picture, while people hope for instant satisfaction or quick answers. Here’s another story, told 5 years ago tomorrow, by a blogger named Christine Hassler:

 

This past weekend I had the honor of standing up in my bestie Melissa’s wedding.  It was an incredibly beautiful ceremony full of love, connection and tears of joy. I am inspired to share with you their incredible love story which will reaffirm your faith in the universe’s timing…

When they were 19-years-old Melissa and Chris met at a club in New York.  They dated for just three short months, as it seemed they were headed in different directions.  They each went on with their lives and didn’t speak after their short relationship.  Melissa worked her way up the corporate ladder and eventually moved to L.A. Chris established his career on the east coast. They both had other relationships and really never thought about each other until…

One day in 2010 Melissa was having one of those moments we can all relate to when she felt alone, sad, and questioned the universe. In that rather dark moment she threw her hands up to the Divine and asked for help. Instead she heard to “look in the envelope.” Melissa knew exactly what envelope to look in. It was one she had put aside full of old pictures. Knowing not to ignore the voice of her intuition, she looked through the pictures and was surprised to find one photo of her and a guy she dated briefly her sophomore year of college named Chris. “Hmmmm…” she thought, “He was a nice guy, I wonder what happened to him?” Well thanks to Facebook this is an easy question to answer. The Facebook request was quickly accepted and he wrote her back. The emails became longer. Then the emails transitioned to a phone call.  I knew immediately something was different about this guy. “Does this sound crazy?” she asked me. “No,” I replied, “It sounds like a miracle. Keep your mind and heart open.”

 

God has a long-term plan for your life. Part of it is a love story; God loves you, and me, and the world so much that he was willing to pay a great price to have us together here and in the hereafter. Some just see the darkness of the cross as a terrible act: why would a Father send a Son to die? Think of it this way instead: if the church is known as the bride of Christ, then a splendid marriage was in the works! In Jesus’ day a father would select a bride who he thought would be a good match for his son. Sometimes the father would use the services of a yenta—a matchmaker—but sometimes the father would make his own choice. Then the father and the son would go and ask the father of the chosen girl for her hand in marriage. The father might agree, but part of the deal would be the bride price—it was always a very high price for his daughter. Once the deal was struck, the father would take his son home and build a room on the father’s house where his son, and his new bride, would live.  But as I mentioned, the price for the bride was very high.

Today we are facing a week where the arrangements have been made. The Father has selected a bride for his son, and it is you and me. The price will be very high; the prospective groom will pay for our souls with his life. After the price has been paid, the groom—Jesus—and his followers—the disciples and the church today—will together … in the Father’s house!

 

That is the great Easter drama! But the road to Easter includes betrayals, not just bunnies; the road to Easter includes a seamless tunic, not just pretty dresses. And the road to Easter—like other events you might have had in your life—includes conflict, pain, and stress. This time the road will include death. But I hope you will join me for the powerful story: the Upper Room dialogue and Upper Room meal remembered this Thursday night; and the words Jesus said from the cross from the sixth hour until the ninth hour, on Friday from 12 noon until 3. Much of the story will be recalled Thursday night, but you can get more Friday afternoon.  Then and only then—when you understand the price that was paid, and that the Father had already informed his Son of the plan, and that they were in agreement—can you understand what was likely going through Jesus’ mind. Making his way down a steep hillside on a donkey to enter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate was the last beautiful thing that would happen to him that week.

 

Love always has a cost; but to understand the plan, made long before the Palm Sunday ride, we move into the mind of Jesus and into the plan of God had for the world.  Today it’s about palms. But the journey is about to continue. I hope you will take it with Jesus this week.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 25, 2018

03-18-18 SIR, WE WOULD SEE JESUS

SIR, WE WOULD SEE JESUS

John 12: 20-32

 

I have left the sermon topic in the King James translation because that’s the way I once read it.  Under the pulpit in the Columbia Theological Seminary Chapel is a plaque that can only be seen by the preacher who is sitting down before preaching. It says: “We would see Jesus.” John 20:21.  In other words, it imagines that every worshipper, or at least some of them, have come to the chapel service that day to receive a new or a modified picture of Jesus and who he is. John, in his gospel, was always about telling who Jesus was; others gospels by contrast, told a lot about what Jesus did.  The question from John’s gospel today is asked by what we would call “seekers;” people interested in learning more about Jesus. And after the request made to Philip, Philip told Andrew, and they both went to tell Jesus! This was evangelism without work! There was no knocking on doors, or holding a tent revival, or inviting your neighbor to church. These non-believers, called Greeks, wanted to see Jesus. And the disciples complied.  There. That’s all we have to do, right? All we have to do is lead people to Jesus. Yes, but as I showed the children, we’re actually not sure what he looks like. And we don’t know if we’d recognize him if we bumped into him!  If someone came up to me and asked “Sir, we’d like to see Jesus,” I might say, “So would I! And one day I believe I will see him. But until that time, I want to invite you to see what Jesus did, by observing people doing what Jesus would do were he here in the flesh today.”  Christians let others see Jesus through them when they are doing what Jesus would do, or at least what they think he would do. How do we make a list of what Jesus did? We go to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And then we can see if we can see Jesus in others, or if, perhaps, they can see Jesus in us.

 

In 1887 a Congregational pastor from Topeka Kansas had a book published that told a story of a congregational experiment. The book was called “In His Steps,” and the pastor was Charles M. Sheldon. In 1985 the book was reprinted as a tool for evangelism. In the forward, pastor and motivational speaker Tony Campolo wrote this:

Seldom has a book so influenced Christian thinking. Its profound message set forth in a simple style makes an impact on each and every reader…. The author, Charles Sheldon, describes an ordinary church congregation which is challenged by its pastor to ask, in [the] face of every decision and situation in life, the simple question, “What would Jesus do if he were in my place?” {Barbour & Co. 1985, Intro.]

 

Yes, it was that book being read and reclaimed in the 1980s that started the WWJD movement and the bracelets that could be worn with those letters on them as a reminder to the wearers, always asking, “What would Jesus do?” As you walk down our breezeway this year and every year during Lent, you will find our purple WWJD banner, reminding you of that as you depart.

 

If we can’t actually see Jesus, how can we as Christians show Jesus to the world? Part of the answer is to do what Jesus would do. No, Jesus did not have technology in his day as we have, but knowing very well what Jesus did can guide us. We can’t easily figure that out if the last time we went to Sunday School was when we were young. Christians committed to showing Jesus to the world would do well to know what Jesus did! That leads us to study Scripture as youth; and as adults. How can we do what Jesus would do if we don’t know what Jesus did?  Turning to the gospels today, let’s see what Jesus did.  First, Jesus refused to condemn.  In John chapter 8 Scribes and Pharisees brought Jesus a woman caught in adultery (by the way, the woman was caught in adultery because men could not be accused of adultery in that day!) They asked Jesus to rule on any sentence they may dole out. He seemed lost in thought and bent and wrote something on the ground. Feminist theologians have suggested he might have written “Where is the man?” but we don’t know what he wrote. What we do know is that after approaching Jesus, they all went away, one by one, leaving Jesus with the woman. “Where did they go?” he asked the woman. “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied. And Jesus said: “Neither do I condemn you.” [John 8: 1-11] Over the years, Christians have been known to condemn those with long hair, with loud music, with tattoos, those of different skin colors, or different nationalities; or different denominations. Such actions create communities of “us and them.”  Jesus saw all others as children of God, whether they had disabilities, or leprosy; whether they were poor or rich. To let people see Jesus through us, we can cease condemning and seek to listen, ponder, to pray for, and to not call for a judge or jury regarding someone who is different from you. The job of judge is already taken.

 

Second, Jesus fed the hungry and loved the little children.  In all four gospels Jesus feeds 5000 hungry people. Enough said! And in Matthew, Mark, and Luke they record that Jesus famously said: “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” He said in Matthew’s gospel, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  What do we do with these passages? Do we dismiss them as time locked? No; we do what Jesus would do.  Our church has created intergenerational dinners and studies like “The Epic Story” that deliberately placed people of different ages at each table.  When I participated I was so proud to have my three year old friend (she’s older now) Lauren Camp, sitting at my table and working on our projects with me! I was equally proud to have others older than I was sharing the table.  In addition, to the consternation of some parents, my Christian Educator, Mary Ann and I, believe that children belong in worship and not shuttled off to a children’s program. They may have papers on which to draw, or the arm of a grandparent around them, but they are part of our church family. Every time I offer them a message, I think I am doing what Jesus would do! We even have a partnership with Longtreet Elementary School to be an emergency shelter if needed; we have helped purchased backpacks for students, and offered funds to see that children are well fed. We are now approaching that school and others to see what classes need a volunteer adult who, with the guidance of a teacher, can become a mentor or tutor to students who are struggling, or ones who need another good adult role model. We are seeking to do what Jesus would do! This year in Sunday School children put hygiene bags together to help homeless people get clean. We bring canned and dry goods to the food pantry at Grace Episcopal Church each week, and members of our church join members of other churches in staffing it. In addition, a team of men and women go monthly to the Star Center of Halifax Urban Ministries to feed more than 200 people a lunch time meal. We too seek to do what Jesus did.

 

Third, Jesus asked his Heavenly Father to forgive.  The example is to forgive, and to get out of the way so God can offer forgiveness. In our study of the Apostles’ Creed this week, a man named Darrell gave this testimony that was both powerful and moving. He served twenty-four years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and the evidence that would have set him free was suppressed.

For all that time I was in prison, one step from death row and could have been executed. And I was full of hate; prison is a hateful place. I hated the system; I hated the entire criminal justice system. And I was not a believer for at least 15 of those years. Some Christians used to come and they [were] really representing Christ. And I asked myself “What is it about these people and other convicts who believed in Christ?” They were just loving inmates. And they said they were mandated to love inmates regardless of how you got there. And they never knew my story, but I knew I hated the system and I couldn’t forgive, and they spoke of forgiveness. But as I began to read the Scriptures, and began to read about Christ, that verse, Luke 23:34, spoke to me, and that one verse began to transform my heart. When Jesus said on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  And I decided that was divine. And I said “How could he do that, because I’m ripped in this anger and this hate toward the system, and I began to pray; and I began to pray through clenched teeth literally saying ‘I’m going to pray for these people Jesus, but you know what they did to me,’ but this is what I heard the Holy Spirit say to my spirit when I said ‘God I can’t forgive these people; its too hard.’ That’s when the Spirit spoke to my spirit and said ‘Darrell; no, you can’t forgive them; but I can forgive them through you if only you would let me.’ And that’s how forgiveness began to work for me; and I looked closely at that verse that Jesus quoted, and I saw, in his humanness, the he couldn’t forgive them either! He said ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ So I realized that forgiveness can only come from God, and that’s what Jesus said; forgiveness can come from God through us. And if I wanted to be a vessel for God, I had to forgive, and I began to pray that I wanted what was best for those people, just like I wanted what was best for me and my family. Then I realized that forgiveness wasn’t for them, it was for me! It set me free spiritually! 8 to 10 years before I left that place, I was at peace whether they let me go or not. They were forgiven, and I knew it because God forgave them through me; I had nothing to do with it.

Jesus asked his Father to forgive others; we are called to do the same.

 

Finally, Jesus loved his neighbor as himself, and he told us to do likewise. Jesus chose to speak to a Samaritan woman one day, and to a Syrophonicean woman another.  He met with men who had the perceived contagious disease of leprosy, and he healed a gentile man who was possessed by demons. These are four ways that the world can see Jesus through us: Refuse to condemn others; let the judge of the world decide who needs to be condemned and who needs to be saved. Feed hungry people. You can choose to do that from your car window at the end of an exit ramp, but I don’t recommend that. Feed hungry people by bringing your canned goods, or dry goods, to church as often as weekly; offer to help at our food pantry or to feed hundreds at the local Hot Meal program. Some of you are physically able to roll up their sleeves; others can reach into their pockets or their pantry to help us feed hungry people. Jesus also loved the children.  He delighted that they joined him for his Palm Sunday entrance. You too can help us help children as we reach many in our Vacation Bible School program, and as we have intergenerational dinners and weekly classes.  Welcome children as they come to worship; Jesus would do the same. The next is a big one: forgive.  Seek to forgive others so that God can also release forgiveness for you.  We cannot expect forgiveness from God if we personally will not forgive. And finally, Jesus loved; we are to love one another. Sometimes we may not like one another, but we are always called to love one another! Those are ways we can change the world and show people Jesus through our actions. Ask daily: “What would Jesus do?” In so doing, you will—paraphrasing Stephen Schwartz who wrote the musical Godspell—let others “see Him more clearly; love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly, day by day.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 18, 2018

03-11-18 WORDS OF JESUS THAT BLESS US

WORDS OF JESUS THAT BLESS US

John 3:14-21

 

Many of you who grew up with King James Gift Bibles often had part of the print in red.  In opening your Bible when it was new, you found that an editor and a printer had painstakingly, and at significant cost, put just the words of Jesus in RED! Goodness! Jesus’ words must be very special! They are. What are some of those words? They include blessings like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

 

Those are just three blessings from the mouth of Jesus recorded in Matthew chapter five. Here is one more recorded in Matthew:

“Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

Also, hear these words of blessing that Jesus offered in John’s gospel:

“Peace be with you.”

And:

“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believe.”

 

Now: according to the red-letter Bible, Jesus said these blessing words too:

“God so loved the world the he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever

believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

 

Even though we have found words that are intended to bless us, are there actions too, that we receive from above, or from others, or from unexplainable events that could also be blessings from Jesus?

 

The gifted theologian Henri Nouwen wrote these words in his book Our Greatest Gift:

The younger we are, the more people we need so that we may live; the older we become, the more people we again need to live. Life is lived from dependence to dependence. That’s the mystery that God has revealed to us through Jesus, whose life was a journey from the manger to the cross. Born in complete dependence on those who surrounded him, Jesus died as a passive victim of other people’s actions and decisions….[He goes on to say] I have been blessed by an experience that has made all of this clear to me. A few years ago, I was hit by a car while walking along a roadside and brought to the hospital with a ruptured spleen. The doctor told me she wasn’t sure that I would make it through surgery. I did, but the hours lived before and after the operation allowed me to get in touch with my childhood as never before. Bound with straps on a table that looked like a cross, surrounded by masked figures, I experienced my complete dependence…. All at once, I knew that all human dependencies are embedded in a divine dependence and that divine dependence makes dying part of a greater and much vaster way of living. This experience was so real, so basic, and so all-pervasive that it changed radically my sense of self and affected profoundly my state of consciousness.

 

Could it be that our states of dependence are supposed to bless us rather than burden us? If Jesus continues to want to bless us, in what form does it happen? Isn’t the burden of a young child being dependent on parents actually the blessing of having a newborn? Could it be that our dependence as people grow older is intended to bless the family too?  Here’s my example: my mother and father were healthy and independent people through June of 2016. My dad did regular email communications with me and my brother and two sisters. Then my Dad died, and my mother started to grow more dependent: dependent on friends, repairmen, Women’s Circles, and her family. After a stroke she became even more dependent so she moved from our home of 52 years into a so called “independent living” Community, which in fact, includes very little truly independent living. I have been witnessing dependence and acknowledging what Henri Nouwen described. My brother and two sisters and I have communicated more with each other now than when my father was alive. We have each, independently, gone to visit and assist my mother. My two sisters will go again this week. Perhaps it is a strangely divine gift that my mother’s need for us and for others is drawing us more together.

 

Are any of you, like me, old enough to remember Roy Rogers and Dale Evans?

Dale Evans wrote this in her book called Life is a Blessing:

On August 26, 1950, my husband, Roy Rogers and I became the parents of a baby girl, Robin Elizabeth, who was called our “little angel” by her Daddy. Had we not been committed Christians when we were told that she was [a Down’s Syndrome child] the news would have totally destroyed us, since we are quite vulnerable to the needs of children. When advised to put our Robin in a foster home, one that understood the plight of the Down’s syndrome child, Roy said, “We are taking our baby home. God has a purpose for allowing this, and if we put her away, we will never know it.” As for myself [Dale Evans Rogers continued] I could not imagine putting away any child of mine. Romans 8:28 declares: “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” How I thank God for the two years He let us minister to our little angel, for she really was the “cementer” of our Christian commitment.

 

“God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Jesus is saying that about himself, not out of pain, but out of love! “I and the Father are one” Jesus once said. This was a team decision. Could the Father/Son team have considered: “How can we show the human race how much we care? How can we show them that purpose can be pulled from the jaws of tragedy, or what appears to be a tragedy at the time?” How many ways does Jesus bless us, not only with words shared in dreams or during our day, but also through events that pull us out of life’s routines and schedules?

Here’s another true story:

A woman in our congregation has a grown son Frank. He was driving to his home in St. Augustine this week. The traffic was very heavy. He was crossing a bridge and stopped because of traffic. It was frustrating. Suddenly he witnessed an accident: one vehicle in front of him ran into the back of another. The front car occupants actually drove away! The man behind them appeared to be very hurt. Frank pulled off the road and ran to help. The driver of that vehicle was unconscious and looked to be dead. He was very large. Another man and Frank pulled him out and laid him on the side of the road. He had stopped breathing and there appeared to be no pulse. So Frank got on top of him and started doing CPR on his chest, pushing hard to perhaps make him breathe again. It was tiring and seemed useless.  He paused for a moment when suddenly a firefighter ran up and said “Please move aside sir.” They looked at each other; the firefighter happened to be Frank’s son, Zach, a firefighter, responding to the call! Running up, Zach hadn’t realized it was his father. His team took the unconscious man to the hospital. Later that evening, Zach called his Dad, “Dad, you gave CPR to that man, didn’t you? “Yep,” his father said, “but I’m not sure it did any good.” “Dad, you did it!” Zach exclaimed. The man started breathing and it looks like he will make it!” His Dad said, “I was just at the right place at the right time.” He later spoke to his Mom and told her the story. She replied: “This was part of God’s plan, Frank, for you to get stuck in that slow traffic and be there for that man. And then for Zach to be the first responder on the scene!”  Frank said, “If I had gone through the drive-through at McDonalds instead of walking in, or if I hadn’t been in such traffic, I would not have been there at the right time! But Mom, the beginning of God’s plan was when you adopted me.”

Could it be that your burdens turn out to be blessings? Could it be that your rainy days of pessimism could instead be turned into rainbows of optimism? It has been said that attitude is everything. But there is more than attitude; we also have a Savior who loves us and has a marvelous plan for our lives! “ The apostle Paul said: “When I was a child I thought like a child, but when I grew up I gave up childish things.” Today I want to take you back to the lesson I learned as a child before crossing a street: “Stop, look, and listen.” Imagine that you are at a crossroad now. How can you stop, look, and listen for the blessings of Jesus?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                     March 11, 2018

03-04-18 ACTIONS OF JESUS THAT TROUBLE US

ACTIONS OF JESUS THAT TROUBLE US

John 2: 13-22

 

There is one time—one time!—that Jesus got angry in the Bible, and people often quote it to me as justification for anger! They say: “Well, you know, Jesus got mad! It’s in the Bible.”  Do not let this one instance justify your constant anger! Even Mother Teresa got angry, just not on a regular basis. Let’s try to get into Jesus’ head. He grew up knowing the importance of the Temple; it’s holiness; the place revered as God’s house. John had an interesting perspective on Jesus. He knew Jesus in Jerusalem; Matthew, Mark, and Luke knew most of what Jesus did in Galilee. So John says Jesus came to the Temple as many as three times. Why? “Scottish Scholar William Barclay gives us the story, saying:

The Passover was the greatest of all Jewish feasts [like Easter is to Christians.] ….The law laid down that every adult male Jew who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem was bound to attend.  [But Jews actually came from everywhere.] Astonishing as it may sound, it is likely that as many a two and a quarter million Jews assembled in the Holy City to keep the Passover.   [The Gospel of John, Volume 1, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975, p.p. 108-109.]

Two and a quarter million people! Think of Easter Sunday and Bike Week crowds, double the numbers, and then you get an idea of how many people poured in—out of obligation or out of love for God—but also how many merchants and vendors were there to make a buck, like we see at our huge events in Daytona Beach. Jesus had just finished his first miracle—turning water into wine as he attended the wedding at Cana clear across the country. He was there with his disciples, his mother, and his friends. But the next thing on his agenda was this religious obligation in Jerusalem. Jesus already knew that decades later people would find God in the Temple of their hearts because the physical Temple would be destroyed.  He was right. In 70 A.D., 50 years after his Passover visit, the Temple was destroyed. After all these centuries, it has never been rebuilt. But the Western Wall of the Temple is still there, in Jerusalem today.  It is a most Holy site for Jews; they believe it is the closest they can get to God.  So they come, and bow, and pray, and wail at the wall, as if it were the Temple.  That’s how important the Temple was to Jews. On top of Jesus being a Jew, he was also standing up for his Father’s house. In fact, in Mark’s gospel he says, “Is it not written that my Father’s house shall be a house of prayer for all nations?”  I’m focusing on these details so you can compare their way of getting close to God, and our ways. The Temple had a number of courts—areas where people could gather. The Holy of Holies was a place only a High Priest could enter by lot once a year. Next to it was the Court of the Priests, and priests could get that close to God. Outside of it was the Court of the Israelites, and all Jewish men could get that close to God but no closer. Outside of that was the Court of the Women, and all Jewish women could get that close to God but no closer. And then there was the outer court: the Court of the Gentiles was created for non-Jews.  It was reserved for any seekers after God who were curious and wanted to try to get close to God—an admirable cause! Jesus thought so too, perhaps knowing what a task he would have spreading the gospel into all the world. So he came to the Temple and guess what? All the vendors were hawking their wares, changing money, and selling animals in the Court of the Gentiles, not outside the Temple where selling properly took place. It was a loud and raucous time: men bargained with one another, animals bleating or squawking, and cue lines stretching around the Temple. How could anyone hear the still small voice of God with noise like that in God’s house? So that’s why Jesus had to make a statement, and a strong one. People always have the need—and the right—to be in prayer with God! But Jesus was just one man among many merchants; he had to be quick and decisive.  If he had just asked them to move their tables, how might the merchants have ganged up on him? So he was startling and decisive in an act called the “Cleansing of the Temple.” He reclaimed the Temple, including the Court of the Gentiles, for God and not for merchants.

 

Today how fortunate we are as Christians! Jesus said “Tear down this Temple and in three days I will raise it up!” I tell all my Bible students to take the Bible seriously but not always literally and this is a perfect example. Jesus was not talking about rebuilding the temple made of stone. He was talking about what would happen three days after his death; he would rise, and his body would be the Temple.

 

Now two thousand years later, people have heard Jesus knocking on the door of their hearts, and they have let him in. As our Apostle’s Creed study points out, if we let Jesus in, we have let God in. Into where? Into “the temple of our heart,” as the hymn puts it that we will soon sing.  What a privilege we have! God is not up there past Alpha Centauri! God is not two thousand years in the past! God is here; available. And if you have already invited God (or Jesus—same power) into your heart, then God’s mighty power and mighty Spirit are there for you. But: are they under-used, just sitting on the bench of your heart? Are they like a racecar with the clutch pushed in? Let out the clutch, so God can work with you and through you! Otherwise, life is like trying to push a long screw into a piece of wood with a battery operated drill …without the battery! Put in the battery to live a God-honoring life!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 4, 2018

02-25-18 WORDS OF JESUS THAT SHAKE US

WORDS OF JESUS THAT SHAKE US

Mark 8: 31-38

 

The Psalmist in chapter 118: declares “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Oh, will we? Will we be glad in this day if deaths occur, or if a son or daughter is in trouble at school, or if a dear friend is in an auto accident? Will we rejoice when a half a dozen people in our area, just in the last month, died of opioid addiction? Will those in later years rejoice as their hearing, their eyesight, or their mind starts to fade?  Author Josephine Robertson, in her book Meditations for Later Years, writes this: “Sometimes we have days which we wish the Lord hadn’t made, days when things go wrong, when energy is low, when physical aches and old griefs occur.  Far from ‘rejoicing,’ we can identify better with the Psalmist’s cry of despair, ‘ The waters are coming into my soul.’” [Abingdon Press, 1974, p. 22]  Last week we recalled that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit—that is by God. That must have been a hard time. We then looked at Jesus’ wilderness testing and temptation. Jesus was fully human and fully divine according to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, (and based heavily on John chapter one.) Maybe so, but Jesus seems to set aside any ability to save himself in the wilderness; his full mortality was on display. Was he tired at the end of 40 days? Most likely. Was he hungry? Certainly. But in our text today, he was back on his game; he was finally in tune with his Father’s plan. But being in tune and cluing other into it were two different things. Nevertheless he jumped in, telling disciples that he would undergo great suffering, be rejected, be killed, and rise again (meaning come back to life.) What temptations did Jesus still have at this point in his life? Was his divine self sure, and his human self unsure about his future? Can you imagine Jesus being on the fence about anything? Let’s re-imagine the next scene:  Simon Peter, who sometimes acted before he thought, took Jesus aside to try to fill him with his own human agenda! “No!” Peter might have said. “I’ll be your body guard!” And his words might have dangled the temptation for Jesus to eject from the heavenly plan before him. Like a fighter pilot finding his or her plane heading toward the ground and ejecting with a parachute, Peter was offering a parachute to Jesus—a  caring but misguided effort. Still, I wonder if Jesus was tempted, for a moment, to say “yes” to Peter’s offer. Then he remembered the plan—heaven’s plan—when he gave his sharp retort. He said, “Get behind me Satan!”   Author of the book Courageous Faith, the Rev. Emily Heath, has an insightful comment here:

The Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter is ha-satan, which doesn’t mean devil at all. It’s not ever a proper name, really. It  means, “the accuser” or “the adversary.” Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is the devil incarnate; Peter is being an adversary. He is standing between Jesus and God’s plan….Almost all of us know what it’s like to have an adversary that keeps us from truly being a disciple. It might be an actual person,…[but more often] we call our adversaries by different names: doubt; fear; pride, addiction, hatred, greed, insecurity, and a million others. They may not be the devil we hear about from fundamentalist pulpits, but they have just as much potential to stand between you and God’s plan.

 

In my wilderness times, I can recall hearing the voices of my adversaries saying: “You can’t finish!” “You should throw in the towel!” “What if you fail?” “You just don’t have what it takes.” Sometimes my adversaries were people I leaned on for guidance: sometimes adults spoke their opinion to me, but other times it was my friends. As a teenager and beyond, I put a lot of stock in my friend’s words. And sometimes, in hindsight, they were my stumbling blocks. When I built up the nerve to tell my parents I felt called to go into the ministry, there was no parade, no cheering section, no “Thanks be to God.” They said. “Hmmm. That’s a hard life.” And with that I had to say “Get behind me Satan” to those comments. (I didn’t say it out loud!) How might you have been thrown off track over the years by well-meaning friends, coaches, or mentors whose words put a wet blanket over your Spirit-soaring plans?  In hindsight, were they right in advising you, or were they a stumbling block for God’s plan? Did you retort, like Jesus did, or did you walk away, troubled or defeated?  You see, the adversary is also the adversary of God. We can find that acted out in a biblical play called Job. The adversary, no matter who embodies one in your life, whispers “hopeless” in your ear when God says “hope;” “death” in your ear when God says “life; whispers “doubt” when God says “faith;” whispers “be afraid” when God says “fear not.” Too often our human insecurities cause us to listen to the wrong still, small voice. We listen to the carnal voice instead of the heavenly one. And we can let those voices cripple us, when Jesus is telling us “take up your pallet and walk.”

 

Perhaps in my examples you have pictured some people in your life who have been adversaries or accusers. They are not Satan, capital s. But they can stand in the way of your potential or of God’s plans whether you are 8 or 18 or 80.  So many voices can fill our heads. But who wants to treat finding the voice of God like a “Where’s Waldo?” picture? No. We will need to weigh the adversarial voices with perspective, listening to a neutral voice: a counselor, a pastor, an objective friend, or to God in prayer. The time I was left in a hospital for my health at age two, I called out for my parents: “Mommy, Daddy, Mommy, Daddy!” Little did I know that they were saving me, not abandoning me. Sometimes we go through deep water, and it is necessary. Trusting God to be a good parent, like my parents were to me, can make the question “Who can I trust?” a little easier.  Listen to these words:

Two of the most powerful metaphors used by mystics over time are the cloud of unknowing and the dark night. The cloud, as immortalized in The Cloud of Unknowing, envelops you with mist and fog and renders all your attempts to “know” God (in a mental, cognitive sense) ultimately useless. Meanwhile the dark night, as explained by John of the Cross, can visit you more than once….The experiences of darkness, of the cloud, of unknowing, of radical letting-go, may tempt you to abandon your spiritual journey—to retreat into cynicism, into despair, or even ego-driven fantasy. The best safeguard against this derailing of your spiritual journey is continual prayer.  [The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Hampton Roads, VA. 2010, pp. 238-240.]

 

Adversaries are all around us, sometimes taking the roll of friends, like Peter was to Jesus. Sometimes well-meaning comments can drown out the voice of God. In turn, we can choose not to be a stumbling block to others either. In Jesus’ future was a cross, so we could have a ride one day on the celestial railway. We do not want an adversary to derail that train.

 

Jesus had a cross to bear, and, if we follow him, we may have one too. I’ll close with these words from Thomas a Kempis:

It is not in the nature of [humanity] to bear the cross, to love the cross, to buffet the body and bring it into servitude, to bear insults willingly, to despise oneself and desire to be despised; to bear any adversities and losses, and to long for no prosperity in this world. If you look to yourself, you will not be able to do any of this; but if you trust in the Lord, strength will be given to you from heaven …. But you shall not fear your enemy, the devil, if you have been armed by faith and marked by the cross of Christ.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 25, 2018

02-18-18 DEALING WITH WILDERNESS

DEALING WITH WILDERNESS

Mark 1: 9-15

 

Today I am glad to examine Mark’s version of Jesus’ being in the wilderness. Instead of going into extensive discussions brought on by Matthew’s version, regarding the tempter, and bread, and the temple, or Luke’s version that has similar details, today we are told that the Spirit—that means God, by the way—drove Jesus into the wilderness where he faced certain darkness, hunger, and images or voices that sounded evil.

If that is the case, could it be that God also drives us, or allows us, to enter places that seem like a wilderness compared to the life we had been living? Could the wilderness be a way to refine and harden our mettle—m-e-t-t-l-e, which is “a person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or face demanding situations in a spirited and resilient way?”  Could God actually be intending to strengthen us for what is ahead in life, instead of trying to break us down? Jesus did not just stumble into the wilderness; he was made to go into it by the Spirit. His initiation into ministry, almost still dripping from his baptism, included being dropped by God into the deep end of the pool.  It was his wilderness, and today we’ll explore ours.

 

As the world was watching the Olympics this past week, stories of valor and strength have abounded, but so have stories of struggle and testing. Olympic skater Scott Hamilton told the story of being diagnosed with testicular cancer, and then being treated for 4 cancerous tumors in his brain. When he learned the news, he was reminded of his own mother’s struggle with cancer 20 years earlier, and he said his fear of it was unbelievable. But then he said, “You know, it’s a really weird thing, my fear was replaced with a sense of determination, like I wanted back on the ice and I didn’t want this to be the end, but the beginning of something else.” And so it was. Because of cancer, Scott met the woman who would become his wife in 2002.  “Because of cancer,” he said joyfully, I met my wife, I became a father, and it’s like none of that would have happened without cancer. I look at every one of these things and say there’s always something on the other side if we choose for that.” Over time, Scott and Tracy made another choice: While Traci was helping out in Haiti after the hurricanes, she fell in love with two Haitian children and she and Scott decide to adopt them: 11 year old Evelyne, and her 13 year old brother, John Paul. They brought them to their home in Nashville, Tennessee. And it all was started by a time in the wilderness with cancer. What a test. Scott concluded in his interview: I think we are designed for struggle; we’re more in touch with who we are as individuals in the struggle more than in the good fortune.”

 

What might your wilderness be?  Here’s another one. In his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, writer and professor Belden C. Lane wrote about his wilderness. With all the geography described in the book, his wilderness was a mother’s diagnosed illness. He put it this way:

First, you weep. The starting point for many things in grief, at the place where endings seem so absolute….When my mother was diagnosed with bone cancer, she was given six months to live.  It seemed like such a sudden and abrupt ending, so inarguable. But she was eighty years old and signs of Alzheimer’s disease had already begun to appear….In the coming weeks I would travel with her through surgery, radiation treatments, and the painful experience of being uprooted from her house and placed in a nursing home. Roles were reversed, as I (am only child, the last of my family) became mother to my mother, wondering at midlife who would be left to mother me. It was an experience of discovering an unlikely grace in a grotesque landscape of feeding tubes and bed restraints, wheelchairs and diapers, nausea and incontinence.  [Oxford University Press, NY, 1998, p. 25]

 

That wilderness was made up of beeping monitors, tubes and a mother who wets her pants. It seemed heinous, wrong, and testing. It is so foreign to the pulled-together and otherwise obliviously grace filled people we were before the wilderness. In that wilderness, grooming gets done sporadically; eating is often from vending machines, with bad coffee, and public restrooms. What a wilderness. What is yours? Surely, instead of thinking of the desert outside of Jerusalem as the wilderness you can think of your own. Some wildernesses will surprise you, test you, and if you will let them, teach you.

 

Here’s another: Award winning author Karen Armstrong, who wrote more than a dozen books including The History of God, and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, says her wilderness was, surprisingly, in a convent. She left her wilderness and wrote about it in a book called The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Listen to her words:

[I’m telling] the story of my seven years as a Roman Catholic nun. I entered my convent in 1962 when I was seventeen years old. It was entirely my own decision. My family was not particularly devout, and my parents were horrified when I told them I had a religious vocation. They thought, quite correctly it turned out, that I was far too young to make such a momentous choice…. I wanted to find God….And because I was seventeen, I imagined this would happen pretty quickly. Very soon I would become a wise and enlightened woman, all passion spent. God would no longer be a remote, shadowy reality but a vibrant presence in my life….At the end of nine months, we receive the habit and began two years [as a noviate.] This was a particularly testing time, and we were often told that if we did not find it almost unbearable, we were not trying hard enough. [Anchor Books, NY, 2004, pp. vii, viii, xiii.]

She cried almost daily over three of those years. Later she left her place of testing. One commentator put it this way: “After 7 brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English Literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her….Her deep solitude and a terrifying illness—diagnosed only years later as epilepsy—marked her forever as an outsider….What she found, in learning, thinking, and in writing about other religions was an ecstasy and a transcendence she had never felt [before.]” [Back cover of the book.]  She had come through what she said was a wilderness of testing, and when she came out if it, she was different. She became the gifted writer who is still changing the world with her words.

 

How would you word your story about a wilderness time? Or might God be preparing you for such a time? Wilderness places mold us in a cauldron of testing. The wilderness of testing may be a casino to a gambler, a shopping mall to an obsessive spender, or a school to one being bullied or feeling isolated. What are the events that have tested you, ones that have made you who you are today? And what might still be in store for you ahead? Remember the story I said at the beginning, of the Spirit taking Jesus, practically dripping wet from his baptism, and dropping him in the deep end of the pool Mark calls “the wilderness?” It was a desert outside of Jerusalem. Remember this: in that pool God was the lifeguard, nearby and watching. In that desert, God sent angels to assist Jesus as he can do for us. God is not far away or absent in our trials; God is with us in all the dangers and temptations of life. Perhaps today you will join me in now believing that tests and wilderness times are to strengthen us, not to break us. May God’s angels minister to you as you endure your wilderness times.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           February 18, 2018