11-08-20 ABOUT THOSE WHO HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP


1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18

In a time when the year has been like no other; in a time when the presidential election has been like no other, some may want to join the writers of spirituals and go to “Glory Land,” or join songwriter Albert E. Brumley in proclaiming “I’ll Fly Away.” There have always been times in history when groups of people endured terrible hardships on this earth, and they long for Heaven. But Christians have been taught by Christ that “The Kingdom of God is within you,” Luke 17: 20-21) but it will come in its fullness at Christ’s second coming. Did you know that Leo Tolstoy, the famous author of the book, Crime and Punishment, wrote Christian books too? One was, Where Love is, There is God Also; and another was appropriately titled The Kingdom of God is Within You. It was first published in Germany because it was banned in Russia. It is about our call to offer universal, unconditional love to others: something our world—and certainly our nation—need very badly. It was also Jesus’ own message: for Christians to lead the way “for the facing of this hour” by showing love toward others. It is that kind of love that can transform our world, making hearts of stone begin to beat again. But our desire may be to pull the covers over our heads, or to cloister ourselves from the onslaught of news and election analysis. Christ calls us to pray, to love one another; and to look for the next opportunity we may have to change the world, one person at a time. Yes, we have a rising pandemic; yes we have unrest; and yes some souls may be troubled. Today, with the reading of scripture and the gathering together for worship, we hope to lead you to sing, as we just sang, “It is Well with My Soul.” Next week we will hear the solo: “How Great Thou Art” that includes this verse: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow, in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘my God how great Thou art.’” Today, however, we go to the passage that has reassured some and puzzled others for ages: 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. The last verse of “It is Well With My Soul” proclaims this hope: “And Lord, hast the day when my faith shall be sight; the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul.” Today, as we have been reminded that we cannot will the Lord to hast the day of our flight to heaven, let’s explore this passage that has been at the heart of human hopes for ages.

Paul says: we do not want you to be uninformed … about those who have died so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” [vs. 13] First, your Bible might say, “those who have fallen asleep;” that actually is what this text said, but it is just a euphemism for death, just as some choose to say “passed away” instead of “died.” The translators of the NRSV chose to use the word describing what actually happened—died—to make readers sure of the reference. In society, people often allude to death without saying death, which can lead children to confusion. “If he’s asleep, then he’ll wake up!” they might conclude. Even the Apostles’ Creed, from the 4th Century, declared that Jesus “descended into Hell;” or “descended unto the dead.” One of the main reasons to say that was to declare that Jesus had really died, not just fallen into unconsciousness. The other inference was that he went to the place of suffering because of the sins of humanity, not because of his own sins. And then after three days, “he arose from the dead,” he did not just “awake from sleep.” So “died” is a word of both reality and clarity. Paul refers to that in verse 14 saying: “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” It is much clearer to say, since we believe Jesus died and arose, so God will bring those who also died instead of those who have “fallen asleep.” It’s more clear and more reassuring. That is blessed assurance indeed. Then Paul says in verse 15: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord: we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.” Here again we are assured that Paul is talking about being alive as we normally do: as living, breathing persons. It is not a division between people who are spiritually alive or spiritually dead. He is talking to a group of Christians in Thessalonica, in his earliest letter: he certainly assumes they are spiritually alive as they are physically alive! But the crystal-clear New Testament scholar, William Barclay, gives readers valuable insights into the reason for these reassurances. Listen:
The idea of the Second Coming had brought another problem to the people of Thessalonica. They were expecting it very soon; they fully expected to be themselves alive when it came, but they were worried about those Christians who had died. They could not be sure that those who had already died would share the glory of that day which was soon to come. Paul’s answer is that there will be one glory for those who have died and for those who survive.
[Daily Study Bible Series; The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975, pp 202-203]

So what does that mean for today? If you have a Christian loved one who has died, when Christ returns, he will take them and those who are still alive up into the clouds to join him! What a wonderful message! Let’s read more as Paul describes what he expects to happen: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” You can see how many hymn writers refer to this powerful description in their lyrics! The Lord will descend—come down from heaven again to earth—at a certain signal, a signal that was familiar to readers of the Old Testament and to those who attended Temple worship: Perhaps our Lord’s cry of command will be, “It is time!” But according to the Bible, only the Father knows the time when that will happen, and he will pass that time on to his Son. So the signal is given, to alert the world, and the archangel-who is a Chief Messenger-passes the word, and the trumpet-that announces the presence of God at Temple events-is blown; and then what Paul described will occur. People have asked me over the years what Paul meant by “The dead will rise first.” You know what it means now, don’t you? It means Christians who were dead and buried will rise up first, then Paul says, “And we who are alive (remember, that means physically alive) who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” So yes, those who have died rise first, but I don’t believe the physical bodies will come out of graves, since Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:50: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” So it is spiritual bodies that rise, and likely those who are alive will offer up their spiritual body to join Jesus in the clouds and be transported to heaven. The only bodily resurrection on record is that of our Lord; when the women went to anoint his body, it was gone. He later appeared back on earth in miraculous transformation.

So let me try to be clear in this case: This was a situation in time around 55 AD when Paul wrote these words. They thought Jesus would return in their lifetime. He didn’t. So does that mean our loved ones who have died, and are still in their graves or in their “returned to dust” forms, are still waiting for heaven? This calls for interpretation of what the Bible alludes to but doesn’t say:
I think that now, when we die, our physical bodies return to the ground—or to the dust from which they were created—and our spiritual bodies are drawn up to heaven. Otherwise the greatest Christians through the ages—including your loved ones and my loved ones—have not yet gone to heaven! Is that comforting news? I cannot buy that. I believe that our Lord will welcome us—in the air, or at the gates or somewhere in between—and gently walk us over to the other side. He will not accompany our broken, wrinkled, or painfully physical bodies, but our renewed spiritual selves. In spite of bumper stickers that assert: “In case of rapture, this car will be driverless,” I do not believe that God’s grand plan includes car wrecks and plane crashes. No physical corpses—or living bodies—will rise up. But you will rise, in your essence, as your spiritual self.

Finally, listen to more of what Paul says: he was really on a roll when he was writing to the Thessalonians and later the Corinthians. Here is part of his master work from 1 Corinthians 15:51 and the following:
Lo! I tell you a mystery! We shall not all sleep [remember, that means die,] but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable [imperishable means not mortal with its weaknesses and illnesses]. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable; and this mortal nature must put on immortality. .,[When that happens] “death is swallowed up in victory.”

That is what our victory in Christ is all about. Keep the faith; hold fast to hope, and in God’s time you will see your Savior Jesus! And oh, what a meeting that will be!

Let us pray: O Creator God: we are glad for the power you have given Jesus to save and deliver us. We are also glad for faithful people like Paul who explained this great mystery to the best of his ability. Now comfort us with these words, we pray, in the name of Jesus our Savior. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 1, 2020

11-01-20 GLIMPSING GLORY


Revelation 7: 9-17

Unbelievably at one point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was talking to his disciples and declared: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [18:3] If I say to any of my grandsons, “You can’t believe what’s in this bag!” they will absolutely say back to me, “Let me see!” It is such a natural thing to say. Sometimes wanting to see inside something, like a box, has gotten the human race in trouble according to the Greek legend of Pandora’s Box. Originally it was just a storage jar, but like other stories over the years it’s gotten stretched or changed, and now we know the story as being about a box, and someone really wanting to see what was inside. But once the box was plundered and the contents discovered, the discoverer was cursed with unexpectedly bad troubles. Sometimes, even with human nature, it is hard to say no to a mystery! As we draw closer to Christmas, let me ask you: was there ever a time you really wanted a gift; hoped you’d get it, and the week before Christmas, you saw presents beautifully wrapped with name tags, sitting under your Christmas tree? And did you, when you thought no one was looking, actually try to lift the box; or shake the box; or see if a corner of the wrapping paper might let go enough for you to peak inside? Doing that was nerve wracking- oops; I said that like I’ve done it before!  I think Jesus knows the ways of a child, and even the ways of adults. The intense desire is to look inside some special box, or to gently tear open a special gift; or to pull back a curtain to see what is behind it. The presumption of the game show “Let’s Make a Deal,” is that everyone is anxious to see behind curtain number 1, curtain number 2, and curtain number 3. It is fun at home to guess which curtain has the big deal, and which curtain might have a ZONK! But if you are the contestant, how would you choose? Would you choose a favorite number like the number of children you have? Or would you choose with some kind of “eeny-meeny-miney-mo” kind of guessing game? What people know for sure, is that suspense dissipates once what is behind the curtain is revealed. While you are still guessing, you are intently focused, considering your options. The game show creators knew people would come back day after day to be tantalized with another “big deal of the day!” It is our human nature.

Many years after Jesus left the earth—perhaps as many as 60 years—we believe that Jesus shared a glimpse of glory with John in a book that we call “The Revelation.” After Jesus had ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, Hebrews 12: 2 tells us he was seated “at the right hand of the throne of God.” Such a description is a description of honor more than of location. To sit at one’s right hand was considered the seat of “blessing, honor, glory, and power.” And that’s where Jesus sat because he had those qualities, the same qualities that God has. He was robed in white for purity, and he was called “the Lamb” because an unblemished lamb was the requirement at Passover for the forgiveness of the sins of Israel for that year. But this scene in Revelation is not a history lesson. This is Jesus—knowing human nature and the nature of children—pulling back the curtain between earth and heaven just a bit; just enough to entice us; enough to reassure us; and enough so that we would be connected with mystic sweet communion to those already there, those who have “come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” [7:14] Goodness! Even a glimpse of glory tells us things are very different in Heaven. In heaven, but not on earth, you can wash clothes in blood and they come out white! Imagine! And people were not looking for seats like they do on earth; there they stood; they stood, around the throne of God, with elders, and four living creatures—that represent the corners of the earth—and they sang, like our quartet sang today. The Bible says the words were: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” [7:12] Jesus hopes that we will want to be in that number when the saints go marching in. Jesus hopes that letting us peek behind the curtain might urge us to continue participating in this game called life. And later, Jesus pulls back the curtain again to John in Revelation 21 and 22. There he says the city of God—New Jerusalem—has high gates—12 of them—that are never closed. On the gates are 12 pearls. The city has 12 angels, and it is bejeweled with all the precious stones of the earth and, Jesus describes enticingly that the streets are made of pure gold. That’s what Revelation 21:21 says; it’s not some kind of gold plate, but 24 K gold! How practical is that? Doesn’t matter; the rules are different in heaven. But some don’t actually read Revelation to see what it says; they just hear rumors from others about what heaven might be like. For example, the story is told of a very wealthy man who knew his time to leave this earth was coming near. He had been a church goer, but he always wanted to be prepared for any circumstance. So his instruction was to bury him with 2 gold bricks, not enough to break out the bottom of the casket, but so if he went to the bad place he could perhaps bargain his way out, and if he went to the good place, well, it wouldn’t hurt. By the grace of God when he died, he indeed was whisked to the Pearly Gates carrying his gold bricks, where St. Peter met him. Peter started laughing, and he laughed some more. “What’s so funny?” The man asked. “Look at the roads” Peter replied gesturing. “You brought pavement to heaven! The streets are already paved with it!”

Read your Bible, even Revelation, with a little help from a teacher or a preacher or a good guide. Then you will have a glimpse of the backstage tour that invites your excitement about heaven well before your departure! Today, we will keep in our hearts those we love who are already walking on streets of gold.

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 1, 2020

10-25-20 THE NURSE’S METAPHOR


1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8

My specific text for today is 1 Thessalonians 2: 7 – “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Can you imagine Paul, with all his strength and tenacity, feeling like a caring mother or a gentle nurse he “gives birth” to many churches along his journey? Is that too much of a stretch? There are a number of images of God caring for creation and creatures and people in such a fashion. But Paul? Yes. Addressing that text in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury wrote:
O St. Paul, where is he who was called the nurse of the faithful, caressing his sons? Who is that affectionate mother who declares everywhere that she is in labour for her sons? Sweet nurse, sweet mother, who are the sons you are in labour with, and nurse, but that whom by teach the faith of Christ you bear and instruct? [Quoted by Beverly Roberts Gaventa]

As we have been supporting Commissioned Pastor Tobias Caskey to be come an ordained minister, for years he has had the permission of our Session to run a ministry he called “Solutions By-The-Sea.” Included in that ministry have been church services and ministries to 170 men and family members. This year Tobias and I talked about the possibility of that group to apply to become what is called a “1001 Worshipping Community.” The group gained that status, and just in the last couple of months our Presbytery named it as a New Church Development; it will be called the New Corinthians Worshipping Community. I told Tobias I felt like a midwife, as the church Westminster By-The-Sea was, in a matter of speaking, giving birth to a new infant church.

Professor Beverly Roberts Gaventa served at Princeton Theological Seminary and now is Distinguished Professor of New Testament interpretation at Baylor University. In response to the words of Anselm that I just shared, she wrote:
“For over half my life, I have been engaged in studying and teaching the many letters of Paul. In that time I have heard of Paul called many things—many, many things. I have never heard anyone speak of Paul as ‘Mother.’” But she started digging, especially in this text, and she wrote an entire book called Our Mother St. Paul, describing the many ways he gently taught, or nursed along, young Christians and young congregations. [Beverly, Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother St. Paul: excerpted in the “Princeton Seminary Bulletin (Vol XVII, 1, 1996, 29-44.
Today, I brought a receiving blanket to show to the children, telling them about the welcome nurses or midwives give to newborns for their comfort and warmth, as they wrap them lovingly into soft warmth. The babies are usually nursed, by breast or by bottle, by the mother as part of the bond she will build with her child. But for a while, most rooms for babies have subdued lighting, soft music or white noise, pastel colors, and comforting characters. That kind of care is an attempt to give babies a sense of security. We have four grandsons between the ages of 8 and 5, and they are active boys all day long. But at bedtime, they love to cuddle with mom, or with dad, as a story is read to them; and in the morning they love to curl up under a blanket as they wake up. In other words, they still yearn for the gentleness that was introduced to them when they were babies, even without an actual memory of their early days. At the other end of life, people may get the comfort of gentle Hospice nurses. Each time I have visited a congregation member in a Hospice room in Port Orange, or Edgewater, I have noticed several things: aromatherapy; soft music; pictures of loved ones; herbal teas (if they enjoy that,) or ice cream if they prefer that. In between the beginning of life and the end of life, there are loud noises, news stories, sometimes conflict, often worries about money, maybe safety issues, and relationships with family members and friends. It is a harsh world between the beginning and the end. Even hospitals can be harsh with monitors and buzzers that flash and sound. But nurses- female and male; doctors: female and male; and chaplains: female and male, attempt to attend to and sooth patients in distress. When we are in the world, we may have to fend for ourselves as adults. Some have a partner; some don’t. For those who have a partner, is that person caring and attentive, or not? Some children have two parents present; some don’t. But even if they do, are they caring; are the attentive? Seeking shelter from life’s storms is a natural thing to do.
Paul the apostle is forced to defend himself from accusations of being too autocratic, so he gives some self-disclosure statements to let them in on his life. He reminds them that he had “been shamefully treated in Philippi.” [verse 2] He says, “we had courage in our God in spite of great opposition.” Sometimes just hearing what a parent, a spouse, or a boss has gone through the days before our encounter with them helps us appreciate all they are doing on our behalf. Paul chooses to tell the Thessalonians about his toils and strife so they can understand, as the saying goes “where he’s coming from.” Paul was accused of creating his message to please people. There are many preachers around today who do the same, seeing a congregation as an audience to please for the sake of attendance, numbers, and offerings. But Paul speaks up against that charge. “We speak the message of the gospel “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” [verse 4]. How do you make important decisions? To always include a desire to please God, rather than exclude God from the equation, will bode well for you in life. Again, Paul believes he must defend himself from murmurings or charges, saying “As you know, and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery; [which sometimes happens in some churches, businesses, or homes] or with pretext for greed [which also leads to roads that seem to glitter like gold but turn into a mirage as one gets closer.] nor did we seek praise from mortals. [verse 5] Although it is quite natural to seek praise or approval, Paul is claiming his motivation was not because of that, but to preach the gospel. Motives matter. In a town in which Mary Ann and I once lived, we had recently moved into our home. We didn’t yet know many neighbors, but a young couple with a child stopped by, welcomed us, and invited us to dinner that weekend. “How nice!” we thought. It was going very well until they took us into a room after the meal and began telling us about their business, which was a multi-level marketing scheme. “As a young pastor,” they said to me, “you can’t make much money. Wouldn’t you like to get rich?” they asked with eagerness. Well that was the last time we had dinner with them. See, we thought their motive was friendship, but instead we were potentially part of their financial plan. Paul had to make clear that his motives were pure; to teach the gospel, start churches, and welcome young believers in Christ and to share the gospel with them.

Think back, if you can, to times that you read Bible stories to your children or your grandchildren. That was a time that you brought God’s message to them! Mary Ann and I offer lessons to boys and girls in our Sunday morning Sunday School Zoom class. One family sent a picture of their boys, sitting at their TV screen listening us teach and telling us stories back! That picture is on our church Facebook page this week. Sometimes the way to spread the gospel safely is to use the technology at hand. If you have led a youth group over the years, you may not know the people you influenced in their life. My father was a busy businessman, but he still made time to teach young adults in Sunday School classes. I just watched him come home from a week in the office, and on Saturdays he would pull out his Bible and his Sunday School material to prepare. He didn’t have to say “yes,” to the request to teach. But his doing so affected many, and it caused me to testify to his wonderful devotion in those years. What examples come to your mind? As our children were growing, they were part of a church Children’s Choir that taught them not only the songs like “Jesus Loves Me,” not only the hymns, but also stories in musicals based on the life of Jonah, the life of Zerubbabel, and the lives of Timothy, Silas, and Paul to name a few. Some of my worship friends have joined me in making Bible Stories come to life by volunteering in our Vacation Bible School during summers. They too have made an impact in the lives of young Christians. Well done.

So this week, think about opportunities to gently offer the Bible to others, with a devotional or with words. Think back on the times that might have slipped from your mind, and recall those who you too have mentored, people of any age. The church needs her volunteers who step up to feed, or sing, or teach, or serve. You join a great crowd of witnesses who have done the same before you.
Listen to how God speaks to us through the Bible in the book of Hosea:
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” [11:3-4]

Have you ever thought of God like that? What a comfort; go and do likewise.
Let us pray:
O God: although you are strong, you are also tender. Sometimes we need your strength, and other times we need your tenderness. Offer us what we need in these times of noise and chaos, in the name of Jesus who we know had times of joy and times of weeping. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 25, 2020

10-18-20 LET THE WORD OF THE LORD SOUND FORTH


Exodus 33: 12-23; 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10

You may or may not have noticed that this month I have taken you on a bit of a journey, something of a distraction from the world as it is now. We visited Philippi, though we didn’t learn too much about it since Paul was in prison there! But before being in prison, he went to a synagogue, where he brought the Word of the Lord to them, but later the location for the writing of his letter to the Philippians was a prison. In prison he wrote a powerful poem about Christ that to this day is a model of Christianity: service; thinking of others; and grounding oneself in the Lordship of Christ. It is magnificent, and it was written in confinement. During times of trial, or persecution, or tribulation, pressures like the ones the earth put on coal over time can create a magnificent diamond. And after his magnificent poem, Paul’s final message was one of joy! Amazing! What a man Paul was! What travels he took; what hardships he endured. This month we will go with him along the Via Egnatia—a road Mary Ann and I have been on as we too traveled from Philippi to Thessalonica—a road that Paul himself traveled. Paul always addressed the issues of the cities where his readers were living. What do you know about Thessalonica? Professor Abraham Smith of Andover Newton Theological School tells us this:
In Paul’s time Thessalonica was part of the vast Roman Empire. When the city, named for Alexander’s half-sister Thessaloniki, was founded in 316 BCE, one of Alexander’s generals (Cassander) was its first benefactor….The city was a commercial and cultic center…With the construction of the Via Egnatia (Rome’s gateway to its eastern colonies) in 130 BCE, Thessalonica benefited from the traffic of travelers and became a key trading center in the region. … The inhabitants of Thessalonica actively cultivate the beneficence of the Romans….By the time Paul visited [there,] [in 41-54 CE,] the Thessalonians had already erected a statue of Augustus as one of several honors to the Romans. [The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000, p. 675,677]

So not unlike cities in America, there were statues of governmental figures, but also of great classical figures. The people’s income was enhanced as people traveled through the city, some staying several days, some deciding to make it their home. We will spend four weeks on this short but meaningful letter that Paul wrote. Let’s see what we can learn that will help us in 2020.

The first thing to note is that contrary to some characterizations, Paul was not traveling alone. Travel can be so enhanced if it can be done with someone else, not only for companionship but also for safety. Paul said he was with Silas and Timothy as he wrote to the Thessalonians. Paul had actually sent Timothy ahead of his arrival, to encourage the young congregation, and Timothy returned to Corinth, where Paul was, to report on their faith and loyalty. It was then, from Corinth, that Paul wrote this letter. Even though the church was just being established, Paul addresses his letter “To the church of the Thessalonians in God, the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace.” Like a diplomat who learns the ways of the territory to which he is assigned, Paul knew the congregation included both Gentiles and Jews. The greeting for Gentiles was “Grace;” the greeting from Jews was “Peace” (Shalom). Therefore, his greeting included both! Also, a common saying in the political realm of the day was that Rome offered “Peace and security” often called the “Pax Romana.” It meant “if you pay your taxes and don’t cause trouble, there will be peace.” Even that makes sense in our day! Paul then offered words of gratitude similar to ones Mary Ann and I have said to our Zoom Prayer group: “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.” [vs.2] I think across our troubled nation now, and realize there are countless prayer groups with team leaders who offer words like that; word that uplift those who feel downtrodden. This encouragement is one of the underpinnings of the church through the ages, even as they, and we, are meeting in homes. Across the miles, Paul’s encouragement could be felt as the words were read. In his letter to the Thessalonians, we get a clue about things Paul was considering. Listen to what he writes: I am “constantly remembering before God your work of faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” [1:3] did you hear it? Paul’s famous First Corinthians 13 words of “faith, hope, and love” were still being offered! Today we would do well not to forget that trinity of human qualities. Paul later referred to those words as “the community’s weaponry for the eschatological battle [which is the battle in the last days]: the false peace of the Roman Empire will be shattered by the coming of the Day of the Lord” that is when faith, hope, and love truly prevail. [Professor Annette Weissenrieder, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011 p.185.] All this month we will revisit Paul’s grappling with the idea of the “Day of the Lord,” usually equated with the return of Christ. This letter encourages readers to live an “apocalyptic way of life,” meaning that we should always live as if the Lord is returning soon; get our spiritual houses in order; and make sure our hearts are right with God. That is the way for Christians to live. Even as I am aware of the terrible devastation in Louisiana a week ago, I recall the message traditionally spread throughout New Orleans around Mardi Gras time, when people are encouraged to get all their sinning done by midnight, the day before Ash Wednesday, the day when sinning was supposed to cease. I doubt that is the way God wants us to live: to carry out debauchery for weeks leading up to a Carnivale-like blow out, then make the 10 Commandments law again? And yet every year that still happens. Such a dichotomy is almost like getting ready for the day of the Lord except we don’t know the day or the hour when it will come. It is not a day on the calendar. In verse six, note the hint of Paul’s warning: “In spite of persecution you received the word with joy.” He hits the joy note he shared in Philippians 4, but more importantly, the word translated in our Bibles as “persecution” is also translated “tribulation.” Tribulation, to many believers, is a sign that God is present and has not shut the holy eyes to sin or evil. God is still with the Thessalonians and with us, even though the human proclivity is to “laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints” as Billy Joel put it, continuing to test our choices. Let those who have ears, here.

The second thing to note is the response of the Thessalonians in the midst of the same temptations that we might have. According to verse 9, Paul wrote, “They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” What gladness fills the heart of Paul after hearing that! The comparisons between statues made of stone depicting false gods, and the difference between counting on the living and true God is apparent. We think such times are gone but think again. People in our world still have superstitions that they practice, non-living idols that sit on bedside tables or kitchen counters from which people ask for favors. Some pray that way for rain; others for fortune; others for a child. They decide that God is too slow with a response or too invisible so they pray to gods they can see. The warning of such folly goes back not only to Mardi Gras activities, they go back to a scene at the foot of the holy mountain of Sinai. Our first lesson was about God blessing Moses by giving him a glimpse of God’s glory, and a promise to go with him. But one chapter earlier, while Moses was on the mountain with God, Moses’ brother Aaron had a restless and impatient crowd to contend with at the foot of the mountain. This is the old, old story of some honoring the one true God, and others turning to false gods and idols. Here’s what happened in Exodus 32: “When the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us.” It was likely a scene like that which brought Paul to say: “You turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God.” What pulls you away from the true God? Is it allegiance to sporting events, or national patriotism, or to popular figures? God knows what following any of those paths look like instead of putting the one true God first. You may think that comparison is overstated. But listen to Paul’s final words for today. Verse 10 [You turned to the “true God and to … his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus who rescues us from the wrath that is to come.” Rescues us. I wonder if hymnwriter Fanny Crosby might have had this passage in mind when she implored other Christians to “Rescue the Perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave? Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen, tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save!” That is the Word of the Lord sounding forth! It is calling people back from the brink of darkness, back from the glitter of temptations; back from the love of money, following gods and idols that will fail them! This is the call of Paul; the commendation of Paul; and it is a call for us too! The Word of the Lord is true and pure and should be shared with all who are lost or in darkness. Certainly, there are groups in our world that distribute Bibles: the Gideons, Campus Crusade for Christ, and others. But Paul brings the Word out of the Bibles and into actions. Let’s conclude with his commendation in verse 8 to the Thessalonians; “The Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, …in every place your faith in God has become known.” Bloodhounds have an amazing ability to get the scent of a person from his or her clothing, and then follow the trail where those persons have traveled. Think about what trail you have left in the world, not of a scent, but of evidence that you have witnessed to your Lord there. If some angel were sent from heaven to earth, not yet knowing of your Christian actions, could that angel find the trail of your Christian activity? Try to leave evidence, and a witness, that you have passed by, and that by doing so, others will know where you stand, and on what you stand: Christ, the solid rock.
Let me close with the last stanza of our next hymn:
When he shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in him be found
dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.

Please join in singing this affirmation of Christian Faith.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 18, 2020

10-11-20 PAUL’S WORDS OF GOLD


Philippians 4: 1-9

I plan my sermons three times a year. In August I planned my September through December sermons, and I decided to include this passage … on joy … in the midst of a pandemic. My own emotions have been wrung out since March; I am still riding the “roller coaster of bad news and worse news;” I am still on the “tunnel of darkness” ride; and I have ridden the “tilt-a-whirl of the political Mixmaster” that still turns my stomach. As I go on the carousel of health announcements and political announcements, I feel like I see the same tired scenes around and around, over and over. 2020 is the amusement park of darkness. There has been nothing like it. Some have likened wearing a mask to being in prison. That, it seems, overstates the confinements of a mask. But I do know a man who was put in actual prison, and his response was uplifting that I believe it could help us today. His name was Paul. Like with any passage, we do well to read what is around a passage too. We can’t tell just from verses 1-9 that Paul was writing them in prison while awaiting trial, but he was. Can we tell just from this passage that there were conflicts in the Philippian congregation? There were. But, on the other hand, you can perhaps tell the fondness Paul had for them. And what an example he set! He tells them he is under military guard. He tells them, in magnificent poetic form, about the humility of Christ, describing him with these words: “Who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited so he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being truly human.” [Philippians 2: 6,7] I have seen pictures of the inside of some monasteries, and also pictures of caves where some early Church Fathers’ dwelled. They almost always have a crucifix inside them: an image of our bleeding Savior in anguish from pain. The oblates or Church Fathers or Mothers would see or visit that scene daily, sometimes more than once. Remembering the humble actions of their Lord—taking the nails for their sake and going through austere anguish—was a reminder to live in humbleness. Some religious leaders, over the years and even today, live in multimillion-dollar mansions! Some live in veritable castles, gilded with gold! What a far cry from a stable, or Nazareth, or Paul in prison! In chapter 3, Paul invites others to imitate him; he is the closest thing they have to Christ. They, and we, are surrounded by god-like athletes, leaders who want to be treated as infallible, and prosperity gospel messages that have driven the celestial railway off its rails. We, like the Philippians, are asked to act like Paul instead: humbled; lowly. Great Christians were imprisoned for their Christian stands too, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Corrie Ten Boom and Betsy Ten Boom. This letter to Philippian Christians captures so many qualities that we should embrace, while we cast off the qualities that embrace the seven deadly sins of extreme pride, greed lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, or sloth. Here Christian are reminded to embrace a wonderful quality: rejoicing! Can you believe it? Rejoicing! You may say “In the midst of Covid; in this darn election year; as I am so limited in my activity, am supposed to rejoice?” But, I have known people—Christians—who rejoiced every day. Rejoicing changes one’s mood, releasing endorphins as we smile or laugh. Right now days are long; nights are longer. I don’t know the faith of the late folk singer Pete Seeger, but I enjoyed, and was sometimes challenged, by his messages in songs. But one I remember always puts a smile on my face. The words were these: “I get up each morning, dust off my wits, open the paper, read the obits; if I’m not there, I know I’m not dead, so I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed! How do I know my youth is all spent? My get up and go, has got up and went, but in spite of it all I’m able to grin, and think of the places my get up has been!” That song always brings me joy. Banjo music almost always makes me smile! Pictures of my grandsons bring me joy, and when I get to be with them again, that will bring me joy too! What brings you joy? If this were December, I would name all the carols that have the word, “joy” in them! I would remind you of those holy word the angel said to shepherds, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born, this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you!” That child was born to save you, and to save others who put their hand in his! Joy!

So Paul wrote these famous words: “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’ Writing things twice is done for emphasis. And he says something amazing, written in a prison cell: “Have no anxiety about anything.” If he can say that and practice it, can’t we? He continues “but by prayer and supplication [remember supplication is that kind of prayer asking God to supply your needs.] with thanksgiving! [Never forget to give thanks.] let your requests be made known to God. [What if we do that?] Then the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” What a win for us when we do that! What joy God feels when we have joy! I once found a perfect Christian wedding day card that included Philippians 4:4 on it. But inside the card, here was the wish: “May you always rejoice in life, rejoice in love, and rejoice in the Lord.” I love it! I bought all the cards they had and gave them out to my wedding couples until they were gone. This passage—Philippians 4—I actually use in many weddings, offering them to the couple who look like royalty before me: “Whatever is true whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned, and received, and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.”

It is hard to improve on Paul’s brilliantly thought-out words in Philippians. After exhorting his readers to “Rejoice in the Lord,” he reassures them; “the God of peace will go with you.” In a time like this, we need our God of peace to be with us. But a heart filled with overpowering anxiety can hardly “prepare him room.”
In his book for lovers of god everywhere [sic,] roger housden includes poems by Christian Mystics. About Mechtild of Magdeburg he describes: her “spiraling way of ascent to the Beloved and beyond….By His will, she is filled with love, from which grows knowledge.” [California: Hay House Inc. 2009, p. 165.]
Listen to her joy in this poetic prayer to her Lord:
I cannot dance, O Lord,
Unless you lead me.
If You wish me to leap joyfully,
Let me see You dance and sing—

 Then I will leap into Love—
And from Love into Knowledge,
And from Knowledge into the Harvest,
      That sweetest Fruit beyond human sense.

There I will stay with You, whirling.

Let us pray:
Lord of the Dance; Lord of Love; Lord of Joy: help us find those words, those events, and those memories that bring us joy, helping us to truly rejoice in life, rejoice in love, and rejoice in you, our Lord. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 11, 2020

10-04-20 PURSUING THE PRIZE


Philippians 3: 4b-14

In 2008, the Chaplain of St. Peter’s House Church in Manchester, England wrote:
People come to faith in Jesus Christ in many ways. For Bill W., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and for many others, faith came through shame, intense struggle, and depression. In Philippians 3 the story of conversion that Paul tells is different. He is no individual wracked by guilt and sin who finds redemption and release in Jesus Christ. Paul was a proud Pharisee, blameless under the law (not convicted by the law.) His past was and still could be an asset to him, not an embarrassment or an exercise in frustration or despair. It was God acting in Jesus Christ, not his experience as a Pharisee, that changed the way Paul regarded his life and all creation…. Paul has “come to regard” his previous religious life as loss (verse 7);…. Jesus “did not regard” equality with God as something to exploit. (2:6) The Philippians are to regard others as better than themselves … because of Christ.
[Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Ed. 2011, Westminster/John Knox Press. Year A, Volume 4, p. 137.]

There are some people in our world who, because of psychological proclivity, absolutely cannot not think of others better than themselves. Can you? I try to do that. I try to surround myself, professionally and personally, with persons who have skill sets I don’t have. I compliment them; I rely on them; I appreciate them. Thinking about people in that matter reminds us that we are all in this thing called “life” together. As the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, “You are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it. ”The church—which is known as the Body of Christ—needs to remember that. “The body does not consist of one member, but many” Paul wrote. In our divided nation now, it may be hard to imagine how Christians can come together in Communion. But Holy Communion has no regard for political party, or race, or gender, or income. And the communion of saints includes those who are on earth and those who have gone before us! Holy Communion calls us to remember the words of Philippians 3, echoed in the hymn we will sing in a few minutes: “My richest gain I count but loss; and pour contempt on all my pride.” That is a Christian stance. If only more people in our world would pour contempt on all their pride; pride, one of the seven deadly sins. Pride-thinking of oneself as clearly better than others; that kind of pride; not the “I’m proud of my grandson” kind of pride. That’s different.

Have you ever been asked to write the highlights of your life? Not a resume per se. Facebook likes people to add in where they are from, what schools they attended, and what degrees they achieved. But I’ve also learned even more about a person by reading their obituary! I have also seen people write the details of their life so their children would know things they otherwise might not know. My cousin had completed a 400 page genealogy on just my maternal grandmother’s side of the family! I’ve learned so much about people I have seen over the years but didn’t know many details of their life. Why? Because most people find it boastful to only speak of their accomplishments. There are exceptions. It’s almost a shame that the time we learn most about our parents or friends, or other relatives, is when we read an obituary. The Christian way, according to Paul, and of course Jesus, is quite different from boasting. “Jesus said, “I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” As Paul would say, paraphrased in the hymn we will sing today: “my richest gain I count but loss; and pour contempt on all my pride.” In Paul’s day there were plenty of games going on, Olympic type games, so being a man of his times, Paul uses athletic images. He is “straining forward to what lies ahead.” He says: “I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ.” The upward call is not trampling others to get to the top of the holy hill; the upward call is reaching others, assisting them, giving them a safe place to land, mentoring; cheering them on.

One other note: Paul was a master communicator. He used rhetoric, a Greco-Roman communication for argument and discourse. Many places in the world still communicate through rhetoric. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is written in rhetorical style. But many in our day communicate through social media. Take Twitter, for instance. Jill Crainshaw, Associate Professor and Academic Dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, wrote:
After appearing on the technological scene in 2006 as a computer designer’s side project, Twitter has transformed the landscape of Internet communication. What makes Twitter unique is that chatters, or “tweeters” are allowed only 140 characters to speak their minds, share a joke, comment on the news, or report their morning breakfast choices (all of which happen simultaneously on Twitter). People who “tweet” have to make every word count. [Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 138.]

Preachers and politicians; teachers and tech workers communicate best in the methods of their day. Charles Dickens was paid by the word to write his books, and so he wrote long books to make his living! Jesus communicated with parables, a natural teaching method in his day. Paul was in Rome and Asia Minor, communicating in the ways that his listeners expected! Clever Paul, being a bit of a name dropper, reminds his listeners of his credentials: he was circumcised on the eighth day (which is the correct day for in in the Jewish tradition); he was of the people of Israel and on the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews. He includes all that before he says we should count all our accomplishments as loss because of Christ as Lord! That is saying something. None of our diplomas, or civil organizations, or ratings on social media will give us eternal life; only through believing in Jesus as Lord is that assured. And for those who believe in him, he prepared a table once in an Upper Room, and he has prepared a table again. Imagine people coming to the table in Florida, and Michigan, and New Jersey; in Canada, England, and South Korea; in Ghana, and South Africa, and Australia. All across the world we have people gathering at their tables. With all of our different languages, our different skin colors, our different cultures, we still are made one in our belief that Jesus is Lord! He wants to feed us; he wants to bless us; and he wants to send us forth to change places from darkness to light.

In the final scene of the film “Places in the Heart,” the people of the community are all in church; some who had cheated others; some had taken from others; some who had lost others to death. One couple, where there had been infidelity, served each other communion; a mothers served her child; the gossips in town received communion; the banker served himself and drank before sharing the tray with his neighbor. “Peace of God” others said as they passed the tray to their neighbor. And then the tray is passed to the man of color, played by Danny Glover, who helped bring in the first load of cotton for the widow, Mrs. Spaulding. What is he doing in a Texas church in the 1950s? The viewer is surprised. He said he was leaving town, and the Klan had done their worst to make him leave. But there he was, receiving the peace of God. The blind man received communion, one who became a great help to the Spaulding family after beginning as a hindrance. Finally, the elements were passed to the Spaulding children; the young son passed it to his mother, who to the surprise of the viewer, passed it to her husband, the one who was shot by a drunk teenage boy of color. It was an accident; but it happened. Yet he was receiving communion! And then, then he passes the body and blood of Christ to the young black man who had shot him, but now he was in a suit, and cleaned up. “Peace of God” he says to the young man. “Peace of God” the young man says back to the sheriff he had shot. And the scene fades. Who might be receiving communion with you this day?
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 4, 2020

09-27-20 ACTIONS MATTER

ACTIONS MATTER
Matthew 21: 23-32

Have you heard people say, “I don’t go to church. They’re all a bunch of hypocrites there.” A hypocrite is someone who acts the part he or she is trying to play, in this case, a Christian. On Greek stages “hypocrites” were actors, playing a part; putting on a mask. Jesus called the chief priests and pharisees “hypocrites.” Might Jesus call any of us “hypocrites?” Might he call some religious leaders of our day, and some political leaders, “hypocrites?” It is a horrible term; it means you are a person of no integrity unless you are playing a part on stage. It means that both children and adults can see that your actions don’t match your words. It is like recognizing a liar. Those who best determine those who are hypocrites are those who watch them. We become frauds when we say one thing but do another. For example, Jesus gave his followers this imperative: “feed the hungry,” yet some Christians don’t. Or at least not in ways that outsiders can see! Don Hughes, one of the early directors of Halifax Urban Ministries, taught me to try to feed hungry people through feeding programs where there is a centralized check on a person’s visits. Before HUM, our Port Orange/ Daytona Beach Shores churches had an unofficial phone tree, where secretaries would call neighboring churches if a person or family stopped by for help. “Oh, they’ve been here” one church replied. “We already helped them,” another replied. “You did?” we would reply. “They said they hadn’t gotten any help!” Likewise, I once saw a man standing at the exit of a shopping center with a sign saying “Help! Homeless; in need.” But as I watched, something startled him; maybe a police officer. he folded his cardboard sign, walked a block away to a decent car, and drove away. These are examples of why we don’t just hand food out of car windows. Still, we try not to be hypocrites; we try to see that our money goes as far as it can. Last week we had to cancel our food drive due to a Nor’easter of wind and rain, but Mary Ann and I are still holding on to $20 worth of food we will be offering; others are holding their food for our next drive too. It has been said that we can set a better example with our life than with our lips. People watch what we do. Words flow freely in an election year. Watch the actions of political figures, then see if they line up with their words. Otherwise, there are hypocrites in our midst. Mark Twain once said, “Politicians are like diapers, they need to be changed, and often, and for the same reasons.” Quite a satirist! Twain also said, “It’s not the things in the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the things I do understand.” This parable bothers people. Pharisees had fallen into the trap of not acknowledging Jesus’ authority. “They correctly identify which son does what his father wants, then they are denounced for playing the role of the disobedient son. As religious leaders, they claim to be faithfully obedient to God, but they are blind to the fact that authentic obedience includes responding in faith to the new things God is doing.” [Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993, p. 247] They had heard about John the Baptist, yet they rejected his authority. It seems that even prostitutes and tax collectors changed their minds about God when they heard John. John cried out for repentance. The Pharisees, in so many words, said whenever they decided that they needed to repent, they would. John said the time is now. They said they didn’t think so. Known sinners were ashamed to face God; but when the Word was preached in just the right way, on just the right day, they did repent and come to God. Jesus’ wake-up call can startle us! We need to not only talk, talk, talk; we need to walk, walk, walk. How are we doing? Let’s consider that message today.

First, most people in churches believe Jesus was sent to save the world. A smaller number live their lives as if he is they personal Savior too. Everyone who has joined a church should have answered a question like I ask: “Who is your Lord and Savior?” If he is, the Christian responds “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” The shortest and perhaps oldest Christian declaration was “Jesus is Lord.” 1 Corinthians 12:3 and Romans 10:9. Will someone know you are a Christian without hearing you say it? Will they know you are a Christian by your love? We have to dispel the “hypocrite” label! Let your actions speak louder than your words. Let them see Christ in you.

Second, keep promises. Some make promises to God and some make them to others. Keeping promises is what God does; do that God thing too. In this political season, wouldn’t it be wonderful to choose a candidate whose positions you support, but also one who keeps his, or her promises? That’s a sign of integrity. Today’s parable reminds us of people who say one thing but do another. That happens in families too. Do we want children who A) Say they will do a chore but then do not do it; B) say they won’t do a chore and do it; or C) say they’ll do a chore and actually do it! Did you notice we didn’t get to pick child C in Jesus’ parable? We could only pick from child A and child B! We got to pick between two who were not our first choice! In both cases in the parable there is incongruity between what the son says and what the son does. Which is most like you? Type A? Type B? Or, dare I ask: Type C? If you know the right answer but are not living the right answer, Jesus whispers “tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom before you.” It is better to know you are living wrong and respond with ways to live right. And it is best to know what is right, and then to do it. That’s the gold standard. In Antioch, according to Acts 11: 26, followers of “The Way” were first called “Christians.” We can either carry on the great tradition, or we can turn it into hollow examples.

If we promise to provide oversight to young children as they grow in faith, and then we don’t follow through, get ready for the label: hypocrite. But if you provide good oversight, get ready for a different label: mentor. If you say you will attend a sports or music event or play for a child or grandchild, and then you don’t, they will never forget your absence. Your promise begins to mean nothing. My grandsons have learned they can count on what I say, but if I get their attention and say, “I promise,” they know they especially know. Leaders gain respect by keeping promises.

If you take today’s parable out of context, you may dismiss it, saying that neither son did the will of his father. But remember not to take these parables flat-footed. What if we replace the first son with the tax collectors and harlots? They did not respond to God’s call for faithfulness at first, but later they did, and they went. At first they said “I will not go” but later, they repented and went. That’s the key; sometimes we just need to repent and go for God! But the Pharisees said they would serve the Lord, yet they got sidetracked with the laws and the trappings of their religion. Ironically, they correctly named the “son” who did the will of the father: the first son, yet they were not doing what the first son did. The measure of a man—or a woman—is staying on track with what we promise. If we do not, children do not trust us, and adults call us “hypocrite.” Even a “hypocrite” can still call us that name; it may seem unfair, but Christians are held to a higher standard. Some people believe that any good person can get into heaven. But if we are Christian and claim that right, we are on display constantly. We are walking billboards for Christ.
Let me close with these words of encouragement that I heard years ago:
I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do.
And what I ought to do, I will do, by the grace and strength of God.
Be honest; say what you mean; mean what you say; do what you say you will do. Actions speak louder than words, but words, supported by actions, speak volumes.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 27, 2020

09-20-20 LETTING GOD BE GOD

LETTING GOD BE GOD
Matthew 20: 1-16

If you didn’t get to see my Children’s Message today because you are receiving this message by mail, I’ll tell you of its point. I made an agreement with our worship team, saying I needed them to be in the sanctuary at a certain time. Three of them were there on time, and so I gave them each a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The others came in later, but I still had candy so I gave them each one too! They too are my friends! The ones ready on time got the deal I told them about; the second ones got more than they expected. But the ones on time were not happy that I gave the same candy to the others. Matthew tells us words that people repeat again and again even today: sometimes “the last shall be first, and the first last.” In potluck fellowship dinners before Covid, we often had people arrive early. They chose the table they wanted and waited for others to gather. They eyed the plates of food as people brought them in and placed them on the buffet table. As they eyed the food they wanted, an emcee called people to attention, asked me to offer a prayer, and then—surprise—she called tables either at random or on her own whim, and the table where the first people sat was not first. Was there resentment? Was there a cry of “unfair?” Or did they say, “It’s just dinner.” Issues of fairness and the grace of the giver are at odds in this parable. Here’s another example. When I was applying to colleges my A- average in high school and my SAT and ACT grades produced no scholarships for me. So my college tuition was $4500 a year- no scholarship. My Dad sat with me and said he had to save some money for my three other siblings to attend college too, but he would pay half the cost each year, and I was expected to pay for the rest. So each summer I came home and worked at Six Flags Over Mid-America for $1.70 and hour, and was our church Assistant Custodian for $2.35 an hour. During the school year, I applied to be and became the Head Waiter at Mary Ann’ sorority, and that kept my fraternity expenses down! But I heard how many fraternity brothers were at college on scholarships: some from in state, some from other states. Their costs were much less than mine. Still, it never occurred to me to dwell on that. There was an agreement for tuition I had, and an agreement that others received. When my own children went to University of Florida, they earned what are called Bright Futures Scholarships, which made their tuition zero or nearly zero. The big expense then was housing, but they learned, and I learned, how many others paid the full in-state tuition, some paid out of state tuition, and some attend for free on athletic scholarships. This is how the world works. There are agreements, and there are gifts.

Now, let’s turn the screws a little tighter. Years ago, there were some people of color who were invited to attend places of higher education through grants called Affirmative Action. Some Anglo persons felt offended because the others attended for less money and perhaps even lower qualifications. To some it was a gift; to others it was an outrage. I remember a cry went up among those in my parent’s circle of friends who resented it. But like my college tuition, I paid what my college said was the tuition. College Boards and Administrators decided who to invite from other states, or from other religious or cultural backgrounds. My deal was an agreement; a tuition amount. Their offer to attend was more like a gift. I think a reason Jesus tells us this parable is to name situations when we feel slighted; to name situations when others feel slighted, and to help us deal with our feelings regarding an agreement from a boss, a school, or a parent, and a gift any of those persons offer.
In this time of heightened awareness of how people of color are treated at traffic stops or even in their own apartment, I looked back over my life. These days I am more aware of my privilege as a white male. In the three traffic stops in my life, I was nervous about getting a ticket, but never nervous about losing my life. I was shocked to learn the parents of black teenagers have to give their sons “the talk,” not about sex, but about how to react when they are pulled over in a traffic stop. We live in such different realities because of the color of our skin. In the time our daughter was getting ready to accept her call to ministry and then put on the mantle of “Chaplain,” I learned how differently she was treated as a woman in ministry. Even now, she has some people ask for a male chaplain, and she gets one for them. I’ve never had someone ask for a different pastor, or different teacher! But this truly happened to me: when I was being tested for ministry in the Presbytery of Arkansas, I had over 40 minutes of questions put to me, much longer than anyone else. I learned later it was not because I was a white male, but because I was a Yankee from Princeton Seminary. The Secretary in my first church in Arkansas told me she had never met an actual Yankee ‘till she met me! And that was my welcome to ministry! I only know my own experiences; I really don’t truly know what it is like to be female in America, or an LGBT or Q person, or a person of color in America. My feeling is, people like me: male, white- could easily be asked to work at 5:00 p.m. and be given the same wage as the crack of dawn laborers. In Arkansas my congregation taught me that when I was bringing up uncomfortable topics from the pulpit, that I was “meddling.” Today I’m meddling. I think as I see our world, my Bible call me to “meddle.” People are reacting to issues of agreement and of grace in intense ways. But it is not new. The book of Genesis is filled with favoritism and human reactions.

Mary Ann suggested that we watch a movie two weeks ago called “The Green Book.” I knew nothing about it, but I’ve learned to trust my librarian wife’s recommendations. What a phenomenal film. It is based on the true story of a black man named Don Shirley. He was highly educated, getting degrees from the Catholic University of America, and from St. Petersburg Conservatory. As a cultured concert pianist and composer living in New York City and being treated as a treasure, he decided to have his manager arrange a tour to the deep south to perform. That was in 1962! He was wise enough to know he’d need a good, strong, protector/driver to take him from concert to concert. He chose an Italian American named Tony, who had street smarts but no higher education. Tony was given “The Green Book” as they set out, but Dr. Shirley had no idea what was really in store during their journey. Tony could have accommodations wherever he chose along the way; and Tony could eat wherever he chose along the way, but Dr. Shirley, the featured performer, could not eat at the venues that invited him; he could not use the restroom at venues that invited him; and he could not stay in the decent hotels where Tony could stay. He had to stay in flophouses for “Negros” listed in “The Green Book.” The full name of the book was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” listing recommended places for people of color to eat and stay. The carte blanche that was given to Tony, and that were withheld from Dr. Shirley, the featured artist, was eye-opening. The film was not without controversy: family members of Dr. Shirley said all depictions were not accurate, but my point is this: if ever there was a black man who was not treated fairly, whose contract had no asterisks about accommodations, here is one example. But he is not the only example. Sometimes there are groups in our nation that can get better treatment as the 5:00 p.m. arriver (metaphorically speaking) than others who have worked hard for the same … or less. A Harvard Study published in December of 2018 concluded that the “Gender Wage Gap” was wider than we thought, with women only earning half the income of men in the same positions. I’ve never been in that situation. And I keep trying to step into the shoes of “the others.” Jesus did that all the time. I suspect he was trying to reach people like me, and perhaps people like you, when he told this parable.

Last Tuesday a story in the Orlando Sentinel intrigued me. A Central Florida man of color was jogging in his Deltona neighborhood when he was detained by a Volusia County Sheriff’s deputy saying he matched the description of a burglary suspect. He was suddenly surrounded by deputies. The man, after being detained, was told he was no longer a suspect, and was released. All were safe. But it occurred to me: I used to walk at night for my exercise, with a dark jacket and ball cap and headphones on through two subdivisions. I mean night: 9:00 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mary Ann finally told me to stop, thinking I might get mugged. Neither of us thought I might be identified as a suspect for something. But why not? Sheriff Chitwood turned a bad situation into a good one: he invited the black man to participate in the department’s bias training series. My mind went back to the 2016 Brock Turner case, a 19-year-old white male who assaulted a 22 year old female while she was unconscious. He was indicted on five charges and convicted on three felonies. For his heinous acts, he served just 3 months in jail.

What must it be like to be “the other?” The one who is treated differently? How do you feel when others seem to get treatment that you have not gotten, either because of money, or influence, or skin color, or gender? There are people in this very congregation who went from a white-collar world of privilege to getting up every morning at 4 am to be at the labor pool, shoveling rocks, along with others, for $40.00 a day. It can happen; It does happen. Many people say, “There but by the grace of God go I.” But does that imply that God withholds hold grace from others, but has chosen to make you feel blessed? It’s worth pondering as our Christian heart call us to see people as “children of God,” and not as “those others.” Some say Jesus offered this parable to describe how the Jews who were following Jesus were treated as favored, while Gentiles who chose to follow Jesus had to prove their devotion. Even Peter and Paul wrestled with how to welcome Gentiles who wanted to follow “The Way.” How will you react when God sheds extra grace, even amazing grace, on someone else instead of on you? We can give thanks for grace, but we should not expect it. God gets to do whatever God chooses to do! That’s God’s job description! “I Am Who I Am!” Let God be God.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 20, 2020

09-13-20 THE QUESTION ABOUT FORGIVENESS


Genesis 50: 15-21; Matthew 18:21-25

There are pockets of people in our nation today who are seething with anger; some are angry because justice no longer seems to happen like an ever-flowing stream. Lady Justice—the supposed moral force in judicial systems, the one who is blindfolded, indicating no partiality, who holds a balancing scale, and a sword—doesn’t seem to be consulted in the courts of public opinion. People cry out from polarized corners, believing that their cries are unheard and their pain is not acknowledged. Therefore, we are wounding ourselves again and again in our nation that is busy keeping score of wrongs. And those who keep score often move to destruction and then to an action with a terrible R word: Retaliation. In the 1960s marches by John Lewis and others, those freedom marchers lived by words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But today, we are not, as a nation, at the threshold of forgiveness: forgiving those who shot men; forgiving those who created anarchy; forgiving those who beat others. And justice is not rolling down like mighty waters. We are, instead, in a cauldron of anger in a number of cities. Today I want to identify how caustic anger destroys, and how forgiveness can be an answer for healing.

You may have heard the story of the young man who lost his temper often. His father came up with a way for him to visualize how much his anger affected others. “I want you to do something for me,’ his father said. “Every time you lash out at someone in anger, I want you to go out to our back fence and hammer the biggest nail you can find into it. At the end of the month, we’ll talk again.” The boy agreed. At the end of the month, the two went into the back yard to look at the fence; it had more than a dozen large nails driven into it. The father said, “Now have you made amends with any of those people; told any of them that you are sorry?” The son brightened up. “Yeah, I sure have!” (clearly thinking that an apology would make everything all right again.) The father said, “Okay, now for every situation that you asked for forgiveness and said you were sorry, pull out a nail.” Nine of the fourteen nails came out, leaving deep holes in the fence. “You see, son,” the father said, “even if you ask for forgiveness and say you are sorry, the holes are still there. The wood is now more susceptible to rot and decay. The fence is never good as new again; with putty and new paint it may look as good as new, but it is never put back as you found it. That’s the way with people you hurt; the scars still remain.”

The father was right. Even though Jesus took the nails for us, presenting our repentant souls on the throne of grace just as if we had not sinned, that’s called “Justification.” Forgiveness is different. Clearly somebody has gotten hurt; someone has lost “a pound of flesh” or a pound of something else. A relationship is broken. A new one, hopefully, can be built on verification and promises kept. Today we will hear Jesus’ words and see if we can mend some fences too.

When Peter asked Jesus “How many times must I forgive?” how many times do you think he imagined? I’m wondering if he guessed “7 times” as if it were a magnanimous answer? Yet Jesus multiplied his answer. Did Peter’s eyes get wide as he heard it? There is greater chance for forgiveness between two parties if the injured one believes the request to be forgiven is offer in “good faith” and backed up with actions. If the word, “ Sorry” is offered flippantly or through self-serving motives, little progress toward a bridge can be made. Jesus reminds us through the parable I read today, that if God forgives us our debts, we need to forgive the debts of others! That’s the way he worded his prayer: “Forgive us our debts” we pray to God, “with the same degree as we forgiven our debtors; as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” If we want forgiveness, we need to offer forgiveness. Do you recall what Joseph said to his brothers who were afraid of him since they sold him into slavery? Joseph said to them: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. Relationships were restored through his forgiveness.

Second, forgiveness and wellness are interconnected. Those who walk around carrying a grudge, refusing to forgive, or acting like a walking victim are the ones who grow old with bitterness and isolation. Do you know how much unconscious energy it takes for you to not forgive someone who has hurt you? I remember Mary Ann taking her computer to an Apple store years ago, saying everything was running so slowly, maybe she needed another computer. The good technician said, “Look how many programs you have running in the background! Do you need all of these?” She didn’t, so the tech turned off the unnecessary programs and her computer ran at its normal spread again. If you do not turn off those unforgiven or unrepentant programs in the back of your soul, they will continue to sap energy from your life. Next week our Jewish friends come to Yom Kippur, “The Day of Atonement.” It’s the day they bring the year’s sins to God and ask with full humility, for forgiveness. Can you imagine collecting all your sins and not getting a Holy Word of pardon about it for 12 months? Hear God’s words to us: I will forgive your sins with the same degree that you forgive those who sin against you.” The ball is in your court.

Here is a true story that illustrates our human struggle with forgiveness. The Holocaust was a living nightmare that many survivors have tried to forget, in which 6 million Jews and 5 million gypsies Poles, and other so-called “undesirables” were sent to their deaths. One man who experienced firsthand what hatred could do was Simon Wiesenthal. He spent years, from 1945 until his death, hunting down and bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. His heart burned with torment at not being able to forgive any of them, even those he had not met. In his book called The Sunflower, he tells the story of a young Jewish prisoner taken outside of a Nazi death camp to a make-shift hospital for German soldiers. A nurse sneaks him upstairs to a 21-year-old German young man who is dying and wants to confess—not to a priest, but to a Jew—the horrible crimes he committed as part of the German offensive in Russia. The young man was particularly haunted as he helped to burn alive whole Jewish families and shot Jewish children who ran to escape the flames. Over a period of days, he poured out his heart to the Jewish man and begged for forgiveness. The Jewish prisoner reflected on the words. “Here is a dying man,” he thought to himself, a murderer who did not want to be a murderer who had been made one by the Third Reich’s murderous ideology. He is confessing his crime to a man who perhaps tomorrow night might die at the hands of those same murderers. Yet in his confession is true repentance.” Wiesenthal was that Jewish prisoner. After hearing the last of the young German soldier’s confession and his plea for forgiveness, Wiesenthal himself finally walked out of the room, never to return, without saying a word. In his book, he posed this profound moral question to his readers: “Was my silence at the bedside of a dying Nazi right, or wrong?”
The young soldier died without receiving the peace he hoped to get. He could not just ask God to forgive him. God had sent him to his enemy, a Jew, to ask for forgiveness, and he had not received it. Both were tormented. In the Torah, in the book of Leviticus, this is written, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” yet Wiesenthal couldn’t do it. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount “First be reconciled to your brother.” Instead, a Jewish man lived on and a German soldier died, neither getting the peace of God. Vengeance and justice fueled the rest of Wiesenthal’s life.

Jesus said: “The king … said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

Jesus took the nails for us. He also set the supreme example, as he was hanging from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Pull the nails out of your fence of anguish, and let the holes be filled by the Carpenter from Nazareth. Ask for forgiveness from those you have hurt before you ask for forgiveness from God. And if you are the one being wronged and no apology has come, release the hurt into the cross of Christ. Don’t burn your bridges. God has built a bridge for you and the rest of the human race: it is the crossbar of the cross of Christ. Go to Calvary, and cross the bridge of forgiveness.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 13, 2020

09-06-20 OWE EACH OTHER LOVE


Romans 13: 8-14

As I was growing up, I got the lesson that debt was bad; except for large purchases like a home, I was taught to save for things I wanted to buy. I paid cash for my brand new Schwinn bicycle in 1969: $80. I paid cash for my first car: a 57 Chevy: $250. Even my parents didn’t finance their cars. Certainly, there are times when such actions are impractical or impossible. I had a lesson in college when I was trying to establish my credit rating. I had credit cards from petroleum companies but paid them off monthly. A banker told me, “In order to establish credit, you must take out some credit. You must pay for something over time, even if you can pay for it outright, to show lenders your good faith in paying things back.” What a strange lesson that was, but I learned it. So Paul’s words in Romans confirmed my lifestyle when he said, “Do not owe anyone anything.” But then the other shoe dropped, “Do not owe anyone anything except to love one another.” All these years I had missed that guidance from Paul: that we “owe each other love.” I always thought that love was something that I controlled; I chose who I loved, and who I didn’t. Others chose whether they loved me, or if they didn’t. But digging into my childhood Sunday School, I was reminded of this song:
“We love, because God first loved us! We love, because God first loved us!
We love! We love! We love, because God first loved us.”
Of course! How could I forget what I was taught in Sunday School opening assemblies? God pours love into our hearts; it is a limitless supply, not a limited supply as if we have to limit the love we share, protecting it from running out. It can’t run out! If we limit the love we share, it is self-limiting, not limited by the God who is love. Paul knew that and said it in a unique way: “Do not owe anyone anything except to love one another.” I don’t know about you, but I am a saver. (Almost a hoarder.) That instinct was buried in my soul by grandparents who washed out plastic bags to reuse them and washed off aluminum foil to re-use it. I don’t go that far, but my instinct is to not run out of supplies, especially in this Covid-19 and this hurricane season. So, is my inclination to guard the love I have? I hope not! Why would I guard something that is limitless and lush? Why would I limit what God gives in limitless fashion? Paul tells me love is something I owe to others. Now that computes to me! If I were to ever borrow an item (or rarely money) from someone else, I virtually rush to get it back to them; to pay them back. So now I am told that I owe love to others; and you owe love to others! That is a Christian mandate. That is something we must do! Learning that, it is something I will rush to give. What a helpful way of reframing that we love because God first loved us! I owe it to the Lord not to hoard the love God has given me! I owe it to others to love them! After all, if I, along with other Christians, am the voice, the ears, the arms and the legs of Christ, he is loving the world through me, and through you! Who are we to withhold the love of Christ from others? We owe love to others. But there is a slippery slope: what kind of love do we mean? English just has one word: love. Greek, in which the New Testament was written, has four words, as described in C.S. Lewis’s classic book The Four Loves. They are these:
Storge- when you love someone through fondness or familiarity.
Philia- the love between friends or siblings; “Brotherly love.”
Eros- Romantic love
Agape-Unconditional love. I spoke about that last week.
We do not owe everyone Eros, but could you see loving others through Storge, Philia, or Agape? Agape is the love Paul described in First Corinthians 13, and the love John described in his gospel and first letter. You might recall that Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” That referred to squaring the emotional or financial account with those we harmed or from whom we had taken something, even if it was a piece of their heart. But this is different; we owe people love in addition to owing people our apology and restitution if we have hurt them. Today let’s also remember this: there is one other person we can harm by withholding love: ourselves. By not loving ourselves with the endless flow of unconditional love that God offers, we cannot offer our best selves to others. Sadly, some people filter God’s unconditional love and it becomes a toxic voice in their heads: conditional love. They hear: “You always disappoint me;” or “I can never depend on you,” instead of God’s message to you and me: “You are mine; you are precious to me; precious child, you are mine.” How many incarcerated people spend years trying to turn those toxic voices off in their heads and tune in to the voice of God? Chaplains or friends that understand genuine love can retune the narratives in their heads to Holy messages. But sometimes a person can’t turn off the toxic voices; then in some form, they get to the end of their rope and take their own life. “How tragic,” I say. “How tragic” God says, after having holy help drowned out by human bile. Let’s offer love; true love; unconditional love, love divine; the kind that never runs out. Then find out how freeing Agape is to our souls.

Let us pray:
Dear Lord Jesus: you showed amazing love for all you met. You loved even as you were taken to the cross, and you forgave even those who cried out for your death. As you host our meal today, remind us how powerfully it is a meal of love, prepared by loving hands, offered to others in love. Thank you, dear Lord Jesus, as we prepare our hearts to join you in this Holy Supper. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 6, 2020