Category Archives: Christianity

07-15-18 THE ARK OF THE COVENANT

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT

2 Samuel 6: 1-5

 

Like many of our Vacation Bible School children this week, years ago there was a little boy who attended another VBS where he was taught that God, who was invisible, was always with him.  They boy thought about it as he was being tucked into bed. The night was dark and thunder was clapping outside and lightning flashing. He asked him mother if she would stay with him. “No honey,” I have to get your younger brother ready for bed. But remember: God is with you.” “ Yeah,” the boy said, but I rather have someone with some skin.”

 

All this week the lessons we taught were to secure the belief that no matter what times of trial we face, God will be with us, even if God is invisible. Mary Ann and I were just in Copenhagen as part of our 40th anniversary, and I made a point of going to Soren Kierkegaard plaza, a rather underwhelming place. On the plane over I was reading some of the writings of that famous Danish philosopher.  One poem, likely penned by Kierkegaard, is called “Footprints in the Sand.” A man had a dream and his life flashed across the sky. He noticed two sets of footprints in the sand during most of his life, and believed they were those of the Lord and himself. But he was troubled when during the times in his life that were most difficult, there appeared to be only one set of footprints. So he questioned the Lord about it. The Lord said, “My precious, precious child, I have taught you that I will never abandon your or forsake you. When you saw the one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you.” A line in many hymnals imagines God saying to the singers: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.” That image, and the themes in our VBS stories this week, imagined a person rolling down the rivers of life, facing rapid places, calm places, cold place, and warm places. But many people—including the people of God—did not just float down a river; they crossed a river or other bodies of water.  The salvation event for the Hebrew people was crossing the Red Sea at a place that God made dry, so they could escape slavery.  Moses was God’s chosen leader. Later as Moses grew old during a terribly trying time wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, God created a tag team to cross a different body of water into his promised land. That body of water was the Jordan River. Moses was aloud to see the Promised Land but not cross over into it. That task was handed off to Joshua. Moses blessed him and God commissioned him. So Joshua led others from Mount Nebo across the Jordan River into Caanan to claim God’s promised land.

 

Those people, a bit like the young boy who wanted a God with skin, decided that they wanted to take God with them. But how? They couldn’t look at him; they couldn’t make any graven images of him or carry them in their robes. They decided the one thing they had from God was the Ten Commandments, words that they believed were cut by the finger of God. So the tablets on which the commandments were written became sacred; special; almost like a child’s security blanket for grown ups. They decided that they would feel safer if God traveled with them. And for good measure, they would feel best if God went first! Thus we come to the story of the Ark of the Covenant the details of which are in Second Samuel Chapter 6. Don’t we know what it’s like to want God close to us; God with us? Some believe God is in their Bible, or on a cross in their pocket, or around their neck, or in their sanctuaries or chapels. Today we learn that even in the days of the people of Israel, God was not just in heaven. God was with the chosen people. And later we learn how God dwelled on the earth in Jesus Christ, … and still is with us through the Holy Spirit! So let’s take the idea that God only resides in Heaven and set it aside! Let’s set aside the belief that people can only approach God in churches or cathedrals. Let’s not believe that we can put a memento of God on a knick knack shelf and think it means God is there! We say to our forbears: “We understand why you wanted to try to carry God with you!  But through Jesus God is in the Temple of our hearts!”

 

This morning our sanctuary includes a replica of the Ark of the Covenant; The ark was a moveable box, built to exact specifications according to God’s instructions, that would contain the Commandment tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai from God.  Israelites, and later the Jews, called those Commandments “God’s Law.” God’s people believed that God’s presence was with them when the Ark was in front of their journeys.   This was not a box God lived in; it was an Ark that carried the reminder of God’s presence and protection.  The Bible records that when the chosen people had battles with others, they honored God by keeping God present, not just with the Ark, but also in leather pouches lashed to their foreheads. They believed if they removed their sacred pieces from their bodies, or failed to put the ark in front of their battles, they could be defeated.  In our day those who hear a message and believe it on a Sunday, but live as if they have not heard it on Monday, may struggle to find God’s presence on Tuesday.

 

The Israelites remembered, and put rituals into place, to honor God on the Sabbath: for Jews that’s from sundown Friday until Saturday night. They had times and places for honoring God. If ever they were delivered from a foe, they thanked God for it and erected boulders they called “altars,” or “standing stones,” saying to future generations,  “God delivered us in this place.” How do you remember times when God has delivered or healed you?  Do you have a ritual for remembering and thanking God?

 

The late German Theologian Gerhard von Rad describes “The Tent, the Ark, and the Glory of God” this way:

The tabernacle is not a tent in the full sense of the term….It consisted of a massive frame of boards overlaid with gold ….Here stood the Ark, a rectangular wooden casket, 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ broad, and1 ½ high, which could be carried by means of long poles. [OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY, Harper & Row, 1962, vol. 1, pp. 234-235]

The poles were a very important part of the set up. God had not just picked a place, called it holy, and said, “I will live here; you come to see me here!” No; God said, in effect, “Take me with you; I want to be where you are, and you will certainly want me to be where you are!” That’s why the poles are there. The Ark of the Covenant includes angels on top to indicate the presence of God.  It’s called “the Mercy Seat.” The Ark was not intended to be mainly a shrine for people to travel to visit. It was so God could go with the people. Those who were thinking that God would just live in a tabernacle or a temple were limiting our limitless God! But, as the Jews settled around Jerusalem, they lost their need to travel and escape. So a Temple was eventually built to protect the Ark and invite the faithful to, symbolically, come closer to God. Likewise, even though our world has wonderful sanctuaries, cathedrals, and chapels where people can come for reflection or prayer, they are intended to point to God, be a catalyst for our spiritual lives and lift our drooping heads up! They become destinations in and of themselves. Yes, we can take God with us, in a manner of speaking, as we carry our Bibles, cell phones, crosses, or computers. But the worship of God has always involved a community! Some people say they can worship God on golf courses, in theme parks, or other places. They can; that is, if they set their clubs down, or their fast passes down, move to a corner of the property, gather at least three other people, set up a focal point of an altar, a cross, a bowl of water, or a table, and worship the God who is with them even there!  It takes focus to honor God, not just a glib mention. Or you can go to a house of worship, where others come seeking God and community, and use that time for focused worship. Houses of worship are usually built carefully and prayerfully. In 1 Kings we read about Solomon constructing the Temple of God, a task David was not allowed to do. Solomon believed that it honored God to create a house for God.  But the poles on the Ark should never be forgotten: God always wants to go with us into the world, not be left behind! Scripture tags we hand out to children and youth on our back to school Sunday remind them that God is going with them! An old hymn suggests: “Take the Name of Jesus With You.” But today’s text reminds us also that, through the ages, people have created inspiring places to honor God. That’s good too.  Find the place, find the time, and find the words to honor God. It can happen at church, at home, at work, at play … or at school.  Call on, and praise the Living God! We not only have streams to forge, we also have waters cross. In both activities of life, God will be with us. What joyous and comforting news! Thanks be to our very present God!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           July 15, 2018

 

07-08-18 JESUS ADVISES HIS DISCIPLES

JESUS ADVISES HIS DISCIPLES

Mark 6: 1-13

 

Generally speaking, advice is best sought when needed. Advice is not usually welcomed unsolicited.  “Can I give you some parenting advice?” a mother in law asks her daughter in law.  “Can I give you some financial advice?” a successful investor asks a struggling one.  How many times do we want to answer, “No!” When are people receptive to advice? 1) When they admire the work of another; 2) when they already have established a good relationship; or 3) when they have hit rock bottom or are in a corner, ready to try something new.

 

What we know from today’s text is that the disciples had built at least a fledgling trust in Jesus as one with authority. Some had grown up with him; some had met him and decided to follow him. But they had seen him do wonders, like calming a sea, bringing a girl back to life, and healing a man possessed by demons. He had established some credibility with them. But Jesus was entering a place where everyone had known him “back when.” Back when he was just Mary And Joseph’s son. Back when he and his brothers James, Joses, Judas, and Simon likely did brotherly teasing, and playing, Jesus was known to others. Now grown, he was coming back home.

 

When I was graduating from seminary, people at my home church said, “Why don’t you consider coming back home to be Pastor at the church where you grew up?” The response in my head was “NO!” But what I said was, “People who knew me when, as the church Assistant Janitor, used to clean church bathrooms, polish church pews, and shovel snow from walks, would not see me as their Pastor; nor would the ones who remembered when my friend and I were sent out of my own father’s Sunday School class for misbehaving! We must earn credibility if we are going to give advice. Starting with my childhood burned into people’s minds would have put me twelve steps back. When Jesus went home, Mark recorded in verse 4: “He could do no mighty works there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.”  Like kryptonite was to Superman, his hometown was to Jesus.  He could not do anything like he could do elsewhere. Jesus had a hard row to hoe as he came back into the Galilee, especially around Nazareth.

 

Remember: advice is best sought when needed, but its often not welcomed when offered up by others.  Yes we can get advice in the third person by reading an advice column like Dear Abby or watching a show like Doctor Phil. But when someone wants to give you yourself advice, do you find your shields going up, yourself getting defensive, and wanting to get away? So what do we learn from Jesus today as he comes back to his home?

 

First, the right to advise someone has to be earned. Billy Graham won many more people to Christ once he had some revivals under his belt and some testimonies from people to share.  An unknown Billy Graham had much less power to advise people in their lives than the man he became.  Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart stores, was the quarterback of his high school football team and he was an Eagle Scout. When it was time to consider a career, he took a job with J.C. Penny in Des Moines Iowa and learned all that he could. Several years later he borrowed $25,000—a large sum of money in 1945—to buy his first store: a Ben Franklin 5&10 Store in Newport, Arkansas. Sam thought the chain should have moved more into rural areas the way Family Dollar has done in the last 20 years. But the Ben Franklin management said “no,” so he struck out on his own. Nobody cared about his past credentials when he was growing up. They just wanted a profitable business that met people’s purchasing needs. Sam opened one store in Rogers, Arkansas marketing the store in his own way: meeting customers personally, meeting with workers personally, and meeting with American manufacturers personally. The idea caught fire and one Walmart became the giant business it is today.  He did not instantly have credibility as he went against the advice to stay with Ben Franklin stores. By the way, Ben Franklin went bankrupt in 1997. Sam had to show that his new idea could make money; he had to show manufacturers that they could start production again and make a profit; he had to build the trust of employees, and he did, visiting each one in his famous old red pick-up truck.

 

There are a few stories of people who refused early advice who gained enough credibility to offer advice to others by writing books, run seminars, or post blogs. But if people are going to seek advice from you, you’ll first need to earn the right to offer it; same with me. Basically preachers have, as one of our purposes, teaching the Bible—yes—but also offering advice for life, especially spiritual advice.  When I started here at age 29, I had little “cred” with people seeking guidance—a new guy from the Midwest, with a wife and three little children. The ability for people to seek, and listen to, advice often arrives over time.

 

Second, the right to advise others comes best through establishing relationships.  Jesus fished with his disciples, listened to them, prayed with them, and shared food or lodging they received. He was one of them, but clearly their leader. They were not yet ready to hear him say that one day he would ask them to be willing to lose their lives; but they were connected enough to keep learning and listening. Interestingly, however, Jesus believed they were ready to hear his instructions about exorcisms of all things: casting out demons! Boy, talk about dropping your disciples in the deep end of the pool!  He “gave them authority over unclean spirits.” “But we don’t want authority to do that,” I’d imagine the disciples saying in their heads! Still, he continued to pump them with instructions: “Take only a staff for your journey.” It was a symbol of a shepherd, someone who was not learned, but also not threatening. He went further: he told them what not to bring.  They were just to arrive unannounced on people’s doorsteps! Yes, there are those who witness in our day like that two by two, but rarely do they expect to stay.  Years ago in my first church we did have a touring gospel group stay in our home and the home of other congregation members while they brought their message to us and other congregations. It turned out that they took today’s passage literally and came in a van with almost no fuel, with virtually no money, and no food until they got their next contract!  What a mess that was when they incurred medical bills! So looking back at our text, Jesus did give them authority, but how quickly might they have “worn out their welcome?”  My father would never stay with relatives longer than three days, because he said “visitors, like fish, start to smell after three days!” How long might the disciples have stayed to earn the right to heal someone or advise them? The Bible does not say. But Jesus did give them instructions on how to leave. “If people refuse to hear you, when you leave shake the dust off of your feet as a testimony against them. Hmm. That was not just an act of cleanliness. I once thought it simply meant, “We’ll move on to the next home.” But maybe it means more. My visit with our Holy Land guide Mike four years ago as we traveled around the Holy Land on a bus gave me another thought.  As I was sitting on a seat across from him, I had my legs crossed with the sole of one shoe facing him. “Here’s a useful bit of information in the Middle East,” he said. “Someone who shows the bottom of their shoes to another in conversation is offering a gesture of insult and derision.” My sitting position was saying:  “I do not respect you.” I just thought I was crossing my legs! So perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus words about shaking the dust off of their feet as a testimony against them is more like “we are through with you” then “goodbye.”  What people can learn when they actually visit a different culture! So I made sure to keep the sole of my foot on the floor so I could establish a good relationship with our guide!  Sometimes our motions or gestures carry great power with others.

 

Finally, the only fast-forward way to be able to advise others—besides earning the right to advise, or establishing a relationship to advise, is through a skill set. What that means is I might trust the advice from a mechanic I don’t know if he has the proper training. I might trust the advice of a doctor I don’t know because he has the approval of the medical board.  I might trust the advice of someone to repair my house because they are licensed and insured. Some people these days even check with “Home Advisor” or “Angie’s List” for recommendations! So with a skill set, my willingness to hear and receive advice goes way up. When people need serious counseling, my own belief in the therapists at our Presbyterian Counseling Center has given others the courage to make the call to a counselor they don’t know. And the process of healing can go faster because your relationship with me lets you trust a counselor faster.

Jesus had his obstacles to getting people to listen to him. So do we. For advice, seek those who have earned your trust or with whom you have established a relationship.  Alternatively, you might choose by credentials. Advice is a delicate thing to offer, and to receive. Jesus gave us advice to move forward in life.  I trust Jesus. I invite you to do so as well.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                     July 8, 2018

07-01-18 JESUS HEALS

JESUS HEALS

Mark 5: 21-43

After a stressful trip to cold-war Russia in 1964, Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins developed a debilitating illness which confined him to bed. He was admitted to a hospital for tests and treatments, and diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, (a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine; the joints become inflamed … causing severe, chronic pain and discomfort. In some cases it leads to a permanent stooped posture.) Norman Cousins’ condition deteriorated and he was given a prognosis that was not optimistic at all… He noticed while hospitalized that the depressing routine of hospital life tended to produce side effects that aggravated his condition.

With the blessing of one of his doctors, he checked out of the hospital and into a comfortable (and less expensive) hotel where the food was better. He found a TV channel that ran Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello films daily and he
“religiously” watched them! He added extra Vitamin C to his diet and looked forward to the shows that made him laugh every day! Perhaps by the endorphins released by his laughter, and by feeling less stressed than in a clinical setting, he started to relax. And as he relaxed his condition started to improve, and eventually to subside! He was convince that laughter was a powerful “medicine,” and he wrote about it in his groundbreaking book, Anatomy of an Illness. His findings were also included in the New England Journal of Medicine in the December 23, 1976 issue.

That story is not to say that hospitals aren’t important or that doctors aren’t important: they are important in my view and my experience. But a team of people hold us physical or emotionally; and surroundings that are uplifting can certainly affect our bodies, our minds, coupled with medications as needed can bring us to wholeness.  One more example: during the days in 1987 when I was facing serious burnout, stress, and a dark night of the soul, I put three things in place to move beyond the darkness. The whole remedy was included in my doctoral dissertation, a copy of which is in our church library. But one of the remedies was taking my lunch hours, going home, and watching “The Andy Griffith Show!” Abbott and Costello don’t make me laugh, but Barney and Andy did!  I hadn’t laughed in weeks; and they brought escape and lightness to my burdened soul.  Intensive morning prayer was also part of my remedy. It did not take a hospital, but I was certainly ill in my soul.

My point is that some people who read this passage—of Jesus healing a young girl, and then a woman—will decide this: “Jesus healed then; why doesn’t he heal now? I’ll just ask Jesus to heal me!”  Jesus does heal. But God’s will and the circumstances of life can make some people so broken that recovery is difficult.  On the other hand, some people only call on Jesus for healing, not following medical advice. Homeless advocates will tell us that just prayer and food will not heal those who are mentally ill; they will also need medication and therapy. Another example:  we had the most wonderful woman who worked with children in our church for years—Trudy Jones—and she could not hear out of one ear. She managed, but still had difficulty hearing. When asked why she could not hear, she recounted the story of her mother—a devout Christian Scientist—would only pray for Jesus to heal her daughter, not get medical treatments. So her daughter Trudy suffered a terrible earaches and she lost her hearing in the process.

There are people of some Christian denominations that simply say “pray harder” or “have more faith” when people are found to be sick.  Some do heal; but some don’t.  Perhaps the number of people healed is a similar percentage as those who use a medical doctor,  or even a hospital, and the prayers of a congregation. Sometimes pastors in other churches have told me, “When we pray for a healing, we expect healing from God!  Do you?”  When I was a new pastor I stopped to visit a parishioner in the hospital. At the end of our visit I asked him, “Would you like me to pray with you?” And he said, “If it will make you feel better!”  Goodness!  We need to add in prayers to God, not just for good measure; or because it couldn’t hurt, but because you believe it will change the outcome!

Jesus, in the first century, absolutely healed people. He was so connected to his Heavenly Father, and so devoted in him daily prayers, that he could heal with a word or a touch.  Some people in our day may have great powers to speed healing. But for most of us, a combination of prayer, medicine when appropriate, and common sense will bring about the best result.  I have Type 2 Diabetes. I absolutely believe in prayer, but for my illness I think medication, proper diet, and exercise are needed to control my symptom.  I think praying alone for someone who has diabetes could lead to disastrous results like Trudy Jones losing her hearing.

One final comment: Dr. Larry Dossey, in his book “Healing Words” tells about an experience he allowed when he was managing a hospital. He carried out 10 years of research between prayer and healing. His conclusion: “prayer compliments, but does not take the place of good medicine. In one part of his experience, had had half of the patients on a hospital floor be given the best medical care; the other half got the same excellent medical care, but he had a congregation praying for them every day. The ones bathed in prayer healed faster and more completely.

Yes, Jesus healed in the first century. And yes, there are cases when Jesus heals now. But many cases have shown that prayer plus good physical, or emotional therapy, brings the best results. And yet, there are times when, because of issues that we cannot fully understand, some become too sick or too broken to return to health.  Then we lean on the everlasting love of God—a love that will not let us go—and we begin to move through that loss with the love of others.  On those days of brokenness or sorrow, may that love be sufficient for your needs, as you put one foot in front of the other.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          July 1, 2018

06-24-18 JESUS CALMS

JESUS CALMS
Mark 4: 35-41

Sometimes our culture hears sayings so often that people treat them as gospel. One is “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Tell that to the people who once were filled with faith and lost it over the death of a child. Tell that to people who prayed for protection from storms and received disasters instead. Tell that to the grieving friends of the physical therapist who jumped from the St. Pete/Tampa Skyway bridge to his death this week. “God never gives us more than we can handle.” No; that saying is not helpful. The helpful saying, that is biblical and that will be our theme verse for Vacation Bible School in two weeks is from Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” God and the people of God are with you in times that start to overwhelm you: that matters. It makes a difference. And it rings true. The Bible is filled with metaphors: that is, comparing current reality with what the Kingdom of God is like. As we examine Mark chapter 4 and a situation that happened ages ago on a small body of water called the Sea of Galilee-the time Jesus took disciples in a small boat and began crossing over to the other side—we can learn from it on a number of levels. This event can teach us even today.

There is a popular Christian book written by Evangelical Pastor John Ortberg. It has one of those catchy titles that is making its way into the American lexicon. It is: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. Some of you have read it; some perhaps have that saying on their nightstand or on a bookmark. All of that is fine. But that book has a completely different message from what our text today proposes. Today, the message is: “If You Want the Comfort of Jesus, Stay in the Boat.” Again: “If You Want the Comfort of Jesus, Stay in the Boat.” Outside of the boat, there are storms; and crises; and waves. Even when they are hitting us, smart people huddle close to Jesus. Let’s unpack this idea.

What is a storm you are facing? One that I have faced since the death of my father is not catastrophic, but it has shaken the world of mother and my siblings. I now join my two sisters and brother in monthly rotation regularly going to St. Louis to comfort and be with my mother. She is doing much better now; but a new storm has been brewing: arranging for an estate sale long distance for the belongings in the 4-bedroom house where we lived for fifty years. See? It isn’t Hurricane Matthew stormy, or people without food stormy, or border issues stormy, but storms take many forms. We are now preparing to sell the house we called home for half a century. The storm is sorrow, and uncertainty; it is distance, and throwing away belongings that hold memories. In this analogy that I’m building, the boat is a good congregation like ours. A good boat has a good person in charge. That person is Jesus. In the story, you might have dismissed Jesus because he was in the stern: the back of the boat. But if you know anything about small craft, you know it is from the stern that one steers, or directs the boat! That is the position that a pilot or captain takes in order to steer a small boat! So Jesus was not checked out. He was in the key place to know the boat, steer it, and feel whether or not it was about to swamp. My son-in-law Brian, Jenny’s husband, is a boat captain. I love ships, but I don’t know much about small boats. On Brian’s boat, he is the captain. And no matter how rough the waves are in the channels where he sails, or even as we sail into parts of the Gulf of Mexico, when he takes us there in his small boat, he is the captain, and I trust that we will all be safe, through wind or waves. The waves are outside of the boat! The boat is our life raft. The captain has his reputation on the line and his skills at the ready. With loved ones all in the boat, including his son and his wife, I put my trust in him.

Another storm: when family members on land, sea, or air are in harm’s way. When that happens mothers pray; fathers pray; families hope. Some among us are in that situation; and they by their choice are in this boat; this boat called Westminster, calls on the captain Jesus to protect those in peril and to comfort them. We receive shelter from life’s storms by staying in our boat—connected with Christ—who is the firm foundation. I have presided over hundreds of funerals; I have noticed something significant: people of faith are sad when they say goodbye to a loved one, but they often stay grounded and find new connections if they have stayed anchored to Jesus and his church family. Those who don’t have a boat—a good church home—almost drown in the storms of sorrow at funerals. They lift up and hug the lifeless body; they wail; and they refuse the leave the funeral home chapel. They seem to be without hope, because hope or faith has not been part of their spiritual diet; they get swamped by the storms of life. But you; you and I can know that fellow travelers, sitting in the seats we call pews in our boat, also have had storms of life to weather: medical storms; divorce storms; death storms. Those near you today might have prayed for you, as you might have prayed for others. We’ve learned how to lean on each other, and on the everlasting arms of Jesus, as he pilots us through the storms.

Some winds start to create other storms: issues with a child in school; severe illnesses, failing health, or addictions. The opioid addiction is a storm of catastrophic proportions. Westminster By-The-Sea has sent out life boats and life rafts to the outreach ministry called Solutions By-The-Sea. Our own Tobias Caskey, with Jesus at the wheel, navigates that troubled waters of addictions and incarcerations. Just this week he presided over another funeral. The storms are all around us.

Did you notice in today’s Mark 4 passage that Jesus said: “Let us go across to the other side.” In some communities even today, that would be like saying “Let’s drive over to the other side of the tracks,” an action that would indicate differences in incomes, or religions, or cultures. It would not be something many people would do lightly. But Jesus deliberately decided to leave a town he knew to go visit one he did not. What kind of storm might have awaited him there? He sets the example: those in the boat with Jesus, (like us today) witness the Savior who is not rattled by a storm; a man who saw a new town as an experience to be welcomed, not avoided. He is the picture of an “un-anxious presence.”

Outside of the boat, I’ve witnessed apathy, bitterness, anger, and hurt. The church, which is the boat, seeks to equip you with instinctive reactions to cope with unexpected sorrows. Singers and trainers talk about “muscle memory.” A trainer might automatically teach you to tighten your core and straighten your back and lift with you legs to pick up a heavy object. Those without good muscle memory might try the same task and hurt themselves. With singers, muscle memory tells them to open their mouths to sing with a relaxed face, and an open sound that is projected out through the mask of the face with a strong diaphragm. With people of faith, instinctive responses include knowing the Lord’s Prayer by heart, having your pastors or church friends just a phone call away, having a diet of faith, hope, and love, and praying regularly so that when there is a crisis, you do not have to come to Jesus feeling like a stranger. These things help you face tomorrow.

I’ve told this story before but it fits perfectly to be told again. Years ago on ocean liners they had a dedicated playroom for children that was much less elaborate than they are on today’s cruise ships. As a liner was on a crossing, the waves of the North Atlantic became more menacing, and they tossed the bow of the ship under and back on top of the waves. In the dining room, service carts rolled and crashed; and plates fell to the floors. Passengers were holding onto handrails—that is, those who were trying to move about the ship. Others perhaps retired to their cabins. One man was making his way back to his cabin when he encountered a young girl playing with toys and looking at books in the children’s playroom. She seemed unfazed by all the turbulence. “Young lady,” the man said to her, “There’s quite a storm outside! Aren’t you frightened?” he asked her. “No.” she said matter-of-factly. The man was quite taken aback and asked, “How can you not be frightened in a storm like this?” And she looked up at him and said, “Because my father’s the captain.”

Learn to stay in the boat—in a good congregation—rather than just using a church for a wedding, a funeral or a baptism. Stay in the boat nurturing your faith, encouraging hope, leaning on the everlasting arms, and trusting Jesus as the captain who can “give you shelter from the storm.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 24, 2018

06-10-18 To the Glory of God

— sermon audio not available —

To the Glory of God

My Father called it “immature grey” in referring to the grey hair he had accumulated all throughout his life.  I too have picked up this phenomenon, along with the saying as sometimes I seem to struggle with the reality of getting older and all the connotations that go along with it.  You can walk down the isle in any grocery store in the shampoo and soap section and find any color hair dye you want to become the new person you never thought you could be; To bring back the color you once had or never had.  Plastic surgery has become popular over the years and out of the top ten results two of the most popular plastic surgeries are forehead lifts and face lifts;

As a people we seem to live our lives around what others think of us and how we look; to fit into the status quo.  We diet; we dress; we proceed through life in an ulterior motive based on what everyone else is doing and how we might fit in.  An old punk rock song from the nineteen eighties, of the band the Dead Kennedys states “My ambition in life is to look good on paper.”  I remember when I was younger in my teens, as I was walking around my house one morning; I was singing that verse walking down the hallway and I sang it in front of my father.  Dad spun around and looked at me in amazement as he said in a bewildered state where did you hear that from?  I told him who it was and who sang it as he looked at me with one of those father faces, as I walked off to the Kitchen.  One of those faces that doesn’t seem to understand how someone my age knew what that meant; what that even was, but that he knew what it was and what it meant.  This is all apart of becoming older as it seems; To keep up with the Jones; to fit in; to be apart of; to be human.

Iron Maiden, another band from the eighties sings of our human dilemma; a song that seems to come right out of scripture; that could compare to any of the psalms, any of our laments.  As the music of Maiden rings of the melodic Metal that they were the lyrics ring out with the human reality that I had been told before by another, “As soon as your born your dying.” From the book of Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiastes 3, The Birds sing the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” as the lyrics read, “o everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose, under heaven, A time to be born, a time to die, A time to plant, a time to reap,  A time to kill, a time to heal, A time to laugh, a time to weep.”; The contemplation of life and why we seem to chase this dream of self seems to run rampant and has been since the beginning of time; and as it seems forever; as we as a people, fight the reasons of why, who and how for as it seems until there is no more.  Why do we fight? Why do we ask the question of when and where, why do we try to find the reasons of how much, and how much more?  Are we searching for more?  Are we searching for the Glory of God?

This is nothing new to our realities.  I was listening to a Sermon written by Martin Luther King Jr on you tube as he was speaking of the same human condition as an action of the ego and how ego works in and out of our lives almost dictating to us what we will and won’t be; how we look; who we are; our vehicles; were we live; how we live; are we living to the Glory of God?

All this seems to be a part of the human condition as it seems to be to fight the aging process and all that aging entails; to fight mortality by having and showing who and what were all about; which in all reality is how that condition acts and interacts in our lives.  From the beginning with Adam and Eve.

The scripture readings from today are built around this aloofness of life and what we seem to suffer from as humans.  Paul who wrote this letter to the Corinthians, spoke of experience from this same dilemma that we as humans seem to suffer from, this suffer rage of human power and the lack of power we really have.  Have you ever tried to stop a lightning bolt?

The Apostle Paul during his time of ministry was always somewhat a leader.  He served as the Evangelist of close to 20 churches himself, with many more born out of those by his apprentice leaders. In Asia minor alone the NT mentions Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Colossae, and Hieropolis.  Thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are traditionally attributed to Paul and Paul’s ministry.  Paul was born in Tarsus, one of the largest trading communities on the Mediterranean coast.  He was born of Jewish stock, a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; formerly known as Saul at one point persecuted Christians because of his beliefs and who he was; but after his conversion; after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus he found a new life; a new way to live; a free way to be; to the Glory of God.   As Paul lived his life; as he lived out this Grace that he was given through Jesus The Christ.  He suffered as a human.  He wrote of the thorn in his side from the scripture 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, as he states “even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep[a] me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.[b] Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  As you have probably heard that said by others and might have used it yourself in a Sunday school class or two; a thorn in his side that as looked at now is thought to be a physical ailment, though the lack of details forbid a proper diagnosis. Physical infirmities that seem to fit the situation are malaria, Malta fever, epilepsy, convulsive attacks, and chronic ophthalmia.  It was thought that he might have contracted this thorn as a small child in the swampy, damp areas of Tarsus but it was not really known.  Paul lived human much like we do; much like Jesus did; feeling the same pains; the same melancholy days of life; the same realities of keeping up with the Jones as he fought with the other Disciples because he really didn’t fit in; because he didn’t know Jesus in the flesh; because his ministry took him to preaching and evangelizing to the Gentiles.  Because a lot of the others didn’t trust him because of his past.  This seemed to be of nothing he could control as he felt the Holy Spirit inside of him and the calling of Christ in front of him he did what he needed to do to be the hands and feet of Jesus; a disciple formerly known as Saul; A disciple living to the Glory of God.  This seems to be him saying, I am powerless over my situation but through the grace of God I can achieve all things, and through that desire given to me I will.  As he takes ideas from the Old Testament in the readings today, that he knows so well from his background as a Pharisee; as well as seeming to live it as he writes down from experience; from what he has been going through and will go through.  He seems to write as a friend; as a companion; as one who suffers like the Corinthians; like we all seem to suffer through the human reality.

 

I was talking with a friend recently; as the names have been omitted to protect the innocent; about the different dynamics of the human condition and our perceptions of it.  He told me of a time at a Church he attended; a mistake was made by one of the Pastors that was noticeable in the service.  The Pastor, he said, corrected his mistake and then moved on as if nothing had happened; nothing was said after the mistake had been made calling him out on it; no one moved; no sighs; no whispering; no hymnals dropped; no judging; the pastors humanness was looked past.  My friend told me of how he loved the fact that the people that attended the Church were forgiving and human themselves, to the Glory of God.

When I was seeking Gods call, when I first started attending here at Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church, I spoke a lot to Jeff, to Cara and to Richard Hills.  I wanted their insight into how they were called and their experiences.  I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything right.  Richard Hills who I cherish and respect, along with Cara and Jeff as well as with many others, told me a story of a Pastor he knew that helped him discern his calling.  Of course, this comes not from anything we do but from the discernment of the Holy Spirit and prayer.  But as scripture shows us how to live, Gods creation helps us to experience life to be able to live.  One day when I was talking to Richard, he told me this story.

When I was first discerning my calling, he started off, I attended a service of a minister I knew that was helping me.  I showed up on time; the service started; everything seemed to be going well, the hymns were great; the scripture was read; the sermon was good. We got to the prayer concerns, and we started to pray.  About half way through the prayer, Richard continued, the minister stopped.  There was a silence for a period of time, that didn’t seem to fit in with the prayer, as it seemed in the silence that a couple of minutes had passed.  There was some shuffling in the pews as people seemed to be getting fidgety; All of a sudden, the Pastor jumped right back in Alleluia Amen, as if he never missed, as almost as it was supposed to be there, predestined. that what had happened was meant to happen.  Richard said of the experience, I learned one thing from that, if he can do it, if he can get up there and be human, to make what seemed to be a mistake by others, but what might not be by the Holy Spirit and not be looked at differently by God; not to be ridiculed for not being perfect; but to be loved for who he is as one as well as of creation; than so can I.  And he did.  And whether he thought he did or not, I believe Richard walked close to God.  We all walk close to God.  We are all God’s creations; as the universe is also.  All of God’s creation is imperfect but perfect; just like the snowflakes; all different as a creation of God but all the same as God’s creation.  As stated in Deuteronomy 32:4 the Lords work is perfect.  Our perfection is to be whole in the Lord.  A key New Testament verse for understanding perfection in the Christian life is 2 Corinthians 12:9: reads “But he said to me, my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

It’s not us!!

This is a question and answer about concrete.

Aging of concrete

  1. What is the effect of aging on concrete?

 

  1. Aging, if one means merely the effect caused by the passage of time, has no effect on concrete. Of course concrete sets, hardens, gains strength, and exhibits reduced permeability with the passage of time, but it is not the passage of time alone that causes these things to happen. If the concrete is kept very cold, none of this will happen. If all moisture is removed, none of this will happen. Many or even most concretes are confronted with potential deteriorative service conditions. If the concrete has not been provided with immunity against these influences, it may well slowly deteriorate as time passes, but not simply because time passes. Concrete need not deteriorate.

 

As the answer to our question of our deterioration is Jesus the Christ in how we live move and breath; through the trees the Holy Spirit is a moving force in the universe in all of us; all of creation; moving flowing; right now; a living action that is God; the one in three and the three in one.

The great purpose of the Bible is fulfilled again; the living word that the Bible is glows through the love that Jesus is; that God is.  This scripture Along with the scripture from Ecclesiastes makes strong points in its ideas as well as from the writer’s perception.  Let us not so much look at what the writer is writing as much as what the writer is saying and how it lives in their lives and ours.  This is the living word of God.

As we look at the scripture today Paul writes this letter as it seems from a reality of his own life, not so much to let the Corinthians know what could and will happen but more of the reality that “we are all in this together” going through it together; as we are all in this together; this thing called life, this great creation that God gives to us every day to live; to be; to love him and our neighbor; To the Glory of God!!

This is not to be frightened of what will come; to be scared of the future; but to realize that we are all here as a people; as God’s creation going through the same things; the same follies; the same greatness’s; the same ageing process; all of us; all of creation as one.  That as that great scripture of Ecclesiastes shows us; that life is life. that life is happening all around us; that God, in us and through us; fills the void we are searching for.  As Paul says the same thing in 2nd Corinthians, that life is moving; living; breathing; as the Holy Spirit does.  Again, our wholeness depends on our reality in God.  Its not for us to hide and to be of concern of death; not to be swept up in our own deterioration; but to live in the Christ today; right now.  To be safe in Jesus the Christ is to be safe in the world; in ourselves; in the loving Grace that God is today.  To look past our own human faults that we find in others and realize that we are all human; we all suffer from the same frailties; from the same insecurities; of the same stock and faults; not to judge but to love.  To take a grasp of life; to live life to the Glory of God.

As the scriptures liv in our lives; it’s not so much what is apparent but what is inside. as the wind blows, let our hearts breath in the spirit; in God’s love together as one.  Let us live to the fullest in all things; all things to the glory of God.  Can you feel it?  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

06-03-18 THE GUIDELINES OF GOD

THE GUIDELINES OF GOD

Mark 2:23-3:6

 

Today I am speaking primarily to five wonderful youth who have met with Mary Ann and me almost every week since September for 90 minutes each session.  All this year I have had a chance to inform you, encourage you, and direct you. From this day forward I will still be pulling for you. As the old hymns put it: “Have Thine own way, Lord, Have Thine own way, Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after Thy will, while I am waiting yielded and still.”  [Adelaide Pollard] To each of you in this year’s class: I hope that Mary Ann and I truly invited Jesus to mold you and make you after His will. In so many ways that has happened: you have been attentive, done your work, and we’ve had some fun along the way. Your Statements of Faith were thoughtful beyond your years, and you have demonstrated your readiness for today. I’ve told you that after today you will go into this world not just as the son or daughter of people who go to church. After today, you will have a new title: Christian. By your profession of faith today, you will carry that title. Many will know you have become Christians by your own choice. And they will be watching. You will also become a full member of this congregation. You will have voting privileges in meetings; you will be asked to volunteer as others volunteer, give financially as you are able, and to keep the promises you will make today.  What do I think you, or any of us who claim to be Christian, can hope to gain by doing those things? It’s simple: we hope to change the world.

 

What a big order. Jesus did not come into this world, following the guidance of his Heavenly Father and dying on a cross just to be seen as some militant or radical Jew.  He came so that our world might start to be more like Heaven; that the Kingdom of this world might become more like the Kingdom of God.  How did he plan to do that?

 

One, he knew the Guidelines of God, but he reinterpreted them.  Look, for example, at our text today from Mark. The outside world was criticizing Jesus’ followers for not keeping the Sabbath the way they interpreted the Sabbath should be kept.  His disciples were plucking heads of grain. You should know that this was not stealing; this was perfectly allowed—and required by Jewish Law—part of every crop was supposed to be left for hungry people to eat. There was no welfare system or social security other than laws like these. Plucking grain was legal according to Deuteronomy 23:25, except it was on a Sabbath. The Law was interpreted to mean that absolutely no work be done on Sabbath days. The Pharisees interpreted what they were doing as reaping, something forbidden on the Sabbath according to Exodus 34: 21.  Conversely, Jesus thought that persons who were hungry could pick a few heads of a crop. He saw it as vastly different than plowing a field. He reinterpreted that guideline of God with words these words that were taught for years: “the Sabbath was made for man (people), not man for the Sabbath.”  In other words, the Sabbath guidelines were designed to keep us from breaking down or burning out by doing our labor, our professions, or our classwork seven days a week. The Sabbath is a gift; it is a break. But if the break is broken, people often break down! Jesus taught that Sabbath is not a rigid Law, but a gift to be received. There are some people in our world who are rule people: they carry condo guidelines, or community guidelines, or other rulebooks around like umpires or referees, always wanting to throw a flag on your activity. Don’t be like that. Jesus never instructed his followers to focus on rules; focus on people who honor the spirit of a rule.

 

As you five go into the world, be ready to interpret what you read in the Bible. Two biblical scholars had wise words to share about the Bible. One, Dr. Marcus Borg, said this regarding specific stories in the Bible: “I don’t know if it happened exactly this way; but I know that it’s true.” In the days of the Bible, all stories were part of an oral tradition, told and retold to children and children’s children. The words that were shared were fluid and retold by parents through the years. Told, that is, until print became available and the biblical words then became instructions “carved in stone.” To treat all the stories or commands in the Bible that way does a disservice to the way Jesus taught and shared. He taught with illustrations; he taught by example; and he said, “Follow me.” Use your head and your heart as you read your Bibles, and do not be easily swayed by the teachings found on the Internet or by the voices of friends. Another man I revered, Dr. Bruce Metzger, said, “the Bible doesn’t always mean what it says; it means what it means.”  Jesus, I think, believed that; he interpreted the written words differently from others. Go into the world as thinking Christians.

 

Two, Jesus let love and compassion surround the guidelines of God. Look at what Jesus did in Mark chapter 3.  There were other Pharisees—religious rule police of the day—who were baiting him; setting a trap to see if he would fall in. Those Pharisees had lost their focus on anything but  laws. Some of those kinds of people are still around today. Some just think “Is something lawful?” But they forget to ask the nuanced question “Is it right?” I hope you will go into the world asking that second question too, not just the first question. Jesus saw the traps, and still he had compassion in his heart for a man who needed to be healed. Jesus healed the man; after he did so, and the trap-setters left with plans to destroy Jesus. But the man who was healed left rejoicing! Jesus chose to do what he believed was right. In our world, as in Jesus’ world, there are consequences for breaking laws. Laws guide society. But use your heart in starting new conversations about what may be right and what may be legal.

 

Finally, remember that Jesus knew the 10 Commandments and the rest of Torah like the back of his hand. But here is how he handled one final trap: In Matthew 22: 36 another Pharisee, who tried to keep the Law to the letter, asked Jesus: “Which is the great commandment in the Law?”  The Pharisees expected one of the 10 Commandments to be lifted up. But listen how Jesus interpreted the guidelines of God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

Go into the world like Jesus, seeing people and laws through the eyes of love. I think the world will be a better place with you five in it. I will be pulling for you and praying for you! And to others who are here: the same message applies to us today: consider how you will interpret the guidelines of God for your life, and for our world today.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 3, 2018

 

05-27-18 “WHOM SHALL I SEND?” ASKS GOD

“WHOM SHALL I SEND?” ASKS GOD

Isaiah 6: 1-8

 

In our rare full family gatherings around Thanksgiving, Mary Ann might ask our children, who are quite grown mind you: “Who will help me set the table?”  A chorus of voices, simultaneously, declare, “Not it!!”  Asking for volunteers in a home or in a church can look like the old “duck and cover” drills from the 1960s!  Everybody tries to hide! As Vacation Bible School Director Mary Ann says, “Don’t make me call you; you call me!” But sometimes that is wishful thinking. Apparently God knows that too. Fifty years ago, the government drafted young men into military service if they did not enlist on their own. In the 1970s I had to register with the Selective Service too; my number was 26, so I knew I would be called up if the draft were reinstated. But it was 1974; troops had come home from Vietnam and there was no other arena of combat for which the United States was drafting. Drafting avoided the issues of seeking volunteers. But volunteers, on the other hand, show at least a modicum of interest in or willingness to serve. We have a volunteer choir; volunteer teachers; volunteers greeters, volunteer ushers and candle lighters; volunteers folded and stapled your bulletins; volunteers will fold our newsletter on Tuesday, and volunteers help keep God’s house beautiful. The Christian church could not function without volunteers. Although many people work in paying jobs and have to do so for income, volunteers often have the higher calling.

 

Calling. Calling is a term that many Christians use, particularly ministers. It perhaps harkens back to God’s call to Moses from a burning bush; or God’s call to Isaiah or to Jeremiah. For decades Uncle Sam drafted young men to serve their country. But God does not draft; God muses; God considers; God wonders; and then God asks, “Whom will I send?”

Some of you know that I spent a decade working to help Presbyterian congregations support our 10 seminaries and the two seminaries related by covenants.  In that time I heard a lot of call stories of people saying “Yes” to God’s invitation. Here is mine in a nutshell. God didn’t draft me. I said “Send me.”

On April 9, 1956, the day I was born, God was asking: “Whom shall I send?”  I had a lifetime in front of me, and I didn’t hear the voice.

On March 31, 1957, the day my parents dedicated me to God, God was asking again, “Whom shall I send?” I didn’t hear that either, but perhaps a seed was planted.

On March 22nd, 1969, the day I was baptized and confirmed into the Christian faith, God was asking “Whom shall I send?” But I didn’t know my Christian calling yet.

One day during my employment as  the Assistant Janitor of Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield, Missouri in 1973, the Head Janitor and I were taking a break, sitting on big barrels of floor wax drinking orange soda. “You oughta be a preacher!” he said to my emphatically.

A seed was planted, but I didn’t realize it. I just said, “No, I’m going into business like my Dad.”  Perhaps God smiled.

One day in the fall of 1976, I told my pastor, the one who had been with me for years, that I wondered if God was calling me to be a Pastor. He said, “Jeff, if there is anything else in the world you can do, do it!” Well! He put the cotton in my ears for God’s call quickly. But he later told me, “I said that because no one should enter the ministry because they think it will be easy. Enter it because, God has you by the collar and will not let go.”
In March of 1985, Mary Ann and I flew to Daytona Beach for the first time, and a Pastor Nominating Committee met with us in the old Peninsula House. God looked at his congregation called “Westminster By-The-Sea” and asked again, “Whom shall I send to serve as the pastor of my flock there?” It was then that I heard and responded: “Here I am Lord. Send me.”

Now today, as Commissioned Ruling Elder Tobias Caskey prepares for long-distance seminary training from Dubuque Theological Seminary; and as our elected Associate Pastor Glory Cumbow has just graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary last Saturday; listen to one other story from one who is passionate about her call and thankful for her training: The Rev. Emily Zieg Lindsey is now Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Waterford, Pennsylvania: She says: “I was actually at a youth retreat when I thought, ‘Wow; I might be called to ministry!’ I shared that idea at the retreat and had great support from my Youth Director and my Pastor who were there.  Now after nine years in the ministry I know that there are many people out there hungry to learn and be fed, just waiting for a leader to come alongside of them to help them with the journey. When I started in my presbytery nine years ago I was the youngest pastor in the presbytery. Now nine years later I am still the youngest pastor in the presbytery!” We need young people, and second career people, to carefully consider answer God’s question  “Whom shall I send?” Did you hear that? People retire from ministry. What young people; or second career people, might hear the call and respond?

 

I have since learned how many people have answered God’s question by being trained musically, or trained to teach, or is a person in the world who looks for times to witness for Christ. I have learned that some have said “Yes” to God’s question by volunteering in church.  Some answered Uncle Sam’s call to serve our country. Some answered God’s call to make the kingdom of the world more like the Kingdom of God. And some have served both God and Country.

 

Our stories do not need to be poetic or dramatic; they have to be authentic. Some listen to someone else’s story and try to fit their own story into someone else’s story. It doesn’t work. For example, the classic story that Catherine Marshall wrote about her husband’s call to the ministry is told in her lovely biography A Man Called Peter, the story of the Rev Peter Marshall, a Scotsman who moved to the United States and is credited with planting the Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans idea in people’s heads. This is how Catherine Marshall described her husband’s call from God in her book and in the movie by the same name: “Peter Marshall did not grow up wanting to be a minister. That was God’s idea—not his. In fact, it took quite a lot of persuasion to get him to accept that plan.”  [Avon Books, 1971, p.15]

 

Today we have a call story of a prophet on earth being transported in a vision to a heavenly throne. “The Lord was sitting on his throne, high and lofty, and his robe filled the Temple.’ [Isaiah 6:1] This is not the earthly Temple. How do we know? Listen again: “Seraphs surrounded him; each had six wings.” [6:2] This is no normal earthly scene! It is a heavenly scene like the one in the book of Revelation. The seraph (an angel of the highest order) said: “Holy holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” We join with the words that Handel put to music and say to God: “Holy Art Thou.” Was the whole earth full of his glory then; or even now? No; that was a scene of hope and possibility. It was a terrifying scene even for a prophet. Feeling inadequate, he said aloud: “I am lost, I am a man of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips.” Such words were uttered by Isaiah, but they could also be said by people in our own day! Are we also people of unclean lips, living among others of unclean lips? Clean lips mean we try to lift up others in our conversations, not cut them down. Clean lips do not constantly curse. Clean lips are not spouting lies. Clean lips move toward civil discourse rather than contentious fighting. Yes, in comparison to God, we all are unclean people.  But we can make changes to move us toward holiness. Isaiah experienced something we also have to experience in order to say “yes” to God: Isaiah’s guilt was taken away by the fire of a coal and his sins were blotted out. You may not have experienced that exactly, but once we have acknowledged sins and start with a clean slate, we can hear things that sins have kept us from hearing. Things like God asking: “Whom shall I send?”  Some here today, have said,  “Here I am. Send me.”

And some have yet to say it.

 

God’s plan has worked. God got me to say, “Yes” to his ask. God got Emily Lindsey to say yes; and Tobias Caskey, and Glory Cumbow, and Peter Marshall. But some of you have said “yes” to God too! Many teachers, musicians, students, professionals, laborers, parents, and grandparents have said to God: “Here am I! Send me!” Now our job is to try to make the vision real today: that the kingdom of this world may actually become more like the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. It starts when we say ”Yes,” open our hearts, and roll up our sleeves. That is what God asks of us. Who is on the Lord’s side? And who will go for him?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                    May 27, 2018

05-20-18 PENTECOST: RECEIVE THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH

PENTECOST: RECEIVE THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH

Acts 2: 1-6; 14-21

 

A long time ago, in the Roman Empire far, far, away, a faithful Jew with a special mission to save the world was brought to a cross outside of the Jerusalem walls. He was crucified; likely on April 7, 30 A.D. Three days later by the Jewish counting system, the tomb was found to be empty because he had risen from the dead! His name was Jesus. That would have been on April 9, 30 A.D.  Forty days later around May 17th, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, gave final instructions to his disciples, and ascended into heaven. Ten days after that, the disciples were back in Jerusalem, and the promised Spirit of the Living God—the Holy Spirit—appeared mightily on all who were gathered. They spoke in ways so that people understood each other; people felt empowered, and some, like Peter, even addressed all the gathered people there saying: “This is what the prophets described!” he said. “It is happening right now!” That was the beginning of the Christian church: Christ was gone and the disciples— later called “Christians” –began to tell others about him, heal people, and pray for others. Today, and every Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the Christian church, an event that actually happened in Jerusalem!

 

Fast-forward decades; and decades; and decades. In October 1946, a small Sunday School was started in the unincorporated area of Wilbur-By-The-Sea, Florida, about two miles south of our present location. The Spirit of the Living God was—and is—still alive and well in this congregation!  This was the humble beginning of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church and it was the dream of the Rev. Paul Edris, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church

of Daytona Beach. Paul Edris, along with his Director of Christian Education, Miss Elizabeth McNeill, and with the approval of their Session, conducted the outpost for one year. Then it was decided that more people could be reached with weekly prayer meetings. Those meetings continued yearly until the next stage was reached: In February 1955, 42 people gathered for their first official Sunday worship service. Plans were made weekly until May 22, 1955—63 years ago—when 62 persons signed the charter and a committee of St. John’s Presbytery installed the Rev. Richard Sauerbrun as the first Pastor of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church. The church name was chosen this way: “Westminster” to honor the theological grounding found in the Westminster Confession of Faith; and “by-the-Sea” to honor the local roots at the Wilbur-by-the-Sea Boathouse. It is still there today and more beautiful than it ever was, thanks to the work of charter member James Hunt to get it on the National Register of Historic Places.  Some Sunday slasses in those days met in the living room of Ernest and Mary Hunt two blocks from the Wilbur Clubhouse; other classes met in Gaylord’s Restaurant, a block away. I has since been been torn down. Two bricks at the beginning of the Wilbur Boathouse sidewalk say: “First meeting place of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church.” Indeed it was. The congregation met there from 1955 until 1958, when our current Fellowship Hall, that originally included the new section of our sanctuary, was the first multi-purpose building. The terrazzo floor we still have is original. And as I showed the children today, the storage closet was the original nursery! Jalousie windows allowed humid air to blow through, and tall tilted windows at the top of the hall could be opened with a hooked pole. The choir and pulpit were on this end and parking was on the south end. Today Marianne Sabatka proudly says that her children were baptized in there! And others were too! The church of Jesus Christ was on the move, giving a light to the south peninsula. Church member Fred Gard was the contractor for the Fellowship Hall and again for the Sunday School wing—which includes our existing rooms 8-12B—built in 1959.  These words tell the story of the beginning of a congregation whose spiritual roots were not just in the Westminster Standards, but also in the historic and extraordinary day of Pentecost! The Christian Church has its roots in Jerusalem, a fact particularly ironic this week.  Three major religions claim Jerusalem as their most significant city. Christians may love Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus; or Nazareth for the home of Jesus, but Jerusalem is where the Christian Church had her birth!

 

History is important; it molds our identity; it informs the present and guides our future. We must continually remember where we’ve come from to know who we are. The recent popularity of Ancestry.com and other products help us find our roots and our nationalities. Knowing who you have been helps inform who you are now.

 

Perhaps you’ve read the Richard Adams’ book Watership Down. Episcopal Priest John Westerhoff said this is a book that “illustrates the significance of a common memory and vision for communal life. In his insightful adventure story, the characters (rabbits in this case) become a people only as they acquire a story, a memory, and a vision. They remain a community insofar as they re-tell the story and live the vision. Adams’ depiction of various communities suggests that each is made viable by its ability to sustain a narrative.” [Living in the Faith Community] In other words, telling you what I’m telling you today helps you share in Westminster’s story, and in the story of the Christian Church! Christians are a story-formed community. “The Christian Church was founded upon a story of people’s experiences with Jesus and a vision of God’s reign in human history. Through out the church’s history, this story has formed and transformed, sustained and challenged the community’s faith and life.” [Westerhoff]

 

Today, on the occasion of our 63rd anniversary, I tell you how important it is for us to have a story and a vision. Children who don’t know who they are, or whose they are, have more trouble deciding who they should be. What is your story?  Where have you lived? Who are your mother and your father? Where were their parents from? Where were you baptized? Christian Baptism is an act of the church and of the Christian community. The story of the Holy Spirit appearing on the day of Pentecost is our story too! Yes the Spirit came to those early men and women in Jerusalem, but we celebrate that event even today! We taught our Confirmation Class that if worship were a drama, you-the congregation-are the actors; we-the worship leaders- are the directors, and God is the audience for our worship! My preaching professor at Princeton, Dr. Donald Macleod, wrote this: “The old spiritual song goes ‘Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart.’ Note the phrase, ‘want to be.’ Too many people don’t go to church these days because they say, ‘I don’t get anything out of it.’ You do not come to get; you come in order to be. You come because you want to be somebody, above the average and the ordinary; you come because you want to be a child of God. And you know that it is only here in the fellowship and community of the people of God that you can become what Christ wants you to be.”

 

Westminster By-The-Sea started from scratch; with a dream, a prayer, and a purpose from our mother church. The church is lovingly referred to as the bride of Christ. Yes the congregation was colonized with a rental building and borrowed belongings. But soon gifts, lovingly given, began to equip this congregation for her lifelong work. Our first hymn today affirmed “the Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” Our cornerstone affirms that He is our chief cornerstone. Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ; the Son of the Living God!” And Jesus replied: “Blessed are you Simon! And upon this rock I will build my church.” And so Christ is; churches well grounded have in their beliefs: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Today, may your presence here today bless your life, may your praise bless your God, and may your gratitude thank your Savior.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 20, 2018

05-13-18 EAVESDROPPING ON JESUS

EAVESDROPPING ON JESUS

John 17: 6-19

 

Privacy is an important matter to most of us, isn’t it?  At certain levels of our government, it is believed that no work can be carried out without the benefit of a secure and a soundproof space. Just last week I watched a news story about people flying drones with cameras attached to them, aiming the attached cameras through the windows of people’s homes. Certainly confidential conversations are important in both personnel issues and personal issues.  The safety of our nation is at stake if security leaks or cyber-criminals share top-secret information. We even trust that our phone calls and our Internet connections are secure, when in fact they may not be.

 

With all of that in mind, I still call this message “Eavesdropping on Jesus.” In this case, however, somehow we are given the privilege of hearing encouraging things, guiding things, and uplifting things that Jesus says about his disciples in a prayer. In our house, and in the house in which I grew up, the main bedrooms were upstairs. I can remember sitting on the stairs at night, sometimes with my sister, and hearing the things Mom and Dad were saying downstairs.  Sometimes they had concerns about us; other times they were proud of us! And we got to hear it … by eavesdropping.  My phone has an app on it to turn my phone into a mirror. So while I’m downstairs at night talking with Mary Ann, I have held my phone up at just the right angle to see either our grandson Calvin or Shane sitting there listening! If we say guiding or encouraging things about them, they pick up on it! Today it is apparent that Jesus knew what he is praying to his Heavenly Father, and that others might hear his guidance and his affirmation!

Lets begin with the kinds of prayers one can pray. Remember it with the acronym: ACTS I: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication, and Intercession. All prayer is made up of one or more of these kinds.

 

Last week the Communion prayer, known as “The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving,” was not a meandering prayer but an intentional one, recalling the Judeo/Christian roots we have in the Passover Seder and the historical ways God saved people from Exodus to the Gospels.

 

Up until 1962 in the Roman Catholic Church, priests faced the altar in their church, repeated the Mass in Latin, prayed for the people, then ate the bread and drank the wine on behalf of their parish.  So it is that Christians have called Jesus our Great High Priest and have called his prayer in today’s gospel lesson Jesus’ priestly prayer. Why?  Because Jesus is taking on the role of our priest: going before the throne of grace, pleading our case before his Father in Heaven, and making a sacrifice to pay the price for our sins. The sacrifice was of the Lamb of God, who is, unusually, the same as the priest. On our behalf, Jesus is praying for us, pleading for us, and paying the price for our sins.  He and the Holy Spirit are called Advocate and Counselor; these are courtroom terms; Christianity is filled with them: judge, witness, guilty, and ransom to name a few.  Jesus prayed for his followers like a priest.

 

But Jesus did more than pray for them: Jesus visited them, cared for them, and healed them.  Today I hope you can see the connection Jesus wants his followers to make between our prayers and the care we show for others.  Each Sunday we pray for enough people to fill a letter sized prayer list with single spaced names.  Do we pray fervently? I think many here do; in our Lent Wednesday night services we even called every name out loud in the service. We need to pray for others; but we also need to care for others.  If I visit someone, it is most always appreciated. But there are just so many hours in the day to get to all who are in need. If you visit someone, people often think of it as an unearned blessing: “someone cared enough to visit me.” Many in our Disciple classes have committed to intercessory prayers and support.  Sometimes a call or a card is all it takes. Others among you have offered food, or rides, or to sit with a loved one. These can be godsend ministries.

 

So we know the power of prayer. But what might you pray toward the end of your life, the way Jesus was doing? What might you write down so loved ones could know your feelings and receive your guidance? Here is an example: Theologian Henry Nouwen returned from visiting his father one year and stopped to have dinner with one of his friends named Nathan. “During the meal, Nathan asked [him], ‘Where and how do you want to die?’ He raised the question in a gentle way. It was a question that came from [his] awareness that [he] was soon going to die. The awareness prompted us to ask: “Are we preparing ourselves for death, or are we ignoring death by keeping busy? Will our death give new life, new hope, and new faith to our friends, or will it be no more than another cause for sadness?’ … Nathan’s question brought me face-to-face with a great challenge: (said Nouwen,) not only to live well, but also to die well.’” [OUR GREATEST GIFT, Harper, 1995] How do we come to terms with our own death? What can we do to prepare ourselves and help others with that day? 1) We turn to a sacred moment, described first in John 17: 11: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.” So at first Jesus offers a prayer for protection, knowing there are evil ones everywhere. But this request had a purpose: so that they may be one as we are one. Jesus wants his disciples to be of one mind and one purpose, not broken into religious factions that have conflicts with each other. What Jesus asked for is not a reality in our day. We can do better, not being the same—because we are all different—but honoring our unity in our differences.  Then we could respond to Jesus’ prayer for us. 2) Then in verse 17 Jesus prayed this: “Sanctify them in the truth.” Sanctification is a big word; it means, “Make them holy.” An old hymn had the words “Take time to be holy, speak oft with the Lord.” I always thought of God as holy, and people as human. But I learned over the years how you can be holy, and I can be holy: it happens when we agree to take our lead from God and not from the world. It happens when we follow Jesus and not the latest star in our culture. It happens when we decide to be a light for the world rather than letting the activities of the world put out our light. So Jesus is praying for his disciples to be “sanctified,” to be set apart as a light for a darkened world; to be leaven for the world.

 

Hearing what Jesus hopes for us, I’d like for God to protect you and to protect me. But further, I’m willing to participate in the sanctification process; God can make us more holy only if we agree to be transformed by Jesus’ teachings and God’s Spirit. I’m willing. How about you?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           May 13, 2018