01-01-20 THE GIFT

John 1: 1-5;14

At Christmas we give and receive gifts; they might delight us or disappoint us. Finding or creating those gifts takes our time and our energy, as they should. Gifts rightly given, are expressions of our love, or our appreciation, or our desire to participate in a traditional season of giving. But at the heart of it all, is “The Gift.” The Gift is Jesus, born in a stable, and perhaps already born in your heart. If not, you can even prepare him room today. What other gift have you received this year or some other year, that touched your heart, or changed your life? People have written about such gifts and they have been placed into the annals of our seasonal literature. Take, for example the short story by William Sydney Porter, known by his pen name of O. Henry. His story, “The Gift of the Magi,” starts with these words: One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty of it was in pennies. Three times Della counted it…. And the next day would be Christmas. There was nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it…. There were two possessions that Della, and her husband Jim, called valuable. “One was Jim’s gold watch, which had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair.” It was beautiful, cascading, and brunette, falling below her knees when combed out. So—spoiler alert—Della sold her hair to buy Jim a beautiful chain on which he could attach his gold pocket watch, while Jim sold his gold watch to buy expensive hair clips—really hair combs—made of pure tortoise shell with jeweled rims for Della’s long hair. But now what was the use of combs for Della’s short hair? And what use was the chain without Jim’s watch? O. Henry concludes his story saying:
The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. … And here, I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.”

So, there are gifts of sacrifice, one of which has been described in the first chapter John, when the essence of God—a gift of love—was born into a world that would receive him not. It was the supreme sacrificial gift, the one around which others may aspire. God—safely in the world of the eternal—came to the world of the mortal. Through the ages, there have been stories of those who have sacrificed their lives for their friends, their families, or for others in arms. More recently, there have been stories of people who have sacrificially given a kidney, or bone marrow, or blood so that others may have life. What a gift that is. I have given blood, and I have decided to be an organ donor at my demise, but those other gifts are truly sacrificial.

This season sometimes includes sacrificial gifts, but most often gifts of love and joy. The gift described in John chapter one is both. Dr Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia wrote a significant article for the Dec 23, 2019 issue of Presbyterians Outlook. Here is an excerpt:
God saw a world struggling in injustice, brokenness, and oppression….God came to this world. The Word became flesh and lived among us. Divinity incarnated itself into flesh. And we saw the glory, the glory of light breaking into darkness, so that all who encountered this light-infested flesh would see and know the truth of God’s intention for this world. God committed…. The author of the Gospel of John explained it this way: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” ….The moment the Word became flesh, the Word took a side. A human side. For there is nothing more human than flesh.
And that was God’s great gift. Gifts from the heart are great gifts.

In this season, other stories have helped expand our image of what a “gift” truly can be. Back in 1941 American classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote a song that at first was called “The Carol of the Drum,” but became known as “The Little Drummer Boy.” “In the lyrics, the singer relates how as a poor young boy, he was summoned by the Magi to the Nativity of Jesus. Without a gift for the infant, the little drummer boy played his drum with approval from Jesus’ mother, Mary. And, referring to Jesus, the little boy said, “I played my best for him,” and “He smiled at me.” [Wikipedia]

“The Gift” has been the title of at least two modern books, one by Richard Paul Evans, and one by Lewis Hyde. But THE gift, the gift to the world, is Emmanuel: “God with us.” The gift was a baby who was placed in a rudimentary manger for his bed. The gift was surrounded by Mary and Joseph, but also by animals and shepherds. Such a place, such a way, for “the gift” to be given. And yet, he was; and he is. That gift has inspired stories over the centuries, along with acts of love and kindness. The Gift of Jesus may have entered or touched your heart this year or another year. Good! If not, as I said, you can still prepare room in your heart for him today. But what other gift has touched your heart this year? Cherish it; give thanks for it, even as you give thanks for Him, the Lord Jesus. Today, focus on the one who was born a King, so that wise men who read the stars would travel long distances to bring him the most meaningful gifts they had.
May this day be the day you remember “The Gift,” and the gifts.
Let us pray: Hear our prayer, O God, as we come from the old year into this new one. As we call on you for guidance, wisdom, and comfort, remind us of your love, and always, of your gift. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 5, 2020

12-29-19 THE JOURNEY TO EGYPT

Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23

As we end a year of political turmoil and head into an election year, the topic of securing our borders continues to be in the news. This week the Pope noted that migrants have been forced by injustice “to emigrate in the hope of a secure life.” As they have done that, they have run into system abuses, roadblocks, and even torture all over the world. Last week, a bill that passed congress two weeks ago to avoid a government shutdown included money for part of a wall on our southern border. Of course, we know that has to do with keeping out those who come to our country without legal papers or legitimate asylum request. We also know there is a cost to our government for those who are in this country yet are not citizens and who, therefore, are not paying income taxes, though they do pay taxes on goods and gasoline like the rest of us. But why do people come to our country and to other countries? Sometimes it is out of fear; to get away from something or someone. People look for a safe place to raise a family. Ironic, isn’t it, that if Egypt had prohibited Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus from entering their country as described in Matthew chapter 2, the Holy Family would have had difficulty protecting their child from Herod! Gladly, we recall protection stories that have made it into our history books, like the Diary of Anne Frank, when a family in Amsterdam protected Jewish refugees, including her, at great personal cost. Gladly we remember Oscar Schindler, made famous in SCHINDLER’S LIST, protecting Jews from annihilation. Today we look at this Christmas through new eyes, as a Jewish family left Bethlehem and departed Herod’s jurisdiction for their protection.

The text in verse 13 starts out “After they had left,” and of course, this means when the Magi, or Wiseman, left. We recall that God wisely chose a human father for his son who listened to his dreams. That quality would come in handy again today as God’s angel—Gabriel— gave an imperative command, “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” What would it be like, parents, to believe your child, in this case your baby, was in danger of being kidnapped and killed? Would every instinct in your body be called to attention to protect your child? In this case, the killing machine was not one of today’s terrorists or a man named Hitler, but he was just as bad: a maniacal, powerful, Middle Eastern Dictator self named “Herod The Great,” who had proven his threats in the past by killing some of his sons, his wives, and his armies to keep them from seizing control of his empire. He ruled all of Israel in his day, and no part of Israel would have been outside of his domain. But Egypt was; it had been under Roman control since 30 B.C. Scholars like Raymond Brown and William Barclay told us that Egypt was already a place that had welcomed so many refugee Jews to the outskirts of its cities that there were already a number of Jewish communities there. Mary and Joseph would not have been the first to seek their safety in the land of the pyramids. There is no record of a border patrol or checkpoint: they just migrated and found a place to live for probably two years. Jews in Egypt, like Jews who left Germany for Austria, or for the United States, or other countries, came with their God and their hard work ethic. We do not know if they were liked or despised; but we know that they got to be there, probably as part of a close-knit community, for quite a length of time. What would make a Jew leave his homeland to find safe rest in a foreign land? In this case, it was an angel, a warning, and a belief that the threats that would come to pass would have been deadly if they’d stayed.

Then we come to verses 16-18. Often dramatized as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it is depicted as the killing of many children two years old and under. Even today, I flinch when I hear that a child has died from a bomb, or being stuck at a checkpoint, or from disease or lack of proper nutrition. C
Children dying grieves not just their mothers and fathers, but me as well, and probably you. So for Mary and Joseph, there was no time to extend their stay in Bethlehem because their newborn was in danger. Going home to Nazareth was no answer since Herod ruled that territory as well and the family might have been discovered. So under cover of darkness, Joseph—again the right man chosen to protect and raise the Son of God—got his family ready and headed out, not to a promised land, but to the land known to Jews from the Exodus story; a place where Moses had been born, a place of civilization and pluralism and safety. This was not the first time a Jew had traveled to Egypt for safety. Raymond Brown reminds us that “It was the classic land of refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon sought to put Jeroboam to death in 1 Kings 11:40, he ‘arose and fled to Egypt.’ When King Jehoiakim sought to kill the prophet Uriah, son of Shemaiah in Jeremiah 26:21, he fled and escaped to Egypt; and about 172 B.C. the high priest Onias IV fled to Egypt to escape from King Antiochus Epiphanes, [the horrible ruler in the Daniel story.] [BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, Doubleday, 1979, p. 203] Whether Mary and Joseph and Jesus just went over the border or deep into Egypt is a matter of speculation and legend; but that Christmas journey saved the life of their child, the one born to save the world.

Historians tell us that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. in all likelihood. (Yes, B.C. (before Christ) because Dionysius Exiguus in 525 A.D. and Pope Gregory XIII with his Gregorian Calendar, miscalculated the date for Jesus’ birth, which was most likely around 6 B.C (since it is recorded that Herod died around 4 B.C.) Before he died, however, Herod the Great divided up Israel and bequeathed a portion to each of his three sons: to Herod Archelaus, who was almost as ruthless as his father, he gave Judea which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem; to his son Herod Antipas, who was also a strong and feared ruler, he gave Galilee, which included Nazareth and Capernaum; and to his son Herod Philip, he gave the northeastern section of Israel including the region that was later named Caesarea Philippi. Joseph decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth and go around the territory of Judea to avoid Archelaus. The family finally put down roots in Nazareth according to verse 23. Matthew says this was done to fulfill a prophesy saying, “He will be called a Nazarene.” Interesting, because there is no recorded prophet who said that in the Old Testament, about the Messiah or anyone else! But what we do learn is that Nazareth was the perfect setting for Joseph to raise his stepson. Both Mary and Joseph had family members there for support; construction of Roman structures in nearby Sephoris gave stone masons and carpenters like Joseph, and later Jesus, the opportunity for steady employment. With a short climb up the back hill from Nazareth, the boy Jesus could have seen the mount where the great Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal years before; and he could see the valley of Megiddo, where two great pathways crossed: the way of the sea and the north-south way, and where more battles had been fought then any place in the world-the place often called Armageddon or (Har-Meggido). So the boy Jesus had the perfect perch from which to see the world and to grow into its Savior. But it never would have happened had there not been a country, like Egypt, that welcomed refuges into their land. Today we are thankful for God’s angels, for Joseph’s open heart, and for the country that gave safe haven to the Holy Family.

Let us pray: O God of Wonder and God of Might: we have had a glimpse of your divine plan to bring Jesus into the world and protect him from harm until his time had come. Your steadfast love makes us feel humble and grateful. On the cusp of a new year, some here are ready to live differently. Fill them and let changes in their lives let Christ’s light shine through them to others. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 29, 2019

12-22-19 JOSEPH’S DREAM

Matthew 1: 18-25

My text today is this: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” [Matthew 1:20] There have been times when people have come to my office and asked, “May I speak with you a minute?” We go in, sit down, and they proceed to ask me, in a hushed tone, “Do people ever come here and tell you their dreams?” I’ve whispered back, “Yes!” Then they feel comfortable enough to share a recent dream, and together we think about what it might have meant. Sometimes they believe the dream is just them trying to work out a conflict they had the day before or the week before. Sometimes they have a kind of a nightmare, perhaps caused by a frightening or disturbing event. But other times it seems like the dream is a message from God, or from an angel; words of guidance that sink into their psyche. For example, do you remember hearing this?
One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”
He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
I was taught that Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote it. Perhaps that is one of the most famous of dreams. Through the years, others have been noted for their meaningful dreams too. James W. Goll, on his blog called “God Encounters Ministries,” offers this research:
Justin Martyr, the first Christian philosopher, believed that dreams were sent by spirits.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, thought dreams revealed the spiritual world.
Clement of Alexandria believe that true dreams arise from the “depth of the soul,” and that they reveal spiritual reality, [a connection with] the soul of God.
A dream changed John Newton from a slave trader to become a churchman in England, the one who wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” We have that hymn because of a dream.
In addition, biblical figures had dreams. Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob, had a dream that he foolishly shared with his older brothers. In Genesis 37, it says:
5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11 So his brothers were jealous of him.
That dream led to his brothers selling him to a band of Ishmaelites and it completely changed Joseph’s life. There are 33 times dreams are mentioned in Genesis alone and 27 times in Daniel. The Bible only records Joseph as an interpreter of dreams in Genesis, and Daniel in the book by the same name. But there is one other Joseph in the Bible who had a dream of instruction from God: This Joseph was engaged to Mary, who had an angel visit her with a most extraordinary proposition: that she would bear the son of God. She was engaged to Joseph when that happened. This kind of news would cause quite a controversy in a dusty village like Nazareth. Before Mary could tell Joseph what the angel Gabriel had told her, Gabriel appeared to Joseph, in a dream and spoke to him. In the dream, Joseph got such clear instructions from the angel that he changed his mind about breaking off his engagement to her. Remember? The angel said in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary had a visit from an angel; but Joseph also had a visit from the angel Gabriel in a dream. Joseph must have been more spiritually insightful than we typically realize. He listened to his dream: the dream that brought Mary and Joseph together as the Holy Family. He also had another dream that I’ll address next week.

We are told that everyone dreams. Do you remember your dreams? Do you listen to your dreams? I have been told by several of our Presbyterian Counseling Center therapists that we should try to recall our dreams, to even awaken and write them down immediately and examine them later. Sometimes people can discern the voice of God in their dreams. Sometimes they can figure out a plan to resolve a conflict.
Where would we be if Joseph just rolled over and ignored God’s revelation?

I recently learned of the writings of a woman named River Jordan. Yep, just like the water in Israel! In her 2019 book Confessions of a Christian Mystic, she wrote:
I once had a message that I would have a visitation from God. This came to me in the innermost place of me, that same tone announcing holy visitation in the way that a thought about an item you must pick up from the store comes to remind you: don’t forget the milk. The same way that Anne Lamotte describes Jesus following her around like an invisible stray cat in [her book] Traveling Mercies. So I had received this word, visitation, along with a sense that indeed I had something coming….The promise of a visitation weighed on me more like a threat of a haunting. I slept with the light on, which means I slept very little. I kept telling God not to just show up and shock me. Not to suddenly appear at the foot of the bed. Not to walk out of the closet. The list of not-tos went on and on as I dozed fitfully until after dawn, when I felt this sneaky-in-the-night-visitation thing had been laid to rest. Thinking that surely God, like a vampire, would dare not show up after sunrise. [Faithwords, Kindle book 28%, 2019]

Here was a woman, like many men in the Bible, who tried to avoid having a God encounter! But, we learn in her book, God did show up. In the glow of a candle, before River’s eyes there was an image of gold; the same Triangle of the Trinity that she had doodled for years as a faithful Episcopalian girl. And from that event, she came away with a deep abiding peace, saying it was “a peace so deep there is no space, no inch, no molecule of room for the tiniest of worry, the fretful thought.” [28%] That’s what a visit from Go—in in a dream or in a vision—can be like. Just ask mother Mary; or father Joseph; or a woman named River Jordan.

Maybe there can still be peace on earth, or at least in our hearts, if we are receptive to a visitation from God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 22, 2019

12-15-19 REPENT


Matthew 3: 1-12

Repent. It’s the word most associated with a two-dimensional Biblical figure named John the Baptist, or the Baptizer. One might paint him with a brush on a canvas. standing near the Jordan River, crying out to people like a street evangelist, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Then those who decide to listen to him gather–as the hymn says, at the River—repent of their sins, go under the water, and come out a new creation. At least that is the hope. Last summer I donned a robe, stepped into the Jordan River, and welcomed people who journeyed with me to Israel to be baptized, or to remember their baptism. I can say with certainty that some were changed dramatically after that experience. Repenting is the truly different thing that John called people to do; baptism seals the deal and allows God’s Holy Spirit to begin to guide them. John the Baptist is powerful, but as the Lorenz/Hart show tune from the musical “Babes in Arms” puts it, he’s “Johnny One Note.” All he talks about is repentance, repentance, repentance! Still, people in the world, those of us here today, probably need to repent from some habit, some action, or some addiction. Let’s start by exploring this enigmatic man.
Franciscan Richard Rohr says this about John:
John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare, and yet crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of persons of groups. That is why we focus on John The Baptist every Advent, and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature ritual, while also going far beyond him. Water is the only the container; fire and Spirit are the contents …. John is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege, who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything . … He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him “There is no man greater than John … but he is also the least.” [Preparing for Christmas, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008, p.24-25.
Thanks Father Rohr, for reminding us of John’s 3-dimensional nature! We’ve established who the messenger is, now we focus on the message- Repent.
As I simply showed the boys and girls, it’s like a U-Turn. If you realize you are going down a path that is toxic to yourself or others, or destructive or dark, you can, and you have the power to, turn around and travel back from the wrong direction to the right direction; back toward redemption; or back toward love. Here we rely on John because Jesus has not yet spoken a word in the gospel, not until this chapter, verse 13. Beloved Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner define repentance this way: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do, as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” [Wishful Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 79.]
Another author, Kathleen Norris, wrote a more intriguing description of repentance:
Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes:
“Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’” My Messy House” says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy makes a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out…If that boy had been a novice in the fourth century monastic desert, his elder might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell? [Amazing Grace, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 69,70]
You might know that people in our AA programs have repented from drinking and are busy every day trying to keep moving toward a life of love and wholeness. From the first day, people in our Gambler’s Anonymous program repented of their gambling and spending addictions and have been moving toward a life of financial security and relationship rescue. But what about those of us who are not in those programs? What about the mother who is hateful to her son-in-law or daughter-in-law? Does she see the need to repent? What about the man who once abused his wife or the man who abused his dog? Have they seen the light? How about the celebrities who tried to buy a spot for their daughters in colleges? Have they felt the need to repent? Repentance is not just a John the Baptist cry, it is a human reality that can change one’s life, one’s marriage, and one’s spirituality. Repentance is a connective tissue for our Spiritual bodies. Without it, we may feel disjointed, disconnected, or broken. And indeed, we are. Yet even in our day, there are situations that keep people from moving from repentance to wholeness. One is a lack of forgiveness. For example, a woman spends and spends and spends and builds up enormous credit card debt. Her husband sees their income diminishing to the point that the nest egg they were building is now gone. Debts ensue, and the man moves toward divorce to stop the financial hemorrhaging of his assets. The wife, with the help of a 12-step group, repents of her spending habits and is showing the changes in her life to her husband. Will he welcome her again? Will he forgive her and remain in their marriage? A lack of forgiveness keeps repentance from moving toward wholeness.\

Here’s an example of our prison system becoming an impasse to wholeness. In the December 4th issue of the Christian Century [p.26,] Caitlin Kandil, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, tells the story of a woman who rolled through a stop sign in San Francisco. Police pulled her over and gave her a $238 ticket. Although she could pay the ticket, she started thinking about others who could not. She called it “the spiral of despair.” She researched and shared these results:
A person gets a traffic ticket for a few hundred dollars. Unable to pay the fine, she misses the deadline for payment, and the ticket starts accruing late fees and creates a debt that hangs over her head. The city sends the ticket to the collections department, and now her credit is damaged, so the next time she tries to rent an apartment, her application is rejected. Eventually her driver’s license is suspended for failure to pay. Without a driver’s license, she can’t perform the tasks of everyday life—commuting to work, grocery shopping, taking children to school, going to doctor’s appointments—and also become ineligible to apply for and work at many jobs. Without secure employment and housing, she is a risk for homelessness. It all started with a traffic ticket.

To combat incarcerations due to mounting fines from an inability to pay them, the Stated Clerk of our Presbyterian Church (USA), at our 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis, marched down the streets of the city, with hundreds behind him, to the St. Louis Justice Center with more than $47,000 raised from GA committees and commissioners. They paid the bail for many people who were incarcerated for misdemeanors. With them released, they could be employed again, be united with families, and begin a new life. Sometimes, the system can stall repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes a generous and timely gift can bring a second chance to a woman who could not pay a minor traffic ticket.
A long time ago, a man invited people to gather at the river, to change their hearts, repent of their sins, and get a new start. John still invites that, as he calls out to each of us from the pages of Scripture: “Repent!” Would you like a new start in your life? Or perhaps someone you know needs a new start in theirs? They can repent—that is, make a U-Turn from the direction they are going—and they can ask for forgiveness for their actions. But before any of that happens, they, and perhaps we, need to ask God to “Change our Heart.” Songwriter Eddie Espinosa wrote this song with this prayerful message:
Change my heart, O God; make it ever true. Change my heart, O God; may I be like you. You are the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me; this is what I pray: Change my heart, O God.”
I invite you to offer that prayer today, to God, in song.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 8, 2019

12-08-19 REPENT


Matthew 3: 1-12

Repent. It’s the word most associated with a two-dimensional Biblical figure named John the Baptist, or the Baptizer. One might paint him with a brush on a canvas. standing near the Jordan River, crying out to people like a street evangelist, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Then those who decide to listen to him gather–as the hymn says, at the River—repent of their sins, go under the water, and come out a new creation. At least that is the hope. Last summer I donned a robe, stepped into the Jordan River, and welcomed people who journeyed with me to Israel to be baptized, or to remember their baptism. I can say with certainty that some were changed dramatically after that experience. Repenting is the truly different thing that John called people to do; baptism seals the deal and allows God’s Holy Spirit to begin to guide them. John the Baptist is powerful, but as the Lorenz/Hart show tune from the musical “Babes in Arms” puts it, he’s “Johnny One Note.” All he talks about is repentance, repentance, repentance! Still, people in the world, those of us here today, probably need to repent from some habit, some action, or some addiction. Let’s start by exploring this enigmatic man.
Franciscan Richard Rohr says this about John:
John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare, and yet crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of persons of groups. That is why we focus on John The Baptist every Advent, and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature ritual, while also going far beyond him. Water is the only the container; fire and Spirit are the contents …. John is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege, who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything . … He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him “There is no man greater than John … but he is also the least.” [Preparing for Christmas, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008, p.24-25.
Thanks Father Rohr, for reminding us of John’s 3-dimensional nature! We’ve established who the messenger is, now we focus on the message- Repent.
As I simply showed the boys and girls, it’s like a U-Turn. If you realize you are going down a path that is toxic to yourself or others, or destructive or dark, you can, and you have the power to, turn around and travel back from the wrong direction to the right direction; back toward redemption; or back toward love. Here we rely on John because Jesus has not yet spoken a word in the gospel, not until this chapter, verse 13. Beloved Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner define repentance this way: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do, as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” [Wishful Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 79.]
Another author, Kathleen Norris, wrote a more intriguing description of repentance:
Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes:
“Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’” My Messy House” says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy makes a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out…If that boy had been a novice in the fourth century monastic desert, his elder might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell? [Amazing Grace, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 69,70]
You might know that people in our AA programs have repented from drinking and are busy every day trying to keep moving toward a life of love and wholeness. From the first day, people in our Gambler’s Anonymous program repented of their gambling and spending addictions and have been moving toward a life of financial security and relationship rescue. But what about those of us who are not in those programs? What about the mother who is hateful to her son-in-law or daughter-in-law? Does she see the need to repent? What about the man who once abused his wife or the man who abused his dog? Have they seen the light? How about the celebrities who tried to buy a spot for their daughters in colleges? Have they felt the need to repent? Repentance is not just a John the Baptist cry, it is a human reality that can change one’s life, one’s marriage, and one’s spirituality. Repentance is a connective tissue for our Spiritual bodies. Without it, we may feel disjointed, disconnected, or broken. And indeed, we are. Yet even in our day, there are situations that keep people from moving from repentance to wholeness. One is a lack of forgiveness. For example, a woman spends and spends and spends and builds up enormous credit card debt. Her husband sees their income diminishing to the point that the nest egg they were building is now gone. Debts ensue, and the man moves toward divorce to stop the financial hemorrhaging of his assets. The wife, with the help of a 12-step group, repents of her spending habits and is showing the changes in her life to her husband. Will he welcome her again? Will he forgive her and remain in their marriage? A lack of forgiveness keeps repentance from moving toward wholeness.\

Here’s an example of our prison system becoming an impasse to wholeness. In the December 4th issue of the Christian Century [p.26,] Caitlin Kandil, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, tells the story of a woman who rolled through a stop sign in San Francisco. Police pulled her over and gave her a $238 ticket. Although she could pay the ticket, she started thinking about others who could not. She called it “the spiral of despair.” She researched and shared these results:
A person gets a traffic ticket for a few hundred dollars. Unable to pay the fine, she misses the deadline for payment, and the ticket starts accruing late fees and creates a debt that hangs over her head. The city sends the ticket to the collections department, and now her credit is damaged, so the next time she tries to rent an apartment, her application is rejected. Eventually her driver’s license is suspended for failure to pay. Without a driver’s license, she can’t perform the tasks of everyday life—commuting to work, grocery shopping, taking children to school, going to doctor’s appointments—and also become ineligible to apply for and work at many jobs. Without secure employment and housing, she is a risk for homelessness. It all started with a traffic ticket.

To combat incarcerations due to mounting fines from an inability to pay them, the Stated Clerk of our Presbyterian Church (USA), at our 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis, marched down the streets of the city, with hundreds behind him, to the St. Louis Justice Center with more than $47,000 raised from GA committees and commissioners. They paid the bail for many people who were incarcerated for misdemeanors. With them released, they could be employed again, be united with families, and begin a new life. Sometimes, the system can stall repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes a generous and timely gift can bring a second chance to a woman who could not pay a minor traffic ticket.
A long time ago, a man invited people to gather at the river, to change their hearts, repent of their sins, and get a new start. John still invites that, as he calls out to each of us from the pages of Scripture: “Repent!” Would you like a new start in your life? Or perhaps someone you know needs a new start in theirs? They can repent—that is, make a U-Turn from the direction they are going—and they can ask for forgiveness for their actions. But before any of that happens, they, and perhaps we, need to ask God to “Change our Heart.” Songwriter Eddie Espinosa wrote this song with this prayerful message:
Change my heart, O God; make it ever true. Change my heart, O God; may I be like you. You are the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me; this is what I pray: Change my heart, O God.”
I invite you to offer that prayer today, to God, in song.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 8, 2019

12-01-19 WATCH: “Eyes Open, Hearts Ready, Hands Busy”

Matthew 24:32-44
Westminster by the Sea (PCUSA)

Radford Rader, D.Min.

December 1, 2019

Our 5-year-old granddaughter had a sleep over with us on Wednesday night. She was really excited as she anticipated the arrival of her elf on the shelf. For those who haven’t had a little one around the last decade, the elf of the shelf appears at the beginning of advent somewhere in the house. It observes and reports back to Santa every evening and the next morning is in a totally different location. The next morning, Thanksgiving Day, Hannah went looking for the elf on the shelf in our house. I explained that we didn’t have one because we didn’t have any children at home now. She wanted to know if it had come to her house and I said, “I don’t know”. I guess you’ll find out when you get home. If it didn’t come today, I am sure it will tomorrow.” First thing on Friday, she facetimed me to say the elf had indeed appeared and to show me where it was. If this year is like last year, every morning she will jump up and eagerly look for where the elf might be. It is such excitement, anticipation, and looking for Jesus that is to be in us during the advent days. It should be that way all our days. We are to be people watching so that we can see Jesus wherever he is revealed.
There was a man who understood watching. His name was Simeon. According to Luke he was righteous and devout, looking for the coming of the promised Messiah. Everyday he would journey to the temple, anticipating and hoping that this would be the day that the Messiah would appear. The scriptures said that the Lord would come to his temple unexpectedly. Simeon spent each day, watching people, scanning faces, hoping this would be the day. Every day he went home disappointed but still he kept up his watch even as he grew old. Then it happened, not as he or anyone expected. Mary and Joseph brought their newborn son Jesus to be dedicated. And Simeon knew the Christ had come and the God’s promise was fulfilled. He is the model for all who wait for the Lord.
In advent we look back, remembering Israel’s long wait for the Messiah. Many were longing for his coming; but many had given up the watch and devoted themselves to daily life, like the people of Noah’s day, who were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the flood came. We remember Jesus’ unexpected birth and those who had eyes open and hearts ready to receive him. Some were awake and looking just like Simeon. There were shepherds in their fields and magi scanning the heavens for a sign. There were common folk who heard him speak and recognized the new teaching and authority in him. There were disciples who, though slow to come to complete faith, met Jesus, left all behind and followed him. Not all were still watching; not all were ready; not all welcomed him. Blessed were those who had ears to hear and eyes to see and were ready to receive and believe.
In advent, we look forward. Jesus has promised to come again, to claim his kingdom and gather up all believers to enjoy forever the glory of God’s presence. The world may come to an end but at that end stands the one who was and is and is to come. We just don’t know when, even Jesus couldn’t reveal the day or the hour. But he told us to “Watch therefore for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” In verses 12 and 13 of this chapter in Matthew, Jesus warns that “the love of many will grow cold; but, the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Those who are wise refuse to lose hope or fall asleep spiritually. There is an old story about three apprentice devils who are taking their final exam before Satan. They are to declare their deceitful message that will destroy people. The first says, “I will tell them there is no heaven, and the second said “I will tell them there is no hell.” Both were rebuked. The third said, “I will tell them they have plenty of time.” Satan congratulated him and sent him on his way, knowing he would destroy many.

Those who celebrate advent are always awake and anticipating the coming of the Lord. Advent is not a season that ends at the birthday of Jesus. It is all the days until he comes again. Faithful disciples do not worry about when, rather they live in each day expectantly. Their eyes are opened. They are always looking. They are ready to see and believe. If we will live this way, we will find evidence of the Spirit and the work of Christ all around us. We will be continually be reminded that the Lord is near We will be comforted because the Spirit will show us that we are not abandoned until the day of his coming. We will see God’s kingdom continually encroaching into our world and lives. Last Sunday I met a man, who was in town for his daughter’s wedding; but he felt he had to get up and come to this church for worship on Sunday morning. He told me his story, of divorce and lost hope, of failed faith and how this church “saved him.” In that moment, I was rewarded with a glimpse of The Spirit’s work and his kingdom growing.
Every time someone is healed, our faith should be encouraged and our hope soar. When people run to help a person escape a burning car—when ordinary people risk their lives to stop a terrorist from killing others—when a teacher welcomes one of her special needs students into her family after his mother dies—when a teacher saves the day by hugging a confused and hurting student who has threatened to shoot his classmates–when people do kindness and show mercy, if we have eyes to see and hearts ready to believe we know that the Lord is near and the kingdom of Christ is present among us. We are then able to wait patiently and keep watching.
There is one other component of watching for the Lord. It is busy hands. We are not to stand after the Lord’s ascension, gazing forever into the heavens, waiting for his return. Rather we are commissioned to go into all nations making disciples, teaching what Jesus has taught us, and continuing his ministry. We are not to be busy calculating the when of his coming but busy in doing all that the Lord has commanded us to do in his absence. Jesus follows his commandment to be watchful with three parables.
A master goes on a journey and leaves one servant in charge of the others. If the master returns unexpectedly and finds the servant doing what he charged him to do, he rewards him.
He tells of ten maiden, five of them were wise and carried extra oil for their lamps as they waited to welcome the bridegroom home. When he came late only these five who were ready were invited to enter with him.
There were three servants each given part of the master’s money. They were to care for it while he was gone. When he returned unexpectedly, he asked for an accounting. Blessed were those who did well and the one who had no faith was banished. When the Lord comes, how will he find us? If he came today, would he say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master!” Oh, I pray that that is true for all of us!

11/24/19 THE KING

Luke 23:33-43

November 24, 2019

Radford Rader. D.Min

Westminster by the Sea, Daytona Beach Shores, FL.

Today we are celebrating Christ the King. It may not be the image of the Christ with which we feel very comfortable. It is not politically correct. King is anachronistic, autocratic and male.
1) We got rid of George III a long time ago for good reason, and we aren’t interested in kings and kingdoms.
2) We don’t buy into undisputed, unquestioned authority. We know how it leads to tyranny.
3) Male dominance is no longer a divine right. Those who have suffered abuse by men cringe at such a male, power image. Some fear that this image perpetuates gender injustice.
“King” carries a lot of baggage; but it always did!
King had a checkered history in the Bible. Rare was there a king that any would wish to have rule over them. When Israel asks for a king so that they can be like other nations, Samuel tells them all the reasons they don’t want a king. Kings impose taxes and wage war. They take the brightest and best to serve them. They live regally while oppressing the people. Kings like to become gods and, too often, people listened to them instead of God. (I Samuel 8). With rare exceptions, kings in Israel’s history concurred with Samuel’s warnings.
Rulers in the New Testament times were no better. Of the Herod of Jesus’ birth, it was said, “It was better to be his pig than a member of his family” because he was so paranoid and mad that he killed everyone he thought was a threat to him, even his wives and children. The Pax Romana was still a time when Rome ruled with an iron fist. Any threat was met with violence. King in Jesus’ day did not elicit good thoughts. King never meant justice, compassion, equity, self-giving.
It is true that his judge and executioners label Jesus King. They did it for ridicule, not respect. They were laughing at him, mocking him, challenging him. The elegant robe, the crown of thorns, the inscription “king of the Jews” were all insults to Jesus and anyone who believed in him. They declared that Jesus was without power! He had no armies! He was no king! Herod is king of the Jews; Caesar is king of the world while Jesus is crucified as a common criminal. He is sold for 30 pieces of silver and there is no one to ransom him. He dies powerless, he can’t even save himself! The idea that Jesus is king was a joke to those in power. The idea of a Messiah-the Jewish hope of a new Davidic king-the very promises of God-are nailed with him to the cross. Those who crucified him were agreeing with the crowd, who cried “We have no king but Caesar!”
Surprisingly, the Christians didn’t abandon Christ the King. The kept it because it was subversive language. It was blasphemous. There was only one king and that was Caesar. Caesar declared that he was not only king but god. Caesar demanded ultimate loyalty. All must fear him, bow before him, worship him. Christians responded with “CHRIST IS KING! He is King of kings!” They refused to fear, to bow, to worship. As much as Pilate’s inscription over Jesus was a denial of him, the church’s continuing claim of Jesus’ kingship was a denial of Caesar, the empire and emperor worship. They claimed another king, a greater loyalty. They in effect said that Caesar was not really a king, he was the pretender. Above Caesar stood another before whom even Caesar had to bow.

For the Christians, Christ the King was not a symbol of the status quo. Never was it meant to prop up men who ruled with earthly power and might. It always subverts them. There is another ruler; his name is Jesus. I serve him and him first above all. Martin Luther used it when he said, “I must obey God and not man.” Our revolutionary founders used it to undergird their Declaration of Independence against George III. The Confessing Church of Germany in the Barmen Confession bravely and defiantly stood against Hitler and said, “No! Christ is King!” Christ the King stands in opposition to early powers and every attempt by rulers and governments to control our minds and hearts. It is always subversive because it makes us loyal to the Lord Jesus; it makes us free thinkers; it makes us see more than human law; human authority, human power. We are citizens in another, greater kingdom and we are always comparing.

Christ the King does not mean that we understand Christ by comparing him to those who would rule us but that we compare them to him. Christ the King is not “do as I say as he does differently”. We do not find him to have feet of clay or loose morals. He does not live for himself, seeking security from our sacrifice. Rather he refuses to grab divinity for himself and humbling himself, becomes servant of all. He refuses to save himself so he can save others. He calls us to costly sacrifice only from the cross. He leads not for his advantage but for our salvation. King is not what we have seen from managers, leaders, executives and rulers but is the Shepherd who cares for his flock and lays down his life for the sheep.
Christ is what king is supposed to be. He rules in love. He rules in God’s way. Here is one we have hoped for, one we can trust, who rules in justice and righteousness and does not disappoint. Here is the one whom we may love, give ourselves to without restraint, because he will not harm us, will not misuse us, will never desert us. Christ died for us, rose for us, reigns in power for us, prays for us. Alone he stands as one to worship and serve.
As Christians we promise and challenge others to love Jesus above all, follow him without reservation, and serve him alone. On this Christ the King Sunday, the question is again asked of us, “Are we letting Christ rule in our lives – all of our lives – every aspect, every hour, every day?” “Who is on the throne of our lives – our own selves, another person, earthly things or he whom the Lord God Almighty has found worthy and given all dominion, glory and power – he who is King of kings and Lord of lords!

11-17-19 THE END OF THE AGE FORETOLD


Luke 21: 5-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-10-19 JESUS’ S.A.T. QUESTION


Luke 20: 27-38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 10, 2019

11-03-19 LEARNING FROM A TAX COLLECTOR

LEARNING FROM A TAX COLLECTOR
Luke 19, 1-10

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 3, 2019